Nonprofit media and cryptocurrency may not be through yet

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

This week, the journalism startup Civil failed in its efforts to raise $8 million in cryptocurrency. And while this effort did not pan out, the potential is tremendous for alternate forms of payment like this to reshape what we think of media funding.

The bold initiative, which sought to fund journalism through sale of its CVL tokens, had laudable and important objectives. It was positioned around an issue that sounds all-too-familiar for community radio: funding can be unstable, and so new economies are needed to sustain the vital missions of media. By purchasing CVL tokens, audiences could support journalism and, because that currency is part of an ecosystem independent of the usual financial and political pressures, reporting could be truly free to bring relevant stories to the world. Among the ideals forwarded in the Civil Constitution: “Civil seeks to establish the conditions for journalism to fulfill that mission with minimal interference from government, commercial pressures, or other interests that inappropriately influence, control or stop the gathering and dissemination of true facts, opinions and ideas in the public sphere through unjust laws, economic pressure, intimidation or violence.”

Yet, for Civil, one could have seen the storm clouds early on. Civil originally projected a goal of $32 million in its ICO — initial coin offering — the equivalent of an IPO in the cryptocurrency world. That figure was downgraded significantly to $8 million. Such a change was possibly because the ICO came at a curious time as well as projections. In particular, other offerings were on shaky ground and the Securities and Exchange Commission had recently halted one ICO for fraudulent claims.

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Civil garnered positive coverage from media watchers virtually from the start. Former WNYC host Manoush Zomorodi was the subject of many profiles, highlighting her departure from public radio to start a production company with support from PRX and backed by Civil’s blockchain technology. However, the glowing reviews did not extend to the cryptocurrency press. The Financial Times’ cryptocurrency blog Alphaville took a shot at Civil not long ago, questioning its structure and strategy. Bitcoinist pointed out how challenging it was to get Civil tokens. Most damning, former Civil executive Daniel Sieberg told the Wall Street Journal he was not confident in the company’s ability to deliver on its plan.

However, insights from a dismissed ex-leader were not Civil’s undoing, ultimately. There were a plethora of reasons why the Civil sale faltered. Civil struggled virtually from the start to land buyers. The ways a journalism fan could participate in the sale and acquire tokens was difficult to understand. Token Foundry, which coordinated some of these affairs, assumed a degree of knowledge that still eludes the mainstream. The range of buzzy media partners — among them ZigZag, Groundtruth, Splice and others — did not have the audiences to inspire engagement in this innovative funding model. And, as you might expect, things did not turn out well. Just over $2 million of the initial goal was raised, with three-quarters of that reportedly coming from Civil’s seed investor. Refunds are otherwise forthcoming.

Nevertheless the core ideas that gave Civil life are valuable ones. Their audacious experiment has made me wonder if community media, with its passionate and diverse audience, can look to perspectives like Civil’s for our futures.

From time to time, I hear from community radio stations curious about cryptocurrency — how to accept it, how to spend it, and how it works. With so many stations nationwide, community radio seems like a strong possibility for investment such as this. Like Civil, community media is mission driven. These organizations may be perennially overlooked by some quarters, but their base of support is strong and unique. It may only be a matter of time before your station has to look into this sort of funding as our nonprofit infrastructure evolves.

What happened with the Civil ICO should be instructive to you about how to talk to your community about cryptocurrency, and how to tell your own story.

One need only take cues from Civil stumbles for your own station’s learning opportunity. Can you articulate what cryptocurrency is and how it works? Does your radio station have its own public and private keys? And, mostly importantly, are you making a compelling case as to why cryptocurrency owners should donate to your station, and what their contributions will support? The technical details are critical, but it all starts with making the case for why your community radio station deserves the contribution. Your ability to inspire confidence is necessary no matter if you deal in Bitcoin or plain old coins.

Cryptocurrencies have yet to enjoy wider acceptance, in part because there is no truly simple access. Like stocks, their value fluctuates, leading to an element of risk. However, unlike stocks, cryptocurrencies are purposefully hard to track and thus still have a seedy veneer. Yet interest continues to grow. How community media can participate is an alluring, though open, question.

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