Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about.
That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,", Gabriel Arana's extraordinary story about the ex-gay movement and his own youthful experience with conversion therapy. The article was not only well-reported and beautifully written, but genuinely newsworthy; it included an interview with Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the prime movers in the propagation of conversion therapy, in which Spitzer essentially recanted his entire career and apologized. That was our top article of the year, and deservedly so. And what was the second most-read article of the year? "Ten Arguments Gun Advocates Make, and Why They're Wrong," a listicle I wrote on the day of the Newtown shooting. I don't know exactly how long Gabe took to report and write his piece, but I imagine it was weeks. I splurted out that listicle in about an hour and a half.
So what's the lesson here? Lists are magic.