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 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.