My year of rest and vaccination

Welcome to the first-ever Medialyte retrospective.

A song to read by: “Major Tom - Coming Home,” by Peter Schilling

What I’m reading: “Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin

Editor’s note: The next edition of Medialyte will be Wednesday, Jan. 6.

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Annus mirabilis

The last year has been a whirlwind for everyone, but at times it’s felt particularly disorienting for me, as the pandemic struck toward the tail-end of my time in graduate school, meaning that it disrupted a life that I myself was already in the process of disrupting. I’ve felt a bit like Odysseus, who discovered that what he thought was the end of his saga — the Trojan war has ended! graduate school is over! — turns out to have only been the halfway point. He still had to get home.

After leaving Austin for Chicago in May 2019, I never would have imagined that my journey would have led me back to my parents’ house, in Seattle, instead of returning to Texas or relocating to Chicago or New York. This year, of course, is filled with “I never would have imagined” scenarios. Fortunately, most of the surprises that have visited me have been at worst bittersweet, and for the most part entirely sweet. 

Still, while I never anticipated moving home, and am in fact eagerly anticipating moving out, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that the time I’ve been able to spend with my parents will be the memory I’ll cherish most in the years to come. My brother, whom we have been mostly unable to see, has a pretty good excuse: he’s a second-year resident in a San Diego hospital, treating Covid patients in the intensive care unit. 

Living in the Seattle suburbs, though, I have missed my friends and my life in Texas, very badly at times. Still, I am beyond grateful for the good fortune I’ve been able to experience in a year where bright spots have been so rare. As my dad often says, putting things into perspective per usual, “You have your health, and this year that was no guarantee.” 

On top of that, 2020 has been the best year of my professional life. I graduated in June with a master’s degree from Northwestern, where I spent 12 months with a small team of brilliant classmates, all of whom I loved, studying the intersection of journalism, tech, and business.

A post shared by Mark Stenberg (@markstenberg3)

Following graduation, I got a fellowship with Business Insider covering entrepreneurship, which I have since been able to convert into a full-time staff position. To get a job in journalism is a miracle; to do so during a pandemic, at a time in which the industry was actively contracting, has left me at times with a feeling akin to survivor’s guilt. 

Thanks in part to that sense of guilt, combined with an omnipresent boredom and a love for the world of media, I started this newsletter, back in April. I was sitting in my shoebox of a duplex, on the fourth-floor of a Chicago walk-up, while the pandemic was still in its infancy, when I thought, “Why not put all this free time to use?” 

Eight months later, Medialyte is almost to 1,000 subscribers, and through it I’ve had the chance to interview some of my heroes, profile some of the most important developments in the industry, and write some stories that actually moved the media needle in important ways.

Here and for Business Insider I have written some critical coverage of Substack, but I will be the first to tell you: This newsletter changed my life. It helped me get my job, it’s given me opportunities I would have never dreamt of having 12 months ago, and it’s further opened my eyes to the complex, human, mystifying, and riveting world of journalism.

To take a leaf out of Delia Cai’s hat, I would like to call out a few people in particular who have helped me make it through this year. 

Thank you to my parents, for opening their home to me and generally being very chill roommates. Thank you to Andrew Weiler, for being the best quarantine roommate and cinema buff I could have asked for. Thank you to Terry Nguyễn, for coming into my life and making it so much brighter.

Thank you to my best friends, who are collectively represented by the two most important group texts in my life, Ghoul House and Infinite Text. Thank you to my classmates and professors at Medill, for sharing tireless nights, sharp conversations, and the first remote graduation in school history. Thank you to everyone at Business Insider — especially Bartie and the strategy team — for giving me a shot and letting me build out my dream beat. 

And thank you to YOU, dear reader, for being here. Amidst the chaos of this year, writing this newsletter three times a week, then twice a week, now once a week (I promise it won’t reduce any more!) has been a much-needed anchor. I am very grateful for you, and I hope you have gotten something of value from all these scattershot missives. 

I have some exciting projects in the works that I can’t wait to tell you about, but until then please, as always, reach out to me if you have any thoughts on anything I’ve written, or if you just want to say hi. See you in 2021!

Assorted top five lists:

Best Medialyte posts:

  1. The curious emergence of the Substack advertisement

  2. The Facebook-ification of Instagram has begun

  3. And from the ashes, the subscription-based blogs have risen

  4. Gabe Schneider is quietly fixing journalism

  5. Meet the subscription tech behind the subscription-media revolution

Best Business Insider stories:

  1. My case study of the organizational structure of the worker-owned media company Defector.

  2. I’ve loved all the Substack coverage I’ve gotten to do for BI, but this was where it all started. Simpler times!

  3. Covering OnlyFans has been one of the fascinating parts of my beat, especially when I got to dive into creators’ business strategies.

  4. This recent one, about Fanhouse, sums up the macro trend I’ve been chronicling for half a year: the internet’s migration from advertisements to subscriptions.

  5. I got to interview Molly Baz! Twice! (Second article coming soon, I promise.)

Best Substack newsletters:

  1. Blackbird Spyplane

  2. Gen Yeet

  3. Platformer

  4. Means of Creation

  5. Not Boring

Best non-Substack newsletters:

  1. Study Hall

  2. Source Code

  3. Nieman Lab

  4. Gradual Daily

  5. Stratecherry

Best articles:

  1. This profile of the founder of Signal, Moxie Marlinspike, by the inimitable Anna Wiener. (The New Yorker)

  2. Anything by Kaitlyn Phillips, but you can start here. (Spike Art Magazine)

  3. The Wikipedia paean I’ve been waiting for my entire life. (Wired)

  4. There were a lot of great “scandalous” reads this year. This one, about evictions in a Brooklyn apartment, took the cake. (The Cut)

  5. The media business is crumbling. But at Conde Nast, the crumble is decadent. (The New York Times)

Best books:

  1. Uncanny Valley,” by Anna Wiener

  2. A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn

  3. The Internet Trap,” by Matthew Hindman

  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

  5. Tenth of December,” by George Saunders

Best albums:

  1. Atlanta Millionaires Club,” by Faye Webster

  2. Sound of Silver,” by LCD Soundsystem

  3. Speaking in Tongues,” by Talking Heads

  4. Light Upon the Lake,” by Whitney

  5. Outer Peace,” by Toro y Moi

Best Spotify playlists:

  1. Very Beautiful Songs

  2. cooking and eating 2020

  3. Moon Watching

  4. Hill Country

  5. Disco Drop #10

Best songs:

  1. Kingston,” by Faye Webster

  2. Make It Funky, Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4,” by James Brown

  3. Dance Yrself Clean,” by LCD Soundsystem

  4. California Dreamin’,” by The Mamas and the Papas

  5. Both of Us,” by Jayda G

Best movies:

  1. “Chungking Express,” by Wong Kar-Wai

  2. “Babette’s Feast,” by Gabriel Axel

  3. “Le Mépris,” by Jean-Luc Godard

  4. “Black Panthers,” by Agnes Varda

  5. “The Handmaiden,” by Park Chan-wook

Best television shows:

  1. “I May Destroy You”

  2. “High Maintenance”

  3. “Pen15”

  4. “High Fidelity”

  5. “Insecure”

Best memories:

  1. Visiting Terry in New York in September

  2. The George Floyd protests in Chicago

  3. Visiting Austin in November

  4. Remote graduation + celebration

  5. Sun-bathing on Lake Michigan during the summer

Best recipes:

  1. Red Curry Lentils With Sweet Potatoes and Spinach

  2. Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Turmeric

  3. Skillet Chicken With Black Beans, Rice and Chiles

  4. Sheet-Pan Roast Chicken and Mustard-Glazed Cabbage

  5. Creamy Farro With Crispy Mushrooms and Sour Cream

Cover image: “Office in a Small City,” by Edward Hopper