EDITORS' NOTE: This is our 100th newsletter, and we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the milestone. A few hundred of you have been with us since our launch in December 2014, and nearly 10,000 have joined since. We are grateful for your unwavering support over the last two-plus years (For whatever reason, people closely guard their newsletter analytics, but we'd like to share a couple numbers we're proud of: You all consistently read our newsletter at three times MailChimp's "industry average," and since we redesigned our template last year, you have often averaged over one click per subscriber per week for a gross click rate over 100 percent!). Since this newsletter still remains a hobby for both of us, we don't have to obsess over the data, but we'd be remiss not to recognize your loyalty nonetheless.
We are also so lucky to have the support of our 45 contributing editors, some of the world’s most distinguished journalists, who have helped improve things around here – in innumerable obvious and subtle ways. A special thanks to Politico’s veteran media critic and our friend Jack Shafer. Before week one, Jack generously offered to select a Classic read every week, a feature that has become one of our favorites (and one of yours, too). His faith in this project meant everything then—and still does.
As a way to raise a glass to the 100th SLR, we solicited your questions about any subject. Of course, you all over-delivered, sending in questions on how we put together the newsletter, what we've learned from doing it for over two years, and so much more! We've answered 10 questions lower in this letter, but first, we thought we'd share our favorite stories of the week, per usual.
Don and Jacob
CORRECTION: How To Be An American, a great story we included last week on Syrian refugees who found "a home in Trump country," is by Robert Samuels. We incorrectly called him Richard. We regret the error.
A gripping story about the fast rise—and faster fall—of 38-year-old Evan Morris, a relatively little known lobbyist and former Clinton White House intern. Morris’ embezzlement scandal “is shaping up to be one of the biggest U.S. investigations into Washington’s influence business since the bribery and corruption case surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the nation’s capital in the mid-2000s.”
Armed with dozens of fascinating details and a final chapter that might take your breath away, Brody Mullins, one of America’s top investigative reporters, has written a riveting story that I bet you won’t soon forget.
Social media (which for many Americans just means Facebook) has quickly shifted from a place where news is discussed to the place where it originates. Harassment. Fake News. Radicalization. That trend, Victor Luckerson argues, can be traced back to a seemingly minor design decision implemented to decrease the number of "I like this" comments in the newsfeed. Instead, the like button transformed Facebook from a sharing platform into a tool for self-validation, identity reinforcement, and lots of trouble.
"Sometimes a man had to go in circles to find himself." Here’s how Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming back from multiple concussions after undergoing a different sort of rehabilitation for his psyche. A helluva story by the fabulous writer (and my friend), Tommy Tomlinson.
A remarkable story about Kathy Leissner, who was murdered by her husband Charles Whitman in 1966, hours before he killed 14 people at the University of Texas at Austin (We missed this outstanding piece when it was published in March 2016; a reader tipped us this week and we wanted to share it with you).
The accordion-playing nerd, “Weird” Al Yancovic, has blazed a 40-year run in which he has outlasted nearly every star he ever trolled through a goofy melody. Geoff Edgers’ fun read has a bonus cameo by a guy I used to listen to as a kid: Dr. Demento.
Q1. Love the Sunday Long Read and have been proud to recommend it to numerous learned, literate and engaged friends. It has been the source of many interesting hours reading fascinating, insightful and depressingly well written articles (at least in the eyes of a frustrated essayist) about topics I would never have otherwise come across from sources I would otherwise not know about. I find it mind-boggling that you are able to comb through such a wide variety of articles in such limited time, particular given your other professional obligations. For your "Ask the Editors" feature, could you share with us your methodology: how do you do it, week after week? With much gratitude for so many delightful Sunday mornings sipping coffee and excitedly previewing your fantastic curations, —Stephen Entwisle
Jacob: My discovery, reading, and curation routines have all changed pretty drastically over the last few months.
· DISCOVERY: 2016 was the year I couldn't get off Twitter, for a variety of reasons, one being the steady stream of longform suggestions I found from the 1,500+ accounts I followed. But my feed turned increasingly homogeneous since November, and rather than try to add yet more voices to it in an effort to find a new balance, I've instead noticed myself staying away from the service more and more in 2017 (still, any links tweeted with the hashtag #SundayLR are automatically sent to me, FWIW). I've replaced Twitter in my media diet with newsletters (Keeping Up with the Content and MediaREDEF are go-tos), a still-confusing amalgamation of old-school RSS readers and new-age "smart" news apps (have you seen Flipboard's recent reinvention?) and recommendations from writers and readers (Thank you!). I also appreciate the 'Popular' tab in Longform's iOS app.
· READING: Long news stories used to be my cure for downtime, when I'd call up a link to whichever story had been sitting on my to-read list longest (kept on a list-making service called Trello, for those curious). But I found myself doing less of that lately, either because of my days or because of the news, so I've instead blocked out time in the evening to plow through whatever stories I'd built up using the Pocket app. I think it's gotten better at pulling the full text of stories into its stripped-down reading mode, and having all the stories in the same place makes it easier to move between them, meaning that mid-article boredom is easily cured with another awesome story. Reading multiple stories in the same setting also makes it easier to compare them to each other when it comes to the hardest part of the process.
· CURATION: This part of the equation has changed the least. Stories I like get a star in Pocket (they used to go into a specific Trello list), and at the end of the week, I look back through the starred stories and ask myself: Which of these would I—if I somehow had the time—like to read again?
Don: My curation methods are all over the map and, admittedly, sloppier and far more random than they have any right to be. Like Jacob, my process of discovery has evolved; I’m also relying less on Twitter as a tipster platform, though still stumble on a fabulous read or two lurking among the flotsam of that never-ending stream of trolls’ white noise. I routinely lean on the good taste, and eagle eyes, of the editors at Longform and Longreads. Mostly, my picks come from my weeknight evenings “grazing” on my iPad, wading into the websites and apps where I know outstanding work flourishes; by peeking at #longreads choices on Twitter and Facebook; and always making time for the “must-read” recommendations of friends. Also, like Jacob, I curate my favorites through Pocket, but also in very clumsy, 20th century ways—by emailing myself a “reminder” link to something I’ve enjoyed, or bookmarking a piece in a dead-tree edition of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper’s or Esquire.
During most weeks, candidly, my day job makes scouring the web, and finding enough time to read the best stuff, extremely challenging, even more so when I’m on the road. That’s when I’ll depend on crowd-sourcing—the dozen to two dozen recommended reads a week we’ll get via email, or Twitter through the #SundayLR hashtag, or even a few texted links from pals. Inevitably, among those recommended reads, we’ll find a gem or two (or five). So that’s a long way of saying we need you now more than ever—if you read something you love, please take a moment to push it our way so we don’t miss it!
Q2. What are your thoughts on the future of fandom in sports? What do you think sports teams/leagues/brands/media could do to get more "casual" fans engaged and active? —Brian Reich
Jacob: The audience issues leagues face are not all that different than the problems currently being considered by the entertainment industry writ large. "Casual" fans are quickly going extinct. With so many content options, most people can fill their free time with only the activities they love. The best thing for leagues to do is the accept that and work on developing a so-called funnel that introduces as many people as possible to the game and then effectively turns as many as possible into committed fans who who will seek out the sport no matter where it's available in an increasingly complex media environment.
Q3. Most of the selections seem to come from what one might call the major leagues of media. Of course, that quality of reporting and writing and support for that kind of work is why those places are the major leagues. That said, here's hoping those curating and contributing continue to look to the minor leagues of media, to less-traveled sources, to mid-sized and small newspapers and magazines and websites and blogs, where good work also is being done. —Jeff Ash
Jacob:Jeff prefaced his submission by saying it was more statement than question, but we still wanted to include it because highlighting work from the so-called minor leagues is one of our top priorities for the second 100 newsletters. We are still searching for sustainable methods to find the best of the best, especially when it comes from less trafficked sources (if you have ideas e-mail us). In the meantime, we’ve found our most reliable source to be you, our readers. Many of the cool stories that we've linked to from cool places have come from suggestions sent by tipsters and writers themselves. We hope you’ll keep them coming, and we’ll continue to do our best to include the week’s best journalism, regardless of publication brand value.
Oh, also I just signed up for this newsletter that specializes in local watchdog journalism, if that interests you.
Q4. What are 3 qualities your best LRs share? —Gary Schwab
Jacob: There are probably many more, but the things I look for when deciding what makes the cut are (in no particular order):
1. Is it novel? Does the story present a new angle on a public topic or delve into something I didn’t even know about?
2. Is it entertaining? Did I find myself closing other tabs and pushing off other to-dos to focus on the narrative?
3. Is it concise? This might seem a little oxymoronic for the Sunday Long Read, but the best stories pack a punch because every unnecessary word has been stripped out.
Q5. Does it really matter anymore who gets credit for "breaking" news? It seems that giving credit to whomever "broke" a story first is something only journalists care about. I can see pre-internet why it matters and how it lends prestige. But don't we live in a different time and this ritual amongst journalists and news entities seems antiquated. Is this something that I should care about or pay attention? Should the media be doing it more, less or is it falling out of favor? Is that a good or bad thing? —Lee Shufro
Don: I had a laugh Thursday morning when I saw journalists crowing about “breaking” a story about the name of President Trump’s newly appointed Labor Secretary. The name, doubtlessly leaked by a White House spokesman, was going to be officially announced in minutes, but this race for flash-in-the-pan tweeted exclusives seems like a ridiculous parlor game that matters only to those who play it. Most of the public could care less. In the sports field, the public cares more about getting the latest info as quickly as possible—the roster cuts, contract signings and injury updates that used to fill the agate-type sized Transactions column in the daily newspaper’s sports section. But even those scoops' exclusivity are often measured with a stopwatch. In a perfect world, the man-hours devoted to this inside game would be devoted elsewhere—in telling the stories behind the stories, which resonate far more with readers.
Q6. As for my question, I'm interested in how compiling the Sunday Long Read has helped (or hindered?) your respective day jobs in journalism. How has reading and summarizing so much good writing helped your own creative process? Is it ever a chore or a drag to compile the newsletter? —Andrew McMillen
Jacob: Writing up 15-20 stories for 100 Sundays, we’ve done our best to describe nearly 2,00 incredible narratives. In so doing, we explain what we loved about the story, and—in a sense—sell it to you. That writing process, as much as the reading that precedes it, has (I think; you’d have to ask my editors) helped me hone my definition of what makes a good story and what it takes to produce one. And working with Don is obviously a constant lesson in itself.
As for your second question, yes. The nature of our process means #SundayLR eats a lot of Saturday nights and produces many early Sunday mornings. And even though we’ve gotten more streamlined with the actual steps it takes to turn a reading list into an e-mail, there are still plenty of frustrating periods of drudgery. But it’s all worth it to honor a crop of journalists each week, and to provide something for y’all, our amazing readers
Don: It almost never feels like a chore, except in the homestretch of a particularly long, hard week. I usually “curate” late Friday night, sometimes aided by a bourbon or two, or very early Saturday morning, fueled then by three jumbo mugs of strong coffee. This newsletter has done more good than harm to my journalism career, I’d like to believe. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but the SLR curating responsibilities force me to read far more than I normally would. Immersing myself in so much outstanding work helps me write better, report better, think better. At least, I hope so.
Q7. What's the one story you didn't write but wish you had? —Mark Singer
Don: There are plenty of stories that I let slip away or that managed to slyly elude me. But the biggest missed opportunity happened very early in my career and it was nobody’s fault but mine. This was 1989. I was a 24-year-old punk reporter for The Miami Herald, working out of its Broward bureau. I had the chance—a fragile, momentary one—to write a profile for the Herald’s great Sunday magazine called Tropic. The would-be subject was Frederick Exley, the larger-than-life author who wrote “A Fan’s Notes,” one of the best books written in the English language. Kurt Vonnegut called it “strong, beautiful, American, one of a kind” (a nearly mint first edition hardcover is one of my most prized possessions).
In the winter of 1989, Exley was a broken down drunk “resting” at a friend’s house on Singer Island in Palm Beach County. Over the course of a few months, I had several lengthy conversations with Exley’s Random House editor, Bob Loomis, who encouraged “Ex” to meet me, cooperate with whatever I was imagining I wanted to write, “even if you are just a kid,” Loomis grumbled in his gravelly voice. On my second or third call, Loomis told me, “He’s thinking about it,” and I brightened until Loomis added, “But I doubt he’ll do it. He’s really in no shape to do it.” I kept pressing; Loomis kept patiently fielding my calls. Finally he gave me Exley’s address, perhaps as a way to get rid of me. Inexplicably, I never went to Singer Island to knock on Exley’s friend’s door. I kept making excuses, the winter soon ended. Loomis had told me by early April he’d be gone, back to his house in the Thousand Islands, N.Y., where he lived most of the year. Something kept me from going to see the man. Perhaps it was Loomis’ comment he wasn’t in any shape to see me. Perhaps it was fear. Most likely it was awe.
Exley died in 1993, and I have always regretted missing my chance to meet him, no matter what kind of shape I might have found him in (I have no doubt whatever story I might have done would have amounted to junk hagiography). Missing Ex taught me an early, invaluable lesson—get out from behind your desk, chase the thing, always go, go, go, no matter what.
Q8. Congratulations on your 100th newsletter! I was hoping you both would share any advice you have for aspiring longform journalists. I would also be interested in Don’s perspective on writing a story with another reporter versus working by yourself. How do you split up reporting duties and how is the writing handled? –Brian Baker
Don: In late 2012, between flights in Atlanta, I sent 14 tweets of advice to a UK journalism student who had asked what it takes to get started in this business. ESPN curated it and it’s a decent primer for anyone aspiring to write longform. It’s important to read widely, report aggressively, think clearly and write confidently. My close friend, S.L. Price, likes to say “You must be the god of your story,” meaning you must write with complete confidence. That conceit works—I psych up myself into believing I … am … a… god (of the material). And, when things go well, that confidence is translated with a writing voice that is authoritative. But I report with a complete lack of confidence: I’m in a harried state of perpetual worry that there’s some cool thing about the subject I don’t know, or haven’t learned or cracked, or perhaps will never discover or understand. This frenzy of uncertainty keeps me digging, reporting, calling, working as hard as I can until I have what I feel comes closest to the complete truth or the best understanding of something I am likely to ever get. Then, and only then, do I sit down to begin writing—again, with complete confidence. This formula works for me, even when it’s nearly impossible to execute the whole “I am a god” thing.
As for collaborations, I love this question. I’ve collaborated often on stories. Every project is different. Usually, my fellow reporter(s) and I drive each other to find out stuff, cheer each other on when we do and, like detectives, puzzle together over the missing reporting pieces we still need. The reporting itself is often divvied up by sources, but it can be divvied up just as easily by geography, randomness, even luck. The division of writing labor also depends on your collaborator. Working with Seth Wickersham on two NFL-related stories (and we’re now teamed up on a third—as well as a book) is a dream: we pass the story back and forth, and write fluidly enough together that we can harmonize our writing voices. I had a similar experience, pulling an all-nighter in September 2014, with my colleague Kevin Van Valkenburg on the story about the NFL and the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal. There are times, however, that you just don’t click with your collaborator; it’s happened more than a few times (no names or links to those times here). Nothing is more frustrating than failing to see eye-to-eye on the reporting and/or the telling of a story. When your writing voices don’t harmonize, it gets ugly, fast. I’ve never had a fist fight with a colleague, though I came close once, a long time ago. When that happens, a strong editor must take the reins from the reporters and guide the story across the finish line.
Q9. Hi guys, OK, so I have a question, as someone who has guest-curated: How do you decide a story is great? What is your metric? I favor storytelling, voice and style over actual information, and I think that’s probably not a great way to judge journalism. But there’s so much disparity in what journalism is by the time you get to an actual published story. What do you find is most important to you? How do you weigh all these aspects? —Your friend, Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Don: My metric is pretty simple, Taffy: If a story tells me something new—and it does it with great style, and a voice that’s fresh—I’m all in. Strong journalism—or “the actual information,” as you put it—isn’t necessarily the most important element but it must be strong. Now, having said that, I’ve also fallen helplessly in love with essays that are personal in nature—it’s a different kind of journalism, of course, than the kind investigators practice.
Q10. What are two things readers can do to support journalists? One with a checkbook, the other without. —Brett Moyer
Don: With a checkbook, subscribe to a newspaper, or to a magazine, or one of the fine longformsites. Without a checkbook, the best way to support journalists is online, through clicks but also engagement. The metric that matters most to many publishers these days is length of time spent on a story—how long are readers actually reading the 6,000 or 7,000-word longform pieces that are so expensive. So don’t just click—read or, better yet, as Robert Frost advised his daughter in a famous letter, “intelligently read.” And then pass on what you like through social media channels. The more people that get access to all the phenomenal work, the better. After all, that’s why we’re here!
That’s it. Stay tuned for news of more exciting changes and improvements coming soon to the SLR. And, as always, thank you for making us a part of your Sundays.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave the press corps fits in the early 1950s. He had taken possession of the media "amplifier," which repeated his unsubstantiated accusations often without context or qualification. "Faced with a phenomenon as complex as McCarthyism, the 'straight' reporter has become a sort of straitjacketed reporter. His initiative is hog-tied so that he cannot fulfill his first duty, which is to bring clearer understanding to his reader. It results in a distortion of reality," Cater wrote. Only interpretive reporting could unmask McCarthy's self-serving stream of lies and exaggerations. The "fist" of McCarthy was destroying American institutions, and the press was inadequate in its response, Cater thought. "McCarthyism has thrown real fear into the hearts of some—fear of what a demagogue can do to America while the press helplessly gives its sometimes unwilling cooperation. Perhaps Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin, is not a demagogue. But who knows? One greater than McCarthy may come."
This fine piece is also available on the Nieman website.
Maeve Higgins is one of my favorite comedians and one of the kindest all-around people, so her show was always going to be great. But her charming and heartbreaking stories of immigration are particularly resonant right now. The latest episode (co-hosted by Mona Chalabi) is ostensibly hooked to Valentine’s Day but it’s really about finding calm in a tumultuous moment.
Jody Avirgan is the host of FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast and is heading up the new “30 for 30” podcast documentary series from ESPN, coming this spring.
"I always make things worse than they are, or create problems that aren't there, and going and doing some simple task becomes a problem. I start imagining problems that aren't there. What people are going to think, who's going to judge me and am I going to be good enough, am I worthy?"
We love this history of the Beatles’ first American concert at the Washington Coliseum, by J. Freedom du Lac.
TIM TORKILDSON'S SUNDAYLIMERICK
From The New York Times:
". . . China’s gender gap remains huge. There were 33.59 million more men than women in China in 2016, according to figures from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics that were issued last month . . . "
From Tim: In China the males dominate
Ev’ry aspect of the state.
On Valentine’s Day
They get in the way
Of each other just for a blind date.
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan
Header Image: Derek Shapton for the Guardian
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Lea Goldman, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Peter Kafka, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Lizzie O'Leary, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, 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.