We've reached the last lap of another monumental year of news, stress and phenomenal long form journalism. This newsletter is our final regular edition of 2019. Rather than curate our many contributors' favorites this year, we decided to hand over this list to you. You'll find the SLR's most-read stories in 10 categories. You also helped curate our down-list contributors' "Best of 2019" lists.
Over the holidays, our members will receive not one but two special editions—one with some of our late-year favorites and the other will contain a surprise we're confident our members will enjoy. If you'd like to receive both of those Members' Only editions and haven't yet joined the SLR membership program, please do so—and please consider giving a membership to a family member or friend as a holiday gift! Your support helps defray the ever-growing costs of sending out this newsletter, hosting our website and podcast—and helps us pay for original work by freelance writers.
We'll return on Sunday, January 5 with our first SLR of 2020 for all our subscribers.
We began this newsletter five years ago this month. Those first few beta editions dropped in the inboxes of about 1,000 people, our charter subscribers (nearly all of whom are still with us). Since then, we've grown exponentially, mostly through word of mouth but also through a multi-platform effort that includes a website, an SLR Originals program, social media feeds and a popular podcast of 40-plus episodes. It's mind-boggling to think that a passion project that the two of us began on a whim has grown to include the invaluable contributions of 20 hard-working staffers and editors—and a highly esteemed group of nearly 100 contributing editors, all of whom rank among the very best journalists in the world (see the bottom of any newsletter for our staff box). We'd like to thank and salute them for their hard work and dedication this past year; each and every one of them help make The Sunday Long Read special and valued by our readers.
There are so many reasons to recommend this perceptive piece by Peter Osnos, the editor of Trump’s huge 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal,” so I’ll just say: Read it, read it. (Don's Favorite, November 10)
In the first of what will likely be many memorable decade reviews, Katherine Miller eloquently explains how a confluence of dizzying digital updates and even more disorienting real world happenings has left us unmoored from our traditional sense of rational and chronological order. (Don and Jacob's Favorite, October 27)
All of us have noticed Joe Biden’s trouble getting sentences out; lots of us have blamed it on age; he himself has blamed it on being a “gaffe machine.” Here, in a fascinating profile that is the most revealing I’ve read this campaign season about Biden—who’s largely been avoiding interviews—John Hendrickson talks to Biden about his stutter. Hendrickson, who writes that he has a lifelong stutter that gets so severe that he sometimes can’t say his name or has to point at menu items, weaves his own compelling story with Biden’s and a broad pullback on the science of stuttering. Even if you’re tired of politics, read this piece—it’s outstanding. (Stephanie Clifford's Favorite, November 24)
You might remember the story from late last year of a young Christian missionary who attempted to befriend and convert the inhabitants of a remote Indian island, only to be killed on arrival. John Chau’s death has been revisited multiple times since then. Now one of our favorite longformers offers a definitive historical account, told with empathy for all sides and a deep curiosity for how an adventurous believer came to collide with a group determined to fight off intrusion. (Jacob's Favorite, August 25)
A major museum exhibition and a highly regarded book revealed the agonizing story of a wounded Marine captured in one of the Vietnam War’s most iconic images. Their version was wrong. And the truth was hiding in plain sight. (Don's Favorite, February 24)
It’s pretty amazing how quickly Rowan Jacobsen can stake a claim along the lines of Everything you think you know about sun exposure is wrong and then proceed to convince you in a straightforward, entertaining way. And once you get to the assertion at the end of section two—“Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy”—there’s no turning back. (Jacob's Favorite, January 13)
A young paleontologist may have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth. If you read this remarkable piece by prolific author Douglas Preston, we dare you to try to forget it. (Don and Jacob's Favorite, March 31)
Someone at Netflix/Hulu/Quibi/Showtime is asleep at the wheel if they haven’t yet optioned this story-behind-a-story about a Texas lawman who, during 650 hours over 16 months, coaxed Samuel Little to unspool the stories of dozens of murders. (Nikki Waller, September 29)
Yes, we just featured an awesome art heist profile in January. But if you have any hesitation about dedicating another 45 minutes to a man who’s spent his life pocketing beauty, Michael Finkel will eliminate it with a spare two sentences atop this beguiling story.
“Don't worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.”
Finkel will keep you on the edge of your browser for the rest of the tale, mixing detailed reporting with literary sentences. This piece made me late. What else is there to say? (Jacob's Favorite, March 3)
“Every time I hear about somebody that has millions and millions but they lived a frugal life, I go, ‘Why? Have some fun.’ ” Claire Martin’s story about the millionaire hermit is a fun whydunit, rich with bizarre, head-scratching details. Treat yourself! (May 5)
As a freelance writer and an adjunct professor, I rarely work alongside ‘co-workers;’ however, I still found this piece interesting. My favorite term: ‘micromoves.' (Anna Katherine Clemmons Clay, June 9)
This story of a beloved British bum really pulls at the heartstrings, and is packed with surprises, including George Clooney. This is from the LA Times’ recently relaunched “Column One,” a brilliant, offbeat storytelling section helmed by editor Steve Padilla. (Jeff Maysh's Favorite, April 7)
This ranks among the most damning indictments of the media I’ve read in years: A fearless, deeply reported tour de force that methodically describes how Jeffrey Epstein, who on August 10 killed himself in jail awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking underage girls, “successfully scared off some accusers and struck confidential settlements with others, making it harder for reporters to get them to recount their experiences on the record.” And it features… A dead cat! An ominous bullet! A mind-boggling puff piece!
David Folkenflik, NPR’s gifted media reporter, describes how reporters and editors at Vanity Fair, ABC News and The New York Times hesitated, moved on, looked the other way. Don’t miss the final chapter on Landon Thomas Jr., the Times’ former veteran financial correspondent who wrote a puff profile about Epstein in 2008, considered him “something of a friend” and then landed a $30,000 charitable donation from him.
“We count on the press to uncover problems, not merely to report on when problems have been prosecuted and when people have been indicted, but to uncover problems before they reach that stage,” says David Boies, an attorney for several of Epstein’s accusers, who applauds The Miami Herald and The Daily Beast for chasing the Epstein story when others took a pass. “And here you had a terrible problem. A horrific series of abuses.” (Don's Favorite, August 25)
Rich Cohen has met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. “They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers.” This week, there was so much outstanding work published on the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. This was one of our favorites. (July 21)
Oh, wow, this story. Packed with one “holy shit" detail after another, it’s more damning of Facebook’s culture than if Mark Zuckerberg live-streamed himself decapitating a puppy in the middle of his office. The culture is truly broken there … and the piece makes a strong argument that its problems were embedded in the company’s code from the very beginning. Remember when Zuckerberg was floating the idea of running for President? (Will Leitch's Favorite, April 21)
A superb look at “how the greatest retail innovation of the internet was created, in the face of sound logic and reason that suggested it might very well be disastrous.” Jason Del Rey explains how Amazon zoomed from an $18 billion company in 2004 to a $900 billion-plus company today. It was all due to a $79 a year program for two-day shipping that few people inside the company thought would work but ended up changing online shopping forever. One of our favorite oral histories this year. (May 5)
An eye-opening look at the organization that runs the world’s most famous golf tournament. Paumgarten takes a step back from the nest of reporters and peels back the layers of secrecy, seriousness, and complicity. (June 23)
On a cross-country flight Friday night, I read this wild story with fascination that swiftly segued into awe. The piece has forever changed the way I see chess—or any sedentary game, like poker. Aishwarya Kumar began working on this a year ago when a chess grandmaster told her he loses around 10 to 20 pounds during a single tournament. What?!? (Don's Favorite, September 15)
Madam Ram By Joshua Neuman for Victory Journal (~30 minutes)
In 1979, Carroll Rosenbloom, the 72-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Rams, suffered a heart attack while swimming along a beach north of Miami and died of drowning. His much younger wife Georgia inherited the team and for nearly two decades endured the endless suspicions from the media, her fellow NFL owners and her stepson. Joshua Neuman’s remarkable report starts like a ’70s era noir thriller, but it’s actually a clever and subtle feint. You start to understand the cloud of doubt trailing her is really the world’s general mistrust of a woman in charge and especially of a woman in charge of the ultimate male product. Fans booed her. A PBS “Frontline” piece from 1983 suggested she might have had a connection to her husband’s demise. Hollywood characters based on the trope of the heartless, greedy female franchise owner would pop up every few years, renewing the myth of Georgia as the blonde femme fatale. But then, redemption of a sort—this is a sports story after all—comes in January 2000 when we see her anxiously pacing the sidelines of the Super Bowl. The Rams have never won a championship. The game is tied with 2 minutes left. Rams quarterback Kurt Warner guns a 73-yard touchdown attempt as Georgia looks up and... well, you’ll have to read it. (Edmund Lee's Favorite, July 28)
“Three years ago, my cousin tried to kill me. When people ask why, I don’t know what to say. Usually I mumble that he didn’t have a reason. I say that he didn’t even think he had a reason.” Propelled by that gripping opening, Wil S. Hylton takes us on a courageous tour of masculinity, vulnerability and self-discovery. One of the year’s most poignant, powerful essays. (Don's Favorite, May 12)
The stardust golden fucking hippies at the New York Timesand the Washington Postwho have been gassing on about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this week should have been saving their ammo for the next year when we celebrate the only 50th anniversary in rock worth an extended retrospective—Altamont, the free festival the Rolling Stones threw at a race track that ended in death, murder, and mayhem. Death, murder, and mayhem come closer to the true spirit of the genre than peace and love, which is why Altamont will always touch the tender parts of my heart. (Forgive the rough spots in Rolling Stones' coverage. It was composed and edited on a news deadline.)
“So what do you want to know?” Forrest Tucker told David Grann. “I’ve been in prison all my life, except for the times I’ve broken out. I was born in 1920, and I was in jail by the time I was fifteen. I’m eighty-one now and I’m still in jail, but I’ve broken out eighteen times successfully and twelve times unsuccessfully.” Tucker robs banks and breaks out of jail the way another man might repair cars or sell life insurance—methodically, habitually, professionally. They turned this story into a cute Robert Redford movie but don't bother. Remakes of David Grann stories are never as good as the real thing.
Classic Read curator Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.
Allow me to steal a line of praise: Dan Taberski tells stories like he's a traffic copter. Hovering above the sky, in control, spinning around pointing out all the interesting, messed up scenes below. He's doing it different than most of us.
In a year marked by riveting photos of street protests, political hearings and the perils of refugees, two photos stand out for their unflinching news value and their ability to cut through the noise. These photos dared us to look away. Both happened to be shot in June, when our attention would rather turn to beach vacations and pool parties, not active shooters and immigration. But Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Fox and La Jornada journalist Julia De Luc confronted those issues with stark clarity. Taking Robert Capa’s “Close Enough” rule to the extreme, Fox demonstrated tremendous bravery on June 17, when he hid behind a pillar outside a federal building in downtown Dallas to provide a rare glimpse into the eyes of an active shooter. De Luc seared the human toll of the immigration debate into our conscience with her horrifying image of a young father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, locked in a final embrace in the reeds of the Rio Grande. Light, composition and the ability to capture the moment are key components of a memorable image, but Fox and De Luc demonstrated there’s a fourth, intangible element: the professional courage to run toward the news even when the rest of the world’s instinct is to turn away.
Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he worked from 1987 to 2019. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami School of Communication.
Narcisse is the prefect blend of critic and comics historian, and his insightful conversation with the creators behind Image’s long running Wicked + Divine series is a master class in how to sum up a medium-defining work. (September 12)
Many biographies these days are often promotional pieces meant to complement something else—a movie or political campaign, for example. Rare is the deeply soul-searching and raw work one finds by reading J. Michael Straczynski’s unforgettable BECOMING SUPERMAN. Gustines’ profile of JMS taps the raw nerve of the book and adds some essential context. (July 28)
Alex Segura is an acclaimed author, a comic book writer written various comic books, including The Archies, Archie Meets Ramones, and Archie Meets KISS. He is also the co-creator and co-writer of the Lethal Lit podcast from iHeart Radio, which was named one of the Five Best Podcasts of 2018 by The New York Times. By day, Alex is Co-President of Archie Comics. You can find him at www.alexsegura.com.
Founder, Editor: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Editor: Jacob Feldman Producer, Curator: Étienne Lajoie Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg Senior Originals Editor: Peter Bailey-Wells Sunday Comics Editor: Alex Segura
Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales Webmaster: Ana Srikanth Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Jonathan Bernstein, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Chris Cillizza, Doug Bock Clark, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Stephanie Clifford,Rich Cohen, Jessica Contrera, Jonathan Coleman, Pam Colloff, Bryan Curtis, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Jodi Mailander Farrell, Hadley Freeman, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Megan Greenwell, Justine Gubar, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Michael Kruse, Tom Lamont, Edmund Lee, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Jon Mackenzie, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Jeff Maysh, Jack McCallum, Susan McPherson, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Kim Morgan, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bob Sassone, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Ramona Shelburne, Jacqui Shine, Alexandra Sifferlin, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Adam Sternbergh,Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Nikki Waller, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham, Karen Wickre and Dave Zirin.
Contributor in memoriam: Lyra McKee 1990-2019
Header Image: Multiple
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.