Blockchain Media Firm Civil Launches an Ambitious Studio to Build an ‘Open Marketplace for Journalists’

May 2, 2018, 1:17 PM UTC

The wildly ambitious media startup, Civil, just got a little more ambitious. On Wednesday, the New York-based blockchain company announced Civil Studios, which aspires to fund a range of big projects—from documentaries to podcasts to news investigations—as part of its plan to redefine the business of journalism.

If this seems like a lot to get your head around, that’s because it is. Civil’s blockchain-meets-media venture, which received $5 million in funding last fall, is not easy to explain but we’ll try. The best description of Civil comes from my former Fortune colleague Mathew Ingram, who sums it up like this:

Civil, founded by Matthew Iles last year, is building what it hopes will be an open marketplace for journalists, scheduled to launch in the spring of 2018. The building blocks of the project are blockchains and a bespoke cryptocurrency, a system of “tokens” that will both fund the development of the platform and compensate writers and editors.

What Civil wants to build is a combination of a publishing tool or platform like Medium—where anyone can post content and reach a broader audience—and a crowdfunding system like Patreon or Kickstarter. But all in a place that has been designed specifically to support independent journalism.

The idea is to build a new type of media economy, which relies on Ethereum-based tokens (an off-shoot of bitcoin) to fund worthy reporting. If it works, the result will be a decentralized editorial model where important stories of all sorts can be funded. Another advantage is the stories will be hard to wipe off the Internet, as often happens when a media firm goes bankrupt, because the article are hosted on an immutable blockchain.

Journalism, On the Blockchain

So where does the new “fit” into all of this? Here is how Civil describes it:

Civil Studios [is] an independent, for-profit company that will share a lot of qualities with many of the venture-builder firms that have proliferated so successfully on the conventional web.

Civil Studios’ mission is to study and accelerate the potential for blockchain technology to reinvent journalism. With initial funding from the Civil Media Company to be announced this summer, Civil Studios’ central activity will be to fund and pilot ambitious works of journalism for the Civil platform that will test its limits across journalistic disciplines, formats, and business models.

In an interview with Fortune, Civil explains that the studio is intended to help build out an eco-system of media projects on the blockchain. In the same way a tech company might subsidize apps to attract people to an app store, Civil wants to build a library of compelling content.

“We’re pursuing a “Netflix original” strategy. We can wait for people to fund something big or we can establish a fund and do it ourselves,” says Tom McGeveran, a former executive from Politico and now at Old Town Media, a team of media veterans advising Civil.

In a blog post describing the studio project, McGeveran also says he expects the first blockchain-journalism project to win an Emmy, a Peabody, or a Pulitzer will be a Civil portfolio businesses.

A Token Sale

The prospect of a thriving studio system of journalism, one that is free from clickbait and tyrannical media bosses, is tantalizing. But Civil has a long way to go if it’s going to pull this off.

One big obstacle right now centers around the tokens that are supposed to power the whole project. Once it’s fully up and running, the tokens will be used for everything from paying journalists to serving as voting ballots to decide which projects merit funding.

Right now, however, no one (including would-be readers) can get their hands on the Civil tokens because the company hasn’t conducted a public sale—known in the blockchain world as an “Initial Coin Offering” (aka ICO)—to distribute them. Once that occurs, the tokens are expected to fund Civil projects and also to trade in the open market where they could increase in value.

A possible snag right now is that the Securities and Exchange Commission has put the kibosh on ICOs of all sorts following a wave of speculative mania and blatant fraud involving tokens. Even if the primary purpose of the Civil tokens is to fund journalism, the possibility for speculation means they could be considered as securities, which would mean an expensive regulatory morass for Civil.

McGeveran, however, is confident the token sale would go forward one way or another. He also points out that seven Civil newsrooms are already up and running (they include alt-weekly site Popula and news site Block Club Chicago) and that more are on the way.

While the company appears to have momentum, pulling this all off will also require training readers and journalists, who are often technophobic, to navigate the world of tokens and blockchains. For now, Civil remains confident this can be done, in part because readers will also be able to use conventional payment methods such as credit cards.

“We’ll have a lot more to say about our funding, strategies, and investment philosophy in the coming weeks,” McGeveran says. “Journalists of all kinds from documentarians to podcasters to straight-up news and investigative reporters who want to do something genuinely new to the front of the line, please!”

This story was updated at 10:20am to clarify that readers will be able to pay with credit cards as well as tokens.