Verb Company editor Ivan Rothkegel said last month that you never know what you’re going to find inside a new issue of The New Yorker magazine. Right on cue, on 12/27 The New Yorker published Florida woman bites camel, on the genitals, at a truck stop, after the 600-pound animal sat on her. The story is not just entertaining but a perfect example of a great news lede, which writer Calvin Trillin’s article is about.
Contrast that to the first item on the “Top Stories” section on The New Yorker app on the same day, something about the January assault on the US Congress approaching its first anniversary. Perhaps we should tell online news editors that we only read these stories because they are top of the feed, not because we like them. How unfortunate that the digital medium gives us unlimited choice, but we would just read anything else if we could only find it.
To help you find some alternate sources, here’s our list of favorite news stories of 2021, with some tips about the writers and outlets that posted them in online text, podcast, book, newsletter, PDF, and video formats.
The Facebook Files, by Jeff Horwitz et al. at The Wall Street Journal
From all the news writers she could have shared her story with, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen picked Jeff Horwitz at The Wall Street Journal first. Horwitz honored her choice with The Facebook Files, a 17-part series, and counting, providing the first independent explanation of how social media platforms work. At Verb we were first hooked on the PR side of the story, and then on the horrible peek it offered behind the curtain. If you don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription, you can still hear from Haugen, Horwitz, and the rest on The Journal podcast. For example, here’s the podcast episode where Horwitz tells how he met Haugen, who had remained anonymous until then.
This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, by Nicole Perlroth
Even without a whistleblower, you can still through the book at them. Nicole Perlroth won the business book award of the year by the Financial Times for “This is how they tell the world ends,” her account of how government exploits of computer security vulnerabilities endanger the technology we rely on every day. At the height of the cold war, the US found that Soviet intelligence had access to every official American report from Moscow by a clever hack in the US embassy’s typewriters. Perlroth draws a shocking line from that moment in history to modern information security. At Verb we particularly admire her ability to render impenetrable security jargon in clear language.
Dave Eggers Created the Google-Amazon Mash-Up of Your Nightmares, by Kara Swisher at Sway
Make it a habit to break through jargon with Kara Swisher’s brilliant podcast “Sway.” The podcast format lets you hear Swisher’s pointed interviews, where she gets some true moments of insight. At Verb we loved how her interview with author Dave Eggers gets to the core of Silicon Valley’s fountain of jargon. Other times, even the people being interviewed are surprised by what they tell Swisher. On January 7th, 2021, Parler then-CEO John Matze told Swisher he didn’t have any content moderation, after which cloud providers took his app offline.
I Gave My Mom A Crypto Wallet, by Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal
If you prefer your news in video format you should check out Joanna Stern, possibly the first tech reporter to have won an Emmy, and certainly the first time the Emmy has gone to The Wall Street Journal. Stern is the Journal’s personal technology columnist, and her inventive use of video makes the storied space that gave us some of the most influential tech reviews even more personal. For example, to better test the promise of the metaverse, Stern once spent 24 hours wearing a VR headset, recording herself in meetings, playing games, and even working out virtually. Her verdict: not ready for prime time yet. She also made a non-fungible token (NFT) out of one of her kindergartener son’s drawings and gave it to grannie as a gift, the only adorable step-by-step guide to the Web3.
The Web3 boom is bringing America’s culture wars to the tech industry — and insiders say it’s already causing an ideological rift among developers, by Kylie Robison at Insider
Web3 stories are not adorable. This is a pity because they are everywhere. In fact, Web3 is shaping up as the tech industry’s next ideological battlefront, a little like open-source software was in the 2000s, or like personal computing was in the 80s. Kylie Robison is a good guide into what’s happening inside the industry today. She covers software developer news for the Insider portal, so she has the pulse on how coders react to what their companies are working on, the software jobs that become hot or bust, and the technologies they want to master next. This offers key context to understand Web3 stories.
Why global investors are flocking to back Latin American startups, by Mary Ann Azevedo at TechCrunch
A huge difference between the Web3 and previous tech battles is that the tech industry now has a much larger share of the economy than twenty years ago, let alone forty years back. We all know that Apple is the first publicly traded company in history to cross three trillion dollars in market capitalization, and we know that big tech is the main component of the S&P 500, but emerging trends are less obvious. The top media outlet to track early tech investment is TechCrunch. For example, Mary Ann Azevedo has reported that investment in Latin-American tech startups has broken all records in 2021 because people in the region still have a strong need for innovative services vs. mature markets.
Latin America Digital Transformation Report 2021, by Julio Vasconcellos et al. at Atlantico VC
The big wave of investment in Latin-American startups might come as a surprise if you hear about the tough times family and friends are having in the region, like we do at Verb. To understand the complexity of Latin America, with its 600 million people, GDP per capita like China, but the highest inequality in the world, you want a more comprehensive report. Try the Latin America Digital Transformation Report by Atlantico VC. The 2021 version has 200 pages with the information you need to understand the changes that ushered the world’s largest neo bank, highest social media usage, and fastest ecommerce adoption anywhere.
To Fight Vaccine Lies, Authorities Recruit an “Influencer Army,” by Taylor Lorenz at The New York Times
As digital transformation speeds up, some stories can be stranger than fiction. Taylor Lorenz has gone after the creator economy, where using social media is your main source of income. As Lorenz chronicles how these new behaviors cross paths with the reality that the rest of us live in, like the pandemic, she gives us a feel of the future, like in her story of TikTok stars working with the government.
The Pandemic Heroes Who Gave us the Gift of Time and Gift of Information, by Zeynep Tufecki at Insight
To fight vaccine lines, we first needed vaccine truths, and Zeynep Tufecki was one writer with the courage to chase after them. Her initial reporting showed us that messenger RNA vaccines are almost pure information that our cells can read. She writes for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and her own newsletter.
The interview coup of the decade, by Marla Lepore at Muck Rack Daily
It was on a different newsletter that we found some respite from the constant barrage of information of the last couple years. In 2021 at Verb, we started using the (excellent) public relations software Muck Rack to help us do a better job of connecting with reporters. Every afternoon Monday to Friday, Muck Rack publishes a (free) daily newsletter with a rundown of the day’s trending stories, with a compelling headline and a link to each. That’s where we found out Mike Sacks’ interview of John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons.”
Since then, we have been writing at diner booths and reading The New Yorker for the unexpected ledes. As the T.S. Elliot quote in our little video says, 2022 words await another voice. Perhaps it will be from one of the writers we selected here.