This week, we’re sharing stories from Elizabeth Weil, Leah McSweeney and Jacob Siegel, Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger, Sean Patrick Cooper, and Priya Krishna.
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.
Senior Researcher for investigative journalist Ronan Farrow
Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis (Linda Villarosa, The New York Times)
Villarosa’s unflinching examination of giving birth while black in America has stayed with me. We lose black newborns and black mothers at astonishing rates; in the U.S., black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants, Villarosa writes, and black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts. Why? The piece lays out evidence for a theory that black women bear the trauma of systemic racism in their very physiology — that years of exposure to the stress of discrimination wreaks havoc on a body, and might contribute to pregnancy complications. Just as lethal, Villarosa’s reporting demonstrates, is the frequency and callousness with which medical staff routinely — and disproportionately — dismiss the complaints of black pregnant women and ignore warning signs.
The ISIS Files (Rukmini Callimachi, The New York Times)
Callimachi is a reporter’s reporter; she’s all about the documents. During five trips to Mosul spanning more than a year, she scoured abandoned buildings that had recently housed the workspaces, training grounds, courts, and living quarters of ISIS militants, stuffing tattered papers and folders the group had left behind into trash bags. Callimachi and her team ultimately carted off more than 15,000 pages of documents. Through the lens of these records, Callimachi describes a regimented governing body focused on collecting taxes, issuing birth and marriage certificates, and meting out punishments. ISIS, she writes, “even ran its own D.M.V.” There are practical applications for such insights, the piece suggests. Our prior misconceptions about extremist groups like ISIS, Callimachi writes, have led to tactical failures in U.S.-led efforts to defeat them, such as a focus on destroying petroleum reserves when the group relied more heavily on agriculture for revenue. All this from a haul of jettisoned papers.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and tech.
Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and author of The Poison Squad.
They Know Seas Are Rising, but They’re Not Abandoning Their Beloved Cape Cod (Meera Subramanian, InsideClimate News)
For more than a year, Meera Subramanian has been traversing the country for InsideClimate News, creating a series of vivid and wonderfully balanced portraits of small communities wrestling with the havoc of climate change (whether they admit it or not). This one from October, focused on an increasingly flood-washed area called Blish Point, stands out for me. It’s a tapestry-like picture woven of relentlessly rising seas, threatened homes and businesses, the politics of climate change science, and pure, stubborn human reluctance to give up on a beloved way of coastal living.
Subramanian never raises her voice or treats any viewpoint with less than respect — although she occasionally deftly slides in the scientific arguments that counter climate denialism. She has an elegant way of making both people and place live on the page. The result is a compelling and compassionate narrative in which this one small, beautiful, vanishing strip of Massachusetts, perched on the edge of an encroaching ocean, becomes a microcosm for the much bigger story of change — and its reckoning — now being realized around the world.
Freelance science journalist, former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and lecturer at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
God Is in the Machine (Carl Miller, The Times Literary Supplement)
Whether it’s your social media feed, prison sentence, or driverless car, our world is increasingly governed by algorithms. The terrifying thing is that we’re quickly approaching a horizon after which no one will be able to explain the code used or decisions made to build these things. This sobering excerpt from Carl Miller’s book, The Death of the Gods: The new global power grab, makes startlingly clear our ignorance of the machines we’ve hacked together. “Truth is dead,” as one programmer tells him. “There is only output.”
Tech reporter at The Verge and co-host of Why’d You Push That Button?
How Forlini’s Survives the Instagram Horde (Alex Vadukul, The New York Times)
Instagram has fundamentally changed where and why we visit the places we do. Alex Vadukul’s piece on New York Italian restaurant Forlini’s taps into this idea. He perfectly captures how one establishment’s demographics can change over time. One group of patrons goes for the food and convenience — Forlini’s is next to the courthouse — while another prefers it as a backdrop for Instagram photos. Vadukul includes incredible quotes, too, especially the one in which a Forlini’s owner marvels at how influencers manage to drink alcohol and stay thin. I wonder that, too.
Writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, previously editor at Nautilus and The Believer.
Survival of the Richest (Douglas Rushcoff, Medium)
There’s a lot of bad science writing about transhumanism − rich people wanting to live forever by uploading their minds to computers, etc. But Rushcoff explores the very human drive for a post-human future by elegantly tracing links between the failures of global capitalism, the growing divide between rich and poor, the ongoing climate catastrophe, and what transhumanism is really all about: escape. It’s the best thinking I’ve read on the subject, and the piece stands out as a clear articulation of how some imagine − or fail to imagine − our digital future. I’m still haunted by the moment when a super-wealthy CEO who has paid to pick Rushcoff’s brain about “the future of technology” asks, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”
See No Evil (Miriam Posner, Logic)
Posner’s piece on using software to make supply chains more transparent contains some powerful observations. It elegantly highlights how some characteristic features of modernity have harmed rather than helped this endeavor. Large scale, distributed networks like the internet and global supply chains might be more resilient and efficient than their predecessors, but they are almost impossible to regulate. Similarly, modular information design and the ‘black box architecture’ of software helps scale businesses, but they can also obfuscate the decision making process of those in charge, leading to a lack of accountability.
As we grapple with the challenge of how to hold algorithmic decision-making accountable for the harm it can cause, this piece reminds us that the harm is often a feature of these systems, not a bug.
Neel V. Patel
Science and tech journalist, contributor to The Daily Beast, The Verge, Slate, Wired, Popular Science, Foreign Policy, and New York Magazine.
How Duterte Used Facebook To Fuel the Philippine Drug War (Davey Alba, BuzzFeed News)
Facebook had a bad year, culminating most damningly in a New York Times’ report in November that showed the company’s inability to safeguard the platform from nefarious parties trying to influence the 2016 election, as well as its unwillingness to take responsibility and make fixes. But the insidiousness of Facebook in the U.S. dwarfs what’s happening overseas. Davey Alba, writing for BuzzFeed News, illustrates how Rodrigo Duterte and his autocratic regime in the Philippines leveraged the platform to disseminate false news and propaganda, exacerbating the carnage inflicted by his war on drugs and dismantling many of the country’s democratic structures. It’s a terrifying example of what happens when our biggest fears of the unregulated sprawl of Facebook are realized.
Audience editor, Longreads
Can Dirt Save the Earth? (Moises Velasquez-Manoff, The New York Times Magazine)
Readers may be more familiar with Nathaniel Rich’s historic New York Times Magazine story from this summer, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, than with this epic piece on dirt that came out back in April, but Moises Velasquez-Manoff literally redefined on-the-ground reporting — on soil itself. This story helped me dust off all of my murky grade school memories of nutrient cycles while teaching me anew why these basic, natural processes are so relevant to every sustainable challenge we face. Maybe I’m just a fan of solarpunk, but I love reading about known, practical mitigation methods that are worth doing anyway, even past all of our many missed opportunities and catastrophic points of no return. Carbon farming may not be enough, but what it can do might still be miraculous. Stories that neither sugarcoat real options nor deny that any exist at least give us some time back — if not enough for a full second chance, then enough to do something more meaningful, ultimately, than wait.
You have a stride today that leads you almost above everyone’s heads at speed, but you walk in their midst, and it’s not down to you that a logjam forms down at the time clock; you’ve got your ID at the ready and you hold it up to the sensor as you pass. It’s down to others who are newer than you, who have to examine what the screen says first, who wait for the display to formulate clearly that they’ve been logged in. You make small noises to express your annoyance, jostle a little, but you’re not as snappy as those who pass by the waiting line and really hold their IDs up to the sensor as they walk, so fast that the new employee currently examining the screen and slowly raising his ID to the sensor doesn’t even notice.
And now: things, oh boy, things. It’s because of all the things that are here, which someone or another wants to buy, that you’re here in the first place. Strange products in your hands, for example this baseball cap that already looks so lived-in it could hardly get much more worn. Used- or distressed-look fashion, you get the point, but the cap is nothing but a ragged piece of cloth, more like something for adherents to a radicalized acceleration of the commodity cycle, people who only buy what has to be thrown away because it fails to meet its requirements as a usable product, serves only to move money and material. The cap has an Iron Maiden logo on it and has slipped out of its bag. You almost sense the greasy feel of sweat mixed with dust. You’re tempted to try it on for a moment, perhaps because it looks like something you found on the street for which you might have some use. A colleague at the next desk calls over that a guy was fired two weeks ago for trying out a skateboard he was supposed to be receiving. You nod, stuff the cap back in the bag, and tape it shut. Read more…
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large.
The Disappeared (Hannah Dreier, ProPublica with Newsday)
When eleven high school students went missing in a single county on Long Island in just two years, law enforcement shrugged. Most of the teenagers who disappeared were recent transplants from Central America, and many of them were last seen heading into the woods, lured by the promise of weed. The Suffolk County police department responded with stomach-churning indifference, telling frantic parents that their children had simply run away.
Hannah Dreier chronicles an upside-down world in which one boy’s mother – an envelope factory employee who speaks no English – is left to piece together what happened to her son. Based on more than 100 interviews and voluminous public records, Hannah Dreier’s storytelling is as vivid as it is effortless. She builds upon an accumulation of damning details — like the fact that one Spanish-speaking mother, whose son was murdered, had to pay a taxi driver to interpret for her at the police station. (“He kept the clock running and charged her $70,” Dreier writes.) “The Disappeared,” which was turned into an episode of This American Life, is a devastating work of both relentless reporting and empathy.
Michael A. Gonzales
Contributor to Catapult, The Paris Review, and Longreads.
A Preacher, a Scam, and a Massacre in Brooklyn (Sarah Weinman, CrimeReads)
Fans of vintage New York crime stories will love Sarah Weinman’s brilliant Brooklyn-based tale, a sordid story that only gets worse the more you read. Weinman takes the reader into the mind and home of a con man named DeVernon LeGrand, a pretend preacher who kept a stable of women who dressed as nuns and begged on the streets. Of course, in true pimp fashion, LeGrand took most of their money. After moving his flock to 222 Brooklyn Avenue in 1966, things get worse for the crooked organization as it eventually becomes involved in kidnapping and murder. Although in the early 2000s I lived four blocks away from the scene of LeGrand’s various crimes for thirteen years, I had never heard of him or his house of pain and death until reading Weinman’s wonderfully written piece.
Contributor to The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Daily Beast. Author of The Spy with No Name.
Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffpost Highline)
I write about unusual heists from middle-America, so I was game for this Michigan lotto scam story from FOIA-bandit Jason Fagone. In crime writing it’s the characters who make for a good yarn, and I was all-in on this Mom and Pop who used brain-power to beat the system, and the odds.
The Man Who Captures Criminals for the DEA by Playing Them (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, The New Yorker)
Why actor Spyros Enotiades told his story to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee I don’t know (there must surely be a bounty on his head), but the storytelling was extraordinary. Undercover capers don’t get better than this.
Managing editor at The Investigative Fund.
The Trauma of Everyday Gun Violence in New Orleans (Jimmie Briggs and Andre Lambertson, VICE)
This photojournalistic investigation into how gun violence affects black communities explores how living with that violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like experience with war can. But unlike with returning veterans, gun violence-plagued communities don’t get the funding or mental health resources to help them cope.
Executive Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of five books including Squeezed, Branded, and the poetry book, Monetized. She writes The Guardian’s Outclassed column.
Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)
This is fantastic longform that embodies what I think social justice reportage should be today. It combines an under-heard, first-person voice with a gripping true story about one of the most crucial issues in America today, incarceration. Betts, who is a lawyer and a poet, also gives his tale an unexpected literary feel, with a comprehensive gloss on the sociology behind juvenile crime, prisons, jailhouse lawyers, and the limited social possibilities for ex-felons.
Omnipresence (Ann Neumann, Virginia Quarterly Review)
This multimedia criminal justice story is about how too-bright, all-night lighting in housing projects, and faulty design overall, contributes to a troubling level of surveillance in poorer communities under the guise of fighting crime. It makes something as basic as sleeping uncomfortable for thousands upon thousands of law-abiding citizens. I really like this story’s taxonomic, poetic style, as well as how architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella gives the story a more formalist visual valence than your typical housing piece.
Blood Cries Out (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist)
In the book Popular Crime by Bill James, the author writes that the phrase “something terrible has happened” is “the best title ever for a crime book…those words turn the ‘crime story’ inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage.”
We’re hardly ten percent of the way into the story in “Blood Cries Out” before someone uses those words to tell her husband that the unthinkable has occurred: there’s been a murder right across the road. And the vast and grisly stage? Small-town Chillicothe, Missouri, where two men have amicably farmed the same land for years, until one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with a bullet in his face and his wife dead beside him. The wounded man initially suspects his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, but then changes his story and accuses his farming partner, and then his farming partner’s son, which results in the sort of twisty and utterly corrupt legal process worthy of Making a Murderer part three.
The piece is full of letters and depositions and secret meetings and a lot of paperwork, but on occasion, it vibrates with poignantly biblical/Americana-esque undertones, from the title (plucked from Genesis) to lines like, “[the victim’s] murder was an attack on a Christian matriarch, a cherished local archetype. Similarly, [the innocent man’s] conviction represented the denial of an eldest son’s right to live and work on his father’s land.”
Author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.
The End of Evil (Sarah Marshall, The Believer)
I published a book and wrote a lot of my own pieces in 2018 — including one for this site — so, oddly, I didn’t keep as good track of longform reporting produced by others (podcasts, however, that’s a different story, but this is Longreads, not Longlistens). But I keep returning to Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil” because it makes fresh a story long consigned to easy tropes. Marshall, who also co-hosts the stellar podcast You’re Wrong About… and is one of my favorite true crime writers, gives voice to the myriad of women and girls Bundy murdered, shows him as something far less than an evil mastermind, and demonstrates why, with particular clarity, “the longer you spend inside this story, the less sense you can find.”
Audience editor, Longreads
Checkpoint Nation (Melissa del Bosque, Texas Observer)
When Americans think of “the border” as a narrow and specific line, we neglect the legal reality that the term actually applies to a border zone, a much larger halo covering up to 100 air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The zone touches parts of 38 states, covering 10 in their entirety — and within that wide rim, anyone can be subjected to a warrantless search at any time. In this signature longform reality check, Melissa del Bosque digs into the history of how Congress vested U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with alarming, far-reaching powers to search and detain even long-term residents who’ve never committed a crime at surprise, “suspicionless” checkpoints.
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
In a series of sweet, anonymous snapshots, Shiho Fukada talks to and photographs a growing cohort of Japanese seniors: “otherwise law-abiding elderly women” who have found a solution to the loneliness of aging in the reliable comforts of prison. Almost 1 in 5 women in Japanese prisons is a senior, Fukada reports, and 90 percent of them are arrested for shoplifting. From the simple things they steal (rice, cold medicine, a frying pan) to the circumstances they’re trying to escape (bedridden or violent spouses, invisibility, loss, and financial strain), the details of this story make structural inadequacies to meet the unmet social and healthcare needs of an aging population all too clear.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.
A writer, editor, instructor, and PhD student at Florida State University.
I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye (Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic)
This fall, I taught my freshman composition classes through a pop culture lens. Many of my students had been indoctrinated with the false promises of the five-paragraph essay and began the year with the certainty first-person point of view had no place in professional or academic writing. After I assigned this personal essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates during week one, most, if not all, of them changed their minds. Coates dissects the celebrity of Kanye West by interweaving personal narrative, meticulous research, and deft cultural and political commentary. It’s a remarkable model for what the personal essay can accomplish. How Coates ties the personal to the societal to the universal is hard to match. Coates’s ease in presenting West’s cross-generational relevance also presented an important point of connection between my students and me. Regardless of the age gap, we had all grown up on Kanye’s music. Our mutual familiarity opened up an important conversation about the divide between art and the artist, as well as the sticky social, cultural, and political complexities of fame. Throughout the semester, I found my students returning to this piece. It became a common point of reference. Certainly this essay was a pleasure to teach, but it also had much to teach me, and for that I am grateful.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Johnson, Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, Jamie Lauren Keiles, Laurie Penny, and Jen Doll.
Mike Davis | Ecology of Fear | Metropolitan Books | September 1998 | 20 minutes (5,921 words)
“Homes, of course, will arise here in the thousands. Many a peak will have its castle.”
—John Russell McCarthy, These Waiting Hills (1925)
Late August to early October is the infernal season in Los Angeles. Downtown is usually shrouded in acrid yellow smog while heat waves billow down Wilshire Boulevard. Outside air-conditioned skyscrapers, homeless people huddle miserably in every available shadow.
Across the Harbor Freeway, the overcrowded tenements of the Westlake district—Los Angeles’s Spanish Harlem—are intolerable ovens. Suffocating in their tiny rooms, immigrant families flee to the fire escapes, stoops, and sidewalks. Anxious mothers swab their babies’ foreheads with water while older children, eyes stinging from the smog, cry for paletas: the flavored cones of shaved ice sold by pushcart vendors. Shirtless young men—some with formidable jail-made biceps and mural-size tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe across their backs—monopolize the shade of tienda awnings. Amid hundreds of acres of molten asphalt and concrete there is scarcely a weed, much less a lawn or tree.
Thirty miles away, the Malibu coast—where hyperbole meets the surf—basks in altogether different weather. The temperature is 85°F (20 degrees cooler than Downtown), and the cobalt blue sky is clear enough to discern the wispish form of Santa Barbara Island, nearly 50 miles offshore. At Zuma surfers ride the curl under the insouciant gazes of their personal sun goddesses, while at Topanga Beach, horse trainers canter Appaloosas across the wet sand. Indifferent to the misery on the “mainland,” the residents of Malibu suffer through another boringly perfect day.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Julie K. Brown, Joe Sexton, Zachary R. Mider and Zeke Faux, Bruce Grierson, and Michael Hainey.