Question: I’ve noticed that a lot of news articles on the web these days are written as a series of questions and answers, or are just lists of things, like “Nine Reasons Why You Should Read This Article”. What’s up with that?
Answer: Great question! You’re right: Question-and-answer articles are very popular on the internet, as are list articles, or listicles.
There’s “9 Reasons Why The Stock Market Has Been Correcting” (Business Insider); “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” (The Washington Post); “9 Things You Didn’t Know About Netflix” (Huffington Post), etc.
BuzzFeed (“9 More Urban Dictionary Definitions You Need To Know”) has turned listicles into an entire publishing strategy.
This isn’t exactly new, of course. Cosmopolitan has been running such articles as “Nine Ways to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed” since the leisure-suit era.
Q Right, but you didn’t answer the question: Why is this occurring?
A Here’s a response from Andrew Beaujon, who blogs about the news media for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism-education organisation: “There’s just so much content now that (list and Q&A articles) are a good way to cut through the noise.”
Another reason is right in your pocket, he says: “So many people read (articles) on mobile devices now, and the experience of reading a numbered list on a small screen is pretty good. Packaged well, they’re very shareable, too, (which is) another key to their prominence.”
Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who studies web trends, thinks there’s a psychological dimension to it, too: “A reader knows exactly what he’s committing to when he sees a number in a headline, like ‘five reasons’ or ‘nine questions’. You know how long or short the story is. It’s a very finite thing.”
Q So this is what passes for journalism today? You just make up a bunch of questions that no one really asked and then you supply your own answers?
A Take it easy. It’s just a different kind of journalism, geared for a busy, on-the-go world, what with all its Snapchats and WhatsApps and who knows what all the kids are into these days. Some of these things are just as heavily researched as a conventional news article. And you can’t argue with success. It’s all about the clicks, baby.
Q Oh, it is, is it?
A Well, not entirely, but it doesn’t hurt to be popular (this is why reporters aren’t insulted when you tell them “You’re just trying to sell papers!”).
Besides, some of these things can be both highly informative and highly popular. The Washington Post’s “9 questions about Syria…” drew more than 3 million page views and 600 000 Facebook likes – humongous numbers, as these things go.
Presumably, readers learnt a lot about Syria that they wouldn’t have learned from a daily news story. A daily story can’t digress into all the sociocultural history and background that the writer of the nine-questions piece provided.
Q But the news is often complicated. Don’t these things just dumb it down?
A Sure, some of it is drivel. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with adopting a conversational tone and an easily digestible format to explain complicated events.
Max Fisher says he deliberately made the first question of his nine-questions-about-Syria Post story “almost comically basic” because he didn’t want anyone to feel excluded for insufficient background knowledge.
So his first question was “What is Syria?”, which sounds really dumb but is, in fact, an extremely complex question – perhaps the key to understanding why Syria has devolved into such a tragic and horrifying place.
“This format turned out to be a great vehicle not just for answering embarrassing questions, but for examining some of the big, underlying forces that might go unexamined in day-to-day coverage,” says Fisher.
Q Back in my day, we called those “background stories”. Or an encyclopaedia entry.
A Right. Now we call it “the internet”.
Q But why nine things or nine questions? It seems to be a very popular number for all these list-icles and chart-icles and question-icles.
A We have theories: Nine isn’t too many and it isn’t too few. Twelve questions about health-care reform might be a little intimidating. Four questions about the South Sudan or Ukraine hardly seems like enough.
There may be something attractive about odd numbers, too, says Lotan. He just completed a study of the most-shared listicles on BuzzFeed – the list-happy megasite – and found that odd-numbered lists were shared by readers more often than the even-numbered ones.
The difference is “statistically significant,” he says. His theory: “Even numbers seem too balanced. It seems fake,” whereas nine or 17 or 27 may have a more authentic, open-ended appeal.
On the other hand, maybe not. Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor, points to an article from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard on this very subject. It concluded (much as one might want analytics to deliver conclusive answers, about which numbers in lists draw the most traffic), the results are often fuzzy.”
In other words, maybe there’s no magic formula. And maybe no scientific one, either.
Q So, do you think news sites are going to do more of this kind of thing?
A Maybe, but that’s not really clear, either. There have been so many of these “X Questions About” stories lately that a writer named James Hamblin wrote a parody of them for the Awl, a news and culture website, recently.
When something gets parodied, it’s a pretty good bet that the thing has peaked and is on the way out.
“I don’t know if it will go away,” says Lotan, “but it will eventually lose its novelty. People will see another one of these and think, ‘Oh no, not another one’. Given how quickly things move on the internet, something new is bound to replace it.”
Q Hey, you only have eight questions up till this point. Don’t you need another one for this kind of story?
A Yes. Yes, I do. Thank you for asking. – The Washington Post