Weekend Reading: The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power, the Fight for Local News, Cancel Culture, and More

The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.

There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.

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Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change? — Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker

A dense but imminently readable deep dive into not only nuclear power, but the unicorn of the field — nuclear fusion. It’s incredibly difficult to write about such heady, scientific material in a way that feels accessible and interesting, but Rivka Galchen does here, powered by the real-world climate crisis and nuclear fusion’s appeal as a potential silver bullet.

  • 🖥️ Why Nuclear Plants Are Shutting Down — Cleo Abram, Vox: A short video on the closure of the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, just 30 miles north of New York City. It feels wild to think about a plant being so close to such a massive population center, but then you learn just how much energy it produced, and you understand it as a perfect encapsulation of the push-pull nature of nuclear energy. When operating, Indian Point provided more electricity than is produced annually by all solar and wind in New York State.

  • 📖 Cold War, Hot Mess — Lois Parshley, Virginia Quarterly Review: Were you one of the many people who watched the limited series Chernobyl on HBO? It brought to life the horrors of that terrible accident and criminal mismanagement for a whole new generation. It was that mismanagement aspect that generated the show’s drama: a Cold War government too proud to admit failure and its people suffering the cost. This article on the Department of Energy and America’s own mismanagement of nuclear waste is a slow-motion version of that. It’s particularly tough to read about Hanford, Washington, the site of the world’s first nuclear reactor and the cost that town has paid for being on the cutting edge of science.

What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town — Elaine Godfrey, The Atlantic

This story about the power of a local newspaper fills me with a particular brand of hope, as I’m working at a local paper in Wyoming. I see many similarities between my current paper and the Iowa paper Elaine Godfrey grew up reading. This story focuses on how acquisitions by bigger media companies work to kill off local papers, and it posits a thesis of what happens when they’re gone: It makes people feel less connected and more alone.

About one in four U.S. newspapers, or almost 2,200 titles, have shuttered in the past 15 years, according to a University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Media report. Many of the remaining 6,700 publications have become what UNC calls “ghost newspapers”: shells of their former selves, stuffed with adverts and wire copy after years of gutting.

  • 🎧 The Decline of Local News — Dave Davies & Margaret Sullivan, Fresh Air/NPR: Though she’s now a media columnist at the Washington Post and was previously the public editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan brings a level of credibility to her writing about the peril of the decline of local news since she spent many years at The Buffalo News. Sullivan wrote an entire book on the topic called Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.

The Daily Memphian, a nonprofit news site in Memphis, is also part of the wave, with readers contributing the bulk of its revenue. It started in 2018 in response to the shrinking of the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Nearly 17,000 subscribers pay $99 per year (or $12.99 per month) for The Memphian, and they have renewed their subscriptions at a rate of 90 percent, said Eric Barnes, the publication’s chief executive. Ad sales, sponsorships and donations cover the rest of a $5 million annual budget that supports a newsroom of 38.

  • 📖 Defector Annual Report, September 2020 – August 2021 — The Defector: The fine folks at The Defector, which has officially been around for a year now and is made up of the same voices of writers and editors that made the original iteration of Deadspin so popular, recently released their first annual report on how they made money and from where. It’s a shining light of an example that things don’t have to be so gloomy for publications; readers will support them if the product is of a high quality.

Dave Chappelle’s Endless Feedback Loop — Craig Jenkins, Vulture/New York

Dave Chappelle is at it again. By “it” I do mean comedy (he’s back with a new Netflix special) but I also mean confronting notions of cancel culture and pushing the bounds of political correctness. This interesting review of his latest special delves deep into what Craig Jenkins says is Chappelle’s desire to have things both ways:

What it seems the comic wants is license to be an equal-opportunity offender, to have it known that there’s no malice in his jabs. He wants the old thing back — the freedom to be crass without having it reflect negatively on his character.

  • 📖 The New Puritans — Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic: This was a tricky piece and one that had much of the internet (or at least journalism Twitter) talking when it came out (though perhaps not to the extent of “Bad Art Friend” this week). It wasn’t necessarily anything wrong or offensive Anne Applebaum wrote in the story, but rather the conceit of the story itself that seemed to spark a lot of ire. It focused on those who’d been canceled, those who’d suffered consequences for their actions, and what that experience was actually like.

  • 🗄️ From 2019: Michael Jackson Cast a Spell. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It. — Wesley Morris, The New York Times: So much of the discussion around cancel culture focuses on one of two camps: those being canceled, or those calling for cancellation. But there are also the supporters of the canceled: those unwilling to see negative actions as a reason to cast someone aside. I often think of Wesley Morris and his reaction to the powerful Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland. He reckons honestly with his fandom, articulates how canceling Jackson is a massive decision, and then reasons why it’s imperative that he no longer be a fan.

  • 🗄️ From 2019: Reckoning With the Real Michael Jackson, Michael Barbaro, The Daily/The New York Times: A conversation with Wesley Morris that lets a person hear what grappling with cancel culture sounds like. I respect Morris for his willingness to say, in essence: “This was hard for me. I do not like what this will mean for my life going forward.” He admitted to coming to the Michael Jackson allegations with the baggage of fandom and needing to grapple with that. It was an understandable articulation of what, when unexamined, leads to people reflexively digging in heels and refusing to cancel problematic favorites, which fans the flames of cancel culture controversy. “The work is on us. I think part of the reason people want an easy answer or don’t want to know anything is because we don’t want to do the work.”

More of Our Favorites From the Past Week

How AT&T Helped Build Far-Right One America News — John Shiffman, Reuters

Who Is the Bad Art Friend? — Robert Kolker, The New York Times Magazine

In the Pandemic Stories of Everyday Americans, Fear and Grief Feel Fresh Again —  Emily Balcetis, The Washington Post

Why LeBron Is Wrong About ‘Honoring’ Vaccination Hesitancy — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Substack

The Follow-Up

The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.

The Sopranos

Christianity and Politics

Excerpts and Reviews of New Novels

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The Postscript

This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.

'Journalists at Heart Are Storytellers': A Conversation With Elinor Burkett

The Academy Award-winning reporter on leaving a tenured professorship to get into journalism and why it's important to always be hyper-conscious of who your audience is.

Six Months in Central and South America With the Portuguese Female Travel Writer Raquel Ochoa

A close look at the literary journalist's 2008 book, "The Wind of Others."