Letters to the Editor

Week of Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Craig, Dissed

Your bottom line is showing:As a former newspaper reporter dismayed by mounting newsroom layoffs and the steady decline in quality journalism, I nonetheless can't find fault with Craigslist for siphoning away classified ads, or with Craig Newmark for making a lot of money doing it ["Craig$list.com," Nov. 30]. The real reason good newspapers are dying, as Newmark pointed out to Ryan Blitstein, is that they're no longer run as a public service but a profit center.

In an article on former L.A. Times columnist Robert Scheer's just-launched news site, truthdig.com, Steve Wasserman reports that the parent Tribune Co. now demands that the Times return an annual operating profit of 25 percent, compared to its usual return of 15 percent (last year, according to New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, the paper managed "only" 20 percent). To achieve such profits, newspapers cut their staffs, their budgets for investigative journalism, and their news holes. The resulting papers suck, and readers can hardly be blamed for turning elsewhere. This has been going on across the country since the 1970s, when Al Neuharth of Gannett figured out how to interest Wall Street in what had traditionally been a modestly profitable business dominated by paternalistic hometown publishers. Instead of blaming Craig Newmark, the newspaper industry should look in the mirror.

Bill Walker
Berkeley

Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates ... Newmark?:Cheers to Ryan Blitstein for a clear-eyed piece on Craig Newmark, media titan clinging to his hippie fig leaf. The article was delightfully free of the default credulity of Craigslist stories. "Craigslist executives" (a phrase redolent with accuracy, Ryan) won't tell SF Weekly how much Craigslist Inc. is banking because then people will expect the corporation to give something back.

Craigslist Inc. is strip-mining and drift-netting a lot of money from communities across the country while mouthing anti-corporate pieties. There's nothing wrong with profit. Rockefeller and Carnegie and Gates have also accomplished considerable social good. I'll stipulate to the sins of newspaper companies, but newspapers have also been on the leading edge of pushing for social justice, of building important community institutions, and of holding the powerful accountable. They routinely risk losing advertisers and subscribers for publishing that which no one else dares say publicly. And then they spend their own money every day to prominently publish (not bury in low-readership online strings) the most trenchant criticisms of their staff and of their work.

When Google and Yahoo! and Craigslist raise money for the family down the street whose house burned down and donate profits or effective advertising to hundreds of charities, they'll have grown up. For now, they're infantile, which is to say almost purely saprophytic.

If Craigslist was organized for the greater good, it would be a 501(c)3, and you'd have access to their annual IRS 990, which shows how much they took in and who gets it.

They exist to sell a product and hand over profit to shareholders. Anyone who believes otherwise is a child.

Dean Miller
Editor,Post Register
Sequim, Wash.

Clobbered by blogs: Ryan Blitstein's story on Craig Newmark and his plans proved to be a real page-turner -- for all the wrong reasons. The piece seems to have gone out of its way to paint Mr. Newmark as responsible for the downfall of newspaper journalism -- and quite possibly the truth in general.

I can see how Craigslist has had a detrimental effect on the revenues of many newspapers -- by offering the public a better advertising alternative. I'm no free market-espousing libertarian, in fact I'm a British socialist, but sometimes there's a sea change that can't be held back, Canute-style. It strikes me that the affected parties, which I'm sure are for-profit organizations, should be looking at how to adapt and outdo Craigslist, not cry foul.

Business aside, the second point you seem to make is that Internet-based citizen journalism is doomed to failure ... because it's not good old print journalism. This seems to be a case of not differentiating between medium and message. I agree that some editorial overview is essential to weed through content, prioritize it, and more importantly see the bigger picture made up by individual items. I was taught at school 20 years ago that the role of the newspaper had evolved from merely delivering news, as radio and TV had proved more agile and timely media for doing that. We were taught that the role of newspapers (and other periodicals) had moved to offering analysis, background, and, frankly, entertainment that the other media couldn't support. There's nothing to say that a similar role can't be done by Internet-based media -- it's still about an editorial process, it's just the results end up on a screen rather than paper.

The other implicit objection you have to the citizen journalist model is the lack of professional neutrality a journalist brings to their subject. Quite frankly, your piece is as fine a counter to this opinion as I have seen -- even in the British tabloids I haven't seen such biased reporting as this article.

In summary, I think your article raises two points that it would be good to hear some real responses to. When newspapers are finding their lunch eaten by new companies who do certain jobs better, what are they going to do? Secondly, as the Internet offers a multitude of voices and information, whom do we trust? I think that if the newspapers are clever they will leverage the trust in their brands before that is overtaken by newcomers like Mr. Newmark.

Jez Hildred
San Francisco

 
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