Blockchain-powered journalism: Q&A with Matt Coolidge of Civil

Blockchain has become one of those buzzwords that commands attention and carries a powerful social glow, yet in the likes of similar buzzwords that have attained such a prized status, it has lost much of its meaning. Blockchain has become a catchall term for just about any digital ledger system regardless of crucial variations in its design. With so many blockchain projects ranging from social impact initiatives to opportunistic marketing ploys, it can be difficult to discern which projects hold real potential. For this reason, here's a deep dive on blockchain applications in our niche: social impact.

It goes without saying that the journalism industry is facing immense challenges, from blatant attacks on press freedom to debilitating cuts in funding. One organization, Civil, plans on utilizing the blockchain to address the funding problem in a novel way. Civil does not aim to be the next Guardian or The New York Times. Instead, it will be offering a platform and a standard upon which high-quality journalistic newsrooms can exist and operate. Anyone may submit an application to start a virtual "newsroom" on the Civil platform by acquiring some amount of Civil's cryptographic coin — CVL — as a deposit, and following a set of ethical journalism guidelines laid out in the organization's constitution.

We spoke with Matt Coolidge, co-founder of Civil, about this. He and a team of 12 others are working on launching the platform later this year, along with dozens of journalists. Five newsrooms have already signed up to use the platform. Here's what he had to say ahead of the launch.

Aaron Fernando, Shareable: Can you explain a little about what the blockchain can offer journalism and how Civil is taking advantage of this technology?

Matt Coolidge, Civil: Civil's mission is journalism. Blockchain emerged as a really compelling solution for helping to introduce a new model for sustainable journalism. Decentralization could potentially solve a lot of the core, fundamental issues plaguing journalism today, namely the struggle to translate from an ad-driven revenue model that sustained it so well for so long during print journalism’s reign. I think in digital environments, that's become prohibitively more difficult, and I think just separating substance from noise has been very difficult for a lot of publications. ... That is where the Civil "CVL" token comes in as a way to economically incentivize a high-quality marketplace for journalism. Specifically in Civil's initial iteration, we're focusing on local, international, investigative, and policy-focused journalism. The reason we picked those four pillars is really twofold: one, we want to have some sort of strategic focus and alignment initially so that we're not just all over the place.Two, we think that those are the most important beats within journalism just for uncovering really major, impactful stories that are also prohibitively difficult to fund, specially under this ad-driven model.

I think one of the more compelling features to the now more than 50 journalists that have committed already to running newsrooms on Civil is the idea of permanent archiving that blockchain introduces. Last fall, suddenly and quite unexpectedly (to all but a very select few) DNAinfo ceased operations just because its billionaire owner deemed that it was no longer a profitable line of business in his larger portfolio. With that decision, and the decision to just unplug the AWS server that was running it, both New York and Chicago lost seven to eight years of archives. There was a massive outcry. ... I think finally he relented to that pressure and put the archives back in. It was really an existential concern just about the vulnerability of archives. One of the core functions of Civil is going to be able to write the text of your article permanently to decentralized environments in which it will be stored and nearly impossible to alter in the future.

So you said over 50 reporters have already signed on?

There are six newsrooms and that amounts to over 50 full-time journalists. Our goal at launch is going to be to have approximately 15 newsrooms comprised of more than 100 journalists. This group of newsrooms that I’m talking about here is what we're calling our first fleet of newsrooms. We raised, last fall, $5 million in capital from ConsenSys. We've allocated more than 20 percent of that total specifically to standing up these initial newsrooms and really deliberately going after pretty widely-followed, well-respected journalists that are willing to partner with us and launch newsrooms as full-time ventures, not side projects, on Civil.

The real idea here goes beyond just the passion we have for this vision and introducing a new, sustainable model for journalism. As we're rallying the community and preparing for a launch, we recognize that if we're not really deliberate about this, we could run into a chicken-and-egg problem on day one, where there are a lot of great ideas but there's no real initial precedent-setting about, "Here's what a newsroom should look like — here’s the level of quality." This is something the community should be factoring in when they're determining which newsrooms would be fit for publication on Civil and which aren't. But even more basic than that is just the idea that it's going to bring in a very large and engaged audience on day one which is equally important for the long-term viability here.

From what I read, it seemed individual users could contribute to the newsrooms using the Civil platform. But do you see the newsrooms that you're going to be working with as having other sources of income, or is it framed in such a way where Civil is going to be the primary source of income for these newsrooms?

So Civil is absolutely not going to be the primary source of income for these newsrooms. As it relates to the first fleet, what we’ve done here is just provide grants just to stand them up, especially because a number of them are committing five or six months before they would be actively publishing on the platform. So we want to provide grants that are a mix of cash and Civil tokens to support their operations and make sure they're ready to go when the platform launches. For those that are looking to launch newsrooms on Civil on day one that this is out there in public, this is something that is entirely supported by the journalists.

When reading through this, I wanted to play devil's advocate and imagine what would happen in the situation where, let's say all the early adopters have a specific sort of political bent. Is there any way to get them to not censor any writers or publications that may not be in line with their views? Let's say it's a lot of left-leaning people early-adopter types who start out using Civil. When someone comes on that might be a more conservative writer, the perspective — the actual take on issues might be different, but the facts might be solid. How would that be dealt with on a platform where by design you don't have a central control over the view on the platform?

So this is one of our existential concerns that we've definitely been talking about from day one and we all, at the Civil Media Company (the entity that I'm working for that'll be the core part of the Civil marketplace that will then divest themselves when we launch), we want to set up a framework that is very, very much a nonpartisan framework. There will be specific language in the constitution, for instance, alluding to the fact that partisan motivation or ideology alone is not grounds to vote against a newsroom. So if I'm a Democrat and you're a Republican, and I really fundamentally disagree with a lot of your views on issues, if you are adhering to the journalistic ethics that are laid out in the Civil constitution and everything that you're reporting on is fact-based. … We're really trying to game out these scenarios as much as possible and just, in thinking about the way these tokens will be initially distributed we want to figure out a way to ensure that as many of them get into the right hands as possible — so civically engaged citizens that do represent a broad array of viewpoints, but all within the sort of spectrum of ethical, fact-based journalism. So we want folks from both sides of the aisle.

Now, to go back to your core question. Let's say, worst-case scenario: The platform does launch and it is heavily weighted (more right-leaning or more left-leaning) either way, and let's say that a seemingly-ethical actor that is representing the minority viewpoint of Civil token holders comes on, applies to launch a newsroom and the newsroom application is rejected, the community votes it down. This newsroom applicant or any newsroom applicant will have the ability to appeal. This is, again, a really interesting and pretty unique part of what Civil is doing in this model.

In addition to the community self-governance model,we're going to be instantiating an entity known as the Civil Journalism Council. It is going to be a third-party organization, a nonprofit that Civil will set up, will instantiate, and then will divest itself of any interest or control over it. It's going to be comprised of nine free speech attorneys, journalism scholars, and strict journalists that are going to committed above all anything else to upholding the values of the Civil constitution.

If this ethical newsroom is voted down largely due to partisan-fueled logic that is not in direct violation or provable of violation of any part of violation of the constitution, the Civil Journalism Council will have the power to overturn and grant access to this newsroom to begin publishing on Civil. The idea is that these types of decisions should be very rare and should be seen very much as precedent-setting in the community.

That's really cool. That almost sounds like a journalistic Supreme Court.

Exactly, and we're really excited about it. At the end of the day, what Civil is doing, if anything else, is solving is a community problem. It's a technology problem, too, but I do think that when you look at our core issue and our real reason for being here — being in journalism — we're talking about a community problem.

We're not properly incentivizing quality journalism right now. So how can we do that? But at the same time, how can we recognize that we're all humans and we're all prone to error. We're not always going to make the quote-unquote "right decision." This should be a community-governed and decentralized marketplace, but in extreme scenarios, we need to have the right edges of the place that recognize that if we're all here because of this constitution, and we're all rallying around this constitution, there is a third-party governing body that is committed, above all else, to upholding this constitution.  They can only ever weigh in if the community appeals to them, but they're a very passive model. It’s not like they can ever proactively come in and say, "This is wrong. It shouldn't happen." But that will be there as sort of the ultimate check.

The final question or two that I have for you, would be: Do you think that there is a necessary scale that this needs to reach in order to be effective, at all?

Is there a necessary scale? I don't have a definitive number or figure and, candidly, there's not one we toss around internally. We're very excited with the fact that we're on track to launch later this spring with fifteen newsrooms and a hundred full-time journalists.

I think that at least based on the early response that we're getting from the community that there's a very, very promising signal that there is going to be that degree of critical mass on day one. And I think, more importantly, it's going to spur a lot more people applying to launch their own newsrooms and join. One of the most heartening and exciting things we're hearing is from frustrated local journalists, in particular, that are in areas really all over the world that are generally outside metropolitan areas. They're basically saying, "Is there a place for me at Civil? Do you care if this model works?" And the answer there is really an emphatic, "yes."

I can't wait until we're publically-available and out there so that they can start to do this. I think local journalism, in particular, even of those four pillars that I said beforehand, is arguably the most endangered category of all of those forms of reporting, and it’s so hugely important.

This piece has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image of Julia Himmel (product design, co-founder) and Matt Coolidge (co-founder) courtesy of Civil