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December 01, 2005

OUCH:

Well, I suppose self-pity and bellyaching and sour grapes coming from a dead-tree media outlet over the success of a slick and widely-loved new media outfit like Craigslist really doesnít come as much of a surprise.

But, holy cow, to make a COVER STORY out of the fact that you and your fellow dead-tree Old Media outlets are getting whupped by better service and greater efficiency (and more timeliness and accuracy)? And then to expect media savvy readers to cry big splashy tears over the fact that you canít seem to adapt your performance and business models to the new reality? That takes real chutzpah and brings navel-gazing to a whole new level.

Not all old media folks are that dumb. I guest-taught a journalism class on Tuesday with Bob Benz, who runs Scripps' web operation. He seemed quite aware of the problems newspapers face -- which he characterized as more organizational and cultural than technological -- and had some good thoughts about what to do with them. I really don't think that newspapers will die as a result of the web. Well, except for the ones that waste their energies on whining. (Link via Bill Quick.)

UPDATE: Ryan Blitstein, the article of the SF Weekly piece in question, emails:

I really enjoy your blog so I felt compelled to write in response to the post about my story on Craigslist. I think if you read the whole story on Craig (yes, all 6000+ words) you'd see that thegoldengate and dailypundit oversimplified the argument I make in order to attack it.

The story is not about old media getting "whupped" by Craigslist. It describes how Craigslist -- in addition to being a great public service for millions -- is having an *unintentionally* negative effect on an already-strugging newspaper industry (including independent, local community papers). It then describes how Craig Newmark is personally working to address the problem, and makes the argument that while blogs and citizen journalism are important, for now, they aren't mature enough to replace the mainstream media, even despite its many faults.

I didn't see it as a whine -- I saw it as a description of a problem, and an argument that the solution is far more complex than many bloggers, citizen journalists, and mainstream reporters make it out to be. I hope when you read it, even if you don't agree with my arguments, you don't dismiss it as simply whining.

Well, I did read the whole piece, and I guess "whining" is arguably unfair. But it's very dismissive of citizen journalism, and takes some cheap shots at Craigslist. Example:

That "category" allows Newmark to keep the domain Craigslist.org, a name that gives the false impression that the site is a nonprofit, by using ".org," an extension almost exclusively used by nonprofit companies and foundations.

"Almost exclusively?" Not hardly, not for years. Likewise, the reference to Craigslist's "hush hush profits" seems a bit much.

Craigslist is hurting classified ad revenues, that's true. And classified revenues are important to newspapers. But the decline of newspapers began long before the Internet threat (read Andrew Krieg's Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper for a story from the 1980s illustrating the origins of many practices now blamed on the Internet). And while newspapers suffer, people who use Craigslist -- and get apartments, or jobs, that they might not have gotten if they relied on newspaper classifieds -- are benefiting. The article notes that every time someone advertises on Craigslist instead of in a newspaper, they're hurting news coverage. But turn it around: Should they be unemployed, or have trouble finding apartments, so that newspapers don't have to change?

What's more, I was a telecom lawyer in the 1980s when the American Newspaper Publishers' Association fought tooth-and-nail (and successfully) to keep phone companies out of the electronic classified ads business. That means they knew this kind of competition was coming and had two decades to get ready for it, and they still lost out to an ad-hoc Internet startup.

The article's not a waste by any means. There's lots of interesting stuff in it, including this about Jeff Jarvis's new venture:

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."

Sounds more like a Pajamas Media competitor than I realized. Very interesting.

But on the newspaper front, I think this quote is applicable here:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.

No, they don't. They can complain to the court of public opinion if they like, but there's no reason why it has to listen.

I agree that citizen journalism won't replace newspapers. But I think they're being hurt far more by technological, cultural, and organizational problems than by technology. And I don't think the article reflects that at all.

Ed Driscoll has related thoughts. And congrats to Blitstein, anyway, for engaging the criticism, both here and over at Bill Quick's.

MORE: Thoughts from an insider:

During the whole time I was there I constantly pleaded with the powers that be to do the online version of the classifieds right, the way it could be done with all the power of the web. At that time, 1995, craigslist was still a gleam in Craig Newmark's eye. The Chronicle owned the classified space for the Bay Area. I created a classified section on sfgate, but it was just an online version of what was in the newspaper, no more, no less. I argued that we should add interactivity, let people purchase ads online cheaply, have pictures and links, make sfgate.com the goto place for everybody in the bay area to buy, sell, rent, and know everything.

But this was utterly impossible. It was a question of turf. There was a large department that sold and processed classified ads. It was a major source of revenue, employed a lot of people, and had a big budget. No way they were going to yield that turf to a bunch of weirdos over at the six person, unprofitable, experimental web site crew. Besides, online ads would cannabalize the whole business. Even as time went on, and craigslist grew and the sfgate website traffic and personnel grew, there was never any possibility of going up against the entrenched bureaucracy. Newspapers are the most old-fashioned organizations left alive in the marketplace. Even book publishing companies are more with it.

Yes, that does seem to be the case.

STILL MORE: Jeff Jarvis emails to say that his startup really won't be competing with Pajamas Media, but that he can't say more about the business plan at this point because it's a startup.

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