Verizon is buying AOL for $4.4 billion, and it's pretty clear that the emphasis is on mobile, video, and ad tech — AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's memo announcing the deal made that clear.
But there's zero mention of editorial independence in Armstrong's memo, which has to be troubling for the staff at The Huffington Post, Engadget, and TechCrunch, all of which cover technology. Engadget and TechCrunch in particular are two of the world's largest and most influential tech publications (and, of course, competitors to The Verge), and it's not at all clear how they can continue to offer independent commentary on tech and mobile. Just last year Verizon launched and then was forced to shutter a tech blog called SugarString after it was revealed that writers were forbidden from writing about net neutrality. That's not a good sign. Just think about the following scenarios:
1. Engadget runs a roundup of wireless plans and finds that T-Mobile offers the best deal on a new phone and service.
2. The winner of TechCrunch Disrupt is a new startup that offers mobile streaming of NFL games to any mobile phone through a clever reading of copyright law that escapes Verizon's exclusive rights package.
3. HuffPo Tech discovers that Verizon FiOS customers are being throttled when they use competing video on-demand services.
4. TechCrunch points out that Verizon opposes net neutrality while covering the pending lawsuits.
5. Engadget covers the ongoing drama over Verizon's mobile user tracking, which gets even more robust when connected to AOL's sophisticated ad tech platforms.
6. TechCrunch covers a new mobile payments company that launches with an exclusive deal on AT&T.
7. Engadget points out that Verizon's new XXLTE service is really just a branding exercise for opening up some additional spectrum, not an actual new technology.
8. Apple launches a new mobile TV service that only works on a handful of providers; HuffPo Tech runs a "how to switch to AT&T" article after the news.
9. Verizon has to accept Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile ads on Engadget, TechCrunch, and HuffPo.
According to Recode, there's a possibility AOL will spin off or sell its content brands — German conglomerate Axel Springer is apparently in the mix. That might be the best possible situation here; unless Verizon and AOL can commit to full editorial independence, the looming specter of a Verizon executive getting mad about coverage and making a phone call will be too hard to ignore. Running a media company isn't like running a mobile operator; the value comes from journalistic integrity and independence. That's not a lesson many companies learn quickly.
Full disclosure: I used to work at Engadget, as did many of The Verge's founders; we left AOL to start this site. I never felt any editorial pressure at AOL, but huge corporate news like this would frequently leave us spinning without real answers for months at a time. And Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company, but it should be abundantly clear that we have complete editorial independence from that relationship.