Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AOL Crunches Tech's Editorial Objectivity?

Everyone reading this already knows that THE technology blog of all blogs -- Michael Arrington's TechCrunch -- was acquired today by AOL. A source indicates (not all that precisely I admit) that the price tag was $30-$50 million on annual revenues of approximately $10 million (i.e., a multiple of 3X-5X).

So, what does this mean to TechCrunch's and, in particular, Arrington's editorial objectivity, freedom and unapologetic overall brashness? THAT is the question for those of us who read TechCrunch everyday and throughout the day.

"Tim [Armstrong, AOL's CEO] told me that he doesn’t want whatever makes TechCrunch special to go away. He also said it was important that we feel free to criticize AOL when we think they deserve it. And the agreement we signed with AOL fully reflects this."

There it is -- there will be no impact -- no changes in editorial tone or subject matter. Case closed, right?

Well ... uh ... no. Ain't that easy of course.

No matter what an agreement says -- and no matter what Michael and Tim say to each other (or any human being in this situation for that matter) -- AOL's ownership of TechCrunch will permeate deeply within the souls of all associated with the Crunch and have a butterfly effect on everything they write. Sometimes they will under-report about AOL; sometimes they will over-report on AOL. Sometimes they will under-report or over-report on AOL competitors. And sometimes they simply will be too soft or too hard on AOL and/or their competitors. When this happens, usually it won't be intentional. It simply will be due to the basic underlying fact that TechCrunch no longer is what it was before today.

Private ... and independent.

One more important thing. As a private independent company, TechCrunch essentially had to function like the start-ups they cover. So, they "feel" what it's like to be fully entrepreneurial and resource constrained. That all changes with AOL, as Arrington himself notes (which is a factor that he says motivated him to sell). That kind of entrepreneurial drive and tenacity are significant contributors to the power of TechCrunch. Now, the pressure is off.

No one's fault. It's simply a case of -- in the inimitable words of the great news purveyor himself, Walter Cronkite -- "That's the way it is ...."

(NOW, to be clear, this does not mean that it won't be possible for the Crunch to largely retain its voice and continue to be relevant. This is no new affliction after all. Jon Stewart, one of my favorite kings of brashness, works for "the man" (Comedy Central, a Viacom Company). Certainly, he too faces similar pressures, both explicit and implicit. Yet, he certainly seems to express his full "voice" on a nightly basis. But, we never know, of course, what stories or bits were cut -- or added -- or changed -- as a result of this relationship. And, Arrington himself points to News Corp's acquisition of The Wall Street Journal and the Journal's newly cozy relationship with Murdoch.)