Any of you that follow tech news closely will be all too aware of the recent drama at Techcrunch. Since Michael Arrington was forced out from AOL (who bought the company back in September 2010) the number of talented writers leaving Techcrunch has been growing significantly in recent months. PaidContent recently reported traffic has fallen about 35% since Arrington left, and editor-in-chief Erick Schonfeld took over. Arrington himself confirmed a drop in pageviews (he reports 50%) since his departure.
This has resulted in a recent shakeup in the ranks – Schonfeld is out, and Eric Eldon is in as editor in chief, with a view to putting the train firmly back on the tracks.
Ordinarily, I’d just bypass this sort of thing. Companies change. Staff turnover. No big deal, nothing to see here. Move along.
However, this is interesting to me for two reasons. Firstly, it presents the fragility of Techcrunch as a blog, and the huge importance of brand identity in establishing lasting and loyal traffic. Secondly it shows just how difficult it is for a small company to successfully weather the storm of a corporate takeover and preserve both its integrity and brand identity.
As for the traffic drop, considering Techcrunch’s standing in the marketplace, to anyone looking in – they looked untouchable. Unfortunately news content, whilst great at grabbing short term attention, isn’t a valuable asset long term. Something that is relevant today quickly becomes old news within a couple of hours. Once you build your brand on freshness, that’s what people expect – consistent breaking news.
This puts Techcrunch in the unenviable position of having to find the stories that matter consistently to attract new and existing visitors. The traffic is being held up solely on that premise. There are few ‘articles’ on the site that provide a sustainable level of traffic, and as such, without the combination of great writing, badboy attitude and scoops – they’ve experienced decline. There’s a lesson in there for anyone involved in content creation or web promotion. For sustainability, it’s important to take care to embrace different content formats, rather than become tied tightly to one that forces you into a corner.
Others in the marketplace such as Mashable, and theNextWeb have however used their blog authority to put down anchors of evergreen content that are relevant all year round and attract visitors regardless of whether its a slow news day or not. It’s a safer option in the Google traffic game. Mashable in particular IMO can no longer really be called a tech news blog, they’ve moved so far into popular culture, with articles on Lady Gaga et al that has given rise to their own talent exodus.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the consideration of Techcrunch as being number one in the marketplace for some time, but these internal dramas have made room for new shows in town. Newly launched tech publication The Verge – is currently threatening Techcrunch’s position on the Techmeme leader board. Sarah Lacy (formerly Techcrunch writer) is also making waves with PandoDaily – again a publication which his given homes to other former talented Techcrunch alumni such as Paul Carr and M.G. Siegler. In a similar post, VC Fred Wilson predicted this happening not that long ago.
More power to them.
These guys get it. They know that the minute Mike was forced out, that Techcrunch would no longer be Techcrunch. When you are woven into the fabric of a place, and are then forcibly removed – its no surprise when the building starts falling down. The publication exuded his style and panache and as such, writers knew that they too would be given the freedom to put their own personality and style into their writing.
Often when a larger company swallows a smaller one there is an internal struggle. Considering that an established corporate culture is rooted deep in an organisations history, it is likely to be staunchly defended by those who are a part of it. Whilst I wasn’t privy to the internal goings on, Arrington was undoubtably a defender in the internal war of AOL v Techcrunch.
Culturally, a little piece of Techcrunch died when AOL moved in. Once they had managed to claw editorial independence away from Techcrunch, and into the hands of a tired old school corporation – it was only a matter of time before the blog direction changed forever. Most people who can read through the lines know that the CrunchFund issue and Mike’s supposed inability to remain impartial was merely subterfuge.
Sometimes articles were written with arrogance, sometimes with comedy – and often with controversial opinion. And yes, often Mike was an asshole, but sometimes to make an omelette you got to break a few eggs, and that’s why we loved it. Knowing the Techcrunch backstory, and how Mike grew the site on his own initially only helped the brand story resonate with its readers further.
Techcrunch was fearless, heart on your sleeve writing that showed true passion for the subject. They got it wrong maybe 1-2% of times, but that was ok – this is the web, and we expect mistakes in the journey for the truth. Conversely now it feels like everything has passed through the AOL corporate filters, and the brand is no longer able to breathe.
Siegler himself argues that Techcrunch is too big to fail. I agree. But its not too big to fall into second place. long Readers are still hungry – and although the site is still getting alot fed stories from the PR hamster wheel (that it is unlikely to ever fall off), we’ve come to expect a certain spoonful of edginess from Techcrunch with our daily scoop of news.
There are a few different types of blogger. Those who don’t get access to stories and rely on press releases, generally boring. Then there are those who get access to information, but refuse to post about it for fear of pissing somebody off, just as boring and probably worse than the first type. Then there is the type of blogger who gets access to information, and has no problem stepping on toes to get the information out. HN thread.
Michael Arrington was and still is that blogger. The problem with Techcrunch now is not only that they’ve lost a fearless leader, but that their audience know that AOL aren’t capable of delivering on the brand promise its readers have come to expect.