Craig Newmark, Newspaper Villain, Is Working to Save Journalism
SAN FRANCISCO — Craig Newmark, so often accused of destroying journalism, is now doing his best to revive it.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Newmark, a former IBM programmer, built a service that allowed people to find apartments, jobs, computer parts, sexual partners, rides out of town and all sorts of other things through the newfangled consumer internet.
Craigslist was fast, free and popular, which means you could be pretty sure of getting what you wanted or getting rid of what you didn’t want.
Newspaper income from classifieds, which had provided up to 40 percent of the industry’s revenue, immediately plummeted. Researchers eventually estimated that Craigslist had drained $5 billion from American newspapers over a seven-year period. In the Bay Area, the media was especially hard hit.
Mr. Newmark is trying to stop the bleeding — although not here. He is among a gaggle of West Coast technology moguls who are riding to the rescue of the beleaguered East Coast media.
On Wednesday, New York Public Radio announced a $2.5 million gift from Mr. Newmark to expand its newsroom. That brings his total philanthropic efforts involving media in the last year to $50 million, much of it centered on New York.
A month earlier, Marc Benioff, another San Francisco tech mogul, bought Time magazine for $190 million. Mr. Benioff characterized his purchase as an investment. For Mr. Newmark, the situation is more political and more urgent.
“A trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy,” Mr. Newmark said. “Like we say in Jersey” — he hails from Morristown, N.J. — “you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”
That mouth is something that is often on Mr. Newmark’s mind these days. As he moves onto a national media stage, he is trying out personas, hoping for the right blend of sincerity and humor.
Mr. Newmark in 2004 with Jim Buckmaster, who has run Craigslist since 2000. “He won’t call you back,” Mr. Newmark said. Mr. Buckmaster didn’t.CreditThor Swift for The New York Times
“I’m not as articulate as I need to be,” he said. “I might not be the nerd people really need, but I’m the nerd they’ve got.”
Pause. “Is that quotable? I kind of like that,” he said.
Mr. Newmark’s media-giving spree began in June, with a $20 million gift to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which put his name on the door. This met with some criticism. Felix Salmon, a correspondent for Axios, tweeted that “it’s utterly bizarre to name a journalism school after the man who almost single-handedly destroyed local newspapers.”
His media ventures differ from those of his peers — not only Mr. Benioff but also Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, who bought The Washington Post, and Laurene Powell Jobs, who is the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and bought the magazine The Atlantic.
“I’m not the kind of guy to own an operation,” Mr. Newmark said. “I help, then I get out of the way, then I stay out of the way. That’s my strength.”
He disagrees that he helped kill newspapers. In the back garden of the Reverie Cafe, near San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and not far from his house, he said he was getting a bum rap.
“People throw the accusation,” he said. “I look at the facts and stick with that. Ever watch ‘CSI’ shows? They say follow the evidence.”
He cited the work of the media analyst Thomas Baekdal as proof that newspapers’ decline long preceded Craigslist. In an email, Mr. Baekdal largely absolved Craigslist of any responsibility for devastating newspapers and hastening the end of the world.
“If we were to imagine a world where Craigslist was never invented, I do not think it would have made any difference,” Mr. Baekdal wrote. “We in the media industry insisted on keeping the classified market limited and high-priced so that it supported other parts of our businesses where we were essentially losing money (a.k.a. journalism). It was only a matter of time before someone realized there was a more efficient way to do this.”
Mr. Newmark gave $20 million last month to The Markup, a new site dedicated to investigating technology. It is run by, from left, Jeff Larson, Julia Angwin and Sue Gardner.CreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times
The fact that Craigslist was free, however, doubtless accelerated its effect. It is now in 700 cities in 70 countries.
“Craigslist helped people put food on the table, helped people get a table, helped people get a roof under which to put the table,” Mr. Newmark said. It is something he has said before, he acknowledged, “most recently some hours ago, on Twitter.”
Mr. Newmark’s charm at 65 is that he is the mogul who declines to act like one. He has looked 35 for the last two decades — round, balding, goateed. He got married six years ago, and even before that his bride, Eileen Whelpley, promised a makeover. She told The San Francisco Chronicle that “Craig is going to do yoga, although he doesn’t know it.”
So how is the yoga going?
“Let’s say that’s still in the future,” he said.
Mr. Newmark still does customer service for Craigslist, which mostly consists of booting off troublemakers, but has not had an operational role for a long time. “As a manager,” he noted, “I suck.”
The site has been run since 2000 by Jim Buckmaster, who is described in his official biography as possibly the only chief executive who has been labeled a “socialist anarchist.” Mr. Buckmaster keeps a low profile. “He won’t call you back,” Mr. Newmark said cheerfully. (Mr. Buckmaster didn’t.)
Unlike just about every other venture begun in the dot-com era, Craigslist never even thought about going public. It has no ads or subscription fees. (It charges for job postings in the United States and for brokered apartment listings in New York.)
Every tech mogul ever born has maintained that it is not about the money, but for Mr. Newmark and Mr. Buckmaster this really seems to be true. In 2006, Mr. Buckmaster told an audience in New York that there were problems with “obscene wealth.”
“You should be careful what you wish for. Do you really want to walk around with bodyguards?” he asked. The audience shouted back, “Yes, yes!” and “I do!”
Mr. Newmark flies commercial. At Cafe Reverie, his consumption was limited to a glass of water. His biggest extravagance is a $6 million New York City apartment.
“I’d like things to start in New York and spread,” Mr. Newmark said.CreditJim McAuley for The New York Times
His net worth, according to Forbes, is $1.6 billion. Mr. Newmark brushed the figure aside. “My focus is on giving it away in a smart way,” he said, though he didn’t want to say how much he plans to give away. In previous interviews, Mr. Newmark, who owns about half of Craigslist, has asserted he is worth much less than people assume.
One thing is clear: He is not spending his money on Craigslist. He can’t remember the last time he got something off the site, although he said his wife used it.
“Craig doesn’t need to prove he’s someone by having possessions,” said Sylvia Paull, a media consultant who has known Mr. Newmark for 20 years. “His way of living mirrors Craigslist. For years people have been saying, ‘You’ve got to upgrade the interface, make it more interactive, add color.’ He just says, ‘No, I like it simple and plain.’”
Mr. Newmark has been a steadfast supporter of women in tech, and built a website for Ms. Paull’s networking group for women, Gracenet, back when that was a labor-intensive initiative. He also funds veterans’ causes. He has lingering guilt about not serving in Vietnam even though he knows he wouldn’t have been much of a soldier.
Contributing money isn’t enough. He shows up at symposiums, like a recent one in Berkeley, Calif. He told the audience that he traced the crisis in journalism back to the mid-1990s, when the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, offered “attractive lies the press just couldn’t stay away from.” He criticized The New York Times for its coverage of the 2016 presidential race and offered general advice: “Don’t be a loudspeaker for liars.”
Afterward, the first member of the crowd to go up to him said he found it “kind of ironic” that the guy whose internet site had done so much to undermine newspapers was now funding journalism. For the umpteenth time, Mr. Newmark recommended Mr. Baekdal’s work.
Journalism in San Francisco is still in crisis. San Francisco Magazine just made clear its future will involve a lot less journalism and a lot more fluff. Many staff members have left.
“I’d love to see some of the S.F.-based tech moguls step up and help journalism in their own backyard,” said Gary Kamiya, a former editor of the magazine.
But Mr. Newmark is concentrating on New York, where local coverage has also faltered.
“My goal is to support the groups which are not only going to do good work but say, ‘Here’s how you do good work,’” he said. “I’d like things to start in New York and spread.”
As he was leaving Cafe Reverie, Mr. Newmark checked his phone.
“Twenty-seven new emails,” he said.
How many were asking for money?
“All of them,” he said.