(Please read this post on the ASU News Co/Lab site first, for context.)
I can’t remember exactly when I met Craig Newmark, but I distinctly remember what happened when I discovered craigslist. It was in the late 1990s, and I was a columnist at Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, where I focused on technology and its impact. The minute I used craigslist in a transaction, I knew that this supremely functional website, and services like it, would be enormously consequential.
In those days classified ads were by far the most profitable revenue stream for local papers, a function of newspapers having created near-monopolies on print advertising in their markets. I showed craigslist to the Mercury News’ classified ad folks and said something like, “I think we’re screwed,” because craigslist was obviously better for advertisers than what we were selling: There was no limit on space; advertisers could include photos of what they were selling; and the service was vastly cheaper, i.e. free, than what we charged for our inferior, pricey product. The response from my fellow Mercury News employee was something like, “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
Craig Newmark, who later became a friend, did not set out to undermine daily newspapers’ business model, and while craigslist (and the many other classified-like sites, especially eBay) played a role in what has happened, it was one among a collection of events and shifts that coalesced into what we have today. Secular market changes, like the rise of ad-supported broadcasting and, much later, the demise of department stores that had been major display advertisers, played an enormous role. So did the 2008 economic meltdown, Wall Street’s (more recently, private equity’s) greed, and the rise of the now all-powerful Google-Facebook advertising duopoly. But it’s fair to say in key ways, the monopoly undermined itself, because the monopolists couldn’t figure out how to adjust once advertisers — who paid bulk of the bills to run news organizations — had reasonable options.
Craig is an exceedingly smart person and happily calls himself a nerd, but he didn’t have a master-of-the-Internet plan to become an information mogul. He started a simple mail list to provide a service, first for his friends and later, when it moved to the web, for anyone who wanted to use it. He was careful not to extract maximum cash from the service that he and his small, talented team nurtured from its beginnings into what it became. Most listings remained free, with charges in only a couple of categories. And as craigslist became the place to start when you were looking for something to buy or sell (or make connections of other kinds) online, he ended up making lots of money anyway. From the beginning, he gave back to his community, in meaningful but not self-aggrandizing ways. From my perspective he is a gentle soul and has true humility. He is the antithesis of many (though thankfully not all) Silicon Valley founders I’ve met over the years.
Craig has become a celebrity in some ways. He’s definitely well known today in the news world, which is a change. In the middle of the last decade, after craigslist had become the default classifieds site in most big cities and a bunch of smaller ones, I gave a talk to some of America’s top editors at their annual national trade-group meeting in Washington. I put a photo of Craig on the big screen and asked, “How many of you recognize this person?” Only a few hands went up. I then asked, “How many of you recognize the name Craig Newmark?” Closer to half of the hands went up.
In the time I’ve known him, Craig has consistently cared about quality information, and by extension journalism. He made it his business to learn about the craft. For several years more than a decade ago, I taught a “new media” course at UC-Berkeley’s graduate journalism school, and he always dropped by to speak with the students. In recent years, as he greatly boosted his philanthropy with a focus on improving our information ecosystem, he’s made it part of his business to help journalists do the best possible job they can. When he calls journalism “the immune system of democracy,” he’s not just coining a clever phrase. He plainly means it.
One of Craig’s interests has been fact-checking. Recently, we at the ASU News Co/Lab showed him a project we were planning: to greatly enhance the use and value of journalistic corrections — by far the most common form of post-publication fact-checking, when you think about it. In short order, his philanthropic arm donated launch funding for the project. I’m immensely grateful, and determined to make this project something in which we can all take pride.
(I’ve updated this post to reflect a broader context of changes in the media industry, notably that the erosion of newspapers’ dominance in the news and advertising industries began with the rise of broadcasting, and the most recent shift of ad dollars toward Google and Facebook.)