Craig Newmark is an entrepreneur whose no-frills Web listing service, Craigslist.org, has since 1995 come to dominate the classified advertising market in the Bay Area and dozens of other cities around the world. By offering almost all services for free, he may well be responsible for depriving newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News of millions of dollars a year in advertising.
Even as traditional sources of news -- or "mainstream media" -- struggle to compete with the Internet, however, Mr. Newmark isn't putting much faith in their ability to safeguard the republic. After adding robust discussion forums and his own personal Web log, Mr. Newmark (whose unique official title is "customer service representative and founder") is now using his prominence to advocate for the creation of alternative news media technologies that allow ordinary news consumers to become news producers.
He spoke with John McManus at his favorite cafe in San Francisco's Cole Valley neighborhood, where he lives.
I've read that you're interested in journalism and where it's going now.
The country is in some trouble, because the media, which is supposed to provide a check and balance on government, has decided to stop doing that as a collective entity. There's a good article on that in Salon, especially focusing on the White House press corps, which is possibly the hub of the news business in this country. With the exception of the efforts of Helen Thomas, no one is taking their job seriously there. Now it could be that they could be under a directive to not do so. We don't know. I've spoken to a lot of journalists now who are very frustrated.
What do you think is causing this ineffectual journalism?
My understanding from talking to a lot of people in the business has been that it used to be that a newspaper was considered a community service. Now they're being run as profit centers, and they're trying to get pretty high profit margins. As a result, investigative reporting has been seen as a problem.
Yes, it's very expensive to do, and often angers powerful individuals.
A lot of publishers have close relationships with people in power. So the press, which used to speak truth to power, doesn't. The big result of that has been the erosion of trust.
So the lack of trust in the media is well earned in your view?
The Cindy Sheehan situation is a great case in point. Her basic point is that she feels the White House should be accountable to the electorate, and she feels that the media should hold the White House accountable. And the media has failed, and the press hasn't really covered that. They've also given coverage to obvious disinformation scams.
So what as a society do we do about that?
I think we have a tipping point coming in journalism but I want it to come faster.
On the positive side there are a number of efforts to address this. I recently realized that a good example is Wikipedia. It used to be that the victors wrote the history books. With Wikipedia and other efforts, there's a much better chance that ordinary individuals who know what's going on can write the histories, and that's a major change in the way news and history are written -- and notice I'm bringing together both.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that's open to revision by the public. But the news is generally about what happens today or this week -- what are the current issues. My guess is the average person doesn't turn to Wikipedia in the morning as a substitute for listening to the radio or reading the newspaper.
Wikipedia is already accomplishing a lot, but I think its potential is only starting to happen.
What other efforts to address the problems in journalism do you see as hopeful?
There's a lot of good community journalism efforts. Backfence comes to mind, the one in Bakersfield and Dan Gillmor's efforts. Dan is also very connected to all these efforts. So is Jeff Jarvis. Jeff knows a lot about efforts that are going on, especially efforts that no one can talk about yet.
Do you see that kind of community journalism, where average people go out and report the news, as a good substitute for what's going on now? A corrective?
Yes. I do think professional and citizen journalism will blur together, because we will find that some amateurs are as talented as a professional journalist. Plus, if you have thousands or millions of people doing fact-checking, that's a big deal. I'm a dilettante in this matter, and my contribution may just be to make noise and stop talking. I'm hoping that in these emerging efforts, people are talking to each other, and form networks. I think we have a tipping point coming in journalism but I want it to come faster.
There are considerable problems we face in any of these alternative models of doing media. For example, one of the key questions that Dan Gillmor has to face with citizen journalism is: If people don't trust professional reporters to go out and get the story of, say, what happened at a PTA meeting or a city council, are they going to trust someone who is -- a parent, perhaps -- who has an agenda and is not a trained writer or investigator and feels no compunction to disclose their conflicts of interest?
People will take it with a grain of salt. But as pieces accumulate, as the mechanisms accumulate, people will discover who seem to be the trustworthy writers, and go with them. With what people are doing with reputation mechanisms -- Wikipedia is doing the same thing without a reputation system, and they seem to be succeeding -- they need to understand that better. But I'm hoping to meet with Jimmy Wales soon, he's the guy who's behind Wikimedia.
So you're hopeful that not too long from now, some new way of creating a community-service form of news will emerge from the various efforts that are underway at this point, or various efforts that might be launched in their wake?
I think the efforts are emerging. Of the ones we're seeing now, plus some in stealth mode, a chunk of them will succeed. And all you need is one, and then everything changes. That might be taken as a model that might be reproduced elsewhere. There's OhMyNews that's already a success in Korea, and Korea is one of countries taking the lead in broadband penetration.
Which of these do you see as the most promising -- of the ones you know about -- among the efforts to bring news back to its true character?
I don't know. All of these efforts are good technologically. But technology is the easy part. The hard part relates to trust and just getting people to use them. All I know is what's happened with Craigslist. My perspective is pretty narrow.
Are you at this point investing in any of these endeavors?
Could be. If I were to make a significant contribution to Wikipedia, for example, given that it is a journalism effort, ultimately, would that be considered an investment?
I would say so.
I would appreciate that. But I can't announce anything at the moment, prematurely, given that I have to keep my people in the loop. I owe it to them. We'll see.
Are there any other uses of technology to make news better that you've heard of or dreamed about?
I do think a big technology is maybe is the kind of flexible screen that you can roll out of your cell phone or some kind of other flexible device. I think three companies are predicting mass markets for these in the next several years. That could be interesting. Hook it up to cell-phone or Wi-Fi technology. In 10 years they may be big enough to be your TV.