EDITORS' NOTE: Happy Sunday! It's December 3, so let's dole out the first gift of the season: guest editor Kevin Van Valkenburg. Kevin is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, where he writes primarily about football and golf (here are links to some of our favorite KVV pieces). Prior to coming to ESPN, he spent 11 years at the Baltimore Sun. In 2015, he was the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana, where he taught a class on storytelling. He believes, as Norman Maclean stated in "A River Runs Through It," that the world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana. That's where Kevin was born and raised, and the town he'll forever think of as home.
All yours, Kevin...
There have been plenty of times in my life when I feel like working in journalism has broken my heart.
The first time it happened, I was a young reporter at the Baltimore Sun when the Tribune Company decided, without much forethought or ceremony, that our newsroom would be just fine if they wiped out more than a third of its employees in a single day. Hundreds of years of institutional knowledge, gone in an instant, a move that would ultimately have zero effect on the stock price or long-term outcome of the paper. Mentors, friends, colleagues—all of them told they had an hour to gather their personal items in a box before security would arrive to escort them out of the building. I’d worked at the Sun at that point for nine years, my first job out of college. In my naivety, I thought of the people there as a quasi-family. Many of them had practically held my hand and helped me grow up. My wife, a reporter, was among those spared. I was too.
My best friend, Rick, was among those who got a pink slip. He wasn’t at the office, but got a phone call while he was at Camden Yards, preparing to write a column about the Orioles. That he was one of the most talented and brightest journalists at the paper didn’t matter; he was just a number to someone in accounting. He was scheduled to fly to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby the next day, and when the bloodletting was over, the sports editor sent me in his place because he said, bluntly, he “didn’t have anyone else.” I arrived in Louisville the next morning in a fog, having never covered horseracing or even followed it with a lick of interest. I dropped my bag in the press box, found the bathroom and locked myself in one of the stalls. I cried for 10 minutes, knowing the paper would never be the same, and countless lives of journalists would never be the same. People would have to move to other cities, their kids would be yanked away from their best friends and their first crushes. Some of my ex-colleagues would never work in journalism again, despite living and breathing the profession for more than half their lives.
I don’t think journalism has any special claim to the misery of layoffs. I’m confident that teachers and steel workers and coal miners have similar tales of heartbreak. We tend to be more vocal about our demise because we believe we’re part of a greater good, that there is some altruism woven into our motivations. This frequently makes us an enemy of the corrupt, the cynical, and the powerful. I imagine it hurts a great deal when steelworkers are shoved to the unemployment line, but as far as I can tell, no one cheers when it happens. No one celebrates the way some people do when journalists are cast aside, insisting they got exactly what they deserved. I doubt Wal-Mart would ever sell a t-shirt joking about the murder of farmers or construction workers, something that happened this week for journalists.
What I’ve learned, over time, is that it’s not so much journalism I love without reservation or remorse, but journalists. Yes, we fight, we compete, we gossip, we complain. We sometimes preen too much after a good story, or take ourselves too seriously. We also believe, generally, in the same principles. We’re stubborn, frequently to a fault, but each of us is trying to make the world a slightly better place. There is more money and fame and security in trying to burn it down, and yet we choose the righteous path regardless. If that sounds sanctimonious or self-righteous, so be it. It’s still true.
Years after I left the paper to work for ESPN, my marriage fell apart, suddenly and without warning. I’d spent 17 years on the East Coast building a life, and now it was going to be dramatically different. In a panic, I retreated to Montana for a week, to the place where I’d grown up, hoping to keep from coming apart.
Seven of my closest friends, all of whom I came to know through journalism, followed. Rick was among them. Many flew, but two of them drove thousands of miles to get there. (You can also hear two of them, Seth and Wright, in next week's SLR podcast). We drank, we laughed, we sat by a fire in my parents’ backyard, we watched football and talked about stories we still wanted to write or reporting trips we still longed to take. I felt anchored by our shared passion for writing, no longer dangerously adrift. All the while, a line from one of Sturgill Simpson’s songs kept running through my head: Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.
I love journalists. I think once you become one, it gets in your blood, and it never quite goes away — even if you leave the profession, voluntarily or otherwise.
My company had lay-offs this week, as did several others. It’s a tough time to work in media. You can’t help but feel a pang of survivor’s guilt when your name isn’t called. That was on my mind a lot as I read pieces of journalism for this newsletter. There are no words of comfort that feel like they’ll make any difference to those left scrambling, but I’ll say these anyway: This business won’t love you back, but the people in it will. You’re one of us forever.
I’ve never met, or worked with, a single person whose story I picked for this week’s Sunday Long Read. That was done on purpose. I admire their work regardless, and think of them as members of my weird, stubborn, passionate cadre.
A few years ago, I was a guest lecturer at the University of Montana School of Journalism (my alma mater) for a semester, and I taught a class on the power of storytelling. It was a loosely structured seminar featuring donuts, music, pizza and longform, as well as me doing a foolishly-earnest impression of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I loved it as much as anything I’ve ever done professionally, and while I often worried I had no idea what I was doing, I do think my students would tell you I taught them this much: The best stories start with empathy, and they all have dramatic tension, clearly-defined characters, memorable and moving details.
Throw all that together with expert pacing and bring it home with an unexpected ending and you’ve got a little piece of magic. We usually focus on the written word in this spot at the top of the Sunday Long Read, but when I watched this short Op-Doc piece by The New York Times, directed by Matan Rochlitz, I knew I wanted it to lead off this week’s newsletter. It has all those elements that elevate journalism into art. Kudos to the Times for investing in this kind of storytelling, understanding that the animation by May Kindred Boothby and music by Leonardo Milani would elevate this incredible story into something beautiful.
So much has been said about this story already, but let me add this: It says a great deal about journalism that the nefarious attempts by the pathetic hucksters at Project Veritas to discredit the diligent reporting of The Washington Post only ended up strengthening the paper’s reputation for checking facts and not running stories they cannot confirm. It would be like Darth Vader clumsily trying to cut down Ben Kenobi, only to end up cutting off his own foot. To Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis and Alice Crites, I raise a glass to you (and editor Marty Baron) in the name of journalists everywhere.
I'm a big believer that writers who make themselves vulnerable to readers are the best kind of writers, especially in this era of online trolling where your biggest critics will seize on any hint of vulnerability in an attempt to wound you for daring to suggest their views on a coach or politician or artist might be in need of a reflection. When I started in sports journalism, Gregg Doyel was a notorious bomb thrower. He was fearless, but he was frequently boorish too. Watching his evolution as a columnist in Indianapolis has been wonderful, and so is this piece about gratitude that ran during Thanksgiving week.
Will Leitch is another writer whose journey has been fun to follow. This piece explaining why cultural forces on the left and the right have knocked the NFL on its heels (and perhaps set in motion its downfall) is one of the best essays I’ve read on the subject.
I am biased, but there is no one in music right now who puts on a better live show than Sturgill Simpson. I saw him recently in Maryland, at an outdoor venue that I have no particular affection for, and it was stunning how good he was. But don’t take my word for it as a 40-year-old white guy. Leesa Cross-Smith examines Simpson’s appeal from a unique perspective, a black woman from Kentucky who wants to hold on to her own original voice and refuses to compromise her vision as a novelist.
It's always a treat whenever John Jeremiah Sullivan drops a piece, and this one is no exception. Written in the same issue of the Oxford American as Cross-Smith’s Simpson piece, it examines the fascinating history of an instrument played by slaves: The Jawbone.
I'm always impressed by financial reporting that holds my attention because I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in journalism. This well-reported piece by Susie Cagle takes a look at Affirm, a company that wants to kill credit cards by offering you loans to buy designer jeans. Cool graphics in this piece as well as sharp writing.
Jessica Contrera’s daily on the annual hokey tradition of the President of the United States pardoning two turkeys for Thanksgiving is great for a lot of reasons, but it’s mostly a master-class in tone, perfectly capturing the bizarre comedy of the ritual and the surrealistic nature of President Trump’s participation in it this year.
I'm a sucker for stories about nostalgia, and this piece thinking about all the teenage crushes Davy Rothbart had hooked me right away. Stories like this always run the risk of turning into lesser versions of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” but this one was sweet and heart-warming without being maudlin or creepy.
The current bake-off that American cities are performing for the right to have Amazon’s new headquarters makes me extremely uncomfortable. Seeing so many municipalities grovel at the feet of a giant corporation in hopes they’ll bring low-wage jobs to town ought to make everyone uncomfortable. Niki Saval examines that conundrum through the lens of Philadelphia, where she lives.
My favorite lede of the week goes to Rachel Syme, who described Rachel Brosnahan’s head cold in careful detail, using it as a way to explain how the “House of Cards” actress landed the lede role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
How do you write a profile of someone who says they’re withholding certain things, then says too much and tries to take some of it back? Ben Baskin was faced with that question when profiling Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, and he made the smart decision to use transparency, writing (in part) about the weirdness of the interview process.
There are a lot of reasons to admire Jim DeRogatis (even from a Ryan Adams fan like myself!) but the main one is his dogged pursuit of the real story behind R&B crooner R. Kelly, and why no one seems to care he has behaved like a monster for the better part of his career. He’s kept after Kelly for almost 20 years now, and Kelly continues to make music while lesser allegations have taken down more famous stars. The reason why people don’t seem to care? DeRogatis lays out the case: Kelly’s alleged victims are African-American women, perhaps the most invisible group in America.
I always laugh when the same political personalities who rage about the bias of major media outlets like The New York Times happily offer up access to the same places for magazine stories. The always excellent Matthew Shaer turns his lens on Sean Hannity, perhaps the most powerful man in conservative advocacy media.
If I had one wish for political journalism, it would be that media organizations would focus less on the silly theater of the daily White House press briefing, and more on doing stories like this WSJ piece that explain complicated subjects like why no one wants a meat packing plant in their hometown, but everyone wants jobs and food that’s “local.”
One of the joys of this era of magazine writing is we’re finally starting to see more young writers (who aren’t lumpy white dudes like myself) get opportunities to shine at venerable publications. Jia Tolentino’s recent culture pieces for The New Yorker have been some of my favorite, and this piece examining why everyone shits on millennials was great.
When journalism scholars go searching for the roots of gonzo journalism, I hope they'll include this bit of automotive hoonery by renegade car magazine editor David E. Davis Jr. Many of the hallmarks of gonzo are on exhibit as Davis praises the BMW 2002, one of the most influential cars of our age. He exaggerates. He condemns those who might disagree with him. He invents characters and engages in the cruelest form of social criticism. He savors his unbridled enthusiasms. He makes you want to experience life. Alas, there are no overt drug references, but he does imply that the BMW 2002 will promote a sort of ecstatic consciousness for those previously condemned to driving boring cars. Davis didn't just talk the talk about cars: He permanently cratered his face in the 1950s in a car race that went bad. For more Davis, see this interview he gave in 2011, just before he died at the age of 80 in which he explains how the BMW 2002 review cost him his job.
Souad Mekhennet is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of the national best-selling, "I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad." Last month, she was named the 2017 recipient of the Daniel Pearl Award. In this conversation with her friend and former colleague, Don Van Natta Jr., Mekhennet describes her 16 years covering Jihad for the Post, The New York Times and other publications; the techniques she uses to gain the trust of sources, including terrorist leaders, and how she manages their expectations; where her immense bravery and courage likely come from. She also discusses several of her most renowned pieces, including one for The New York Times that she and Don collaborated on in 2005 about a German man's imprisonment and torture in an Afghanistan prison by officials believed to be with the CIA, as well as her most recent story, The Jihadist Plan To Use Women To Launch the Next Incarnation of ISIS. Their conversation lasts 59 minutes.
Next week: Don has a wide-ranging chat with his close friends and ESPN colleagues, Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham.
Stop me if you’ve heard it before: the one about the actress who gets the worst flu of her life. She has a fever that makes her feel as if she’s underwater, that slips her into tiny blackouts, that makes her toes sweat. Her brain feels like a fog machine. She can barely remember her own name. Snotty tissues are stuffed down her pants and littering the floor. She is also about to do the most important stand-up comedy act of her career.
She has to deliver five minutes of material, midday, to an almost empty room. The stakes are high but simple: Make ’em laugh, and she gets everything. But, and this is important: She is not a comedian. She doesn’t write punch lines. She is really more of a self-professed “dad humor” aficionado — she laughs at farts, at dopey puns in store names. She has never played a club; she has never even played a living room. And there she is, sloshing around in her heels, most likely contagious, telling jokes to four people who could change her fate.
“Having discovered the joys of French wine, caviar and truffles, China’s new rich are turning to a new gourmet delicacy to satisfy their demand for luxury goods from the west: Spain’s jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham. But demand is now threatening to outstrip supply, leaving Spaniards facing steep price rises in their most prized Christmas delicacy."
The Chinese have taken the ham
From Spain—and they don’t give a damn.
Such a disaster
Means suffering vaster
Than enemas made from wolfram.
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown who fiddles with rhyme. All his verses can be found at Tim's Clown Alley.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Producer: Étienne Lajoie
Header Image: Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Tom Lamont, Chris Lehmann, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Jacqui Shine, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.