What if you had to reinvent the media ecosystem from the ground up? Civil is trying

Imagine, for a moment, that the media ecosystem as we know it has ceased to exist. There are still journalists and readers, but all the traditional distribution methods and revenue streams are unavailable. How would you design a new ecosystem from scratch? How would you build a financially viable publishing platform that would also inherently support journalistic values?

This, in a nutshell, is what Civil founder Matthew Iles is trying to build: A global platform for independent journalism, powered by blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, governed by an open-source constitution—including an advisory council that will act as a kind of Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes—and run as a non-profit foundation. In addition, there’s a related for-profit company called Civil Media, which will sell services of various kinds to platform users and publishers.

Civil hasn’t launched its cryptocurrency yet, but the platform already hosts newsrooms like Popula, which is run by writer Maria Bustillos, and Block Club Chicago (a reboot of the Chicago version of the former DNA Info network) as well as a New York-based project called Documented that is tracking immigration issues. Each one has gotten seed funding from a $1-million pool provided by Civil. Civil itself is funded by a $5 million grant from ConsenSys, a developer working with the Ethereum blockchain.

It’s an ambitious goal, to not only launch a new blockchain platform, but also a crowdsourced constitution, a foundation and a council of expert advisers all at the same time. It’s a bit like creating a virtual country, complete with citizens who vote, an economy, a court system and a government—but the structure of this country is unlike anything that has come before it. As Vivian Schiller, the former NPR and Twitter executive who recently joined Civil to run its non-profit foundation, put it in a Medium piece about her new job:

“What if we had a time machine that could take us back 25 years, when news organizations were just starting to experiment with the World Wide Web? 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? How might we have thought about business models to support quality, and safeguards to protect us from bad actors?”

The genesis of Civil

The idea behind Civil resulted from the combination of two things, Iles says. One was a growing realization that the rosy future of technology-enabled journalism had become a wasteland of monopolistic platforms and declining ad revenues. And the second factor was a growing interest in blockchain technology. What if the latter could be used in some way to help with the former?

The journalism part came first, he says. His first post about what became Civil, in November of 2016, doesn’t mention blockchains or cryptocurrency at all, just the idea that there should be a form of social media platform that would serve journalism instead of the other way around.

“I’ve always cared deeply about journalism,” says Iles. “I felt we were witnessing the persistent decline of journalism as a sustainable industry. To me, the only way we could rectify this, since it started with a massive internet paradigm shift, was to come up with something radical and fundamental.”

The result of Iles’ brainstorming was the idea of an independent journalism platform built on the blockchain, the software that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. The technology behind cryptocurrencies is complex, but it involves high-powered computers doing mathematical equations in order to generate unique identifiers for each individual unit of currency, known as coins or tokens. A distributed ledger records the creation of every coin and every transaction it is involved in.

Civil plans to launch its own currency later this year in what is sometimes called an ICO or “initial coin offering.” This is the cryptocurrency version of a traditional IPO or initial public offering of shares, and something securities regulators are still trying to develop standards for. Everyone who owns tokens will become a member of the Civil community.

“Decentralization was a key tenet from inception,” says Iles, “but I didn’t know a way to literally allow people to own and operate Civil while also relinquishing the controls ourselves. Tokens are the first time something like this has been made possible. As soon as I first encountered the technology, I knew it would be the key to everything. It was truly a Eureka moment for me.”

Blockchain meets journalism

Iles says there are a couple of benefits to using the blockchain and cryptocurrency. One is the chance to create an economic basis for the journalism on the platform, in which newsrooms like Popula can be supported by members paying with Civil’s tokens but can also use those tokens to compensate writers (although that’s not a requirement). Another benefit is that the distributed ledger is open and transparent, and everyone who uses it has their own copy, making it very difficult to secretly tamper with.

Popula founder Bustillos says this feature of the blockchain is one of the main things that attracted her to becoming involved with Civil—the idea that the archives of stories could be protected from deletion or tampering if they were somehow incorporated into a distributed ledger.

The blockchain/cryptocurrency aspect of Civil has definitely led to some skepticism. As Bitcoin and other currencies have ballooned in value over the past year, blockchain has become shorthand for “technology no one really understands, but sees as a magic solution to every problem.”

Mike Masnick, the founder of Techdirt and someone who has studied blockchain technology for some time, says he is fascinated by the possibility of cryptocurrency tokens as a business model solution, and thinks there is some potential. “But no one has shown a clear path for how it works in any meaningful way for journalism,” he says. “And whenever I ask, I get jargon and buzzwords.”

Civil co-founder Tom McGeveran says he sympathizes with this viewpoint. “That was my attitude when I first met Matthew [Iles],” he says, “but then I started to think that blockchain is definitely coming for journalism. It’s making inroads into advertising and information verification. So if you’re in media, you could decide to not build something to take advantage of all this—as some did in the 1990s when the web first came along—or you could go out there and try to build something.”

Open and non-profit:

Iles says the fact that Civil is an open platform is a critical part of his vision. “We could have created everything ourselves and just said this is the way it’s going to be, and it probably would have been a lot easier,” he says. But he believes setting up all of the rules in advance would have been a display of hubris, since he isn’t a journalist (he got a degree in journalism but has spent most of his career in technology marketing).

“Who am I to set the rules?” says Iles. “We need it to be owned by the people, in order for people to see that we’re serious about this commitment to creating a platform for journalism, to inspire trust, so that people would flock to our platform and help us build it.”

Much like an open-source software project, one of Civil’s challenges is to find a balance between keeping things as open as possible, while still allowing its creators to maintain a certain amount of control, so it remains focused on the original goal of producing independent journalism. Can Civil strike that balance while also creating an economically viable platform for journalism?

Iles believes it can, although he freely admits that any part of his vision could fail. But he argues that all of the various elements of the project working together is the best way to create an ecosystem that not only works financially but also produces strong, independent journalism.

“Look at Twitter, it was an API-driven ecosystem, but then it needed to close a lot of those pipes so they could monetize it,” says Iles. “I think Twitter and Medium twist themselves in knots to maintain the business. And that’s difficult for journalists, to know that the foundation you’re on is not under your control, and not just that but has its own incentives and needs that aren’t aligned with yours. It’s like building on quicksand.”

Tokens and voting rights

Cryptocurrency tokens aren’t just designed to function as part of Civil’s economy when it comes to paying for journalism—they also play a key role in the internal governance of the platform itself, in the sense that they will be used by members as a way of voting, of policing appropriate behavior and upholding journalistic principles.

How all of this works is spelled out in the Civil registry, a kind of “terms of use” for the platform. If you want to publish, you have to stake a certain number of Civil cryptocurrency tokens, which are deposited or held in escrow. If you choose to leave the platform you can get your tokens back, but while you are publishing via Civil those tokens are at risk. If someone wants to challenge your presence or behavior, they have to stake their own tokens, and then the community votes by using their own individual tokens.

If the community votes against the newsroom, they lose their tokens and could be removed from the platform. Most of the tokens they forfeit go to the challenger, who is effectively compensated for enforcing the platform’s rules, and some of the tokens get disbursed to everyone who voted, as a way of rewarding them for taking part in upholding the principles of the platform.

Iles says that one of the problems Civil is trying to correct is that “there’s currently zero cost to distributing misinformation—it’s cheap to do, even after you distribute it and it’s been debunked, there’s zero cost to you, even reputational cost. So we thought why not build it into the system?”

If you want to publish on Civil and/or challenge someone else’s right to publish, you have to state who is involved and what their credentials are, and you have to stake tokens on the outcome. “So if you do publish misinformation, there’s a disincentive,” Iles says. “We want to make it increasingly expensive to be a jerk.”

This view of how Civil will work implies that current journalistic incentives are oriented towards bad behavior that needs correcting, says Masnick, but while that may be true for some publications, he’s not sure Civil will help, because the ones most likely to do this “are the very publications that are least likely to use something like Civil.” The Techdirt founder argues that having a strong editor or publisher with good values “seems more likely to be effective than having a mob of token holders who may not understand the news biz at all.”

The vision behind Civil was always that the platform would be owned not by the company, but by members who invested in tokens, says co-founder Tom McGeveran. “But we also felt we had some rights to determine what the platform was going to become. If all of a sudden 10,000 people were to come on and decide to sell Beanie Babies, that’s not really the problem we’re trying to solve. So how do you have the decision-making rest as much as possible with the community, but still maintain some control?”

The constitution

Finding a balance between upholding the vision behind Civil while still allowing for community rule is where the Civil constitution comes in. Much like the constitution of a country, Civil’s version is designed as a way of laying out broad principles with enough rigor that they can provide the underpinnings for the community, but without restricting too much what voting members might want to do when it comes to enforcing or modifying how the platform works in practice.

In keeping with the vision of and open community, the Civil constitution is being constructed in real time via a Google Doc that anyone can contribute to. Co-founder Matt Coolidge says the company came up with a first draft, and asked journalism scholars and experts for advice, as well as about 50 people in the news industry who had already expressed interest in the concept.

Coolidge says the project isn’t trying to reinvent journalistic ethics. “We’re trying to implement a model that puts into writing existing principles,” he says. “It will always be a living document, so it can and will be amended. But we wanted a framework in place for ethical newsrooms in order to get a critical mass, and now it has shifted to how to incorporate public feedback.”

Reading through the comments on the Google Doc is like reading the transcript of a debate in a political theory course, where the topic is governance and incentives for social behavior. But on top of that, there are also technical aspects, such as a discussion over whether to mention that the Civil community/marketplace is built on Ethereum. One participant asks: “Should we name a specific technology in the constitution? That means that in order to switch to a better technology later, we will need to change the constitution.”

Other discussions focus on what might go wrong with the focus on owners of Civil tokens voting for what is permissible on the platform, or penalizing those who engage in misinformation. One contributor argues the project is “trusting money/crypto to determine truth, which is as subjective as ‘harm’ is in the [US] Constitution,” and suggests that Civil “mitigate risk and empower input by rewarding ethical contributions with a vote-worthy, but money-less counter-balancing Integrity Currency.”

Schiller says she sees the Civil constitution as one part journalism standards and practices, something that in many organizations is not spelled out in public for everyone to see. The second thing it describes is the process by which newsrooms on Civil remain accountable to the standards they signed up for—what are the mechanics by which they are challenged if they don’t stick to those standards, and how can they appeal? And the third part, she says, is to try and leave enough openings for future issues that may not even be obvious yet.

Civil wants to be thoughtful about some of these future issues, Schiller says, because “we don’t want to have these things come up down the road and not be prepared—we don’t want to be blindsided like a certain platform [i.e. Facebook,] to assume that everyone will be nice and then find out later that they aren’t. The holy grail is that as more newsrooms come on, we can harness the power of this large community.”

The council and foundation

One example of how Civil is planning for future turmoil is the creation of a council of advisers, who will function as a kind of Supreme Court when it comes to resolving disputes, assessing penalties and upholding the principles of the platform. It will be made up of about 15 or 20 advisers from the media and journalistic communities, a mix of academics, media theorists and industry executives.

To take one example, if a newsroom that was abiding by the constitution’s principles got challenged just for being conservative, “that would be a very bad outcome,” says Iles. So a newsroom can appeal to the council, and their job is to review the case and decide whether it violates the constitution. “The council also publishes its findings, which creates what amounts to case law,” he says. “The constitution can be amended, just like our country’s constitution can be amended, but we only want that to happen in extreme cases.”

Iles said he fully expects there will be battles over concepts or execution that will be split down the middle “and it will be messy. But it’s at those tension points that we’re going to see the character of Civil emerge. In theory, it will build trust because my vote was counted, even if I didn’t win, and that will give Civil its credibility and its loyalty. It will be the seat at the table many consumers are asking for when it comes to these global tech platforms. It’’s why we have to start from scratch.”

And what if someone acquires enough tokens to try and influence the voting? Theoretically this could happen, since under the Civil constitution, more tokens means your vote counts for more (a concern that a number of commenters have raised on the open Google Doc). But Iles says it’s unlikely.

“The council is still there, so someone having significant holding of tokens doesn’t mean they can use it to the detriment of the platform,” says Iles. “But also, economically you wouldn’t want to own 51% of Civil, at the moment you found out I owned that much, you would throw up your hands and say this isn’t what I thought this was supposed to be, and the value of the tokens would crash; so the attacker would have to spend a lot of money to acquire that many tokens because the price would go up, but now no one wants those tokens any more; it’s like buying enough matches to burn down the match factory.”

Schiller says while she has only been in her job a matter of weeks, she sees the foundation as being involved in three categories of activity. One is governance, including helping the council determine what is necessary to ensure that the platform remains a haven for trustworthy journalism, and the second tier is philanthropy: Civil plans to use cash on hand and funds from the token sale to make grants in the same areas that Civil hopes to operate in—accountability, open journalism, etc.

The foundation also plans to get involved in helping others understand how platforms like Civil can impact journalism and/or the monetization of it, Schiller says. “We will have tremendous amount of data on what works and what doesn’t work, what’s effective and what’s not, revenue models and so on. It might make sense to create something like a think tank around business models and sustainability.”

Civil’s goals are clearly admirable: A self-sustaining journalism economy that allows for independence and is based on community support, that allows newsrooms to rely less on massive social platforms, and also provides some protection against misinformation. But will there be enough journalists who want to buy into this vision—and buy into it not just figuratively but literally—in order to make it a reality? Iles and his team are betting that there are. Whether they are right remains to be seen.

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