Why do journalists suck so bad at campaigning?

It’s not enough to tell people that you’re going to save journalism and they should get on board. Especially not if you are trying to sell the idea that the key to salvation is a complicated thing like blockchain — as the media startup Civil is learning the hard way.

Georg Dahm
Oct 13, 2018 · 4 min read
Andre Mouton on Unsplash

When fellow journalists ask me what I would do differently in my next crowdfunding campaign, I say: Don’t start before you can show your journalistic product. At least a prototype. Anything. But don’t just try to sell an idea. Because:

1. Explaining an idea is much harder and time-consuming than showing a product.

2. You tend to feel entitled to success because, hey, you presented the people with this great idea and now it’s their job to see just HOW great it is.

3. During the campaign your unproven claims will make a lot of people very suspicious, even hostile — just ask the good people at Krautreporter how much fun they had after carelessly mentioning that online journalism was “broken” and they would “fix” it.

4. You are bound to disappoint people when you roll out your product because they had imagined something entirely different.

So I neither envy nor really understand the people at the media startup Civil. They, too, are campaigning on an idea that will “fix” what’s “broken” in journalism. To make things worse, their approach is based on a concept that few people really understand: Blockchain. So basically it’s about saving the world by using something that has to with this Bitcoin thingy. Good luck communicating that.

Civil’s campaign centers around the idea that Blockchain technology can create new business models, help restore trust in journalism and get the audience to engage with it constructively. In a token sale — basically a way of buying stakes in the platform they want to build — Civil hopes to raise 8 Million Dollars. With one day to go they have raised just 1.4 Million, with 1.1 Million coming from a single investor. Civil needs a miracle, which they acknowledged in a blogpost this week — their first real comment on how the bad the sale is going.

Journalists can really suck at selling themselves and their ideas. And Civil is a prime example — not just in the aimless way their campaign is run, but in explaining the product. I listened to a whole season of ZigZag, the new podcast by the great team behind Note to Self that has joined Civil. I read through pages and pages of documents, attended a Civil webinar, visited a Blockchain Meetup and read up on other journalistic Blockchain projects until I a) understood what it’s all about and b) was able to participate in the Civil Token sale (which involves taking several quizzes that even people intimately involved with the project have repeatedly failed).

That’s a shame because once you get past the winding Medium posts and confusing graphics, the basic idea is compelling: Using Blockchain in publishing basically means that any piece of content you publish on the web gets a time stamp and a signature, so it can be neither deleted nor altered. And you can always track down the source, which is good for building trust. And you can attach rules to a content piece, for example regarding revenue shares for sharing or licensing which are automatically executed. And since Blockchain is all about encryption and privacy, it’s a good technology for developing business models that are not based on selling your data.

So these are aspects that are relatively easy to grasp. But Civil doesn’t stop there, they want to build a publishing ecosystem in which newsrooms and the people in the audience hold tokens — basically shares — which give them voting rights in deciding which newsrooms can join the platform or which content violates the rules which are formulated in a “Civil Constitution”. This is where things get very theoretical and confusing, with many unanswered questions like: How is this system supposed to be democratic and build trust when you can buy influence with money? Right now, for example, one company — Consensys — owns more than 12 percent of the tokens on sale.

The weird thing is: If you believe Civil’s blogpost, they wouldn’t have needed the token sale at this point. Only a third of all Civil tokens are on sale, the rest is owned by Civil and their publishing partners.The sale was intended to get peole involved, and to raise money for research, grants and more newsrooms. The actual platform development is funded by Civil’s investor Consensys.

In addition to the first fleet of newsrooms publishing on Civil, Forbes and AP have announced partnerships with Civil, so they could have just gone ahead and implement core aspects of the platform. That way they could have introduced the brand to a wider audience, i.e. by getting them used to seeing content with a Civil badge. They could have demonstrated how parts of the media business could run better on Blockchain technology. And from there Civil could have started to introduce the more complex aspects of their ideas, which could have led up to the token sale.

There will be a lot of “told you the blockchain idea sucks” after the sale fails. It’s a shame that Civil took this brute force approach in their campaign, because I feel that somewhere behind all the academic and whitepaper lingo there might be a way of trying out actual alternatives to the current way that digital journalism is distributed, discovered, rated and monetized. I’m looking forward to see how it plays out.

Georg Dahm

Written by

Journalist turned startup founder (failbetter.biz). I develop media and strategies, train, research and write.

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