Michael Arrington, TechCrunch: How the site changed startup culture.

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Sept. 8 2011 6:08 PM

The Meaning of Michael Arrington

How TechCrunch changed startup culture.

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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.

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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.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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