A few months ago, Michael Arrington heard a tip that Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr, was starting a new company. Ordinarily, this would have been enough for Arrington, the founder of the blog TechCrunch, to bang out a post with details about Fake's new firm and her backers. The news that someone who started one company is starting another company may not sound like a big deal, but in TechCrunch's startup centric world, it's equivalent to the news that Beyoncé is pregnant. This time, though, Arrington did something that he doesn't do very much—he held off posting the scoop. Instead, he asked Fake to confirm it. Rather than respond to Arrington's email, Fake decided to break the news on her own blog.
Arrington didn't like that one bit. In a post titled "Why We Often Blindside Companies," Arrington wrote that by failing to filter her news through TechCrunch, Fake had landed herself in the blog's doghouse. The incident marked "the last time she ever knows we're writing a story about her or her startups before it's published," he warned. Not only that, but Arrington called Fake a liar, too. She had previously written that she'd left her last company, Hunch, because it had "pivoted" in a direction that didn't mesh with her skills. Arrington now claimed that her departure "was an extremely sordid situation." He added that he's big enough not to dish the details—"I'm still not going to write about why Fake really left Hunch, because it's not something that should be written"—but his blackmail note was clear. "Treat us with respect and you'll get it back times 10 in return. That's all we ask."
I've never met Arrington, so everything I know about him is from his writing and his stage presence at TechCrunch's many conferences. He comes off as a dogged reporter, a brilliant businessman, and—as the Fake incident suggests—a huge asshole. It's clear that each of these traits has been crucial to TechCrunch's growth from a small personal blog into Silicon Valley's central chronicler of business news.
Now it looks like the Arrington era is over. According to Fortune'sDan Primack, Arrington has been fired from the blog he started. TechCrunch is owned by AOL, and apparently Arianna Huffington, who heads the company's editorial operations, couldn't abide Arrington's decision to start a venture capital fund that would invest in startups—presumably some of the same startups that TechCrunch would cover.
The tussle over whether Arrington's move to become a VC represented a journalistic conflict of interest has consumed the tech press. Its basic outline is a now-familiar, tedious one—new media versus old media. The New York Times' David Carr and AllThingsD's Kara Swisher, both old-school journos, have come out against Arrington's situation, while many bloggers have defended him. The most passionate defense came from TechCrunch's best writer, MG Siegler, who wrote on his personal blog that Arrington's investments in startups couldn't possibly color TechCrunch's blog posts, because Arrington doesn't have much say in who writes what at TechCrunch anyway. Siegler, like other Arrington defenders, argues that any potential conflicts will be mitigated by disclosure. "But ultimately there is only one thing that matters: information," Siegler wrote. "People don't care how they get it, just that they get it. If they don't think they can trust it from one source, they'll find another way to get it. It really is that simple. The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless. … Information is all that matters. All the rest is bullshit."
If it's true that Arrington is out, I'll miss reading him. Still, I find Siegler's freedom-of-information rallying cry hard to square with Arrington's demand that entrepreneurs "treat us with respect" (or else!). And this, I think, is the most underappreciated part of this story—TechCrunch started out as a break in the filter, a way for startups to get word of their ventures out to customers and investors. But as blog traffic grew and TechCrunch's conferences took off, the site has itself morphed into a gatekeeper for startups. To tech entrepreneurs, a mention on TechCrunch is seen as an essential rite in founding a business, and although Arrington has denied this, there's plenty of evidence that he's used his power to demand ever-greater exclusive access to startup news. Those who buck Arrington's blog (by, say, breaking news on their own blogs) earn his undying ire.
There is nothing at all wrong with his stance. Telling the world that a founder is hiding "sordid details" is douchey, but behind the scenes, the news business is rarely pretty. What's irksome here is TechCrunch's insistence that it somehow represents a break from the past—that all it cares about is pure information, and not the value it derives from distributing that information. If "information is all that matters," then Arrington wouldn't care where it first appeared on the Web—all that matters is that people get the news. But obviously, if you want to run a scoopy blog, information can't be all that matters. Information that appears first on TechCrunch.com, or that breaks on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt (rather than at, say, some rival conference), matters more.
I read TechCrunch every day, but I don't read it for scoops. In general, Silicon Valley's scoops are overrated. They usually amount to disclosing some piece of news that a company planned to release anyway in just a few days or hours. Case in point: This week Kara Swisher got the "exclusive" scoop that Carol Bartz had been fired at Yahoo's CEO. Not long after, Yahoo sent out a press release announcing the departure. Swisher won the contest to publish the news first, but she didn't reveal anything that would've stayed secret for long.
Still, it's obvious that Arrington's demanding way with founders has served the site well. Nowadays startups and the Valley's giants must pay homage to him. When Apple invites a select group of reporters to tour its facilities, it doesn't forget to include TechCrunch. Thanks to Arrington's hard line with firms, TechCrunch has become as much a part of the tech establishment as any old-school newspaper.
In Fortune, my former Slate colleague Chadwick Matlin writes that if Arrington's departure from TechCrunch leads to the site's decline, the tech startup scene would be better off: "The absence of TechCrunch would allow for more competition," he writes. "No gatekeeper means there's no arbitrary decisions about which are favored and which are not." But I disagree. What's more likely to happen, in Arrington's absence, is that some other power broker will come along to take his place. Even in our disintermediated, social-media-saturated world, gatekeepers of information serve a useful purpose. TechCrunch's editorial decisions—its choice to focus on some companies instead of others—are an important signal to investors and early-adopters about which companies are worth paying attention to and which aren't. If TechCrunch didn't do this, someone else would need to. And at least Arrington is fun to read.