This is an attempt to research how journalism could profit from, or be defied by, the use of blockchain in journalism pursued under my Knight Wallace Fellowship at University of Michigan 2018/2019 published in full as a website and eBook called: “CAN BLOCKCHAIN SAVE JOURNALISM — probably not before it fixes itself”.
It´s meant to be short but offer extensive extra reading and sourcing within the report itself, in an experiment to see if a 40 pages report can be consumed more attractively in this manner. Hence, details of examples, sources, links and explanations are kept in sub-articles that will appear if you click the links.
And since I know few people are going take the 87 minutes it takes to read the full monty from beginning to end, I have put the conclusion right after the introduction, so the reader can get the gist of it in a few pages and dive in if interested in the details.
Sincere thanks to Lynette Clemetson and Birgit Rieck at the Knight Wallace Fellowship for making this work possible, to Cameron Grams for letting me use his chapter on the nuts and bolts of blockchain.
And to all the other colleagues, friends and family that has helped with research, design, servers, proof-reading and publishing:
– you know who you are!
Finally, one caveat. I’m not a native English speaker, so please excuse all the typos and Swedish influences in the language even though Chase Chapman and Rachel Rohr pointed out some of the worst errors. The rest are mine.
Ann Arbor, April 2019
2018/19 Knight Wallace FellowSpecial Projects Editor, Swedish Television
CAN BLOCKCHAIN SAVE JOURNALISM?
– probably not before it fixes itself
Did Jill Abramson plagiarize? Did the Yazidi woman eat her own child? Who defecated in the church in Kristianstad? And what does it have to do with cryptocurrencies?
[Estimated reading time 2 minutes, 28 seconds.][i]
The former editor of The New York Times and a chain smoker in the little Macedonian village of Kumanovo have something in common. They are both examples of reporting being challenged or misused; Ivan Stankovic trolling Swedish daily Kristianstadsbladets story of defecation[ii] in a church in Southern Sweden and Jill Abramson for purported plagiarism.
Their cases that have been extensively reported and embroiled in public spats about originality and sourcing. And the jury is still out. As it is on many other stories published in the “[iii]old media” like New York Times and Dagens Nyheter.
But these stories exemplify some of journalisms challenge to retain its core values and keep its raison d´etre and trust with the audience.
When traditional media houses ruled gatekeeping the news flow no one who couldn’t afford a big printing press could compete and since there was a fair consensus in the establishment on what was true and relevant that was what was communicated to the mass-audience.
Not so anymore.
As a profession journalism has forsaken[iv] a lot of its standing with the public, it’s being challenged in new ways by the powers that be and it´s no longer the publics one-stop-shop for facts in the morning paper or the evening news. That has its explanations. The control of media houses where not always built on merit, but rather on bloodlines, something that in many cases undermined the professionalism of the industry. Companies were either mismanaged or bought up and gutted by people who were only interested in the bottom line of the quarterly report. The audience noticed of course, and that helped to break trust and reduced subscriptions. Then of course the cash-cows of advertising moved to Google and Facebook where the grass was much greener.
The output of journalism is also being used and distorted in new ways, that the profession isn’t paying attention to or have few means to challenge.
And maybe the trust was never there.
The New York Times held on for a year on publishing what they knew about the secret surveillance of its citizens, the NSA: s Stellarwind program, and Dagens Nyheters poorly fact-checked recent claim that ISIS cooked a Yazidi baby and fed it to its unwitting mother are examples where traditional media failed their readers and undermined their own, and journalisms foundations.
To regain the trust and become essential for our audience we need to source our reporting better and show transparency in the process.
Academia has long practiced peer review and extensive footnoting to prove their case. Journalism and academia are fortunately not the same thing. Our audience wants valuable information that is concise and in laymen’s terms — not a doctoral thesis.
I like to think about my audience as my mom. Not stupid, but sometimes underinformed. And rational. Craving for accurate information, that she might spread in her bubbles, use in the next election or when deciding what she’s buying.
The question here is if we can increase journalism’s integrity and regain the lost trust in our profession with the help of technology.
The long answer is here.
The short answer is journalism probably doesn’t have a choice. It needs to be ahead of the curve if it’s not going to be run over by Zuckerberg 2.0 – the next wave of technological inventions that will affect the profession and it´s standing in society.
Here is the full report if you are in for a deep-dive. Otherwise just skip to the conclusion. The full monty has 40 pages and estimated reading time 87 minutes, 54 seconds.
Or just click on the chapters that interest you the most in the box to the right.
[Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 43 seconds.]
The common ground in storytelling is shared principles and beliefs — women should not eat their children, for example. Truth is not the most important in storytelling.
With truth the common ground is logic and evidence. Donald Trump is a successful politician because he is a great storyteller, not fact-based or evidence-driven.
Storytelling is a more a powerful vehicle for establishing order than truth. People find a reason to live in their principles and beliefs. So, if those beliefs are upheld, then they praise it. When those beliefs are not upheld (if they are questioned or worse, ignored), they fight to defend it.
When Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook on a lonely night he inadvertently handed a printing press to the public. Everybody now gets to distribute information to the rest of the world. This has led to a democratization of information – the web has enabled many, many, more to share their view of the world.
But it also undermined the publishing business and the whole infrastructure of gatekeepers, fact checkers, reporters, editors that are the foundations of journalism.
My mom is on Facebook. And she shares what she finds relevant in her feed. She’s now a publisher. That’s a fact that journalists must accept. We lost the privilege of gatekeeping and must start offering our competence to our audience in a way that is useful to mu mum, not just competing with the millions of cute kittens everybody else is throwing at her.
She cares about the society surrounding here. She is educated and knows the importance of facts. At the end of the day she´s rational and I know she cares about truth.
She wouldn’t spread information on colloidal silver [v] being the cure for cancer, as is claimed in various corners of the internet. Swedish authorities have deemed colloidal silver downright dangerous to ingest and have banned the sale for human consumption. Still “Colloidal silver AND cancer” gives some 800 000 hits on Google. My mother needs help to sift through that to be informed that colloidal silver is humbug.
That’s our profession, built on experience in finding the truth, with a defined set of ethics, and skill to make it effectively consumable. But we are not doing it well enough.
Journalism has leaned towards storytelling more than just reporting the truth. Telling the story is obviously a very important part of journalism, but at the core is reliability, otherwise it´s just another novel. But if that is going to change the truth must be verifiable. And that’s where blockchain could be of service.
Almost all information today is digitized, and a lot is available on the net, hence it can be certified and shared with new technologies that are far superior to established methods of authenticating origin and authenticity as seals and stamps on paper.
Blockchain, which can be used to create unchangeable and un-erasable online records, is one of the most promising and can build a web of trust around information, just the way academia works, and journalism to some extent. A competent journalist mentions where a quote is coming from.
Automated sourcing, easily accessible for the consumer, like the “Verified by Po.et” stamp on top of this page, could a mean change in what is consumed and spread. Click on the “Verified by Po.et” and it will lead you to the Bitcoin blockchain. An immutable ledger that that proves I posted this and not somebody else.
Our audiences are smart and one-click tools like that properly implemented could help re-establish the confidence of the profession and leave the rumors and urban myths to the undergrowth of the web.
Then again, we must remember that people who have grown up in a world where storytelling is how we establish order, and facts simply support the “believability” of that story, they have sometimes never seen a world where there are “gatekeepers” who focus on the truth. To them blockchains ability to establish origin and transparency, so that a common truth can be established and shared, might be a foreign concept. The question arises is if they are looking for truth. Or are they just looking for order?
The “Don’t wanna knows” will always be there. The ex-military “Michael” in Dagens Nyheters story spread the cooked-up story of refugees defecating in a church produced by a Macedonian troll just because he liked the idea of Muslims desecrating a Christian church. The current president of the United States daily spreads fake news like wildfire to promote his position. Trump might well be sworn in again in 2020, carried by supporters that like to believe that he can Make America Great Again.
But most people are after all like my mother, rational and not stupid. If they can distinguish between a rotten apple and a fresh one, they will make an informed decision. Everybody is an expert on something and confronted with facts I believe most people want to make informed decisions despite their political or religious preferences.
That said, we have a long way to go. America put a man on the moon in 1969 but measles, once eradicated in the US, is still breaking out in 2019 due to non-vaccinated fringe religious groups and anti-vaccine propaganda.
The tech is already here. The music identifying service Shazam, has sliced millions of songs into short numbers and then compares those numbers to what it computes when you play a song. A great example of content stamping. The alternative monetary system Bitcoin is another hugely successful proof of concept.
These technologies could be used by journalism in a way that audiences find useful and easy to navigate. The challenge is user experience and the willingness by journos and publishers to leave the “trust me because I’m Bob Woodward” behind on history’s scrapheap.
News outlets must start verifying and sourcing journalism’s output as a rule instead of when being challenged. And to take control of the watermarking. If someone else decides what can be labeled as journalism, the battle is lost.
Facebook is facing this. Millions of posts flowing through the network like a perfect shit-storm are inducing genocide and disrupting elections. But society is increasingly not buying that and the nascent “content business” is backing off day by day trying to learn the basic skills journalism has been practicing since Gutenberg. If they don’t succeed they are going to be hit by regulation, and worse, de-registration, if they are not useful to those they are profiting from, they will lose their raison d’être.
Editing is a difficult and challenging operation and online platforms like Facebook are doing a poor job. Their army of censors are flipping through a never-ending list of “non-acceptable content” as they are trying to decide what stays in and what goes out. They are inviting serious-sounding but partisan stakeholders like the “The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab” to help stave off unwanted content without really knowing what that is.
The million-dollar question for journalism is if it´s ready to start offering its unique competence for what it’s worth and not just succumb to publishers who inherited printing presses or the tech giants who today dominate and control the flow of information. Unfortunately, there are not many signs that journalism is mature enough to take on that challenge.
Most are busy worrying about their current job or looking for new markets for their skills. The remaining are either trying to compete with the endless parade of kittens published on Facebook or working for some of the publishing houses that still hold high standards and can afford to keep investigating until the story is ready to go.
Mastheads like Dagens Nyheter, Kristianstadsbladet, NPR and Swedish Television represent culture, management, line-by-line processes, economy and have a long history of doing the kind of fact-checking and truth-seeking that Facebook and others are attempting.
The core product of the mastheads is not airtime or paper, its journalistic integrity. And its control of that value that’s at stake.
On assignment from Dagens Nyheter and on the expense of the publisher Bonnier the educated journalist Måns Mosesson did the legwork that was needed to challenge the trolls of Macedonia. His colleague Niklas Orrenius who reported the story on the Yazidi who saw a woman being served her child, did not. Orrenius and Dagens Nyheters editors undermined the trust the audience and the work of all journalists in the profession. And when confronted they refused to offer a public correction and apology. That’s unacceptable.
Same thing when editors of The New York Times seek George W Bush´s advice and refrains from publishing how the NSA is spying on its own people. Or when sloppy fact checking at Der Spiegel and The Washington Post missed Claas Relotius[vi] and Janet Cooke’s falsifications. Cooke[vii], Jayson Blair[viii] and Relotius[ix][x] proves in no uncertain terms that it’s not the masthead that is the product, it’s the journalistic content.
And the audience is not the political party preferred by the publisher, or the government that misuses the trust given to it by the people. It’s the people.
They care and act on the misinformation. When the media failed in uncovering that a sole lying Iraqi refugee, “Curveball”, was the only source behind the reasons for invading Iraq where half a million people consequently died they failed the people. But the dead are remembered, and the failure is noted.
Also remembered are the men wearing yellow jumpsuits were ingeniously called “enemy combatants” in quotes by the White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Men who are really prisoners of war in a new kind of conflict, being waterboarded, tortured, in defiance of the Geneva convention built on 60 million dead in WWII.
The press accepting the Orwellian subterfuge and prisoners in chicken cages on a no man’s land in the Caribbean has fueled public anger both in the West and in the Arab world. That anger has supported the rise of evil forces like Al Qaida and the Islamic state. We are living with the consequences.
Mastheads, brand names, still have a major impact. Wikileaks Diplomatic cables took off when The Guardian used its correspondents to evaluate the hundreds of thousands of revealing diplomatic cables from the US State Department, not by Julian Assange publishing them on his blog. It was journalists sifting through, evaluating and publishing in a coherent way that made the difference.
When Ronan Farrow researched the Harvey Weinstein story and NBC decided against publishing. the real brand name, Ronan Farrow himself, went to The New Yorker. The rest is history and proof that the core value is journalistic prowess and not a brand.
But despite being the core asset journalists are still selling their output far too cheaply to publishers who are not in their position based on merit, but in many cases based on blood. And often bad blood at that. Like the foundering news-gathering in Gothenburg, where Sweden’s second largest city has been bereft of proper journalism for decades and now lost its main masthead. Or the decades of coziness between the powers that be and the Sulzberger’s and Grahams of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
When revenues stop coming and the trust is failing traditional media do take notice. Illuminating phrases now underline articles: “This is how we work with quality journalism”. Line by line procedures and fact checking departments have been implemented and fact-checking outfits like PolitiFact and Snopes are remarkable.
But either Dagens Nyheters interview with the Yazidi woman wasn’t “quality journalism” or they don’t care about the promises they make to the audience: “Credibility and quality are the main keywords. What we publish should be relevant and built on reliable sources. Facts must be double-checked and information we publish must be confirmed from several sources”. Those words means not publishing a well-known urban legend from a single source who does not provide any evidence. And Dagens Nyheters chief editor Peter Wolodarski knows that when defending the story, he´s just “praying for his sick aunt” as a Swedish proverb well describes the chore of his position.[xi]
The mastheads need to shape up in upholding these promises if they are to remain middlemen in the equation.
“All the news that’s fit to print” must mean just that. They need to factcheck, factcheck again, and employ an immense degree of transparency in what they do. They could benefit from the blockchain, and they are experimenting with it. The New York Times recently advertised for a blockchain project manager.
Journalists know the ground rules of the profession: they report only what they can best gather is the truth, always use two independent sources, are transparent with the origin of information and correct mistakes.
They have just haven´t cared enough and haven’t been challenged. Until now.
Civil makes all prospective members answer a quiz on their “constitution”. That’s one way of making journalists sign off on the contract with the audience.
But can journalists survive without the mastheads? It´s like the local farmer trying to survive without Walmart selling his good apples. Civil, and to some extent Po.et, and other blockchain initiatives, gamble that if the “apples” are fresh, journalism could sell its certified product in the digital sphere. Civils idea that journalists could put their content on the blockchain and get paid in crypto currency from its audience is possible, but in practice it´s a long shot.
The cryptocurrency boom has led to an overflow of programmers. There is no lack of people with the know, but there is a definitive lack of standards and everybody is jumping on the bandwagon to try to set the standard of what will be the go-to solution for authenticating content on the blockchain. Banks like JP Morgan, governments, Facebook, classic media companies like The New York Times and encrypted messaging services like Telegram and Signal are all working on implementations of the blockchain.
They all know that apart from the “Don’t wanna knows” like Trump all want the truth. But in what format will it be distributed on? Our current situation resembles the battle between VHS and Betamax. Betamax was technically superior, but VHS still won.
The same billion-dollar answer is what everybody is racing for in the blockchain industry.
Here journalism is decidedly behind. Attempts to watermark information with the blockchain like Civil and Po.et is nowhere near ready for the general consumer market.
Their attempt to offer “stamps” that indicate the origin of an article, or that its content has been verified and fact-checked by a news organization adhering to certain standards are applaudable.
But who verifies it? How will this work in practice? What about answers to major philosophical issues like who´s going to be the final arbitrator of truth and what is “good information”?
How that will pan out remains to be seen. The simple question of what to do when Steve Bannon asks to join Civil’s newsroom proves the weakness of Civil´s governing model. That, and still cumbersome tech, is yet, if ever, to be resolved.
Wikipedia’s evolvement from a free-for all publishing platform to a curated, some would say censored, model is an interesting parallel. They nowadays apply a transparent and documented process where information is edited so that it is sourced with a footnote that links to a reliable source, not necessarily being factually correct. Which means the editors can focus on verifiability, not truth.
Civil’s failure to launch in the fall of 2018 is an easy way to discredit the whole idea, but, a difficult lens to analyze whether blockchain will help journalism or not. Civil failed due to the difficulty of purchasing the tokens needed to have voting power to enforce standards. But people should not need to understand what blockchain is to use it — they need to quickly and easily purchase tokens. Ideally without even realizing they’re purchasing units of value that are tracked using blockchain technology.
I do think some people wanted Civil’s tokens, the demand was there. I clearly wanted some. The question becomes: is it scalable beyond some aficionados? Would my mom purchase Civil’s tokens if it was easier? And are people willing to PAY for potentially more accurate news?
Money has so far not been a problem in blockchain development with Bitcoin soaring to $19,000 in 2017. Now at $ 4,000 many of the initiatives have lost funding but Po.et says their incubator Bitcoin Magazine continues to provide support and Civil’s funder ConsenSys made a lot of money on their expertise in blockchain and infused $3 M in Civil’s recent relaunch. But eventually the technology must support itself.
More importantly, journalism needs to decide if it needs a technological solution to solve its problems.
I think it could benefit. But not all agree.
Jonah Engel Bromwich of The New York Times turned his thumb downwards in November 2018 after Civil’s Initial Coin Offering capsized:
“For now, Civil is essentially just another media operation with venture capital funding. The money underwriting it, from ConsenSys, remains, you know, regular money. The company uses some blockchain technology underneath the hood, including a plugin for its publishing software. But the technology remains difficult to comprehend, and, for any news-consumer’s purpose, irrelevant.”
Then again, Bromwich is on the inside pissing out, from within the warmth of Sulzberger’s Times Square mansion bought with money from a Mexican telecom mogul.
All journalists can´t work at The New York Times, the kids of the future don’t read it and can’t even tell one old media brand name from another.
They are on the outside, together with my mom, and still need to get the facts right.
Fredrik Laurin 2019-04-25
[ii] From this basement came a piece of fake news about who had desecrated a church in Sweden – DN.SE UPPDATERAD 2017-03-27 PUBLICERAD 2017-02-18.pdf Downloaded 20190323 https://nextcloud.webo.hosting/s/sXCxQtLYsnZTxHZ
[vi] Claas Relotius https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/19/top-der-spiegel-journalist-resigns-over-fake-interviews accessed 2019-04-12
[xi] “ Det sistnämnda: trovärdighet och kvalitet, är redaktionens främsta ledord. Det vi publicerar ska vara relevant och bygga på säkra källor. Vid våra granskningar och fördjupningar ska fakta vara dubbelkontrollerat och uppgifter vi publicerar ska vara bekräftade från flera håll. Credibility and quality, is the editorial’s main keyword. Det vi publicerar ska vara relevant och bygga på säkra källor. Vid våra granskningar och fördjupningar ska fakta vara dubbelkontrollerat och uppgifter vi publicerar ska vara bekräftade från flera håll.