Inside AOL's Civil War

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All is not well at AOL's blog empire. The company boasts a large portfolio of niche blogs like Autoblog, Daily Finance and FanHouse. But the leaders of its two most successful sites, Engadget and TechCrunch, are at each other's throats. The feud began Monday with a blistering blog post from TechCrunch co-editor Michael Arrington titled "Real Blogs Don't Buy Ads on Google."

Slamming Engadget's advertising practices, Arrington wrote: "One thing big blogs don't do is buy traffic to juice up the Comscore numbers. It's an unspoken rule. It's cheating, and it brings in bad traffic that doesn't stick around or come back for the most part (or so we assume). So we're sad to see our sister blog Engadget doing just that--buying ads to pump up their Comscore rankings."

Going further, Arrington attacked the site's leadership. "Engadget's editors seem to be spending more time trolling TechCrunch comments than doing any actual work. I miss the days when Ryan Block ran that site," he bristled. "Almost immediately after he left the sellout began, and Engadget's rough but smart edginess vaporized into a plasticized caricature of a real blog."

Did Arrington Go Too Far?  Arrington's outburst (and willingness to chastise a colleague) didn't go unnoticed. "To say that behavior like this is rare in the corporate world would be an understatement," writes Jay Yarow at Business Insider. "Even fire-breathing personalities like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly aim their flame-throwers outward -- they don't torch their colleagues and the hand that feeds them."

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Yarow then speculates that Arrington's flame-throwing is purely strategic. The thinking goes: Arrington wants to leave AOL but he just signed a 3-year contract for $10-15 million. If he leaves, he forfeits the money. Solution? Castigate the staff at AOL's most lucrative blog until no one at the company can endure his presence. Subsequently, AOL would pay him to leave.

Arrington Strikes Again  But here's where the feud gets good. Reacting to the Business Insider story, Arrington jumped into the comments section to lob more bombs.

"I'm not throwing punches at AOL. I'm throwing punches at the engadget team and their bullshit," he writes. "Your whole premise - that I'm trying to get myself fired - is based on a misunderstood tweet that I clarified for you on record. This is an irresponsible post."

Then, after making it clear he has nothing against AOL he redirects his venom towards Engadget. "The point I'm making is that my feelings for Engadget--that they're immensely unethical--doesn't go beyond that," he continues. "They seem to have a problem with AOL management not quieting me. It's like telling mom when your brother is picking on you. They've trolled us, repeatedly, for a year. I've had enough."

Engadget Jumps Into the Ring  Then, as another blogger puts it, the episode turned into a "bar brawl that spills out into the street." Joshua Topolsky, the editor-in-chief of Engadget, entered the same comments section. Clearly infuriated by Arrington's allegations, Topolsky says "enough is enough":

You need to explain this comment and the source of your hatred for our brand and people. You need to tell me how we have been "trolling you." Explain what we've done to you. Explain anything that you've said beyond a personal vendetta. I haven't heard a shred of substance behind your attacks--only the vitriol of a man-child who can't control himself. "Immensely unethical"? Explain it.

You don't just get to say whatever you want to whomever you want. That may fly in your bubble, but I live in the real world.

If you can't explain yourself (caveat: your claims have to be based in reality), then stop talking.

My team works their collective ass off, and they deserve better than your baseless attacks and name calling. Grow up.

Joshua Topolsky
Editor-in-chief, Engadget

All of this bickering may seem inane but, in the end, it really puts AOL between a rock and hard place. According to Business Insider, Engadget employees are furious with AOL for not putting Arrington in his place. And they certainly matter in this ordeal because Engadget is a far more lucrative enterprise than TechCrunch. However, when AOL acquired TechCrunch, it promised Arrington he could continue to be as vindictive and opinionated as he always has been. On top of that, the company's been pushing a big marketing campaign boasting its freedom of expression and creativity. "At our core we are a platform for creativity that connects journalists to their audiences," the company's mission statement reads. Censoring Arrington certainly wouldn't be a good first step in demonstrating their new "free" and "hip" vibe.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.