Weekend Reading: Jack Dorsey's Run at Twitter, the Omicron Variant, Stephen Sondheim's Legacy, 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.
Jack Steps Back — Casey Newton, Platformer
Jack Dorsey’s reign at Twitter ended this week. Casey Newton looks back at a solid year for the company, even though it never met expectations set out by one of its hedge fund investors, to answer the question: Why resign as CEO now? He also considers the notion that maybe Dorsey didn’t really want to be CEO of Twitter, and he looks ahead to the man who’ll fill Dorsey’s shoes.
From his earliest days at the company, Dorsey was an enigma: on one hand, a visionary leader with an uncanny grasp of what the future holds; on the other, a distant and often inscrutable manager whose slowness in making decisions would hobble the company for almost half a decade.
📖 Jack Dorsey Was the Soul of Twitter — Steven Levy, Wired:
You could argue endlessly about whether someone else could have done better. But you can never dispute that, for the past six years, Twitter was run by someone who was its very soul. He exulted in its timeliness and verve, and embraced its messiness. He playfully taunted his critics, who kept pestering him for an edit function. There is no way — no way — that Jack Dorsey would rename his company after some dream of a metasphere.
🗄️ From 2013: Two-Hit Wonder — D.T. Max, The New Yorker: Steven Levy’s musing in Wired about whether someone else could have run Twitter better is predicated on one huge point: Jack Dorsey was, before his resignation, the CEO of two multi-billion-dollar companies, the second of which was Square. He’ll continue as Square’s CEO, overseeing the device and related technology that made it possible to swipe a credit card on one’s cell phone.
Some of the designers protested, but soon gave way: Square is Dorsey’s company. It is his do-over, after a messy experience with Twitter.
✉️ Twitter Has a New CEO; What About a New Business Model? — Ben Thompson, Stratchery: This article thinks more about the business side of Twitter and what’s in store as it moves forward. I like the business-minded approach to a question that I probably couldn’t answer in my personal capacity: Why do I like (and prefer) Twitter as a social media platform?
What makes Twitter such a baffling company to analyze is that the company’s cultural impact so dramatically outweighs its financial results; last quarter Twitter’s $1.3 billion in revenue amounted to 4.4% of Facebook’s $29.0 billion, and yet you can make the case — and I believe it — that Twitter’s overall impact on the world is just as big, if not larger than its drastically larger peer. Facebook hollowed out the gatekeeper position of the media, but that void was filled by Twitter, both in terms of news being made, and just as critically, elite opinion and narrative being shaped.
The Uncertainties of the Omicron Variant — Dhruv Khullar, The New Yorker
The first case of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was detected in southern Africa this month. Just a few weeks ago, South Africa, where the most Omicron infections have been detected, was recording around 300 coronavirus cases a day — one of its lowest averages of the pandemic. Since then, cases have soared. Nearly 5,000 South Africans now test positive for the virus on average each day, the country’s test-positivity rate has increased nearly fivefold, and the number of COVID hospitalizations in Gauteng province, where the variant was first identified, has almost quadrupled. It’s not yet clear how much of the surge is due to Omicron, but preliminary evidence suggests that it has played a role. Last week, just a day after South African officials reported its emergence, the World Health Organization declared Omicron its fifth ‘variant of concern.’ So far in the pandemic, that’s the fastest the W.H.O. has moved from detection to classification.
A day after this was published, the first case was detected in the U.S.
📖 Omicron’s Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios — Rachel Gutman, The Atlantic: Despite being declared a variant of concern, here’s a potential upside from the emergence of Omicron. Emphasis on the word “potential.”
If Omicron continues to show signs of being milder than Delta, that’s good news, of course. But if it also turns out to spread more quickly than Delta, that could be great news. When two variants are circulating, the one that infects more people more quickly will tend to dominate, said Samuel Scarpino, of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute. That variant could win out either because it replicates more quickly in its human hosts and spreads more efficiently between them — that is, it’s more transmissible — or because it more deftly evades the immunity we already have.
✉️ The Omicron Information Vacuum — Charlie Warzel, Galaxy Brain/The Atlantic: I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a new variant of COVID-19. Sarcasm aside, the news has been wall to wall with coverage of the new Omicron variant, but it’s so early in the game that all of the breathless coverage doesn’t really amount to much yet. Not to say it’s useless, for there certainly is some useful information being shared. This is more of a media critique of the Internet Age, where the speed of information (and partial information and misinformation too) is lightning fast and expected to be even faster.
And so here we are: Stuck in a super-weird moment where we know a thing is happening, but we don’t know exactly what that thing is. We’re living in an information vacuum.... It’s a bit like hearing news of a tropical depression out on the ocean that has all the makings of turning into a vicious, land-bound hurricane. The conditions are right for that eventuality, but even advanced modeling can only tell us so much in the early days. Ultimately, we have to wait for nature.
✉️ On Omicron, Uncertainty, Vaccine Equity, and the Media — Jon Allsop, The Media Today/Columbia Journalism Review: More media criticism from CJR, and this entry has a great round-up of the types of things news outlets are publishing.
It’s not hard to imagine what media critics will say about the early Omicron coverage in a few weeks if the variant turns out not to be as bad as some experts fear. Equally, however, it’s not hard to imagine what media critics would have said if major outlets had initially ignored or downplayed Omicron and it turns out to be really bad. There is no good way out of this bind without knowing what’s going to happen next — and the story here is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Stephen Sondheim, Titan of the American Musical, Is Dead at 91 — Bruce Weber, The New York Times
The Friday after Thanksgiving was awash in remembrances for Stephen Sondheim, one of, if not the, most famous names from Broadway’s rich history, after news of his death broke. An unparalleled career was recounted skillfully in this New York Times obituary.
🎧 'Fresh Air' Remembers Broadway Legend Stephen Sondheim (Part 1) — Terry Gross, Fresh Air/NPR: In the first of Fresh Air’s three-day tribute to Stephen Sondheim, he makes one of my favorite statements about art:
Order out of chaos. Order out of chaos. That’s why I like crossword puzzles. Order out of chaos. I think that’s what art’s about anyway. I think that’s why people make art. … The world has always been chaotic. Life is unpredictable. It is - there is no form. And making forms gives you solidity. I think that’s why people paint paintings and take photographs and write music and tell stories and — that have beginning, middles and ends, even when the middle is at the beginning and the beginning is at the end.
📖 The Measureless, Omnipresent Influence of Stephen Sondheim — Mark Harris, Vulture/New York:
What if Stephen Sondheim had never written a word, or a note of music, after his 30th birthday? What if, grief-stricken at the death of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, the young composer had simply decided that he had done his part for musical theater and was ready to try something new? Had that happened we would still, today, more than six decades later, be memorializing a man who had, via his lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story, made an indelible contribution to the history of American musical theater — specifically to modernizing it, to darkening it, to helping it burst what were then thought to be the boundaries of its form.
This touching remembrance only gets better from these already masterful opening words.
📖 Tony Kushner, Oracle of the Upper West Side — A.O. Scott, The New York Times Style Magazine: Stephen Sondheim’s death occurred in what seemed like a revival of the man’s art (though one can hardly say he’s gone anywhere). He’s portrayed by Bradley Whitford in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick, Tick ... Boom, about the life of Jonathan Larson, the writer of the Broadway smash-hit Rent. The film just recently arrived on Netflix. Whitford nails the look of Sondheim, down to his tiniest mannerisms, but when Sondheim saw that his character was to leave a message on an answering machine, he told Manuel-Miranda that he’d never say that and asked if he could rewrite it. He ended up voicing the message himself. Another big screen adaptation is Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the original lyrics. Spielberg teamed up with Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright of Angels in America (and husband of Mark Harris of the stunning Sondheim remembrance above). A.O. Scott from the New York Times interviews Kushner ahead of the film, which premiered this week.
More of Our Favorites From the Past Week
Who’s Killing the Grizzlies of Fremont County? — Natalle Schachar, The Washington Post Magazine
The Teenagers Getting Six Figures to Leave Their High Schools for Basketball — Bruce Schoenfeld, The New York Times Magazine
A Posthumous Shock — Will Self, Harper’s
How the FBI Discovered a Real-Life Indiana Jones in, of All Places, Rural Indiana — Josh Sanburn, Vanity Fair
A Year in Gay Bars — Bryan Washington, The New Yorker
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.
🎧 A Prosecutor’s Winning Strategy in the Ahmaud Arbery Cause — Michael Barbaro, The Daily/The New York Times
Kyle Rittenhouse’s Acquittal
📖 Universities Try to Force a Consensus About Kyle Rittenhouse — Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Terror in Charlottesville
📖 The Mantra of White Supremacy — Ibram X. Kendi, The Atlantic
This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.
Stories That Matter: How ProPublica’s Cezary Podkul Shed Light on Massive Unemployment Claims Fraud Nationwide
While out-of-work Americans battled outdated unemployment insurance systems to file legitimate claims during the pandemic, scammers aided by automated tech tools were cashing in.
Stories That Matter: How Journalists Teamed Up to Investigate a Mega-Dairy Affecting Communities 1,500 Miles Apart
Agricultural consolidation is shrinking margins and pushing small farmers out of business all while creating new environmental concerns.