On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies and self-described nerd, talks about his foundation’s recent donation of $20 million to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Journalism is under threat, and Newmark says the school is advancing good journalism by providing opportunities to people who might not otherwise get them.
You can listen to the whole interview in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Hi I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as the subject of countless missed connections on Craigslist, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Craig Newmark, who I’ve known for a very long time. He’s the founder of Craigslist. He’s also the founder of Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which supports a range of causes including voter protection, veterans, women in tech and journalism. I wanted to have him on the show this week when I saw that he had just donated $20 million to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Craig, welcome to Recode Decode.
Craig Newmark: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here.
We’ve got so much to talk about. There’s so many issues to talk about with you and you have such a fascinating career. But this donation is really quite something, and I want to get into it a little later, but first let’s give people who don’t know you ... I mean, your name is well known, Craigslist is, but let’s talk a little bit about your background, how you got to where you are so people will get some sense of your entrepreneurship.
Wel,l I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what happened. What’s made me whatever I am. Part of that is just being a nerd in the classic Dr. Seuss sense. Thick black glasses taped together, a plastic pocket protector.
You actually had one?
I really did. This is all literal. Nerds are literal, and no social skills to speak of. Even now, I’m simulating social skills.
Okay. You’re doing a good job.
Our version of Sunday School way back, Mr. and Mrs. Levin, who were my teachers, they taught me the stuff which mattered in a big way as I went through life.
Where did you grow up?
This is Morristown, New Jersey.
And the deal there, at the Jewish Community Center, they helped me understand that I should treat people like I want to be treated, and they also, I think, taught me that I should know when enough is enough, particularly considering the two real positions are money. Now, the next big effect on my life, high school history, U.S. history, was Mr. Schulsky.
Okay. Your homage to the teachers.
Yeah. He bridged me into U.S. history and American values because another way of saying what the Levin’s taught me was that, well, our country is about fairness, opportunity and respect — or should be. And in history, I learned about that kind of American value as something we aspire to. I also learned that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy, as I like to put it, and I got pretty committed to the Bill of Rights, due process, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This guy was serious about getting that across to us, and it stuck pretty thoroughly.
It stuck thoroughly. So you went to school. Where did you study computer science?
Yeah. In high school there was an old IBM 1620. It actually did have blinking lights. We used punch cards, a phrase which may frighten many, but I learned FORTRAN II. Went to school, though, Case Tech in Cleveland, got a couple of degrees in computer sciences. That worked out fairly well. I learned a lot. And then from there I spent 17 years at IBM, to my surprise.
Right. Right up there above New York.
Oh, that’s ... You’re thinking of the big machine division. I spent six years first in Boca Raton.
Oh, on the Sound Korg.
Well, it was on the Series/1, but at the end of my time there, I was working with the first PC, IBM PC.
Right, which was from there. They did it down in Florida, away from the main headquarters.
My former office roommate was the guy who wrote the BIOS.
Wow. That’s amazing.
But since I didn’t get along with people very well as a nerd, they didn’t invite me to join the project.
Right, so you worked for IBM, but still continued to slave away there as many ... That’s a normal career for a lot of people.
Yeah. After that, 11 years in the field, Detroit, then Pittsburgh, and then I decided I needed a change. Charles Schwab got me a good job and I moved out here. And about two years into my tenure there, that’s when the dot-com thing hit San Francisco in a big way. I had acquired a number of the necessary skills, did some web work, wound up doing software contracting, most notably for Bank of America, where I helped develop home banking.
Around that time, I realized that a lot of people had helped me in the San Francisco Bay area, I should give back. Well, that was the start of Craigslist.
What was the idea for it? Because I do want to get into it. It damaged newspapers, too, the creation of Craigslist. But talk about the concept of it that, I assume, it’s that classifieds were static, expensive, non-effective, all kinds of things.
Well, Craigslist just started as a simple mailing list, which developed categories relatively quickly. I figured I’d started something. I’d committed to it, I needed to continue with it. Fortunately, I could write my own code to automate whatever procedure took time. Just kept growing, word of mouth, and at some point I had to make some decisions, like, well, if it’s going to continue to exist, I needed to make it into a real company. Now, bankers and VCs around here told me I should do the usual thing ...
Which is collect money.
Yes. It would be an awful lot of money, but from Mr. and Mrs. Levin I remembered knowing enough is enough, so I decided to not monetize the site in the usual way. Nothing altruistic about it, just what I thought were actual values, and proceeded on that basis. And not altruistic, just basic values. A year in, I realized that as a manager I kind of suck. That’s why Jim Buckmaster runs things.
Right. And so he came in.
So, but the concept of it. The idea was to just make classifieds easier? Or were you attacking classifieds? Or you just thought it would be a place where people would trade knowledge and information, things they wanted?
All I of that is much fancier thinking than I’m capable of.
Okay, what were you thinking?
I’m thinking that people in my community need something to help get them through the day. The deal was that, what Craigslist became at that point, is a place to help you put food on the table. Then, to help you find a table, and then to help you get a roof under which to put the table. That’s really how I think about it. It’s pretty basic, because in our lives, sometimes it’s just enough to help someone else get through the day. That ain’t bad.
Yeah. What was the get through the day part? Reading class ... Or just meeting people, or?
Oh, getting through the day. I mean, again, getting enough money or whatever to get food on the table.
For whatever services, or to find your services. But you weren’t thinking, “Classifieds are terrible, I’m gonna fix them”?
No. I had no thinking really about classifieds. At some point, years in, it dawned on me that I had done classifieds in a good way, like once you put a classified ad up, it was easy to remove, which meant no one was calling you after it’s removed, hopefully.
Right exactly. They traded in their newspapers. And so, as it grew it became quite a business, though, once you started to monetize it. You charged for a variety of things, and some of the stuff you didn’t charge for.
Yeah, the deal is the site should be monetized as little as possible, and even when we’re charging, Craigslist is providing ads that are much more effective, we feel, for less money.
Right. As it developed, you weren’t running it, but you were guiding it. It went back and forth in ownership, or you always owned it?
Well, at the beginning I did give away equity to a couple of other folks, and I figure maybe I have some moral responsibility in the background, but when I turned over management to Jim, I relinquished all management control. I relinquished all management involvement. I was a customer service rep. Because when you make someone CEO, you gotta get out of the way.
Right. Well most people don’t, Craig. Let’s be honest.
There’s something called founder’s syndrome. Somebody who’s good at starting something is terrible at continuing it. I’d read about it, and sometimes I’m smart enough to learn from other people’s unpleasant experiences.
So what did you do after that? Because you were still attached to it, because your name was on the product.
I was emotionally attached to it, but I figured I also stopped coding because Craigslist had hired a lot of programmers who are better than me, but I was a really, really good customer service rep. I find even nobility in service. That turned out to be a pretty hard job. In customer service you do see things you wish you could unsee, but I kept on with that. The last five years, though, I focused on philanthropy, in part, because the Craigslist team doesn’t really need me anymore.
Right. So, talk about the philanthropy. So you made a lot of money from this. It’s still private? Is that correct? I don’t want to get this wrong.
It is strictly private.
And you want to keep it that way.
Are you still a major shareholder?
So you can control that.
We run differently than people think we do.
Jim runs the company, I don’t interfere.
Right. But you’re a major shareholder?
But the decision not to go public because? Or sell?
What’s the point?
Okay. Not a lot of people say that. I want to hear you say that.
What’s the point selling, people keep telling me, and now that they see I’m doing philanthropy. People say I could have a huge amount of money to give away, and that’s an apt observation these days. I do feel the nation is in crisis, and that people of goodwill need to stand up and do something. Money talks, and money talks in a way that I never really understood until recently. I would characterize that as nerdly naivete.
Okay, but it remains private and not sold?
Right. There was a period where eBay, I guess a lot of people were looking at it. Is that correct?
There was. And there was a situation, too, where a former employee who I had given stock to ...
Yeah. I remember. I wrote about it.
Yeah. We got through that, and now Craigslist owns that equity, which would have otherwise been in other hands.
So what kind of company would you characterize it as?
I don’t know if there is a term.
Yeah, I know. It’s really ...
We may be unique in America or even world business, because we are serious business people. Craigslist consists entirely of serious business people, and yet we just remember the values that we learned in Sunday School. That pretty much everyone does ...
Right, and just keep going. So you moved to the philanthropy. Talk a little bit about that.
Well, over the 10-plus years, people from nonprofits were asking me, “How can you grow a community online? What can you do?” And they also didn’t mind if I made a contribution, so I got involved in the nonprofit world in different areas, and I got more involved in it.
Sometimes I stumbled onto things, like I was at a “PBS News Hour” thing, luncheon, and sitting next to me was a volunteer from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Well, having come of age during Vietnam, I saw by that there’s a problem with the war, but that vets coming back from the war shouldn’t be treated badly. That kind of stuck with me for, let’s say, 40 years or so. Well, maybe 30 years. But the idea is that, I figure vets give away, they give up, they sacrifice a lot to protect us. They risk taking a bullet to protect me. More recently I’ve learned that their families sacrifice a great deal, because living without their fighter can be really rough.
There’s problems like payday lenders and used car salesmen really actively try to rip off families around bases. Not good.
Well, what I’ve done is worked with CFPB and Consumer Reports on that subject. Also, on other subjects, right into that and part of philanthropy, I’m thinking if you want to thank a vet, you help them get their kids a good education. So donors choose from military families. We’re just concluding that now. I don’t think the final numbers have come out, but we’ve helped out at least 100,000 military kids.
Right. So how big is your philanthropy? There’s obviously the big ones like the Gates’ and the Zuckerbergs’. How big is it?
Mine is small, and right now the only person full time on it is me. I get help from Khan’s people and lawyer, the controller, and I’m trying to design it so I have a narrow focus of specialty areas, priorities. The idea is to be able to turn around a grant proposal fast.
Right. That you get ...
And we’ve managed to do that. Some things are tough and require a lot of thinking.
Right, but you focus on just a couple of topics. So they’re military, veterans, women ...
And trustworthy journalism.
And trustworthy journalism. So talk about the ... I’m gonna get to the trustworthy journalism in the next section, but when you focus on women’s issues and voter protection, what is that about? What do you give to?
Well, I’m interested in helping out women in tech because I remind myself that our country is supposed to be about fairness, opportunity and respect, and I should practice what I preach. And like in Jersey we say, “I should put my money where my mouth is.” So what I’m doing in my ignorance is finding groups that do really good for women in tech, supporting them, getting educated by them, because I’d like to avoid mansplaining.
Right. Well, that would be nice.
So, for example, I support Girls Who Code, and I’ll talk to Adizah Tejani about how I can help without being stupid about it. I prefer to limit my stupidity to other areas, and I succeed. I work with Women Who Tech, that’s Allyson Kapin, and I just talk to, let’s say, there is women’s hacker groups at the University of San Francisco, and my alma mater, Case Tech, so I provided support to them for things including scholarships for the Grace Murray Hopper Conferences.
All right. And then voter protection?
Voter protection. Our deal is that everyone in our country who is eligible to vote should be able to vote without much hassle, and yet a lot of bad actors in politics have said that part of their strategy is to stop people from voting that they don’t like. That means I gotta stand up and help the groups who are doing a good job fighting those bad actors. That includes the Brennan Center for Law, Voto Latino Demos.
The deal is that even the Russians have gotten in on the game. When Mueller indicted those Russian groups, he specifically said they were trying to suppress the vote. So to have a fair election — or a not very unfair election — people of goodwill need to help out the people who know what they’re doing.
Right. There’s been some setbacks recently in Supreme Court ...
There was one, I think, in Wisconsin. And there’s a number of places where voters really are at risk. There are states where the Secretary of State will just decide to arbitrarily un-register someone, or if a registration ...
That they didn’t vote? Because they didn’t vote?
No, it’s much worse than that. They may just receive the registrations, and they may just forget to process them if they were there for the wrong party.
For example, I’m funding one effort, the point of which is to figure out who was registered at one point in time, then take a look later to see if anyone has mysteriously dropped out, particularly without notice.
Right, and they’re doing this to suppress the vote?
How successful do you think they’ve been?
I don’t know. I was involved in these efforts in 2016, and I have no idea really how successful things were. I do know that this election is mission critical for American democracy.
For people to vote?
When we get back, we’re going to talk about your $20 million you gave to CUNY. I want to know why you picked that, and also more about what you think about where ... You said it’s the immune system of American democracy. When we get back, we’re going to talk about that, and more with Craig Newmark. He is the founder of Craigslist, but now he is a philanthropist.
We’re here with Craig Newmark. He is well known as an entrepreneur who created Craigslist, but right now we’re talking about his philanthropy. In specific right now about the $20 million he has just given to the journalism school at CUNY in New York.
Can you talk a little bit about what prompted that, and why? That’s a lot of money for a journalism program, and obviously an important one to teach people how to do journalism in this day and age.
Well, what I’m trying to do in the here and now is support a lot of people doing mission critical work in journalism. For example, there’s ProPublica, which is a great example of trustworthy journalism.
I’m also supporting a whole bunch of groups who are focusing on analyzing disinformation in order to counter it. Dana Boyd’s group, Data In Society, a whole bunch of things. There is the Tao Center, there’s folks even in Indiana that I’m talking to. They’re folks at First Draft at Shorenstein Center.
So, the idea is that I’ve contributed over 20 million to a collection of groups looking at defending journalism, and defending the country against bad actors whether foreign or domestic, but I think we not only work need to work in the here and now, but we need to work in the near term. Hence, we need a lot of good, well-educated journalists, and given the way I believe in things — of sharing, fairness, opportunity and respect for all — the City University of New York, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, is a great place to do that.
Jeff Jarvis, Sarah Bartlett, have great track records in journalism, great track records for integrity. I’ve done my due diligence, and what the CUNY Graduate Journalism School is about. It’s about diversity, it’s about giving people the opportunity to get a really quality education, quality journalism at a much lower price than they would get everywhere. The idea of fairness, opportunity and respect, this is a way of putting it into practice, and that’s something I believe in in a big way.
Okay, I’m just curious, you looked around at a lot of journalism schools. Do you feel that there’s not enough journalists being trained or what? What was the thinking? I know you’re giving money to other journalism organizations.
Kind of all the above. I see CUNY as being the figurative and literal epicenter of a lot of these activities. Some of the best work is being done again in Manhattan, at Columbia in Dana’s team, NYU. You go north, and again Shorenstein Center. South, there’s Pointer. In our area, there’s Berkeley and things are happening there.
The idea is that I can learn enough, I can get help from folks at Ford Foundation, Jennifer Preston at the Knight Foundation. I can get the help I need, and then it becomes time, having identified good organizations, to put my money where my mouth is. CUNY, again, because the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is a great place to do that, because they provide a good opportunity for people who might never get that.
What do you expect the twenty million dollars to be used for? Did you direct it in any way?
I have not. It goes basically into what I think of as an endowment, providing funding in an environment where funding is shrinking and it’s all pretty scary. That’s scary in a number of ways, because across America people who might need opportunity are being denied that.
So, it can go to anything? It creates an endowment to do shares or tuition or ...
I think it provides operational funding. For that detail, you can ask Sarah.
Right, but they get to do it. What was the pitch by them to you? Sorry to interrupt you.
Basically they explained how they work, how their funding works. They showed me something I guess I already knew, that they were providing good education in journalism to people who might never otherwise get a break. Again, they’re at that epicenter of restoring a lot of trust to journalism everywhere.
So talk about that issue, because right now I think there’s never been so much of a siege on journalism. Every day, one of the members of the Trump administration or someone affiliated with them is attacking the press. Yesterday it was Corey Lewandowski, after his appalling behavior on television, but it’s just every day.
I started in the way of trying to figure out what I as a news consumer, I wanted to find news I can trust, and what does that mean? That’s been helped by the folks at the Trust Project, at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara. In my simplified, not-a-journalist perspective, I want news organizations to listen to different kinds of people, regardless of politics or ethnicity or whatever. I want news outlets to have codes of ethics which say things like, “Don’t make stuff up.” I want news outlets when they do make a mistake, because that’s going to happen, that they fix it in a serious way.
Sally Lehrman, who runs this, has more trust indicators, but I’m somewhat simple-minded, and I’m very aware that I’m not a news professional, and I’m not telling anyone how to do their job. So, if a news outlet wants me to trust it and maybe pay for it, they have to behave in a trustworthy way. That’s the start of things there.
Then the idea is to fund a lot of operational work. Fact-checking is a big part of this, and a lot of it goes around the international fact-checking network, which is a network of networks with a common code. Meaning that if you’re going to do a fact-check, you have to publish your materials showing how you got there. If you don’t trust their fact-checks, you have the raw material sources to work with.
To look at it yourself.
They’re having a big meeting in Rome right now, and it looks like lots of progress is being made in fact-checking.
Bill Adair I’m helping fund out in Duke University. They’re trying to build a means for fact-checkers to work together first draft.
First, I want to talk about what you think the landscape is right now for the press, what’s happening.
There’s a whole bunch of things happening at once. On the optimistic side, I keep getting approached quietly by people at a whole range of news outlets, even unexpected ones. People who want to do straight ethical reporting, even if their boss won’t want them to do that.
I see a lot of hope for things. People are seeing these mechanisms, this ecosystem of trustworthy journalism, and people are pretty optimistic about it. One part of the problem is to get everyone to work together, and then to find those organizations which might not have enough funding.
Right, I got that part. I want to talk about the landscape right now, which is not positive, it’s not optimistic.
Can you help me understand that?
Well, with Trump discussing the press every day, attacking it. Then saying I’m attacking it on purpose to weaken it. Using it, just creating distrust, and I’ll get to internet companies next. But how do you look at that landscape?
Well, I draw some hope from those services like PolitiFact, or the guy at the Post, I think is Erik Wemple, who are just carefully documenting lies, and doing that, just getting some recognition of it helps people. I’m more interested in dealing with that landscape.
An idea I’ve heard from Dana Boyd is that of strategic silence. Then I’ve read in the last week or two how a number of reporters, Brian Stelter and others, they’re just saying that they’re tired of all the lying, and they started to challenge people in the White House press room. Them getting tired of all the lying may get them, I’m hoping, to apply this idea of strategic silence, which means as Dean Gilmore says, you don’t give a loudspeaker to liars. If that starts happening, I think that would dramatically a clear up the landscaping.
You do? I don’t. I think lies work beautifully.
But if people don’t hear them, and if the networks of disinformation are disrupted, if the bad stuff cannot crowd out honest reporting, there’s hope. I have chosen to be hopeful, to put my money where my mouth is.
I get you’ve chosen to be hopeful. But I think that the landscape is more dangerous than most people recognize.
You may be right, but we can’t let fear paralyze us. This year is pivotal for the country. It could be pivotal for the world and the species, and it’s time for people of goodwill to stand up, maybe make some mistakes, but to do this. Remember, I talk to a lot of vets, and they stood up to defend the country in the way they knew. I came of age during Vietnam. Vietnam vets tell me that wasn’t my fight. They tell me this is my fight.
Is to stand up to it. When you talk about what needs to be done to get press more credible, I’d love to know what you think the press has done wrong. By just allowing the equalization of the lies or not attacking them or what?
Well, in a lot of cases they would amplify a lie, because when you give uncritical airtime to a lie, the lie gets reinforced. If you give airtime or perhaps space in print, that reinforces the lie. Some people are good at the debunking in real time. Not many.
This idea of strategic silence, just not going along, that might be the answer. I think it’s Jay Rosen who says replace the White House Press Corps with interns. If something important happens, but otherwise take those highly professional journalists, get them to report real news.
Real news, which is?
Whatever is happening anyplace else.
This would be an extreme case, but if you were to take one of those reporters to report right here on the Washington school board, you might actually do more good that way. Local news matters.
We’ll get to that in a minute. We’re here with Craig Newmark. He has just given $20 million to the CUNY Journalism School because he believes in journalism. We’re going to talk about sort of the changes that the information society has created. We’re going to take another break now. We’ll be back after this with Craig Newmark.
We’re here with Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. We’ve just been talking about a donation he made to CUNY Journalism School of $20 million.
If you want to get to Silicon Valley, because one of the things about you, we talked about the amplification of lies and how easy it is, is by using social media that was created right here. Some people might think a creation of Craigslist hurt newspapers, for example, by killing off classifieds. Classifieds went digital. It’s not your fault, particularly, but the digitization of everything has weakened media. No? Yes?
I have to challenge the premise there.
Tell me. Please do.
I’ve looked at the last 60 years of newspaper circulation and revenues.
Down, down, down.
Down, down, down due to TV news, as people say.
Around 2008, got hammered even worse by the big dot-coms. I think Craigslist played a small role in that, one so small that I don’t know if anyone has been able to measure it with all the effects that the big guys had. So, I don’t know really know if Craigslist had that substantial an effect. And at this point, my focus is on doing what I can to restore trustworthiness to ...
Right. Absolutely. I got that. So, talk about the big guys. What social ... we all know the impact of television, but let’s talk about the impact of internet companies. I’d love to get your thoughts on Facebook and how it distributes information. But talk about that, from when you watched it happen, when these big guys came in and started really impacting journalism’s business model, the advertising model which is now ... the digital advertising model is pretty much dominated by Facebook and Google, at this point.
I can only address something from the perspective of a technology founder.
That is, you know, you produce a really good product, you give it away mostly free, you’re hoping to make a comfortable living. And something engineers are not prepared for is how people can abuse the system. It takes a while for us to really realize it, for it to grow out of denial. You know, that’s basically human. And naturally, we try to handle it ourselves. We try two or three times, and if we’re paying attention, we may realize that our first attempts at dealing with problems didn’t work.
And then we get help, and then we wind up on the road to a solution. So I think that Facebook, Google and Twitter are moving ahead pretty well in that regard, and I’m impressed with the turnaround that I’ve seen, looking through side channels.
Yeah. I’m not good at side channels, frankly. I’m a nerd. I’ve seen Jeff Jarvis do a great deal of good through these and I’m doing whatever I can to give him the credit.
All right. So you don’t feel that ... you think they’ve ... I think they’ve broken things almost irreparably. I do, and are not taking responsibility for fixing it at all. I don’t know if it’s fixed. I actually don’t know if it’s fixable, in terms of how it’s changed, how people take in information. I look at Twitter every day and see it not cleaned up in the way that you’re talking about. I see Facebook continuing to drag its feet on very important things. Now, I’m hoping a lot for the next election, but you can’t say you broke something and oh well. It’s not ... do you know ... you get my point.
I do see things being fixed. I also know how difficult these problems are because sometimes if a bad actor is running a long con, it takes, you know, serious law enforcement skills sometimes to understand when a long con is in place. And I don’t know if AI will be smart enough to do that in our lifetimes. If it does become that smart, I, for one, welcome our machine overlords. But the idea is that people are working on a limited AI to try to detect problems, the companies are hiring people to try to detect problems. They’re serious, but these are really, really hard problems, and people are thinking about it.
Me, I have a feeling that verified identities will help with some of this, because a verified identity can hold a bad actor ... or can help to hold a bad actor accountable for something. The problem is that we always need anonymity for people like dissidents, or people who have just escaped to a shelter, that kind of thing. This is ramifications that when I need to know more about, I talk to Dana Boyd.
And often I do that in the context of the CUNY Graduate Journalism School. That’s a big convening place for all this happening.
All right. So, but they have ... you imagine, as a tech founder, that you did think of the repercussions of your inventions? I think they didn’t think of them at all and were slow to understand them. Slow ... I’m being polite when I say slow.
Yes. Slow is sometimes accurate. I could only speak for myself and reflect that, in some respects, I was kind of a dumbass about it. I got an education quickly, and I am one of those humans who will ask for direction, but in my specific case also, remember that in 2000 I gave up all management involvement in Craigslist. The idea, again, is that tech founders, just like ordinary humans, sometimes there’s a problem and humans are good at being in denial about something and then sometimes humans are remiss in asking for directions.
You think the personality has changed, that things have changed? I mean, I literally ... when I did my interview with Tim Cook recently, he talked about it quite cogently and the reaction was, “How dare he say such things, that you need to have responsibility, that you need to have ...” You know, they attacked him rather than listen to the message he was putting forth.
Well, what I am doing is quietly going through back channels, trying to nudge ahead progress. I don’t have the eloquence or persuasive abilities to make things happen with any speed. I just nudge and then I keep nudging and nudging further, hopefully that provides some atmosphere ...
So what has to happen among these tech companies? I mean, for example, just recently I was arguing with someone at one of the big tech companies around these kids in Texas, and they’re like, “What do you want us to do? Wade in every time?” I’m like, “I kind of do. I think your employees want you to do it. I think you shouldn’t be doing business when this is happening with them.” You know, I mean, I’m like, “I have an opinion about this.” You may not want to do that.
I don’t want any of them to become an arbiter of truth. I want them to use professionals to try to figure out what might be trustworthy and what’s not. For example, I’d like a news outlet to subscribe to the Trust Project principles, maybe to the work being done by the Credibility Coalition. I’d like them to work with the investigators who are tracking patterns of both disinformation and harassment. They’re usually the same. And I want to get summary fact-check records. That is, if a news feed encounters an incoming chunk of news and it can’t really do fact-checking in real time, but if it knows that that news outlet has a track record for generally being right and then fixing what it got wrong, then I might want to see that one. I might choose to see items like that. I might choose to say, “Hey, if something comes in from a news outlet which gets it wrong a lot, I want to choose not to see that.”
Right. But that puts a lot of onus on the reader, and it puts a lot of onus on the news organizations and not these distributors.
I disagree with that.
The idea is that the news reader chooses only, “Do I want to see stuff which is probably trustworthy?” “Do I want to see stuff that’s probably not trustworthy?”
Oversimplifying for discussion, but the idea is that the user chooses what kinds of stuff they see. The platform relies on other parties to work on this, like the International Fact-Checking Network, like First Draft out of the Shorenstein Center, like the Tech and Check people out of Duke University. They also may involve some AI stuff, like the work being done at Factmata, and there I’ve got to disclose I’m a token investor.
Okay. So, you don’t want them to be arbiters of truth, the platforms they build?
Because I think it’s unfair to concentrate that much power in one place. An arbiter of truth gets to shape the reality that its users perceive.
Yes, I’ve met Rupert Murdoch. Yes.
Um, I almost met him, but I was frightened of him.
Oh, don’t worry about him. Just don’t turn your back on him.
But the deal is that we don’t want informational power to be concentrated too much in any particular place. And the way to do that is to create networks of networks of people who know what they’re doing and who show you how they do it, so if you want to challenge it, then you can challenge it. I want big networks of networks with some redundancy, because even in the U.S., journalists are under siege to some extent. There are big problems with harassment, death threats or worse, that kind of thing. And I’m talking with parties, including Wikipedia, as to how do journalists protect themselves here, both informationally, reputationally and in other countries how journalists protect themselves physically, because journalists are getting killed. That’s not right.
Right. Right. So, not letting ... I did an interview with Mark Zuckerberg and I’m going to be talking to him more in the future, but one of the things he really does want to shy away ... he said, “I don’t want to sit at my desk in California and make decisions about these things.” And one of their solutions was to crowdsource what’s good, which I find disturbing on every level. I know the New York Times is good. I don’t need a crowd ... you don’t want a crowd to be voting up and down, and likes and dislikes. It seems so open to gaming.
I used to think that crowdsourcing of trustworthiness could be a thing. I have backed off from that. The deal is, trustworthiness ... you start with commitment, at least a verbal commitment. That’s the Trust Project stuff. A news outlet, if you want to think of it as trustworthy, they should start by saying, “We’re trustworthy.” And then you do the Reaganesque thing, trust but verify. That’s what the International Fact-Checking Network is about. There’s other people who are taking a look. First Draft is providing the means where people can help each other do some of these fact-checks. So we have an ecosystem emerging.
Now, I’m not a journalism professional. I don’t want to tell anyone how to do their business because I think that a reporter has to do something like writing a news story every day, the deadline, I can barely write 500 words to deadline. So what I’ve done is found professionals, a lot of them centered at the City University of New York Journalism School, and I can rely on people who know what they’re talking about. Because, you know, I have a feeling ... unless you’ve written on deadline for, like, 10 years or something, you just don’t know.
Yeah. Yeah. So, I want to finish up. You seem optimistic about journalism.
I’ve never been more pessimistic, I have to say.
Well, I see this ecosystem developing. I see people getting more optimistic and feistier, like I read those newsletters that come out of Politico and Axios and Brian Stelter out of CNN, and I do see indications of things getting better.
Right. Because they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore, or?
Uh, well ...
We know how that ended.
They focus on real stuff happening to make things better. We do need more people mad as hell, and I’ve seen some signs that Anderson Cooper is getting tired of the lying. The break, I think, will come when more people read some of the best writing of the last week or so on this, like that Dan Gilmore piece saying, “Don’t provide loudspeakers for liars, whoever they are.” You know somebody’s lying to you, just don’t repeat the lies.
Don’t give them airtime.
All right. So what is next for you? $20 million is a lot of money. More $20 million donations all around the world? How do you get others in Silicon Valley ... I think Facebook should just pay for all of local news, that’s what I think. I think they’ve ruined local news and should now pay for it.
Well, that’s 20 for CUNY Journalism School, 20 for a bunch of other ... another 20 for a bunch of other people, and I’ve got to do more.
How are you going to get Silicon Valley people to do more?
Well, the deal is I talk with them, I work quietly with the big dot-coms, although again, Jeff is the guy to really make things happen.
And I feel that they’re consistently moving in a better direction. It’s kind of like they’re asking for directions, which is sometimes hard to get a human to do, and I see that happening. And you know, before the events of November 2016, journalism and democracy were slowly drifting into a bad place, kind of like the frog slowly boiling in water. Well, we got a wake up call, and I think people across the world, particularly Americans in journalism, are standing up and are doing remarkable things, and I’m sure that I see that. I mean, like any human, I might be fooling myself. We like to fool ourselves, we’re good at it.
But I’ll put my money where my mouth is and see what happens.
Well good for you, Craig. I have to say, kudos to you. I wish more people would do the same. Not just for journalism, but issues that you’re talking about. And it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.