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Feb. 16, 2017, 10:23 a.m.

Newsonomics: Craig Newmark, journalism’s new Six Million Dollar Man

The Craigslist founder has given to Wikipedia and Poynter, with more to come: “I do think a trustworthy press is mission critical for any democracy.”

Craig Newmark is a creature of the internet. Like Beyoncé, a singular name defines a great brand, one he provided 22 years ago to the eponymous Craigslist. Though long associated with “free,” this organically grown San Francisco-based classifieds provider may produce a billion dollars in annual revenue sooner rather than later. Today, at 64, Newmark is all about the money — but distributing it as much as earning it.

“It’s incumbent on me as an ultra-patriot to spend like a sailor on shore leave,” he told me last week. Newmark is a long-time student of the American press. “Now I’m mostly educated. I still have questions about news ethics, but I’ve learned I think as much as I need to start moving ahead hard…The idea’s a lot’s happening, and as a funder of nonprofit journalism, I’m an amateur. I have been helped by Tom Rosenstiel and others at API, in that they’ve published guidelines for the funding of nonprofit journalism. Basically, they just ask you to be transparent. I’m oversimplifying: to do no harm.”

Newmark clearly wants to share the good fortune he’s made. And the times, he says, demand it. “My head is full of: How do I find good, effective, trustworthy organizations who are doing good things? How do I lend them resources to use — I should say lend or give resources to use. I lend them my influence, and I give them money.”

In recent weeks, Newmark’s foundation has given $1 million gift to the Poynter Institute for a chair in ethics and a $500,000 donation to Wikipedia for its anti-harassment Community Health Initiative, after giving Wikipedia $1 million last June. Those gifts look like they be might be just a start of his news/information-centric philanthropy; Newmark now tells me he is committing to give away, at this phase of his philanthropy, another $3.5 million.

Those further gifts — to companies in the news and information sphere — will be announced over the next weeks and months. Taken together, we’ve got to be impressed with this renewed spurt of news-oriented philanthropy and the big subscription upticks we’ve seen post-election. Perhaps it took the clarity produced by the last election — a clarity shared by news organizations redefining their place in the world and by readers finally seeing more clearly the necessity of hard-charging news media in a democratic society — to produce this new support. We can hope this rekindled passion heralds a new age of reinvestment — philanthropic, private, and individual — in news media. For the moment, though, it’s vital to understand the new passion of news philanthropy.

Newmark, an increasingly frequent citizen presence at journalism and journalism-funding gatherings, prides himself on his nerdiness. That’s part reality and part pose. He’s a publisher and digital business vet on the one hand and a concerned individual on the other. Citizen Newmark talks about his passion, its roots in Anton Schulski’s high school history class in Morristown, New Jersey, Conan the Barbarian, and spending like a drunken sailor in this conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Spending “like a sailor on shore leave”

Ken Doctor: I’ve seen you at conferences, and clearly your giving has attained a higher profile, with the $2.5 million to Wikipedia and Poynter. Will we be seeing more?

Craig Newmark: This is a delicate one, but I’ve committed six [million].

Doctor: Six overall at this point, right?

Newmark: This is the start. At this point, it’s incumbent on me as an ultra-patriot to spend like a sailor on shore leave.

Doctor: In terms of the spending, how much do you want to give? You look at the Warren Buffetts and these kinds of philanthropists, and they give away half of their net worth or most of it. Do you have an overall game plan at this point? Is that your goal at the tender age of 64? Online, there’s an estimate of your net worth at $400 million.

Newmark: Bogus.

By monetizing Craigslist the way I did in 1999, I probably gave away already 90 percent or more of my potential net worth. The rationale is that if you’re a small businessman trying to put food on the table, I’d like you to keep the 100 bucks or whatever for a classified rather than me taking it and maybe giving back someday a buck. There’s a lot of good philanthropy models out there. Mine was published in The Nation several months ago.

Instead of having billions of dollars, I have a figure much smaller than $400 [million]. Tangentially — and indulge me — anything which estimates my net worth or revenue for anything I’m attached to, anyone estimating that is almost certainly just plain lying. I have in mind a fake market intelligence group who I won’t name.

Facts, facts, and more facts

Doctor: You’ve made contributions to Wikipedia and to journalistic operations like the Poynter Institute. What’s the thread here?

Newmark: I think Wikipedia was the first one I did for a million, and that’s for their endowment. Wikipedia is where facts go to live. They get stuff wrong, but they get fixed, which is far better than most newspapers. Poynter is pushing ahead hard for the widespread, let’s say, rediscovery of journalistic ethics. To help, they run the International Fact-Checking Network, focusing on groups like PolitiFact and Snopes. They have a good history of fact-checking. As Poynter signatories, they’re committed to making their fact-checking transparent so anyone can check them out. That’s pretty good.

Doctor: What does rediscovery mean in this sense?

Newmark: In a way, people in the news business all have had some exposure to journalistic ethics. They always knew that they should speak truth, and verify it, and then report fact. That’s straight out of the SPJ Code of Ethics. Every serious journalist has known that they should behave ethically, but in some organizations they conveniently forget it. Some news organizations are fully aware of what the right thing is to do, but they decide that they could make a lot more money otherwise and proceed with that. Both [ CNN’s] Jeff Zucker and [CBS’] Les Moonves have pretty much said that when they talked about how good Trump is for profit. Every serious journalist knows to do the right thing, but if their bosses told them, “Hey, it doesn’t matter,” then sometimes they cheat.

Doctor: You’re saying that there are some that have ethics at their core and others that are more challenged by that. The rediscovery is aimed at both kinds of companies?

Newmark: It’s aimed at everyone, because now and then a reporter can invent a plausible untruth and get it through an overworked copy editor who may not have the experience anyway to tell that it’s not true. That happens sometimes at the most ethical of newspapers. In that case, the challenge has to do with the newspaper’s accountability and corrections process.

Doctor: With the Poynter gift, do you have a really specific idea of how that’s going to be used at this point?

Newmark: I have my variations on it. Poynter needs to do a lot of other things with it, like administration. I don’t want to hassle them on it, but what I want Poynter to do is to — let’s say one thing that I appreciate Poynter to do is international fact-checking. I also want them to work with other spearheading news organizations to support standards for trustworthy behavior, which we normally call ethics codes, and I want them to help in the fight against harassment and trolling, and again, strongly to work with these other peer organizations who are helping push —

I guess I’m going to start from the beginning: I want them to do anything that supports trustworthy journalism. That’s what I’m really saying.

Doctor: Do you have a sense of what they’re going to be able to do this year, for instance?

Newmark: What I hope they are able to do this year is support and expand the International Fact-Checking Network, to work with others to help news organizations fight trolls and harassment, and to work with other news ethics leaders to get everyone to work together fighting harassment and trolling.

Mr. Schulski’s 47-year-old lesson

Doctor: You make the point that you’re not a journalist. You’re an outsider, a citizen. Where does your interest in philanthropy for journalism and ethics come from? Has that been a long-held belief, going back to Morristown, or is it something that came out of your experience living in San Francisco?

Newmark: In Morristown, in Sunday school kindergarten, I learned that you should treat people like you want to be treated. I started learning about the Ninth Commandment which says, “Do not bear false witness.” At that point, I was already a nerd. We take things pretty literally, so we hate it when people lie to us. That’s the philosophical and emotional basis for all this.

Skipping forward, in around 1970 — high school history, Mr. Schulski. The Bill of Rights and the role of the free press. I understood how important the free press is in a democracy. The way I say it now is that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy. That’s a big chunk of the origin of this.

You’re asking me about how this all came about. The more recent part was that, let’s say seven or so years go, I was hit by a rather ugly fake news attack. I couldn’t fight back because that would mean compromising law enforcement operations. Instead, I started on a very painful path learning a lot more about the role of trust in media. And that’s based on another Sunday school lesson: Better to light a candle than to fight the darkness. The fake news operation was funded by a really rich guy, and that was just a really, really smart operation. I took years to learn what happened, followed the money. I come out of this thinking instead of focusing on fighting fake news, I would promote trustworthy journalism.

Doctor: You took the high road.

Newmark: I took the high road because I think that’s more effective. I’m inspired by the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Doctor: Is he the one who said that?

Newmark: (laughing) Actually, it’s Nietzsche who said it, picked up by, I think, Robert Howard in the book Conan the Barbarian, which was quoted at the beginning by Arnold Schwarzenegger of the movie Conan the Barbarian.

Doctor: Seven years ago — is that when you started both your attention to more actively supporting the free press?

Newmark: That’s when I really started learning. I forget when I started supporting things. Honestly, it’s a blur, but I did. For example, I joined Sunlight Foundation, I joined the Center for Public Integrity. I remember making a grant, a small one of $10,000, to Jay Rosen’s New Assignment.

Doctor: Clearly the money has gotten people’s attention, but the point behind it — what I hear you saying is you study things. It sounds like that’s what you’ve always done. You’ve learned enough, as you say, but you’ll continue to learn. Now you said you’re coming harder at this. You see the need of this particular moment, right?

Newmark: That’s right, but I think of it a different way — simply that we are facing a national, possible global crisis. I’m that dramatic because of Mr. Schulski’s lesson. I do think a trustworthy press is mission critical for any democracy. What I’ve done is I’ve located good effective organizations, and I’m committing both influence and cash on their behalf. A big theme is for these organization to work together.

I think the hottest part of the crisis has to do with attacks on reporters by harassers and trolls. I have half-baked ideas as to how to deal with that, but it’s going to be up to individual reporters and their organizations to help each other. To that effect, I’ll be talking a lot about this at the Knight Foundation starting [last] Sunday. I have a bunch of other things coming up. I’m also pushing the idea that news organizations and even freelancers need affordable media lawsuit insurance. Now that’s an idea I got from Steve Katz at Mother Jones.

Doctor: So who’s likely to get your next giving?

Newmark: There are a number of other organizations I am looking at funding in the areas of trustworthy journalism, investigative journalism, fact-checking, and j-school education. I can’t name them because all the details haven’t been worked out yet, but it will be in the short term rather than the long term.

The impact of Craigslist

Doctor: In the past, we’ve talked about how some people blame Craigslist for the demise of local newspapers, as Craigslist’s classifieds replaced some of the newspapers’ highly lucrative classified business.

Newmark: I can now say authoritatively that people saying that have no understanding of the business.

Doctor: Are you still getting that from people?

Newmark: I am. But again, it’s typically from people who have not looked at the numbers and trends over time.

Doctor: Is it bothersome to you?

Newmark: As a nerd, I like people to get things right. And I also observe that in one case, a CEO was telling his shareholders that we were the source of his problems.

Doctor: Well, I can tell you newspapers’ decline has been the result of incredible digital disruption as well as self-inflicted damage by newspaper companies not taking advantage of their own opportunities. If Craigslist hadn’t come along, other forces would have interrupted those revenue streams.

Newmark: Please quote yourself.

Harnessing nerd power

Doctor: You say you’re a nerd and an introvert. Yet you reach out and deal with lots of people in your quest. Would it be easier if you were an extrovert?

Newmark: Well, I am an introvert — I have mediocre-at-best social skills. If you see me in a situation, maybe even this one, where I’m exhibiting social skills, those are a simulation. You can quote me on that. I can simulate social skills for brief amounts of time. I will be cranky thereafter.

Doctor: How long does the crankiness last?

Newmark: Oh, it can go on for quite a while.

Doctor: So how do you bounce back from your crankiness? What’s your secret?

Newmark: I guess it’s a combination of time, good TV or books, and realizing that in practice, in real life, that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

Helping journalists step up

Doctor: You turned 64 recently.

Newmark: In December. I’m writing a post on half a life in customer service, because I spent 11 years at IBM in customer service, and 21 years in Craigslist customer service, and that’s 32 years, which is half of 64.

Doctor: It is. When’s that post coming out?

Newmark: Hopefully before March 1, because March 1 is when I nominally say I started Craigslist, although I don’t know. On March 1, the counter clicks up, and then I will have spent 22 years at Craigslist.

Doctor: You’ve got a deadline.

Newmark: Of sorts. Not like you have deadlines.

Doctor: It’s really encouraging, for instance, what ProPublica and The New York Times and The Washington Post are doing, and how they’ve risen to the occasion. And how the public is supporting their work. That’s wonderful. Too much of the local press, though, is still just sitting in the water. I came out of it, and it was really a strength of local democracy. I’m wondering whether you see avenues to support metro press and local press in anything you’re doing.

Newmark: Honestly, my focus is on the ethical questions and practical implications of that, which applies to all newspapers. Beyond that in terms of funding specific news organizations, so far, it’s just on a couple of national exemplaries, which is to say I can’t fit any more into my brain right now. But I’m optimistic. I think I see a lot of journalistic organizations which are stepping up to do the job that they should have been doing.

Doctor: People see what you’ve done with your giving. The great thing about this kind of philanthropy, and you’ve seen this for a long time: It unlocks other doors. It’s important in and of itself, but it also encourages other people to come forward, which is the whole silver lining of the Trump times. That’s what we’re seeing.

Newmark: Yeah. The idea is that maybe we come out of this year with a much stronger, more trustworthy press.

Photo illustration based on photo of Newmark by J.D. Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 16, 2017, 10:23 a.m.
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