Can Journalists Use New Technologies to Build a Trusting, Sustaining Relationship with their Audiences?

Back to Winter 2024: Volume 112, Number 4

By Matt Leighninger

In 2020, one of the most ambitious and multi-faceted attempts to chart the future of journalism failed, a blockchain-based journalism platform called Civil. When asked about Civil’s legacy, founder Matthew Iles told Rick Edmonds, an analyst for the Poynter Institute, it would “always hold a special place” in his heart. “It was a grand experiment,” he said, “a moonshot — and we knew the odds were long.”

Indeed they were. Unlike most of the other attempts to save journalism, Civil was trying to fix both the financial and objectivity problems at the same time. It was launched by former employees of the Denver Post who decided to form a blockchain-based news outlet called the Colorado Sun after allegations that the Post’s owners had interfered in the paper’s editorial process.

Before its untimely demise, Civil encompassed 13 different media organizations in cities across the country. The basic idea was that investors could buy cryptocurrency tokens called CVLs that allow them to suggest stories for reporters to cover, challenge what they see as biased or inaccurate reporting, and serve as kind of a crowd-based conscience for the newsroom and editorial staff.

There were several reasons why Civil failed, including the fact that many would-be investors couldn’t figure out how to buy tokens or understand exactly how the tokens would help them influence the newsrooms. Despite its lack of success, the attempt illustrated both the ambitions and desperation of news media professionals. The trends related to conscious engagement and subconscious technologies have destabilized journalism as a profession and an industry – and made it more difficult for Americans to agree on what is fact and what is fiction.


For some time, it has been apparent that journalists have been losing their informal status as “truth-tellers.” Readers have been less deferential and more critical about the news, mirroring their changing attitudes toward other professions and institutions. Increasingly, people report and disseminate their own news.

In some ways, the spread of fake news is nothing new; a recent New York Times article chronicled how Russia spread disinformation campaigns throughout the 1980s, including the widely spread falsehood that the U.S. military created AIDS to kill African-Americans and gay people. However, technology allows inaccurate news sources to spread at a much more rapid pace.

A recent study published in Science examined 126,000 news stories that were spread millions of times by millions of people. They found that false news stories spread much faster and more broadly than the truth, not necessarily because the news was false but because it was surprising (and people are more likely to forward information if it is surprising to them). Furthermore, the study found that humans were more likely than bots to spread misinformation.

RAND Corporation researchers call this phenomenon “truth decay,” arguing that a few trends have caused a decline in how we use factual information, including increased disagreement about facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, declining trust in sources of facts (even ones that we used to respect), and more value placed on opinion and personal experience over facts. In another recent Science publication, a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars expressed with urgency the need to “redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century.”

To reverse truth decay and rebuild their relationship with their audience, newsrooms around the country are using public engagement, particularly dialogue and listening campaigns. The American Press Institute recently convened community-minded journalists, editors, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to listening and dialogue as a way to better serve their communities. This group of individuals defined listening as “the process of seeking out the information needs, feedback, and perspectives of the people in our areas of coverage” and placed a particular emphasis on “attention to people and communities who feel alienated or have traditionally been marginalized by news coverage.”

By engaging communities, these journalists believe they can get a better sense of which stories people want covered. For example, the Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois, uses a community advisory board as well as monthly meetings that are open to the community so that the community can contribute their perspectives about the Star’s coverage as well as priorities for future articles. At the height of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, locals questioned what the Journal Star was doing to cover #MeToo, and the newsroom ended up creating a series of podcasts where local women and men discussed their experiences with sexual assault.

The nonprofit organization Hearken consults with newsrooms to help them create “public-powered journalism.” In a Hearken initiative called “Curious Texas,” reporters in Texas asked the public to point them in the direction of stories they were interested in reading. Other news outlets are taking similar approaches. After the Bangor Daily News wrote an award-winning series covering the life and tragic death of a young man named Garrett Brown, who was addicted to opioids, the newspaper received feedback from all over the state of Maine that something needed to be done. The newspaper ended up hosting a series of forums called the One Life Project with community leaders, first responders, high school students, and even gubernatorial candidates to generate priorities from the community to address Maine’s opioid epidemic, which the newspaper then published.

Although more research needs to be done, initial studies of journalist engagement with the public seem to indicate that it can positively impact newsroom finances. One study found that readers who connected with their newsroom through Hearken are five times more likely to become subscribers. And if the public starts to see local news coverage as a common good, it may encourage small and large donations to sustain quality coverage. For instance, in Philadelphia, a newspaper owner donated the company that publishes three local newspapers to the Philadelphia Foundation in an attempt to allow public donations to support news media.


Other attempts to save journalism are trying to turn online technologies from a threat to an asset. The leaders of Civil turned to blockchain because they felt it would enable a more meaningful, participatory relationship with their audience.

Through the use of CVL tokens, stakeholders had the opportunity to reward the newsrooms they felt were providing quality journalism, buy membership to certain publications, or even start their own newsroom. Not just anyone could buy CVL tokens – interested buyers would have to register and pass a questionnaire in order to participate. Although newsrooms might someday be able to make revenue from CVL tokens, Civil did not intend that newsrooms would stake their business model on blockchain alone – most participating newsrooms draw on conventional funding models like subscriptions and donations, although Civil required that newsrooms disclose any advertisers supporting their work. Civil also had policies in place to protect against bad actors that tried to compromise the integrity of news.

 If Civil users felt a certain news outlet was violating journalism standards, such as plagiarism, hate speech, or misinformation, they could use their tokens to challenge the newsroom. Once a newsroom had been challenged, other token holders could then use their tokens to vote on the issues, and if any violation was determined to be valid, the newsroom would owe a payout to both the challenger and any voters. News stories could not be altered by large companies or wealthy individuals unless the majority of CVL stakeholders agreed; Civil’s leaders argued that this prevented the possibility of any one entity exerting too much influence over their news operation.

If successful, such practices could help to incentivize token holders to participate in controversies and share their opinion, and also create pressure for news outlets to act ethically, since they face revenue loss for bad action. There was a kind of Supreme Court for Civil: the Civil Council, made up of veteran journalists, journalism scholars, and attorneys, who reviewed community votes and overturn those they believed to be contrary to the Civil Constitution.

Civil was not the only attempt to use technologies to make newsrooms more transparent and accountable. For instance, a bot monitors anonymous editing of the Wikipedia pages of government officials, to protect against alteration or distortion of official information. Similarly, Facebook has partnered with CrowdTangle, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to monitor social media, to identify false news, photographs, or videos they see on Facebook.


In journalism and in other realms, the appeal of blockchain and its cryptocurrencies is that they make it easier to combine a financial transaction with an exchange of ideas. As consumers, people holding tokens can exert influence by choosing who to invest in, and as citizens, they can have a voice in how those organizations conduct journalism.

Along with other would-be reformers of journalism, Civil was trying to reverse the journalist H. L. Mencken’s famous quote, that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Many journalists, entrepreneurs, and funders are banking on the proposition that if they allow audiences to contribute money and ideas, the money will be sufficient to support media organizations, and the input will be intelligent enough to be helpful.

This approach has many skeptics. Some point out that there continue to be digital divides in access to the Internet and great disparities in online skills. Increased public engagement in journalism could exacerbate equity disparities, if people with access, wealth, and skills have more influence over the news than others. And if people don’t agree on what constitutes high-quality journalism, let alone the truth, they may simply demand stories that reaffirm their existing beliefs.

Blockchain itself raises many ethical and technological questions. By nature, it is unregulated and decentralized; if something goes wrong, it is difficult to see what will happened to all the sensitive information blockchain contains, or what the effects would be on world financial markets.

“I’m not a believer in blockchain,” says Ethan Zuckerman. “What fascinates me about it is that it is fundamentally about trust: people mistrust the governments that manage conventional currencies, and so they have created an alternative. This mistrust is really expensive – it costs vastly more to do Bitcoin than to run the US dollar, and so people are paying immensely. To me, blockchain is an interesting symptom, not an answer.”

When trying to handle the truth and reinforce a shared sense of the dividing line between facts and fiction, it seems unwise to sidestep this problem of trust. Whether we turn to technologies like blockchain, employ more conscious strategies to connect journalists and citizens, or some combination of the two, we should focus on how these approaches create more interactive, trusting relationships between the people who generate the news and those who consume it.

Matt Leighninger is Director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League

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