The root cause of today’s media crisis is the
collapse of the traditional business model of news publishing. The delicate
balance between publishers, advertisers and readers that sustained good
journalism throughout the 20th century has been disrupted by the World Wide Web.
Reader behavior changed first. The seemingly infinite
amount of available content lowered the perceived value of online news. As far
back as 2010, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed
that only 19 percent of readers were willing to pay to
access news online.
In reaction, publishers turned to advertisers.
But even there, revenue opportunities got thin as search engines and social
networks expanded. Today, out of every dollar spent on digital advertising,
Google and Facebook account for 80 cents. The remaining change is what
publishers are competing for.
This shortage led to the emergence of “clickbait”
journalism. Publishers were no longer incentivized to produce must-read
material that would keep readers subscribing and coming back for more.
Generating ad impressions became the primary focus. So the focus became producing
disposable, “must-click” material.
The new ethos was best expressed in a
credo by Brian Molnar, a former writer for the
now-defunct Gawker: “The key is to
get the whole story into the headline but leave out just enough that people
will want to click.”
The media landscape became the perfect environment
for sensationalism to flourish and credibility and ethics to decline. Declining
revenues and standards have pushed high-quality investigative and local
journalism — which are of greatest service to the public — to the brink of
Blockchain technologies have the potential to
The Promise of Blockchains
Blockchain technology is a cryptographic
database technology that can be used to maintain ultra-secure and permanent
The most promising property of blockchains is that
they make it possible to conduct financial transactions without requiring a
third-party guarantor. Applied to media and journalism, blockchains can
circumvent the traditional mechanics of news publishing.
An innovator in this field is a startup called Civil, which aims to build a blockchain-based marketplace that will
connect journalists directly with readers, keeping both publishers and advertisers
out of the equation and thus eliminating the destructive incentives that plague
the current system.
With blockchain transactions, no third party is
needed to regulate the relationship between readers and journalists. This means
that reader interest can dictate news coverage (instead of publisher interest,
which can be dictated by the desires of advertisers and corporate backers).
A blockchain-powered marketplace will allow
citizens to group their resources (even anonymously) and vote with their
wallets to determine which content is in high demand and newsworthy.
Not only does this work on a global level, but
perhaps even more importantly, locally as well.
One of the biggest flaws of the current media
ecosystem is the decline of local journalism. Today, only 10 cities in the U.S.
have two or more daily newspapers, compared to 500 at the beginning of the 20th
Newsrooms powered by blockchain micropayments,
Civil claims, have the potential to reinvigorate local journalism. Readers will
be able to support journalists on the street, those who have local knowledge
and direct access to even the smallest development in a progressing story.
Local coverage is what brings nuance and subtlety to a media scene increasingly
dominated by expert pundits who can get away with sweeping generalizations.
Wishful Thinking or
The application of blockchains to journalism is
promising and exciting. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that blockchain
technology currently has more promise than it does an actual track record.
It is currently one of the most-hyped
technologies, according to Gartner's hype cycle for emerging technologies. Gartner’s graph shows that, as of 2016, blockchain technology was
poised to reach its “peak of inflated expectations.”
Meanwhile, however, blockchain industry pioneer Nick Szabo estimated that we are 10 years away from seeing the practical
application of the technology in the mainstream.
In the meantime, readers can seek protection
from sensationalist and superficial journalism by hiding behind paywalls
offered by reputable publications. As a rule of thumb, whenever you consume
content that’s free, it means that you yourself are the product being sold to