Embracing listicles

By the team at ReadThisThing


If you’re not familiar with the word, a listicle is an article that consists of nothing more than a list — often a list of photos or GIFs

Listicles have been made famous by BuzzFeed, and for years they’ve been lambasted as a detriment to journalism and society.

But the fact is that the listicle is a friend to society, to consumers, and to substantive journalism. Why? Because people like to read them, and that’s what matters.

Let’s look at how journalism has made money traditionally:

  • Classified ads — bring people in for the stories, and sell local ad space
  • Regular ads — charge money for access to your audience
  • Paid subscriptions— never made enough to make a paper profitable, but helps subsidize

Now, how did newspapers maximize this revenue in order to make their business profitable? Publishing stories people like to read.

The sports section. The comic section. Gossip columns. Breaking news. Investigative stories. Op-eds. Data analysis. Book/movie/restaurant reviews. The paper had something for everyone — and the margin on printing a juicy gossip column has always been much larger than the margin on printing an investigative story that took 9 months to report.

But that story that took 9 months to report will hit hard, will gain the respect of the most voracious readers, and will win awards.

In the past ten 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:

  • Classified ads are replaced by Craigslist.
  • Restaurant reviews are replaced by Yelp and Chowhound.
  • Movie reviews are replaced by Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Comics were always syndicated — today readers can just get them straight from the source online.
  • Breaking news has moved to Twitter.
  • Sports coverage happens on Twitter and ESPN.com.

All this isn’t to say that there’s no space for journalism in any of these areas — but the above platforms have taken huge swaths of our attention, so the market is much smaller for the news industry to draw an audience with things like movie reviews and book reviews.

So what does that leave us with? In-depth reporting and investigative journalism, primarily.

If you take away classified ads and you take away with half the other reasons people read the paper 20 years ago — the paper can’t afford to pay for great journalism.

In comes BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed has masterfully created 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, and BuzzFeed makes a ton of money as a result.

Instead of just sitting on those heaps of cash and hoping to remain relevant, BuzzFeed is actively investing in real journalism, aiming to become a lasting media brand.

They aren’t doing this as charity work, they’re doing it because they understand how this industry has always worked.

Low-brow content like tabloids can capture attention, but it doesn’t garner respect — which advertisers seek. If The New York Times and The National Enquirer draw the same number of eyeballs, advertisers will still pay 10 times more for a prime spot in the NYT.

High-brow content has never paid for itself — even the New Yorker and The Atlantic need to get increasingly juicy and gossipy and listicly.

The way to be the New York Times of the next generation is strike a balance. Build an audience that runs the spectrum from those who crave investigative stories, to those who crave masterfully crafted prose, to those who crave listicles and animated GIFs.

Those who figure out how to draw a broad audience in this way will be the ones who land on a model that supports great journalism, and we need great journalism.

That’s why we should embrace the listicle. It’s here to save journalism, and it’s increasingly looking like it might succeed.

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