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Is Techcrunch a sinking ship?

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 7th September 2011

If you believe the old saying ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ then there must be all manner of a blaze raging over at Techcrunch and AOL.

Last year, when AOL purchased the leading tech startup blog, many in the industry thought it would probably end in tears.

It looks like they were right.

In the last few days, a great steaming pile of dirty laundry has been aired in a very public way. For those familiar with Techcrunch, this will come as no surprise – it is a title that often seems to openly court controversy, but what it means for the publication, its writers and the rest of us in the tech industry is uncertain.

If you haven’t been following the saga so far, here are the crib notes:

  • Last Thursday, Michael Arrington – founder and editor of Techcrunch announced he was to launch a new VC fund with backing from AOL
  • Immediately there was all sorts of controversy with many casting doubt over whether Arington and/or Techcrunch/AOL could be trusted to comment fairly on startups
  • AOL muddied the water by claiming first that Arrington would only remain as an occasional blogger and then insisted he would no longer be involved in the blog at all
  • Ariana Huffington (Editor in Chief at AOL) then came out to say that Arington was no longer on the editorial payroll, but Arington himself countered saying that he didn’t know what the final outcome would be
  • Fast-forward to yesterday when MG Siegler, one of Techcrunch’s star writers, penned an atonishing piece hinting at massive problems behind the scenes
  • Then Arington himself posted a blog saying he had given AOL two options – either reassert Techcrunch’s editorial independence or sell the blog back to the founders

The fact that Arington, despite no longer being on the payroll is still blogging on the site about what AOL should or should not do seems absurd and demonstrates how little control AOL have over the site.

And, while Arington’s post is certainly shocking, it is perhaps Siegler’s viewpoint that gives us the most interesting glimpse into how one of the tech industry’s best known ‘professional’ blog operates:

“First and foremost, the concept of an “editor” at TechCrunch is essentially just a title and nothing more. Generally speaking, neither Mike nor Erick (TC’s two “co-editors”) are overlords that dictate what everyone else covers. With a few exceptions (mainly for newer writers), no one person even reads posts by any other author before they are posted.Traditional journalists may be appalled to learn this. But this is a big key of why TechCrunch kicks their ass in tech coverage. We’re fast and furious in ways they can’t be, because they’re adhering to the old rules.”

What does the future hold?

So is this all just sound and fury signifying nothing? I think for tech PRs and others in the tech startup industry, there are some interesting learnings:

  • Bloggers, even professional bloggers, don’t operate in ‘traditional’ ways – as Siegler’s post states (and as any good tech PR knows), Techcrunch was unique in the way it operated. When this clashed with the more traditional AOL, the sparks clearly started to fly.
  • As publishers continue to suffer, the line between commercial interests and editorial integrity can blur. I’ve seen another example of this over the last few days and, increasingly, I’m seeing editorial journalists putting commercial interests first. This is an interesting challenge for both the media and PR industries.
  • Or as Patricio Robles on Econsultancy suggests, does Techcrunch really matter as much as we all think? As someone that has seen first hand the impact that even a fairly standard post on Techcrunch can have for a company, I’d challenge this viewpoint. Techcrunch has a uniquely niche audience that can be a great target for a young tech company at a certain stage in its development.
  • More bad press for AOL – when the purchase of Techcrunch and HuffoPo happened, AOL made a lot of noise about how it would protect the two properties and keep running them in the way they always had. That doesn’t seem to be the case and doesn’t do anything good to AOL’s reputation, already seen as something of an internet dinosaur. While buying these two sites was a good PR move, this latest crisis most certainly isn’t.