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Longreads Best of 2019: Investigative Reporting

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

Alice Driver
Long-form journalist and translator based in Mexico City.

Stories About My Brother (Prachi Gupta, Jezebel)

Gupta investigates her brother’s death with tenderness and intimacy, providing us with a rare glimpse into the way toxic masculinity affects men. She recounts childhood memories of her brother Yush and his evolving views on power and masculinity, which have been shaped by his family and his mostly white classmates and peers. As Gupta grows up, she embraces feminism, which her brother defines as a “female supremacy movement,” and from that point on, their relationship deteriorates. Gupta, haunted by her brother’s death, digs deep to push through the pain of mourning and discover the cause. When she interviews Yush’s friends, they reveal that he had deep-seated insecurities about his height which led him to seek out limb-lengthening surgery. Yush believed that being taller would make him richer and more successful. Instead, he died of a pulmonary embolism, one of the side risks of the limb-lengthening surgery. Gupta’s work is personal, revelatory, shocking and provides insight into an area where we need more work: the ways in which conventional ideas of masculinity and power harm men.

The Death and Life of Frankie Madrid (Valeria Fernández, California Sunday)

I am drawn to investigations that harness the power of one story to illuminate the situation of a whole group — in this case, the lives of young, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Fernández writes poetically about the death and life of Frankie Madrid, an undocumented teen who arrived in the U.S. with his mom when he was either 4 or 6 months old. Fernandéz begins the story with Frankie’s death — he committed suicide after being deported to Mexico — and then works her way back in time, investigating the cause of his suicide, his relationship with his mother and the difficulties of daily life while being undocumented. Via Frankie’s story, we begin to understand the pressures that undocumented kids face and to question the increasingly inhumane U.S. immigration policies and practices that played a role in his suicide.


Mansi Choksi
Writer based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Mumbai, India.

The Jungle Prince of Delhi (Ellen Barry, The New York Times)

Ellen Barry’s investigation about a family of ousted aristocrats living in wilderness in the middle of New Delhi is the result of a four-year-long obsession. It follows the life and death of Prince Cyrus, a man who claims to be heir apparent to the fallen house of Oudh, a Muslim kingdom annexed by British colonizers in the nineteenth century. Prince Cyrus, whose mother is said to have killed herself by swallowing crushed diamonds to protest their indignation, lives inside a hunting lodge granted as consolation by the Indian government. “This family, displaying its own ruin, was a physical representation of all that India had suffered,” Barry writes.

Barry develops a strange friendship with Prince Cyrus (“He was solicitous and a little corny, with pop culture references that seemed to date from the 1960s”) and as she becomes more curious about why a man with wealth and privilege would continue to live in isolation inside a jungle, she begins collecting records, photographs, documents and looking for clues of the family’s past. Finally, she lands in Yorkshire.

This is a story about displacement, hustle, nostalgia, fraud, colonial trauma and ultimately, the lies we tell ourselves.


Nicholas Jackson
Award-winning editor and writer — former EIC of Pacific Standard.

How This Con Man’s Wild Testimony Sent Dozens to Jail, and 4 to Death Row (Pamela Colloff, The New York Times Magazine & ProPublica)

There may be some recency bias at play here (Pam Colloff’s latest year-in-the-works investigation in her dual role for the Times Magazine and ProPublica was published earlier this month) or even some favoritism (when I was first asked to contribute to Longreads’ year-end list, way back in 2012, I included Pam’s two-part series for Texas Monthly, “The Innocent Man”), but regardless of byline or timestamp, this piece is one of the best of the year—in any category. It’s an investigation that required combing through thousands of pages of court documents, a compelling feature story that spans several decades and states, and a profile of Paul Skalnik, a one-time police officer turned jailhouse informant.

Skalnik is a con artist, marrying up and often to access resources he otherwise wouldn’t have. Depending on the situation, he passes himself off as a Homeland Security agent, a terminally ill cancer patient, an ex-fighter pilot, a top executive at Southwest Airlines, or someone else entirely, taking different names as needed to the evade the law. (He’s described by one source, a former assistant district attorney in Texas, as “grandiose, delusional.”) But it’s when Skalnik is taken into custody that his games turn even more dangerous. They become deadly.

Diving deep into arrest records and police reports, Colloff finds evidence that Skalnik “was one of the most prolific, and most effective, jailhouse informants in American history.” His testimony over the years, used to secure an early release on each of his own convictions, is always questionable but rarely questioned. And it was used by prosecutors to put dozens of people behind bars, and four on death row. One, James Dailey, who was convicted of murder more than 30 years ago, awaits execution in Florida State Prison. When Colloff, whose reporting suggests Dailey was asleep somewhere else when the crime was committed, visits Dailey, he tells her that “I never talked to Paul Skalnik in my life.”

And Because I Couldn’t Pick Just One…

Everything You Think You Know About Toxic Shock Syndrome Is Probably Wrong (Nona Willis Aronowitz, Lifehacker)

The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge (Kera Bolonik, New York magazine)

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane? (William Langewiesche, The Atlantic)

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Virtuoso Coder (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired)


Erika Hayasaki
Reporter and associate professor of literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine.

The Quiet Rooms: Children Locked Away in Illinois Schools (Jennifer Smith Richards, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis, The Boston Globe & ProPublica)

“The spaces have gentle names: The reflection room. The cool-down room. The calming room. The quiet room,” the story begins. But this tale takes a dark turn as the reporters lay out the findings of their investigation into child punishment practices in Illinois schools: children screaming to be let out, banging their heads, scratching at walls. The reporters analyzed more than 20,000 incidents during a year-long period, and the observations recorded by school staff provided chilling accounts of what it was like for children to be secluded in a kind of campus solitary confinement. “Dancing in feces. Doing the twist,” according to one note from a staff member. In another note, a student begged: “Please, please, please open the door. Please, I’ll be good. Open the door and I’ll be quiet.”

I read “The Quiet Rooms” with a particular sadness because I attended elementary and middle school in Illinois and I also remember a “quiet room” on my campus. Ours was called the “ISS Room,” or In-School-Suspension. But I remember the room clearly: a creepy, dimly lit place where kids, who were disproportionately African American, were locked inside for hours, usually sitting and facing a wall as a lone staff member scolded them if they moved or spoke. As this Propublica Illinois story states, these rooms have been around for decades. But this painstakingly reported investigation, which published in November, immediately made people pay attention. “Many readers have told us they struggled to hold back tears as they read the words of these children. Some told us they had to put the story down for a while, regain composure and return to it later,” Propublica Illinois wrote. Within a day of publishing the piece, the Illinois State Board of Education announced it was taking emergency action to end the punishment of children alone behind locked doors at schools.

Dark Crystals: The Brutal Reality Behind a Booming Wellness Craze (Tess McClure, The Guardian)

Tess McClure’s investigation shows us the people and children who put their safety and lives on the line to mine the rose quartz, amethyst or tourmaline gem stones and crystals that have become popular among celebrities and people seeking alternative methods to heal themselves. McClure travels to Madagascar to reveal what happens before these shiny stones end up piled inside of glass bowl displays in a Sedona or Los Angeles crystal shop, marked by descriptors like “helps release insecurities,” or “heals trauma.” Her investigation is impressive, not only because of the vast reach of her solo reporting around the world, but also how she uses that ambitious journalism to bring the people she meets alive on the page for us. Her writing makes readers care about the individuals she interviews and the international human rights and environmental issues that she illuminates with her reporting. She does this by surprising us with vivid scenes, dialogue and quotes. Like this one from a family member of a worker who died:

What killed him was digging for stones, about 15 metres deep. He went into a tunnel and it collapsed from above and he was buried – someone called for help: ‘Help! Zafimahatratra is buried down there!’ That’s when I went with his children to dig him up.

There is literary and social power in the contrasting images McClure weaves together, lines like:

Rose quartz cracked underfoot: jagged, gleaming, a little translucent, shining like the flesh of a fresh-filleted tuna. Later, he lifted a worn trouser leg to show the scars he had acquired from a lifetime of mining: on the right leg, where falling stones crushed his shin.


Kevin Nguyen
Features editor at The Verge.

Ponzi Schemes, Private Yachts, and a Missing $250 Million in Crypto: The Strange Tale of Quadriga (Nathaniel Rich, Vanity Fair)

A great bitcoin story is never really about bitcoin itself, but all the things cryptocurrency tends to inadvertently be about: value, volatility, belief. It’s probably why everyone involved tends to be rich, emotional, paranoid.

In “The Strange Tale of Quadriga,” Nathaniel Rich investigates the sudden and mysterious passing of Gerald Cotten, the CEO of Canada’s biggest blockchain exchange, whatever that is. The details of his death are circumspect, especially given that hundreds of millions in crypto vanished along with him, leading people (largely on reddit) to wonder if this disappearance was faked.

Every bitcoin mystery ends up being an anticlimax, and it works in this case because Rich leans into it. As readers, we become just as conspiratorial as the subjects in the piece. It reminded me a bit of the part in Knives Out when Daniel Craig talks about the mystery with a hole at the center of it — a donut. I’m not sure if Rich wants his story described as a donut, but I ate it up anyway.

Is It Possible to Stop a Mass Shooting Before It Happens? (Andrea Stanley, Cosmopolitan)

Who profiles the profilers? Cosmo’s Andrea Stanley, apparently. The FBI has long used profilers to identify serial killers and the like. But the subject of Stanley’s profile, who goes by K, specializes in the violent men spawned from online hate groups.

Because anonymity is so important for K’s work, there are many details withheld from the piece — things that could make her identifiable, like where she lives or how she does her job. And yet, Stanley’s reporting still feels complete and satisfying. K is tracking roughly a thousand men, cataloged in a spreadsheet, and she trawls the most horrendous corners of the internet to keep tabs on them. If you want a sense of how good K is at this work, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, she identified 305 attendees from photographs — some of whom were charged, others who are now being monitored.

I wish the story wrestled at least a little bit with some of the tricky moral questions that come with this kind of work — it is surveillance, after all — but Stanley’s writing and reporting here is interested in drawing a broader (and scarier) portrait not just of her subject, but of the potentially violent men she’s identifying. There’s a throughline between incels, Red Pill-ers, and white supremacists, and maybe the best way to see it is through the person who observes them for a living.


Maurice Chammah
Staff writer at The Marshall Project.

A sick baby. A worried mom. Diagnosis: Abuse? (Mike Hixenbaugh and Keri Blakinger, NBC News)

Have you heard of Keri Blakinger yet? The formerly incarcerated journalist has been reporting for the Houston Chronicle for several years, and her stories have done everything from expose the identity of an execution-drug-producing pharmacy to help Texas prisoners get dentures. She’s also written insightful columns about her own time in prison. But the story I keep thinking about from this year was part of a series she published this year along with NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh. It’s about doctors who are trained to uncover child abuse, but sometimes make decisions that turn out to be wrong — with devastating consequences, including children removed from their parents and even parents wrongly put in prison.

In this moment of extreme partisanship and political outrage, many investigative stories about wrongdoing read like legal indictments, but Blakinger and Hixenbaugh know how to embrace nuance. In my favorite story from their multi-part series, they open cinematically, amid the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, where we meet Ajshay James and her daughter Harper. Once they arrive at a hospital, James loses her daughter to the state, because a doctor claims that this is an example of the rare disorder known as “Munchausen Syndrome by proxy.” Simply put, the doctor thinks James has been fabricating her daughter’s illness, and is committing “medical child abuse.” The reporters dealt with thousands of pages of medical records and situated this case in a complicated landscape of state agencies and courts, but they also crafted a narrative with cliffhangers and expressed empathy for everyone involved, including those who must make difficult, life-and-death decisions about the fates of children.

* * *

Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.