Screenshot of the Block Club Chicago landing page.
Screenshot of the Block Club Chicago landing page. Block Club Chicago

DNAInfo has now returned as Block Club Chicago, a neighborhood news platform run on blockchain technology.

In November, 2017, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of various local news outlets around the country, shut them all down—just a week after the employees of one site voted to join a union.

But now, from the ashes of one of those local news outlets—DNAinfo Chicago—a new non-profit neighborhood news website with the same mission has emerged. And it’s powered by blockchain technology.

“DNAinfo was onto something; I think we proved that with the audience we built over such a short period of time,” said Jen Sabella, one of the co-founders and the director of strategy of the new site, Block Club Chicago. DNAinfo and its sister sites in cities like New York, LA, and D.C., provided web-only coverage of big and small issues in urban neighborhoods, often in a conversational and approachable tone.

“It just showed that people want news that's relevant to them and that hyperlocal doesn't have to be lame… DNAinfo was a community and that's what we want to do with Block Club, as well,” Sabella said.

After DNAinfo shut down, its employees saw an outpouring of support and concern, Sabella said: There were people coming out of the woodwork just kind of asking, ‘What can we do? Like, what DO? we do to help you guys? We want to get it back.’” She and other former employees started taking a lot of meetings with potential funders. And after hearing out venture capitalists, non-profit representatives, and others, they settled on a grant from Civil—a decentralized, blockchain-based platform offering an interesting, new model to fund journalism.  

“They ended up being the best match,” Sabella said. “They kind of hit everything that we wanted: Our ability to be a non-profit, our ability to continue covering the news we wanted to; and they weren't doing the thing that everyone likes to do, which is to say, ‘Let's scale this in two years and open in 25 cities.’ We just wanted to make this work in Chicago—and they respected that.”

Block Club Chicago, which is set to go live in April, has three co-founders: Sabella, Shamus Toomey, and Stephanie Lulay. They currently have five neighborhood reporters on staff—and are looking to hire another one with the $120,000-plus in funds they’ve raised through their three-day old Kickstarter campaign.

The outlet plans to take a boots-on-the-ground approach, assigning each reporter to a neighborhood, and seeking to create personal connections between the people living in those areas and the journalists covering them. “Neighborhood news is one way we make a city legible—it serves as a public record and a reminder that people are paying attention to what’s happening in their neighborhoods,” Mauricio Peña, one of the new reporters, said in an email statement. “Everyone deserves to have a record-keeper to make sure elected officials are doing their jobs, and residents are made aware of the things happening on their block.”

To access the content, readers will be asked to subscribe—with the option to pay via credit card or cryptocurrency at rates decided by Block Club Chicago. “We truly believe that going to the readers and asking them to support it is going to be a much more functional model, than going to advertisers and hoping that they can get value out of a banner ad that people may not click on,” said Toomey, who is also the editor-in-chief of Block Club. He and his colleagues are working out a way for readers to donate subscriptions to folks who cannot afford to pay.

The website will be housed on Civil’s platform, which the company’s CEO Matthew Iles describes as a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism.” It’s a new use of blockchain technology, which is most well-known for its application in transactions of bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. Very simply: Blockchain is an efficient way to securely share, store, and update data within a dispersed network. It’s been hailed as an “incorruptible digital ledger” of valuable information, and it’s not controlled by any one entity. What that means for Block Club Chicago is that all the news content will be permanently archived and not subject to abrupt deletion by any one entity. (When Ricketts shut down DNAinfo, Gothamist, and others—there were concerns that all the content would be deleted.)

Block Club is one of three news organizations Civil has launched so far. The other two are Popula—for local news in Los Angeles—and Sludge—an investigative outfit that hopes to uncover the nexus of dark money and politics. “Our initial focus with the newsrooms that we are launching with our platform later this spring is local, investigative, and policy,” said Matt Coolidge, co-founder of Civil. “Those are the three areas that we see as perhaps the hardest hit after two-plus decades of mass media consolidation, and where there is just such a surging demand from civically engaged consumers that are willing to pay for the news.”

Eventually, they hope to add several more newsrooms that, along with particularly interested readers, will form a self-governing community that regulates the Civil platform. Think: Wikipedia, but for quality journalism. In order to have a say in this community, a person will have to deposit CVL tokens—a type of crypto utility token. That unlocks a different set of decision-making capabilities in the platform’s backend for journalists than for readers. These tokens are part of a mechanism that disincentivizes trolls, fake news, and bad actors—and ensures that the content meets established standards of journalistic ethics. Iles, the CEO, explains the various layers of engagement with the platform in a Medium post:

We’ve found that the “waterline” concept is a helpful way to break down how our ecosystem will take shape as Civil grows. Readers and supporters, the largest contingent, will visit Civil solely to access and support good journalism. Our core community — those holding CVL tokens and shaping key community decisions (confirming or challenging a newsmaker or Newsroom application, fact checking, etc.) — will exist underneath the waterline and participate in the self-governance of the platform. Finally, a group of “creators” will exist at the core: community-approved journalists that create the stories that live on Civil Newsrooms, as well as developers that build new tools and experiences based on broad ecosystem demand.

A visualization of the Civil ecosystem. (Civil)

The self-governance model will apply across all newsrooms on Civil's platform and anyone in the "creators" category will be hired and paid through a subscription model. By spring, the company hopes to have 15 newsrooms with up to 150 journalists.

The shuttering of DNAinfo and the other news sites owned by Ricketts was another blow for local news outlets, which have been languishing financially and in many cases disappearing entirely.

Investigative journalism is getting more and more expensive, and even international coverage has fallen on hard times. Journalism entrepreneurs are developing a range of new and experimental models. And it remains to be seen how Civil’s blockchain-fueled model will fare. But at least at this initial stage, Civil’s symbiotic relationship with news organizations has been mutually beneficial.

“They're helping us get off the ground. We're helping them get off the ground, as well,” said Toomey. “Hopefully, this turns into something long-term that people around the world can participate in.”

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