No, Craigslist is not responsible for the death of newspapers

Newspaper boat floating

Maybe it’s the rash of newspaper sales recently — including the acquisition of the Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the sale of the Boston Globe to local businessman John Henry — but there seems to be a renewed interest in assigning blame for the rapid decline of the newspaper business, and one name tends to get the majority of the criticism: namely, Craigslist, the free classified-advertising service that some say killed newspapers.

In a recent piece for The New Republic, for example, Alec MacGillis accuses Craigslist founder Craig Newmark of hypocrisy for helping to put together an ethics guide for journalists, a project that Newmark has been working on — and also helping to fund personally — for some time now, along with the Poynter Institute. The New Republic writer argues that this kind of commitment is pretty rich coming from the guy whose service allegedly killed newspapers by sucking the lifeblood out of the print advertising market.

The internet killed newspapers, not Craigslist

Classified local newspaper advertisement and computer mouse

MacGillis seems even more incensed by the fact that Craigslist used to make money by charging for the posting of adult services, although what that has to do with anything isn’t really clear (the company shut down its adult listings section in 2010). Perhaps the point is that the site took money away from entities who produce valuable journalism and other beneficial pursuits — which would make sense if it wasn’t for the fact that most newspapers produce plenty of their own disposable and low-brow content, and have since before the internet came along.

“Ethics for journalists! How wonderful. Are those ethics different than the ones that allow one to make $36 million per year on prostitution ads, thereby making it easier to give away for free the classified listings that were a major source of newspaper revenue? Just checking.”

Leaving that part of his case aside, MacGillis’s argument that Craigslist killed newspapers is absurd, and always has been: as anyone who has followed the industry knows — and as Dan Mitchell points out in a piece at SF Weekly — the printed newspaper business has been decimated by the disruptive effects of the internet itself, and the unbundling of the tasks that a newspaper traditionally performed, something Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and Chris Anderson did a good job of outlining in their “post-industrial journalism” report last year, and something disruption guru Clay Christensen has also described.

Was Craigslist a part of this phenomenon? Of course it was. Newmark’s site, which he set up to make it easy for his friends and neighbors to post items they wanted to sell, took advantage of the internet and the social web to become a huge force in classified advertising, and there’s no question that had an effect on the advertising that went to newspapers. But Craigslist wasn’t the only online provider of free ads, by any means, nor was it the only disruptive force that ate into newspaper ad revenue — the entire internet arguably falls into that category, including a little company called Google.

Craigslist is just a scapegoat

The same problem appears in a new study from NYU’s Stern School of Business, which looks at Craigslist’s impact on the newspaper industry and concludes that it siphoned more than $5 billion from the classified advertising market over a period of years — which, according to the study, caused newspapers to implement a range of steps including boosting their subscription prices and putting up paywalls. But just as MacGillis does, the study looks at Craigslist in a vacuum, as though it was the only site on the internet that had any kind of disruptive effect on newspapers, which clearly isn’t the case.

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The reality is that the decline of print advertising rates and the resulting effect on newspaper revenue would likely have occurred with or without Craigslist, driven by the explosion of webpages and ad providers and the advertising industry’s increasing desire to focus on digital markets, not print-based ones. And those factors were arguably compounded by the newspaper industry’s focus on dumping commodity news content onto the web without approaching it as a separate market, the way web-native providers did.

Blaming Craigslist for the death of newspapers is like blaming Napster for the decline of the record industry: it makes for a convenient scapegoat, especially when the members of the market that has been disrupted don’t want to focus on how their own mistakes and ignorance helped push them off the cliff.

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This post was updated on Thursday to reflect the fact that Craigslist used to charge for adult services but has since shut down that section of the service.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zarko Drincic and Shutterstock / Feng Yu

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