Civil, the high-profile effort to use blockchain governance and token economics to reshape journalism, today released its roadmap for building its ecosystem in 2019. That includes details of its governance model, new tools for participating news organizations, and a revamped strategy for marketing its CVL governance token after an ICO-style sale failed in October.
The simplest and most immediately compelling element of the roadmap will be the Civil Publisher. The new tool makes it easy for publishers to write text directly to the Ethereum blockchain, establishing a durable and globally accessible digital record of their reporting. The tool, which will take the form of a WordPress plugin and be available only to news operations that join the Civil network, was demonstrated on Monday by the website Popula, which archived the text of a September article about Bill Cosby’s sentencing for rape.
The ability to record reporting to the blockchain is important because of the simultaneous technical and economic fragility of news operations. News websites, thanks to the crumbling economics of online advertising, are shut down with alarming frequency, and there’s not always a clear incentive for owners to pay to maintain their web archives. In one particularly harrowing incident in 2017, a swath of websites including DNAinfo and Gothamist was shut down, and their archives disappeared along with their daily operations. That meant both the loss of possibly important information from the public sphere, and a major blow for the newly-fired journalists, whose prior work is a vital tool for finding another job. Civil’s publishing tool will be among a surprisingly sparse number of options for nonspecialists to embed text to a blockchain (another is CryptoGraffiti, which runs on the Bitcoin Cash ABC blockchain).
Civil also announced a radically revamped model for distributing its CVL token. In September and October, Civil’s commitment to conducting a regulation-compliant and speculator-resistant token sale contributed to the sale’s marked failure, with just $350,000 raised from the general public of an $8 million minimum goal. Now, Civil says it will make its token available for purchase on an ongoing basis through its website.
Funds from those sales will go to the Civil Foundation, which provides grants to news publishers to help build the Civil network. The initial CVL crowdsale was intended to provide a large pot of Foundation funding, but after its failure, Civil funder Consensys committed over $3 million to make up for some of the shortfall. There are signs that newsrooms spun up by Civil are exploring non-crypto-economic funding avenues, though: Popula, for instance, is running a Kickstarter campaign.
The CVL token will allow holders to vote on a variety of administrative issues, including the management of a registry of newsrooms. If a newsroom is judged to be falling short of Civil’s standards of reporting, laid out in the Civil Constitution, the newsroom can be “challenged” by the community, and potentially removed from the network. Newsrooms must also stake CVL tokens to join the Civil network, and they can lose that stake if they’re found to be falling short.
What’s less clear in the current revamp is why readers will feel motivated to purchase CVL tokens.
Another element of the Civil roadmap will be adding more newsrooms to the platform, on top of the dozen or so journalism startups funded so far. In addition to access to the Civil Publisher tool, news operations that join Civil will receive modest grants of CVL tokens, largely to cover their initial staking cost. “This shouldn’t cost them anything,” CEO Matthew Iles tells BREAKER.
Community governance is core to Civil’s goal to improve the trustworthiness of the news, though there are significant concerns about its viability. One question, floated by blockchain journalist Laura Shin on the Civil-backed ZigZag podcast, is whether factions could be motivated by political agendas rather than a commitment to journalistic integrity. To address that possibility, the Civil Constitution implements a Civil Council to provide oversight and redress for newsrooms. Iles and Civil Foundation head Vivian Schiller (formerly head of NPR) hope the system will eventually build the Civil brand itself into a symbol of trustworthiness, tying together a large network of otherwise unaffiliated news operations. That’s a novel approach, even leaving aside blockchain’s role, and intuitively seems like a worthy addition to our globalized and fragmented information ecosystem.
What’s less clear in the current revamp is why readers will feel motivated to purchase CVL tokens. There will be, of course, some who truly want to participate in Civil’s governance, or just financially support news outlets. But even that generosity is strangely blunted by Civil’s setup, since funds are distributed through the Civil Foundation rather than going to specific sites. That could put CVL in direct market competition with BAT, a token specifically created to facilitate micropayments to publishers through the Brave web browser.
Muted demand for the CVL token would hamper the startup’s goal of revamping the way journalism works, both by limiting available funds, and reducing the economic motivations that Civil’s governance model partly depends on. The real-world potential of Civil’s ambitious, unorthodox approach will become clear soon enough: the Registry, Publisher tool, and CVL token will all go live in February of next year.