Today, I’m talking with Matthew Panzarino, the former editor-in-chief of TechCrunch. If you’re a Decoder listener, I probably don’t have to tell you that TechCrunch is a big deal — it is one of the most important trade publications in the world of tech and startups, and its annual Disrupt conference is where dozens of major companies have launched… and some have failed.
Matt has been the editor-in-chief of TechCrunch for essentially a decade now, and he and I have been both friends and competitors the entire time. We’ve competed for scoops, we’ve traded criticisms, and we’ve asked each other for advice in running our publications and managing our teams.
So when Matt announced last month that he’s stepping down from his role at TechCrunch and handing the reins to StrictlyVC founder Connie Loizos, it felt important to have him come on Decoder for what you might call an exit interview — a look back at the past decade running a media outlet at the center of the tech ecosystem, with all of the chaos that’s entailed.
And boy, is there a lot of chaos when it comes to TechCrunch. The site was founded by Mike Arrington, who minted a generation of writers who went on to become VCs. Mike eventually sold the site to AOL, which then sold itself to Verizon, which bought Yahoo and merged AOL and Yahoo together. Then Verizon realized it shouldn’t be in the media business and sold the whole deal to a private equity company called Apollo Global, which put former Tinder CEO Jim Lanzone in charge.
If that sounds complicated, that’s not even the half of it. That part where AOL bought TechCrunch led somewhat directly to the founding of The Verge. Although that’s a story for another time.
All of that is a lot! And Matt has somehow led TechCrunch with a steady hand through all of it. You’ll hear us talk about how TechCrunch has grown from what was once the singular extension of Mike Arrington to a much broader brand that remains indispensable to the startup community. Matt talks a lot about balancing TechCrunch’s editorial responsibilities with the role it plays in that community helping promote up-and-coming companies and the ebb and flow of Silicon Valley’s relationship with a site like TechCrunch.
We also take time to discuss the future. The media business has, for years now, been beholden to social platforms and search engines, but it’s facing a new existential threat from generative AI. Could Google’s push to blend language models with its search engine turn off the business model of digital media? What happens when everyone gets their news from TikTok? It’s a good time to talk to somebody about this stuff, especially someone who’s about to walk away.
Okay, Matthew Panzarino, former editor-in-chief of TechCrunch. Here we go!
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Matthew Panzarino, you are the former editor-in-chief of TechCrunch — and also notably a good friend of mine.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
I’ll just tell the audience: a long time ago, I tried to hire you to come work at The Verge when you were at The Next Web. We had long conversations about it, and you were like “ehh,” and then we discovered that it was because you were going to go to TechCrunch.
And then you became the editor of TechCrunch in a tumultuous time in the post-Michael Arrington era. TechCrunch is a fixture. It is a firmament of the startup ecosystem. TechCrunch Disrupt is one of the most notable events in the entire startup calendar every year. You’ve really grown the place. And then, I would say, a couple of years ago, you started telling me that you were going to go. I would see you at events and you’d be like, “I don’t know, man. My clock’s ticking.”
Definitely. When you’re that deep into the architecture of any system like that, extricating yourself takes time. And if you’re of the mind that you want to do it right and you want to make sure that they’re on good footing, there always seems to be a thing coming that the hubris of the position tells you that only you can handle — only you can guide them through this next era. And there were a bunch of those, so it took me a while, for sure.
So I wanted to have you on to talk about that run. You know, The Verge and your run at TechCrunch have been in parallel for a long time. We’ve solved a bunch of the same problems in different ways, which is always interesting to compare and contrast. And then talk about what you think happens now.
I think we are at a generational reset in media on the internet. Audiences are different. People are doing different things. Our distribution platforms are upending themselves left and right. The company is called X now, I don’t know if you’ve heard.
Google Search is changing. And then there’s the looming sort of AI. So I want to talk about TechCrunch a bunch and just get a sense of where you’re leaving this institution. And then I just want to talk about, now that you have a bit of a remove, what you think happens next.
Let’s start with TechCrunch. You took over when?
So I joined in late 2013 and took over as co-editor in January 2014. Alexia Tsotsis [now Bonatsos] and I ran TechCrunch together for about 18 months, and then she went off to get her MBA and be a world-famous VC, and I stayed on as editor-in-chief. So I technically took over as editor-in-chief, full editor-in-chief, in 2015, but was really co-editing running it — making similar kinds of decisions, just in tandem, obviously — since January 2014.
So you’re closing in on a decade at the helm of TechCrunch, in one way or another?
Yeah, depending on how you slice the pie, it’s been about 10 years since I joined, and then a couple of months shy of 10 years since I became head of the pack there.
One of the most interesting things about the TechCrunch story, it actually interlocks with The Verge story in many ways. Michael Arrington obviously started TechCrunch. It was a ferocious independent publication for a long time. Then AOL bought it, and then there was some drama, and then Arrington left, and you all took over. That drama is why a bunch of us left AOL and started The Verge. It’s all tied up in there. It’s a decade old. We don’t have to rehash it. But that’s what happened.
You took over in sort of the aftermath of all of this, right? And the publication was geared around really one person or one set of attitudes. And now, it is not that thing. Just tell me about that moment when you started moving it away from being about a person and more into a brand.
It was an interesting time when I was being recruited to join there. There was definitely a lot of trepidation on my part because I’m not a drama-driven person. I don’t really consider myself an advocate of thriving in chaos. You know, I like to help people to flourish in an environment that they feel comfortable so they can be creative.
“Why not have these great people and use them to their fullest? Simple philosophy.”
So I was a little bit leery of that coming from a place where, while we were very scrappy at The Next Web, there was a team ethos that played out really well. We were fighting against the titans of the industry. That’s the way we viewed ourselves. And going into a place like TechCrunch, which already had its own momentum and reputation and all of this stuff was happening already. It felt a little bit weird going into that because I was like, “Who am I to come into this and make a space for myself and then eventually lead the place?”
And so, the way I looked at it is, I wanted to try to retain a lot of the things that I felt that Mike had established that were really good. These deep ethos stuff like: why hire smart people and not let them do their thing? Why not lean into the expertise of these people who are strapping on their galoshes and wading out into the swamp of crazy new ideas and companies and technology?
I tried to keep that. I tried to keep a lot of the kind of anarchistic ethos around editorial choice and story selection. I think there’s a lot of value in those. And then the part that I focused on unplugging and altering was exactly what you said: that a large part of TechCrunch was built around being a vehicle for Mike, which is fine. I mean, he founded the thing; it was his thing. He led it to what it was at that point.
Stepping in there, I viewed it as my responsibility and my job not to replace Mike with myself and say, “Okay cool, now I’m the new center of the TechCrunch world and all of this.” Instead, a) Mike’s irreplaceable, a very unique individual and b) I had all of these really great smart people that had been bleeding out for TechCrunch over these last few years in and among the chaos. And my job, I felt, was to give them ownership over the things that were important at TechCrunch. Raising their individual profiles is part of it, but Disrupt certainly, giving them more onstage time, help having them pitch in on programming and own those asks and interviews all the way to fruition. You know, the stage went from like, “Hey, Mike does the bulk of the interviews and a couple of other people guest star here and there” to “You saw all my people onstage.” Or the most we could muster or the most that were willing. Some people just don’t like the stage work, which is fine.
But that was the ethos. It was very simple, very straightforward. There wasn’t some Machiavellian thing behind it, besides the fact that I knew we had a lot of really great talent. I wanted to make sure that they were able to see the fruits of their labors when it came time for Disrupt or even editorial story selection. Why not have these great people and use them to their fullest? Simple philosophy.
TechCrunch plays a really interesting role in the tech business ecosystem, particularly the startup ecosystem. It is, in many ways, the publication of record for startups. It’s just the most important thing. A lot of coverage in TechCrunch is very trade publication-y; here’s some news that is happening in our industry. And then it also has Disrupt, where there’s a competitive element and showing up on that stage and doing well is really important.
How do you balance TechCrunch’s role? Because that always felt very difficult to do standalone journalism but then also be so deeply enmeshed in the industry as one of its most important elements.
One of my pithy sayings, which my writers will probably groan if they listen to this podcast — which I don’t advise they do, they’ve heard all this before — but one of my pithy sayings is that TechCrunch needs to stand close enough to the fire to feel the heat but not close enough to be hypnotized by the flames.
The difference between TechCrunch and a broader publication or a very good, very well-staffed, very astute bureau at a larger paper of record like The New York Times or the Journal or whatever — I’m not singling anybody out, but like, any one of those great chunks of tech writers that exist within a larger organization — the differential between us and them is that we very, very, very specifically wanted to be as fast and close to this stuff as possible without, of course, abandoning all reason.
Skating that edge literally is our job. Or the job of TechCrunch, I should say. The idea that you would be able to suss out nascent trends or new bits of technology that were being productized out of the ether, out of academic programs, or out of new technological discoveries, or remixes, as we all know, of traditional businesses that were enabled by… you strap a database to a laundromat and you’ve got a business, right? Whatever the form that took, we knew that it was going to be happening at the edges and continued to be happening at the edges. These days, it is a little bit different, and the new editor-in-chief of TechCrunch and whoever takes it on from here will have their own job because I think, like you, that we are at a watershed moment not only for media but also for tech.
Over the past decade, you and I have both seen tech go from a marginal thing that geeks cared about to everyone being forced to be geeks. Like every one of us is, right? Doesn’t matter whether it’s your grandma or whether it’s your brother or cousin or nephew or parents. We’re all geeks now because we all have to be. Technology has invaded every aspect of our lives, and unless you’re a Luddite or a homesteader — and even then all homesteaders are solar-powered now — technology is everywhere. And so you have this shift where the spelunking is getting harder and weirder. And it’s really crazy, the speed of the loop between the time that something is nascent or weird or interesting and the time that it’s everywhere is so quick. It’s just so quick now.
It used to be that TechCrunch would know about a thing, and then 18 months later, everybody else would know. And we’d be like, “Oh yeah, so-and-so’s talking to me about it. I went to a hackathon or I was milling about in a bar, and I was talking with some engineers, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we heard of this new technology or this new programming language called Ruby, and these guys are putting together a package to make it faster.’ And then, 12 months later, this is the first big company that has Ruby at its base.”
Now, you’re lucky if you get a few weeks. It’s like, oh, ChatGPT is a thing. And we started covering them and OpenAI in 2014, or ’15, ’16, you know. Like you start covering them pretty early. And definitely LLMs. We were writing about those a decade ago for sure. And I’m sure you folks were, too. But then…
It goes from zero to 100 so, so, so quick now. So the job of TechCrunch has always been to find those nascent things, pull them out, tease them out, and talk about them earlier than everyone else. My byword for Disrupt, as an example, has always been — when we’re doing programming — “too soon.” How do we get people to talk about stuff that they’re doing too soon? Founders without PR teams that are just coming to chat about this thing that they’re doing that they’re super hyped about.
“Doesn’t matter whether it’s your grandma or whether it’s your brother or cousin or nephew or parents. We’re all geeks now because we all have to be.”
What are the things we can talk about that are too soon so that, over the next year, people have this reference point looking back and going, “Oh yeah, they were onstage at Disrupt.” Or we can at least remind them, you know, through marketing — “Oh yeah, we talked about these folks at Disrupt. They kind of set the tone for this universe.” In some ways, it’s always reflective as well. Some of the bigger names that come to the stage, it’s going to be reflective in nature. How did you get here? What are your big learnings from XYZ? People like to hear that stuff. But then, the bulk of the programming everywhere else, besides that stage, was about setting the tone for what is going to be happening over the next 12 to 18 months.
One of the things that I would call out in the past decade is going direct. I hear this from founders all the time. I certainly hear it from VCs all the time. You don’t need the media. Go direct. Find the audience. Tell your own story. And then, the flip side of that I see from my vantage point running a large outlet is, oh you kind of need a story to validate some of what you’re saying. Just putting the logo of a big publication on your website, it means something to a lot of people — this other person wrote about us.
It kind of doesn’t matter who. You can go pay someone to pay Forbes to do it. It doesn’t matter; you get the logo. Did TechCrunch participate in that more or less as time went on? Because, in the beginning, the only outlet that was covering any of these companies was TechCrunch, right? So it was the default. And the early TechCrunch was a spray and pray of press releases almost. And that has just dramatically changed over time.
Yeah, it has. I think taste comes into a lot of that. You have to just build your sense of taste over time as the fire hose got larger and larger. I mean, as much attention as was given TechCrunch in the early days, now that there are thousands of companies being founded every quarter, all of those want coverage in TechCrunch. And this is not aggrandizement. This is not patting ourselves on the back. It’s literal. All of them want it. But I will say, it goes in waves. There is an ebb and flow to it that can ride on public sentiment. It can ride on trend thinking among PR professionals and comms professionals, the people whose responsibility it is to build the narrative of the company from inside the company. It can definitely ride on their whims. And then, of course, the big thinkers in the tech industry are like, “Oh, you don’t need coms, go direct” or “You don’t need publications, go direct.” It can go in waves, for sure.
My feeling is the people who are loudest about saying that are the people who are talking to us the most, by the way. That has always been the dynamic there.
That has always been the dynamic there.
Most of us never really talk about it that much because we’re like, “Whatever, we have other things to do than to crow about this.” But that is the fact that the people that are the most ardent about people not needing the media are the people who are in our inbox the most and texting and being like, “Oh, I got this company, you gotta look at these people, you gotta look at this; it’s so good, it stands out.”
But the fact is who tells your story is a choice. And it can be that a valid choice is we’re going to tell our own story and not let anybody else ever tell it. But the fact is, at some point, your narrative will become the property of the public, of other people. And so, you can choose to say, at the earliest stages, “We’re going to write our own narrative and control our own narrative.” But the conundrum is, if you’re successful, your company is going to be scalar, and that narrative is going to be the property of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people, especially if it’s a consumer-facing company. It’s an interesting choice that they go through to figure out why they’re choosing not to talk to press or why they’re choosing not to have somebody else tell their narrative. You have to be really sure of that.
And I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I don’t really care. We can talk to you now, we can talk to you later, we can write about you without your participation, which is fine. I mean, obviously, we’ll reach out and we’ll talk to you. It’s like, “Hey, you’re not going to stop us from writing about you.” So the participation part of it is 100 percent your choice. There’s never any feeling of penalizing anybody for making that choice. Who cares? I get it.
“Hey, you’re not going to stop us from writing about you.”
The Times can do that, right? We don’t need your participation, we’re going to go and just do a bunch of reporting. Every now and again, The Verge is pretentious enough to say we can do that, and that’s often when we do our best work. I fundamentally think access is poison, and I think a lot of our editorial ethos stems from that. We have a lot of access, but I think — this is just two editors-in-chief doing their own sayings all the time — my saying to my staff is the less you need it, the more you get. Right? Fundamentally, the less you need the access, the more it will be bestowed upon you. Because they want their side of the story told, basically. TechCrunch has a really unique role in this ecosystem. Do you think that that’s been in balance? Do you think that you see it differently over time? Or do you think it ebbs and flows, and you have to correct it?
It’s always dials, right? The mix of editorial content — from “this is a funding story” to “this is a growth story” to “this is a story of something gone awry.” Those dials are always twiddleable. And you have to be. As an EIC, I think a lot of times it is dependent on the type of personality that you have as a person. Because you are just a person embodying a role.
The idea that you are able to set an editorial policy around the mixture of access-driven stories versus non or funding-driven stories versus broader text stories or whatever — that you can set some sort of policy and let it ride for any amount of time — is hubris. It’s crazy to think that. You have to constantly have your hands on the dial 24/7. You’re looking at the mix of stories hitting the site, you’re looking at the editorial calendar, and you’re balancing that out and saying, “Okay, look, we need to pull this back.” I usually would write an editorial note. It varied, one a week for a long time. And then it was one every couple of weeks because we have a lot of people who have been with TechCrunch a long time, and they don’t need to hear from me that much. It was kind of wild.
But you basically put out these memos and these notes and have live discussions with your people that help you to tweak that mix and tweak that balance of, “Okay, are we being too access-driven on this? Are we not being proactive enough? Reaching out and finding our own stories. Being sharks, hunting your own food versus being fed in your inbox.” There are a thousand things in my inbox I could write. So why go out and find the thing that’s hard to find to write about?
And that’s an exhaustion thing sometimes; the best reporters can fall victim to that and be susceptible to that. But the access thing is weird because everybody does want attention from TechCrunch. We don’t have the largest audience in the world, but our audience is extremely high honey. It’s thick and sticky with all of the stuff that these folks want.
It’s the right audience.
Recruiting, additional funding, and early adopters — all of those things. And that valuable audience is the thing that draws people to us, but it is also the danger. As a publication, you can be very easily seduced by, “If I feed this audience, I can feed them anything. They’ll eat it because they believe us.”
But I think that’s why — and we mentioned earlier, ebbs and flows — there were definitely periods of time where people were like, “Don’t talk to TechCrunch; don’t talk to any media,” and stories got a little bit thinner and harder to tease out because there were a lot of mandates about talking to media. But the fact is people come around. The value of narrative is a weird one because almost anybody that you talk to will be willing to ascribe a lot of value to it. “Oh yeah, narrative is super important. Oh yeah, storytelling.” Storytelling: that’s the buzzword. Storytelling is super important to an early company or any company. However, when it comes time to fund media or invest in media or understand that the expense of media is almost wholly people — if you look at the P&L of a media organization, the top-line expense is always people, unless you’re doing something funky and trying something new.
We’re gonna get to the AI conversation very soon.
The external example would be definitely a big trend toward, “Hey, we need to own the narrative because the mainstream media is just not getting how transformative tech is, and they just don’t get it. They don’t get us, and they don’t get our world.”
TechCrunch has always dodged that a little bit because we do put in the effort to get to the white paper and we write a lot about APIs and understanding that stuff. They know that we grok that, but we have not been wholly immune. We’ve been swept into the same bucket many times over the years of “the media just doesn’t get it.” Like that kind of universe.
To counter that, I say, the VC apparatus and the whole universe there that has its own momentum and so much money and so much power, they tried to spin up media, right? They went through a whole era of spinning up their own publications because they wanted to go direct. They wanted to talk direct. I didn’t begrudge them. I don’t care. Would I read it? I don’t know.
“They viewed editing as a job as putting things in the right package. But in fact, editing is all about taste and curating”
It’s weird how much they don’t realize that the excitement and energy that comes from reading an article on a place like TechCrunch or The Verge or any place like that is the friction. The sparks that are flying between a person whose job it is to be healthily oppositional to a person that is trying to tell their narrative. And that honing bit is what’s exciting. It’s like, you mentioned Disrupt, like the [Startup] Battlefield is exciting because it’s actually real. We pick these companies and then throw them to the wolves, and we tell the investors, “You can ask anything you want.” There’s no glad-handing. This is not a pantomime. It’s probably one of the last real startup competitions on the planet. A lot of the other ones are just really entertainment-based.
That kind of thing happens with stories on the pages of The Verge, TechCrunch, the Times, other places like that, that’s what brings the excitement. When you’re reading the story, you’re like, “What’s going to happen next? What did they tease out of them that they didn’t want to say or weren’t ready to say, but they’re like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to say it. I believe it, you know?’” Like what truth did you draw out of them? And it’s not about a “gotcha”; it’s about having a honing edge to pull out the truth.
This is, you and I both know, editing. This is the editorial process, right? And that’s what a lot of these places lacked. They viewed editing as a job as putting things in the right package. But in fact, editing is all about taste and curating, like a curatorial force. “Steve Jobs as editor”-type thing, if you want to go there. That is the important bit that I think a lot of these places miss. They viewed the media as the easy part and the money as the hard part, when, in fact, many times it’s the other way around. Any media company can succeed if you apply money in the appropriate way. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to hear that the appropriate way is a lot of people. A lot of really good people. That’s what drives media.
My friend Casey Newton is fond of saying that anybody can get traffic, and it is impossible to build an audience. That’s the thing, right? The taste you are describing requires you to have a point of view and stay focused on it instead of doing what people want to hear. And there’s a lot of wreckage in the ravine over the past decade in media. You and I have lived through maybe too much, maybe too many changes.
TechCrunch is — you’ve done a few things that are different. You launched a paid tier with Extra Crunch. I remember talking to you about it at launch. The idea there was that there was a need in the market for information for people building startups. I think you told me that the first product that clicked for you was reviews of office furniture companies because there was just none of this information out in the world. That was the genesis. Where has Extra Crunch landed now?
It’s now rebranded as TechCrunch Plus. We have to get our branding correct.
No, no, it’s totally fine. That branding itself tells a story because I think, initially, we viewed this as extra TechCrunch. That was the thing, it’s like Extra Crunch. And the extra TechCrunch was what job could we do for readers that was essentially self-funded by the reader. They’re subscribing, that is the recurring revenue that drives this product.
Eventually, we wanted to grow, obviously, to be more. TechCrunch Plus, these days, is a mixture of analysis of industries that we view as important and compelling and pivotal at the moment. We do have some reporters writing about venture-specific stuff there as well because TechCrunch is sort of like the ultimate navel-gazing publication. Our whole job is to go inward more. And so, they’re a little bit about the architecture of venture but then also important industries like climate tech and sustainability and that sort of thing.
But the content that does the best on TechCrunch Plus is still operational advice stuff. We either interview and do our taste thing or bring in experts to write about operational stuff because — if you want to drill back to the earliest days of us discussing this from the editorial side, the business side, of course, very straightforward — we need recurring revenue. How do we generate that?
My job was how do we do that but actually make a good product for our readers — not just sell them on something that’s worthless? The whole original conversation was, “There are a ton of startups and a ton of founders that are outside of the normal Stanford to Sand Hill Road ecosystem. How do we unlock the expertise and individual knowledge and really nitty-gritty, grindy stuff for them with a small (relatively speaking) subscription fee that can give them so much more information about the way this world works?”
“Our ambitions [were] … severely curtailed by the fact that the various owners of TechCrunch over the years didn’t really want to invest in it in the ways that we wanted to. They wanted to invest in it in weird, trendy ways”
Even if they live in Ohio or India or wherever else, they can unlock the knowledge that it takes to build companies and scale companies and do this with a relatively small investment without having access to the networks that drive a lot of this information. If you get funded by a16z, they’re going to provide you with all of the growth experts you need. They’re going to get you probably your first customers. Y Combinator’s companies, their first 1,000 customers usually are other YC companies. That’s not a bad thing.
That’s a great benefit for being a YC company. I don’t know how the churn is on that, but at the very least, you’ve got action in your network and your building and all of that. But what about all the people outside of those networks? As big as YC’s gotten, it can’t fund everybody, and it can’t bring everybody into its network, nor does it choose to. How do you give access to that information to everyone? Our ambitions for that product and for other things that we launched over the years were — just to be frank — severely curtailed by the fact that the various owners of TechCrunch over the years didn’t really want to invest in it in the ways that we wanted to. They wanted to invest in it in weird, trendy ways, which you and I both have seen all of those trends come and go.
I would say what you and I talk about the most over time is fighting off weird, trendy shit.
It’s a funny thing because when you have a bit of leverage and a bit of clout and are able to exercise your leverage to fight off bad ideas and all of that stuff, it’s gratifying, but it’s also exhausting. It becomes a good portion of the job. And I am, just to be really clear, the current owners of TechCrunch are actually really smart and understand the value of it.
The CEO, Jim Lanzone, not only has led a couple of really big media turnarounds but also launched his company at Disrupt. So he knows exactly the value of what TechCrunch has for the industry. I’m definitely commenting on previous… First of all, they haven’t really been around long enough to screw anything up, but I don’t think they are. I think they view this as a growth opportunity for TechCrunch. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so happy to be in this moment stepping away because it’s like, “Okay, finally, people that get it.” Because there were a lot of previous owners of this. And honestly, nobody was malicious. I have to say this, it was never any weird cackling villain above us in the corporate architecture of AOL or Oath or Verizon or whatever that was like, “Finally, we get to mess with TechCrunch.” It never felt like that. It was 100 percent the malaise of big corp stuff.
When I worked at AOL, the phrase that we always used was a Steve Jobs quote. It was the “bozo” explosion, right? There were just a lot of people who had an idea, and they could glue it to our thing without any understanding of our thing. And we’d be like, “No, just because it’s a big audience doesn’t mean they’re just going to do whatever thing that you think is going to happen here. And that will actually, over time, dilute the brand and remove the audience” — which I feel very comfortable making fun of AOL because I haven’t worked there in a long time.
Over time, that is what happened to almost every AOL property save TechCrunch.
You know, I think one of the only reasons it didn’t happen to us is because we were willing to sort of leverage their fear, I guess, is the word. And I don’t mean fear in some sort of weird way. It’s like a godly fear. They’re like, “Ah, what will they write about us? Like, what will they say about us if we make them do this?” And I was happy to utilize that. It’s not like it had any really hateful relationships.
Honestly, I like Tim Armstrong. I think he’s a great salesman and a really smart guy. I liked a lot of the people. But the architectures around those things, remember, were being pushed and pulled by these billion-dollar flips, these acquisitions by much larger corporations, to which TechCrunch was essentially a drop of sweat rolling off the back of an animal. They were like, “What is this thing?” But at the same time, the brand halo was super strong. And so there was the temptation to be the person who did the big thing with TechCrunch. And by this, I mean the people above us. And I had good partners over the years, thankfully, in our business side, that we were able to fend off a lot of that with a lot of very long memos, maybe some threats, maybe some, you know, very polite, very straightforward threats.
But it is honestly a miracle that it exists the way it does now. And I 100 percent credit that to, well, I will take some small credit in that I was happy to spend the sweat and blood that it took to protect it over time. That was fine by me, right? That labor, I viewed as part of the job. It absolutely did limit, I think, the fun bits for me. I would have loved to have done a lot more, launched a lot more. There are so many things I wanted to launch and do and create and help this team do.
I understood that my role, if I didn’t do it, nobody was going to do it. If I didn’t do it, if I said yes, they would have just rolled right over the rest of it. And people would have left. I’m not saying people would have just said, “Yeah, okay, yeah, whatever,” but it would have ruined the thing that existed. And so I was willing to sort of put in that sweat. But the regrets that I do have are all the things we could have done. That’s the regret. But I was only able to do it really because we have a long — unusually long — tenured team. A lot of people had been there eight years, 10 years, 12 years, which is crazy in media, completely unheard of. I mean, not completely, but you know what I mean; it’s rare.
The average is 18 months, right?
Right, exactly. So that meant continuity, continuity of understanding what TechCrunch was, what it is, what its role is, the balance, as you mentioned before, between getting snowblown by all these smart, young, brazen people building technology and also yet saying, but we retain optimism. That some of this stuff is going to be really cool and clever and world-changing in a positive way. So skepticism, not cynicism. Taking that through, pulling that throughline all the way through the years, the eight to 10 years of service. Right now, the senior leadership of TechCrunch that I’m leaving behind at the top has like a hundred years of TechCrunch experience. It’s pretty crazy. It’s a lot of tenure there, and I think that’s what maintains the culture. You cannot write a handbook to make that culture stick.
Is this why you’re stepping away? You’ve got some ownership that is stable that you seem to like. You’ve got a team that’s ready, and you’re exhausted by the fights? Because it is true that over the years I’ve seen you, often at events, we’ve been excited to do our jobs because covering the events is maybe the best part of the job. And then we get to talking and you’re like, I could see that it was weighing on you, that there were things you wanted to do that Verizon or AOL or whatever random owner TechCrunch had at the minute was just not going to let you do. Are you saying basically you’ve gotten to the point where you’re comfortable in this time?
Yeah, I think that’s it. There’s nothing deeper really behind it. There are good people in place. Like there’s always another crisis, right? There’s always another foundation-level crisis coming around the bend. And there were so many of those. You only have to look back a couple of years. Okay, covid, oh, crud, you know, we have to do virtual events all of a sudden. How are we going to turn an enormous 10,000-person in-person event into a virtual one?
The covid thing, there are acquisitions, there’s been three, you know, it’s constant pushes of the reset button, where I’m like, “Cool, cool. I can do it.” And there’s a reset, you know, “No, hold on. Let me figure this out. Let me help everybody. Let me make sure this lands correctly, all of that.” And then I finally got to the point where I was like, “Okay, you know, this is the moment. If I don’t do it now…” And I used the 10-year anniversary of my joining as a sort of excuse to throw myself out of the nest. It was one of those things.
You have a successor, Connie Loizos. She was at TechCrunch. She left to start her own newsletter. The newsletter has been reacquired. She’s going to be the new editor-in-chief. I read her note. There’s one line in there that really stuck with me. It’s “We’re gonna do more original reporting.” Do you think that’s going to be a change? Is that a new emphasis? Or is that more of the same with more attitude?
I think that’s for her to decide and define, and I wouldn’t want to walk over her on any of that stuff. I will speak on a trend basis. I think all of us always struggle with this idea that if you want to generate traffic, a large portion of that traffic is going to come from stories that have already broken. Simple, right? Like, if your job is to generate attention, then something people already know about that they’re searching for more information about is an easy win on the traffic front.
“If you want to emphasize original reporting, you have to by nature understand that original means new, and new generally means you have to convince people to be interested”
So I don’t know, Instagram launches a thing or acquires a thing or whatever. And we didn’t break that story, but we bring, say, original analysis to the story. Obviously, we would never just parrot somebody else’s reporting. We would want to add reporting and kind of write. If you’re going to do that kind of work, you’re going to generate traffic because people already know what that thing is. But ironically, TechCrunch is in the business of writing about things nobody’s ever heard about.
So traffic has always been tough, right? Like it’s hard, and we’ve done well over the years and we’ve grown significantly, which is a testament to everybody’s ability on the TechCrunch staff to get people excited about this thing they’ve never heard of — or at least help them to understand that they should be interested in it. And that’s the balance she’ll have to strike.
The thing that will be pivotal to this, and this is her job now, thankfully, is to make sure that she has alignment all the way up to the top of the business stack, to the CEO, that if TechCrunch’s job is to do original reporting and tell people about things they’ve never heard about, which has always been a primary part of the job, if not the job, traffic has got to be part of the conversation. We’ve got to talk about this as, like, “Hey, traffic may grow slower, it may be lower, it may be whatever, but we’ll provide value in these other ways.”
Because Disrupt makes money. Advertising, yes, makes money for sure. TechCrunch Plus is making more and more money every day, which is great. All of these things are functioning businesses. TechCrunch is a functioning, working business that is great, that works well. However, advertising revenue is important to a publication in this current environment. That is a balance she’ll have to strike.
And so, that’s her job going forward: to figure out ways to twiddle those dials to make sure that the traffic keeps growing. But if you want to emphasize original reporting, you have to by nature understand that original means new, and new generally means you have to convince people to be interested.
So let’s end with some big thinks about the future of media. You’re gone now. This is the stuff that keeps me up at night. So you just tell me what to do. You mentioned stuff people are searching for. There’s already interest in this thing. They’re going to find it because you’re going to deliver some more value. That is a distribution channel that feels like it’s going to change. I think most media companies are existentially dependent on Google in a way that they’re only just realizing now because of generative AI.
Then generative AI itself, media companies that care less about anything but traffic are already deploying it basically to arbitrage search results and get traffic for their crappy ads. That’s two trends that are just, those are freight trains pointed at each other. And the resulting explosion is going to wipe out an entire generation of media companies, I think. How do you see that?
If you were going to be running TechCrunch for the next couple of years, how would you manage those two things?
I’m not going to couch this in terms of what I would do if I ran TechCrunch; totally unfair to Connie and not my job. However, if I were to, say, run media company XYZ, and I was trying to determine what my path would be forward, I think niche media is going to be the thing that survives this next burst of energy. I think people value focused information from obsessives. People that genuinely go to sleep thinking about something, wake up thinking about it, and are willing to put in the effort to be at the point of inflection with their audience constantly. That is tiresome work. It is exhausting work, but it’s also exciting work if it’s the thing you’re truly obsessed with. So we’re seeing publications like Punchbowl, they’re doing really well. I think they’re profitable. I don’t know.
I don’t know anything about their revenue, but I think that they’re doing well. They haven’t raised any more capital after their initial raise. They cover Congress via newsletter, like what happened in the halls of Congress today. Very specific, right? Very specific audience. I think that kind of thing is the thing we’re going to be seeing more of.
Specific audiences, with specific needs, being addressed by people that know all of the memes that they know, that are up to the moment with the thing that is happening with that particular area of obsession and that are willing to take the conversation further from there, tell them something they don’t know about that thing. I think that is the power of that. And it is forward-looking. It is of the moment. So inherently, at least now, it sidesteps the whole gen AI model scraping thing because all of those models are two years old right now.
And even if they get to a few months old, or even a few minutes old, if you’re telling people something they don’t know, and they come to you as a primary source, who cares whatever AI does with it after that? If you’re generating original thought endlessly and fresh information, then the remixing of it is a sort of nonentity to you. Now, obviously, that does torpedo all of the businesses that were in the business of re-reporting and repackaging and taking that fresh information and redistributing it through larger channels. So it could be that the media industry overall stays roughly the same size but every organization within media is much smaller and much leaner. And that’s just the way that it works now is that it’s five to 10 people that really obsess about a thing that run a several million-dollar business about X and that’s it. That’s one shape I could see it taking.
Were you using any AI tools in the TechCrunch newsroom, ChatGPT to do drafts, the things that other people are doing?
No. Our internal policy, which I think we published externally at some point, but I can’t remember, but our policy is like, “Hey, you know, mess with these tools as much as possible. You need to understand them, right? You need to understand what they do, what they don’t do, how deep they go, what the capabilities are, what the possibilities are.” But we don’t put any AI-generated words on TechCrunch, period, nor do we even use them to generate story ideas or headlines or any of that stuff. It’s all meat space all the way down, for now anyway.
Our view is, what are we selling? We’re selling us. We’re here. We’re the people you trust. We should give that to the customer. Although, our policy is slightly different, which is: just be honest. I personally have published AI-generated copy onto The Verge. I just put a lot of words around it saying, “Look at this garbage.” I can’t get anybody to be outraged about it. It’s driving me crazy. I would go bonkers if people were more outraged about it.
We’ve definitely put some stuff out there but obviously clearly labeled and really specifically about like, this is what we’re writing about. Honestly, I don’t know — it’s not like I have any sort of theological thing. It’s just I think it behooves ourselves to value, as you said, the human quotient. Like, why else are we here? And then, if there comes a time to utilize it to amplify things or to use it in a fun or clever or interesting way, cool. That’s fun, do it. Who cares? It was not like some sort of theological anti-AI thing. It was just like, “No, our job is to write the stuff, so we’re gonna write the stuff.”
We’ll end it here. What’s next for you, Matt? What’s the next thing you’re going to do?
I do not know. As of currently, the public stance is that I’m doing some consulting for Yahoo, which obviously includes landing some Disrupt for them next week. So I’ll be doing that. That’s what’s next for me immediately. And then, long term, I don’t know. I want to build something new. I want to work on something. I would love to kind of create something or help somebody create something that is fresh and that I think is clever. And that’s about as far as I’ve taken the thought.
In media, or not in media?
Probably not. I need a break from media, and media probably needs a break from me. It’s not like I would object, but I think maybe I want to try out something a little different for a while.
That makes sense. Matt, I have to say I’m happy we’re still going to be friends, but it has been great having you as a friend and a competitor this past decade. I’m sure Connie’s going to do great as well, but it’s been great hanging out with you and talking shop a little bit. Thanks for coming on.
Thank you, I appreciate you having me and letting me bloviate a bit.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast about big ideas and other problems.