26 May, 2020
Before we get into it, it must be understood that, while Essential Millennial will need to remain a private, profit-seeking enterprise in our infancy, this would be the state of affairs in order to grow to the point where we reach our end goal. The idea will, at the end of the day, be to turn our platform not into a product or service, but a public utility. My passion for the media stems from a sense that I believe that the world needs unprecedented access to knowledge – in real time. I believe we can achieve that, but I also fear that private ownership and profit incentives could distort our vision beyond recognition.
The Essential Millennial was founded earlier this year as a simple blog with content relatable to a new, emerging generation and a valuable market. However, it is actually the brainchild of my years of experience as a news journalist, in the tech industry, and decades of online activity.
My passion for journalism began with my “political awakening”, for lack of a better word, in primary school. I had these visions in my mind’s eye of being an investigative journalist, running around with a notebook and exposing government flaws or writing a Sunday column that thousands of people would turn to week after week. I could even picture myself running along the front-lines with a camera and a microphone.
However, as I was growing up, the Internet was in its infancy and fast developing into the global platform that is the heart of our daily lives it is today. And, I can still remember myself as a teenager sitting behind my computer at home, exploring my passion for writing on the forums at goal.com (when they still existed), about my other passion: football. I reckon that countless of my “10,000 hours” were accumulated behind that computer screen while my peers were out having fun, being rebellious teenagers.
Back then, most of the legitimate journalism was still published in newspapers and websites were merely supplementary to the real thing, packaged more for a niche market – early adopters of the Internet. Bear in mind, Facebook didn’t even exist in those days.
And, through six years of university education, I managed to develop the mental tools that I needed to become highly “politically literate” and, of course, I got my Honours degree in journalism. Then, about a decade after I started writing stories in Internet forums that were unseen by anybody except for a tiny group of fellow football fans, I had finally achieved my goal to become a sports journalist for the largest sports publication on the continent.
A completely different game:
I write this with nothing but respect for my former employers, but while I knew that the Internet had radically changed the nature of journalism, I could never quite have imagined how bastardised the industry would become from my early visions of what it meant to be a journalist. Albeit that I wrote for the company’s newspaper as well as their website, it was clear to me, from both my studies and my professional experience, that newspapers are all but dead. And being on the front-lines, attending press conferences, even going to watch football games, had become unnecessary.
This lack of direct exposure to the news events echoes throughout the industry. Journalists have turned into the same amateur keyboard warrior that I was while writing for the goal.com message boards – except we also picked up the phone every now and then. And this wasn’t even half of the story.
News stories have ceased to be a matter of telling the people what they need to hear, but rather telling them what they want to hear. There is a key difference here – journalism has moved from being a profession that serves the people, to one that serves the publication’s shareholders and their profit margins. Why? Because the digitisation of the media has completely altered its financial models.
Whereas, in the past, large parts of a publication’s revenues were generated through subscriptions and sales of individual editions through vendors, most readers are not willing to pay a subscription fee to get their news. And while you were able to track the demographics of your readers through the information collected through your distribution channels – i.e. the physical deliveries of the hard copies of newspapers, the Internet is a far more anonymous and less trustworthy environment. There may be more data collected, but it’s not nearly as “rich” as the data one could find through subscriber details. This is part of the reason why mailing lists are so critical to marketers today – but only a fraction of your readers will actually be subscribers
So, for advertisers, the metrics that a publication can provide them with from the analytical data of their website’s performance is far, far lower in quality. It becomes a far harder job to prove to an advertiser that you are serving a particular niche audience – particularly if you have visitors that aren’t subscribers to your mailing lists. This is because of the nature of identity on the Internet. While your analytics may tell and advertiser that you have a million “clicks” on an article, there’s always the chance that those clicks are being generated by bots and actually your audience is primarily just one person with elementary coding knowledge. Even if you are bringing in real users, this method of pay per click (PPC) monetisation leaves a gaping hole in a critical pillar of journalism: ethics.
Content is no longer king
As little as five years ago, when I was completing my journalism degree, one of the core principles of journalism that was practically shoved down our throats was the phrase “content is king.” It’s a principle that is used in several other industries as well, but in journalism the idea, in short, is that, if you write a story that is relevant, credible and well-written, you will bring in the readers and you’re doing your job right.
Today, that no longer applies. An article with the headline “5000 killed in Baghdad airstrike” would likely receive less clicks than one titled “5 pictures of Kim Kardashian’s butt”. That is symbolic of exactly how far the media industry has fallen and, therefore, the mental capacity of people around the world.
And, as a result, trust in the media has never been lower. A decade ago, somebody would have laughed off the phrases “fake news” or “alternative facts”. Today, people are open to hearing a reality TV star use that kind of rhetoric and have literally elected that same person into the most powerful position in the world. It is indicative of the state of humanity and I’m genuinely concerned about the future of our civilisation.
Smaller newsrooms compounding the rot
Something that is often left unspoken is exactly how little journalists are paid. With the exception of those at the very top of the industry, journalism has never been a particularly high paying industry, we are paid less than teachers. And, much like teachers, we are incredibly important cogs in a functional society, making it a particularly depressing reality. So where you may have had a young person, that has a passion for writing, dreaming of becoming a journalist like me, they’re likely turned off by the slave wages and opt to take their talents to an industry that would compensate them better, like finance or engineering.
And, even worse, with the publications themselves struggling to stay above water, newsrooms are shrinking. While, in the past, you may have had five journalists working on 15 stories a day, the same output is expected from three, or two, or even one today. As a result, the quality of the reporting inevitably suffers. So, the already-degraded quality of the stories written for publications around the world become even worse, by orders of magnitude.
The essential vision
The idea for the Essential Millennial has been mulled over in my head for years and, towards the end of 2019, I decided that it was time for me to bring this vision to life. It was a vision that I was unable to pull off on my own, so I brought my talented co-founder, Melissa Da Costa, onboard, and somehow we have created something tangible. But our content is not simply about directing content at Millennials, it’s rather a key element to a grander, master plan. The Essential Millennial will, we hope, one day completely revolutionise the media industry and restore it to its former glory.
And it’s not a matter of want anymore, it’s a matter of need. The millennial generation has been screwed over by the profit chasing generations that came before us in so many ways and perhaps the worst of them all is the way our minds have been corrupted by mainstream media. Nobody is telling us what’s important anymore and we’re shooting in the dark. Whatever you may have to say about the millennial generation, we have been handed the residual waste that has been left behind by more than a century’s worth of complete disregard for the environment, the working class and the silent killer, debt.
At the centre of everything that’s gone wrong is the media industry. As a hero of mine, Steve Biko, once said about the Apartheid government of South Africa, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed.”
And don’t kid yourself, we live in an era of mental apartheid around the world. When you’re focused on where your next meal is coming from, when you’re distracted by a story about the revealing outfit that Cardi B wore to the Grammys, you aren’t focused on the discussions being held in Davos or at the UN Climate Action Summit. And you’ll find that very few journalists are even willing to write a story that may get a couple hundred views at best. And, even if they are, their editors are dismissing the idea. Over the course of time, the Essential Millennial will be carrying out a phased plan to fix the various elements at play in order to liberate the minds of our generation and every generation to come.
What’s the plan?
Without revealing too much, we have to address the cause of the plague. Bad journalism is merely a symptom and, as I mentioned earlier, it is the result of a cascade of issues stemming from two simple flaws that emerged in our migration from print journalism to digital – revenue models and identity. Because the money we make in media today is determined largely by clicks, we need to find a solution to change this. And the solution is identity.
In 2017, I began working for a tech startup that utilises cryptocurrency and blockchain technology in order to provide various decentralised services such as Internet connectivity and digital marketplaces. Since then I have been completely captivated by the power of blockchain technology. Its utility is most prominently showcased today through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. And, without going into too much detail, it makes financial transactions in a digital environment trustworthy, immutable and highly efficient.
Financial transactions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the magnitude of ways in which blockchain (also known as Distributed Ledger Technology) can revolutionise and improve our digital lives. For example, you can use the blockchain to store sensitive information like medical records, making them both secure and easily accessible for doctors anywhere in the world, which would be able to save countless lives. Another application would be in real estate, where you could complete the sale of a house over the course of hours or even minutes, rather than the existing process which can take several months.
The list goes on when it comes to the ways that blockchain could be applied to almost any industry. Law, politics, stock markets, you name it. I genuinely believe that, perhaps with the exception of Artificial Intelligence, this will become the most revolutionary technological development of our generation. And, in fact, it may be the safeguard that protects us from the potentially devastating consequences of opening the Pandora’s box of machine learning and AI.
And I’m not the only person that has recognised the potential of blockchain technology. Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and even the government of the United Arab Emirates are just a few of countless organisations and states that are starting to embrace blockchain. You may even remember that Mark Zuckerberg was pushing to create Facebook’s own digital currency, Libra, before its development was shut down by the US congress.
This is, in fact, arguably the only reason that blockchain technology hasn’t gone mainstream yet: regulation. There are a lot of kinks that need to be ironed out to ensure that everything stays safe and the technology is not exploited by bad actors. However, there remains one application for blockchain technology that stands head and shoulders above the rest for me – Self Sovereign Identity (SSI). It is around SSI that the Essential Millennial’s plan is centred.
Reconciling the faults in the media
The mechanisms behind SSI are rather complicated, but in short the idea is that you aren’t able to fake your identity on the Internet and everything that you do online leaves behind a signature through a public key. You hold onto your private key and keep it secure to protect yourself from the ever-present danger of hackers. I could go into depth, but you can find a more thorough explanation here.
The result of this is, firstly, your digital property is protected, ie. your credit card information, official documents that you may need for certain online transactions, and the medical records that we spoke of before. Secondly, you leave your fingerprints behind when it comes down to what you do online, but not in a scary dystopian Orwellian sense of the word – because you’re using a public key that merely identifies the authenticity of the person at the other end. Like I said, this both protects the digital environment (like the police might in the physical realms) and prevents the manipulation of nefarious digital environments. In other words, it creates accountability on the Internet.
Before we get into it, it must be understood that while Essential Millennial will need to remain a private, profit-seeking enterprise, in order to grow enough that we reach our end goal, the idea will, at the end of the day to turn our platform into not a product or service, but a public utility. My passion for the media stems from a sense that I believe that the world needs unprecedented access to knowledge. I believe we can achieve that, but I also fear that private ownership and profit incentives could distort our vision beyond recognition.
So, for the purpose of a media publication, while I may not know exactly who you are, or your precise physical location, I can determine things like your age, your gender, what country you’re from or other key demographic indicators that are so valuable to advertisers and would therefore be able to return to the old revenue models with regards to how newspapers could through their distribution information in the days of print media.
And that would be just one revenue stream. A publication could also sell “subscriptions” through a cryptocurrency – let’s call the Essential Millennials future token EMTs.
One EMT might be the equivalent of $0.0025 or something to that effect. It would be effectively worthless and one could pay say 5EMT to read a single article on the future Essential Millennial website which would accept micro-payments. And that micropayment could easily be reversible according to a reader’s feedback on a particular article (akin to up-votes and down-votes on YouTube or Reddit). Of course, it wouldn’t be particularly expensive for the individual user, but for the journalist, it could end up being rather profitable if they write a number of good, credible, factually sound articles per day.
And what’s more, the revenue for the articles could be divided between the publication, the journalist, the subeditor and fact-checker, giving everyone a slice of the pie for each piece of content. And should an article be found to be factually incorrect, all funds could be returned to the individual users, along with a retraction, and therefore making the publication and content providers accountable for their work. Articles of higher quality could also earn more EMTs per read and publications could hand out EMTs in bulk for reduced fees.
And the next point is critical: The EMTs would be publicly trade-able on a cryptocurrency exchange, which means that the readers themselves would be able to have a stake in the publication, which would mean the publication exists to serve its readers not some individual, faceless shareholder.
Therefore, by reconciling identity and revenue models with content outputs, journalists would be able to earn more, newsrooms can therefore grow, publications would survive, bad actors would be nullified and it may yet be possible for the media industry to restore the credibility that it lost in the transition to the digital age.
Kyle Smith, CEO and Editor-In-Chief of the Essential Millennial