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Sept. 19, 2018, 10:22 a.m.

How to buy into journalism’s blockchain future (in only 44 steps)

Blockchain-and-journalism startup Civil aims to build a decentralized infrastructure for news, and you can invest in their vision. It just might take you a while.

I’m pretty sure I purchased Civil tokens yesterday — literally buying into an experiment to strengthen journalism by putting some of it on the blockchain.

After passing two tests, uploading my passport and driver’s license to unfamiliar websites, and plunking down a large (for me) sum for a cryptocurrency, I was cleared for token takeoff. When the sale began at 10 a.m., I indicated how many Civil tokens I wanted and sent off that valuable cryptocurrency to pay for them.

And I got nothing.

No tokens appeared in my digital wallet. No comforting “your tokens are being shipped” email. Not even a “Share your purchase with a friend!” button. The “purchased” area in my account was blank.

But I’m actually at peace with that. I think it’s going to work out, and I’m into this journey.

My motivation

Earlier this year, my friends Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant left their public radio jobs to join this new journalism…thing named Civil. I had heard tidbits about Civil, and was honestly pretty confused. All the smart people I talked to seemed confused, too.

Manoush’s and Jen’s podcast ZigZag attempts to explain it, and I think I can take a stab now: Civil is a system designed to foster and reward quality journalism in a decentralized way, in contrast to platforms like Facebook and Google. The system’s backbone is the blockchain-based Civil token, abbreviated CVL. Holders of tokens can start news organizations in the system, challenge the membership of other news organizations in the system, and/or cast votes when such challenges arise.

I have no idea if it will work. But I’m interested, and I’d rather participate than watch from the sidelines. So I was willing to give it a whirl — and was okay with losing a little money in the process. (Plus my employer, Quartz, just launched a new cryptocurrency newsletter called Private Key I’ve been reading.)

So the time seemed right to jump in. I just needed to buy some CVL…though it turns out there’s no just about it.

The ingredients

Here’s what I actually needed to participate:

The recipe

Quick note: I’m talking about real money here and there was a moment when I technically lost $100. So please don’t take my experience as gospel, or even 100 percent accurate — I’m a beginner at this, I expected to be imperfect along the way, and even Civil’s instructions have changed in the last few days.

That said, about a week ago, I followed the path described in this PDF. Here were my steps.

Get a Token Foundry account

First stop was at Token Foundry, the site from which I’d eventually purchased my CVL tokens. At this point, I:

  • Started the sign up process.
  • Studied this PDF about how it all works, what the risks are, and how I shouldn’t toy with large parts of my net worth.
  • Took a quiz to make sure I actually understood all of those things.
  • Passed the quiz!
  • Uploaded a photo of my passport to prove I’m me. This was not my favorite step, but I knew it would be coming and also that it was required.
  • Took a selfie with my laptop camera.
  • Waited for the email saying I was legit and verified as me.
  • Got the email, and was good to go.

Register for Civil’s token sale

To get CVL, I needed to register for the sale at Token Foundry. So I:

  • Went to the Civil project page.
  • Read the constitution
  • Read the white paper
  • Read the four uses of CVL tokens
  • Read all of the other material on the site (some of which I knew from the ZigZag podcast).
  • Clicked “register.”
  • Took yet another quiz specific to Civil, which included the contract into which I enter by buying CVL tokens. This was pretty key, because here I learned that I can’t sell my tokens to just anyone; they have to be Civil-approved. Also, I can’t sell CVL unless I actively participate in the Civil system by, for example, voting.
  • Passed the quiz!
  • Declared my intent to buy a specific dollar amount of CVL tokens.

The upshot is that CVL isn’t designed as a way to get rich quickly. Fortunately, that wasn’t my goal. Also, I’m bad at that, always.

Get a cryptocurrency account

I would soon need to turn real dollars into blockchain-based cryptocurrency — in this case, Ethereum tokens, which is abbreviated ETH. I needed ETH to buy CVL.

Two things have changed since I did this. First, Civil announced that, starting October 2, they would allow people to buy CVL directly with dollars — so no need to buy ETH first. Second, the website recommended to buy ETH shifted from Coinbase to Gemini.

I used Coinbase, and on that site, I:

  • Signed up for a Coinbase account.
  • Set up two-factor authentication.
  • Provided a picture of my drivers license, front and back, using my laptop’s camera.
  • Got verified as me, which took about a minute.
  • Linked a debit card to the account.
  • Looked into my bank account to find two tiny withdrawal “holds” and reported them back to Coinbase to confirm my account.

At this point, I was ready to inject real dollars into the process.

Set up Metamask

But neither Coinbase nor Token Foundry is where I’d actually buy, sell, or exchange tokens. That happens in Metamask.

Metamask is a browser extension that added a little fox icon to my browser’s toolbar.

Clicking the fox opens a window where I could buy Ethereum and, later, exchange Ethereum for CVL tokens. It is also the temporary “hot wallet” where I can store my Ethereum and CVL tokens. (For longterm storage, I’ll use a “cold” hardware wallet.)

So here’s how I set up and used Metamask:

  • Installed Metamask from the Chrome Web Store.
  • Created a Metamask account.
  • Read all about how to avoid being scammed by fake Metamask windows. 😬
  • Got a list of 12 words that constitute the passphrase for my Metamask wallet — and, per the instructions from Token Foundry, decidedly did not photograph nor store these electronically anywhere. I put pen to paper, and then put paper in a safe deposit box.
  • Then, inside the Metamask window, clicked “buy” and instructed Metamask to use my Coinbase account (and the debit card stored there) to buy some Ethereum.

And it didn’t work.


Turns out I was trying to buy too much. I knew the Coinbase limit for debit cards was $300, so I entered $300. But it failed.

I tried $299. Also failed.

I figured out that there were some transaction fees that were putting me over the limit. So I tried $250.

At this point, my bank was on high alert and declined the transaction. (I later confirmed this when I had to ask my bank to unblock my card.)

So I gave Coinbase another debit card, which promptly got declined. I was clearly setting off alarms everywhere. (Again, confirmed.)

Finally, I tried linking a bank account directly to Coinbase. The instructions said this could take up to seven days to go through, which was okay because I was still more than a week out from the CVL token sale. But since my bank was on the Coinbase list of banks it can readily talk to, it worked right away.

I went back to the Metamask window and yet again tried to purchase Ethereum, this time using my bank account.

And it…worked?

The sale went through, it said. But there was no deduction in my bank account and no Ethereum in my Metamask wallet. Was it gone?

Then I found that there was Ethereum in my Coinbase account. Maybe this was the seven-day wait?

We’re in the Ether

The next morning, the Ethereum was sitting in my Metamask wallet.

And…it had already dropped in value by $25. It would drop a full $100 — and then recover — before I got to use it to buy CVL. As the excellent Quartz headline writers point out, the cryptocurrency markets had suffered a “sudden and severe faceplant.”

But I was ready for the sale.

Time to buy

At 9:59 a.m. Tuesday, I popped open my laptop. The Civil token sale opened a minute later.

I went to the Civil site on Token Foundry and clicked “buy.”

For my payment method, I chose “Metamask,” the browser plugin and cryptocurrency wallet holding my Ethereum. I confirmed the purchase amount, waited a minute and saw this:


I even got a link taking me to the digital details of the transaction on the blockchain, clearly showing my ETH went to Token Foundry.

But there was no record that once there, those tokens had become CVL tokens, or even that they will at some point in the future. The only receipt I had of a CVL token transaction was the “success” screenshot above I happened to snap because I planned to write about my experience.

After reading so much about the immutability of blockchain records and keeping your cryptocurrency secure, the lack of even a “pending” transaction record was a little odd.

Looking good

But I wasn’t concerned. One thing I’ve learned in this process is that the Civil folks have thought a lot about this system and this sale. Plus, I had both the screenshot and a blockchain transaction showing I sent Token Foundry a bunch of Ethereum.

Then, about 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, eight hours after clicking “buy,” I got a comforting “your purchase is its way” note from Token Foundry:

Of greater concern might be that the entire sale won’t go through at all if Civil doesn’t sell more than $8 million in tokens by October 15.

After exactly 12 hours, the tally of CVL sold was at $98,984. At that rate, assuming people buy 24 hours a day, I think Civil would come up a couple million short. [Editor’s note: After 24 hours, at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday, the total was at $116,655.]

I hope I’m wrong. I’d like to see how this experiment plays out — and I have a small stake in it.

John Keefe is a product manager and bot developer at Quartz.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2018, 10:22 a.m.
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