Techcrunch Disrupted by AOL: The end of an era in tech blogging?

The news/rumor that Techcrunch is up for sale quickly made the rounds at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference this afternoon. GigaOm started it with a post that a sale to AOL is close at hand.

I’ve been burned by these kinds of rumors before, I remember when it was rumored that AOL was buying Mashable, but those discussions never led anywhere.

This time, however, I was back stage at the Disrupt conference when the news started making the rounds. I quickly asked staff members about the rumor. They didn’t know anything, they said. OK, maybe this is just a rumor, I thought, but then one offered “but I’ve heard a rumor there are multiple deals being considered.”

Then I noticed that Mike and Heather weren’t anywhere to be found, and people pointed to closed doors and said “they are in there.”

Later, I ran into Heather Harde, CEO of Techcrunch and asked her “can you talk to me about the news?” She answered quickly “nope.”

Even later, at Techcrunch’s dinner, I met Keith Teare, who was one of the guys part of the founding of Techcrunch and is the third owner of Techcrunch. Mike owns a majority share (a large majority, I was told), with Heather owning a healthy share, and Keith owning a far smaller share.

Keith told me he hadn’t heard anything from Mike and Heather yet, but that as a minority shareholder that he would only need to be told when it is time to sign paperwork. As of 10 p.m. that paperwork had not been signed by Keith yet. So, no confirmation on any deal tonight.

Arrington hasn’t answered my queries. I’ve talked with half a dozen of Techcrunch staff and they all say they don’t know what is going on so won’t make any confirmations.

That all said, it sure seems like something is going on and I’m very confident that a sale is in the offing. But is it AOL, like GigaOm reported? Well, GigaOm is usually very accurate on such matters, Om is the best in the business.

I saw Heather later again and she didn’t wave me off the story. Loic Le Meur ran into Arrington at the dinner and he wasn’t waved off either.

Now that the news part of this blog is covered, what will I speculate on?

1. Amount. Jason Calacanis sold Weblogs.inc to AOL for $25 million. I can’t see Arrington taking less than that and I’m sure he’d love to double, or even, triple that amount to rub it in (Jason, tonight, on his Twitter account, has been making it very clear that the two didn’t split on amicable terms). So, my guess is that the sale would be between $50 million and $75 million.

2. Does Arrington stay or go? My gut told me Arrington would want to get out of the deal as fast as possible, but after talking with a few insiders at dinner who know Mike very well I’m starting to turn my opinion. They told me that Mike would be very attracted to a deal where he could have a significant presence at AOL. Once I started considering this I said “well, if Arrington stays at AOL then AOL sure will be a lot more interesting than it was before.”

3. Techcrunch staff? Sounds like they all split up a small percentage of stock. Did MG Siegler own enough to become a millionaire? Hopefully so, he sure has played a key role in getting Techcrunch to be seen as viable without Arrington. Some of the staff told me quietly that they were worried about what working for AOL would be like and that Techcrunch wouldn’t be the same kind of publication post acquisition. I told them they should look to Engadget for some clues to how AOL deals with content properties it acquires. That’s seemed to have gone pretty well.

4. PR pressures. I doubt PR teams will change their strategies much right away, but over time they might spread stories out to other blogs. Arrington was very strict and wouldn’t run stories if Techcrunch wasn’t given equal access to launch stories. That forced PR teams to think out how they deal with Techcrunch and usually they played Arrington’s game, which brought them a pretty good story/press release flow.

5. News breaks. I’ve watched Arrington close up, spending hours in his hotel room at a VC conference once as he grilled people on the phone to try to get news out of them. That’s a skill that few in the industry have and it’s why he’s been at the top of the Techmeme leaderboard more often and longer than any other journalist/blogger I know.

So, I don’t think this ends Techcrunch, but it certainly will make it just another big brand that doesn’t change that much. With Arrington involved you could always expect some surprises every month and I bet the frequency of surprises goes down over time. How dramatically? Time will tell.

I’ve watched Arrington from the very first day he published (he regularly tells people I was the first blogger to link to Techcrunch) and it’s an organization I’ve always looked up to, even with a little bit of a jealous eye. “If I were smarter or more ambitious, I could have built that,” I remember thinking to myself once in a while. Stupid thinking, I know, because I’ve built an absolutely awesome life and I really don’t want to do the hard work of building a business. Mike has my respect for doing the hard work of building a great brand and team. I don’t know when I’ll see a similar effort, so tonight, my glass is raised to Mike and his team and I’ll be in the front row tomorrow to hear exactly the details of this news.

Then again, I’d love it if Arrington pulled AOL’s CEO up on stage and rips up the contract right in front of him and says “we’re staying independent.” Just the kind of surprise I’d love to see at the Disrupt Conference.

But, tonight, I expect that Mike will, instead, grab the check and head to the bank and with his deposit signature will be putting the final punctuation mark on an incredible story in publishing history. Thanks for all the disruption of the past five years Techcrunch!

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

21 thoughts on “Techcrunch Disrupted by AOL: The end of an era in tech blogging?

  1. Yep, I lost my faith, when a corporation like AOL puts its finger in something like Techcrunch the future is shown to us, Mike will jump ship faster than planned because corporations like AOL have their agenda and it won’t be in their business-sense to let a business-oriented Tech blog like Techcrunch runs all alone and if other failures are any indiation: Bebo, CNN-Time-Warner, ICQ, AIM and many more… Maybe Mashable.com is next, people from Mashable.com are appearing in CNN so often that I believe Mashable is part of AOL’s Web Properties.

    http://goo.gl/5Suo

  2. Your article made me wonder “What happens to Techcrunch if it becomes part of AOL? what does AOl do with it. That is an interesting question. A main line media powerhouse adopting this subjective vision of the media? or buying an audience? surely we can answer the “who will make it in this era of social media” and who will not? We want to go where we want to go, share our like interests and techcrunch has clearly proven that they provide and powerful and useful source for needed information. Will be interesting to watch. I actually hope it happens just so we can start to get some answers about these things. maybe that explains the interest of a “powerful role within AOL”….

  3. Well … If I were Arrington, I’d take the money and become an angel investor. Latest numbers I heard were $30 – $40 million, but who knows what part of that goes to Arrington? He’s quoted somewhere as saying he’d been asked to stay for three years and that nothing would change in what he was allowed to write. But I really think he’s been bitten by the angel bug. Or maybe he’ll take a page out of Paul Graham’s book and start an incubator.

    And yeah, after Sarah Lacy’s “performance” today as “moderator” of the Women in Tech panel, I wouldn’t place any bets on how long she remains at Aol. She’s just not that good a writer to be behaving like a jerk.

  4. I wonder now about GigaOm and VentureBeat…Yahoo often matches AOL when it comes to content strategy. So, could one of them be heading to the warm embrace of Yahoo? (That’s total speculation, btw).

  5. As there have been less deals in the Tech Biz world in the past year Techcrunch has again become the story. Do you really think AOL has $50 million to spend?

  6. Good for Mike, but eww. No way does he stick around long term. He’s probably making a couple million a year now (on an estimated $10M revenue [1]). Why give up your independence for a lump sum when you’re raking in the cash in a growth business (unless AOL is massively overpaying, which they’re not at your figures)? I’d give him the requisite Calacanis year, especially after he gets a whiff of big-company politics.

    1. http://www.inc.com/magazine/20101001/the-way-i-work-michael-arrington-techcrunch.html

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