Distrust of media is widespread and pervasive. It’s killing journalism. Something’s got to give.

As advertisers pivot to social media, journalists and publishers pivot to readers, to build a new business model built on reader revenues. This demands a new relationship, a relationship built on trust and respect.

And that’s where blockchain — which is “a technology that allows for fast, secure and transparent peer-to-peer transfer of digital goods including money and intellectual property” — comes in. The truth is blockchain can be used for a whole lot more than just trading crypto-currencies.

Much of the current internet works on institutional trust. In the case of e-commerce, for example, we trust the banking institutions both as buyers and sellers. Or, at least, we trust their computer (until it’s hacked, of course).

Media lacks that institutional trust — now more than ever, for reasons ranging from the Trumpian “Fake News!” jihad to the sacrifice of quality through job cuts.

Blockchain replaces the institutional trust of the current internet with distributed, verifiable trust, which requires verification by data block across the platform chain. Think Wikipedia, but verified by crowd-sourcing computer power, not volunteer editors. It relies on scale and transparency as a guarantee against hacking. Given the fundamental mistrust in our media institutions, blockchain may not be what we want, but it may be what we need.

Proponents of this thought believe that the blockchain is the coming reiteration of the internet, a reiteration made for 21st-century journalism. It can rebuild trust in media by linking readers and writers in a verifiable chain. It will, they say, democratise journalism by taking it out of the hands of the distrusted media oligopolies – that handful of surviving mastodons that tramped the 20th-century earth.

It’s easy to see its benefits for markets. A number is always a number. Tick.

But in journalism, assessments of quality — or even relevant facts — are a matter of professional judgement.

Still, we’re starting to find out what blockchain can do. We’re seeing experiments using blockchain as a publishing platform, as an intellectual property register, as a tool for subscriptions and, perhaps most exciting, as a tool for verifying journalism itself.

Take Civil, which burst into the headlines last October with a US$5 million investment from ConsenSys, developer of the Ethereum blockchain platform. Civil is a publishing platform for use by journalist groups writing for a particular geographical or interest-based community.

It quantifies quality by using “tokens” recorded on Ethereum either to underpin a particular story or to challenge it. The tokens provide both a means of payment (through subscriptions) and a tool for distributed editing by the publication’s group of journalists and its supporters or community.

Civil has already provided a home for the hyper-local, Chicago-based online newspaper DNAinfo, which had closed late last year (immediately after its staff voted to unionise). Its journalists have resurrected it as a reader-funded vehicle on the Civil platform as Block Club Chicago.

Reader voting presents a complex issue with such a platform. While reader voting helps quality, it also encourages silos. When it comes to news, people tend to “like” what they like – or at least what they agree with — even when it isn’t of particularly high quality.

Some new platforms are leaning into this dynamic. Steemit is a website in the vein of a community-owned Reddit, which uses blockchain technology to reward users for content generation, indicated by upvotes/downvotes. That is, users liking or disliking content, regardless of its relative quality.

In another example, Po.et is building an open platform for managing rights in creative digital media. Po.et raised eyebrows last year when they poached the Washington Post’s key digital strategist Jarrod Dicker, as CEO.

But how successful will it be? There’s been some exploration of readers using blockchain to drive micro-payments for individual stories, these seem to have hit the wall of most micro-payment ideas: publishers want the regular flow of subscription dollars, not an unreliable aggregation of small, one-off payments.

And of course, blockchain has its own constraints — the sheer amount of electricity it consumes and its hash rate (time to solution). Right now, it’s less efficient than the traditional web. But solving the trust conundrum, for the internet as much as journalism, is a powerful driver for change.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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