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Originally published June 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 5, 2008 at 9:47 AM

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Brier Dudley

Craigslist founder answers most of a long list of questions

Excerpts from the blog With the Internet giants turning their focus to local advertising, Wal-Mart starting a free classifieds site and...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Excerpts from the blog

With the Internet giants turning their focus to local advertising, Wal-Mart starting a free classifieds site and newspapers running on fumes, it's a perfect time to talk to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

Fortunately, Newmark was in Seattle this week for the Authentication & Online Trust Alliance conference at The Westin Seattle.

The 55-year-old San Francisco Web phenomenon long ago turned management of his business to Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster, giving Newmark time to work on customer service and devote more time doing outreach and pursuing interests such as media. He's also stepping up his philanthropy, backing efforts such as a microfinance program in the West Bank.

Here are edited excerpts of a conversation we had Wednesday at the conference:

Q: I see you've got an Obama button. Are you on his fundraising committee?

A: I will help. As a nerd I'm kind of fundraising or asking-for-money averse, but I will help them to do what's necessary because I think you've got to stand up and be a patriot.

Q: What do you think about Wal-Mart going into your business, with the free, online-classifieds service disclosed this week?

A: I don't really know. All I've read is some of the reporting. Apparently what they've implemented is some kind of barter deal where you give them an ad somehow and they will use your ad as a billboard, where they can stick up their own ad. Apparently that ad can compete with the ad put up by the community person.

Q: If you advertise a used barbecue, they'll put up an ad for a new barbecue?

A: So it's not free ads; it's kind of barter ads. In that case, your ad has monetary value. Whatever Wal-Mart is charging to have that ad up there — that's the value of your ad, so it's maybe a barter deal. I haven't analyzed the economics further than that.

Q: So you're not too concerned about Wal-Mart coming into your space?

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A: Well, we run as a community service. Our site is almost 100 percent free, so we just don't think about competition. It's just a distraction.

Q: I know other big companies have tried to compete with your service, such as Microsoft's experiment with its "Fremont" listings service. But that seems more about building communities and traffic than commerce sites.

A: Right now from our point of view, no one has tried competing with us because our model is community services. That's a platitude, except you see we've been doing that for 13 years. The proof is in the track record.

Q: Speaking of emulation, newspapers are belatedly responding to competition from Craigslist. They are offering free merchandise listings, they're trying to build community around their classifieds similar to what you did a decade ago. Are you seeing effects on your traffic from those efforts?

A: Can't tell in terms of traffic, because we just get continuous slow growth. You know, it's just slow but steady. It's like in the race between tortoise and hare, and we're always the tortoise. It's hard to read much out of our traffic.

Regarding our effect on newspapers, for the most part it's an urban myth. I've spoken to a lot of publishers, editors, industry analysts who say we do have a measurable effect on classified revenues.

But the niche sites, which have teams of aggressive sales people, they're the big problem.

Q: I hear you have an Amazon Kindle.

A: I do have a Kindle, I like it a lot. It does have flaws, but it is a good device and I'm on my 23rd book and I have several more lined up. On a trip, typically I'll have at least three books and on a long trip probably four; now I just have a Kindle. My life is a little easier.

Q: That's interesting, because one thing about Kindle is the digital rights attached to the Kindle version of books. Unlike a physical copy, when you're done, you can't give the books to a friend or sell them on Craigslist.

A: I am painfully aware of the plight, particularly of independent bookstores, and I want to help and I don't know what to do about it. I could use some advice from Jeff Bezos, because I know he's concerned.

Q: Have you talked to him much?

A: I met him a year ago, that's it. I like his hair.

Q: Speaking of plight, you always come up in the newspaper conversation. Do you have any new thoughts on what newspapers should do to ensure their survival?

A: Nothing fresh or new. The big message is speak truth to power, because when the press forgets that, we get into things like foreign misadventures and the nation is weaker as a result. That will be addressed next January.

Q: How can newspapers pay for that reporting?

A: We need more and more aggressive investigative reporting. No one knows how that will be paid for. This is an area where I better defer to the experts.

Q: Why don't you start a newspaper or buy a newspaper?

A: The deal is, it's just too big a distraction. We do something well, we don't want to screw it up.

Leave journalism to the journalism professionals. My schtick is I will help people who I can tell are doing good work. I can make noise on their behalf.

Q: Have you thought about adding news to your site, or using its reach to distribute news?

A: At some point there may be a good link, which given a ZIP code or whatever, we'll provide really good-quality, trustworthy news for that geography. When I see something like that that's reasonably mature, then I'll go to Jim [Buckmaster] and say, hey, what do you think.

Q: Like a localized Google News?

A: I wouldn't say localized news aggregator. They're not the only ones doing good stuff. The idea is that trustworthiness is a big part. That's what's newstrust.net is pioneering.

The journalism stuff is like a hobby for me. It's outside of Craigslist. Calling it a hobby diminishes it a bit; it's serious.

Q: Local is the next wave of online advertising. For Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to keep growing, they've got to get more local advertising because that's the biggest slice of the pie left. Won't that put your site in their cross hairs, more than it has been in the past?

A: I don't know, and all we've got to do is plug ahead, doing what we're doing, acting on our values. That may work out forever, maybe not.

Q: I would think you would be an attractive partner to one of those big three companies as they look to increase their local presence.

A: Whatever we do has to be the right thing for the community.

Q: Could there be such partnerships in your future?

A: I don't know. That's a Jim question.

Q: Here's my theory about your recent challenges with eBay: I wonder if you are going to sort out that partnership, then enter a new one with another Internet giant. Maybe you're just clearing the decks a bit.

A: I don't know. The big guys — I respect Google; they seem to be taking seriously the "don't be evil" mantra. They're being stand-up about it — that's good.

Q: I wonder if Google's leaving the local commerce space open for a partner like you.

A: I don't know, yeah.

Q: OK, no comment on that one?

A: I just don't know, frankly. While I enjoy the sound of my own voice, sometimes I know that everyone is better off if I just stop talking. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Q: Are you friends with the guys at Google?

A: I'm friendly with [founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], but I still can't tell them apart. Every time I see them, it's a faux pas.

This material has been edited for print publication.

Brier Dudley's blog appears Thursdays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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