Reading

Best Articles I Read (2018 Edition)

Best Articles I Read (2018 Edition)

Whoever says that journalism is dead just doesn’t read.

It’s been another year of just insane levels of quality across stories, analyses, essays, books, podcasts and more. And it is another year in which I read way too much, and frankly, forgot pretty much all of it. So I used some Python code (attached at the end) to get a list of all articles that I saved and mostly read in Pocket (1,673 articles this year, a total of 3,279,335 words) and combed through it to find my favorite articles from the year.

There are a couple of caveats before we get started:

  1. This list doesn’t include articles from the New Yorker, which I subscribe to and get on paper, and so don’t store in Pocket. Ditto for the Wall Street Journal.
  2. Some sites like Bloomberg mess with Pocket, and I am too lazy to click through all the links to figure out what the underlying article was. So there is some under-representation from publications that refuse to make it easy to read their content.
  3. I don’t save everything religiously to Pocket, so this is a “best efforts” list, not something comprehensive.
  4. I only selected articles longer than 2,000 words. That’s not to say that shorter-form work isn’t great or important, but a lot of it in my Pocket is breaking news, etc. that doesn’t lend itself well to a “best of the year” list.

Without much ado, let’s get going.

The Top Three

First Place: Why we stopped trusting elites

This was the best essay I read this year, and one that I think will shape the coming decade. William Davies asks a simple question:

To understand the crisis liberal democracy faces today – whether we identify this primarily in terms of “populism” or “post-truth” – it’s not enough to simply bemoan the rising cynicism of the public. We need also to consider some of the reasons why trust has been withdrawn.

His analysis of why that trust has been withdrawn is far-ranging, but it’s synthesis is simple: scandal after scandal among elites, from the phone hacking scandal in the UK to corporate fraud have made people — quite legitimately — unwilling to trust people who claim independent credibility. Davies is spot on, but the challenge is that trust is lost quickly and earned back very slowly. It will take a generation to repair the damage to our institutions from the scandals of the past two decades.

Second Place: The Death of a Once Great City

Harpers - 13,200 words

This was a powerful essay on the forces that are killing the soul of major cities, with a focus on New York. Scandalously high rents have pushed out creatives and storefronts, and what is left behind is a shell of the frenetic urban energy that is supposed to typify these cities. While we hear chants from protesters, the reality is that the causes are quite complex and nuanced, and Kevin Baker does a great job of identifying and discussing them, without the shrillness of Jeremiah Moss’ Vanishing New York.

Third Place: A Chinese Company Has Conquered a Piece of America

Bloomberg - 5,050 words

This was an incredible investigation and analysis from Bloomberg on how Chinese casinos have infiltrated Saipan, a U.S. territory through an aggressive outreach strategy including extensive corruption with the island’s government. Murders, fraud, scheming and epic levels of money laundering. It’s an incredible tale, made even more bizarre by the strangeness of the law that surrounds U.S. territories.

Honorable Mentions

How Oklahoma City Was Born in a Day

New York Magazine - 3,950 words

This is an excerpt from Sam Anderson’s book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis (which has to be the most obnoxious subhead in the history of books?) What a story! I had no idea about the craziness of Oklahoma City’s founding, where literally at the strike of the clock the city was founded with people running in all directions to claim space. Great urban history, and about a city that I think few in my milieu ever think about.

Why Is America So Angry?

The Atlantic - 9,700 words

This was one of my favorite pieces this year (also one I read very recently, so there is some recency bias here). Charles Duhigg paints a picture of anger in American politics, but like so many of these articles, complicates our perspective by trying to suss out when anger is valuable and when it is not. Anger and catharsis are actually key parts of political change, but today’s political system offers much of the former and little of the latter (just watch cable news for five minutes). The anger keeps building, but the release valve never opens.

This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town - POLITICO Magazine

Politico - 6,700 words

A fascinating look at how global technologies like bitcoin can affect local politics. In this case, a town in Washington state with unusually low energy prices attracts a rash of bitcoin mining firms, plunging the town into crisis. It’s a reminder that certain geographies can have enormous comparative advantages, but that those advantages may attract (unwanted) entrepreneurs undermining the original advantage.

I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.

Thrillist - 4,400 words

An author designates a burger restaurant the best burger in the world. That leads to huge crowds, attention, and unintentionally, the death of the business and the depression of its chef. A great story, but also a deep meditation on the ethics of awards, attention, and the unusual power that we all have in spreading local knowledge widely.

The French, Coming Apart: A social thinker illuminates his country’s populist divide.

City Journal - 4,960 words

A deep dive into the politics of France’s Muslim minority and its white working class. This topic can get heated, but Caldwell does a great balancing job of showing how economic changes brought on by globalization have increasingly placed immigrant newcomers in opposition to long-standing citizens. Caldwell is writing from the right, and so while not the final say on the subject, this is a well-written perspective, and an issue that will be at the center of politics for some time.

Squared Away

Harvard Political Review - 3,850 words

A common enough story, but one that hit close to home. How Harvard Square, which I would argue is one of the most charming neighborhoods in America, has been emptied out by high-rent blight, changing economics and real estate investors. Since the story was written, even more favorites, including my favorite tea shop and my favorite coffee shop have disappeared. A real shame that a crown jewel of American urban culture is being tarnished so quickly.

The Netflix Binge Factory

The Vulture - 8,500 words

Netflix is dominating the film/TV media industry these days, and lots of words have been spilled on what exactly their strategy is. This report and analysis from Josef Adalian comes as close as possible to a single definitive piece on what’s going on behind the scenes, and how it is changing the industry. As Apple and others gear up for their own deep forays into Hollywood, expect even more of these changes to rock Tinseltown.

Prime and punishment

The Verge - 6,450 words

A great piece of investigative journalism on the challenges of being a seller on Amazon’s marketplace. Scams, frauds, schemes and more plague the businesses, where sellers are often kicked out because of their competitors’ unsavory tactics. They then have to appeal to Amazon’s faceless bureaucracy in the hopes of being reinstated. It’s like a Russian novel, and it is a harrowing harbinger of the future of commerce.

Why conservative magazines are more important than ever

Washington Post - 6,050 words

A good historical review on the “little mags,” but on the right. T.A. Frank’s point here is that while Trump has absolutely dominated the policy process among Republicans in Washington, the next-generation of conservatives and their ideological thinking will come from these sorts of publications, and thus their survival is paramount for better politics in the U.S.

The Weekend at Yale That Changed American Politics

Politico Magazine - 4,560 words

The confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh brought a spate of articles on the deep influence of the Federalist Society on conservative jurisprudence. This article was among the best of that slate, talking about the organization’s founding and how it uses its network to further its own agenda.

Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father

New York Times - 13,400 words

This was that bombshell report and analysis from the New York Times on Trump’s taxes and property records. Published to much fanfare, it’s become a snickering joke among journalists for how little influence “reality-based” facts have in Washington these days. For me though, the reason to read the piece is to see just how far you can push the law without any sort of consequences whatsoever. All of these records were visible for years to the press and law enforcement — it took a man becoming president (becoming a well-known billionaire is I guess not enough) for investigators to start truly paying attention. If that isn’t damning about modern investigations, I don’t know what it.

Other Categories

China Influence

Good overview pieces of the censorship and media challenges that are emanating from China’s newfound power on the global stage. American universities rely on Chinese students’ tuition dollars, but that largesse comes increasingly with strict strings attached in the era of Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, Chinese state media has been blitzing the West, attempting to shift the global media narrative in China’s favor. Both articles are great overviews of these complex topics.

Improving Politics

Two great pieces from Politico Magazine on how politics may transform in the future. With automation using technology, lobbying has the potential to improve its access and efficiency, which might make the Washington policy process far more open (or closed, depending on how things go). Meanwhile in Alaska, a small group of activists have organized to switch over the state’s legislature with very limited resources. It’s a reminder that incredible change can come from small movements of dedicated individuals working the system with precision.

Profiles

There were an incredible number of interesting people to read about this year. From that massive group, here is a selection of pieces that were either quite original or were about people that are in the news these days. Given my interest in politics (and the fact that political types seem to have way more features written about them than, say, tech founders), this list tended to skew Republican in the States and populist in Europe, which I think is interesting.

Python Code

Interested in doing your own analysis? I have posted the code I used to Github, and also including it below.

import requests
from pocket import Pocket, PocketException
import webbrowser
import datetime
import time

#Pocket Authorization

def get_request_token(consumer_key):
	url = 'https://getpocket.com/v3/oauth/request'
	data = {'consumer_key': consumer_key, 'redirect_uri': 'localhost'}
	response = requests.post(url, data=data)
	if response.status_code == 200:
		request_token = response.text[5:]
		webbrowser.open("https://getpocket.com/auth/authorize?request_token={0}&redirect_uri={1}".format(request_token, '127.0.0.1'))
		return request_token

def get_access_token(request_token):
	url = 'https://getpocket.com/v3/oauth/authorize'
	data = {'consumer_key': consumer_key, 'code': request_token}
	response = requests.post(url, data=data)
	if response.status_code == 200:
		return response.text.split('&')[0].split('=')[1]

#Outputs a file with a list of articles and also prints the total word count
def analyze(consumer_key, access_token):
	start_of_year = datetime.datetime(2018,1,1,0,0,0)
	timestamp = int(start_of_year.timestamp())
	p = Pocket(consumer_key = consumer_key, access_token=access_token)
	response = p.retrieve(contentType='article', sort='oldest', state='archive', since=timestamp)

	#Let's just assume it works without error checking :)
	articles = [item[1] for item in response['list'].items()]

	articles.sort(key=lambda article: int(article['word_count']), reverse=True)

	print('Total Word Count: {0}'.format(sum([int(article['word_count']) for article in articles])))

	with open('pocket.html', 'w', encoding='utf-8') as file:
		file.write('<!DOCTYPE html><html><head><meta charset="UTF-8"></head><body><ul>')
		for article in articles:
			file.write('<li><a href="{0}">{1}</a> ({2} words / {3})</li>\n'.format(article['resolved_url'], article['resolved_title'], article['word_count'], time.ctime(int(article['time_added']))))
		file.write('</ul></body></html>')

Image by portable soul used under Creative Commons

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Comments here are made by the authors and not by me.
~ Danny