David Yaffe-Bellany, who covers cryptocurrencies for The Times, talks about the crash of an industry that is firmly rooted in global culture.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
In an ad campaign during the 2022 Super Bowl, the actor Matt Damon stands on a ship in outer space, looking out over a giant red planet. “Fortune favors the brave,” he says. Super Bowl ads can cost up to $7 million for 30 seconds; this one was for Crypto.com and championed those brave enough to invest in what was then a booming industry. Three months later, crypto came crashing down.
Several digital currencies collapsed in mid-May, and more than $300 billion was wiped out after a price drop. The price of Bitcoin, for example, plunged from a high last year of nearly $70,000 a share to less than $30,000. Some crypto investors who had become millionaires lost it all.
David Yaffe-Bellany, who has covered cryptocurrencies and fintech for The Times since January, has reported on the industry while it soared to new heights — and as it suddenly came tumbling down. In an interview, he talked about covering a complicated beat that looms large over global culture. This interview has been edited.
How do you think about reporting on crypto?
People in the industry talk about crypto years the same way we talk about dog years because the industry is changing so quickly. Since I first started this job, the energy around crypto has changed a few times. We’re still in that boom period, to some degree. There are still tons of crypto companies starting out, still spending lots of money. But there’s a sense now that we’re in a crypto winter. Now, a lot of what we’re doing is trying to assess the damage of what happened in the crypto crash, especially to regular investors. And we’re trying to figure out what the story lines will be over the rest of the year, as the market actually goes down even more and crypto companies try to stabilize.
We’re writing for an audience that is still trying to get its head around this complicated world. Participating in that kind of process with them — and getting experts to explain how things work in the most concise, straightforward way possible — is really valuable.
There’s a real intellectual richness in trying to understand how all of this works and the financial engineering and the philosophical underpinnings — but also it’s an industry populated by people with wild personalities who are trying to do really ambitious things. Watching them succeed to some degree and fail to some degree is very journalistically interesting.
You were hired to cover crypto in January. What was happening in the crypto world at the time that made you want to cover it?
Last year was huge for crypto. A lot of my early discussions about the job involved questions like, how do we convey this kind of boom atmosphere to our readers? The price of Bitcoin reached nearly $70,000 in November, the highest it’s ever been. Companies were forming practically every day; venture capital firms were splashing billions of dollars funding new crypto start-ups. And culturally, crypto was permeating everything. Sports teams were naming their stadiums after crypto companies, there were commercials with big celebrities. I think regular people were constantly getting bombarded by crypto and trying to figure out what it all meant.
Has anything during your coverage surprised you?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of people in the industry to open up and tell us about their projects and be relatively candid about their concerns about the future of the industry. There’s a lot of rhetoric in the crypto industry that’s very critical of the mainstream press. But I’ve found that, for the most part, people are willing to engage with us, understanding that we’re writing for an audience that’s not as immersed in the daily ups and downs of the market.
Do you view crypto as something tied to other cultural trends?
It claims that it’s going to transform the art world and it’s going to transform all sorts of industries outside of the normal tech industry. Fashion companies will be able to authenticate designer clothing using the blockchain, the real estate industry will be transformed because this will be a way to verify property ownership. You have to be open to dipping your toe into those other ecosystems — as well as trying to understand them as thoroughly as you can.
A glossary. Cryptocurrencies have gone from a curiosity to a viable investment, making them almost impossible to ignore. If you are struggling with the terminology, let us help:
Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is a digital token that can be sent electronically from one user to another, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin is also the name of the payment network on which this form of digital currency is stored and moved.
Blockchain. A blockchain is a database maintained communally and that reliably stores digital information. The original blockchain was the database on which all Bitcoin transactions were stored, but non-currency-based companies and governments are also trying to use blockchain technology to store their data.
Cryptocurrencies. Since Bitcoin was first conceived in 2008, thousands of other virtual currencies, known as cryptocurrencies, have been developed. Among them are Ether, Dogecoin and Tether.
Coinbase. The first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, Coinbase is a platform that allows people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, including Bitcoin, for a transaction fee.
DeFi. The development of cryptocurrencies spawned a parallel universe of alternative financial services, known as Decentralized Finance, or DeFi, allowing crypto businesses to move into traditional banking territory, including lending and borrowing.
NFTs. A “nonfungible token,” or NFT, is an asset verified using blockchain technology, in which a network of computers records transactions and gives buyers proof of authenticity and ownership. NFTs make digital artworks unique, and therefore sellable.
Web3. The name “web3” is what some technologists call the idea of a new kind of internet service that is built using blockchain-based tokens, replacing centralized, corporate platforms with open protocols and decentralized, community-run networks.
DAOs. A decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO, is an organizational structure built with blockchain technology that is often described as a crypto co-op. DAOs form for a common purpose, like investing in start-ups, managing a stablecoin or buying NFTs.
I think the crypto markets are more closely tied to the traditional markets than crypto evangelists are comfortable with. The foundational idea of crypto was that it would be this independent store of value that wouldn’t be influenced by the constantly changing macroeconomic trends that are affecting the broader markets. But we certainly haven’t reached a point yet where crypto is isolated from those broader trends in terms of its long term prospects.
It’s very hard to predict. The crash of the last month has been bad, but crypto is not over. The industry isn’t dead. Prices could go way back up in the next month. The volatility of the market is something that we’ve seen over and over.