MediaFile

Zelnick’s New Media Dinner: a new ideas exchange?

November 3, 2009

On the evening of Nov 2, about 70 people — new media upstarts and old media stalwarts, brand-name investors and top company executives — gathered at the Manhattan home of Strauss Zelnick to talk shop.

This was the third such gathering that Zelnick and his co-hosts organized, with the aim of bringing New York’s best media-focused minds under one roof to talk about the future of the business. In keeping the setting intimate and the number of invitations in the ballpark of about a hundred people, the organizers hope to turn the “New Media Dinner” into a recurring salon-of-sorts, where ideas, capital and expertise can mix and match.

In a half-hour chat before the guests started arriving, Zelnick and two of the co-hosts, drop.io founder Sam Lessin and Thrillist’s Ben Lerer explained to me how this all came about.

For Zelnick, chairman of video-game publisher Take-Two and co-founder of private equity firm ZelnickMedia Corp, the idea of organizing the event sprang from “a desire… to meet the next generation of leaders in the media business.” Naturally, he turned to Lessin and Lerer, who are now in their 20s but who have known Zelnick since they were in their teens and frequently turn to him for advice on their ventures.

“I suspect that between the organizers, we collectively know almost everybody doing the most interesting things in new media in New York,” Zelnick said. News Corp’s Jeremy Philips and venture capitalist Stuart Ellman of RRE Ventures were the other co-hosts for the evening.

And sure enough, they pulled in a power crowd that included veteran dealmaker Quincy Smith, CBS’s Internet chief who is quitting to start his own advisory firm, former Doubleclick CEO-turned-ex-Googler David Rosenblatt, and even Ron Conway, Silicon Valley’s star angel investor who was in town for meetings.

Over dirty martinis and mini lobster rolls, denizens of “Silicon Alley” such as Betaworks’ Andy Weissman and Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson rubbed shoulders with some of New York’s media elite including Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz and my own boss, Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer.

Crovitz and I had planned to chat at the dinner but I missed the chance, so we followed up on Tuesday. The former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, who now invests in early-stage media and technology companies, gave me his take on e-mail: “Technology has led to a period of intense creative destruction for the media and information industries,” he said. “New York is the center for this transition, with an enormous amount of innovation and reinvention by new media entrepreneurs and the old-media executives who understand this period of fundamental change.”

Some new media entrepreneurs, like Lessin, have been privileged enough to seek the help and advice of traditional media power players in navigating this changing landscape. “I’ve always had access to people like Strauss who’ve helped me figure out the landscape and told me when my ideas were terrible,” said Lessin, who is 26 and the son of investment banker Bob Lessin.

But the new media get-togethers are about “introducing my best, brightest and smartest friends to some of Strauss’s friends,” he said, adding that the past two events — in February and July — have spawned many interesting discussions between people who met at the venue.

Later, I mingled with many of the guests, picking up stray bits of conversation: here a pitch from an entrepreneur to a venture capitalist, there a bit of M&A gossip, chatter about which start-ups are working and which aren’t doing too well, mentions of the recent pay-models-for-journalism panel at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, not to mention heated debates on the Yankees-Phillies game.

“It was a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” said Kenneth Lerer, chairman of The Huffington Post, when I followed up with him on Tuesday. “My guess is that a few investments and a few deals and a few hires will be made out of last night.”

“One of these (events) don’t mean much but if you have a series of them — and I think that’s what Strauss’s intention is — it’s smart, good business,” Lerer added.

Although most folks seemed to know each other already, I was happy to point out Fred Wilson and Tom Glocer to various entrepreneurs.

For many of New York’s young media entrepreneurs, it was also an opportunity to relax (not all of them were in ties) and catch up on industry chatter. The hosts made sure the booze didn’t run out, and there were few complaints about the first course of pappardelle with wild mushrooms, followed by entrees of prime rib roast and sea bass.

For dessert, the guests were treated to New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose boss David Remnick spoke at the first gathering in February and was also at this one. Gladwell infused his short speech with healthy skepticism about the power of technology to bring about social change and improve our collective well-being. The audience took the bait spiritedly, and a brief back-and-forth followed. Then it was almost midnight, and the party was over. I have to believe that not a few guests were already thinking about the next one.

Photo: Strauss Zelnick (Reuters)

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