We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.
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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)
I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.
A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.
At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed.
In a story that’s as much about the vagaries of gentrification as it is about the cultural history (and complex present) of mission-style burritos, Birdsall packs a lot into 2,600 beautiful words. It’s about identity and the transformation of a neighborhood and how both inform a menu item worth arguing about. In other words, the best kind of food writing.
This isn’t the low-access celebrity profile we’ve all grown to collectively roll our eyes at—the cover story about the overly PR-managed star who grants a 60-minute interview that the writer must then, rather painfully, spin into a fleshed-out sketch. No, here we find Billy Bob Thornton tired and vulnerable and rolling along on a tour bus with his band the Boxmasters. We see the actor angry. We see him in good spirits. We see, thanks to a profile full of voice and verve—and a lot of access—an uncommon look at a man famous for his privacy.
A features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
I’m a sucker for boxing writing, and this story is an excellent example of the genre, first-person division. Page McBee’s account of becoming the “first known transgender man to ever fight in Madison Square Garden” is also a meditation on what it means to be a man, on male friendships, and on higher-order locker-room talk. One particularly resonant line: “If every boxing story ever told could be neatly summarized it would be: I was afraid, and I did it anyway.
Enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of two books.
Officer Steven Blakeney Terrorized the St. Louis Area. Why Did No One Stop This Very Bad Cop? (Doyle Murphy, River Front Times)
Officer Steven Blakeney Terrorized the St. Louis Area. Why Did No One Stop This Very Bad Cop? Doyle Murphy, Riverfront Times
Nearly every sentence in this deeply-reported story about a rogue cop made me outraged. Murphy puzzles out the political antics and bureaucratic breakdowns that provided cover for an officer of the law to victimize scores of people around St. Louis.
Senior Editor at The California Sunday Magazine.
Sonia Smith’s seamless profile of the preeminent climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe wasn’t overlooked by the rabid climate change denialists who went ballistic in the comments. But it was perhaps overlooked by many of us readers who take climate change for granted. We should all be looking now. In addition to co-authoring the last two National Climate Assessments and being a reviewer on the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian. She’s even married to a minister, one who didn’t initially believe in global warming. It took Hayhoe two years to convince him, but she did, and she’s now quite skilled at persuading people of disparate beliefs and backgrounds of the need to come together to save our planet:
“As scientists we don’t know a lot about suffering, but as Christians we do. And we know that part of the reason we’re here in this world is to help people who are suffering.” And that suffering will not be meted out proportionally: if global warming continues unchecked, the poor—whether they’re in Houston’s Fifth Ward or in low-lying areas of Bangladesh—who have contributed least to carbon emissions will feel the most pain, from enduring more-intense heat waves to paying the higher food prices that will accompany failed crops.
Alex Ronan’s beautiful exploration of grief for her brother, where her phone becomes a conduit of energy, memory, and light; where tweets have the potential to take us to another place, where the souls we knew are there, somewhere. She hops between astronomy, our relationship with our phones, and the nature of light ably, all in prose that beams an unearthly light.ed with surprising zings, profound insight, and sharp feminism. I can’t wait to watch her voice grow in the literary community.
An Oregon-based freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and Outside Magazine, among others.
I can’t recall an investigative story like “The Audition,” one that I couldn’t stop talking about, thinking about, revisiting, re-reading and discussing after I read it — even months later. In this piece, Seattle reporter Sydney Brownstone discovers that a tip about a woman raped during a porn audition is not an isolated incident, but an elaborate rape scam by a local man posing as an adult filmmaker. It’s a complicated story about consent, assault, deception and the complexities of rape. When Brownstone tugged on a string, she unraveled a nightmare. It’s one of my favorites from this year, too, because it made me think hard about what a sexual assault is. This story also aims to speak up for a group who might have been ignored by any other reporter.
A journalist and author based in Boston.
Kate Knibbs digs deep into the murky world of Backpage.com–a site “not stringently moderated for explicit content beckoning an exchange of goods for sex,” as Knibbs writes. Arrests of the site’s creators have been made, with felony charges of pimping a minor and more. But part of this disturbing story is how the ads were envisioned as a last-ditch effort to keep gutsy alternative journalism afloat.
Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.
Last winter I was the sickest I’d been in a long time and many friends began sending me a piece that had appeared not long after the new year. I’d never heard of Hedva or Mask, but this wild winding essay that pierces the heart and soul of chronic illness was such a potent companion for me. At parts unapologetically academic–Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler are leaned on heavily–and at other parts heartbreakingly personal, this adaptation of a lecture reads both like a manifesto and a diary. “I thought of all the other invisible bodies, with their fists up, tucked away and out of sight,” Hedva writes, always with boldness, clarity, and compassion. This piece was praised in many of my most cherished circles of social media–especially those realms of sick girls–but i hope it branches out much further.
Science editor forThe Verge
Few Women Fight Wildfires. That’s not Because They’re Afraid of Flames. (Darryl Fears, The Washington Post)
Female firefighters are routinely harassed on the job; routinely propositioned for sex, inappropriately touched, stalked, spied on while bathing — all horrifying. This story was a remarkable piece of reporting that showed how a pervasively sexist environment makes us all less safe, by discouraging firefighters who could, in other circumstances, save our lives. This detailed, focused report will, I hope, lead to better job conditions for female firefighters. Another strong piece of science reporting that should be read widely.
Literary critic and Vice President of Awards for the National Book Critics Circle
This is the essay I didn’t know I was waiting for, but once I read it, I sent it to a bunch of ladies I know. (Thanks to my friend Elisabeth Donnelly for telling me about it!) Oh, how pleasurable it is to read another woman talking about the ridiculousness of the contemporary world we live in; how we all want something out of it but sometimes we just want the thing so much that the want gets in the way of the work. And is there any better description of the ridiculousness of social media than the following lines? “The work: this is what I would like to talk about. The work, not the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. And maybe I can float the possibility that the work is best when it’s done nowhere near the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. Maybe I can suggest that there is plenty of time for hearts and likes and dings and dongs once the work is done, and done well.” Amen to that. “The Snarling Girl” is a battle cry for ignoring other people’s “definition of success.”
I was pretty pissed that this Guardian Long Read didn’t get more attention. I have my suspicions as to why: there aren’t a ton of readers in the West who might appreciate what this piece accomplishes so skillfully. I’m betting that most readers don’t know about Manipur, a state in the region of Northeast India that’s distant both geographically and politically from the rest of that enormous country. This true crime story functions as its own self-contained narrative, but it subtly manages to illuminate the political history of the region where it’s set. It is an especially strong example of what the Guardian Long Read can do so well. It to my mind, one of the few Western publications to give nuanced, urgent reportage on India actual real estate. Maybe it’s the only one.
There was no shortage of praise for this story when it came out, but even then, it seemed a bit muted; I wondered what would’ve happened had it appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. I love Texas Monthly. Colloff is a writer I’ve long admired, and I have an embarrassingly biblical knowledge of some of her writing. I’d say this is her strongest work. She has an enviously tight grip over her prose, and genuine reserves of empathy for her subjects. I fear this piece will be left off some year-end lists, so, let me just say: If this isn’t on your list, I think you’re bad. Thanks. Bye.
I’m always up for a well-written, thoughtful take on a creative work that may not have received its due when it was released. Chris Randle’s in-depth analysis of Under the Cherry Moon is exactly that, and makes a solid case for this film’s continuing relevance.
This two-part feature from the Toronto Globe and Mail is built around one of those genius, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that concepts: Ann Hui gets in a car in British Columbia, and drives all the way across Canada to remotest Newfoundland, following the path of eastern railroad expansion and so, confluently, the path of Chinese-Canadian settlement. The anchors for her journey are the Chinese restaurants that thrive, often in relative cultural isolation, in this line of towns and cities that belt the nation. It’s a deceptively ambitious feat of stunt journalism: Hui’s prose is newspaper-clear, her narrative is mostly linear, her threads are neatly defined. But she expertly avoids the often saccharine pitfalls of this kind of storytelling, balancing the human-scale narratives of the men and women of these restaurants with a broader, razor-sharp dissection of the ways Canada does and doesn’t make room for its nonwhite citizens. And the closing scene, what Hui finds when she reaches a Chinese restaurant on windswept, isolated Fogo Island — god, it’s a knife to the heart.
A science journalist based in the Pacific Northwest, and a contributor to National Geographic.
The darkness at the heart of Malheur: A Westerner traces the roots – and meaning – of the Oregon occupation. (Hal Herring, High Country News)
The best of the many stories that chronicled the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge in early 2016. Herring, who describes himself as a “gun-soaked, nature-obsessed malcontent,” hangs in, listens hard, and emerges with a humane but unsparing portrait of the occupiers. “The nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it,” he concludes, “sometimes as much as 180 degrees.”
An associate professor in the Literary Journalism Program at UC Irvine who writes features for The Atlantic, Wired, Newsweek and others, and is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life
Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.(Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, ProPublica)
Propublica had one of the best stories of the year with its investigation into machine bias and how it can impact minorities. Brilliantly reported and eye-opening, this piece shows how important it is to have experienced data journalists on staff doing investigative, longform reporting and writing. Propublica’s reporting exposed how algorithms work behind the scenes of our lives, with most of us not understanding the intricate programming or methodology that goes into it. In our blindness, these algorithms make decisions for us—and these decisions can have serious consequences. Biases and prejudices are built into machines and if more attention is not paid to this future, we will find ourselves in a scarier and perhaps more prejudiced and unequal society than ever before. Propublica’s ongoing reporting on this topic exposes this reality, warning us of what may happen if we don’t pay attention and keep the pressure on designers and creators of this technology to remain aware.
Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City (Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times Magazine
Sometimes an investigation that begins within your own life can lead to illuminating reporting about the world beyond. This is what Nikole Hannah-Jones’ reporting on choosing a school for her own daughter in a segregated city does so poignantly. It begins with a choice that many parents must face. When you are a parent of color, the idea of diversity in education is not as simple as “a boutique offering for the children of the privileged,” as Jones writes, one that “does little to ensure quality education for poor black and Latino children.” Intentional school integration, as she points out “almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students.” Through her expert storytelling, she is able to weave the personal narrative choice with the historical and social backstory of segregation in American schools, making for a thoroughly researched and captivating read.
History in Wax
How a museum in Baltimore shapes African American history—in wax. (Alison Kinney, Lapham’s Quarterly)
Until I read Allison Kinney’s essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, I would have never guessed a wax museum could be so moving or so political. Kinney visited the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore only two weeks after Freddie Gray’s death and her account of watching a group of schoolchildren go through wax exhibits depicting lynchings, slavery, poverty, as well as Black role models is arresting. This essay ties my stomach in knots every time I read it. Kinney, whose book about the history and symbolism of hoods came out earlier this year, is a master at tackling difficult subjects without moralizing. First, she shows how important this museum is to its curators, then to its visitors, and the reader is left understanding why these exhibits should be required viewing for all Americans.
It is a sad, angry, compassionate, deeply horrified piece of writing that invites the reader to look into the mind and the family life of a married lesbian mother whose family is truly threatened by the policies represented by Mike Pence and Donald Trump. For many readers, her story presented something real they could offer to their own families, a set of cohesive and coherent talking points sorely needed in communication moving forward. Amanda is an actress and a writer of comics (Wonder Woman ’77, John Carpenter’s Tales of a Halloween Night Vol. 2 and more). She’s presently at work on a 24-hour climate change live webcast script for a production group headed by former VP Al Gore. She worked on the first edition of that project along with a crew beside the Eiffel Tower the night of the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015. She is on Twitter at @AmandaDeibert.
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.
Sandra Allen wrote a profile about Ina that is also about socioeconomic access. Her description of Ina Garten’s familiar, curated image is engaging and also edged, because Allen does not fail to note that Garten is someone people clamor to imitate, but cannot inhabit. How Ina Garten’s recipes are simple, and yet also privileged in their ingredients and yield. She asks who Garten’s cooking is for, and for whom it is not. Garten is in so many ways Martha Stewart’s successor, but one happily married to “Jeffrey,” that differentiator becoming a core part of her public face. I myself have never understood Ina Garten’s popularity—once, she made a face of disgust upon smelling kimchi, and that ended any respect I had for her. But this—this helped me understand the phenomenon of Garten and her admiring fanbase. The best part of this profile is when Allen herself tries to bridge the gap between the observer and Garten’s life. She shares the following:
“I thought a lot about this particular kind of feminism in which women can be successful in our own right, but are more successful when we’re paired with, and serving, powerful men. Like a lot of women in this country, I had supposed throughout my lifetime that we were marching forever toward greater gender equality. As I cooked these recipes this fall, I did not know that I was living through what might have been a high-water mark.
“I thought about the whiteness of her sensibility—her heeding, generally, to European and American culinary traditions, albeit with the occasional recipe for vegetable sushi, or roasted salmon tacos. (In East Hampton, we talked about Tahiland—she’d stayed in Bangkok one summer when Jeffrey was in the Army. I’d asked her whether she liked the food. “I’m not that crazy—I dunno,” she said, “I didn’t know to understand Thai food at the time. Not that I do now. It was fun. We had fun.”)
“I thought a lot, too, about who her recipes are for—which is to say, who they are accessible to. I wondered a lot about people who loved Ina’s recipes and could not afford, say, syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, saffron threads, dry sherry. Ina often says that her recipes are made of “ingredients you can get at a grocery store,” and there is a question as to who “you” is in a sentence like this, and also which grocery store.”
Don Van Natta, Jr.
Senior writer at ESPN.
From the show-me, don’t-tell-me school of narrative non-fiction, Jessica Contrera’s feature for The Washington Post describes in lyrical detail what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl, tethered 24/7 to social media’s fickle instant-notification culture of likes and emoticons. As the Dad of a pair of teenage daughters whose glowing multiple screens loom too large in their frenetic lives, I found the story of Katherine Pommerening’s online life achingly true and moving. In ways that are instructive and cautionary, Contrera dramatizes how we struggle to help our children navigate the ever-changing digital terrain, even as we struggle to master it ourselves.
Riding the Rails of the Underground Abortion Railroad from Texas to New Mexico (Taylor Prewitt, Broadly)
I wish this story didn’t have to exist but I’m glad I read it. In Texas, where Medicaid insurance cannot be used to cover abortions, and where HB2 (the subject of Wendy Davis’s 2013 filibuster) left only 18 clinics (mostly concentrated in urban areas) serving the entirety of a massive state, it is exceedingly difficult for low-income women to get abortions. Sample sentence: “The necessity to secure both travel funds and procedure funds makes access an elusive, moving puzzle made up of ever changing pieces for women who are often piece-mealing funding from two or more providers on the side of coordinating travel plans. Flights can be missed, appointment can be cancelled or rescheduled, funding can fall through forcing appointments to be cancelled or rescheduled, and so on.” This piece reports on the network of small organizations that help women put together the money (often in increments of $50 or $100 at a time) for both the procedure and coordinate the necessary travel arrangements.
Senior editor, Hazlitt
This year, I think the storytelling we yearned for most was work that felt up to the task of capturing a state of reckoning. Kiese Laymon’s piece on the Cosby assault allegations distills so many of the issues raised by that abuse.
There should be a word (maybe there is one) for art crafted so well that your brain remembers it not as though you consumed it, but as though it happened to you. For me, this piece by Dana Goodyear about the work of Michael Heizer, evokes that sensation. A truly incredible work of profile writing.
A founder of n+1
This may be, as they say in my part of the internet, overdetermined, but I think the most overlooked story of 2016 was the fact that millions of people came out to vote in the Democratic primaries for a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. In my lifetime I have never seen a political candidate on the national stage say such simple and true things as what Bernie said (that everyone is entitled to medical care; that everyone is entitled to an education; that the United States is not simply a blameless actor on the bloody stage of geopolitics), and what’s more I have never seen these ideas receive such a passionate response. Nikil Saval’s description of canvassing for Bernie in Philadelphia for several weeks in April, and then experiencing his defeat at a bar called The Gaslight, combines a tender reflection on the difficulty of being both a person in the world and a political actor, with a foreshadowing of the raw shock all of us would experience, with much more justified horror, seven months later. “Everyone meets at a bar called The Gaslight. As soon as I enter, someone asks, ‘Did you see?’ When I look at the screen, I see the result. Hillary Clinton is standing at a podium next to a giant version of her stolid blue-and-red icon, the H-arrow, somewhere in the Philadelphia Convention Center. It looks like something out of Citizen Kane.”
A freelance writer in Brooklyn.
This story reads like a Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s about an Indian father’s quest to rescue his children from enslavement in a brick factory across the border in Nepal. The details are as cruel as you might imagine — the children were beaten with horsewhips — but the story has a timeless, placeless quality to it. The mother doesn’t tell the absent father about the disappearance of three of their five children until ten days after the fact. Once informed, he sets off on an incredible journey to save them, blocked at every front by corruption, incompetence, and heartlessness. It’s hard to believe this stuff is still happening. “Children … are the cheapest and most easily manipulated form of labor,” Faleiro writes, “Even the poorest adults are more likely to stand up to exploitation.”
I will look back and think of 2016 as the year I finally came around to oral histories. (Many others, especially my wife, will say I should probably remember it as the year I had my first child. I can remember both fondly, I’ll respond. I contain multitudes, I’ll say.) From Slate’s exhaustive, emotive look at Angels in America (by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois) to Complex’s examination of Drake’s airball at the University of Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness (by Eric Koreen), it was an A+ year for the form. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ryan Leas’ look at, as the subhead reads, “the backstory of a modern standard.” Leas took a song that we all know and dug into its genesis, development, and legacy, somehow managing to make even the most nuanced instrumental choices interesting. Would you judge me if I said I cried during an oral history about a Bonnie Raitt song? If so, judge away. Then listen to the gauzy, early-90’s-flecked demo of the song, embedded into the story, and try not to do the same.
Executive editor at Racked, where she has run the longform program since 2014.
This is perhaps the smartest piece of writing about the Kardasho-Jenner universe I have ever read, and certainly one of my favorite pieces of cultural criticism all year. Sylvia Obell masterfully charts Blac Chyna’s rise from Miami’s famed King of Diamonds strip club to the gated communities of Calabasas, detailing how “the Kardashians, a family often accused of stealing black men, black features, and black culture, got beat at their own game by a black woman.” It’s a totally engrossing read made all the more relevant with each passing Kardashian “news” item that floods your feed.
Written as a conversation between Kate Elazegui and Emily Kehe — who are married and gave birth to baby boys four days apart — this is a fascinating look at pregnancy and motherhood. The women’s experiences could not be more different, from the fertility process to nursing, and it’s a piece about a relationship on top of all that. I love that this is an as-told-to; having them tell their story in their own words is incredibly powerful. Also, the photos are terrific.
Contributing editor at Rolling Stone, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
Donner’s tale begins with Mickey Foote, ex-manager of The Clash, explaining “how Trump hoodwinked his country.” Join the club, buddy. However, this energetically reported piece surfaced before election day, when it was lost in the flood of outraged hot mic op-eds and other controversies. In retrospect, it reads like a far more salient indictment of Trump’s character, and the dangers it presents, with respect to his wielding of political power.
Revealing how the real estate hustler built a golf course on a stretch of protected, environmentally fragile Scottish coastline by coercion, misrepresentation, lying, conniving, bribing, grandstanding and spin-doctoring, Donner tells the story through the heroically stubborn locals – Foote included – who’ve refused to sell their homes to facilitate the project, in spite of Trump’s ugly hardball pressure tactics. It’s a David and Goliath tale so good, the New York Times would report their own version, which ran on their front page. But Donner got there first, and by then, the story’s villain was our president-elect.
Amanda Feinman has a deceptively gentle voice, sprinkled with surprising zings, profound insight, and sharp feminism. I can’t wait to watch her voice grow in the literary community.
While it has been pointed out that this piece can be seen as problematic in ways, I loved Sara Benincasa’s subversive response to the guy who wrote her asking, “Why did you gain so much weight?” It’s brilliant, biting, and hilarious–and it includes links to much of the great work she’s been doing “between when I started gaining weight (2011) and now (2016).”
I choose this for the “under-recognized” category because it came out too late in the year–December 17th–for it to land on nominators’ other best of lists for 2016. Novelist Ben Obler’s first non-fiction piece about overcoming porn addiction–and more specifically unconsciously testing his “sobriety” by choosing a mate who triggered his addictive behaviors–was published here on Longreads in August. For the Times, he takes the story further, bravely delving into the difficult process of recovery.