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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 4, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Craig Newmark interview: On journalism, partnering with Google and adding news to Craigslist

With the Internet giants turning their focus to local advertising, Wal-Mart starting a free classifieds site and newspapers running on fumes, it’s a perfect time to talk to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

Fortunately Newmark was in Seattle this week for the Authentication and Online Trust Alliance conference at the Seattle Westin.

The 55-year-old San Francisco Web phenomenon long ago turned management of his business to Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster, giving Newmark time to work on customer service and devote more time doing outreach and pursuing interests such as media. He’s also stepping up his philanthropy, backing efforts such as a microfinance program in the West Bank.

Here are edited excerpts of a conversation we had Wednesday at the conference:

Q: You mentioned that digital certificates may be a technical solution to spam that’s just around the corner?

A: It’s been just around the corner for years, at least as I perceive things.

There are real problems like the revocation of certificates, and which certificate authorities do you trust.

Q: Is that because people don’t want to trust someone like Verisign or Microsoft to manage the certificates?

A: I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of organizational and political matters. Maybe people aren’t tired enough yet of fraud and spam. At some point there will be a tipping point and then we’ll see it happen, but I thought the tipping point would have occurred years ago.

We’re probably going to have multiple [online] identities. We’ll choose them for different purposes. For example, when making political statements you may choose to use a private one.

Q: So you don’t have repurcussions?

A: You might want that in a regime that’s run by bad guys. Of course, that will cease to be an issue next January.

Q: I see you’ve got an Obama button. Are you on his fundraising committee?

A: I will help, but as a nerd I’m kind of fundraising or asking-for-money averse, but I will help them to do what’s necessary because I think you’ve got to stand up and be a patriot.

Q: You mentioned on stage that Craigslist implemented a captcha solution last night.

A: I hope I didn’t misspeak. We implemented a new generation of captchas.

Q: What’s the difference? What’s new?

A: I don’t know.

Q: OK, some new captcha stuff.

A: I would like to sit down with the programmer and understand it, and that could happen someday. But every time I do that, just indulging my curiosity, I’m taking the programmer away from actually doing stuff.

Q: Speaking of gateways, I wonder if you’ll ever put up a gate on the spicier side of Craiglist. Some of it is family friendly, some of it’s not. Have you thought about locking down the non-family friendly side?

A: I don’t know how we can lock it down in a way that works for people in real life. In terms of user community, people are pretty reasonable. They say that what we have is all people can reasonably expect from us. There are bad guys who abuse our site, but frankly, they learn that we’re good at helping the cops deal with them. So in general, if you’re looking to do evil, our site is not really a productive place to make that happen.

Q: I was coming at that from the perspective of a parent more than a cop. If you’re a parent, Craigslist is a don’t-go site for kids because that gateway is low.

A: What people have told me frankly is that if kids are going to look for racy material, they’re going to be disappointed on our site because there’s far more elsewhere.

Q: What do you think about Wal-Mart going into your business, with the free online classifieds service disclosed this week?

A: I don’t really know. All I’ve read is some of the reporting. Apparently what they’ve implemented is some kind of barter deal where you give them an ad somehow and they will use your ad as a billboard where they can stick up their own ad. Apparently that ad can compete with the ad put up by the community person.

Q: So if you advertise a used barbecue, they’ll put up an ad for a new barbecue?

A: So it’s not free ads, it’s kind of barter ads. In that case your ad has monetary value. Whatever Wal-Mart is charging to have that ad up there, that’s the value of your ad, so it’s maybe a barter deal. I haven’t analyzed the economics further than that.

Q: So you’re not too concerned about Wal-Mart coming into your space?

A: Well, we run as a community service and, again, our site is almost 100 percent free, so we just don’t think about competition. It’s just a distraction.

Q: I know other big companies have tried to compete with your service, such as Microsoft’s experiment with its “Fremont” listings service. But that seems more about building communities and traffic than commerce sites.

A: Right now from our point of view no one has tried competing with us because our model is community services. That’s a platitude, except you see we’ve been doing that for 13 years. The proof is in the track record.

Q: Speaking of emulation, newspapers are belatedly responding to competition from Craigslist. They are offering free merchandise listings. They’re trying to build community around their classifieds similar to what you did a decade ago. Are you seeing effects on your traffic from those efforts?

A: Can’t tell in terms of traffic, because we just get continuous slow growth. You know, it’s just slow but steady. It’s like in the race between tortoise and hare, and we’re always the tortoise. It’s hard to read much out of our traffic.

Regarding our effect on newspapers, for the most part it’s an urban myth. I’ve spoken to a lot of publishers, editors, industry analysts who say we do have a measurable effect on classified revenues but the niche sites, which have teams of aggressive sales people, they’re the big problem. There are a number of sites in the job space and the car space. They have sales people calling up people who advertise in the newspaper. We’ve gotten side-effected because sometimes those salespeople call people who advertise with us. When I hear about it I call up the salespeople and let them know that’s not OK.

Q: Real estate is probably the next area of erosion for newspapers. We’ve got niche sites like Zillow here that may pull away real estate ads. Your site has real estate listings but it hasn’t really developed them a lot. Are you going to do anything new and what’s going to happen with real estate sites online?

A: No plans with that. I don’t know what’s going to happen in that space. I do see increasing enforcement of real estate ethics.

I have a feeling we’ll see smarter stuff that can be done on a mobile device. Just think, if you’re trying to look at open houses, that’s a great location-based thing. I do think in terms of smartphones and location based things. We’re on the cusp of an inflection point.

Q: Are you going to start geotagging ads?

A: I don’t know. That would be a great question for me to ask some of the folks inside that I never get around to asking.

Q: So you’re an iPhone user.

A: I am using an iPhone. It is a pretty good device, with flaws. There are substantial bugs; maybe they’ll be fixed soon. This smartphone is much more stable than the prior two I had.

Q: I hear you have an Amazon Kindle.

A: I do have a Kindle, I like it a lot. It does have flaws, but it is a good device and I’m on my 23rd book and I have several more lined up. On a trip, typically I’ll have at least three books and on a long trip probably four. Now I just have a Kindle. My life is a little easier.

Q: That’s interesting, because one thing about Kindle is the digital rights attached to the books. Unlike if you buy a physical copy, when you’re done, you can’t give the books to a friend or sell them on Craigslist.

A: I am painfully aware of the plight, particularly of independent bookstores, and I want to help and I don’t know what to do about it. I could use some advice from Jeff Bezos, because I know he’s concerned.

Q: Have you talked to him much?

A: I met him a year ago, that’s it. I like his hair.

Q: Speaking of plight, you always come up in the newspaper conversation. Do you have any new thoughts on what newspapers should do to ensure their survival?

A: Nothing fresh or new. The big message is speak truth to power, because when the press forgets that, we get into things like foreign misadventures and the nation is weaker as a result. That will be addressed next January.

Q: How can newspapers pay for that reporting?

A: We need more and more aggressive investigative reporting. No one knows how that will be paid for. This is an area where I better defer to the experts.

Q: You mention national projects, like citizen journalists monitoring lobbyists. That sort of thing may get lots of traffic. But what about supporting small projects like investigating the mayor of a small town – stories that are important but may not get so much traffic?

A: I don’t know well, but the editor of the Denver Post pointed out that the newspapers that do well these days are the very local or the very national. So I do think there is a big market on the local side. It may require, though, some combination of professional and citizen reporters and, unfortunately, the big thought part that gets missed a lot is fact-checking and then you get reporters of any stripe who don’t report accurately.

Q: I worry about how newspapers will afford not just investigative reporting, but city hall reporting that isn’t as sexy and doesn’t generate as many clicks online — the mundane stuff we do that citizen journalists won’t do because it’s tedious and expensive.

A: That’s true in a number of areas, but in particular the city hall stuff — that was an episode of “The Wire.”

Q: I can’t afford premium cable so I haven’t seen that yet.

A: The DVDs … it’s a great show. I’m now going through “MI-5,” which is a great show. … The first part of season five was the best thriller/spy thing I’ve ever seen.

Q: Why don’t you start a newspaper or buy a newspaper?

A: The deal is, it’s just too big a distraction. We do something well. We don’t want to screw it up.

Leave journalism to the journalism professionals. My schtick is that I will help people who I can tell are doing good work. I can make noise on their behalf.

Q: Have you thought about adding news to your site, or using its reach to distribute news?

A: At some point there may be a good link, which given a Zip code or whatever, we’ll provide really good quality, trustworthy news for that geography. When I see something like that that’s reasonably mature, then I’ll go to Jim and say, hey, what do you think.

Q: Like a localized Google News?

A: I wouldn’t say localized news aggregator. They’re not the only ones doing good stuff. The idea is that trustworthiness is a big part. That’s what is pioneering.

The journalism stuff is like a hobby for me; it’s outside of Craigslist. Calling it a hobby diminishes it a bit. It’s serious.

Q: You built this platform. What else can you do with it?

A: Well, my hobby is helping other people who are already doing good stuff. There are lots of people on the Net doing really good stuff. They don’t get the buzz they need. So instead of adding confusion, I can point to good stuff, and then point to more good stuff.

Q: Local is the next wave of online advertising. For Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to keep growing, they’ve got to get more local advertising because that’s the biggest slice of the pie left. Won’t that put your site in their crosshairs, more than it has been in the past?

A: I don’t know, and all we’ve got to do is plug ahead, doing what we’re doing, acting on our values. That may work out forever, maybe not.

Q: I would think you would be an attractive partner to one of those big three companies as they look to increase their local presence, since you’ve done such a good job building local communities. You would get them ahead immediately, if they partnered with you.

A: Whatever we do has to be the right thing for the community.

Q: Could there be such partnerships in your future?

A: I don’t know. That’s a Jim question.

Q: There was a story yesterday saying that eBay — your current partner — may have been just a passing fad.

A: I don’t know the business end of things. I am more interested in the cultural end of things.

Q: I wonder if a reason eBay is fading is because everything’s gravitating toward local. You want that trust you get from dealing locally in your community.

A: A lot of people do love auctions. It’s fun for people who have that temperament. Speaking as a nerd, I don’t have the auction temperament.

Q: Here’s my theory about your recent challenges with eBay: I wonder if you are going to sort out that partnership, then enter a new one with another Internet giant. Maybe you’re just clearing the decks a bit.

A: I don’t know. The big guys — I respect Google. They seem to be taking seriously the “don’t be evil” mantra. They’re being standup about it. That’s good.

Q: I wonder if Google’s leaving the local commerce space open for a partner like you.

A: I don’t know, yeah.

Q: OK, no comment on that one?

A: I just don’t know, frankly. While I enjoy the sound of my own voice, sometimes I know that everyone is better off if I just stop talking. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Q: Are you friends with the guys at Google?

A: I’m friendly with [founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], but I still can’t tell them apart. Every time I see them, it’s a faux pas.

Q: Do you have much interaction with Microsoft?

A: Not much. We do chat and actually they’ve been pretty positive about helping out at times. That’s cool.

Q: My customer service question is that I get frustrated with people at Craigslist who constantly repost their items, so they’re on top of the list, messing up the signal-to-noise ratio.

A: If they’re doing that, we want to know about it because that breaks guidelines. Hopefully, we’re making slow but increasing progress regarding that.

Q: The guidelines allow posting just once a day?

A: Every 48 hours.

Q: So the signal-to-noise solution is to limit the frequency that individuals can post the same items?

A: Well, to prevent abuse in different forms. That’s just one of them.

Q: How has the site traffic been lately?

Right now, over 10 billion page views per month, 567 cities, 55 countries. (Yawns).

Q: Is it going down or up?

A: Traffic just keeps going up. Now and then there will be a dip. Like Thanksgiving through Christmas, there’s always a dip.

Q: I wonder what sort of economic indicator your site will be. Will people sell more stuff to pay the mortgage?

A: There’s a syndicated article that talks about that. We have seen an uptick in stuff for sale. If you’re starting to hurt, you sell your second TV to pay for gas or something. Tragic in many dimensions.

Q: How is the business doing?

A: We’re doing well enough that I don’t have to think about it.



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