The best of the year in review!

December 13, 2012

From their lazy fingers to your scratchy eyeballs, journalists are now transmitting their “year in review” articles and “best of 2012″ lists if, unlike the New York Times Book Review, they haven’t already published their lists of 100 notable books or their 10 best round-up.

In the coming days, a torrent of best-of-year-in-review copy will crack, crumble, and flow like a calving glacier from the keyboard in business, sports, arts, and editorial sections across the land and plop into readers’ laps. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beat reporters, political columnists, gossip columnists, tech columnists, and art critics of every denomination will type out their arbitrary listicles about the best and worst of the year and otherwise describe the 11-and-one-half-months just past. Lined up, one-by-one, the best-of-year-in-review packages resemble the floats gliding down wide boulevards during a New Year’s Day parade: colorful, big, but pointless. My own news organization, Reuters, builds its own floats, as its “Year in Review 2011″ package proves.

Only a scold would insist that every best-of-year-in-review story is crap. I look forward to the top 10 list critic Mark Jenkins assembles each year for inclusion in the Village Voice‘s “Pazz and Jop” music poll, but mostly because he keeps a keener eye on the topic than I do. I’m sure that if I spent more time sifting through best-of-year-in-review articles I’d find more delicious copy to savor, but the same can be said for extruding all of Craigslist through a strainer in hopes of trapping a few edible morsels.

All editorial judgments are arbitrary, of course. What you might find scintillating copy and hoist to the top of Page One I might give the spike. But inside the best-of-year-in-review genre, the judgments are beyond arbitrary. For instance, a book like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which got a mixed-to-negative review in the Times Book Review, merits a place in the section’s notable books, while Timothy Noah‘s The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, which won a cover rave in its pages, is judged non-notable.

I pick on The New York Times because if any outlet possesses the editorial muscle to produce a coherent and useful set of lists, the Times is it. But I suspect that’s not the goal at the Times or other list-producing venues. With few exceptions (and I can’t think of any!) best-of lists and year-in-review articles exist to fill the greatest number of pages with the least amount of effort. Filling the greatest number of pages with the least amount of effort is a pretty good definition of journalism. But at holiday time, two forces conspire to force journalists to fill an even greater number of pages in a very limited time: 1) ad pages from merchants pushing Christmas goods can double the size (if not the editorial hole) of a paper; 2) simultaneously, staffers beg for time off to travel during the holidays — and some even help themselves to unauthorized time, sneaking in late and leaving early.

But being short-staffed never prevents a publication from completing best-of-year-in-review copy, because it can be whipped up as fast as a bowl of instant pudding — all writers need do is download their clips (and their colleagues’ clips) and give the mess a fast edit. Then comes the hard part. To remain credible, a critic’s best-of list must not limit itself to the best recordings, films, theatrical productions, TV shows, or books of the year. It must be “balanced.” For instance, the popular music list must not go to the copy edit desk until it contains a couple of rap selections, a female artist or two, and something exotically ethnic or experimental. Book nods must be given to writers of all genders, of all political persuasions, of all ethnicities, and a few plaudits must be reserved for small presses. To maintain similar cred, a movie list must include a couple of foreign films, even if they’re films nobody sees (or even if they’re bad), to signal the publication’s cosmopolitan virtues. At the same time the movie list mustn’t be too arcane: If it doesn’t include a hit movie from the Golden Globes nominations list, readers will sense snobbishness and grumble.

The year in politics, the year in the Middle East, the year in energy, the year in gaffes, and others in the year-of genre require more rigor to complete than best-of lists. But the methodology is the same — download old copy, move it around, write a few transitions, add a showboating conclusion, and the job can be finished by lunchtime. All the writer need do is drop it in the copy bank by the second week of December, pour himself an eggnog, and go Christmas shopping. The writer need not return any sooner than the first week of the new year. If real news breaks out in the interval, his editors can always run wire copy.

The retreading of old copy is not only easy for journalists and accommodating of their holiday vacation plans, it’s popular with readers. You’d think they would resent being re-fed the old swill, of having the illusion of journalism foisted off on them instead of the real thing, but like children and their favorite storybooks, consumers of news love hearing the same stories over and over again. They take comfort in being told what they already know, in listening for subtle variations on a familiar theme during the retelling, of being granted tacit permission to zone out and fall asleep while reading the reprise. They love the brevity. They love not having to concentrate too hard on new information. And, to their everlasting damnation, readers adore lists, whether they be the year’s top restaurants, 34 surefire ways to please their man — or that meaningless but immensely popular list of one, Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Advertisers adore the positivity of best-of lists, especially those for books, because they serve as glorified shopping lists. At the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in Manhattan yesterday, there was not one but multiple tables carrying nothing but the New York Times Book Review’s 10 best books. Plus, rarely does best-of-year-in-review copy rattle advertisers’ cages with controversy. If they had their way, every edition would be filled with recycled copy.

Thanks to the disruptive power of the Internet, the year-in-review racket no longer belongs to media gatekeepers. Facebook or Twitter users can now build their own editorial placeholders — I mean their own personal year-in-reviews! Just sign in and the algorithms will harvest and stack your most notable postings and tweets in an instant. In lieu of new posts and tweets, just email the results to your Web compatriots, pour yourself an eggnog, and go shopping. It’s been a tough year. You deserve the break.


More year-in-review nonsense. The Financial Times just named Mario Draghi “FT Person of the Year.” Send similar nonsense to or I’ll bomb you with my year-in-review Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: The New Year’s Eve Ball, which measures 12 feet, weighs 11,875 pounds, and is adorned with 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles of various sizes is tested atop One Times Square in New York December 30, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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NewsBusters: New York Times ‘Best Books’ List Is Wildly Inconsistent — Except For Its Self-Promoting, Liberal, Pro-Obama Tilt 2012/12/22/new-york-times-best-books-lis t-wildly-inconsistent-except-its-self-pr omo

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