In Bid To Save Local Journalism, New Project Aims To Replace Billionaires With Cryptocurrency
The Denver Post wasn’t dying, says Larry Ryckman; it was being murdered.
“We were under attack by our own owners,” says Ryckman, who was until recently senior editor of news at the newspaper.
He says it all began when the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital bought the Post. There were some layoffs. Then there were more. Then the paper’s owner decided to move its offices from downtown Denver to a building one county over.
“It's just a building. I can work anywhere,” Ryckman says he thought at the time. “It's better to lose a building than to lose people.”
But then came the big blow: A third of the newsroom was cut.
Finally, says Ryckman, something even more ominous happened: censorship of stories about the whole ordeal.
“And to me that was the final straw,” says Ryckman.
Around the same time, a new media company called Civil reached out to Ryckman with an offer. Matt Coolidge, a cofounder of Civil Media Company, says his team told Ryckman, “We want to give you a new home.”
The group aims to create a new place for journalism to live that doesn’t involve billionaire publishers and hedge funds.
“What we are ultimately trying to do is connect buyers and sellers. In this case, buyers just so happen to be those who want to read and support journalism, and sellers are journalists,” he says.
Coolidge and his colleagues had been watching as local publications across the country got sliced up after their owners decided they weren’t profitable enough.
“The San Antonio Express. The Miami Herald. The Kansas City Star. The San Jose Mercury News. The Oregonian. I could go on for another probably half hour on this,” says Coolidge. “The common thread there is that none of these once-venerated newsrooms are in control of their own destiny.”
At the Denver Post, Ryckman was intrigued. He says it sounded like working with Civil would give them a fighting chance.
“And a fighting chance is more than we had working for a hedge fund,” he says.
With initial funding from Civil, Ryckman and nine other staffers left The Denver Post and went rogue. They started a new publication, The Colorado Sun, which Ryckman says is 100 percent owned by the journalists who started it. They’re now back in downtown Denver, in a 14th-floor coworking space within eyeshot of the old Denver Post building.
The Sun is one of 14 newsrooms working with Civil across the U.S. and Asia, including an alt-weekly based in Los Angeles and a news site devoted to immigrant issues in New York City.
In preparation for their September launch, the staff at The Colorado Sun are addressing some predictable questions: How to respond to Twitter trolls criticizing their first story? How to budget for photography? What to tell the senior citizens calling to request a print copy of their digital-only publication?
But they’re also grappling with some less typical questions like how to buy a brand-new type of cryptocurrency.
This is where Civil’s model starts to get complicated.
Here’s the gist of what Civil wants to do: First, give new publications some funding to get started and create a space where people can find quality journalism. Second, store that content so that it can’t be meddled with by any one individual, and finally -- in a whole other twist -- create a game, based on cryptocurrency, that would incentivize people to participate in a virtual democracy based on that content. This democracy would have its own constitution and even something like a Supreme Court to keep trustworthy newsrooms on the platform and boot out publications that aren’t doing a good job.
It all hinges on something called CVL tokens.
“What Civil is trying to do at its core is build a platform economy,” says Matt Coolidge. “Our website is going to be a marketplace of newsrooms, and in that way you can think of it similar to Netflix or Hulu, where you go somewhere to discover quality content that is curated within this marketplace that you know and trust as being a destination for engaging media.”
Unlike with Netflix or Hulu, however, consumers will not merely be passive subscribers. A certain subset of them will be actively involved in curating what content goes there.
People will buy CVL tokens using real money for, at most, 94 cents each. The process involves passing a tough quiz about cryptocurrency and submit proof of their identities. They can then use those tokens to vote for newsrooms on the platform that they think are doing a good job. Alternatively, they can also vote what they consider bad newsrooms off the island.
Coolidge says Civil has essentially made vetting good journalism into a game.
“It could be called 'Spot the unethical newsroom and keep it off of this platform,'” he says.
But he stresses it won’t be mob rule. Token holders can’t just vote against newsrooms because they don’t fit their point of view.
“We have created a ruleset for this economic game and this is a document called the Civil Constitution,” says Coolidge.
That constitution says there is an objective truth and journalists on the platform cannot knowingly produce misinformation. Token holders who support these rules by challenging an unethical newsroom can get rewarded in cryptocurrency.
“If Civil really takes off one of its most significant early applications is going to just be breathing life back into the local news ecosystem,” says Coolidge.
But, how, exactly, might Civil save local newsrooms?
“I still don't quite understand it,” says Shan Wang, a staff writer with the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.
Her job is to think about the future of journalism.
“The promise is an entire separate ecosystem, essentially of indie publications,” says Wang.
But how Civil will help newsrooms succeed financially, she says, is still murky.
Civil expects the virtual world of token holders and cryptocurrency to account for just one sliver of their newsrooms’ audience and revenue. Coolidge says most readers (or viewers or listeners) will interact with Civil newsrooms as usual, reading articles on a news site and supporting publications with regular dollars.
“You could very easily go to a newsroom and not even realize that blockchain or crypto(currency) plays any role whatsoever,” he says. The only unusual thing readers might notice is a little watermark in the corner of a page that says, “This newsroom runs on Civil.”
Even Coolidge doesn’t expect newsrooms to subsist on virtual transactions.
“Civil is not how you're going to pay newsrooms,” he says.
Publications working with Civil will still have to come up with a way to make regular dollars in the regular, non-virtual world, whether that’s through subscriptions, ads or donations. Meanwhile, Coolidge says, Civil plans to replenish its own coffers by starting a marketplace similar to the iTunes store or Google Play but for journalism tools, taking a cut of app sales.
In that sense, it seems Civil’s mission is geared much more to helping newsrooms launch – and to building a small community of people that make sure they stay honest -- than to helping them achieve financial sustainability.
“It is very hard to see exactly what it will become,” says Shan Wang.
That’s largely because this new ecosystem for journalism doesn’t exist yet. The CVL tokens -- the core of the system -- will go up for sale Sept. 18.
“I would never ever say -- and I think no one who works in our industry would truly really believe -- that any one business model or any one technology or any ecosystem will be the one thing that saves journalism,” says Wang. “It is an interesting experiment, if anything.”
And, she adds, she doesn’t want to discount Civil just because it’s confusing. After all, a few years ago people were just as befuddled about the internet and how it could change journalism. Maybe Civil will be the same.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.