Civil, a blockchain-based journalism startup, promises a comprehensive solution to create a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism” by directly supporting content creators, fighting “fake news,” and removing advertising from the news experience. While Civil’s goal –– to flip the current journalism model on its head –– is ambitious, the team has already recruited a network of newsrooms and has secured $5 million from ConsenSys to build their product.
The State of Online News in 2018
It’s hard to verify the trustworthiness of online news in 2018. From fake news spread through social media networks such as Twitter to “deepfake” videos of President Obama circulating on YouTube, consumers must be ever vigilant when they’re looking to catch up on recent events.
And the migration of news online is accelerating, especially among younger generations. According to the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media, as of early 2016, only 20 percent of U.S. adults and only 5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported that they accessed news via a print medium.
As businesses, online publications generally rely on advertisement-first models, so that they can serve consumers free news in exchange for the consumers’ eyeballs on targeted ads or sponsored messages. To maximize profit, it is in the online publications’ best interest to serve as many ads as possible. This profit maximization may interfere with a user’s news-browsing experience and the impartiality of a newsroom.
With its decentralized, blockchain-based protocol, Civil hopes to address the issues of fake news and advertisement-driven newsrooms by creating an ad-free economy in which journalists publish directly to readers.
In an interview with Bitcoin Magazine, Civil co-founder and CEO Matthew Iles described the platform as a “new economy underpinned by a mission-aligned, self-governance mechanism” that is designed to “behavioral-economically incentivize everyone to support journalism more effectively than current models.”
To ensure a successful ecosystem, Civil utilizes a nonprofit organization to guide development and key milestones, a constitution outlining responsible journalism, and a crowdsourced “whitelist” of credible publishers.
In the Civil economy, most transactions take place using CVL tokens. Publishers earn CVL tokens for their posts, readers pay for access with CVL tokens, and publishers must stake CVL tokens to request entry to the Civil Registry, the platform’s “whitelist” of credible sources.
It is important to note that publishers and readers can also transact in fiat currency if they prefer.
The Civil Registry
Utilizing the mechanics of a token-curated registry, the Civil Registry “whitelist” helps vet the quality of content creators and protects the integrity of the platform.
Token-curated registries allow people to stake tokens for or against an item that is proposed to be added to a decentralized list. In this way, these lists are maintained through economic incentives and the Wisdom of the Crowds principle –– the idea that large groups of people are collectively smarter than individuals.
The Civil Registry is a list that includes credible journalists if they are approved by the community. For example, if a user seeks to add a newsroom to the Civil Registry, he or she has to stake CVL tokens. Similarly, users seeking to challenge a newsroom’s standing in the Civil Registry must stake CVL tokens as well. If a user’s request to accept or deny a new newsroom to the Civil Registry is approved, he or she will keep the staked CVL tokens; however, if the request is denied, the user will lose his or her CVL tokens.
By inciting community curation, the Civil Registry could increase reader trust and help determine when “fake news” sources are unreliable.
Since raising $5 million from ConsenSys, Civil has deployed $1 million in grants to entice around 100 journalists and 15 organizations to publish on its platform and has contributed £450,000 to European Journalism Center grants for emerging media organizations.
Civil has utilized grants to bootstrap a wide variety of newsrooms such as The Colorado Sun, a local, investigative outlet; Cannabis Wire, a publication covering the billion-dollar cannabis industry; and ZigZag, a podcast that features “come-to-Jesus moments and mini-stories about entrepreneurship.”
Speaking with Bitcoin Magazine, Manoush Zomorodi, co-founder of the ZigZag Podcast alongside Jen Poyant, explained the duo’s inspiration to work with Civil, “We were both so intrigued by the idea of radically rethinking typical business models for journalism. As someone who has covered the tech industry, I was also motivated by the opportunity to be part of a potential solution to the problem.”
ZigZag wrapped up Season One of their podcast on Thursday. According to Zomorodi, since their June 2018 release, they’re close to a million downloads across 11 episodes. The team plans to cover the CLV token sale in September and release Season Two in October. As the Civil platform continues to grow, newsrooms like ZigZag will be interesting to track as case studies for this next-generation journalism model.
Growing the Civil Platform
Iles cites journalistic independence, full business model control, improved licensing and syndication, organic audience development, permanent archiving, and a network of journalism technology partners among the incentives for journalists to join the Civil platform.
While these perks and Civil’s mission to create a new model for news are potentially valuable for journalists and readers, there are many “what ifs” involved with this startup-style venture and its long-term viability.
According to Iles, Civil’s greatest challenges so far have been consumer education and product design.
“Not only are these concepts completely foreign to most people, but even when we achieve the ‘lightbulb moment’ with someone new to Civil as to why decentralization and blockchain could unlock a better way forward for the industry, they then have to step through so many complicated, confusing and daunting steps in order to even participate in this new economy for journalism.”
To achieve long-term viability, the Civil platform must lure readers of traditional “free” news sources to the Civil platform and convince them that directly paying content creators for articles is the next-generation news model. The platform will also have to invest in consistent, quality content; incentivize talented writers on traditional advertising-enabled newsrooms to convert to Civil newsrooms; and help new newsrooms market against publishing giants with larger budgets.
It’s also not clear that these advertising-free business models are sustainable. For example, Medium.com, a prominent ad-free news platform, boasts over 60 million monthly visitors. Yet, the company laid off a third of its staff in 2017 as the site struggled to grow profits and began searching for a new business model.
While the future of the journalism business model is unclear, Zomorodi echoes the Civil ethos:
“The key is removing the dependency on clicks and ad dollars and finding more sustainable ways of getting people to support the journalism they find integral to their lives. I don't know that the tech is ready for long-term viability but that's what [ZigZag] is documenting: the doubt, the optimism, and a new kind of relationship between techies and hacks.”
To continue scaling the platform and funding content creation, Civil will be selling CVL tokens in an ICO.