Craig Newmark: the nerd who shook up the media giants

Twenty-five years ago, Craig Newmark lost his job at a brokerage and fired off an email to friends. That seeded a venture, Craigslist, that dominates online advertising in the US to this day.

In March 1995, Craig Newmark fired off an email to his friends, says Forbes. Having just been laid off from his job at discount brokerage Charles Schwab, he “used his severance package and newfound time off” to compile an electronic list of upcoming art and technology events in his recently adopted city. Originally called “San Francisco Events”, the missive swiftly went viral among the city’s new technorati – morphing into Craig’s List and, later, Craigslist.  

A bold and radical vision

Nothing much about Newmark, now 67, smacks of glamour. Even at the peak of his notoriety, when he was dubbed “the destroyer of journalism”, the former IBM engineer cut an unlikely crusading figure. Newmark is, observed a Guardian profile in 2006, “a man so nerdish he makes [Bill] Gates look like a flamboyant playboy”. Yet he had “a radical and highly motivated intelligence”. By then, Craigslist was already “wiping out newspapers” – gobbling up the classified adverts they needed to keep afloat – and Newmark was proclaiming himself “part of a visionary movement” bent on “slaying the old media” and replacing it with “an online army of ‘citizen journalists’, beholden to no proprietor or political party”. In the early days of social media, that was radical stuff. The Guardian was so impressed it concluded that, in “the emerging pantheon of technology pioneers”, Newmark “may even be the greatest of them all”. 

Given that Newmark relinquished hands-on management of Craigslist 20 years ago and has yet to repeat its success in any subsequent venture, that prediction now looks wide of the mark. And yet it would be foolish to understate the quiet stranglehold his baby continues to exert on the market, says Forbes. Or, indeed, the profits that Newmark, who still owns at least 42% of Craigslist, continues to cream off the business. “One of the last true dotcom era holdovers to still dominate the web”, Craigslist is “still where most Americans go to buy and sell locally online” and a veritable “cash-cow”, pulling in upwards of $690m in 2016 alone. 

A new venture falters

Born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1952, Newmark dreamed of becoming a quantum physicist but drifted into computer systems, says BusinessInsider. After joining IBM, Newmark spent ten years in Detroit and six more in Florida. But his life only really “took off” in 1993 when he moved to the Bay Area as a freelance computer expert and was seduced by “the countercultural ethos”. 

“In an age of pre-revenue unicorns and overvalued tech companies”, Craigslist – which has always made a point of eschewing flashy growth and outside investment – is “an anomaly”, says Forbes. Yet the company’s finances remain opaque. “It’s unclear where Craigslist’s profits go” and Newmark is decidedly cagey when the subject of his own wealth is brought up. 

Perhaps stung by the charge of “killing journalism”, Newmark now mainly devotes his life to philanthropy – much of it connected with protecting the free press; he has given millions to journalistic foundations. Still, a recent non-profit venture he backed – a tech publication called The Markup – has struggled, suffering a mass editorial exodus. Better luck next time. 

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