By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
Craig Newmark's stubby fingers tap at the keyboard in an irregular, accelerating rhythm, akin to kernels in a microwave popcorn bag approaching peak heat.
Newmark peers into one of three computer monitors on his home office desk. The screen displays, in plain black-and-white text, the focus of Newmark's daily life -- much of it, anyway. It's in an e-mail program called Pine, favored by geeks of all ages, partly because it renders the mouse nearly useless. Pine users are, like Newmark, the type who derive an almost perverse pleasure from deleting a message by simply pressing the "D" key, rather than undertaking the laborious task of clicking on a trash can icon. Newmark pores over his inbox, which receives about 300 messages daily.
Clack. Clack. Clack. Click-ity-clack-ca-clack.
Every so often, he turns to the left, and his own moving image, collected by a computer video camera, stares back at him from a small laptop screen. Newmark is a young-looking 52, despite his nearly bald pate and stout physique. He wears a deep purple shirt tucked into black pants, fashionable trapezoid-framed glasses, and the perpetual awkward smirk of a middle-aged man who never quite let go of his nerdiness.
There's an e-mail from his nutritionist, who has analyzed data from the pedometer that inhabits Newmark's pocket. "Over the course of two-thirds of the year, I averaged 8,300 steps a day," Newmark says, "but in the last two weeks, I averaged 9,800." His sense of humor is so dry, it's unclear whether he is actually proud of this, and if he is aware that reciting it makes him sound like Rain Man. It's hard to believe this is theCraig Newmark, the Robin Hood of the Internet, who's now sending shock waves through the newspaper industry and becoming a major voice in a movement to reshape the media.
The offices of Craigslist, the mostly free classifieds site Newmark co-founded a decade ago, are less than a mile to the west, but he spends most of his workweek here, at the Inner Sunset house his girlfriend teasingly calls his "swank new bachelor pad." Newmark moved in in October, and his progress does much to reveal his priorities: The wall that will separate the bedroom from the bathroom has yet to be built, but two brand-new, widescreen televisions (one in the living room, one at the foot of the bed) are fully functional.
Newmark lightly rubs his index finger over the pink keyboard nub that programmers call the "nipple mouse." The arrow on the screen dashes from the left monitor to the right. A Web page shows Newmark the ads that have been "flagged" -- some users thought the posts were spam, fraud schemes, or other misbehavior. In the forums, where Craigslist community members debate and commiserate in an online free-for-all, Newmark acts as benevolent dictator -- the editor in chief, as it were, of Craigslist.org. He decides who's suspended, who's deleted, and who is relegated to the "Island of Misfit Threads" with a single click.
"This guy's a bigot," he says, pointing to a post that reads "my boss is a jew." Newmark adds: "I've seen him before.
"He's gone." Clack! "This guy is troubled, just a nasty piece of work. He's welcome as long as he behaves like an adult," Newmark says, in his best imitation of a junior high principal. "I've spoken about it with him ...." He trails off, moving to the next flag, which alerts him to a group spamming the erotic services section. Newmark blocks them from posting by clicking a button that reads "Sweep the Leg!," a jokey reference to an illegal kick by one of the bad guys in The Karate Kid. Two other Craigslist employees monitor the posts, but there's no simple way to pass on the knowledge Newmark has gained fighting spam, essentially by hand, for almost 10 years.
This is how the multimillion-dollar global corporation that is Craigslist Inc. remains operational: with the founder sitting at home for hours a day, pointing and clicking on a "Sweep the Leg!" button. Yet the consequences of this bare-bones behemoth's rise now stretch far beyond Newmark's home and the Craigslist community.
Almost by accident, Newmark built one of the Internet's most successful sites, creating a free marketplace for millions that continues to grow around the country and the world. Among the unintended consequences of Craigslist's growth, though, is that it's sucking away significant dollars in classified advertisements from already-struggling newspapers. Bay Area papers alone forfeit at least $50 million annually to Craigslist, losses that contribute to layoffs of dozens of reporters. As fearful publishers cut newsroom jobs, inferior news coverage is the likely outcome. Craigslist's devoted fans are unknowingly exchanging one public service for another -- trading away the quality of their news for a cheaper way to find an apartment. At the same time, Craigslist's executives won't disclose the amount of money they're pulling in.
Newmark now suffers from a moral dilemma: He feels guilty about helping cause job losses and poorer-quality papers, but he's excited to accelerate the decline of the big, bad mainstream media. He seems determined to remedy his sins against the media by changing it for the better, lending his name and dollars to a citizen journalism movement populated by J-school professors, idealistic techno-futurists, and so-called citizen journalists. A self-described news dilettante, Newmark believes his recent journalism-related work could be more important than Craigslist. Citizen journalism, though, may not be enough to plug the news hole created by his site's success. Newmark's well-intentioned campaign to repair the institution he inadvertently injured could very well be in vain.
On the Saturday before Halloween, Newmark walks onto the open-air back patio of Reverie, the Cole Valley cafe he visits at least once every day. He wears his standard black cap, of the style favored by hip hop moguls and elderly golfers, and the top three buttons of his green shirt are unfastened. The furniture is full of droplets from the previous night's rain, so he heads back inside and asks the guy behind the counter for a dish towel. Reverie is Newmark's own little Craigslist-like community: The staff and regulars know him here; it's where he met his girlfriend and found an architect to remodel his new house.
He sits down and clasps his hands together, ready for the morning's challenge -- discussing how his community site came to deprive the newspaper industry of tens of millions of dollars per year, and describing what, exactly, he plans to do about it.
The average person who posts an apartment for rent on Craigslist has no clue that the decision affects her local newspaper. All she knows is that, by filling out a short form, she can attract a dozen potential renters to her doorstep that weekend. No fees, no spam, no annoying pop-up ads. The same is true for personals, used car sales, and, in most cities, jobs.
The hidden cost, though, is that newspapers (including SF Weekly) make their money largely, or solely, via advertising. Media businesses are cagey about revealing how much revenue comes from classifieds, but the percentage share is usually well into the double digits, and profit margins are high. A five-line, text-only ad for a used car in the San Francisco Chronicle costs $39 for 10 days. Compare that to Craigslist, which offers as much space as you need, plus photos, for free. With millions of newspaper readers choosing Craigslist, newspaper revenue losses are adding up.
The hardest-hit publications are in the Bay Area, which accounts for about one-quarter of Craigslist's traffic. The Chronicleand its competitors lose more than $50 million per year because of job ads that have migrated to Craigslist, according to a 2004 report by Bob Cauthorn, the former vice president of digital media at ChronicleWeb site SFGate.com, who is now working on his own media venture, City Tools.
In the past year, the number of Craigslist Bay Area job postings per month has almost doubled, to more than 20,000.
The San Jose Mercury News alone misses out on $12 million annually in employment ad revenue because of Craigslist, according to recent estimates by Lou Alexander, who retired as the paper's advertising operations director two years ago. (Both studies accounted for the fact that not all Craigslist posters would otherwise have bought ads in papers.) A few million is a relatively small loss for Knight Ridder, the $3 billion chain that owns the Merc, but it's a fortune inside an individual newsroom. In November, Merc Publisher George Riggs cut 52 editorial and eight business employees, laying off the entire staff of community papers Viet Mercury and Nuevo Mundo and buying out dozens more in the Merc's newsroom. This saved the Mercury about $6 million in salaries by losing 16 percent of the editorial staff but offset only half of its Craigslist-related annual losses.
The Chroniclerecently bought out 91 of an expected 120 employees, many of them in editorial.
"[Publishers] wouldn't say: 'Of 52 buyouts we offered, 17 of them were from Craigslist,'" says John McManus, director of Bay Area journalism watchdog site GradeTheNews.org. "But there's no question that some of these losses in reporters are due to classified ads migrating from newspapers to the Internet." As Craigslist continues its rapid expansion beyond the Bay Area, those staffing cuts could be a harbinger of things to come at newspapers across the country.
The trouble is, outside the media industry and its watchdogs, no one seems to care. U.S. newsroom employment fell by 1 percent last year, to a total of just over 54,000, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It was the lowest number of editorial staffers since 1997, and judging by high-profile buyouts and layoffs at the likes of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, that figure will drop again in 2005.
Fewer reporters often means lower-grade news coverage. "When a newsroom suffers cutbacks, its journalism becomes less ambitious," says McManus. "There may be as many stories, but fewer have depth and include investigation." The lack of quality articles repels readers, and circulation and revenue decrease further, in a vicious cycle.
It's tough to convince the average reader that one of the causes of inferior newspaper articles was her placement of an ad on Craigslist instead of in the paper. And yet, in aggregate, the numbers make that case. "The public gets to save a few bucks on classified advertisements," McManus says, "but given the reliance of participatory government on newspapers, it may be no bargain at all for society."
Craigslist, of course, isn't the only threat to newspapers' survival, and Newmark is quick to pin the media's problems on market forces and the publishers themselves -- and off of Craigslist.
"The media was changing anyway, because papers are too expensive and we'll soon have these flexible screens which could be rolled up into your cell phone," he says. "Meanwhile investigative journalism is suffering. It's too expensive for the profit margins that a lot of papers want to have. So those reporters are getting fired or reassigned." Newmark continues, rattling off a laundry list of problems with the news media, most of which he's learned from dozens of hours logged in conversation with media analysts and pundits.
Declining readership is chief among those troubles: Circulation during the past six months was down 2.6 percent from the year before, the largest drop in almost 15 years, according to the Newspaper Association of America. This is partly due to demographics, because the "greatest generation" reads newspapers at more than triple the rate its grandchildren do, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Less local coverage, the rise of the Internet, and the fast pace of wired life draw millions more away from reading their local daily. Trading sites such as eBay and companies such as Google that sell display advertising online deprive papers of millions more in revenue they'd relied upon for decades.
While the failings of the modern newspaper industry are many, if Craigslist wasn't costing them big bucks, it's unlikely that publishers would have created a host of Craigslist-copycat sites. BackPage, the mostly free classifieds site launched last year by SF Weekly's corporate parent, New Times, is only slightly more commercial than Craigslist, offering additional paid services that place an ad higher in the listings or print it in the paper. While it stopped the bleeding of classifieds from New Times papers, Senior Vice President Scott Spear admits that BackPage has little chance of overtaking Craigslist in its established cities. Nationally, BackPage has 1.8 million visitors per month, less than the number Craigslist attracts in the Bay Area alone.
Even ChroniclePublisher Frank Vega, who plays down Craigslist's damage to his own paper, concedes that as the site grows nationally, its future effects on the media are unknown. "I don't have a crystal ball," Vega says. "Craigslist, a year or two from now, [maybe] we'd look at that as the main drain of dollars from what used to be our business."
In the face of this criticism, Newmark has answers at the ready. As a high schooler, he was a debater, reportedly a very good one, and he makes good use of debating tricks to address the issue. For example, deny the truth of your opponent's statement: "It's an overstatement that we're costing [newspapers] $50 million." Next, blame the problem on something else: "I think newspapers need to return to being community services and not look for high profit margins." When in doubt, play dumb: "My understanding is that a lot of them [value high profits], and that's not the way to do it. I'm speaking ... I'm repeating what I've heard other people say. I'm out of my depth here. I am a dilettante."
Newmark uses words like "dilettante" and "amateur" often. They absolve him of responsibility for any statement he makes. Yet he's spent the past year speaking out on media matters, at lectures and panels sponsored by everyone from Google to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and he knows people are listening to what he says.
"Among my efforts is exploiting my superpower of creating noise, and hopefully my superpower to stop talking if and when the time comes," Newmark says. "These are my special abilities, and I've sworn to use my abilities only for good and never for personal gain." He stares forward, satisfied. His tone is sarcastic, but some part of him is a pre-pubescent comic book reader who always wanted to say that.
Although Newmark believes Craigslist's effect on the media is exaggerated, he now feels a duty to help save newspapers from themselves. The speeches are part of a larger campaign, rooted in a belief that, besides evading technological and market changes, today's newspapers aren't doing their jobs. Newmark especially faults reporters for being cowed by the Bush administration into banging the drum for war in Iraq.
"It stems from his frustration with these obsequious mouthpieces for whatever the administration wants to get across," Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster says. "The last thing either of us feels we need from the elite media folks to the government administration is reinforcement messages and apologist pronouncements. We both feel that that's harmful." It almost sounds like a quote from radical intellectual Noam Chomsky (Buckmaster is a big fan).
Newmark may not share his CEO's politics, but he has similar sentiments about American journalism. He is critical of daily newspapers mainly because he's a news junkie himself. The sounds of National Public Radio waft through Newmark's house from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed. News is the background music of his life. He's a frequent reader of blogs, books, and, yes, newspapers. "Craig and I both love newspapers," says Buckmaster. "We're both avid readers of newspapers. It's not as though we're out to get the newspapers."
Newmark and Buckmaster believe that Craigslist itself is a public good. "What we're providing has been found, and is being found, to be tremendously useful by millions of people who wouldn't have access to any means of getting the word out about what they're trying to do in their lives," Buckmaster says. "It's whether your sympathies lie with those millions of folks who need something like what we're providing, or whether you want to put your sympathies with the billion-dollar media conglomerates and whether their profit margins decline from 30 percent to 25 percent."
Unfortunately, Buckmaster neglects to mention Craigslist's effect on smaller papers and chains. Embarcadero Publishing Co., which owns Palo Alto Weekly and five other local community papers, lost enough revenues from Craigslist to lead it to establish Fogster, another Craigslist-copycat site. Fogster reversed Palo Alto Weekly's downward advertising trend but couldn't win over all of Craigslist's converts. "There's no way we'll get back all the business," says Embarcadero CEO William Johnson. "For a lot of advertisers, once they've used Craigslist ... it's difficult to pull them back into something else, even if it's equally or more effective." For the most part, Craigslist only affects smaller papers near major metropolitan areas, but every month it opens sites in places like Fresno and Bakersfield.
To Craigslist's executives, the consequences for competitors and other industries aren't important. Their choices are justified, they believe, by what the user community asks for.
"Our sympathies have to lie with our users, who tell us they really value having a service like this," Buckmaster says. "Having a free unlimited site where you can post all your needs and connect with others, hopefully that's a powerful thing to have. Someone's gonna provide it."
But it's not the users who are getting rich off of Craigslist.
In 1993, after 17 years as an IBM programmer on the East Coast and in the Southeast and Midwest, Newmark decided it was time for a change. He fled to the Bay Area and began a job working on Charles Schwab's computer architecture. Two years later, he started an e-mail list to alert friends to local events. As subscriber numbers grew, people started sending in apartment and job listings, so Newmark created Craigslist.org to display their posts. When Buckmaster joined the company in 2000, Craigslist was still based in Newmark's Cole Valley flat, but the site attracted hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. In the meantime, to keep pace with costs, Craigslist began charging a small fee to businesses that posted job listings, and incorporated as a for-profit.
During the dot-com bubble, thousands of start-ups that originated as free sites (including Yahoo!, eBay, and Google) monetized their services on the way to multimillion-dollar public offerings. Newmark didn't. First implicitly, and later deliberately, with the help of community input, he made decisions that undoubtedly left millions of dollars on the table. He pledged to keep the site as free as possible for users and refused to accept advertising. Newmark was two decades older than most of the bubble-era wunderkinds; he knew that taking venture capital funding meant giving up control of the site, so he rejected investment offers. Newmark and Craigslist's early employees were the site's sole shareholders until last year, when an ex-employee sold a minority 25 percent stake to eBay.
The economy tanked, but that only drove more bargain hunters to the site. Small businesses that balked at paying $500 for a help wanted newspaper ad turned to Craigslist -- in San Francisco, it costs $75 to post an ad, in New York and Los Angeles $25, and everywhere else, it's free. Since then, the growth has only accelerated. Recently added cities such as Raleigh and Dallas have as many as nine times the number of monthly page views as a year ago. Craigslist.org's no-frills design may look like a personal home page circa 1995, but it's among the top 10 most-viewed sites on the entire Internet, up there with places like Google.com and Microsoft.com. Every month, 10 million people worldwide click through 3 billion pages of Craigslist.
Newmark never expected any of this: millions of people typing his name into their Web browser, millions of dollars pouring into a site he launched on a whim, his creation having a significant effect on the media. "Everything about Craigslist," he says, "is an unintended consequence."
Just how much money Newmark and Buckmaster have pocketed from this accidental success is unclear. When it comes to Halliburton, they're all for the press asking tough questions. As for Craigslist's own finances, their mouths are shut.
"We find the whole subject of money just causes a frenzy of debate. That serves as a distraction for us. I could be fielding questions or I could be doing customer service," Newmark says. "What's the point? I can't think of any positives. It does seem to be pointless. I can only see negatives."
Until recently, Craigslist displayed the number of job postings in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, as it now does for every other category in every other city. Take those numbers averaged over a few months, multiply by the cost of posting, and you could roughly estimate the company's revenue. Earlier this year, the site took those numbers down. Newmark, however, still manages to sing the praises of financial transparency. "We're as transparent as anyone," he says. "We're probably in the top percentage or two of transparency of companies."
Not counting, of course, the thousands of public companies that, unlike Craigslist, actually report their revenues and earnings publicly. When pressed, Newmark uses another debater's trick, transferring the blame from his own company to Enron and Tyco: "People think we know how much public companies make. But we've seen a lot of that apparent openness is often wrong, because things are buried, things are misleading, sometimes deliberately."
As a private for-profit, Craigslist doesn't have to publicly disclose anything. SF Weeklyparent company New Times doesn't release many financial details, either. Newmark, though, views his creation as something different. "We do a better job as a nominal for-profit," he says, "but we exist in a category that doesn't really exist in the law."
That "category" allows Newmark to keep the domain Craigslist.org, a name that gives the false impression that the site is a nonprofit, by using ".org," an extension almost exclusively used by nonprofit companies and foundations. Craigslist's marketing materials call this "a symbol of our service mission and non-corporate culture." (Craigslist.com, which the company also owns, draws far less traffic.) It permits Newmark to use the word "non-commercial" twice on Craigslist's "Mission and History" page, and to bury the phrase "No charges, except for job postings" in the third line from the bottom. It means establishing a separate nonprofit, the Craigslist Foundation, which trains other nonprofits in marketing, technology, and fundraising skills, but makes no grants, has no endowment, and charges for many of its training events. This year, Craigslist will provide less than half of the foundation's $240,000 budget.
"We are a marketplace, like a flea market," Newmark says. "A flea market is more social and entertainment than commerce. In more formal terms, we are a community service. We have a company structure because that's the way life works, but that's kind of tertiary."
Even Buckmaster admits that Newmark's vision is a little utopian: "He still has trouble seeing us as a corporation, and taking seriously all the things that a corporation has got to do."
Newmark's financial secrecy conflicts with his idea of what Craigslist is, but so does the amount of money Craigslist makes. The revenue range often reported for Craigslist is $7 million to $10 million per year -- successful, but not extraordinary, for a company with about 20 employees. However, the job postings on the Bay Area Craigslist indicate a much larger number: more than 20,000 ads, or $1.5 million in revenue, this month. Add in 14,000 jobs this month in both Los Angeles and New York, and that's $2.2 million. Even assuming November is by far the busiest month, and that Craigslist doesn't charge for most ads by nonprofits, that puts the site's estimated revenue stream at $20 million per year -- minimum. To be sure, that's less than 1 percent of the revenue of sites with similar traffic levels, and Craigslist only charges for a tiny percentage of ads, but that doesn't erase its millions in hush-hush profits.
Craigslist will soon charge real estate brokers to advertise in New York (where brokers posted more than 100,000 apartment ads last week), and Buckmaster says the company may shortly require payment for job postings in a few more cities. Even at low rates, this would add tens of millions to Craigslist's revenue. Buckmaster claims that a "small" fee is necessary to discourage the posting of spam and fraud on an already-crowded site, and to pay for overhead. Yet Craigslist was profitable with about the same number of employees when it made just $5 million annually. So where do all those extra millions go?
It's hard to reconcile Newmark's utopian vision with Craigslist's real-world revenues and the site's effect on the media. To his credit, Newmark is obviously struggling with the issue. He doesn't want to cause job losses, or contribute to journalism's decline, and he hopes to use his power and money to fix the problem, but he isn't sure exactly how: "I don't know much about what to do about it, except to accelerate change. The news industry is experiencing serious dislocation. It's happening. The faster it happens, the faster we get to new technologies, the more money and more opportunities journalists and editors will have."
For nearly a year, he's been talking up the use of new technologies, especially the potential of online citizen journalism. Now, he's finally ready to put his money where his mouth is by funding a new venture. "It needs noise, buzz, and some smartass like me getting people to talk," he says, animated as a preacher, so excited he nearly jumps out of his chair. "And I have to dwell on this, and this is big, and this may be the biggest contribution I ever make."
Citizen journalism may be a young movement, but it's already branched out into dozens of disparate formats. There are hyperlocal sites, such as h2otown.info, a self-described "fun news site" written and edited by and for residents of Watertown, Mass., population 32,603. There are multimedia sites, such as Ourmedia.org, which hosts everything from a podcast of news for Milwaukee's German community to a video of a Northern Irishman's ski trip to France. There are sites that turn readers into volunteer reporters for traditional newspapers, such as the YourNews section on the Web site of Greensboro, N.C.'s News & Record. There are sites staffed mostly by citizen reporters, such as Korea's OhMyNews, and sites staffed solely by users, such as Wikinews.
In short, citizen journalism is anything that looks like journalism but isn't written by a "professional." The nature of news gathering lends itself to help from laypeople, just as someone who pays for psychotherapy might also ask a friend for free advice. Visit the most highly touted citizen journalism sites, though, and it's easy to see why professional journalists attack it as an idealistic concept. This summer, Dan Gillmor, writer of last year's citizen journalism bible We the Media and one of Newmark's "advisers," launched Bayosphere. Ostensibly written "of, by and for the Bay Area," Bayosphere is largely blog posts by Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury Newscolumnist, with a few citizens' articles tossed in. At Bluffton Today, Morris Communications' South Carolina citizen journalism site and tabloid, the top post a few weeks ago was headlined: "Learning about volleyball from great teachers." The same day, the top story on the citizen-written, citizen-edited Wikinews, an offshoot of the user-edited Wikipedia online encyclopedia, was: "Farmers hunt for missing bull semen."
These sites can all be forgiven for their youth. Like much of the citizen journalism movement, they're still experiments, all less than a year old. But OhMyNews -- the 5-year-old Korean sensation that Newsweek says could be "the future of journalism" -- is still suffering from growing pains, despite more than 38,000 citizen reporters. Its professional editors recently chose as the top story a puff-piece Q&A with the economic adviser of the Korean Embassy in Chile, about the "excellent progress made between the two nations" since a free trade agreement signed back in 2002.
"If you think journalism is boring when written by professional writers," GradeTheNews.org's McManus says, "wait until it's written by someone with time on their hands who happens to drop by the city council or school board. If you think journalism is biased now, wait until the 'neutral' journalist is replaced by the father of the quarterback of the high school football team, writing about how well his son did, and, oh, by the way, the team won."
Despite citizen journalism's current shortcomings, several bursts of power have signaled its potential. Last fall, Joshua Micah Marshall, Washington Monthlywriter and proprietor of political blog "Talking Points Memo," asked readers to help find out which House Republicans voted to loosen ethics rules behind closed doors. "Not a journalist?" Marshall wrote. "Afraid you can't play? Fuggetaboutit...You can play too. Just pick a Republican member of Congress, call the number on their Web site and ask. Don't be rude or confrontational. Just a simple question: Did Congressperson such-and-such support the DeLay Rule in the GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday." Hundreds of readers called, and dozens of representatives answered.
Even in Marshall's successful case, though, the question remains: How many of the reader-reporters actually made those calls, and should Marshall have trusted what they told him? Aside from citizen journalists' skill limitations, the trust issue is the most important unsolved problem for the movement. New York Timesreaders, despite the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals, expect to find something resembling the truth in the paper. With citizen journalism, there's no good way of measuring how much faith to place in a given fact or observation.
Enter Newmark, the man who strikes fear into the heart of newspaper publishers yet thinks he can lead them to the promised land of a new kind of media. "He knows how to figure out reputation and trust," says Cauthorn, the former Chronicledigital media VP. "That's what he deals with every day on spam and fraud. And he has the money."
Newmark sits on the deck outside his home office, trying to relax, a bit scatterbrained. He just returned from a week in New York, full of business meetings and conference panels. Next Friday, he'll be in Oxford, England, then heading home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving. He hasn't had a full day off in over seven years. Every week, on top of his Craigslist work, Newmark has more discussions, more speeches, more people to talk to about citizen journalism.
Considering how often he speaks publicly about citizen journalism and the future of media, Newmark is extremely guarded about his own ventures. He reveals only that he's working on three major projects -- advising two new foundations and investing in one start-up company -- all in stealth mode. The East Coast start-up was founded by Upendra Shardanand, a creator of Firefly (now Microsoft Passport), software that collects individual user information based on behavior, then recommends appropriate content. Its editor in chief, Buzzmachine.com blogger Jeff Jarvis, created Entertainment Weekly and was a journalist and executive at the New York Daily News. Next spring, they'll release technology that identifies the most important stories and most "trusted" versions -- a computerized or computer-aided "editor." As for the nonprofits, Newmark'll only say that the people running them "are a big deal ... the names involved are heavy media commentators."
Newmark has been meeting with a host of public-interest media companies and foundations (the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Wikinews, FactCheck.org) for months but hasn't made up his mind on where else his money should go: "I'm wondering about this. I have a little cash to give away. What's the most that I can do?"
For citizen journalism to work, readers must believe the words on the screen to be true. Otherwise, the movement will do little to aid the hobbling traditional media. Facts could be checked and aggregated by professionals, in the same way Newmark hunts for spam on Craigslist, or Marshall collected congressional votes. However, just as Craigslist is at a breaking point with its monitoring resources, it would be expensive and time-consuming to check up on each citizen reporter and make sure he is trustworthy. It also leaves open the possibility of libel suits based on citizen content, which OhMyNews has already faced.
Many citizen journalism proponents believe the best method is to let users do everything -- reporting, writing, and editing the stories with minimal oversight. The shining example of the self-correcting site is Wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia with 818,000 "wiki" Web page entries written and rewritten entirely by a volunteer user community. Users argue over facts and opinions within forums, and the site generally avoids "edit wars" over the content of pages. However, its sister project, Wikinews, reveals the limitations of a free-for-all media site. Last year, when Colin Powell resigned, for several hours, the Wikinews article read as though it was a huge disaster for the Bush administration and the entire Cabinet was jumping ship. "'Colin Powell resigned' doesn't stay a news story for more than a day," says Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. "You don't have the luxury of a long time for community debate [to get the facts right]."
If there's no time for argument over the facts before the news cycle ends, Newmark believes there's a way to post the most trusted information immediately. He hints that Shardanand's start-up may be looking at software that places different levels of "confidence" in articles, based on the author's reputation. It's an unproven idea, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. It could be a user-voting system (like eBay's ratings); a method based on the most-linked-to people (like Google News, except for individuals); or an approach that uses collaborative filtering, sending a user a "liberal" or "conservative" version of a story based on the articles she's chosen before (like TiVo and Firefly).
No matter how good software is at ferreting out the truth, though, coordinated, one-sided attacks will be a major problem. If, say, a right-wing televangelist instructs his minions to go forth as citizen journalists and lay down an extreme agenda, there's nothing to prevent them from taking over entire sites.
Wikipedia faced the issue last fall, when an edit war between George W. Bush and John Kerry supporters over their wiki pages culminated in the replacement of a Bush photo with a picture of Hitler. Both pages were locked down for several days during the 2004 campaign. Around the same time, Bush administration talking points showed up as "arguments" in a Craigslist political forum.
Newmark is focused on the challenge: "I need to figure out: How do I encourage people to work together to figure out how to prevent and fix disinformation attacks?" he asks aloud. "This is a big issue. I'm thinking I need to corral Jimmy Brooks from FactCheck, the folks I know at eBay, focus on getting to know big names at Yahoo!, Google, maybe MSN ... these are all acts in progress."
If Newmark, or one of the projects he's working with, jumps through all the technical hoops, contributors will only be able to take things so far. The shortcomings of the mainstream media that Newmark gripes about -- not investigating weapons of mass destruction claims or malfeasance by Halliburton -- aren't likely to be fixed by citizen reporters. "When you get into investigative journalism, you very quickly outstrip the ability of citizen journalists to gain access, maintain focus, and invest in a story," says Cauthorn, whose nascent company aims to enable a hybrid between citizen reporters and professional news outlets. The "social need for investigative journalists" is one of Newmark's main concerns, and he's considering making grants to the Center for Investigative Reporting. However, writing critically about powerful figures requires institutional backing, not just time and money.
Citizen journalism may become a helpful supplement to mainstream reporting, especially in smaller towns, just as bloggers help elucidate news on specific topics for millions of readers. But the more important (and more challenging) the stories are, the more likely it is that citizen journalists won't have the wherewithal to complete them. "Citizen journalism will not be the Fourth Estate," Cauthorn says. "It's not going to sit down and stare across the room at an army of lawyers for some government official who's outraged that you've written about his misdeeds."
In the best case, Newmark is joining a movement that will someday be of moderate help to the mainstream media. In the worst case, citizen journalism's optimistic supporters, in neglecting the problems of the public institution that is the mainstream press, may leave America with both a failing news media and a mediocre technology that offers little assistance on essential stories.
Even as he makes big waves in the media industry, Newmark still isn't sure this is a battle he wants to fight. "I don't want to disrupt the people who are really getting it done. I may just wind up promoting their work, I'm not sure. I could screw things up if I'm not careful," he says. "I'm speaking from the gut here, but the deal is, I'm trying. And sometimes, trying and making noise means something."