Look, it’s no secret that listicles – list-format articles – have been met with resistance from the old guard, cantankerous readers and old-school journalists convinced that they (and their admittedly unfortunate portmanteau) are rotting our brains, destroying our attention spans and generally contributing to the decay of all that is right and good. Sefiso Hlongwane lists three reasons why listicles work.
However, we can’t ignore that they’re rapidly becoming the ‘lingua franca’ of new-media journalism. And well, truth of the matter is, listicle is a friend to society, to consumers and substantive journalism. Why? Simply because people like to read them and that’s what matters.
Equally enjoyed for their condensed information format and online virility and decried as lazy journalism for the perennial lunchtime ‘news snacker’, listicles have been picked apart, analysed, attacked, explained and defended. However, all this fretting over this newly recognised entry to the journalistic lexicon boils down to the same thing: news needs to be read. If we can find ways to present the news in a more engaging, digestible format, we stand to reach an entire segment of the population that otherwise would have never been informed. So, if making sure the news is read means compromising some paragraphs, isn’t it worth it? Well, perhaps not… but surely listicles can co-exist with in-depth and investigative journalism?
Think of it this way: if in-depth journalism is the dinner of our news-reading habits, our meal could be complete with a frothy listicle that’s intensely entertaining – as each serves their own purpose while essentially complementing the other, to the detriment of neither.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen journalism edge closer and closer to a cliff where it’s just no longer a viable business. The primary reason is a great unbundling that has taken place: the new social web. All this isn’t to say there’s no space for journalism but the social web has taken huge swathes of our attention, so the market is much smaller for the news industry with things like sports coverage or breaking news (which have moved to Twitter). Editors who used to assume they’d have the readers’ attention on, at least, the front page of their newspaper now realise that the average reader sees a story in the hectic flow of a social feed on a phone, jammed up against memes, recipes, photos and articles from the competition over which they have no control.
In come listicles.
The geek equivalents of Cosmopolitan cover lines allow publications to create a process by which they can churn out content that we can’t look away from. It might not be high value content, but the world eats it up. Here are three reasons why:
(Spoiler: yes, this is a practical demonstration because as it turns out, ‘actions speak louder than words’)
1. Lists transform complicated information from cluster to linear progression.
The way we’re presented with information changes the way we process and interpret it. They can be categories or timelines, but either way, lists place digestible bites of information in context of a larger whole. I could have written this up as an essay, but in addition to the obvious smug parallelism, making it a list changes the way you interpret the information and ideas I’m laying out from a monolithic structure to an active progression.
2. Lists are a series of contact points.
They are not a substitute for in-depth reporting, nor is in-depth reporting a substitute for lists. They’re different formats, suited to different subjects and different ends. Form follows function: you don’t (ideally) write a eulogy on the back of a receipt, and you don’t bring a thousand-word essay to the grocery store. Lists are the survey courses to long-form’s advanced study. A long-form article will take you through one topic in considerable depth; a list, compiled thoughtfully, will skim the surface of a broader body of content, giving you a series of contact points from which to explore further in your own time.
3. Lists are not lowering the standards of journalism.
This is not to say there aren’t bad lists and sloppy lists and lists that would make a lot more sense in another format. The problems are with writing and editing, not a flaw of the format. Lists are not fundamentally vapid. They’re very useful tools in the box.
Ultimately, listicles are just the latest additions to a long line of storytelling developments, and they certainly won’t be the last.
Pro tip: don’t be afraid to use them, journos! After all, there’s ‘list’ in ‘journalist’.
Follow Sifiso Hlongwane on Twitter @Fizicss
IMAGE: University of Chicago magazine
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