My 10 favorite longreads of 2017

I didn’t get nearly as much reading done in 2017 as I wanted to — hence why this year’s list is coming out much later than usual. I didn’t even know if it was worth putting together a list, as many of these choices are from the first half of the year, before I got a new full-time job and barely had the time to enjoy longform journalism regularly.

But hey, I’ve been keeping this list running for several years now, and it would be a shame to stop it just for having an off year. So without further ado, here are 10 pieces I read in 2017 that I really appreciated:

My President Was Black – On the verge of the Trump presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a moving account of the Obama White House, capturing both its redemptive nature and the high price that came with it.

The Republican Waterloo – Healthcare was a hot button issue this year and in this essay, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum explains why the Republican strategy was always bound to be a losing one.

The Heart of Whiteness – Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal is contentious, uncomfortable, and revealing. It also helps to bring some closure to this crazy saga of the past two years.

The Lost Picture Show: Hollywood Archivists Can’t Escape Obsolescence – One of the side effects of the digital age is the challenge of archiving films. With a frightening, clinical approach, Marty Perlmutter lays out the very real possibility that many of our greatest cultural works are in danger of being lost forever.

The Leftovers: Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel – There’s been a lot of great writing about The Leftovers, but this piece by Maureen Ryan is my favorite. It really destroyed me. Ryan powerfully relates personal tragedy with how the show captures grief.

The Silence of the Lambs – Kathryn Joyce chronicles a sex scandal in the Protestant church, demonstrating that complicity and cover-ups are not confined to any single religion.

Four Castaways Make a Family – You don’t have to be biologically related to be a family. In this piece, Rene Denfield describes the process of adopting children. And while she makes it sound intensely difficult to love someone that much (especially when they don’t love you back), it’s also clear that sometimes only the hard things are worth doing.

The Two Americans – Sabrina Tavernise writes about the case of Abraham Davis, who helped vandalize a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, then unexpectedly found forgiveness by the people he attacked. Even in the increasingly divided age that we live in, love still trumps hate.

How Uber’s Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained – Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand’s deep dive into Uber’s intense culture asks the question: What is the true cost of unicorn startup valuations, and is it worth it?

Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Accusers for DecadesHarvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories, and many others  Possibly the most socially consequential stories of the year, Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the story on Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual assaults, and helped create a movement whose impact is still being felt today.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.

Pivoting to video isn’t going well

Heidi Moore, writing for CJR:

Many publishers’ pivots to video are ill-considered, and thus they have deployed minimal investment in resources, studio space, equipment, or salaries. This won’t help video grow. Videos that lack personality, style, voice, or visual interest don’t attract many viewers.

The video that does work online—and drives the thirst among publishers—is about food, lifestyle, and animals, according to a study of 100 million Facebook videos. The addictive, bright, fast food-preparation videos done by BuzzFeed’s Tasty are the industry standard. Business Insider also makes snappy, shareable videos that focus heavily on food and lifestyle, and successfully appear on several platforms at once.

When news outlets attempt video, however, it’s just as likely to be a disheveled reporter against an off-white wall, talking at the camera—informative, perhaps, but not well-considered for the medium. The proof that most publishers are getting the pivot to video wrong is how terrible the video user experience is for viewers. If video were comparable to text-based digital journalism, visually most of it is right around the Geocities, circa 1999, with intrusive ads and ugly text.

“Pivoting to video” was never about user needs or desires. It was a desperate ploy to go where the ad money was. For publications like Mic, the pivot is apparently going very poorly.

 

What happened to Mic?

Mic recently announced they’d be doing massive layoffs and restructuring to focus on video. Over at The Outline, Adrianne Jeffries has an extensive piece on where Mic went wrong:

The leadership was excited about elevating underrepresented communities, but employees said that Mic had become a content factory. The site had “no plan” for a Trump win on election night, multiple former employees told me, and improvised by pulling queer people and people of color out of the newsroom, putting them in front of a camera, and having them talk about how they felt. In another instance, a former staffer told me about how Horowitz, who served as editor in chief of the site until mid-2015 and is now editor at large, once interrupted a reporter pitching a video about a woman building rooftop gardens in New Orleans: “‘But, is she black? Is she black?’” the former staffer recalled Horowitz asking, “as if the story would be less impactful had the woman doing the work been white or Hispanic or Martian.” When the site was pushing into original comedy, Altchek told multiple staffers that he wanted to make “the next Chappelle Show, except it’s hosted by a trans woman of color.” Multiple former employees brought up the time Altchek introduced a video about the feminist #FreeTheNipple movement at a large staff gathering with a joke implying that the video still would have been excellent even if it hadn’t included boobs: “Titties aside,” he said, it was a great piece.

The company had a way larger problem than simply its monetization efforts: a management team that was fundamentally out of sync with the culture that was burgeoning at their own company.

The New York Times’ disastrous piece on bubble tea

Earlier today, The New York Times published an article about bubble tea with the following headline:

Why was this article so widely critiqued by Asian folks? Because it describes bubble tea as some kind of exotic, bizarre delicacy that’s only now about to break into the mainstream. In fact, I personally have been drinking bubble tea from urban shops for over a decade.

And beyond the timing of bubble tea’s emergence, any Asian kid who’s ever brought in their lunch to school cafeteria intimately understands what it’s like to have their food described this way. It’s the language of those who fear and don’t understand what’s different. It’s language that tries to separate and divide. Ultimately, it’s language that’s beneath the stature of The New York Times.

As Splinter News points out, the article has been revised multiple times since its publication. The editors removed phrasing that described bubble tea as an “exotic concoction” and something that “washed ashore in the United States a few years back.”

The Times even published a separate mea culpa piece, in which they acknowledge their mistakes:

The reader complaints have merit. In retrospect, we wish we had approached the topic differently (if at all). There may be a story in the expansion of bubble tea businesses in the United States, but there is no denying the drink has been around for quite a while. And we regret the impression left by some of the original language in the article, which we have revised in light of the concerns.

We thank our readers for sharing their views.

I don’t know how many of our problems a diverse newsroom can solve, but I’m pretty sure any Asian editor could’ve singlehandedly prevented this entire backlash.

Why so many publications are “pivoting to video”

This morning, we learned that Mic is laying off 25 staffers and pivoting to video. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened recently to MTV News, Vocativ, and many, many other publications.

So why are so many publications pivoting to video? Where is the demand for this video coming from? And why do the results of these pivots often fail to inspire confidence?

For some guidance, I’d recommend checking out this Twitter thread by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. I’ve embedded the first tweet and recommend that you follow Josh on Twitter. For the sake of readability, I’ve included the full text of his comments below.

With the news that yet another publication is “laying off staff to pivot to video”, I wanted to return to what is driving these moves. You may know me as a writer or pontificator. But what I know best is running digital media sites. No site is “pivoting to video” because of audience demand. Not even close. They are pivoting to video because the industry is in the midst of a monetization crisis.

Expectations for digital ad revenue were unrealistic. There was already an excess number of publications relative to ads. And then coming into that already difficult situation, the platform monopolies started scooping all the money. Most of the money invested in these sites did not anticipate this set of circumstances. That was a mistake because most but not all were visible years ago. In this difficult environment, there appears to be one pot of money available: ads on video. And there’s one potential source of audience: viral videos driven by social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook also wants access to the video ad pot of money.

So the investments were made on the flawed predictions. The money that was supposed to be there is not there. And the video money bucket is the only available option.

Now, my personal take is that the video money bucket is largely a mirage. Everything up to this point is a dead certainty. My prediction about the video money bucket is a prediction. Not certain. But my best guess. The point is that from a financial point of view the “pivot to video” makes sense in this context. It’s usually not presented very honestly because it’s presented as the amazingness of video which everyone is going to love. Really it is at best indifferent to consumers of news. But it’s still worth understanding what’s driving it. The real key is that the financial models are driving in a direction that has zero to do with readers. That won’t end well. Again, no publisher is “pivoting to video” because of anything to do with reader/audience demand. Not in the news and political news space. Not even close.

This is needless to say a disaster for a lot of journalists. And I expect more of it. I am happy and grateful to be able to say that nothing like this is in the offing at TPM. That is because we saw of this coming a few years ago and shifted our business model accordingly. We are putting our resources not into video nonsense but rather new content that will increase the value of our membership program.

The key issue, though, as I see it is that the business model too many of the pubs are premised on is flawed and it is in addition to being flawed it is (if not collapsing) then rapidly deteriorating and very importantly out of sync with audience interest and demand. Again, that won’t end well.

Let me end by thanking our audience. We have a dedicated audience which allows us to with any triumphal spirit. I say it simply to explain to people outside industry, the business side of the industry, why it’s happening.

Platforms like Facebook control the vast majority of ad money, and editorial content is following the money, even if the money is not necessarily aligned with the public interest or even reader’s interests.

What’s fascinating is how every single publication has gone through this has presented this as some kind of audience-centric decision in service of innovative storytelling. In reality, publications like Mic are subject to the whims of Facebook’s algorithm.

What blogging hath wrought

John Biggs has written a reflection for TechCrunch on the impact that the internet, blogging, and social media has had on how we consume news:

Because my experience is a microcosm of what happened to media in the 21st century, it can begin to explain how we ended up in an era of intentional ignorance and with a truly broken media. The tools we perfected in those early days were some of the most pernicious and powerful tools in existence, honed to razor sharpness to cut off only the fattest parts of the truth, abandoning the nuance. We were not originally butchers – we had loftier goals – but when traffic (and traffic bonuses) became our driving impetus and when Google advertisers valued eyeballs over brains we had to provide content that fit a certain mindset and provide it at speed. It was as if we had invented a steam engine and set off across the landscape without inventing a brake. And we had limitless tons of coal.

“What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?”

Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer has some thoughtful reflections on last week’s MTV craziness:

Let’s imagine a pivot to video is genuine rather than just a scheme to give everyone a pink slip. Other than Vice and a few other shops, there’s almost no model for what a good web video job would be. Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a profile of Serena Williams with beautiful photos from Annie Leibovitz and a story from Buzz Bissinger. But as The Awl’s Silvia Killingsworth wrote, a video that accompanied the article was just a collage of Leibovitz photos and pull quotes from the article. The article’s sentences were labored over; the pictures were composed; the video was an afterthought.

Some of this may just be timing. A decade ago, if a web publication said it was “pivoting to podcasting,” the news would have been greeted like the End Times. Now, getting tapped for a podcast is like earning a journalistic merit badge. In a few cases, writers have realized they could both write and pod. In others, writers realized that if a zippy conversation about the news of the week consumed the time they’d have otherwise spent crafting a memorable piece, well, that’s the price of success. It’s a lot easier to have the zippy conversation.

The culling of online publications will likely continue as viable business models for video sort themselves out. In the meantime, let the good times roll.