Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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From the Newsroom: A new day, a new list

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

Did you hear the news? Vancouver has the 13th-best riverwalk in America, according to a Top 15 list from Fodor’s Travel.

Or maybe you remember that back in March, Forbes described Vancouver as the second-best place to visit in America during the pandemic.

Now my purpose in bringing this up is not to tout the liveability of America’s Vancouver. Since you and I both choose to live here, it must be a great place.

Instead, I wanted to talk about list journalism and all the public relations pitches we receive at The Columbian to do what we call “list stories.”

We get a lot of these pitches, probably at least three or four a week. I saved a couple of these after Web Editor Amy Libby suggested they might be fodder for a column:

  • According to Sidecar Health, 28.1 percent of Vancouver adults have high cholesterol. That compares with 33.1 percent of adults nationwide.
  • Wallethub says that Washington is third among states with the greatest income growth,10th in adults with a current a tetanus vaccination and 16th in volunteer rate.
  • Filterbuy reports 11.7 percent of all homeowners in the Portland metro area have lived in the same house for at least 30 years, which is the 13th lowest percentage in the United States.

I’m not sure what to do with all of this information, but if we reported it all, we would probably have to add an extra page to the paper.

And I am not confident about the level of research conducted on some of these studies. For example, when Vancouver Mayor Ann McEnerny-Ogle read the Forbes piece about Vancouver being a great place to visit during the pandemic, she spotted six obvious errors. These two should have stood out to even a cursory fact check: the city’s population was listed at 34,000, and our location was fixed as east of the Columbia River Gorge. That led to speculation Forbes may have confused us with Walla Walla.

I know just enough about public relations to know why companies pay to sponsor these studies and have them sent to newspapers and TV stations. And once, many years ago, I interviewed one of the pioneers of the industry for a story.

The advantage for the sponsor is it gets its name in the news as an authority about something. They know this “earned media” placement is much more valuable in consumers’ eyes than an equivalent amount of advertising. So it makes sense for companies such as Wallethub or Filterbuy to spend part of their marketing budget commissioning these studies. It improves their stature.

I think it is rare for the companies to do the studies in-house. Filterbuy, for example, sells air filters for homes and buildings. They probably don’t have a staff demographer figuring out how often Portland-area people sell their houses.

That’s where businesses like Sperling’s Best Places come in. A long time ago, in another century, I covered technology entrepreneurship for The Oregonian. One of the stories I enjoyed most was when I interviewed founder Bert Sperling about his business.

As I recall, he and a couple of employees were operating from the upstairs of his very nice Tudor-style home near an east Portland golf course. Using the internet for research was relatively new in those days, and he’d built a new type of business, mining statistics and coming up with a list of best and worst U.S. cities.

He published the results on his own (check out his site at www.bestplaces.net), but also did custom studies and produced lists for companies. As I recall, at the time I did the story, he’d just completed a study for a pet supply manufacturer about the worst places in the United States for your dog or cat to have fleas. (I’m afraid I don’t remember where those places were, but I’m reasonably confident it wasn’t here.)

I walked away with a good story and the feeling that Bert Sperling was going to build a heck of a successful business. I also remember that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it.

I think I will add it to my list of Things I Wish I Had Done.

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