By: Jennifer Saba
You have to hand it to Craig Newmark, founder of the wildly successful classified site Craigslist, for telling it like it is to an audience of newspaper publishers.
Newmark, along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and talk show host Charlie Rose, opened the Newspaper Association of America’s annual convention here in New York City this morning.
Newmark fielded questions from Rose pertaining to Craigslist’s rise to prominence, mainly at the expense of newspapers. The mostly free classified site, which covers such categories as real estate, help wanted, personals, and general merchandise, has been taking important classified dollars away from newspapers. The site claims over 7 billion hits a month worldwide.
But Newmark doesn’t feel guilty about the ongoing shift of classified dollars away from the medium. While he is a champion of more investigative reporting in newspapers — which he admits costs money to fund — he wasn’t going to let the crowd boo-hoo about revenue woes. He deftly mentioned newspapers’ high profit margins — somewhere in the ballpark of 10% to 20% — as proof there is plenty of money to feed investigative journalism and the newsroom. “I don’t understand what the problem is,” he said.
“People like Helen Thomas need backup,” he said.
Newmark told an all-too-knowing audience that this is a time of “creative destruction” and that he has a “great deal of sympathy for people who run the printing presses. They are screwed.” It’s not that journalism is becoming obsolete; rather the delivery methods are changing: “Even the kids realize news is important. The problem is paper is too expensive,” he said.
Newmark doesn’t worry about his site’s demographics or potential value. He chiefly serves as the company’s customer service representative. Determining a new market is arbitrary, Newmark revealed, and is mainly based on the “mood” of Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster. If people request a small town and the Internet usage is good, they might launch a new city.
“We have no advertisers to keep happy and no investors to keep happy. That’s a great relief,” Newmark said to about 250 newspaper executives from around the country, who probably wish they could say the same.
He said his operation was taking even stronger steps to weed out
“scams” and young people posing as adults. This is one reason for charging a nominal fee for the service in some areas.
Asked what he was doing with the riches he had earned, Newmark said he lives simply, but could use a new “birdfeeder.” The one he has just doesn’t attract as many hummingbirds as he would like (he has a Web cam set up to view them).
He told the crowd to start taking cues from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert who hold politicians and lobbyists to the fire. “We should see the equivalent of that in newspapers,” Newmark instructed adding that he also listens to NPR, reads the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, watches CNN, has a “bizarre fascination with Keith Olbermann” and checks in with blogs like Gawker and the Huffington Post.
When asked by one audience member if he were to start a newspaper today what would it look like, Newmark said, “I haven’t really thought about it.” He did say it would involved lots of investigative reporting in “big areas,” would be Web friendly and easy to print out.