AOL, Tech Crunch and the Rules of the Game

The latest controversy between AOL and Michael Arrington is a fascinating story. Strong personalities with strong points of view, editorial ethics, management missteps, and big company culture versus small company passion make this a particularly juicy drama.

Arrington has made an ultimatum to AOL: Give us “editorial independence” or sell us the site back. By “editorial independence” Arrington means that Tech Crunch can continue writing about companies that he invests in via his Crunch Fund.  All of a sudden AOL has realized that this might possibly pose a conflict of interest.

Give me a break. When they bought Tech Crunch AOL was buying a page view engine, not quality journalism. Internal AOL memos show that the acquisition of Tech Crunch was all about content automation, not the content itself. Naming Arriana Huffington, the ultimate brandividual, as head of content demonstrates that AOL management thinks search rankings and posts per hour metrics suffice as editorial management. AOL itself was going to put money into Crunch Fund. And anyone who spends time in the Silicon Valley knows Michael Arrington’s story; a clever journalist with an out-sized flare for the dramatic and an extraordinary talent for self promotion.

Let me know your thoughts. Did AOL not really understand what and who they were buying? Or are they genuinely concerned about quality journalism and editorial ethics?

  • Sean Saulsbury

    I suspect AOL is concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest and that that conflict will harm the long term viability and reputation of techcrunch. But thank you, Tony, for defining some terms here. “Independence” implies independence FROM something. Arrington claims that means independence from interference from AOL meddling in it’s business and editorial policies. I imagine AOL claims it is independence from a journalistic conflict of interest.

    It sounds like Arrington wants to publish his content without accountability, and if I were AOL and the owner of Techcrunch, I would have a problem with that. If it comes down to looking at the issue from this angle and the two parties taking sides around these positions, Arrington will and should lose.

    However, I think this is all kind of a red herring. What’s wrong with disclosing alleged conflicts of interest? If Arrington has an investment in a company being covered on Techcrunch, that can be stated in small letters at the bottom of any given article and readers can judge for themselves about the objectivity of the author and publisher.

    Having his hands in both jars, on the surface, may appear to be conflict. But it can also be a competitive advantage. On the journalistic side, you have access to insider and exclusive news no one else can get. On the investor side, you have access to a well respected, highly popular news outlet. that’s what Arrington should be arguing.

    Many argue that is a conflict of interest. But if you’re able to manage both of these ventures with integrity, you will gain a reputation for being objective and be able to take advantage of the competitive advantage with little downside. The question is, does Arrington have or is he capable of achieving that reputation?