A new way to sort news from gossip?
The Web classifieds entrepreneur behind Craigslist is leading a project to point people to trustworthy news.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 2, 2006
Like most news junkies, Craig Newmark has read all the headlines about failing newspapers.
Falling circulation figures. Dipping profit margins. Rising layoff numbers. Crashing credibility.
But even though some have blamed his super-successful online classified service, craigslist, for a few of print journalism's revenue woes, Newmark refuses to believe he's part of the problem. Instead, he's planning to be part of the solution.
Working outside of craigslist, Newmark has teamed with former TV Guide TV critic Jeff Jarvis and others to finance and support an online project that would point users to the most trusted news stories - weeding out flotsam and jetsam from the global news flow.
"How do you find the most trusted news stories?" Newmark said, speaking by cell phon e recently from San Francisco. "The only way to do that is to enlist the help of both professionals and smart readers. And my customer service instincts tell me that can happen."
Newmark kicked off a tsunami of online speculation last month by mentioning the effort during a conference at Oxford University's business school. He and Jarvis now are refusing to release further details of their project, saying the company is in "stealth" mode while under development.
Ask exactly what he means by a "trusted" news story, and Newmark seems deliberately vague. One moment, he'll denounce mainstream journalists for failing to challenge the government before the Iraq war; the next, he'll turn down the rhetoric, wary of being seen as a leftist enemy of mainstream media.
"We need news to become a community service again, and we need journalists to speak truth to power," said the 52-year-old entrepreneur, who admits he's no expert on journalism, but has spoken in the past of showcasing talented amateur journalists online.
Sounds like an ambitious project. But when a new journalism venture is announced by the founder of a popular online classified service - which one analyst estimated has cost San Francisco-area newspapers at least $50-million in lost classified ad revenue - the media world takes notice.
"Our goal is to create a platform to organize the world's news using the best of technology, community and editors," Jarvis wrote on his Buzzmachine.com Web log.
By spring, the group plans to have a beta version of the service - a version close to completion, available for use by the public to work out the final kinks, according to Jarvis. Last week, Newmark said the new service could address a crisis of credibility facing mainstream news outlets following steady downsizing at newspapers and big media scandals.
"We're trying to preserve the existing journalism structure," he added. "Hopefully, this effort will lead people to the best-reported stories - get people excited to trust news again, particularly in the younger demographic."
Of course, the idea of online sites watchdogging journalists is nothing new.
Recently, ousted Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer debuted Truthdig, a Web magazine featuring in-depth reports from a progressive/liberal viewpoint. Earlier this year, creators of the RatherBiased.com Web site (which highlighted former CBS anchor Dan Rather's alleged liberal bias) teamed with the conservative Media Research Center to develop another site focused on liberal media bias, NewsBusters.org.
And in May, former San Jose Mercury News staffer Dan Gilmor started Bayosphere, a San Francisco Bay Area-focused Web site featuring his blog and blogs by others, along with links to established news outlets and reports from "citizen journalists" - nonprofessionals who provide reports on issues from a different perspective.
"What I'm hoping for is an ecosystem where we retain what is best about mass media and where that ecosystem also includes these other, emergent kinds of conversations," Gilmor said. "Certainly, there is a need to find the signal amid the noise and bring that to the surface."
Gilmor expressed hope Jarvis and Newmark's work would help address one of his central criticisms about modern journalism: a clubby, insular attitude which cuts mainstream reporters off from the concerns of average citizens.
"The things journalists can do is stop running in packs," Gilmor said. "To remember that their job is not to be liked by the people in power, but to hold the people in power accountable. And to remember what they do really matters."
As managing editor of the Seattle Times and president of the nonprofit journalism training group Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., David Boardman has heard such criticisms before.
In defense, he offers these recent examples of quality journalism by the mainstream press: The Washington Post 's scoop regarding secret CIA jails in Europe; the Los Angeles Times ' revelation that the U.S. military paid Iraqi newspapers to run pro-American articles; and the San Diego Union Tribune's reports first noting the ethical problems of U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the San Diego Republican who pleaded guilty to taking $2.4-million in bribes.
"We're in a situation now akin to how people feel about Congress; you may hate Congress in general, but you love your congressman," Boardman said. "And with all the skepticism and doubt out there, there's still a lot of evidence that we ... are still trusted by a great number of people." (To be fair, a June poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press showed just 54 percent believed what they read in their daily newspaper.)
And turning nonprofessionals into reporters presents its own pitfalls. Recently, former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler Sr. (father of the NBC News reporter) revealed in an op-ed column for USA Today that the online service Wikipedia - an online encyclopedia with entries written by the public - featured a horrifically inaccurate biography, saying he was directly involved in the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby.
"There seems to be this sense that quality, thorough, vetted information is a God-given right and should be free," said IRE's Boardman, who believes quality investigative journalism helps distinguish newspapers in today's media-soaked culture. "But it takes time and energy and labor to do it."
Newmark's craigslist is a runaway success, with more than 6-million classified postings and 10-million users each month in 35 countries, according to the company's Web site. Its revenue currently comes from charging for job listings in just three cities: New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco (there are plans to charge some apartment brokers for rental listings and to charge for job listings in additional cities).
But Newmark, a former software engineer at IBM, shrugs off as "mythology" any notions that he is helping kill newspapers by stealing their classifieds business - which can constitute up to 40 percent of revenues. (He also denies implications that his journalism projects are sparked by guilt from craigslist's impact.)
"Sometimes a paper has to justify losses to their owners," he said, pointing to niche classified newspapers such as the Auto Trader and PennySaver as a greater threat. "And sometimes they'll look for what's convenient."
At a time when so much of the news business is in flux, Internet entrepreneurs like Newmark see a unique opportunity - pushing mainstream media to win back its credibility through more incisive, connected reporting.
"We need people, especially the White House press corps, to ask difficult questions and get some answers," Newmark said. "That's beginning to happen, but what the country needs is some clear, relentless journalism. Because a story might be covered one day and gone the next ... and the bad guys feel free to do more."