Craigslist and Information as News

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The best reporting in the world — no hyperbole, the best reporting in the world — this week came from the web division of the New Orleans Times Picayune, Information — missing person reports, safe and alive person reports — became news. And it became a source, even, for rescue teams, more accurate than anything else they had to go on.

Craigslist, after Katrina, became a forum for finding the missing and housing the saved, and what you find on Craigslist are stories as compelling as anything on CNN. Maybe what communities want in a time of crisis is good information, and maybe detailed, accurate information makes the best story. Craig and Jeff helped invent two new ways of collecting and distributing information; Jon is perfecting it right now in the Crescent City.

Jon Donley


Craig Newmark

Founder and Customer Service Representative, Craigslist

Author, Craigblog

Jeff Jarvis

Author, Buzzmachine

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  • Bummed I won’t be able to follow this one live; Brian from is in town. Looks like a great show. I’ll be sure to direct folks to it on my Katrina Aftermath community blog. -ac

  • Posted. -andy

  • Chris’s promo on WGBH this morning had promised some insight into the PeopleFinder project, which Jeff Jarvis has been busy hyping. It seems impressive — to Rebecca MacKinnon, 2100 people have volunteered to built a super-database by culling from existing databases.

    But wait. The American Red Cross has been running such a service for years, and immediately set one up for Katrina —

    I ran a simple test, I picked what I thought was a fitting sample name– Levi. FamilyLinks returns 8 Levi’s and 30 names that started LEV or LEW. When I use KatrinaList, I get 4 Levi’s– none the same– and 25 extras (matching where people had mis-spelled levee).

    I suppose we should recognize the efforts of these volunteers, and there is some valor in distributed-decentralized organizing, but there ought to be some recognition of the work that has been done by professionals. And if there are shortcomings to the ARC approach, then by all means, make a note of them.

    What does PeopleFinder think of FamilyLinks? No mention on the front page. It notes that it has 112,100 records, and then says “May not be good for scraping” (ie., copying the records) and “Perhaps contacting them would help.”

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  • Hi Jon,

    It took days for the Red Cross site to be up and running. They don’t run it – it’s the ICRC, not the American Red Cross. I checked it every day last week, and there was almost no activity, no discernable promotion by the red cross. The ICRC database was available but almost no one was linking to it or promoting it, even though many bloggers like me were demanding to know when it would get the promotion it needed It wasn’t until friday that they issued a press release. In the meanwhile, dozens of other sites had started tens of thousands of missing persons listings. Someone needed to pull it all together.

    I know David has been trying to reach out to the Red Cross since last week, when all of this got started. I don’t know if they’ve been cooperative.

    By the nature of their scale, the red cross managed to catch up very quickly. But they were very late in the game. That database was available for Kosovo; it took them days to get it adapted for the tsunami, and the same problems seemed to have happened this time as well.

  • Andy– thanks for the insight. Sorry that my post had nothing to do what was discussed this evening, but that’s how it goes. It would have been nice if someone could make contact with the ICRC. If Chris could get Grover Norquist on the show… then for sure he make connections at the Red Cross!

    I’m listening to the show right now. I have to shut if off every time Jarvis opens his mouth. Gosh I wish Norquist was on. I’ve met Jeff, I’ve read BuzzMachine, and heard it all before about the leveling of the power relationship, etc. It’s not quite true. Blah, blah, blog. When he says things like “newspapers need to stop thinking of themselves as things and instead as places” this just means absolutely nothing. I guess I wish I called up now to spare the listeners from so much of Jeff’s preaching.

    Is this supposed to mark a turning point? Funny, the tsunami coverage was supposed to. The London bombings were supposed to. So, the lessen is quite clear. A disaster strikes; there becomes an insatiable demand for news, as well as an undending supply of information, and it appears that the game has changed. But when things get back to normal, the citizen-journalism subsides; the bloggers get on to other things; and it’s the traditional media which gets back to carrying the proverbial water.

    There was mention on the program how once journalists began to blog during these crises, they don’t want to go back. Well, considering that that big step involves nothing more than dropping the editorial process, that shouldn’t surprise us. Chris mentioned the “OhMyNews” revolution– which hasn’t happened here at all, it happened in South Korea.

    I kept hearing “Journalism got its spine back.” Because of (a) The blogging revolution has washed away the need for civilizing editors or (b) This was the largest natural catastrophe in the history of the United States? Find me someone who can seriously answer (a) to this question.

    So, what’s changed? Well, there’s one obvious thing. People want information, and newspapers, well, specialize in news. And certainly what makes Craigslist so compelling (its readership must dwarf the popular blogs).

    Why has Craigslist succeeded where previous Internet experiments (e.g. USENET) have succumbed? Have media websites been able to duplicate its success? Necessary questions, but perhaps only of interest to a tiny audience.

    Finally, I can sympathize with the caller Erica’s question near the end of the show this evening. Her concern was about the lack of a fact-checking process on the web. Tonight’s panelists were all eager to jump on this and declare how many times the newspaper was wrong. Well, that’s not quite the issue. The person who has free time to follow the news during the day– for whatever reason– will quickly exhaust themselves of what they may find in print or on television, and will turn to the blogs and have endless time to dig through. Which explains why it’s not hard to find a journalist with a soft spot for blogging. The rest of us don’t have the time for that; we have no patience to sort through the new gatekeepers and instead still rely on the old.

    A revolution it ain’t.

  • Abby

    I’m wondering whether the new media will help us get around some of the censorship issues. Brian Williams has reported that his crew was prevented from taking photos of dead people in New Orleans.

    Operation Flashlight has reported that certain journalists are being kept out of New Orleans.

  • In some way, Jon, the blogosphere’s coverage of the hurricane was a step backwards.

    Compare what happened in the blogging community with the tsunami and with Katrina. In the tsunami, dozens of bloggers pulled together to make the tsunamihelp blog – – the most powerful information resource on the Net about the tsunami. Most of the bloggers were in South Asia, many directly affected by the tsunami, yet they pulled it off.

    This time, I saw almost no attempts for bloggers to work together. The only ones who really did, miraculously, were the same south asians from tsunamihelp, who immediately created, including a 24-hour skype hotline for finding emergency assistance. Give each of them a medal for their generosity. But apart from that, nothing on the scale of tsunamihelp materialized.

    There were also precious few podcasters and videobloggers covering the event. Whenever I or others tried sharing the few videoblogs we could find on the videoblogging yahoogroup, people actually complained that the list was spending too much time talking about the hurricane. It was shameful.

    The lack of coordination was one of the reasons why I declared last friday blogging for disaster relief day. I managed to get over 100 blogs participating, including blogs that would normally never cover relief efforts – real estate blogs, marketing blogs, even a few sex blogs. I aggregated all the content so people could explore it collectively, but it still wasn’t the same as bloggers taking the time to work together in a coordinated way. It was every blogger for him/herself. An opportunity was missed. should win pulitzers what they’ve done; Craigslist, meanwhile, did exactly what I hoped they’d do. But the blogosphere – and I count myself within it – could have done a lot more.

  • Vanessa

    Chris said “De-institutionalization of media”…Populist or anarchist? Whatever the word, feels like people are moving towards using technology for the greater good of their communities. Amazing how these catastrophic events shed light on that. When the Titanic sank, people were remarking about the telegraph making it one of the first disasters experienced around the world in near simultaneity (Kern, “The Culture of Time and Space”).

  • Andy– nice conversing with you again. (and everyone else, here’s where Andy and I met for the first time, for the last time… around the outer ring of the table, with Jeff Jarvis on the inner ring.)

    What you say here begs the folk nature of the blogs. There are no metrics for what is good blogging and what is not, so it’s a surprise that Jarvis calls this a success and you do not.

    I do find your own metrics interesting– the fact that the tsunami bloggers had set up a main clearinghouse made it a success. Oddly enough, one person who set up the Tsunami blog (Dina Mehta) very quickly conceded that it wasn’t the blog, but the wiki that was instrumental in marshalling information regarding the tsunami. They’re both grassroots media. But I don’t believe that being a blogger makes one into a civic constructor– it is more likely, I believe, that it makes one a Whitmanesque singer.

  • Dina’s right – the wiki was key, no doubt about it. What I’m trying to say is that the bloggers banded together to make a coordinated, strategic effort to inform the public. The wiki was part of it, a fundamental aspect of the blog. Of course, anyone could edit the wiki, but there was a very coordinated effort made by Dina, Peter and the other organizers to divide wiki-related tasks among the group. (Full disclosure – I was a contributor to the tsunamihelp blog, but I take no credit for what was accomplished, as I joined about a week into the tsunami disaster, long after they’d accomplished miracles with the site.)

    I have no doubt that more bloggers participated in covering Katrina more than pretty much any event. But the decentralized nature of blogging, which is often a good thing, meant that lots of content got repeated, good ideas got ignored, redundant actions took place. With the tsunami, dozens of bloggers agreed to actually cooperate with each other to make a difference. I just wonder what it would have been like if a couple dozen a-list bloggers had banded together, supporting each other’s blogging, complementing it. I’m not necessarily sure we needed a centralized uber-blog like tsunamihelp, but that sense of cooperation might have made a bigger difference.

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