'Best of' lists endure despite Web focus

The top reason for readers to beware this December: The season of lists is upon us.

The top reason for readers to beware this December: The season of lists is upon us.

Birdwatching magazines do it. Beekeeping magazines do it. Even, yes, PRWeek does it. As the end of the year approaches, magazines of all stripes spew forth lists covering every possible lens through which one could view our world. Looks back. Looks forward. Predictions, analyses, bests and worsts, most notable people, places, things, events, products, gadgets, guns, and gewgaws.

Everyone from media critics to casual readers has grumbled about the profusion of these lists as long as they've been published.

But now, as the Internet is forcing magazines to devote more resources to breaking news, and some are even overhauling their print products to be more Web-interactive, will these stodgy lists persist? Or will magazines have to find a new gimmick more suited to the short memories and attention spans of the Web 2.0 generation?

Most industry experts believe that lists aren't going anywhere. "We are a nation that lives by lists, the best of this, the worst of that, the movies to watch, the books to buy ... in the midst of a very busy daily time crunch the lists and their numbers make it easier on our brains to register the information and follow it," says Samir Husni, a.k.a. "Mr. Magazine," who heads the University of Mississippi's journalism department. "Readers expect numbers of lists at the end of the year, and what readers expect editors must deliver."

Husni, who compulsively tracks magazine launches and trends, says he's seen no slowdown in the list-making business so far. That sentiment is echoed by others inside and outside of the industry.

Ted Spiker, a professor at the University of Florida's journalism school and former articles editor of Men's Health, says lists get knocked unfairly by those who fail to consider their real benefits.

"The beauty of these lists ... is that they combine a wonderful mix of science and art," he says. "The science: The magazine has to be sure that the list contains the absolute foundation things/ people/ ideas that belong in the list or they won't be viewed as credible. The art: They have to have enough surprises and [A-ha!'s] and unpredictability to make the reader feel engaged and excited about what they're going to learn."

Spiker also says that, while magazines bear the brunt of the criticism, all types of media do similar lists in their own formats. The Internet will not slow down the lists, he predicts; "It just means that magazines don't try to compete when it comes to timeliness."

Indeed, shifting mediums of information delivery do not erode the main benefits of lists for magazine editors. They are a convenient tool for organizing large amounts of information; they appeal to those with little taste for long features; and, most importantly, they sell well.

"In industry conferences, we bemoan these things," says John Fennell, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and former editor of Milwaukee Magazine. "But when we looked at sales figures, it was pretty hard to deny the impact they were having on the newsstand."

The continued health of the practice, though, does not mean that lists won't continue face their fair share of scorn. Their most annoying qualities may even be exacerbated by their online presence, notes Victor Navasky, director of the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia University and publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine.

"The Internet, with its low-attention span length requirements, seems ready-made for lists," he says. "No, [lists] don't seem to be declining; yes, they are there to sell magazines (not to mention the subjects of the lists themselves); no, they are not becoming less relevant, because they were never really relevant."

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