Maria Bustillos, founding editor of the digital magazine Popula, is also one of the founding members of Brick House, an umbrella of independent publishers operating under a collectivist business model.
An earlier supporter, and benefactor, of the now-defunct media startup Civil, Bustillos said she never lost sight of the possibility of a journalist-owned media company.
Brick House will launch this October with nine sister publications, each of which owns a single share in the larger company. It will have “no owners, no executives, and no investors,” nor advertisers.
The collective will support itself through $75 yearly subscriptions, which offers access to each of the founding publications: including the investigative journal Sludge, podcast FAQ NYC, and a blog devoted to “peripheral places in the world at the margins” called No Man Is an Island.
Bustillos dialed into a Zoom call under the alias Bluestocking, an old insult to describe a “well-read” woman. We discussed the fallout from Civil’s closure, Brick House’s non-tokeneconomic business model and how immutable record-keeping will prevent tyrants from chilling speech.
Is Brick House a reference to The Commodores song?
It has a lot of appealing associations, doesn’t it? I mean really. Tom Scocca and I were talking about the idea of a cooperative and how to protect press freedom, and I had mentioned we have to have a structure that can’t be blown down. That’s where it started, and we realized later the name works on a number of levels.
Part of the structure of Brick House is that you have no owners, investors or executives. Could you tell me what a journalist-owned media cooperative actually looks like?
Well, most entrepreneurial activity is based in growing equity. Companies are essentially equity that is distributed between those that claim ownership, with the idea being that eventually it grows in value and can be sold. Because of the nature of journalism – as a public trust, rather than an entrepreneurial activity – the idea of saleable equity and an investor/owner structure is at odds with informing the public. It’s been really damaging for the profession.
Brick House’s equity is not saleable or transferable. We invented a business structure that’s held in trust for the benefit of all the publishers that work in the Brick House. There’s an operating agreement for sharing revenues and expenses, but the actual equity – the company – is not saleable. Each publisher has a share, none can own more than one [share], and you cannot sell it outside the company – you can only sell it back to the company for one dollar.
We created this structure to prevent anyone that may want to come in and take control, or buy publishers. At its worst, this happens to shut down, censor, guide or shape publishers.
When there’s a hostile takeover, there’s an attempt to gather up voting shares. This has been the case with Sheldon Adleson with the Las Vegas Tribune Journal, the case with Peter Thiel and Gawker, the case with Joe Ricketts – those people had control of the business entity that operated the publishing.
If we can insulate the publishing entity – the company – from that kind of takeover, that will provide a level of protection for press freedom.
This sounds like the ownership structure of Civil, in that it wanted to create an oasis of media apart from corporate-run companies. Why do you think Civil failed?
Most people never understood the crypto-economic ideas behind Civil, and why tokenizing journalism was a good idea. It’s actually quite similar to what we’re doing at Brick House. The idea was that the token would be the vehicle by which journalists could strengthen each other’s efforts. That happened through staking stories, giving tips, whatever. Using a token that was denominated in journalistic activity, Civil members could strengthen one another’s work in a way that was not equity-based.
After the demise of Civil, [I realized] the reason ICOs were fought so hard by the banking industry was that it was challenging these structures. If you could raise money outside traditional VC or investment banking circles, you would cut them out, so they fought it ferociously. That’s my theory.
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I never lost the vision of creating a business model whereby journalists can strengthen one another’s work without relying on outside entities that have agendas that will eventually conflict with our work.
That’s the story of Gawker. There was private wealth that could be seized. The actual publisher was a means by which you could get at those journalists.
There’s been some press about how The New York Times has become more of a tech company than a media company. What’s the viability of just running a media company as a media company?
What keeps The New York Times alive is it has a lot of great journalists writing about things people want to learn about. I don’t believe that’s at an end. This is not the first time this conversation has happened. Radio was supposed to destroy the newspapers, so was television, now we see ‘the demise’ of local news because of the internet. But we also see a lot of people working to revive and who want local news.
The great success of Civil to me was Chicago Block Club, which has grown and grown. They were super smart and started off as a nonprofit. They’ve done everything right, and have become a fixture in Chicago that a lot of people rely on. It’s a model that can grow. We haven’t seen the end of blockchain in journalism. We tried one way, and one day it will become viable.
We’ve spoken privately about how one of Civil’s fatal flaws was its token-economic governance structure.
I was never a supporter of putting token governance as the first big project at Civil. I think token curated registries have a future, but they’re not ready for prime time. I participated in the original token registry, even though I never fully joined Civil as a publisher.
It just requires a huge investment in time to manage all the publishers. There were rules to follow and you were relying on the members to vet those that came in the door. And a lot of people came in the door.
There were a number of issues with how Civil tried to run itself. I’m so grateful for Civil, they gave us [Popula] its start. Everyone had their hearts in the right place.
But they faced a lot of regulatory headwinds, on top of all the normal problems a startup would face, on top of trying to start a publishing platform with many, many different entities trying to pursue different aims. It was a noble experiment, but it bit off more than it could chew.
The token curated system is no exception. It’s an incredibly complicated thing to devise and run, and you need people that have a lot of bandwidth to oversee it. The number of people that participated – and you see this in case after case of token registries – was so small, that they immediately took control over the project. There wasn’t this great body of government like imagined.
It’s kinda like Nick Denton’s Kinja.
I don’t know what that is.
Kinja was an attempt to surface citizen journalism alongside regular editorial content, by blending media and social media. It just wasn’t the case that you had a million geniuses out there waiting to publish on Kinja. So they spun their wheels trying to tap into the ‘crowd mind.’
Extraordinary things can happen by opening a platform up. But I think you have to grow it from a very small seed. You can’t just open the door and hope it will curate itself. There’s a million examples of this, where people think the wisdom of the crowd is available instantly. You have to work slowly to grow it like a plant.
That’s what we’re doing with Brick House. We chose a few publishers that are known to me and responsible and think in the same way to help structure this thing, so when we do open the doors to more publishers, we know what we’re doing.
Speaking of the wisdom of crowds. I noticed that a number of the projects in Brick House have come over from Civil. Including David Moore’s Sludge and Popula. Many of these projects set up micro-tipping features before Civil collapsed, is this a crowdfunding mechanism Brick House may be looking at deploying?
Well, we accept ETH micropayments at Popula now. We have an ETH-based micro tipping and commenting system. These are experiments that I really love. It’s not the time for them at Brick House, at all. Brick House has no crypto component.
But Popula is experimenting at a small scale with blockchain archiving and cryptoeconomics. We’re still committed to that. Anyone who is interested in doing it at Brick House is welcome to. We’ll show them what we’ve got, it’s very primitive. Remember, all these projects were bootstrapped, none of them started off with huge amounts of money. Civil was very, very generous. But a lot of money went down the tubes in the crypto winter.
Brick House seems similarly bootstrapped. The Kickstarter campaign is only seeking $75,000. Where will those funds be deployed?
All of this is being decided in advance in our operating agreement. All we’re going to do with that money is launch the sites. We’re trying to start from a shoestring without investors to develop a proof of concept that we can sell to readers.
At the moment, we really can’t sell anything to the readers. But we’re not going to say, we won’t start until we raise $2 million dollars, or enough to pay all these salaries for a year. We decided we’re just going to try to build a simple version of what we’re talking about – an umbrella of publications – and present it to the market.
You mentioned earlier your belief in blockchain archiving. This seems at odds with a cultural climate where speech is chilled either through corporate takeovers and increasingly the crowd. Does your belief in the technology reflect a belief in free speech absolution – that dangerous or unsavory ideas need to be protected.
When people talk about the First Amendment they often forget it’s a guarantee by the government against jailing its opponents. The earlier method was to just jail the opposition. You could just shut them up, like what’s happening in China now, by taking the dissidents and putting them in jail.
The idea of press freedom as a governmental right is separate from maintaining the public commons – where people share ideas in a condition and atmosphere of mutual respect and open-mindedness. We see a million complications with that.
A lot of the nonsense we see, like with the Harper’s letter, where people are complaining about being ‘censored’ when really they’re being repudiated or condemned. It’s also free speech to express contempt for stupid opinions. I don’t think we should lose sight of that.
There’s a fantastic line in your CJR column announcing Brick House: I think you said ‘there’s a sacred right for people to express contempt.’ Is there a tension between the right to get things wrong and the immutability blockchain provides?
Look at it this way, if you lost a libel suit in the days before the internet, it was not possible to go into every library and remove every newspaper. There’s a balance between what is reasonable and unreasonable. The internet has given people like Peter Thiel an outsized ability, potentially, to expunge writing and ideas from public memory. Permanently.
I feel blockchain publishing is a pushback against that. Not a lot of people talk about it, but it should be spoken of, when someone like Peter Thiel wants to shutdown Gawker, if the offending story had already been archived on the Ethereum blockchain and impossible to expunge, would it then have dampened the zeal of someone to go after a journalist, knowing the truth is already out there.
To some degree, archives in libraries, universities and cities are a bulwark against that impulse. The truth is not going to go away. Historians will find it. Posterity will find it.
Is there anything else you want to add?
We’re seeing the encroachment of entrenched interests in the blockchain space. More and more banks are getting involved, there’s an attempt by Facebook to launch Libra, there are all these attempts to use blockchain technology to recreate systems of surveillance. I don’t think people should just sit by and let those things develop, or lose sight of the promise of blockchain technology to liberate rather than enslave people.
It’s possible to use these technologies – just like it’s possible to use the internet – to protect freedoms rather than threaten them. It’s a powerful tool in both directions.
I want everyone to support the Brick House. Like, a lot. Come donate money, send all the rich people over. I am not getting rich off this – I have one share like everyone else. But I want everyone to see that another business model for journalism is possible.