Tuesday, July 26, 2005

PR Face2Face:
Craig Newmark, Founder, Craigslist

Craig is a senior Web-oriented software engineer, with around thirty years of experience (including 17 years at IBM), and has learned a lot about online community and customer service as "customer service rep and founder" for craigslist.org for for ten years. He's compiled extensive experience evangelizing the 'net, leading and building, including efforts at Bank of America and Charles Schwab.

He's one of those guys you hear about who grew up wearing a plastic pocket protector, thick black glasses (taped together), and who expresses his inner nerd via obsessive commitment to customer service to the craigslist community. Someday, he might get a day off.

In 1995, he started craigslist which serves as a non-commercial community service with classifieds and discussion forums. craigslist focuses on helping people with basic needs, starting with housing and jobs, with a pervasive culture of trust.

Craig's also involved with a number of community efforts, particularly involving mideast peace and new forms of media, involving "participatory journalism" and blogging.

He's been featured in the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Business Week, Time Magazine, and Esquire Magazine.

Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster, craigslist.org
Photo by Gene X Hwang, Orange Photography


craigslist has been hugely successful. When you first started, you had a little bit of PR support, but mainly it was grassroots efforts. What do you credit to the success of the list?

There was no PR support when we started – in the few years following, I would chat with Bill Ryan (formerly of Niehaus Ryan Wong) for advice, and he said just to keep doing what we were doing. The growth has been almost completely word of mouth, and the press has been kind to us.

Now, an old friend provides PR support [Susan MacTavish Best, Best PR], whose main job it is to prevent me from saying stupid things. Jim Buckmaster is now the President and CEO of craigslist, as I am really not emotionally suited to be a CEO. Susan has helped us out with the press, and dealing with the press quite a bit.

The success of the list – from one perspective – is that it is a simple and effective site for everyday needs. From another perspective, craigslist has a culture of trust and goodwill. It's pretty clear to people that everyone shares a similar moral compass.

You have parlayed the success from craigslist to citizen journalism. What lead you down the path to become involved in citizen journalism?

I am exploring citizen journalism because right now our country has a big problem, and the only way to get out of it is to find out what is really happening. That means to find more people to tell us what is really going on in different places, like in Washington, DC. Maybe the truth shall set us free, whatever the truth may be.

I do talk with Dan Gillmor on Bayosphere, but that is the extent of my dealings with them right now.

With the change in media – both the classified model that craigslist has eaten, and the journalism model that is under fire from blogs – what do you see as the future of print media?

Well, paper is a really good form of memory. It's very long lasting and it's going to survive, maybe in a limited way, but the cost will go up. I don't see newspapers dying, but new mechanisms will do even better, I believe. The economics of paper isn't that good, but I would have to defer to professionals for that.

For that matter, how do you see PR changing in this new paradigm?

The biggest change – and my perspective is pretty narrow – is that online reputation is a big deal, including online buzz. We have already begun to see people trying to create buzz – sometimes artificially – on message boards and blogs.

And, actually, I have just spent time removing fake buzz on our message boards.

Online reputation and PR will be used by companies that understand that online message boards and blogs are a better connect with consumers and to provide more information. The companies that do that will be much more successful than the companies that do not. The companies that understand the changing nature of media will be in a better position than those companies that do not understand or adapt.

How do you vet the ads, to keep out the advertisements for websites or personal services? In the Casual Encounters ads – are those real, and how do you know?

We don't know if the ads are real. We rely on the community to flag advertisements for questionable content for removal. In most cases, when people post hoaxes or scams – which has happened in the past, where a guy was posting missed connections about himself – you can Google gorgeous guy from about four or five years ago and see the stories – the community does flag and edit such hoaxes and scams. Our biggest source of disinformation has been political, particularly last October during the elections. One of the campaigns encouraged people to post misinformation on our boards.

We do have adult ads, but that fits into the moral compasses of our users. One of the best things to do for people is to show compassion, give people a break. If the post is legal, it's okay. If it crosses the line and is illegal, flag it and have it pulled.

When you first started, you were listfoundation.org – and there was a short crisis involved there. What happened, and what lessons did you learn in the process?

When I first started, it was just me on craigslist. The listfoundation came later, and was a mistake. While I had good volunteers, the effort failed. I learned mostly to trust my instincts, and if they say not to trust someone, to listen to those voices.

Are you worried that you might go down in history as the man that killed the newspaper?

That would be not fair, as I tell people in journalism that the big issue is trust. Jeff Jarvis points out that newspapers are making a lot of mistakes. It's worth looking at.

What I am trying to do is accelerate the form of collaborative journalism, and that we, the public, need something in place in a year. At the very least, hopefully I will have made noise, accelerated the trend, and then shut my mouth at the right time. That would be pretty good.

You are now in classifieds with craigslist, grassroots journalism – what's next for Craig Newmark?

For me personally, I don't know. I would like to have a day off.

For craigslist, we don't know, but we do speculate about a few things, but don't want to create crud. We do need to find more ways to give more control of the site over to people, in particular to empower some of our volunteers to make it easier for them to let us know when something is wrong.

For example, I have a Manhattan volunteer who is very helpful in finding apartment brokers that are doing inappropriate things like bait and switch. Basically, when someone does something wrong, I remove the ad and let the broker know why, and try to reason with them. If they aren't amenable to reason, I block them.

You have recently launched in more cities. How do you build up the communities, how do attract ads and traffic.

We really don't have an answer. We rely on word of mouth. It might take awhile, but when it works, it works well for us.

Any final thoughts or comments?

I just want to emphasize that craigslist is built on a culture of trust and the moral compass of its users. It's working and has worked for the list more than ten years, and will hopefully continue to work.



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