Angie Lau: Well, once upon a time, it was the rustle of the morning paper delivered right to your front porch. Today, we silently scroll through the latest news on our smart devices at all times of the day. So, while we’ve changed the way that we consume news, the passion and the drive — I can attest to this — of those delivering that news certainly hasn’t.
Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into blockchain and all the emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, politics and economy. It’s what we cover right here on Forkast. I’m Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau.
Well, today we’re in conversation with Dwayne Desaulniers, the director for blockchain and data at Associated Press, the nonprofit news agency founded in 1846, whose members are broadcasters and publishers across the United States — so, from 1846 to 2022. Today, we’re going to be exploring how blockchain and crypto could change journalism as we know it.
Dwayne, it’s great to have you on the show.
Dwayne Desaulniers: Terrific to be here Angie. Thanks very much.
Lau: There’s no doubt you’ve seen it all, from newspapers delivered to your doorstep to the digitalization of the entire industry. But before we dive into the promise of blockchain and NFTs, let’s get you on a little bit of a journey. If you could share with us and the audience, reflect on your 30 years in the industry, how has the industry changed with the internet and digitization in your career?
Dwayne: Great question. So, I started in newsrooms when I was 17, but before that I delivered local newspapers, so technically, I guess I kind of go back a little bit further than that. I was on the front lines of journalism until about the mid-1990s. The last assignment I did was the war in Croatia.
And that was about the time, Angie, when the web was sort of popping into scope. We started to see email, we started to see the first websites. And I’ve got to say that I just fell in love with the potential of the technology insofar as what it would do to our industry. We had no idea, of course, and few of us did. But we knew it was going to be impactful somehow, and just wanted to be part of that, helping to guide where the industry is going, how we use this technology.
The mission is still the same. The conversations every morning are still the same. The questions you write in your notepad heading over to a news conference haven’t really changed. The speed has changed, for sure. And of course with that, the delivery is radically different, the way we file is radically different. It wasn’t all that long ago where an AP journalist had to file 700 words by 7 p.m. and the job was done. But today, we literally file one sentence at a time and we file very, very literally. And also the distribution platforms, of course, are varied and many. It’s not just one media type anymore. Journalists today, of course … we all know that you’re putting out news on a variety of platforms simultaneously, so while I don’t think the guts and the core — the mission, the values and the mandate — have really changed, everything else pretty much has.
Lau: The economics of journalism have changed a lot, one could argue. And the internet, as you know, was both a gift and a bane of existence for the ability, or the devolution of the ability, to monetize. It created a lot of strife for traditional, legacy newspapers and publishers, and that really decimated much of that industry. And, as we fast-forward to today, with blockchain and with the advent of Web 3.0, how do you see this next stage of technology in media? How could it potentially unlock or change the landscape as we know it?
Desaulniers: We don’t know where it’s going, but there are some things lining up that are sort of demanding our attention. One would be advertising on blockchain. So, back in the 90s, of course, the media industry just got clobbered with an advertising problem … Many of our newsrooms were built on advertising dollars as well as subscription dollars. As advertising dollars dried up, newsrooms employed fewer people, and then that also had a negative effect, in turn, on subscriptions. So it was a bit of a vicious cycle.
I think what’s going to be a really interesting pillar going forward, in terms of blockchain tech and news, is, in fact, how blockchain will affect advertising. Will people feel more data-secure as blockchain begins to weigh in more and be more of the tech that digital advertising is based on? And then the other dynamic, I think, is just this concept of peer-to-peer decentralization. And micropayments/crypto — that’ll be an interesting piece, as well. If news consumers feel that there’s greater personalization in the journalism that they’re able to subscribe to, then I think, obviously, that’s a net positive, as well, for the industry.
At the AP, we’re a cooperative, and like any co-op, we’re sort of governed by our members. So a very interesting dynamic going forward is, ‘What is the difference between a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) and a traditional cooperative in the context of, let’s say, the AP, or even other newsrooms that may not be a cooperative today?’
We all talk about reader engagement. We all talk about really getting close to the readers and having a great relationship. So, will DAOs and new products, in theory, have more trust? Because you can see the provenance of the images, you can tell that it’s not a deep-fake if it’s a video clip.
So all of these things together, I think, show some potential and promise for the news industry. At the end of the day, of course, it’s just reporting facts and being really, really correct and accurate and super-smart, and just triple-checking everything that’s vital. But I think the economics of the blockchain, the economic system of the blockchain, and the drive for greater data ownership and privacy — to me, those things line up as something positive, potentially, for the industry, which is why we’re interested in better understanding this tech.
Lau: Is this a top-down conversation, or are you being collaborative with your members? What are your members telling you that informs your job to think about blockchain and digitalization of this underlying technology in media?
Desaulniers: That’s what’s so fun about this — there’s no playbook. We published the first news on the blockchain in 2020. We published our election race calls on-chain with a technology partner called Everipedia. And from that, we rolled into NFTs. I think being open-minded, being fast, and — more importantly — being collaborative with all of the industry is really important. Since we started to publish news on-chain, our phone’s been ringing regularly, and it’s just from other media organizations saying, ‘What are you learning?’ and ‘What are you seeing?’ — a lot of folks just talking, sharing experiences. And I think that’s really key to raising all the boats, for sure. It’s way too early to get competitive. It’s way, way, way too early to be secretive. If we really want the industry to do well as a result of this technology, then the more we share with each other, the better off we’re going to be.
Lau: How broad are your conversations? How are you, as Associated Press, with a lot of legacy U.S. publishers and broadcasters, speaking and engaging with independent, non-mainstream start-ups, individuals, tech stacks, Substack, this stack, that stack, and all the rest that is very much increasingly part of the mainstream conversation, but outside of what has predominantly been the legacy media community?
Desaulniers: I love that question, because this is where the spark and the magic happens. I think part of it is just your approach to innovation and technology. You never judge a door before you knock on it. You never know what’s behind it. And I think that that’s been our approach. We’re just incapable of being judgmental in terms of technology, at this point, because everything that we’ve learned largely has been from unexpected sources.
And again, it makes it fun. It certainly makes it interesting. And the most amazing thing that I’ve experienced with partners that are really from totally different sorts of technology genres and the industry of blockchain is that you end up both realizing, ‘Hey, there’s something here.’ We put my needs together with their tech, and both of us are surprised at what’s possible. And that’s really how innovation happens, I think.
So, being open-minded, having great management support to allow you to look broad and far — and not to limit who you’re looking at, who you’re talking to, what you’re thinking — are really, really important.
Lau: What specifically is Associated Press working on right now?
Desaulniers: We’re not a flag-bearer for blockchain or blockchain technology. But what we are is very curious about how the technology could be applied, and that’s our focus. The focus is in a broad number of areas. Certainly, a number of media companies that have worked in this space started out looking at blockchain tech as a way to provide consumers with the assurance that a photo they’re looking at, a video clip they’re watching, a story they’re reading, or a piece of data they’re consuming, is real, is authentic, and can, in fact, be traced back to AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, whomever.
So, we continue to work in that area, of sort of provenance, accuracy of the journalism, the digital journalism that we create. And that’s really fundamentally important. We’re a digital newsroom. We produce journalism in digital form. It’s vital that we protect that. It’s vital that we understand who’s using it, where it’s going, just from a pure business perspective. So obviously, using the ledger to track the whereabouts of our digital content is very important, as well.
Lau: Well, hang on to that thought because I heard those three letters — N-F-T. … The Associated Press has been venturing into NFTs, and has launched an NFT photography marketplace built by Xooa. And that’s where users can purchase the award-winning photojournalism that we see in newspapers and online news sites around the world. What motivated Associated Press to launch your own NFT marketplace?
Desaulniers: (Media organizations) need to understand NFTs better. They need to understand tokenization better. They need to have direct experience, understanding why collectors use this technology to understand what’s wrong with it, to understand the potential problems with it. It’s just first-hand experience — that’s really what we’re looking for in terms of the work that we do in the NFT space. We were the first media company back in 2021 to mint an NFT and not to auction it off. And we’ve worked with OpenSea, we’ve worked with Binance, we’ve worked with Ethernity … and those have all been absolutely fantastic experiences, highly collaborative.
One thing that I felt we were missing was just more of that direct consumer experience, and especially when it comes to community development marketing — the dynamics that you learn when you figure out additions and pricing for a particular exhibition. We certainly started like a lot of folks, with visuals and NFTs, but I look at that as sort of how Amazon started with books. It was low-hanging fruit. It’s there. There’s a market, obviously, for art and for photography — there always has been. There’s been a little bit of delay I think, in the time it’s taken for real photo collectors to hop on-chain and invest in photos that have been tokenized, but that’s certainly changing, and it’s one of the hottest categories right now.
In hockey we say, ‘First to the puck.’ If you’re the skater who’s first to the puck, you’re going to have the most opportunities to do something with it.
Lau: ‘First to the puck’ is something we Canadians, I think, understand about what you’re saying! But there must have been a lot of learning as well — I mean, fits and starts. And one of AP’s more controversial NFT drops was that video depicting an overcrowded boat of migrants drifting through the Mediterranean. It was canceled because there was a huge backlash. There was a huge Twitter outcry. What was the reaction internally? Why do you think the audience and the public reacted to this NFT drop in this way? And what did you learn from that?
Desaulniers: So, not that this matters a whole heck of a lot, but we never minted that image. So that’s a technicality that lawyers care about.
But no, it was a mistake. We were really leaning into photojournalism as NFTs, and at the same time, we recognize, still, at this point in sort of the lifespan of the blockchain, that these are still commercial products. We’re really striving for the day when we actually are delivering news products, widely viewed-to-be-news products, and not commercial products. But we’re not quite there yet, and we made that mistake, I made that mistake, in terms of going, I think, too far in the direction of photojournalism versus editorial, commercial versus editorial. The reaction internally was exactly as the reaction was externally. It was really swift. It was horrific.
But what we’ve learned from it, of course, is content selection, which obviously is really critical — but also the processes we have in place internally. We’ve had 175 years of developing editorial standards and processes for the journalism that we create, and we’ve had a few months when it comes to NFTs and tokenizing editorial content. So, yeah, totally bad call, and we’ve spent the time since understanding those processes, improving them to make sure it never happens again.
Lau: Another way to view it, in terms of a post-traumatic event careerwise and professionally, is also that indifference would have been the worst response. And yet an audience that was so highly engaged and had the ability to express those opinions in a way (for which) once upon a time technology didn’t exist — that allowed us to do that. And so we’re a much more engaged community. The relationship between journalists, media and the audience is much closer. And I wonder if that’s also part of the learning process.
Desaulniers: I think that, again, we all have decades of delivering news. The blockchain does not have that maturity just yet. Certainly, folks have been working in this space for 10 years now, but by and large, people have really only been engaged for the last 12, maybe 18 months. And so far, the early NFT projects have been around art and collectibles and not news, and I think that that was one of the factors that we learned the hard way, with what happened to our imagery. So, this is why our interest and focus is, again, ‘How can the blockchain be used to deliver news?’ And this is where our focus is. It may take some time, and that’s fine.
But one thing we’re learning is that news — real news — is not a commercial product. And it’s figuring out, ‘When does an NFT stop being a commercial product and start being a legitimate real news product, just like a newspaper, just like a photo you’d see on a website? When does that conversion happen?’ So this is where I hope we’re going. Our interest is that we have a new platform for delivering journalism, and I think if we keep our eye on that and the balance of — again — some people still see NFTs as art and not so much news … and this is what we just have to keep in mind.
Lau: Dwayne, one of the most important journalistic principles — freedom of the press. A lot of people believe that blockchain can improve press freedom by providing an incorruptible publishing layer where journalists could even publish pseudo-anonymously, anonymously, as well. What are your views on the intersection of blockchain and journalism, and the ability to fund journalism?
Desaulniers: I think one area that we’re looking at that’s interesting is the intersection of DAOs and a group of folks getting together with shared values and shared interests, and being able to pool crypto and vote and discuss and apply those funds to activities, organizations and causes that matter to them. One of the most advantageous elements, from an economic perspective, in any industry with the blockchain, is that it arrived fully-baked, with an economic system built-in, a banking system built-in, and a banking system that really thrived on trust. Putting your credit card into an early website — even from folks today — is not an exercise that is done trustfully. But certainly the blockchain has the pillars and the foundation to get us off on the right foot in that regard, and I think that’s going to be really important for how quickly blockchain tech can have an impact — and hopefully a very positive impact — on the economics of the news business.
And if folks are predicting that blockchain will provide consumers with a more trustful experience of advertising, then that’s great. That certainly bodes really well for one of the most important sources of revenue for the industry. And then I also just think — just as we at the AP, all of us — we’re on a mission. We believe in what we’re doing. And it doesn’t matter who we work for, frankly. I mean, it doesn’t matter what newsroom you’re working for — you’re still working for the same principles and the same objectives. And we think — we certainly feel — that blockchain tech and decentralization can help those consumers who share an equal mission to connect to the journalists and the media companies — small and large, old and new — who really are working toward the same area of interest.
Lau: So, Dwayne, as we wrap up this conversation about blockchain and cryptocurrency, and all the technology that’s available to us — kind of like the pen in hand and our reporter’s notebook — for journalists, what you see is the future for how we do our work, the immutability of the information of history preservation, all of those things for the next generation of journalists.
Desaulniers: I think it really is. It’s pretty early to sort of nail that down. I think one of the largest concerns that still looms out there, Angie, is that folks often refer to journalism as the first pass of history. And it’s a pretty scary thing to go ahead and publish the first pass of history on an immutable ledger. Besides all the positive things and all the hopeful possible implications and use cases of the technology, we really still have to remain mindful of how this could go wrong for journalism. And yeah, I’m still super, super-nervous — and it’s a nonstarter for me, actually — at this point, in terms of publishing a live news feed on-chain, simply because, obviously, you can file a correction and be additive or iterative about it, but still, I think that’s a concern.
We’ve certainly seen the core infrastructure of the chain change radically, and there’s a massive change in Ethereum coming. So, again, lots of promise. There’s a lot of cross sections, in terms of a tamper-proof archive being able to easily detect a deep-fake versus a real video to see a chain of ownership in a series of facts. All that’s great, super-important and brand new for us. Better advertising, or, rather, a more confident consumer in the context of advertising, are good as well. And the comparison I make is what a lot of folks have said — we’re sort of at where we were with the internet in the mid-90s. And I think that’s only partially right. I think we’re even earlier than that. I think we’re where the ARPANET was at in the 70s in terms of understanding fully what the impact and implications of that original ARPANET were going to be. Who’d have imagined — the folks who worked on ARPANET — how it would ultimately be used? No one would have thought of those uses, so super-exciting, Angie, but we’re really top of the first inning.
Lau: Well, to your point, it does take a lot of imagination, and it’s not the responsibility of just the people in the room or even in this audience, but future conversations and future generations of audiences and the imagination that they’ll apply to this technology. And the beautiful thing is that this technology allows a lot of voices to participate. And I want to thank you for participating on our show today, and thank you for joining us in the Forkast metaverse. It was great to have you on.
Desaulniers: My pleasure. Really wonderful chatting with you. Thanks so much. Really enjoyed it, Angie.
Lau: Me too, and you’re welcome back any time.
And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode of Word On The Block. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast’s Editor-in-Chief. Until the next time.