Can Blockchain Bring Trust Back to News Organizations?

By Gary Collins

The average level of trust in the news is down 2 percentage points to 42 percent across all countries, according to the 2019 Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report. There are many projects trying to solve that problem, but one company is approaching it from a completely different perspective. The Civil Registry wants to make its mark in the media world with a newsroom community built upon blockchain technology. Over 50 independent newsrooms across the globe have been accepted into the Civil Community, and at the 2019 LION Summit, journalists from three of those newsrooms–– Block Club Chicago’s Shamus Toomey, Documented’s Max Siegelbaum, and The Colorado Sun’s Dana Coffield–– discussed what they’ve learned so far from being a part of that community.

First, a brief explanation of blockchain: In the simplest terms, a block chain is a list of records or “blocks” that carries a secure hash or screenshot of the current block along with a timestamp and data. This way, the data cannot be modified since it is held in multiple locations at once. Using this type of technology for journalism could help gain trust from readers since the content and shared information is only fact-checked through the community and cannot be modified without being noticed. Through Civil, that content is published as a living document that is held to the standards and ethics of the group as a whole.

But the session moderator, Temple University’s Aron Pilhofer, said “Blockchain is the least interesting part about Civil.”

Through the Civil process, newsrooms apply to join Civil. At that point, members use ‘tokens’ to vote on whether that newsroom organization aligns with their constitution and foundation. So, in effect, the Civil Community self-polices the Civil Registry to uphold the standards and governance set forth by the council.

Coffield spoke about add-ons to the platform that she said could be helpful to certain publishers. BOOST was one example–– it’s a “Kickstarter-type” plugin that allows the publisher to crowdfund certain causes important to them and their readers. There would be no upfront maintenance cost, like many crowdfunding platforms, but the publisher would pay the payment portal fees from Stripe or a similar payment system.

She also explained that the platform allows for a credibility indicator, which can judge the articles published based on whether it was original, fact-based reporting and not just a press release. Coffield added that Civil has freed up her time spent on the “technical-side” of things so she could primarily focus on the news.

During the Q&A portion of the session, an audience member asked the panel if their newsrooms have become sustainable. They each laughed and said they felt they’re headed in the right direction, but it’s still a question many are asking. Toomey said some of Block Club Chicago’s initial grant-funding was in tokens, the blockchain currency, and then some in cash. “Thankfully the real cash was real,” he said. Siegelbaum said he’s still looking for other streams of revenue, especially in his niche reporting of immigration topics in New York City.

Whether Civil can help make blockchain technology relevant in the journalism space remains to be seen. In the meantime, any LION member can apply to join the Civil Registry through a recently announced partnership between LION and Civil.

Gary Collins is the COO and co-owner of SweetwaterNOW, a hyperlocal brand in Sweetwater County, Wyoming that covers the southwest region of the State. He has over 10 years of marketing, writing, and PR experience in the healthcare and customer service industry along with 5 years in the hyperlocal space.