How To Make A Good List

I’ve been creating lists for seven years. Since I’ll soon be venturing into other corners of the Web, I was asked to write down a list of best practices.

I think that Jonah Peretti and Nate Silver have proven that the culling of data and the listing of things can be an incredibly lucrative specialty in modern “journalism.”

I’m not pretending to be nearly as fluent (or even as proficient) in the language of lists as those two are, or anyone at any other news organization for that matter. But, there was something about this exercise in trying to nail down the tactics I’ve grown partial to in the last years that I found fascinating. My rules to rank are as follows:

The lists that seem to generate the most traffic are:

-Negative. Positive lists are great and do well (i.e. the happiest colleges, the best cities for jobs, the most influential people). But for much the same reason than gossip and scandal are popular, so are negative lists. Druggiest colleges, miserable cities, fattest cities, drunkest cities, dumbest states, worst cities to get a date, most hypocritical politicians. There are caveats, of course. Money and gadgets come to mind; the wealthiest person is much more interesting than the poorest, and a list of the best apps is far more clickable than the worst.

-Simple to understand. Methodologies can be as complicated, unique and interesting as a writer wants, or as the topic demands, but the essential idea behind a list should be basic. It’s not hard to understand what a list of America’s richest people will be, or the country’s best high schools, despite the complications of compiling or digesting the data. So lists built around very elementary adjectives — best, worst, drunkest, dumbest, smartest — usually work best. Lists that rank entities based on concepts that are slightly ineffable, like innovation or vanity or humor, seem to be less popular (or perhaps they are intrinsically more niche), though sometimes are more journalistically rich.

-Universal. It’s pretty obvious: to attract the largest audience, appeal to the most people. There are some institutions that seem to hit a nerve: high school, college, summer camp, weather, and celebrity. I’m sure I’m missing some. In some ways, the “nut graph” of really popular lists is just that the data or topic at-hand appeals to basic reader curiosity. City and state lists do well, too, I think because they plays to the competitive instinct in and identity of readers, which relates to the next point…

-Ranked. I am biased because I’ve never really produced unranked lists (or, lists without a backbone of data). But, reality is chaotic, and lists are psychologically energizing.

Best Practices for Original Lists:

From my point of view, lists need to live up to their headlines. The sexier the headline, the more rigorous the data collection should be. The standards I’ve been operating under, in general, are as follows:

-Use at least three data points. Drunkest cities could simply be the city whose citizens drinks the most alcohol, but that’s a little shallow. So, think about average drinks per person per week, most binge nights on average, and the most number of people per capita in AA (just brainstorming). The idea is to give people a little more context and information. Also, avoid making readers feel cheated.

-Ask experts. If it’s a list that’s complicated, call someone who knows what you should consider. When we were developing the methodology for our best high school lists, we called experts in education, read case studies about class size, looked at research on wealth and secondary education, and looked into indicators of post-secondary success. I always think about that journo adage “we don’t print the facts, we print what people say.” This is especially true with lists. We don’t necessarily print the “truth,” we print what the numbers say.

-Always normalize data. If you’re going to rank the drunkest cities, you don’t rank cities by the amount of beer consumed. You rank based on the amount of beer consumed per person. If you do the cities with the worst drivers, you wouldn’t look at the total number of automobile deaths, you would look at the total number of deaths per licensed driver. Data needs to qualified, not just quantified.

-Be transparent. Always publish the data points used, the sources and the weighting. And, when there are limitations to the data, always clarify. A simple to understand example is crime statistics, especially rape stats. If Chicago has a higher rape rate than New York City, this may mean Chicago is especially adept at prosecuting rapists and encouraging victims to come forward, NOT that more rapes occur. Sometimes data has significant context that needs to be addressed.

-Every list is doable, but not every list is worth it. Lists are labor-intensive. They are great ways to get traffic, but sometimes they are not the best way to tell a story. And, sometimes they are too time-consuming. If data for a list isn’t available from a reputable source, create a panel of experts and poll them.

The Awl wins best rollover text. 

The Awl wins best rollover text. 

The events of past summers are coming back to me very vividly in a way that makes me want a strong drink, but it’s also comforting to have seasonal context restored: summer makes you do crazy things, of course. It makes you want to cheat on your boyfriend or else marry him. It makes you want to go macrobiotic or else order a personalized sheet cake just for fun. It makes the pursuit of immediate pleasure seem very important and everything else, like the niceness of having someone to say goodnight to every day or the security of putting part of your paycheck into savings or the long term health benefits of good posture while you work — it all starts to seem secondary to sleeping around and spending and slouching.
Lucy Morris, In Love With (via nogreatillusion)
boston antics

boston antics

coketalk:

Nobody else is being honest about it, but the real reason folks are manufacturing outrage over this Rolling Stone cover is because Tsarnaev is looking kinda fuckable.
According to the traditional narratives, we’re supposed to be dehumanizing this swarthy foreign terrorist. Monsters are meant to be grotesque, and here he is looking like some sensitive singer/songwriter. How dare Rolling Stone allow him into a cultural space reserved exclusively for rock stars?
Please. It’s no accident they used a photo of the kid where he vaguely resembles that one-night-stand every sorority girl fucked on a foam mattress in some youth hostel that summer she backpacked through Europe.
The editors knew exactly what they were doing. It’s deliberately provocative. It was intended to elicit an uncomfortable reaction, and it seems to be working.
This is mainstream media trolling at its finest. 

It’s certainly provocative and uncomfortable, this idea that a teenage terrorist looks like the boy next door. But it’s real.
Since when did provocation become a bad thing in magazines? George Lois’ Esquire cover of Ali is held up as a gold standard, yet now we vilify magazines for trying to convey larger narratives. Sure, slapping a teet-sucking toddler on Time was (maybe) excessive, but I’d rather that than some milquetoast stock photo of a bawling baby.
This seemingly unending “media be trolling” whine is boring and often misplaced. It may take more to shock readers than it has in generations past, and more shock to get them to actually open the magazine and read the cover story, but a magazine cover should not be real estate reserved for heroes and politicians. Magazines aren’t promotional brochures.
The cover line calls him a monster. That there is a dichotomy between his face and his actions is the point. It’s not trolling, it’s smart commentary.

coketalk:

Nobody else is being honest about it, but the real reason folks are manufacturing outrage over this Rolling Stone cover is because Tsarnaev is looking kinda fuckable.

According to the traditional narratives, we’re supposed to be dehumanizing this swarthy foreign terrorist. Monsters are meant to be grotesque, and here he is looking like some sensitive singer/songwriter. How dare Rolling Stone allow him into a cultural space reserved exclusively for rock stars?

Please. It’s no accident they used a photo of the kid where he vaguely resembles that one-night-stand every sorority girl fucked on a foam mattress in some youth hostel that summer she backpacked through Europe.

The editors knew exactly what they were doing. It’s deliberately provocative. It was intended to elicit an uncomfortable reaction, and it seems to be working.

This is mainstream media trolling at its finest. 

It’s certainly provocative and uncomfortable, this idea that a teenage terrorist looks like the boy next door. But it’s real.

Since when did provocation become a bad thing in magazines? George Lois’ Esquire cover of Ali is held up as a gold standard, yet now we vilify magazines for trying to convey larger narratives. Sure, slapping a teet-sucking toddler on Time was (maybe) excessive, but I’d rather that than some milquetoast stock photo of a bawling baby.

This seemingly unending “media be trolling” whine is boring and often misplaced. It may take more to shock readers than it has in generations past, and more shock to get them to actually open the magazine and read the cover story, but a magazine cover should not be real estate reserved for heroes and politicians. Magazines aren’t promotional brochures.

The cover line calls him a monster. That there is a dichotomy between his face and his actions is the point. It’s not trolling, it’s smart commentary.


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