Blockchain: Can it “save” journalism?

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To know me is to know I can be a bit wonky. I find supreme pleasure in research, delight in taking a deep dive into a topic area and sharing the fascinating tidbits I discover with others. You can then imagine my excitement when the invitation arrived to spend a weekend in New York City learning about blockchain technology as part of my current Communications@Syracuse graduate program specializing in journalism innovation.

Okay great, so what is blockchain anyway?

In the words of Sean OConnor, Co-Founder and Product Lead at Saffron Solutions: “Blockchain began with a cryptocurrency and has turned into a movement to reinvent the way the web works.”

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Picture a global computer spreadsheet in which every cell, every ‘block’, every addition to the database is, as O’Connor puts it, “recorded permanently”.

Writing for StartupManagement.org Toronto-based venture advisor William Mougayar employs Google Docs as an analogy while explaining that “with the blockchain, a single ledger of transaction entries that both parties have access to can simplify the coordination and validation efforts, because there is always a single version of records, and not two disparate databases”.

Key Concept: Trust

“In the world of blockchain, trust and memory are built block by block.”

-Bernat Ivancsics, Columbia Journalism Review

Syracuse University Professor and New Media Management Director Stephen Masiclat stressed the importance of thinking about “trust”. A “breakdown in the economic systems”, explained Masiclat, is in part what drives innovation in blockchain technology.

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Masiclat was referring to the 2008 financial crisis. That was the global backdrop when an unknown individual named Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper outlining a new digital currency, bitcoin, that could be tracked via a digital ledger, the blockchain, for peer-to-peer transactions cutting out the middlemen, or what experts call “intermediaries”, to include financial institutions such as a bank.

“One of the most innovative features of the system is that every computer on the network can keep a copy of this record showing every transaction ever recorded,” -CBS News 60 Minutes ‘Bitcoin’s wild ride’ presented by Anderson Cooper

Blockchain + Journalism: The technology is being explored as a solution to issues ranging from generating much-needed revenue to combating disinformation.

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But what about journalism?

I had been following the blockchain media startup Civil and listening to the ZigZag Podcast produced by ‘journalists turned entrepreneurs’ Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant who documented the build-up and failure of Civil’s token sale.

“Civil aims to use blockchain and an ethereum-based token to breathe new life into the online news industry,” explained Brady Dale writing for Coindesk.com

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There have also been discussions on how blockchain technology could help combat what is expected to be a surge of manipulated videos called “deepfakes” ahead of the 2020 presidential election. “A decentralized ledger,” wrote Antonio García Martínez for WIRED magazine, “might help us know when we’re seeing the truth”.

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The answer may just be complicated. With humans as the data entry source point, I asked O’Connor, could a conspiracy theorist enter a patently false narrative on the blockchain and then tell his/her supporters it has been “verified” by the technology providing the falsehood a bit of modern digital-era sounding credibility? That’s exactly right he said.

Well if it may not be the miracle digital elixir to solve our disinformation woes, perhaps cryptocurrency could be a solution to collapsing business models providing a new revenue source in the form of micropayments “thus avoiding expensive credit card transaction fees that would normally render small payments (sometimes only a few cents) worthless,” explored Bernat Ivancsics in a comprehensive piece he wrote for Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) entitled “Blockchain in Journalism”.

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O’Connor tells me, don’t bank on it. There are a variety of reasons, but one big variable is that folks still don’t even quite get it. Take for example Civil’s failed initial coin offering. “People who are in a strong position to understand what Civil is doing — either because they are experts on blockchain technology or because they work for one of its newsrooms — have openly admitted that they don’t understand how the organization works.”, explained New York Times writer Jonah Engel Bromwich.

He said in the case of Civil’s initial coin offering, even if all that went wrong was addressed to include developing a clear message you still have this problem: “People don’t buy into blockchain applications unless they can make money. There is no evidence that people want to use it to “fix” journalism,” writes Bromwich, “There is also no evidence that anyone really understands how that would even work.”

“There is one constraint to the idea of having micropayments before even the introduction to having a cryptocurrency that can facilitate micropayments”, explained cryptoasset analyst at ARK Invest Yassine Elmandjra. “There is potentially a large cognitive load to being able to facilitate micropayments. What that means is that as a user, as a consumer, I don’t really want to think that I have to pay one decimal or one ten-thousandth of a currency to read a paper and so beyond just the technology barrier there’s also a cognitive barrier to micropayments”.

I end with Masiclat’s starting point that weekend: the concept of trust. One key takeaway is that finding the opportunity for using blockchain is in identifying the mistrust in a system or industry. In the heart of that mistrust, you find the seeds of blockchain as a potential solution.

During a time of growing mistrust in the media, it was great to be in conversation with Bloomberg News Senior Investigations Editor David Joachim about whether blockchain could be leveraged by news editors to “validate the data within the story to then validate the story”.

Early adopters will continue to pioneer projects to leverage the technology to help “fix” journalism’s trust and revenue challenges.

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“Civil’s plan is complex, but if it works, the way organizers hope,” writes Victor Tangermann for Futurism.com, “it might just usher in a new age of journalism.” While media startup advisor Phillip Smith reminds us that, “To judge [Civil] on its failed token sale is to overlook its very real wins for journalism.”

Meantime experts believe Facebook’s launch of Libra, a new digital currency, could help mainstream the idea of cryptocurrency. “Facebook’s entry into this market,” wrote Edan Yago on Coindesk.com, “means every single company now has to take cryptocurrency seriously. Companies around the world are now considering their cryptocurrency strategy.”

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So, can blockchain technology “save” journalism? In a nutshell: stay tuned.

Boomer Global Communications

This conversation doesn’t end here. As we think about ways to not just “save” journalism, but build the future of journalism, I would love to hear from you!

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Founder, Boomer Global Communications, LLC * Journalist + Media Consultant + Professional Development Strategist BoomerGlobal.com @BoomerGlobal @CBoomerVazquez