Civil is creating a new marketplace for independent media

by Vivian Schiller Civil
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

I’m one month into my new job at Civil. One thing I’ve found is that in addition to doing what I was hired to do, I’ve also had to learn how to explain Civil to a lot of confused and skeptical people. Much of the material out there about blockchain and Civil is written for people who already “get it.” But for someone like me, a non-technologist in her fifties, some of it can be a bit confusing, or — worse — sound silly and over-engineered.

But that is very much not the case. The twin crises of trust and sustainability for journalism are only getting worse. We’re on a mission to provide some solutions. And as blockchain becomes more and more embedded in our lives, it’s critical we find a way to harness the technology to help provide the quality news and information societies need to function. It’s early days to be sure — not unlike the early days of the internet — but that’s all the more reason to try to get this right.

So, here’s my explainer in the form of a “conversation” — written from the point of view of a non blockchain-y person. Hope this helps.

I read all your stuff. But I still don’t get it. Once and for all, WHAT IS CIVIL?

I hear you. Civil is multifaceted. It can get complicated and some of our stuff gets a little jargony. Here’s my stab at an elevator pitch:

Civil is a network of news organizations — large and small — from around the world. In order to be part of the network, a newsroom has to meet quality standards that signal trustworthiness. Those are set out in a written “Constitution” that spells out both the standards and the rules of self-governance. What makes the network unique is that no one owns it — it’s managed by the community according to those rules.

So where does blockchain come in?

Glad you asked. I’m not going to attempt to explain blockchain in this post. There are some good explainers out there; here’s a recent favorite. I’ll only just tell you that it is the technology that powers Civil and makes self-governance possible. Bear with me, because this is where it does get a little complicated. As noted, Civil is managed by the community. The instrument of that self-governance is a piece of software called a token — in our case a special token specific to this network, called a “CVL.” Anyone in the general population can buy tokens after meeting certain criteria — more on that later. Once you have tokens you can use them to reward quality newsrooms, and it also gives you voting rights to keep non-quality newsrooms off.

Blockchains do other things for Civil as well — such as allowing content to be immutable so that it can’t be taken down by a government or a corporate owner.

Can’t you just do all of this without the blockchain? Wikipedia works pretty well without all that token stuff.

I hear you. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia. But it’s different. That’s a destination. Civil a network of potentially thousands of individual publications. It would be tough to manage without — jargon alert! — the power of ‘cryptoeconomics’ which creates the incentives and disincentives that allow the network to promote — and enforce — quality, and be rewarded for doing so.

What problem are you trying to solve exactly?

If you’re reading this post, you are likely well aware of all the twin crises in the news industry: decreasing trust and financial sustainability. We’re attempting to get at solutions to both. The “trust” comes from the governance (more on that later) and the sustainability comes from the “cryptoeconomics” (more on that later as well).

How do I go to Civil? Is it a website? Does it look like a Facebook news feed? Where do I find it?

Remember, Civil is a network — it’s not a “destination.” You go to each Civil newsroom just like you go to any news sources on the web now — by navigating to a website, clicking a link on Twitter, listening to a podcast via your favorite app, or whatever. For example, check out some of the Civil “first fleet” newsrooms here and here and here. You’ll know they are part Civil because there will be an icon of sorts (look in the upper right hand corner for it). If you’re older like me, you’ll remember the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” Sort of like that.

But since Civil is an open platform, we’re hoping people will build many different types of apps on top, say, a user interface built specifically for screen readers or a curation service focused on aggregating the most relevant news in Southeast Asia. Maybe there will something that feels more like a Facebook or Twitter feed, but just for Civil newsrooms. There’s a few things like that in the works.

Over time, we hope that Civil will become a full discovery marketplace, like a Netflix for journalists — hey, we aim high! — a place where you can go to access quality media on whatever you may be interested in. Once we launch, you’ll be able to see the full Civil Registry. (I’ll add that link here once it’s live, but here’s a good overview of what it will look like / how it works). And in the meantime, you can see some of the newsrooms here.

How does this help news organizations make money?

As mentioned, one of our twin missions is to help solve for the sustainability crisis facing the news industry. How? Firstly, nothing we’re doing is meant to replace current business models. If a website has ads, or subscriptions, or membership — great. Keep going. But crypto opens up some additional options. For example, the industry has been talking about the promise of micropayment for years, but it’s been hard to get off the ground mostly due to credit card fees which render small payments difficult. But if you’re dealing with tokens, flipping someone a “tip” for a story you like should be as easy and frictionless as a ‘like” on a FB post. “Great story! Here’s 1/100th of a token”. No one takes a cut — it goes straight to the newsroom. At scale that might become meaningful income.

Here’s another example: CVL tokens might be used to “signal” demand for a newsroom. Imagine a member of the Civil community is interested in a publication exclusively dedicated to covering the governance of global sports organizations like FIFA or IOC. She could stake CVLs and say she wants to cover the application for such a publication and solicit other token holders to join her with their support. That would be a way for journalists to not only identify — but be summoned by — a willing and engaging potential audience.

There are other additional opportunities that the token economy can introduce, though most are too abstract for the purposes of this post. We’ll get into that more over time.

The Civil Media Company is also help news organizations on the cost side. We’re building a “newsmaker partner program,” which will provide tools and services for no or low rates to help reduce the overall startup cost of launching a news organization. This has nothing to do with blockchain per se, it’s just a benefit of the network effect.

Explain more about the community voting. For example, how do you stop a malicious actor from controlling the network by buying up a lot of tokens?

I get this question a lot. Frankly part of the job is to dream up all the ways bad guys and gals can game the system so we can make sure we have solutions to prevent that from happening. But first let’s back up and explain how this works.

I mentioned the Civil Constitution. It is the beating heart of Civil. You can see a beta here so please, please comment on it. It’s still in draft form and will evolve over the next year before being turned over entirely to the community to self-govern.

Before a newsroom can be part of Civil, its founders have to agree to abide by the Civil Constitution. The community then has two weeks to challenge that newsrooms. If there is no challenge (or an unsuccessful challenge) the newsroom becomes part of the network. Once they’re on, the newsroom needs to stay in good standing vis a vis the Civil Constitution or risk being kicked off.

The mechanism for a challenge is called “staking,” by which we mean anyone with a token can make a case against a newsroom by offering up the value of or tokens as kind of collateral. Others can vote to join the challenger, or vote against the challenger’s position. If the challenger is successful, he keeps the token from the news organization that has lost. If the challenger is unsuccessful, his tokens go to the newsroom. That disincentivizes frivolous claims.

Wait, what? Journalism is not a game. What’s all this winning and losing business?

I know — for my generation it feels a bit weird. But not to someone under 30. Just ask them. We’re already seeing the trend emerge even in the mainstream media. For example, The Washington Post is now using Twitch as an engagement strategy. So times are changing…… but as long as this game has a solid foundation (aka, ruleset), we think this will work

Ok, keep going then (though I’m still weirded out by this)

Yep, I hear you. So how do we keep bad guys from buying all the tokens and throwing the vote? First, there is a cap on how many tokens you can buy which means no one individual can control the voting. Even if he got a bunch of his buddies to join in, there’s still the Constitution that protects the network.

You should also know that Civil Media Company is committed to responsibly distributing these tokens via its public sale. That means you need to jump through some hoops to acquire them — including verifying your identity, proving you know how CVL tokens work, and showing you know what they are intended for. In this way, we’re hoping to attract a network of people who join the Civil community because they care, and keep out idle speculators

But in the event that a challenged newsroom, or really any token holder, feels that a vote was unfair — they can appeal the decision to the Civil Council. They are a group of about 15 journalists, academics and free-speech specialists from different parts of the world with broadly varying perspectives. In the event of an appeal, the Civil Council will review the case and then either uphold the community decision, or overturn it. But there’s even a check there. A Council decision can also be overturned — but only by a supermajority of token holders (meaning 66.67% or more of votes).

You have all these names with Civil in front of it — Civil Council, Civil Foundation, Civil Studios, Civil Labs. Huh?

Ok, as founder Matthew Iles likes to say, “let’s zoom out.”

Let’s start with the Civil Media Company that Matthew founded and runs. That is the for-profit company is setting all of this in motion, funded with $5mm from a company called Consensys.

Civil — the network we’ve been talking about — is not owned or even run by the Civil Media Company. Civil Media Company makes money by building tools and services on top of the network. It does that via Civil Labs. It makes investments with the expectation of an ROI via Civil Studios.

I was brought on to do is to set up that Civil Foundation. In the near future it will be a freestanding organization — a 501(c)3 — that is designed to uphold the principles of Civil the network, not the Civil Media Company.

Do I need to own tokens to access the journalism on Civil network?

NO!! Our mission is access to quality journalism, not blockchain. That’s the whole reason we’re doing this. So feel free to access your favorite Civil newsroom all the normal ways you do now. Read. Watch. Listen. Share links. Buy a subscription or a membership. Contribute to their Kickstarter … all using good, old-fashioned credit cards if you like.

So then why should I buy tokens?

If you want to participate in the community, it should be for one reason and one reason only: because you want to play a role in supporting quality journalism across the Civil ecosystem. This can mean launching a Newsroom of your own, or challenging a Newsroom that appears to violate the platform’s rules, or voting for/against those challenges. And of course you can use those tokens as currency for the express purpose of supporting a newsroom as well.

And more broadly, it’s a chance to be part of something cool and new, that maybe — just maybe — will have a meaningful impact on how citizens get the information they need be informed participants in their communities.

But, again, you don’t have to ever buy a token to support Civil. Just visit the newsrooms on the network — read/listen/watch and support them in any way you see fit. That is the whole point.

Will I make a bunch of money from these tokens?

If the network grows as we intend, it’s fair to expect a growing demand for CVL tokens. But for that to happen, users need to be active in the platform’s governance — which is why the tokens exist in the first place. CVL is explicitly being sold to consumers — not investors. In fact, the Civil Media Company can even filter out someone trying to buy CVL for speculation purposes. That’s not its intended use, and simply put, the network won’t work if people are just sitting on stashes of tokens. It’s why anyone who wants to buy CVL has to a) prove their identity (no spammers or bots) and b) prove they understand how CVL works, and they plan to use it as intended.

Ok ok, I’ll try it. What do I do?

Go to here. That’s the first step on the journey, and where you can learn more about the process and whether you want to take part.

Got it. But before I let you go, are you sure this is not just a Ponzi scheme?

As my colleague Matt Coolidge likes to say: If this is a Ponzi scheme, we’re the stupidest schemers in the history of the world. I mean, really — if you want to find lots of money would you look at the news industry?

Vivian Schiller is the CEO of the Civil Media Foundation. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), IJNet's parent organization.

This post originally appeared on Civil's Medium page. It was republished on IJNet with permission. Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via NeONBRAND.

 Learn more about ICFJ’s partnership with Civil here.