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As Staff Flees, TechCrunch’s Traffic Plummets

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TechCrunch, the long-time darling of the digerati, is smashed to bits and all of AOL’s horses and men will be hard-pressed to put it together again. The site has lost almost every one of its top writers and traffic has fallen sharply, dropping by 35 percent from a year ago.

Here are the latest figures from comScore:

The numbers raise the question of whether the TechCrunch train wreck should be a parable for other media companies.

For anyone who missed it, the site’s unravelling went something like this: AOL (NYSE: AOL) bought TechCrunch in the fall of 2010 and, in a fit of exuberance, the blog’s founder Michael Arrington described the deal as “a perfect fit” and said he would be around for a “very, very long time.”

A year later, Arrington was gone. His parting was triggered by a cat fight with another AOL media maven, Arianna Huffington, and was soon followed by a trickle of other high profile departures. The trickle became a flood this year, leaving TechCrunch gutted of nearly all its talent. Yesterday, yet another chief was out the door, as AOL announced that Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch’s editor, would be replaced by Eric Eldon.

On top of the declining traffic, an editor at popular aggregator Techmeme, which TechCrunch at one point dominated, noted yesterday that the tech blog is poised to lose its spot atop the “leader board.” (Update: The editor, Lidija Davis, and Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza objected to my earlier phrasing that TechCrunch is “sliding down” the board; I concede the point).

The site’s collapse has been spectacular but was not, apparently, foretold from the beginning. According to Jonathan Dube, who was SVP and General Manager of AOL News & Information at the time, the AOL-TechCrunch went smoothly for the first six months. Dube says that fusing a start-up and a large company is always difficult but not impossible. “Integration can work. I think it depends on the cultures of the companies and the personalities involved.”

In this case, the personalities involved meshed about as well as Raiders and 49er fans.

But, despite the ugliness of the marriage, it doesn’t necessarily mean AOL shouldn’t have tried in the first place. Keep in mind that TechCrunch’s $25 million price tag amounted to a cheap investment for a major media company seeking to acquire a gloss of tech cachet. The purchase doesn’t appear to have had any significant effect on AOL’s bottom line. While AOL doesn’t break out TechCrunch in its financial reporting – and didn’t speak about the tech blog in its last earnings call–AOL’s share price has been flying high. Meanwhile, AOL recently reported ongoing traffic growth at the Huffington Post Group (which it bought for 10 times the price of TechCrunch) and annual company-wide revenues of $2.2 billion for 2011.

Update: In his own take on TechCrunch’s woes, Michael Arrington this morning reported that traffic has declined 50 percent since his departure.

14 Responses to “As Staff Flees, TechCrunch’s Traffic Plummets”

  1. I am in healthcare. Our hospital employed a strategy of buying all the doctor’s practices around us and employing them. Whereas the doctors with no business sense were able to make a fat profit and take 6 weeks off, the smart business execs at the hospital cant figure out how to do the same thing and now the practices lose money and the doctors only get two weeks off. Same thing here. AOL should have bought TC – but then did nothing other than own it and maximize its ad space. Big companies thing that by slapping their logo all over things and “integrating”  the teams they can win. But they always lose. Branding is over rated – and now instead of helping the AOL brand they have just destroyed TC and hurt their own brand. That kind of work takes a special skill that AOL seems to have in spades…..

  2. I quit reading Techcrunch after the acquisition.  Also disliked the redesign.  While I still read it, has gone down the same path with quality of its reporting declining after the departure of its founder.  It is amazing how a large company culture can smash the entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller company.

  3. Regardless of Mike & co leaving, TC has just been turned into an AOL tech site, rather than keeping any useful identity and I think that is the problem. It’s pages used to be filled with exciting new ideas from start-ups from the valley and elsewhere round the world, but it is now just reporting the same gossip about technology that every other blog does. Where are the exciting start-ups? They are on UnCrunched, The Verge, and – they haven’t been on TC for a while.

    Rather than being just a journalist, Arrington was genuinely involved in the start-up scene and product launches. TechCrunch no longer is involved like that outside of their big conferences which are very different indeed to a back-yard launch party.An example of its AOL tech status change is the post about watches that happens every now and again, simply there to drive traffic to another site that is not related to start-ups at all, and barely even related to technology.

    • Jeff Roberts

      Thanks, Cory. Yes, as the bottom label and accompanying table indicates, the chart reflects unique visitors. (But if the label is ambiguous, we will look into updating at some point today)

  4. Gotta agree with Andre, used to read tech crunch every day, but it’s so much about me me me and what I did and what I think is cool rather than doing any real reporting (ah ha, the bane of blogging, turns out bloggers can’t actually afford to report or are good enough reporters and editors to do so anyway…) it declines. So be it.

  5. cjmillisock

    I’m unsubscribing from TechCrunch’s RSS feed today.  I wish there were a good way to tell how many subscribers a particular RSS feed has over time.  Feedburner?

  6. Andre Richards

    Fark, Digg, Flickr, TechCrunch… all previously great sites laid waste by too much needless tinkering with the basic concept.

    When will some of the ego-driven site owners realize that everything they touch doesn’t automatically turn to gold? When you have a great idea behind a great site, leave it alone. Arianna Huffington should have her ass handed to her for this boneheaded move, but she won’t. What used to be a lively and engaging site is now a snoozefest thanks to raging egos.

  7. Note to your credibility:
    There’s been plenty of comment on the methodology of ComScore and the discrepancy of rankings between their subscriber and non-subscriber sites. Might we get something a little more thoroughly researched than this amplification of someone’s PR? Not to say TC isn’t slipping, but some competent qualification and less hyperbole, please.

  8. Did TC also “collapse” in Feb 2011? It fell then to current levels, for what it’s worth.

    While I do think TC misses Mike and his old crew, it’s hardly “smashed to bits.”

    Of course, TC will die, as all things do. But volatility in the online pub world is normative to an extreme in any case. Any site still drawing 3 million page views on a consistent basis ought to be considered a consistent success, regardless of what it did a few months earlier, or how awful the palace intrique is behind the scenes.

    Consider the possibility that these are still the Early Days. There are kids in high school that are older than the commercial Web. (Which dates to the first commercial Web servers from Netscape and Microsoft in ’95. And the cookie.)

    Hats off to Mike for starting it, and to whoever keeps the thing going. None of this is easy. Never will be.

  9. Daniel Bradley

    Purely my own opinion/situation, but I stopped regularly reading TechCrunch primarily because of the new design. The size of the text and the contrasting colours just make my head feel weird (like watching a 3D movie for too long). It is still in my bookmarks list, and I occasionally go back when I’m bored, but frankly because of the design I leave again before I can even register what the stories are, or who the authors are (or aren’t).