First on the List

One late morning in midsummer found Craig Newmark waiting for a bus, or a train  it didn't matter to him  in San Francisco. That's right, the founder of Craigslist, which pulled in an estimated $25 million last year, according to published reports, was waiting for a bus.

That won't surprise anyone who follows the mediapreneur in the news. The founder of the best-known classifieds site on the Web is no prima donna. He sticks to customer service and gives frequent and self-effacing interviews. During a recent television appearance, he even offered his personal e-mail address, and received a plethora of suggestions on how to fix his malfunctioning hummingbird feeder.

Newmark uses his high profile to speak out on issues like journalistic integrity, the importance of citizen journalism, and Net neutrality. He used Craigslist to post organized links to Hurricane Katrina relief sites. His blog also links to the Craigslist home page, pointing readers to pet projects, including the evolving citizen journalism site and the Sunlight Foundation, which uses online media and information technology to track the activities of elected representatives.

Though he does offer advice and aid to nonprofit groups on a case-by-case basis, many of Newmark's contributions to the greater good have a more widespread effect. In 2000, Newmark founded Craigslist Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches other nonprofits how to operate more effectively, including how to better communicate their messages to the public and the news media. The foundation provides low-cost or free seminars and networking tools, and introduces groups to vendors that work specifically with nonprofits.

But let's get back to public transportation. During the course of a brief commute, Newmark spoke by phone with Media's Liz Tascio about how media can be used to shake things up and, of course, do good.

Liz Tascio: You've called the Internet a genuinely democratizing medium. How so? What might endanger that?

Craig Newmark: On the Internet, for the most part, anyone who has something to say can say it, and with easy blogging tools you don't have to know any technology to do it. More or less, the Internet is a level playing field.

There are good guys who are going to preserve Internet neutrality; that's being debated on the Senate floor now. A downside is that there are organized disinformation gangs. A breakthrough was made in tracking them down, and I first saw it yesterday, I think. Check out  it's on the home page. One of the upsides of the Internet is that there are brave people willing to stick their necks out and speak truth to power. For example, people on the Net spread around Stephen Colbert's talk to the White House press corps, and that was a big, big hit. It wasn't reported accurately (in the mainstream media). It was picked up by ordinary people who were impressed by some genuine heroism.

LT: If I may generalize, most Internet businesses are out to make money. How can such businesses make money and still promote the greater good?

CN: Basically, provide a useful service to people; be honest about it. Charge a little. Everyone has a moral compass; they just need to listen to it. We [Craigslist] are a community service, something simple and effective in a culture of trust. That's what we know how to do.

LT: Do you see yourselves as providing a role model for other businesses?

CN: We don't think of ourselves in that way. I can only suggest that you operate in a culture of trust  that works for us.

LT: What's the relationship between Craigslist, a for-profit company, and the Craigslist Foundation?

CN: For the most part, the foundation is autonomous of us. The deal is that we support the foundation with guidance, time, and money. I personally am overwhelmed with customer service. That comes first. Outside from that, regarding nonprofit work, I'm mostly the glamorous figurehead.

LT: As a high-profile entrepreneur, what kind of influence do you feel you have?

CN: People ask me to talk, and I enjoy the sound of my own voice, so I do it now and then. I'm trying to help those groups doing the most good where I know something about the subject. For example, I talk a lot about Congress-pedia, and I promote efforts helping journalism evolve  better fact-checking and more speaking truth to power  [by] talking a lot about them, and in a couple of cases providing modest amounts of funding. Very modest.

LT: Why very modest?

CN: I'm not rich.

LT: That brings me to my next question. What stops you from taking Craigslist public and getting rich?

CN: Who needs it? Jim [Buckmaster, chief executive officer of Craigslist] and I have met really rich guys. They don't seem any happier having that much money, and they have to travel with bodyguards. I'm living very well. I now have a garage. And the hummingbirds are starting to visit the feeder.

LT: What inspired you to found Craigslist? What motivates you to do good?

CN: I don't know how much I'm doing good. I figure I made a commitment and I'm following through on it.

LT: What commitment is that?

CN: In general, the commitment Craigslist has to a community. And me, specifically, to things including customer service. I need to commit to less snacking. I'm having difficulty with that.

LT: What do you think of comments by Martin Sorrell, head of WPP Group, a major advertising and media agency holding company, calling sites like Craigslist "socialistic anarchists" that threaten traditional business models such as those employed by newspapers?

CN: He's misusing the terms. He doesn't understand the term socialism as commonly used, and he doesn't understand what we're about. He's a very nice and smart guy, but he's just not getting it right. We're just doing unto others like we'd want to be done unto ourselves.

 LT: What should the media industry be thinking about in terms of doing good?

CN: First, don't be evil. For example, if you're promoting a cause your moral compass thinks is wrong, don't do it. People are discussing this in the context of what Mike McCurry [the former White House Press Secretary under President Bill Clinton and currently CEO of] has been doing recently. He used to be about helping people. Now he's attacking Net neutrality.

I do see on the Net that more and more good people are organizing, dealing with bad guys, whether they're scammers or disinformation specialists.

Congresspedia is being used by investigative journalists and ordinary people to report on political misbehavior and fake news in general. For example, you'll also see there what appears to be a major scandal regarding the Speaker of the House. You'll see he approved an earmark, which might be the equivalent of a bridge to nowhere, and he made $2 million out of it. 

LT: And this is something that so far you've only seen reported on this Web site?

CN: So far. It looks really good. We need to see more of this.
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