With Eye-Popping Auctions, News Outlets Are Jumping on the NFT Gravy Train

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It’s never too late to get in on the latest trend—even, in the Associated Press’s case, at age 175. Later this month, the AP will begin auctioning off a series of NFT-backed digital art files based on some of the venerable news organization’s most iconic news photographs and coverage of major events, from the end of World War II—a story AP broke—to space exploration. Plans for marking its upcoming 175th anniversary come as the AP’s already proven successful in this new frontier: Last month, it became the first news organization to sell a non-fungible token, or NFT, for a work of digital art commemorating the first time a U.S. election was called on the blockchain, as AP—which has been calling U.S. elections since 1848—did last November. The NFT sold for roughly $180,000 of cryptocurrency, revenue that can help fund its journalism. “When the auction closed,” Dwayne Desaulniers, the AP’s director of blockchain and data licensing, told me, “there was a lot of eye-blinking and head-shaking.”

The New York Times and Time have also seen eye-popping NFT sale numbers, with outlets like Quartz and The Atlantic also dipping their toes in the latest tech craze. There’s been a surge in media attention—“Can I SPAC My Stonks With NFTs?” was the question on this week’s New York cover—some astronomical auctions, and everyone from Snoop Dogg to Edward Snowden getting in on the action, suggesting a growing bubble that could just burst before the AP blows out its 175 candles in May. But some media executives see opportunity in this emerging digital frontier, whether as a way to experiment and foster innovation in the newsroom or, potentially, to help fund journalism. Since its initial auction of three digital artworks inspired by the magazine’s classic “Is God Dead?” cover, Time NFTs have generated nearly $1.5 million in sales. “NFTs are a natural extension of Time’s existing Cover Store business, which is a seven-figure revenue stream for our brand,” Time president Keith Grossman told me. 

But Time is thinking bigger, beyond NFT collectibles, about how this cryptocurrency ecosystem fits into the media business. “What we are primarily focusing on at Time is how NFTs relate to subscriptions, memberships, and access to unique experiences, which would allow us to drive recurring revenue streams, rather than one-time payments,” Grossman says. “A larger, longer-term opportunity is using blockchain technology alongside these tokens.” It has already established a 14-person, cross-department team to help launch this initiative, and Time will soon start accepting cryptocurrency as a form of payment for subscriptions. It has also just announced its first partnership, a crypto video series with Grayscale, for which Time has agreed to be paid in Bitcoin.

Other media forays into crypto have been less successful. The Atlantic, which declined an interview for this article, sent out a press release earlier this month announcing the sale of its first-ever NFTs, two original digital art pieces whose proceeds would “be used to support The Atlantic’s journalism.” But by the final day of the auction, the top bid for one of the NFTs was $500; for the other, just $33. The pieces never sold, an Atlantic spokesperson told me, due to the fact that neither of the auctions hit their minimum bids. 

One of the more helpful ways I’ve heard the concept explained was by the New York Times’s Kevin Roose earlier this week on The Daily podcast: “Basically, people are discovering this ability to create just one of something on the internet,” a place where things were previously “just infinitely copyable.” The NFT is not the original piece of digital art (or whatever the asset may be, like audio or video files), but the certificate attached to that item that allows you keep track of which is the original, and thus assign value to it. They live on the Ethereum blockchain as a string of code, and they essentially function as a kind of stamp of ownership and authenticity on digital objects.

Roose ushered the Gray Lady into the NFT market last month through a column explaining the digital assets and then making a graphic out of that article to list and sell on the blockchain. Hours after putting his NFT up for auction, Roose was shocked to find people bidding more than $30,000 on it. “This picture—this NFT—was basically worth more than anything else I own,” he told The Daily. A bidding war broke out the next day, and, in the final moments of the 24-hour sale, rose from roughly $160,000 to the final price of $560,000 (which is actually about $725,000, using today’s exchange rate). The proceeds went to the Neediest Cases Fund, a Times charity.

“I thought maybe someone out there, some New York Times reader, will have some Ethereum burning a hole in their digital wallet and they’ll decide my column is worth half an Ether, about $850,” Roose said on the podcast, recalling how his colleagues at the Times were joking on Slack “that no one’s going to bid on my dumb NFT.” Of the final sale price, Daily guest host Sabrina Tavernise remarked, “No offense, but your column, in my mind, it is not worth the price of a nice house.” Curious why someone would pay that much for his NFT, Roose said some bidders told him it was a “speculative investment” that “if NFTs become a huge industry, then owning the first one from the New York Times” might eventually be worth more. Or, perhaps, it will be worth nothing. 

Quartz cofounder and CEO Zach Seward acknowledged that “the market determines what the NFT is worth” and expects it will cool down, along with the hype. His site also recently published a story about NFTs and then turned that article into one. The “meta-journalism explainer project,” as Seward called it, was a stunt aimed at showing the process of creating and selling an NFT; Quartz nevertheless fetched $1,800 for the digital representation of its article. Proceeds went to charity, and Seward says that while the NFT sold for more than expected, Quartz doesn’t currently have plans to convert more of its articles into crypto tokens. 

“I’d be very surprised if we found that all individual pieces of media could be turned into valuable assets unto themselves in the way that NFTs currently are being used by news organizations,” he told me. “If it doesn’t make sense, it probably doesn’t make sense,” he said of the buzz, though, “that doesn’t mean there’s no money to be made or an underlying concept that’s really interesting.” Seward suggested a practical media application for NFTs would be in “transforming licensing to make it easier to license specific pieces of content” and ideally more lucrative. “My bet,” he said of the NFT frenzy, “is that it shakes out into something quite frankly a little more boring, but more durable.”

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