Is the Engadget Meltdown a Preview of AOL’s Future?

Could Michael Arrington or, even worse, Arianna Huffington, pull a Josh Topolsky? And if they did, what exactly did Tim Armstrong spend upwards of $365 million to put together? And just how lame is the AOL content management system?

Those must be a few of the questions AOL’s leadership team is asking after the news over the weekend that former Engadget editor in chief Topolsky and eight other Engadget staffers were fleeing as a group to launch a new tech blog this fall at SB Nation, a company which until now had been focused almost exclusively on sports Web sites.

It’s definitely made advertisers think twice about spending money with Engadget, as well as AOL’s cachet titles Huffington Post and the Arrington-run TechCrunch, since they’re so closely identified with the names of their founders.

“These sites are so personality driven,” said Vik Kathuria, managing partner, GroupM / MediaCom. “And with Engadget, all this talent is walking out the door. I feel bad for the people left there. AOL has bought some of these companies, and with the culture there, these companies realize all of a sudden it is not the same. The question is, how do you hang onto it?”

Kathuria, whose clients include major technology players like Dell, said that some advertisers will continue to tap Engadget as long as its audience holds up, but adds that for others, “it’s more than a simple audience buy. They’ll stay away for awhile. That’s going to hurt them.”

Topolsky’s exit ends a relationship with AOL that extends back to 2005. As for AOL’s new stars, while Huffington has insisted publicly she’s in for the long haul, there’s already been open speculation that Arrington, the TechCrunch founder and editor in chief, could be on the move much sooner, having already feuded with his new owners.

AOL executives were unavailable for this story.

AOL’s loss is clearly SB Nation’s gain. CEO Jim Bankoff, himself a former AOL exec, says the company’s profile just shot up as a result of this talent snatch. “While sports has been the core of the company, and we’ll continue to invest there, this allows us to enter a second category,” Bankoff said.

And though AOL has wavered in its content focus—swaying from preaching about the importance of professional journalists, to working with thousands of freelancers to crank out search-friendly articles and now turning back to professionals—SB Nation insists it will focus on writers. “We do think talent matters in this business,” Bankoff added.

For his part, Nilay Patel, the former Engadget managing editor who joined the Topolsky-led exodus, insists the departures should not be seen as a sign of problems with AOL’s management—or as frustration with Michael Arrington’s attacks on the site. “Engadget is fantastic,” he said. “It built my career. Before I got there, I was just another guy in Chicago. The team that is left there is great. There is no doubt in my mind.”

Patel added that SB Nation offered their team a chance to build a new brand. But he saved his greatest passion for his new employer’s publishing technology.

“Their content management system is the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” he said without a hint of irony. “They are a technology company, not a blog company…at AOL we were using tools that weren’t under our control. This is a generation ahead of most blog software.”