Author Archives

Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

How The Cult of Masculinity Can Poison Creative Writing Programs

Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP

In certain Masters of Fine Arts programs, “MFA” seems to stand for Macho Fucking Aesthetic. For the Iowa Review, writer and educator Jennifer Colville shares her experience studying at one such program in the late 1990s. In the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, Colville finds herself working with an up and coming talent with one book: author Junot Diaz. This isn’t simply a story about Diaz, though. It’s a larger story about the way certain programs advocated very gendered aesthetics, favoring plotted, linear narratives with economic sentences, instead of more image-driven, expansive, associative, or metaphorical prose styles, ones the author considers more “feminine.” For female and non-binary writers, life inside such turn of the century MFA cultures meant reckoning with the celebration of male genius and masculine norms, seeing critical thinking downplayed, and dealing with widespread toxic masculinity, from faculty on down to classmates. Colville shares not only her grad school experience, she distills the vital lessons she took from it, the lessons the program did not intend to teach her, which she now applies to her own life as a professor, literary advocate, and writer.

Those of us who have grappled our way “up” into precarious teaching positions may say we hire less on the basis of fame and publication record and more on the basis of a candidate’s teaching record or thoughtful teaching philosophy. Yet this is easier said than done in a culture that still devalues critical thinking, and that doesn’t make an effort to produce good teachers by offering teacher training in the first place. Faculty who understand the importance of teaching from a variety of aesthetic, cultural, and political perspectives are necessary because masculinity and Eurocentric values have been encoded into our rhetoric and storytelling structures. They are still the defaults. A good MFA program and a good teacher will acknowledge and find ways to challenge this, will be mindful of the problematic culture our most vaunted programs are built on. I use Syracuse as an example with the caveat that Dobyns was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the age-old concept of reckless male genius was repackaged, macho barroom–style, under Paul Engle. Syracuse, in fact, may have gone through a productive struggle. George Saunders was one of the initial new hires, the one who apologized to me for not reaching out, who admitted his anxiety about approaching female students in the wake of the scandal. Gradually he helped to set a change in motion. A couple of years after he was hired Díaz left Syracuse, and a chain of brilliant and innovative women writers were hired.

Sexism is a deep unconscious vein. It’s embedded in our thought processes, our ways of communicating and telling stories. Traditional narrative privileges plot over details and in so doing trivializes the image, that conductor of the unconscious, of muted memories, dreams, and drives, those little loaded bombs of information, which if unpacked often contain secrets of the body, micronarratives of their own.

What if the creative writing classroom was a space in which critical inquiry was a given, a space for examining and questioning privileged forms or aesthetics, and the pedagogy that often reinforces them. Wouldn’t this kind of space feel safer, more welcoming for those of us brave enough to resurrect our moments, our details, brave enough to write the stories of our bodies. What kind of revolution might that unleash?

Read the story

How Thailand’s Rich Escape Prosecution

AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

As many Thai residents say, “Thai jails are only for the poor.” Exhibit A: the 27-year-old socialite named Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, part of the billionaire family who owns the Red Bull beverage empire. In 2012, he mortally wounded police officer Wichean Glanprasert while driving, then he fled the scene. Boss remains free. Glanprasert’s family mourn while wrestling with this accepted double standard. For The Walrus, Martha Mendoza follows the Red Bull family’s trail of shell companies, and Boss’ social media posts, to find how they not only protect their assets, but how Boss and other Thai elites evade prosecution while protestors and journalists routinely end up in prison for minor offenses.

Within weeks of the incident, Boss was back to enjoying his family’s jet-set lifestyle: he flew around the world on private Red Bull jets, cheered the company’s Formula One racing team from Red Bull’s VIP seats, and kept a shiny black Porsche Carrera in London with custom licence plates—B055 RBR, or Boss Red Bull racing.

An Interpol arrest notice was issued five years after the accident, but so far, it has effectively been useless. Boss is reported to have at least two passports and a complex network of offshore accounts, and with these tools, he’s able to travel the world with impunity. More than 120 photos posted on Facebook and Instagram, as well as some racing blogs, show Boss visiting at least nine countries since Glanprasert’s death. Stops include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Osaka, Japan, where he posed, grinning and wearing robes from Hogwarts’s darkest dorm, Slytherin house. He’s cruised Monaco’s harbour, snowboarded Japan’s fresh powder, and celebrated his birthday at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. This means that while authorities say they’ve had no idea where Boss was, his friends, family, and all of their followers seem to have had no doubt about his whereabouts and the good times he’s been having. One summer, in Japan, he posted a ten-second video of sausage and eggs decorated with seaweed eyes, tagging a young relative. His parents responded with a thumbs up.

In Thailand, many say that the justice system has two tracks: one for the elite and one for everybody else. This is seen not just through brazen killings, like that of Glanprasert, but also through financial schemes used by the country’s wealthy. During the time Boss hid in plain sight, an Associated Press (AP) investigation into his whereabouts simultaneously exposed how the Yoovidhya family has spent decades hiding its assets in offshore accounts. As Brooke Harrington, professor of sociology at Dartmouth, said in a 2018 interview with NPR: “The lives of the richest people in the world are so different from those of the rest of us, it’s almost literally unimaginable….National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. The laws are nothing to them. They might as well not exist.”

Read the story

Truly Seeing the River: An Interview with Writer Boyce Upholt

Photo of the campsite on the Mississippi River Rory Doyle.

The Mississippi Delta is the name of the vast swampy bottomland that runs for 200 miles between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Mississippi, North America’s second-longest river, mostly created this alluvial landscape. Dense forests covered it. White money, forced Black labor, and government engineering seized, farmed, and tried to control it. For many people, the name evokes images of Tom Sawyer or the Blues or roadside barbecue joints. Author James C. Cobb’s book described the Delta as “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” Even though populous Memphis sits on its northeastern edge, and many Blues festivals take place there, for its size, the Delta is not a region many outsiders visit. It contains some of the US’s most searing poverty, some of its greatest natural beauty, the origins of Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and some America’s most violent, racist history. Writer Boyce Upholt has made it his beat.

A Connecticut native who found himself in Mississippi, Upholt has written about the Delta’s groundwater for The Atlantic, about the Delta’s Indigenous cultures for Roads & Kingdoms, profiled Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the Delta’s last rural juke joint, for The Believer, and has explored one Delta island for the Oxford American. Once home to a murderous, moonshining frontiersman name Perry Martin, the legends associated with Martin cloak Big Island as much as its thick woods. This mix of wildness, lore, and neglect drew Upholt back for many trips, where he camped and brewed his morning coffee with Mississippi River water. His resulting travel dispatch “Beyond the Levee” brings this far corner of the nearby world to life, partly through Martin, a character who embodies the land itself. In a few brief pages, the piece explores two huge topics ─ America’s most iconic river, and the idea of wildness ─ and satisfies itself with providing not a volume but a window, a tantalizing glimpse, just big and deep enough. Upholt took the time to speak with me about this story, his work, and the Delta he loves.


I grew up in Arizona, and first learned about the Delta on a visit to an ex-girlfriend’s family farm in the floodplain in eastern Arkansas. It was pure chance I traveled there, but that vast land’s lush, tarnished beauty immediately gripped me. You grew up in Connecticut. How’d you get interested in the Delta?

It was chance, for me, too. After college, I wasn’t sure how to become a writer, so I joined Teach for America and took a job as a math teacher on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Then, after an unsatisfying yearlong stint in journalism, I decided to go work for TFA coaching teachers. I wanted to get somewhere “new” ─ to me at least ─ so when they offered me a job in the Delta I jumped. I wound up staying  for nine years, and I credit the place with getting me writing for real. There is such a rich history of storytelling and literature. I began writing a blog, then local magazines. Eventually I got an MFA and managed to find a way to write full-time.

In this Oxford American story, one person, Perry Martin, embodies this regrown patch of Delta, and then you become a new character in that story of development and environmental degradation, because you rewrite how we view the Delta’s character: wild or tame? Ugly or magical? How’d you first hear about Perry Martin and Big Island?

As someone who grew up hiking and camping, I found the Delta’s farmland beautiful but orderly: it’s a giant garden, nature contained and restrained. Then, in 2015, I wrote a profile of John Ruskey, a Mississippi River guide who is based in the Delta. We went out on the river, and I became obsessed.

The Mississippi sits amid a vast, wild landscape that almost no one knows is there; the river is at once a national icon and something we have completely forgotten. I kept writing about the river, kept exploring. In 2016, I did a weekend canoe trip with three friends down the backchannel along the west side of Big Island, which is one of the wildest, quietest stretches on the river. As a guide, I used Rivergator, an online text that John compiled. He offhandedly mentions a history of moonshiners on the island, and eventually, though conversations with locals, I began to fill in the details.

Back to that 2015 profile you wrote: What about the River fueled your initial obsession?

I will always remember that first campsite: we were on this wide sandbar that was covered with coyote and bird tracks. All night, I could hear the sound of trucks driving on the levee, which was just a stone’s throw away; I could see a glow on the horizon that was Angola Prison. And yet I felt completely remote and isolated, surrounded by the water, in this un-human space. I wanted more of that. But I also just kept finding interesting little tidbits: abandoned steamboats sitting along the riverside; attempts to catch and process invasive carp; a rapidly changing ecosystem. It still blows my mind that no one has written the book I’m working on: a look at what we’ve done to this river and the effects we’re seeing now.

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions.

Let me ask you about that book you’re working on: Why haven’t other people written it yet? Would it fit into the distinctive literary nonfiction cannon that includes Eddy L. Harris’ memoir Mississippi Solo, Mary Morris’s memoir The River Queen, or more like John M. Barry’s Rising Tide, and John McPhee’s River chapter in Control of Nature

The latter books, definitely. I’m not a huge fan of the adventure memoir. The landscape has so much to tell us, so why focus so narrowly on ourselves? There’s a difference, in my mind, between a trip ─ a paddle downriver, a hike along a trail ─ and a ramble. In the latter, your path is unclear; you make unexpected detours; you return to the same places, sometimes, looking at them in new ways. This, in my mind, makes for a much more interesting book. Great Plains has been a huge inspiration: Ian Frazier spent a few seasons driving around the middle of the country, often seemingly at random, and from that mess he pulls out this compelling history of a forgotten place. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is another great example; he sees this wide swath of the Arctic on various scientific expeditions.

As for why that book hasn’t been written, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe because people don’t think of the river as a place, just a line of water. But there is a whole valley around it, that was a part of it, and was regarded as the country’s first Wild West. That valley was cut off by the levees; now even people who live just a few miles away rarely see it. It’s easy to overlook the environmental problems there, until they well up into floods, like this year.

Your Twitter bio says “i wander around and write stuff.” People often wonder how writers find their stories. So you found the Big Island story by writing another story. But as a wanderer, do you find many stories by chance, or do you have some process that lets wandering lead to discovery?

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions. I have a lot of Google Alerts. I read blogs and newsletters. I flip through newspapers and listen for what people are saying when I’m on the road. (Latif Nassar’s ideas on where to find stories are spot-on, by the way.) Honestly, the hardest part can be deciding which of many ideas deserve my commitment. Lately, I’ve been spending more time reporting before I even decide to pitch, to make sure stories have depth.

You describe your interest as a writer as “how we shape place, how place shapes us.” Lots of writers have beats or themes they fixate on: music; sexual politics; war. What does your interest in place say about your nature or worldview? Or your approach to writing and reporting?  

Really, I wish I had a clearer beat. I’ve always been fascinated by landscapes, both human-made and “wild” (though that’s a problematic word). Scratch the surface of a landscape and you find all kinds of history. Paying attention to the history of places often reveals connections: we are connected to the land itself, to a larger ecosystem, and to a long chain of people who, through the generations, have crisscrossed the world. In terms of how I write and report, these sorts of stories often demand that I get out and be on the ground, so I can be a tour-guide through strange, misunderstood corners of the world. It also means I have to find a way to include myself in the story without becoming too solipsistic. I’m not sure I always succeed.

Travel writing used to be a very popular genre, filling many magazines’ pages. That’s changed a lot. But some of my favorite kinds of travel stories are the kind you just described: where a bit of the author’s personal narrative leads readers to unfamiliar parts of our world and reveal larger connections. What are your thoughts on travel writing and the travel dispatch as a form, one not pegged to any news or event, but that has something to say?

It’s among my favorites, too, though when done poorly it’s awful. There are many pitfalls. I  try to stay particularly aware of my privilege: as a middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual white guy, I have so many legs up in terms of getting a publication to pay me to write about a place. Often, we’d all be better served to hear from someone from that place. The river, as a place, poses less of this conundrum, though I try to honor indigenous traditions that existed along the Mississippi ─ and in many cases persist ─ as well as the way Black laborers, often enslaved, did so much of the physical remaking of this place.

Yes, the Black labor that cleared the dense Delta hardwoods also drove America’s lucrative cotton economy: the legacy of their forced labor and dehumanization remains. Poverty still plagues so many people of color here. Is it difficult to explore nature apart from humanity in this region?

In any region. I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “nature” apart from humanity. Humans are animals, after all. And human beings have been living on this continent for tens of thousands of years. They cleared forests, built monumental structures, actively manipulated the environment. The idea of an empty wildness came later. (John Muir argued that the Native and Hispano migrants should be kept out of his beloved Yosemite by soldiers; they spoiled the view, he thought.) I always come back to a quote from the critic Raymond Williams, from the “Ideas of Nature”: “[T]he conquest of nature . . . will always include the conquest, the domination or the exploitation of some men by others. If we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end, though unequally, by alienating ourselves.”

Also, have you seen the photo of the lush old-growth bottomland forests in Lucy Braun’s canonical 1950 book The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America? A towering canopy with vines trailing down the stout sweet gum trees. Makes me wish I could tramp through just a few acres of woods like that, though just a few. It’d be exhausting.

I haven’t, but it’s gorgeous. You can do it, though! It’s not old-growth, but there are plenty of acres that look much like this inside the levees, along the river. I wish there were more of them, and what we’ve got left is at risk. The only way we’ll get there is if more folks go out and explore and appreciate them!

Welcome to the Military-Educational Complex

AP Photo/The Flint Journal, Ryan Garza

By installing protections against mass shootings, school administrators are establishing the way America’s public schools will look for the next few decades, but taxpayers don’t get much say in the important questions underlying these decisions: Do we want our schools to be places of learning, socializing, and constructive imagination, as well as safe? Or are we okay creating safe, prison-like places where kids do not want to be, and do not thrive? For Slate, Henry Grabar writes about public schools’ redesigns in the era of mass shootings, and how fear and the security industry are often leading decision-making, rather than a more patient, reasoned, intentional path. Living with the threat of a school shooting is already anxiety-inducing, but we don’t know the longterm psychological and educational consequences of all these architectural modifications, from metal detectors to barricades, drills to imposing doors. As the architect of the redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School told Grabar, a school’s “first concern in school design should always be education”.

“There is this industry that is monetizing off of fear,” said Jenine Kotob, a D.C.-based school architect, when I spoke to her earlier this month. “The school security industry is now a $2.7 billion industry in the United States, and those numbers keep rising. Thinking about the building and the site in a holistic way, and not necessarily focusing on the bells and whistles that come after the fact, would probably be a better investment.”

Kotob is one of the estimated 225,000 Americans who have lived through a school shooting. One of her best friends was killed at Virginia Tech. Later, she studied in Israel and Palestine, and saw schools built for war, with features like perimeter walls designed to withstand explosives. “If America continues along a trajectory of fear, we will end up in a situation where the building and the infrastructure we’re investing in are not places we want to be. We’re talking about a building that will be standing for 20, 30, 40 years. And how we react today says a lot about who we are as a society and what our beliefs are.”

Read the story

New York City Shredder

Tyshawn Jones, far right, at the Adidas Skateloftnyc at Webster Hall, 2017. Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Skateboarding has been around long enough, and skate parks are numerous enough, that tons of amateurs can rip like only pros once did. It’s a whole other thing to skate with style. For The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley profiles Tyshawn Jones. The first New Yorker to win Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year award, Jones represents a shift away from skateboarding’s West Coast origins, and its contentious merging with the fashion industry, which is where the money is. Besides his absolute devotion and his incredible abilities, what separates him from so many of us skaters is that he grew up in the Bronx and has used flat, crowded Manhattan as his skate park. Instead of doing the same tricks on big ramps designed for those exact tricks, he gives us something new: olleying over store signs and trash cans, sliding across handrails and flower boxes, and even doing a boardslide on the front of an earth mover on Park Avenue. Finding the spots requires talent. Imagining how to skate them, and pulling off the tricks, are whole separate talents.

As Strobeck sees it, that journey from the Bronx to Manhattan is captured symbolically in the trick that put Jones on the cover of Thrasher: an ollie over an entrance to the 6 train at the 33rd Street station. This subway entrance is a mind-boggling thing to leap over: The gap starts in an office building’s elevated plaza, and from there, you have to clear a thigh-high guardrail, then a six-foot-wide staircase plunging down into the street, with a spike-tipped fence on the other end. But the ollie itself was just a fraction of the challenge. Midtown was swarming with people whenever they went to film.

One thing Jones has that a lot of pro skaters don’t is a bunch of hardheaded friends who are willing to bring city life to a halt for him. The day he finally landed it, on his third visit, he went to the spot with 10 of his buddies, most of whom didn’t skate. They positioned themselves all around the subway entrance to help, in Strobeck’s words, ‘‘facilitate’’ — or the exact opposite, depending on your perspective. One stood in the stairwell to keep unwitting straphangers from taking a board to the skull, one stood up top to keep people from going down the stairs, some dealt with people in the plaza above, another worked as a spotter to tell Jones when the coast was clear. Even passers-by stopped to help.

To ollie over something this massive is like doing a parabolic calculus problem with your body while also attempting suicide, but it involves a set of motions Jones knows like second nature: Snap the tail and leap, dragging the board as high as you can with your front foot, tucking your knees into your body — on the Thrasher cover, Jones’s are practically touching his shoulders — then hope for the best. When Jones finally landed it, he did so with his front wheels in the street and his rear wheels up on the sidewalk, one last screw-you from New York, but he rode away. He got a message on Instagram from someone who worked in a building high above the plaza. She told him that people in the office had lined up at the windows to watch. When he landed it, the whole place erupted in cheers.

Jones makes a solid living from his sponsors and the restaurant his skate money bought him, but like most pro skaters, he would make a lot more if he was in a different sport. The skateboard industry is lucrative but has always had limitations, so Jones is wisely targeting clothing and fashion brands instead of just skateboard companies. Besides talking a lot about money, Staley’s piece is also a celebration of a sport whose athletes gets far less respect, and money, than mainstream basketball and baseball players. Hanging out with Jones, Staley makes an observation you don’t see much in skate journalism: the way skaters view other athletes.

It was the week of the N.B.A. Finals, and the two began to discuss the truly galling amount of money basketball players make. ‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop!’’ Jones said, dismissively. ‘‘Curry got $237 million for five years.’’ It hadn’t occurred to me just how rote the work of an athlete might look to a pro skater, who must do so much more than just perform. He has to find spots, think of tricks, overcome not just his fears but also the police, Good Samaritans, cracks in the pavement, rain. And only once that chaos has been mitigated can he try to perform, to write one little line in the canon of an insular subculture. Henry joked that her son had gotten into the wrong sport entirely.

‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop,’’ he said again. ‘‘That [expletive] is crazy!’’

Read the story

The Bonds Beyond Language

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Brian Trapp‘s twin brother Danny had cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disabilities, which limited his speech to twelve words. Thanks to a devoted family who developed their own language of jokes and rituals, Danny could convey a range of ideas and emotions and participate in family life. But his limited language meant that people had to speak for him, guessing at what he would have wanted, what he did and didn’t understand, the full breadth of his personality — with only twelve words, there was so much about Danny that his loved ones could never know. Faced with the decision to take Danny off a ventilator, how could the family be sure they were respecting a wish he couldn’t express? In a stirring essay for the Kenyon Review, Trapp examines his deep relationship with his twin and the ways we communicate in general; we imagine and interpret who people are and project our own experiences onto them, including, in Trapp’s case, his survivor’s guilt.

There was a large gap between his receptive and expressive capabilities, so we had to make what disability advocates call the “least dangerous assumption” and assume his communicative intent even when we weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to say. This required his conversation partners to coconstruct his meaning, from his body language, context, and tone. We had to imagine what he was thinking, project ourselves into his mind. This might seem strange, but it is not that different from how people normally interact. Language, in general, is a flawed and limited instrument. We can never truly know what others feel or think, even if they spend hours telling us, even if they have a million words at their disposal. My brother just happened to have twelve. Rather than making him a freak or an alien, his disability helps us see the essential human truth of all our communication acts: We all construct other minds through this imperfect mediation of language. No one speaks on their own. We are all twins—we all finish each other’s sentences.

My name is a case in point. My brother multiplied its meaning with tone, context, and absence. He said “I-an” so I’d talk to him. He said “I-an” to tease me, repeated it every fifteen seconds while we rode in his van, an auditory Chinese water torture. He yelled “I-an” into my voice mail to call him back. He said “I-an” in response to questions like “Who’s ugly?” He yelled “I-an” at church, heckling the priest in the middle of a sermon, which might mean any number of things, both satirical and metaphysical. He said “I-an” softly before he nodded off to sleep, so that it might as well have been: I love you.

My name was the currency between us. When I said, “Danny, give me an I-an,” I was asking for a hand-slap, a bro-hug, if everything was all right, if he loved me. When he refused, “not-I-an,” the “absence of I-an” could have as much meaning. The silence might mean: Dude, screw you. It might mean: I’m too tired. I’m in too much pain. It might mean: You have to talk to me more. You’re an asshole. You’re a poor substitute for Mom. Withheld at the right moment, it might mean: I resent you.

Projection is a central theme in this essay, and into this essay I projected my own sadness. I cried as Brian lay in the hospital bed with his dying brother, letting Brian’s pain register as the pain I feel about my ailing elderly father and a recently deceased friend. Readers necessarily carry so much of ourselves to the stories we read; when I cried during Brian and Danny’s final moments together, I was also bracing myself for my own.

A white film covered his tongue, and his cough was wet. I put my finger in his hot hand. I asked my brother, “Do you love me?”

“Eh,” he said. He did not tease me. He knew.

I closed my eyes and held him to my chest. I pretended it was twenty-nine years ago, that we weren’t even born, still sealed in the womb. Where were our bodies? Were we like this, face-to-face? Were we turned around, back-to-back and rubbing spines? Was he upside down, his ass in my face? Where did I end and my brother begin? I pretended that his body wasn’t breaking down, that they had not cut tendons or poked holes, put in tubes or fastened masks, that I was never married, never had my heart broken. There wasn’t even language yet. We hadn’t learned a single word. Our cells were still blooming, getting ready. We would do it all over again.

Read the story

Washington D.C.’s New Media Landscape Is Niche

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

When young writers dream of becoming journalists, how many envision themselves writing for trade magazines like American Shipper and Onion World? I used to work at a tea company which bagged its own tea, and it always amused me when our new issue of a heavy machinery trade mag arrived in the mail. It turns out, those niche publications are now far more stable, and often more lucrative, than most of the mainstream papers and magazines. Why was I laughing? I had to work at a tea shop to make a living as a writer.

At The Washington Post, Scott Nover takes us to Capitol Hill, where reporters for niche publications now outnumber reporters for the mainstream publications most of us associate with journalism. These reporters have specialties, from agriculture to medical devices, and their work caters to specialists whose particular interests are influenced by what happens on the Hill, and who are willing to pay top dollar for niche news. Besides making certain types of information more expensive, how has this changed other aspects of the media landscape?

Mainstream news organizations in search of new revenue streams have also moved into specialized coverage and research. In 2017, Digiday reported that Politico Pro — Politico’s subscription-based news and intelligence service — had 20,000 paying subscribers and accounted for half of Politico’s total revenue. In 2011, Bloomberg bought the Bureau of National Affairs, a trade publisher, and rebranded it as Bloomberg BNA; Business Insider launched Business Insider Intelligence in 2012.

When industry is the primary audience, the priorities for reporters can be different from those of mainstream journalists. Ferdous Al-Faruque, who goes by Danny, works for Medtech Insight, an industry trade outlet published by the British company Informa. “A large part of our audience are medical device companies. So their regulatory officers, their CEOs [and] various executives will read our stuff in order to know what is FDA thinking, what is FDA doing, how does this impact our business,” he told me. “The way I always try to remember this is if my articles are not, in some way, making money for the medical device industry, I’m not doing my job because what I write needs to somehow fill their business strategy.” He stressed, though, that the approach doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage. “Even though we might lose a major client because they don’t like what we write … we have to do it because it’s not about them,” he says. “It’s about our credibility.”

Some observers argue that the growing ranks of the trade press do contribute, albeit indirectly, to broader accountability journalism. At an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August, Usher and her colleague Yee Man Margaret Ng presented their research on social-media conversations between trade journalists in D.C. “What these trade folks are doing, especially on Twitter, is raising [the] alarm when [an] alarm needs to be raised,” Usher told me. “Or they’re covering something in a way that allows more mainstream … journalists to basically survey a sector they would otherwise not pay attention to.”

Read the story

Not Homeless Enough for Assistance, But Still Without a Home

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Working a stable job, paying rent on time, keeping a clean house ─ being a model tenant was not enough to keep a roof over Cokethia Goodman and her six children. When their Atlanta neighborhood became a hot market, their property’s owner decided to sell, and the family had to move. Their situation went downhill from there, taking them briefly to a Rodeway Inn paid for by the Red Cross, before struggling to secure homeless services.

For The New Republic, Brian Goldstone spent nearly a year reporting on the Goodman family’s struggle to live in Atlanta, and the larger phenomenon of working homelessness, where people without a residence still don’t qualify for certain essential types of assistance. This is a story about a lack of tenant protections, the human cost of so-called urban revitalization, rising rents and declining wages, and the tenuous positions of America’s working poor. As Goodman says, “I grew up in Atlanta. I graduated from high school in this city. Through my job, I’ve been taking care of people in this city. And now my kids and I are homeless? How does that even happen?”

Goodman’s predicament is increasingly common as the ranks of the working homeless multiply. The present support system, according to advocacy groups, effectively ignores scores of homeless families—excluding them from public discourse and locking them out of crucial support. This is due, in large part, to the way that HUD tallies and defines homelessness. Every January, in roughly 400 communities across the country, a battalion of volunteers, service providers, and government employees sets out to conduct the annual homeless census, referred to as the Point-in-Time count. Usually undertaken late at night and into the early morning, the HUD-overseen census is meant to provide a comprehensive snapshot of homelessness in America: its hot spots and demographics, its causes and magnitude. Last year, on the basis of this data, HUD reported a 23 percent decline in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness since 2007. The only problem, according to critics, is that HUD’s definition of “homeless,” and thus the scope of its Point-in-Time count, is severely limited, restricted to people living in shelters or on the streets. Everyone else—those crammed into apartments with others, or living in cars or hotels—is rendered doubly invisible: at once hidden from sight and disregarded by the official reporting metrics.

Julie Dworkin, the director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has called attention to the profound consequences of this neglect. Not only are families denied housing assistance from HUD and its local partners, but, as the federal agency’s figures make their way into the media, the true scale and nature of the crisis is also obscured. In 2016, Dworkin and her colleagues began conducting their own survey of Chicago’s homeless population, expanding it beyond the HUD census to include families doubled up with others. Their total was twelve times that of the Point-in-Time count: 82,212 versus 6,786. “The idea that these families aren’t ‘actually’ homeless because they’re not in shelters is absurd,” Dworkin told me. “Oftentimes the shelters are full, or there simply are no family shelters—in which case, all these people are essentially abandoned by the system.” She noted the myth that families with children living in doubled-up arrangements are somehow less vulnerable than those in shelters, when these conditions can be just as detrimental to a child’s education, mental and physical health, and long-term development.

In Atlanta, where city leaders (and local headlines) have touted a drop in homelessness over the past four years, there has been no comparable effort to track the number of unhoused families who fall outside the official count. Data collected by other federal agencies does exist, however, and the chasm between their respective findings is similarly striking. The Department of Education defines as homeless anyone who lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” which explicitly encompasses those in motels and doubled up. During the 2016–2017 school year, the Department of Education reported 38,336 homeless children and youth enrolled in Georgia public schools; that same year, the state’s HUD-administered total, not just for children and youth but for the entire homeless population, was 3,716. Politicians cited the smaller number when shaping the public narrative about homelessness in the state; that figure also helps determine the amount of money allocated to homeless services the following year. Meanwhile, the parents of those 38,336 students are caught between two parallel definitions. At their child’s school, they are homeless. At Gateway, they are not.

Read the story

Can Tech Become Ethical, If It Learns to Be Mindful First?

Nano Calvo/VWPics via AP Images

No matter how recent advances many tech companies have made for humanity, they have also wreaked havoc on our world, from screen addiction to social fragmentation to a depressing sense of isolation. Conflicted tech workers are starting to face the fact that Big Tech hasn’t simply bettered the world, and some are seeking spirituality, psychedelics, meditation, and mindfulness to reconcile this with their traditional notions of success. For The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz examines what he calls “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Silicon Valley has earned our skepticism, and it’s tempting to dismiss this soul-seeking as PR or another passing trend, like open offices or those little fold-up commuter bikes. “But ultimately if a handful of people have this much power,” asks Esalen institute’s past C.E.O. Ben Tauber, “then, isn’t that worth a shot?” Maybe. So what’s this all look like?

Near the end of a placid April morning in San Francisco, a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology convened more than three hundred people in a midsized amphitheatre named SFJAZZ—co-founders of Pinterest and Craigslist and Apple, vice-presidents at Google and Facebook, several prominent venture capitalists, and many people whose job titles were “storyteller” or “human-experience engineer.” One attendee was Aden Van Noppen, who carried a notebook with a decal that read, “Move Purposefully and Fix Things.” She worked on tech policy in Barack Obama’s White House, then did a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and now runs Mobius, a Bay Area organization dedicated to “putting our well-being at the center of technology.” “The Valley right now is like a patient who’s just received a grave diagnosis,” she said. “There’s a type of person who reacts to that by staying in deflect-and-deny mode—‘How do we prevent anyone from knowing we’re sick?’ Then, there’s the type who wants to treat the symptoms, quickly and superficially, in the hope that the illness just goes away on its own. And there’s a third group, that wants to find a cure.” The audience at SFJAZZ comprised the third group—the concerned citizens of Silicon Valley.

Before the presentation, Van Noppen hosted a breakfast for a few members of the audience, including Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook employee and a co-inventor of the Like button, and Chris Messina, a former Google employee and the inventor of the hashtag. Messina wore a polo shirt, revealing a tattoo on each arm: a hashtag on the right, a Burning Man logo on the left. “It’s not nearly widespread enough yet,” he said, of the industry’s capacity for self-critique. “But even to get a group of people together like this and publicly acknowledge the depth of the problem? That would have been impossible a few years ago.”

“A few months ago,” Rosenstein said.

Read the story

Surf Where You Least Expect It

Ton Koene/VWPics via AP Images

Ireland, known to outsiders for its castles, whisky, and lush green landscapes, has some serious breaks along its beautiful west coast. To ride them, you have to contend with frigid water, rough seas, and fickle conditions, but chances are you’ll have the waves all to yourself, give or take a few grazing sheep watching from a bluff. For The New York Times, Biddle Duke and his wife take a two-week trip up Ireland’s Atlantic coastline, out of season, to check out spots like the Cliffs of Moher and Coumeenoole beach for themselves. Conditions are hit and miss in June, but when it hits, it hits, as it did in County Sligo.

Mr. Stott and I connected through the New York surfer grapevine. Following his bread-crumb trail of texts, I found a narrow lane through a clutch of barns and farmhouses to a cove. It was a near windless afternoon, with head-high waves breaking over a smooth limestone ledge. On my scale it was excellent. For Mr. Stott it was an average practice day, so he surfed his tiny board with the fins removed for an additional challenge.

In the lineup with us was only one other surfer, Paul O’Kane, an Australian who’d come to Ireland 20 years ago for his honeymoon and, like so many others, stayed. Starved for it, I stayed in for hours. A contingent of friendly locals rotated through. Ireland is so far north that when I quit it was close to 10 p.m. the sun still just above the horizon. We had dinner, slept right there, and went at it again the next morning.

The swell lasted four more days. Between shifts in the wind and downpours we got our fill on that north coast. We moved our camp to near the ruins of the thousand year-old Rosslea Castle on a grassy bluff overlooking the two main breaks at Easkey, our only company a family of Germans who’d ferried over in their own van.

Read the story