ICO tokens won’t fix journalism either, and certainly not with company scrip

ICO tokens won’t fix journalism either, and certainly not with company scrip

Journalism is desperate for a way to survive economically. Like many industries that crashed into the Internet like a brick wall, they’re very receptive to blatant snake oil.

Previously, we had Salon hogging your CPU and electricity to mine Monero in your browser — which they seem to have stopped doing, by the way — and now we have Poynter giving air time to po.et.

The Poynter Institute is a highly respected nonprofit educational institute for journalism in St Petersburg, Florida. They also own the Tampa Bay Times. They have every reason to be concerned as to the future of journalism. Like everyone in the field, they’re looking for what could sustain it next.

Jarrod Dicker’s pitch is that po.et “allows content creators to create time-stamped titles for their written, visual and audio work”. Now, you might think that’s meaningless — but that’s because it is.

Can Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrency payments emerge as a significant, even dominant, revenue stream for local news?

Absolutely. And the idea of an ICO (initial offering of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin)  is exciting to me because it’s a community driven effort, with community contribution and commitment toward the common goal. There are so many successful communities building the future of our business, from Wikipedia to Github.

Wikipedia is a volunteer-written encyclopedia hosted by a charity; Github is a commercial company that hosts computer code repositories, and offers a popular free tier. Neither of these have anything to do with journalism or cryptocurrency, and the only reason to mention them here seems to be to vaguely invoke the idea of collaboration.

The Poynter interviewer, David Beard, seems to think Dicker is selling journalism. The ICO blurb shows they’re selling tokens, and, like any ICO, all the details are a thin excuse to sell tokens:

  1. State a problem;
  2. assert that ERC-20 tokens on the ethereum blockchain will solve it;
  3. there aren’t any other steps.

If you must put a third step, you can make out that your token will fix the hard bits via (shakes magic 8-ball) market/crowdsourcing/incentives/consensus — because the real pitch is that you can automate away that annoying, trust-requiring human factor, which appeals to both the technologist and weird economics elements.

Here’s po.et’s blog post explaining their token: “POE: An Economic Tool for Crowdsourcing Truth: Using tokenized incentives to value the world’s digital creative assets.”

It’s the usual pitch for a private currency offered by ICO:

  1. make a tradeable ERC-20 token
  2. to fund [insert profession here]
  3. who will definitely want to be paid in our private company scrip, not real money, or even a crypto that’s tradeable for real money.

In this case the profession is “journalists” and the token is “POE,” but it’s still the same pitch.

The hard bit: Who gets paid what?

We believe the answers to these questions can be crowdsourced from the community by aligning the economic incentives of content creators, publishers and curators via competing token-curated marketplaces.

The plan is to set up a market for freelance writers:

We envision a variety of marketplaces existing to determine the usefulness, trustworthiness and accuracy of digital creative assets registered on the Po.et network. A marketplace is any curated selection of Po.et assets. Marketplaces can be broad enough to encompass every article on Po.et or narrowly focused (e.g. only high-resolution photos of puppies wearing sweaters by Norwegian photographers).

So it’s Freelancer.com, but for company loyalty points rather than actual money.

There’s nothing for journalism itself in this one, and that blog post on POE makes this clear immediately.

(I’m giggling that they called it a POE.)

po.et isn’t unusually egregious. There are multiple “journalism coin” ICOs, and they all make slight variations on the same pitch — Make Media Great Again, PressCoin, Publicism, Decentralized News Network

Civil has backing from ConsenSys and is getting the most attention. It has a more socially conscious pitch: “What if the news were run by the people? The Fourth Estate as we know it is vanishing. Advertising dollars, fake news and powerful agendas are manipulating what we see and what we think we know. Our freedom, justice and even democracy are at risk. We’ve never been more divided.”

But it’s the same private currency ICO template, with a “hodl and get rich!!” tacked on the end: “Get paid directly by the people affected by your reporting: Cash out CVL tokens to pay your rent or fill up the car, or hold them in order to benefit from the ecosystem’s long-term growth.”

(Maria Bustillos from Civil claimed on Twitter that me quoting that text directly from Civil’s own front page and asking about it was “willful misrepresentations” [archive]. I’m sure Civil’s gonna be great.)

There are proper journalists taking up their offer — some people from DNAinfo Chicago plan to return as Block Club Chicago. Their initial funding actually came from a very successful Kickstarter. The key point here is adopting the subscription model. (Civil does plan to do actual money as well as CVL tokens.)

It looks like they’ll do okay, too! All of which is from finding their audience, and none of which is from hooking up with a blockchain-flavoured platform.

Getting back to Po.et — “proof of existence” is not a problem that journalism has. If you want to prove that CNN interviewed someone, and that they said a certain thing, you look at the CNN website. Or an archived copy. You could log that to a blockchain … but you would almost certainly not be archiving the content to a blockchain — just a hash of it.

Nor can you fight “fake news” by logging all facts on a blockchain. The facts in news are interesting because they’re social facts. You’re talking about something that’s fundamentally a human interpretation and judgement call.

The problem is not logging the facts — it’s getting the facts, and divining the facts — you interviewed someone, but were they telling the truth, or were they even correct? —  and putting them into a meaningful context: why should the reader care?

We already know what happens when you use money to incentivise news production on a per-hit basis — fake news farms on Facebook. Spam, undue influence, astroturf groups, optimisation for clicks, gibbering conspiracy nutters.

Any of these ICO proposals being adopted would trash the practice of journalism on the platforms in question in all sorts of ludicrously obvious ways — but the point is not journalism. It’s to sell you ICO tokens.

But, hey — surely a market will fix it! Also, buy our tokens.



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