TechCrunch: Journalists Or Startup Shills? You Decide

by Brendan O’Connor and Choire Sicha

In late July, we ran a piece looking at a website called Elite Daily. Around the office, we’d been calling the story “Who Is Eddie Cuffin?” That’s because one thing that had captivated our attention was the bylines of Elite Daily’s writers, which, the more we looked, turned out not to be real people. So Eddie Cuffin is not “the most interesting man in the office,” as per his Elite Daily bio, because he does not exist.

The more we looked, the more we disliked the site. We talked about this in the piece, and that whole fake writer thing, and that the site itself glamorized a grotesque version of “eliteness,” and that the content was often disgusting and rude, engineered to incite or troll to encourage sharing. The story was harsh!

Another thing that initially got us turned on to Elite Daily was that in June, the site had “re-launched,” and it got a nice simple by-the-numbers write-up on TechCrunch.

This week, TechCrunch deleted that story entirely — and then published a new story, “Elite Daily, Content Farm Or Groundbreaking Site For Upwardly Mobile Youngsters? You Decide.” This was weird. There was nothing wrong with Jordan Crook’s original story on TechCrunch. It was a drive-by press release, essentially, but there were no obvious errors of fact.

In the new TechCrunch story, Elite Daily founder or co-founder David Arabov, who would not speak with us, did speak with TechCrunch. And he provided an opportunity for both to now introduce errors of fact and, honestly, errors of opinion.

TechCrunch wrote that their takeaway about our story was this:

That Elite Daily was called out to such an extreme degree by The Awl smacks of someone’s sour grapes and little else. We are, because of our legacy, pro-entrepreneur — but not at the expense of the truth. My initial post glossed over Elite Daily at best.

This is bullshit, and cagey bullshit. “Someone’s sour grapes and little else” is a school-yard slam rendered weaker because it refuses to name names. Is it The Awl’s sour grapes? The writer’s sour grapes? Why are the grapes sour? (And “little else”? Oh my.) It’s also defensive bullshit. TechCrunch’s writer called us, before writing this piece, though not for interviewing purposes. Crook wanted to express that we made TechCrunch look stupid. We had no such interest, and don’t think we even did. We hadn’t even criticized the TechCrunch story!

In any event, TechCrunch couldn’t even stand by this hostile and crazy dig at a fellow editorial startup; that paragraph was subject to a revision post-publication. This is how it read originally.

Apparently TechCrunch did not like the way that sounded — that their mission is to “support the startup.” And as for all the rest… well, let’s do this in order. There’s lots.

TechCrunch helpfully provides audio of their interview with Arabov, who has many complaints.

• David Arabov: [1:19] “He wouldn’t say which publication he was reporting from… [1:44] We kept asking what publication he was from and he finally answered The Awl.”

Not true. Here is a screenshot of our correspondence. “David Scott” is David Arabo’s name on Facebook. (Why?)

• David: [ 4:00 ] “He used all assumptions, there’s no fact in there that’s true.” David: [ 4:49 ] “He reached out to everybody here personally, like, for a statement, while he was writing this article… He was kinda harassing people… He started emailing our partners, like, without telling us or anything like that.”

At no time has Elite Daily asked us for any corrections, odd given that there is “no fact” in the article “that’s true.” We also don’t find it remarkable that a reporter would reach out to people for a story. We wanted people to talk to us, so we asked them, openly, to talk to us. This is an incredibly silly complaint to be carried by an editorial publication coming from the founder of an editorial publication.

• David: [ 5:17 ] “He comes out with this article, 5000-word article”

It is 3,300 words.

• Jordan: [ 5:39 ] “I do want to understand why he was coming after you, especially if none of this is true, what was going on there, I can look into that as a story.”

This is a hot technique. “Oh, this entire article is false? Let me help you.” But the implications of a reporter “coming after” the subject of the reporting are bizarre and betrays a misunderstanding of what reporting is.

• Jordan: [ 6:00 ] “What is your father’s name?” David: “My father’s name? Jacob Arabo, who is also Jacob the Jeweler.”

Great, this is a question we wanted to ask. We were forced, in the absence of interviews, to write that “although there is almost no mention of it anywhere, he is surely the son of Jacob ‘the Jeweler’ Arabo.” We wanted to be very careful with matters of fact. Apart from one lone picture caption on the Internet, there was almost nothing conclusively linking David and his father online. We were also cognizant that this period was likely a difficult experience for the family and didn’t want to harp on it.

• David: [ 6:08 ] “Here’s the part that’s not true: he said that this company is financed by drug money… If you look at the article it says that Jacob the Jeweler is involved in this whole drug dealing scheme… then it uses that assumption to say that the money is used to fund this thing.”

This is not even remotely a thing that our article says. It is not remotely a thing that we have implied.

• David: [ 6:56 ] “He [Jacob] did not go to jail for money laundering.”

Correct. We did not say he went to jail for money laundering. We wrote that he “served two-and-a-half years in prison as part of his plea deal to get out from under accusations of conspiracy to launder $270 million in drug money for the early-90s Detroit-based “Black Mafia Family.”

• David: [ 7:11 ] “He proved himself against that.”

That is not actually what a plea deal means either.

• David: [ 8:22 ] “My brother” [Benjamin, who works at Elite SEM, a “search engine marketing” firm] “works in the building next door.”

Yes, Elite SEM is now in the building next door. Elite Daily and Elite SEM formerly occupied the same building. Before they moved into their current location next door, Elite Daily operated out of Black Ocean’s offices, which at the time were two floors above Elite SEM’s.

• David: [ 9:58 ] “I actually have the breakdown of how much they [Black Ocean] invested in us… so, if you look right here Black Ocean comes in with $31,000 and Gerard Adams comes in with $31,000.”

TechCrunch was forced to issue a post-publication revision on this actually. It sounds like David was pointing to some documents breaking down the finances of the early days of Elite Daily. Apparently some of those documents are wrong. Investor Gerard Adams was kind enough to inform Jordan of the mistake; there were another $20K in “operating expenses” (that could be rent paid or value given, etc.).

• David: [ 10:20 ] “We had $62,000.”

It sounds like you had approximately $81,000. No bigs.

• This:

Jordan: [ 11:23 ] Is it true that the people who work for Elite Daily, the writers, um, have worn Jacob and Co jewelry before, and watches?

David: Jacob jewelry and watches?

Jordan: Yeah.

David: I mean…

Jordan: Were they given those as gifts?

David: No, they were not given those as gifts.

Jordan: Some of them do or do not wear them?

David: They wear them if I give it off my wrist, like, to go hang out, like but they don’t wear them as gifts. I mean, I don’t give anybody gifts that expensive.

Jordan: [ 11:49 ] So do some of them buy them on their own, maybe, and own them?

David: Nobody has them.

Jordan: Nobody has them?

David: I mean, two girls have them. I gave them a little necklace for Christmas, a little [inaudible] necklace for Christmas. It’s literally nothing. Silver necklace.

Jordan: [ 12:03 ] Which girls?

David: [ 12:04 ] They no longer work here.

Jordan: They no longer work here, OK.

Reproducing this just because it’s enjoyable, and good reporting!

• David: [18:05]: Lots of sites have misogynist content, but “nobody says anything to them, why is that something that they call us out on?”

We are absolutely certain that Elite Daily is not the only site on the Internet being called out for sexism. But then, also, Elite Daily is the only site on the Internet publishing The 21 Signs She’s Expired. (“17. She has a box of condoms at her apartment.” “15. 3 fingers can fit.”)

• David: [ 13:27 ] “There’s 40 Jacob and Co articles out of 4,792 in our Luxury section… He’s my father, I’m going to put articles in there when there’s something good going on, why not?” [ 14:37 ] “That’s bullshit. That’s bullshit… There’s only 40 articles of Jacob and Co that live on the site. There’s more than 40,000… between 40 and 50 thousand articles that live on the site.”


• David: [ 25:53 ] “None of our writers are fake people. They’re real people. They’re just aliases… We’ve done a great job at building up the character. People actually know them pretty well… They’re real people, but they’re aliases.”

Crook takes up this banner as well, regarding the large number of bylines on Elite Daily that aren’t real people: “Other writers, like Kaitlyn Cawley, simply don’t want the excessive profanity from their 20-something Elite Daily years to haunt them in their later years. (Or disappoint their parents.)” What’s to even say about this? “This Website Is Staffed By People Without The Courage Of Their Convictions”?

• David: [ 34:45 ] “They say our content’s misogynistic, it’s very materialistic and everything? And here you have an article, 20 Mistakes You Don’t Want To Make In Your 20s that has 201,000 shares on it. Then you go down the list: Why Men Aren’t Really Men Anymore. This is actually against men. And it has 141,000 shares on it.”

Number 6 on that 20 Mistakes list is “Spending your money on women who aren’t escorts.” Number 3 is “Mistaking safe sex for anything besides anal.” Number 2 is “Dating unstable women with mommy and daddy issues.”

• David claims at [ 41:52 ] that a former employee source who spoke to us left “a long time ago, pretty sure it was last summer.”

It was not that employee, and we don’t know who he is thinking of.

• David Arabov also calls The Awl “third tier.”

That is incorrect. We are second tier.

• TechCrunch writes: “O’Connor also implied that David’s brother Benjamin may be involved with Elite Daily.”

No, we wrote that Benjamin works at Elite SEM, which is now next door, and that he has contributed to Elite Daily in the past, which he has.

• TechCrunch writes: “Arabov believes that for every misogynist article, there is a feminist counter article.”

We believe that some day free kittens will fall from the sky and the earth will be a paradise.

• David: [36:37] “The numbers speak for themselves.”

TechCrunch has a long section discussing Elite Daily’s traffic. In our piece, we presented Elite Daily’s comScore numbers with Elite Daily’s internal numbers. All sites, particularly smaller sites, show a great discrepancy between these sorts of numbers. comScore undercounts The Awl’s numbers by a factor of 3 or 4 at times. The comScore numbers for Elite Daily differ by a factor of 8 or 9.

• In an interview with Elite Daily Editor-in-Chief Kaitlyn Cawley, Cawley refers to Elite Daily as a “platform.” Kaitlyn: [51:48] “It’s mean to be sort of a platform for people to speak, whether or not you agree with that is your own choice… The idea is that not a single writer, or, a single writer isn’t representative of Elite Daily. It’s the massive amounts of contributors and the massive amounts of writers we have here, the different voices and different understandings and different things.”

It’s reasonable for a publication to have authors who disagree and conflict. We do! But “platform” is a buzzword now for publications. Medium, for instance, really is a platform: it has no dedicated writing staff, though it has assigning editors. BuzzFeed is sometimes a platform, such as when it throws up its hands at its inability to keep contributing “authors” such as The Heritage Foundation from publishing lies on its website. These publications have open publication technology. Elite Daily does not. It is a traditional publication where writers send stories which are published by an editor. Using the descriptor of “platform” is common now because it makes media companies sound more valuable and more like a technology startup. The phrase has the useful byproduct of distancing both the owners and the editorial staff from its most objectionable content, which remains, in the end, objectionable.

• TechCrunch writes: “From Arabov’s perspective, he has the right to push stories about his father’s company without mentioning his relationship to it. This isn’t necessarily above-board. But we, the media, creep ever closer to that grey line between promoted, paid-for content and unbiased journalism.”

“We, the media” is an incredible thing to write. But also: no, we don’t creep ever closer to that “grey line.”

• TechCrunch wrote this: “Like all start-ups Elite Daily is a mix of hustle, fibbing (or outright lying), and mismanagement.”

Both in the specific — even we, in our condemnation of Elite Daily, never called them liars — but in the general, this is distressing. We reject the notion, as all should, that all startups are mismanaged by hustling liars.