Student guest post: 5 reasons why listicles are good for modern journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Carly Peterson is a senior journalism major with a reporting specialization who enjoys music and the arts. She writes for the UNC-Chapel Hill branch of Her Campus, an online publication that targets college-age woman.

Just admit it, we all read listicles. They are everywhere you look — as you scroll through your Facebook feed, as you check today’s email newsletter, and as you spend endless hours mindlessly reading BuzzFeed. Listicles are the hot topic in today’s journalism.

Listicles have driven journalists to choose a side — either pro-listicles or anti-listicles. Journalists who are typically pro-listicles acknowledge that they are useful as an alternative story form for reporting and are not completely mindless, while journalists who are anti-listicles criticize them as uniformed and representative of bad writing.

As a descriptive writer, I have to admit I had to get use to writing listicles for Her Campus, but now I really enjoy putting a well-written and informed list together that will interest the website’s audience. I do not believe that listicles are the death of quality journalism, but they should be looked to as a viable option for an alternative story form.

1. Listicles are time-saving tactics for writers.

The journalism industry is a fast-paced business. A journalist’s goal is to get the story first and to send the story out to the public before another publication can. A journalist could probably write a couple of listicles in the time it takes to write and report one story. Even though the writing is short, listicles do not give journalists room to be lazy in their writing and grammar skills. A listicle should be informative but concise, which can be harder for descriptive writers like me.

2. Listicles are helpful for a busy audience.

In today’s world, everyone is on the go. The public has less time to sit down and read a newspaper front to back except for maybe on the weekends. Listicles are a great way to get a news or human-interest story to the public. The listicles’ best feature is that they are easy to scroll through. Since the story is essentially a list, they are easy to format for cellphones or tablets. The public spends a great deal of time on these devices.

3. Listicles already come with a headline.

The typical format for listicles is a number plus what the list is conveying to the reader. The nature of listicles incorporates attention-drawing headlines that capture the reader and encourage them to click to read more, which is termed “clickbait.” The reader automatically knows what this story will be about just from the headline for example this headline from BuzzFeed:

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 1.32.25 PM

4. Listicles draw attention and keep readers.

Listicles contain numbers that stand out automatically from all the other text-heavy articles. The list format helps to make the article easy and fast to read. Most use some sort of picture or GIF to go with each number listed. From my experience with listicles, I am drawn to the article because I am curious as to what the numbers are and then find myself reading the entire article when I just meant to skim it. I am sucked into the article anticipating what the next number will hold.

5. Listicles are great for social media.

The best part about listicles for a publisher is that they are easily shared on social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. I believe the listicles that draw the most traffic on social media are the ones that tap into human emotion and life experiences, or incorporate informative tips as seen here at BuzzFeed:

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 1.35.44 PM

Listicles do not have to be for everyone, but do not turn them down before you try them. As a writer, I was skeptical at first, but now I find listicles as a fun and easy way to engage with the audience. They can be timsaving tactics that come with eye-catching headlines. Readers will want to read the listicle because they can scroll through the article quickly while on the go. The list can be effortlessly shared on social media, which means more traffic to the publication’s website.

Q&A with Aaron Dodson, assistant editor at The Undefeated

Aaron Dodson is an assistant editor at The Undefeated, a website that will examine the relationship between race and sports. Dodson is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he worked at The Daily Tar Heel as a reporter and copy editor. While in college, Dodson had internships at the sports departments at The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Dodson discusses the objectives of The Undefeated and his job there.

Q. What is The Undefeated? What should we expect to see on the site?

A. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question — “What is The Undefeated?” — since I got hired, and the beautiful thing is my answer is constantly evolving. At its core, The Undefeated will be a site that ESPN has envisioned to explore the intersection of race, sports and culture, particularly through the lens of the African-American experience. But as we get closer to our launch date, which we are still in the process of finalizing, and once the site gets up and running, I believe our identity as a multi-faceted, storytelling platform will continue to shape itself.

One thing I can say is people should expect a high quality of bold, passionate and honest stories. My favorite part of journalism is longform, which The Undefeated will certainly have a great deal of. We want to tell the stories that deserve to be told but in many cases get overlooked. For example, we will make an effort to highlight historically black colleges and universities — a sector, especially in the sports realm, that often goes uncovered.

The site, however, will not be limited to the longform style of storytelling. Expect to see a unique mix of longform, shortform, commentary, audio and visual journalism and even your everyday lifestyle blogging.

Since its inception, The Undefeated has been referred to as “The Black Grantland,” though that’s not a label we want to embrace going forward. This is by no means a knock on anything Grantland produced — content we all grew to know and love in the four years of the site’s existence. It’s just that we want the opportunity to create our own identity — to be simply The Undefeated.

And I think under the leadership of our editor-in-chief Kevin Merida, former managing editor of The Washington Post, we have a very bright future ahead of us. I’m just happy to be a part of the team.

Q. Describe your role at The Undefeated. What is your typical workday like?

A. I’ve been with The Undefeated for about a month and, to be honest, there hasn’t really been a typical workday yet, which has been very exciting.

My normal role with the site will be working as a copy editor, but since we’re still assembling our team and preparing for the launch, there hasn’t been normal copy flow. This period has allowed me to contribute in many different ways, and the best way to describe my current role is to employ a sports term. So far, I’ve been a “utility player.”

I’ve been able to pitch a few stories that I will have the chance to write myself and am working on. I’ve also been collaborating very closely with one of our senior writers in a research capacity for a few pieces she’s envisioning. Even more exciting, I received an opportunity to make my first-ever television appearance on a local station, during which one of The Undefeated writers and I got a chance to talk about the NCAA Tournament and what the future holds for The Undefeated.

It’s definitely been an adjustment going from a college newsroom last year to a professional newsroom last summer during my internship with The Washington Post to now being involved with a completely new site. Regardless, I’m enjoying every minute of this experience, which is why I’ve been so open to helping in any way I can.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there are you using in your job? What have you learned on the job?

A. The most important thing I learned during my time in UNC’s journalism school was to be open-minded while chasing the goals you set for yourself in the journalism field. I always knew I wanted to work in sports media, and for the longest time I solely wanted to work in a print journalism capacity as a sportswriter for a daily newspaper.

Then I took Andy Bechtel’s News Editing course, which exposed me to a different side of the process of producing content — the editing process. Now, my first full-time job out of college is as a copy editor, though I’ll still have an opportunity to contribute as a writer! That semester in News Editing eventually turned into another semester in Advanced Editing, and finally I found that the skills I learned in these courses translated into improvements in my writing, reporting and even my personal brand through social media.

The journalism school taught me that it’s nice at times to take a step back from what you’re doing — how you’re striving toward a certain career path — and look at it in a different way. It took me a while to figure things out, but in order to find a place within the field of sports media, I had to embrace the realization that having a diverse skill set is better than being a one-trick pony.

I might’ve looked too deeply into this question, but I do think a lot about your courses and some of the things my other journalism school professors, like John Robinson, taught me while I was at UNC. You guys tested me, kicked my butt at times, but I wouldn’t have been able to get to ESPN without you.

Q. Sportswriting is a popular pursuit among journalism students. What advice do you have for them?

A. The best advice I could give is to never pass up on an opportunity. The more opportunities you tackle — freelancing, blogging, covering games (especially the ones no one wants to cover) — the better you will get.

In a sense, becoming a good sports journalist is a matter of trial and error. Eventually, you’ll begin to look at sports news, games, players and stories in different and exciting way. This brings me to my next (and probably cliché) piece of advice: dare to be different! When I interviewed with The Undefeated, I was asked to pitch a story idea even though I applied to be a copy editor, not a writer. I pitched a story that was weird and something the editors had never heard of or even thought about. The idea came to me as a product of how much time I’ve spent in the last few years writing, editing and reading as many stories as I can.

After I got hired, I was told that my story pitch was what got me the job. I hope to eventually get a chance to write that story for The Undefeated, but in the meantime I’ll keep looking at sports journalism in unique ways. I think this open approach is beneficial to anyone pursuing a career in sportswriting.

How I am spending spring break

UNC-Chapel Hill is on spring break this week. It’s a needed respite for students and faculty alike.

Although I am not teaching any classes this week, I have plenty to keep me busy. Here’s how I am spending my spring break:

  • grading midterm exams and other assignments
  • preparing presentations and assignments for class for next week
  • reviewing applications for an online master’s program in communication and technology
  • submitting reviews for the Tankard Book Award
  • preparing for sessions at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society

Spring break isn’t all work, though. Last weekend, I spent a long weekend with friends at a lake house. This weekend, my son and I will attend NCAA Tournament games in Raleigh. In between, I had lunch with a longtime friend whom I don’t get to see often enough because of geography and work schedules.

I’ll be back in class first thing Monday morning. When colleagues and students ask whether I had a good break, I am certain that the answer will be yes.

Guest post: 7 thoughts on clickbait from a student journalist

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Alisa Pelaez is a senior reporting major at UNC-Chapel Hill who enjoys writing and playing music. This semester she’s working hard to launch The Internationalist, an undergraduate research journal with a focus on foreign affairs. 

Everyone’s scrolled through Facebook and seen those headlines: “I Left My Husband & Daughter At Home And THIS Happened! I Can’t Believe It!,” which leads to a video of a father and daughter singing a duet. Cute, perhaps, but not exactly what we were expecting. We’ve been clickbaited.

“Clickbait” is a huge buzzword among online journalism (or really online content creation of any type), such that it’s spurred parody sites like ClickHole that satirize the sheer ridiculousness of digital headlines. With a never-ending stream of headlines competing for our attention on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, what does clickbait mean in the ever-evolving world of online journalism?

1. Clickbait is almost impossible to define.

The Oxford Dictionary defines clickbait as “(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” The problem with this definition is that there is very little, if any, content, written on the Internet or elsewhere, that is made to discourage attention or visitors from clicking on a link.

As editors, we’re taught about search engine optimization, writing headlines featuring key terms related to the subject of an article. Even the driest of local news stories are paired with headlines designed to entice readers, even if those readers may be limited to the area of geographic relevance. There must be another compounding element contributing to the creation of clickbait. Could it be banal content, the withholding of key information, deliberate misdirection, or some combination of the three?

2. Storytellers always ask us to mind the gap.

Content creators want us to view their content; it’s a fact of the industry. Sometimes they choose to do this by teasing with part of a plot to ensure we stay tuned to see the conclusion. This can be anything from heightened suspense before a commercial break (only to conclude that the problem was really just a clever misdirection), or teasing a new character after the credits of a superhero movie.

The Internet has become so inundated with these types of stories that Twitter accounts like Saved You a Click devote their whole feed to answering questions posed in headlines. Even movie trailers are just a more acceptable version of “You’ll Never Guess What Donald Trump Said to Marco Rubio at Last Night’s Debate” type headlines. So why is it that this strategy bothers us so much more in print?

3. Our real problem is misinformation.

James Hamblin of the Atlantic argues that our problem may stem from the misdirection of headlines more than the content itself. He compares headlines to carnival barkers, saying if he goes into a freak show expecting to see a man with three legs and instead sees a sword swallower, no matter how impressive the sword swallowing is, he’ll be disappointed because he came for the man with three legs. This is immediately applicable to stories like the father-daughter ukulele cover, where the headline would have been much less infuriating if it was marketed as an adorable sing-along.

4. Alternative story formats are actually more effective.

Another problem I frequently hear complaints about is the Internet’s saturation with list articles or “listicles.” While stories like “19 Pictures that Scream ‘Dad’” may seem superfluous, it has been shown that alternative story formats, including lists, infographics, ratings and timelines actually help us comprehend more information than traditional news stories. I also enjoy the natural stopping places that lists provide. When I only have a few minutes to read while waiting for the bus, it’s easier to know where to pick up again later.

5. Could “sharebait” be a better term?

Another term passed around regarding inflammatory headlines is “sharebait,” meaning the headlines are written to encourage people to share the stories on social media. Some say sharing can act as quality control, that only quality content will be shared enough to become viral. The jury is out on whether or not that’s true, but I know that one of the most popular conversation topics among my friends was “16 Things Lady Gaga Looked Like During Her Super Bowl Performance,” which isn’t exactly groundbreaking journalism.

6. Where does this leave us?

My working title for this article at its conception was “We don’t like it either: Why journalists don’t want to write clickbait.” While I maintain that no one gets into journalism to write banal stories about YouTube videos that only get attention because of misleading headlines, other aspects of “clickbait,” like enticing—but truthful—headlines and alternative story formats certainly do have their place in online journalism.

7. In conclusion.

I may have bit off a bit more than I can chew with this list, but I like the number seven better than six. Here’s your misleading clickbait story.

Student guest post: Why I’m worried about being a female reporter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Camila Molina is a junior in the School of Media and Journalism on the reporting track. She has been a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel’s city desk since May 2015. She is also the managing editor for Synapse, a longform digital magazine. She has written for Synapse since February 2015.

As a student journalist, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Thankfully, I’m making them as a student and not as a professional.

“Don’t fabricate,” “don’t take bribes” and “don’t get infatuated with sources” are very clear lessons my class in journalism ethics taught me. It’s for the sake of remaining objective and producing content for the best interest of the public. Great, thank you for those valuable lessons.

However, dealing with ethical decisions in the real world is not so black and white. I hate to admit it, but as a female journalist, I feel like I’m at an ethical disadvantage compared with my male counterparts. I don’t mean in the sense of equal opportunity employment, but in the way sources view me as a professional.

While working on a story for The Daily Tar Heel, the university paper, I asked a male source for his phone number and email address so I could contact him after the event. I ended up calling him a few days later from my cellphone, asking permission to use his quote in the news story. I identified him as an undocumented immigrant, so I called him out of courtesy.

I should’ve listened to my gut and called him from the Daily Tar Heel office. Since the day I called him, I received text messages from him asking me how I was doing. This is where I went wrong: I responded. Maybe I’m naïve, or too nice, or too caring — whatever — I responded because I knew the value in building a network of sources. The text messages I received from the source changed from greetings to flirtations (words and emojis included). Ugh. I stopped responding.

Do male reporters even worry about being too friendly that their actions might be misinterpreted?

What’s frustrating is I had the predisposition to question whether I should use my personal phone number to call the source. Before this incident, I’ve made efforts to smile less and to dress in neutral colors, especially if I’m speaking to male sources. When I was assigned to cover the opening of a new bar in downtown Chapel Hill for The Daily Tar Heel, I went to the extent of dragging my boyfriend with me (and I’m glad I did).

Part of my job as a journalist is to socialize with sources. I need to listen to them. Sometimes I need to ask them about their lives in general so they don’t feel like they’re being used for information. Yes, that’s ultimately my agenda, but I don’t have to show them that.

How do I balance being an approachable professional, yet not interested? More importantly, why should I have to worry about it?

If I have to worry about men getting the wrong impression because I’m engaged in a conversation, I want to know how to handle that. I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes as student because I’m still learning. I just don’t want to make this same kind of mistake when I’m employed — that’s just a risk I don’t want to take for my safety.

Editing locally, editing globally

Students in my Advanced Editing class at UNC-Chapel Hill often work on real-world assignments. Their work is both local and global:

  • As in years past, my students work with those in another course, Community Journalism, to produce the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites. In addition to preparing news for posting on WordPress, the students create PDF “printer friendly” designs for each story. We’ll update the sites five times during the spring semester.
  • Two master’s students, Andrea Patiño Contreras and Gabriela Arp, asked my class to edit feature stories and write headlines for their website about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. We did so by compiling six stories into a Google document. Half the students focused on fact checking and story structure; the other half edited for grammar, punctuation, spelling and AP style. The remarkable project, called Divided By The Sea, launched last week.

Each project gives students a chance to work with real copy and write headlines and captions that will be seen by readers in North Carolina and beyond. I feel fortunate to work with colleagues who encourage such collaboration — and who value what editors do.

Student guest post: Objectivity and its murky future

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kevin Mercer a reporting major from Chapel Hill. He is on the sports desk with The Daily Tar Heel, and he also writes for Southern Neighbor

It was Saturday, Feb. 13, and my friends and I had returned to our dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill from a night of ice skating in time to see the Republican debate on CBS News. Donald Trump, leading most Republican primary polls, said prominent Republican politicians should not allow President Barack Obama to appoint a new, ostensibly liberal, justice to the U.S. Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died earlier that day: “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”

Some in the dorm room were liberals, some conservatives. Some argued for the president’s obligation to appoint a new justice when a seat is vacated. Some argued that such an action would work counter to the president’s role as a representative of the American people. Neither debate solved much of anything. The dispute still rages.

For the rest of the night, I saw liberals and conservatives spar on Twitter and Facebook about the issue, using as ammunition news articles that align with their beliefs. An objective summary of the facts of Scalia’s life and death or of the appointment of new Supreme Court justices were not the articles getting shared, and therefore read.

It is no secret that the field of journalism has changed and continues to change. Traditional print media has lost favor with some, and social media is here to stay. Qualities that journalists used to hold dear — like the importance of specialization — are being pushed aside because of the evolving demands of media. Is political objectivity the next to go?

Don’t get me wrong. The importance of objectivity has been ingrained in me during my time in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH. There is still plenty of objective news in every journalistic medium, but increasingly there is a shift to subjectivity in favor of objectivity. Think of Fox News and MSNBC on television or “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on the radio, or The Progressive in print.

And it makes sense. The business model used by traditional media began to become less viable. Media organizations needed to adjust – and they have – but they now find themselves in a hyper-competitive field vying for consumers’ attention.

Media organizations have discovered that people are drawn to news presented in a way that reinforces their beliefs. A study from Ohio State University suggests that consumers spend more time with media that support their opinions. Media organizations have had to appeal to as many readers as possible or else get pushed to the wayside by the many news outlets more than willing to provide consumers with what they want.

Call me a cynic, but I think the journalism profession collectively would sacrifice almost any enduring tenet to remain profitable. The thought of sacrificing accuracy seems incomprehensible to every journalist I know.

But we’ve largely done away with objectivity.  Decreasing objectivity can increase readership temporarily, but how will someone trust any media organization if the stories they tell of the truth are distorted by political opinions?

Consumers will become disillusioned with media generally and eventually flee.  I think, however, there is a way to reconcile objectivity with the way in which media are now consumed.

News publications would disassociate themselves completely from individual journalists. Writers and videographers would build their own unique brands and market themselves to publications as freelancers, embracing and disseminating a political ideology.

To reach more of an audience, The New York Times, for example, would hire a known liberal writer and a known conservative writer to both cover the same story. The Times would maintain its objectivity while consumers would still get the slanted news they crave. An average person would read The Times’ brief synopsis of every pertinent fact of a breaking news story, but the synopsis would direct the reader to the longer and subjective material he or she would undoubtedly want to read.

Whether it’s practical or not is uncertain, but I believe something has to be done to curtail the abundance of biased media sources we have now.