Web Features

Media Moguls

By Peter Bronski

With the likes of Meryl Streep ’71 and Lisa Kudrow ’85 counted among its alumnae/i, Vassar is no stranger to on-screen appearances. But just as often— whether in newspapers, television, movies, or in recent years, the Internet—Vassar alums have been behind the scenes in high-ranking positions, running media organizations.

Katharine Meyer Graham ’38

Graham started working at the Washington Post in 1938. Two years later, she married Philip Graham, who went on to become the paper’s publisher. After his tragic suicide, she took the reins—first as de facto, and eventually, as official publisher and chair. Her defining moment at the helm of one of America’s most influential and respected sources of journalism was her unwavering support of her editors and investigative reporters when they published the Pentagon Papers, and later, when they covered the Watergate scandal, eventually leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Her memoir, Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography in 1998.

Geraldine Laybourne ’69

Current president of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC) and a former member of Vassar’s Board of Trustees, Laybourne first made a name for herself with innovative television programming for kids. She spent 15 years with Nickelodeon, assuming management of the network in 1984, and launching Nick at Nite in 1985. During the mid- to late-1990s, she served as president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks. In 1996, Time magazine named her one of the 25 most influential people in America. (By the end of the decade, Fortune and Vanity Fair had followed suit, naming her one of America’s 50 most powerful women and one of America’s most influential women, respectively.) She launched the next major phase of her career in 2000, when she founded the Oxygen network. Uniquely targeted at women, Oxygen was the only woman-owned and –operated cable network. She remained chairman and CEO until 2007, when Oxygen sold to NBC Universal.

Paula Madison ’74

After working her way up the television news ranks in Texas, Oklahoma, and New York City, Madison eventually landed in Los Angeles as the president and general manager of KNBC, where she became the first African American woman to head up a network station in a top-five market. She also assumed a leadership role for LA’s Telemundo Spanish language affiliates. Madison pioneered an ethic of “no more car chases,” long a staple of California breaking news coverage. Instead, she focused on more positive, community-oriented stories, leading to an area Emmy award and regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Most recently, NBC Universal tapped Madison to become Executive Vice President of Diversity, the first time in NBC history a senior executive has had diversity as his or her main charge.

Michael Wolff ’75

Wolff—a respected journalist, best-selling author, and most recently, controversial Internet media mogul—published his first magazine article in 1974. A stint with the New York Times followed, as did a column with New York magazine, two National Magazine Awards, and currently, a contributing editor role at Vanity Fair. The last decade has also included a series of very successful books, including the New York Times best-seller Burn Rate, about the dot com era; Autumn of the Moguls, predicting the media crisis of the late 2000s; and The Man Who Owns the News, a biography of Rupert Murdoch. In late 2007, Wolff founded newser.com, a news aggregation website that pulls stories from myriad third-party sources, such as the New York Times and Washington Post; summarizes them with the help of a real, live staff of writers and editors; and posts those condensed stories (with links back to the original sources) on its website. For this Wolff is admired by many, who praise the way he is pushing journalism and the Internet into the 21st century, and criticized by others, who suggest that Newser is overly dependent on the work of the third-party sites. There’s no question, however, that he’s on the cutting edge, pushing traditional boundaries and driving the conversation.

Phil Griffin ’79

Griffin, the current president of MSNBC, got his start at CNN before moving on to a long-running relationship with NBC/MSNBC. After a brief stint at Today, he produced shows such as Hardball with Chris Matthews, Internight (which featured Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, among others), the NBC Nightly News, and The Big Show with Keith Olbermann (a forerunner of today’s Countdown). In mid-2008, Griffin assumed the helm of MSNBC, and months later, arrived on Vassar’s campus as the AAVC’s executive-in-residence. Usually overseeing the news rather than being the subject of it, Griffin recently found himself a topic of both praise and criticism when he temporarily sidelined host Keith Olbermann for violating MSNBC’s policies regarding anchors making undisclosed contributions to political parties and candidates in the run-up to the November 2010 mid-term elections.

Lloyd Braun ’80

You might recognize Lloyd Braun’s name from the syndicated sitcom, Seinfeld, where “Lloyd Braun” was the name of a minor character. The real life Braun, it turned out, practiced entertainment law (he was Larry David’s lawyer) before becoming a TV executive. You might know Braun for the hit shows that he brought to television. He partnered with producer David Chase on the idea for HBO’s The Sopranos. As chairman of ABC Entertainment Group, Braun was credited with the idea for (or, at least, greenlighting) Lost. He also gave the go-ahead to Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. More recently, however, Braun’s been transitioning out of television and into the realm of the Internet. After a brief role with Yahoo Media Group, he co-founded BermanBraun, which is producing impressively successful (read: in the black) websites such as Wonderwall (a celebrity news, photo and gossip site launched in 2009) and Glo (a women’s lifestyle site launched in 2010), earning him a nomination for Forbes’s list “Names you need to know in 2011.”

Caterina Fake ’91

By now, the first half of Fake’s storyline is likely familiar: She’s the co-founder of Flickr, which had its very beginnings with her exposure to VAXSAR, a campus-wide intranet at Vassar. Flickr launched in 2002 and quickly grew into one of the largest, most well known, and most powerful photo-sharing websites in the world. In 2009, Fake launched her sophomore effort, Hunch, a new kind of search engine, which was meant to provide a kind of solution to the lack of relevancy in Internet search results. Instead of returning search results it thinks are most relevant, Hunch first asks you a series of questions to build a “taste profile.” With a sense of your preferences stored in a profile, Hunch can then use your information to generate search results custom tailored to you, and not just your search. Like Wikipedia and Facebook, both Flickr and Hunch belong to that new brand of powerful online media that are empowered by the people that use it, and vice versa. They are at their best with wide scale implementation and use. They depend on people, as much as people depend on them, a nuance Fake understands well.