The Best Media Writing of the Week

AOL and Yahoo, Former Gatekeepers to the Web, Struggle for Identity

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

By Published on .

Michael Arrington
Michael Arrington Credit: TechCrunch

If you love a good train wreck, your attention was probably divided between the pileups this week involving a pair of companies that once served as gatekeeper and keymaster to the web but now no longer seem to know what to do with themselves.

AOL, on its acquisitive march to turn itself into a major content player, once again stepped on an ethical landmine: This time the misstep blew TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, whose site was bought by the former dial-up king a year ago, clear out of the building -- but not before an absurd drama highlighting deep flaws in the company's leadership and vision.

But, hey, at least AOL has a vision. Yahoo ended up firing its pottymouth CEO Carol Bartz for failing to articulate what the company should do with the big collection of eyeballs it carries around in a sack as it wanders a digital world increasingly based on social relationships. It's crazy to think that just last year, Ms. Bartz and Mr. Arrington were tossing f-bombs back and forth at each other, salting a public Q&A with an unusual and icky display of profanity designed, I guess, to show how irreverent and powerful they both were. It was no surprise that when it came time for them to be fired, they did not go gently.

Mr. Arrington's blow-up had to do with his involvement in a venture fund that begged questions about conflicts of interest and thereby bugged AOL editorial chief Arianna Huffington, who fired him. It apparently didn't matter that AOL was one of the backers of the fund. What was particularly unusual about the drama was that it became a spectacle playing out in venues including TechCrunch itself, where Mr. Arrington demanded that AOL either grant the site editorial independence it once promised or sell it back -- and where, more earnestly and almost touchingly, writer MG Siegler and others tried to walk a tricky line in defenses of their boss. On one hand, they wanted to dispel any notion that Mr. Arrington has enough day-to-day control that he could unduly control TechCrunch coverage to, say, benefit his investments. On the other, they worked to persuade us his departure would be a massive loss to the site. Here, in a post titled "TechCrunch As We Know It May Be Over," Mr. Siegler writes:

Could TechCrunch survive without Mike Arrington? Probably. We're doing so many pageviews now, and the machine is so profitable, that you can plug in other parts and it will run. But without him, it will not be the same. You might not think you'll miss what he brings, but you will. Quite often, you never even see what he brings. But it permeates the entire site.

If AOL tries to bring in their own Editor-in-Chief to run TechCrunch, it will be a colossal fucking mistake. The old adage: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" -- if AOL throws out Mike and tries to install their own despot, it will be breaking it just so they can fix it. And they might not like the end result. It may run, but it will never purr with the precision at which we purr right now.

Much of the debate triggered by l'affaire Arrington has centered on issues of transparency and objectivity. One of the better pieces on these matters came from C.W. Anderson, writing for Nieman Journalism Lab. Meditating on Mr. Siegler's assertion that "Information is all that matters. All the rest is bullshit, " Mr. Anderson wrote:

This is a remarkable thing to say. It's partly remarkable because I don't think I've read anything that sums up quite so well the dominant ideology that has shaped journalism over the past decade and a half. This statement posits something that seems easy to understand and define -- information -- as the ne plus ultra of all journalistic activity, while simultaneously exploding the definition of "journalist" (which is hard to define) into a million pieces. Basically, journalists are seen as those who provide information, and the success of that information provision is determined by the outcome of the workings of the free market.

Under this definition of journalism, PR firms, databases, newspapers, TechCrunch, and government entities all have equal claim to the title of "journalist" because each of them distributes information. Who is the best at the provision of this information is measured in pageviews and CPMs. ...

If reading through all this stuff, you find yourself wondering why you should care about Yahoo and AOL given that they haven't even had a movie made about them, that is maybe an OK feeling. The Wall Street Journal stepped back and looked at the business outlook of the two companies and, let's just say, the skies ahead are not blue. An article written by Emily Steel and Jessica E. Vascellaro quoted not one but two major media buyers telling us that these Web 1.0 brands might as well be dealing porkbellies now:

A few years ago, scale virtually guaranteed profits if Internet companies had relationships with marketers, as there were few sites that could deliver large audiences to advertisers. But advertisers now can turn to a wide range of competitors to reach a similar number of people, and that has pushed down the amount of money they spend on those sites and the price for ad rates on the portals.

"What do Yahoo and AOL bring? In fact, they don't bring all that much," said Rob Norman, chief executive of WPP PLC's GroupM North America, who says marketers view them as large quantities of mostly commoditized inventory. "Just because you have a lot doesn't mean that you have something that is of distinct value."

Perhaps the most interesting and depressing article of the week came from Choire Sicha, co-owner of The Awl, who chronicled Gawker Media's first-ever companywide meeting. His report featured the bombshell that Nick Denton now views Gawker as a tech company, as opposed to a media company, which is what it is . This is the sort of declaration that will get everyone wondering whether some sort of sale or IPO looms on the horizon. It also got some folks disagreeing with the gossip merchant.

So one highlight of the meeting was a top site editor taking issue with the conception of the company as a tech company. (Tech companies sell for a greater revenue multiplier than "editorial" companies do, although Denton also announced the company was absolutely not for sale.) Gawker Media's tech build-up includes what is said to be a very intense commenter system. (What was your top takeaway from the evening? I asked one writer. "Soon writers will be obsolete," the writer told me. "Reddit?" said another. To be fair, that 's a common refrain over the years at Gawker, but it is an ideal outcome for a tech company. Gawker Media loves talent, but they also know there's always more talent.) In any event, Denton did not relent to the editor's insistence that the company was an editorial property.

Nor did anyone explain what this new commenter system is like. It runs apparently on magic, and will increase pageviews magically. With Gawker Media's history of smooth product rollouts, we're sure it'll work splendidly right out of the gate! Speaking of ! Nick was asked if he would do the infamous redesign differently if he could do it over again. "No," he said -- saying that , what's the point in having an independent company if you can't do things that are radical and make screw-ups? (While the company's competitors are, he said, hide-bound and risk-averse. That is true.)

We end on a media crisis from yestermonth, a REAL media crisis where those involved weren't blogging and tweeting and cursing in Fortune and instead of negotiating they were negotiating jail time. That's right, we're talking about the News Corp. phonehacking thing. Sarah Ellison has a Vanity Fair piece on Rupert Murdoch post-crisis that features a fantastic opening that 's about as paranoid as Gene Hackman's mustache in "The Conversation ":

I realized the extent to which phone-hacking paranoia had spread when my lunch date sat down, turned off his cell phone, removed the battery, and laid the dismantled device before him on the table, like a small but dangerous animal he had temporarily stunned.

"You know, there's a program that can listen to your conversations through your phone if the battery is in and the phone is on, even if there is no live call," he said. The explanation was worrisome. I had been interviewing people all week in London with my phone in my purse. I had already been told how someone could listen to my voice mails. Could they hear my interviews too? These were the kinds of concerns that gripped London after the phone-hacking scandal, which had been contained for years, at last became front-page news everywhere.

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