The Best Freelance Journalism of OctoberBy Dillon Baker November 3rd, 2015
Last month, I started a column to recognize and reward the best freelance writing around. Here was how I made my selections:
We’re going to start gathering the best freelance writing on the Internet every month—starting today with September. (Just to be clear, we’re defining “freelancers” as anyone who is not a salaried employee in media or academia, or anyone who writes on the side of an unrelated full-time job.)
Here’s what I was looking for: unique, important stories told through evocative writing on a diversity of topics. That’s pretty subjective, and I admit you can see my biases pretty clearly in the selections, but such is the nature of these kinds of things. The Pulitzer Prize, for example, has no set criteria.
Afterwards, I got a lot of great feedback. Two points were brought up: One, I didn’t have enough international pieces. And two, I only focused on writing. Both of those were spot on. All the pieces I selected were set in America or were about America, and limiting the selections to writers is unfair to the countless other creatives producing amazing work. So let’s go ahead and modify that second bolded criteria from writing to storytelling.
You’ll see that I tried to expand things a bit. I’ve included two photo essays, and a few pieces focused on international issues. Unfortunately I’m only one person, so it’s likely I still missed a ton. Send me a tweet @dillonmbaker or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any suggestions.
Special thanks to our editorial intern, Esme Cribb, for helping me sort through everything.
By Agung Parameswara | Roads and Kingdoms
Yohanes Tampang lies in front of me. Dressed in black sunglasses, a black suit and a batik headband, he still looks a little rough. He died 15 years ago but has just been dug out his tomb by family members, who will soon start cleaning his corpse. I heard about the Ma’Nene ritual a few years ago but was only able to witness it this year. My interest for Indonesia’s ancient beliefs, from Bali to Sumba to Tana Toraja, has brought me to learn more about my country’s spirituality in a time of rapid social change and urbanization. It has become my long-term project, to document those who still respect their ancestors. As family members gather around the corpse of Yohanes Tampang, I don’t see fear or disgust, just love. They talk with the deceased and introduce him to a new family member.
By Simon Parkin | How We Get to Next
“I get up at 7.30, sit in front of a computer, suddenly discover it’s midnight, and go to bed,” Grand said. “On a good day I may remember to eat.” The slow pace of the work is a result of the way in which the inventor, who now lives in Arizona close to the Grand Canyon, is approaching the problem of creating artificial intelligence. As he suggested in the Kickstarter pitch, he is not mimicking the behavior of real-world animals in code, as is the usual practice in video games and other simulators. Instead, he is trying to replicate the machine that is the living body, on an almost cellular level, by creating networks of virtual neurons, enzymes, receptors, and genes. These systems are then clicked together like Lego blocks. It’s the arrangement of these elements and objects that dictates the creature’s behavior, rather than the code inside them.
By James Verini | The Atavist
There was no question of where to bring Mubarak. Mother of Mercy is the only fully functional hospital in Nuba, which is about 3,000 square miles. The hospital is overseen by a onetime college nose guard from upstate New York named Tom Catena. Just as there are rules in Nuba for what to do in an Antonov raid, there is a rule for what to do with the victims of the bombing if they are still alive: get them to Doctor Tom as fast as you can.
By Abe Streep | California Sunday Magazine
How does it feel to be left behind by the nation you help fuel? What is it like losing the war on coal? Wondering that, I packed my car and drove from Laramie to Gillette. Before long, I saw a familiar bumper sticker. It said: WELCOME TO WYOMING. CONSIDER EVERYONE ARMED.
By Kyle Chayka | Bloomberg Business
Cassidy and Knox head upstairs to the office of a startup that ships curated boxes of pet treats, and proceed to take out the trash. The space is wide and mostly empty early in the evening, although a few dogs scurry about near the kitchen. Managed by Q is a startup serving other startups with their obligatory office perks. There’s a keg of rosé on tap and a haven of couches and bunk beds occupying one corner in what looks like a human-scale cat playground. “I should have gone to school for that. You can go to work, drink wine in bed all day, and still be at work!” Knox says. “They give them everything here.”
By Alden Wicker | Refinery29
Schneider has made some admittedly difficult decisions since taking over, like slashing expenses, drastically cutting overtime, and laying off 135 of the company’s factory workers. Still, “no one would expect it to be this contentious,” she tells me. “Nobody expects riots.”Nobody, that is, except “Dov’s girls” — Charney’s band of hardened loyalists. The fact that employees would go to such lengths to reinstate an abusive leader makes no sense, until you realize one thing: Charney wasn’t just running a cult brand — he ran his company, in several meaningful ways, like an actual cult.
By Sarah Barker | Slate
More than most village girls, Rai grew strong, self-reliant, confident, and even ever so slightly worldly. When rebels came to her village during the country’s 10-year civil war, the 14-year-old joined the Maoist army, more for their promise of three meals a day and their fitness regimen than for their ideology. She spent two battle-free years learning how to clean and fire a rifle, and practicing karate, calisthenics, and running. When the army disbanded, she moved to the big city, Kathmandu, and continued to run on a track, without success. What little running is done in Nepal is accomplished by circling a track or on city streets. Corrupt sports officials, who pocket money intended for athletes’ training and travel, complete the recipe for the country’s failure to develop interest or proficiency in distance running. The vast network of ridiculously scenic trails? Those are for trekking tourists, and for locals to get from point A to point B. Prior to March 2014, Rai had never heard of trail running.
By Damaris Calhoun | Atlas Obscura
For the Waura, getting internet has been the culmination of a years-long process that began in 2011, when their chief approached the Amazon Conservation Team and asked them to help rebuild their ancestral village on a southwestern portion of Xingu that they consider their spiritual home. Abandoned long ago, the original village was gone, and much of the surrounding land has been taken over by soy farms and ranchers, including a series of caves that the tribe considers sacred.
By Probal Rashid | Wired
Bangladeshi photojournalist Probal Rashid was born in the rice-growing district of Gazipur in 1979, and has seen this threat first-hand. He’s made it his mission to document the threat industrialization, pollution and climate change pose to his homeland. “I have witnessed the change from the beginning,” he says. “I noticed how a completely pristine rural area was swallowed up, how natural water reservoirs became poisonous, how extremely fertile agricultural land became unproductive along with the devastation of the natural forest.”
By Maria Konnikova | California Sunday Magazine
Later, at a conference, Prause expressed her frustration to a friend who worked as an adviser to another pharmaceutical company then testing its own drug. He laughed. Her story was benign in his experience. He’d had a meeting where the scientists were urged not to make the drug too effective, lest it turn women into nymphomaniacs and jezebels. “It was my first taste of pharma,” Prause recalls. “And I said, ‘Never again.'”
Click here to see last month’s winners.Image by nikkytok