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The much-loved Web site is taking millions from Bay Area newspapers and causing layoffs that adversely affect coverage. And its founder's well-intentioned support of citizen journalism has a slim chance of fixing the problem.

Wednesday, Nov 30 2005
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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 Chronicle digital 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.

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein

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