The Tech World Deserves Better Than TechCrunch
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they couldn’t speak with Xconomy or other publications until after TechCrunch published their “official” launch story. Companies that defied TechCrunch’s monopoly risked being blacklisted.) Arrington acknowledged in the comments section of these pages that TechCrunch often negotiated early embargo times for stories that gave the publication a lead over rivals, and hence the appearance of scoops. (Of course, as I’ve argued, an “embargo” where one publication gets an exception is no embargo at all—it’s just a sign of how far TechCrunch perverted an honor system that used to work pretty well.)
For years, none of these shenanigans seemed to bother the entrepreneurial or investing communities very much. As Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn founder and Greylock investor, told Swisher, TechCrunch came to be seen as “the SV/Tech industry information feed,” the place tech entrepreneurs felt they needed to be seen if they wanted to win investors and early adopters. The publication also cemented its usefulness by building one of the industry’s best databases of venture-funded startups and startup people: CrunchBase. “Whatever happens to TechCrunch, AOL, please don’t mess up Crunchbase,” Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures pleaded this week.
But with the explosion of criticism over the proposed CrunchFund—an idea apparently hatched jointly between Arrington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong—there finally seemed to be a consensus that TechCrunch was stepping over a line. To be clear, the concept was simply a scaling-up of what Arrington has been doing on and off for years, that is, using his network of sources to ferret out investment deals. Arrington stopped investing for a while, but never tried to deny that his personal investments in tech startups created conflicts of interest for TechCrunch; the antidote he offered was transparency and full disclosure. But even AOL—after Armstrong first argued that TechCrunch is a “different property” with “different standards”—now seems to agree with critics that yoking a formal venture fund to a journalistic operation would make the (real or perceived) conflicts wholly unmanageable. “AOL is not comfortable with TechCrunch being used as an access point for deal flow,” an AOL communications and marketing exec told BusinessInsider last week.
So Arrington is likely on his way out. It remains to be seen whether he can take CrunchFund with him, and whether AOL, Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock, Ron Conway, and Arrington’s other partners will actually hand over the $20 million they’ve reportedly committed to the fund. As for TechCrunch itself, Arrington says he wants to buy the publication back from AOL, and if he can round up a few more resignation threats from star writers, he might have serious leverage. The obvious, lower-cost alternative would be to start a new blog.
But I wonder whether Silicon Valley news consumers are in a mood to give Arrington a second chance. To put it bluntly, they deserve better than what they’ve been getting from TechCrunch these past few years: selective news coverage backed up by what Swisher rightly labeled “a wily and unusually aggressive combination of favors and threats to extract, from start-ups and VCs in need of press, both exclusive access and information.”
If you were designing a new technology media and events company today and you surveyed Silicon Valley denizens about what they’d like to see, you’d probably get consensus around a few elements: Accurate, thoughtful, fact-checked stories. Unbiased story selection. Solid walls between editorial operations and the sales, advertising, and events side of the business. No pay-to-play deals. Editors who aren’t invested in the same companies they or their reporters are writing about.
Fortunately, there’s been a healthy resurgence in biztech coverage since the mid-2000s, and readers can choose from a range of publications that do aspire to these higher standards. The list includes AllThingsD, Ars Technica, BusinessInsider, CNET, Fortune‘s Term Sheet blog, GigaOm, Mashable, the New York Times‘ Bits and DealBook blogs, PaidContent, PE Hub, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat, VentureWire, and, of course, Xconomy. If you’re hungry to know how innovation works—how new technology ideas emerge, how creative people blossom into entrepreneurs, and how the companies they build win funding and customers—these publications will provide a well-rounded meal, without the side helping of ethics-challenged slop.
TechCrunch can survive, and might even thrive, without Arrington. But if AOL can’t find a way to fix it, Silicon Valley can survive without TechCrunch.