Author/speaker "The Digital Diet"
For more than six years I’ve been grateful to work with journalists across six continents after helping build the team that grew in scope and impact as the Google News Lab. Today, I’m taking a step in a new direction as co-founder and head of journalism operations for Civil as it embarks on a radical new paradigm for self-sustaining journalism. Indeed, I believe we’re on the verge of a revolution.
What is Civil you might ask? At its core, Civil will be created as a decentralized platform for news (across mobile-first web and app) using blockchain technology with a structure to better engage with an active community and ensure security across the network. It’s also an opportunity for entrepreneurial journalists to rally their peers and generate content directly for their audience — all while getting paid.
What is blockchain? Like many others across tech, media, and financial industries, I’ve thought about blockchain and the revolutionary potential of cryptocurrency, but Matthew Iles, CEO of Civil, inspired me with how Ethereum, IPFS and other blockchain infrastructure technologies can also be a backbone for developing new types of apps in addition to anything around cryptocurrency and cryptoeconomic systems. It’s essentially an ultra-secure way to re-think how goods, services and intellectual property can be distributed and exchanged.
And what does all that mean to news? Civil strives to spur journalism at the grassroots level and make it possible for people to sponsor journalism across areas like investigative reporting, local news and policy coverage while creating a marketplace for journalists, consumers and citizen reporters alike. Civil’s approach believes that new technology coupled with the power of the people might be an answer. (To learn more details about how Civil’s platform will function you can review Civil’s white paper outlining the technical and structural components or Iles’ initial Medium post here.)
Bottom line: Civil believes that everyone can make a difference to the health of the news eco-system while working alongside professional journalists in a reporting and community-organizing capacity — all within the security of the blockchain and an open exchange of ideas to spur critical content of important issues. This intersection of startups, news and blockchain technology feels truly innovative and full of exciting possibilities.
It’s still early but Civil is forging ahead (details about the initial $5M in funding from ConsenSys here) and I’m thrilled and humbled to join the growing team of talented individuals. More details to come soon on how it’s all coming together. In the meantime, part of my role will involve recruiting journalists to the platform, so please contact me if you’re interested. Let’s go. ([email protected])
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Reflecting on my personal journey
(For those curious about how I arrived here and more about my background please read on.)
Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to hold a front-row seat to the evolution of news and technology. It began when I graduated from the University of British Columbia’s journalism school in 2000 with a focus in technology and a thesis that examined the internet’s role in democracy in Indonesia and Malaysia; I eventually went on to work as a science and technology correspondent at the likes of CNN, CBS News, ABC News; a civics and business reporter at the Vancouver Sun and Details; and a tech analyst at MSNBC and BBC News US.
In 2011 I joined Google at a time when publisher-tech company relations were more tense than ever; by the summer of 2014 I had the opportunity to help build the News Lab at Google with its mission of collaborating with journalists and entrepreneurs to build the future of media. I feel privileged to have worked alongside such a fantastic team and count myself incredibly lucky to have learned so much from both my time at Google but also my brilliant peers. Of course many challenges remain more broadly at Google and other tech companies across news products, relationships and education but I’m heartened by the progress.
When I told my mom the news of me departing Google and joining Civil she said: “you’ve always loved a challenge, something you had to try to figure out no matter what.” And that’s probably true. I also feel like I’ve had an entrepreneur inside me waiting to burst out for the better part of 30 years. Maybe ever since grade 8 home economic class where we learned how to make baking-powder pizza. We thought it was revolutionary at the time and wanted to start our own delivery business (this was in an era of 30-minute or less deliveries being mind-blowing). Alas, we had a critical flaw in our plan: we were too young to drive and the bus just wasn’t going to cut it for that 30-minute delivery window. So we moved on.
And eventually I got onto the career track of working for big companies: McDonald’s, Thrifty Foods (a decent-sized grocery chain in Canada) and then on to media companies — the Vancouver Sun, CNN, CBS News, ABC News, Details, the BBC. I wrote a book. Eventually to a tech company with Google. But the reality is that I increasingly felt farther away from having an impact on innovation in news; I’m now ready to roll up my sleeves and get scrappy again.
But won’t it be hard to do something new?
When I mentioned the possibility of leaving Google my oldest daughter said: “Daddy, you’ve been at Google for so long — won’t it be hard to do something new?” I nodded and told her that, yes, some things would be more difficult at least in the beginning but that change often brings its own rewards and all the opportunities ahead aren’t always obvious at first. Plus while going to Civil certainly feels like a new and largely uncharted area of technology, the journalism+innovation and mission-drive aspects are quite familiar. (I also think maybe she’s a little bummed about missing “take-your-child-to-work” day with bountiful Google snacks and mind-blowing science experiments.)
But it occurs to me that I’m also doing this partly for her and her sister. For them to grow up in a world where quality, accurate and secure information can flow between people as they demand it across any type of screen; blockchain technology also provides a real opportunity to combat “fake news” through its smart contracts model. These ideals sounds almost utopian but I believe it’s a dream worth pursuing. Plus I hope they see that it’s OK to take risks sometimes.
Reinvigorating a professional voice
I’ve also come to realize that I’ve let my professional voice grow quieter in recent years. In journalism school I was a vocal advocate of a robust media and I went into news wanting to continue that sideline activism outside my day job. But my day job(s) took over and pretty soon I was more focused on news products than the news eco-system.
Well, I’m taking this opportunity to re-fuel my voice. I’m ready to be more bold again when necessary (watch this space) because the gravitational pull towards journalism isn’t simply about having a job. Or a pay check. Or a byline. Or a like. Or a share. And it shouldn’t be mostly about a paywall or a subscription or a news feed or an ad model. For many, myself among them, journalism is a calling. Yes, journalists and those involved in the business of journalism get paid so it’s not technically a service. But as one of many with hands holding up that pillar of the fourth estate it often feels like it.
And that’s what I’ve missed. Over the past six years people have often asked whether I want to go back to being a reporter or writer. Not really. But what I do miss is being in the fray. Navigating these complex challenges at the vanguard, trying to find new ways to foster quality journalism and bridging the gap between news that matters and readers. It’s just time for a change. And as a dual citizen, I still naturally appreciate my Canadian heritage and I love the quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “skate to where the puck is going — not where it has been.” And that’s what I’m hoping to do.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’ll finish by saying that while I’m excited to join the revolution(s) at Civil we can’t do it alone. I encourage you to Join Civil and explore the Civil cryptoeconomic white paper. My email is [email protected] or [email protected]; please share your comments and questions.
It’s time for me to join the revolution.
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