Craig Newmark — yes, the Craig of the List — is a nerd. But not just any nerd. He may in fact be the nerd.
“I did the plastic pocket protector thing. Wore thick black glasses taped together. I was possibly nerd patient zero,” he said with his trademark self-deprecating humor. “I embodied the cliché and the cliché started somewhere, so maybe it was with me,” he said.
While he’s since ditched the pocket protector and can afford all the intact glasses he wants, little else has visibly changed about the one-time IBM programmer who created the Craigslist online marketplace in the 1990s and forever set the newspaper industry on a new path — more on that shortly.
But even at 67, he looks about the same as ever — round face, small goatee framing the curve of a small smile that hints he might be pulling your leg. And he’s still totally nerdy. Super into gadgets. Just got some bone-conduction earphones and a cool new high-tech podcast-style mic for Zoom calls while sheltering in place with his wife Eileen Whelpley in their Haight-Ashbury home (when not in their New York apartment). Oh, and then there are the birds.
Yes, adding to his geekiness resume, Newmark is totally into birds right now, easily distracted during an online interview like a cat spotting a string, a laser pointer or, well, a bird.
“Oh, there they are! Right in the window in front of me, on our deck, in the trees, we have crows and ravens,” he said. “Meanwhile, wild parrots have discovered we have a plum tree and that plums are delicious. So there’s large-scale warfare between the two species. I love pigeons too. Pigeons are survivors.”
Yet even more than the ongoing avian drama, Newmark’s main focus these days is philanthropy, using his Craigslist largesse to support — oddly enough, as it seems to some — journalism.
Through his private foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, he has donated upward of $75 million in the past few years to a wide variety of media outlets and institutions, nonprofits, journalism schools, programs on journalism ethics — mostly in New York and a few in the Bay Area — all in support of an evolving media landscape in the digital age.
For instance, in 2018, Newmark gave $20 million to the journalism school of the City University of New York. He donated $2.5 million to New York Public Radio. He sent several million to The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom investigating the use of technology. He’s donated to the American Press Institute, ProPublica and J. The Jewish News of Northern California. The list goes on.
His most recent gifts have been to IWMF, the International Women’s Media Foundation, countering harassment directed at journalists and specifically offering direct financial support to those who may have been attacked during recent protests, he said.
And locally, Newmark offered a $100,000 dollar-for-dollar challenge grant during KQED’s latest pledge drive — a godsend during the cutbacks from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Craig is a stalwart supporter of local journalism,” generously coming to the aid of local journalists and media organizations here in the Bay Area and beyond, said Michael Isip, KQED’s president and CEO. “Craig understands the critical role that trusted local journalism has in serving and strengthening communities, especially in an unprecedented moment like the one we’re experiencing now.”
Now, don’t get the idea that all this benevolence has anything to do with repentance.
While to many in the flailing newspaper industry, Craigslist pretty much killed legacy papers by swiping their bread-and-butter classified advertising (a New York Times headline from a couple of years ago even dubbed Newmark the “journalism villain”), Newmark — who has been out of Craigslist daily operations for years, but still has a toe in customer service — has long rejected the claim. He even sounds a bit hurt when it’s brought up, yet again.
“With some humor, I look at it as coincidence that newspapers’ problems started dramatically in the early 1950s when TV news became a thing,” he says, adding with the small smile, “which was conveniently before I was born.”
And if he hadn’t created such an easy-to-use online marketplace to post apartment listings, garage sales, piano lessons, jobs, rants and raves and pretty much anything under the sun, someone else surely would have done it, says Sylvia Paull, a Bay Area media consultant who has known Newmark since before Craigslist — back when Paull had a networking group for women in technology in San Francisco and Newmark built her a website for free, “which was a lot more work back in those days,” she said.
“Brilliant ideas often seem inevitable, and that’s the case with Craigslist,” Paull said. “While it might have expedited the demise of some newspapers, (the demise) would have happened anyway. Yes, it’s kind of ironic that he is supporting traditional media. But he recognizes the importance of having that Fourth Estate, especially in these times.”
Indeed, Newmark has always been a strong supporter of journalism, and his advocacy has only grown in recent years with the onset of “fake news,” vanishing jobs at legacy news agencies and foreign countries meddling in social media. He’s big on journalistic ethics, countering misinformation, supporting cybersecurity.
“The role of journalists is much more vital now that warfare is informational,” he said. “So a lot of my philanthropy is focused on that kind of thing. And the thing is — oh, wait, we now have several of the wild parrots. S’cuze me, I need to yell,” he said, palming the mic and shouting over his shoulder, “Eileen! Parrots! You can show your mom on FaceTime!”
He apologized for the interruption, then continued. “It’s of course important to report on what’s going on in Washington, but it’s also important to know what’s going on at your school board meetings and coyote sightings in your neighborhood. Because that kind of news has been gone for a while now, it’s easy to not notice that those things are missing.
“The big problem right now is bad actors have learned how to play the media,” he said. “The press should act to filter out the talking points of bad guys and shouldn’t amplify that. But bad actors have learned to play the press and it’s getting worse. Some in journalism are standing up and saying don’t do this.
“That’s why people like me gotta stand up,” he said. “It helps that I can write some checks with some substance, and that gets attention.”
Truly, that’s his specialty. While some moguls buy news agencies themselves, Newmark specializes in helping financially, bringing people together, and then getting the heck out of the way.
“I’m not a newsperson or an economist and I don’t pretend to tell anyone how to do business,” he said. But what he does see emerging in journalism is “a mix of models that will survive and thrive,” he said. “My favorite are memberships and subscriptions. I love the NPR model.”
Newmark is basically just a socially awkward kid from Jersey. He grew up in Morristown and loved playing in the junkyard up the street, though his parents didn’t think it was a good idea. He thrilled at the treasure hunt, finding old Superman comics or unearthing old radios and speakers and extracting the magnets, just to play with them and see how they worked. “At my age and level of nerdiness, it was a great adventure.”
And he attributes his focus on ethics — in life, business and journalism — to his Jewish upbringing.
“When I went to Sunday school, Mr. and Mrs. Levin wanted me to understand I should treat people like I wanted to be treated. They also helped me know when enough is enough. That’s why I’m giving lots away,” he said.
He also remembers his high school debate coach, who was also the U.S. history and physics teacher, who instilled the importance of the Bill of Rights and a trustworthy press as “the immune system of democracy,” he says. “All that has been bubbling up for me in the last few years. We need to protect our democracy, and that’s what journalism is for.”
These days, Newmark gets his news from dozens of sources.
“There are some local blogs, like 48 Hills and CurbedSF I keep up with. My issue — I subscribe to 30 or 40 RSS feeds and they tend to blur together, I’m afraid,” he said. “I like some technology news because it makes me feel young again. Of course that lapses into retail therapy. Like, by tonight I should get some cabling I ordered, to clean up my ungainly desk so it’s more, um, gainly. To seek more gainliness on my desk, if you will.
“Yeah, OK, I don’t have the taped glasses anymore, but I’m still pretty nerdy.”