As the newly minted co-founder of a startup related to the emerging technology blockchain, Manoush Zomorodi feels like an Old West prospector.
“It really kind of reminds me of if you got into your covered wagon and you were like, ‘We’re going west and we’re gonna look for gold,’” she said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “If there’s gold in the hills, then you could build a homestead, right? And if there’s not, you’re kinda screwed.”
Zomorodi and her fellow WNYC alumna Jen Poyant started Stable Genius Productions earlier this year, and last month unveiled its first podcast, ZigZag. The company is one of 20 working with a “decentralized marketplace” called Civil, which is planning to sell 100 million digital coins later this summer. In theory, the value of those coins might rise over time a la bitcoin, and Civil’s partner companies could sell some of their coins to fund operations.
“Until the token sale happens, which is imminent, we won’t know what our budget looks like,” Zomorodi said. “We were given a grant that was half regular money, half tokens. So we have to see what those tokens are worth.”
She readily acknowledged that she’s “not holding my breath” for the tokens to be a runaway hit, and ZigZag is working with a different media consortium, Radiotopia, while running typical podcast-y ads for mattress companies and the like. But being on the front lines of a “grand social experiment” has granted Zomorodi — the former host of WNYC’s Note to Self — a newfound sense of empowerment.
“When you are part of a public radio station, there’s only so far you can go in terms of switching to finding solutions,” she said. “I was complaining a lot about the tech industry. And at some point, you kind of want to be like, ‘Well, okay, can we fix it, please? Can we fix it?’ I was tired of waiting for other people to do it. And what these Civil folks were saying was that you could be part of an experiment to find a solution to the journalism problem.”
On the new podcast, Zomorodi also discussed the other big swing Civil is taking with blockchain. Once its digital coins are out in the wild, the people who own them will be able to use them to influence which news websites readers will see when they visit its website.
“Oh, you don’t think that person should be able to publish news?” Zomorodi asked. “Fine, put your money where your mouth is. But in this case, it’s not money; it’s a digital currency.”
“It basically creates a game where people will be able to vote for who gets to publish their news on the platform,” she added. “If somebody wants to come in, and it’s ‘fake news’ or whatever we want to call it, they can vote them off the registry. It’s creating a list, essentially, of people who’ve been vetted, who’ve been verified, who are adhering to a code of ethics, and that is the Civil constitution, essentially.”
In the event that bidding over what news is kosher devolves into partisan squabbling or something like that, Civil has a contingency plan: A council led by former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller that will behave like the network’s Supreme Court. However, the council could be then overruled by the community of coin holders — confusing, Zomorodi acknowledged. But better than the edited-by-community approach of a website like Wikipedia, where the rough edges of the truth often get sanded down.
“What you see on Wikipedia, there’s only one entry for each thing,” she said. “The idea is that there’s this ecosystem of news sites, and maybe you want to read some of them and maybe others aren’t your kind of thing, but you find what’s for you. And niche is okay; they don’t need to be massive. We’re not trying to build another New York Times on here. This is small and specific and quality.”
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