When bitcoin hit $19,300 in 2017, journalist Maria Bustillos was chipping away at another use for cryptocurrency. The blockchain technology that bitcoin uses promised the ability to produce incorruptible records that didn’t rely on the whims of advertisers or corporations. In her career as a writer for The New Yorker and other venerable publications, she watched colleagues’ articles disappear from Google as ad-based models took hold. She experienced “link rot,” as digital servers moved around and left behind empty sites and no formal URL archive. Even worse, she witnessed how bad actors could pull the plug and erase entire sites, as Joe Ricketts, former owner of Gothamist and DNAInfo, did to his digital publications a week after his newsroom unionized.
“We have a president now who has called the press ‘enemies,’” says Bustillos, editor in chief of the forthcoming news site Popula. “It became more and more important to me to devote my time to doing everything I could to ensure press freedom.”
Bustillos is one of many top journalists to join Civil, a journalism platform launching this spring built on blockchain technology and funded by cryptocurrency. Think of blockchain as a giant computer network dedicated to protecting information and securing permanent records. The technology promises to protect journalists from censorship and intellectual property disputes. It offers readers articles that cannot be retracted, with corrections made via addenda, not eraser.
Civil has received a $5 million investment from the leading blockchain development firm ConsenSys, but the goal is for readers to pay journalists on staff at the newsrooms directly for their reporting in dollars, bitcoin, or any other currency. Bustillos has hired eight staff writers and artists and is also contracting freelancers. As with all newsrooms on the site, she must buy a stake in Civil’s cryptocurrency to prove that she’s seriously invested, and she will pay her employees with the CVL token.
In addition, Civil will institute a community governance system whereby readers can support or challenge a journalist’s work directly and publicly with stakes in a fixed supply of CVL tokens that act as voting chips for readers who want a piece of ownership and influence in the network’s self-governance. “We’ll be accountable to our readers alone, and stand or fall according to their judgment,” Bustillos says.
The platform will also encourage media literacy. Its so-called Credibility Indicators—visual cues within each article—will detail what did or did not go into the publication of a given story: original reporting, sources cited, documents, and so on. “We believe that creating an ecosystem dedicated to ethical journalism, where we verifiably prove to a broader citizenry that the contents and the people who are producing the content on this platform are actually doing so in an ethical, accurate manner, creates a different value association with the experience,” says Civil CEO Matthew Iles.
Iles recruited Bustillos, former Gawker and Deadspin editor Tom Scocca, and other veteran journalists to launch a network of nonprofit news sites on Civil. He wants the newsrooms to restore coverage for local, international, policy, and investigative journalism—areas that have declined under economic pressure in the last 20 years but that can have high social impact. Funds from Civil will launch newsrooms such as Popula; Scocca’s Hmm Daily, focused on social and political commentary; and The Sludge, dedicated to investigative muckraking to expose the dark influence of money on politics. Former DNAInfo journalists have teamed up to launch the local news site Block Club Chicago, with additional funding from a hugely successful local journalism campaign on Kickstarter.
“Civil has a good chance to be one of the first blockchain-based projects that transcends the speculation and gold-rush fever that currently rules in crypto-land,” says Geoff McCabe, co-founder and CEO of the Divi Project, a nonprofit committed to educating the public on cryptocurrency. He worries, however, that Civil runs the risk of people “gaming” the system: selling likes, upvotes, and comments to generate money.
Iles plans to prevent this by encouraging readers to challenge what they see as unethical reporting that falls outside the organization’s constitution. The community then takes a vote, with the winning party earning CVL tokens for catching bad actors. An independent third-party council over which The Civil Media Company holds no control will address appeals.
Cryptocurrencies still face a mass adoption problem. Readers can pay for what they read in any currency; only those who want to support and contest reporting and participate in the voting system will have to buy into CVL. Both the Civil news platform and CVL crypto-coin will be based on the Ethereum network’s open-software program, which McCabe describes as expensive and frequently choked with traffic. Updates later this year may alleviate these problems.
Despite these hurdles, McCabe says that Civil has made strides to thrive: “Blockchain enthusiasts like me who have been inspired by the potential of this technology are rooting for Civil to succeed.”