I think the key to understanding the current standoff between TechCrunch and AOL might be in this scene from The Shawshank Redemption. In particular, it’s in two lines between the warden and Andy, the prisoner:
ANDY: Everything stops!
WARDEN: Nothing stops.
This is my only problem. Between TechCrunch and AOL, I’m not sure which of the two is the warden and which is the prisoner.
I do know that however this will end, someone will probably have to crawl through a river of sewage to get to the other side. And even then, I don’t think it will end as well as it did for Andy in Shawshank.
You see, I like movie references. So do the writers and editors at TechCrunch.
Last night, TC’s MG Siegler dismissed the New York Times‘ David Carr’s trenchant criticism of site founder Michael Arrington’s entanglements using a metaphor from Martin Scorsese’s Casino:
The notion of Mike switching titles is silly and hollow. If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film Casino, it reminds me of casino boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) switching roles every few weeks to keep the gaming board off his ass.
Titles do not matter at TechCrunch. If they did, I would have petitioned to be “Super Ultra Editor Supreme” long ago… Mike’s new title could be “Janitor” — he’d still be the creator and name associated with the brand.
Siegler chalked up criticism of Arrington to jealousy of TechCrunch’s tech scoops and web traffic, and fear that TC’s model of hands-off, freewheeling reporting threatened old models of journalism:
Even if it’s just on a subconscious level, each of these authors must know that the future of their business looks a lot more like TechCrunch than The New York Times. Love it or hate it, that’s the truth. It’s inevitable.
When backed into a corner, as Thanksgiving approaches, turkeys squawk.
That was on Siegler’s personal blog. His next TechCrunch post, titled “TechCrunch As We Know It May Be Over,” was a lot less cocksure. The title in the URL reads simply “The End”:
TechCrunch is on the precipice. As soon as tomorrow, Mike may be thrown out of the company he founded. Or he may not. No one knows. And if he is, he will be replaced by — well, again, no one knows. No one knows much of anything. Certainly no one at TechCrunch. This site is about to change forever and we’re in the total fucking dark. I’ve been able to piece together little bits of information here and there, and it’s not looking good.
Now, at least as of Friday, the official word from AOL’s Arianna Huffington, Arrington’s boss, was that Arrington no longer worked for TechCrunch or for her. But apparently from Siegler’s two posts, TechCrunch didn’t think that would mean Arrington would be cut off from TechCrunch entirely, or that he and TechCrunch’s staff would be allowed to select their own official replacement and continue on with the same independence they had when he was officially the site’s editor.
On Tuesday morning, that’s what looks like is about to happen.
Today, Arrington himself threw up a picture of the Spartan soldiers from 300. (“Apologies on the corny image. It just reflects exactly how we feel right now. And if this ends up being my last post on TechCrunch, that image is a cool way to exit.”)
Arrington’s post spelled out at least a few of the changing circumstances between TechCrunch and AOL (“As of late last week TechCrunch no longer has editorial independence. Some argue that the circumstances demanded it. I disagree”) and drew a line in the sand:
We’ve proposed two options to Aol.
1. Reaffirmation of the editorial independence promised at the time of acquisition. Given the current circumstances, that means autonomy from Huffington Post, unfettered editorial independence and a blanket right to editorial self determination. To put it simply, TechCrunch would stay with Aol but would be independent of the Huffington Post.
2. Sell TechCrunch back to the original shareholders.
If Aol cannot accept either of these options, and no other creative solution can be found, I cannot be a part of TechCrunch going forward.
Without Siegler’s post, Arrington’s ultimatum makes no sense. AOL and Huffington appear to have made it clear that they do not want him to be a part of TechCrunch going forward. In fact, his continued involvement with TechCrunch is now exactly what this fight is over.
So for Arrington to say, “if you try to shoot me, I’ll hang myself” is one of two things. Either he’s trying to position himself as a victim of AOL for standing on principle against their interference. Or he’s making a threat that if he’s asked to leave the company or change his behavior, he takes Siegler and at least some of his staff with him.
Without his staff, and without the way Arrington uniquely contributes to the site’s success (through whatever means AOL might find distasteful), the scoops and the pageviews and AOL’s media future dry up.
Nothing stops. Or everything stops.
Now, I’ve written before and at some length about how much I dislike TechCrunch’s cynical stance towards journalism and some of the specific things that Arrington and others in his employ have said and done in defense of what they say and do.
Combining dismissing ethical concerns altogether (cf Siegler’s “The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless”) with holding TechCrunch as a new model because of its strong position on disclosure and its loud, tu quoque taunts of other organizations’ shortcomings is baffling to me. The only thing common to these two positions is self-aggrandizement and a kind of embrace of terminal purity.
I think both of these attitudes are fundamentally hostile to the practice of journalism. That’s just how I feel.
But all of this was true long before Arrington and Huffington sold their sites to AOL, and before AOL in turn agreed to participate in funding a venture capital firm led by Arrington with explicit ties to TechCrunch, even calling it CrunchFund.
Most people don’t care that much about Om Malik being a partner in a VC firm and running GigaOM, a tech news site/consulting business. This isn’t because people like Malik and don’t like Arrington, or because they’re jealous of TechCrunch and not jealous of GigaOM, or because they think what Om does is free and clear of conflicts. At least I don’t.
Most people don’t care about it because GigaOM and True Ventures are teeny tiny businesses compared to AOL, with a much smaller effect on the tech and media worlds. The fate of Michael Arrington and the experiment he tried with an of, by, and for Silicon Valley tech business site, along with their mutual implications for the future of journalism, can and will be hashed out elsewhere.
The problem here is AOL. The stock’s in trouble. The dial-up business is disintegrating. The investment in media companies like TechCrunch are proving to be a total clusterfuck of bad press, confused responsibilities and poor management.
If you’re the Persian Empire, it shouldn’t be quite this hard to sweep aside 300 Greek infantry, no matter how oiled-up and spunky they might be.
The New York Times and the professional ethics of late-20th century journalism might be morphing, but they aren’t going away. AOL is. It’s crumbling apart, piece by rotting piece.
Reuters’ Felix Salmon wrote about AOL’s endgame late last week:
[Arrington] won’t be the last to leave. And at this point, unless HuffPo has an absolutely spectacular 2012 election, it seems as though Tim Armstrong’s dreams of turning an old dialup ISP into a journalistic powerhouse are going to wither fast. Financially speaking, the best course of action is pretty clear. Sell the content sites to someone who wants them, and extract as much money as possible from the dialup business before it dies.
Arrington was smart to cash his chips both times he could, first when he sold the company and again when he convinced AOL to invest in CrunchFund to take what I guess he thought was a name-only demotion. I don’t know if a third buyout from AOL is coming, or if Huffington and AOL hold firm, kick him out, and seal up TechCrunch brick by brick behind him.
I don’t know if, like Andy Dufresne, Arrington has the knowledge and sheer force of will to bring this whole mess down around his head. (On Twitter, he obliquely referred to something he called “the nuclear card.”)
But make no mistake: it’s a mess. And whether it ends like 300, Casino, or The Shawshank Redemption, it’s coming to an end soon.
Shawshank Redemption wallpaper via FanPop.com.