TechCrunch Gets A New Newsroom

Last summer, I wrote a profile on TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington for the Mercury News. Unfortunately, the way the Merc’s archives work, I can’t link to it. Sigh.

However, I was thinking about that visit last week when I heard that TechCrunch has officially moved out of its headquarters, which also happened to be Arrington’s house in Atherton. The company has rented space in Palo Alto.

Even back in August when I first visited TechCrunch, Arrington was eager to find somewhere else to locate the company.

“My first goal is to move the company out of my house,” he said, as we sat on the back porch chatting.

In part, he wanted some balance back in his life. TechCrunch occupied almost all of his house, except his bedroom. Because Arrington can be non-responsive to calls and e-mails, entrepreneurs began just showing up at his house at all hours of the day. That was something that he, his neighbors and the city of Atherton weren’t too wild about.

Arrington writes:

“There was absolutely no separation from my work and personal life. And for some reason crazy (usually European) entrepreneurs felt the urge to stop by at any time without warning and, if I didn’t answer the door, simply break in. And having TechCrunch staff wander into and out of my house at random times wasn’t always great, either.”

The space was packed. Although Atherton is one of wealthiest spots in the U.S., this was a not a mansion. It was a ranch-style house with maybe three bedrooms if you were being generous. The bloggers sat at desks lining the halls, or in a couple of the bedrooms. Their desks were piled with gadgets, computers and empty Diet Coke cans.

In the living room, there was a big-screen TV with video games consoles. And nearby was a circular table where Arrington was running a separate project to build a low-cost PC Tablet. It was TechCrunch’s own R&D lab.

Though I never heard him refer to it as such, this was TechCrunch’s newsroom. And what was most interesting to me was that TechCrunch had a newsroom, and will continue to have one.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked on this project is: “Do you need a newsroom?” My answer: “No, but…There are many good reasons to have one.”

We are social creatures and we have a fundamental need to gather. There is a connection and bond that is still formed by contact in the real world that still can’t be matched in the virtual world. Someday, maybe, but not yet. And it’s through these connections where we have conversations that often spark ideas that lead to innovation. The key is creating a space that encourages these types of interactions and thinking, rather than squashing them. These interactions also help build culture and camaraderie.

Other local tech blogs, such as VentureBeat, operate on a virtual model, and that’s totally valid. It’s cheap and can be efficient. In an age of media start-ups, it’s vital to keep costs low. And there will certainly be many such virtual newsrooms that continue to emerge. In Arrington’s case, he sacrificed his house, which no doubt kept certain expenses low.

TechCrunch certainly has had an unorthodox newsroom. But in my interviews with Arrington, who often gets pegged as a bomb thrower, I also found that he was passionate about journalism, though in a different way than someone who might have come up through daily newspaper newsroom. And he’d thought quite a bit about where TechCrunch fit into the new world of media.

He clearly believes that in the online news business, there should be a different balance between speed and a polished, final product. And he believes that the community built up around TechCrunch offers a powerful network for assisting in the reporting of a story.

“I know if a story isn’t quite there, I can spend hours researching it,” Arrington said. “Or I can put it out there and highlight what I know, and what I don’t know, and it will get filled in pretty quickly.”

I’ve seen that happen. A couple summers ago, Arrington posted about Facebook being down on TechCrunch, and within an hour, there were dozens of folks who had hacked around the Web and determined exactly what had happened, even as the Facebook PR team hadn’t even gotten around to offering a bland press release. That is one of the reason’s I became a big fan of Jay Rosen’s BeatBlogging experiment.

Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo and Arrington’s partner in the TechCrunch50 conference, said Arrington’s success stemmed from several factors: “In terms of the publishing industry and how it works, he doesn’t have a lot of that baggage that traditional media companies do. He’s a very honest person. And I think some people don’t understand that. He’s very honest and blunt. He’s ridiculously hardworking, to the point of unhealthiness. He got a very addictive, disfuncitonal personality. He’s got to get these people out of his house. He’s got to slow down. You can’t blog for an extended period of time with out burning out.

When we spoke last summer, Arrington was also feeling quite proud of an investigative piece he had just researched and posted for TechCrunch about the background of MySpace founder Tom Anderson.

Probably the biggest area that critics of Arrington point to is his investments in several of the companies that TechCrunch covers. For instance, he was an early back of Seesmic, the video commenting service founded by Loic Le Meur. Arrington has been unapologetic about this. The key for him was that he’s transparent: He disclosed all of the investments. And, companies he invests in don’t get a pass. When Seesmic had problems, Arrington posted about it and blasted Le Meur on TechCrunch.

“We had one performance issue in the entire history of Seesmic,” Le Meur said. “He had a very, very aggressive post about it.” The two remain good friends, Le Meur added.

Still, last week Arrington, in a long post about journalism ethics, announced he was getting out of the angel investing business:

“I’ve long been an angel investor and have continued to make a very few investments even after starting TechCrunch. These investments are always disclosed and in my opinion we do more than enough to maintain transparency there. But it’s also a weak point that competitors and disgruntled entrepreneurs use to attack our credibility. So over the next few months I’m going to divest myself of all of those investments in an orderly fashion, and I’ll update readers on the progress. I’ll also discontinue making any further investments.”

More recently, Arrington took some time off from TechCrunch after an episode where someone spit in his face at a conference in Germany and his family received some threats. But after a month in Hawaii, he’s back at the helm and is promising more announcements about his future.

One thing that I suspect won’t change is Arrington’s passion for entrepreneurs. In our conversations, what really came through was his belief in folks willing to take the risk of starting an a company. While TechCrunch has become incredibly influential, Arrington saw his role as trying to discover exciting companies and new technologies and becoming a champion for those, while serving up pointed criticism to those who fumble or fall short.

“I’m not a kingmaker,” Arrington said. “My job is to find a parade and get in front of it.”

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