Understanding Civil’s blockchain fix for the news: An explainer


New media company Civil plans to create a credible network of online news in part through blockchain technology. Image: Freethink

It is a well-documented fact that the news industry is imploding. There are more local news deserts now than ever before, as neighborhood and city publications wither from a lack of ad dollars and reader support. With the closing of DNAInfo and the gutting of The Daily News we are inching closer to living in one ourselves. Behemoths like Facebook eat up all the ad revenue and make it easy for anyone to spread false news. Our own president has declared open war on journalists, who now need security guards to cover his rallies. He sows distrust of real reporting by calling all unflattering news “fake” and he also just…lies. And then there are all the free tools like WordPress and YouTube that make it easy to for anyone to publish a “story” and call it “news.”

A new media company based in Brooklyn would like us to get off this crazy train, and chart a new course for a fair and free press. Called Civil, it bills itself as a “decentralized marketplace for journalism” – a bit of a cold, unsexy tagline if you ask me. But what they are attempting to do is actually quite complicated and ambitious: become the first dependable network for news powered by the same kind of technology that bitcoin and other digital currencies use: blockchain.

You could ignore that fact for now—and in fact, Civil’s founders, and the writers, podcasters and publishers on their platform don’t need you to totally understand blockchain to appreciate Civil’s gist. The network, which independent, ethical news organizations are invited to or join by applying, gives its members a discoverable, secure platform to share real news that readers can easily pay for through subscription and tipping schemes.

This summer many of the independent sites that Civil invited to its platform went live. Members of this so-called “First Fleet” were chosen because of their unique take on often under-reported subjects, and given a little bit of runway in the form of a grant. Block Club Chicago is made up of former DNAInfo Chicago reporters and delivers the same kind of local news. Documented covers the immigrant experience and policies in New York City. Sludge investigates money in politics. Popula covers culture and news in a way that’s reminiscent of The Awl, skipping seamlessly from an essay on the magnets in your iPhone to an interview with Anthony Bourdain, published posthumously. More sites, like a Colorado news site with former editors and writers from The Denver Post and Hmm Daily, from former Gawker and Deadspin editor Tom Scocca, are in the pipeline.

Popula editor Maria Bustillos hired comics artists to design the site. She was inspired by the culture of zines. “It’s just exciting, fun and at the same time principled, egalitarian and truthful, very much in line with the values and ideas I’m bringing forward at Popula.”

On the surface, you might perceive Civil as a media network not unlike what Gawker used to be, with a suite of sites you could hop to and from. If you read The Washington Post’s take on Popula’s Bourdain interview, for instance, you can find, at the end of the Popula story, links to other sites on the Civil network. You could visit each one and never know blockchain was involved.

Behind the scenes, though, blockchain will give Civil’s partner sites unparalleled control over their content.

The beginning of a helpful Ethereum infographic designed by a Bitcoin cloud mining company. See it in its entirety here.

What is blockchain exactly?

The yawning gap between the promise of this technology in our lives—it could trace an E. Coli outbreak in two seconds! — and our bare understanding of it reminds me of the way we used to wrap our heads around the “Information Superhighway.” Remember that ancient term to describe the Internet? Would you ever use it now, without sarcasm? More to the point—could you accurately describe the Internet today without looking up a definition on Wikipedia? I would bet not, because you don’t need to. It’s just another technology we use so often we don’t even think about it.

A lot of people believe blockchain technology will become that commonplace. So you don’t have to get too mired in its details, because you will one day barely think about it, just like you never, ever wonder what wifi is. You could just accept this one-line description, my new favorite: “Blockchain is a kind of tamper-proof database for keeping track of just about anything,” and move on.

Civil’s useful visual to convey that you don’t have to go too deep into the technology to appreciate and support its newsrooms.

If you want to delve deeper, and Civil is a great excuse to finally get this tech, I think blockchain is easiest to understand as a secure, virtual ledger that is stored not in one single location (or controlled by one single entity like Amazon) but across thousands of independently owned computers. This decentralized, peer-to-peer database records such and such happened at such and such time (all the time!). You can’t pull the plug on it. It is nearly impossible to delete something from its records—like a published story— though it could be amended with an update or a correction. It’s immutable, it’s controlled by everyone on it and not one tech titan, and there is not just one blockchain. There is the Ethereum blockchain, a much more adaptable blockchain than the Bitcoin blockchain, and you can build “apps” on top of it like Civil.

How blockchain + Civil makes journalism overlord-proof

By using this technology, stories and sites cannot be deleted willy nilly–as we just learned that Jared Kushner repeatedly did at the Observer, or as Joe Ricketts did when he (temporarily) took the Gothamist and DNAInfo archives offline, or as Gothamist’s own publishers did when they scrubbed their site of negative stories about Ricketts before he acquired them. So long as a publication is saving, or “indexing” its posts to the Ethereum blockchain, it would be permanent and recoverable. Corrections, redactions and updates would all be part of this permanent ledger too, saved separately upon each addition to the original record. Like a palimpsest for the digital age.

Civil’s most promising features, as Civil Founder Matthew Iles explained, is the ability “to permanently record the authorship provenance and publish the text of an article directly to the blockchain.” The customized version of WordPress its publishers use includes the button above.

Civil offers the sites in its network an easy on-ramp to blockchain (just to give that highway analogy another spin). Were Civil to disappear, the archives of its sites would remain on the Ethereum mainnet — the real live, functioning record of this concept. (It’s worth noting now that none of this magical backup has happened yet. That requires another conceptual leap I’m saving for the end.)

Other than this nifty storage feature, and the well-considered curation that Civil confers, the First Fleet sites do not need Civil to exist. They all live, or will live independently on the web, with their own domains and hosts. So there is no fear of ever facing a scenario like the Medium fiasco. That publishing platform, developed by Twitter founder Ev Williams, invited sites like The Awl and Electric Literature to host their content on its beautifully designed network, only to boot them off and force them to find new digital homes when Medium abruptly decided to pivot. While staring down the barrel of an expensive redesign last winter, I considered moving Brooklyn Based to Medium— it was free at the time to do— and feel fortunate we never bit that apple.

You can see the trend emerging here: It’s not easy to be a journalist or independent publisher in a world where tech giants and billionaire overlords—the middle men of the media—control the distribution of news. We are like the Tuaregs of the news desert, and blockchain technology + Civil = the glittering promise of a permanent home.

There is one magic bullet that blockchain and Civil do not provide, though.

Who is going to pay for all this news?

Civil has $5 million in funding from ConsenSys, a group of Ethereum developers led by a co-founder of Ethereum. It’s not taking a cut from its newsrooms. Civil’s founder Matthew Iles, who has a Journalism degree from Duke and once consulted for ConsenSys, pursued this technology precisely because it took out the middle man. “I thought, here’s a totally new way of organizing people in the service of a mission, where the value can be captured by the people instead of by some third-party corporation,” he told Columbia Journalism Review.

Civil envisions its profits will come from an “app store” for tools to use on the Civil platform, and programming that they will help produce. Becoming the Netflix of journalism is an analogy its founders have made, a heavy mental lift considering Netflix’s $8 billion budget for content, much of which is not based in fact. Even the thriving New York Times (as opposed to the failing one in Trump’s mind), relies not just upon ads and subscribers, but also events and a wine club and The Wirecutter’s affiliate links to fund its reporting.

But Civil itself isn’t in the news gathering business. Its newsrooms are. After the First Fleet exhausts the $1 million in funding that Civil divvied up among them, the sites are on their own financially.

All of these publications can run ads if they want. “If our overarching goal is to support sustainable journalism throughout the world,” Civil co-founder Matt Coolidge explained by email, “we’d be silly to completely cut off a significant potential revenue source.”

But the hope is that its publications do not have to lean on ads exclusively or at all. This basic business model of online news, in which more traffic equals more eyes on ads equals more money, can erode trust (think of clickbait). It has also led to a deeply flawed calculation: local news = less traffic = less money = less local news = a real threat to democracy. Only now are we discovering the true costs involved, beyond unemployed journos, when local news disappears. Local papers have been shown to boost voter turnout, control corruption, even help epidemiologists trace the roots of a disease outbreak. Their death spelled the rise of our current media bubble.

There is no immediate fix in sight, because ad dollars aren’t as easy to come by even for national outlets. Newspapers first experienced the bottom fall out, with the advent of Craigslist and online publishing in general. Then Google and Facebook yanked the advertising spigot over to their platforms, ad blockers became a thing, and online pubs suffered, too. Now news sites are passing the buck, putting up paywalls or reminders at the end of articles that, actually, news costs a lot of time, money and work to gather, and “we could really use your support.” If readers are slow to pick up the tab, who can blame them? For so long, news seemed free, or at least extraordinarily cheap.

It’s no wonder then, that readers are rarely the sole source of a publication or a network’s revenue. But Civil is making it supremely easy for its sites to earn money directly from their audiences. Right now a plug-in powers the subscription forms that are woven into nearly every site on the network. You don’t need cryptocurrency to pay–you are asked to use a credit card (for now). But down the road, Civil will enable its newsrooms to accept “microtips” using cryptocurrencies. When you do pay using Bitcoin (BTC) or Ethereum (ETH), the beauty is that no bank or third party takes a cut–thanks to the middleman-free blockchain–and the writer or editor on the other end gets the full amount. Right now, Popula offers the ability to donate to its site using crypto, and its editor, Maria Bustillos, imagines a gleeful future where writers can continue to earn money on stories many years past the original date of publication.’

Civil is also a game that you play with tokens

If you are still reading this, you are a real media nerd. So you might be interested to know that you can take part in Civil, too, whether you would like a say in how Civil is run or would like to join this network.

The hoops are considerable. First you’ll need to acquire some cryptocurrency (ETH), and register to trade in your ETH for the “money” unique to the Civil ecosystem — CVL tokens. It’s these tokens that, once distributed, will set into motion all of Civil’s ambitious promises, like indexing a site’s stories to blockchain.

To register for CVL tokens, you’ll need to verify you are who you say you are and take a quiz (no really, there will be a quiz!) proving you know how cryptocurrency works. You also need to abide by Civil’s Constitution and truly participate in this network of ethical newsrooms and not act as a troll or a speculator. Once you are greenlighted, you can take part in this totally new, incentivized, blockchain-powered journalism.

Civil’s token sale begins September 18, a date that was pushed back from its original launch on August 14 so that ordinary people who had never seriously considered buying cryptocurrency can come back from vacation and take some time to acquire some. They are even hosting daily webinars to explain how it all works. (“It’s like the Genius Bar for blockchain!” Civil Founder Matthew Iles joked.) It will not be prohibitively priced—it will take around $1,000 to do key things like start a newsroom—but Civil contains enough restrictions, checks and balances to weed out bad actors from mucking up this island.

Instead of a situation like YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and Apple kicking Infowars off their platforms, for instance, an Alex Jones-like figure who conflates conspiracy theories with the truth would probably not be admitted to the Civil platform in the first place. He could not barge his way on by opening a free “account” — he would have to first prove his commitment to uphold the rules laid out by the Civil Constitution and jump through those aforementioned hoops. And even if he somehow hoodwinked the other members of Civil, acquired tokens and ponied up the roughly $1000 needed to start a publication and then began peddling in conspiracy theories, he could be challenged by another Civil member who puts up a stake equal to his. Should the majority decide in favor of truth-based journalism, the “Newtown was a hoax” theorist would lose his tokens to the challenger and the community as a result. If the challenger didn’t find a majority to back her, she would lose her tokens, which would also be distributed back to the CVL ecosystem. I am simplifying of course, and there are many more schemes where you can earn or lose tokens. But essentially, it’s like being voted on or off the island in the most high-stakes world of Wikipedia imaginable.

If this sounds like a slippery slope toward censorship, it’s not like the Internet has run out of room to publish whatever one considers to be the news. To counter its risk of becoming an echo chamber, however, Civil is actively trying to cast a wide net for participants. Co-founder Matt Coolidge explains they are “deliberately looking to add a mix of liberal- and conservative-minded voices to the network, both via newsrooms and general participants (eg, CVL token holders).” They are also purposefully creating a Civil Council, roughly 15 academics, journalists, and free speech experts, to reflect a mix of viewpoints. “Their role, like a Supreme Court, is to interpret the law of the land — in our case, the Civil Constitution,” Coolidge continued. “We want to ensure that everybody there is committed to promoting ethical journalism on Civil above all—and that we can credibly demonstrate a balance of left- and right-leaning voices within that spectrum.”

Civil is also, simply, a seal of approval

Civil’s solution for the broken news is a pretty onerous one. But its general audience doesn’t have to concern itself with blockchain webinars or tokens. It can just read and maybe even support the news it offers.

Perhaps it’s easiest to think of Civil as a mark of credibility— just as you trust The New York Times (or don’t) or Fox News (or don’t). “Conceivably, publications that are not on the people-powered Civil platform will face a credibility barrier when compared with those that have been crowd-vetted and approved by a large, committed community of skeptical CVL holders,” posited Popula’s Maria Bustillos. It may be a stretch to imagine that future, but who could have imagined this present, when you need a qualifier before the word news to convey whether you can trust it or not.

Further reading:

Manoush Zomorodi, the former Note to Self podcast host, now has a podcast called ZigZag on Civil that is documenting her foray onto the platform with former WNYC producer Jen Poyant. They devote an entire episode to blockchain’s description, complete with a catchy jingle, “Bitcoin is blockchain’s baby.”

This explainer, “A Non-Blockchainy Person Explains Civil,” is also helpful, as is this deep dive into Ethereum.

For a real exploration of Civil’s constitution and council, read this Columbia Journalism Review primer. This is also a useful infographic about Ethereum.

Did you find this article useful? Consider donating to Brooklyn Based. Reader-supported news is the future, after all. 

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