The 2020 Porchlight Current Events & Public Affairs Book of the Year
January 07, 2021
We will be announcing the overall winner of the 2020 Porchlight Business Book Awards on January 14. Until then, we are taking a look back at the books in contention for the award. Today, we have the books in the Current Events & Public Affairs category, and a look inside the one we chose as the best among them.
We added a Current Events category to our annual awards in 2016, our tenth year recognizing the best books in the genre, because it became apparent to us that we were missing something essential to understanding business without a category dedicated to how it is affected by current events and public affairs—and vice versa, how much current events and our public affairs are influenced by business interests.
2020 brought that reality home more than ever, as public policy around a global pandemic (and the lack of a coherent, consistent message to the public about it), and emergency relief for individuals and small businesses (however ill defined and distributed) could and did make or break businesses. The biggest businesses got bigger as most small businesses struggled to survive or ceased to exist. Businesses big and small came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, though time will tell if this sentiment brings a real and lasting commitment to change within our organizations where it could make the biggest difference.
The best books in the Current Events & Public Affairs category were all begun before these events, but they each capture elements that are critical to it, whether it’s how we get our news, how we treat and compensate our most essential workers, how consolidated our economy has become and the risk and fragility that introduces, how our life online is affected by the human beings and society that built it and the infrastructure and assumptions it was built on, and how we might be able to come together as a country again after a time of immense turmoil as we did after the Great Depression and Second World War. The runners up in the Current Events & Public Affairs are:
- Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence Is Over-Rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect by David Goodhart, Free Press
- Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power by David Dayen, The New Press
- The Tangled Web We Weave: Inside The Shadow System That Shapes the Internet by James Ball, Melville House
- The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Simon & Schuster
And the 2020 Porchlight Current Events & Public Affairs Book of the Year is Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy by Margaret Sullivan, Columbia Global Reports
What we witnessed in our nation’s capital yesterday—a mob breaking into the halls of congress and interrupting the peaceful transfer of power that forms the foundation of our democracy—was, in part, a breakdown of our shared reality. The president bears the brunt of the blame for inciting the violence, but a big reason for the initial fracture is that we literally subscribe less to the same reality than we used to. As newspaper subscription numbers dwindle and local papers shutter across the country, the shared set of facts they brought to local populations from national and international news agencies has been replaced by partisan cable news and social media algorithms that cater to our confirmation bias and push us deeper and deeper into filter bubbles and conspiracy theory. The local journalists who worked for those papers not only provided lifestyle and arts coverage that helped define their community and culture, but held their local governments accountable. But, as Margaret Sullivan notes:
More than two thousand American newspapers have closed their doors and stopped their presses since 2004. And many of those that remain are mere shadows of their former selves.
“Disruption” was the rallying cry of Silicon Valley for over a decade. “Move fast and break things” they invariably did. One of the “things” they broke as they siphoned off the advertising dollars that supported local new outlets across the country was our already fracturing civic life and discourse. The result?
At the core, this book is about a once-profitable industry that was able to support an important public function but is now no longer profitable.
Mainstream news and traditional news outlets were never perfect, but a shared reality is essential to our shared democratic values—values we saw discarded to a cult of personality yesterday. A free press is foundational to a free society. We have gone too far in trading ours for the Silicon Valley notion that information wants to be free in a monetary sense, even as Silicon Valley has built some of the world’s largest, most monopolistic corporations monetizing that supposedly “free” information. Quality journalism takes time and investment to produce, and it deserves our time and investment to preserve and appreciate. Margaret Sullivan explores this dire situation and some notable experiments to reintroduce and reinvigorate quality local coverage and investigative reporting in Ghosting the News. I hope we take heed. Our very democracy depends on it.