March 5, 2019

Civil, an ambitious and idealistic venture to nurture journalism startups, will “relaunch” Wednesday. The confusing and hard-to-execute sale of blockchain tokens that crashed the first try at a takeoff last fall has been much simplified.

Blockchain remains part of the new plan. But there is an effort to shift focus to the journalism, with a total of 100 participating organizations, many of them international, to be revealed Wednesday or soon after.

From reading a new prospectus from founder Matthew Iles and interviewing veteran media executive and Civil Foundation CEO Vivian Schiller, I have no doubt about the good intentions and hard work required to get this far.

But even allowing that the need for new journalism outlets is great and the problem of creating them complex, Civil still looks to me burdened by an opaque structure when compared to other launches in this space, like Report for America and The American Journalism Project.

This time around, Civil tokens will sell for 20 cents each, a price that will rise over time to just under a dollar. No minimum subscription total is needed to trigger the sale, as was the case last year. There is, rather, a cap of 34 million on how many can be sold now, going up to 100 million later. The offering would generate $20 million if completed. Tokens eventually may be sold by one member to another, and will be available for purchase directly on the site.

Journalism organizations, big donors or interested supporters from the public can buy in. How many tokens you have determines your ”share of voice” as Civil matures and votes on its direction begin to be taken.

Still, I am left wondering just why blockchain needs to be in the picture at all. How about something a little more straightforward — like money?

Schiller offered this explanation via email:

“(We) happen to believe blockchain technology can help address the core problems facing the industry — trust and sustainability — in unique and novel ways.

“Fundamentally, blockchain is a new data technology that can enable both newsrooms and consumers to have more control of what they put out in the world. Civil aims to use blockchain over the long run with three core principles in mind:

  1. Own your data.
  2. Own your content.
  3. Own the network.”

The first of these is the heart of the matter. Civil is an opt-in platform for publishers. They share only as much data as they choose within the collective and have the option of staying entirely outside the reach of info harvesting giants like Facebook and Google.

To join, a news organization needs to “sign and abide by the Civil Constitution,” an aspirational document that has been through several drafts now, committing to high ethical standards (and of course, no made-up news).

Many of a “first fleet” of 18 member organizations including Block Club Chicago and the Colorado Sun received grants of cash and tokens last year. From here on, those joining will get tokens, and they can join a registry in which members may choose to contribute (GoFundMe style) to organizations whose mission or track record is attractive.

The blockchain connection proved to be a lightning rod last year, particularly since the prospective sale coincided with steep declines in the value of various crypto-currencies.

But I found equally odd a less-noticed element of the “constitution” that establishes a quasi-judicial way of resolving charges of unethical behavior against member organizations.

Here is how it works:

  • Any member can lodge a complaint and put up $1,000 in tokens to assure a hearing.
  • The membership will vote on disputes that are not otherwise resolved. If the news organization prevails, it gets the tokens that were staked. If the complaint is approved, the organization is expelled (though as Schiller noted, that means they leave Civil, not that they go out of business).
  • There is a mechanism for either side to appeal rulings to a nine-member council of journalism experts.

Perhaps I date myself with a flinty view of independence, but why in the world would publishers want to put their venture’s reputation in the hands of a host of people they had no say in appointing?

A National News Council, focused on “unfair story” complaints against broadcast networks and national newspapers, limped along for a decade in the 1970s and ‘80s. It folded after the New York Times and others declined to cooperate and its rulings were widely ignored.

Schiller told me that disputes under Civil’s constitution will involve a site’s overall performance. InfoWars would not be able to hold a membership, for instance, nor would a site touting a product like a brand of mattress.

The constitution does say that a mere error in a story does not rise to the level meriting an ethics challenge, but that standard seems a little gray. Would there be recourse for the 60 ex-staffers in Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office who say the New York Times story on her bad-boss record was built on selective anecdotes and blind sources? (Not that the Times is or would be a Civil member). Or how about the badly flawed Washington Post coverage of the Covington protest, subject of a grudging “editor’s note” Monday?

In practice, details of Civil’s complaint resolution procedure are likely to evolve over time; the process may turn out only rarely to be used.

I asked several members of the nine-member council why they had signed on and got this reply from Raju Narisetti, a long-time Dow Jones digital editor and executive now a professor of professional practice at the Columbia Journalism School.

Civil “is trying to address at least two important challenges,” Narisetti said in a phone interview. “Can we help with business models? And can we promote quality journalism, free of fake news?”

As for potential trials of members, he added, “If the ethos is that stakeholders hold them (member publications) to certain standards,” that is worth a try, too.

Narisetti said he also thinks too much of the current exploration of alternatives for replacing depleted legacy news reports is framed as a search for “saviors.” In fact, there is room for plenty of different efforts with contrasting approaches. Many may end up contributing to a path forward. Or, as with the continuing stream of sites being launched, the stronger may flourish while others flail.

That said, Civil and others seem to be competing for a finite pool of foundation funding and individual contributions. I am still not persuaded that the blockchain connection and elaborate superstructure will prove an asset.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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