In TechCrunch world, readers value interpretation as much as information

This week, thousands of people descended on San Francisco for Tech Crunch Disrupt where the start-up focused conference is in full swing with Michael Arrington, found and former editor for TechCrunch, in attendance. Being ousted from the roost of his popular blog hasn’t slowed Arrington for a second; he’s got a brand-spanking new venture capital firm and AOL’s $25 million payday to dry his tears.

However, AOL may have bit off a bit more than it can chew with the TechCrunch acquisition and ouster. While the official statement appoints Eric Schonfeld to the top of the masthead, Arrington and some key staffers have expressed their displeasure with AOL’s decision. And with good reason. The controversy hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for Arrington — for reasons that are unique to the fifth estate, or the new breed of news provider rising up while the field of professional journalists shrinks.

In the wake of Arrington’s decision to write for TechCrunch while launching CrunchVentures, a venture capital firm highlighting up and comers in the tech industry, vanguards of the fourth estate cried foul over the obvious conflict of interest. AOL, which purchased TechCrunch for $25 million close to a year ago, immediately freaked out and — after a few contradictory statements — ultimately removed Arrington from all operations. The fallout continues, as most wonder if Arrington’s brand could birth a new blog-VC ecosystem, a complication that contributes to our continuing conversation on the evolution of journalism.

AOL’s dilemma represents a key shift in thinking from the fourth estate to the fifth estate. While objectivity rules in the fourth estate, transparency is a major alternative to new media makers who believe that true objectivity is impossible. But which one do audiences value more?

AOL’s decision to remove Arrington made immediate sense in a fourth estate context, particularly for a legacy organization that may hold objectivity as a core value. However, trust in a fifth estate context is more fluid. As Farhad Manjoo explains in Slate, Arrington had a well-known habit of allowing a lot of the personal to influence the editorial:

I’ve never met Arrington, so everything I know about him is from his writing and his stage presence at TechCrunch’s many conferences. He comes off as a dogged reporter, a brilliant businessman, and—as the Fake incident [where Arrington publicly scolded an entrepreneur for a perceived news scoop] suggests—a huge asshole. It’s clear that each of these traits has been crucial to TechCrunch’s growth from a small personal blog into Silicon Valley’s central chronicler of business news.

Rather than hurting his credibility, his persona helped it. Readers, while complaining about some of Arrington’s ways, ultimately stuck with the blog. So the latest blending of personal and editorial interests isn’t outside of his public persona in a way that would violate trust with his audience. In fact, for his readers, these values are not in conflict: Arrington’s audience did not come to TechCrunch because they believed he would provide a completely objective view of the tech world. They came because they trusted his style of reporting and his brand, and placed a lesser value on objectivity than they did on Arrington’s interpretation of information.

This isn’t to say that brand trumps objectivity in the online world; rather, the idea of objectivity is one factor in how audiences evaluate the information they receive. (This is increasingly showing up in cable news as well, where MSNBC and Fox News are both presenting information with a slant and audiences reward them with ratings.)

Traditionally, trust in a publication is often compromised when a business seems to be catering to advertisers or mixing editorial and its own financial interests. However, trust can also be undermined in other ways. Readers come to TechCrunch for the latest information, but what makes a blog stand out is the trust in the people running the site, the editorial voice, and a site’s adherence to its own standards. That same trust wouldn’t automatically transfer to AOL’s appointed editor in this era of blended norms.

As TechCruncher Paul Carr notes in his emphatic statement of support for Arrington:

I’m not going to speak for the other members of the team, but my own position is clear: unless Mike Arrington appoints his own successor, guaranteeing that TechCrunch retains its editorial independence, I’m gone. Done. Out of the door.

Ceding control to the Huffington Post will be the death of everything — the voice, the swagger, the “fuck you” attitude — that makes TechCrunch great; and I’m not going to stay around to watch that happen.

Readers will most certainly be upset if they feel that the brand they trust has been compromised. Perhaps, over time, readers would have felt betrayed by Arrington’s CrunchVentures involvement, in exactly the ways outlined by critics. But the immediate threat to most people furiously commenting is the idea that TechCrunch could be irrevocably changed by AOL and not for the better.

The trouble is, AOL tried to advocate for a fourth estate vision of objectivity at the same time it violated a core fifth estate value: voice is king. An early sign of this conflict was “The AOL Way,” which was leaked earlier this year.

The approach emphasized the quantity of posts, efficiency and SEO as measures of success. Engadget, another tech blog purchased by AOL, saw its editor resign after he decided he didn’t want to meet the demands of the AOL Way. Other writers decribed being allotted just 25 minutes to turn around an article for which the headline mattered more than the story’s quality or perspective. With its acquisition of the Huffington Post, AOL has moved to a different editorial strategy.

Still, Arrington had hoped AOL would return TechCrunch to him, but the company shows no signs of doing so. Which means that as AOL fights for solvency it will also be fighting for legitimacy in the fourth and fifth estates, as readers in general and TechCrunch’s loyal audience in particular decide whether it values what AOL does.

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  • Politics Matters

    On the subject of the fourth estate and watchdog journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, interview program Politics Matters with host Jan Paynter discussing journalism