Media

Tech news owes a lot to Arrington, conflicts and all

Above: Thousands of entrepreneurs, presenters, investors and press crowd the entryway at TechCrunch's annual Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

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A lot has changed since I first made it to Silicon Valley a little more than a year ago.

But one thing has remained constant: the ruthless competition for discovering and reporting the best news stories. Among those competitors is TechCrunch, one of the most efficient and tenacious tech news publications in the valley.

Michael Arrington stands — or, stood, rather — at the center of that team. His personality and potential conflicts of interest have generated a lot of discussion. I’m not going to comment in on either of those observations, because I’ve only personally experienced one of his sides in my short time here: He is a ruthless, relentless reporter, regardless of the environment.

Watching Arrington on stage at the company’s yearly conference in San Francisco, TechCrunch Disrupt, is like watching a boxing match. He’s constantly on the offensive and trying to get his speakers to admit to something. Some get away unscathed, but others will inevitably cave to his pressure — such as Digg founder Kevin Rose disclosing his sale of shares in micro-blogging site Twitter. I almost take it for granted that any event where Arrington takes the stage will generate some news.

On Thursday, Arrington left the tech news publication he founded in 2005. It put a bit of a damper on the whole show, and nowhere was that more apparent than the TechCrunch team itself. The news was all over their faces, and you can see it in some of the photos from the show. (Pictured on the right are TechCrunch writers MG Siegler and Alexia Tsotsis.)

“TechCrunch has to start a chapter of its new life, and that’s a life without its founder Michael Arrington,” TechCrunch chief executive Heather Harde said on stage at the show. “TechCrunch, like most startups, has really been operating like a closely knit family, the loss we feel is great, even as we embrace Erick (Schonfeld) as our new editorial lead.”

Disrupt was born from the same philosophy that TechCrunch and Arrington always embodied: Find the most disruptive companies in the valley (and soon the world) and tell the rest of the public about it. While Silicon Valley always seemed like the birthplace of disruption, there were an astounding number of international companies present at this year’s Disrupt.

And they were all there to see Arrington and the team that he’s able to assemble. It was quite the star-studded cast: Vinod Khosla, John Doerr, Marissa Mayer, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, Ron Conway, Dave McClure, April Underwood… the list keeps going on. That doesn’t even count the ridiculous number of investors present at the show. Even an outsider like myself can appreciate the incredible force Arrington was able to gather at this year’s show.

It’s already hard to imagine both TechCrunch and its yearly Disrupt show without Arrington.

“We all need to appreciate what, exactly, Arrington has done here today and in his five years at TechCrunch,” super-angel investor Ron Conway said. “He has really set the bar for everyone.”

Arrington has gone on to start an early-stage $20 million investment fund called the CrunchFund. It was a natural evolution for Arrington to take, seeing as he was already an angel investor.

However, it was the breaking point for Arrington as a blogger. Starting CrunchFund was the move that made Arrington too conflicted to be a credible reporter any more, no matter how aggressively he pursued the facts or disclosed his investments.

Granted, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong didn’t help things with his ham-handed approach to manning publicity for the CrunchFund, for which AOL is a large investor in (and said to be the majority investor). Armstrong confused matters and outraged TechCrunch’s other writers by saying that TechCrunch was “an exception to the rules.”

Except there are no rules in journalism. There are directives: Be aggressive, be tenacious and report the facts. The reader will decide to which level you achieved all those goals. Any conflict of interest ends up eroding the notion of reporting a “fact” because it raises questions about whether facts are omitted or presented in a different light. That’s a choice the readers make, it’s not a directive the chief executive of a fading media company can shape.

But eventually something had to give — there was no way Arrington could remain at TechCrunch while running the CrunchFund. It doesn’t take a philosopher to see the incredible ethical nightmares that lie ahead for the publication had he continued to write about companies he may or may not have chosen to invest in. Arrington, perhaps, said it best himself when he said: “It’s no longer a good situation for me to stay at TechCrunch.”

That much was obvious.

Arrington has raised many questions about the future of ethical journalism. But he was an integral part in re-making and shaping the coverage of Silicon Valley and, if the buzz at Disrupt this year was any indication, was a net positive force for entrepreneurs in the valley. Give him credit for that much.

So, Michael, as a new reporter just a year out of college and still Silicon Valley semi-outsider, I tip my hat to you.

To the TechCrunch staff and every other journalist still out here on this side of the ethical line: keep fighting the good fight.