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New models for quality journalism, from Wikitribune to crypto tokens

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Christian Catalini

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Christian Catalini is the Fred Kayne (1960) Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship Assistant Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at the MIT School of Management.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is embarking on a new online venture that the rest of us can only hope succeeds: Creating a new business model for quality journalism.

To counter the flood of digital fake news, Wales, whose founding of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia stands as one of the shining successes of the internet era, has announced plans for a for-profit, crowdfunded news website offering stories by journalists and volunteers working together.

The free Wikitribune, as it’s being called, will contain no advertisements. It will be fully funded by readers who choose whether or not to donate to the website, according to a recent announcement by Wales.

Scoff all you want at Wales’ idea. It sounds idealistic. It looks idealistic. It is idealistic.

But other idealistic crowdsourced projects — most notably the 16-year-old Wikipedia itself and the entire open-source software movement that profoundly changed the software world — have worked in the past.

Still, after years of studying crowdfunding — from reward-based platforms like Kickstarter and equity ones like AngelList, to today’s experiments in the blockchain space (i.e. Bitcoin, Ethereum and other crypto tokens) — I reluctantly have to say this: With Wikitribune, Jimmy Wales has his work cut out for him.

To be clear, I think Wales is right: The news, as he says, is “broken.” The business model for journalism is broken. The business of journalism is, simply put, experiencing an historic decline in paid advertising and circulation, leading to deep newsroom cutbacks that have harmed quality journalism at a time when quality journalism is needed most. Something needs to be done.

So enter Jimmy Wales — and the challenges he and his colleagues have decided to address with Wikitribune. Again, I’m not skeptical about the general concept of professional journalists and volunteer fact checkers and others collaborating together to produce quality content that readers can enjoy and trust, especially if each story is accompanied with a detailed list of all the sourced materials used in an article.

What I am worried about are the challenges of putting together an incentive system that will make such an endeavor successful and sustainable over the long haul.

Current plans call for Wikitribune to raise enough subscription money to hire 10 journalists. But scaling and coordinating a larger team may not be as easy. Ensuring quality and timely reviews, and attracting enough funds for longer investigative projects, will require building an engaged and committed community.

Above all: How many contributing readers will it take to build a quality digital newsroom that can consistently produce high-quality, relevant, original and timely news content that readers want? And how will they overcome the fact that the vast majority of web readers now expect to get their news for free?

Besides the professional journalists, think about everyone else who will be contributing content: photo and video editors, facts and grammar checkers and others. A successful platform will either need well-designed economic incentives or a pro-socially motivated community to feel part of, possibly both.

Multiple, related experiments are also shaping up within the blockchain and cryptocurrency community. After Bitcoin showed the world that one can bootstrap a secure, global platform for exchanging value by combining cryptography with game theory, startups and open-source teams are now focused on building a stronger, decentralized internet.

Projects like the ones developed by the teams behind Blockstack, Filecoin, Protocol Labs or the Basic Attention Token have the potential to completely reshape how content is generated, distributed, consumed and rewarded online.

While the infrastructure needed to reinvent advertising, online payments, cloud services, identity and reputation systems through crypto tokens is still early-stage, in the long run it will change how society sources, aggregates and rewards information and other digital goods, including news.

Eventually, Wikitribune or one of the platforms built on top of a crypto token can get there. Building a quality journalism platform is not an impossible dream with today’s technology. But it is an idealistic dream that’s going to take time, more than one organization and multiple experiments to succeed.

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