Thursday, May 07, 2009


This article originally appeared in the 5.7.09 issue of Metroland

Craigslist has been in the news a lot lately. The mainstream media has taken an apparent delight in chronicling the ways the online classified service is destroying society. That guy who killed a “masseuse” in Boston will forevermore be known as the “Craigslist Killer,” as if Craigslist were little more than a steaming cesspool of degrading sex and an accessory to murder. Politicians are calling for Craigslist’s head, too, and newspapers are all over this like hate on Republicans.

We’ll save the discussion about the morality of erotic services for others.

What’s more interesting is the subtext of all this. Newspapers are dying, and Craigslist is a big reason why. Why? Because Craiglist is destroying newspapers’ classified ad revenue stream. Why? Because Craiglist offers a service that is infinitely better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient than newspaper classified ads.

I’d never used Craigslist until last week. We’ve got a house we’re looking to rent. I tried putting an ad in a big metropolitan newspaper and was directed (after some surfing around the newspaper’s hideous Web site) to an online inputting system. It sucked. I mean, it was absolutely frustrating, and I wasn’t sure when or if I was finished, except there was nothing else to do but log off. The whole thing took me 20 long minutes, and then, because there was no acknowledgement sent to me via e-mail, I decided I’d better call the newspaper on the telephone to make sure my ad got in all right.

For all this aggravation and $250, I got a little three-line small-type advertisement that ran for a couple of days. The promised opportunity to run a concurrent ad on the newspaper’s Web site for free simply didn’t materialize, which was fine with me because the Web site was horrible. The response? Two telephone calls from salespeople at small, local Jewish newspapers trying to sell me more ads.

So I tried a local advertising weekly. Remarkably, the Internet interface was much better than that of the Big Newspaper (although still no e-mail acknowledgement). The price was reasonable, but the response was tepid. Most of the people that called weren’t exactly what you’d call A-list prospective tenants. Most seemed to think I’d take less than the advertised rent. Great. I was starting to think there was no market out there for the house.

Then I tried Craigslist. Duh! Posting an ad was follow-your-nose simple. I could bold a bunch of words. I could post pictures. I could shield my identity with a blind response option. I was encouraged, a couple times, to proof my ad. I got an e-mail acknowledgement (immediately) that asked me to proof it again and then respond to publish the ad. The ad went online immediately.

It took a couple of minutes. It was satisfying. It was fun. It was FREE.

And it was effective. I posted every morning for five days, and every day I got at least four inquiries via e-mail. Surprisingly, most came from a different area than where we’d assumed our target market was, which was a revelation in itself. We’d been barking up the wrong tree, and Craigslist set us straight. Inside of five days, we got a deposit from some folks who appear to be perfect tenants. It was the pictures that got them interested.

I have a writer friend who just posted a passionate plea on Facebook, urging legislators to ban Craiglist in order to save “the newspapers.” C’mon. Is Craigslist killing the newspapers or is their death simply the result of technological evolution? Or, more to the point, are newspapers killing themselves? After my experience, I can’t fathom why anyone would put a classified ad in the newspaper. I just had that dubious pleasure and it bit. And newspapers aren’t where people go anymore to get stuff.

It’s with this gloss that I look askance at the headlines about the “Craigslist Killer” and the brouhaha about “erotic services.” The inferences are wrong and disingenuous, the hysteria shrill, and the journalistic conflict screamingly obvious. Let’s blame Craigslist. Spare us the sanctimonious bullshit, and report some real news. Or don’t. You’re going down either way.

Maybe soon I’ll dismantle the argument that the newpaper’s demise threatens the core of democracy and will leave us rudderless to get our tainted information from unchecked online crackpots and knaves.

For now I’ll just say give me a freakin’ break. I’ve got two words for ya: Judith Miller. We’ll be fine.


At 2:48 PM, Blogger anjiaoshi said...

When I was a geek among geeks hanging out in the VAX lab in college in the early '90s, teaching ourselves how to code in the DCL scripting language, one of the first things we did was create an online classified ad system. Which, naturally, the university shut down, because we weren't supposed to use the system for commercial purposes. If Craiglist had never existed, someone would have had to create it.

And I come down squarely on the side of "Newspapers are killing themselves." The only advantage that newspapers offer over, say, TV news is space, because with space, you can provide depth. If your news hole keeps shrinking, if you keep firing the reporters who provide your in-depth reporting, you're like Greg LeMond selling his bike to pay the Tour de France entry fee. If he were that desperate.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm jumping the gun a bit here, but check out the following...

...for more ammunition for your next column (unchained melodies)


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