CrunchFund? Unethical Ventures? Pig Pile Partners? No Matter What You Call It, It’s Business as Usual in Silicon Valley.
Of course I have something to say about the news yesterday that AOL would be a key investor in a new early-stage venture fund being started by TechCrunch’s perpetually petulant editor Michael Arrington — with a big, fat and decidedly greasy assist from a panoply of Silicon Valley’s most powerful VC firms and angel investors.
Arrington has previously called me “chief whiner” — oooh, buuuurn, although fair enough, since I have compared him to an egomaniac turtle named Yertle in the past — about my nagging him over the importance of upholding standards of fairness and ethics in journalism.
So as not to let him down, let me begin the whining.
First, my initial reaction when I first heard about the deal: Ugh. Sigh. Hopelessly corrupt. Now 100 percent more icky! A giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile.
I was upset.
By early evening, after my kids told me to chillax, my dark mood had changed to accept that the transaction — however profoundly distasteful to me — was part and parcel of the insidious log-rolling, back-scratching ecosystem that has happened in every other center of power in the universe since the beginning of time.
And so it goes in Silicon Valley.
In fact, the creation of a $20 million investment kitty that Arrington has dubbed CrunchFund is simply the formalization of a long-standing arrangement that has already been going on since he founded his popular tech blog.
That is to say, in which the basic standards of journalism are first warped by calling it newfangled truth-telling and then endlessly corroded by using a wily and unusually aggressive combination of favors and threats to extract, from start-ups and VCs in need of press, both exclusive access and information.
And now, inevitably, money.
This could have been a lot cleaner, of course, by Arrington simply resigning from TechCrunch, becoming a VC and perhaps starting a new blog where his agenda is much clearer, from which he could huff and puff away as he does with much entertaining gusto at real and (mostly) imagined slights.
There is certainly precedent for VCs blogging, including Fred Wilson, Brad Feld and Ben Horowitz. And, despite my criticisms about ethics, it is clear that Arrington is a talented writer whose unique voice would be even stronger if it was truly seen as separate from what has become a news organization.
But because of his obvious need to be the center of attention — requiring the ermine kingmaker mantle and foisting his patented I’m-here-to-tell-it-like-it-is attitude on us all — that appears to be impossible.
(By the way, I await Arrington’s usual inane rant about the fictional conflicts of interest related to my gay Google marriage anytime now in 3 … 2 … 1, always and purposefully leaving out the pertinent facts that I can only wed one person, get no financial benefit and am also a prominent critic of the scary search behemoth, while he can make a badillion questionable and grossly tangled investments.)
Personal annoyances aside, what’s most interesting here is the group of Silicon Valley power players who lined up to bow and scrape and then hand over a small pile of dough to the blogger who would be king.
They include: Sequoia Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock Partners, Austin Ventures and Accel Partners, as well as individual investments from partners at Benchmark Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, entrepreneur Kevin Rose and DST Global’s Yuri Milner. And, of course, the inevitable Arrington BFF Ron Conway.
Holy googa mooga, that would be, well, everyone, except Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake (who will surely appear soon enough).
As one person also pointed out to me, I don’t recall this many competing VCs investing in one company, let alone another venture fund.
It goes without saying that the reasons they all decided to jump in this fetid pool with abandon are quite varied, if all entirely compromised.
One investor told me — off the record, naturally — that he thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what happened and so he wanted in, especially since everyone else was doing it.
Another well-known VC said that there is no downside to being financially affiliated, especially in attracting talent to its start-ups, with Arrington and, by extension, TechCrunch.
The well-respected Reid Hoffman of Greylock was the only one brave enough to talk on the record, explaining the reasoning pretty clearly:
“Techcrunch will get some real deal flow from entrepreneurs that we would otherwise not see, because they have established a prominent position as the SV/Tech industry information feed. As many tech entrepreneurs read it — both within Silicon Valley and globally — and view the information news feed to be their target for announcing themselves to the world, Crunchfund will have access to deal flow to these diverse and early stage companies. Some of these companies will be the kind of early stage companies with billion-dollar potential that Greylock invests in.”
There you have it: No one can afford to be out of the deal flow in these times, even if it means cutting corners.
While TechCrunch’s owner, AOL, said Arrington will no longer be managing editor, with only writing duties at the site he dominates and with no editorial control, Hoffman’s use of TechCrunch for CrunchFund was accurate, because in the eyes of many they are interchangeable.
That’s due to the fact that Arrington still breaks or is clearly the source for important stories on the site and, more importantly, is the big swinging dude who attracts all the eager entrepreneurs to the party. He is the fulcrum of that site, even as it has grown.
And so it will remain, I am guessing, no matter how much AOL insists it will not be so, because the easy questions pile up quickly:
Will Arrington keep doing what are clearly news stories, for example, even though he protesteth too much — as he did in the New York Times yesterday — that he is not a journalist?
And, if so, is it right for him to do so given his insider status, creating a nonparity of sourcing and crystal clear conflicts of interest?
Most of all, can he resist his palpable love of news-breaking and scoops, even if he gets them in ever more unseemly ways?
As if to make it all pretty, Arrington told reporters yesterday that he has put a clause in his limited partnership agreement so he can report on anything he likes, and in any way, about his investors and their companies, however confidential, except those he invests in.
O joyous day! Freedom of the press is preserved and our sacred First Amendment can breathe a sigh of relief, now that it is enshrined in an unholy blogger-VC LP agreement.
After pausing for a moment so that Thomas Jefferson and Edward R. Murrow can stop spinning in their graves, you can go down this road for many increasingly bumpy miles, which only becomes more twisted and confusing as it continues.
I finally talked to one investor in CrunchFund, who said simply and honestly: “It’s not that much money, so who cares?”
Indeed, who does care anymore about crossing what had long been very bright lines in journalism and, if you want to get all cosmic, in life?
Obviously, most of all, not AOL, or its CEO Tim Armstrong, or its head of content, Arianna Huffington. The pair, for whatever reason, decided to make a startling exception for Arrington from a rule that explicitly bars reporters at its media units from investing in the companies they cover.
That happened after he recently did a complete 180 from a previous decision to stop investing and jumped right back in, leaving Armstrong and Huffington to clean up the ethical mess.
They only made it worse, with their decision to throw journalism under the bus by letting Arrington do as he pleased, while touting how important it was for other content sites at AOL to remain more pure.
In the spirit of full disclosure, these kinds of ethical lapses are endemic these days in journalism. Case in point: The appalling phone-hacking controversy taking place at News Corp.’s News International unit in Britain.
While I cannot speak for Dow Jones, I can say that the behavior in another News Corp. property certainly takes its toll on those who adhere to higher standards at the company, especially when it comes to morale.
Thus, I can imagine how others feel at AOL — including those you-know-who-you-are silent ones at TechCrunch — who can’t and, more to the point, wouldn’t make the deals Arrington has been allowed to get away with.
It is not a good feeling, I can assure you.
And, while I have not spoken to her about it, I’d imagine that Huffington cannot be thrilled to be pushing for better journalism at AOL and trying to burnish her cred by hiring some top reporters, while also having to deal with this.
That’s okay, because Armstrong was perfectly willing to do the awkward pretzel-twist needed to explain away the controversial situation, also in an interview with the Times:
“TechCrunch is a different property and they have different standards. We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch, which is different but is transparent about it.”
In this case, Tim, I am sorry to inform you that transparency is a complete canard and is more likely to end up covering up a lot more transgressions than it ever will reveal.
And, essentially and lazily sloughing it off by saying, “That’s just Mike being Mike,” is not going to cut it, at least not with me.
Not that any amount of tsk-tsking about it matters, I suppose, as Arrington finally gets his fervent Pinocchio-on-a-star wish to be a real-boy VC, can add yet another tainted buck to the pile of billions his venture pals already have, and just call it another typical day in Silicon Valley.
Still, when you are the designated whiner-in-chief, it is pretty much all one can do.