Covering the gamut of user interests from a used iPod in Boston to a willing transvestite in Las Vegas, Craigslist has become both a cultural phenomenon and a community touchstone.
But its relationship with the media remains confounding.
Craigslist has what all media crave: an innate sense of what’s hot, a devoted and growing audience, huge word of mouth and a reliable, profitable business model that’s not dependent on big-ticket advertisers.
But its overseers, founder Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster, remain fiercely independent and determined not to subject their online community to the bombardment of media promotion that most other Web sites rely on.
Aside from rebuffing offers to buy into, partner with or invest in the business, the duo are regularly hit with pitches from producers, directors and agents looking to team on various films, docs and TV skeins.
Craigslist cooperates with some; Newmark worked with ABC News to help recruit subjects for a doc series on online dating, “Hooking Up,” and he gives copious print and TV interviews.
But mostly Craigslist shuns the litany of media offers. The closest the company itself has come to the spotlight is in a doc making the fest rounds, “24 Hours on Craigslist.”
“We’ve had a lot of proposals to do shows; we’re not certain if that would benefit our community,” Newmark says. “It might be a distraction.”
Yet Craigslist itself is causing tectonic shifts within big media.
Newspapers across the country accuse it of subtracting hundreds of millions of dollars in classified advertising from their bottom lines.
Research firm Classified Intelligence put the number at $50 million to $65 million in revenue from employment ads in the San Francisco area alone; but that number doesn’t include real estate, merchandise, services, or any other categories Craigslist now dominates.
Beyond its cultural weight, Craigslist’s boffo metrics are enough to set Barry Diller’s head spinning. The sites — for 105 cities in 21 countries — get 2 billion page views and 5 million new postings a month, a rate that has doubled every year.
All this with 18 employees and not a nickel spent on marketing.
Newmark, who founded Craigslist as a hobby in 1995, has become something of a cult figure, a self-described nerd with a utopian streak.
The 52-year-old former programmer, who insists on calling himself “customer service rep and founder,” spends much of his time personally overseeing the sites, trolling real estate scams and porn images — though it’s fine to offer sex for tickets to a sold-out Coldplay show.
“Our sites allow for the whole range of human activity, sometimes good and sometimes bad,” he says. “When I think about morality, I think of giving a guy a break, not about sex.”
While his site gives fits to the newspaper biz, Newmark says big media’s bigger problem is the loss of trust. He talks of marshaling a legion of citizen-journalists — “talented amateurs” — to cover the news.
Craigslist is a bonanza for producers and casting directors looking to populate reality skeins and to research projects and docs as well as to keep track of what the competition is up to.
“You get extremes on Craigslist — the quality is both better and worse than you’d find on other sites,” says ABC producer Terry Wrong. “With Craigslist you get everything from CEOs and bestselling authors to very marginal individuals.”
Ads on the site for TV/film/video jobs include postings for reality castings on MTV, Lifetime, WE and A&E.
“Reality TV is set up for 18 to 49, and there aren’t a whole lot of 18- to 49-year-olds running down the street to buy the paper,” says Eric Schotz, prexy of LMNO Prods, which used Craigslist to cast “Fire Me … Please,” “Wickedly Perfect” and “Soapstar.”
“Casting directors take it for granted you can put it up on Craigslist and it’s solved,” he says.
As a private company, Craigslist’s finances aren’t disclosed, but its yearly revenue has been estimated at $10 million from the $25 to $75 fees it charges for employment listings in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Craigslist is studying the idea of charging for real estate listings in New York, but — true to Newmark form — decided to ask brokers what they thought of the idea first.
Newmark is bemused at all the media attention but seems most proud of the fact that Rosario Dawson recently used Craigslist to find an apartment in San Francisco.
“The way we help entertainment the most is helping people find a place to live,” he says. “We’ve built a culture of trust and goodwill that seems to be what matters to people.”