The “end of TechCrunch”? It might not be such a bad thing
FORTUNE — At TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference earlier this year, Michael Arrington brought Arianna Huffington on stage and the two played “The Odd Couple” for 10 minutes. “How the hell did we both end up at AOL?” Arrington asked, musing on AOL’s purchase of TechCrunch for a reported $25 million and The Huffington Post for $315 million. A few minutes later, he wondered if she was nervous about dealing with someone as irascible as himself. “You’re my boss. I actually have to report to you. And we’ve already had a bunch of sticky situations. Is it as awkward for you as it is for me? I’m not good at reporting to people. Is it going to work?”
Huffington sat hands clasped and legs crossed. “So far it has worked,” she said smiling.
But “so far” only lasted so long. Late last week, Fortune broke the details of Arrington’s plans to start his own venture capital fund and that TechCrunch-owner AOL (AOL) was pumping in $10 million. That launched a torrent of leaks from the struggling Internet company: Arrington would still write but not be paid. Arrington would be dismissed entirely. TechCrunch writers, meanwhile, jumped into the fray, publishing posts lamenting that the only way forward might be the most drastic: a full, public disemboweling of the popular blog. Arrington issued a stark ultimatum, that AOL restore “editorial independence” or sell the blog back to him. “TechCrunch As We Know It May Be Over” shouted a headline from the site’s prolific MG Siegler.
But what would the startup scene be like without the blog that currently animates it? A whole lot better, actually.
Over the past six years, TechCrunch has fashioned itself into the startup scene’s Buddha. Entrepreneurs come from near and far to pay their respects in hopes of some karmic — and fiscal — reward. Entrepreneurs are writing posts like “Two Cold-Emailed TechCrunch Pitches That Worked.” Startups are paying money for the privilege of being associated with TechCrunch, via its self-promotional TechCrunch Disrupt conference. The buzzy firms — usually ones coming out of startup incubators, like TechStars or Y Combinator — have a bit more power to ignore the blog. But when they do, they can expect dogged emails asking why they didn’t offer their news to TechCrunch first — and exclusively.
This worshipping ritual, then, is as transactional as it is spiritual. And it creates a feedback loop: TechCrunch is the most-reputed site because of its scoops. Startups offer TechCrunch scoops because it’s the most-reputed site. And, of course, TechCrunch and Arrington’s stock rises further as a consequence.
It wasn’t always this way. Arrington, a former lawyer and entrepreneur, created TechCrunch in 2005, when a disorganized startup space was still grieving over the losses of the 2000-2001 dotcom crash. Startups needed a champion, and they found one in the blunt Arrington. Traffic soon jumped, which brought the magazine profiles wondering whether someone as unpredictably temperamental as Michael Arrington could be a force for good. Arrington willed TechCrunch into a thriving site and business, sucking up so much oxygen that few other independent sites were able to challenge him.
For a time. Now, many sites do what TechCrunch pioneered. The Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD, VentureBeat, DealBook, The New York Times’ Bits, The New York Observer’s Betabeat, GigaOM, Business Insider and, yes, Fortune are all in the game. None of them are exact replicas. (It’s hard to duplicate TechCrunch’s solipsism, after all.) But as far as journalism is concerned, these sites more than fill the space a defunct TechCrunch would leave behind.
Startups, too, would be fine. They would be free to shop their exclusives to a variety of outlets without retribution. And for those startups entering markets already clotted with competitors — say, daily deals — the absence of TechCrunch would allow for more competition. No gatekeeper means there’s no arbitrary decisions about which are favored and which are not.
“We want to use TechCrunch as a petri dish for disclosing and discussing multiple conflicts of interests that journalists are not discussing,” Arianna Huffington said when she was on stage with Arrington. One contamination does not need to lead to an epidemic.