AOL loses its top journalist

By Felix Salmon
September 2, 2011
WSJ has put on the Michael Arrington story: "TechCrunch Editor Resigns".

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I like the headline that the WSJ has put on the Michael Arrington story: “TechCrunch Editor Resigns”. While there’s an understandable amount of interest in the fact that Arrington is now officially a venture capitalist, the fact is that his $20 million CrunchFund is tiny, and the news has yet to be reported on TechCrunch itself. (For his part, Arrington has said little more than a short and snarky tweet.)

In many ways, then, the bigger story here is the fact that AOL has lost its highest-profile journalist — the biggest brand name in the company, with the single exception of Arianna Huffington herself. Arrington’s TechCrunch has tweaked AOL many times since its acquisition; to take just the most recent of many examples, Arrington unloaded a few weeks ago on AOL’s insane expenses-reimbursement bureaucracy.

I’ve said this before, but working at AOL is my first experience working at a “big” company. I’ve watched, mostly with amusement, as a Dilbert cartoon has come to life around me…

I have an envelope I keep business expenses in. There was a hotel bill for a trip when my AOL issued credit card was turned off for the day. Some taxi expenses and a restaurant bill. I looked at them, thought about the process for turning those expenses in… I did the rational thing. I shredded those receipts – around $1,500 – because it wasn’t worth the pain.

So I can imagine that senior executives are not entirely unhappy that Arrington will no longer have any editorial oversight at the site. But at the same time, his departure from the editorial side of things only serves to underscore how talent-unfriendly AOL really is. Can you name a single journalist who works there? I can name a couple of high-profile editors poached from the NYT, but neither of them actually writes* — by all accounts they’re swamped with management duties, and are spending most of their time working on the ill-starred Patch.

When AOL bought HuffPo and discarded the notorious AOL way, there was hope that the combination of Tim Armstrong’s millions with Arianna’s journalistic vision would usher in an era of journalistic greatness. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the money seems to have bought little more than bureaucracy and a steady stream of departures, especially from Engadget. People aren’t leaving because they can make more money elsewhere; they’re leaving because they hate the work they’re being asked to do, and they see no respect in their future if they continue working for AOL.

Arrington, I think it’s fair to assume, was not being told what to do editorially, by Arianna or by anybody else. But he still clearly hated working for the company he’d sold himself to, and he’s now managed to find a way to exit. He won’t be the last to leave. And at this point, unless HuffPo has an absolutely spectacular 2012 election, it seems as though Tim Armstrong’s dreams of turning an old dialup ISP into a journalistic powerhouse are going to wither fast. Financially speaking, the best course of action is pretty clear. Sell the content sites to someone who wants them, and extract as much money as possible from the dialup business before it dies. That’s got to make more sense than the Sisyphean task of trying to attract journalistic talent to a company where the existing talent is desperate to leave.

Update: Arianna confirms to Henry Blodget that Arrington no longer works for TechCrunch, or for her.

*Update 2: In the case of Peter Goodman, let me take that back: he’s actually upping his game on the writing front, and has posted four pieces in the past week. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.

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