Pando

Kara Swisher has lost.

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on May 27, 2015

From The News Desk

It seems like a million years ago that Kara Swisher and Michael Arrington would spend their days taking shots at each other: Kara calling Mike “Yertle the Turtle” — a reference no one really understood — and complaining to any reporter who’d listen that he was unforgivably conflicted due to his investments in Internet giants Dogster and Seesmic.

It seems even longer ago that I would sit in Mike’s office at TechCrunch listening to him gloat about how, for all Kara’s complaining, TechCrunch consistently trounced All Things D in traffic and Techmeme headlines. Remember Techmeme? As I said, it was a long time ago.

In a sitcom world, Mike and Kara would fight because they were secretly in love. In the real world, they fought because they were almost exactly the same person.

Both would bully and threaten to get scoops, and sulk for days when they missed a story. Both had their conflicts — Swisher was married to a senior Google executive and Arrington made smallish investments in tech companies, but both argued that disclosing those conflicts, publicly and proudly, meant they didn’t really count. Both sat atop popular conferences — AllThingsD and TC50/Disrupt — and would control access as a way to both court and punish Silicon Valley players. Mike would frequently ban his enemies from Disrupt: I once watched him have a former friend of his escorted out of the backstage area of Disrupt. Her crime: Also being friends with Kara Swisher. Kara still plays the same game: After Pando’s Sarah Lacy publicly criticized Swisher’s fawning coverage of Uber, every single Pando reporter, including Sarah, was refused credentials for this year’s Code conference. (Don’t worry, we sent Dan Raile to crash the event anyway.)

Like most bullies, Kara and Mike also competed fiercely for who possessed the thinnest skin: Both would make friends with gossip bloggers and gadflies -- your humble correspondent included --  in the hope that proximity would keep them safe from any meaningful criticism. In Mike’s case, that strategy worked for a long time. In Kara’s, it still does.

Or maybe did.

Arrington’s fall from power, you’ll recall, came after he, with great fanfare, sold TechCrunch to AOL, with a vow that nothing would change. AOL would give TechCrunch more resources to do great journalism and Mike would remain at the helm of the publication he founded. Really, though, everyone knew that Mike was burned out: Why else would he sell for way under TechCrunch’s potential value, and why the hell would he sell to AOL, a company known for destroying everything it touches? For AOL’s part, they made no secret that they were really buying TechCrunch for its robust events business. The low price — around $26m — was a consequence of Mike’s reputation: Tim Armstrong was the only CEO dumb enough to think he could control him. We know how that ended.

The parallels between the AOL-TechCrunch deal and this week’s acquisition of Kara’s Re/Code by Vox are comically apparent: We’re told nothing will change at Re/Code, except that it will now have more resources and more traffic. Sure, Swisher and her business partner Walt Mossberg will now report to Vox’s Lockhart Steele, but they’ll still be the same old Kara and Walt. Really it’s the events business that Vox is interested in, anyway. Comcast is a major investor in both companies, so Vox was the most obvious -- perhaps only -- bidder. [Disclosure: In another incestuous twist, Steele is a Pando board member, but not an investor.]

But like AOL-TechCrunch, Vox-Re/Code strongly hints at some kind of founder burn-out, although at this stage we can only speculate on the specifics. Swisher and Mossberg have never actually run a media company before — All Things D was produced under contract for the Wall Street Journal. It’s possible they are already sick of the business side of things and want to be able to focus on writing and interviewing again.

Or maybe they are sick of trying to build an audience from scratch: The New York Times suggests that Swisher was frustrated at the slow audience growth of Re/Code — reportedly just 1.5m million unique readers a month — not many more than Pando, but the company had 44 staffers compared to fewer than a dozen here. As Sarah has written, building a media company requires a lot of patience. It also requires money: Another common reason why companies sell early in their life is because they don’t think they’ll be able to raise (or generate) enough capital to stay independent. There’s no doubt the Code conference is a cash cow — under All Things D the event brought in a reported $12m in revenue — but, as the demise of Gigaom taught us, once the masthead creeps towards, and beyond, 50 people, you need a lot of money to keep the fires burning. Journalism is expensive.

One thing we know for damn sure: This deal was never part of Swisher or Mossberg’s plan. Just 18 months ago when they launched the company, both made a point of distinguishing themselves from — sniff! — venture-backed rivals like Business Insider or Pando, and from corporate owned outlets like TechCrunch.

“We had Silicon Valley VCs who said, ‘We’ll just write you the check.’ “ Mossberg told The Wrap. “We had to explain politely that there was too much potential for conflict.” Swisher went further, explaining that, when they agreed to take investment from Comcast, they only did so via their media arm, not Comcast ventures. “We didn’t want to talk to the venture side. We didn’t talk to Amy Banse at Comcast Ventures.”

In an interview with Business Insider, Swisher and Mossberg made a point of saying that Re/Code would be a better, free-er company for no longer being under the Wall Street Journal’s control. “We will be prudent as a business should be, but we will also be freer to take risks. There’s always a mismatch between small entrepreneurial outfits and large companies, which often don’t have the same outlook. Now we don’t have that conflict,” said Mossberg.

This week’s deal makes Re/Code many, many times more conflicted than almost any of its rivals. Vox has raised $107.6m in venture capital: Twice as much as Business Insider and 25 times more than Pando. Three of those funding rounds involved — guess who! — Comcast Ventures.

Today, Quartz reports that Comcast Ventures “gave its blessing” to the Re/Code acquisition “months ago”. Swisher and Mossberg might have drawn a line between Comcast’s media and venture arms but it’s clear the company didn’t feel the same way: Hey! We invested in these two media companies, why don’t we just make them into one? After all, Re/Code was already working out of Comcast’s NBC offices — but, in typical Kara style, it was disclosed publicly! There’s no problem!

As Fortune’s Dan Primack points out, as part of Vox, Re/Code now has investors in common with “Square, Uber, Dropbox, Spotify, Instacart, Jawbone, Lookout, Flipkart, etc.” We can argue -- and I do, obviously -- that having investors in common with companies you cover, or even having investors you cover, is a conflict that can be managed with fierce reporting and clear disclosures. The best example I can offer is that Pando has investors in common with both Uber and Secret. Swisher and Mossberg have made clear they see things differently: Journalism will always suffer when there are investors in common.

At least Business Insider, Pando, and the rest are still independently controlled by their founders: Sarah Lacy still owns more than 50% of Pando and no VC investor sits on our board or has any involvement in the running of the company. Kara's situation is now very different: As an employee of Vox, she doesn't have final say on how involved investors can be in the running of the business, or on the makeup of the company's board. If she doesn't like it, her only choice is to walk.

On that, by the way, the deal gives Swisher and Mossberg even less control of their company than they had under News Corp. At the Journal, the All Things D site was produced under a contract which could be severed with notice. That’s how they were able to walk away from the arrangement and take every single staffer, and their events business, along with them. Today’s deal means Vox owns Re/Code outright. If the deal goes sour, Mossberg and Swisher can quit, but Vox gets to keep their company, much like AOL kept TechCrunch when Mike finally departed.

The biggest difference between Kara and Mike’s respective sellings out, though, is that Mike barely did a day’s work at AOL: As soon as the deal was done, he hopped on a plane to Seattle and began his new life as a venture capitalist. Even when Mike was “fired” from TechCrunch by Arianna Huffington, he continued to co-invest with AOL and he continued to host Disrupt — and was paid handsomely for those appearances. There’s no universe in which Mike ever felt like he worked for Tim Armstrong — some days it seemed like Armstrong felt he worked for Mike.

By contrast, Kara doesn’t even report to the CEO of Vox, she reports to the company’s Editorial Director making her the most feared middle manager in tech. Re/Code’s gadget review team has already been told they’re moving to the Verge and even Mossberg will be splitting his time between both sites. The ink isn’t even dry on the contract and already Re/Code is being absorbed into Vox, making it worth less today than it was yesterday. It took maybe a year for AOL to start pulling that shit with TechCrunch. A full five years passed before AOL and TechCrunch became part of Verizon, putting its journalists directly in the pay of the phone company.

Here’s how Kara reported the Verizon-AOL sale, just two weeks ago, under the headline AOL’s Tim and Arianna Now Work for the Phone Company:

At some point in the future, if it all works out as AOL CEO Tim Armstrong grandly envisions his deal to be acquired by Verizon for $4.4 billion in cash, I will gladly admit I am wrong. But right now, despite all the talk about the glorious mashing together of content and technology, the details seem somewhat squishy…

It’s interesting to ponder why there seemed to be no other bidders here for AOL, even after the rumors of Verizon’s interest surfaced months ago…

[W]hile Armstrong can say until he is blue in the face that content is key, it’s more about helping and profiting from content companies needing to have a mobile ad offering...

[W]hich leaves only the question: How long will Armstrong himself last inside the telecom giant that has just swallowed him whole? Already this morning, we’re hearing reports that Comcast is considering buying Vox outright, including Re/Code — they just need to agree on a valuation. Reports Quartz:

Comcast has been engaged in halting negotiations to acquire Vox Media, according to several people close to the talks. The sticking point, as always, is price, with Vox Media seeking a valuation close to $1 billion. Negotiations fell apart when it became clear Comcast didn’t want to pay that much, but the two sides have talked again recently.

One reason for the renewed discussions may be Comcast’s role in encouraging Vox Media’s acquisition of Recode, the technology news site with a small audience but growing events business. Sources say Comcast, which owns minority stakes in both companies, gave its blessing to the deal several months ago. David Zilberman, a managing director of Comcast Ventures, its venture capital arm, sits on Vox Media’s board. He didn’t reply to a message seeking comment. Stay tuned!

I have very little love left for either players in the great Kara v Mike contest: I haven’t spoken to either in a long time, and I’d struggle to decide which one to jettison from a sinking hot air balloon. Here’s what I do know: While Mike spends his days sailing his boat, making the occasional investment and interviewing the occasional presidential wannabe, Kara has to go to work next week knowing that — for whatever reason — she has abandoned her most publicly red-lined principles in order to give Re/Code a shot at continued success.

The sound you hear, over the thrum of the outboard motor, is laughing. It was a close race, but yesterday Mike finally won.

[Image credit: Brad Jonas for Pando]