What We Learned From Reporting 10 Years of Crypto History

We journalists are a privileged breed. As the saying goes, we get to write the first pages of history.

Nowhere has that seemed truer in my career than at CoinDesk. Even after 10 jam-packed years of covering its comings, goings, ups and downs, the cryptocurrency and blockchain economy still feels new, fresh and different. There is so much more of the story to come.

Still, as you read the upcoming articles on iconic past crypto events, all featured in a four-week celebration of CoinDesk’s anniversary, a pattern arises that can feel counter to that high-minded, history-making ideal. It’s that often the big crypto story of the moment is one of failure.

This piece is part of our “CoinDesk Turns 10” series looking back at seminal stories from crypto history.

From Mt. Gox to The DAO hack to FTX, the lesson – other than that crypto has too many three-letter names with an “X” in them – might seem that this industry’s excessive dreams and greed repeatedly fall victim to gravity and to the limits of human capability.

But the articles need not be read with gloom. In fact, this pattern of failure affirms a constructive feature of the communities that are engaged around both crypto and journalism.

The crypto ethos draws from principles of open-source development, which treats failure as vital to evolutionary growth. It means that, with real money always at stake, harsh lessons are quickly encountered and processed, generating rapid iterative improvements.

Indeed, if you step back and apply any 10-year metric – from market capitalization (up 160,000% to $1.77 trillion) to wallets (up 56,000% to 84 million) to countries adopting crypto regulation or innovations (from none to almost every one) – this industry has grown faster than almost any in history, even if it has failed to transform the economy in the way its most ardent advocates have predicted.

The journalism ethos, at least as celebrated by journalists, embraces a similar idea. The cynical old newsroom maxim of “if it bleeds, it leads” need not be a commentary on reporters smugly delighting in the others’ pain. It can also be that uncovering failure is integral to the profession’s higher calling: to bring transparency and accountability to any human endeavor in which there is a public interest.

That mission is aligned with that of the crypto community. The more that committed journalists uncover otherwise hidden failures, the faster the industry can learn from its mistakes, adjust and get stronger.

For crypto journalists, this calling to transparency and accountability – which, admittedly, can get short shrift from large and small media outlets alike – puts a new spin on the romantic old idea that the press is the Fourth Estate.

Under that traditional construct, journalists are expected to hold governments and other agents of power to account so their pursuit of self-interest doesn’t deplete public goods in which society holds a common interest, such as security, economic well being and environmental sustainability.

In the crypto world, we have a new notion of a public good: the idea that blockchains should be free from control by centralizing special interests, whether they’re mining pools, venture capitalists, corporate exchanges or government regulators. In an ambiguous but important way, crypto journalists are called on to protect the ideal of decentralization.

All media outlets are flawed, many terribly. But the best will put this commitment to protecting public goods through transparency and accountability at their core. And on that score I am immensely proud to lead a team that has upheld that standard in the face of relentless, unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories from a hostile and often toxic social media mob.

When, on April 14, our reporters Ian Allison and Tracy Wang were handed the prestigious George Polk award for stories that led to the downfall of the FTX exchange, it wasn’t just a big day for them or for CoinDesk. It mattered for crypto generally. Standing alongside reporters and editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press and other titans of U.S. media, our two CoinDesk rock stars showed why it’s so important that this community expose its bad actors and strive to keep public blockchains decentralized.

But only a few journalists get to be recognized with an award for upholding these noble objectives. What drives the rest of them? The answer is that in doing so they get the thrill of uncovering a great story.

And, boy, what stories crypto throws at us.

Some CoinDesk journalists buy into an idea I often put to journalism school graduates to entice them to join us rather than, say, a mainstream outlet: that crypto is the biggest story in finance since Florence’s Medici family created our current, bank-centric model of money during the Renaissance. Others see that as hyperbolic and – reflecting a divergence of views that makes CoinDesk stronger – are far more skeptical of this technology’s capacity to meaningfully change the world.

Yet, regardless of their views, our journalists pursue stories day in, day out, tuning out industry critics who assume they’re all “crypto shills.” That’s because those stories are inherently fascinating.

Whether crypto succeeds or not, the fact that it grapples with audacious goals of transforming a centuries-old system of money, of reimagining organizational structures and community governance, and of overturning the tyranny of Web2, makes it an endlessly intriguing subject.

Out of it emerges, not the story of a mechanical technology or the precision of math and cryptography, but of humanity itself, of its dreams, its dramas, its successes and, yes, its failures. CoinDesk’s 10 years of coverage uncovers the Shakespearean breadth of the crypto story.

Beyond the aforementioned Mt. Gox collapse in 2014, the DAO hack of 2016 and the FTX meltdown in 2022, the CoinDesk Turns 10 series offers many other chapters in this ongoing human drama.

There’s the 2015 launch of Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum – to its believers, a moment on par with Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web; to its detractors, a money grab for those who attached themselves to Buterin’s high-minded idea.

There are the block wars of 2017: either a tale of a fringe community’s destructive internecine struggle or a crucial victory for commoners – i.e., users – who protected a public good from abuse by corporate interests.

There’s the initial coin offering (ICO) boom of 2018, which by popular account is an example of speculative excess and loss, but can equally be seen as a story of hope for a new, inclusive capital market that was simply ahead of its time.

There’s the emergence of Facebook’s libra in 2019, which, as flawed as many saw it to be, stirred policymakers into finally realizing that crypto inventions could challenge their stewardship of the world’s core monetary institutions.

There’s the 2020 rise of crypto memes. Critics see it as a symbol of this industry’s frivolity, failing to recognize it as a remarkable expression of collective human creativity and of how new systems of communication are shaping ideas and culture.

And there’s El Salvador’s adoption of bitcoin as legal tender in 2021, a reminder, regardless of how you feel about that move, that this technology challenges deep-set, nation-state-based ideas of money and power.

Money, power and the human struggle for creativity and independence: That’s what emerges from the opening pages of crypto history, as penned by CoinDesk these past 10 years.

What will the next 10 years hold for this technology?

Stick around and find out.

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