AOL swallows TechCrunch -- but can they keep it down?

The aging 'Net relic snapped up rumor king TechCrunch. Will TC begin censoring itself to serve its new master's interests?

What do you get when you mix a tottering giant from the InterWebs' formative years with the new breed of post-first-ask-questions-later news blogs? We're about to find out, now that AOL has swallowed up TechCrunch.

Yesterday AOL chief Tim Armstrong announced the deal at TechCrunch's own Disrupt Conference, confirming rumors that -- interestingly enough -- originated not on TechCrunch but on GigaOm. The blogosphere has been thrumming with the news ever since.

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According to TC founder and spokesmodel Michael Arrington, this won't change how his site operates. If anything, he's afraid TechCrunch might go overboard in criticizing AOL to make it seem more impartial:

Tim [Armstrong] told me ....it was important that we feel free to criticize AOL when we think they deserve it. And the agreement we signed with AOL fully reflects this. In particular, we used the Twitter document scandal as a test. If the same thing happens with AOL in the future, we should feel comfortable posting those documents. And in that unlikely event, we will.

The last thing we want to happen is to end up with same cuddly relationship that the Wall Street Journal has with its sister company MySpace, for example.

In the end, we'll probably have to create internal checks to ensure that we aren't more critical of AOL than we otherwise would be just to prove our editorial independence.

The problem with this argument? The AOL deal already has changed the way TC operates.

TechCrunch has built a reputation for publishing every rumor that crosses its transom, founded or otherwise, which means it has both broken some major stories (like Google buying YouTube) and completely intercoursed the pooch on others (like Google buying Digg).

As Arrington himself notes in that quote above, TechCrunch even published documents obtained from Twitter by a hacker. I can't think of any mainstream sites that would do something like that, because hacks like that are illegal, and publishing the material could be considered promoting illegal activity. (Being a lawyer, Arrington should know that, so one has to assume he just didn't care.)

It would seem TechCrunch doesn't consider itself bound by normal journalistic rules -- like staying within the law, naming its sources, confirming that anonymous sources don't have a vested interest in the deals they are leaking, and admitting when they get a story wrong.

So here's my question: Why didn't TechCrunch break the story about the AOL acquisition? They clearly had it first. The reason is obvious: Because publishing that rumor would very likely have soured the deal. This means the site is already censoring itself to serve its own -- and its new master AOL's -- interests.

I'm betting it won't be the last time. (The wags at eSarcasm have a few other ideas about what might change at the new AolCrunch/Techmerica Online.)

AOL appears to have taken a largely hands-off approach with two other popular blogs it acquired in the past, uber-Hollywood gossip site TMZ.com, and Engadget. And it claims it will do the same for TechCrunch.

But TechCrunch is a different beast. It has Arrington, who has no trouble making bombastic statements and accusing people of malfeasance and illegal activity without displaying any visible proof. (As he did recently, accusing a group of "super angel" investors with collusion and price fixing.) I cannot imagine that kind of thing will fly very well at the more buttoned-down AOL, whose deeper pockets make it a much more attractive target for libel suits.

I'm predicting a major blow up within six months, and that Arrington and AOL will part ways long before his three- or five-year contract is up. How do I know this? Let's just say I've got some confidential sources with knowledge of the deal.

What do you think of the AOL-TechCrunch deal? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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