Chinese-language indie media has its NFT moment

"Finally there is a new wave we can catch. The previous technological changes were squeezing us out."

Image of a curved "wailing wall" NFT made of white text on a black background.

The freewheeling NFT technology has inspired several forward-looking publications and platforms to explore ways to secure high quality Chinese-language news content and help content creators who struggle to profit from their work.

Image: Initium Media

The NFT has already shaken up the art world; if China is any indication, the news media could be next. In the U.S. mainstream giants like The New York Times and CNN have cautiously entered the newest crypto gold rush. But in Greater China, it's the small, vulnerable independent Chinese-language media on the bleeding edge. And they are hoping their attempts to adopt new technology to weather financial and political turbulence can inspire the West.

In early September, Initium Media, a reputable independent Chinese-language news site specializing in deep coverage of politics, society and culture in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, became the first Chinese-language outlet to sell its NFTs. Matters, a decentralized Chinese-language publishing platform based on blockchain technology, has several plans in the works to transition itself to a blockchain-based SaaS platform that provides tech tools to help Chinese publications, publishers and content creators, including Initium Media, to thrive through creating and trading NFTs. is known for hosting cyber refugees, from those who don't feel free to write or speak on mainland China's web to those staying away from Facebook's algorithms.

An NFT represents a collectible asset — digital or non digital — encoded with a unique identifier that proves its authenticity and its ownership. It lives on a blockchain, a digital decentralized ledger that also records the provenance of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. NFTs can be sold and traded but cannot be erased or altered.

NFT technology has inspired several publications and platforms to explore ways to maximize the value of quality Chinese-language news content that's prone to censorship and help creators who struggle to profit from their work. In a way, the imminent threat of government censorship has forced beleaguered independent Chinese-language news and content sites to lean on decentralized technologies more than peers abroad.

"[Turning to NFT] is self-help for all independent creators and independent media," said Zhang Jieping, founder and CEO of Matters,news and a veteran journalist with roots in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

An early NFT triumph

Earlier this year, inspired by the American digital artist Beeple, who sold his NFT for a whopping $69.3 million, the Singapore-based Initium started to explore auctioning NFTs.

On Sept. 8, Initium Media released its first NFT project, The Erased. The project is comprised of three collectable interactive media works based on public events that significantly impacted mainland Chinese and Hong Kong residents in the past three years. One NFT visualizes China's "wailing wall," which contains over 730,000 messages Chinese web users left under the COVID-19 whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang's Weibo post after his passing. Another NFT, titled Uprooted, is a first-person narration by a migrant worker among the many evicted by the Beijing municipal government in the winter of 2017. (The government famously called this group of victims a "low-end population.") The third NFT, The Disappeared Hong Kong Media, visualizes the political challenges Hong Kong faces following the passing of Hong Kong's National Security Law. It enumerates the media outlets that have faced censorship, shut down orders, lawsuits and mass resignations over the past two years.

"We hope to share these memories with you, to resist forgetting, resist being removed, and resist attempts to rewrite history," Initium Media wrote in a statement on OpenSea, a major NFT marketplace.

Initium executive editor Susie Wu told Protocol that to her surprise, all seven copies of the news site's first three NFTs sold out immediately. One copy of The Disappeared Hong Kong Media sold within eight minutes of listing. The highly anticipated and most valuable NFT, the Wailing Wall, was auctioned off for 1 ETH, which equaled $3,616 as of this writing. All told, Initium has booked 4 ETH (over $14,000) in sales from its three NFTs, an equivalent of annual membership fees paid by over 200 subscribers.

The six-year-old Initium had just broken even in August, supported primarily by 60,000 subscribing members. Its NFT sales number might be nothing for a major global news outlet, but for a small independent Chinese-language publication squeezed by both governmental censorship in China and dominating social media platforms ranging from Facebook to TikTok, the possibility of adding a stream of revenue through NFTs is significant.

"It's not that if we can sell NFTs, then we can survive," Wu said. "But the initial sales are indeed exciting news because finally there is a new wave we are able to catch. After all, the previous technological changes, like short videos, are squeezing us out."

NFT as a service

Zhang, the founder of, told Protocol that in November her platform is launching a project that will allow Matters users to trade NFT avatars and access Matter's own tools, which will empower users to independently open censorship-resilient sites, turning their work into a part of the Ethereum blockchain as a public ledger and selling it.

After a new NFT is sold, the next owner of the NFT can then add content, leaving their personal mark on the collectible. By trading avatars, the value of the NFT increases, and Matters Lab can take commissions from each NFT trading. Going forward, plans also to allow independent journalists to raise funds for projects through NFTs, which can be owned by multiple NFT buyers.

"We will allow creators to secure full ownership of their work, but we also hope to create a healthy community open for other individuals and media to engage with quality content," Liu Guo,' co-founder and CTO, told Protocol. "We are starting this effort in the Chinese-language world, and it can be applied to the English world."

Liu believes that Chinese independent media's NFT experiments can ultimately offer lessons and toolkits for English-language media, which do not face the same looming danger of being wiped out or co-opted by the government.

"I think decentralized technologies will benefit creators all over the world. It's just that independent Chinese creators are in a bigger crisis because of governmental censorship, so we are incentivized to use decentralized technologies to resist centralized power," Liu said. "But censorship exists in the West, too. Capital can be a powerful but invisible censoring force. We are thinking of solutions to resist censorship before everyone else in the English world realizes the threat is real."


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories