All the news that's fit to sell?
Since AOL announced it was buying Michael Arrington's TechCrunch blog and business, I've been discussing the impact, if any, this will have on communications in the tech industry. I discussed the story with our own Digital Practice leader, Ted Weismann, and Paul Santinelli, a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners.
I tested my own premise with them that the changes occurring in the world of print journalism are part of an evolution, not a dissolution of the practice. New models and approaches to journalism are emerging online that ultimately will morph into the next generation of publishing houses. The TechCrunch sale does not fit my premise, though, because I never viewed them as a new style publication, but, rather as an insider source on certain segments of the technology market.
Paul Santinelli gives Arrington credit for being a pretty decent investigative journalist, doing his research and asking hard questions in his reporting on the TechCrunch site. Santinelli added, "He is sort of the Howard Stern of technology publishing."
Like me, though, he doesn't view TechCrunch beyond Arrington as a publication. Having worked with journalists for many years, he puts them in a separate category.
"Gutenberg had it right," Santinelli told me. "The printing press is expensive. Setting type is a pain. Anybody can be a writer, but to be printed you have to be great." With the Internet, though, and free blog content management systems like the one this blog resides on, and cheaper bandwidth, "everybody is a journalist and can be a blogger."
Santinelli joked that the old ad for a mail-order drawing class that promised "You too can be a cartoonist!" should now be "You too can be a journalist." All they need, he added, is an iPad and a high speed internet connection and they are in business.
His fear, which I share, is that TechCrunch's sale will encourage others to build blogs purely to flip them if they catch fire. There is less emphasis on creating quality content that is objectively reported, like true publications. "They aren't building companies; they are building burgers. They don't know how to scale a business."
Always a Niche to Fill
Ted Weismann's view is that this is part of the evolution I've been predicting. He noted AOL has been executing against a strategy for several years to build a more formidable technology content network by aggregating top new tech sites like TechCrunch and Engadget. "I believe that it's time to stop calling these blogs and start calling them media sites. They all have editors and staffs now, just like InformationWeek and Computerworld."
Weismann agrees with Santinelli that this could create new opportunities "for other hungry bloggers with a passion for certain technology areas to fill the void of free, independent blogs." He cited Chris Evans' TheStorageArchitect blog as an example of a blog that maintains some independence, but also allows vendors to sponsor them for roadmap discussions so they can stay informed and provide quality, rich content in conjunction with major industry events and launches.
GigaOm is another example Santinelli and I agreed on of an independent blog run by a respected former journalist that is closer to that evolving journalistic model.
The blogs that fit the model, in my humble opinion, are the ones that have good writers who are independent (if they have sponsors, they clearly cite this) and do fact checking and provide accurate, balanced coverage. They aren't the "Tweet me" generation Santinelli referenced that are being built to sell.
There also is an opportunity in the shift that is occurring for vendors of technology products and services to tell their stories more directly. We definitely are seeing the trend for technology blogs and online-heavy tech publications to ask for content directly from vendors in the form of bylines, Q&As, guest blog posts and white papers. They typically don't have large staffs, so they don't have the time to do as many briefings and original articles as they did in the past.
The vendors that embrace this change instead of fighting it and who feed these sites' need for fresh content can showcase their viewpoints and expertise and build their brand presence. They also can use their own websites to publish blogs, videos, podcasts and case studies to tell their story directly to potential and existing customers.
There's still room for the old model of paying for good journalism, according to Santinelli, a transplanted Bostonian who still reads the Boston Globe every day and told me he will subscribe to it when it no longer is free online.
Meanwhile, though, let's take advantage of a marketplace that seems to suggest that anyone can be a journalist and do more self-publishing until the dust settles and the new generation of publishing houses becomes a bit clearer.