By Nicholas Varchaver
November 6, 2016

Good morning.

Patience is the theme this week. I’ve heard more than one person muse that “long-form” is a misnomer for a certain type of journalism. Well, not really a misnomer in the sense that many stories achieve substantial length. It’s just that judging articles by their word count puts the value in the wrong place, as if amassing a prodigious quantity of words is the ultimate goal. Telling an amazing story or explaining a profound and complex problem should be the goal, the length merely a means to that end. This is my roundabout way of saying that this week I found three examples of good, occasionally superb, reporting that are worth reading. But in each case, it must be said, the writing—and editing—didn’t do justice to the quality of the material. So I offer suggestions on two very meaty business topics, with the significant caveat that you may run out of patience, or time, before you reach the end. If you stick with them, however, you’ll glean significant insights on troubled goings-on at Deutsche Bank and Chipotle. A third story, on GlaxoSmithKline’s bribery problems in China, is a good example of achieving more impact in a much more streamlined length.


The Rise And Fall of Deutsche Bank

Der Spiegel has an account that traces the rise and fall of Deutsche Bank (in English) over the past three decades. The article somehow manages the oxymoronic achievement of being both ponderous and emotionally overwrought. It’s a lament about executive hubris that concludes that Deutsche Bank was “robbed of its very soul.” The explanation is simple and not entirely original: Blame the Americans! Things began veering off course, according to this article, when a resolutely German bank took on global ambitions and English replaced the mother tongue in the executive suite. The first, but not the last, culprit was an abrasive, bantam-sized Merrill Lynch refugee, Edson Mitchell, who brought a team of investment bankers to the venerable commercial bank in Frankfurt in the mid-1990s. “I’m God,” he reportedly told an employee who had the misfortune of not recognizing him and inquired as to his name. Soon, a quaint entity that used to invite German actresses to declaim poetry at company meetings was paying the Rolling Stones $5.4 million to rock out for its bankers at an event in Barcelona and trafficking in a vast array of toxic derivatives. In short, as the article puts it, “Germany’s largest commercial bank had become an Anglo-American investment bank.” What followed, according to the article, was contempt for customers, casino levels of risk, soaring compensation, and a profusion of misbehavior and scandals that “gradually brought disrepute to the entire finance industry and Deutsche Bank, in particular.”


A Better-Burrito Emporium, Laid Low

In “Chipotle Eats Itself,” Fast Company presents a seven-month investigation, with extensive cooperation from the company, of the restaurant chain’s disastrous E. Coli and norovirus problems. The piece is exhaustive…and, at about 15,000 words long, exhausting. The reporting is smart and insightful, but let’s say the presentation is sprawling and the story would’ve had dramatically more impact at half the length. The article dissects Chipotle’s culture and examines the frazzled steps that the chain, which prides itself on fresh “food with integrity,” took to try to protect its vegetables and meat without fully succumbing to the factory-like techniques of fast-food (which effectively sanitize food but aren’t noted for yielding flavorful cuisine). To its credit, Chipotle allowed Fast Company’s reporter to visit the factory-sized central kitchens the company is now using. Among the lengthy explorations of its various strategies, there are passages that capture the preciousness of Chipotle’s leaders. Consider two separate quotes about blanching, a technique in which produce is boiled for a few seconds, which Chipotle adopted to kill pathogens. Here’s co-CEO Monty Moran rueing what it did to lettuce: “The quality wasn’t what it was. Customers thought we went to iceberg lettuce. That broke our hearts.” Later, the writer asks the other co-CEO, Steve Ells, about the same technique: “When I bring up Chipotle’s blanching of produce, Ells says it’s more akin to ‘tomato concassé,’ which is a ‘French term for when you blanch the tomato, cool it, and peel the skin off. It’s part of the world of classic cooking techniques.’ I feel as if I’m being schooled by a judge on a cooking show (which, incidentally, Ells once was, on NBC’s short-lived America’s Next Great Restaurant).” There are plenty of other tasty morsels in the article, but—to stick with French culinary metaphors—it’s a bouillabaisse with perhaps a few too many ingredients in it.

 


Glaxo In China

Weighing in at a comparatively svelte 3,800 words, the New York Times’s examination of the events that led to GlaxoSmithKline’s criminal bribery case in China isn’t in the same category of excess volume as the articles above. Indeed, it has many fascinating elements, including how the company reacted to a whistleblower and an exploration of the changing dynamics between multinational companies and the Chinese government. Near the top, it includes some of the strongest, most unvarnished language I’ve ever seen in the Times.

The Glaxo case was fueled by missed clues, poor communication and a willful avoidance of the facts. For more than a year, the drug maker brushed aside repeated warnings from a whistle-blower about systemic fraud and corruption in its China operations.

The company’s internal controls were not robust enough to prevent the fraud, or even to find it. Internally, the whistle-blower allegations were dismissed as a “smear campaign,” according to a confidential company report obtained by The Times.

Glaxo just wanted to make its problems go away. It offered bribes to regulators. It retaliated against the suspected whistle-blower. It hired Mr. Humphrey and Ms. Yu to dig into the woman’s background, family and government ties, as a way to discredit her. And Glaxo may even have gone after the wrong person, documents and emails obtained by The Times suggest.

None of it mattered. The allegations were true.

When the eternally cautious and circumspect Grey Lady is willing to be that categorical, you know you’re in for an unusual story and it’s very much true in this case.


Bonus: Long-form, Audio Style

If you like your long-form in audio, you should check out two podcast series from my Fortune colleagues. Unfiltered is a series of intimate one-on-one conversations between Fortune’s digital editor, Aaron Task, and a variety of executives and luminaries, including Cisco chairman John Chambers, AOL founder Steve Case, GE vice-chairman Beth Comstock, Sam Adams beer founder Jim Koch, entrepreneur Russell Simmons and others, opening up about their lives and careers. I enjoyed hearing Andrew Wilson, CEO of videogame company Electronic Arts, describing how he just as easily could’ve ended up as a surfer in his native Australia (and you will not doubt that Wilson hails from that nation when you hear his accent—one of the tangible charms of the audio form). 

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women team is also offering OnStage, which features, as the name suggests, interviews from its conferences. There are timely recent conversations with the likes of Apple’s Angela Ahrendts, Mylan’s Heather Bresch, Ivanka Trump, and Priscilla Chan (interviewed by Sheryl Sandberg). Chan discusses the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s bold plans for using technology to further global wellness and also offers some personal observations on her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, and his limited cooking skills (ribs only, no sides). 

Nicholas Varchaver
@nickvarchaver
nicholas_varchaver@fortune.com

 

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