Chief content officer Casey talks CoinDesk and its plans
Michael J. Casey is chief content officer at CoinDesk, a news site specializing in bitcoin and digital currencies that he joined in September 2017.
Previously, Casey was the CEO of Streambed Media, a company he co-founded to develop provenance data for digital content. He was also a senior advisor at MIT Media Labs’s Digital Currency Initiative and a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.
Prior to joining MIT, Casey spent 18 years at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, where his last position was as a senior columnist covering global economic affairs.
Casey has authored five books, including “The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order” and “The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything,” both co-authored with Paul Vigna.
Casey, who owns a small amount of bitcoin, spoke with Talking Biz News about Coindesk. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get into business journalism?
I was a journalist in Western Australia, and I had come to the United States and done a master’s degree at Cornell in Asian Studies. But I also met this girl who now is my wife, and she was going to go teach English in Indonesia. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent covering Asia and the position that came up for me was not the one I was hoping to get.
I wanted to be a political reporter and sort of wanted to go a different direction. I came back to the U.S. and I took a job at Dow Jones to cover the Asian financial crisis. Because I was the point person I was sent back out to Jakarta. And then I just became fascinated in the bigger picture story of geopolitics and the IMF and the G -7 and the interplay between currencies markets.
What attracted you to CoinDesk?
I suppose a bit of your question was what attracted me to the world of cryptocurrencies, blockchains and bitcoin. That was the starting point, essentially in 2013. I stumbled across bitcoin and wrote about it and didn’t do a particularly good job of it.
The idea is of a decentralized system for managing the record keeping behind a monetary system and the need for the sovereign to have that protection. Suddenly I thought, “Oh wow this is a big deal.” So I got very interested in it. And Paul Vigna and I wrote a book together in 2014 about it. I became fascinated in it, and ultimately felt like this was something I wanted to get more involved in.
At that time CoinDesk had gotten going, in 2012, and it really was the paper of record for this very little niche world. It’s always been the most important publication in the space. Now it’s a much bigger, much more broader focused institution, but from early on I felt like its reporting was consistently free from the kind of scams, the Wild West crypto world. It’s a very difficult space to report upon because there’s so many scams. Any frontier technology attracts this kind of activity.
So I felt like CoinDesk put a flag in the ground and maintained this position of integrity right from the very beginning. That was an important factor for me.
How big was the staff when you joined?
So the staff when I joined in terms of editorial was around two dozen, not all of them full time. We’ve kind of doubled that number since. It was steadily growing before I joined but I joined with the mandate to really more aggressively expand it. So it’s certainly more than 50 now on editorial.
There’s been expansion on the other side of the operation as well.
How has the coverage expanded? Are you covering more topics?
Both in format and subject matter. We really are building out a multimedia operation now, so podcasts have been rapidly growing, and we are we have our eyes on CoinDesk TV as as a product that will be rolling out. And this is why I hired Joanne Po. I was one of the first people from The Wall Street Journal newsroom to work with her on WSJ Live and I always had the deepest respect for her so I was absolutely thrilled to bring her on. She’s been doing really innovative things around both video and audio content.
Events certainly would still probably likely to be the biggest money maker for us. CoinDesk is the is the host of the biggest conference in the block chain space in the world called Consensus. It’s an annual event in May. We went virtual this year and we may have to do that again. But what was interesting when we went virtual this year is we used a kind of an early prototype of a Zoom-based CoinDesk TV module, a 24-hour show using our affiliates in Asia.
We have a research unit that is getting bigger. It’s actually embracing not only its own research into the very interesting data and metrics that the cryptoworld comes up with but also external third parties are providing their research. So you can come to CoinDesk as a hub for the research.
With editorial, we’re shifting things around a bit in addition to the magazine-style long form pieces that have been a mainstay. Bringing Kevin Reynolds in as global news director and attaching him to the faster news flow aspect of it all has meant that we’ve now got bullet-point based stories. And that’s a new format.
We will also be working on redesigning the site to actually create a full module that would allow for a more a more wire-based element.
It’s been fortuitous that I’ve arrived at a time when central banks are getting interested in this technology. They’re building central bank digital currencies. Our coverage now is much more macro driven than than ever before. So we’re writing articles about inflation and we’re writing stories about what is the future of safe havens and the correlation with gold.
We’re trying to write as much as we can around a field we call crypto adjacent, so we’re looking at areas that are not necessarily hard and fast cryptocurrency blockchain themes, but areas that are very important to it and allow us to put the blockchain lens on it.
If you look at things like cybersecurity or you look at privacy or you look at social media and platforms, being able to think about the problems that come from centralized databases and what that has done to the sort of the current moment of unrest around disinformation and censorship, those sorts of things allows us to kind of write interesting stories. We have a privacy reporter now, for example, who’s been digging into sort of huge issues around data privacy.
I think it’s worth telling you that approach is informed by the way we look upon our audience, which is to say it’s bifurcated between what we call the stakeholder audience — folks who really are interested in investing in cryptocurrency and therefore really want as much information as they can about the trends are within the industry and what things they should be investing in.
And then the discovery audience. These people, typically they start off being very skeptical, and then we give them a journey to understand it and then they go down the rabbit hole. We hope they convert into stakeholders, meaning that they are loyal readers of CoinDesk
Are you seeing an increase in that discovery audience as more people know about bitcoin?
We are. The last couple of months, we’re pretty happy with the traffic to the site in particular. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the price movements in the crypto universe help us in this regard. People start to get curious when they see the bitcoin price. And that search function ends up driving people into our laps, and our job is then to sort of capture them and say, “Hey, stick around, learn more about this and then gauge.”
It’s a constant battle. There’s a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of disinformation. There’s a lot of concerned people. I think it’s complicated, so they don’t easily understand it. And therefore, it’s not an instant conversion. You really have to do your homework and understand it, which is why we’re also building what we call our learn channel getting a lot more explainers and material that can handhold folks and help them understand the way to think about this stuff.
You mentioned the Consensus event that you guys hold every May. How else does CoinDesk make money?
Ads have traditionally been a part of it. We took the ads off the site last year as we recalibrated what we we’re doing. We decided it’s time to invest in our personnel and build out and not be so dependent upon that. Those ads tended to be more programmatic ads. We had less control over them.
So now we are going back to reviving the ad model. There will be different sponsors brought in on a much more of a direct sale basis. There’s a pretty vibrant crypto community selling services wallets, hard wallets, hardware exchanges, etc., that are keen to advertise. And so that’s a target for us, and we’re running ads already through our podcasts and newsletters.
We’re looking at the idea of a subscription model down the road. We think that this is a community that’s fairly well heeled and is looking for specialized services. So we can imagine potentially somewhere down the road, doing some sort of tiered thing that offers extra value.
But for now, it’s events and ads as the main driver.
You mentioned earlier that this is an area that at least in the beginning was full of scams. How do you train your journalists to watch out for stuff like that?
The starting point is a lot of basic journalism stuff. Check your sources. Get multiple sources. Do due diligence. Basically understand the material. That is critical to anything in journalism as a starting point. But on top of that, there’s an understanding of the rather unique ways in which people can be scanned in this space.
Cryptography is supposed to be a way to really prove the integrity of something. But if you build upon that expectation and there’s all this anonymity around that. If you don’t focus enough on how reliable that cryptographic proof is, the anonymous part can be the way in which you get scammed because there’s so many people who are hiding behind pseudonymous avatars. There’s no way to know who they are.
So you need to sort of be able to dig down deeper into the kinds of phishing scams and things that get quite commonly done in this space. We’re also trying to train our readers because CoinDesk itself gets copied in ways that is problematic. We are constantly battling against this. There are scammers in this space. So lots of education is needed.
What do you think about the mainstream business press and how they’ve been covering bitcoin?
I generally don’t think very favorably of it. I think it’s very simplistic. Bitcoin is looked upon as if its major value proposition is just that it could be a competitive to the dollar. And most people throw that out the door and say it’s too volatile. It’s to scam me. It’s this or that. They don’t think too hard about the underlying infrastructure and why that matters. They don’t understand the difference between the permission list system and mission systems, which is really important.
Mainstream media get very into it when the price rises. So it focuses on the price and it assumes that it’s static, which I think is a really mistaken way to think about this. This is an incredibly rich, evolving technology with thousands and thousands of developers working on it around the world. It’s constantly being improved upon. And yet the assumptions are that bitcoin will never succeed. There’s a lack of understanding about the challenges of scaling it and what needs to happen. There’s not a very good understanding of how open source systems work and decentralized models work.
We have a sort of an assumption that there’s somebody in charge of everything — who’s the CEO? Can I call him up? No, you can’t. There is no CEO; it’s a decentralized project. So there’s those sorts of errors. So I’d love to see more understanding.
I do find these younger journalists coming up are much more capable of getting their heads around this.
And you’re writing for the site as well along with these younger journalists.
I write this regular weekly column called “Money Reimagined” that runs as a newsletter and it runs on the site as well. Having covered big macro stuff all my life, I’m fascinated by what China is doing with its digital currency and what that means for the battle with the United States over the hegemony of the dollar — the future of the global financial system.
This emerging technology, the ideas behind true digital currency, not digital apps like Venmo, but literally a currency that is software itself, that becomes programmable, and will therefore change everything, is what’s at stake here. I don’t think there’s a bigger story around.
As a storyteller, that’s why I’m in this space. It’s the biggest and most interesting story in finance. It’s a very interesting time.