To understand the relationship between Craigslist and the newspapers of America, recall last summer’s hit movie War of the Worlds. Think of Craigslist as the army of rampaging tripods and publishers as the screaming humans who don’t know what hit them. The tripods don’t get any lines, let alone a scene where they and the humans talk things over. But if there were one it might resemble Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s recent appearance at an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference in San Francisco.

“I actually have been referred to and prefer to be introduced as the Antichrist of print media,” Newmark started off. “But I’d like to assure you that the scariest thing about me is my sense of humor.” A transcript of the conference has the audience gamely laughing at Newmark’s jokes, as we all tend to do when the jokes are told by someone who threatens to eat us alive.

Newmark made it clear he has lots of respect for the civilization he’s been leveling. “I do want to remind people,” he said, “that I realize how important professional journalism is. The deal is, there’s no substitute for someone who can write real well, no substitute for fact-checking, research, and editing. And my half-assed vision of a future–writers and editors, fact-checkers, will have a more important role in the future. And given my fantasies, and looking at some of the technology coming online now, those are going to be better careers in the near future.”

Then Newmark cut the crap. “Paper, I have a feeling, as a means of delivering content, may not have a great deal of a future.”

Craigslist is teaching journalists that virtuous news gathering alone won’t save them. That’s an old lesson. Back in the 60s and 70s proud city dailies were brought to their knees by suburban throwaways that slapped press releases around supermarket ads. Now Craigslist, the homely but accessible, free national online bulletin board, is threatening to wipe out classified advertising in dailies and alternative weeklies.

The first questioner at the conference asked Newmark for mercy. Reminding Newmark that two years ago eBay bought a quarter of Craigslist’s stock to make it even more menacing, he wondered, “Why not just take a five-year moratorium on expansion and let the local communities build their own sites, so that the money stays in town and local newspapers can survive? You’ve got plenty of money, you’ve got a big operation, you’re famous, you’re speaking everywhere. Why do you need to keep expanding? Why do you need to move into every damn market in the country and make life more difficult for people there?”

“First of all, if you think I’m famous you may need to get out more often.” (“Laughter,” says the transcript.) “The question you’re posing, from my point of view, is, I can help people or I can not help people. You’re suggesting that I not help people, and I think that’s the answer implicit in that.” He said Craigslist was “lucky” eBay joined in the “community service” because “they share a similar moral compass.”

Craigslist, with a payroll of 19, has made millions by charging for job postings in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Newmark said he would soon start charging apartment brokers in New York but wasn’t sure how much, because “we don’t want to hurt the smaller agencies, or, let’s say, the agents who are new in the business and who aren’t being paid very much.” A publisher who wasn’t moved by Newmark’s sensitivity told him, “I hear the stuff about doing good for the little ad agency in New York, and I say, ‘Who gives a shit?’ Because there’s a whole bunch of people in here who are little people as well, Craig. . . . There’s a lot of little people here that are going to be affected in very adverse ways through what Craigslist is doing in a benevolent guise.”

What the little people need, said Newmark, is a new business model. “News is really, really important,” he declared, expressing perplexity that newspapers are cutting costs by firing reporters. “That phenomenon has been happening for a long time,” he said, “or at least Carl Hiaasen says so in his novels. The deal is that, if we can help everyone get to these cheaper means of delivery quickly enough, then . . . instead of focusing on high profit margins, people can get to journalism again and be a community service.”

Or whatever. “I need people to tell me if I’m right or if I’m full of shit, basically,” he said. “And I’ll entertain comments on either side of that spectrum.” (“Laughter.”)

In the end the tripods were halted by neither arms nor treaties. An old-fashioned pathogen did the job, a microbe the natives had been inhaling for centuries. Last month Craigslist was sued in Chicago. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law accused it of displaying rental ads that violated the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act. Some of the ads cited in the suit are startling. Who knew the law was so persnickety? But long ago newspapers learned to live with it.

“Ideal for young person just starting out” was an ad cited for illegally discriminating “on the basis of familial status.” Ads that do that–or discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin–set off alarms at the Lawyers’ Committee. Such ads, says the suit, “discourage or prohibit home-seekers from responding to those advertisements and thus decrease the number of units available to them.”

“No minorities,” said another ad mentioned in the suit. Two more ads that were fingered said “Neighborhood is predominantly Caucasian, Polish and Hispanic” and “Within walking distance to transportation, shopping, church.” Some apartment hunters would consider “Very spacious for a single person, too small for a couple” helpful; the suit considers it illegal.

For my benefit, Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, e-mailed member papers a questionnaire asking how they deal with fair-housing rules. “This stuff sure is scary for a small paper like ours. We have to be cautious,” replied a classifieds manager in North Carolina. An ad director from Virginia said, “We are very vigilant! We are probably overly conservative.” Brett Murphy, who manages classifieds for the Reader, said “We’re pretty strict.” What about “walking distance from church,” I asked him. He replied, “I don’t know if we’re that strict, but if it’s Boys Town we’ll edit that. It has that inference ‘We’re only renting to gay people.’ ‘Urban pioneers’–we’ve taken that term out.”

The Reader just revamped its online classifieds and now offers photos, maps, and other features in order to compete directly with Craigslist. Advertisers can post directly on the site, ads are free for private individuals, and because the definition of “private” was expanded to include sublessors and owner occupants of two-flats and three-flats, at first revenues will shrink. Yet Murphy has assigned nine ad reps to monitor the Web site and edit ads that cross the line. Craigslist doesn’t assign anyone to do that. It tells users to “flag” any ads they’re offended by, and if enough flags fly the ad comes down. Under this approach, an ad won’t be deleted as objectionable until someone objects to it.

Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, says his system works. “The lawsuit found 100 ads from over 200,000 posted [since last July],” he told me. “Most of those 100 would not strike an ordinary person as discriminatory.” Before Buckmaster returned my call he went to our Web site and searched housing ads for “church” and “student.” He let me know that “in five minutes time I found eight ads similar to the ones cited [in the lawsuit]. Eight out of 2,500. One that said ‘across from a church’ and seven that said something along the lines of ‘ideal for students.’ In the arcane world of fair housing, if you say ‘ideal for students’ it’s assumed that you’re speaking in code to say ‘no families with children allowed.'” Buckmaster’s point was that by the standards of the lawsuit, the Reader system has nothing on Craigslist.

Buckmaster said Craigslist expects to defeat the suit because it’s “misguided” and because “Congress recognized that Internet sites aren’t the same as publishing houses or newspapers.” That was the view of New York Times legal reporter Adam Liptak, writing last Sunday. “A part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 said that online companies are not liable for transmitting unlawful materials supplied by others,” he reported. But that was then. Today a debate rages over whether the Internet “needs protection to preserve its character as a free-wheeling, spontaneous forum” (Liptak’s description) or needs to grow up. Finding Craigslist liable, a UCLA law professor told Liptak, would devastate it.

Alternative papers like the Reader aren’t sure what to think. There was a surge of glee when the Craigslist suit was filed–“I was overjoyed,” a publisher from another city told me–because publishers want everyone to play by the same rules. Yet if the Internet is the new frontier, the more wide-open it stays, the greater the opportunities might be for everyone.

Stephen Libowsky, an attorney representing the Lawyers’ Committee, predicts the Internet won’t be lawless forever. Illegal drugs, body parts, child pornography, and more are trafficked on the Internet, he says, “and inevitably Congress is going to have to deal with these questions. I don’t think there will be any stomach not to deal with that.”

Will Congress also have the stomach to deal with fair-housing restrictions that have been the law of the land for nearly four decades? The Craigslist suit has put that question on the table. Libowsky calls the Internet the “wild west”–and predicts that in ten years “it’s unlikely it’s going to be the same.”

It might be changing already. Liptak mentioned a 2003 suit in California that was dismissed under the 1996 law, but that same year a Web site owner in New Jersey settled in a fair-housing lawsuit brought by the Justice Department and agreed to establish a $10,000 victims fund. A dramatic test of Internet law is under way in Louisiana, where the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed a federal complaint naming five Web sites that had been set up to offer emergency housing to Katrina victims. The complaint cited ads that said such things as “Not racist, but white only” and “As a white couple, we would be looking for a white mother and baby.”

“We have two dogs in this fight,” says the Reader’s executive editor, Mike Lenehan, who oversees the paper’s Web site. “I know a publisher who’s been trying for years to figure out how to anonymously drop a dime on Craigslist for this issue. From the publishers’ point of view, it’s true Craigslist doesn’t have to play by the same rules we do–not so far. But we shouldn’t be too eager for them to lose this suit, because we’re all in the online business too.”

Lenehan doesn’t think Craigslist will lose in court, and he doesn’t think the freewheeling Internet can be throttled. “You remember when you couldn’t say things like ‘gay’ or ‘S and M’ in newspaper personals?” he says. “A whole vocabulary of code words was created that were innocuous on their face but meaningful to people who needed to know about sexual practices”–code words like “Greek culture” and “water sports.” He adds, “I’m sure the online community–as they like to call themselves–would be very quick to come up with a solution to this problem. If not a technical solution, a poetic solution.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Amy Gill.