Outstanding stories from May 2015

We send a daily newsletter featuring one fantastic piece of journalism in each issue. Below are all the stories we featured in May.

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Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?

“What’s striking is how little attention has been paid to the impact that technology has had on the actual practice of journalism,” says Michael Massing in this piece in the New York Review of Books.

Massing has set out to figure out the ways in which journalism is better, worse, and different today.

Holy Crop

By now, we all know there’s a drought in the western United States.

It would seem that this scarcity is simply a result of a lack rain — but an investigation by ProPublica and Matter shows that government subsidies and business interests have led to a surprisingly silly allocation of water in these states. This is outstanding investigative journalism.

By Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam, Matter and ProPublica

Skyping with the enemy

Anna Erelle (pseudonym) had been reporting on ISIS for a while before she decided to go undercover and try to learn more about what was driving European teenagers toward Islamic extremists. The next thing she knew, she was faking the planning of her marriage to a high-ranking member of ISIS.

In Flight

A beautiful, fascinating story by pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, sharing a pilot’s view of a journey flying a 747 from Heathrow to Tokyo. In addition to just being a wonderful story, this piece blends multimedia and written word in a seamless, forward-thinking manner.

A father’s initiative

The Obama administration created a $500 million initiative to provide a 16 course curriculum on fatherhood around the country. North Milwaukee is one of the focuses of the program, where black children are “three times as likely as white children to die in their first year; five times as likely to live with a single parent; nine times as likely to attend failing schools; 15 times as likely to live in poverty; 18 times as likely to go to prison.”

Read The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow’s profile of Paul Gayle of North Milwaukee, who joined this fatherhood program having these goals in mind: “Brush Sapphire’s teeth every night.” “Stay calm.” “Find a stable apartment.” “Get a job — any.”

An empire reboots

Disney has bet big on the upcoming Star Wars film. So big, that their $4 billion acquisition of LucasFilm essentially was a wager that this film will be a blockbuster.

Reporter Bruce Handy walks us through the fascinating story of this film coming together and the ambitious plans to re-ignite the Star Wars legacy. Along with the story are outstanding photographs by Annie Leibovitz.

Breaking Baltimore’s Blue Wall of Silence

“Crystal was supposed to keep his mouth shut about what he saw, but he didn’t. He broke the “blue wall of silence” and blew the whistle on his colleagues, and the way many of his fellow officers saw it, he had sided with a small-time criminal over his brothers in blue.”

Albert Samaha, Buzzfeed

My Letterman years

“One fateful night in the summer of 1988, I took acid…I resolved to get a real job. But then I had an equally ridiculous epiphany: I should work for David Letterman…Less than a month later, I met Matt Wickline at a party. He was a writer at Letterman. It was fate…my career began.”

Daniel Kellison, Grantland

Willie Horton Revisited

“How did a single sadistic home invasion — one of many senseless crimes in the violent 1980’s — reshape the politics of criminal justice for a generation? … It began with a 30-second television ad. As he has for 28 years, Horton insisted he is innocent — that he never killed or raped, but was just in the wrong places at the wrong times.”

Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller, The Marshall Project

The Rise and Fall of the Silk Road

Read both part one and part two

“There was a chill in the air and the thrum of a thousand fans, all powered by Vulcan forces from the rock below. The Icelandic authorities found the correct box and discovered that it had a mirror drive, a duplicate set of contents. They pulled the mirror, returned to Reykjavik, and handed the drive to Tarbell. And just like that, he was holding Silk Road in his hand.”

By Joshuah Bearman, Wired

My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator

“As a boy, my interests largely concerned the life of the mind, writing poems, reading about the origins of the Latin Vulgate, plowing through science fiction stories about Captain Nemo in his Nautilus. The only thing I’d ever seen my father read was a booklet about how to mask your odor in the woods with bobcat urine. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he was even my father.”

Harrison Scott Key, Outside Magazine

Your life on Earth

A fascinating interactive story by BBC. Start by entering some details about your life, and walk through amazing stories of how you and the world around you have changed since the day you were born.

Reform of the Nerds

“In Chu’s view, nerd-dom has a toxic, intolerant fringe, one that has gone unchecked in large part because nerds are awful at policing their own subculture, especially online. In an era when the nerds are increasingly ascendant, Chu wants to make nerd culture better — and to stop more of his fellow nerds from getting drawn into the worst of it.”

Peter C. Baker, Pacific Standard

Split Image

“Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes…Everyone in Madison’s life holds a piece of her story, possesses a clue: a text message, a vacant look, a deleted Instagram post…It was as if they hoped she might be breathed back to life.”

Kate Fagan, ESPN

Where’s the beef?

“The logistics of pulling off a heist of this size were straight out of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Braum’s had found that each stolen calf weighed between 300 and 750 pounds, meaning that the combined lot would likely have tipped the scales at over 500,000 pounds. Texas Monthly’s John Nova Lomax estimated that it would have taken more than 30 cattle trailers, each 36 feet long, to haul off the animals, and it insulted logic to imagine that a fleet of massive farm vehicles would have evaded detection.”

By Eric Benson, FiveThirtyEight

The price of nice nails

“Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.

It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day.”

Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times

I was an undercover Uber driver

“I honestly didn’t expect to be approved. The ethics of doing something like this are clear: You can’t lie about who you are. And Uber knew who I was. Earlier, I’d posted on Twitter trying to dig up some Philly-area UberX drivers; spookily, within a couple of hours, Durkosh emailed asking how she could be involved.

A couple weeks later, I got a text: I was in.”

Emily Guendelsberger, The Philadelphia City Paper

The Desert Blues

“Even as Ansar reassured Bono — and it was true that at that moment the city of Timbuktu was enjoying a period of temporary calm — a large group of jihadist fighters were encamped in the desert…Ansar didn’t mention his fear that his famous guest might be abducted.”

Joshua Hammer, Atavist

In Rwanda, Building a “University in a Box”

“Under a bright, midday sun, a large group of prospective college students waits in the parking lot outside Kepler University, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The results of the morning’s admissions tests will soon be taped to a large window next to the school’s entrance.

For many of those waiting, acceptance to Kepler could mean an end to their poverty. One young man, who cleans dishes at a hotel to support his family, says earning a spot here would be the “first happiness in [his] life.”

Wyatt Orme & Tik Root, Bright

Where are the Children?

“The mother told police that the kidnappers had starved and abused her. “They caused so much pain for my daughter that she does not live a normal life,” she wrote to the judge”

“America’s migrant-extortion market remains in the shadows of our fierce immigration debate. One reason is that the crime targets those who are least likely to report it. Another is that the victims of ransom kidnappings are sometimes twice disappeared: after being rescued from the stash houses where they are kept, they are often detained long enough to testify against their captors and then are swiftly deported.”

Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker

The Bus Station

For released Texas prisoners, the first step toward the future is into an old Greyhound station in Huntsville. NPR’s Look At This team created this fascinating photo essay about the hundreds of inmates who arrive there each week.


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