Civil, the decentralized platform that aims to make journalism independent and sustainable, announced last September 18 the public sale of its CVL token. As a reminder, as recently as a few months ago, journalists from The Denver Post created the first very newsroom, The Colorado Sun, which served as an incentive for several independent journalists to follow suit. In a context which increasingly forces the media to claim their relevance and innovate to have their voices heard, how can the dialogue between journalists and readers contribute to the funding of quality content?
It is during the Plateforme(s) conference day organized by Infopresse that we attended a presentation given by Matt Coolidge, Civil Media’s cofounder and head of marketing. In fact, Civil is an economic platform intended foremost to propose a funding model that enables journalists to focus entirely on their content and commitment to their readers. It’s a question of connecting journalists and readers, but the offer is based on a decentralized market without any centralized body of power and uses a model based on the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
Structure and intermediaries at the heart of the issue?
It is clear that, more and more, the digital era presents new challenges and opportunities which force the major players to put into question their business model. This situation, which presupposes that a large proportion of traditional news media are sailing on troubled waters, is in part related to the relationship of trust that is on a descending slope with both Canadian and global audiences. That is what explains the need to present readers with a new level of transparency.
However, beyond this world’s Cambridge Analyticas, robots and fake news, how does this institution’s financing model intervene directly in this issue? What explains why a “media crisis” remains present in the background in the current landscape?
On the one hand, Coolidge looks back on the fundamentals of the major media groups’ business model, which has nothing to do with the last decade’s technological advances. In his opinion, the problem here is foremost one involving the ownership structure which is based on an initially capitalistic vision: “The issue in most cases is that there is no true incentive to reinvest the profits generated into quality journalism. Often, capital is injected into other parts of the portfolio or to fund other priorities. The current advertising-based financing model also contributes to making this system’s actors—meaning medias and advertising agencies—dependent on means of dissemination that often place an exaggerated emphasis on clickbait rather than on quality in the optic of increasing the scope and number of views to monetize the product within a 100% free model for consumers.”
On the other hand, the question of the intermediaries is just as important to adequately set the context. When it comes to content distribution, web giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have their word to say and cash in most of the profits. “If you’re a journalist, you want your work to be discovered and you therefore necessarily pass through at least one of these platforms. The problem is that the rules are dictated by a very small group of individuals,” adds Coolidge.
In an open letter, Vivian Schiller, a former senior executive of the New York Times and CNN, raises some questions: “Knowing what we know now, what might we do differently? Knowing what could go wrong, how might we have thought about governance, integrity of information, identity and legitimacy?”
Turning the power back over to the journalists, yes, but how?
Civil Media has the objective of recruiting a community to operate this very ambitious platform. Indeed, its cofounder explains it in the following terms: “Civil is a platform that is held directly by the journalists themselves and those who support them. A network of independent ‘newsrooms’—of which there are at least 14 at the current time—may publish on Civil. The process will be opened to the general public in a few weeks from now, after which anyone will be able to start up a newsroom.”
Firstly, to be eligible to access the platform, each organization (for example, The Colorado Sun) must accept Civil Media’s constitution, which is a declaration of values and an ethical code of conduct in journalism. “If anyone in the community has reason to believe that you are in violation of this constitution, whether because of plagiarism or misinformation, that person may speak out and have your authorization to publish revoked,” adds the cofounder.
The publication protocol implemented by Civil Media can be summarized as follows:
Civil: Publishing Protocol for Journalism
At the same time, contrary to other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, in a few weeks from now, the start-up will no longer be held by its current directors but will become the property of the public following the implementation of a decentralized network of tokens. Profits generated by the sale of these tokens will benefit the Civil Foundation, whose primary mission is to fund ethics in journalism throughout the world.
What is the use of these tokens?
Available for purchase by the public since September 18, tokens give their owners voting shares on the Civil platform. In turn, these voting shares make it possible to determine what can be published on the platform and thereby entrust readers with a responsibility regarding the publication of content. An economic incentive is embedded in the technology.
Consequently, it is impossible to create content without the participation of the audience, which plays an essential role. Also, power is granted to the journalists, who become “owners” of what is published, i.e., of the platform’s newsroom.
Moreover, readers can use their tokens to, for example, raise an objection if a news organization that does not meet the requirements laid out in the constitution seeks to join the platform. All final decisions with respect to ethical matters are made by the Civil Foundation’s court of appeal on which sit journalists, academics and legal scholars.
In other words, the blockchain enables Civil to decentralize the power on which constitutes ethical journalism by giving a voice of the token owners (i.e., readers) instead of the giants of Silicon Valley.