Anna Irrera on Special Report on ex-banker cheerleading his way to cryptocurrency riches
In December, a Reuters Special Report showed how much of the new universe of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies operates in a grey area where the lines between asset management, analysis, investment recommendations and market manipulation get blurred. The story, by correspondents Anna Irrera and Steve Stecklow, is the latest in the “Crypto Casino” series looking at the booming, risky world of digital currencies. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Anna offers a behind-the-scenes look at how they reported the story.
Q. How did you and Steve get started on this story?
A. Early last year Steve was looking into the dark web and came across bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We were put in touch by an editor and started discussing possible topics to focus on in the cryptocurrency sector. At the time, bitcoin was trading at $1000 and a lot less attention was being paid to the space, especially by investigative reporters. We decided to start the reporting by focusing on the cryptocurrency exchanges, which are sort of the heart of the industry and have been plagued by all kinds of issues. The series then looked at the initial coin offering of a technology project called Tezos; issues with the bankruptcy of an exchange called Mt. Gox; and lastly, we reported on one of the most prominent investors in the space and his involvement with a virtual coin called ethereum classic. The recurring theme was how investors are offered very little protections in this new market.
Q. What types of reporting was involved?
A. The series took around 9 months and required all the types of reporting you may expect, from calling and emailing sources, to shoe leather reporting. Having good sources in the space was also very important, but we developed a lot of good new ones along the way.
As this is an online industry, it also required using a lot of different messaging platforms to get in touch with sources. Just to mention a few we used Skype, Telegram, Signal, Discord and joined cryptocurrency chat groups on WhatsAapp. As I write, there are more than 5400 unread cryptocurrency WhatsApp notifications on my phone. (It’s on mute).
Being online, the cryptocurrency sector is international by nature, so Reuters’ global reach came in very handy, with other members of the team in Shanghai, London and Zurich.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. This is a relatively new and opaque sector, so it lacks a lot of the basic communications apparatus that is common in more developed industries. This means that it might take a lot of work simply to figure out who is running an online exchange where billions of dollars or cryptocurrencies are traded daily. For many of these companies there is no such thing as an “about us” page.
The industry also lacks established data sources and there is so much misinformation out there, which makes it often very laborious to verify basic facts or answer simple questions. Matters were further complicated by how incredibly fast-moving the cryptocurrency world has been over the past year and the fact that the topic can get quite technical.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. It’s the best job in the world! (For me, at least). I love that I get to learn something new every day, speak to interesting people and that, regardless of your beat, you get a front row seat to history in the making. On top of everything, I believe good journalism plays a fundamental role in making societies better.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover financial technology or “fintech” and am based in New York. I started writing about fintech in 2013 in London, when the term was barely used and no one really cared about it. Now it is one of the most followed topics in finance and so I get to cover some of the most interesting stories in business. I love that the beat is new and so you can approach it in an entrepreneurial kind of way. I also like that I get to meet and speak with people who are generally very passionate about what they do and are hoping to shape the future of money (for better or worse). There is never a dull moment in fintech!
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. This investigative series was definitely among the most rewarding experiences I have had so far because I was able to work with some of the best journalists and editors in the world. It was fun, but also challenging as so many things happened in the space since we started the series. It was also pretty much non-stop for the last few months of the year which meant I had cryptocurrency related nightmares more than once. Luckily, I have now forgotten what they were, but I am pretty sure they did not involve being chased by a giant bitcoin.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I can’t really imagine doing anything else that I would enjoy as much as being a journalist and there is still a lot to cover out there besides fintech. I have a law degree, but never practiced law. I always thought journalism would be more fun and I have never looked back. But who knows, I might have been a good lawyer! I think it involves a lot of the same inquisitive thinking.