Sure, there are those who say that Craigslist, the popular Internet marketplace where one can do everything from posting personals to buying used furniture, is unwittingly contributing to the death of newspapers. Since Craigslist appeared on the scene, the classified pages of newspapers have looked awfully thin.
But that doesn’t mean that Craig Newmark, the Internet entrepreneur behind the website, doesn’t care about quality journalism. In fact, Newmark, 58, has been a vocal advocate for a vigorous free press, calling journalism the “immune system of democracy” at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer. This month, he assumes a more formal advocacy role as the newest member of the board of directors for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization specializing in investigative journalism.
“For some years, I’ve been thinking how important it is to have a vital free press for a democracy to survive,” Newmark says. “I’m very aware that I’m not a part of the industry, but I have a lot of colleagues who have shown me how the sausage is made, so to speak, and that has made me believe that maybe I can play a minor role in improving hygiene.”
The Center for Public Integrity is hoping that Newmark, an early believer in the power of the Internet to build communities, can extend that vision to the organization as it rebrands and relaunches its website next month. After years of distributing its reports through other outlets, the center intends to become a destination for readers and to partly support its operations through advertising revenue.
The appointment to CPI’s board comes on the heels of another big day for Newmark—the launch of craigconnects, a venture to spotlight and bring together nonprofits and public-service organizations that have earned his seal of approval, with the goal of weeding out the phonies. So far, his list of legitimate do-gooders includes organizations as varied as CPI, Wikipedia, the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership, and AARP. Newmark says he intends to make craigconnects his focus for the next 20 years.
“For maybe 10 years, I’ve been doing an increasing amount of philanthropy and public service—and not doing a very good job of coordinating it all,” he says. “I figured I may as well get my act together, so I tied that to the notion that these days, I have a bully pulpit … and I should spotlight nonprofits that I’m involved with.”
A decidedly self-effacing and eccentric millionaire known for his deadpan humor, the New Jersey native got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Case Western Reserve University before working for IBM for 17 years. “And just like you’d expect, I wore a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses that were taped together,” Newmark writes on craigconnects. “I was, and will always be, a nerd.”
Craigslist was born 16 years ago in San Francisco as a website where Newmark posted information about Bay Area events to alert friends. It morphed into what is now one of the top 10 most visited English-language platforms in the world. Still, Newmark has been committed to keeping Craigslist true to its roots; the website retains its simple, boxy design, which harks back to the early days of the Internet, and it carries no display advertising. Newmark famously serves as a customer-service representative, fielding queries about trolling and errant New York City apartment brokers, while letting CEO Jim Buckmaster handle the business side.
This article appeared in the Saturday, March 19, 2011 edition of National Journal.