Wednesday, February 15, 2012
TechCrunch v. The Kernel: Has the big T still got teeth, or is it time for some special K?

Tear your eyes away from my awesome headline for one minute, and look at Milo and Mike go at it on Twitter.

Oh. Maybe not that bit. But the other bits have been good.

The Kernel, Milo Yiannopoulos' new online tech title, has been critical of Mike Butcher and TechCrunch, the title he edits in Europe, since launch. It took a while, but Mike finally took the bait, posting a comment on his Facebook page (which I won't paste here as it's not public domain) hitting back at Kernel article 'A moratorium on TechCrunch'.

I won't attempt to describe TechCrunch's history of web journalism, but it has always been controversial. From the early days of Arrington offending people at conferences and breaking embargoes, TechCrunch has always been the terrible infant of the tech blogging scene. It was bought by AOL in 2010.

Recently, TechCrunch the founders of TechCrunch seem to have been attracting articles like this one, questioning their partiality. The blog founders seem to have become a symbol of what *could* be wrong with technology journalism - where outlets become paid mouthpieces for the companies with cash (or who might have cash one day). As Dan Lyons says:
Now Arrington and Siegler have appointed themselves the watchdogs of tech journalism, eager to point out the irresponsible and inaccurate reporting that they see all around them. This might ring a little less hollow if they hadn’t been such egregious violators themselves, and if they weren’t writing this stuff to protect the people they’re in bed with financially.
Ouch. Can this really be happening? Are technology bloggers not actually journalists? Hang on a minute... Didn't we all know that in the first place? I just had a dig around in my blog archives and found a post I wrote in 2005 that said blogging could cause an 'erosion of mass media values' (OK, OK. I was young). But even back then I was worried that TechCrunch-type bloggers were gaining ground and popularity without the need to subscribe to the norms of journalism. You know, like sticking to embargoes and not attacking people without providing the other side of the story.

But the freedom to do all of the above and worse was what made TechCrunch, and the blogging world, so exciting. The media was changing. The risks were huge, and the internet was crackling with new blog after new blog that was dying to have a go.

Several years later, we've entered the next phase. The blogs have been bought by big media companies, and the next round of sites - founded by the writers leaving (with or without their payouts) - have sprung up. Sites like PandoDaily and The Verge are more considered, more highbrow, and more risk averse. They have clearer business models, and don't seem to be carrying the baggage that their parents now seem to be unable to escape from.

What does this mean for silicon valley journalism? I reckon we've emerged from a shakedown where the internet tabloids and the broadsheets have revealed themselves. On one side, we have Milo and The Kernel, representing sites with longer-form pieces and fastidious editing. On the other, Mike and TechCrunch, representing sites with shorter posts and a more aggressive style of delivery. The new ones seem to be hovering in the middle.

If you compare that to the UK press, you could compare The Kernel and TechCrunch to papers like The Telegraph and The Sun. Both happily survive alongside each other. Some people read one or the other. Some people read both. The balance is important. It seems like the blogging boom of the late noughties is over, and a similar thing is happening. The infrastructure is settling down, and people are finding their place.

But the change in how we consume and share information has left us with one important difference - the editors of the new news openly battle with each other on my Facebook wall. That can only be a good thing, right?

UPDATE: Mike Butcher was right to point out to me that the Dan Lyons article criticises CrunchFund, not TechCrunch. Here is Paul Carr's article for more on the distinction and why conflation can occur.

Disclosures: I once wrote an article for The Kernel. I once sent Mike Butcher a present. I read both sites.