Cathy Barrera: Civil Is Dead, But Its Mission Has Never Been More Important

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Cathy Barrera, a CoinDesk columnist, is a founding economist at Prysm Group, an advisory group, and was chief economist at ZipRecruiter. She has a PhD in business economics from Harvard.

The Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd have resurfaced the truth of America’s systemic racism. Police brutality, mass incarceration and other acts of violence against black Americans are not new. And, frustratingly, many white Americans have long overlooked the extent of the injustices. 

There are many factors that contribute to systemic racism, and there is no single policy or institutional change that will end it, although the Black Lives Matter movement lists local policy changes and demands

At a macro level, the presence of principled and autonomous news media is an essential component in identifying and combating the embedded bias, discrimination and racism that persists in nearly every institution. And that is why, even though blockchain seems trivial in the midst of the momentous protests of the past two weeks, I was disappointed to read that blockchain news platform Civil is closing its doors

See also: The Decentralized Web Has Plans, if Not Solutions, for the Misinformation Nightmare

Civil was a blockchain-based, decentralized news platform with a goal of creating “a community-run platform for independent journalism founded to advance trust and sustainability for journalism worldwide.” Civil was decentralized in the sense that any newsroom (existing or newly created) could join the Civil Registry by agreeing to uphold certain journalistic principles. 

Advertising wasn’t banned on the platform, but newsrooms were required to be transparent about advertisers. After Civil’s token sale failed in October 2018, it attempted a slow-and-steady approach, re-launching in March 2019 with nearly 100 newsrooms on board. But after losing financial support from members and partnerships, it was forced to shut down in early June 2020, a little over one year after its rebirth.

Despite the struggles Civil encountered, the events that have unfolded at The New York Times over the last week reinforce that the societal need for organizations with Civil’s mission has never been greater.

On June 2, the Times published “Send In the Troops,” an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, in which he argued the U.S. military should be used as part of an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers” during the largely peaceful protests on U.S. soil. Dozens of NYT employees took to social media, breaking official company policy and risking their jobs to speak out against the publication of the op-ed because of the threat to black lives that engagement of the military would pose. After an internal investigation, in which it was revealed the op-ed had not been reviewed by the editor in charge of Opinion, James Bennet, and did not meet fact-checking standards, Bennet resigned.

In this historic and fast-moving news environment, it is alarming the U.S. “paper of record” published such an inaccurate op-ed, which bolstered its credibility and amplified its violent call to action. Sadly, the contribution of the news media to violence against black Americans is not new. For decades, the manner of the news coverage of both the violence and the protests has allowed too many Americans to look away, to forget and to block out these truths.

Without a truthful picture we cannot effectively participate in democracy and work to change our institutions for the better.

But this blindness cannot continue. We rely on journalists to provide the information we need to support fact-informed democratic decision-making. The public must receive a raw, honest depiction of what is really happening and how policies and institutions contribute to those events. Without a truthful picture we cannot effectively participate in democracy and work to change our institutions for the better. 

The editorial processes that allowed for such a misinformed op-ed to gain credibility exist because of a larger problem in journalism that has been exacerbated in recent years by shrinking budgets. Most outlets are for-profits that earn performance-based revenue through advertising, where article views are the ubiquitous performance metric. Under these conditions, the incentives for the Fourth Estate to effectively facilitate democracy are too weak. 

The press must inform all citizens so they are motivated to change policies and institutions and begin the tough yet necessary process of eliminating systemic racism. However, to directly and honestly inform citizens, news outlets must de-emphasize sensational stories. It is common knowledge that, historically, the best strategies to drive clicks focus on extremes.

Sometimes outlets cater to a tight base, spoon-feeding their readers exactly what they want to hear. Other times, outlets thrive on outrage, antagonizing readers with extreme, attention-grabbing headlines and opinions. Rewarding publishers based on clicks is diametrically opposed to honestly informing the public, because clicks are earned through preaching to the choir and/or sensationalized headlines such as “Send in the Troops.” 

See also: Media Startup Civil Shuts Down, Team Absorbed Into Decentralized ID Efforts at ConsenSys

While many individual journalists certainly aim to provide this public service, the organizations they work for are fundamentally unable to support this important work under their current structure and business model. A number of public-interest oriented outlets have recognized this fact and are actively working to develop new, innovative structures to overcome this structural obstacle. Nonprofit newsrooms such as ProPublica and Chalkbeat fund their coverage using philanthropic donations (although a portion of Chalkbeat’s revenue is from sponsored ads and job listings).

Civil aimed to take this one step further, leveraging a token-based crowdfunding model along with other innovations to encourage decentralization. While that experiment didn’t pan out, it is imperative others continue the work of iterating on failed aspects of prior business models. 

Fixing these incentive problems in journalism will not end systemic racism or police violence. But it is a necessary step toward creating a more just society. The Colorado Sun, one of the most notable Civil newsrooms, is continuing to use a membership-based, part-subscription, part-donation model, alongside CultureBanx, a media company focused on stories in business, finance and tech that are relevant to black culture. We must support and expand these efforts to rebuild a well-functioning Fourth Estate.

Prysm Group Associate Johnny Antos contributed to this article.

Disclosure

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.



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