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Technology 27 Jan 2017

Can blockchain save journalism?

Blockchain is paving the way for new ways of business for independent journalists. This is just the beginning of a revolution based on many of the principles of the sharing economy.

According to blockchain enthusiasts, we’re at the beginning of a revolution on the scale of the one that the internet kick-started 20 years ago. As its popularity skyrocketed, the network of networks started changing the rules of the game across many industries, leaving a trail of dead behind… and a handful of winners.

Although the music industry is the quintessential example, virtually nobody has escaped disruption, and many are still looking for the business model that will let them join the ranks of the winners in the digital economy. This is what is happening in journalism. The paradox is that the next revolution, blockchain technology, can solve many of the existential quandaries that the internet revolution brought about.

This is at least what the experts that attended the event hosted in Madrid by Oléchain to discuss the ways in which blockchain can shape the future of journalism seem to believe. The message was optimistic. As Henrik Kaufholz, Danish journalist in Politiken and Chair of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, “blockchain creates a new business model for journalists, whether individually or organized in small groups”.

A blockchain is a digital event registry shared by millions of computers connected across the globe. It transfers and stores confidential information in a permanent and anonymous safe space, without intermediaries. It can only be updated if most of the people included in the system agree to, and, once entered, the information can never be deleted.

All these characteristics translate into key main specific solutions for journalism. With the blockchain, the traceability of journalistic contents is perfect: we know who wrote them, who reads them and how much money they generate. Also, blockchain enables quick, simple and intermediary-free payments.

The case for cutting out the middle man

But regardless of the business opportunity that blockchain brings for journalists, the same can’t be said for media companies. The magic of blockchain is that, regardless of whether we’re talking about financial operations or journalist content production, it helps getting rid of intermediaries. Blockchain opens new communication and economic channels among content producers and consumers. Business models based on traditional approaches to the operation of these channels need to be rethougth and adapted to this new world.

“If blockchain gets rid of intermediaries, what is the value of the traditional news media?” Alberto Barreiro, head of Experience at Prisa – the media company that owns El País, among many other outlets – asked this question several times during the round table discussion. “Information is, in many cases, a commodity, and has a very ephemeral value: the value of the content in itself is lower than the value of the capability to contextualize that content. So, the new role of the media is to make sense of all these contents, to curate them. That is something that Facebook is already doing, but without a purpose,” he stated, answering his own question.

The use of Facebook as just another media company and its impact on the result of the U.S. presidential elections has fuelled the debate about the so-called post-truth era: Is it possible to detect and denounce false information? Blockchain could be useful to prevent the spread of misinformation or half-truths to manipulate the public opinion. “If in Uber I can assign a positive or negative rating to drivers and that affects their work, why can’t there be a platform that follows the same principles with respect to the journalists and the veracity of their reports?” asked Carlos Kuchkovsky, CTO of New Digital Business in BBVA.

Blockchain allows to create a historic tamper-proof record, reliable and rigorous, of each content producer, and can also become an ally for the freedom of press, in those countries where it is particularly threatened.  “No government or institution can control blockchain, and that makes it particularly interesting for journalistic purposes in countries such as China or Venezuela,” said journalist Úrsula O’Kuinghttons, one of the event’s organizers.

The conclusion of the meeting was clear: blockchain offers new opportunities for a better journalism. The big challenge will be to leverage them to improve the economic viability of good information.

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