Alas, the Blockchain Won’t Save Journalism After All








Hype around the technology has led to incomprehensible applications of it.


Civil Media Company was introduced earlier this year as both a media platform and a network, to be owned and operated by journalists and concerned citizens in tandem. It was an exciting proposal. Its technology (powered by the blockchain!) would churn under dozens of independent newsrooms, its machinery creating a new, utopian model, free from the clutches of miserly businessmen or politically compromised publishers threatening to gum up the works.

“We believe that the ad-driven business model is slowly killing good journalism — which is itself a critical foundation for free, democratic societies,” wrote one of the company’s founders, Matt Coolidge, in one of many, many, many blog posts that have been written trying to explain Civil. “So, we’re introducing a new model.”

Fundamental to the model was an option for readers: They could buy into Civil, with a Civil-specific crypto token, which would somehow free journalists to take advantage of “self-governance” and “permanence,” Mr. Coolidge wrote. With this financing, Civil would be able to cut out advertisers, clickbaiters and all the other bad actors so often accused of screwing up journalism.

Civil took its currency to market in September for a month. In the end, it fell short of the minimum number of tokens it had hoped to sell by more than $6 million. Of the approximately $1.4 million worth of tokens the company did sell, about 80 percent was purchased by ConsenSys — the blockchain software company that underwrote Civil in the first place. It was as if an Olympic weight lifter said that, at a minimum, he’d be able to clean and jerk 400 pounds, and then did not manage to move the bar more than an inch off the ground.

Civil’s representatives said they could help fix two crises that afflict the media: one of trust and another of financial sustainability. Both, they posited, were within the power of the blockchain to heal.

Financial sustainability first: Civil’s newsrooms (18 listed on its site so far) are welcome to use traditional business models (like subscriptions, paid for with dollars), and many, like The Colorado Sun, Block Club Chicago and Popula, an “alt-daily” with a worldly mind-set, have chosen to do so. But as citizens became convinced of Civil’s value as a publishing platform, they could opt in to the network by purchasing Civil tokens. These would buy them some control, making them, essentially, shareholders. They could “tip” journalists with tokens or portions of tokens, request stories or even suggest the creation of whole newsrooms dedicated to specific subjects. As the news organizations got stronger and stronger — ostensibly, with the input of citizen-shareholder-readers — others would purchase tokens, the value of the tokens would increase, and the entire community, journalists and readers alike, would prosper.

At the same time, Civil representatives said, the much-lamented if near-perennial and also possibly invented problem of trust in journalism would be solved by the blockchain technology’s inherent function as a database.

Vivian Schiller, a former president and chief executive at NPR and head of news at Twitter, is now the chief executive of the Civil Media Foundation, the organization in charge of “upholding the principles of the network.” She wrote, in a blog post, that Civil websites would have an icon in their upper right-hand corner that would function as a journalistic equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

“We have a plug-in that allows you to sign your work,” said Matthew Iles, the chief executive of the Civil Media Company, which is separate but related to the foundation. “This is important: We’re going to be able to show citizens that you in fact did write it.”

To be clear, the crisis of faith in media did not spring from confusion regarding the disputed identity of authors of blog posts. This was one of several examples in which Civil suggested that if the concerns of journalists themselves (about interference from publishers, or the sudden erasure of digital archives) were taken care of, the broader problem of trust in the media would be eased.

“Do we think that by launching Civil, somebody that thinks that the press is the enemy of the people, are those people suddenly going to go, ‘Oh, I see the light’? Of course not,” Ms. Schiller said before the token sale began. “But here’s what we can do: If Civil is successful, it will allow people who are interested in trustworthy journalism, it will be a signal to them for what news organizations meet the criteria.”

Oh, and Civil would also become a social network, one that would thwart the power of the big technology companies. Mr. Iles said he had spent years watching Google and Facebook manipulate and take advantage of their media partners. “The first time that I really started conceiving of Civil, I viewed it as an open publishing platform that had to be decentralized,” he said. “Social media with rules.

So it would be like Facebook, but journalism, but on the blockchain?

“All cryptoeconomic public blockchains are effectively social applications,” Mr. Iles said. “You need a crowd of people to agree to run it.”

So: Civil is a media company that supports but also is a group of linked newsrooms that is also a blockchain-based social network which is supported by tokens that are purchased by people who care about journalism.

People who are in a strong position to understand what Civil is doing — either because they are experts on blockchain technology or because they work for one of its newsrooms — have openly admitted that they don’t understand how the organization works. The rate of such statements only increased as Civil’s token sale got underway in September.

Journalists running Civil newsrooms continue to express belief in the company. Larry Ryckman, the editor of The Colorado Sun, expressed his faith and optimism in Civil several times in conversation a few days after the token sale failed in mid-October.

At the same time, he said, “We at The Colorado Sun have never counted on the tokens being worth anything necessarily. We were paid in dollars and our readers interact with us in dollars.”

At least one former employee believes that Civil was never built to succeed in the first place. Daniel Sieberg, one of the company’s co-founders, who left in July, said that the token was fatally flawed.

“It is fundamentally a locked box,” he said. “The token’s not worth anything. The simple fact is, the token isn’t necessary.”

During the waning days of the sale, Mr. Iles said he did not feel chastened. He remained bullish about Civil’s future. He said that he felt the token sale had been a misstep, because the organization had set an arbitrary value on the token. Most importantly, he said, the company had failed to explain itself clearly.



Source link Nytimes.com

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