A Place for More Civil Discourse in an Increasingly Polarized World: Matt Coolidge of Civil
The brand-new journalism platform Civil has been receiving lots of press over the past few months, largely because it’s going to be run on blockchain, a devilishly complex and tough-to-understand organizational system which co-founder Matt Coolidge, in the interview below, defines as “a large network of independent ‘nodes,’ or computers – each of which have equal access to a distributed ledger of events.” Blockchain is what cryptocurrency runs on, and though it’s a novelty in journalism, and thus viewed as a kind of gimmick by some, it has two advantages that may make it more attractive to publishers moving forward: self-governance (thanks to decentralization, blockchain distributes power equally, and this democratic organization ought to be deeply attractive to journalists), and permanence (I won’t begin to pretend to understand this, but it’s another feature that’s inherent in blockchain). Journalists, in other words, can work with relative autonomy, and have no fear that their work will be deleted.
Civil is an intriguing, and massive, project, and if successful – the first newsrooms to use the the platform are launching soon, like within weeks – may end up transforming journalism. With that in mind, I asked Coolidge some questions.
What is Civil? When did it begin, and why? Why the name?
Civil is a decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism. Our mission is to power an independent network of self-sustaining newsrooms committed above all to serving their readers and producing ethical, trustworthy journalism.
Civil was officially founded in 2017 and will launch its newsroom marketplace in Q2 2018.
The name “Civil” is a nod to our desire to be a place for more civil discourse in an increasingly polarized world. We want to unite a diverse population of civically engaged citizens who believe that we need more ethical, transparent standards for defining what does – and does not – constitute quality, trustworthy journalism – and that verifiable facts should supersede everything else.
What is blockchain, exactly? How is a platform built on blockchain, like Civil, different from what the rest of the Internet is built on?
“Blockchain” broadly refers to a large network of independent “nodes,” or computers – each of which have equal access to a distributed ledger of events. Blockchains log individual events and lump them together into unique “blocks” that cannot be duplicated, and which are added onto the existing “chain.” It’s a decentralized model that requires more than 50 percent consensus to alter any existing records – a nearly impossible feat when it requires co-opting the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of individual computers that make up most blockchains.
In the case of Civil – and, more broadly, journalism – blockchain unlocks two especially unique features: self-governance (the ability to decentralize the decision-making process for what does – and does not – constitute quality journalism to a civically engaged community of users) and permanence (journalists can upload their articles to a distributed blockchain ledger, making them nearly impossible to delete or censor once published).
Will the sites hosted on Civil have a similar look and feel, a la Medium, or will they be more customizable, like sites hosted on WordPress? And is there a set launch date for these sites?
Civil’s sites (“Newsrooms” as they’re known on Civil) will each feature a unique look and feel that’s centered around a given Newsroom’s branding, but the end user experience will be unified across Civil Newsrooms by a baseline UI (the “Civil Reader”).
We haven’t announced a set launch date yet, but the first newsrooms to publish on Civil will likely begin doing so within the next month. We’ll be announcing more specifics on that front soon.
In much of its literature, Civil trumpets the fact that its platform will be ad-free. How, then, can publishers build a sustainable funding model using the platform?
Civil is founded on the premise that reader-supported journalism models are a more sustainable path forward. However, we are granting full business (as well as editorial) autonomy to individual Newsrooms. Ads won’t be prohibited outright, but Newsrooms must prove that any ad revenue they may generate in the interest of sustainability is not in any way interfering with their editorial agenda, nor is it compromising the user experience. Newsrooms are ultimately beholden to the community above all, so it will be up to the community to determine, via a consensus vote, whether a given Newsroom is ever in violation.
Who’s funding Civil at the moment, and what’s the funding model for the platform moving forward?
Civil raised $5 million from ConsenSys, the world’s leading Ethereum venture studio.
Our long-term revenue model is predicated on building a larger ecosystem of applications and services around the core Newsroom experience (from which we’ll never monetize; we believe strongly in keeping that transactional relationship between citizen and journalists alone). We recently published a more in-depth blog exploring how this will work.
Will the (sometimes wild) fluctuations in cryptocurrency values affect the model?
No. The majority of citizens coming to Civil will likely do so simply to read and support quality journalism – a process that will (deliberately) feel extremely familiar. Most will likely pay in traditional currencies, via credit card – just as you would for any other publication.
We’ll be instantiating a CVL token as well, but it’s not intended for payments. CVL tokens, of which there will only ever be a fixed amount, represent ownership in the network (which The Civil Media Company will relinquish as soon as the platform launches, via these CVL tokens). Owning CVL means you have voting rights on the platform; you will be able to vote for and against Newsrooms, based on whether you believe they will be ethical actors committed to producing quality journalism, and thus good for the Civil marketplace and its overall growth – or not.
We don’t envision Civil to be particularly impacted by fluctuations, as it’s not central to our model.
Civil has an interesting governance model which brings to mind crowd-managed sites like Wikipedia and Reddit. Could you describe how the platform will be governed? What are the feedback mechanisms? And did you have any particular models in mind while building the platform?
Our self-governance model is designed to maximize both ideological and economic incentives that will ensure the community curates a high-quality registry of Newsrooms. To publish on Civil, a prospective Newsroom must apply to access what will be known as the Civil Registry, inclusion on which unlocks publishing rights on Civil. To apply, prospective Newsrooms must take four steps:
- submit a charter (what will you cover, why does it matter, prove a viable/sustainable business model)
- submit a roster (who else is involved with this Newsroom)
- sign the Civil Constitution (a forthcoming document that broadly defines what does – and does not – constitute ethical journalism on Civil. We’ll be releasing this soon, and it will be the framework from which all challenges to whether a Newsroom should be listed on the Civil Registry will be based)
- stake CVL tokens (a fixed amount that will be the approximate equivalent of US $1,000; this states the seriousness of your intent – proving that you’ve thought about this and believe yours will be a valuable addition to the network. It also acts as a hedge against frivolous applicants, trolls, spammers and malicious actors).
To challenge an applicant to (or existing member of) the Civil Registry, users must stake a matching number of CVL tokens and demonstrate how the Newsroom is in violation of the Civil Constitution. A community vote will then occur. The “winning” party will retain its deposit and will also gain the “losing” party’s deposit – with approximately half going to the original applicant/challenger, and the remainder being proportionately distributed to voters for the winning party (voters for the losing party won’t lose tokens).
There will also be a small council consisting of free speech lawyers, journalism/legal scholars and veteran journalists that will act as an appeals body in the most extreme cases. Their role will be to uphold the values of the Civil Constitution above all and, when a community decision is appealed to them, determine if it was made with those values in mind.
This is Civil’s self-governance model in a nutshell. It’s similar to Wikipedia insofar as most people that come to “Civil” are really coming to read and support one/several Newsrooms running on Civil (just as most people go to Wikipedia to access reliable information). They may not know who Civil is, nor do they need to know/care about blockchain or cryptocurrency to experience it – just as, for most of us, we know there’s an underlying governance structure for Wikipedia, but we may not know exactly how it works – just THAT it works. To be clear, we plan to be extremely transparent and want as many people to participate in our CVL-driven self-governance system as possible – but we recognize that making it a pre-requisite could severely reduce the number of individuals that come to Civil in the first place, which is anathema to our primary goal: supporting a more sustainable funding model for journalism.
header image: "blockchain," tlc johnson / flickr