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Craig Newmark: Craigslist Isn't a Media Menace



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In their own words

Craig Newmark: Craigslist Isn't a Media Menace
The king of free online classified advertising insists that Craigslist is not a threat to the newspaper industry. "It's just a simple platform where people help each other out," he says. "In a way, anyone can do what we do."


I Want Media, 04/20/07

The Craig Newmark story is already well known. The software engineer started a simple, no-frills Web site called Craigslist out of his San Francisco apartment in 1995. He allowed users to post information about social events, apartment rentals and jobs, all for free.

The site grew in popularity and in the last dozen years evolved into a genuine global phenomenon, with local versions launched in 450 cities in more than 50 countries. Its only revenue source is a below-market fee for job postings in seven top U.S. cities and for broker apartment listings in New York.

A 23-person, San Francisco-based staff now runs the worldwide network of online communities, with the low-key, unassuming Newmark overseeing customer service.

But what isn't so well known about Newmark and his infamous list? Does he see his creation as a threat to a vital source of newspaper revenue, as some observers argue? Will Newmark add news reporting to Craigslist? Is he interested in buying a newspaper?

Newmark spoke earlier this week with undergraduate students in a digital journalism course at New York University instructed by I Want Media founder Patrick Phillips. The students had many questions for the king of free online classifieds.

Excerpts:



Question: What is Craigslist, in your own words?

Craig Newmark: It's just a simple platform where people help each other out with everyday stuff, like getting a job or a place to live. Beyond that, somehow we have created a community. There are issues, but we do trust people. That's why we have a flagging mechanism, which is how people who use the community can deal with bad stuff.

If you see an ad on a site that you think is somehow wrong, you can flag it for removal. If enough people agree with you and flag it, basically you have voted it off the island. And that works. People are very positive about that.

Q: Why is Craigslist is so popular?

Newmark: We're a very simple, effective site. It doesn't hurt to be free. And, we have a pretty good culture of trust going. That means that I am committed to customer service, only as long as I live. My exit strategy is basically death.

Q: Craigslist seems like it would be simple to replicate. What prevents Rupert Murdoch from starting Rupertslist?

Newmark: Um, I haven't spoken with Rupert. But, in a way, anyone can do what we do, in terms of technology and function. And other sites have done that. But they are always doing so in order to make a lot of money, by building up an audience and selling it. People see that we run as a community service. Somehow that matters.

Q: Why doesn't Craigslist run banner ads?

Newmark: The basis for that decision was in late 1997. Microsoft Sidewalk people approached me about running banner ads. Even then I felt banner ads were often kind of stupid and slow a site down.

At the time I was an overpaid contract programmer figuring that I didn't need the money. I decided at that point no banner ads. I was making enough money to be comfortable. How much more money do you need?

Q: How "comfortable" has Craigslist made you?

Newmark: I am very comfortable. I can now afford a parking place, which is not often easy to get in San Francisco.

Q: Do classified ads simply work better online?

Newmark: I think so. Because online your ad can be as long as you want, it can include rich media, and if there's a mistake in it you can fix it fast. And once your need is satisfied, you can remove it fast. Those are pretty good advantages. When something is on paper, of course, you can't get rid of it really fast. It's going to be there for 24 hours. Or, if it's weekly, it will be there for a week.

Q: Is Craigslist a threat to newspapers, as people say?

Newmark: Not in a significant way. We do drain some revenue from some papers that rely on ads. But I have spoken to the industry analysts, and there is a bigger threat from the niche sites and niche papers. Sites like Monster are more of a threat because they suck away a lot more job ads. An even bigger threat is the pressure from Wall Street to get like 10 or 20 percent profit margins.

Maybe papers should focus on better Web sites, delivering the news better through the Net. Paper is just an expensive media. It's expensive to buy the ink, print the paper and deliver it.

Q: So newspapers wouldn't have so many problems if they put more resources online?

Newmark: No, that's just part of it. The part that concerns me most is the occasional failure to speak truth to power. Sometimes papers are good at that, sometimes not.

Suppose, hypothetically, that one's government was trying to produce a fraudulent case for going to war. You need the press to stop that from happening. We need that to continue working, or there's no telling what kind of foreign policy disaster might befall. So we need people asking tough questions and insisting on answers.

Q: Do you feel the press isn't doing its job?

Newmark: I would never say that. We have people like Helen Thomas who do a great job. I know she's terrorized Stephen Colbert. You probably saw the Pew Research report that says that the most knowledgeable Americans watch Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. For me, Colbert and Stewart are the most trusted names in news.

Q: So why do so many people say Craigslist is hurting newspapers?

Newmark: It's largely publishers who have, I guess, missed the boat. Sometimes it's easier to say something like that instead of taking responsibility.

Actually, not very many people say that. It's usually the same people repeating it over and over. Sometimes when you say something over and over, some people get the impression that it's true. But a lot of people in the business use our site. They use it to get stuff done.

Q: Investment bank Goldman Sachs has described Craigslist as "a real menace" to newspapers. You're not a menace?

Newmark: I would prefer to think of myself as a menace, because that would be exciting. They're being perhaps a trifle lazy.

Q: You're scheduled to appear next month at the annual convention of the Newspaper Association of America. Do you expect publishers will give you some heat about taking their classifieds?

Newmark: If so, I can give it back. Actually, I've spoken with classified ad managers before, and they like what we do. They regret not doing it themselves faster.

Journalism is changing in a big way right now. Sometimes newspaper people just want to hear my take on it, being a moderately informed outsider.

Q: How is journalism changing?

Newmark: I see professional and citizen journalism blurring together. The model of professional journalism involves writing, editing and fact checking. The stereotypical model of citizen journalism -- blogging -- involves publishing and then maybe having other people fact check. I see these blurring together. The result is going to be a much more serious kind of journalism with an increasing amount of trust in articles.

Q: Do you see a Wikipedia-like site coming forward in a journalism form?

Newmark: I see Wikipedia as something like that already. Wikipedia is where I think the history of our time is being written. The problem Wikipedia has is disinformation. They're still working on ways to prevent or fix that. And there are other people working on wiki-related news efforts. No one knows what's going to work out. Some will be great, some will fail. But the result hopefully will be that we'll get better and more trustworthy news.

Q: Any advice for newspaper publishers?

Newmark: I shouldn't be the person giving advice. But I would say philosophically they should perceive themselves as community services, not profit centers. If you're under pressure from Wall Street to make a 20 percent profit margin, you're following the wrong path.

We need newspapers to speak truth to power. Right now we have reporters in Washington who know when someone is lying, but they're afraid to say that for fear of losing access and the sources that are screwing them around anyway.

Q: What newspaper Web sites do you like?

Newmark: I like the New York Times a great deal. Sometimes I will dip into the U.K. Guardian. I read the San Francisco Chronicle, my local paper. The TV columnist, Tim Goodman, is very funny.

I read the Washington Post now and then. But I notice that a problem they seem to have is that their editorials will be often at odds with what the reporters are reporting. Like, the editorials will make a position, and yet the articles will wind up saying that those statements are false. It will usually involve politics and the White House. There is just odd stuff happening that I am not smart enough to understand. But even I can see very odd contradictions.

Q: Are you a fan of blogs?

Newmark: Very much so. I'm a blogger myself. I read a number of the gadget blogs, like Engadget and Gizmodo. I read Daily Kos, Instapundit, the Dilbert blog. If it's not clear, I do identify strongly with Dilbert. There's Consumerist, FishbowlNY, FishbowlDC, sometimes Gawker; stuff like that. And I read I Want Media, of course.

Q: Have you considered adding a news component to Craigslist?

Newmark: Not seriously. Right now our focus is on doing basically one thing really well. I kind of like the idea, in some ways. But we've never considered it in a serious way.

Q: Is online the future of news?

Newmark: Paper is so expensive. Maybe you will have your software running on the Net, collecting the news that you are interested in -- hopefully throwing in something at random -- and then you print out a small amount of stuff to read. And that is what you take with you to the café.

Q: What's next for Craigslist? Any changes?

Newmark: There will be probably more cities, better customer service. We are considering charging for job postings in more cities. As the markets grow more mature, they attract scams. Charging a token amount gets rid of most iffy ads.

Q: Do you get many offers from media companies to buy Craigslist?

Newmark: We get a feeler now and then. I don't know what I'd do with the money. I'm making what I need. And maybe a little more.

Q: Would you be interested in buying a newspaper?

Newmark: Nah. I don't mind helping out friends who are running sites, which in different ways help writers. Like, I send a little money to something called Litquake, which is a literary festival in San Francisco. And I have a microscopic investment in Daylife, a news aggregator.

Q: You're a backer of NewAssignment.net, a project of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Why did you become involved?

Newmark: From my point of view he is doing two things: He is accelerating the blurring together of professional and citizen journalism, and he is trying to find new ways to pay for investigative journalism.

We need more investigative journalism, to better fact check and expose when, let's say, a politician lies to us. There are PR firms run by politicians whose sole purpose is to disinform people. We need more people working to expose this.

Q: Do you feel guilty about any possible negative impact Craigslist might have on newspapers?

Newmark: Newspaper people tell me that I shouldn't. I've spoken to classified ad managers at conferences and on expo floors, and they just say, "Oh, take a few pens." You know, because they're always handing out pens.

Q: You don't believe that Craigslist could possibly jeopardize job opportunities for journalism school graduates?

Newmark: Nothing like that. There are bigger issues, like the end of objectivity. People like me, civilians, are looking for fairness -- not this broken model of objectivity. Like when you see a story on TV news, and the person is completely lying and the reporter knows it but doesn't challenge them. That's kind of distressing.

Q: Any advice for young journalists beginning their careers?

Newmark: You guys are going to be graduating into an uncertain, kind of scary environment. The advantage you have is that you grew up with more technology and you may be more open to it. Right now your potential capabilities actually frighten veteran journalists. I've spoken with a lot of mid-career journalists, and they think you guys are instant messaging while having conversations. And that kind of scares them. Of course, just think that 5-year-olds can do it better than you. So be aware of that.

Do what you can on the Net to build up some kind of online reputation. Who knows? You may be your own news provider. You may want to start working on your own personal brand. Maybe start a blog and see if people will pay attention. You may be your own network.






Questions by:
Whitney Dipollina
Katy Donoghue
Andrea Feczko
Cristina Gonzalez
Sarah Herse
Melissa Hom
Connie Kargbo
John Lichman
Kristen O'Gorman
Xana O'Neill
Ben Parsons
Jonas Pelli
Bianca Posterli
Eric Schutzbank
Derick Vollrath
Cari Wolfert

Photos by:
Everett Bogue








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