SHANGHAI — For the majority of Zhang Jieping’s 12-year journalism career, she upheld the oft-quoted saying, “Content is king.” As long as the reporting was good, she believed that the cash flow would be, too.
But when her Hong Kong media startup Initium Media hit a cash crunch under her editorship, it served as a wake-up call. Two years after its inception, Initium had already gained a reputation for its high-quality journalism, but it still wasn’t enough to keep social media from luring readers and advertisers away. Initium failed to secure funding from investors, and Zhang was forced to fire around 70 of the website’s 90 staff members. Her values shaken, Zhang began searching for a more sustainable media model in which journalists could be paid fairly and readers could access high-quality journalism for a relatively cheap price. The answer, she now believes, lies in blockchain.
What is blockchain? By Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone
What is blockchain? By Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone
Blockchain — an open digital database that chronologically records transactions without a central authority — has risen to public awareness thanks to digital currencies like bitcoin, which users are banned from trading in China. The technology stores data in different locations that must all be verified before undergoing any changes. But blockchain isn’t just shaking up currencies — it’s also tracking packages bought over e-commerce sites, safeguarding data generated in smart cities and, thanks to people like Zhang, helping address some of the problems facing media.
Matters, the blockchain-based variation of Reddit that Zhang founded, is still in its testing stage and is currently invitation-only. But when it launches publicly in October, she hopes it will address the funding problems faced by mainstream media. Initium managed to survive by introducing a paywall, but Zhang lost faith in the idea that good content alone could keep a publication afloat. “It’s true that content is king, but holding on to that idea today is like building a skyscraper on sand,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “The current situation is that every reporter is working for free for platforms like Facebook, which have eaten up all of the ad revenue.”
On Zhang’s new site, Matters, anyone will be able to post content, and authors can get their posts upvoted to earn in-site cryptocurrency, MAT, which can be then cashed out as U.S. dollars. Users will get 100 MAT when they join the site, and can earn more when other users pay for their articles, or by purchasing more MAT using traditional currency. The cryptocurrency isn’t backed by a government, but the transactions are more convenient, as there aren’t any taxes or transaction fees, or third-party financial intermediaries involved. Users are all ranked by a “gravity” system whereby Matters matches individual contributions to articles from more influential, more active users. The process works in such a way that stories can only reach the top of the site’s homepage if they are backed by top users. Zhang hopes this system will one day eliminate reliance on third parties like Facebook, facilitate direct communication between content creators and readers, and protect intellectual property rights.
Around the world, media veterans like Zhang and entrepreneurs are experimenting with incorporating blockchain technology into the media. In December 2016, Jarrod Dicker, the former vice president of innovation and commercial strategy at The Washington Post, kicked off Po.et, a blockchain-powered database designed to track the ownership and attribution of creative works. There’s also Steemit, a Reddit-style blogging and social networking website set up in March 2016 that, like Matters, also issues its own cryptocurrency to reward publishers — though Zhang says its article-ranking system is different.
Zhang Jieping poses for a photo in Taipei, Taiwan, June 14, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Jieping
But in China, there’s more than just attribution and transparency at stake. Blockchain can also allow social media and media platforms like Matters to circumvent government surveillance and circulate sensitive content. The technology made headlines recently in a cat-and-mouse game between tech-savvy netizens and regulators. In an open letter, a Peking University student called for information disclosure for a decades-old sexual harassment case. The letter was repeatedly taken down in April, despite netizens converting the text into images to make it harder to silence. Eventually, an anonymous user uploaded the letter as a note during a transaction using Ethereum blockchain, meaning it could never be deleted by regulators.
“All of a sudden, those who didn’t know about blockchain understood the benefits of it,” said Zhang. “Blockchain will be a big blow to information suppression. Of course, I think if the government wants to block it, it’s still possible — but it would be quite costly because [blockchain’s] decentralized and distributed nature has made it really hard.”
While blockchain could make it harder for the government to silence content, it wouldn’t be a panacea for China’s journalists. To view the content sealed in the blockchain, users still need to have the URL to the platforms themselves, which are still susceptible to state-sanctioned surveillance. Chin Yik-chan, a lecturer in media and communication at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said the authorities will eventually come up with a solution to stop those using blockchain to share subversive content. “They always catch up,” she said.
But Chin is optimistic about how blockchain could revolutionize revenue for news publications, which once relied heavily on advertising. While some newspapers rolled out paywalls hoping to salvage their profits, this business model doesn’t work very well, Chin said. Chin believes that Zhang’s blockchain-backed business model will generate more revenue than the existing subscription method. Readers can pay for the articles that they like reading, rather than pay for a blanket monthly or yearly subscription, which could mean they end up paying more than they might under a subscription model. While pay-per-use is not totally new — Dutch platform Blendle launched the model, which has been described as “iTunes for news” — it can be expanded upon using blockchain.
In other forms, blockchain could also address high-profile problems facing the media: fake news and clickbait. These issues are so prevalent that in April, China’s high-flying news aggregator Jinri Toutiao — an app known for giving users personalized feeds of celebrity gossip, sensational news, and internet memes — was temporarily removed from Chinese app stores at the request of the country’s internet regulator. And tech giant Tencent came under scrutiny around two weeks ago after a blog it had invested in was repeatedly accused of “article laundering” by other news outlets — a neologism that refers to rewriting articles just enough to avoid detection.
A traditional newsroom in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Dec. 3, 2014. Chen Gengsheng/VCG
Wu Peng, a former programmer at personal computer manufacturer Lenovo and China’s biggest search engine Baidu, has co-founded two blockchain-powered media projects since 2016 in a bid to fix those issues: Primas, an app similar to Matters; and Yuanben, a website for licensing, syndicating, and attributing content. “Whereas some reporters spend days out of office interviewing sources but only a few thousand people read their articles, all a dishonest blogger needs to do is sit in front of a computer, come up with a story, and write a sensational title and that will be viewed by 100,000 readers,” Wu said. “To me, this is unfair.”
Some traffic is not even genuine, said Wu, referring to the unscrupulous paid posters known as China’s “internet water army.” “I could just spend 500 yuan [$80] to get tens of thousands of likes for my article, then use these clicks to attract advertisers,” he said. “Then what about those who put in time and effort to write good articles — those who actually contribute to society?”
Wu hopes Yuanben in particular will put a stop to plagiarized clickbait. By assigning unique digital DNA to each piece of work on Yuanben, users can conveniently share and track the flow of authorized content, and the original content creators can be paid in a timely fashion. “There is a stereotype that Chinese people like plagiarizing,” said Wu. “But the real problem I’ve observed is that a lot of organizations want to use authorized content, but don’t know where to start due to lack of access.”
Blockchain creations are still in their early phases, but Fang Kecheng, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication who hails from eastern Anhui province, is an early member of Zhang’s website. He sees blockchain as an invaluable tool to encourage content creators in today’s media environment. “Since last year, there has been a bubble around blockchain,” said Fang, referring to the boom and bust of cryptocurrency prices. “However, the potential of this technology itself will not be obliterated because of speculators. When there are more people who really want to do something meaningful with blockchain, this technology will not be wasted.”
But like media and communication lecturer Chin, Fang is skeptical about how effective blockchain can be for dodging censorship. “I think the real value of blockchain is not in preserving online content, because before blockchain, there was technology allowing people to do that,” said Fang, referring to tools such as digital archives.
At the end of the day, said Wu, “There is no good or bad technology, but there are good or bad people who use the technology.”
Zhang says that the immutable nature of blockchain — which she likens to engraving words in stone — could mean fake news lasts forever, but could also discourage people from sharing incorrect information in the first place. “On the surface, fake news can never be deleted, but doesn’t that leave a permanent stain on history?” she questioned. “If we all know that our words will be etched in stone, we will be more careful before we open our mouths.”
Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.
(Header image: A manager checks electrical equipment inside a bitcoin mine near Kongyu Township, Sichuan province, Aug. 12, 2016. Paul Ratje/Washington Post/VCG)