Civil is a blockchain startup that’s creating a journalism marketplace. Their purpose is to enable independent journalism, unbiased by outside influence. Civil will be a hub consisting of many newsrooms. Yesterday they announced a collaboration with Associated Press which will allow newsrooms to license Associated Press content. While unbiased news makes a great tagline, Civil is very much a business.
“AP has been pushing into new digital territory for more than two decades, and Civil is opening up another new space with interesting technology to explore and a commitment to good journalism,” said Jim Kennedy, AP’s senior vice president for Strategy and Enterprise Development. “We’re eager to help cultivate the space and demonstrate our value to a new set of digital publishers.”
What is Civil?
Civil is an Ethereum-based marketplace where readers can directly compensate writers using cryptocurrency or fiat currency. Civil will not earn a commission. These newsrooms are independent publications which, according to Civil, have “full autonomy over all editorial and business decisions”. However, journalists have to make an upfront business decision not to use ads.
According to Civil “rather than a given platform or publisher dictating the content its readers can consume, a decentralized network of people curates newsrooms and content.” From a reader’s perspective, Civil could be a different version of Google News where you pay for some or all of the content.
The marketplace will have three key features:
- economically incentivized self-governance
- permanent recording of authorship and content
- and in the future, journalist reputations
The reputation aspect is essential because influence is not just in the form of ads. For example, Forbes Contributors are not allowed to take money for article mentions, but it’s hard to police and can happen.
Civil won’t be the first blockchain content app. EOS founder Dan Larimer launched Steemit more than two years ago. However, Steemit positions itself as social blogging platform as opposed to journalism.
How will journalists get paid?
Subscriptions and micropayments are not covered in Civil’s whitepaper. That could be because newsrooms have autonomy over their business models.
There are already a handful of self-sustaining, ad-free sites that are not blockchain based. But they have to be exceptional. One example is tech analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery which uses a monthly subscription model.
It’s an imperfect comparison, but Civil is not dissimilar to a decentralized version of Medium, expanded to multimedia. Except the writers get paid, and the content is grouped into newsrooms.
Other than saying consumer payments will use tokens or fiat currency, Civil doesn’t detail how payments might work. Will there be subscriptions? Do users buy credits in advance? Or micropayments? Or will the model resemble Steemit’s? Perhaps all of the above?
Others have experimented with micro-payments. Nick Szabo, who came up with the ‘smart contract’ phrase, believes that microtransactions involve too much mental gymnastics. His logic is solid, but one can imagine there will be further experiments.
Another idea is a single Civil subscription. If the revenue is split across many newsrooms that could be an interesting concept. Though potentially journalists could receive ten cents or much less per page view.
This warrants comparison with Forbes and its contributor network. They recently moved to guarantee a minimum of $250 to their 1,500 contributors. Writers are paid based on the number of views their articles receive. Contributors have helped to give Forbes a 71 million monthly audience.
But of those 1,500 contributors only 100 make a decent living from it. According to Forbes, “in 2017, more than 100 earned well into five figures, including five that topped the $200,000 threshold.”
Civil’s ambitions are not limited to text. They also plan to get involved in podcasts and documentaries. So if it works the potential is significant.
Civil is a business
In every article, journalists make a call about how balanced to make their coverage. Given Civil’s stated aim, the same logic should apply to Civil itself.
At the heart of a blockchain application is an ecosystem. In addition to the non-profit community aspect, Civil also has for-profit endeavors that target each part of the ecosystem: The Civil Media Company, Civil Studios, and Civil Labs.
Civil doesn’t try to hide this. It discloses the fact on its homepage.
Civil Media Company aims to ‘develop new and innovative uses for blockchain and cryptoeconomics’ and ‘scale and optimize our marketplace businesses’. Civil says while it ‘may possess what amounts to a first-mover advantage within the ecosystem, it has no monopoly or centralized control over the end users’.
Another arm, Civil Studios, will finance and run newsrooms. They use Netflix originals as a metaphor, though Netflix is not an ecosystem. There’s some logic behind this in order to kickstart the platform. However, there are other ecosystem metaphors: Amazon and Apple.
For example, ToysRUs was one of the first non-book stores on Amazon. In 2000 they signed a ten year exclusive online deal with Amazon. And then Amazon launched their own toy section, using what they’d learned from ToysRUs. ToysRUs sued and won, but is no more.
Apple initially had very few own-branded apps. But they gradually expanded the Apple-branded app range, competing directly with apps from independent developers. Apple has insider data that their competitors lack.
So independent Civil newsroom operators need to recognize they could be competing with Civil-backed newsrooms.
A third for-profit arm is Civil Labs, which will build tools and apps within the Civil app store. So, in this case, it will potentially compete with independent app developers.
A platform for unbiased journalism is a worthy mantra. Most for-profit businesses add value to society and Civil certainly has the potential to do so. But Civil at its heart is a business and not just a ’cause’.