Blockchain: What’s in it for the news industry?

The GEN Summit just opened its doors in Lisbon. One of the first sessions ‘Blockchain: The missing link between news and monetisation’, saw Civil’s Daniel Sieberg and Hubii’s Jacobo Toll-Messia discuss the hyped-up technology. The session was moderated by David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors.

© Rainer Mirau for GEN

Is blockchain the most interesting topic in media right now?

Blockchain, ethereum, mining, cryptocurrencies, tokens: these have all become buzzwords in many industries. Companies are pivoting to launch ICO’s and particularly the end of 2017 saw everyone scrambling to give their two cents on the topic.

While we’ve been mostly fixated on what the term blockchain actually means and what the technology does, Daniel Sieberg, Jacobo Toll-Messia, along with moderator David Schlesinger (adviser to Hubii), gave some insight into how blockchain will provide value for the news industry in the long run. The main topics of their session at this year’s GEN Summit included micropayments, the removal of the middleman, and the technology’s fact-checking potential.

Toll-Messia, Sieberg, Schlesinger © Rainer Mirau for GEN

Before we dive in, Civil is a newsroom platform that uses blockchain technology and cryptoeconomics to create a marketplace for journalists and readers. It is self-governing, so readers can directly sponsor journalists through Civil’s cryptocurrency, creating an entirely new ecosystem for news.

‘We’re not blockchain company — we’re a journalism company that sees value in blockchain’, said Sieberg.

Hubii started off as an aggregator for local news and decided to augment its existing business with blockchain technology to create a marketplace for journalists. The company is also looking to build an entirely new ecosystem that focuses on monetising, content creation, and content verification.

How does blockchain actually bring value to the news industry, then?

‘Let’s take everything you know of journalism that you don’t like: broken ad models, trolls etc, put it in a box for a minute and start all over again’, said Sieberg.
  • Nothing disappears

With many news organisations shutting shop overnight, journalists are seeing their work disappear. According to Sieberg, one of the key pieces about blockchain is the idea that content is distributed over hundreds of thousands of computers, meaning that it has a permanence to it. In other words, nothing ever gets lost.

  • Everyone can get involved

Through tokens, an entire ecosystem can be built, meaning that people have the chance to be involved in the future of journalism, said Sieberg.

According to Sieberg, the underlying technology means that content can be held accountable for veracity and quality. A good way of understanding a blockchain based marketplace is by looking at the Wikipedia model: most of us use it every day, but only one or two percent care so much that they get involved in the verification process.

‘With Civil, most people will hopefully just consume great news content’, said Sieberg. However, people can help verify news content and are rewarded through micropayments. A whitelist of trusted news producers and fact-checkers who have been approved through tokens (ie by the community) will follow.

  • Power to independent journalists

Schlesinger pointed out that the decentralised payment system will benefit independent journalists. ‘This depends on getting smart contracts right and getting the smart payments right’, he said.

‘What is very important for the industry to comprehend is that blockchain is something to remove the middle guy. You have the writer, the content, and the public, why put someone in the middle?’, asked Toll-Messia.

How long until the news industry goes fully blockchain?

Sieberg said that there is a global and regulatory issue that needs to be paid attention to as we head towards blockchain. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: What do consumers expect when they purchase cryptocurrencies? How are they protected?

‘Embrace these questions’, added Sieberg. ‘For people to be comfortable, we need to build trust and provide education’.

‘People need to desensitise about that word — it’s just technology’, Tollo-Messia added.

Will there be winners and losers?

Schlesinger pointed out that given the hype around ICO’s, there’s a danger that lots of different companies will try to come up with different blockchain solutions. This might result in ’37 media tokens flying around’, companies trying to compete for a segment of the micropayment space, and consumers being incredibly confused about who the best players are.

‘Will there be one or two winners?’, asked Schlesinger. ‘Is there room for multiple solutions using blockchain technology?’

Sieberg believes in the latter. He announced that Civil will be partnering with NevaLabs, a personalised content curation tool that rewards users for their time, rather than providing an endless scrolling experience.

‘Blockchain is an opportunity for the industry. Beyond the wafty platitudes, we want to bring a lot of folks into the ecosystem’, Sieberg added. ‘We won’t be the only people figuring this out, which is why we’re excited about NevaLabs’.

Publishers, pay attention!

Toll-Messia and Sieberg both seem confident that blockchain is here to stay.

According to Toll-Messia, cryptoeconomics can very well help build a new business model for news. He advised that publishers need to be open-minded and embrace the technology early, seeing as it has the ability to eradicate them.

‘In ten years time, there may not be any publishers anymore’, he told us after the session.

Sieberg added that journalists need to continue to ask questions about the motivations of companies operating within the blockchain space.

‘Blockchain is the building block of the next generations of journalists’, concluded Schlesinger.