TechCrunch, the leading start-up and venture capital blog founded by Mike Arrington in 2005 and sold to Aol in 2010, is under fire. The facts are that Mike Arrington is leaving his day-to-day role as writer and editor at TechCrunch to focus on a venture capital fund of his own, called CrunchFund. And Aol is investing $10 million with the new fund. The primary controversy lies in whether Arrington does or does not work for TechCrunch, whether he’ll be paid or not for future posts, and whether Aol will replace him with another editor (and a whole new set of editorial guidelines). These are all decisions left largely up to Aol’s blogging czarina, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post (which Aol also bought, earlier this year).
The ancillary controversies include whether TechCrunch is editorially biased in favor of companies in which Arrington invests (probably not), whether bastions of “real journalism” are stinking hypocrites for criticizing TechCrunch whilst hiding away their own conflicts of interest (probably so), and whether Aol, including Huffington, has any idea how to manage a blog as self-reliant and unique as TechCrunch (probably not).
People have written much about this in the past few days, so I’ll try to sum it up briefly. TechCrunch writer MG Siegler wrote on his personal blog about how TechCrunch employs almost no editorial oversight, and how that contributes to their dominance. Siegler also explained that TechCrunch’s writers note conflicts when they know of them, which is more than many old school news houses, the Times included, can say. He was addressing an article in The New York Times by the Times’ David Carr, which (mistakenly) compared TechCrunch’s editorial policy and ethical quandaries to those of the Times and its ilk.
Jeff Jarvis, associate professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, and a staple at TWiT.tv, added his perspective. He pointed out that Arrington has outright rejected the notion that he is a journalist. Jarvis himself is known for his opinion that the line between blogging and journalism is blurring, and that journalists are now defined less by their ability to collect and disseminate information and more by the value they add to the story through their own perspective and contextual analysis.
Finally, Siegler explained on TechCrunch this morning that Aol has communicated nothing of its intent with regard to Arrington, and the blog itself is in the dark on the matter. Aol could summarily remove Arrington, assuming he hasn’t already done so himself. More to the point, they could also replace him, and add a layer of oversight that, as Siegler points out, would irrevocably change TechCrunch, very much for the worse. The loss of TechCrunch as it has always been would be a blow to the evolution of journalism.
TechCrunch is not, or at least often is not, journalism in the traditional sense. But it isn’t strictly blogging either. It’s a sweet spot of information and editorializing that draws more readers than most websites ever will. The “Aol Way” may or may not have played a part in the exit of former Engadget Editor-In-Chief Joshua Topolsky, as well as Managing Editor Nilay Patel and much of the gadget blog’s top talent. Now, the confusion Aol is allowing Huffington to create with her dithering on Arrington’s status threatens to dismantle one of the web’s most prolific, controversial and influential information outlets. Let’s hope Aol and Huffington get it right this time, and stay the hell out of TechCrunch’s “way.”