Blog Lords

Can Erick Schonfeld Keep the TechCrunch Swagger Alive?

As the veteran editor steps into the top job, his departing colleague is torching the fields behind him.
erick schonfeld Can Erick Schonfeld Keep the TechCrunch Swagger Alive?

Image via Flickr user jdlasica

For the last decade, Erick Schonfeld has been the lone wolf of tech media, working as the East Coast point man for tech publications headquartered in Silicon Valley “He’s the kind of reporter who can handle anything you throw at him, from a trendy Web 2.0 startup to a Fortune 100 titan,” said Josh Quittner, who was Mr. Schonfeld’s old boss at Business 2.0. “For us he played the one man band.”

The thirty-nine-year-old father of three lives in the suburbs near Chappaqua, forty five minutes north of New York City. (He left a tip on Foursquare about his morning commute from the Metro North station: “Get here early and snag a metered parking spot.”)

At public events he tends to wear slightly oversized suits in tan or grey, frameless glasses and a thick head of dark curls. “He’s a very sober person, even keel, not easily upset,” said Mr. Quittner. “When I started we had a number of people working for us on the East Coast, but by the end it was just Erick.”

Two weeks ago, Mr. Schonfeld, never a shrinking violet, took a big step into the spotlight. He had been, for the last four years, the co-editor of TechCrunch, a level headed counterpart to Mike Arrington, the pugilistic provocateur who founded the site as a personal blog. But the last year has been an eventful one for TechCrunch. Mr. Arrington sold the site to AOL a year ago, after which AOL merged with the Huffington Post, setting up an inevitable clash between two of the biggest egos in media: Mr. Arrington and Arianna Huffington. After Mr. Arrington announced he’d formed his own tech fund and would be investing in some of the same companies TechCrunch covered, he was forced out in a dramatic shake-up. That’s when the mild-mannered editor was asked to step in for one of the media’s biggest bomb throwers. He accepted the position, and immediately found his old partners leveling their formidable rhetorical firepower at him.

“The truth is, Erick was Arianna Huffington’s choice, not TechCrunch’s,” wrote Arrington acolyte Paul Carr, in a resignation post that he published on TechCrunch (where else?) as Mr. Schonfeld was boarding a plane. Mr. Arrington followed up a few days later on his new blog, Uncrunched, noting, “Public executions of leaders tend to have a severe chilling effect on whoever takes over, and Arianna Huffington is, without a doubt, the current editor in chief of TechCrunch.”

With his influential ex-partner publicly undermining his authority, many wondered if Mr. Schonfeld could keep the site together. Prominent tech investor Fred Wilson had already written on his blog, “TechCrunch is a big question mark. If AOL can keep the rest of the team together, then TechCrunch has a bright future.” The key, wrote Mr. Wilson, was that Techrunch “Has a voice, a swagger, a ‘fuck you’ attitude that comes from Mike. That can also live on without Mike if AOL allows it. They need to keep the remaining team, the voice, and that attitude if they want to remain at the top of the world of tech media.”

That may be Mr. Schonfeld’s biggest challenge for the moment. The two remaining writers best known for their swagger are Sarah Lacy and MG Siegler.

Ms. Lacy is on a fourth-month maternity leave. And late Monday night, Mr. Arrington announced that MG Siegler would be coming to work for him as a venture capitalist at his new Crunchfund, though he would continue to pen a TechCrunch column on Apple.

A weary Mr. Schonfeld phoned Betabeat, shortly after the news about Mr. Siegler broke. “Obviously, MG was a great asset to us, and I would have loved to keep him on as a writer,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “But I’m glad I found a way to keep his voice on the site.”

Mr. Schonfeld noted that this move into venture capital was long in the works, a notion Mr. Siegler seconded in a blog post. But the timing, so soon after Mr. Arrington’s departure, did not look good. “It doesn’t really matter how it looks, it matters how I perform,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “I’ll stand by that, over the time to come.”

Despite being viewed by some as the Robin to Mr. Arrington’s Batman, in fact Mr. Schonfeld has a formidable resume of his own. After graduating from Cornell in 1993, Mr. Schonfeld went right to work as a journalist at Fortune. In 1996 and again in 1997, Schonfeld was recognized as one of the “brightest financial journalists under the age of 30” by the TJFR Business News Reporter. In 1999, he won the prize for best information technology submission at London’s Business Journalist of the Year Awards. In the lead up to the dot-com bust he moved to Business 2.0 and when that company went under a few years later, he took a coveted spot as co-editor at TechCrunch.

When Mr. Schonfeld began working at TechCrunch in 2007 it was still largely the personal blog of Mr. Arrington. In the five year’s since, the site has become the news outlet of record for the tech industry. Startups compete to break their company’s news on TechCrunch, both as a status symbol and because coverage there brings young companies so many new users. The site’s conference, Disrupt, is a sell-out affair, with execs from Google, Facebook and Twitter taking the stage to trade inside jokes with Mr. Arrington.

Mr. Schonfeld’s opportunity is vast. TechCrunch is bigger and more profitable than ever. Its recent acquisition by AOL means it has a fatter bankroll and a much larger audience network. Still, there’s a big obstacle: Mr. Arrington seems intent on burning the fields behind his departing forces, even going so far as to write his own epitaph, evoking the spirit of Louis XIV: “I am TechCrunch and TechCrunch is me.” Given that he’s the site’s founding editor and most recognized writer, that has been true till now. It’s up to Mr. Schonfeld to rewrite that formula.

“I’ve been recruiting for the last three weeks straight,” Mr. Schonfeld told Betabeat. “To pretend that everything will go on as before is foolish. But the team will grow and, best of all, the top writers in the industry all want to work for us.”

For some, Mr. Schonfeld comes across as the consummate company man. “When Mike sold TechCrunch to AOL, a lot of the writers were very unhappy,” said one former staffer. AOL was about as far from the scrappy, irreverent brand TechCrunch had built as possible, and what had been an intimate business was now going to become part of a notoriously corporate behemoth. “Erick was the opposite of most people. He seemed to relish going to those AOL management meetings.”

No one Betabeat spoke to for this article doubted Mr. Schonfeld’s talent’s as a journalist. But several of the site’s writers, past and present, worried that Mr. Schonfeld didn’t have the edge necessary to cultivate a new class of TechCrunch writers who would maintain the site’s trademark swagger. “Mike can make you feel like a million bucks, and he can also tear you apart with a few words,” said a former staffer. “Erick was good at patching things up after Mike lashed out.”

Up until now, Mr. Schonfeld’s calm persona had been an asset at TechCrunch. It was a classic good cop, bad cop partnership, with Mr. Arrington lighting the fires and Mr. Schonfeld, along with CEO Heather Harde, making sure the trains ran on time.

But Mr. Arrington’s wrath was also the site’s most powerful tool. He used it to motivate his writers and to inculcate their work with a combative tone that became the site’s trademark.

Mr. Schonfeld threw a few punches of his own last week, slamming rival publication VentureBeat for writing a hackneyed attack on TechCrunch. VentureBeat quickly retracted their story and then apologized. Asked if he felt the need to get more aggressive, to put his own stamp on TechCrunch and to reclaim it from Mr. Arrington, Mr. Schonfeld demurred. “It’s not like I’m new here,” he said. “There will be more continuity than difference and I don’t see a need to sever the connection to Mike. I am not going to change the editorial approach, which was to be smarter and to be first.”

But Mr. Schonfeld did acknowledge that he needed, in some very big ways, to fill the void left by TechCrunch’s departed founder. “I have a lower profile than Mike, it’s a different style.I try not to draw attention to myself, because I prefer to let my stories speak for themselves. But yes, I realize I am the face of the company now. I don’t have to do things the way he did, but yes, I have to come out and be more, be in public.”

Nonetheless, he added firmly, “I’m going to do it my way.”

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Comments

  1. As the Crunch Turns.

  2. Groucho Marx says:

    This would be more readable if you dropped the “Mr.” prefix.  We all went to high school and learned to accept being called by our last name only.

  3. mbreslin says:

    There was no “Swagger” in his post about MG’s joining Crunchfund. It was sterile corporate toeing the line  and regurgitating ethical standards pronouncements. 

    If you have to continually make reference to your high ethical standards it probably means they’re questionable at best. AH owns that joint now. Its soul has left the building. Sad.

  4. Heather Harde is the CEO.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Erick’s level-headed and thoughtful writing may not feed the trolls, but there are still a lot of us in tech who appreciate intelligent analysis. 

    No doubt…MG, Paul and Mike were all immensely entertaining. But Erick is a pro and change isn’t always a bad thing. Companies outgrow their founders all the time. Let’s give the guy a chance.

    (PS – Erick, you kinda need to move to Silicon Valley now. Sorry).

  6. paramendra says:

    I think the guy can handle it.