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As Tech Blogs Grow up, Can They Transcend Their Founders?

It's Possible, but for Many the Results Remain to Be Seen

By Published on . 2

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- They started out as personal obsessions and evolved into agenda-setting news outlets proffering snap judgments on everything from Yahoo's executive drama to Google's new URL shortener. Now, a question: Have a noisy group of tech blogs come of age?

Credit: Source: Compete data of unique visitors in August.

With its $30 million acquisition of TechCrunch, AOL argues yes. So did Dow Jones, which locked up Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, the impresarios behind AllThingsD, to three-year deals last week. Both TechCrunch and AllThingsD are mildly profitable, but AOL and Dow Jones are doubling down on their investments, looking to infuse additional cash to build out news staffs and new events.

Once, the rap on news blogs built around big personalities was that they'd never transcend them, and thus never build lasting value. For some, that's undoubtedly still true, and it's telling that AOL's condition for even opening talks with TechCrunch was that founder Michael Arrington would stay on. At the same time, some of these entrepreneurial sites have grown bigger than their founders.

"Most media products come from the mind of a single person and go from there," said Om Malik, founder of GigaOm. "Rolling Stone was created by Jann Wenner. I think the job of the founder of these media entities is to create a framework and a vision that other people can follow."

Both Messrs. Malik and Arrington took extensive time off from their enterprises with no adverse effects, and while both still define the voices of the publications, they've ceded day-to-day control of the editorial and the business.

Similarly, Business Insider's Henry Blodget and Mashable's Pete Cashmore are CEOs, but they have staffs that handle varying levels of the business day-to-day. Some have developed well-known editorial personalities beyond the founders themselves. That's the strategy at AllThingsD, which in addition to Mr. Mossberg and Ms. Swisher has Peter Kafka, John Paczkowski and Katie Boehret. "One of the things we are interested in is to make stars of people -- that they are well-known for being accurate, engaging and fair," Ms. Swisher said. "We think the D brand is much bigger than Walt and I."

Few think TechCrunch will be the last deal, particularly while media old and new are desperate to build scale in low-cost content for display advertising. "Doing that is a lot harder than it looks," said Tolman Geffs, co-president of Jordan Edmiston Group, who represented Forbes in the sale of Investopedia to ValueClick. "Will TechCrunch ever hit $100 million? No. Will AOL help it grow? Yes."

The deal gives AOL additional scale in the tech vertical, with little audience overlap with Engadget and Apple blog TAUW. While a blog like TechCrunch goes deeply into the weeds of startup and tech minutiae, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong sees it as reaching both a business and a consumer audience, "You get both audiences and we felt it's a two-for-one transaction."

Yet the blogs themselves remain small businesses, and tough to scale beyond the devoted few without resorting to page-view tricks that dilute the brand. Most are looking for revenue sources beyond display ads such as pricey events and proprietary research. "It's been pretty clear to me that the efficiency of the internet is going to make advertising as a sole business model almost impossible," Mr. Malik said.

The question is whether the culture that made TechCrunch big -- and arguably Mr. Arrington's outsize personality -- can thrive as part of a corporate environment. It didn't take long for Mr. Arrington to see the downside: a three-and-a-half hour orientation meeting with "our new corporate overlords." "God help us if news breaks, because we'll all be in the conference room acting out a Dilbert cartoon."

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