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The Final Step In Digital Migration: Blockchain And The Media Industry

News has been distributed and read online for decades now and the media industry has suffered, but that could all change sooner than you think…

I recall writing a feature article while at university five years ago, in which I wrote about how digital media has radically transformed the industry, especially when it came down to shrinking revenues. I spoke with then Business Day editor, Songezo Zibi, and Moneyweb editor, Ryk van Niekerk, about how the internet has completely changed the media industry. Both agreed with me that overheads have seen a significant reduction due to printing and distribution costs disappearing. However, revenue streams have been cut as well, with advertising drying up.

“There needs to be [a paradigm shift], because you can migrate the reader, but you can’t migrate the advertiser to the same extent,” van Niekerk told me.

“The thing with online, or digital, and print is that if you switch over to digital, your printing and distribution (costs) disappear,” was what Zibi’s sentiments were. “But, of course, then you’re not making enough money, because your advertising dries up. So, you battle to a point of balance where it all works out.”

However, what truly stood out to me was an analogy that the Moneyweb editor used when describing how we’re going to solve this.

“Just remember, the first car that was ever patented was in 1892,” he explains. “And its name is “the mechanical horse”. The mechanical horse was a horse made out of metal, it had wheels, but it looked like a horse and it had levers on the side. And you were put on a saddle where you had to use these levers, and then the horse would move.

“That was the first motorised vehicle and it was totally impractical, as you may well observe. And then one was never made. The first car, as we know it, which had four wheels, a steering wheel and a gear box, was only patented in 1908. Now we, in the media, are currently in the “mechanical horse” stage. We want to take print media and take it online and do exactly the same thing. We need to make that evolution and create a new way of presenting the news on a digital platform, not based with this newspaper hat on.”

“We want to take print media and take it online and do exactly the same thing. We need to make that evolution and create a new way of presenting the news on a digital platform, not based with this newspaper hat on.”

Having spent some time in the industry since I wrote that article, gaining a better understanding of journalism in practice, that metaphorical “mechanical horse” has always been at the back of my mind. Now, I have shifted towards a different industry, centered around Blockchain technology, which, in Layman’s terms, is the technology that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin run on. However, the Blockchain can be used for a lot more than cryptocurrency and has the potential to change everything from government services to healthcare to supply-chain management. But, where I can see the most radical change is in media.

Back in October 2017, a Blockchain journalism platform called Civil announced $5 million in funding from blockchain development firm ConsenSys. The announcement accompanied an explanation of the platform’s vision, which would address a number of the faults that have arisen in the media industry since the rise of digital news platforms, with “protection from censorship” amongst them. Another Platform that’s using a Blockchain based strategy is Yours.

So, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in the industry. In addition to the financial challenges that I’ve addressed are side-effects, such as the following:

  • Newsrooms have shrunk and, where 20 journalists may have written 40 articles between them 20 years ago, those 40 articles may be written by 10 today (for instance). Double the work load means that journalists are halving the amount of time spent on research, copy-editing, reporting, etc. which obviously compromises the quality and credibility of the news.
  • Clickbait and fake news are a huge problem. Due to the fact that the only way to measure how many eyes have seen a particular article is the number of people who’ve clicked on it. Whether they read the entire article, whether it was of a good standard is irrelevant. Advertisers just want to know how many “clicks” it got. As a result, we get misleading headlines and just plain trashy journalism. And you know those articles where they split it into three or four pages? The journalist receives an extra click for every time you press “next page”. That kind of stuff really gives journalists a bad name.
  • Bots are also a major issue. It’s easy to manipulate numbers by using computer generated clicks where you can instruct a bot to click on a page 500 million times, but advertisers cannot tell the difference and the time and effort being put into tracking the legitimacy of a click count is simply not worth it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I think I’ve made my point… Let’s move on to the Blockchain. The most revolutionary facet of the Blockchain is the distributed ledger, which, for the sake of cryptocurrencies and financial transactions, works in a way that all transactions are tracked, verified and secured. There can be no post hoc changes made to the Blockchain and all transactions cannot be replicated and are open to the public. Miners race to verify transactions by solving cryptographic calculations, with the winner getting rewarded in the form of tokens.

Now try to re-imagine the Blockchain in media mechanisms. Say a journalist writes an article and submits it to some content management system along with all of his or her sources (attributions, recordings and/or research)). A subeditor “mines” by proof-reading the article, fact-checking the work and verifying it in the same way that a transaction is verified.

Then, once the article is published, a reader pays for the article in tokens — it will be a micropayment that can be as little as a tenth of a cent for each article. It’s not expensive to read the news and, unlike reading the article online for free, there is a payment system that is so minuscule that it doesn’t bother the reader. A journalist, a subeditor and the publication can all receive the share of the remuneration for the article in tokens.

Let me paint a hypothetical scenario and let’s say the exchangeable token is called an MDI. One MDI equals one-millionth of a bitcoin. If an article is read a million times, that article earns one BTC — a pretty sizeable amount of money. Now let’s say that Bitcoin is divided up, so that the publication receives, say, 50%, the journalist receives 15%, the subeditor 10% and so on . Distributing the news becomes profitable once again. It creates a scenario where journalists have incentives to produce quality work. But the remuneration is not what’s actually important, it’s the exchange itself…

By the reader making an exchange from their digital wallet, they are verifying that they aren’t robots because they are making the exchange through a smart contract using a digital signature. Build in a feedback system of some sort that allows them to validate the quality of the article (eliminating clickbait). The higher the reader’s satisfaction, the more tokens an article can charge per click, creating an incentive to create good quality work, rather than focusing on quantity.

Furthermore, advertisers now have a far better understanding of what they’ll be paying for when buying space on a webpage and, because readers can be tracked through digital identities, the numbers are completely legitimate and the demographic indicators can be analysed to identify optimal strategies.

This, in a nutshell, is what the Blockchain can do to the media. Undoubtedly, platforms like Civil have a far more complex and sturdy solution than what I have proposed, but the fact is that the Blockchain can solve a number of the voids that have been left behind since we migrated from print to digital, from migrating advertising to eliminating “fake news”.

Finally, digital media can move away from the “mechanical horse” stage and the Blockchain is the Model T Ford.

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