The endgame of Craigslist founder’s $85 million in donations to journalism

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Craig Newmark became a billionaire on the back of creating Craigslist, a website for classified ads. Since 2017, Craig Newmark Philanthropies has deployed some of his wealth to restore trust in journalism. Newmark has donated more than $85 million to universities, startups, non-profits, and foundations.

Newmark talked to Quartz about his interest in philanthropy, where his motivations to support journalism come from, and what he thinks of tech companies that took away advertising dollars from media companies. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Quartz: Much of the money you’ve given has gone to academic thinking. Why do you think that’s the route to reinstating that trust?

Craig Newmark: It’s gone to people who have been effective in providing direction for the restoration of trustworthy journalism. Nothing academic about it. It’s all pretty pragmatic. For example, the Trust Metrics Project [led by Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis] is about what are the principles by which one can say, “Hey I trust that.” Is it having a written code of ethics, a corrections policy that’s serious, or something else?

Facebook and Google didn’t plan that journalism should suffer at the cost of their gains. But that’s what’s happened. Do you agree that some of that could have been avoided if we’d thought in advance? 

The problem with news curation and distribution on platforms is a really big, really tough problem. It’s painful for everyone, and I mean the entire species. Solutions are coming slowly, but a lot of people are working together towards this common end. A lot of it is still in quiet back-channel diplomacy.

Could you elaborate on that?

People with legitimate criticism of the platforms are talking to the platforms, are helping everyone figure how to solve problems including the propagation of disinformation. For example, a lot of people are seeing how disinformation flows from bad actors across the world. How does disinformation flow into platforms? How does it get spread around to different people? How does it enter conventional media, even TV news? And then how do you disrupt the flow of disinformation? And then how do you provide quality information? That’s what people need to preserve democracies.

Are you saying that the problem is just too complex and we are at a point where we are still struggling to figure out the solutions?

The problems are being solved, maybe not as fast as we’d like. The internet has made things worse [for trust in journalism], but people of goodwill are working together, and the result will be much more trustworthy news than we’ve ever had. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. It’s more constructive to work with people with goodwill anywhere than to subject good people to friendly fire.

For perspective, I used to be very confrontational and, even when I was right, I would be ineffective. Now my approach is to work with good people doing good work and be effective. But nothing happens as fast as you want it.

When were you confrontational?

It was all through my life prior to Craigslist. I did customer service at Craigslist pretty intensely for around 20 years. You do that kind of customer service and you learn a lot about people. You’ll learn that most people operate on the basis of goodwill. And you also learn that appealing to people’s goodwill is effective in the medium run and the long run, but some problems are really difficult and take a while.

Does some of your philanthropy for journalism come from a place of guilt? Do you think Craigslist, among other things, was one of the reasons why advertising dollars went away from the media industry and that led to the beginnings of this crisis?

My interest in helping trustworthy journalism results from a history class where Mr. Anton Schulzki, my teacher, helped me understand that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy. If you look at the numbers from the experts I read, like Thomas Baekdal, Ken Doctor, and Jeremy Littau, the problems started in the ’50s with TV news and continued on a straight line towards the present. Now we do see the platforms having an effect, but when you look at the actual facts, what we really see is just a straight line in loss of circulation revenue. Intuitively, I think Craiglist had an effect, but look at the effect of the big guys.

It’s a series of technology disruptions that have taken things away from the print industry, so to speak.

One could phrase it that way. Another problem could be that lower quality news may have driven out higher quality news. But I have to defer to the experts. They know their stuff and I’m an outsider.

Do you see media literacy playing a role to help us get out of this mess?

There is a lot of controversy in journalism and trust circles about the role of media literacy. I like the idea of it, but right now no one is sure that it actually can be taught effectively. Danah Boyd says that kids, in particular, don’t really want to be told what to trust or what not to trust. People have been discussing that for decades and nothing ever seems to happen.

Your thinking is that we are still searching for the solution and it’s better to fund the search for the solution rather than a solution?

I’m funding a whole bunch of groups to find out what does trustworthy and quality journalism mean and how do we get there. I’m helping people who understand the situation get there. My role as a news consumer and outsider is to find those people doing good work and to help them out.

Your philanthropy has four priority areas. Is there an overarching theme?

For me the common theme is defending and strengthening democracy. Voter protection is a major part of that because in the US bad actors have publicly stated that they hope to interfere with elections by interfering with voter protection. Democracy is about fairness, which means supporting everyone. I chose to focus on women in technology. I don’t understand the entire problem, but I’ve seen for decades that the technology industry needs a lot more women. Finally, military veterans in countries including the US and the UK have sacrificed a lot to protect us all and that includes their family. So the larger theme is defending democracy in the US and globally.

How do you decide who to give money to?

For the most part, it’s people approaching me. Now sometimes it’s formally. Sometimes I’ll meet people at a conference. We get to chat. Then I might invite them to submit a proposal. Again, it’s supposed to be initiated through all the folks.

I try to figure out how the proposals relate to existing efforts. Are they consistent in a way that makes sense? I may also ask professionals in the news industry. And I may also look at their willingness to collaborate with other news institutions in goodwill.

How do you see the criticism of philanthropy, such as that raised by Anand Giridharadas, that it’s a way for the rich to keep the status quo not change it?

I read his book [Winners Take All] and I really like what he’s saying. I figured out my philosophical approach is to find people doing good work. I am for the most part, just getting out of the way. I may in some cases urge the nonprofit in question to talk more effectively about what they do, because a lot of nonprofits are not good at that. My default position is unrestricted grants, and specifically in journalism I’ve adopted the philosophy of the American Press Institute, which says be hands off and be transparent.

Is there an end point to your philanthropic work in journalism? How do you measure trustworthiness?

Consider the Trust Metrics project run by Jeff Jarvis, wherein he’s trying to figure out all the groups providing reasonably reliable indicators and signals of trustworthy reporting. I think that collection of signals offers the best hope towards trustworthy journalism, because the approach he’s built means that no one is the arbiter of truth. The tech platforms can then help customers figure out what news is trustworthy, what news should or shouldn’t be shared with their friends.

The end point will be when there is a collection of news publications that are trustworthy and maintain the trustworthiness given the testing performed by networks of fact checkers. I hope to live to see it, but it’s going to be a long-term solution. I’m 66, and I guess that long term may extend beyond my lifetime.

Is there anything you want to tell me that I haven’t asked?

I’m pretty proud of what the organizations I’ve supported are doing. I’m proud of my role in helping, and I’m very proud of the effect Craigslist has had. Craigslist has helped tens of millions of people or more to put food on the table. Craiglist has also helped people get a table, and Craiglist has helped people find a roof under which to put the table. I’m pretty proud of all this and, after feeling proud, it’s just back to work. There is always lots to do.