By Tim Redmond
Craig Newmark, the stumbling, self-effacing creator of Craigslist, was the keynote speaker at last weekend's Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference in San Francisco. It was an odd choice: Most trade associations don't invite someone who is costing members millions of dollars and who is often described as the number one enemy of their profession to show up and give an address. But AAN is an unusual trade group, and there he was.
So I made sure I got to ask a question.
A little background. Mr. Newmark, whom everyone calls "Craig," has created a system of online advertising that has pretty much wiped out traditional daily newspaper classified ads in many of the 115 US markets where he now operates. He's also hurt the alternative press, although the damage to the dailies is deeper. Some say Craig has single-handedly destroyed thousands of newspaper jobs.
Frankly, that's a little silly: The guy figured out how to do something that the newspapers weren't doing, and they were way too late in responding, and he got their money, and that's how capitalism works.
But Craig still annoys me, and here's why:
Over and over in his brief speech, he talked about "building community." He acted as if Craigslist was some sort of nonprofit with lofty goals and he a humble servant of the people who wants only to help improve human communications.
The problem with that is simple: When Craig comes to town (and he's coming to just about every town in the nation soon), the existing community institutions say, the locally owned weekly newspaper have a very hard time competing. In many ways, he's like a Wal-Mart yeah, landlords get cheaper real estate ads, and consumers find some bargains, but the money all goes out of town. And he puts nothing back into the community: He doesn't, for example, hire reporters or serve as a community watchdog.
Here's the question I asked him:
How, exactly, does a San Francisco outfit moving into, say, Burlington, Vt. and threatening to eviscerate the local alternative newspaper, help build community? If he's such an altruist, why does he have to keep expanding like a typical predatory chain? We all get the need for online ads and community sites now; why not let the folks in Burlington (or wherever) build their own? Why not (gasp) help them, instead of using his clout to hurt them?
This isn't such a radical idea. Check out the blog world, where the best political bloggers don't try to corner the market they encourage others to start their own blogs.
Craig's answer: I only go where people want me.
I think that's a stretch, but even if it's true, so what? Some people want Starbucks and Home Depot too, and that doesn't make formula retail a good thing for American cities.
Again: I've got no problem with Craig making money. He revolutionized advertising, and that's not entirely a bad thing. If he wants to build an empire, that's his right under the (warped) rules of American capitalism.
But don't give me this community-building bullshit. SFBG