As the Arrington/ AOL/ CrunchFund scandal enters yet another day, TechCrunch writer MG Siegler and founder Michael Arrington have started using their yet to be revoked access to the site to fire shots across the bow of parent company AOL and head of editorial Arianna Huffington.
Siegler started yesterday with a post titled rather bizarrely “TechCrunch As We Know It May Be Over.” I say bizarre because Siegler’s arguments vs the title are actually contradictory. Michael Arrington follows up with “Editorial Independence,” yet another contradiction in headline given it comes from a man who wants to run a site while investing (well, further investing as the case may be) in the companies he writes about.
Let me disclose again upfront that I spent 12 months at TechCrunch, perhaps the longest 12 months of my life.
Lets start with MG Siegler, who puts me to shame in my heyday (on basis of effort) as the chief leader of the TechCrunch cheersquad.
I do understand why Siegler is passionate about working for TechCrunch. I was as well. There’s something terribly alluring about writing for what was at the time (and perhaps to some still is) the number one tech blog (the reality is Mashable has long since sailed past.) It’s easy to be sucked in by the glamor of it all, and I think the only reason I never got fully sucked in is that I probably remain the only full time overseas based writer the site has had (I was detached enough to keep a sense of reality.) There was just myself and Michael writing when I started (and an occasional post by some other members of staff who doubled in other roles, but wrote part time), but by the time I left there was maybe four full time writers.
But there’s being a fan and being passionate about what you do, and trying to keep a level head. I knew after 12 months, having worked for myself or been a co-founder of a company that ultimately I wanted control of my life again, vs trying to churn out a minimum of four posts a day, seven days a week.
That might not sound like much, but the problem wasn’t finding things to write about, it was filtering the noise. But I digress.
Siegler, living and breathing the TechCrunch lifestyle, has lost his objectivity when it comes to what he does and who he works for. In particular in his post, he seems to forget that he now works for AOL, not Michael Arrington.
Where do you start?
“Mike unveiled an investing entity known as the “CrunchFund” with full AOL support — so much support, mind you, that they’re the largest backers of the fund — only to have his legs kicked out from under him due to what can only be described as nonsensical political infighting and really poor communication.”
You can agree with some of that: Arrington and Tim Armstrong forgot to mention any of the CrunchFund news to their head of editorial, Arianna Huffington, and she responds (rightly) by trying to fire him, but you get the feeling that Siegler doesn’t read it that way. Nonsensical political infighting? He can’t surely mean playing a legitimately played ethical card?
But it gets better, because Siegler lives under the fallacy that is the TechCrunch writer’s belief in independence.
“Earlier this evening, I wrote a post on my personal blog attempting to explain to those outside our company how TechCrunch actually works from an editorial perspective. The notion that Mike, or anyone else, investing in a company would dictate some sort of giant conflicted agenda is laughable. Literally. If Mike tried to get me to write some unreasonable post about a company he had invested in, I would laugh at him. But he would never do that. Ask Loic Le Meur. Ask Kevin Rose. Ask Shervin Pishevar. Ask Airbnb. Ask countless others.”
I really hope Siegler is on drugs, because it would explain a lot. But I shouldn’t joke, because it’s the cult of TechCrunch that has made him believe this.
First, I will concede that Michael Arrington hires writers that are mostly independent and write their own content. It’s the perfect blog model where the writers do their own thing because you trust them enough to get it right. I’m the first to admit that I followed the same model at The Inquisitr and are now doing so at Medacity: I hire people who can think for themselves and make their own calls on content, without needing ongoing guidance.
But there’s a huge difference between the theory and the application at TechCrunch. At TechCrunch, Arrington lets you believe you are picking your own posts (and sometimes you do.) But there are other things that don’t quite fit the model. At TechCrunch, it’s made very clear who you are allowed to write about, and not write about. For example, companies that appeared at rival conferences to TechCrunch 50 (now TechCrunch Disrupt) were off limits. I was often given suggestions by Arrington to write about companies based on his friendships, or people who were friendly to him (and at times sponsors.)
Siegler repeats the classic Arrington line that sometimes we criticize our “friends,” but that’s all part of the show. It is, and always has been the veil of legitimacy TechCrunch has traded on. But I know that at my time at TechCrunch, biting friends was only ever ordered, and only when what they were doing was so blatantly bad it needed calling out. I think any time TechCrunch has written a negative post about Loic Le Meur is a classic example. Kevin Rose was never a TechCrunch friend as I saw it, so it’s a touch weird at Siegler brings him up. Robert Scoble is the classic example: Arrington and Scoble were the best of frenimies: one day we’d be backing him, and the next day we’d be putting in the boot. But the orders as to which way we wrote about Scoble always came from the top.
The reality is, as it always has been, is that TechCrunch has traded off favors and back scratching. TechCrunch has always barred or banned people, startups or sites it doesn’t like (for example, we could steal a story from Mashable but NEVER attribute it.) Siegler can scream editorial independence from the rooftop, and maybe he won’t write about a company he really doesn’t like (I hope that I never did) but likewise I’d bet money that he’s written about many a company that Arrington has recommended to him.
Which brings me to the title of Arrington’s post “editorial independence.”
It’s a joke in itself.
TechCrunch has never ever once had editorial independence. What Arrington means by independence is he calls the shots. That’s not real independence.
Unlike Siegler’s contention that the end is nigh, someone new at the top of TechCrunch without the relationships, backscratching, and sometimes inside tips that were/ are typical of the Arrington era may for the first time actually provide editorial independence at TechCrunch.
And as much as I hate to admit it: Arianna Huffington, for all her flaws, at least gets ethics to the point that she is capable to find the right person to do the job…and it’s someone from outside vs any of the existing TechCrunch staff.
I know many speak highly of MG Siegler, and I don’t doubt that he brings in pageviews, but he has also lost the most important part of what being a journalist is supposed to be about: objectivity. His post in itself, if I ran AOL, would be an offense that would see him terminated from his position. He may not have ever bitten Arrington’s hand, but AOL cuts the checks now, and the quicker he learns, the longer he’ll keep his position.
As for Arrington: I sort of feel sad. I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life with him and he is without doubt one of the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure spending time with. I’ll never forget the opportunity he gave me, for all its good and bad. But likewise Michael: you only have yourself to blame now. Greed got the better of you, and you are now going to lose your site. You’re cashed up, so you can probably start again, but still: I do know how much TechCrunch means to you and despite your own greed causing this, a small part of me does feel a little sorry that you’ve lost the site.