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Existing resentment of TechCrunch helps explain why the CrunchFund proved so incendiary. Back in 2008, Om Malik, founder of TechCrunch rival GigaOm, announced plans to become a venture capitalist while continuing to run his blog. It was eerily similar to Arrington's later move, except that the industry accepted it with good cheer, at least in part because GigaOm and Malik don't have anywhere near as many enemies as TechCrunch and Arrington do.
With TechCrunch, many people are willing to believe conspiracy theories. But if Arrington acting as both investor and editor must inexorably lead to the site becoming a house organ for the boss's portfolio, you'd think it would have happened long ago. Instead, it's far easier to find posts that seem to work against Arrington's financial interests such as his own items bashing Seesmic, a company he'd funded than in favor of them. (David Carr's examples in his disapproving New York Times story don't prove his point: They involved inconsequential stories that the site surely would have done whether or not Arrington was involved with the companies in question.)
When Arrington is in the mood to settle scores, reading TechCrunch can make you wince. (What he has against Engadget, a sister AOL property, I still don't understand.) Far more often, however, the site is a good, meaty, fast-paced read. It features lively voices, such as MG Siegler, Sarah Lacy and Paul (no relation to David) Carr. It regularly breaks big stories, from Google's 2006 deal to acquire YouTube to Siegler's recent peek at Amazon's unreleased tablet. Arrington himself has sometimes channeled his ire into important, rabble-rousing editorializing, such as his "Scamville" posts about sleazy marketing within games on Facebook.
TechCrunch's posts have never felt like their authors take marching orders from anyone; in fact, the site's chaotic nature is part of its appeal, and loose-cannon behavior seems to be encouraged. (One of the most cogent takedowns of the whole concept of the CrunchFund was written by TechCrunch staffer Carr.) The remarkably prolific Siegler says that most stories aren't read by Arrington or any other editor before going live. As a TechCrunch reader and someone who's blogged and supervised bloggers I believe him.
Besides, Silicon Valley may obsess over Arrington's site in a way that's unique, but it's never had a monopoly on the industry's news. Independent competitors such as GigaOm and VentureBeat are like TechCrunch without the drama; All Things D, a satellite of the Wall Street Journal run by star tech columnist Walt Mossberg and intrepid reporter Swisher, has a calmer, more buttoned-down feel but breaks lots of scoops of its own. I'm glad they all exist, and I'm relieved that there's only one TechCrunch. But if there were no TechCrunch or a TechCrunch denuded of Arrington's unpredictable influence, whether he works there or not I'd be sorry.
Could the ugliness of the last week have been avoided? Maybe. Arrington's April announcement that he was investing again raised eyebrows so briefly that AOL apparently misjudged the CrunchFund's potential for causing lasting trouble. One of the fund's investors, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, even told Swisher that its symbiotic relationship with TechCrunch was why it presented an exciting opportunity. Had the company instead built a wall between TechCrunch and the CrunchFund starting by calling it something other than "CrunchFund" the arrangement might have been tenable.
Then again, maybe not. Today's AOL sees itself as being mostly in the business of generating massive amounts of inoffensive content and monetizing the heck out of it ; Arrington's edgy, excitable brainchild was always an anomaly. And even if you believe, as I do, that TechCrunch is trustworthy despite Arrington's investment activities, the CrunchFund, in any form, flunks the even-the-appearance-of-a-conflict-of-interest test.
Last week, AOL chief Armstrong told the New York Times that "TechCrunch is a different property and they have different standards...We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch, which is different but is transparent about it." Maybe he should have pulled up the 2009 item in which Arrington explained why he was going to stop investing in startups even though he believed doing so didn't impact his site. He called that post "The Rules Apply to Everyone." Then and now, it's a sensible sentiment and it's as true for an unconventional outfit like TechCrunch as it is for the old-media organizations it so often outperforms.