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The Globe and Mail

AOL exodus includes disgruntled execs and content 'talent'

Tim Armstrong, chairman and chief executive officer of AOL Inc., center, laughs during the opening bell ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

AOL is facing an exodus of top executive and editorial talent even as the owner of the Huffington Post and TechCrunch says it is betting on premium content to resurrect the fading internet brand.

At least three top names from the company have departed this month, including Brad Garlinghouse, head of the company's Silicon Valley office, who quit last week. Mr Garlinghouse's departure came on the same day that Sarah Lacy, a senior writer at TechCrunch, said she was leaving, and just days after Saul Hansell, a former New York Times reporter who was a senior editor at the Huffington Post, quit his job.

Last Thursday rumours surfaced that Heather Harde, chief executive of TechCrunch, was also leaving. Those reports were unconfirmed but came after the exits of two other senior writers for the technology blog, Paul Carr and MG Siegler, and the sacking of TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington.

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AOL acquired TechCrunch last year for $25-million, part of chief executive Tim Armstrong's plan to transform his company into a premium content destination that would be desirable to online advertisers.

His biggest bet came earlier this year, when AOL bought the Huffington Post website for $315-million in mostly cash. The Huffington Post has also seen high-profile departures, with managing editor Jai Singh quitting in May and joining Yahoo .

Mr. Garlinghouse did not state the reason for his departure, but his last post on Twitter before his exit gave clues as to his dissatisfaction. He posted a quote from Steve Jobs captured in the new biography that reads: "When sales guys run the company, product guys don't matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off."

The defections follow the sacking of Mr. Arrington earlier this year after he started a venture capital fund, a move that set off a public feud between TechCrunch writers and their new corporate parent.

"This fall, all hell broke loose," wrote Ms. Lacy in her final post for the site on Friday. "You could produce a Lifetime movie-of-the-week about the behind the scenes drama of the last few months. Publicly, I've stayed silent during much of it, but it has been every bit as gut-wrenching for me as it's been for my colleagues."

The public squabbling poses a fresh challenge for Mr. Armstrong, who is seeking to remake the Internet access business into a first-rate advertising platform. AOL stock is down 42 per cent in the past year. The company said: "AOL is a net acquirer of talent. We don't comment on any departures publicly."

Current AOL employees who asked not to be named said the tensions between TechCrunch and AOL were not disrupting day-to-day work. And while Mr. Armstrong has said that the value of TechCrunch has "gone up dramatically" since AOL bought it, many close to the company feel the opposite.

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"I can't help feeling angry and sad over a lot of internal morale devastation and external brand destruction that simply didn't have to happen," Ms. Lacy wrote.

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