There will be plenty of hot takes in the coming weeks about Civil, the blockchain start-up that intends to reinvent journalism. The company’s announcement yesterday that its Initial Coin Offering came up well short of their soft-cap minimum won’t help either. In the lead-up to their October 15th deadline, several articles already weighed in on what went wrong, citing the convoluted purchase process, a muddled marketing message, or Civil’s overly utopian vision of journalism. My takeaway, more than anything, is that the idea needs more time to percolate and more Civil newsrooms need to become essential parts of our media diets. Even if the process were streamlined and the marketing was clear as a bell, Civil is still selling an idea of what journalism can be, and unfortunately, that’s not something enough folks are going to buy.
Stepping back for a moment: What is Civil? For those who aren’t blockchain or news industry insiders, Civil launched early this year on the promise of making journalism sustainable by — stay with me here — creating a cryptocurrency-backed marketplace for journalists. Basically, they envision devoted readers funding essential journalism through the purchase of Civil tokens. It aims to create both a platform and a micro-economy where independent and in-depth reportage can thrive. Civil wants to give readers and writers a shared stake in the ecosystem, and as a result, fix many of the underlying problems with journalism today. (Consensys, through its Etherium-backed investment arm, has provided much of the capital for Civil, championing the start-up’s vision of decentralization.)
Full disclosure: I worked with Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant earlier this year in setting up their company, Stable Genius Productions, which is one of the newsrooms on the Civil platform. In the process, I had a handful of meetings with Civil folks. Further disclosure: they’re really smart, well-intentioned media veterans who are truly dedicated to their mission.
The premise of the Civil mission? Journalism is broken and needs to be reinvented. Most everyone would agree, but what exactly does that mean? As we’ve seen newspapers’ business model shrink (more on that below), the mission and resolve of the fourth estate has dwindled too. Local news coverage is disappearing rapidly. And so is tough, investigatory reporting; stories largely lean on optics, personalities, and polling. (“We spoke to 8 Trump supporters and put together a trend piece,” “Politician Q shows disappointment in reaction to tweet from the President,” “Poll numbers portend a deep divide between X and Y.”) At the same time, advertising and click-bait tactics have skewed the priorities of news outlets. Legal threats, which loom larger in the wake of Gawker’s downfall, force news businesses to take cautious stances on important and divisive stories. How many #MeToo stories were mothballed under the threat of litigation before the Harvey Weinstein story broke?
The dearth of serious, hard-nosed journalism plays directly into the narrative of fake news and conspiracy theories, which require the thinnest of premises to spin out stories. Unnamed sources, punditry as “news analysis,” and poll-driven horse races not only undermine newspapers’ credibility, but they frame journalism as a meta-exercise of simply observing politics. (And anyone with a Wordpress site can do that, as I can well attest to.)
What I don’t think is killing print journalism, despite how often it is cited, is partisanship. The charges of partisanship are louder than ever, but newspapers have always exhibited bias. The veil of impartiality is a marketing facade put on to assuage advertisers and maximize readership. And frankly, I don’t want impartiality. I want reporters to oppose and mistrust and rankle authority figures. That’s their job.
And this is where Civil seems to have put a lot of its focus. They talk a lot about “ethical journalism,” designing the platform where the collective sentiment (and ownership stake) of the Civil community will flag misleading reporting, and potentially vote to exclude a newsroom, if necessary. I feel like that’s all a bit of a red herring. At this point, the journalists who join Civil are doing it with pretty high-minded intentions. It will be a while before the tin-foil-hatted hucksters show up there.
So how else can a cryptocurrency-backed platform solve the problems that journalism faces?
Well, lot of that has to do with why print journalism is in decline to begin with. It’s a similar story to what has been happening across media. Niche cable channels subsisted because they could be bundled in with broader, mainstream offerings. Oddball b-side tracks made it on to albums that led with big pop chart hits. And expensive and resource-heavy investigative reporting was supported by a broad offering — which included non-news mainstays such as comics, TV listings, advice columns, and classified ads.
Digital distribution broke up these bundles, skimming off major revenue drivers in the process. Each back-section of the paper got subsumed by hundreds of specialty sites and blogs; classifieds were aggregated on Craigslist; local movie times were made searchable on Google; service journalism was taken up by armchair experts on message boards and hobbyists on Pinterest sites. The serious work of reporters was all that remained, but without a business model to support it.
In that way, what Civil is trying to do makes so much sense. They reduce reliance on ads and ROI-based story decisions by funding reporters directly from the pockets of avid readers. And by bringing together dozens of newsrooms (scaling it up to hundreds, eventually), each with a specific beat, they build a network effect. Sludge is a Civil newsroom which investigates special interests and politics; Block Club Chicago reports on local neighborhood news; Splice covers media in Asia. The deep-rooted appeal of each subject to niche audiences — who support those journalists through the purchase of Civil tokens — is leveraged across all the Civil newsrooms via an internal currency. Ta-da: the bundle is restored. It’s an economic system that holds a lot of promise, although the economics for individual newsrooms remain unclear.
Civil is also investing astutely in tools that independent journalists will need — everything from publishing to legal support to business infrastructure. A faction of developers from Digg.com has landed at Civil Labs, where they’re building the toolset that powers the platform. If the Labs team can build a 21st century product that super-serves the needs of reporters and attracts a loyal audience, the failed token auction this week may end up a footnote in the Civil story. The success of decentralized journalism is as much a technical UX challenge as it is a financial one.
Civil made clear that the failure to reach their minimum in the ICO will not affect the day-to-day of the company. The 18 existing newsrooms will continue publishing as usual. Civil has also promised another coin offering, and assured everyone that the purchase process will be greatly simplified. I didn’t mind the length of process as much as the underlying feeling of dread as I uploaded my license, drew directly from my bank account, and navigated the Dark Web design motif of The Token Foundry site. It all requires a lot of faith in the security and best intentions of the multiple organizations connected to the purchase process.
My sense is that, once it has built a devoted audience, newsroom by newsroom, Civil will succeed in its future offering. They’re counting on readers — not speculators — to be the ones who will stake their faith, make the effort, and spend their money to power this reinvention of journalism. I don’t have this on authority, but I suspect that one of the top drivers of token purchasers was Manoush and Jen’s podcast “Zig Zag.” The show delved deeply into the blockchain, Civil’s coin offering, and the future of journalism. But those aren’t the reasons that their listeners jumped through all the hoops necessary to buy Civil tokens. They did it because they believed in Manoush and Jen’s mission and story — and they wanted to fund more episodes of their podcast. Multiply that passion across a few dozen newsrooms and a new economy for journalism just might emerge.