Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

“The web of undisclosed conflicts in the bitcoin world is almost impossible to disentangle, especially since one of the celebrated features of cryptocurrencies is that they can be held secretly.”

2018 will be the year of inadequate bitcoin disclosures.

In April 2013, Farhad Manjoo (then at Slate, now at The New York Times) bought 7.23883 bitcoins for $1,000, explaining that he “wanted to buy bitcoins as pure, shameless speculation.” The speculation didn’t last long: He ended up selling the coins within a month, for a profit of $152. Now, of course, he can make mordant jokes about not holding on to them: as I write this post, those coins would be worth more than $118,000.

Lots of journalists were playing around with buying bitcoin at the time. Kevin Roose (then at New York, now also at the Times) bought one bitcoin (“I thought it might make me a few easy dollars”) and then sold it for a $5 loss. He, too, is mordant on Twitter, as is Kashmir Hill (then of Forbes, now at Gizmodo Media Group), who spent 10.354 bitcoin on a blowout sushi dinner in May 2013. Those coins are worth some $169,000 today.

As all those journalists know, however, it’s really just as well that they didn’t hold on to their coins. Writing first-person articles about using bitcoin for smallish transactions is one thing; being personally invested in bitcoin to the tune of $100,000 or more is something else entirely. In 2018, as bitcoin futures start being traded on established exchanges, the cryptocurrency is undeniably going to be a multi-billion-dollar asset class, and that’s going to raise some pointed questions in the world of journalism.

Most importantly, the days of bitcoin stunt journalism are over. Today, if you write about bitcoin, you can’t ethically own it, any more than you can own shares directly in companies you write about. Journalists covering this beat should not be directly financially invested in bitcoin going up rather than down, especially not when potential bitcoin profits can end up dwarfing their dollar salaries.

Similarly, when journalists talk to and quote any of the thousands of blockchain experts out there, they should make absolutely clear the degree to which those experts are talking their own book and are getting extremely rich off the current cryptocurrency bubble. If it’s hard for a journalist to be objective about something she’s personally invested in, it’s even harder for an expert to talk about bitcoin’s rise without being affected by the fact that it has made her millions of dollars in profit.

These facts need to be spelled out because they’re not obvious. In most journalism, there has been a workable distinction between principals and analysts; you talk to the latter about the former, for instance by phoning up a university professor to ask about the founder of a unicorn company. In that situation, it’s generally assumed that the founder has become rich, while the academic has no financial stake in the company’s success.

With bitcoin, by contrast, no one really has a clue who owns what. A handful of individuals like to talk very loudly about how they bought bitcoin cheap and then made millions, but a lot of people, more sensibly, like to keep such things relatively private. When those people are interviewed, it’s often impossible to know how invested they are, quite literally, in bitcoin’s ongoing price rise.

And let’s not kid ourselves that all the journalists covering bitcoin have refrained, in a high-minded manner, from acquiring any coins themselves. Quite the opposite: Many of the publications covering the blockchain space are quite deliberately staffed by journalists who have long believed that bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrency will transform the world. Insofar as those journalists have now become wealthy through their cryptocurrency holdings, they are going to be more invested in their thesis than ever.

The job of journalism is to enlighten; no one should want to muddy the bitcoin waters even more than they are already. But the web of undisclosed conflicts in the bitcoin world is almost impossible to disentangle, especially since one of the celebrated features of cryptocurrencies is that they can be held secretly. We’ll see more disclosure in 2018 than we have until now. But it won’t be nearly enough.

Felix Salmon is host and editor of Cause & Effect.

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Paul Ford   Go global

Jake Levine   The return to now

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Burt Herman   Things get real

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging