It can be tough out here in the digital journalism economy, and many news websites like Slate are finding new ways to supplement the revenue they traditionally have earned from advertising. (Join Slate Plus today!) But Salon is likely the first major outlet to jump on a hot new bandwagon in financing: cryptocurrency.
Salon is now offering readers the option to mine cryptocurrency to pay the online magazine’s bills, rather than viewing ads. On Sunday, the site began presenting visitors using ad blockers with the option to “Suppress Ads” in exchange for “allowing Salon to use your unused computing power.”
By co-opting visitors’ computers to mine Monero, a privacy-focused cryptocurrency currently worth around $240 per coin on digital currency exchanges, Salon hopes that it can encourage users who want to avoid seeing ads to instead subsidize the site’s work with their personal computers’ spare processing power. Jordan Hoffner, CEO of the Salon Media Group, told Slate, “Ad blocking is here, and isn’t going to get any better. Right now there are a couple models out there to deal with it, and we wanted to see if there was another.”
Cryptocurrency mining involves a computer solving complex mathematics problems to produce a set of data; that set serves as a digital coin. The process for creating each coin is extremely energy-intensive and often requires the immense power of a server farm or supercomputer. There are, however, ways to mine cryptocurrencies without heavy equipment. Salon is taking advantage of the fact that people often don’t use all the processing power available on their personal computers; most day-to-day digital activities like checking email and reading online articles don’t require that much energy.
Through the use of a Monero mining plugin called Coinhive, the online magazine is essentially cobbling together the spare processing power from a bunch of readers’ computers to create a virtual server farm that can mine cryptocurrencies. Hoffner notes that the use of Coinhive should in theory incentivize longer, high-quality journalism, since readers who remain on the page for an extended period of time will end up contributing more power to the mine.
This monetization scheme has a bit of a checkered past. Coinhive has made headlines over the past few months as a tool for scammers to siphon off energy from unsuspecting web surfers. Cybersecurity firms have been warning for months that nefarious actors can steal the processing power from users’ computers for mining when they visit certain websites, a scam known as “cryptojacking.” This theft results in higher electricity consumption and slower computer functioning. AdGuard conducted research on popular streaming websites that contained cryptojacking software and found they were able to earn as much as $326,000 per month. Hackers have also found ways to inject the cryptomining script into sites like Showtime and PolitiFact in order to leech off the power from incoming traffic.
The difference between Salon and these unscrupulous cryptojackers, however, is that the magazine is actually asking people for permission to use their spare power when visiting the site in exchange for an ad-free experience. Visitors can decide to stop the mining by either turning off their ad blocker or leaving the website. Tarah Wheeler, a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America, previously told Slate, “Cryptocurrency mining when you have the consent of the people that are visiting a site is like borrowing a cup of sugar from the neighbors. Cryptocurrency mining when you don’t have consent is like sneaking in and stealing the sugar.” (New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)
According to the creators of Coinhive, a number of image boards and porn sites also allow users to opt in to mining in exchange for premium content or ad suppression. Yet Salon is likely the first major media outlet that has tried to diversify its revenue stream with the crypto software. The Coinhive team emailed Slate: “We’re happy to see a mainstream site giving this [a] shot. We see more and more sites using Coinhive in an open fashion now, instead of silently running a miner in the background. Salon makes a great example for such usage.”