One of my favorite features in a print publication can be found in Harper's, which starts each issue with a single page Index. It's a collection of several dozen insights, each distilled to a single number or fraction. Often enough, two or three consecutive entries in the list relate to one another, but interpreting the Index as a whole is left in the hands of Harper's readers.
The collective amibiguity of most of theses Indexes once struck me as a blessing: I can draw my own conclusions. Over time, though, I've come to see its ambiguity and obscurity as something of a curse. I consume the facts, but I don't do anything with them.
My Harper's experience came to mind as I read Aneya Fernando's Mediabistro piece, "Why listicles are here to stay" (posted without irony on the web site's 10,000 Words blog). While it may reflect my age, generally I have not been a fan of list-driven journalism. It has seemed a bit easy, a presentation designed to support accessibility and sharing at the expense of depth and understanding.
Lately, my views of listicles have been shifting. The act of sharing does not guarantee understanding, especially when the act itself can be literally the click of a button. But it does start at least some readers down a path of engagement, something that Jack Shepherd, Buzzfeed's editorial director, told Fernando:
At their best, lists are just scaffolding for stories: The list format grabs the attention because it’s an easy way for people to process information and for readers to know what they’re getting, but that’s not even close to half the battle. A great list that people share everywhere has to be an experience.
Typically, that experience mixes text with pictures, frequently GIFs, that help tell the story in more than one way. It doesn't work for everyone, but it does work for some people. That's a point I have made in other settings: we can create multiple iterations of a single story, offering content that readers value in formats that work best for them.
It's not fair for me to endorse agility and then shortchange lists that have effectively met the needs of a particular audience. As Shepherd maintained, “Lists have been around since the Ten Commandments. It’s a very natural way for people to organize information."
Taking his example a step further, the existence of the Ten Commandments did not stop people from writing the Bible. It didn't block philosophical consideration of natural law or prevent the development of frameworks that govern our behavior in activities both envisioned and unimagined when the Commandments were first written.
Much as the growth of digital does not mean that print is dead, the growth of list-driven stories need not replace long-form journalism. A list written to inform, excite or motivate a reader can spur interest that leads people to both short- and longer-form articles on a topic.
In fact, lists that point to primary sources can serve readers by facilitating discovery in ways that Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, would likely support. Yes, in many cases lists are the foundation for "just sharing", but I can live with that. We never dinged print because its adherants were "just reading". Sharing can be a sign, and a start.