Introducing “Radically Open Journalism”

Abstract.

A truly open news platform would inform everyday people on the issues that matter most to them while holding both institutional leaders and professional journalists accountable for their assertions. Fact-checking services and investigative groups shed some light on society’s most pressing and complicated topics, but the core problem is not addressed so long as journalism is funded primarily through a clicks-for-cash business model.

Our company is called Civil, and we propose a solution to this problem using a “radically open journalism” platform with a unique, direct-funding model.

Everyday people discover and follow issues important to them via a personalization method combining proprietary polling data and a platform-wide standard for cross-pollinating different perspectives. The platform provides access to all official information disseminated by institutional leaders as well as transparent research and analysis conducted by professional journalists. Everyday people advance the issues through public testimony or private polls, and can see how their leaders and journalists vote as well. Journalists are held to a code of conduct, which itself is open to regular review and amendment. Anyone may publicly challenge assertions for falsehoods, fraudulence or harmfulness with hard evidence and civil debate, and then an open adjudication process resolves and records the outcome for future reference.

The result of these interlocking processes is an independent, personal and open news platform that enables trustworthy news that matters.

1. Introduction

Journalism is essential for a free and just democracy because, in order to be free and just, people need to know what’s really going on. Yet this mission simply cannot succeed today because the primary business model is in gross misalignment. News on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on a clicks-for-cash business model, which has decimated local reporting and corroded the quality of national news. There have been many attempts to address the declining value of news: filtering algorithms to stave off fake news; higher-priced ad units disguised as bonafide content; easily gamed paywalls; as well as government-sponsored and non-profit organizations that understandably choose to avoid the business model problem altogether.

Until a self-sustainable form of funding quality journalism and civil debate is widely adopted, everyday people will increasingly distrust the government, the media and each other.

What is needed is an open news platform that compensates journalists based on quality news coverage, that generates revenue in an independent and scalable manner, and that bakes behaving ethically into the operating system itself. Journalists would invest time in thorough research, original analysis and impactful reporting instead of headlines and article formats meant to game pageviews when their livelihoods depend on the reviews and retention of their audience. Everyday people would benefit from a transparent, accountable and direct line of communication with their leaders and journalists. Leaders and journalists would benefit from access to analytics and targeting capabilities based on rich demographic and proprietary public opinion data. A system that rewarded exposing false or fraudulent information and that punished harmful or hateful content would lead to trustworthy news and civil debate. The platform works so long as a critical mass of people, journalists and leaders per location or vertical use it, and the group dynamics involved help spur growth and retention over time.

2. Issues

We define an “issue” as a repository of official policies and positions (via leaders); published research and analysis (journalists); and public opinion and testimony (everyday people). A leader may release a proposal, a journalist may conduct analysis on its potential impact, and people may respond via an opinion poll: This is one way to represent advancing an issue.

News is organized by “issue”, and certain users can contribute certain new content over time.

There are two major problems with how news cycles work now. First, people and leaders rarely communicate directly, so media organizations are often the only way people learn and evaluate official policies and positions, which invariably leads to transmission breakdowns and “soundbite journalism”. Second, media organizations sensationalize the news in order to generate cheap clicks for cash. Everyday people become deeply and bitterly divided based on where they get their news, unable to discuss the issues because nobody trusts each other’s sources.

We need a way for leaders to communicate directly with people, for journalists to analyze their positions, and for both groups to undergo public scrutiny. The best way to do this is for leaders and journalists to publish cited work to issue-specific repositories that are easy to find and follow, and where assertions can be supported and challenged by anyone.

3. Roles

Above all else, Civil serves everyday people. Everyone can discover and follow the issues that matter most to them; vote in opinion polls and offer testimony on any issue; communicate directly with relevant leaders and journalists, and publicly challenge their assertions; influence what journalists cover and how much they earn; and even shape Civil’s very own journalistic code of conduct.

When people become leaders either by election, appointment or some other means, or become journalists by an open application and introductory probation process, they obtain new privileges on Civil while forfeiting certain rights.

  • First, leaders and journalists may create new issues and opinion polls on Civil, but everyday people cannot.
  • Second, leaders and journalists may not submit testimony anonymously, whereas everyday people may do so under special circumstances.
  • Third, leaders and journalists must make their opinion poll answers public, whereas everyday people can keep these private.
  • Fourth, leaders and journalists can initiative conversations with anyone on Civil, whereas everyday people can only initiative conversations with leaders and journalists, though they can maintain their anonymity in the process.
This system is designed to empower leaders and journalists to do their work within a cooperative but occasionally opposing framework so that everyday people have easy access to all the information and tools they need to be informed and make decisions, while simultaneously preventing free-for-all incoherence and trolling from negatively impacting the overall user experience.

4. Personalization & Polling

Civil helps everyday people discover and follow the issues that matter most to them based on personal information and preferences such as zip code; tax bracket; family structure; and political leanings regarding ongoing current events and issues both local and national. We show everyday people issues followed by other people like them as well as issues followed by people with demonstrably different opinions. We make our personalization algorithm public, and everyday people can adjust some but not all aspects of it. We do this in order to stoke civil debate and prevent echo chambers.

Polls measure how everyday people think and feel about specific issues. Leaders and journalists can add new polls to any existing issue, and every new issue must be accompanied by at least one poll. When everyday people discover and follow an issue, they can participate in the relevant polls. Anyone can access and analyze the aggregated and anonymized poll data at any time.

Opposing leaders can contribute new proposals or positions and journalists can contribute new research or analysis to a specific issue, then everyday people can reaffirm or recast their votes accordingly. In this way, polls serve as the heartbeat for a given issue.

This means leaders and journalists can target everyday people on Civil using standard demographics as well as proprietary opinion poll data, and everyday people can choose to engage either anonymously or publicly.

5. Conversations & Testimony

Direct conversations between everyday people and the leaders and journalists who represent them is another cornerstone to how Civil works. This not only fosters compassion and accountability throughout the platform, but also it forms the basis for how we validate public testimony in our news.

Everyday people can start conversations with any leader or journalist on Civil, while leaders and journalists can use their access to demographic and poll data to start conversations with specific people. Everyday people cannot start conversations with other people, but they do control their privacy in conversations with leaders and journalists and are anonymous by default.

When leaders and journalists start a conversation, everyday people are initially represented only by their anonymous persona (i.e. demographic and opinion poll data). Occasionally, leaders and journalists want to quote what someone says in a conversation as public testimony to advance an issue, and people can consent to this by disclosing their identity. When everyday people choose to contribute public testimony to a specific issue, their poll answers for that issue are also made public. Everyday people can contribute public testimony anonymously only in very rare circumstances.

Everyday people control their privacy by toggling between their ‘persona’ and their ‘identity’.

6. Public Scrutiny

Leaders and journalists are expected to publish accurate information with good intent and civility. Anyone can challenge content for being in violation, and allegations undergo an open adjudication process. Violators may have their account suspended and a permanent record made on their public profile.

On accuracy, Civil uses what we call “trigger citations”, which means anytime a leader or journalist cites data or testimony, it triggers a notification to the original author so they can see how their contribution is being used. Should the original author challenge the usage for misrepresentation or misappropriation, this would trigger an immediate investigation.

Furthermore, anyone on Civil can challenge something on the basis of accuracy, but must provide documented evidence or public testimony to do so. This information is reviewed internally before a formal investigation is launched, and all challenges are eventually disclosed for public reference.

On good intent and civility, Civil combines algorithms that scan for hateful phrases with community tools that allow anyone to challenge something on the basis of fraudulent or harmful intent.

We vehemently champion free speech and expect an environment that fosters such to get heated from time to time. However, we believe civil debate should be passionate, not ugly.

If a leader’s or journalist’s contribution to a specific issue is challenged for good intent or civility, it will trigger a rapid review from randomly selected members of each role (leaders, journalists and everyday people). If the rapid review registers beyond a certain threshold of acceptability, there is a formal investigation.

All formal investigations are conducted by a panel of randomly selected members of each role, led by a Civil-trained moderator, and openly deliberated with participation from both violators and challengers. The panel may implement a range of actions, including long-term suspension for violators, penalties for petty challengers, or nothing at all. All decisions become easily referenced public record, and all decisions may be appealed once.

7. Revenue & Compensation

Civil generates revenue through a direct-funding model, which ensures our news remains independent. Here’s how it works:

  • First, everyday people pay a small monthly fee, which is converted into credits on Civil.
  • Second, every time people finish a piece of news, we ask them to rate it across a couple critical attributes with a single tap.
  • Third, based on their rating (and a few other factors), a small number of credits are automatically transferred to the individual journalist.
  • Fourth, journalists can also pitch everyday people in the community for a certain number of credits in advance for more intensive projects.

Most of people’s subscription fees go directly to the journalists they support, and Civil dedicates a significant portion of what’s left to provide free access to those in the community who can’t afford it.

Civil keeps a small percentage of revenue for itself so we can continue to build and grow a better news experience for all.

Civil sets an extremely high bar for journalists to join the platform. We would sooner not serve a certain location or vertical for lack of quality journalists than rush to open with mediocre talent.

Once on the platform, journalists undergo regular and random review by everyday people, leaders and other journalists. Their scores will be normalized and compared with their peers.

With that said, Civil takes a few factors into account in order to calculate a journalist’s compensation:

  1. The national market rate,
  2. Their geographical cost of living,
  3. Their reviews on Civil.

Our goal is to peg compensation for median-rated journalists on Civil to the 75th-percentile market rate, adjusted for each person’s unique cost of living. Top-rated journalists can earn up to 100th-percentile market rate and more, while consistently low-rated journalists will face internal review and possible expulsion.

8. Conclusion

We have proposed an independent, personal and open news platform without relying on a clicks-for-cash advertising model. We created a platform that directly connects leaders and journalists with the right people on the right issues using polling and personalization data while baking public scrutiny and thus ethical behavior into the operating system itself, but this still didn’t address the business model problem. To solve this, we proposed a direct-funding model with both passive and active payments to reward journalists for quality news. The platform combines elements of social media and decentralization to create a robust ecosystem of quality content along with interaction rules and personalization algorithms to deliver a safe, coherent and relevant experience. The platform can fund itself through managed growth to both its supply (leaders and journalists) and demand (everyday people), and will get better with scale in every significant way.


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For more on why we started Civil, go here.

Thank you so much for your support.