Why TechCrunch Won’t Just Go Poof, Though Eventually, It Might Decline

TechCrunch has lost its first writer, Paul Carr announcing his departure following Mike Arrington heading off. Let the echo chamber echo! The death of TechCrunch! No. Harmful to TechCrunch? Maybe. Publications don’t just go poof. Believe me. I know. I’ve resigned, restarted, been there & done that.

Watching Mike struggle with the loss of his baby, TechCrunch, has really resonated with me. I had my own baby that I built up, Search Engine Watch. I sold it early, within a year of launching it, then had a great relationship running it for Alan Meckler’s then-named company Internet.com.

In 2005, Alan sold Search Engine Watch, along with the SES conference that I helped build, to another company: Incisive Media. Suffice to say, I didn’t have a great relationship with them.

There are perhaps some lessons to be drawn, watching AOL struggle with Mike and TechCrunch in the aftermath of his departure, compared to how Incisive struggled with me. Neither seems to have done particularly well. Let me revisit my story first.

How I Learned To Quit My Job

When Incisive purchased the site and conference, I was still very much seen as the prime force behind them both. Some considered me synonymous with the two. Incisive loved that I was seen as such a big presence in the search marketing space. Only days before announcing my resignation, in a USA Today profile about me, one exec even called me a “rock star” in the space (personally, I dislike that term nor think of myself that way).

Incisive’s problem — and as far as I could tell, really Incisive chief executive Tim Weller’s problem — was that it had a “rock star” that it wanted to treat like any other editor of any other publication it operated.

I’d been pretty clear right after the purchase. I was happy to stay on, happy to help the company continue to build and succeed with what I’d created, but I wanted some type of long-term stake in case years later, Incisive decided it was time to sell off something I’d further built up, leaving me again on the sidelines.

I never actually got an offer at the time I quit, in July 2006. See, Incisive had taken so long to migrate SEW off the Internet.com servers that when it did, things started breaking — including our paid subscription service which had rarely been down since the days I’d ran it myself. It stayed down for at least two months; it no longer exists today. All my long, detailed articles that were part of that also have gone poof.

That was enough for me. Since the company refused to delay the migration, I felt it was so inept that I didn’t want to stick around. I gave my notice — and that’s what finally started a round of negotiating whether I’d stay on. That went downhill, since it began with an offer that had provisions for me to earn less than what I had been earning.

Weller felt I earned way too much, later suggesting my demands (I hadn’t actually given any figures at all) were a threat to his shareholders. Ironically, not meeting my supposed demands didn’t prevent Incisive from later being cut in half after having “overstretched its balance sheet.”

At one point, Weller asked why I would think I should have a deal different than from other editors he employed on his other publications. My answer was simple: because none of those other editors was potentially going to walk off and start a rival publication.

After I announced my resignation, panic on the Incisive front really set-in. Was there anything that could be done? They really, really wanted me to stay. So I went back to negotiating. I separated the two things, asking to discuss staying on to do their SES conferences first, then we’d revisit whether I’d stay on to continue editing SEW.

In the end, we struck a deal on SES, on October 23, 2006. It was one that suited me. It allowed me to keep running those conferences for a year, but nothing prevented me from starting up my own series. With the deal done, I also declined to negotiate over SEW. Instead, I said that I was going to head-off and do a new search publication.

How They Failed To Manage My Departure Well

From my public post at the time:

November 30 remains my last day. Instead, I expect to continue writing about search as I always have via a new search blog. I should have more news on this in about three or four weeks. Similarly, I plan to do some search-related events of my own. Stay tuned, and I promise to bring more details when I can share them.

Now, Incisive had more than a month to know I was leaving SEW. Indeed, I’d formally quit back in July, so they had half-a-year to prepare for the worse. What happened? From best I can tell, apparently nothing.

Indeed, on November 16, 2006, I announced that two of my senior editors — Chris Sherman and Barry Schwartz — were going to join me at a new site that I was launching called Search Engine Land. Neither of them, as I recall, had been approached about staying on or potentially taking over the site. Not that they would have stayed, but you know, it’s always nice to be asked.

Now Incisive got even more panicked. I was still running their SES series, and the SES Chicago event was only two weeks away. I quickly got a legal nastygram telling me that my recently signed contract had provisions that prevented me from talking my other ventures. Or something like that. It was a stupid legal letter, one of several I endured over the remaining year I worked with the company. I ignored it.

Instead, I ran the show and, at the end of my traditional keynote about the state of search that year, had one single slide where I mentioned the news of my departure:

I didn’t dwell on this; my keynote (as you’ll read here) had already run long, and I tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible. I didn’t mention my new conference series, even though I could have.

The slide mentions a new editor in chief. That was Rebecca Lieb, who was already running the ClickZ site, which Incisive had also purchased (and Rebecca has since left). If I recall, she was named at the very last minute. I also had the bizarre situation of being asked by Incisive a day or two before my talk if I’d agree to give a quote to go in the announcement about her taking over.

Weird, given we weren’t parting on happy terms. But you know? I did. From the release:

“Rebecca is an outstanding journalist and editor who has taken ClickZ to new heights. She has always understood the important and unique role of search in the interactive marketing space. Her promotion is well deserved, and I look forward to seeing her guide Search Engine Watch into its next generation,” said Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com.

For me, it was in keeping that I really didn’t want to cause a rift in the then still small search marketing community. I hadn’t planned to leave SEW and SES. I was happy with what I was doing. But if I had to leave, I wanted to get on with what I was doing elsewhere.

I stuck with a similar conciliatory tone when I posted my goodbye message on the SEW site itself:

I have absolutely no intention of going over to the new place with any type of “us versus them” type of attitude. I’ve always tried to be inclusive of good content and communities regardless if they might be seen as competitive to SEW. At SEL, I plan to continue the same. If there are good discussions here, I’m going to be pointing at them. If there are good opportunities for the mods with SEW, I honestly want the best for you. By no means do I want anyone thinking that staying on here, or perhaps doing other things with SEW, is somehow something I won’t like or perhaps “disloyal” in any way. I don’t know if anyone was even thinking like that — but if so, don’t!

But also in that post, you can see that Incisive still hadn’t figured out what to do with the site. All the correspondents who worked there — who no one had talked to — also decided to leave. As I wrote:

My goodbye is less tearful because writers I’ve worked with day-in and day-out are joining me at Search Engine Land. Barry Schwartz (he told me to say goodbye to everyone), Phil Bradley (despite having a name that doesn’t end in S), Bill Slawski, Jennifer Slegg, Brian Smith and Greg Sterling will be writing with me from December. Chris Sherman joins us in January. I’m naturally thrilled to continue working with them.

Elisabeth [Osmeloski], who I mentioned already, stays on here at Search Engine Watch as managing editor and is working on plans with Incisive to take the site into its new life without me at the helm, a new generation for Search Engine Watch. She’ll be along later with a post of her own on this.

Elisabeth, by the way, I’d talked to earlier about coming over (Incisive hadn’t), and I told her it probably made more sense for her to stay on there, since SEL wasn’t going to pay well until it got up and going. After she later left SEW, I was thrilled to have her decide to work with me again in September 2008.

Why Did It Go So Badly?

For about a week, if I remember correctly, SEW largely ground to a halt. There was even a post — I can’t find it now after much looking, I’m afraid — where a media analyst wrote about Incisive needing to do something, to do anything, to make it stop looking like a train wreck.

How on earth had Incisive allowed things to get to this point? Rory Brown was reflecting about this on his The Media Briefing site recently. He’s got a particularly good viewpoint, as he was my day-to-day boss when all this went down. Rory wrote (and the bolding is his):

Whilst the circumstances are not exactly the same, there are clearly some parallels. I won’t go into the detail of what happened at that time, beyond saying that we clearly mismanaged some of the integration issues and also came up against a key personality in the new media space who believed his personal brand was larger than the underlying property we had bought.

The split became messy with Danny eventually standing up on stage at one of our events in Chicago and (in front of our delegates) announcing that he was setting up a directly competitive business. There was nothing we could do short of rugby-tackling him from the stage…

The lesson I took from this experience was: what motivates a blogging entrepreneur is not money — especially once they have either cashed out or become financially secure through contracted deals. It became all about control. They were never going to be suited to working in a large corporate.

As an aside here, I like Rory. I liked him a lot when I first started working with him at Incisive, and life sure would have been a lot easier if they’d simply put him in charge of the new operation Incisive had purchased, instead of naming a new director who wouldn’t actually report for work until six months later — which is like 6 years of internet time. After my departure, I had a few run-ins with Rory that perhaps were inevitable, as both parties found their feet. But that’s water under the bridge, and I’m happy to see his new venture doing well.

Back to his post. I think plenty of people are motivated for things beyond money. In my case, I quit before I’d had a contact offer at all. It wasn’t even about trying to influence that. I simply did not like all the signals I had that this particular company wasn’t suited for ensuring a fast paced blog could succeed. So maybe bloggers don’t like bureaucracy? I don’t know — though I do know watching some of Mike’s posts, such as filing for expenses, that’s probably among many factors he probably disliked.

Don’t Be Too Controlling?

Maybe control was a key point. I had a vision of how I wanted to run the blog. I especially had a vision that we could run a conference where attendees were given nice meals (not boxes) and a better overall experience. That continued to be the chief complaint I heard about, when I was running things, and nothing I could do got that to change.

Unlike in Mike’s case, I never had the parent company swooping in to debate how I should run the blog (and debating whether Mike had conflicts that meant he couldn’t run TechCrunch is swooping in). That’s probably one of the mistakes AOL has made in all this, if it wanted to keep him. Despite Arianna Huffington’s “there was no culture clash” post, there very clearly was.

Arianna was technically Mike’s boss. She clearly felt like he had conflicts with the venture fund that didn’t make him suited to be editor. Someone had to win, and she did.

Could that have been avoided? Perhaps. Remember when Tim Armstrong said this:

“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.”

I found that laughable. If you have standards, then they’re a standard — they’re not a standard when you start issuing exceptions. However, perhaps Tim might have expressed that better — and perhaps it might even have worked — if TechCrunch weren’t just a different property but a standalone one.

After Arianna was hired, AOL went through this consolidation process, where everything was supposedly under her, and everything was going to be standardized. That would be about the same as saying that because News Corporation owned The News Of The World and The Wall Street Journal, both had to have the same overall editor dictating how they’d operate.

TechCrunch could have been a more direct report up the AOL food chain. It really could have been an independent publication within the group; really could have done whatever it wanted. If Mike felt he was doing disclosures OK, let the readers decide could have been the policy there.

Independent to some degree, of course. No publication owned by any major group just gets to do what it wants. Ultimately, the owning company is the publisher, the one held responsible in case there are libel cases or other issues that come up.

Back to my case, more control might have helped. Certainly feeling like that I could keep doing what I had been doing would have been a big plus.

Certainly Get Your Act Together

Even if there’s some inevitable conflict between a big company and founding editors, at the very least, big companies should have some type of a game plan. How did Incisive let so much time pass without assuming the worst and planning for it?

Similarly, how on earth did — when the news came out about revisiting whether Mike should still run TechCrunch — did AOL say nothing for so long, especially when we kept getting all the back-and-forth rumors. He’s in. He’s out. He’s in. Geez.

And how on earth do you allow things where the TechCrunch staff clearly has some unresolved issues. That Paul Carr wasn’t happy had to have been known. Do we sit around now and wait to discover how many other TechCrunch staffers aren’t happy and await further resignation letters?

And maybe I missed it — I was running my own SMX conference this week in New York (our biggest ever!) — but has there been a distinct lack of any post on TechCrunch explaining the new direction or anything other than that short statement of Mike going. Maybe an update to the About page is in order, where Mike’s still listed as running things, perhaps?

No, The Old Brands Don’t Die

As all this has unfolded, there’s been plenty of “TechCrunch Is Dead” speculation as well as “Nah, it’ll survive.” Fred Wilson had a fairly balanced post on this last week.

As someone’s who’s actually been there, it’s exceedingly unlike that TechCrunch just goes “poof.” For one thing, you simply do not understand how powerful domains can be in Google, once they are established. You don’t take that reputation to your new place.

If everyone literally left TechCrunch tomorrow and started a brand new blog, Google would still reward TechCrunch with all the same authority it had before — as well as the traffic — while the new blog would have to (and slowly) build all that up. I wrote about this more last year here:

Meanwhile, new writers would come on to TechCrunch. They would. That’s inevitable. And while some, perhaps many, maybe even most of the writers might decide to follow Mike and the former team wherever they might go, plenty of readers will simply keep going for a variety of reasons (they follow on Twitter, they have a feed, they do searches) back to TechCrunch.

Consider that Engadget lost Ryan Block in 2008, then Joshua Topolsky in April of this year. Joshua is particularly interesting, as he’s gone on to start a competing publication, This Is My Next, which will become The Verge. Several editors went with him.

How’s that going? Here’s what Google Trends reports on visitors:

Yeah, Engadget’s taken a slam. But the new site is barely registering. The new site also has around 17,000 Facebook fans, about 10% of what Engadget has.

Don’t get me wrong. Over time, The Verge might eclipse Engadget. Believe me, I’m rooting for Joshua as you might expect from someone’s who’s been in a similar situation. Likewise, some new tech publication, perhaps founded by former TechCrunch writers, might eclipse TechCrunch.

If so, it won’t just happen over night. People just don’t immediately follow writers over to a new place. If that were the case, This Is My Next/The Verge would have all the same fans that Engadget has. All the same traffic, or at least a not more.

It Takes Time To Start Again

Instead, it take time to change habits, both human and in what Google rewards. But you can get there. I know. Here’s another chart:

That’s Quantcast global traffic for both Search Engine Land and my former publication, Search Engine Watch. Both publications “Quantify,” which means you get a direct comparison. SEW started reporting fully around February 2009, which is why you see that sudden spike from nowhere up.

The pattern is pretty clear. Search Engine Land got a huge boost compared to perhaps some new site that might have covered search, thanks to the reputation of our writers that came over there. And in my view, Search Engine Land quickly won in terms of the quality and depth of our coverage. But the traffic rewards took longer.

(By the way, none of this is to say that SEW doesn’t have good stuff. It does. I just think we’re better, and as editor of our publication, I’d better damn well believe that or make that the case).

So, as Paul leaves TechCrunch, I’m sure another round of “TechCrunch is dead” articles will begin again. It’s not, and it’s unlikely to be. But it is likely that something might eventually surpass it, especially if AOL can’t convince good writers or good editors with a vision for coverage and the ability to provide a solid voice for their publications that TechCrunch is the place to be.

If you made it this far, you might also like some related thoughts I wrote on this topic about two weeks ago:

Postscript: After I wrote this, MG Siegler posted a piece on how out of the loop he is, including:

AOL has not reached out to me once in this entire situation. You’d think they might care about something like that. Evidently, they don’t. I’m not losing any sleep over it, but it’s curious.

I appreciate the outpouring of support from everyone. No matter what happens, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’m just sincerely worried about the state of AOL that they seem to have a total disregard for the actual situation. TechCrunch is a key property and one of the few bright spots in their portfolio. But to them, it’s apparently just numbers….

Everyone still at TechCrunch knows this. That’s why Paul’s post is dangerous. He’s shining the spotlight on something, but he’s missing the mark. There is exactly one person to blame for all of this — and her name is not Erick.

And from Robin Wauters

Siegler writes that AOL hasn’t yet reached out to him about this whole mess. What a shocker. I have been working for AOL for nearly 12 months now and I’ve never – not once – heard from anyone at AOL apart from some HR staffers to get my contract switched over (which took them 9 months, yes months, but that’s a different story for another day).

AOL clearly doesn’t care about TechCrunch and the people that have built it as much as they probably should, but that’s just one of the struggling Internet giant’s many, many issues.

It really is unbelievable. No one is talking with the writers?