my 2021 in review
The end of the year is always a rare time for me to pause and consider what I’ve been doing, and what I should be doing. I’ve also been spending time thinking generally about media and journalism and where it falls short, both in communicating bad news (just watched ‘Don’t Look Up’ on Netflix!) and also good news. I’m just one person, but I take very seriously my ethical responsibilities being in this industry, and really resent journalists who publish inaccurate, unfair, or misleading reports and then act indignant when they’re blamed for doing so. I’m not going to overstate what I do or can do, and yet I think collectively plenty of journalists certainly understate what we do, maybe to feel less culpable or responsible for bad outcomes in the world. I don’t think journalism can save democracy, but I also don’t think democracy can really work without strong journalism. People need good information about those in power, and the choices reporters make individually and outlets make institutionally directly affect that.
In light of making it another year around the sun as a full-time freelancer, I wanted to reflect briefly on the work I’ve done. This year I wrote 60 stories, across 19 different outlets. I continued reporting on the intersections of climate + labor, on criminal justice, on housing + schools, on politics.
Every year freelancing is different. Some years some of your “anchor outlets” literally go out of business, or the editor you knew moved on, or an outlet’s freelance budget shrunk or their editorial priorities changed so you’re no longer writing about what they’re interested in publishing. All of this happens every year, so it’s always a dance of building working relationships you like, while recognizing a lot is out of your control. This newsletter is one way I try to mitigate for those situations, so thank you again to those who subscribe.
In keeping with roundups I did in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015, I’m going to lift up a few stories I’m most proud of from this year.
1. The New York Times: The Coronavirus Made the Radical Possible
It was such an honor to publish this piece in March, as part of a package on the anniversary of the pandemic. It looks at policies we put in place at the local, state, and federal level that a year before would have struck most people as unrealistic and politically naive. We did a lot quickly, and the sky did not fall. The question then becomes: now what?
2. The Intercept: Inside the Winning Fight for Reparations in Athens, Georgia
This story looked at one middle-class Black community displaced by the federal government’s nationwide “urban renewal” program in the 1960s. I wrote about how a handful of direct descendants, armed with newly discovered archival records, organized for recognition and redress—the first of its kind in Georgia. The piece also included some really amazing pictures taken by an Atlanta-based photographer.
3. The Atlantic: The Simplest Fix to America’s Rent Problem
This piece asked what if instead of a cumbersome housing voucher program that involves landlords signing contracts with the federal government, we instead gave cash assistance directly to renters? I was excited by the broader conversation this piece helped spark.
4. The New Republic: Inside a Long, Messy Year of Reopening Schools
I published this in early March on why school re-openings were so challenging and confusing to keep up with, and why it often felt like people were speaking past each other regarding matters of safety and risk. I put a lot of effort into reporting this out, and I remember feeling very gratified that readers told me they found it clarifying.
5. The Intercept: Parents Reported to Child Services for Keeping Unvaccinated Kids Home
This story looked at families referred to Child Protective Services for keeping their kids who were not yet eligible for vaccines home from school. This was another piece I was grateful to The Intercept for for commissioning powerful photography to illustrate the story.
6. The American Prospect: The Democratic Dilemma On Dark Money
This piece sought to understand what it means for Democrats, and even the most progressive organizations, to have embraced undisclosed spending over the last decade. I spent five months on this one, and really aimed to grapple with the tradeoffs and stakes groups now face.
7. The Appeal: Washington State’s Most Populous County Curbed Covid-19 Among The Homeless By Moving Them To Hotels. But One Local Government Fought Back.
This piece looked at how a suburb of Seattle was using its zoning code to try and evict homeless people staying at a vacant hotel there during the pandemic. It was a really classic (yet to me, still staggering) example of how NIMBYism works in practice — where individuals insist they’re in fact very inclusive and welcoming, yet leverage their zoning codes to make it harder for vulnerable people to live there.
8. The Intercept: Startup Alternative to Rental Security Deposits Gets Legal Backing in Baltimore
I was really glad to report on this little-known VC-backed company, Rhino, which has been successfully marketing so-called security deposit insurance to cities. Baltimore’s city council had passed a bill in April—the third of its kind in the country—essentially requiring landlords to offer Rhino to tenants when they sign a lease. A few weeks after my story was published, Baltimore’s mayor issued a veto.
9. Bloomberg Businessweek: Public Campaign Funding Gains Steam To Counter Big Donors' Sway
This piece looked at publicly-funded elections, which exist in at least 27 mostly Democratic states, cities and counties. I looked at the evolution of these programs, the promise of them, the challenges to expansion, and why they’ve picked up steam.
10. The Intercept: New York Unions Prepare to Shift Retirees Off Medicare
This story was the first of three I published this year on Medicare Advantage, the privatized version of Medicare which currently serves nearly 27 million seniors. I’ve been glad to have the opportunity to report on this massively consequential, and generally unscrutinized insurance program.
Thank you so much for reading. I’m excited about 2022. I already have some projects in the works and I want to thank you all for sharing with me your ideas, tips and questions. I hope you have a great rest of the year.