Journalism is Broken. Can Blockchain Help?By Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan
Fake news. The death of local papers. The rise of media conglomerates more interested in profitability than reporting.
In other words, it’s not the best time for journalism.
But for blockchain entrepreneurs, it’s an opportunity. Blockchain technology, which shares and verifies data through a peer-to-peer network of distributed computers, could be used to rethink content monetization and community engagement. And given the pressure the free press is under globally, the blockchain community’s mantra of decentralization and immutability could be a perfect fit for journalism.
"One of the issues we face in foreign correspondence is that independent Asian media is heavily under threat,” says Anrike Visser, the founder of Global Ground Media, an independent media company partnering with Civil, a blockchain-based platform for news publishers. Previously, Visser was a freelance reporter based in Asia.
Cambodia is the latest addition to the countries that have lost their independent media, she continues. “The blockchain is just an extra layer of security – it’s less easy to shut down compared to having the work live on one server. It’s like saying to the government: even if you take me on, my content is going to live on.”
Changing the business model
Political censorship is just one of many challenges journalists face today. In an era of social media and digital advertising, content monetization is a pressing issue for many newsrooms and media organizations. According to the annual survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors, 32,900 full-time journalists were employed in newsrooms across the country in 2015, down from 57,000 in 2007. Local newspapers in the US have been hit especially hard, with cuts and bankruptcies affecting publications from Alaska to Colorado to Utah, creating local “news deserts” which have no easy solution.
Blockchain startups, many with their own cryptocurrencies, could create new token-based business models for the media industry and reward publishers for quality content. Many, including Civil and Po.et, are trialling token-curated registries.
In this system, publishers have to invest money in the form of cryptocurrencies into the blockchain network, which is known as “staking.” Doing this lets a newsroom or media publication create its own website of sorts (sometimes called a marketplace), where it defines what kind of content is published. Marketplace topics can run the gamut: a place for curated puppy photos to reports on US politics.
Other users can deposit money into the newsroom’s staked publishing space, too, which gives them certain rights, like contributing content, or challenging published pieces that are plagiarized, inappropriate, or factually incorrect. The idea is that low quality content comes with tangible, financial consequences.
“Staking gives publishers validity,” says Jarrod Dicker, CEO of blockchain startup Po.et and the former chief of innovation at Washington Post, who argues that the skin in the game could up the quality of content.
Specifically, if content is successfully challenged by members of a publisher’s marketplace, the content is removed and the stake is divided up amongst those members who supported the challenge. The hope is that the possibility of losing both content and tokens will ensure relevance and originality.
In Po.et’s platform, timestamps of published articles are also recorded on the Bitcoin blockchain. Once content is uploaded to Po.et, it receives an “authentication badge” containing metadata such as the time of uploading and the creator, explains Dicker. He hopes that this authentication badge will serve to establish authorship, as the cryptography underlying blockchain technology makes it difficult to falsify or change information. While Po.et can’t stop other users copying content directly, it provides an accurate timestamp.
But timestamps alone do not a new journalism business model make. Po.et’s end goal is to connect content creators with publishers and offer a content licensing system that lets content producers choose whether to use existing models like Creative Commons or customized alternatives.
The Steemit Model
Other blockchain startups, like Steemit, are taking a more direct approach when it comes to content monetization. Launched in 2016, the Reddit-like blog platform tries to encourage user engagement by offering transferable Steem Dollars (the company’s own cryptocurrency) for activities like upvoting content and comments.
Nick Inoue, a reporter at the West Japan Daily for the past three years, has experimented with Steemit as a way to try “a new business model for journalism.” He believes that despite the high quality of freelancing in Japan, rates of pay are too low for many to support themselves. In the West Japan Daily’s trial with Steemit, the cash flow was insufficient for a newsroom, but enough for a freelancer to live off.
Steemit’s business model also seeks to improve reader interactions and a sense of community, another reason why Inoue wanted to try the platform. Comments by consumers can offer insight or act as second-line fact-checks – but in traditional journalism, there’s no incentive beyond the feel-good factor.
With Steemit and Steem Dollars, there’s a greater reward for readers to write good posts. “I believe that news organizations should form a community with readers,” says Inoue.
Steemit’s experience does, however, show that blockchain-powered journalism doesn’t directly translate into quality. Alt-right figures have a fairly successful presence there, as well as conspiracy theorists promoting concepts such as Pizzagate and QAnon. As Inoue admits, upvoting and downvoting on Steemit is “not based on quality, it’s based on a human network.”
Blockchain for the sake of blockchain?
Of course, blockchain for journalism has its skeptics. Vili Lehdonvirta, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, has worked extensively on the future of work and payment including blockchain solutions. “As often with blockchain projects,” he tells LongHash, “you don’t need blockchain for it.”
At the same time, he admits that the media industry is in dire need of a funding shake-up. Lehdonvirta points to the myriad of new efforts that have sprung up, from micropayments and tipping (like Reddit Gold) to monthly subscriptions and services like Patreon. While he supports the goals of projects like Po.et and Civil, Lehdonvirta remains unconvinced that the blockchain is the right business model.
He’s also not entirely won over by the argument for security either, citing the DAO hack in 2016, where a hacker stole US$55 million from a decentralized fund on the Ethereum blockchain. And while the blockchain ledger has clear advantages over traditional website when facing government censorship, Lehdonvirta says that he prefers a distributed database approach. Rather than using blockchain technology, Lehdonvirta suggests duplicating content on servers around the world to counter press censorship as a similarly secure alternative without limitations such as block size.
For both Civil and Po.et, it’s still the early days for their blockchain-based marketplaces. Civil hasn’t launched yet, but recently announced a partnership with the Associated Press. Po.et, which raised US$10 million in a token crowdsale last year, is still primarily working with cryptocurrency-related publishing partners. Dicker, who says he’s in talks with more established media, is aware that in order to offer a real alternative funding model, Po.et will have to win over the incumbents first.
Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan is a London-based writer.
This piece was last updated on September 19 at 7:38 pm.