In 1995, an unknown geek named Craig Newmark unconsciously started a service that would eventually grow into a huge business that would undermine the newspaper industry and wreak havoc across the globe, while at the same time creating a means for others to communicate with others freely and easily using a new invention called the World Wide Web.
That invention was the now ubiquitous website known as “craigslist.org.” Begun as a means for the newly arrived Newmark to find cool stuff to do in the city he transplanted himself to (San Francisco), the service that started as a mailing list eventually became a website and by now has translated itself into serving 550 cities in more than 50 countries.
According to some sources, Craigslist is worth more than $400 million and has a potential market cap of $5 billion. That revenue potential comes from the fees it charges for job listings in some major markets (11 cities in all, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco), as well as the revenue it might have were it to begin charging for such services everywhere. In the beginning, Craigslist was a hobby, but now it’s a business, and according to the Alexa indexing site, it is the 10th largest trafficked site in the English language across the entire World Wide Web.
And who hasn’t used Craigslist at one time or another? I personally have used it to find jobs, apartments, odds and ends, and even dates, depending on what city I am in and what I happen to be needing at any given moment. Built originally for a majordomo mail-list, the service became a website and is now available throughout the world.
But while many have found the service useful, there are some in the newspaper industry who wish it had never existed. Indeed, at a recent conference of the newspaper industry held in San Diego, many newspaper CEOs held a private session where they discussed how to respond to Craigslist.
The reality of the situation, as one industry heavy said to me (on condition of anonymity), is that, “We used to see many millions of dollars, collectively, as an industry, from the sales of classified ads. The reality of the situation is that those sales are gone forever, and with the loss of the sales, you see many journalism jobs going away for good.”
The reality of that is that many people who relied on either community newspapers for their news or community newspapers for their livelihoods have shrunk to the point where no one can afford to hire new journalists or continue to cover their neighborhoods and small communities as they once did. Small papers are falling apart across the country, even as the trend seems to suggest that “hyper-local” news, such as is offered by entities ranging from the Noe Valley News (a newspaper that covers a community within a 20-block radius in San Francisco) to the AOL behemoth Patch.com, is the wave of the future.
But neither of those services will survive without advertising, a sad fact that many in the new media world refuse to own up to in the wake of traditional journalism’s decline.
Newmark may or may not care about the collapse of such entities in the wake of the popularity of his service. Pointed questions delivered to his mailbox about these issues were met with the deadpan response of his publicist, who noted that, “Craig chooses not to answer any more questions about Craigslist, but is more interested in discussing news regarding his latest project, craigconnects.org.”
His latest project is indeed called Craigconnects, and it lists Newman’s personal pet projects, which at the moment include military families and veterans, back to basics journalism, public diplomacy, open government, consumer protection, technology for the common good, and voter protection. Each of these sections names which groups Newmark serves as an advocate, consultant or board member, but the craigconnects.org homepage shows his latest interests, which include Internet Freedom Day and the Sandy Hook Promise, which is a proposal to end gun violence in America in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy.
But while Newmark might have you believe that his reported wealth has not excised him from the concerns of the common man, his interests belie other notions entirely. Under the section titled “Back to Basics Journalism,” for example, Newmark backs the work of the Huffington Post. Perhaps one of the more popular websites for news in the United States, Huffington was created by millionaire heiress Arianna Huffington and was built around the premise that journalism is not a vocation, for which one should be paid, but an avocation, for which one should work for free.
Could this be the same Newmark that believes that journalism needs greater ethics and more responsibility in order to function more effectively? Doesn’t it occur to Newmark that in order for journalism to work effectively, it may require a paid staff and a few paid fact-checkers to make sure that the stories were correct? I really wanted to know the answer, and so I contacted his publicist. I was told that Newmark no longer answers questions about Craigslist, but that he’s more than willing to answers questions about Craigconnects. And so I asked just two questions:
“In the section titled ‘Back to Basics Journalism,’ Newmark says that he supports the work of the Huffington Post. Is Mr. Newmark aware that the entire premise of Huffington was the journalists should not be paid? Does he support the notion that journalists are not worthy of a living wage in the execution of their works?”
I have yet to receive a reply from Newmark. I suspect that in the spirit of the new elite that now dominates the news media, I am unlikely to ever hear one. Where the entities of new media once heralded the age of a new world where access to information would tear apart old media hierarchies, few pundits ever addressed what might happen if everyone had access to a blog — but no one had access to an infrastructure that would ensure fairness and accuracy and a paycheck to ensure that someone had a good reason to put good stories into the public realm.