Guest Commentary: Don’t let Internet bust kill your media career

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

IIn 2001, the phrase “new media industry” became a paradox. This isn’t an industry, this is a rout, or, as Vince McMahon so memorably puts it, a melee.
If you were one of the brave-or foolhardy-souls who decided to jump from the safe world of traditional media to a dot-com business in the late ’90s, you were assured of a pretty heady ride. I should know. In 1995, I quit my job as an editor of the New York-based media trade magazine Inside Media and joined MCI, which was about to launch a bold new Internet initiative with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Nine months later, MCI lost its nerve, the joint venture tanked, and everybody I had worked with was fired. I recall thinking that new media might be exhilarating, but it wasn’t very predictable. I opted for a columnist job in 1996 at Murdoch’s New York Post, where I could watch developments from the relative safety of a Sixth Avenue high-rise.
But then the Internet started to happen again-big-time-in 1997 and 1998, and I decided to leave traditional media a second time for a career in Internet “business development.” All that really meant was that they paid me lots of money for being one of the few people in the late ’90s who could figure out how to do business in the Internet industry. For the next three years, as a consultant and an employee, I saw the Internet business up close, culminating in a really wacky crash and burn at CMGI, which owns AltaVista. CMGI made the cover of Business Week one minute and was written off as doomed the next.
I made some pretty good money while it lasted, but now, as 2001 gets off to a whimper, I am forced to ponder how little legacy all this has left in the media world. For me, it feels just like we’re back in 1995 again. It’s as if the Internet business never existed.
In December, Peter Chernin, CEO of News Corp., gave a presentation in New York at the UBS Warburg media conference and never mentioned the Internet once. I called him on it afterward, and he repeated, almost like a mantra, “Bricks and mortar, John, bricks and mortar.”
And why not? The Internet has been an unmitigated disaster for media companies. It threatened their supremacy in the communications business, hurt their profit potential, massively disrupted their internal cultures and forced them all to spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on chasing elusive new media dreams. January and February of this year have been witness to a massive retreat from the Internet business by Disney, News Corp., Viacom/CBS and NBC. Those companies that haven’t totally given up have curtailed operations in so draconian a fashion they might as well have thrown in the towel.
A lot of this has to do with AOL Time Warner. When a single channel at AOL-Entertainment-attracts 15 million visitors a month, more than most media sites combined, who can compete?
In the last few months, I’ve gotten dozens of calls from friends, who have been laid off from the Internet industry, asking if I can help them get back into the media business. I’m telling them: Go back to whatever you were doing before the Internet business happened. And I know it’s tough, because four or five years have gone by. Other people now have the jobs you would have had if you had stayed in the media business. And they might not welcome you back with open arms.” But, to quote the late Lee Strasberg in “The Godfather, Part II,” “This is the world we have chosen.” Get used to it.
John Motavalli, a former editor at Inside Media and Adweek, has consulted for many media companies from BMG to Hearst and Hachette. He is now finishing a book for Viking on the media industry’s fateful encounter with the Web. He can be reached at motavalli@aol.com.