Welcome back to ‘On The Record’ with YAP Global. A series where we speak to the journalists and leading figures in the digital asset, fintech, blockchain and cryptocurrency industry.
This time, we got the chance to sit down with Jeff Roberts, Law, tech and cryptocurrency reporter at Fortune Magazine and co-creator of The Ledger.
Jeff started his career as a lawyer before getting into journalism in his thirties, specialising in finance and technology news and educating readers on the cryptocurrency industry. The Ledger is a look at the intersection between Finance and Technology with politics thrown in on occasion too. He is also the author of Kings of Crypto: One Startup’s Quest to Take Cryptocurrency Out of Silicon Valley and Onto Wall Street, available on Amazon audio and to be released in hardback in December.
We dove into so many interesting topics from law, to politics, to integrity in the crypto currency industry, read on to find out more about Jeff.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
“I always liked writing, my first career was as a lawyer but writing in that field is not a lot of fun, so I changed careers in my early thirties to become a journalist. I covered tech for a long time and that led me to cryptocurrency and bitcoin. I started covering Bitcoin in 2013 which went away for a couple of years and then came back with a vengeance in 2017. At this point, myself and a couple of colleagues at Fortune formed a team called The Ledger to report on what we call the intersection between finance and technology. We wanted to try and tell these stories in more mainstream ways, as a lot of crypto journalism is very inward looking and niche and we wanted to try explain to a broader audience about why it matters.”
You cover a lot of different topics ranging from the current presidential campaign to what’s happening in the crypto industry, how do you conduct your research and where do you find these stories?
“A lot of journalists face pressure to play the general position sometimes in covering a variety of different subjects, I don’t mind doing that, the variety is nice but with the core stuff, fintech and bitcoin it helps to keep a close eye on what the companies are doing , that’s the most interesting thing right now with the likes of Square and PayPal and Mastercard, watching them as the crypto world moves closer to them. I have friends and sources in the crypto world and I think it’s good to understand what’s going on in the background but the most interesting part is where this stuff is feeding into the more mainstream world of Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
My recent piece on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, was out of personal interest. I studied intellectual property law and at Fortune I’m lucky to cover interesting copyrights or stories about creativity and intellectual property. A lot of people think it’s owning ideas but it is really a way of regulating creativity and finding the balance between letting the public use important works and having access to culture while also recognising creators.”
Tell us how you came to write your book?
“I was lucky Fortune gave me some time to write it because in the old days, when media companies were rich, writers got to go on book leave for a year at a time, but now it’s a lot more of a challenge. It actually came out of an article I wrote for Fortune. An agent approached me suggesting I put together a book proposal so I did without having any idea of just how much work the proposal would be. I’m glad I did it though. The audio book, Kings of Crypto: One Startup’s Quest to Take Cryptocurrency Out of Silicon Valley and Onto Wall Street, came out on Amazon audible in March this year but I’m really excited about the hardcover dropping in December from Harvard Business Review. There’s a lot of great crypto books out there but I like to think that this is among the second generation books coming, like Camila Russo’s and mine. The first generation consisted of books from the likes of Paul Vigna, Michael Casey and Nathaniel Popper, which are all excellent works, but now that the novelty has worn off, it’s not new. The focus of my book is to explain how this stuff is coming to Wall Street and I want the readers to be in finance or general business. I wanted to tell a good story so I tried to write the most readable cryptocurrency book, so even if you don’t know or care about Bitcoin, you’ll find it an interesting read.”
You cover a lot of political news as well such as Biden’s campaign trolls, what overlap are you seeing between crypto and politics?
“I think people like reading about politics especially during election year. There is a big overlap between crypto and politics compared to other fields because a lot of crypto founders are very ideological and while I don’t agree with everything, they are original thinkers. People like Jesse at Kraken or Brian Armstrong at Coinbase, or Erik Vorhees who started Shapeshift — a lot of these people are hard core libertarians and I don’t agree with some of their positions as I do think you need the state to provide their services to a certain extent. I think the crypto world sometimes sees themselves as separate from the real world, and I think there is something to be said about a lot of the criticisms of easy money and the incompetence of the bureaucratic state. I do think the ideology underlying crypto is interesting, I think a lot of people in crypto don’t admit how often it’s self serving , some people will phrase it as this ‘larger than thou’ /’saving the world’ ideal when they just want to hang out, party and get rich. They avoid the harder questions of government and monetary policy to support it but I like that a lot of people think deeply about it, it encourages people to think deeply about a lot of society. These crypto leaders aren’t wrong, there has a got to be a better way to move money around. We saw just how inadequate the current banking system is with the US trying to deliver stimulus payments. I think the crypto advocates are right in saying that we need to embrace blockchain technology more. Where I think they’re wrong is when they do things like create ‘Puerto Topia’ where a bunch of tech bros went to Puerto Rico after 2017 to start a colony based on blockchain rules. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth as these are a bunch of very homogenous 20-something bros who are looking for a tax haven but trying to dress it up in some kind of greater good outfit by attempting to sell it as an idealistic project when it’s not. That’s where some hardcore crypto people lose the rest of us.”
What types of stories do you enjoy writing about the most?
“I like new technologies as technology moves a lot faster than law. Law is mostly written by older people who are often not very good at technology and it is implemented by judges and courts, which are some of the most conservative technophobic institutions. With Fortune, it’s very interesting to see the new technologies that come along and new ideas, from Facebook to Uber to Airbnb, to Coinbase, these companies bring new technology but they also bring social disruption, and I think whenever there is a clash, watching people figure it out is interesting. Typically at first, the impulse of regulators is to ban these technologies and then, there’s the move to try and incorporate it and understand it, and a lot of that’s going to crypto right now and I enjoy covering it. I think we can agree, a lot of money is lost due to inefficiencies and with new technologies, being able to teach people and give them access to financial knowledge and also bring about financial literacy is important. Journalists as a class, are typically proud of being financially literate, its seen as part of the power structure, I was this way myself I was very skeptical of stock markets and financial professionals because they seemed like a class of pretty self interested people but when you realise that banks and financial technology are as important as roads or libraries really or schools, its public infrastructure and the way you build it is really going to affect people’s lives. That’s really what I find interesting to cover, the intersection of finance and technology.”
What’s the most exciting thing happening in the blockchain space this year?
“The most exciting thing to happen this year is probably a tie between the huge strides blockchain technology has made in Washington, we’ve got the chief operating officer and first deputy comptroller of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, who is a former Coinbase employee now. I think it’s really becoming mainstream, it’s not a single thing but it’s a phenomenon and there’s a degree to which Washington and other regulatory centres are coming to understand crypto. I think that’s a big deal. Of course we can’t go without mentioning all the DeFi stuff which is still very early days but extraordinarily interesting as its got a lot of the same colour and cast of characters as the 2017 boom that led to a lot of fraud, waste and blow ups, but set the groundwork for more adoption of cryptocurrency. I think what’s happening in DeFi is really fudge and I don’t advise anyone to go near it unless you know what you’re doing, but theoretically it’s really neat to see what can happen next.”
What’s the one thing you wish publicists or companies would know / do when pitching you a story?
“Being able to explain your client in plain English is a good starting point. If you can’t explain what they’re doing in three sentences then that’s going to be a problem. It’s also important to temper the clients expectations because often many crypto founders are these solitary geniuses who don’t understand how the media works, so mainstream media isn’t ready yet for a lot of the stuff they want to land. So it’s about tempering expectations and the degree to which you can make it relevant to the larger world if finance and society is key. A lot of these stories are blown up in the trade press and there are some very good journalists and publications out there like Decrypt who are doing great things, and CoinDesk and The Block too. But this is one audience and then The Wall Street Journal and Fortune is another audience and it’s important to recognise the difference. I think for PR it’s a challenge as some of the stuff you are working with is still so much in its early stages and not ready for prime time yet. Integrity is another key part of it too as there are so many dodgy players in the crypto space, and PR agencies who have sleazy clients will get their reputations hurt in the long term. I know there is money to be made but if you want to represent a throw of charlatans and scheming scam artists that’s not going to help you in the long term.”
What are you reading/ listening to these days?
“One upside to this pandemic is that it’s a good time to read and to watch some interesting things as I think it’s important to maintain a life outside of crypto. I recently read a book called The Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which is a great escape into the world of knights and medieval politics, and of course the plague, so reading history for me is a really good way to contextualise the weird times we’re living in. I’ve also recently gone down a rabbit hole with The Beatles which is great, I love their music but also find the marketing story fascinating so I’ve been watching documentaries and reading books about them. It’s also a great time to watch some Ken Burns documentaries. The one on country music is excellent and I’m currently watching one on the American West as I’m in Montana. Doing things like this and having an intellectual world outside of the screwed up day to day news cycle is important.”
A massive thanks to Jeff Roberts.
Share this story