Rupert Murdoch's outfoxing of Viacom's Tom Freston makes for high drama, but this techie-oriented telling doesn't dig deep enough
The Battle to Control the
Most Popular Website in America
By Julia Angwin
Random House; 371 pp; $27
The takeover was code-named Project Ivory, and it represented News Corp (NWS). Chairman Rupert Murdoch's first major foray into the online world. His intended prize: the fast-growing MySpace social networking site, for which he would eventually pay $580 million. Murdoch saw MySpace as the next great distribution outlet for content from his Fox TV and movie studios.
Problem was, Murdoch wasn't the only suitor. For weeks in 2005, News Corp. rival Viacom (VIA) had also been courting MySpace's parent company, Intermix Media. That prompted Murdoch to meet on Tuesday, July 12, with Intermix CEO Richard Rosenblatt and set out terms for a deal that would "explode" if not consummated by the following Monday morning. So for most of the weekend, the Intermix and News Corp. executives negotiated around the clock, while an oblivious Viacom CEO Tom Freston vacationed in Hawaii. Intermix executives tag-teamed, alternating sleep with haggling.
In the end, Murdoch got his way, resetting the course of his company with the first of several rapidly executed Internet deals that catapulted News Corp. to the digital front ranks. Within 14 months, Freston would be fired by Viacom majority shareholder Sumner Redstone, ostensibly for losing the MySpace prize. It was high drama as only two Goliath-like media companies can perform it.
Julia Angwin's tech-centric account of the affair, Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control The Most Popular Website in America, includes some choice nuggets, including the fact that, in 2005, MySpace had a chance to buy rival and soon-to-be juggernaut Facebook for a mere $75 million. But overall, Angwin fails to deliver enough of the inside story.
An award-winning Silicon Valley reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Angwin tells us plenty about the mismatched duo, Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, who created MySpace out of the remnants of an outfit that sold e-books and model cars online. Anderson, who would become every new MySpace member's music-loving first friend, is depicted as a high school dropout and maladjusted computer geek. By contrast, the tall, pointy-toed-cowboy-boots-wearing DeWolfe was "the cool man on campus." As an MBA student, DeWolfe got an A- on a paper on how to create a social network. Later, he hired the professor who assigned the report to help at MySpace.
By 2005, with MySpace having become a cultural icon and fast-growing online meeting place, Anderson and DeWolfe had become trapped inside Intermix. That online retailer, which sold wrinkle creams and ink cartridges online, had paid the duo $3.3 million for their startup that included MySpace and other online-commerce sites. In what Angwin describes as the biggest mistake of DeWolfe's career, he had agreed that MySpace executives would get only a fixed price of $125 million if Intermix was able to resell the site within a specified period of time. Anderson and DeWolfe were kept in the dark regarding negotiations. By the time Murdoch's demands forced the weekend talks, the duo had little ability to delay the deal or to line up a counterbid—as DeWolfe was allowed to do under a side-agreement—that would have been better for them.
If only there were more such behind-the-scenes particulars in this book. One possible reason that Angwin couldn't dig up more dirt: Lack of cooperation from MySpace and News Corp. MySpace, in a statement, says "this book received zero participation, zero access, and zero fact-checking from MySpace." For that reason, you have to admire the author's resourcefulness in unearthing as much as she has. But as a tale of a media battle that reshaped the modern media landscape, Stealing MySpace never really shows us the larceny.