I still remember my first bitcoin.
Well, around half a bitcoin. It was early 2014, and I was at Bitcoin Miami reporting on, among other things, the announcement of Ethereum. We were in the midst of a raging bull market, and BTC had recently skyrocketed to over $600 – unthinkable heights! I split a hotel room and my roommate sent me $250 worth of BTC to cover his share.
To this day it’s still the most bitcoin I’ve ever owned. It would be worth around $25,000 right now, for an annualized 990% rate of return. Unfortunately, I had to sell that bitcoin almost immediately.
Woe is me.
I had to sell because I was in Miami doing some of my first reporting for Fortune Magazine. Fortune, like most traditional financial and business news outlets, prohibits its writers from owning financial assets anywhere adjacent to the beats they cover. The idea is that owning an asset will inevitably skew your coverage of it to be more positive, or lead you to write negatively about competitors. (I couldn’t buy the Ethereum pre-sale either, big RIP.)
Policies like this have recently come up for scrutiny following a fairly nuanced tweet thread from investor Lyn Alden. She’s not arguing against no-conflict policies in general: “It’s understandable that you can’t own some minor altcoin that you could conceivably move the price of with your words, as a journalist.”
But Alden does wonder if journalistic no-conflict policies shouldn’t apply to bitcoin because, “People who write about money and finance should be able to own money. Bitcoin is money, in a global sense.”
There’s some déjà vu here for us old-timers, because this is essentially the same argument that was being made quite frequently seven years ago: “Bitcoin is money. Journalists own dollars, right? Doesn’t that bias them towards fiat?”
That argument is vastly more defensible today than it was seven years ago. “Bitcoin is a $900 billion market cap asset,” as Alden writes. “An individual piece of writing, even at [The Wall Street Journal] or Bloomberg, won’t materially influence it now.”
That’s correct as far as it goes, though much the same could be said about Tesla or, as Willamette University law professor Rohan Grey points out, Purdue Pharma. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a great argument because we’re not just talking about individual actors here, but an entire industry. Maybe one biased story by one journalist holding bitcoin wouldn’t skew the discourse, but what about all of them at once?
A much more important argument for allowing journalists to own at least a little bitcoin (as a treat) is that they need exposure to how it works at the social, technological and market levels. Someone reporting about Instagram without having used it would be irresponsible, and the same goes for crypto: If you’ve never used MetaMask, I’m a bit less interested in your theories about the future of Ethereum.
Seeing that first $250 worth of bitcoin arriving in a cobbled-together DOS-text wallet on my clunky 2012 ThinkPad has enhanced my reporting on crypto every single day since then. And during the brief periods when I’ve been out of journalism and held it, I was motivated to watch markets and learn their dynamics. (I also bought at $3,000 in 2019 but had to sell at around $10,000 when I returned to Fortune. Rekt again!)
Alden also makes a further point that I frankly find more troubling: “Not owning some of the best-performing assets, like bitcoin, can also affect [journalistic] bias.” I’m sure this is an attractive notion for investors who see journalists writing critical things about bitcoin and crypto – they’re just salty that they’re not getting rich like me!
That’s pretty worrying logic, though, and I think not actually helpful for smart investors. It implies that any critical treatment of a successful asset by a non-holder can be dismissed as “salt,” which could amount to putting on blinders to real concerns. We all know bubbles and manias and frauds exist, and if you’re not even willing to evaluate negative signals you’re not doing good risk management.
And that’s the main reason you as a reader benefit from no-conflict rules: It ensures the information you’re getting is motivated by the writer’s professional incentive to find facts, rather than their personal incentive to pump their bags.
More to the point, I think the “salt” thesis reflects a misunderstanding of what kind of people become journalists. As a group we’re certainly more cautious and risk averse than bleeding-edge tech investors – it’s pretty inherent to our training and mindset. Good journalists, at least, ask a lot of questions and think slowly and carefully.
The reward is that we get to spend our time being curious. Leaving aside institutional concerns, plenty of business journalists would be glad to be entirely detached from the industries and markets they’re covering, just so they can ensure their curiosity is unconstrained. We’ve mostly reconciled ourselves to the idea that we’re not going to make tech-investor type money, and see it as a fair trade-off.
Now, as you may know, CoinDesk doesn’t have the same kinds of rules as Fortune or Bloomberg: Journalists here can own crypto, though with strict rules about disclosure and timing. Personally, I own less than 2% of my net worth in bitcoin and ETH, and small amounts of polkadot and solana tokens. (I also own a bunch of Gods Unchained cards that I bought in 2018 for ETH that would be worth about five grand now (argh), and a herring NFT of incalculable value.)
One important thing to note about CoinDesk’s policy is that, unlike Fortune or Bloomberg, we’re not a general interest publication. As big as our long-term ambitions are (and they’re huge), we’re still effectively a trade publication for the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. So nobody in their right mind would come work for CoinDesk if they didn’t already have at least some degree of faith that this industry matters and will continue to matter. And while we’re proud to offer a diversity of critical opinion, basic media literacy should tell you you’re not going to get “this entire industry is fake”-type takes here. (Try the Financial Times.)
Note, crucially, that believing something will matter is different from believing it is good. The fact that I own bitcoin doesn’t mean I think it fixes all the world’s problems. I’ve been thinking about technology long enough to know that it will have weird, complex and sometimes negative implications. But I feel secure reporting on those problems because I believe that bitcoin, like Thanos, is inevitable. The same fascination that drove me to write about it at $600 is basically why I work at CoinDesk now, and why I’m still buying.
One final personal note that might be enlightening. Back in 2014, I barely had two pennies to rub together: I had just left academia and was freelancing to make ends meet while I figured out my next move. A $100 prize from winning a poetry contest helped me make rent one month. So even if I had been able to invest, I doubt I could have pulled together more than about $2,000 to put into bitcoin at the time. That would have turned into about $200,000 by now. Not bad!
But instead, learning and writing about bitcoin wound up being my gateway to an honest-to-god career – an almost unimaginably fun and creative one, and relatively lucrative to boot. After that trip to Miami, I covered crypto for Fortune regularly, eventually becoming a full-time staffer there before landing at CoinDesk.
The upshot is that in the years since I sold that sweet, sweet $600 bitcoin, I’ve earned many times those lost investment returns by writing about finance and technology, an activity which to me barely feels like work. Looking into the future, I doubt I’ll ever have a hard time finding stimulating, fun and well-paid employment again.
If I had to miss out on a few years of 1,000% gains to get where I am now, I can’t say I’m salty about it.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.