It’s 10 a.m. on a typical morning in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood. The fog that inundates this part of the city is beginning to lift, and the area’s denizens – 30-year-old hipsters, aging hippies, young parents, college students, and devoted dog-owners – are doing their thing, which means the cafes are filling up quickly. Craig Newmark, the multimillionaire founder of the online site Craigslist, is headed toward a meeting at his favorite coffee hangout. He’ll be late. A minute after the confab is supposed to begin, Newmark is standing a block away, apparently waved down by a man in front of another coffee house. That’s how it is for Craig Newmark. Practically everyone in Cole Valley knows who he is, and they often stop him – and he, them – to chat about everything from birds (Newmark is an avid birder) to Craigslist, which is one of the world’s most successful internet ventures. Almost 10 minutes later, Newmark walks into the cafe called Reverie, and extends his hand to mine.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says.
“No worries,” I say.
For the next hour, Craig Newmark sits at a table, latte by his side, and discusses subjects for which he’s known (internet entrepreneurship, the success of his site, etc.) and those that rarely come up in public. Among them: The perception that he’s a diehard liberal — the sort of “San Francisco liberal” whom Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and other Republican acolytes love to belittle. Newmark bristles at the L-word — at least the one spelled L-I-B-E-R-A-L. He identifies with another L-word: Libertarian. The writings of Ayn Rand had a big influence on Newmark when he was a teenager, he says.
“I’ve invented a term for myself, which is ‘Libertarian pragmatist,’ ” says Newmark, who is 57. “I talk about a balance between market and government solutions. Sometimes the market fails. Sometimes the government fails. I like the idea of public-private partnerships.”
Newmark, who the day I spoke to him (last Friday) was approached by the American Enterprise Institute, says “I’d like to know more about them. . . . I’m interested in any group that acts in good conscience,” adding, “People listen to some things I say and think I’m a liberal, and people listen to other things and think I’m a conservative. People who are lazy come to one conclusion or the other. They should just do the research or ask.”
Newmark doesn’t pound the table as he says this. He speaks with an edge that is biting but interspersed with humor. Newmark could refer to himself as an Internet icon (which his is), but instead calls himself “a couch potato” and a “customer service representative.” He says he doesn’t know how many millions Craigslist bestows to him, but the subject is of immense interest. If you do a Google search on “Craig Newmark,” the first phrase that Google recommends is “Craig Newmark net worth.” One report suggests that Newmark is worth more than $1 billion.
“I’ve seen that search (recommendation by Google), and there’s not much ‘there there,’ ” Newmark says, his trademark black hat atop his head. When asked how much he is worth, Newmark fumbles for the only time in our interview, saying, “I’m . . . I’m trying to think of a smart-ass way to respond, and I can’t think of a good-enough way.”
Newmark is the poster child for many things, including the idea that Craigslist kickstarted the downward spiral of traditional newspaper journalism. The logic: Craigslist’s successful free-advertising model waylaid newspaper classifieds — a once-robust profit center that supported the salaries of journalists who’ve been fired in drovers over the last five years. Newmark’s retort: “It’s an urban myth (that Craigslist is to blame). Now and then, there are people who talk that way who don’t know the (newspaper) industry. Newspapers have much bigger problems than (Craigslist).”
What’s indisputable is that Newmark cares about journalism’s future. He attends conferences and consults with Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and other New Media thinkers; he blogs at the Huffington Post; and he frequently speaks to journalism classes around the country. Media outlets, he says, will only survive if they nourish “trust” in readers, viewers or listeners. The Sunday TV news-interview shows are a good example. Newmark cites the new fact-checking of guests on ABC’s “This Week” program (a development inspired by Jay Rosen’s suggestion) — and the lack of fact-checking on competing talking-head shows such as “Meet the Press.” “Basically, these other folks have said it’s OK for their guests to lie,” argues Newmark, who says the emergence of monitors like Politifact and FactCheck.org is “a great start. . . . This is the year that things are converging.”
A few minutes earlier, Newmark had called The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report “America’s most trusted news sources. . . . Humor, as in the non-dumb variety, keeps you grounded. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh — otherwise, they’ll kill you.’ ”
Yesterday, Newmark was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., where this week he’ll address a group of web masters who work for the federal government; meet with members of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and attend President Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, a two-day affair (beginning today) that’s designed to connect business leaders from Muslim-majority countries with American know-how. Newmark, who is Jewish, wants to create jobs in the Muslim world. He has given financing to projects in the West Bank (via the organization CHF International), and has joined the advisory board of Lend for Peace — a micro-lending organization that was founded by two Jews and two Palestinians. Also, Craiglist now operates a site for the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“I heard about this thing called the Marshall Plan, which built up markets and also prevented a lot of violence and extremism, so I figured, ‘I’ll do my own,’ ” Newmark says. “It seems to me that the West Bank is a good place to create jobs. I spoke to some people in the Israeli and Palestinian governments, spoke to some people at the (U.S.) State Department, and they said, ‘Craig — this is a really good thing. You have our support.’ ”
Newmark has traveled several times to Israel. On one recent trip, he took a cab ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, during which time the taxi detoured through the West Bank, he says. “Route 443 goes through the West Bank to Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s a short cut. The first time (my taxi took Route 443), the driver didn’t quite help me understand that.”
Throughout my interview, Newmark received calls on his mobile phone. Practically every hour, people around the world contact him, usually by email. Newmark says he tries answering every serious inquiry. Asked if he uses Craigslist himself (to buy or sell an item, say), Newmark doesn’t hesitate an answer: “I do, now and then. But each time, I worry about a conflict of interest. I’m painfully aware of that. I’m on the board of Consumer Reports, which is extremely strict on that kind of thing. Anything that my conscience dings me (about) and says ‘Is this is an issue?,’ I’ll think about it.”
Newmark is also quick to respond to critics who say Craigslist has too many questionable ads — particularly in its Personals and Adult Services sections. One listings rival, Greg Collier, calls Craigslist’s Adult Services section “morally bankrupt,” but Newmark says, “We just don’t tolerate (illegal services). I’ve worked with a lot of cops. They point out that (the number of people who use) Craigslist is the equivalent of a major metropolitan area, 50 million people, and that we have a very low crime rate.”
In his snark-filled attack on Newmark, Collier lampoons Newmark’s “do-gooder” image, but that image is there for a reason: Newmark is really trying to make the world a better place. For example, he’s on the board of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America because “if Americans are willing to risk a bullet for me, I figure I should pitch in.” Says Newmark to me: “I’ve grown into (funding, philanthropy and being on advisory boards). The odd thing is I’ve become more idealistic as I age. I’m serious about it. I don’t want to screw around. I’m looking at what really changes stuff — what makes a difference for real. Good intentions aren’t enough. You have to have good intentions and know-how to do things.”
Newmark comes from a modest family in New Jersey. His physical stature is modest. His speaking style is modest. Even his handshake is modest. But by making himself a public presence — by Tweeting as often as possible (he has 21,000 Twitter followers); by writing for the New York Times about the future of newspapers; by addressing Oxford University’s Said Business School; by appearing on ABC’s “Nightline” program; by doing everything else he’s doing — Newmark is making a name for himself far beyond Craigslist. In 2005, Time magazine named Newmark one of the world’s 100 most influential people (“a clerical error,” Newmark jokes), alongside such other figures as Clint Eastwood, Jon Stewart, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, the Dalai Lama,Nelson Mandela, George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Millions of people are devoted to Craigslist, some of whom, Newmark says, are skeptical that a real “Craig” is behind the business.
“I meet people sometimes who, prior to (our meeting), didn’t think I existed — and even as I’m meeting them, I encourage that belief (of non-existence),” Newmark says, smiling.
At the end of my interview with him, Newmark left the Reverie cafe, then looked down the block, for a public bus that would take him to the Craigslist headquarters, which is located in a neighborhood west of Cole Valley. At Craigslist’s building, Newmark says, he doesn’t have his own office — just a simple table in a kitchen that’s used by other people. That’s how Newmark wants it: Bumping up against others in a space that encourages the exchange of information – just like the Internet site that turned Craigslist into a household name.