Meet Civil, the blockchain-based journalism marketplace that’s been confusing the media for the last two years, ever since it went public in the summer of 2017. Funding for journalism is somewhat scarce these days due to a combination of various factors, including less investment, decreasing ad revenue and consumers’ increasing reluctance to pay for their news when they can get it for free on social media. However, journalists still need to get paid for their work so the industry has started trying to get creative.
Put as simply as possible, blockchain is a series of digital information (the blocks) stored in a public database (the chain). Blocks are made up of three things: information about transactions; information about the people or entities involved in a transaction, using a unique digital signature devoid of any identifying information; and information that distinguishes blocks from other blocks so that identical transactions aren’t mixed up with one another. When a new block is added to the blockchain, it becomes publicly available for anyone to view and users can sign up to connect their computer to the blockchain in order to receive automatic updates when a new block is added. Each computer in the blockchain network holds a copy of the blockchain, creating thousands of copies and making the information incredibly hard to manipulate. Cryptocurrency protocols are often built on blockchain – they are essentially electronic cash systems that are fully peer-to-peer, without the involvement of a trusted third party, such as banks or governments who are usually involved in such systems.When Civil was first announced, the cryptocurrency boom – symbolised by Bitcoin’s ascendency into the zeitgeist – was in its early days. The start-up described itself as a “self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. This would be achieved via a new blockchain-based token called CVL, which would act as a combination currency/governance structure/voting mechanism. As a general rule, journalists aren’t the most tech-savvy people in the world (the majority of us come from liberal arts backgrounds) and many were confused about what Civil actually was, but nevertheless it launched a decent number of newsrooms that actually started putting out some good work.
The official sale of CVL tokens was originally scheduled for late 2017 but was pushed back to September 2018 and failed badly. It raised less than 20 percent of its minimum goal, mostly due to the confusing 44-step process for buying said tokens – which looked utterly ridiculous when compared with, say, Amazon’s one-click purchase mechanism. However, the folks behind Civil returned to the drawing board and launched a slightly less complicated version on 6 March 2019 with only 33-steps. Basically, they removed functions that meant purchasers had to leave and return to the Civil site multiple times during the process, made the steps and language used to describe them much clearer, and asks you to pass one quiz opposed to the previous two it required. It’s still incredibly complicated when compared with most online shopping experiences or digital overseas transfers but at least this time around there’s no deadline to buy; instead, the sale will end when – or if – Civil sells a total of 34 million tokens.
There are several reasons why someone might be interested in purchasing CVL tokens and they haven’t really changed with the revamp (spoiler alert: profit doesn’t feature on the list at all, although it may do in the future, depending on how the currency fares). The most compelling is also the most obvious: it offers the opportunity to be involved in a news distribution platform that is owned by the participants (as opposed to a rich media mogul), who govern each other and promise to engage in ethical journalism (unlike some of those aforementioned rich media moguls). If you buy your tokens directly from Civil, rather than on the open market, you’re also supporting the Civil Foundation, which in turn supports several newsrooms. That said, it’s now possible to make donations to those newsrooms with your credit card, sans tokens. However, you can also use your tokens to tip Civil’s journalists and newsrooms, and at the US$1,000 level you can start your own Civil newsroom and unlock various blockchain-related publishing tools.
This is obvious value to a virtually incorruptible money trail, direct connections to readers, reduced reliance on third party tech companies (such as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which have been known to accidentally encourage the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories by promoting so-called “fake news”), and ease of access to financing. However, in addition to these advantages Civil has also billed itself as a way for journalists to fight censorship around the globe. Because changes made to the blockchain are all a matter of public record, third parties such as governments will be unable to alter the information stored in it without notice. In theory, this means no one will be able to prevent these organisations from publishing what they want to publish. However, Civil will first have to deal with baggage inherited from ongoing turmoil and distrust in cryptocurrency markets, and a lack of understanding concerning the underlying technology and processes.