Longreads Best of 2018: Business Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in business writing.

Max Abelson
A reporter on Wall Street for Bloomberg News, where his work often goes in Businessweek. His stories were included in Columbia University Press’ Best Business Writing anthologies in 2015 and 2013.

Sign Here to Lose Everything (Zeke Faux and Zach Mider, Bloomberg News and Businessweek)

Good investigative journalism can leave you with that curdled taste of outrage in your mouth, but only great journalism can introduce the world to a whole new kind of loan sharking. And it takes something really splendid to jump from a millionaire city marshal to a gangster named Jimmy Dimps, a Maltese Shih Tzu named Coco, a town called Canandaigua, a drug smuggler named Braun, actual piles of cash, bloody vomit, and 30,000 court cases. Faux and Mider’s work is the best I’ve ever read on predatory lending.

A Business With No End (Jenny Odell, The New York Times)

My favorite story on commerce of the year has more in common with the dreaminess of the nuclear sequences from Twin Peaks: The Return than the everyday stock charts on CNBC. In one sense it’s a story about absolutely nothing, if you consider that the news peg is basically some packages that started arriving at someone’s house one day. But it’s also a story about everything — Christianity, con artists, bookstores, the Internet, real estate, obsession, startups, copyrights, maps, and moisturizer. I was very sorry when it was over.


Elizabeth Woyke
Senior business editor, MIT Technology Review

Tears ‘R’ Us: The World’s Biggest Toy Store Didn’t Have to Die (Susan Berfield, Eliza Ronalds-Hannon, Matthew Townsend, and Lauren Coleman-Lochner, Bloomberg Businessweek)

It’s easy to assume that the decline of Toys “R” Us, which closed all its stores in the US and UK earlier this year, was inevitable. Wasn’t it just the latest chain retailer to lose the price and convenience war with Amazon, Target, and Walmart? This Businessweek story delves deep into the company’s history and filings to determine that financial mismanagement was the actual culprit. The reporting is dense, but accessible, and explains exactly how debt — both the amount Toys “R” Us borrowed and the way it was structured – triggered the demise of this iconic company.


Prashant Rao
Global editor, The Atlantic

Scandals Catch Up to Private Chinese Hospitals, After Fortunes Are Made (Sui-Lee Wee, The New York Times)

When we think of China, I suspect many people see a behemoth, ruled by a party that is able to do largely what it wants domestically. But as with all things (and perhaps more so in the case of China), the reality is far more complex, and Sui-Lee Wee’s stories on the disorder and problems with China’s healthcare system — from the inaccessibility of prescription drugs, to the crushing financial distress caused by health scares — offer evidence of that. It has been first-class journalism, illuminating a complex subject with nuance and care.


Livia Gershon
Business and economics columnist at Longreads. Contributor to the Guardian, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, Aeon, and more.

Denial by a Different Name (Kate Aronoff, The Intercept)

If U.S. liberals are looking for someone to blame for inaction on climate change, we have an obvious, easy target: the science-deniers epitomized by our current president. Aronoff undercuts that simple answer by traveling to Germany, where climate change deniers are marginalized but proposals to confront the problem are still radically inadequate. While politicians remain mired in debates over whether to do anything, companies like ExxonMobil are two steps ahead, funding research on technocratic “solutions” that would mostly protect their bottom lines.

‘A way of monetizing poor people’: How private equity firms make money offering loans to cash-strapped Americans (Peter Whoriskey, The Washington Post)

Parables of economic class in the financial system don’t get much clearer than this. Whoriskey found that a company owned by private equity firm Warburg Pincus occupies a “fertile niche” in the U.S. economy, mass-mailing checks to strangers with the understanding that some are desperate enough to cash them. The story highlights interest rates as high as 36 percent and fine print that forces the borrowers to pay the companies’ legal costs if they go to court for nonpayment. The punchline, though, is the identity of Warburg Pincus’s president: Timothy Geithner, who had condemned predatory lenders during his stint as Obama’s treasury secretary.


Kevin Nguyen
Features editor, The Verge

Puerto (Very) Rico: The Newest Haven for the Super Rich (Jesse Barron, GQ)

Sometimes you just have to read a thing that makes you furious — not at the writer or the reporting (both of which, in this case, are fantastic), but at all the rich asshole subjects that inhabit it. And Jesse Barron’s dispatch from the nouveau riche tax haven has rich assholes in spades, and they are a bizarre bunch.

But the piece also reinforced the idea that taxes reinforce the wealth gap, that it encourages a kind of colonialism. I mean, tattoo this line on my body: “Government is a business, and its most important customers are the rich.” Or maybe I should get a tattoo of an iguana, because (without spoiling anything) the very last section is a total killer.

Bad Romance (Sarah Jeong, The Verge)

Jeong’s story is about a lot of things: group chats, scams, friends who are no longer friends, trademark law, jpegs of sexy firefighters. All of these elements are the sum parts of a bit of high drama within the self-published romance author community called Cockygate. Few people can boil down the nitty gritty of tech as well as Jeong, and even the byzantine systems of Amazon come through clear.

But more than anything, “Bad Romance” is the kind of business reporting I love—one that feels low stakes at first and ratchets up as you read on. And it leaves us with pressing questions: What is a book? What is fraud? And are werewolves multicultural?

To that last question, maybe we’ll find out when Jeong writes a follow up called “Born This Way.”


Alissa Quart
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including SqueezedBranded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.

Business stories tend to be portraits of power that are either celebratory or dirt-digging exposes. My sort of business stories are about the black market or illegal professions, and often also about poor people who are ripped off by crooked or corrupt companies and practices. These nontraditional business stories are sometimes also first-person accounts of lower-income or struggling consumers or workers. These women and men are exploited or ejected from their homes. They are unfairly arrested or fined. Occasionally, they overcome the systemic injustice against them, or at least unveil it. Often, they don’t.

The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail (Dan Barry and Jeffrey E. Singer, The New York Times)

This is my hands-down favorite business story of the year. It is at once a murder mystery, a thickly naturalistic portrait of an immigrant population, and the story of a neighborhood and its underground subculture. It makes excellent use of multimedia and found imagery. It is a devastating profile of one woman’s life, and, finally, an argument for the decriminalization of prostitution. This piece was original, well-reported, visual, well-told, and remarkable for its implicit political conclusions.

Evictionland (Joe Williams, Curbed)

This autobiographical, EHRP-supported story is both a reported story of people being uprooted from their homes due to gentrification and the reporter Joe Williams’ own eviction. The piece succeeds particularly, I think, because it’s personal and thickly informational. Indeed, I think it augments Matthew Desmond’s outstanding work on this problem in the book, Evicted, adding a wrenching memoiristic element.


Sui-Lee Wee
Correspondent for The New York Times in the Beijing bureau covering business in China, Chinese consumers, health care, and the intersection of demographics and the economy.

Les Moonves and CBS Face Allegations of Sexual Misconduct (Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker)

It’s hard not to think about impactful journalism without coming up with Ronan Farrow’s name. We’re still seeing the reverberations of his August piece on CBS’s Les Moonves and his pattern of sexual misconduct. The piece, and a follow-up story in September, was well-reported, and the stories from the women were compelling. More importantly, Mr. Farrow showed how having a sexual harasser at the top of a company cascaded down into the lower ranks, enabling the behavior of other executives. Mr. Farrow has been relentless in speaking truth to power, and all of his stories have been must-reads.

How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The New York Times)

All good business stories are about people, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire followed this maxim to a T. Many stories on Ms. Paltrow caricature her, but Ms. Brodesser-Akner’s article gave me new insights into Ms. Paltrow and the challenges facing her business. Ms. Brodesser-Akner’s eye for detail is amazing, and the piece was written with so much finesse. This line, in particular, is seared in my memory: “She wore a white shirred-neck dress by Tibi that would be advertised in the Goop newsletter the next week as she stood in front of her stove, steaming clams and grilling bread in her devastating kitchen. She wore no apron and cooked the meal herself right in front of me. She wore no apron and cooked it herself right in front of me and drank a whiskey on the rocks.” As with all great stories, the quotes just sang.


Ethan Chiel
Fact-checker, Longreads

Code Red (Alex Press, n+1)

Over the past couple years questions of if, when, and how workers at technology companies might unionize have loomed large. The nature of these companies (how many people they employ, the wide variety of work those people do, the tech sector’s traditionally anti-union stance) has made those questions complex, to put it lightly. Alex Press’s reporting on organizing efforts among tech workers did a wonderful job of explaining that complexity, looking at the history of organizing at tech companies, and laying out some of what might be next.


Catherine Cusick
Audience editor, Longreads

American Manufacturing Doesn’t Have to Die (Meredith Haggerty, Racked)

Haggerty turns what could have been yet another day in the life of the average American CEO into a counterintuitive meditation on what it means — what it costs, and what it takes — for a product to be Made in America. She starts with all the reasons why a story like this would be boring to read, then debunks each assumption to reveal meaningful questions about what exactly we want to make in this country, who we want doing the making, and what sort of job security we want coming back home. She pits the promises of benevolent billionaires, conscious capitalism, and ethical consumerism against the betrayals of automation, income inequality, and the legacies of slavery. It’s a story, ultimately, “about doing something instead of doing nothing because doing nothing is easier.” Individual consumers’ personal choices may not scale, but integrity and loyalty tend not to scale, either. And if the human beings behind business decisions have their flaws, the ideal of growth does, too.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.