As publishers hemorrhaged money and local papers shut up shop at an alarming pace, Civil was the first company to make a full-throated attempt at offering high-quality journalism powered by blockchain.
But now, after a series of unfortunate missteps, the embattled firm is yesterday’s news—and its network will go into “hibernation” after barely 18 months in action.
The blockchain band-aid
After being conceived at a time when even uttering the world “blockchain” was a surefire way to unlock millions of dollars in investment, Civil has learned a hard lesson that the little-understood technology isn’t enough to guarantee survival in an increasingly cut-throat media business. Other online darlings that were focused on reaching millennials—the likes of BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox—have also had to make painful cutbacks after failing to deliver returns to demanding venture capitalists.
To be fair, Civil worked a little differently. Touted as a community-owned journalism network with a radical business model, 100 newsrooms were using its blockchain to maintain records about the origin of their articles and when they were published. With trust in the media at perilous lows, and aggregation at all-time highs, it was hoped this would boost audience trust and clamp down on plagiarism.
Meanwhile, CVL tokens were meant to allow consumers to support independent journalism, and financially back the campaigns and stories they cared about most. This cryptocurrency served as a running sore for Civil from the start—investors in the first initial coin offering had to be refunded, and when the tokens did launch, they weren’t being used for their intended purpose. Plans to pay journalists in CVL fell by the wayside as the token’s value tanked.
A big problem lay in that ConsenSys was one of Civil’s biggest financial backers. As reported by Modern Consensus, this company has also been hit hard by layoffs. Back in April, the blockchain-based Ethereum venture studio announced it was cutting 14% of its staff—about 90 people—two months after a round of similar redundancies were made.
It just goes to show that blockchain may only serve as a band-aid for solving journalism’s ills, with this particular concept failing to tackle the root cause.
‘Our grand experiment’
Iles was candid in a statement uploaded to Civil’s website, writing: “This isn’t the outcome we had envisioned, but nevertheless, we’re proud of what we accomplished.”
Describing his startup as a “moonshot mission,” he added: “We set out to decentralize how the news is vetted, how journalism is funded, and how we stay informed as a society.
“We built innovative technology, supported award-winning journalists, and inspired many people all over the world with our vision for a more participatory media landscape. But ultimately, we failed to sustain ourselves independently.”
As a part of ConsenSys, the Civil team are set to continue their work relating to decentralized identities in the media and advertising industry—an entirely different ball game—and develop “trackable content licensing and transparent ad decisioning.”
Journalism institute Poynter’s media business analyst, Rick Edmonds, noted that Civil’s demise has been in the works for six months. Announcements initially met with much fanfare, such as plans to tie into major global news agencies including the Associated Press, stalled.
While Iles suggested to Edmonds that Civil may have just been before its time, former executive Vivian Schiller, who used to work as the CEO of NPR, had a different prognosis: “It was overcomplicated and hard to explain.”
Will others take the lede?
We shouldn’t necessarily write off blockchain’s potential to revive journalism just yet. The New York Times, which had been scathing about Civil in its early days, advertised last year for a lead in blockchain exploration. The Gray Lady has also used this technology to verify photography before it is used in news coverage.
Other startups are also set to pick up where Civil left off, such as Voice, which has received a $150 million investment from Block.one after being spun off. The social news platform has its sights set on Facebook, and aims to tackle the rise in fake stories.
Established outlets have also sought to stop their branding from being used to spread mistruths around the Internet. Italian news agency ANSA is putting the sources and history of 1,000 news stories a day on a publicly available blockchain. Clamping down on fake news has gotten personal for the Italian news agency, with inaccurate stories concerning coronavirus deaths being wrongly attributed to its journalists.