Byron Kaye on Special Report on bitcoin's 'creator' racing to patent technology with gambling tycoon
Earlier this month, a Reuters Special Report detailed how a computer scientist and an online gambling fugitive joined forces in a land grab for intellectual property related to bitcoin and blockchain. The story reports that Craig Wright, the Australian computer scientist who last year made global headlines by claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of bitcoin, is working with Calvin Ayre, a wealthy Canadian entrepreneur, to file scores of patents relating to the digital currency and its underlying technology, blockchain. Ayre has been indicted in the United States on charges of running online gambling operations that are illegal in many U.S. states – an accusation he rejects. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Byron Kaye offers a look at how he and Jeremy Wagstaff reported the story.
Q. How did you and Jeremy get started on this story?
A. When news broke in the U.S. that an Australian had been named in the tech press as the mystery inventor of bitcoin, I was asked to chase it as a routine follow-up. I applied routine investigative methods – searching public databases of his court, company and property title records – which led me to his house in a Sydney suburb. When I went there, I found the police raiding his house. A few months later, when the man came forward to confirm his invention, I emailed every email address of every person who had ever had dealings with him, and I called every phone number. Two weeks later, once the story had died down, I came into contact with the first of several sources.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved in the story?
A. This story involved several types of reporting/sourcing. It started with straightforward “shoe leather.” When I made contact with the sources, the work became more complex. I pulled in Jeremy at that stage because I felt it was necessary to contextualise and verify the material I was being supplied with (Jeremy already knew the backstory). From there, Jeremy and I split our duties down the lines of, roughly, me liaising with sources in different time zones and Jeremy collating, interpreting and cross-checking the material I received. Our editor, Richard Woods, also cross-checked. The story is deeply complex – moreso than we could explain in a 2,000 word article – with many unverified documents, motives and narrative arcs. Jeremy built a bare-bones chronology which sits at about 200 A4 pages.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. Everything about reporting this story was hard, except for maintaining inspiration. It was hard to find time to carry out the legwork, so Jeremy and I often had to work nights and weekends. It was hard to manage and reassure the sources, who had a wide range of motivations for talking to me. It was hard to stay focused on routine daily news coverage when this larger project was gathering momentum. It was hard to decipher, in documents sometimes comprised entirely of computer code, what was important information and what was not. It was hard to leave out exciting aspects from the story as a result of Reuters rigorous fact-checking and ethics policies. But all the way through the project, because we knew the story was major, Jeremy and I (and Richard) kept each other upbeat.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell Reuters customers and readers?
A. This was an important story to tell customers and readers on several levels. Firstly, it was important because it went some way to solving one of the great mysteries of the technology world, that mystery being “who invented bitcoin?” Secondly, it was important to tell this story because it explained the impact this still-obscure technology may soon have on the world and most people’s lives. Thirdly, it was an important story for Reuters to tell readers because it showcased the forensic meticulousness of its reporters and editors, delivering a far deeper and far better researched take on bitcoin’s future than any other media outlet has offered.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. For a journalist, getting the story first – getting the scoop – is life’s greatest thrill and it never goes away. The process of piecing together the puzzle, extracting information which is not yet public, and arranging it so that it makes sense to the world, is satisfying and addictive.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I’m a companies and technology reporter in a small bureau (Sydney) which means that, in practice, I get to cover most topics. The things I find most fulfilling are the same things which a reporter on any beat would fulfilling: getting previously unknown information, shining a light on it and explaining to the world why it matters.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. The bitcoin investigation would be simultaneously my most rewarding and most difficult experience as a journalist. “Rewarding” and “difficult” are quite closely related, I suppose. At an early stage of this investigation, we came close to getting scooped when a magazine unexpectedly published a long speculative article about our subject, threatening to spoil our precious research. But it turned out this other article was largely speculative, and Jeremy and I were able to use our sources and documents to convert mere speculation into fact.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I can’t imagine enjoying anything as much as digging up interesting information, understanding it, and sharing it with the world. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t hate being a restaurant critic.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. I can’t stress enough the importance of collaboration between journalists. For this project, I started off certain, like many others, that the man at the centre of this investigation was a fraud. It was Jeremy who reminded me to keep an open mind and double check everything. It then became apparent that this man, elusive though he may be, was genuine. Sharing a long investigation with a colleague keeps you focused, energised and sane.
To read the latest from Byron Kaye, click here.