The founder of the online classifieds site is a descendant from the epoch of internet optimism. He has given significant quantities to defend the fate of news – and denies the idea his website promoted cause journalism’s financial mess
As the Craig in Craigslist, the free online noticeboard that transformed everything, Craig Newmark can see his hands on just about anything. His new apartment in Greenwich Village, New York, includes everything from an ancient Roman mosaic to 18th-century British paintings to Simpsons figurines to artworks by his loved Leonard Cohen. But something is abstaining. Something important.
The scale and scope of the trial become unambiguous when you understand Newmark’s ornithological passion. During an hour-long conversation, his eye holds wandering to the small garden where crying doves, house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays and “a probably limited number of pigeons” come and go. Just last night he introduced a webcam so he can view them all remotely. For good project, there are various photos of birds on the walls and a papier-Mache model, created by his 11-year-old relative.
“I love birds for purposes unknown,” Newmark says. “We’re recognizing that the doves are not that kind to each other, and we also recognize them fighting with the sparrows. The sparrows are much more diminutive, but the more energetic sparrows can chase off a much more open dove. So I’ve listed them Cersei and Daenerys.”
It may be that Newmark seems more relaxed throughout feathered friends than the individual race. He is a self-declared “nerd of the old company, 1950s style”, squirrel watcher and sci-fi fan who, lying in a jacket, pants, and sandals, readily admits he is “assuming” social skills. He is a computer geek who verifies email obsessively and in 1995 founded Craigslist – which is, with about 50bn page views a period, one of the world’s most prosperous websites. Now 66, he is a descendant of the age of internet transcendentalism, before fake news and constant outrage cast long darkness’s.
But he is also a divisive character. Some specific gratitude to Craigslist for life-changing moments to find a partner or a job. Others denounce it for gutting the classified advertisement market and hastening the decease of local newspapers. This uncertainty was seized by a New York Times headline last October that drew Newmark as a “newspaper villain” and added last month that called him a “new companion to journalism”.
The latter transferred to Newmark’s latest act of generosity, a $6m (£4.8m) gift to Consumer Reports – the biggest contribution in the 83-year history of the non-profit watchdog – that will be managed to set up a digital distribution to view products and platforms, including social media.
“I’m frequently worried about the way social media platforms can be weaponized, that they sometimes neglect to give informed consent concerning the uses of your own data,” he reveals. “I do believe that any site should tell you what it would like to assemble and what it would like to deal with others and then ask your consent.”
The executive consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which collected the data of up to 87 million Facebook users through the 2016 US presidential election, is one so example, he says. However, Newmark, who has appeared Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, but does not understand him well, descends to criticize him or advise Zuckerberg has created a monstrosity.
“I have no thought what he’s done individually. I concentrate on how we all work on this collectively. It’s all hands on the floor. People need to get much like in the US after the invasion [on Pearl Harbour] in December of 1941, much like people through the Battle of Britain. There are imported adversaries who’ve come out, announced their public statements and say that they’re at conflict with us.”
Victory is incredible to be as bright as in the second world war, however. “The degree of success would be that I would be ready to pick from a high number of publications wherein I understand that I can trust everything they say with the uncommon mistake, which they will then make. Because communication is hard; you’re going to make mistakes, then you fix them and Bob’s your uncle.”
Newmark, who has earlier observed “a reliable press is the immune system of democracy”, favours not to use the term “fake news” – perhaps it has been corrupted forever by Donald Trump.
“If it’s negligence, you can say someone: ‘Hey, you got it incorrect; here’s the proof.’ If it’s disinformation, they don’t worry, they will just publish it repeatedly. Meanwhile, when you look out the problem, they might conclude that you’re a target for harassment.”
There is an intact ecosystem at work, he maintains, that can allow a falsehood from the dark reaches of the network to jump on to millions of TV screens with dizzying speed. “It’s a small number of disinformation beginning in some of the social media platforms used by foreign adversaries and their domestic allies.
They get amplified: there are multiple levels including plot sites, then news sites which don’t care about fact-checking. And then one that becomes news, sometimes that develops into regular or mainstream media.”
If this seems like a swipe at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, Newmark ducks an urge to be critical. He is similarly cautious when asked if tech titans should be broken up, if the survival of billionaires is unethical (he is a mere millionaire) or whether the dissolution of local journalism sent to the ascent of Trump. “I don’t know,” is his failure response.
Speaking of the president, Newmark, who has given to Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, provides an unusual answer when asked what he remembers of his term in office so far. “He’s been very active in terms of getting selected.” He hesitates. “I am very enthusiastic about understatement. I apprehend the British practice that. I got little by little. For example, I spent some time in Edinburgh last year and I now remarkably like haggis. I’ve also got a taste for Scotch whiskey. I know the English do not take very much. I am still a very light drinker, but I need to not pass the sensitive sensibilities.”
Newmark embraces his nerdiness. After college, he served for the computer giant IBM. He also took dance and jazz dance classes to meet women, but experienced a hernia and was hospitalized. Aged 40, he took a programming job with the business firm Charles Schwab and moved from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, then switched to more profitable freelance work.
In 1995, he started sending out an email list of events to a dozen colleagues. As word spread, the group developed. Before long, the list added job vacancies and houses to rent. Soon, Craigslist ruled the world. Watching back now, would he have arranged anything otherwise?
“In that time frame, obviously not because I got baptized. For example, when the posting list I was going needed to have a name – I’m very real as a nerd; I was gonna call it San Francisco Events – people around me knew me they already called it Craigslist. I had involuntarily created a brand.”