Welcome to another ‘On The Record’ with YAP Global. A series where we speak to the journalists behind the stories that keep you up-to-date on the pulse of the digital asset, fintech, blockchain and cryptocurrency industry. This time we spoke with Sam Kessler in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of FTX.
Sam Kessler is deputy managing editor for tech and protocols at CoinDesk and has built an impressive portfolio of articles ranging from scoops around Do Kwon’s involvement with Basis Cash to long explainer pieces around some of the most important events in the history of crypto technology including the Merge.
Sam explains that while studying at Harvard, he wrote for a college newspaper about crypto then and spent time deliberating over a career in journalism or tech until he finally decided to combine the two. He is now based in New York writing for CoinDesk specifically about the tech side of crypto and since then “has not looked back.”
In this interview, Sam explains what crypto means to him and what excites him about the space. He also details his opinions on the state of journalism within crypto media and mainstream media.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into crypto?
When I was in college, I was kind of split between tech and journalism. When I did my internships, it would be a journalism internship one summer, and then the next summer would be an internship in tech back when I was doing product stuff. So when I graduated, I worked at a big company. I did product work, and I didn’t really love it. I was thinking, I’d love to try out the journalism thing. Meanwhile, crypto was something that I’d been interested in for a while. So the first article that I actually wrote for my college paper was about Bitcoin infrastructure. It all kind of came full circle after I left my job. I was looking for new opportunities, and a friend of mine who worked at CoinDesk told me about what he was doing. So I had a bunch of friends who were in crypto who had told me about it. I didn’t necessarily want to work in crypto on the tech end, but it was something that I got pretty deep into, especially over a previous couple of years, after being into it in a smaller way. So when an opportunity came along to kind of merge these two things, journalism and crypto – this thing that I was really fascinated by – I jumped on it and I haven’t looked back.
What exactly does crypto mean to you?
I would say my general guiding philosophy when it comes to crypto or any technology, is I view technology as amoral. Whereby, I don’t think it’s a good thing, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But in this specific case of crypto. It does seem like it has an inevitability to it. Whether it’s going to have positive net impacts or whether it’s going to have negative impacts remains to be seen. It just seems this unstoppable force with tons of really fascinating, inspiring, but also suspicious activity. So for me, it’s a really exciting and interesting story, and I don’t come down hard on one side or the other when talking about just crypto.
What excites you most about crypto, Web3 and DeFi, etc.?
There are a lot of things that excite me. I can split it into two. There’s the technology side of it that excites me, and then there’s the story side of it that excites me. So when it comes to the technology side, I think that a lot of the problems that people are trying to solve in this space are really fascinating because of the practical dimension to them. For example, when you compare the programming that I mostly did when I was in college, there’s this really weird physicality and permanence that you get when you actually write a smart contract. And even in the early days, I don’t cover NFTs as much, but in the early days when I first experimented with writing an NFT smart contract, there’s this really cool element within the things that you’re writing that there’s this sense that it will be permanent in some sense. I think that that part’s exciting, but then there are lots of really deeply technical questions. To be more specific, right now, there’s all this like ZK (Zero-Knowledge) stuff and when you actually get to the cryptography of it all, it’s something that very few people have a really good understanding of. I certainly don’t have a very good understanding of it, but those are the sorts of papers that are really fascinating to read and try to wrap your head around because it’s just practical applications of stuff that really are cutting edge. So that’s on the tech side. And then on the story side, I just think it’s really interesting that in this space, you have just as many people who are really excited about the capacity, rightly or wrongly, of this thing to change the world for the better as you have people who are motivated by greed and other things. Just from a journalism angle, it’s super fascinating to cover people who look at the same thing (crypto) from completely opposite ends. Maybe that’s tech in general, but that seems certainly pronounced in crypto.
Are there any particular highlights or stories you’ve written so far that stand out to you in particular?
I really enjoyed covering the Cosmos ecosystem. You can also include Terra in that. One individual story I am glad I got to cover was figuring out that Do Kwon was secretly the founder of Basis Cash, another failed stable coin experiment. I think that story has taken on a life of its own, for better or for worse. But that was a really cool scoop to pull an all-nighter on, and it introduced me to some interesting characters.
Also, when some validators in the Cosmos Ecosystem accidentally passed an update that sent 36 million dollars that were supposed to go to a community fund to the wrong address, a bunk address on the chain that basically didn’t exist. I thought that was really interesting because it weaved both the interesting governance side of things and asked some interesting questions like what were these validators doing right and wrong? Were they reading the code? What are you voting on when you’re in a decentralized governance system? Are people paying attention? So it weaved that kind of techno-political side with the deep tech aspects of this whole thing around how chains actually process upgrades. I learned a lot through that story, and again, lots of really interesting characters in that one too.
Then when I covered the Merge, that was really cool because that was a good opportunity to write one kind of big, long piece right when the merge hit at around 4 am where I was that morning. It was really cool, kind of trying to break down this thing that everybody who’s deep in crypto knows about, but my parents don’t. Trying to write an article like that for a mass audience in long form was a cool exercise.
Where do you see crypto in 2023?
Honestly, I’m not the kind of journalist that’s in the business of predictions, which definitely makes my job a lot easier. I genuinely don’t know what’s gonna happen. I think that in terms of what my gut tells me, in the long term, a lot of the core technologies and protocols that exist now, I don’t know about in the next two years but over the next 10 years, are gonna be subsumed by traditional banking infrastructure. It just seems to me like Visa, and MasterCards of the world might transition themselves over to systems that are more decentralized in some respects but still benefit them for their own business cases. Honestly, I have more questions than predictions. The big question is whether consumers are going to be plugging directly into DeFi apps whether they’re going to be interacting with, you know, the Coinbases of the world and the Binances of the world in a less decentralized fashion. I truly don’t know. And there are certain issues like user experience. I come from a product background, so the thing that I’m most curious to see is how some of these truly decentralized platforms manage to improve their user experiences to a degree where people find them more appealing than other options.
What do you think of crypto journalism at the moment?
I think that the FTX blow-up was very validating in terms of its proof that good, real, unbiased, crypto journalism is important for the space to get rid of bad actors. So I think that this was a really important moment and a good moment for at least the crypto media ecosystem. But I think in general, there’s still a lot of maturing that needs to happen across the entire crypto media landscape. There are very few credible crypto publications out there, and mainstream outlets are still taking a while to catch up in terms of their understanding of the core, not only technology but, more to the point, the ethos that drives the developers and investors in this space. I think that people just don’t understand some of those core questions. So it’s an opportunity, but there’s still a lot of maturing that needs to be done. I don’t think that there’s enough investigative crypto journalism still. And in terms of the “citizen journalism” that we’ve been seeing on Twitter, particularly after the FTX thing, some of it has been great. A lot of it has been called citizen journalism but really has not been. It’s just been gossip sessions and rumors. There’s a place for it, but it’s not going to replace media institutions like CoinDesk.
Why do you think the mainstream media is still so skeptical of crypto? And how do you think this could change in the future? Or do you think it will change?
I think leading figures within the crypto ecosystem, not all of them, but many of them have not done themselves any favors with regards to disproving the stereotype of the quote-unquote crypto bro or of the Ponzi. Sam Bankman-Fried definitely put the reputation of the entire industry back further behind where it was. So, why is the mainstream media still so skeptical of crypto? I think partially they don’t understand it, partially it’s because there have been so many prominent examples, you know, from FTX on down to Terra, to Celsius etc. They’ve just seen these prominent retail-oriented things fail. And then there’s also this cringy, status-oriented, very loud corner of the culture, which is a lot of the NFT ecosystem that has also given the whole thing a bad name. A lot of these, very flashy, high-yield platforms, big-name and expensive NFTs have done a good job of attracting a wave of attention and probably investment into the space. So those being the most visible examples of crypto are also in many ways the most embarrassing from the outside looking in. The bummer of this all is there are really smart people in crypto but often the loudest voices are seen as motivated more by financial applications or by status. And those are things that I think, at least in the US and many other places around the world, are viewed with a tinge of skepticism and wariness.
You can read Sam’s coverage on CoinDesk here.
Follow Sam on Twitter here.