SAN FRANCISCO – The number of people who use Craigslist.org is expanding at more than 100 percent per year — a growth rate any venture capitalist would covet.
But the people who run the 10-year-old community Web site, which gets 8 million unique users and more than 2 billion page views per month, seem to have little interest in exploiting new sources of revenue, going public or even adding to their 18-person staff.
The bare-bones site — a trusted resource for everything from finding roommates to selling used cars in 105 cities in 23 countries, charges for very few classifieds, doesn't serve up traditional ads and plans no major changes to its business model.
Instead, founder Craig Newmark (search) told Associated Press editors and writers in a bureau visit, his newest fascination is community journalism.
Newmark hopes to develop a pool of "talented amateurs" who could investigate scandals, cover politics and promote the most important and credible stories. Articles would be published on Internet sites ranging from Craigslist to individual Web logs, or blogs.
Craigslist.org gets more than 4 million classified ads and 1 million forums postings each month, and Newmark — who no longer runs it but remains one of three board members — is often blamed for decimating classified advertising revenue at regional newspapers. But he says he has no desire to steal readers from mainstream media.
But he believes the reason why newspapers are losing circulation is that too many traditional journalists are willing to quote politicians and business executives even if they're blatantly lying — merely for the sake of perceived objectivity. He'd prefer an "open source" model of journalism where legions of volunteers act as writers, assignment editors and fact checkers to challenge mainstream journalists.
"People are looking for attitude and guts in reporting — not full-on gonzo journalism, but hey, tell us what you think," said Newmark, who described himself as having Whig values — strong on defense, fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
"Maybe Hunter Thompson had it right," Newmark said, referring to the late cultural icon whose rollicking, first-person narratives of drug addiction, the Hells Angels and the 1972 presidential election shook up the media decades ago.
Newmark isn't ready to unveil any new ventures, but said he's been brainstorming with Dan Gillmor (search), a former technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News and founder of Grassroots Media Inc. (search), and Jeff Jarvis, buzzmachine.com blogger and a former critic for TV Guide and People.
Newmark hopes the ideas take shape in time to supply voters with a "trustworthy" daily political report before the 2006 midterm elections. Young people, he said, particularly need credible online news, since the Internet is the top source of news for 18- to 34-year-olds, besting second-ranked local television by a 41-to-15 percent margin, according to a recent Carnegie Corp. study.
Newmark still spends about half his 40-hour work week at the Craigslist headquarters, a Victorian storefront in San Francisco, filtering through e-mailed complaints of fraud and investigating potential scams. The vast majority are "bait and switch" scams and other frauds perpetrated by landlords and apartment brokers in New York, the site's largest source of rental listings after San Francisco.
Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster (search) says fraudulent postings — from Nigerian money laundering scams to solicitations for multilevel marketing pyramids — represent less than one-tenth of one percent of listings. But the New York section is now so rife with con artists that they may begin charging landlords to discourage illegitimate listings.
Buckmaster emphasized that eBay Inc.'s 25 percent stake in Craigslist hasn't changed the site's "noncommercial" bent. EBay (EBAY) founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar also joined Newmark and Buckmaster on the three-person board to learn more about the online classified business, an area of intense interest not only to eBay but also to e-commerce rivals Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) and Google Inc. (GOOG)
All the revenue of Craigslist, which remains private and profitable, comes from the $25 to $75 it charges per help-wanted ad in its three top markets, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
Virtually all other advertisements and postings are free. Charging individuals for participating in the forums, or accepting money for banner ads or other commercials, would go against the site's philosophy.
Newmark, who rode public transportation to the AP office on Thursday, said he already has all the riches he needs. Still, he says, "sometimes I've winced when I thought about how much money I've walked away from."