Every year, it seems, one Op-Ed seems to resonate in the public mind far and above all the others. Last year, Warren Buffett altered the public conversation about taxes simply by wondering aloud why his rates were lower than his secretary’s. No one seemed to have a good answer. This year, a formerly unknown equity-derivative banker for Goldman Sachs named Greg Smith struck a nerve when he described in a few words why he was leaving his job. Its culture, he said, had finally become too “toxic and destructive” to bear. The pushback from Goldman and its usual amen corner in the business press was furious, but Smith’s cri de coeur weathered it and stands as an important indictment of financial industry culture. He touched a nerve by speaking to the public’s commonsense understanding - hard-won after the financial crisis -that lax regulation and perverse incentives had led to institutionalized corruption on Wall Street, even at its most prestigious firm. That’s why it went viral. That’s why it’s in this volume.

We’ve included other outstanding examples of lucid commentary and analysis on the economy, high finance, and technology. If you’re wondering what “The Whale” was, and why it was such a debacle for JPMorgan Chase, Matt Levine will walk you through it like no one else has done. And Evgeny Morozov, master of the highbrow takedown, flays and fricassees the vacuousness that often passes as wisdom promulgated under the TED brand. Try to read it without laughing out loud.

In a classic work of media scholarship of the seventies, Deciding What’s News, Herbert S. Gans identified and analyzed what might be described as mainstream journalism’s fatal flaw: its tendency to fix its gaze on elites and their activities and to ignore everyone else. He called this “top-down” reporting, and showed how it had become journalism’s default mode. Journalism done right, we firmly believe, means hearing from everybody, which is what we liked about Jeff Tietz’s piece in Rolling Stone on the precariousness of a middle-class lifestyle, one of the best stories on unemployment that you will ever read. Ditto for Paul Kiel’s foreclosure story for ProPublica. And do not miss Mac McClelland’s first-person account for Mother Jones of what it’s really like to work in a digital retailer’s “fulfillment center,” better known as a warehouse.

But, this year, nothing quite had the power of the pieces that were written by non-journalists: letters about banks and bankers written by everyday people caught up on the debt trap and collected in The Trouble Is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street. We picked five; we could have chosen many more. If you read only one, I recommend: Deena DeNaro’s “Please Don’t Harass my Father Any Further.”

We hope you enjoy The Best Business Writing 2013, the second of what we hope is a long-running series.

 

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.