The more honest response is that the Internet is undermining newspaper readership, and if it wasn’t Craigslist, something else would be driving the business to the wall. But Newmark is so wedded to the idea that he is just giving people a break, he can’t acknowledge any downside to his achievement.
In fact, with all the considerable earnestness he can summon, Newmark says that his prospective journalism project (more an online ombudsman at this point than an actual newspaper) is an act of altruism. Jeff Jarvis says that newspapers need to upend newsroom culture and “face the strategic imperative of gathering and sharing news in new ways across all platforms.” That means working with citizen providers of information. “Newspapers need to find ways to share learning, promotion, information, and revenue with citizen journalists.” You heard that: revenue.
Another thing newspapers have to yield is their reservoir of trust. The big media have looked on that reservoir as a monopoly holding, says NYU’s Jay Rosen—so much so that they wrote off Craigslist in the belief that the public would consult classified ads only in a newspaper they trust. Now that the Internet is creating avenues for interactive journalism, newspapers have to accept that citizens can be trustworthy, too, or fall hopelessly behind the trend.
The response from newsmen is that reporting news is an expensive operation. John Morton, the newspaper analyst, says, “The economic infrastructure of the newspaper, I would point out, is the only one anywhere that supports mass coverage of news. In every town and city in America—only newspapers do it, only newspapers are organized to do it. However badly done, that needs to be done.” The Chronicle’s Saracevic beats the same drum: “There has been a social contract for hundreds of years—news-gathering organizations derive revenue from community advertising. Well, Craigslist is changing that equation. That symbiotic relationship is over. Who’s going to step forward to support news-gathering?”
One of the things Newmark talks about in the context of his journalism plans is a trust-and-ratings system similar to eBay’s. For my part, I wonder whether the eBay reputation ratings (in which people routinely pressure or blackmail one another to maintain good reputations) couldn’t result in virtual stonings, or shunnings of the sort that took place in the narrow-minded Winesburg, Ohios, of old (from which corporate urban life liberated us).
But at least Newmark and the other nerds are having the conversation. Most news execs are still on the sidelines.
On the last of several public-transit trips I took with him, this one on the N-Judah line, the Exploder of Journalism took the long view.
“In historical terms, the information age is just starting. Two hundred years is my time frame. I figure the decisions people make now on the Net will have effects that will resonate for a couple of centuries. Just like decisions made in the late 1600s—those effects reverberated for a couple of centuries.”
“What were the big developments in the late 1600s?”
“In politics. In scientific investigation. Intellectual thought. The arts. And—something called newspapers. My reading of things is that Fleet Street became a big deal roughly in that time frame. And”—he rolled his head back—“coffee.”
We got off near the ballpark. Having spent many hours with me, Newmark seemed finally to remember my name. But I’d noticed that none of the enthusiastic things I’d had to say about Craigslist, or the things I’d heard others say to him, seemed to reach him. There was an emotional ziplock around Newmark, the inability to take any kind of love as his own and grow from it. Maybe that’s why he started the list.
When I asked him why he couldn’t accept the love, he referred me to what he called “basically my liturgy”: Leonard Cohen. And specifically three lines from the song “Bird on a Wire” that Newmark couldn’t even say aloud: “I swear by this song / and by all that I have done wrong / I will make it all up to thee.”
(Huh—that’s a lot of guilt.)
I told him my favorite lines from the song. The singer sees a beggar on a crutch, who tells him he’s asking for too much. Then he sees a woman in a darkened door—“Hey, why not ask for more?” That’s America. We move on past the guy on the crutch, we can’t count our blessings. We always want more. Or maybe it’s the human condition. I asked Newmark where he stood on that issue—did he want enough, or more?
He paused, rolled his head back. “I wish I had misbehaved more in college.”