[Note: That title should say: ‘Chris Grant is leaving Joystiq, and other crazy clarifications / confessions’]
It’s true. One of the most upstanding people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work alongside of is leaving Joystiq at the end of this year, and he’s taking two of his confidants with him. And yes, he’s headed over to Vox Media to start its gaming vertical. If not for me revealing this ahead of Chris’ departure post, the reactions would write themselves. “More great talent flees AOL — it’s all over! Run!” “AOL can’t keep talent — what’s going on in there?!” But here’s a thought — why don’t we take a moment and think about what’s actually happening before publishing a pre-written, sensationalistic story with a few new names pasted in? I’m going to warn you that what follows is long, and a lot of it links back to events that happened earlier in the year. But without that perspective, none of this Chris Grant news really comes into focus.
For starters, I want to say that Chris is an amazingly talented and hilarious human. And I’m thrilled that he’s pursuing something that he wants. I know for certain that he was offered a spot over at The Verge when all of that was coming together (as was I), and we both eventually decided to not jump at that particular junction after much deliberation. But the opportunity to start a new gaming site and dictate how each piece is built — now that’s another thing entirely. So, it shouldn’t shock anyone that he’s grabbing the opportunity. It’s a good one.
But there are two main things that no outsider will openly recognize about this. Maybe they just won’t bother to actually call or email anyone within the AOL Tech organization to fact-check their stories, or maybe they’d just prefer to publish something littered with fabricated drama in the interest of clicks. Whatever the case, I’m here to make a couple of points crystal clear.
First off, this shift has been in the works for some time. Anyone who assumes that the recent departure of Heather and Vaughn from TechCrunch has anything to do with this is high on meth. Vox Media isn’t a place that makes reactionary, snap decisions based on blathering in the tech space. It’s a company that’s methodically piecing together an army of sites. To assume that they’d just think of snagging Chris last week — and similarly, that Chris would leave behind the staff that has built up his entire career — is ludicrous. So, before you think of connecting the two, don’t. I’m saving you from publishing patently untrue information.
Speaking of that whole “methodically piecing together an army of sites” thing that I referenced earlier, it’s probably worth looking at the writing on the wall now, just so the collective tech press can’t feign surprise when Vox Media does its darndest to convince the Editor-in-chief of Autoblog, Car & Driver, Motor Trend or any other flagship automotive site to come over and kickstart its own auto-related site. My gut tells me travel will come after that — if you’ve got any seniors over at Condé Nast or Travel & Leisure, it’s now safe (and sensible) to consider them a flight risk. And if you’re covering this industry, please don’t assume that [insert organization here] is falling to pieces when it happens. It will happen. It won’t have anything to do with anything falling apart. It’ll have everything to do with a hip and cool new company tossing over competitive offers to talented people who may be intrigued with the idea of doing something different. Sorry, I know that’s not the drama-filled story you’re really after, but it’s the truth.
Secondly — and without question, most importantly — how is it news that AOL has issues? AOL hasn’t been tremendously relevant in just about anything in at least five years, probably more. Acting like it’s just becoming irrelevant in 2011 is simply bad reporting. We have a saying at Engadget that seems to apply here: you can only truly report on the present if you understand and integrate the past. And here’s the past that no one seems to pay attention to when writing lighthearted jabs at AOL as a whole: the tech side of things has followed a completely different trajectory over the past five years than AOL itself. Even while the company was flubbing untold things over the past five years, Engadget and Joystiq have done nothing but grow larger, more sophisticated and more trusted.
It’s proof-positive of one truth that no one seems to grasp: AOL may be troubled, but someone at the company has always been intelligent enough to not meddle with tech. For right around nine months now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with a perverse and thoroughly incorrect notion that AOL has anything to do with the editorial of Engadget and Joystiq. It makes for a sexy story, but it’s indubitably false. I mean, it could not possibly be further from the truth. Again, sorry to burst your bubble.
It all links back to The AOL Way. But here’s the drama-free truth about The AOL Way that no one has cared to dig up: it did not, ever, at any point in the history of humanity, apply to AOL Tech. Literally the first time I, or anyone else at Engadget and Joystiq, ever heard about this rubbish was when it leaked on Business Insider. Why? Because someone was smart enough to realize that we’re doing just fine on our own, and that there was no conceivable need to even bring this into our purview. Shocking, right? Not really. Look at the content on Joystiq and Engadget. The tone and style has remained the same since launch. Even as employees come and go, the tone and style remain. It’s entrenched in our training processes, and that process on Engadget was hand-crafted by Ryan Block and Peter Rojas. No one at AOL even knows what we do to train our employees. And no one at AOL has ever done something as idiotic as to even think of sticking their hands in any of our editorial decisions.
I just don’t know how to make this any clearer: AOL and Engadget couldn’t possibly be any more separate unless some other media company came and started cutting our checks. If not for a faded logo in the corner of a paystub, I’d never actually know that AOL was even remotely connected to Engadget. It may shock you to hear it, but we do whatever we want. We don’t ask anyone at AOL for permission for anything related to editorial. We write what we want. We skip what we want. We choose the angles that we want. We choose the employees that we want. The AOL Way never, ever had even a 0.00000001 percent impact on anything that Engadget (and Joystiq) ever did. Anything you read to the contrary is a complete and utter lie, and I’ll go on any record I have to on that.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why — if all of the above is true — The Verge was ever created. Surely Arianna ran those guys out of town, right? Right? Wrong. What’s wild is that people again assumed that something as gigantic as The Verge could’ve been completely decided upon and hashed out by all parties in a matter of weeks. With that “matter of weeks” being the day that Arianna walked in compared to the day that Josh and co. walked out. Anyone with any insight at all into these kinds of arrangements would understand that it took many, many, many months for that deal to be worked out, and the reality is that Josh’s decision was made while the prior AOL administration was in power, not the current. But that’s not news, now is it?
David Eun is largely credited with championing The AOL Way initiative, and he left AOL right around the time Arianna came in. So far as I understand it, that’s about when The AOL Way as a whole died; I wouldn’t know specifics, because a) it was never pushed onto Engadget and b) Engadget is kept too far away from the typical AOL happenings for us to even know how it affects other properties. But I can certainly say that before Arianna arrived, it was nigh impossible to get a full-time hire at Engadget. Some would say that AOL left Engadget too alone — when we attempted to reach across the divide that had smartly existed for as long as the two were brought together in a business deal, the folks that came before Arianna simply didn’t see a need to increase headcount when we were doing just fine as-is. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a man responsible for the future success of a site may start looking at other options when he’s being left so alone that his hiring abilities are hindered. After Arianna waltzed in, we finally had someone in that spot that understood what a blog was. You could say that she’s allowed Engadget (and Joystiq) to start hiring simply because people were fleeing due to the previous administration’s efforts to jade existing employees, but frankly, it matters not. She’s more than open to hiring new faces at both properties, and indeed, Chris is leaving Joystiq with more full-time staff onboard than it has ever had before. Just think about that for a second. More people in successful operations — that is, by all accounts, a positive thing.
One has to wonder how everything would’ve shaken out had Arianna arrived six to twelve months earlier than she did. Perhaps everything would be different. Perhaps everything would be exactly the same.
I say all of that to say this: the folks that will remain at Joystiq in 2012 are no less capable, creative and talented than they are today, with Chris Grant still on the masthead. Don’t forget that. They also aren’t “sellouts” or slaves to an “AOL Way” that never existed in Joystiq-land to begin with. The folks that Chris ends up hiring at whatever his new site will be aren’t going to be “magically better” than their Joystiq counterparts, just because it’s “new” and “exciting.” They’re still humans — still editors who will need to be trained and honed to do excellent work. And amazingly, both groups of people will work within a corporate shell that has real limitations, real politics and real growing pains.
Chris is going to do something new because he wants to. No one at AOL forced him or his staff to do weird editorial things. And honestly, there’s probably not a sensible amount of money that AOL could’ve paid Chris to stay — sometimes it’s not as simple as money. Sometimes one season ends and a new one begins, and grasping for an unsurprising reason just leaves everyone looking stupid.
And yes, pretty much all of this also applies to the tremendously talented Engadget team that stands today. I’ve grown increasingly disgusted by wafts of condescending attitudes towards Engadget since the creation of The Verge. Would I seriously be more of a talent at The Verge than at Engadget? Could the same question be asked in reverse? What (most) everyone fails to realize is that it took every single editor that walked away an incredible amount of time before any of them were capable of doing Engadget proud without any behind-the-scenes hand-holding. Every single one of us had to crawl, get kicked around and edited until we were pulling our hair out before we learned to fly. The teaching methods that applied to The Verge crew still apply to the newer faces that are gracing Engadget’s pages — there are still very, very strong roots to Peter and Ryan here at Engadget, and no one — no one — gets the opportunity to post anything on this site without going through the same editing hell that I went through with Mr. Block as my guide.
I want to close by making one thing about myself exceptionally clear: I am not a shill for AOL. But Engadget as its own pulsing entity is extremely dear to my heart. I simply owe everything — my entire career — to Engadget (again, not to be confused with AOL). I refuse to stand idly by while anyone talks down about the insanely dedicated staff that keeps this organism thriving 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. It is not easy to emulate. If you have any doubts whatsoever about that, ask any senior editor at The Verge how much sleep they’re getting. Seriously. Ask them. It’s not a lot.
I love and respect every single soul that parted ways with Engadget and went to start The Verge. I talk with them frequently. We share intimate secrets and weird gifs over Skype. And you can definitely expect to see both Engadget and The Verge sharpen their respective skills in the years ahead — if you’re a reader of technology news, there has never been a better time to be you. Even if AOL melts away and some other mega-corp tosses its logo in the top-right of our paystub, Engadget will always be Engadget. Our training guide will always have been written by its founders. And our mission will never be swayed by whoever decides to cut our checks. Oh, and the same is true for Joystiq, in the effort of coming full circle.
The only lingering question is TechCrunch. It seems to me that Michael Arrington doesn’t really get along with Arianna Huffington. So, maybe that’s the way it is. Maybe that’s why he’s no longer working for the site. But as further proof that AOL isn’t shoving some sort of AOL Tech-wide initiatives down our throats, I honestly have no idea what’s going on at TechCrunch. It’d be about like asking me if I know what’s going on at PCMag, BoingBoing, C|net or I Can Has Cheezburger. The only reason I have even a smidgen of a clue about what’s going on at Joystiq is because I spoke with Joystiq. And that, folks, is that.
P.S. - Apologies for the length!
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