Second only to the occasional test kitchen tour, the biggest perk of editing Folio: is the constant reminder that magazines overwhelmingly remain the primary medium for the greatest long-form journalism being produced today. As another year ends, we once again turned to the tastemakers themselves—a dozen leading editors at titles large and small—asking them to select their favorite magazine story of the year, from a publication other than their own, and to tell us what they liked most about it. Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful 2020.
Daniel McGinn, Executive Editor, Harvard Business Review, and co-host, Dear HBR: podcast
“Sharks on Cape Cod: Just how scared should we be?” by Neil Swidey (The Boston Globe Magazine, July 9)
Most years, my family spends a pleasant August week in a rental home on Cape Cod. Not in 2019. Why? Sharks. The prior September, a great white had attacked a surfer—the first shark fatality in New England since 1936. By last summer, each day seemed to bring another viral photo (or video) of a gigantic shark swimming uncomfortably close to Cape Cod beaches. This year, we opted for Rhode Island, where sharks remain relatively rare.
Amid this height-of-summer anxiety, Neil Swidey’s July long-form feature in The Boston Globe Magazine asked the relevant question: Just How Scared Should We Be? To find an answer, Swidey literally covers the waterfront. He visits with the widow of Jaws author Robert Benchley, who helped stoke the public’s fear of the animal. He spends time with a 62-year-old neuroscientist who barely survived a horrific 2018 attack at a beach in Truro. He sits amid semi-hysterical citizens shouting “Kill the Seals” at a public forum in Wellfleet. (Scientists say the increasing seal population “has turned the Cape coastline into what [one shark researcher] calls ‘a gray seal café’ for white sharks.”) And he boards a shark research vessel with biologists who cruise Cape Cod Bay armed with underwater GoPro cameras, observing and tagging great whites. Their goal: To provide meteorologist-style forecasts of shark activity to help make going to the beach a little safer.
The result of Swidey’s months-long reporting is a nuanced portrait of a fear that may seem statistically irrational (your odds of dying from a shark attack are 1 in 3,748,067) but still warrants a new prudence. “People are walking into a predator-prey situation,” says one biologist featured in the piece. “We have to change our behavior.” As a result of Swidey’s story, I have.
(Full disclosure: Swidey and I have had lunch a few times, and I have freelanced for the Globe Magazine.)
Senior Editor, The Cut
“America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 14)
To call Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay ambitious is an understatement. The project carefully details the impact of slavery on America’s institutions and cites the essential contributions of black people and their stolen labor to everything that has made this a nation a nation. But it also pushes readers to reframe their understanding of America’s founding ideals — and Black people’s unfaltering work to make the country live up to them. “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom,” Hannah-Jones writes. “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
Most Americans do not learn much “black history” as a part of their formal education. The comprehensiveness of Hannah-Jones’s essay (and the rest of the project’s voluminous reporting, photographs, poems, and podcasts) makes it very difficult to walk away from without recognizing the inextricable link between this country’s righteous devotion to its notions about freedom and democracy and how it has intentionally attempted to degrade and disenfranchise its inhabitants.
At a time when much of the public discourse is focused on “healing the country,” the 1619 project is an argument and perspective that is sorely needed.
Chief Content Officer and Editor-in-Chief, Reader’s Digest
“America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 14)
This treatise kicking off the Times’ 1619 Project aims high, at the kind of full-on paradigm shift that the culture normally only gets from a tome of a book. It seeks to convince readers that the year slavery was launched, not 1776, was the linchpin of the American story. Whoa. Some historians pushed back hard on that thesis as over-amped, and I can’t say one way or another about their critiques. But I found the second part of the thesis unassailable and deeply moving, which is that the nation’s truest patriots are 300 years of African Americans.
“Despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed,” Hannah Jones writes. She summarizes how in era after era—slavery, civil war, reconstruction, World War II, the civil rights movement—black Americans, by their sacrifices and faith, have served as “perfecters of this democracy.”
I won’t give spoiler alerts on her historical twists and turns, but I can testify that it wouldn’t work without a personal lede that gets right in the reader’s bones. She recounts her father’s insistence on flying the flag during a lifetime of humiliating Mississippi segregation. “I didn’t understand his patriotism,” she writes of her youthful assumption that the flag was “his acceptance of our subordination.” “It deeply embarrassed me.” This piece is her belated acknowledgment of the historical error of her thinking. I love it when magazines take the risk of blowing readers’ minds on a giant topic, and do it this tightly, thoughtfully, and well.
Editor-in-Chief, Industry Dive
“15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook,” by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein (Wired, April 16)
There have, of course, been many great stories written on Facebook over the years. But this takes the cake for me.
In talking to 65 current and former Facebook employees, Wired produced a deeply reported picture of what was going on behind the scenes during the company’s “annus horribilis.” More than just a story about Facebook, it’s ultimately a story of our times. A story of how the early promise of the Information Age has turned on human civilization. A story of our struggle with the rapid, uncontrolled evolution of technology, information and democracy. And ultimately, the frightening, unchecked power that Facebook has over our lives and over our world in 2019.
There may well be more beautifully told stories out there… but this one resonated deeply and chilled me to the bone. Still does.
Executive Editor, School Library Journal
“What Does a Traffic Jam in Atlanta Have to Do with Segregation? Quite a Lot,” by Kevin M. Kruse (The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 14)
It’s no stretch, by far, to tap the ‘1619 Project’ as a significant publication of 2019. Produced on the 400th anniversary of the start of American slavery, the project aimed to reframe the country’s history, “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” according to 1619’s stated mission.
Featuring a series of essays and reporting that comprised a dedicated issue of The New York Times Magazine, it was a significant statement—and investment—by the paper of record. The lines of people outside the Times’ building clambering for a copy of the 1619 issue, well, sort of speaks for itself.
A piece on the seemingly mundane aspect of our interstate highway system struck me. In it, writer Kevin Kruse describes how Atlanta’s I-20 divided white from black, by design, the consequences of which contemporary Atlantans face daily. Illuminating a little known aspect inherent in our infrastructure and its lasting effects, the piece informed me and also expanded my perspective. Just what you want from a feature story.
Editorial Director, Professional Builder and Custom Builder
“The Life Lessons of ‘Little Lulu,'” by Margaret Atwood (The New Yorker, Nov. 29)
I was the only girl in my house growing up (single father, one brother). I tried to fit in with the kids in my rough-and-tumble neighborhood in New Jersey. I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs, climbed trees with the best of them, broke my arm playing chicken on my bicycle. (I “won.”) And yet, according to my brother’s friends, I was still just a girl. Reading had always been my solace and I read everything I could get my hands on. I even scrounged pennies so I could buy something at Sam’s corner store. Sam told me if I bought just one thing I could read any comic book I wanted. That’s where I discovered Little Lulu. Lulu was smart, scrappy, and not at all bothered when the boys told her they didn’t want girls around. She simply found something else to do that was more fun. She changed my way of thinking about my place in the world.
All of this came rushing back to me when I read Margaret Atwood’s piece in The New Yorker, “The Life Lessons of ‘Little Lulu.'” Atwood, who knows a thing or two about relationships between the sexes, recognized Lulu as a kindred spirit, a little girl clever enough to outwit the dastardly Witch Hazel, as well as the boys in their NO GIRLS ALLOWED clubhouse. (On one book’s cover, Lulu, ahead of her time, took a paintbrush and added the letter W to the NO.) But Atwood also saw her as the storyteller she was. Lulu was always weaving stories for her younger neighbor, Alvin. Verging on fairy tales, they usually offered an inventive way to get out of a sticky situation, and undoubtedly appealed to all of the budding storytellers who read them. Atwood counts Little Lulu as one of her influences and offers the life lessons she learned: It’s OK to have curls. It’s OK to be short. It’s OK to be female. Storytelling is a skill. If you hide in the bushes and eavesdrop, you can learn some very useful things. Just don’t sneeze.
Daniel Harding Jr.
Editor-in-Chief, Power & Motoryacht and Outboard magazines
“Is Amazon Unstoppable?” by Charles Duhigg (The New Yorker, October 10)
The first thing that used to come to mind when you said “Amazon” was “rainforest.” These days, the retail empire, and the neat pile of holiday boxes on your doorstep, is what most of us think of. After reading “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” by Charles Duhigg in the October 21 issue of The New Yorker, I now think of Jeff Bezos.
Unless you live in, well, the actual Amazon, your life has likely been touched by the empire that Bezos built. Duhigg does a masterful job of producing a tasteful profile while also raising the important questions like: Is Amazon killing small–and not so small–businesses? Is a profit-first ethos putting employees and pedestrians in danger? And perhaps most importantly, as the headline asks: Can/should Amazon be stopped?
This nearly-14,000-word story–the kind print publications still deliver best–forced me to wonder, for better or worse: What am I willing to sacrifice for convenience? That’s something we should all become clear on.
VP of Editorial, The Society for Human Resource Management
“Adam Sandler’s Everlasting Shtick,” by Jamie Lauren Keiles (The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27)
Every Monday morning, during my commute from Trenton to D.C. on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, the weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a must read. The editors do a masterful job of diving into a timely cover story each week, as well as filling the issues with complementary content that’s often as compelling as the deep dive. So after a year full of reading heart-wrenching stories from around the globe, not to mention the daily drumbeat of depressing news, I have to admit relief while pouring through the Dec. 1 issue of the magazine. Celebrity profiles aren’t usually my thing, but the featured profile of Adam Sandler was terrific. Aside from The Wedding Singer and Spanglish, I’m not a huge Sandler fan, but the writing by Jamie Lauren Keiles was smart and witty and fun to read. What a nice change of pace to explore Sandler’s fairly normal but guarded life, and his cadre of Hollywood hangers on, in explicit, tasty detail. And once done, it was a treat to wander through the surrounding profiles of Alanis Morissette and Pete Townsend. The issue offered the guilty pleasure of People without the guilt—each piece was sharply written and well worth the time required to digest it.
On a related note, my other very guilty and extremely enjoyable reading pleasure this year (and in many years past) has been the brilliantly insightful column written by Alan Sepinwall, who joined Rolling Stone in 2018. If you don’t follow Alan, he has offered in-depth analysis of the best television has to offer for many years. Episode by episode, Sepinwall dissects character development and story arcs, and throws in interviews with actors, directors and writers to help readers form a smarter opinion of each show without ever being unfairly critical. His work on The Sopranos and The Wire is legendary, and he continued that effort this year with his coverage of The Deuce, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, among many others. Even the reader comments are enlightening. In fact, I refuse to invest in watching a new series until after I find out what Sepinwall thinks. I’d encourage you to do the same.
Editor-in-Chief, Editor & Publisher
“My Friend Mister Rogers,” by Tom Junod (The Atlantic, December)
Like many people who grew up in the 1980s, I grew up with Fred Rogers. The former minister-turned-television host helped shape an entire generation of children with his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But he also helped a man named Tom Junod, a writer who profiled him for Esquire in 1998. It was the subject of a movie that came out last month called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as the beloved Mr. Rogers.
Junod wrote about his thoughts on the movie in a recent Atlantic article, “My Friend Mister Rogers.” It was a chance for Junod to reflect on the past 21 years since his first article came out, how his friendship with Mr. Rogers continued even after the article was published, and what Mr. Rogers, who passed away in 2003, would think about today’s world filled with mass shootings, political turmoil and online toxicity. Junod predicted that even in the face of outrage and horror, Mr. Rogers would “continue to urge us, in what has become one of his most oft-quoted lines, to ‘look for the helpers.’” By offering us a glimpse of his friendship with Mr. Rogers, Junod was able to recapture and remind us of the simple message of kindness.
Editor, U.S., Condé Nast Traveler
“Neil Young’s Lonely Quest to Save Music,” by David Samuels (The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 20)
I wasn’t even going to read this profile, which at first glance looked like a portrait of the artist in his curmudgeonly late career and seemed mostly to be about Young’s profound disdain for digital music delivery systems, a position I was already aware of. But I have been listening to Neil Young passionately and consistently for 25 years, and at the time had On the Beach going on repeat on Spotify (please don’t tell the artist). Plus, I still fondly remember the Times Magazine‘s last Neil profile (by the much-missed David Carr) and the author of this one, David Samuels, has a knack for writing stories that prove to be about more than they at first seem. So I read the story.
To be sure, the man does come off as a cranky old codger, a perception he did nothing to dispel by subsequently annotating the article on his website. But I soon recognized how beautifully the story explores Young’s lifelong struggle to understand the relationship between music and the mind, and how that struggle is central to Young’s curious balance of perfectionism and radical openness to imperfection, which in turn helps explain the many bizarre things he has done over the decades, some disastrous and many sublime. But I was not expecting this to turn out be a story about kids with developmental challenges. I have long known that Young is the father of two sons with cerebral palsy (the first time I saw him perform was at his annual benefit concert for the Bridge School, an organization co-founded by his ex-wife Pegi to teach children with severe speech and physical impairments), but I didn’t know that many of his experiments with sound have been about connecting with them. Meanwhile, it turns out that Samuels has a bright young son whose inability to process certain sensory information has led to a lot of suffering; music therapy, it seems, has helped. As It became clear to me how important music has been for both men in trying to understand what’s going on in their sons’ heads, I found myself in tears. That’s the kind of story you remember.
As a side note, I want to thank Times Magazine for regularly publishing great writing about music: two other standouts for me this year were Jody Rosen’s “The Day the Music Burned,” about what happened to the masters of some of the world’s best-loved recordings after a little-reported fire on a Universal backlot a little over a decade ago, and Wesley Morris’s great essay, “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?,” from the magazine’s fantastic 1619 Project. And the annual “25 Songs That Matter Right Now” is always a treat.
Chief Content Officer, Taste of Home and Enthusiast Brands, Trusted Media Brands Inc.
“Donald Trump Assaulted Me, But He’s Not Alone on My List of Hideous Men,” by E. Jean Carroll (The Cut, June 21)
Growing up in a strict and conservative household, I couldn’t go to my mother with questions about much of anything beyond “What’s for dinner?” So I relied on my elementary school nurse to me get through puberty, and my high-school and college friends to learn about all things beauty, boys, fashion and sex. And I turned to E. Jean Carroll to navigate young adult life. Always direct, funny and pro-female, Carroll guided me through the ups and downs of work, marriage and motherhood in ways that made me feel strong and empowered. Her “Ask E. Jean” column in Elle magazine is the only advice column I’ve ever read.
So I was shocked when I saw Carroll on the cover of the June 24–July 7 issue of New York magazine with the cover line: “This is what I was wearing 23 years ago when Donald Trump attacked me in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room.”
What the… !
I read “Hideous Men” with the same rapt attention and sick-to-my-stomach feeling that came from flipping and clicking through all the #MeToo coverage of the past few years. But I’ll admit: This article hit me especially hard. Carroll was like the super-cool big sister I’d always wanted. As I read this article—so personal, so shocking in its detail, so full of quintessential E. Jean snark—I was reminded of the worst part of all of these revelations: Of course, many women don’t speak up for fear that their careers will be derailed. But many women, including Carroll, don’t report sexual harassment and abuse simply because keeping quiet is… easier. Laughing it off is… easier. Believing that it won’t happen again is… easier.
I was struck by the two very different reactions of Carroll’s friends when she told them about her encounter with Trump at Bergdorf’s. One told her to report the assault: “He raped you. Go to the police.” The other warned her, “Tell no one… He has 200 lawyers. He’ll bury you.”
Carroll followed the advice of her more cautious friend. Until she couldn’t any more. Some claim she shared the story for her book deal; the New York piece is an excerpt from What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal.
I say, who cares? It’s time women stop taking the easy route. It’s time we speak up and hold men accountable for their hideousness. Once we do, articles like this—no matter how moving and memorable—will no longer have to be written.
Executive Editor, Grist
“Climate Change Could Destroy His Home in Peru. So He Sued an Energy Company in Germany,” by Brooke Jarvis (The New York Times Magazine, April 9)
Brooke Jarvis’s story—about a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide named Saúl Luciano Lliuya, who is suing Germany’s largest utility for the fraction of responsibility it might have for imperiling his home—conveys an urgent message about the global forces that are driving catastrophic climate change and the people paying the price.
Jarvis visits a lake in the Andes that sits 14 miles above a town of 130,000 people and has filled by orders of magnitude in two decades due to melting ice in the mountain range. Three “guardians of the lake” live in a hut nearby and walk a trail to a read a ruler popping up above the lake’s surface to report its height every two hours. When an avalanche of ice plummeted into the water last Winter, creating 12-foot waves on the lake’s surface, a guardian reported the event as “regularcito,” or no big deal. But a more substantial ice fall could overflow the lake and swallow several neighborhoods below, including Luciano Lliuya’s.
The piece takes an arcane and murky topic—climate liability, or basically who in the world can people, cities, and far-flung villages legally blame for the evolving climate emergency—and situates it in a breathtaking scene that compels even the most casual reader to care. Jarvis’s detailed description illustrates how suspenseful the natural world can be and how fragile human existence really is. And that makes this story anything but regularcito.
Senior Editor, Folio:
“How the Unchecked Power of Judges is Hurting Poor Texans,” by Neena Satija (Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, Aug. 19)
The pot-stirrer in me was tempted to select Megan Greenwell’s tragically magnificent essay, “The Adults in the Room,” which coincided with her resignation from Deadspin in August, but surely you’ve all read that one by now. Instead, I’m going with a brilliant piece I read over the summer, which I feel exemplifies journalism at its best: leaving no stone unturned, shining a light on injustice, comforting the afflicted and speaking truth to power.
Neena Satija’s 10,000-word feature, published jointly by Texas Monthly and the non-profit Texas Tribune, begins as a story about Marvin Wilford, a Marine Corps veteran who was wrongfully charged in a case of mistaken identity after violence broke out one night in the parking lot of the North Austin strip club where he worked as a doorman. But it ends as a scorching exposé of an indigent defense system that provides the state’s poorest citizens with a woefully insufficient type of justice, plagued by overloaded defense attorneys and overseen by judges with inherent conflicts of interest.
Satija correctly points out that the major contributing factors to the crisis are a lack of funding and the judges’ unchecked power. I suggest that another is indifference. Privilege allows us to occasionally forget, in the hustle and minutiae of our daily lives, about injustices perpetrated on less-fortunate people a thousand miles away; good journalism reminds us how much work must still be done.