Inside our reporting about 80,000 noisy Bitcoin machines in a Texas town

  • A story about how a Bitcoin mining facility impacted a Texan town showcases the real impact crypto can have on communities.
  • For DL News’ journalists, it meant facing ethical considerations about whether or not to report a source’s far-right political views.
  • This is how they went about tackling the issue.

The most interesting stories are those which focus on human emotions.

Even complex scientific or financial reports are more compelling when they take account of people’s hopes or fears.

That partly explains why a tale about angry Texans and a noisy Bitcoin mine was a runaway success for DL News.

The following account of how the report was done may surprise some readers. It shows how much time and effort it takes to research, draft and edit a good news story, and how many judgement calls may be made.

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The story began when Berlin-based DeFi correspondent Liam Kelly received a tip from a freelance environmental reporter he had worked with and trusted.

“He couldn’t cover the story himself so he gave me the contact of a source, Cheryl Shadden,” Liam told me for this column.

Shadden is a nurse in Granbury, a small town in central Texas where Marathon Digital Holdings runs a Bitcoin mining plant with 80,000 fan-cooled computers.

There is a seven-hour time difference between Berlin and Granbury, so Liam asked his colleague Tom Carreras, a markets correspondent for DL News, to help.

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Tom lives in Costa Rica, in the same time zone as Granbury.

“Tom is also an expert on mining, so it was a natural fit,” Liam said.

Liam first contacted Shadden on February 1. Over the next two weeks, he and Tom made dozens of phone calls to other residents, to Marathon and its partners, to municipal officials, and to industry analysts.

Their story – “Angry Texans fight Bitcoin mine’s 80,000 machines in test for industry” — includes quotes from 10 named sources.

That is a remarkably high number for a story by any news media. Even so, it does not fully reflect the time spent by the reporters.

“Sometimes I would talk to a source for an hour and then only quote a line. We cut quite a lot,” Tom told me.

“Cheryl gave Liam her contact list for her neighbours,” he went on. “There were 10 numbers. I called every one of them but only two picked up the phone.”

Shadden and some other townspeople were willing to talk more than once, however.

“The report was originally supposed to focus on noise pollution as an issue in the Bitcoin mining industry,” Tom said. “But Liam kept coming up with all these great leads and great quotes and we decided to focus on what was happening in Granbury.”

Talking to as many sources as possible is essential for accuracy, the first part in the ABC of journalism.

The second part, balance, entails cross-checking, and DL News spoke several times to Marathon as well as to neutral observers.

The company has not complained of any inaccuracies or misrepresentation in the story.

‘It wasn’t a political issue’

—  Tom Carreras

The third part of the triad is context, as they discovered when talking to townspeople.

“For them it wasn’t a political issue,” Tom said. When he asked if Marathon could stay if they got the noise level down, the townspeople said “they can do what they like.”

The best journalists put their preconceptions aside. In the back and forth with Shadden and her neighbours, our reporters discovered unsuspected angles.

“I had been aware of the environmental issues for some time, from a business angle,” Liam said. “What’s interesting in this story is the health issues. I hadn’t heard of that before. When I spoke to the people in Granbury and heard the recordings, it was almost physical.”

The report includes a video, uploaded from Shadden’s Facebook page, which dramatically illustrates the noise from the mine.

‘If we lived with that, we’d be insane’

—  Edward Robinson

Without it “a lot of crypto folk, especially the Bitcoin diehards, would dismiss the story and say it’s just complaining,” said DL News story editor Edward Robinson. “But when you click on it and hear it, it’s Oh my God! If we lived with that, we’d be insane.”

Edward has more than 25 years’ experience as a financial and business reporter and editor.

He helped Liam and Tom to plan and edit their story in half a dozen editorial meetings.

“This was kind of a breakthrough story for us,” he told me.

“It deals with some real-world issues around journalistic practice that typically don’t come up in crypto journalism. For starters, you’re interviewing people outside the crypto community. Not only are they not in crypto, they are not even really active investors.

“To their credit, Liam and Tom sought out these voices. They very much wanted to get the perspective of people who live around this facility.”

We agreed that one lesson from the Granbury story is that sources are usually more forthcoming and speak in simpler, more natural language, on the phone.

“We live in an age when everybody wants to communicate on Telegram or by email or on Twitter,” Edward said. “There’s no substitute for talking to somebody.”

But there is more to journalism than turning on a mic and waiting for a soundbite.

At the editing stage, several judgement calls had to be made.

One was how to handle the fact that Granbury’s police constable, John Shirley, told DL News that he was a former member of the politically extreme organisation the Oath Keepers — which made headlines on January 6 2021 when it was part of the mob that stormed the US Capitol.

Edward noted that Shirley played an important part in the story: at one point he told Shadden to tone down her activism, at another he issued Marathon citations for allegedly failing to comply with the law.

“You can’t just ignore it,” Edward said, referring to Shirley’s political past.

A national media outlet such as the Associated Press might pick up the story and decide to follow it for the local politics, he added.

“That’s a legitimate angle, but then we’d look bad. It would look like either a) we did not do a thorough reporting and we missed it, or b) we did look and chose not to report it.”

In the end DL News editor in chief Trista Kelley suggested incorporating the constable’s past into a scene-setting paragraph about the town.

“That was an elegant solution,” Edward said.

“Sometimes you need that extra pair of eyes, someone who says I don’t get this, this could be condensed, why don’t we do it this way?” he explained.

Another editorial question was whether or not to include expert medical opinion on the physical and psychological effects of noise.

Liam spoke to an audiologist at City University, London, but he declined to comment on the Granbury case.

This kind of problem is common in journalism.

Marathon’s spokesman said he was “not aware of anyone ever having medical issues from a Bitcoin mining site” and that he would welcome information about it.

There have been several recent studies into the impact on humans and animals of noise from wind turbines, but it is unclear they would be relevant in this case.

Moreover, no serious expert would comment without precise data, gathered under strict scientific controls, on the frequency of the noise from the Granbury site and the decibels recorded. It might have taken weeks to obtain that.

Medical analysis of the problem requires a story in its own right.

“We are definitely going to follow the story up,” Liam said, and that the impact of the noise is one angle to consider.

Another is that the story is likely to get bigger as demand for Bitcoin surges.

“Granbury is already enormous, but they are talking about opening a bigger mine in a place called Corsicana,” Liam said. He was referring to another company, Riot Platforms, which already runs a 700-megawatt plant at Rockdale, Texas.

Riot has said the Corsicana plant will eventually use one gigawatt of electric power.

“These are huge endeavours and a testament to how sure they are that the laws are not going to change. Jumping in with both feet is a signal that they believe Texas is open for business,” Liam said.

The reporters were able to listen in to a Town Hall meeting in Granbury. The Hood County commissioner who chaired it told participants that if they wanted to get something done about the noise, they would need to take it to a higher authority.

Officials like him didn’t have that much power at the county level, he said. The townspeople needed to bring it to a higher level.

The last word goes to Tom, who told me: “I really enjoyed talking to ordinary people who were not in the industry, who would just give us their opinion.”

Journalism is a serious business, but it can also be fun, and enthusiasm makes good reporting.

Do you have any comments on the Texan Bitcoin mine story? If so, please share them with me at robert@dlnews.com

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