The “block” in the name of Block Club Chicago refers to the neighborhood-centric focus of the new community news site. But Block Club Chicago is leveraging blockchain technology just the same, using the platform for a subscription-based news site as part of what a new startup’s founders call a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism.”

“The blockchain unlocks a compelling new funding model that will allow us to introduce an ad-free marketplace for sustainable journalism,” says Matt Coolidge, co-founder of Civil, which is building a content distribution and subscription system atop the Ethereum platform whose use will be governed by its own cryptocurrency token (CVL).

Block Club Chicago is one of between 10 and 15 news sites that will be part of the Civil network when it launches this spring. Coolidge says the platform is focusing on supporting the types of journalism that have been hit hardest by the downsizing that has accompanied the shift to online, including local news, investigative reporting and international coverage. Among the sites that have announced plans to publish on Civil are Popula, an alternative news site; Sludge, an investigative journalism site focused on the locus of politics and money helmed by the founder of the nonprofit OpenCongress site; and Cannabis Wire, a site focused on the growing marijuana industry.

“This is about supporting journalism and not … [finding] a problem to put on top of the blockchain,” Coolidge tells ThirtyK. “If we can stand up and produce a sustainable funding model, our goal is to make quality journalism as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”

Token-Curated Registries: Governance and Value

There’s an irony in the notion that the volatile cryptocurrency market could finally provide the sustainable revenue model for online journalism that has eluded it for years. But Civil’s founders envision a dual-use model in which cryptocurrency will be used primarily for quality assurance and integrity, not subscription revenue. While individual newsrooms can opt to accept cryptocurrency, Civil’s online subscription platform will process transactions using credit cards tied to fiat currency—an option that takes advantage of a growing, if nascent, willingness among consumers to pay for subscriptions to news sites.

“Most people coming to these publications will not realize they’re interacting with any form of blockchain technology,” Coolidge says.

Instead, Civil’s token is seen as a tool for self-governance. News organizations seeking to join the platform will “stake,” or deposit, a cryptocurrency token as part of an agreement to follow ethical journalism practices. This agreement takes the form of a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain, and as with other “proof-of-stake” models, existing coin holders can challenge new entrants, staking their own currency to ensure they are acting in the best interest of the Civil community.

“The barrier to entry is not prohibitively high that a citizen journalist couldn’t join, but if I’m a spammer or malicious, it’s going to be prohibitively expensive and difficult to go through this process,” Coolidge says.

For example, a troll, spammer or hate group seeking to join Civil under false pretenses would forfeit the value of the token it submitted, while the existing token holders who challenged its application would share in the majority of that forfeited deposit as a reward.

The approach, which Civil calls a “token-curated registry,” makes the CVL cryptocurrency not only a store of value, but also a “voting mechanism,” Coolidge says. The process, he adds, provides economic incentives “to promote a far more trusted marketplace.”

‘Billionaire-Proofing’ the News

The blockchain also may offer a solution to another ongoing challenge online journalism faces—the loss of years of content when news sites are shuttered.

Recent decisions by investor-owners to shutter local news sites such as DNAinfo and Gothamist in a number of cities, as well as the high-profile lawsuit against Gawker orchestrated by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, have led to an interest in what journalists are calling “billionaire-proofing” journalism. In fact, Block Club Chicago’s founders include former staffers of DNAinfo Chicago, which was shut down with little warning by billionaire owner Joe Ricketts last fall, and Hmm Daily, another forthcoming Civil-powered site, is the brainchild of a former Gawker editor.

Along with the decentralized approach to governing Civil, the blockchain itself can provide an “immutable archive” of news content, Coolidge says. Civil’s content-management system will give publishers the opportunity to write text directly to the Ethereum blockchain, where, like all other blockchain transactions, it would be difficult if not impossible to alter or delete.

“It allows us to maintain archives that can’t be censored or altered after the fact. We can amend previous records only through addenda, in other words: not through erasure,” writes journalist and author Maria Bustillos, who is now editor-in-chief of Popula. “Blockchain technology is as valuable for the hidden tampering it forbids, as for the verifiable gathering and dissemination of information it permits.”

Bustillos also envisions the platform’s token-based governance extending to comments, which have themselves become a quagmire for journalism. For example, limiting comments to those who pay for subscriptions or have a stake in the platform would help reduce noise and deliberate misinformation from propagandists, bots and, as she puts it, “every Tom, Dick, and Yuri.” And commenters and subscribers, like publishers, have the potential to be rewarded for their stake in the publications they read and respond to.

“Imagine adding information to a news story you’re interested in, and not just getting thumbs up or ‘likes’ for it, but getting paid for it,” Bustillos writes. “Same with comments: make a comment that others find interesting, and your subscriber account can be credited with microtips that will accrue for as long as they continue to read and value your contribution. And, when someone comments, the microtipping system forwards a portion of every tip to all subscribers, meaning that all subscribers benefit from an active network.”

Breaking Through the Hype

Coolidge and Civil’s other founders worry that the current hype around cryptocurrency could drown out the potentially transformative nature of the “below-the-waterline” mechanisms that govern the platform and protect the content published on it.

Ultimately, it will be up to the journalists who publish on Civil to break through the noise and help the platform live up to its promise. Coolidge estimates the 10 to 15 sites that will be launch partners will represent approximately 100 full-time journalists—and, through the token model, stakeholders in both the Civil startup and the future of online journalism.

In Civil, “all decisions are driven by community consensus,” he says. “There’s no oligarchy of actors that can exercise their own interest and control.”

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.