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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.
Every so often I actually get up from my computer and go out to see –- in person -- what the city has to offer.
This week I jumped at the chance to check out the man who is getting a lot of the blame – or credit, if you prefer – for putting American newspapers on the road to non-existence.
OK, so maybe Craig Newmark hasn’t single-handedly reinvented the media landscape. But his one masterful invention has played a big part in changing the rules.
Craig, of course, is the creator of Craigslist. That’s the hugely popular network of more than 500 local websites around the world that connects people with each other – and often, with each other’s stuff.
It began as a little email list for Craig and his colleagues in the tech industry in San Francisco to swap intelligence about cool new jobs and apartments to rent.
It was already widely popular by the time I joined the 1990’s Internet boom as an editor at the San Francisco-based magazine The Industry Standard.
That magazine and several others are long gone. Craigslist is a global media juggernaut.
Craig said the other night that his traffic counter is broken right now, but he knew off hand a figure in the billions for the page views his sites amass each month.
He doesn’t seem prone to exaggeration, especially for a guy who is so widely praised as a visionary about the media.
He actually comes across understated. He wasn’t bragging when he revealed that the newest Craigslist city is Ramallah. It’s not very busy, he said, but he expects traffic will grow once the West Bank becomes more Internet savvy.
Craig – it just seem right to call him by his first name – completely rejects the notion that he’s any kind of a visionary.
Craigslist, he says, is all letting communities form online and asking people to treat each other the way they would like to be treated.
So there are a minimum of rules on Craigslist and the sites pretty much are self-policing. Ads for scams and child molesters tend to be flagged by other users, and enough flags mean an ad gets automatically taken down.
Craigslist sites are nothing to look at visually, but they have a quality that is more valuable than beauty. They are useful.
Their game-changing effect on traditional media flows from the ethic that it costs nothing to advertise almost anything on craigslist.
Since you can find a car, a new software engineer or a boyfriend on Craigslist for free, the market for paid classified advertising in this country has essentially vanished.
The effect has been greatest on newspapers, whose old-fashioned managers still have no good answer to the massive loss of income that disappeared after craigslist came along.
Someone asked how many people in the theater had found a place to live on Craigslist. At least a third of the house raised their hands. That’s power, even if he doesn’t like to look at it that way.
Craig’s humility about his clout is a little bit of a put on. While he claims to care more about Leonard Cohen and the ending of Battlestar Galactica than about politics, he’s active in efforts to open up more government activities to online perusal.
He’s excited about having more geeks and nerds in Washington – ostensibly a non-partisan impulse, but he did drop in quite a few needles at the previous president and his administration.
Craig also managed to work into his talk a plug for KCRW. And it was free – of course. It’s just another little aspect of his charm.
For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.
Banner image: Craig Newmark at the Zócalo/New America Foundation event with moderator and Los Angeles Times editorial writer Jon Healey.