10:25 am May. 9, 2012
Many who opened last Sunday's New York Times probably were not too surprised to see the giant "Powers of New York" feature in the Metropolitan section.
We are, after all, deluged with content like this: The top 50 or 20 or 500 or 100 "listicle" in pretty much any imaginable category is a staple of the present-day news culture. Crain's New York Business has probably cornered the local market, with nearly 50 annual lists—averaging out to one a week—that have been developed over decades. And seemingly no publication has been immune to producing them out of their news divisions.
The listicle has also gained new prominence on the web with its possibilities for generating highly clickable (and thus pageview-enhancing) slideshows and other forms of presentation that can noodle a single reader into delivering dozens of new page loads in a single visit.
But for close readers of the Times, it was something new—a little watershed, like The New Yorker yielding to convention and publishing a table of contents, or The Wall Street Journal using color photography on the front page: A kind of obvious thing that nevertheless feels like a little revolution in the context.
Amy Virshup, the editor of Metropolitan, said that it's "probably true the Times has not done one of these before," meaning a power list in a news section. (A Times spokeswoman couldn't say for sure but offered: "I would be surprised if it was the absolute first in our history.")
"I took over the section a year ago, and we're always just trying to do new things and capture who runs New York and what's going on behind the scenes, and we thought this would be a fun way to do it for our readers," said Virshup.
The intro text reads: "Influence in New York is now wielded by a larger and more diverse array of people. ... Here’s a look at who is at the top and who may be on the way." (That includes "heavy hitters" like Mayor Michael Bloomberg; "rising" stars like U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara; and establishment power players like New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch.)
The list isn't an entirely new sort of thing for the Times; its Bestseller Lists are among the most well-established weekly features, and at year's end, the paper's critics, especially in the arts pages, frequently produce "Best of the Year" lists of one kind or another. And then there was Mark Bittman's 101 Salads feature.
But those are movies and pop albums and food. To produce it with news reporters in a news section of the paper did feel like something different, several staffers acknowledged.
Virshup said it seemed a natural way and the right time to present a list like this out of the news report.
"One of the reasons we did it right now is because even though Bloomberg has some time left as Mayor, you are seeing the end of the Bloomberg era, and that's what we tried to capture," she said. "There are tensions going on as people try and figure out who's really gonna be running things after Bloomberg leaves, and how things are going to change after he's gone."
And the format? ("Powers of New York" got a generous spread in print and a sortable, text-and-photo scroll on the web.)
"Everything we do now, we have to think of how we're presenting it online," Virshup said. "The two have just become inseparable. There's no thinking of just about print or just about online. You're always thinking about how it's going to work in both formats."
Nobody we talked to at the paper seemed to think there had been a history of contempt for the listicle format at the Times. Nor has there been any sort of recent top-down directive to do more lists in the news section. It could just be that a new generation of reporters and editors can't see why the paper would avoid them.
One Times writer pointed us to Jenna Wortham and Nicole Perelroth's "Could These Start-Ups Become the Next Big Thing," which also ran both online and in print earlier this week. The web version is a scrollable and sortable list with photos, blurbs and buttons by which readers can vote for the start-up they feel is most bound for greatness.
Of course, getting into the list game is something the Times is uniquely situated to do. Who wants to be in a Crain's Top 40, no matter how well established and important, if you can be a "New York Power" according to the Times?
And the dreaded click-bait slideshows found on many websites look like amateur projects compared to how the Times presents this sort of fare. The paper's well-staffed digital side can produce custom presentations for pretty much any multimedia feature editorial hands dream up.
Virshup said the template for "Powers of New York," for instance, was adapted from a template the culture desk had used for a recent Holland Cotter series on African Art.
So will "Powers of New York" turn out to be the first of many more New York power lists for the Times metro desk?
"I don't think we're gonna become Vanity Fair and do one every year," said Virshup. "But I thought it was fun and it turned out well, so I could see conceivably doing another one."
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