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.