The sustainable journalism dilemma

At the dawn of the internet, when it was uncertain where the world was headed, newspapers testing out the new online ecosystem made a grave error: they decided to give away journalism here for free. How could they have known that less than 10 years later, the repercussions of this decision would threaten to destabilise their whole business model?

For a while, publications could offset falling print sales with online advertising revenue. However, with the smaller sums paid for digital ads, combined with platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat biting an ever larger chunk out of this revenue, it’s become clear in the last few years that publications are struggling. With even digital-first purveyors of ‘clickworthy’ millennial-targeted content, Buzzfeed and Vice, struggling to make the programmatic ad-model profitable, what hope is there for the rest?  

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And even for the publications who can make this model work, there is the question of how it impacts on the quality of the content produced. Because this model is also inherently harmful to the standards of online journalism, optimised as it is, for driving clicks at all costs.

It’s this model that has encouraged the rise of clickbait, the packaging of information into the most easily-consumable, rage inducing sugar cubes, and the very-much-related spread of fake news.

But it's not through lack of interest that the business model for journalism is failing. People actually read more news than ever today, and national newspapers are enjoying soaring readerships from combined print and digital traffic.

Newspapers set a standard when they offered online news for free, establishing in people’s minds access to high-quality journalism as an incontrovertible right. However, the tide is turning. The number of newspapers and online publications now pivoting to a subscription based model, shuttered by a partial or full paywall, is growing. And this trend is slowly shifting people’s perceptions, reframing journalism as something we sometimes have to pay for.

And for some publications, this has proved a success. Take the New York Times, which has managed to amass over two million paying readers, amounting to a revenue stream worth $340 million, with another 400,000 subscribing for access to the crossword and cooking apps alone.

But although successful for some publications, the paywall model is not without issue. It attracts the most devoted readers, and may be a sustainable model for long-established and globally renowned publications such as the Times, but it’s not an accessible model for younger, lesser-known or more niche publications, which will struggle to accrue the critical mass of readers necessary to make this model viable. It also decreases access to quality journalism for people who are unable or unwilling to pay.

What about a donation based approach? Wikipedia is a successful test case, making $16 million in profit in 2016 from user payments alone. The Guardian has also more recently adopted this approach - featuring a call for supporters of quality journalism on many of its articles - and is now making more from readers directly paying the publication than it does from advertising. A combination of increasing subscriber numbers, those signing up to the membership scheme, and 300,000 readers making one-off payments means the paper has managed to accumulate a record number of paying supporters.

Other ideas for sustainable journalism abound. For example, Blendle, a European company, offers access to a variety of publications via a single platform, and encourages users to make micropayments on a per article basis. So far, however, no single idea has been hailed as a silver bullet. 

Civil: A decentralised media platform

“I would read things, whether it was iPad magazines or Facebook instant articles or video, there were always these - every six months it seemed - a pivot that was supposed to save journalism or be the new business model for journalism. I felt increasingly like these were not, frankly, radical enough. They certainly didn't seem deep enough. They seemed like shallow tactics that weren't really scratching the surface of what I saw as the root issues,” says Matt Iles, CEO and co-founder of Civil, a new decentralised, blockchain based platform that aims to address the challenge of how to power sustainable journalism in the digital world.

The Civil ecosystem will host various ‘newsrooms’ on the platform. These currently include Documented, an investigative news site examining stories from immigrants in the US; Zig Zag, a podcast discussing female entrepreneurship and technology and another examining the corruption of American politics, Sludge. Staff from the recently defunct Denver Post have decided to set up shop there too.

The platform's main differentiator to those that have gone before is that there is no central body governing or mediating it, meaning this task instead falls to those involved in the ecosystem: journalists and engaged citizens. To achieve this, the blockchain platform will be powered by the CVL token, a form of cryptocurrency exchangeable for regular cash. 

The ecosystem will employ a ‘proof-of-stake’ model, whereby actors in the newsroom must be willing to ‘stake’ tokens (i.e. cash) to challenge any ‘bad actors’. Twitter and Facebook have been relatively ineffectual at monitoring and removing ‘bad actors’ (i.e. posters of offensive content). Could a decentralised, community-run model do a better job?

This isn’t an entirely radical idea, given that discussion forums exist where comments can be ‘downvoted’. Although, which comments are moderated depends on what the community standards are. For example, on a fiercely misogynistic site, sexist comments will be tolerated, while being considered offensive in a different forum. In the case of Civil, these standards are explicitly stated in the ‘constitution’, which newsrooms looking to set up on the platform must agree to beforehand. 

“So, it's the token itself that actually allows this to be literally decentralised platform," says Iles. "There's no back door that allows my company to overrule any kind of vote. It's not just advice about what we should do. The token is an automated piece of software that says 'if 51% of the community says X, then X is what happens'. And that's how we're allowing this to be something that's actually owned and operated by the people who are using it and not just be in the hands of some central corporation.”

Cryptoeconomics drives engagement

Like other blockchain-based, tokenized sites, the platform incorporates elements of game theory to motivate the participation of readers.

“The idea is you're trying to design an economy of multiple disparate parties to behave selfishly, but that the aggregate of those behaviours adds up to the kind of outcome that you're looking for,” says Iles, explaining that to ensure they take an ethical approach, newsrooms must stake tokens against the integrity of their journalism.

"But hey, we also want people out there who are not publishers, but who are committed to the cause of ethical journalism, to be economically motivated to help us make sure that those publishers are abiding by the rules.”

The launch of CVL token sale will take place on the 13 August and run until 27 August or until a cap of $32 million is reached. What would buying CVL tokens offer you? For one, they’ll buy you a say in what happens on the platform (with each token being equivalent to one ‘vote’), as well as providing a stake in the growth of the platform, not unlike a stock.

“If CVL token holders are creating positive, valuable network signals for the rest of the participants in the network, it's going to increase the value of that network for everyone involved, and that's going to lead to increases in value of the CVL tokens that the participants are in possession of,” says Iles. 

Thus, if the Civil platform became successful, the price of the CVL tokens would increase and theoretically you’d be able to sell them at an inflated price. 

The platform's founders directly challenge the ad-supported model adopted by much of today’s online journalism. “We believe that programmatic advertising as currently defined by Google and Facebook, is one of the most significant reasons why journalism is in crisis, as well as why users are increasingly frustrated at minimum, if not terrified at maximum, by the fact that their personal data is being harvested, packaged and resold to god knows who, all the time, and to no benefit to themselves,” says Iles.

The question of funding remains

The ideas behind Civil may seem radical, but it’s important to note that merely being on the platform does not provide a means of revenue to newsrooms. Although the Civil platform doesn’t take any commission from reader-publication interactions, it doesn’t expressly solve the question of how newsrooms will find sustainable funding models either. Newsrooms do not gain profit from the platform, beyond a portion of CVL tokens pledged to the already participating newsrooms on the site, who signed up to a contract allotting them some ‘real’ fiat cash and some CVL tokens.

Instead, newsrooms take charge of their own funding - they're free to adopt a donation-based or subscription based model. While programmatic advertising is discouraged, Iles says allowances will be made in special circumstances, for example, podcasts that can benefit from the support of brands whose mission is in alignment with their own.

The rest of the funds raised in the token sale have not been explicitly earmarked by Civil yet, but according to co-founder, Matt Coolidge, a transparent breakdown will be published in the coming weeks. In any case, the funds will be directed to the Civil Media Company, where they will then be shared between the Civil Foundation, the body tasked with working on the evolution of the Civil constitution; the Civil Lab, the developer-based entity that will focus on building reader engagement and curating apps and services on the Civil platform; and Civil Studios, a for-profit accelerator for blockchain-based media projects.

The ‘for-profit’ elements of the ecosystem - beyond using funds raised by the token sale - will seek revenue through creating apps and services on top of the Civil protocol and partnering with third party apps and services that wish to set up on the protocol.

So what purpose does the platform serve? Naturally, the media entities currently supported on the platform will benefit from publicity generated by Civil (not least because of that buzz-word, ‘blockchain’, associated with the project).

Beyond that, the newsrooms will benefit from the engaged community of supporters (hopefully) created by Civil, which will presumably encourage more donations towards their work. However, it does seem unfortunate that most of the value created by the site will not be directly funnelled towards the journalists and newsrooms themselves. 

It's still early days of course, but one can imagine the future benefit to the various ‘newsrooms’ of appearing in a polished feed in a dedicated ‘Civil’ app. As it becomes easier to convert fiat money into cryptocurrencies, readers of Civil publications could more easily make micropayments to their favourite article, or - even better - sign up to a weekly or monthly donation scheme for their favourite newsrooms.

But how to solve the problem of discovery? Perhaps a segment of the subscription fee paid to a particular site on the platform could go directly to the publication, but another share could be divided between all of the publications, allowing smaller, newer or more niche publications the opportunity to make money on the platform too, without the need to immediately attract a large readership. This distribution of funds could be enacted through smart contracts layered on top of the Civil protocol.  

In its early stages, Civil offers an exciting proposition for those committed to quality and open journalism. Maybe, in time, the organisation can apply itself more fully to the question of sustainable funding for journalism too.