Alt Weeklies, San Francisco, Curiosity, and Bullshit

I was startled by this phenomenally wrong-headed editorial in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Tim Redmond exposes his insecurities by arguing that Craig Newmark's work in Craigslist doesn't build communities because it threatens the business models of alt weeklies. I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but this is a blatant example of scapegoating horseshit.

First, my credentials: I am a person who worked at the most venerated and well known of all alternative weeklies in the country. I worked for the online group within that organization, which derived the overwhelming majority of its revenues at the time from classified ads, and watched as those revenues were decimated by the arrival of Craigslist in that market. Part of the impact that had on the company was that I lost my job.

I am exactly the person Redmond is ostensibly arguing on behalf of, and so I can say with certainty that he's profoundly wrong. Craigslist builds communities in the cities where it has a presence by providing a home for the gift economy and information trading that is often difficult in contemporary urban society. In short, Craigslist lets people act like neighbors, offering up their items to swap or sell, letting them snipe at each other, helping them find a romantic connection, or just putting you in touch with someone who can find you a job. It builds the human connections that many newspapers aspired to (and a few still provide) and provides a context that real journalists still strive for.

Part of the problem here is the culture of alt weeklies: Despite having a reputation for being politically liberal, they're some of the most conservative organizations in journalism. Hamstrung by unreasonably overentitled union members on one side and underpaid, underappreciated freelancers on the other, it's impossible to create a newsroom where more than a handful of writers are even able to give a damn. And a business model predicated on nickel-and-diming for rent ads or charging brokers a premium price for ALL CAPS in a listing, combined with some edge-of-legality back pages full of ads for whores is certainly not contributing to a community.

I found the link to the Bay Guardian on Valleywag, which is appropriate because that site is so badly needed. My most consistent (and probably harshest) criticisms of San Francisco come from the times it embodies the worst caricatures of liberalism. A complete unwillingness to be critical, an almost astoundingly low set of criteria for acceptance -- these aren't the traits that encourage a community or a culture to improve. So, even if only a gossip site, just the fact that someone's willing to point out that some things suck is a helpful counterpoint to the prevailing sense that everything is good enough. It's that "good enough" that makes a paper like the Bay Guardian stop trying to learn from its community's desires.

It goes deeper, too. Most alt weeklies are given away free, contributing to the sense that journalism is worthless. People are willing to pay for the things they care about, they just don't want to pay for apartment listings that are polluted by unethical brokers, or a newspaper where 50% of the content is sub-Citysearch-level event listings padded out with ads for futons and cell phones.

That's not to say that excellent journalism doesn't still happen, often, in alt weeklies. But publishers don't give the proper respect to the people who do so, and it's part of the reason why these papers are vulnerable to the growth of community websites in the first place. Column inches are short, and if you've got writers who are passionate enough to want to work for the low pay in the paper, let the writers write! Give them blogs, expand the columns online, let them cut loose.

And live up to the standard you've set, Tim. You say "And he puts nothing back into the community: He doesn't, for example, hire reporters or serve as a community watchdog." Craig spends hours every day tracking down scammers and shady characters in communities he doesn't even live in. He turns down more money in buyout offers every year than a typical alt weekly has earned in profits during its entire existence. But somehow I can still go to the SFBG homepage and see a tired, unpersuasive, preaching-to-the-choir rant about how Bush should be impeached. Even the people who are in complete agreement can find a better version of the same thing in any one of dozens of left-wing blogs. Where's that deep pool of resources you're investing back into your community?

I asked the management at the paper I worked at to approach Craig, to work with him, and to learn from him. I'm not sure it ever happened; It's just one of the reasons I'm glad to be doing the work I do now. But the worst thing a journalist, or any person who creates media, can ever be is uncurious. The defensiveness I see in the SF Bay Guardian, and in many similar papers around the country, indicates a powerfully uncurious and defensive reaction. It's an embarassment to me as a liberal that people who claim to share my values would want to undermine someone who gives a community a place to connect, for free, about the most important things in their life. A place to live, someone to love, a cheaper way to get the necessities of life. People are passionate about Craigslist even if (like me) they rarely use it because it's an online community that hasn't let down its promise in the way that too many local newspapers have.

My advice? If you have a newspaper, publish something that's unique to your community; Write something that nobody running a website on the other side of the country would have enough knowledge or information to create. Find a business model that makes your work seem valuable instead of worthless. Free the smart, creative people on your editorial staff to express themselves, especially online, without having to obey seniority rules or arbitrary limits. And realize that the reason Craig is eating your lunch is not merely because his information is better, or because he cares about being online and you don't, but because he's given people a place to connect with each other, instead of just being preached to by people too arrogant to stay curious.