A year ago AOL owned one of the top two tech blogs if you judge them by apparent scoops and popularity - Engadget. The only other tech blog to maintain such a consistently high profile was TechCrunch, so it bought that too.
If your aim is to establish a preeminent position in the tech blog world, then it's hard to see a better approach than to own both Engadget and TechCrunch, but there's more to a news, reviews and analysis site than the brand. The content is produced by people, and if you want to be more than just a content farm, you need to employ skilled writers and keep them motivated.
AOL did that for half a decade after it acquired Engadget in 2005, but this year has seen the majority of the acclaimed team leave en masse in order to set up their own site called The Verge (isn't that the guitarist in U2? - ed), blogging away at This is my next while they get the site together.
There can be no better illustration of the fact that a news site is only as good as its writers than the greater prominence of This is my next than Engadget on tech news aggregator Techmeme since Joshua Topolsky and the Engadget old guard all legged it a few months ago.
The acquisition of TechCrunch was always an intriguing one, given the apparent personality of its founder and editor Mike Arrington. He built the site on the back of his own scoops and reputation for not being afraid to ruffle feathers in this pursuit of a story. It was a given that Arrington wouldn't fit easily into a larger corporate structure, but that seemed to be a complication AOL was willing to tolerate.
Then came the news, late last week, that Arrington is launching an investment fund called CrunchFund, which will invest in technology start-ups. Given how much influence articles on TechCrunch can have on the success or failure of a start-up, via the publicity they provide, the question of Arrington's apparent conflict of interest arose. Would TechCrunch favour those companies Arrington invests in?
There ensued a flurry of writing, of interest mainly to those of us immersed in the tech journalism world, with the US journalistic establishment keen to explore Arrington's perceived conflicts, while some other TechCrunch writers called them out for hypocrisy and insisted Arrington couldn't influence them even if he wanted to.
In essence the debate comes down to this: orthodox journalistic best practice says you shouldn't write about matters in which you have a personal interest as it's impossible for you to be objective. But Arrington et al seem to be arguing that it's fine to do so as long as the writer discloses their connection to the subject matter. Both viewpoints have merit.
AOL, however, hasn't emerged well from this affair. It is the principle investor in a fund that seems to be designed to use one of its journalistic properties as a way of getting access to start-ups, but it's showing no leadership on communication. In the initial NYT piece CEO Tim Armstrong said "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."
If this statement was meant to clarify the situation, it seems to have done the exact opposite. Armstrong has faced scathing criticism from within, and now we have the demise of TechCrunch being heralded. While this will all blow over before long, it has spawned some healthy debate about journalistic ethics and, on the part of AOL, delivered a lesson in how not to communicate delicate news.