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Yesterday, AOL’s top tech reporter, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, announced that he was once again “actively investing” in startups and venture capital funds.AOL tells us this practice is against its rules, but that it has made an exception for Arringotn.
We got Arrington himself on the phone today, and asked him why he thinks what he’s doing is OK, and whether or not he’s too cozy with the people he covers.
Business Insider: You’ve disclosed your investments in specific startups, but you also mentioned that you gave some of your money to venture capitalists at Benchmark Capital and SoftTech to invests in startups. Has that money been invested in any startups yet?
Arrington: I’m investing in new funds. Benchmark has a new fund. [SoftTech partner] Jeff Clavier has a new fund. I don’t think either one has made investments yet, but I’m not 100% sure on that because they don’t consult me. I don’t know of any investments that either fund has made because they’re new funds.
Casual readers, they’ll say ‘oh he’s a Benchmark investor, does that mean he’s an investor in Quora?’ And [the answer is] no, the only way I’d be an investor in Quora is if the new fund did a follow-on investment.
We’re figuring out my disclosure schedule and what it’s going to look like. We want to be clear on this stuff without making it so complicated that people won’t even understand what I’m saying.
BI: Is venture capital investing the next stage for you? Are you going to a place in your professional career where you’re more of an investor and less of a TechCrunch editor? Is this you phasing out? Are you trying to get fired from AOL?
Arrington: The whole getting fired from AOL thing is kinda stupid. No, it’s not stupid – it’s ridiculous from my perspective. There’s no reason why I would ever try to get myself fired from AOL.
I like my job and I’m extremely well-paid, and AOL hasn’t messed with us at all, at least on the editorial side.
They’re just really good about it, and it’s a pleasure to work there, and they pay me really well. So all that stuff makes me chuckle when I read it.
I wouldn’t build up a company for five years, then sell it, and then walk out on it early. I like my job, and it’s actually a lot better than it used to be because there’s no bullshit. Most of the stuff is taken care of that didn’t use to get taken care of.
I just don’t care anymore about what the tech press thinks about the fact that I invest.
I read an article this morning. It was saying [all this worry about investments being a conflict of interest is] kind of ridiculous because this is actually one of the smallest conflicts that tech journalists really have, but it’s one that people really freak out about.
It talked about [how] friendship conflicts are the real issue. And they are. We all have our friendships and the people who have done right by us. And I’ve written about this before, that’s the real issue and there’s not much you can do besides trying to be an educated reader.
BI: Friendships and marriages, right? All Things D boss Kara Swisher is married to a Googler. TechCrunch writer Leena Rao is married to a Groupon guy. Liz Gannes is married to a Facebook contractor.
Arrington: I forgot about Leena. That’s a pretty big problem, and it’s worked out fine. One time I think it was funny, a tip came in that said Groupon is killing Jews or something. Leena got very angry internally and I said “Leena this is exactly not what you can do. Obviously you need to just stop talking about this because you’re conflicted.” But other than that it’s been fine.
BI: People talk about you and Ron Conway being very close. Are you guys as close as people say? Is that the case?
Arrington: I don’t know what people say, but I’m happy to explain my relationship with him. I would characterise Ron and my relationship as – well, he’s a very important person in my world. As is, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreesen. There is no business relationship. I stay as close to him as he’ll allow me to stay because I want to get that information.
A lot of “real” journalists think that I’m too into my sources and that I idolize these people too much. I’m happy to admit that and say that there are people I believe in and people I don’t. Again, that’s just bias. It’s hard to even know when you’re reading something and you read an adjective about someone. It’s hard to know how much bias is built into it.
Ben Metcalf commented on my post yesterday, and I wrote a comment, buried in there, so it’s not really obvious, but I talked about how Big Media talks about how they have no bias. I said look at these two sentences: “Ben Metcalf, the respected tech consultant,” and then I said “Ben Metcalf, the antagonistic and bombastic technology insider.” Either one of those you might see in the New York Times. I’ve actually chosen words that people have used to describe me in Big Media. And I said whether it’s true or not, that paints a very different picture of an individual. And the subtle bias that gets into everything we write.
People write about me and they write about Engadget. You guys did this, and it really pissed me off, but you guys do that. It’s how you describe me as this as this sort of unstable crazy dude who just constantly attacks everyone around him, and that Josh Topolsky is this zen-like Buddhist master journalist who daily has to deal with the troubled crazies out there.
I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you get what I’m saying here? That’s the bias that we all put into our writing.
If people don’t like us or me, they’ll put in things things that subtle-ly sound bad, and if they like someone, they’ll put in something that makes them sound good.
Disclosure: SAI competes with TechCrunch.