Friday, July 01, 2016

Click-Baiting Editors and Barbecue Lists

Yes, I do actually think Cannon's is one of the best BBQ
joints in the Carolinas. And the South for that matter.
The Fourth of July is upon us, which means the Internet is awash with barbecue listicles. Time just ran two such pieces, but they carry a lot more weight than most such roundups because of who wrote them. The authors aren't fresh-out-of-college Millennials leaning primarily on Google and Yelp but two experienced writers with estimable barbecue credentials and a whole lot of pulled pork and brisket under their belts. But you wouldn't know that from the headlines that the editors slapped on the pieces.

The first one promises to name "The 8 Best BBQ Spots in the Carolinas." If you read the copy that follows, though, it's clear that the author, Rien Fertel, set out with a more limited scope: "In the eastern Carolinas," Fertel writes. "Tradition dictates that barbecue pitmasters go the whole hog."

This makes more sense. Fertel is a New Orleans-based writer who just came out with a really good book called The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog. He spent weeks on the road and many sleepless hours hanging out overnight with pitmasters to learn their stories about cooking traditional whole hog barbecue. The eight places featured in his Time piece are all whole hog joints, which sets his lens on a smaller sub-genre of barbecue in the Carolinas.

The (current) headline of the second Time piece, 8 Incredible BBQ Spots in Texas,  is slightly more reserved. It's from Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly and author of Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. If you look at the actual URL for the piece (, you'll see what the editors named it out of the gate (those URLs are created automatically from the initial headline and don't change if you edit it later).

Vaughn didn't seem super thrilled about that initial headline, if you judge by his Twitter feed (and note the caption under the picture):
Vaughn has good reason to be miffed. His opening paragraph makes clear that he is in no way saying these are the eight best joints in Texas. He starts out by explaining how much great barbecue there is in Texas and how many different road trips you could take to sample it. "A good place to start is Austin," Vaughn writes. "No other U.S. city has as many truly great joints."

In other words, this is a list of great barbecue joints in and around the city of Austin, not in Texas. If you know Daniel Vaughn (and I do), you know that he has probably eaten more Texas barbecue than anyone alive. If you let the headline writer gull you into thinking the piece is Vaughn's list of the 8 best Texas barbecue joints, you might incorrectly assume he's just another click-mongering scribbler who made one weekend trip to Austin.

The state of Texas is so damned big and has so many wonderful barbecue restaurants in it. A piece that covers only joints within 40 miles of Austin and claims they are the best in Texas would be as silly one that listed the top joints in Texas and claimed they were the 50 best barbecue joints in the whole world.

But, once they've clicked through, readers see past the headlines and pick up the more subtle nuances of what the author is trying to say, right?

Not surprisingly, when you take a piece that was narrowly scoped to one subject and headline it "The 8 Best BBQ Spots in the Carolinas," readers take issue with the selections:

On the one hand, I do understand the need for publications to drive clicks and the pressure that is put on editors to do what ever they can to boost web traffic amid plunging ad revenue.  Nothing fetches clicks and social media shares like "Best of" lists—and the rounds of debate that follow.

As a writer, though, I find this practice maddening. It's disrespectful to an author's credibility to take a story that he or she put lots of time and effort into researching and crafting—for example, a piece that tries to survey all the different styles of barbecue within the state of Kentucky and provide examples of restaurants that represent each sub-region and style —and slap a click-baiting "Top 10 BBQ Joints in Kentucky" headline on it.

It makes it look like the writer doesn't know what he or she is talking about. ("How can you write a piece about the best Texas barbecue and not include any Houston joints? Has this guy even been to Houston?")

It's disrespectful to the reader, too—a bait and switch that doesn't deliver what it actually promised. And it's disrespectful to barbecue restaurateurs and pitmasters, too, who may well wonder why they were left of the list of the Best X BBQ restaurants in the South when it's actually a piece on barbecue joints that are at least 50 years old.

And then there's this. Excessive best-of-ing undercuts and devalues the efforts that some writers and publications put in when they do try to craft a list that is an honest account of what they consider to actually be the best barbecue (or best cheeseburger or best tacos or best what have you) in a particular place.

When Texas Monthly puts together its periodic "Top 50 Texas BBQ Joints" issue, they spend months driving all over that big state sampling and resampling barbecue from many, many places, and not just the handful that get written about in national publications. When, a few years ago, my City Paper colleagues and I decided to start naming Charleston's Top 50 restaurants in the Dish Dining Guide, it wasn't something we just slapped together but spent a lot of energy and passion sorting, debating, and finalizing—including nailing down our criteria for what constituted being a "top" restaurant in the first place. Not an easy task.

The Time pieces managed to hit the same week that Southern Living published my updated list of the The South's Top 50 Barbecue Joints. It's a list that I put a lot of time and effort into compiling over the course of several years. I've flown to dozens of cities, rented countless cars, and driven thousands of miles down lonely backroads, sampling as many plates of barbecue as I could fit under my belt. Any time we take a family trip, my poor wife and kids have to endure yet another detour because there's a great barbecue joint I heard about that's not too far off the Interstate—only 20 minutes out of our way—OK, so maybe more like and hour and a half, sorry!

When I say they are the best 50 barbecue restaurants in the South, I damn well mean it—or, at least, they are in my current opinion the best in the South. If you scroll down below the picture on the first page (and please do, because the main text starts below the bottom of the screen) you can read my rationale for the list and the caveat that, despite my best efforts, I still haven't made it to every one of the thousands of worthy restaurants in the South to try them.

But I will some day.

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