Bad days for MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe: A tell-all book about the lowbrow social network's shady origins is hitting the shelves as a Wall Street analyst predicts layoffs. How long will he last?
Rupert Murdoch's media empire, which stretches from MySpace to Fox to the Wall Street Journal and around the globe, is in turmoil after the departure of longtime COO Peter Chernin. Along with newspapers, TV shows, and websites, Murdochland manufactures drama and gossip. Here's what's been filtering out.
The expiration of two lucrative deals are setting a clock on DeWolfe's career. The first is his own employment contract, which he signed in 2007, along with his cohort Tom Anderson, for a reported $30 million over two years.
The second is a $900 million search-advertising deal with Google, which ends in 2010 and which all observers agree is unlikely to be renewed on the same rich terms. On top of that, MySpace's user growth has stalled out, as rival Facebook looks set to grow to twice its size this year. Without those guaranteed revenues from Google, DeWolfe will have a tough time meeting News Corp.'s demands for better earnings. That has led Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield to predict big layoffs at MySpace.
Amidst this backdrop comes Wall Street Journal editor Julia Angwin's Stealing MySpace. Most of the stories it tells, like Anderson's ties to an online porn business called TeamAsian.com and DeWolfe's creation of a spam empire, have been reported elsewhere (well, here, to be precise). But their appearance in an authoritative book written by a News Corp. employee gives them fresh currency.
The book surely delights DeWolfe's many enemies within News Corp., who may be behind the vicious (and apparently untrue) rumor of a dalliance with Wendi Deng, Murdoch's wife.
So how is Murdoch setting things up for DeWolfe's possible ouster? One perpetual source of friction has been MySpace's autonomous role within Fox Interactive Media, News Corp.'s internet unit which houses a collection of forgettably schlocky websites like IGN and Rotten Tomatoes. Peter Levinsohn, a longtime Fox executive, oversees FIM and MySpace.
One reshuffle scenario we've heard: Levinsohn heads back to the Fox TV and movies business, whose leadership was jumbled up after Chernin's departure. (Rumor has it that an overworked Murdoch has been reduced to setting Fox TV's primetime schedule himself.)
Fox Interactive Media would then be cleaved in twain, with MySpace running on its own under DeWolfe — for now — and darkly mordant Internet wunderkind Jeremy Philips, currently in an amorphous strategy role, taking over the grab-bag of other websites. That would put him in a position to take over MySpace if DeWolfe bolts.
That's just one scenario, which has already gathered doubters. (If Philips has not gathered as many detractors as DeWolfe, it is only because he is not as well known.) But the unsettled leadership would certainly explain a mystery about MySpace's layoffs: Why they haven't happened yet. We've been hearing rumors of impending layoffs since last June, but instead, MySpace has just made minor cuts. The company's expensive, showy San Francisco outpost ought to be on the chopping block, but it's still open. Perhaps a soft-hearted DeWolfe is hoping to push back layoffs until after he's gone?