My favorite stories of 2020: An awful year with some great journalism

This year, I set a New Year’s resolution goal: Read 366 feature stories in 366 days.

We’ve still got a few days left, but you can find everything I’ve read (closing in on 366) here:  January’s readsFebruary’s readsMarch readsApril readsMay reads, June reads, July reads, August reads and a whole mess at the end because I was lazy.

After reading so many awesome stories, however, I don’t expect you to cull through all 366 to find your favorites, so I’ll share mine below.

Of course, these are always supposed to be top 10 lists, and that’s an impossible task when I’ve read so many great pieces, so I’ll cheat a bit to get a few more into the mix…

Best oral history: Brian Van Hooker’s amazing deep dive into the impact of The Simpsons’ “Steamed Hams” bit. There’s a full day’s worth of laughs in here & it goes well beyond the basic history, which is great. As a side note, as a reporter, my favorite part of the Steamed Hams oral history was imagining Brian calling an astrophysicist to ask if it was theoretically possible the Northern Lights could be contained entirely in someone’s kitchen.

Best series: Eli Saslow’s first-person “as told to” accounting of normal people’s battles with COVID-19 was haunting and essential, and none got to me more than this one about parents who nearly lost their two sons to the virus.

Best story by one of my friends: Lots of good work from the great ESPN folks this year, but nothing better than Andrea Adelson’s emotional look at David Shaw’s battle to save his brother’s life. Just a beautiful story of what we’ll do for the people we love.

Best non-college football sports story: Tom Junod’s tale of what actually happened on a Maine baseball field and the tragic backstories of the people involved is so deeply reported and emotionally intense. Then again, it’s what you expect from Tom.

Best sports essay: Ryan McGee’s personal appeal to NASCAR fans after the sport banned the confederate flag is the takedown of “History not Hate” that was desperately needed. It takes courage start pulling the skeletons out of the family’s closet, and this was a courageous piece.

Best feel-good read: In a year without much good news, we all needed a pick-me-up, and Sam Anderson’s profile of Weird Al Yankovic was exactly that… a joyful & surprisingly emotional treatise on the pleasures of being different.

Most prescient story of the year: Back in February when we all assumed COVID-19 would go away soon enough, James Hamblin’s story offered an astonishingly prescient alternative, that before hardly any Americans had it, the virus had already won.

Most deeply reported story of the year: Matthew Shaer goes around the world and back to find the real truth of a man who claimed to be a lost US commando lost in Vietnam for half a century. Nobody dug deeper on a story this year.

Best narrative essay: Sarah Viren’s wife was accused of harassment. The accusations were all lies. The taut narrative here reads like a crime thriller while exposing the dark underbelly of higher education.

Reporting MVP of the year: The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe had more stories I absolutely loved than anyone else this year. Just a terrific run of deeply reported, narrative driven pieces, one of which I’ll include in my top 10, but also wanted to share a couple others…

The pandemic hit and this car became home for a family of four — stunning storytelling that illustrated the massive and disproportionate impact the virus had on people who were already struggling to get by…

A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future — Another deeply reported and detailed piece that’s haunting in its specificity and also how universal these stories are becoming…

Now my top 10 favorite stories of the year. The one common thread among them is that they each go deep on their subjects, and if that’s all they were, they’d all be excellent stories. But in each case, the writer elevates the content into something bigger and better and more lasting. Hope you’ll read them all.

Reminder: please please please continue to support good journalism in 2021 by subscribing to your favorite news outlets & sharing the stories that impact you.

10. Linda Rodriguez found perhaps the most outside-the-box approach to telling a COVID-19 story this year with her piece on a man who’s spent nearly his whole life in an iron lung. It’s beautifully reported and written and perfectly captures the humanity of a man whose existence requires machines.

9. I mentioned Greg Jaffe’s outstanding work this year, and you could pick one of many for the top 10, but this piece on the soldier turned in by his own platoon who became a conservative hero after a Trump pardon. The depth of reporting & visceral emotions are next level here.

8. The reporting here is great, too, but the writing in Burkhard Bilger’s deep dive into high-end reno projects in NYC is the type of thing that keeps me up at night I’m so jealous of it. The quotes are amazing, too. Contractors got jokes.

7. Michael Lista’s story of a poorly planned sting operation in Canada goes so far beyond the narrative thrills of a crime story and results in a heartbreaking tale of loneliness and despair.

6. Caroline Randall Williams wrote the most powerful piece I’ve seen on how to address the country’s fraught history with race. Too many of our big debates are had with excess emotion and too little empathy, and Randall Williams flips the script in gut-wrenching fashion.

5. I hate celebrity profiles but Taffy Brodesser-Akner upends all the tropes and actually finds something deep and meaningful in her story about Val Kilmer that, in the end, feels like a story that mattered so much more because of the time in which it appeared. It’s beautiful.

4. Hannah Dreier’s story of a police standoff just days after de-escalation training in Alabama is the type of nuanced and objective reporting on police violence we so desperately needed this year. It doesn’t take sides. It just puts the reader in the midst of the chaos.

3. Jesmyn Ward’s essay on losing her husband just before the pandemic upended the world was simply heartbreaking. It reminded me of “The Leftovers” subplot in which personal grief gets upstaged by national tragedy and the additional hurt that comes with that.

2. Chris Solomon’s essay on the love shared between his parents and the toll that commitment took as they got older and his father dealt with dementia. Just gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Not sure any story will stick with me more than this one.

1. Sarah Zhang’s story on prenatal testing & Down Syndrome is touching and heartfelt but also asks some big questions we face as humans. It’s one of those rare stories that deeply connects with its subjects but is about something so much bigger.

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