At SXSW, shrugs over CNN-Mashable rumors

March 13, 2012, 4:42 PM UTC

FORTUNE — If reports this week have been right, CNN is in “advanced talks” to buy the popular blog Mashable for $200 million.

Mashable founder Pete Cashmore issued a denial yesterday, emphasizing that the “rumor going around on Twitter that Mashable will be acquired this week” isn’t true. (Of course, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be acquired next week.) What did festival goers think of yet another possible tie up of old and new media? Not much.

Some attendees responded with shrugs or mild optimism at the thought. “I’d be interested to see what CNN has to offer them besides money,” said Crawford Courneaux, a 29-year-old entrepreneur from Louisiana, who rode a bus with others to attend the convention.

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“All I know is when these big companies buy start-ups, it’s usually a sad day — the beginning of the end,” says Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup.” Ries believes the product exits as fast as the founders and investors exit. He recalls a large dinner with bloggers the night AOL (AOL) bought The HuffingtonPost early last year. “Mad props to Arianna and the incredible thing they built, but we all had a moment of silence, because we knew in that moment, we were going to look back at that with sadness.”

Ries also points to an unnamed company with a product division that tried hard to stay separate from the company’s main line culture, all the way down to a separate corporate bonus plan. But they made one big mistake by agreeing to have “vanity metrics,” milestones they needed to hit in order to be considered successful by company standards. When the startup needed to change its strategy, it couldn’t. Instead, it focused on meeting those metrics. And now? “They’re dead,” he says.

The most cited example in conversations with convention attendees is another AOL acquisition: blog TechCrunch. Despite efforts to keep the site insulated from AOL’s corporate culture, the tech blog saw a number of high-profile staffers defect, including founder Mike Arrington. The blog has hired new writers since then.

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Alex Taub, who heads business development and partnerships for the online photo editing startup Aviary in New York, believes Mashable may have a better shot at remaining intact if an acquisition goes through.”Mashable has created a very good system where you can essentially ‘plug and play’ writers, and the organization still works,” he says. “For the most part, they’re more brand driven and less about personalities.”

For a popular blog like Mashable, which drew over 3.2 million unique visitors last January according to Compete, the onus will be on CNN to keep Mashable intact. “People always blame the startup, but this is on that management, the corporate entity,” says Ries, who points out that entrepreneurial management is different from general management. Holding a startup like Mashable to the same metrics as deeply integrated divisions, and not setting up a distinctly different accountability system for it, would be a serious mistake that would kill innovation. Says Ries: “Still, it’s not an inevitable thing.”