Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It turns out that the Internet lowered the cost of delivering information to the point that anyone can play the role of journalism. Anyone. For any reason.
Worse, as the information economy has been increasingly captured by the advertising industry, all other interests have been obliterated. Everything is subordinated to the need to command a large enough audience to generate revenue for advertisers. We now have a word for this, “click bait”.
At the same time, the idea of “mass” media has been replaced with individually filtered channels. It isn’t necessary to serve a least-common-denominator, each person receives a custom stream, potentially different from any other. This has shattered cultural consensus that, for better or worse, was a side-effect of mass media.
These developments have had pernicious effects everywhere, but the destruction of quality (or even mediocre) journalism is particularly damaging to civil society and democratic government.
Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about some new effort to “save” or “reboot” journalism. Shorn of marketing hype, these ideas are basically about money. How can you sustain the activities of journalists or equivalent content creators?
There aren’t many candidate solutions, and they are all pretty much the same ideas as sustained print based journalism.
- be a captive propaganda organ
Setting aside the “ministry of truth” approach favored by political groups, let’s look at two recent examples of the other approaches.
Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism
One diagnosis of journalism’s malaise is that they need to adapt to the new world of on-line advertising and the accompanying need to “attract eyeballs”. Conventional journalistic organizations must be rebooted for this new world.
There are many versions of this, but one interesting concept comes from “Civil”, which not only aims to fix journalism, but uses trendy blockchain technology to do so.
The goal is “is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. Wow!
One of the key insights in this approach is to view the goal as a global marketplace for journalism, which eschews notions of a special fourth estate with a critical role in democratic self-governance. From this point of view, journalism is one kind of content, and it has to compete in a global marketplace filled with lots of other content.
In one sense, this is essentially conceding defeat. Journalism is over, so we’ll reuse the term for journalism-like content.
Their promised solution sounds too good to be true. Somehow this global, unregulated market will be free of influences, and “self-sustaining” without ads. How will this work? Magic.
The magic is blockchain based “autonomous” organizations. This technology replaces a conventional organization with code, and, most important, aims to replace the critical functions of journalism with “autonomous” processes—protocols that are not controlled by any person.
So, Civil proposes a suite of processes that they believe replace everything important from conventional journalism, and avoid costly overheads and intrusive outside interest.
Who are the stakeholders in the journalism game? At the heart, there are journalists (“sellers”) and citizens (“buyers”). There are funders, owners, advertisers, and sponsors.
But the critical piece that makes it journalism rather than entertainment is quality control, selection of topics, honest investigation, and careful fact checking. In a conventional organization, this role is performed by editorial staff and other managers, who exercise power with judgment.
The ‘Civil’ project eliminates all of these players except the producers and consumers.
“Civil aims to create a marketplace model for journalism where citizens and journalists connect around shared interests and standards.”
This is both technologically and organizationally identical to many other Internet markets.
The Civil project diagnoses the weakness of this “Amazon” model as being the ease with which “anonymous black hats to cheaply produce and spread fake, malicious content in pursuit of clicks-for-cash ad dollars or nefarious propagandist aims.”
Their solution is inspired by Wikipedia, and seeks to “incentivize journalism” while defeating non-journalistic behavior. In their analysis, the way to do this is to create a cryptocurrency and use it to implement micropayments. It’s a bit more complicated than this, because they want to encourage more than just personal payments. They want stable channels of information with strong quality or at least reputation for quality.
Their design has three pieces:
“Newsrooms” – “Newsrooms allow citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic. The more citizens, the more funding, the more journalists will be drawn to cover it.”
“Stations” – “Stations allow journalists to productize and price their work to their own dedicated audience however they want”
“Fact-checking-as-a-service” – this is crowd sourcing of the editorial role.
These ideas are to be implemented with Ethereum-style “smart contracts”, creating protocols for buying and selling content, as well as voting, penalizing ‘inaccuracy’ and other activities.
The two “innovations” here would have to be the “newsroom” and the “fact-checking-as-a-service”. (“Stations” are indistinguishable from many other digital channels, including this blog.)
The Newsroom concept is an interesting take on how journalism is supposed to work. The idea that journalists should cover what “people” want them to cover is, well, problematic. There are lots of things I don’t want to know about (e.g., wars), but I need journalists to tell me about it. The idea that journalistic coverage should be driven by customer demand is pretty poor journalism.
The “Fact-Checking-As-A-Service” is even more problematic. This concept replaces the efforts of editors and quality control staff with an unspecified crowd sourcing. They don’t explain how this might work or even what it does.
First of all, “fact checking” is only the first level of journalistic quality controls. A report can be 100% “accurate” and still mislead by omission or bias. For that matter, much of the “fake news” is based on interpretation and even “alternative facts”. If there are multiple “fact checkers” who give different rulings, how does that help?
Second, actual quality control is far more than just double checking names and dates. Tracking down alleged events and sources isn’t trivial. More important, judging the weight to give various sources is hard. In this, journalists act as trusted sources of information, and we implicitly trust their sources because we trust them. Replacing this chain of trust with a “trustless” system is dubious.
As an aside, I’ll point out that the best journalists are not “incentivized” by money. They are motivated by a desire to be a trusted source of information. And the best of them report on things that no one wants to know about—and they make us care whether we want to or not. Thus, the incentives of this system are probably misguided from the start.
The bottom line is that “Civil” is almost a caricature of the cryptocurrency culture. They aim to “fix” journalism, but they seem to misunderstand what it is, and misdiagnose its ills. Not surprisingly, the proposed “fix” is problematic, and unlikely to work.
“The Conversation” offers a rather different “fix” for at least part of the same problem. The conversation is a not for profit enterprise, dedicated to promulgating reliable, fact-based information.
“Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.”
The Conversation is responding to the challenges described by Civil. They also perceive a disconnect between universities and the public. Universities are repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge is poorly represented in journalism.
“The Conversation sees itself as a source of trusted information dedicated to the public good.”
In contrast to Civil, The Conversation does not rely on a “market” to “incentivize” their producers. For one thing their writers are already highly motivated. What they do focus on is careful editing, which is not just ”fact checking”, but also helps create clear, understandable information for non-specialists.
Above all, The Conversation is aiming to create trusted and trustworthy information. They enforce strong rules on transparency, including disclosure of financial interests. The authors are not paid in cryptocurrency or anything, and the content is open for anyone to reuse under Creative Commons Attributions-No Derivs (CC BY-ND). This license preserves the attribution and precludes modification of what the author said, which are necessary to maintain both the trust of the readers and the reputation of the writers and editors.
In short, “We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism.”
The content is not driven by user demand, it is curated by The Conversation. They are looking for people who know a lot about a topic of public interest, who want to inform the public about it.
Authors must agree to “Community Standards”, which amount to straightforward rules of civil discourse: mutual respect, staying on topic, be constructive, be responsible. It is interesting that one of the rules is “Be You”. No anonymous or pseudonymous posts allowed: you must take personal responsibility for what you say.
Articles are “pitched” to the staff, and if selected an editor is assigned to help create the article. The editor is not a “fact checker”, she or he is a co-creator, charged to help design the article to be valuable for the general audience.
The published article will include the name, qualifications, affiliations, and funding sources of the author. In this, they are taking practices from academic publishing out to general readers.
The content is free for readers, and available for republishing. No one is writing to make money, but there is plenty of reputation on the line.
One reason this works is that the contributors must be affiliated with an academic institution. Aside from filtering out complete fakes and robots, this means that the authors have their own funding, and generally have a mission to publish. The Conversation doesn’t need to “incentivize” with a starvation wage.
These two (of many) efforts to “fix journalism” offer an interesting comparison.
Both Civil and The Conversation say that there is a crisis in journalism, and describe the illness in similar terms. But these two projects diagnose the underlying disease rather differently, and therefore prescribe different treatments.
Civil is concerned with the financial underpinnings of journalism, and seems to be mainly interested in coverage of current events, especially local events. They seek to use digital technology to create a more efficient, decentralized funding model. Specifically, they use trendy blockchain technology to design “markets” that replace the processes of journalism.
While Civil deploys “disruptive” technology, it’s processes aren’t especially novel, nor even that different from conventional practice. The main novelty is the replacement of editorial decision-making and quality control with market incentives and rather hazy notions of “fact checking as a service”.
The Conversation is concerned with creating better content in ways that are distributed as widely as possible. They are particularly interested in disseminating the deep knowledge accumulated at Universities to the general public.
The Conversation is focused on trusted information. As such, quality control is at the center of the solution, and incentives are aimed to support public interest, not market share.
The Conversation uses digital technology (of course), but musters motivated people from the existing pool of academic researchers who have a desire to support the public good. Authors are not paid, and the content is given away for free. Editors, on the other hand, are paid. If there is a market, it is a reputation economy.
It is notable that The Conversation has been operating for a number of years. No one is getting rich, but there is a lot of solid journalism being made. In that sense, it is a proof by existence.
Civil, on the other hand, is untried as yet. The blockchain technology it aims to use is not only new, it is extremely shaky.
My own view is that Civil’s approach to journalism exhibits fundamental misunderstandings and even a repudiation of what journalism actually used to be. Editors have always been aware of market forces, but are supposed to act as a buffer between producers and raw demand. That is, editors want to foster solid reporting, even if there is no immediate “demand” for it, and they want to report accurately regardless of what the customers want to hear.
Editorial staff does fact checking, but fact checking per se is only the most trivial aspect of quality control. In any case is neither an optional after market service, nor something that you choose to match your own prejudices.
I think that The Conversation’s focus on trust is a great idea, and I’m glad to see it working. On the other hand, The Conversation is focused on a small part of the problem with journalism, which is the poor use of expert knowledge. This problem has been around for decades in the form of anxiety over the challenges of disseminating scientific understandings.
The Conversation works because it uses already existing social mechanisms, specifically, the credentialing and public mission of Universities. These institutions are designed to create trusted information and conduct civil discourse. The Conversation extends the reach of these processes.
However, the entire enterprise of public universities is increasingly threatened by both cultural attack and politically motivated defunding. The Conversation only works if you think that University affiliated experts are trusted sources, and that belief is far from universal. A lot of “fake news” is simply nihilistic denial of expert opinion, and no amount of editing can overcome the will to deny.
The bottom line is that neither of these projects is much of a cure for journalism. The Conversation does a good job, but depends on the fate of academia and rational debate in general. Civil misunderstands journalism, and attempts to fix the problem of trusted information via “trustless” technology and market forces. Whatever Civil is doing, it isn’t good journalism.
- Civil Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism.June 20 2017, https://medium.com/@Join_Civil/civil-self-sustaining-journalism-a5caa49005c3
- The Converstaion. The Conversation: In-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading academics and researchers. 2017, https://theconversation.com/us.