Longreads Best of 2014: Business Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in business writing.

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Max Chafkin
Writer focusing on business and technology.

Schooled (Dale Russakoff, New Yorker)

This piece explores the failed attempt by Mark Zuckerberg and Corey Booker, among others, to fix Newark’s schools—and in doing so makes clear just how hard education reform is. Most shockingly, it exposes the huge sums of money spent by the city and its supporters on education consultants who managed to extract huge fees without, apparently, doing a whole lot. It’s pretty hard to make a dense story about education reform read well, but Russakoff amazingly manages it, while managing to be fair and incisive.

The Fall of the Sleaze King (Susan Berfield, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Part-profile, part-dishy tick-tock, Berfield follows American Apparel founder Dov Charney as he scrambles to save his company from bankruptcy and to save his own job. The piece effectively evaluates American Apparel’s idiosyncratic place in our economy and culture—it is at once sleazy, but also, because of its commitment to American manufacturing, totally wholesome—and also captures one of the great characters in American business. You read her piece and think, “Big business can’t really be this nutty, can it?”

The Visible Man (J.J. McCorvey, Fast Company)

I’m on contract at Fast Company and so I’m may be biased, but this piece represents, in my mind, the best of what a business profile can be. McCorvey gives us an portrait of Tristan Walker, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who happens to be black, and weaves in critique of racism in Silicon Valley and by extension racism in American society. A lot of folks have tried to get at Silicon Valley’s diversity problem (including me). This is the best take I’ve read yet; it’s intimate and personal and important.

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Burt Helm
Senior contributing writer for Inc. magazine and co-host of The Rewrite, a podcast about long-form journalism.

The Empire Reboots (Bethany McLean, Vanity Fair)

How could a company that makes $23 billion in a year be in danger? Bethany McLean explains how in “The Empire Reboots,” a clear-eyed analysis of Microsoft that appeared in Vanity Fair’s November issue. I loved how this story paired a sophisticated explanation of Microsoft’s business with in-depth reporting about the personal interplay among Bill Gates, former CEO Steve Ballmer, and newly appointed chief Satya Nadella. Like most of my favorite business writing, the piece became a relationship story. McLean shows how the falling out between lifelong friends Gates and Ballmer has influenced Microsoft’s strategy and its decision to appoint Nadella. As a result, I left the story feeling like I had an insider’s knowledge of the tech giant and its leadership, and I’m now fascinated to see what they try next.
 

The Dumbest Person in Your Building is Passing Out Keys to Your Front Door! (Jessica Pressler, New York Magazine)

Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine story, “The Dumbest Person in Your Building is Passing Out Keys to Your Front Door!” is one of those features that does so many great things at once that I get jealous just thinking about it. It’s a sharp explanation of Airbnb’s business, a vivid portrait of the company’s battle with regulators, an essay about the smug attitudes of startup founders and the rough-and-tumble nature of public life in New York—and it’s all just so damn entertaining! Funny sentences like, “If there is one thing we know about the True Spirit of New York, it is that she is a moody bitch,” distracted me from how much ground Pressler was covering, and what rich and detailed reporting underpinned her words. Then I finished and realized I had a whole new appreciation for Airbnb, how its founders think, and how opposed interests battle it out in New York City. Really great stuff.

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Longreads Editor’s Pick (Mark Armstrong)

No Exit (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Wired)

According to the hundreds of stories published about tech startups in 2014, this was supposed to be the year the bubble popped—if not literally, at least we’d all finally see that Silicon Valley was a sham, that true innovation was dead, and that massive income inequality had turned San Francisco into a homogeneous playground for brogrammers. But these were merely recycled caricatures from the last dotcom boom. And it was Gideon Lewis-Kraus who finally examined the tech industry with deep reporting, empathy, and a sense of humor. (“He’d been around long enough to make over a hundred grand a year, but not long enough to know that carbs were bad signaling.”) Rather than seeing startups as something to mock, he sees the psychological toll on young founders who are lured to town with tales of Zuckerbergian riches, then required to maintain unflagging optimism on the road to near-guaranteed failure:

It is, as Nick puts it, “the place where everybody is killing it all the time.” This might seem peculiar, given that the lot of the small-business founder has always been a fragile one. But in recent years the Valley has successfully elaborated the fantasy that entrepreneurship—and, more broadly, creativity—can be systematized.

Lewis-Kraus follows the money all the way up to the venture capitalists who truly profit from this system, where startups are actually just “doing low-overhead, low-risk R&D for five corporate giants.” That might sound deflating, but really it’s a story that reminds entrepreneurs and would-be founders that they are not alone.

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Longreads Editor’s Pick (Mike Dang)

A Toast Story (John Gravois, Pacific Standard)

A story about how toast became an artisanal food craze in San Francisco would, under most circumstances, be considered annoying and twee—which is exactly what John Gravois initially thought when he began reporting the origin story of the fancy toast trend for Pacific Standard, where he is an editor. But then he met Giulietta Carrelli, the 34-year-old proprietor of the Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club, who put toast on her menu long before the $4 version became a symbol of the “shallow, expensive new San Francisco.” Carrelli’s own story about her schizoaffective disorder and how Trouble became “a tool for keeping her alive” shifted this piece into something really stunning. It’s the most surprising story I’ve read all year.