Penguin maven plies new waters

Name: Michael Lynton

Description: Young media maven who’s become an architect of AOL’s overseas empire after holding top jobs in publishing — working with outgoing Penguin Putnam topper Phyllis Grann — and in Hollywood — running Hollywood Pictures in the mid 1990s.

Last Seen: In Beijing in July, unveiling the first AOL alliance in China.

At a time of editorial upheaval at Penguin Putnam, could there be nostalgia for the Michael Lynton era?

Penguin Putnam CEO Phylis Grann announced last month that she’s ankling the company — amidst rumors of quarrels with Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Penguin Putnam parent company Pearson.

Days after Grann’s announcement, her senior editor and protege, Stacy Creamer, decamped to Doubleday.

A close ally of Grann, Lynton arrived from Hollywood to take the publishing biz by surprise in 1996 when he was named prexy of the Penguin Book Group. He was an unlikely choice for the job: still in his 30s, Lynton had previously run Hollywood Pictures and the Disney Publishing Co. — a magazine and book group.

But Lynton assumed a strategic role at the company, playing a key part in Penguin’s acquisition of Putnam from MCA in 1997 and eventually granting many of his publishing responsibilities to Grann.Such large-scale corporate transitions seem to come easy to Lynton.

“The thing I try most to do,” he says, “is take my own ego out of the equation, take my own uninformed point of view out of the process, and objectively discern what’s going on.”

Lynton adds: “I’ve always tried to make certain the people I work with get the authority, the running room and air cover.”

But after Penguin, Lynton’s career took an even sharper detour. He turned away from the content business to concentrate on distribution, working for AOL as prexy of its international division. He’s overseen AOL’s drives into new markets like China and Spain. The service now has more than 6 million overseas users.

“Very little of what I do has to do with content,” says Lynton. “I miss it. It’s been a change, but I’ve never had a job this dynamic.”

Joining AOL in January 2000, soon before the Time Warner merger, may have been the most fortuitous in a succession of fortuitous job moves for the Harvard MBA, who grew up in Holland and speaks four languages.

And the global Web of information that he oversees has only become more important in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, especially as new concerns arise over the safety of traditional mail.

“A lot of what we do today at AOL is public-service related. Either raising money or providing areas people could go to to find out what happened to a friend or loved one, or providing counseling,” he says.

“I honestly believe what AOL is doing is changing the way we communicate, get our news, get our entertainment,” says Lynton.

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