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Tornante, Indeed

Oct
11
2007

Once upon a time – a time not that long ago, one I am old enough to remember – Michael Eisner, the man who ran The Walt Disney Company, was a feared and respected media executive. Arianna Huffington was the wife of a wealthy man spending hard on a run for the U.S. House of Representatives to represent California’s 22nd District.

But, as they say, the Internet changes everything. Last week, I attended the WebbyConnect conference, the first summit organized by the folks behind the Webby Awards. Huffington and Eisner were among the participants and the differences in how they were received by attendees are instructive in what it takes to make it in today’s environment.

Author Marc Prensky has popularized the idea of “digital natives” versus “digital immigrants” to distinguish between those people born into the Digital World, who are completely familiar with its workings, and those who have had to enter into it and learn the geography. There are young people who don’t know a world without color television, remote controls, digital cable, the Internet, high-speed data, personal computers, and so on. Prensky argues that these younger people “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” because they were born into the Digital World and are native speakers of its inherent language. There are also older people who have learned to make the transition into the new world, even though that world may not always be completely natural for them.

In theory, Eisner is the big dog of the two. After stints at ABC and Paramount, he went to Disney, which he ran with an iron fist. He was forced out two years ago and is now playing in the digital space. His investment firm The Tornante Company launched Vuguru, which has had some success with the online series Prom Queen. Arianna Huffington came to public notice as the wife of millionaire Michael Huffington as he ran for Congress as a conservative. After his defeat and their divorce, Huffington got into political commentary, teaming up with the likes of Al Franken and Bill Maher, ran for governor of California (really, a book tour in disguise) and now takes progressive reformist stances. In the Spring of 2005, with backing and support from former Time Warner executive Ken Lerner, she launched The Huffington Post, a website offering news and group blogging, which quickly grew in popularity.

These two are both unlikely independent media moguls of the digital age. They regularly hobnob with the rich & famous. Eisner told a story of biking through steep Italian hills when his company was being launched; “tornante” was on the road signs, indicating hairpin curves. Huffington dropped such establishment names as historian Arthur Schlesinger and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel (the real world model for the Ari character in the HBO show Entourage). And even though Huffington and Eisner are roughly equal in terms of star power, the response of the crowd was very different. The crowd seemed to like Huffington just fine and there seemed to be respect as well. But the response to Eisner was decidedly cool. Fun was made of the hairpin turns. Some thought Eisner was lecturing them. He came across as old-fashioned.

Huffington talked a good game. She said the Old Media had Attention Deficit Disorder, covering flashy stories and then quickly moving on. She spoke about new forms of journalism that shattered the old model of the men and women covering political campaigns “on the bus,” spouting conventional wisdom while caught in the echo chamber. She suggested that rather than choosing between print and the Internet, we embrace them both in a three-way, what she called “Promiscuity for profit.”

In contrast, Eisner seemed a little lost in the future. He related an incident in which he took a flight on JetBlue; when he landed, he found a blog post, complete with a photo of him from a camera phone, suggesting that he must be in financial trouble for choosing that airline. He said that content providers had an “obligation to exercise good taste” in order to ensure that the government didn’t step in with regulation. He argued that there is a place in the new order for the editor, a place for culture, humor, filtering. My impression is that some audience members took the talk like a lecture from a parent. I took it more like a dad struggling to be cool and responsible at the same time.

I made a note for myself at the end of his remarks: “He knows how to make entertainment. He knows how to make money.” I think both of these factors are important, even in today’s digital environment. I’m glad he’s in the game. I wonder if anyone else cares.

Arianna Huffington spoke to an audience made largely of natives, and she was seen as an immigrant, one who has learned the native tongue. Poor Michael Eisner – the man generally credited with revitalizing almost every aspect of The Walt Disney Company, from its animation business to its broadcast and cable TV offerings – was nothing but a digital tourist.

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