Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Listomania: How I Learned to Love the Laziest Journalistic Impulse of All

I have long been of the opinion that the lowest form of entertainment writing is “The List.” “Top 100 Albums of All Time.” “Top 10 Actors of the Nineties.” “Top 25 Vampires” (a real “story” from Entertainment Weekly, the listiest magazine there ever was.). You know these articles. Even before I was writing or editing for a living, I could still picture the torpid editorial office responsible, just back from a four-day Vegas junket, looking at each other blankly when asked what stories they had for the week. The terror, of course, only lasts a second before someone blurts, “Top 100?”

Because really, what effort does a list like this take? A 20-minute poll around the offices, followed by 20 minutes of tallying. And then? Just lay out the list and write USA Today-sized McNuggets of info under each entry. Lazy journalism, at best.

94 Kirk Douglas

Known mostly for his Gibraltar-like chin and for siring the guy who continues to bogart Catherine Zeta Jones, Douglas also was an actor in films like Spartacus, Out of the Past and Paris brûle-t-il. Of all the men who said, “I am Spartacus,” he was the most convincing.

A woefully incomplete summary of who the actor was, followed by three films — one everyone could pat themselves on the back for knowing, one to allow the author the smug feeling of one-upping his readers, and one readers and author alike had to look up (possibly in someone else’s Top Actors list) — followed by a witty summarizing sentence.

Lazy, lazy, lazy! And yet…and yet…

List stories are gold for publishers. They almost always perform better than regular articles, even if they contribute absolutely nothing in the way of new information for readers. My last glance at our top performing stories of the past 30 days showed that at least a quarter of them were lists — and some of those were over a year old. Those are the articles that get reposted everywhere — and all those links back to your site are like money in the bank when you’re counting those “visits” numbers every day.

Why, you may ask — and I have — do these stories always seem to perform so well? Three reasons, I think:

1) First and foremost, they are a breezy read. Admit it. When given the choice in Rolling Stone of reading an eight-page expose on arms deals in Pakistan or reading the readers poll of Top 10 Artists of the Year, which do you read first? Okay, let’s make it fair. Are you more likely to read a densely, but certainly well-written eight-page expose on the subject or a half-page box titled “Top 10 Reasons we have to get out of Pakistan.” If you said the former, you’re either on a Congressional Sub-Committee on Pakistan or, more likely, you’re the author’s mother. McNuggets win.

2) There’s no time investment in a list story. You pick them up, read a few entries and set them aside until you have another spare minute or two. They are perfect reading for the subway or the breakfast table. Entertaining enough to pass the time, but easy to walk away from. From a digital perspective, they are the perfect iPhone read.

3) Most importantly, no matter how banal the subject, the reader will immediately form an opinion and seek validation for that opinion. To put it succinctly, the story title creates an immediate need to read the article. “Top 25 Vampires of All Time.” In a flash, the mind conjures: “That had better include Max Schreck as Nosferatu!” From that moment on, you have to know if your choice made the list. Surely, you will be infuriated. Some pasty emo guy will almost certainly purse his lips in the top 5, while a masterful, nightmarish performance from the 1920s is destined to flounder in the lower regions of the poll — if it appears at all. Still, you have to know.

That’s the ultimate draw of lists: the inherent compulsion they engender. It takes a lot for a title to make a reader feel personally invested in the narrative of a story. And if you look at the list as a narrative, from Point A to Point Z, this is indeed the case.

So, with that in mind, it’s not the worst idea in the world for a publisher or editor or blogger to shed his/her high-mindedness and embrace “The List.” I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords and am currently working on the Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. Come check it out…and get mad!


  1. You should have more reasons why List Stories perform so well, say another seventeen to make an even twenty.

    That sounds about right.