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A Guy Named Craig

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Among media mandarins, the list began to resonate a year ago, after a business study in the Bay Area showed that local newspapers were losing as much as $50 million a year in revenue to Craigslist. The awareness of the trend has since avalanched. Classifieds make up as much as 50 percent of big-city newspaper ad revenues, explains newspaper analyst John Morton, and at a time when the newspaper industry is in crisis, with circulations going down by as much as 2.6 percent a year as readers die off and the young go elsewhere for their information, Craigslist has gotten a reputation as the newspaper killer.

At the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors last spring, two panelists at a session on the crisis in the industry flashed a slide of Newmark and asked the editors how many of them knew who Craig Newmark was. A faint show of hands. Craigslist? A few more.

“The shocking thing is that this was someone who was not only a threat to steal their business but was in the process of doing it,” says Jay Rosen, a blogger (the name of his blog is PressThink) and professor of journalism at NYU. “What industry could survive in which you don’t know the name of the person who is taking away your business? They’re mystified. They don’t know who this guy is and where he came from. And it just shows—that it’s easier for Craig to learn journalism than it is for these guys to learn the Web.”

From a business standpoint, this may be the most revolutionary aspect of the Craigslist model: It took what had long been defined as a profitable industry—classifieds—and demonstrated that it is not much of a business at all, but is rather what open-source advocates call “a commons,” a public service where people can find one another with minimal intervention from their minders. Even so, the revenues from the tiny portion of ads Craigslist charges for are so considerable that Microsoft and Google and eBay have all come up with competitors or have announced plans to do so.

Newsmen have not observed the rise of Craigslist without comment. The SF Weekly (itself once the venue for hip classifieds) lately attacked the site as “craig$list.” And Al Saracevic, a business columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, issued a challenge to Newmark: “You shouldn’t take the money and run . . . [You] need to give something back to society other than cheap apartment ads and funny, dirty personals.”

And even though the amount of money Newmark is taking from the list is modest, Newmark said, “Al’s right.”

That was last spring. Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein says he is still waiting for an answer from Newmark. It’s hard to escape the sense that the architects of the new media are less likely to be Bronstein’s (and my) crowd of ink-spotted kids who grew up reading the Pentagon Papers and All the President’s Men than they are to be tech nerds like the Craigslist people.

“Jim and Craig are engineers,” says Bronstein. “I’m an editor. I’m paid to make choices. My work still has meaning—but does it have value?”

It is a paradox (but a logical one when you consider it) that a great social innovation came out of a great social disability. Craig Newmark is one of the most socially impaired people to be found this side of a high-school reunion. Yet he is also an extrovert who thrives on seeing and talking to others. And this large need, hooked onto his extreme deficit, is really the only reason that Craigslist is now in 190 cities around the world.

Craig was born in December 1952, the first son of a salesman (of insurance and meat, among other things) and a bookkeeper mother who had met three years before at a synagogue dance. The setting was Morristown, New Jersey, but Newmark likes to say that he grew up in “Nerdistan.” Science fiction was his literature, and by 13 he had formed his lifelong ambition: Master quantum physics.

“That supplanted dinosaurs.”

The two large psychological facts of the Newmark family seem not to have registered at all. His father, Leon Newmark, died of cancer shortly after the boy’s bar mitzvah. What effect did this have? “I think probably nothing. I may be very wrong. I don’t know of any effect.”

And what about Joyce Newmark’s struggle to raise two boys—did that shape the man whose only principle of action for the past ten years has been to give other people a break?

“I don’t know. I know single moms don’t get a break, which is part of the motivation for our child-care category. But I don’t know if it relates to my own childhood. Our memories are treacherous, and we suppress things. I had some developmental issues. Being a nerd, I had some problems getting along with other kids.”


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