The Tech World Deserves Better Than TechCrunch
Back in April 2009, community leaders in Boston were in a tizzy over the prospect of a shutdown at the Boston Globe, where unions were resisting salary and pension cuts proposed by the paper’s owner, the New York Times Co. I didn’t quite understand the leaders’ concerns. As a longtime admirer of the Globe, I certainly didn’t want to see it disappear—but neither did it seem to me that the paper’s demise, should it come to that, would mean the end of local journalism. As I pointed out in a column, there are plenty of other credible news outlets in Boston these days.
Luckily, the Globe survived. And I’m pretty sure that TechCrunch, the AOL property that has been the blog-of-record for Silicon Valley for the last six years, will survive its own current crisis—that is, the apparent ouster of founder Michael Arrington, after he revealed plans last week to start a venture capital fund called CrunchFund. What form the future TechCrunch might take is unclear. The tech section of the Huffington Post? An independent publication within AOL headed by Arrington’s hand-picked successor? A splinter blog staffed by disaffected Arrington loyalists? It’s too soon to tell; AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher says “tense severance negotiations” are underway between Arrington and AOL.
But whatever happens with TechCrunch, I think this is a good moment to step back, as I did for Boston in my 2009 column, and look at the larger journalistic ecosystem in Silicon Valley. I’m not going to suggest, as Fortune commentator Chadwick Matlin did earlier this week, that the end of TechCrunch would be a good thing. It wouldn’t, if only because there are so many good reporters and editors there who’d be (at least temporarily) out of a job—Paul Carr, Jason Kincaid, Sarah Lacy, Leena Rao, Erick Schonfeld, and MG Siegler, to name a few. But I do think it’s important for everyone who participates in the innovation economy to ask what kind of journalism they’d really like to see happening in the nation’s tech hubs, and whether TechCrunch, under Arrington, has lived up to their expectations.
My hat is off to TechCrunch for energetically filling the void in startup coverage that had opened up by the mid-2000s, after the collapse of dot-com-era biztech publications such as the Industry Standard, Business 2.0, and Red Herring. Venture investment was slow to rebound after the dot-com crash, and for a while it almost seemed that the culture had stopped believing in entrepreneurship. Startup founders needed a champion, and Arrington built a big following by offering broad coverage of their companies and products, not to mention frequent scoops and an irreverent, pugnacious attitude. Over time, he also signed up a crew of aggressive, workaholic writers who multiplied his efforts.
But it all came with a dark side. Arrington was never content to be a mere chronicler of the Silicon Valley phenomenon. He also wanted to be a player, a kingmaker, and he seemed to be saying to startup founders that if they wanted friendly treatment from the blog, they had to play by his rules. “Treat us with respect and you’ll get it back ten times in return,” he wrote in one recent post—right after declaring that Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr and Hunch, had fallen out of his favor for writing about her latest startup’s funding on her own blog rather than letting TechCrunch break the news. “It’ll be the last time she ever knows we’re writing a story about her or her startups before it’s published,” Arrington wrote.
The arm-twisting took many other forms. Companies that appeared at TechCrunch50 (now Disrupt) could expect plenty of coverage in the blog, while startups that appeared at rival conferences were “off limits,” as one former TechCrunch writer attested this week. TechCrunch used its influence to gain a virtual chokehold on news about new startups from Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most prolific venture incubator. (Numerous YC founders have told me, always apologetically, that … Next Page »