As Staff Flees, TechCrunch's Traffic Plummets

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AOL44.16-0.20

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.

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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 - News) 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.

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