Takeaways from our Blockchain webinar

“Publishers should consider blockchain as a tool that can be useful for specific functions. Their roles of journalistic reporting, fact-checking, and so on will remain vital,” Walid Al-Saqaf told participants in last week’s WAN-IFRA webinar about the possibilities this technology offers news publishers.

by Anton Jolkovski | February 11, 2019

Al-Saqaf, Senior Lecturer in Media Technology and Journalism at Södertörn University in Sweden, is an expert on Blockchain, and was among the sources of our recently published report, Blockchain and the Future of News, which is available free to WAN-IFRA Members and may be purchased by non-members.

Below are our takeaways from the webinar, which can also be replayed in full (please scroll to the end of this post to watch the video recording).

To date, the internet has been useful mainly for communication. Blockchain enables it to be used for peer-to-peer transfer of value and other functions where it is essential that only one copy of a document or file can exist. Blockchain is distributed (no need to trust intermediaries), traceable, and immutable.

Current state of adoption/development in media:

  • Increased interest in news about blockchain
  • Many initial coin offerings (ICOs – blockchain-based fund-raising campaigns) for media and journalism have taken place but few have succeeded
  • Main reason why it is being adopted slowly is the lack of international technical standards – there are many competing designs, protocols, paradigms, platforms
  • Technology is at a very early stage of development

Some of the larger blockchain-based media projects that have survived to date are Steemit, Civil, Decentralized News Network, Publicism, Blockchain Media, Publiq, Scorum, Trive, and SocialX.

These are some of the possible starting points for publishers who want to put blockchain to work:

  • Improving economic viability
  • Protecting whistleblowers
  • Resisting censorship
  • Incentivising content creation
  • Combating disinformation
  • Secure archiving
  • Data-driven journalism
  • Preserving intellectual property
  • Advanced monetization

Expanding on some of those possibilities:

  • Accepting crypto payments (There is still an element of risk to it, but the number of entities who accept them is growing.)
  • Publishing news about developments in blockchain technology and the rapidly growing ecosystem can attract new readers (especially young ones and entrepreneurs) and advertisers.
  • (More ambitious) Automating some business processes to reduce costs and increase profits.
  • (Even more ambitious) Smart property & micropayments based on trackable impressions.
  1. Example: members of the Civil community voting down unacceptable stories via crypto accounts.
  2. Example: automation of micropayments for advertising impressions in Adbank.
  • Fighting fake news with authentication (crytographic signatures on news content).
  • Protecting intellectual property (IP) via authentication, which is increasingly being accepted in court.
  1. Example: Chinese internet court ruling.
  2. Example: Bernstein, where publishers can store certificates of content on a blockchain.
  • Mining open blockchain data to track financial transactions, using open source libraries, to do data journalism projects that can have substantial impact.
  1. Example: Quartz reporter’s bot allowing Twitter users to see Bitcoin payments made by victims of the WannaCry ransomware in hopes of regaining access to their files.
  2. Example: tracking Bitcoin donations to WikiLeaks.

Interview with Walid Al-Saqaf

These questions were submitted by participants during our webinar with Walid Al-Saqaf, whose responses have been lightly edited here.

Will the blockchain ecosystem improve the quality of journalism?

Yes. Civil is trying to do that. Community members monitor quality of content and vote via smart contracts, possibly imposing financial penalties on contributors of disinformation, potentially libelous stories and the like.

Why has Civil not been as successful as had been hoped?

The process of becoming a member was too complicated and the “post-hype” phase of the blockchain ecosystem had already set in when the ICO took place, among other factors.

How will the cryptocurrency crash affect the functioning of blockchain for publishing?

The technology still is fundamentally sound, but was not designed to grow in the explosive way it did in the past few years. There are still incentives for mining, so the ecosystem will continue to function.

Many blockchain publishing platforms are aimed at individuals, not large publishers. Should publishers regard this development as an attempt to push them out of the publishing picture?

The situation is like the early days of the internet, when large telecommunications groups felt threatened. They were forced to change their mindsets and find creative approaches to the technology. Likewise, publishers should consider blockchain as a tool that can be useful for specific functions (as described above). Their roles of journalistic reporting, fact-checking, and so on will remain vital.

What is the difference between the models of Civil and, another blockchain startup that did an ICO? is designed to track IP ownership for works of art and other creative content, whereas Civil has created a distributed newsroom structure.

Why not drop the term “blockchain” and say “distributed ledger technology” instead? It would avoid confusion with bitcoin.

There are types of distributed ledger technology other than blockchain. It’s a matter of definition. There is a need to inform people, to clear up any confusion.

Blockchain currently is too slow to satisfy the requirements of programmatic advertising. How will that develop?

The problem is called scalability. Several solutions are under development, but each has its own drawbacks. One promising concept is a private blockchain that does not use mining at all and can operate at a much higher speed. Another development to increase speed is adding a layer on top of the bitcoin blockchain.

How should publishers approach blockchain in general?

A good first step is to establish regular coverage of blockchain in their publications. That will raise awareness of the technology among staff members. Then examine projects that media companies can join on an experimental basis, without substantial investment, just to inform themselves and find out what can be gained from them. The third stage would probably be to start protecting exclusive content via blockchain.

Watch the video recording of the webinar by clicking on the image below.

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