Student guest post: The problem with listless listicles

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Courtney Lindstrand is a senior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design and an anthropology minor. She is the former editor in chief of Blue & White magazine and the co-president of the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors.

The listicle, a portmanteau of the words “list” and “article,” is an article format that has become ubiquitous on the Internet within the past few years. Sites like BuzzFeed and ThoughtCatalog subsist almost entirely off of this format of numbered and bulleted online journalism. Some argue that listicles aren’t journalism at all, but rather examples of lazy online blogging that undermine long-form and reported pieces that are trying to gain more traction on the Web.

Maybe somewhat ironically, I decided to take a quick look at listicles and subsequently organized my thoughts into a list-like format. Is my decision on how to format this blog post a testament to why listicles are actually awesome and here to stay forever? Read on and decide for yourself:

Why listicles are popular

They’re easily created: Listicle concepts are easily dreamed up. The author can simply pick a topic that is of interest to the readership (perhaps bacon for BuzzFeed or hairstyles for Cosmo and then slap a cardinal number on the number of relevant pictures or tips they can find on the subject.

They’re easily digested by the reader: The New Yorker recently analyzed the list trend and was able to conclude: “In the current media environment, a list is perfectly designed for our brain.” It’s not “work” for a reader to scroll through a listicle. They can easily skip over tips and images that do not interest them and move on to the next in line without missing a crucial part of the story.

Listicle headlines are a no-brainer: Listicle headlines are practically preformatted for editors. Marry the number of items in the list with a witticism about the subject at hand, and you’re golden. Additionally, these formulaic headlines practically beg the reader to click on them, especially if the topic is of particular interest to them. How could a sports-obsessed reader simply scroll over a link to the “Top 10 Touchdown Passes of All Time” on their Facebook News Feed? A: They can’t.

How listicles can be problematic

They can lack journalistic integrity: There are a ton of listicles on the Web that definitely didn’t require any knowledge of journalistic standards to create (Looking at you, lists made entirely of photos of cats). These can be problematic because they can take attention away from lists that are well reported and took a significant amount of time and resources to put together.

They can shorten reader’s attention spans: A reader who just got through a 50-image list of cute animals may not be so willing to dive into a six-page feature story. Long-form journalism requires more of a commitment of the reader’s time and brainpower than a lightning-quick scroll down the page. While we want to give the readers what they want, we can’t forget to also give the readers what they need.

Irrelevant headlines: When coming up with a listicle headline, it can be easy to get carried away on a mission to make the list as “clickable” as possible. Editors have to be careful to be sure the headline is relevant and accurate rather than a sensational sentence that will leave readers disappointed after reading the content.

How we can make listicles work

Listicles can serve as an introduction to a larger conversation: Breaking down a difficult-to-understand concept into a list format will help information become more digestible for the reader. The Washington Post’s popular post “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” from last year comes to mind. As readers feel more secure with the topic, they are more likely to follow it as it develops.

They can be reported with expert sources: Giving your readers access to an expert in a certain field is a valuable service. We are in a unique position as journalists to provide this service, and we should take advantage of that. If the best way to present the information you gleaned from these professionals is in a list format, that’s completely fine!

They can be an easy introduction into longer stories: As mentioned before, the list format makes information easier for the reader to take in. If applicable, a long-form piece can be broken down into this format to make the information less daunting to the reader. This concept can be likened to breaking information down into an alternative story format on a newspaper’s front page. Just like in print, a very long column of gray type on the Web simply isn’t palatable for the reader.

In summation, listicles aren’t going away. But online editors can hold their writers accountable and challenge them to keep articles written in list format smart with legitimate reporting. Putting thought and journalistic integrity into a listicle is not that difficult, and it’s an important part of keeping online journalism relevant.

That being said, if you happen to let a “20 Cute Puppies Wearing Hats” list slip on your personal blog every once and awhile … I won’t hate you for it.