This month, Longreads turns eight years old. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the site over the years — from the Longreads Members who fund our story budget, to my colleagues past and present at our parent company Automattic/WordPress.com, and to editor in chief Mike Dang and our growing team of editors, writers, and journalists who are producing outstanding essays and reporting every day.
I’ve often used these anniversary posts to look back, but we’re undergoing some big changes this year — not just publishing more original and exclusive stories, but also funding more serious reporting from around the world. It’s time to look ahead. Read more…
At Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny interviews Brian Reed, the host of the popular investigative podcast, S-Town, from the producers of Serial and This American Life. Reed shares his perspective on his approach to reporting the story. He relates how he earned the trust of the people he interviewed (the story takes place in Bibb County, Alabama — a poor and rural part of the state not used to outsiders) and his thoughts on reporting on someone after they have died. Warning: the interview contains spoilers.
I did find, in general, with some people down there, the “fuck it” attitude that I talk about in the story applied to talking to me. They got a kick out of me being there and having a reporter interested in their lives. That can be a lot of things — it can be annoying and it can be overwhelming, but it can also be validating to have someone listen to you as long as you want to talk, and listening to your every word, which I would do a lot of times. Otherwise it can be fun, and add some spice into your otherwise normal day, when you have this guy with a microphone following you around, and it’s funny. I think all of those were present in these relationships.
Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)
Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.
Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?
If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…
Those who work with food are especially prone to thinking of themselves as curators. Chefs, for example, are said to be curating things wherever you look. There are countless internet personalities who refer to themselves as “food curators.” With a little searching, you will also encounter wine curators, beer curators, coffee curators, tea curators, spice curators, and cupcake curators.
The fantasy of curation can be extended to virtually any product category. Shops are often thought to be curated. So are rugs. And furniture. Cosmetics. Landscaping. Wardrobes. Music is eminently suited for the oversight of curators. So are TED talks. In fact, “curator” appears to be the actual job title of the chief officer of the TED organization, as it is of those who oversee TEDx events. It’s also a title of a radio producer at NPR.
When’s the last time you saved thousands of lives with a Facebook post? It happened last year to Greg Owen, recently profiled by Buzzfeed UK, a part-time bartender and club promoter from Northern Ireland who contributed to last year’s steep drop in new HIV diagnoses in London while homeless, underemployed, and himself HIV positive.
On 11 August 2015, Owen posted on Facebook to let his friends know that he planned to begin taking PrEP. A friend, who was HIV-positive and had been prescribed the drug as part of his treatment before switching medication, offered him some spare pills. Owen’s plan was to start taking them and blog about his experiences—a “blow by blow” account, he says, laughing…
The day after the Facebook post, he went to a sexual health clinic to double-check he was HIV-negative before taking the pills. Moments later, the nurse gave him the result of the rapid pin-prick blood test: It was positive. He had missed his chance to prevent it.
“I felt sick,” says Owen. “I said, ‘I need to have a cigarette.’ I was in shock.”
The following evening, aware that his friends on Facebook would soon be asking how he was getting on with PrEP, and while working a shift in a gay bar, Owen posted an update on the site telling everyone he was HIV-positive.
That single act triggered a chain of events that would change everything.
This single post caused Owen to become the unintentional poster boy for PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known by the brand name Truvada, a pill taken daily that can help prevent the risk of HIV infection. PrEP is available in the US under most insurance programs, including Medicaid, but in 2015, it was still unavailable on the UK’s National Health Service.
With the help of social media and a homegrown website about the PrEP regimen, Owen got word to thousands of people, garnering the attention of public health officials along the way. It’s a trajectory made all the more surprising by Owen’s total lack of resources and official support. Owen managed to turn his social contacts and personal commitment to HIV prevention into a movement—and by doing so, unwittingly became the latest in a long line of underfunded, grassroots activists who have battled HIV/AIDS through social networks.
The gay community confronted the illness in the early 1980s, when public health officials heard reports of a “gay cancer” spreading through San Francisco and New York. Before HIV or AIDS even had a name, gay men gathered in the Greenwich Village living room of playwright and activist Larry Kramer, where they met with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, a dermatologist and virologist who told them what he knew about the disease. They could hardly believe what they heard.
Kramer’s living room became the headquarters for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now America’s oldest AIDS organization, as HIV/AIDS began to decimate gay communities and disbelief turned to action. The group, and others like it, relied on social networking to get the word out about AIDS. They disseminated the latest research, raised funds, and provided critical support for patients at all stages. “Nobody paid any attention to it, recalls Kramer in an interview with Frontline. “We didn’t exist.” (Kramer later parted ways with GMHC and went on to help found ACT UP, an advocacy group whose in-your-face tactics drew national attention to the crisis.)
For early HIV/AIDS activists, grassroots organizing wasn’t a choice—it was a necessity. Scientific understanding of the virus was in its infancy, and a social stigma surrounded its victims. Researchers struggled to get enough money to finance their work and activists struggled for media attention. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration ignored both groups’ pleas for public acknowledgment, and the president famously failed to even use the word “AIDS” in public until 1985, and didn’t give a major speech on the subject until 1987. There was no choice but to pick up the phone, make a flyer, or get out into the street.
Part of the problem was what sociologists call “social death”—the exclusion of people who are thought to be beyond saving because of their social status. But grassroots activism gave hope to patients, challenged stigma, and ultimately pushed forward research. Celebrities whose own social networks were torn apart by HIV/AIDS eventually came forward, and slowly, an international movement was born. Today, those living-room gatherings, phone calls, get-togethers, and grassroots marches have resulted in prevention like PrEP and better treatments for HIV/AIDS patients. And they still fuel efforts like Owen’s to make sure those interventions get in the hands of those who are at risk.
As Owen’s story illustrates, there are still big gaps in awareness despite the existence of better treatment and prevention options. In March 2016, the NHS ceased—before it had even started—the process of funding the drug.
The resulting publicity surrounding the decision, however, had an interesting effect: More and more people were becoming aware of the drug and, says Owen, seeking it out on IWantPrEPNow. Traffic began to double and triple. His social media presence swelled, fueling further traffic and media traction: appearances on the BBC, more radio discussions, more press coverage. Greg Owen was becoming Mr PrEP.
In response to NHS England’s decision, all the major HIV charities joined forces to fight it. A series of meetings ensued. Owen was the only activist invited to attend, as every HIV specialist knew that he was the main link to thousands of people wanting the drug…
A legal battle commenced, brought by the National AIDS Trust, to counter NHS England’s claim that it was not their responsibility to provide PrEP as HIV prevention was the job of local councils. At each step of this process, as news reports described what was happening, traffic to IWantPrEPNow continued to climb.
By the time NHS England lost in the High Court in August last year, 12,000 people were visiting the site every month. NHS England swiftly appealed the ruling. Orders of generic PrEP kept rising… As the NHS stalled, an underground movement, facilitated by Owen, was in full swing.
The NHS eventually lost the appeal in November, and announced that it would provide the drugs for at least 10,000 people, but earlier that summer a panel discussion at the International AIDS Conference warned that global funding for the disease is still in danger of a “collapse” that could set back public health goals. If history is any indicator, activists won’t lay down their arms anytime soon. Like Owen, they’ll pick up their cell phones and carry on—even if their invisible labor goes unpaid and unrecognized.
As the president sucks up the oxygen from the media atmosphere, it’s easy to forget how important local journalism is right now. The regional press—the holy trinity of newspapers, alt-weeklies, and city magazines—is where we can find true stories of friends and neighbors impacted by immigration raids, fights over funding public education, and the frontline of relaxed environmental standards that will impact the water we drink and the air we breathe. We need to support their work. Read more…
This summer, I decided I wanted to explore this place that had become a foreign country to me. I didn’t understand what had happened since I left, why so many people seemed so disillusioned and angry. I planned a zigzag route, revisiting places where I once lived or worked, a 29-day sprint through 11 states (and four time zones). I knew I would be moving too fast to make any sweeping declaration about the state of America, and I wouldn’t ask people which presidential candidate they were voting for. I was more interested in why they were so anxious about the present and the future. I wanted to find out why the country was fragmenting rather than binding together. Most of all I wanted to see with my own eyes what had changed — and so much had changed.
“My first campaign was in 2012, and I did that for GQ, and it was essentially a blog. I was on the trail covering it every single day, multiple times a day. So I was trained pretty narrowly as a political reporter. But I always had this ambition to be a magazine features writer, and after 2012 I tried to lay the groundwork of doing features, about politics but also about other things. …
“After spending a year at GQ covering the campaign — I had gone there with the idea that I was going to be a daily blogger on the campaign trail and also write these great longform features. And guess what? It’s really hard to blog every day, and also write longform features. So at the end of the year I was sort of looking I was like, ‘Well this was great, but I didn’t write anything that was like a classic magazine feature.’ I freelanced for about eight months and I just use that time to really establish myself as someone who could do the features because, for one, I wanted to know that I could do it. But I also wanted to say to other people, ‘Here’s the kind of writer I am.'”
-On my latest episode of the Kill Fee podcast (iTunes), I spoke with journalist Marin Cogan about her early career, and how she navigates the world of politics, sports, and beyond.
In July of 1991, Tim Keck moved to Seattle from Madison, Wisconsin, to launch a newspaper. He’d recruited a handful of friends and colleagues from the Onion, the satirical weekly he’d cofounded and recently sold (yes, that Onion), to help him conceive a new, irreverent publication—one which sent-up the weekly newspaper format and had equal doses of reporting and criticism as it did satire.
Among those who joined him were James Sturm, Peri Pakroo, Nancy Hartunian, Wm. Steven Humphrey, Christine Wenc, Johanna “Jonnie” Wilder, Matt Cook, Andy Spletzer, and, later, Dan Savage.
Armed mostly with hubris, a few thousand dollars, and three slow-as-fuck computers, they initially set their sights on appealing to University of Washington students, but quickly found their real audience among the queers and weirdos who (used to) populate Capitol Hill. Their coverage of Seattle was necessarily informed by their perspective as outsiders, transplants… (are you really going to make me say it?) strangers. Read more…
It’s been just over a day since the internet exploded with analyses, memes, and hashtags on Melania Trump’s liberal use of phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The awkwardness of this particular case of (alleged) plagiarism will soon be drowned out by other stories. But debates around plagiarism never quite disappear: they touch on originality, authenticity, and property, concepts that are deeply linked to our modern sense of humanness.
Here are six meaty reads on plagiarism: from deep dives into infamous recent cases to essays that question the very possibility of writing that isn’t, to some extent, an act of unattributed borrowing.