Composing room of the New York Times (photo by Marjorie Collins via Wiki Commons from U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs)
Crypto Power Lists,  Media

The New York Times jerks the blockchain

Publishers hope tools like micro-payments, smart contracts, and improved tracking can rebuild their businesses without cutting them out of the content supply chain

The New York Times might be jumping into the blockchain business.

Despite publishing an article about blockchain-based media platform Civil’s failed initial token offering titled, “Alas, the Blockchain Won’t Save Journalism After All,” the Times on March 13 posted a job listing for a “Lead, Blockchain Exploration” position which it described as “a forward-looking leader who will help envision and design a blockchain-based proof of concept for news publishers.”

So, maybe that “alas” came too soon for the business side of The Gray Lady. It has aggressively covered the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry, and its lead reporter on the beat, Nathaniel Popper, was placed at No. 75 on Modern Consensus’ list of the 100 Most Influential People in Crypto for 2019.

The listing, which was removed from job site Glassdoor a few hours after the story broke, sought an individual to, “codify the vision for the research project and share that vision with potential stakeholders at other media organizations… [and] brand and create a public identity and assets for the project.” Recruiting for the project and building a “roster of advisors from news organizations, academia, and social media companies,” was also part of the job description.

It’s not the first company to attempt to use blockchain to turn around the general slide in revenue the publishing industry has suffered since the early 2000s. And, in fact, it may be a lot better positioned than most, with a stock price that has nearly tripled in the past three years, making up more than half of what the Times lost when the industry tanked during the Internet boom.

It’s taking the idea a lot more seriously than the Wall Street Journal which created the short-lived, never-really-serious WSJCoin, as an experiment launched by two of the publication’s reporters to better understand the cryptocurrency market.

The first company to make that attempt in a substantial way is Civil, which describes itself as both a platform and a network to help change the business of high-quality independent journalism.

While Civil’s first run at changing the publishing industry ended in tears last October witha failed initial coin offering, it is still very much alive. In December, the company’s founder and CEO Matthew Iles said the blockchain hype had overwhelmed its core message about funding quality journalism. Earlier this month, it launched its CVL token, although it is not yet being used for its main purpose, allowing individuals to directly fund quality journalism they like.

Where blockchain can take media

If there’s one thing that Civil’s rocky start has made clear, it’s that there is no easy blockchain-based solution to the problems that the journalism industry, and indeed the broader media industry is facing.

But there is a lot of interest in it. According to an August 2018 Accenture report, 55 percent of the media and platform executives surveyed called blockchain a top-five priority, and 83 percent plan to increase their investments in the technology over the next three years.

In a June 2018 report, JPMorgan Chase said “[b]lockchain has the potential to disrupt the way content is produced, aggregated, distributed and consumed—and the possibilities for content creators, brokers and arbiters of intellectual property are too big to ignore.”

Specifically, the report, “The Future of Blockchain in Media and Entertainment,” sees four basic areas in which blockchain could prove transformative, beginning with micropayments that allow readers, viewers or listeners access to individual articles, songs, or videos. For some larger content that’s already available—Amazon lets you buy a 24-hour pass to many TV shows and movies, for example—but it’s difficult to do with single-use purchases of smaller content like reading a single news article or listening to a song. According to JPMorgan Chase, “A micropayment pricing model would normally be inefficient to implement, but its execution could be fully automated and cost-effective with blockchain.”

Another is royalty distribution, which would use blockchain-enable smart contracts that not only make payment distribution to various content creators and copyright-holders near instantaneous. That improved ability to track content could also be used to effectively legalize peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing by enabling consumer to consumer (C2C) sales. This would allow content owners to automatically track and charge a fee for content shared with friends.

Of course, all of this can be used to bypass traditional content aggregators like newspapers that put their content behind paywalls, allowing content creators to directly sell to consumers. Which is a good reason for the New York Times to try and get a jump on the technology.

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Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus editor-in-chief, is a New York-based journalist who has traveled the world writing about incentive travel. He has also covered consumer and employee engagement, small business, the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and New York City crime, nightlife, and politics. Disclosure: Jakobson has put some 401k money into Grayscale Bitcoin Trust.