Business

Paper or pixels?

Last month, Craig Newmark visited The Times for a discussion with editors and members of the paper's editorial board. Below is a partial transcript.

Craig Newmark: You will observe that my being a nerd informs pretty much everything I say. Briefly, I will say that the plastic pocket protector thing was literally true in my case in high school. The thick-black-glasses-taped-together part is literally true. Within the past couple days I blogged someone else blogging my high school yearbook photo. You'll see it's titled, "My wall of hair," since it's not only irony but a reference to a Seinfeld episode….

I am now increasingly engaged with media, not just as maybe being interviewed but how media is changing, what's its future, and there's a lot of things going on. And it feels smart and right to do so since, you know, you have to have journalists asking difficult questions, especially in Washington; I may have that conversation with Phil Bronstein next week. Tangentially, I'll mention for your amusement that I'm doing something at the Berkeley J-School, where I'll actually have visiting hours and Phil and I will be onstage at the j-school itself. This should be terribly surreal. He's promised he has no interest in hurting me….


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article mispelled Meredith Artley's last name as Artly and ProPublica as Pro Puplica.


Robert Greene, L.A. Times: Craig, let me ask you if I could, since the history of Craigslist and newspapers have kind of started out from innovation on the one side and denial on the other and has sort of grown to where you're now talking about your role in journalism and what journalism is going to look like in the future. What do you take away from where Craigslist is now intersecting with journalism? What should we in a newspaper take away from that?

Newmark: When I speak about that, I'm speaking only for myself, not for Craigslist. And frankly, I've had usefully humbling experiences in that I realize that what I need to do is find people who know this stuff and then talk to them and try to come up with some kind of synthesis….

And basically, what I'm hearing from them is, and what I'm seeing too -- I was on a panel with Dean Singleton -- what people seem to want are a few sources of national news overall and then a lot of very local stuff, because now and then we do care about really big issues, and that's important, and for that reason people do want national newspapers in some form. And that's why I recently, for the first time ever, subscribed to the New York Times. If you're ever talking to Arthur Sulzberger, tell him you've heard about the mysterious Wendy who convinced me to subscribe to the Times. It's a running joke.

We also need to see the hyper-local stuff, and I think that's the way many newspapers are going to survive, because, you know, we may not care about what's happening across the country, but we may care about the guy walking his dog in a neighborhood. I guess what we care about is what's happening around us, because we all do live in neighborhoods and communities, and in our culture now, we have this Bowling Alone effect, where we do feel frequently isolated from the people around us. You know, you might live in a big building where you don't know the people around you, or if you live in a neighborhood that's more modest -- no high-rises or whatever -- you may want to get to know the people around, because we do have that need to connect. But, you know, the mechanisms for that don't really exist very well.

On going hyper-local, everything I've learned suggests that that makes sense. In that regard, I guess I'm speaking -- well, at Craigslist my title is customer service rep and founder. I'm going down now to half-time customer service rep; I've been on the job too long and I've seen too many things I would rather not have seen. And again, those of you who work with discussion boards on the paper, you'll see it. I've been continuously engaged with the community for going on 14 years now, and I could use a bit of a break.

But outside of Craigslist, just within the last month I've realized that what I really am overall is I'm a community organizer. And that may be a role played by the local-ish papers in the future, and that may be a role played by a number of the people on staff here, particularly the people who are going to be engaged with people in the community. And that means anyone who is blogging plus whoever moderates any discussion boards you have.

You will have to a very thick skin, by the way. We've had at least one person who just couldn't take it and had to leave, and even I'm a little scarred by that. Again, cops are terribly amused when I talk about this.

So the newspaper stuff: Either go very national or very local, and the continuous engagement thing is for real, and the tangential lessons are the ones you've heard. But they're for real, that is, you want to be very careful about how you engage someone who is looking for attention and isn't good at dealing with people.

Jon Healey, L.A. Times: What do you see being the business model for a hyper-local newspaper?

Newmark: I'm probably not going to tell you anything you haven't heard already. I do think it will be advertising in different forms; on the hyper-local stuff, it'll be ma and pa shops. I think there will be a sponsorship model involved.

Healey: Why would mom and pop come to the newspaper platform as opposed to something like what you guys are doing or what else is out there on the market? Because what we're hearing from advertisers is that there are better platforms out there that are more efficient platforms reaching the audience.

Newmark: Well, I'm stretching here, but I'm of the impression that local ma and pa stores -- or restaurant or whatever, dry-cleaning service -- they want to get your attention, and that's a matter for display ads, not classifieds. And we're classifieds. We have services sections, which people, uh, posting, and they say they find are effective.

But, you know, speaking as a consumer, what I might react to would be, say, seeing some display ad while I'm going about other business -- let's say, looking at news or something like that, or for that matter doing a local search. Your competition there is really Google or similar, not us, especially as they get smarter and smarter about location-based services. I have one of the newer iPhones and I'm fooling around a little bit with some of the location-based stuff, and I sense a lot of value in that, although for the time being GPS is too slow to use. It has helped me not be lost a couple times, but its future for location-based services is a couple years off I guess….

Healey: Back to the idea of a citizen journalist. In your mind is that somebody who is a professional in the sense that they're doing it to make a living, or is it simply somebody who is not affiliated?

Newmark: It's going to be all the above over time. There will be citizen journalists who wind up in a, let's say, newsroom kind of network, probably virtual and distributed. And some of them will coalesce, particularly if there's some real leadership. The best example is the Huffington Post.

Healey: That's a great business model too -- you don't pay your writers.

Newmark: There is that, and I am one of them…. But we'll see, then, looser, weaker networks of talented writers who maybe wind up being some of your natural allies who may feed into your organization or similar. But networking is going to be probably the biggest critical success factor, as we used to say at IBM, and right not it's the size of your network that may determine success in large part. And you will be, you know, involving amateur writers, since some of them will provide some really useful stuff to you and help out.

I would like to see networks of fact-checkers, but I don't know if that's exciting or sexy enough for people to do. In my fantasy life, we would see fact-checking becoming a new, distinct, big profession, but that's probably just my fantasy life since I can't see people paying people to do full-time fact-checking, at least in substantial numbers.

Healey: We have at least two full-time blogs in L.A. devoted to fact-checking the L.A. Times on a daily basis.

Newmark: OK, I've missed that and that's my mistake. In that case, please humor me and take a look at factchecked.org, because frankly, I want to see more fact-checking throughout the whole country and the world. And, you know, if a high-school kid gets into it and does a good job at it, that looks good on their college application, and that's part of my long-term effort to get more people interested in that kind of thing.

Jim Newton, L.A. Times: Other people probably know the answer to this, so pardon me. But where does the money for Craigslist come? We don't pay to post an ad, so do you -- where does the revenue come from?

Newmark: Here's the deal: Basically, the answer is, we charge for job postings in 18 cities … and that's under-market. It's 25 bucks per ad. And we charge for apartment listings in New York City, where real estate is a blood sport. We run pretty lean…. It was in 1999 when I made it into a real company. I asked people in our community, "Hey, what's the right way to pay the bills and do a bit beyond?" And people said charge advertisers who already pay too much for less effective ads, and the strongest consensus was regarding job ads and real estate ads. And that works for us.

The site is still almost 100% free, and as I remind people, we are not a non-profit even though it kind of looks that way; we are not noble or altruistic or anything like that; we just start doing what feels right to us, and that seems to work out….

Meredith Artley, L.A. Times: How do you measure the success of Craigslist?

Newmark: We don't do much in the way of formal measurement. We look at our own page-view numbers and make a guess based on that because our site is so cache-friendly -- cache C-A-C-H-E friendly -- and we just look at that and what people e-mail us. We look at some of the free ratings services, frankly … and see our traffic growing. It'll dip on Thanksgiving and Christmas; we know that. But those are the measures of success we have. It's all very casual and informal….

So we measure success only through looking at some numbers and anecdotes and so on; we're not very formal. We don't have much in the way of meetings of any sort….

Marjorie Miller, L.A. Times: Who do you think is going to pay for news gathering as we go forward?

Newmark: There are people exploring it…. My guess is that people will pay. Well, here's what I would pay for it: I would pay for subscription services, which would give me good, trustworthy news that I trust has been fact-checked and all that. So I do think subscription services will work, but that's for upper-middle class and above. I think we're going to see a return to the sponsorship model that we saw in the '50s and '60s on TV. Of course, that may be just because I've been watching "Mad Men" too much….

I do think we will see the public service model and philanthropy model like ProPublica. So I think we're going to see some hybrid on that. Beyond that I don't know. Frankly, I thought I was going to be more involved let's say a year or two ago in this kind of stuff. But that's when I started talking to these guys … and I realized how far out of my depth I was.

Miller: Do you read a newspaper?

Newmark: I read the Times every day.

Miller: Which Times?

Newmark: Oh, New York Times.

Miller: In paper?

Newmark: Yes…. I'm old enough, of course, so I like reading the paper over coffee. So first thing in the morning after customer service, I'll go down to a neighborhood café, and I'll have the Times and have a latte or something … and that works for me.

I think paper is too expensive as a medium. In my industry, the computer industry, the paperless office has been predicted for many years and hasn't really begun to happen. But I do think paper is a luxury item….

Newton: Are you worried at all that your system for … policing the comments on your site pre-supposes that there will be, that offensive material will go up for a certain amount of time until people catch it and bring it back down? Does that bother you at all that you're providing in essence a forum for the distribution of material that you find offensive?

Newmark: I don't like it, and my response is simply to try and find better ways to do it. The thing is that it is a very open and democratic system, and there is a guy who said that Democracy is a lousy form of government, but it's the best we've tried. He's not writing much anymore. On the other hand, Jon Stewart got Jefferson to write the foreward for his book, so I guess it can work.

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