USC Prof. Jon Taplin Ponders A Digital Revolution

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Once again, Jonathan Taplin is in the right place at the right time. Having impeccable timing has served him well in his music, movie and consulting careers, as well as in academia.

Taplin, an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles, specializes in the digital revolution. Following last week's merger mania, the new media is now at the forefront.

When Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. acknowledged on May 1 that it had extended an unsolicited offer to buy Dow Jones & Co. , media watchers gasped. A few days later, word was that Microsoft Corp. wanted to team with Yahoo Inc. Plus, Thomson says it's considering buying Reuters Group .

News Corp.'s audacious move on Dow Jones -- which owns MarketWatch, the publisher of this report -- underscores the common thread, according to Taplin, that's present in all three of the proposed deals: the value of strong brands in the Internet universe.

"I think Murdoch really believes that the digital assets of Dow Jones are where the growth is," he said. "In a world of too much information, the trusted voice of the Wall Street Journal becomes more valuable, not less."

Taplin, 59, is a rather trusted voice himself. Beyond the Internet, he can get his students' attention by telling war stories from working with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Band, George Harrison and Martin Scorsese. You could capture Taplin's optimism and adventurous spirit in the title of the Band's song, "Life Is a Carnival."

"He is incapable of being depressed for more than 45 minutes," marvels journalist and author Peter Kaminsky, one of Taplin's oldest friends.

Taplin, who looks like he could be actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's older brother, produced such seminal pop-culture events as Harrison's Bangladesh benefit concert in 1971. With Robbie Robertson, the Band's leader, Taplin co-produced "The Last Waltz" -- the much-praised film of the group's final performance in 1976.

During a rehearsal for Dylan's Isle of Wight show in 1969, Taplin watched as Dylan, the Band and three of the Beatles jammed on Carl Perkins tunes. "When I saw that Paul [McCartney] hadn't come to join them, I knew that the Beatles would be breaking up," he recalled. Sure enough, the Beatles parted ways soon after.

Endless highway

How, then, has Taplin managed to go from the endless highway of rock 'n roll to the information superhighway?

"I stay open to change and try to learn all the time," he said.

Music and movie stars have often wanted to work with him. "He was always a charismatic guy with big thoughts, and people liked to be around him," according to Kaminsky.

Taplin, a native of Cleveland, got his start in the entertainment business at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he was a mere 18 years old. This was the infamous concert when Dylan "went electric" as the folk-music icon performed with a band for the first time. Taplin parlayed a backstage pass into an opportunity to help out by moving equipment around.

After starting college at Princeton that autumn, he continued working for Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. Taplin eventually became the road manager for the Band.

"Jon had a magical entree into the world that everybody wanted to be a part of," Kaminsky said.

When the Band took a break from touring in 1972, Taplin headed to Hollywood. Through Time's Jay Cocks, who had written a cover story on the Band in 1970, he met an unknown but promising film director named Martin Scorsese.

Spending about $450,000 of his and a friend's money, Taplin eventually produced Scorsese's gritty breakthrough movie, "Mean Streets." Over the next two decades, Taplin produced television documentaries and well-received films such as "Under Fire" and "To Die For."

Taplin then found a new challenge in dealmaking. He was an investment adviser to the Bass Brothers and worked for errill Lynch & Co. in media mergers and acquisitions. Later, he teamed with engineers to create Intertainer, with the goal of making video on demand a consumer staple.

Twilight

Taplin laughed off the notion that he's in his twilight years. "People teach into their '80s," he pointed out. "I get a lot from the kids. They're a perfect focus group to test out ideas. When they told me that they were open to less privacy if it meant paying lower prices, it was an 'aha!' moment."

His associates aren't surprised that Taplin works effectively with musicians, executives and students. "He has an ability to understand the landscape of whatever he is dealing with," said Shail Jain, co-president of BusinessEdge Solutions, of which Taplin is an adviser.

Taplin's most valuable advice for students is always to follow their dreams. "I don't believe that you take a job for life," he added. "My career is more of a journey than a destination."

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: How will the proposed media deals pan out?

WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: It shouldn't have taken Thomson several days to confirm what everyone suspected at the outset: that it was the mystery bidder for Reuters.

THE READERS RESPOND to my column that Fox is putting pressure on CNBC: "What better time for Fox to step in and buy Dow Jones? They steal away not only one of CNBC's last remaining sources of credibility, but also the cluster of viewers who most recognize, appreciate and know the value of the WSJ brand: CNBC's very core. " Nick Sanders

(Media Web appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.)

By Jon Friedman