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.