Tag Archives: journalism

An Elegy for DNAinfo, Local Media’s First Responders

DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenberg speaks to writers, journalists, and labor activists at a protest at City Hall. The site was shut down a week after its employees voted to unionize. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Danielle Tcholakian

If you haven’t already read about it, on the afternoon of November 2, DNAinfo New York and Chicago, as well as Gothamist and all its sister sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. were shut down by their owner, billionaire Joe Ricketts, a week after 25 employees in New York voted to join a union. Ricketts had founded DNAinfo in 2009, merging it with the older, more profitable Gothamist sites this spring, shedding staff and catalyzing the union effort.

The end came quickly. One employee returned from the restroom to find that he and all of his colleagues had been fired, and the site’s archive had been removed from the internet. (The archives have since been restored after a public outcry.) Shutting Gothamist and DNAinfo meant 115 people lost their jobs that day.

Read more…

“That Was the Final Straw”: On Reporting From Venezuela as It Spiraled Downward

diego looking at Caracas landscape.
Diego, who's on the verge of leaving Venezuela, was followed by reporter Christian Borys during the July protests. (Daniel Blanco)

On July 30, Venezuela’s anti-government movement quickly collapsed after a controversial, and possibly fraudulent, vote radically extended Nicolás Maduro’s presidential powers. On the ground in Caracas during those fateful days was Canadian journalist Christian Borys, whose Longreads Exclsuive about the unraveling of Venezuela’s Resistencia movement, “You Can See the Battle Scars,” came out last week. I recently chatted with Christian over email about the protests’ sobering aftermath, and the experience of reporting from a country caught in a dramatic downward spiral.

* * *

It’s been almost two months since you returned from Caracas. Have you been in touch with some of the people you met there? What are they telling you about the current state of things?

Yes, I’m in touch with someone almost every day. The weirdest part about what’s happening now is that nothing is happening. The movement against the government died the day after the big vote on July 30. It was as if everyone either gave up the fight, resigned themselves to a future under a dictatorship, and returned back to their work-life routine or got out of the country. A lot of people told me that their friends just left afterward. That was the final straw.

You’ve reported about protests and civil strife before, in places like Poland and Ukraine. How was the experience in Venezuela different for you as a journalist, and as an observer?

Venezuela is in a far more difficult situation than any other place I’ve been to. It’s devolved into one of the worst places in the world to live, and although they’ve managed to avoid any sort of massive internal armed conflict, people are struggling just to get basics. You have people picking through trash to find food, which you can certainly find in any country, but everyone we spoke to said that they’d never, ever seen that in Venezuela before. The food shortage and poverty had grown so extreme that people were forced to pick from scraps. We heard stories about women turning to prostitution to make a dollar, about how insanely difficult it is to acquire medicine if you can’t afford it, and even about the trouble of acquiring something as basic as a T-shirt if you want a new one. The prices have just gone to such extremes in relation to the wages that nothing is remotely affordable anymore.

People with access to U.S. currency can live like kings in Venezuela because the currency has fallen off a cliff, but not everyone has relatives in the U.S. who can send them dollars. It’s this slow descent into the abyss. I think it was Diego — a young man featured in the story — who said to me, while we were at a market, something like, “Man, this is such bullshit, nothing is affordable anymore.” And I asked him about when he began to notice the changes. He said it was slow, so slow that you just got used to it each time it happened. Each time there was a spike, you thought it can’t get worse, but then it did. For reference, when I got there, the currency was below 8,000 bolívars per one U.S. dollar. When I left, it’d dropped to 20,000 to one dollar amid the chaos. Now it’s gone all the way to 30,000. People’s real earnings have just gone up in flames.

One of the most striking things in your piece is the way it conveys the normalcy of danger. How did it feel on the ground while you were reporting? Was there a sense of imminent violence, whether from the authorities or from random crime? Has it affected the way you went about reporting this story?

The dangerous part about Venezuela — and why it was so different than Ukraine, for example — is that when you cover war, you generally know which direction the threat could be coming from, you know who could be out to cause you harm. In Venezuela you had no idea, and the options were limitless as to who might put you in danger. There was SEBIN (The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service), robbery, kidnapping, National Guardsmen, Venezuelan officers, and random murder. It was an especially difficult place to work during that time because there were checkpoints, even casual ones, all around. Authorities were looking for suspicious groupings of people in cars to figure out which ones could be protesters. There was a lot of paranoia on our part about who was watching us — and it was definitely justified. One day, on July 30 actually, the day of the Constituyente vote, a middle-aged man came up and snapped my picture, then rushed away. My colleagues and I were concerned we’d be picked up.

Your reporting took you to very different areas in Caracas — from affluent enclaves to some of the poorest barrios. Does the despair, and the reactions to it, transcend these divisions, or did you see it play out differently across socioeconomic fault lines?

Yes, we went all over the city. I wanted to make sure we saw the whole spectrum of opinions, and frankly, everyone young, without exception, was against the government. It didn’t matter if they were ultra-poor, like Gaucho, or wealthy, like Federica — who are both are featured in the story — the young people were universally against their government. It makes sense when you look at the statistics and realize that they no longer see any future for themselves in their own country. I think people sometimes discount or can’t empathize with how difficult it is to have to pack up and move to a different country, even if you speak the same language. I mean, moving apartments can be enough of a pain in the ass, but fleeing a country, finding a new place to live, building a new social and professional network, restarting school, finding a new job, starting a career from scratch, learning a new culture, establishing new routines. Those are all emotionally exhausting.

Bringing this back to a North American perspective, the concept of political “resistance” has seen a major resurgence this past year. And it’s almost always framed in optimistic terms. Your story shows the moment where a resistance movement very clearly hit a major, perhaps fatal, dead end. Is there anything that can be learned from the Resistencia activists you’ve witnessed in Caracas in the days before the July 30 vote? What’s in store for this now much-weakened movement?

I honestly have no idea what can be learned. I was shocked to see the movement die off the day after the vote. I expected some massive uprising to take place, as did many people, except for the veteran correspondents who’d spent years in Venezuela. Several people told me to expect nothing much, but it seemed like such an intense moment that I discounted that theory a bit. But that’s exactly what happened.

Some people tried to explain it to me afterward as the failure of the opposition politicians to actually keep the trust of the movement. Their message changed so often, from “Let’s march on the Presidential Palace!” to “Pull over and turn your cars off in protest.” People were disheartened by their leadership, especially when they saw their leaders willing to cooperate with the regime in the wake of the vote. I mean, people on the street were screaming “dictatorship!”, and yet the politicians who’d asked them to give their lives for this movement suddenly changed views and began to negotiate. I guess the people felt betrayed. The only way you can ensure that doesn’t happen is if you make the resistance movement apolitical, meaning you don’t let a political party co-opt it and lead the charge. You’d have to let civil society lead it, and do it for the betterment of society, not for the political goals of any party. How you can ensure that a politician doesn’t step in and take over is beyond me.

As far as what’s in store for this movement, I honestly have no idea. I feel like the country is just going to lose a ton of its young, talented people and devolve further into a shadow of what it once was economically and culturally. I don’t know if there will be a big challenge to Maduro’s regime anytime soon.

Read “You Can See the Battle Scars”

The Trump Whisperer: A Conversation with Washington Post Reporter David Fahrenthold

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Fahrenthold (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2017 | 8 minutes (2193 words)

 

Before David Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for covering Trump’s candidacy, he spoke to the then-candidate on the phone last May. Trump called Fahrenthold “a nasty guy.”

One of Fahrenthold’s most impressive journalistic pursuits came after that conversation, when he began to investigate Trump’s charitable giving. Trump had long made loud claims about his charitable donations, but Fahrenthold discovered that although Trump claimed to have donated millions of dollars spread among 400 charities, very few of those charities had any record of Trump’s supposed contributions.

Read more…

Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

(jcrosemann / Getty)

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

Read more…

The Press Has Always Been a Guest in the President’s Home

President Ronald Reagan at a 1986 White House press briefing. (Ronald Reagan Library/Getty Images)

Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.

It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.

Read more…

Why Quotas Still Don’t Work for Journalism

(Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images)

Imagine you work in an industry where accuracy and precision are hugely important. Your work is scrutinized by an ever-growing field of critics eager to catch any misstep, and if you get something wrong it has the potential to do people serious harm.

Your job often requires making dozens, if not hundreds of calls to obtain or even just verify a single fact. You spend your days wheedling information out of people who don’t want to provide it. You pore through mountains and mountains of documents which may only include one salient fact buried deep in a dense bog of data. Often these documents are difficult to find, or require the assistance of lawyers to access — lawyers you personally can’t afford and your higher ups may not want to pay for.

Now imagine this industry is failing at being a viable industry.  People in a different department than you are supposed to be responsible for that aspect — business, finances, the bottom line — but your department creates the product that is being sold. When “innovators” are brought in to come up with dynamic ideas, they pin them on you. There’s nothing to suggest the product is broken or failing, and everything to suggest that the means by which money is made from the product is the problem, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the innovators. They have figured out how to track how your product is consumed — do we have the metrics on that?  — and so they are going to use that information to suggest changes to how you do what you do.

Read more…

Where Have All The White House Press Briefings Gone?

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s combative relationship with the media is no secret, and the president’s supporters have happily rallied behind his purported distaste for the Fourth Estate — apparently not caring that, though he tweets angrily about the New York Times, his first call on issues is often to Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Read more…

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

Read the story

The Best of City And Regional Magazines: A Reading List

Last month, the City and Regional Magazine Association, a membership-based body of local magazines and alt-weeklies, announced the winners of its annual awards. This year, Texas Monthly, Portland Monthlyand Sarasota Magazine won overall excellence awards in their respective categories.

Local and regional periodicals fill an important space in the media ecosystem; voices rooted in the sights and sounds of a place can reveal the complexity of what’s really happening in an area. We all know by now that our time is one where the press is imperiled and the pursuit of truth is threatened. There is commercial pressure on journalists due to a fragmented marketplace, and mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations that have shorn staff sizes and budgets.  As we have said before, it is important to support their work.

In honor of the awards, we compiled a few local and regional deep cuts, including some of the winning pieces from CRMA publications. What do they have in common? A rigorous approach to the truth, a convergence of the of the personal and political, implicit — and some explicit — calls to action, and excellent writing.

Read more…

Longreads Just Turned 8 Years Old. Here’s What the Next Eight Years Look Like.

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…