October 23, 2015
Several news organizations have joined "The List App," which debuted earlier this month.

Several news organizations have joined “The List App,” which debuted earlier this month.

Pop quiz: Which of these shows is produced by NPR?

  • “This American Life”
  • “99% Invisible”
  • “Radiolab”
  • “Prairie Home Companion”

The answer? None of them, even though each program airs on public radio stations. Of course, you’d already know this if you followed NPR on The List App, a new social network dreamed up by “The Office” executive producer BJ Novak. There, you can read the public radio network’s most popular offering: “‘OMG I LOVE NPR:’ A list of shows we don’t actually produce.'”

“It was immediately appealing,” said Wright Bryan, who heads up NPR’s social media desk. “You could see why people would want to share on it and how much fun it could be.”

The app is also fairly simple. Upon registering an account, users are invited to follow a few accounts whose lists are then organized into a Twitter-like vertical feed. They can then relist (think retweet) lists they want their own followers to see, save them for future consideration or share them by some other means. The app also allows users to create their own bulleted and numbered lists or request lists from others. Replete with bite-sized tidbits that scan quickly, The List App feels less like a funnel to send traffic elsewhere and more like a self-contained ecosystem designed to keep users scrolling and sharing.

The List App as it appears on a phone. (Screenshot, Li.st).

The List App as it appears on a phone. (Screenshot, Li.st).

Although it was opened to the public earlier this month, The List App has already drawn interest from a slew of news organizations that have cultivated followings numbering in the thousands. We talked to audience development experts at several of these news organizations to get a sense of how outlets are using The List App, figure out which strategies appear to be working well and get a sense of the app’s possibilities.


Bryan was dubious when Serri Graslie, a member of NPR training team, suggested they start using the The List App.

“I said, ‘An app for lists? You’re kidding, right?'” Bryan said. “But then she showed it to me and immediately I was sort of taken by it.”

About 14 weeks and 32 lists later, NPR has racked up more than 14,000 followers. In addition to its item on shows not produced by NPR, popular lists have included “Does this cookie tin mean anything to you?”, “10 Highlights from the latest Hillary Clinton Emails” and “6 things you should know about the Iran nuclear deal.” The lists on NPR’s feed feature the network’s blend of eclectic coverage, running the gamut between music, health, food and current events.

Although NPR appears to be one of the most successful news outlets on The List App, Bryan says the network is still using the it on a trial basis. Once they have a solid sense of the app’s norms and overall tone, they’ll decide whether to make it a permanent fixture on NPR’s social media desk.

Tinkering with the app has yielded some insights. Posts that typically do well manage to be simultaneously entertaining and informative, combining a light tone with a list of genuinely useful information.

“Mostly what I’m looking for is something that can be short and snappy and stand on its own,” said Graslie, who created and runs NPR’s account. “So no matter what sort of approach we’re taking, those are the tenets.”

One of the obvious drawbacks to the The List App is that it doesn’t lend itself to redirecting readers back to websites, where publishers can bank the resulting impressions. But that doesn’t matter to Bryan, who says NPR’s mission is to meet readers where they are.

“We don’t really see referral traffic as a driver for any of our social platform presences except for Facebook,” Bryan said.

The New York Times

The audience development team at The New York Times quickly identified a likely list upon joining the app: The Morning Briefing, a summary of must-reads that appears daily on NYT Now. The Times’ account has regularly posted shortened versions of the briefing titled “5 things to know” that contains abbreviated summaries and links to the relevant stories.

“It’s just a no-brainer for us,” said Cynthia Collins, editor of The New York Times’ social media desk. “It’s easy for us to produce because we’re leveraging essentially what is a super-powerful list that’s already being produced by the news desk for the morning briefing.”

The Times has also seen success with digests of hard news, such as its timeline of mass shootings in the U.S. published right after the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. The topical nature of the story and abundant coverage on The Times website made the list a natural fit for the app. Another newsy list explained the turmoil in Syria by examining the various conflicting players.

The Times has also seen success with so-called “service journalism,” items that offer readers tips, travel destinations and recipes to its followers.

One upside to trying out a social networking app in its nascent stages is that it affords outlets the opportunity to gather insight into a community as it grows, Collins said. Tips and tricks picked up on one app might be applicable elsewhere and inform strategy across the social media team.

“We’re always eager to test out these new platforms and apps as early as possible to gain intelligence,” Collins said.

Vox Media

Vox Media has been another early entrant to The List App, with several of its brands — Vox.com, Eater, Racked and The Verge — jumping on board with offerings such as “All the times Joe Biden was about to decide whether he’s running for president” and “The best places in LA to get a quiet, stiff drink.”

The company tries to use The List App as a vehicle for journalistically valuable lists, which are often unfairly dismissed as fodder for traffic, said Jonathan Hunt, vice president of global marketing at Vox Media.

“When you think about it, lists receive a bad rap in modern media because of how they’ve been reverse engineered to drive clicks,” Hunt said. “As a company, we believe that lists should provide utility, should provide organization, convey priority and importance and prestige.”

Hunt notes that lists are a natural template for Vox.com’s brand of explainer-driven journalism, because they allow writers to format information in a logical and linear way. These types of lists explain the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s testimony in the Benghazi hearing or answer nine questions about the ongoing refugee crisis.

Vox.com has also used the app to offer a simple curated list of the site’s top stories, helping readers find content that might otherwise be overlooked.

Like other outlets, Vox Media brands are exploring the app tentatively because its place in the social media canon hasn’t been established yet.

“With any platform just starting out, I think it would be foolish to go all in and invest tons of time and resources into proving it out,” Hunt said. “And so we’re taking a similar approach where we’re seeing the results of fine-tuning based off of those results. It’s definitely a wait-and-see approach.”

National Geographic

One of National Geographic’s most popular lists is also one of its most morbid: “Top 10 cemeteries to visit” charts an itinerary with boneyards from Eastern Europe to New Orleans.

The secret to its popularity? Items that relate to a broad swath of readers tend to be successful, said Raj Mody, the vice president of social media at National Geographic.

The cemetery list includes destinations from across the globe, and there are few things more universal than morality.

“Stories that have some sort of element that is relatable to a larger set of people, to a large, diverse sort of audience — ultimately, they will be stories and lists that resonate and do well,” Mody said.

As it often does on social media, National Geographic has also brought its enormous archive of images to The List App, tinkering with a photo of the day feature and incorporating pictures of wildlife into lists like “Chernobyl and other places where animals thrive without people.”

Like The New York Times and Eater, National Geographic has seen success with travel content, a longtime staple of the magazine.

“I think travel’s an important category for us,” Mody said. “And I think that some of the other things that I mentioned, like adventure, news magazine content as well are things that you’re going to see a lot of in the days ahead.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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