The Ratings Game
Jan 06, 2015 05:00PM
By Kristen Hoffman
10. Top 10 Unmentionable Facts About Underwear. 9. Top 10 Industries Already Profiting from the Apocalypse. 8. Top 10 Buildings That Weren’t Quite Built Well Enough. 7. Top 10 Unintentional Mass Killers. 6. Top 10 Ridiculously Obvious Study Findings. 5. Top 10 Most Interesting Facts about Ketchup. 4. Top 10 Banned Children’s Names. 3. Top 10 Horrifying Pieces of Fan Art Made from Innocent Children’s Stories. 2. Top 10 Odd Medical Records Statements. 1. Top 10 Reasons to Chop Off Your Fingers.
This Top 10 list took about 10 minutes to compile, tops. And, so, we come to #10 in our “Top 10 Reasons Magazines Are Now Obsessed With Making Top 10 Lists.”
10. It’s outrageously easy to make Top 10 lists. 9. They are easy for designers to illustrate and layout. 8. If a magazine makes a Top 10 list of cities or states, any tourism board receiving love will promote that Top 10 list, thus also promoting the magazine that created the list. 7. Magazine publishers love free advertising. 6. Magazine publishers love the legitimacy that comes from cities or states bragging about being praised by your magazine. 5. City and state tourism boards love free advertising. 4. Chambers of commerce love bragging to potential transplanting businesses about the magazine Top 10 lists in which they are favorably mentioned. 3. Magazine publishers love when businesses (i.e. “potential advertisers") hear civic leaders speak of their glee about being praised by their magazine. 2. Those pandering, gullible, needy, sycophantic local columnists (like this one) are basically hard-wired from birth to write without question or analysis a glowing ode to their locale using the tortured artifice of some Top 10 list. 1. Every American but me apparently can’t get enough of Top 10 lists.
Well, that last one isn’t exactly true. Peter Hutchinson isn’t a fan, either. But, honestly, he’s way more old school than most of us. I mean, the first chapter of his book, A Publisher's History of American Magazines, about the history of magazines starts with a rumination on what cavemen liked to read in their petroglyphs.
Truth be told: Hutchinson, who has edited numerous national magazines over the last two decades, helped me with my lists. I called him hoping to get a handle on this ratings game in the publishing industry. And really, for me, at the root of the question is another question: Is Omaha now making so many Top 10 lists (among them, #1 in “Top 10 Cities To Raise a Family In America”) because it’s now so great, or because there’s now such a great many Top 10 lists celebrating just about any city in the country?
“Maybe a little of both,” says Hutchinson, who is currently a journalism advisor at Stanford University. “I don’t think you can argue that the praise for Omaha isn’t genuinely deserved. But there’s also no doubt that anyone with a pulse is making Top 10 lists now. They are popular. Readers gravitate toward them. Advertisers want to be where readers gravitate. That’s the equation.”
But why? And when did we start listing? Were we ever listless? If so, why have Americans changed?
“There are very few examples of media outlets incorporating rankings prior to the 1950s,” Hutchinson says. However, “that certainly doesn’t mean the human desire for ranking things wasn’t there. There has always been the thirst for competition. Cavemen were ranking themselves against their fellow cavemen, I’m sure.
“But, I think maybe the thirst for rankings was born with the advent of all the standardized testing. I think Baby Boomers like me [he’s 60] are so used to being tested and ranked that it’s now in our DNA and the DNA of any younger generation. Ranking things is just part of how we see the world now.”
No media analysis is complete without addressing the issue of “attention span.” We don’t have one anymore, basically, Hutchinson argues. (Is anybody under 70 still reading this?).
“The television age, the Internet age, all that jazz,” he says. “I think it’s real. We want our information in quick little packages. We want somebody to quickly give us the run-down.”
This has seemingly led to a decrease in the appreciation, or even tolerance, for longer pieces of writing. That suggests, he says, a lost appreciation for depth in analysis. The trend doesn’t leave much hope for an informed electorate, for one.
“Lists are fun,” Hutchinson says. “But you do worry they suggest a change in the amount of information Americans are willing or able to digest. If we’re only reading lists, we’re going to be a pretty ignorant country pretty quickly.”