In the blockchain we trust? Civil Media’s failed token sale and the use of blockchain technology in journalism


As scholars in critical journalism studies have researched, the business of news is not so much to produce quality journalism as it is to maximize shareholder profits, abetted by a structurally-flawed system of “oligopolistic concentration” in corporate media ownership and an ad-driven revenue model that has seen little success in the media ecology of the Internet (Cohen, 2015; Cohen, Hunter & O’Donnell, 2019; McChesney, 2013; Örnebring, 2010; Pickard, 2013, 2014, 2017). The result is what media policy researcher, Victor Pickard, has described as a market failure that can and should, for the sake of democracy, be addressed through regulatory intervention (Pickard, 2013, 2014, 2017).

While Pickard’s views are echoed by critics of corporate libertarianism, addressing the market failure of public interest journalism with subsidies is, in Pickard’s own words, “not actually a ‘new direction’ for American media policy” (2013). Even if the current business model is indeed, a broken one that can only be fixed by policy changes and a corporate tax, there is still enough concern over the “algorithmic amplification” of bias on the Internet to consider the role technology might play in developing an alternative business model (Lomas, 2018).

This was the question explored by the Civil Foundation when it proposed a new media ecosystem for digital journalism based on blockchain technology. The idea drew considerable attention in 2018 in advance of its CVL token sale. The subsequent failure of the sale drew substantial criticism from business and media analysts, and highlights a major challenge to the creation of a blockchain-based economy for civic journalism: that of incentivizing participatory journalism labour.

This work begins with an overview of some problems associated with digital journalism’s ad-driven, “scale-at-all-costs” revenue model as discussed by Pickard and McChesney, before delving into the impact of technological change on labour processes via the work of Cohen and Örnebring. Their discussions help explain how and why the CVL blockchain was conceived as a way to divest the industry from its profit motive. The second section examines how work is decentralized and redistributed throughout the Civil network by detailing the governance of its community of readers and journalists. This section particularly focuses on the consensus mechanism of its blockchain in order to show how the problems discussed in section one are seemingly solved by the design of the system. Section three returns to Cohen’s and Örnebring’s discussion of labour processes to comment on issues that the Civil network does not adequately address, with reference to a systems design critique by Byeowool Kim and Yongik Yoon who propose an alternate consensus mechanism for their journalism platform. While this paper mainly examines the issues through a political economy of communications lens, it also investigates how rhetoric around the CVL blockchain may have sold and undersold the value of its token economy. Examining industry discourses alongside of a systems design critique offers the opportunity to reflect on technology’s relationship to capitalism, as well as the notion that an algorithmic savior may provide the solution to its problems.