It’s no secret that journalism is in trouble and has been for a long time. Thanks largely to online alternatives destroying the markets for print advertising and classified ads, the number of full-time reporters employed in U.S. newsrooms dropped by 26% between 2008 and 2020.
Over the years, several crypto projects have attempted to build sweeping new models for journalism, with little success. But a new project to be presented at CoinDesk’s IDEAS conference next week is taking a more focused, and more promising, approach.
Refound Journalism has one simple core goal: helping photojournalists in conflict or disaster zones build financial support and manage rights by selling non-fungible tokens (NFT) of their work. Cofounder Ahmed Hamid then wants to build other features around that central service, including tools for crowdfunding assignments ahead of time, and for keeping photojournalists safer. The founding team is rounded out by Austin Fleming, Genesis Barrios, and Riley Desrochers.
Refound Journalism is a finalist in CoinDesk's Web3athon. The winners are announced at the I.D.E.A.S. conference October 18 and 19.
With the foreign desks of large news operations shrinking, even major outlets like the Washington Post have much less ability to cover conflict and disasters than they did as little as 10 years ago. That means much more reliance on – and arguably, mistreatment of – freelance journalists to capture the world’s dark corners, whether it’s the war in Ukraine or lesser-known conflicts like the current civil war in Ethiopia.
“People seem to assume that war photographers [and other conflict journalists] get paid more than reporters who work in safer places,” says Hamid. “The truth is, it’s the opposite.”
Larger news organizations have already shown that NFTs can generate significant income for an industry that could definitely use it. Both Time and Fortune (my former employer) have raised substantial sums from the sales of NFTs of both stories and photographs as collectibles. At its core, Refound Journalism aims to make that easier for individual reporters who don’t have the support of huge organizations, while also adding functional contract and licensing elements to the NFTs.
That’s a much more focused and grounded approach than those of previous crypto projects that hoped to save journalism. Refound isn’t trying to create entirely new consumption and funding models for news, as ConsenSys-backed Civil did back in 2018. Nor is it trying to use financial gamification to fight “fake news,” as TruStory did during the same period. Both of those projects have now shuttered, hamstrung by a mix of overreaching ambition and flawed assumptions.
Instead, Refound is focused on a much narrower problem, where crypto and decentralized infrastructure seem to offer clear advantages. Its biggest priority is building an NFT system for ease of use and verification, even under difficult circumstances. Hamid says the Refound system will use metadata embedded by cameras to verify the source of photos, as well as a reputation system for contributors to try and control abuse or fraud.
Refound plans to build its payment rails on the Celo crypto network, which includes features for offline payments – and the cross-border fluidity that is a core advantage of crypto-based payments. The NFTs themselves would be hosted using the decentralized Filecoin cloud storage protocol. Refound also says licensing rights and content usage guidelines would be embedded in the NFTs, which could reduce the complexity of negotiating those agreements from conflict zones.
Further features are planned, all based on feedback from journalists themselves. They include a planned emergency alert system that would allow users to warn one another of particularly dangerous areas. Refound also aims to include funding pools that would help journalists pay for trips ahead of time, potentially including community commissions for specific projects.
“If no one is covering the Rohingya in Myanmar, users [could] commission work,” Hamid offers as an example.
Conflict appears to be rising around the world, at the precise moment when there is waning financial support for reporting on it. Hamid sees Refound Journalism as one step toward addressing that structural failure, and fulfilling what he describes as one of his own deeply-held values: “When the truth needs to be told, it should be told.”
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