What if the news were run by the people?

Edit (6/21/17): Our team has since published an update to this thought-starter called “Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism”, which lays out our latest plans for building the first truly decentralized journalism platform.


“If you are trying to solve an unconventional problem, dare to try an unconventional solution.” — Larry Sanger, Wikipedia co-founder

I’ve been trying to develop a new operating model for journalism, because it seems so obvious we need one. I’ve thought on and off about this idea for several years, more intensely over the past few months.

Some questions I think worth asking:

  • Why is it so hard to fund good journalism, especially when Facebook, Snapchat and other advertising/media-tech players are doing well?
  • Why is the news ecosystem flooded with fake news, trolls and noise?
  • Why does our fragmenting media landscape seem so connected to our increasingly polarized world?
Credit: FairPress.eu

I believe we need a radically new paradigm for journalism, which I define as the transparent exchange of vetted information and civil debate so people can make sense of the world and how to operate within it.

I will describe a new model that fuses journalistic governance into a decentralized, member-owned information exchange.

I believe this could severely challenge echo chambers, bubbles and propaganda; effectively enforce strict sourcing and attribution policies at scale; provide better access and annotations to primary sources such as public datastreams as well as official government and corporate documents; conduct large-scale and verifiable public opinion polls; give life once more to local journalism via neighborly contributions; enable remote media creators to spontaneously form groups to tell rich, multimedia stories; support a good living for full-time contributors; and much, much more.

I call this project Civil.


“The media environment we’ve got”

“Increasingly more a site of coordination” — Clay Shirky, Internet sociologist

At first, I thought social media itself held the answer. I’ve always been fascinated with the world-changing potential of social media, inspired most by Clay Shirky.

Excerpts from his talk “How social media can make history” via TED Global (emphasis mine):

“The Internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time.”
Media is increasingly less just a source of information, and it is increasingly more a site of coordination.”
“[It] isn’t whether or not that is the media environment we want to operate in. That’s the media environment we’ve got. The question we all face now is, ‘How can we make best use of this media?’ Even though it means changing the way we’ve always done it.”

This was July 2009, nearly 8 years ago. Facebook was 5 years old, Twitter had just turned 3, and Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat didn’t exist yet.

So have we made the best use of this media? Frankly, I don’t think we’re even close.

One major problem is that network business models don’t care about good journalism. News institutions rely on social media and other clicks-for-cash platforms to accumulate and monetize reach, which creates economic incentives and disincentives in gross misalignment with journalistic principles.

After all, most networks don’t ask many questions about what flows through their pipes, just as long as it pays. I mean, how else can you explain Outbrain and Taboola?


No reason to care about good journalism

“Because news outlets have to do this to survive.” — Sean Blanda, Former Director 99U

Many people have written about the business model challenges facing journalism today, but no one articulates it better than Sean Blanda in “Medium, and The Reason You Can’t Stand the News Anymore” (emphasis mine):

“The methods used to fund modern journalism simultaneously undermine trust in the news outlets.”
“You can draw a straight line from the bad incentive structure forced upon news outlets to the unprecedented divisiveness in our country.”
“A piece of news content that spreads has a better business value to the news outlet than one that is journalistically sound…. News outlets have to do well on social media in order to make money…. It’s better to have more content than less, so lots of disposable stuff is written quickly, with little regard to what it adds to discourse. Virality requires a visceral emotional reaction by the reader, regardless of nuance or truth.”
“Americans are being played against one another because our media consumption is reinforcing the idea that we’re more different than alike. Because that’s what shares. Because that’s what builds their social media reach. Because that’s what results in better scale for native and programming advertising. Because news outlets have to do this to survive.”
“Facebook collects the ad money. Advertisers get the clicks. News outlets live to fight another day. No group has any incentive to change and the rest of us are left fighting it out.”
“Facebook, Google and Twitter (but especially Facebook) don’t make any more money by supporting journalism. The worst ‘fake news’ ever written is that these companies somehow have a reason to care about good journalism.”

So if you’re convinced, like Sean and me, that advertising is an intrinsically poisonous way to fund journalism, then what?

This journalism-business-model debate has raged for years, of course, but always comes down to two pillars: advertising and subscription.

  • Advertising — commercials, programmatic, sponsored, native.
  • Subscriptions — deliveries, bundles, paywalls, micropayments.

But subscriptions don’t work either! First, they don’t eliminate echo chambers, bubbles and propaganda because people can just subscribe to perspectives they like and ignore the rest. Second, subscriptions are inherently exclusionary, and journalism should be a common good accessible to all.

It’s true, certain outlets have and will build strong businesses on subscription models — I especially expect direct-to-consumer media personality brands to start proliferating more — but it’s not a system-wide solution to the existential threat facing journalism as a whole.

(For what it’s worth, individual non-profits can do fantastic journalism as well, but I don’t believe philanthropy is a viable system-wide solution either because it’s not self-sustaining.)

So if every news institution wrestles between these two forms of survival — advertising and subscription — then the real issue is that these two pillars are obsolete.(1)

This means we need to operationalize quality journalism without advertising or subscription. But how?


Upgrading journalism’s tolerance for complexity

“Journalism was an answer to an even more important question, which is, how will society be informed?”— Clay Shirky

I figure the answer must lie in reimagining how people organize and work together toward effectuating journalism. I’m specifically a fan of ‘emergent organizational theory.’

I first became fascinated in this space when I read “Holacracy” by Brian Robertson. He has remarkable insights into common organizational failures and bold ideas for reshaping how companies work. This led me to Frederic Laloux and his book “Reinventing Organizations.”

You can’t miss the first 25 minutes. Laloux stunningly codifies the history of human organizations into 4 discrete breakthroughs. Then he describes a pattern for a new organizational model emerging independently among a diverse set of companies all around the world. Laloux coined these “teal organizations,” but more widely the idea of emergent/adaptive organizations has been discussed from Zappos to Medium to Harvard Business Review to Beth Comstock at GE and to organizational consultancies like August and Chapter.(2)

Laloux explains that teal organizations share 3 totally new organizing principles. The most important one here is self-management. I’ll let Laloux explain (emphasis mine):

“These organizations manage to operate at very large scales, some of them have thousands, tens of thousands of people, entirely without the pyramid, entirely without anyone being the boss of anyone else…. What I found out is that the truth is: Yes, you need structure, but no, you don’t need a boss.”
“Hierarchy works okay in environments with low complexity…. But as soon as you have high complexity, hierarchy is simply out of its depth.”
“Hierarchy always stacks up in a pyramid, and pushes all that complexity up to the top, and there’s only so much complexity the few people at the top can handle, can work with.”
“If you look at all truly complex systems that exist in the world today, they all operate with mechanisms more powerful than hierarchy.”

When I hear ‘complexity’ today, I immediately think of journalism. There’s now new information about everything from everywhere all the time, and we can’t parse it all so we rely on hierarchical institutions to synthesize what is going on. But our only available business models to support these institutions come with tremendously negative externalities.

Laloux explains examples of emergent complex systems such as the global economy, the human brain, and morning traffic, but his last one — a forest — is the most poetic (emphasis mine):

“A forest is an incredibly complex ecosystem. It looks kind of simple. We see these big trees. But there’s really everything from massive trees to billions of micro-organisms.”
“All of that works in some sort of magic. If the winter comes in early, all of that system will change at the same time and exchange information.”
“There isn’t one massive tree that says, ‘Hey, I’m the CEO’. That says to everyone else, ‘Hey, you! Freeze! Don’t do anything! Me and my buddy trees from the executive committee, we’ll come up with a plan. And when we’re ready, we’ll tell you what to do.’ That’s just not how complex systems work.”
“I have no doubt that as the world is becoming more and more complex, we will naturally have to shift the way we run organizations to principles that underlie all of these complex systems.”

To understand how this could work for journalism, let’s go back to Clay Shirky in a TED Talk titled “Institutions vs collaboration” (emphasis mine):

“Because the cost of letting groups communicate with each other has fallen through the floor — and communication costs are one of the big inputs to coordination —[we can] put the cooperation into the infrastructure, to design systems that coordinate the output of the group as a by-product of the operating of the system, without regard to institutional models.”
“I think this is a revolution. I think that this is a really profound change in the way human affairs are arranged.”
“As much as we want it — we want a professional class of truth-tellers — it is becoming increasingly incoherent, because the institution is becoming incoherent.”
“There are people in the States right now tying themselves into knots, trying to figure out whether or not bloggers are journalists. And the answer to that question is, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the right question.
“Journalism was an answer to an even more important question, which is, how will society be informed? How will they share ideas and opinions?”
“If there is an answer to that that happens outside the professional framework of journalism, it makes no sense to take a professional metaphor and apply it to this distributed class.”

I envision baking Laloux’s and Shirky’s ideas of complex systems and coordinated individual efforts into a social media network with the sole purpose of effectuating a network-level definition of journalism, which I define as:

Journalism is the transparent exchange of vetted information and civil debate so people can make sense of the world and how to operate within it.

What if we decentralized as much of the journalistic process as possible to sidestep the institutional externalities, while implementing enough structure to derive coherence and to enforce must-have principles such as integrity and civility?

What if we could — together — define what valuable participation on this platform looks like, thus enabling a new operating model altogether?


A decentralized-first solution to journalism

“This business model is uniquely enabled by the combination of the internet and cryptocurrency.” — Fred Ehrsam, co-founder Coinbase (5)

I believe the answer lies in blockchain, the revolutionary technology underlying Bitcoin. The key things I want to draw from this are 1) programmatically enforceable governance (“smart contracts”), and 2) an economic ecosystem to grease the transparent exchange of vetted information and civil debate.

Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics and (with son Alex) Blockchain Revolution, explained how blockchain works in a recent TED Talk called “How the blockchain is changing money and business” (emphasis mine):

“What if there were not only an internet of information, what if there were an internet of value — some kind of vast, global, distributed ledger running on millions of computers and available to everybody. And where every kind of asset, from money to music, could be stored, moved, transacted, exchanged and managed, all without powerful intermediaries? What if there were a native medium for value?”
“It’s called blockchain. People everywhere can trust each other and transact peer to peer. And trust is established, not by some big institution, but by collaboration, by cryptography and by some clever code.”

He introduces Vitalik Buterin’s ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency network after Bitcoin and the most innovative and enabling force for imagining other uses for blockchain outside of finance because of its use of smart contracts (emphasis mine):

“It’s a contract that self-executes, and the contract handles the enforcement, the management, performance and payment — the contract kind of has a bank account, too, in a sense — of agreements between people.”
“What if, rather than Airbnb being a $25 billion corporation, there was a distributed application on a blockchain, we’ll call it B-Airbnb, and it was essentially owned by all of the people who have a room to rent. And when someone wants to rent a room, they go onto the blockchain database and all the criteria, they sift through, it helps them find the right room. The blockchain helps with the contracting, it identifies the party, it handles the payments just through digital payments — they’re built into the system. It even handles reputation, because if she rates a room as a five-star room, that room is there, and it’s rated, and it’s immutable.”(3)

Blockchain researcher Bettina Warburg connects blockchain’s potential to Laloux on managing complex systems and Shirky on institutions in the TED Talk “How the blockchain will radically transform the economy” (emphasis mine):

“As our societies grew more complex and our trade routes grew more distant, we built up more formal institutions, institutions like banks for currency, governments, corporations. These institutions helped us manage our trade as the uncertainty and the complexity grew, and our personal control was much lower. Eventually with the internet, we put these same institutions online. We built platform marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, just faster institutions that act as middlemen to facilitate human economic activity.”
“We are now entering a further and radical evolution of how we interact and trade, because for the first time, we can lower uncertainty not just with political and economic institutions, like our banks, our corporations, our governments, but we can do it with technology alone.”
“I think it’s closest in description to something like Wikipedia.”
“Blockchains allow for us to create an open, global platform on which to store any attestation about any individual from any source.”
“Blockchains give us the technological capability of creating a record of human exchange.”

If you’re like me, these technological possibilities should be ringing your journalistic bells. Let me articulate 3 significant ways I imagine Civil leveraging blockchain to usher in a new paradigm for journalism.

First, content is immutable. Everything everyone publishes publicly on Civil is on the record, meaning no one can edit or delete anything, only amend.

Second, identity is immutable…. So everyone will always know what everyone else has published, forever.

What if data collected on contributors could provide greater transparency for members, so you always know the full identity and political leanings of your news sources?

What if we could programmatically recommend content and authors from “both sides” so people are always exposed to opposing viewpoints as well?

Think of the policies we could design to thwart negative externalities such as bias, echo chambers and fake news!

…but identity is also totally private. I imagine income-earning contributors necessarily disclosing their identities and personal biases so people know who’s providing their news, but I see everyday people taking advantage of all the data-driven benefits of large networks such as personalized discovery algorithms without ever having to give up their true identity to anyone.

What if someone could provide verifiable proof they are who they say they are (e.g. works for X, is connected to Y) without having to disclose their full identity to anyone, including the journalist, in order to validate a quotation?

Third, cryptocurrency policy designs network behavior.

Cryptocurrency is the most important attribute of blockchain systems by far. It’s the programmatic and economic way to (per Shirky) “design systems that coordinate the output of the group as a by-product of the operating of the system.”

Pre-blockchain, Internet-enabled complex systems such as Wikipedia were achieved sheerly through volunteer effort, but blockchain enables organizations to fuse economic incentives with network-strengthening actions and economic disincentives for network-weakening actions.

The enabling concept here is to think of the decentralized network like a traditional company where members want to earn or buy equity in the organization because 1) ownership bestows agency through shareholder voting, and 2) the equity’s liquid value is expected to increase over time.

Long-time Bitcoin/blockchain executive Fred Ehrsam calls this “projects creating own economic ecosystems to make the entire thing tick.”

“Businesses that are based on network effects will start to be built ‘decentralized first.’ This will look much like how some businesses started to be built ‘internet first’ in the late 1990s or ‘mobile first’ in the late 2000s.”
“In this model there is no central controlling company, and has shared contributions and ownership by all involved. This business model is uniquely enabled by the combination of the internet and cryptocurrency.
“You give people partial ownership of the network. Just like equity in a startup, it is more valuable to join the network early because you get more ownership. Decentralized applications do this by paying their contributors in their token. And there is potential for that token (partial ownership of the network) to be worth more in the future.”

I believe the answer to a new operating model for journalism lies within cryptocurrency and decentralized ownership.


What if the news were run by the people?

Civil wants to be a massively decentralized, democratically operated and member-owned news organization.

What if we could require contributors to take a “Hippocratic oath for journalism”, which could be programmatically defined, upheld and amended by the community at large through smart contracts, with violators facing network-access and economic sanctions?(5)

What if all Civil members have responsibility to the community at large?Think of it like jury duty. Maybe sometimes you’ll be asked to fact-check some content or take a new poll before gaining access to the rest of the app. Every time you strengthen the network, you earn a little bit of newly minted tokens. This token would have functional attributes within the network and could also be bought/sold for other currencies (Bitcoin, U.S. dollars, etc.) in a market-driven exchange.

Best of all, because Civil members would effectively own shares in the organization, everyone should want to earn as much as possible from strengthening the network because they stand to gain from its long-term stability and growth.

Taken all together, I believe this model — fusing journalistic governance into a blockchain-operated information exchange — could severely challenge echo chambers, bubbles and propaganda; effectively enforce strict sourcing and attribution policies at scale; provide better access and annotations to primary sources such as public datastreams as well as official government and corporate documents; conduct large-scale and verifiable public opinion polls; give life once more to local journalism via neighborly contributions; enable remote media creators to spontaneously form groups to tell rich, multimedia stories; support a good living for full-time contributors; and much, much more.

Let’s change the world

How we can make Civil happen together

I’m not exactly sure where to go from here, but that’s the beauty of being decentralized first! I’m not supposed to come up with all the answers on my own. That’s where you come in.

As I see it, there are 3 phases to building Civil:

Phase 1: Community formation and governance — We need a large group of people to demonstrate interest in Civil. The more people who pledge to participate in some way, the more valuable the network promises to eventually become, which will draw more people to pledge, and so on. This will help overcome the chicken-and-egg problem that all new networks face.

Civil’s primary objective is to draft and adopt a constitution.

We will get this wrong! What’s important is that we keep it as lean as possible so as not to choke the system with too many rules upfront, and encode enough flexibility and agility into it so we can make amendments as we go. We’ll also need to determine the platform’s cryptocurrency policy upfront, which will prepare us for the next phase.

Phase 2: Cryptocurrency crowdsale — Think of this like backing a Kickstarter project, except you’ll become a part-owner in the platform. This is how we’ll fund the project, instead of relying on venture capitalists.

Phase 3: Product launch — With an invested community, ratified governance and value-exchange mechanism in place, then we’ll be able to launch a product interface to make the whole thing work. In fact, I imagine open-sourcing the underlying data infrastructure itself and inviting free-market competition for front-end apps to sit on top (much like how all those Twitter clients helped fuel Twitter’s growth in the early days).

I’m sure these objectives can be worked on in parallel to some degree, and I know we’ll make tons of mistakes along the way.

As long we work together in pursuit of a shared purpose, there is no doubt we can change the world together.

Calls to action

  1. Get on the mailing list and join our Slack community.
  2. Email me at matthew@joincivil.com if you’re interested in contributing to Civil. Soon, I’ll open a project roadmap for everyone to see what needs to get done, propose new ideas, and pitch in.
  3. Recommend this article and share it via Facebook, Twitter or email. We need lots of supporters to make this work.
  4. Ask questions, poke holes, offer solutions! Tell me one major concern you have with this concept, and how we might potentially solve it.

About me

I’m Matthew Iles. Learn more about me on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect!

Credits

Sean Blanda, Fred Ehrsam, Frederic Laloux, Yves Moreiux, Larry Sanger, Clay Shirky, Alex Tapscott, Don Tapscott, Bettina Warburg.

Inspiration

I didn’t reference any of their work specifically here, but these people have been highly influential to my thinking: Eric Ries, steve blank, Brian Robertson, Jay Rosen, Charlie O'Donnell, Fred Wilson, Marc Andreessen, bhorowitz, Chris Dixon, Peter Thiel, Vitalik Buterin, Frederic Filloux, Alex Moazed, Nicholas L. Johnson, Sangeet Paul Choudary, Jason Fried, DHH, John Wooden.

Acknowledgements

I have to thank my close friends Chris Crowley, Matt Coolidge, Ryan Zampardo, Alex Hardy, Ed Staples, Steph Soussloff, Lillian Ruiz, Jono Schafler, Eric Richmond, Stefan Pepe as well as my family for all their support and oxygen-like feedback.

Dedication

This research and this vision is dedicated to my immensely supportive and remarkably brilliant wife, Katie Neufeld Iles. You are the most amazing woman in the world. I love you.


Footnotes

(1) I used as a template here Yves Morieux’s incredible explanation of the obsolescence of both hard and soft management pillars in his TED Talk “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify.”

(2) On new organizational models: Zappos, Medium, Harvard Business Review (i, ii), Beth Comstock, August, Chapter.

(3) There’s already an organization trying to decentralize ridesharing with varying degrees of success and controversy called Arcade City. Read more about it here, here and here.

(4) I first heard of this idea in Lara Setrakian’s TED Talk “3 ways to fix a broken news industry

(5) Fred Ehrsam first introduced me to the term “decentralized-first” here.

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