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March 23, 2011, 3:30 p.m.

Craig Newmark: CraigConnects for journalism

It’s hard not to be curious when the man some have vilified as mortally wounding the classifieds business in newspapers gets into the business of supporting journalism.

Craig Newmark’s most recently announced project, CraigConnects, is, as best as I can tell, a way of funneling Newmark’s attention capital towards (mostly) nonprofit organizations. In the way Craigslist leveraged a simple, open system to bring together people looking for stuff with people looking to get rid of stuff, CraigConnects will play a similar role in supporting work in areas like technology, veterans issues, open government and community building.

And something else called “journalism integrity.” Newmark explains on the site:

Okay, the deal is that trustworthy media really are the immune system of our country, as Jon Stewart says, “If we amplify everything we hear nothing. The press is our immune system of democracy. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker and perhaps eczema.

Or, as I like to say it, trustworthy media should be “the immune system of democracy”.

Newmark’s examples under “journalism integrity” reads like a coverage list from the Lab: ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, NewsTrust and Huffington Post among others.

I swapped a few emails with Newmark, and it’s clear he sees attention as a powerful currency. For instance, when I asked him about the issue of supporting HuffPost, which by most accounts got a nice big bag of money from AOL, he wrote “HuffPost is a high integrity publisher, and individuals need to stand up and support that.” (Of course, it should also be noted that Newmark is a regular contributor to HuffPost.) Attention is good for raising awareness of social causes or building the valuation of a startup. But in the business of journalism, getting attention to translate into dollars (and let’s face it, dollars are a primary concern these days) is not an easy science.

What does Newmark mean by journalism integrity? “It means a reasonable adherence to traditional journalistic ethics like fact checking, and truth in advertising when an interviewee is paid to present a position; more so if the interviewee has been caught lying repeatedly,” Newmark wrote.

Newmark isn’t indicting the media for a lapse in ethics — at least not completely — but more pointedly directing light on organizations that are built specifically for investigative work and transparency. It’s not enough to keep government honest, but journalists have to keep themselves and their organizations honest, putting everything on the table and letting the audience decide.

Newmark told me that means disclosing conflicts of interests not just of reporters, but also their sources. “There are many news outlets competing for our attention and only a limited amount of news any day. That motivates sensationalistic reporting, and devalues traditional values like fact checking and the firewall between reporting and advertising,” he wrote.

The continuing struggle for news organizations, aside from making money to support news gathering, is gaining a foothold or step up on competition. What CraigConnects can offer to some degree is a Craig-approved vetting of reliable news sources for readers to consider. (I asked Newmark what he reads on a regular basis. His list includes HuffPost, TechCrunch, BoingBoing, Buzzmachine, Mashable, and The New York Observer among others.) It’s an extension of the recommendations you get from friends or a fine-tuned Twitter feed, but in this case there’s an implied suggestion to give more than your readership and clicks. I asked Newmark whether he thought news organizations can operate as nonprofits. “I think so, a lot of people are willing to pay for trustworthy news, as in the case of NPR,” he wrote.

Talking with Newmark, I get the sense he hasn’t fully defined the extent of how CraigConnects can help journalism, but he senses it’s an important time to start backing the journalism you use and can trust. And as he makes plain on the project’s website, he’s still figuring out how CraigConnects will work as a platform for all the areas he’s trying to support. Either way, he’s committed to a 20-year calendar for CraigConnects.

We know that one of the ways Craigslist revolutionized classifieds was by getting the buyer and seller in direct contact, eliminating the need for the newspaper. With CraigConnects, it seems Newmark wants to put a middleman back in play for the sake of journalism.

Image courtesy of Stephanie Canciello, unali artists.

POSTED     March 23, 2011, 3:30 p.m.
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