[By Alistair Fairweather]
Michael Arrington may not be a household name outside of the technology sector, but if you run a tech start-up anywhere in the world, he might as well be a god. Coverage in his six-year-old blog, TechCrunch, has become the gold standard for getting noticed by both investors and tech reporters around the world. So why on earth would AOL, which bought TechCrunch a year ago, be firing him?
In fact it’s been brewing for months. Arrington has never been entirely comfortable with TechCrunch being owned by anyone other than him, and has clearly butted heads with his (nominal) boss Arianna Huffington — another blogger elevated to power by sheer popularity.
But the final straw was Arrington’s announcement on 1 September that he was forming a venture capital fund to invest in start-ups. When The New York Times phoned Huffington for comment, she told them that Arrington had “stepped down”.
Strange, because Arrington himself doesn’t agree. He has now demanded that AOL either calls off its (top) dog and gives TechCrunch a completely free reign, or that it sells TechCrunch back to its original investors. The only other alternative he offers is to part ways with TechCrunch, permanently.
On the surface it looks like a pretty standard debate about editorial independence and conflict of interest. But beneath that surface is a boiling cauldron of issues and resentments — old media vs new media, the clash of the monstrous egos and a long history of bad blood.
Standard journalistic ethics dictate that Arrington should not be able to both write about and invest in companies. The possibility for conflict of interests is simply too great, so the argument goes.
Arrington’s colleagues have leapt to his defence, lead by his de facto right hand, MG Siegler. He argues that the rules for TechCrunch really are different and that Arrington never lets his investments affect his reporting. To Siegler this issue is more about professional jealousy and outmoded journalistic practices than any conflict of interest.
Regardless of its moral high ground, there is a certain petulance in The New York Times‘ (and others) coverage of the issue. TechCrunch commands huge attention and respect in the tech sector, something mainstream media have largely failed to achieve.
That respect has taken years of hard work to earn, and much of it flows from the site’s mould-breaking editorial model (as described by Siegler). TechCrunch isn’t just first, it’s often right. If it was merely a hype machine, like the laughable Business Insider, it would never have achieved the same prominence.
Arrington is an easy man to dislike. An egomaniac and a bully, he is frequently strident and often bombastic. But he calls it as he sees it, even when writing about his friends in the industry. His ego has chafed under the yoke of AOL, and that ego has more to do with his showdown with Huffington than any ethical conundrum.
But no matter how much they would like us to believe that their model is different and better, there is something deeply uncomfortable about a prominent tech commentator becoming a major investor. The thing is, short of actual criminal activity, what can (or should) anyone do about it?
Kara Swisher, a long time foe of Arrington’s, put it succinctly back in April when news of Arrington’s personal investments began to surface: “Maybe it is a better idea for Arrington to go play with all the boys in Silicon Valley, which would probably be more fun than taking flak for lack of traditional journalistic ethics he never ascribed to in the first place.”
If Arrington does stay at TechCrunch, I will read its posts (both by him and others) with a more critical eye than in the past. But I will continue reading. As much as The New York Times et al may huff and puff, they don’t have a tenth of TechCrunch’s speed or tech acumen. Is it really a new model of journalism? Probably not, but you don’t get any closer to the action, and that can count more than ethics.
- Alistair Fairweather is digital platforms manager at the Mail & Guardian
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