In the rapidly developing world of technology, being an excellent breaking tech news journalist requires attaining a near expert-level understanding of complex concepts and trends, while also not betraying a beginner’s mindset to communicate with an audience with mixed levels of technical knowledge.
TechCrunch has a team of 30+ journalists that cover everything tech, as well as provide a few poignant social insights at the many intersections of technology and human life.
Josh Constine is the Editor-At-Large for TechCrunch and has experience speaking and moderating over 100 on-sight interviews in 13 countries with leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
We got the chance to interview Josh about topics such as the day to day as a tech journalist and editor, the current growth opportunities and limitations of blockchain, cryptocurrency entrepreneurship, and the social ramifications of today’s technological climate.
The following interview was conducted by Alex Moskov and Steven Buchko. We hope you have as much fun reading it as we had interviewing.
What does a day in the life of Josh Constine look like?
One of the biggest challenges of being a breaking news journalist is that you can’t really plan out your day.
You might wake up expecting to write a long thought piece or do some digging about a tip that you’ve received from a source, but then some massive news drops and you scramble to spend the rest of the day covering it and analyzing what that means for the rest of the industry.
My days are pretty varied, but I like to start by doing the hardest thing or working on the longest, most important articles I can in the mornings.
Then I take interviews and calls with sources in the afternoon and then finish up by trying to fight back against the endless torrent of email and pitches, both good and mediocre, that I receive each day.
What’s the worst pitch you get on a daily basis?
The most useless pitches are these random companies offering to give you commentary on some big news that’s happened in the industry and there’s just no reason to trust these people. They have nothing to do with what’s going on in the news and I can only imagine you’d have to be a really lazy journalist to just accept whoever randomly email you and take their quote for your articles.
If your PR agency is trying to offer you up as a thought leader or to give quotes about day to day news, you should probably stop and focus more on building a product people want to actually cover on their own.
What would you say your personal favorite story or most memorable breaking news story that you’ve come across as an editor?
Perhaps the most exciting was when I received an email from a source in the legal industry with the docket numbers of a newly unsealed case that showed that the Department of Justice had sued a number of giant tech companies including Google and Apple over conspiring to not poach each other’s employees, which is illegal.
The unsealing of this case would be the first time that the public could read documents, including exchanges between Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt complaining about how each other had tried to poach each other’s employees. Being the first journalist to review that and break the news of that was extremely exciting.
Not just because it would be a major court case that would play out over the next year, including a multi-hundred-million-dollar settlement. But to get to see the truth about some of these heroes from the technology industry and learn that they’re not necessarily the angels we make them out to be was eye-opening to me and I hope for my readers.
Let’s look back at the Facebook vs. FBI, the San Bernardino case where the FBI wanted to force Apple to unlock one of the shooters’ phones. The case was dismissed in court, but had it gone through, which direction do you think it would have gone and what would that mean for average citizens?
I think it’s quite possible that the government would have compelled Apple to open the phone and that will be worrying for a number of reasons. For personal privacy and the independence of American companies and whether people want to start tech companies in the United States in the future.
It’s critical that we keep the public safe and when there are credible threats of violence that could be stopped in the future, I think there are reasons to bend the rules. But in order to just gather evidence about something that’s already happened, I’m not sure it’s right to set a completely new legal precedent.
You’ve been pretty outspoken about the role of businesses, especially social media, and their right to stop hate speech on their platforms. Some of the arguments against you have been that it’s a first amendment right to be able to speak your mind, no matter the platform. As social media grows and becomes a normal part of day to day life, how do you see the blurring the lines?
The first amendment does not say that anybody’s speech has to be carried and amplified by private companies. It says that you can’t be arrested for something that you say, not that Facebook has to give you distribution in the News Feed or that Apple has to list your podcasts or that YouTube has to host your videos.
I don’t view this as necessarily as much of a free speech issue. What the tech companies did right here was to take down Infowars and Alex Jones’ content specifically because it incited violence and practiced harassment, not because what he was saying was wrong or false or against the opinion of some people.
It wasn’t that what he was saying was false, it’s that what he was saying was dangerous. I think that’s a reasonable line to draw and it’s why I think that this is the right direction for the social media industry to move. It doesn’t mean we’re going to see mass censorship. It means that we’re going to hopefully see improved safety.
A lot of people in the Bitcoin and blockchain community feel that any form of censorship can lead to a slippery slope of a constantly moving line of what gets censored. Do you believe that that won’t be an issue here?
Drawing the line between inciting violence and harassment versus just spreading false news is certainly a practice that will take a lot of care, a lot of back and forth, and potentially some missteps.
I think the caution with which the major platforms approach this issue shows that they’re not likely to suddenly start mass banning people. I think we have shown that it has to be pretty blatant for these companies to take action.
The only other people who I think would get caught up in an enforcement of these rules in a similar manner would be people that deserved it.
We’ve seen mainstream media outlets change their strategy to cover crypto as it appeared to be something that was sticking around. We went from seeing headlines like “Bitcoin went down 10% this week. Is this the end of Bitcoin?” to mainstream media outlets like CNBC investing into full journalistic channels and covering crypto and doing video shows. How have you seen things change?
I think most media outlets realize this is a whole new world and you can’t really minor in crypto. You need somebody who majors in it and is a full-blown expert in order to do smart coverage of these spaces. I think we’ve seen news outlets staff up with crypto centric talent and I think that’s important because there’s certainly a lot of self-dealing and questions about ethics and conflicts of interest when it comes to the crypto specific news outlets and whether they’re being paid to write certain articles or otherwise incentivize to try to prop up certain coins and for the public to be able to trust this industry, they’re going to need to have journalism that has great integrity.
I think we’re also reaching this second wave of crypto coverage where it’s not as much about the prices. We’re finally getting to what’s important, which is the utility. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more coverage focusing on what new things can be done with the blockchain and with cryptocurrencies rather than just how the prices are fluctuating.
What’s your personal view on the future direction of blockchain and cryptocurrency? Do you think that comparisons with the .com bubble are fair?
There are certainly parallels between the .com bubble and the cryptocurrency bubble in that both were inflated by expectations of the future that weren’t backed up by real utility. These companies in the .com era were being valued by how many people visited their site, not how many people were spending money on their website or what their actual unit economics were.
Similarly, I think we see a lot of ICOs and coins being valued by whether people think that the crypto industry is going to be a big thing rather than do these coins actually function well? Is there a real need for them in the world? I think that we’re more mature as a technology industry now and there’s better, established curators of funding and talent.
I think what we’re seeing now is that, yes, there are certainly a lot of hyper risky crypto projects out there and most retail investors or the public are not going to be able to accurately assess the quality or potential of them. But we are seeing large venture capital firms which have long track records of being able to predict shifts in the technology markets doing real due diligence on these companies and making venture equity investments.
I think the companies that are able to raise money from reputable investors in that traditional equity format are the ones that you can have a lot more trust in that aren’t going to end up vaporizing the way that the.com bubble did.
A lot of your expertise is in social media and Facebook. How do you see a place for blockchain in the social media industry?
There’s certainly potential for the blockchain and the idea of a transparent, immutable public ledger to permit new forms of social media and specifically decentralized social networks where rather than there being some big middleman like Facebook, people could interact with each other more directly peer to peer.
That said, cryptocurrency and the blockchain industry suffer from very poor usability. The user interfaces are just not meant for the average mainstream Internet user. Until we see the kind of identity and log in platforms that we have in traditional social media, I don’t think that the blockchain is going to rush in and changed the way we social network.
Besides identity and logins, are there any other usability issues that you think blockchain has as well?
In most of the concepts of power, blockchain applications are poorly explained. This trend of having a long, almost academic white paper as being the explanation of your product is certainly not attuned to the average savviness of the average Internet user. We need to see more like the videos that explain this is what Square is, this is whatever Coin or some startup does than these lengthy white papers that public users and mainstream users are never going to read.
I think before people can be confident in using products or investing in products, they have to truly understand how they work. That’s been a major gap in the usability of the blockchain industry.
A common component in a lot of blockchain projects is the removal of a centralized third-party intermediary and they usually end up just playing target practice and aiming at Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Google, just to take their business model and add blockchain to it and a few other features, which is obviously a very ambitious endeavor to go after any of those four companies.
What are your thoughts on these sorts of business models for blockchain companies and what would these companies hypothetically have to do to steal fire from the gods?
These companies will fail.
Companies that think that blockchain for blockchain’s sake is a business model or a reason to exist are wrong. To beat these companies, you can’t be a little bit better. You can’t be Facebook, but with fewer ads or with fewer privacy problems. You have to be something radically different if you’re going to beat the network effect that props up these giant companies.
The only major social companies we’ve seen rise since Facebook have been things that have been very, very different. Whether it was Instagram’s focus on photos, YouTube’s focus on videos. Twitter’s focus on public content or Snapchat’s focus on ephemeral content. None of these were Facebook but a little bit different.
They were vastly different. I think the idea that slapping a blockchain on something makes it valuable is ludicrous. If anything, you’re just introducing more technical complexity and debt to a product that probably could have functioned just fine with a traditional centralized infrastructure.
I think BAT and the idea of replacing advertising with micropayments is certainly a fascinating idea. The ad-driven business model certainly has lots of negative externalities, incentivizing companies to maximize the amount of time users spend on them rather than maximizing their utility to those users.
That said, there is so much of this world that’s powered by advertising for the better. When you look at major internet services like Google and Facebook, they are free to everyone in the world. While you might say that, oh, some users could certainly afford to pay for Google or Facebook, there are plenty that couldn’t.
You can think of western users are the most lucrative users and subsidizing these free services for people in the developing world. For that reason, I think advertising will likely be the ongoing lifeblood of the consumer internet because it’s simple and free for everybody. I hope that we see more options for users who don’t want to pay with their attention or their time.
I think shifting some users off of the advertising model towards subscriptions, for instance, could make social networks more responsible and better able to promote digital well-being. I don’t think we’re going to see the end of the ad model anytime soon.
Talking about the cases with privacy coins and the downsides of anonymity and transactions. There are solutions like Monero and Zcash where they offer the ability to transact with anyone and not really have your identity out there or linked to you at all, which is an awesome user feature for people that value their privacy. It also poses an enormous risk for illicit activity and funding terrorism. Where does your opinion lie on that?
The most frequent uses for totally anonymous transactions are largely illegal and things we don’t want to go on in the world. I think it’s reasonable that the governments have apprehensions about allowing this kind of a transfer of assets.
I support the idea of personal liberties in the way that what you do with your money is your own decision. That said, we stand to a massively empower bad actors in the world in order to uphold this philosophy that doesn’t necessarily mesh with modern society.
If privacy coins were found to be illegal, but there’s no way to shut them down other than limiting their exchange options, how do you think the government can put a stop to this?
It’s hard to tell exactly, but between subpoenas and blocking any company that works in the value chain or the ecosystem alongside these kinds of privacy coins, I think there are definitely ways to put significant pressure on companies that deal with them.
What are some of the projects in the blockchain space that have got you most excited right now? What are some of the companies or projects that you’re looking forward to?
I think what I’m most looking forward to is decentralized identity systems that are going to allow us to be able to log into apps have different decentralized apps easily. I think that’s the next big step change that will unlock a lot of public interest in blockchain technologies.
Until we find a better way for people to work with these apps than punching in an extremely long and complicated and very easy to screw up a private key, I think we’re not going to see the mainstream adopt blockchain tech.
If you could turn the cryptocurrency crowd with all of its unique quirks and personalities into a single person, what would he or she look like?
I think the point of blockchain technology is to reroute power structures and create a new era of financial inclusion and mobility. I hope what the blockchain would like would be a woman of color that represents the future of technology rather than the past.
Reporting on the blockchain and cryptocurrency space, what have been some of the differences and similarities to reporting on just tech or social media in general?
I think whether you’re building a traditional software startup or some kind of new consumer hardware product or a blockchain startup, it all comes down to being able to tell a compelling story. Whether that’s to attain funding, recruit talents or build something that users want to share with their friends to help it grow.
There are a lot of similarities between covering traditional technology and new blockchain ventures. What I think is really different though is that most tech companies or most startups are trying to solve an existing problem, whereas I feel like a lot of a blockchain projects are anticipating problems that will develop as the cryptocurrency industry and blockchain industry mature and they’re trying to position themselves to a to solve those problems once they arise.
That’s a lot riskier because you’re just never sure exactly how or when those markets will mature to that point.
You’re going to be speaking at ChainXChange in a few days. What can people expect to hear without giving away too many spoilers?
In my session, I’m going to be separating the Bitcoins from the shit coins. That’s the name of my block of talks. My goal is to give people a really realistic, no hype look at where are the opportunities in blockchain, where are there scams and pitfalls to avoid and what is the world that we want to create from this industry rather than necessarily just what’s already happened.
I think that ChainXChange is a great opportunity for people to come to learn about how blockchain is going to affect every industry in the world, not just startups, and how we can work together to make the blockchain industry more inclusive than the Silicon Valley, Ivy League dominated startup scene. Also, to find out where people can use their own expertise, their own life experience to find opportunities that they can see using in the blockchain business.
How would you define opportunity in the cryptocurrency space? Do you mean in terms of an investment opportunity or career opportunity or life improvement opportunity?
I think of it mostly as being career opportunities that pull up chances to make the world a better place. There are plenty of problems whether it’s with corruption in government or how entrepreneurs are funded with microloans or remittance of family earnings across geopolitical borders where cryptocurrency and blockchain can really improve people’s life quality.
There’s opportunity not just for savvy economists and people who are versed in the traditional finance system, but people who want to build products for the underserved, the underbanked, and those that have the ambition and the energy to become part of the, of the modern economy, even if they don’t have the privileges that some do in the United States.
The most important advice I could give anybody trying to build a startup is to get out of the building, get out of your office, get out of your garage, and go test your idea with real people before you do any further building. Before you come up with a name for your company or design a logo, especially before you start coding anything.
You need to have verifiable proof that the public wants what you’re building. That means not just getting friends and family to say, oh yeah, that’s a cool idea. Cool or interesting means I don’t care, or this is not going to work. You need people who are basically grabbing you by the shirt and shaking you saying, I need this. Where can I get this? How much do I have to pay for this? Until you have that kind of reaction to your core idea, don’t waste time trying to build it out. Find something that people love and then build the thing that people want.
What advice would you give to journalists or just average readers on validating projects or getting the best source of information out there?
Don’t believe everything that gets tweeted. Don’t believe anything written on a website you’ve never heard of. Try to stick to historically well-vetted news publications and pundits or reporters who don’t have big vested interests in whether something succeeds or fails.
The best information you can get comes from disinterested parties who have the expertise and to be able to predict where something is going, but without so much skin in the game that they’re trying to push it in one direction or the other.
Thank you, Josh!