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Craig Newmark’s New Hit List
The internet mogul was vilified for destroying journalism. Now he’s setting out to save it.
There was hay here once. Horses, coachmen. Carriages were stored one room over. But that was a long time ago, before this house in lower Manhattan was even on the market, before the construction workers arrived, before the limestone tile for an adjoining hallway was cut, before the hayloft was removed to make room for a spiral staircase and more bookshelves. Before it became the two-story personal library of an unassuming internet mogul. Before Craig.
Yes, that Craig. The Craig of online classifieds fame, the Craig of Craigslist, the unmistakable character of late ’90s internet disruption: squat, bespectacled, flecks of gray in the goatee, a pleasant gloss atop his balding head, the slightly upturned wry smile that indicates he’s about to employ his trademark dry humor.
“If the drill noise becomes annoying enough, let me know,” he says, referring to the cacophony echoing through the first floor of his mid-renovation New York City home, all the way back to the library where we sit. “It’s no worse than the dentist, but without any vibration, and it’s just the vibration that really bothers me.”
The library, with its unadorned desk, is where the soon-to-be 66-year-old Newmark will continue the latest chapter of an already eventful life. He’s a self-described awkward kid from Morristown, New Jersey, prone to squirreling himself away with a quart of milk, a box of chocolate chip cookies, and works of science fiction. (“I would socially isolate myself as a fat little kid,” he recalls.) In 1999, Newmark, having relocated to San Francisco after a 17-year tenure at IBM, turned a small email newsletter into a worldwide digital classifieds behemoth called Craigslist. In the process, he amassed a fortune of reportedly more than $1 billion. (Newmark doesn’t discuss his finances, but Craigslist, where he hasn’t held an executive role since 2000, made $690 million in revenue in 2016.)
The success of Craigslist lay in its being free, fast, and accessible. It’s just easy. Last spring, I sold my old drum kit there. Some photos and a short description took 10 minutes; a week and a half later, I bid farewell to a five-piece Tama drum set and pocketed $700. To this day, Craigslist is still an uncluttered, bland website, charging a small amount for a few kinds of postings.
“I did make the big decision to monetize minimally, thinking the business model was doing well by doing good,” Newmark says. “It’s just me being dysfunctional in my own way. That’s not modesty, either. That’s what being a nerd means.”
The man usually viewed as journalism’s grim reaper is rapidly positioning himself as its unlikely backer.
Yet there is something that is so far unsaid. Sitting in Newmark’s unfinished second home—he and his wife, Eileen, spend more than half their time in San Francisco—I, the freelance journalist, ought to have a beef. The prevailing logic goes like this: Craigslist gutted newspapers’ classifieds income, which made up about 40 percent of the industry’s total revenue, siphoning off roughly $5 billion from U.S. newspapers over seven years. Two days before I met Newmark, in late October, an article about him in the New York Times used the phrase “newspaper villain” in the headline.
In other words, some in journalism draw a straight line from Craigslist’s founding to journalism’s reeling. Over the past decade, 40 percent of all reporters have been laid off. Today, there are about five publicists for every journalist. The public’s approval rating of the industry continues to sink. As the popular meme goes: Journalism—it’s a long job with insane pressure and pretty crappy pay. On the other hand, everybody hates you.
And that’s why we now need Craig Newmark more than ever.
Newmark has donated some $70 million toward programs and partnerships in journalism ethics, startup news operations and existing media, and even journalism education. In June, the journalism school of the City University of New York got a new name: the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, the result of his $20 million endowed gift. In October, Newmark gave $2.5 million to New York Public Radio. Before then, he gave $20 million, to be distributed over several years, to the Markup, an investigative startup taking a hard look at Big Tech, and $2.5 million to the City, a new nonprofit focused on local New York City news that will disseminate its stories with help from New York magazine — which called Newmark “the exploder of journalism” in a profile published earlier this decade.
“I know people like to present it as he’s feeling guilty. I’ve never gotten any sense that he has a guilty conscience,” says Sarah Bartlett, dean of the Craig Newmark School. “In my experience with him, he’s been very consistent: He deeply believes in the importance of high-quality journalism.”
In the era of “fake news,” social media–enabled disinformation campaigns, and newsrooms with limited resources stretched ever more thinly, the man usually viewed as journalism’s grim reaper is rapidly positioning himself as its unlikely backer. For his next act, all the nerdy kid from Jersey wants to do is write checks his butt can cash, send the money to news organizations, and fade away into the background. Whether that’s a sustainable way of carrying the Fourth Estate far into this century is now the question.
Before Newmark officially created Craigslist, he just happened to be emailing friends in the Bay Area a roundup of events and job openings, which slowly morphed into Craigslist once Newmark could no longer sustain a volunteer operation of one. To the extent that Craigslist became a hit, it might be argued that it was less the result of savvy business acumen and more a case of moral luck — being in the right place, with the right product, at the exact moment the internet was directly connecting people and services.
This didn’t always have the effect Newmark intended. In 2010, ABC News described Craigslist as a “virtual red-light district” as part of a story into how pimps used the site to operate sex-trafficking and prostitution rings. Just this year, Craigslist removed its “personals” section in response to a bill passed by Congress that penalizes the owners and operators of websites that “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person” with fines or prison sentences of up to 10 years. Over the years, Newmark cooperated with and assisted law enforcement investigating nefarious actors who wield the internet as a weapon instead of a tool.
“He takes responsibility for the consequences of Craigslist. He spent years just weeding out bad players on Craigslist and answering complaints because he felt that was his responsibility,” says Sylvia Paull, a Silicon Valley PR consultant who has known Newmark since before the days of Craigslist. In the 1990s, when she started a networking group for women in technology in San Francisco, Newmark offered to set up the group’s website for free. “He’s a nerd with values,” she says.
That spirit of Newmark’s is readily apparent when he talks about the money he donates to veterans’ groups, like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It’s something that he began doing last decade. He didn’t serve in the Vietnam War — his classic quip is that he probably would not have survived boot camp — but says that we “owe vets a lot.” It’s a feeling Newmark relates back to his days as a younger man reading Thomas Paine’s warning about “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” the 1776 equivalent of the fair-weather friend.
“There’s a big statue of Thomas Paine in my hometown, and I pass it on the way to the in-laws. Quite seriously, we pass right by it,” Newmark says. “The people who have given so much for us, we owe them something.”
When it comes to his journey toward journalism patronage, Newmark says there was no unique revelation that befell him along the way. It was more like a series of moments that gradually stacked up into a larger, coherent sense of mission: reading about the Bill of Rights in high school history class, attending conferences on the future of journalism throughout the 2000s, friendships he developed over time with people who teach reporting or produce news.
Newmark’s contributions are early bets that if a nonprofit funding model works to sustain reporting, the same model could pop up elsewhere in the United States to either support new publications or revive existing ones.
But if there is an instance where Newmark’s inner voice called him to do more, it was the general election of 2016 — and specifically the work of bot accounts and calculated misinformation campaigns, circulated widely with the help of social media and magnified via the news. Newmark’s main worry: that foreign bad actors would deliberately disseminate false information to corrupt U.S. elections. The next summer, Newmark recalls his good friend Jeff Jarvis, media prognosticator and CUNY journalism professor, giving him a NATO handbook about countering foreign disinformation. With Craigslist, Newmark had developed a world where people learned that they could, for the most part, trust others they had never met and maybe make some money or find an apartment in the process. Now he was encountering an environment where even he couldn’t be sure if what he read on a daily basis were true or manufactured.
“I was proceeding with my gut, but I had a feeling that we were slowly moving into a bad place,” Newmark says. “We need to protect our democracy, and that’s a matter of journalism.”
It began slowly, with a $10,000 donation in 2016 to CUNY’s Electionland event, where researchers and students worked to track, in real time, voter suppression and irregularity. Several months later, Newmark’s $1.5 million donation to CUNY became the cornerstone of the larger News Integrity Initiative, a $14 million fund to build resources for fighting the willful manipulation of information.
Since then, Newmark’s efforts have expanded to include funding reporters and publications. His move to New York City is a calculated one, based on his assumption that what happens in New York tends to ripple across the country. And his contributions to the City, the Markup, and WNYC are early bets that if a nonprofit funding model works to sustain reporting for these organizations, the same model could pop up elsewhere in the United States, outside of the major metropolises, to either support new publications or revive existing ones.
“He realizes the incentives of present journalism push folks away from thoughtful journalism,” says Sue Gardner, executive director of the New York–based Markup. “People want journalism that’s designed to be in the public interest. He realizes that if people want that to happen, they need to be willing to pony up to make it happen.”
Newmark’s philanthropic efforts stop just short of ownership, however. He’s not Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce who purchased Time magazine in September for $190 million. He’s not Laurene Powell Jobs, whose Emerson Collective acquired a majority stake in the Atlantic in 2017. And he’s no Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who bought the Washington Post in 2013. Unlike others, Newmark isn’t throwing money at journalism in order to have a printed investment.
“My approach to philanthropy is to find good people doing good work, get them resources, and get out of the way. The resources are cash and whatever influence I have,” he says. “If people take other people’s work a lot more seriously because I put myself out there, then it’s worth it.”
Sit with Newmark for a few hours, and you get the impression that the money he has made is not something fully owed. It’s certainly more money than he knows what to do with. He’s a reserved man without many flashy indulgences. Tech gadgetry, like the new Google Home device he installed in late October, is what he enjoys. A good meal outside with a science fiction book is his idea of a good time.
“I would like to get on record that Jean-Luc Picard could kick Shatner’s ass,” he tells me, as one of our conversations veers into a discussion of the best captains from Star Trek.
And yet, a sense of irony abounds, at least among casual observers. In October, reporting on Newmark’s newfound commitment to funding journalism, the New York Times mentioned a symposium where he delivered remarks about publications’ needing to not be “a loudspeaker for liars.” Afterward, an attendee approached Newmark and laid it out in plain terms: Who’s the founder of Craigslist to say anything to the newspaper industry?
“He has a really strong affinity for underdogs, a lot of empathy for people who just can’t get a break,” Gardner says. “He wants the public interest to be served. He wants the world to be fair.”
Fair is probably the word furthest from how the newspaper industry’s casualties would describe Newmark’s brainchild. In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors knew exactly who to blame for its industry’s creeping demise: the guy named Craig. During a presentation on the struggles of the news business at their annual conference, the panelists flashed a photo of Newmark for the whole crowd to see. One year later, Al Saracevic of the San Francisco Chronicle chastised Newmark in one of his business columns. “[You] need to give something back to society,” wrote Saracevic, referencing the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that Craigslist makes every year.
“My approach to philanthropy is to find good people doing good work, get them resources, and get out of the way. The resources are cash and whatever influence I have.”
Newmark is aware of the criticisms of Craigslist and what role it possibly played in damaging the bottom line of the U.S. newspaper industry. “I am confident Craigslist had some effect, but you look at the Baekdal charts and you’d be hard pressed to notice it,” he says. That’s a reference to research conducted by media analyst Thomas Baekdal, which takes into account the overall landscape of electronic media for the steady demise of newspaper revenue streams.
“[B]laming Craigslist… is disingenuous,” Baekdal wrote on Twitter in October. “They listened to the market and created something people wanted. The U.S. newspapers can only blame itself for completely missing what was very plainly happening all around them.”
Newmark isn’t seeking forgiveness. He’s not, as Jeff Jarvis wrote in June after CUNY received its $20 million endowment, completing his “penance for what happened to newspapers.”
“The thing is, there is no guilt involved in this, none whatsoever. My motivation, then and now, is the sense of mission based on my high school history,” Newmark tells me when I bring all of this up. “A trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy. And since I believe I should practice what I preach, well, you gotta put your money where your mouth is.”
What effect Newmark’s imprimatur will have on news operations remains to be seen. But once you dismiss any real or perceived feelings of guilt the founder of Craigslist may or may not have, it’s easy to see why he’s funding the truth by writing checks to journalism schools and paying for new media projects. He’s not looking for absolution, because he doesn’t need it. Newmark has always been a part of the media — a publishing scion of the new digital age, someone who helped millions of small voices break through the din of the internet to find their place.
“I’ve been lucky enough to do well financially. I should do something, so I’m doing something,” he says. “The deal is you play your part and see what you can do.”