Archive for December, 2005

Newspapers, classifeds, and craigslist

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

Instapundit is talking about the SF Weekly whining about competition from craigslist for the classified business that has always heretofore belonged to the local papers. I was the technical director at sfgate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle web site, for the first five years of its existence. It was the first major newspaper to go online, and is still one of the best.

During the whole time I was there I constantly pleaded with the powers that be to do the online version of the classifieds right, the way it could be done with all the power of the web. At that time, 1995, craigslist was still a gleam in Craig Newmark’s eye. The Chronicle owned the classified space for the Bay Area. I created a classified section on sfgate, but it was just an online version of what was in the newspaper, no more, no less. I argued that we should add interactivity, let people purchase ads online cheaply, have pictures and links, make sfgate.com the goto place for everybody in the bay area to buy, sell, rent, and know everything.

But this was utterly impossible. It was a question of turf. There was a large department that sold and processed classified ads. It was a major source of revenue, employed a lot of people, and had a big budget. No way they were going to yield that turf to a bunch of weirdos over at the six person, unprofitable, experimental web site crew. Besides, online ads would cannabalize the whole business. Even as time went on, and craigslist grew and the sfgate website traffic and personnel grew, there was never any possibility of going up against the entrenched bureaucracy. Newspapers are the most old-fashioned organizations left alive in the marketplace. Even book publishing companies are more with it. Walk into any big-time paper in the country, and you expect to see Jimmy Cagney come storming out of the editor’s office.

Eventually the Chronicle hired an Israeli company to create a whole new online classifieds section. I supplied them with a detailed outline of the existing classifieds which they then turned into their own proposal, almost verbatim. The paper paid them something like a million dollars to create what was essentially a slightly inferior version of what already existed on sfgate.com. The purpose of this charade was not to create a new and better classifieds section. The purpose was to remove the classifieds from the website department, and place it back into the existing classifieds department. A million dollars was a small price to pay.

As you may have gathered I am not too sympathetic with any newspaper whining about competition from craigslist. Not just the SF Chronicle, but newspapers everywhere have had the opportunity to become the online goto place for practically anything that anyone wants to buy or sell or see or know in their local area. They just are incapable of rising above their ancient organizational paralysis to bend down and pick up what naturally belongs to them. Why? Because it might upset the way that they have always done things, and somebody might lose power.