Behind the Story: Power of Lists & Explainers, with Inc.
Gabriella Schwarz / January 12, 2016
Reporter: Ilan Mochari
Inc.’s Ilan Mochari has perfected the art of the list: “3 Signs You’re Suffering From Collaborative Burnout,” “The 7 Most Intriguing People of 2015,” “3 Leadership Lessons From the Creator of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’” and more recently, “A Blueprint for the First Work Day of 2016.” So-called listicles and explainers have been on the rise in recent years as reading habits have moved to mobile devices and readers have been “suckered by the Twitter headline,” as Mochari said. We spoke with Inc.’s senior writer and author of “Zinsky the Obscure” about the upsides and downsides of list journalism, how he approaches the format and what’s next in media.
What’s behind the rise in stories of lists and explainers?
I wish it were something complex that only I could explain, but really it’s just traffic. It’s just that those stories generate web traffic, web traffic generates revenue, and so anyone who works for an institution that gets paid for advertising on its content has to do those things. You don’t have to, but you have to stay in business.
More traditional old school reporting is more labor intensive and doesn’t come with any guarantee of traffic, but is still something that I think is part of the cultural and ethical beliefs of most journalistic institutions.
What is the greatest value and greatest hindrance of the list format?
The greatest value is that it’s a fast read and it’s entertaining. And every now and then, in the era of mobile content, we all find ourselves in these situations where you’ve got five or 10 minutes to kill. I think there is a reader demand for something that’s like a tapas plate of information.
I think the downside is that they’re lists so they’re even more reductive than magazine articles are in general. It’s not to say that magazines and newspapers haven’t always been up to their shenanigans to get readers and to get readers to believe that the news is more urgent than it is—that’s part of the business. But I think lists take that to another extreme. There’s a demand for them, and I think readers like them, but at the same time it can be frivolous.
What’s your process in writing these pieces? What are you thinking about?
The main thing I’m thinking about is that I don’t want to be too simplistic. There’s nothing more annoying than when you click on something, long or short, and you feel like the writer didn’t tell you something you already knew or that the writer was just lazily trying to bang out a piece of copy in an hour. I just try not to do that. I still want it to show that it took me awhile to write and that you got a lot of value out of it. One way to look at it is, there are a lot of ways you can eat bite size food. You can go one M&M at a time or you can have a really nutritious tapas plate. I want to provide the tapas plate. Sometimes if a reader thinks it’s a tapas plate and they get M&Ms, they’re pissed off.
Looking specifically at the “Blueprint for the First Work Day“: what did you learn in the research and writing about what to expect in 2016? Did anything surprise you?
I think the main thing is not what I think as a reporter, but what the reader is going to encounter. From that standpoint, I’m always asking how can I write this in a way that if someone’s really coming to this article with the expectation that it can help them re-calibrate their goals and expectations for 2016, how can I make this useful, actionable and interesting for them? How can I make it different than the 9,000 other stupid year-end lists that are going to be out there?
There’s a reader out there who has a hard job, who needs the help of a magazine like Inc. If there’s something I can do, that I can use my privilege as a journalist to research and do the homework for them and present it in a really easy format that they can read very quickly, then I am doing a service. I am doing what journalism has always been meant to do.
How do you see journalism changing in the year ahead, especially as it pertains to story formatting?
In the short-term, the online clicks train is rolling and that’s going to keep going. Because of that, I think it’s only going to continue—magazines will continue to do whatever gets great traffic. Right now that’s a lot of short lists. But if there comes a time where readers get fatigue of the lists, and they might because they’re bombarded with them, then I think there will be a way that those would change. I’m not nearly as suckered by the Twitter headline as I used to be. I think most readers are feeling like, the last time I clicked on something like this it took 100,000 years to load and the article sucked. When I got there there were all of these ads and it was annoying.
I think basically that the trend will continue as long as they continue to get traffic, but if they don’t then writers and editors, in the search for more readers, more measurable readers, are going to try to do whatever continues to work.
So it’s up to the reader to demand a different kind of journalism?
Well, this is tricky. What’s happened is that it’s kind of become like television. All our lives television has been this thing where the programs got ratings, through Nielsen or whatever. Basically, unless a TV show gets terrific reliable ratings for a specific category, it’s off the air. There was a time when magazines were just print, and you couldn’t really measure the ratings for a particular article. Now that it’s online, there are ways to measure the ratings.
If you stopped 100 people on the street and asked what they thought of listacles and click bait, they’d say, “Oh they suck—I want real journalism.” But that doesn’t really matter because what matters is the traffic on the stories. We think about this at Inc. a lot; I think every magazine thinks about it. There’s often a difference between what readers really want and what the online metrics say they really like to read. They’re not the most precise measurement of things. An article might get greater ratings because everyone clicks on it, but it doesn’t mean everyone who read it liked it or was nourished by it. There’s only so much that readers should do because the numbers are going to be what they’re going to be. The numbers don’t always tell the story, but the numbers are what you have to go on if you’re running a business.
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