Welcome to Storyboard’s first annual year-end roundup of top storytelling: 34 of our favorite pieces in audio, magazines, newspapers and online, with three of the categories guest curated by Mark Armstrong (online), Julia Barton and Julie Shapiro (audio), and Ben Montgomery, Michael Kruse and Thomas Lake (newspapers). This was a strong year for storytelling, and it was hard to choose. You’ll find pieces that perhaps you already know and love alongside, we hope, a few new surprises. Enjoy.
Producers: Pejk Malinovski and Falling Tree Productions
Pejk Malinovski is a New York-based, Denmark-born radio producer and poet, and he’s found his ideal subject in Poetry, Texas. His half-hour documentary for the BBC takes a wide-eyed look at a small East Texas community and finds much to wonder at. Malinovski’s narration is sparse but just right, as when he interviews a lonely man outside the town’s only gas station. The man, Malinovski tells us, has been diagnosed with cancer. Soon after we find out the man is clutching a pack of cigarettes. When he says “dime,” it drawls into “dawm.” “I wonder if anyone ever recorded this man’s voice,” Malinovski says. “And I shiver with the thought that this might be the last time that anyone does.” (nominated by Third Coast International Audio Festival artistic director Julie Shapiro)
Producers: This American Life
This brutal self-takedown on the part of Ira Glass and This American Life also makes for gripping audio. Earlier this year, TAL achieved its most-downloaded episode when it excerpted Mike Daisey’s monologue about working conditions at Chinese plants that manufacture iPhones and iPads. But his story turns out to be conflated or downright false. Glass cedes much of the episode to Marketplace’s China correspondent, Rob Schmitz, as he does the shoe-leather reporting that rapidly takes apart Daisey’s account. It’s brave, truthful, and a model of transparent journalism – though it begs some larger questions about why we fall for fabulous narratives over messy reality time and again.
Producers: Pat Walters and Radiolab
Like This American Life, Radiolab struggled with its own ethics controversy this year: Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich were excoriated for treatment of a Hmong interviewee in this episode (though to their credit, they did something rare in public radio and aired an interview gone awry). In general, it’s been fascinating to hear the show expand beyond science and take on the wider world with its trademark embrace of risk and ambiguity. Producer Pat Walters’ podcast short “Grumpy Old Terrorists” raises all kinds of questions about how our government, and all of us, respond to people who seem to be planning horrible things. (And for more on host Jad Abumrad’s insistence that the program grow and change, read his manifesto, punks.)
Producers: Lu Olkowski and State of the Re:Union
Independent producer Lu Olkowski stumbled upon a remarkable story in southern Ohio: a town where most people identify as “black” – and suffer N-word treatment by surrounding communities – although generations of intermarriage have rendered most residents completely “white” looking. Olkowski and State of the Re:Union host Al Letson take what could be just an absurd, uniquely American curiosity and go deep, letting us hear how the residents of Jacksonville, Ohio, have to make tough choices about identity and family.
Producers: Kelly McEvers and NPR
It’s hard to highlight only one narrative out of Kelly McEvers’ coverage of the Middle East this year. Whether in Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria, she’s able to make us really feel what people are going through in this traumatized part of the world. One piece of hers I can’t get out of my head is a simple report on a performance in Beirut – a late-night, secretive set of monologues based on letters and stories from Syria’s war zones. And don’t miss the accompanying web feature on an artist who satirizes the Assad regime with finger puppets, at huge risk to himself.
Chosen by Paige Williams, writer, Storyboard editor, and Nieman Foundation for Journalism narrative writing instructor.
At last count, journalists had produced four long narratives of the weird news out of Ohio – that a suicidal zookeeper had freed scores of tigers and bears and other animals before shooting himself – but none more poetically, or with more narrative tension, than Jones.
You may know Russell as the author of the short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swampladia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, but in her first long magazine narrative she proves herself an equally compelling teller of true stories. She doesn’t gild her sentences; she wires them.
Colloff has become a one-woman justice league with her stories about wrongful imprisonment. With this two-parter, about a man accused of killing his wife, she continues the work, laying out the whole saga in straightforward prose that you can’t put down.
It’s impossible to talk about the year’s most important work without including Sarah Stillman’s remarkable piece on the law enforcement community’s growing reliance on young confidential informants. Stillman focuses on the death of a 23-year-old drug informant named Rachel Hoffman (“She had never fired a gun or handled a significant stash of hard drugs. Now she was on her way to conduct a major undercover deal for the Tallahassee Police Department, meeting two convicted felons alone in her car to buy two and a half ounces of cocaine, fifteen hundred Ecstasy pills, and a semi-automatic handgun.”) but covers an entire American subculture of pawns.
It’s a love story, a war story, an expat story, a mystery, a history lesson, music.
Not because we know her and love her, but because Kelley Benham French lived an amazing story and had the good sense to recognize that, and to go back and report the hell out of it.
Because Anne Hull is back on the Post and we missed her deep and empathetic immersion reporting so much.
Because of Goffard’s very last paragraph and all those that led to it.
Because Dan Barry is the Homer of Americana.
Because a good feature story is about something universal, like an apology, and Hallman knew when to pay attention.
Because Micah True’s was an almost perfect death, if there is such a thing, and Bearak handled it masterfully, and the New York Times gave it the space it deserved.
Because this story about the shifting myth of the American dream made every last one of us wish we had thought of it and done it so well.
Because Collette found a love story, full of change and redemption, in a washed-up hell-raiser and told it with skill.
When I started Longreads in 2009, more than 70 percent of the stories shared in the community were pieces that started out in a print magazine or newspaper. That’s changing, slowly. Print publishers are still responsible for the vast majority of the deeply reported pieces that are online, but it’s heartening to see so many online-only publishers, new and old, embrace in-depth storytelling on the web. Here are a few favorites from this year, in no particular order:
Chen spent much of 2012 tracking down the real humans behind some of the anonymous and/or despicable characters of the web. And Gawker and sister publications Gizmodo and Deadspin already have an impressive track record with these stories.
The first-person account of an Olympic career, a violent attack, and what happened next.
The story of Will and Erwynn, the first gay couple to marry on a military base.
A Palestinian-American writer attempts to fly to Israel to visit her sister.
A forever disappointed fan base, a team that’s threatening to leave town … and Zubaz.
I have complicated feelings about Kickstarter and journalism – it feels like a sugar high for niche publishers – but I guess it works, because love Narratively, and I loved Mike Albo on navigating the online hookup scene.
This year, the most restrained, thoughtful story about Romney’s religion came from BuzzFeed.
Another Kickstarter-backed publisher, still doing great work after its first year. Kallman digs into his grandfather’s past as a pro basketball player for the Chicago Stags in the 1940s.