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. Matters.news 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 Matters.news, 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, Matters.news 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, Matters.news' 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."