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Elon Musk’s problem with journalism can be solved with—you guessed it—a blockchain

Obsession
Future of Finance
Obsession
Future of Finance

Maybe Elon Musk won’t have to go to all the trouble of building his “Pravda” website for rating journalists’ credibility, because, it turns out, there’s already a blockchain for that.

It’s called Civil, which touts itself as a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism.”

Civil, which is the name of both the company and the platform it’s building, is riding a wave of interest in applying blockchain technology to the business of journalism. It’s funding grants worth €1.7 million ($2 million) from the European Journalism Centre, and it plans to sell its CVL crypto tokens in an initial coin offering later this year (Civil is putting up €300,000, with the rest from the EJC and the News Integrity Initiative). It has raised $5 million from ConsenSys, a venture firm started by the ethereum co-founder Joseph Lubin.

Civil says it has about 100 journalists attached to 15 organizations who publish on its platform. It has funded these efforts by disbursing $1 million in grants. The newsrooms range from a business publication reporting on the cannabis industry to a site that covers immigrants in New York City.

One of the projects is a podcast called ZigZag, which will include “come-to-Jesus moments” and other meta messages about entrepreneurship, according to its website. It’s run by two veterans of US public radio, Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant. They quit their radio jobs to start the company that produces ZigZag, and their first tranche of funding has come from Civil—two-thirds of it in “regular money” and the rest in CVL tokens, according to Zomorodi.

Zomorodi was interviewing people around the Civil booth (including me) at the Ethereal event in Brooklyn in May, which also featured Deepak Chopra leading attendees in a meditation. To hear Zomorodi tell it, quitting public radio was as much about the vanishing opportunities in journalism—with revenues draining away to Facebook and Google—as it was about trying something new. Civil was a lifeline. “For me, a middle-aged woman—I’m not cheap right. For [Civil] to want people who are veterans who know what they are doing, you don’t get that [in the rest of the industry],” she said.

It’s complicated

At this point, some explanation of how Civil works is warranted. It’s pretty complicated, but it starts with the premise that journalism’s advertising-driven business model is broken, as Civil founder Matthew Iles writes in the white paper explaining the system. Civil thinks the solution to this broken system is an entirely new economy where advertisers—and the platforms that enable them, like Google or Facebook—are cut out, and journalists are free to publish directly to readers.

This new system will have checks and balances built in, like a “whitelist” of publishers who are deemed to be credible sources of information; a nonprofit foundation that guides the development of the system; and even a constitution that outlines what responsible journalism looks like. Everyone in this economy transacts in CVL tokens, which means reporters get paid in tokens, readers buy content in tokens, and you will even use tokens to vote on whether a publisher should be whitelisted (publishers and reporters can also opt to be paid in fiat currencies).

The bit of Civil that Elon Musk might be most interested in is the whitelist. It’s called the Civil Registry. The idea is that publishers on the registry are vetted for credibility and punished if they transgress journalistic ethics. These ethics are set out in Civil’s constitution, a document drawn up by the independent Civil Foundation. The crypto twist is that it’s all based on an elaborate process of voting with CVL tokens. It’s an example of a “token-curated registry,” an idea that’s catching on in blockchain circles.

Token-curated registries

Token-curated registries are one way that crypto tokens could be used to shape user behaviors. The basic notion is that users have to spend tokens to do something meaningful, like get their newsroom whitelisted on Civil. They also have to spend tokens to argue that a publisher doesn’t belong on the whitelist. If they abuse their positions, or if their position is unpopular, then they lose their tokens. Challenges and appeals can be mounted, but they will all cost tokens, so frivolous attempts will in theory be weeded out. It’s an inversion of the free-to-use services that have come to define the mobile and web apps of today.

Got all that? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t—it’s a lot to take in. As Mathew Ingram, a Columbia Journalism Review writer who chronicles the future of media, says, Civil’s proposition is hugely ambitious but filled with unknowns. “It’s very ambitious and it’s based on a theoretical marketplace that doesn’t yet exist, which means it is fairly risky,” he says. “Will Civil build the kind of ecosystem it wants to? And will enough people be incentivized to take part in that process so that it works the way Civil wants to? I don’t know.”

Still, Ingram is hopeful that Civil works, if only to benefit journalism. It’s a sentiment shared by Adam Thomas, director of the European Journalism Centre. Civil is one of two funders of a €1.7 million program run by the centre that will disburse grants to European publishers—although it’s optional for publishers to use the Civil platform. Thomas thinks a token-curated registry could strengthen reader trust, which in turn increases reader loyalty, and ultimately gives publishers a more sustainable business. “Civil’s platform, broadly, supports all of these things, so whether Civil is a household name is secondary to the overall ambition of providing quality journalism,” he says.

The rest of the field

Civil’s vision of blockchain-powered news might seem fantastical, but the startup is actually a laggard in the crypto world. One early blockchain-based publishing platform that launched in 2016 is Steemit, which already has tens of thousands of writers who publish content stored on the Steem blockchain. In March, the Steemit application paid out nearly $2 million to writers in the form of its own crypto tokens, according to public data analyzed by a researcher called Miniature Tiger. The market value of all Steem tokens in circulation is over $600 million, according to data from CoinMarketcap, though it peaked at $1.8 billion in January.

Ned Scott, who co-founded Steemit, is something of a veteran when it comes to publishing on a blockchain. The latest wave of interest has been driven by escalating cryptocurrency prices and a market infatuated with ideas like token-curated registries, he says. He says he’s been in the game for two and a half years, and his competitors from back then “don’t exist any longer.” What does he think of the newest competitors, like Civil, for example? “I am not at all familiar with Civil,” he says.

Nevertheless, Scott is developing a quality filter for content on Steem that shares some similarities with token-curated registries. Smart Media Tokens—a separate protocol built on top of Steem—would rank and reward content based on quality, Scott says.

And then there are broader efforts to route the provenance of any type of content through a blockchain. The buzziest is Po.et, led by the former vice president for innovation at the Washington Post, Jarrod Dicker. Dicker’s pedigree from the traditional media world lends heft to Po.et’s attempt to devise a new way for content to be tracked across the internet, and for rights and payments to accrue to content creators more efficiently.

Po.et’s mission in turn echoes that of an earlier startup called Mediachain, which attempted to track every image on the internet using a blockchain—and which was acquired by Spotify, possibly to solve licensing woes that was causing it to pay out tens of millions in legal settlements.

The upshot of all this is that there are plenty of projects out there trying to use a blockchain to solve Musk’s stated problem with the media. Whether the answer comes from nascent projects like Civil and Po.et or live platforms like Steemit remains to be seen. For reporters, broadcasters, and other content creators publishing on these platforms, these are crucial experiments. “Even if it totally fails, what a wonderful way to explain the value of journalism to democracy,” says Zomorodi, who’s publishing the podcast on Civil.

But in the meantime, there are crypto tokens to secure. “I just got my hardware wallet yesterday from Amazon,” she says, as she hunts for her next interview subject among the blockchain believers at the Ethereal festival in Brooklyn.

This story was updated with Civil’s contribution to the European Journalism Centre’s fund.

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