Tom Christie: Listing Toward the Left

Editor’s Note: This is the 32nd in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

We’re all familiar with the countdowns, top-10s and best-ofs that signal the approach of each new year as the old one reaches its close. L.A. Weekly certainly is, and its staff members, like the good soldiers that they are, devote an issue every winter to commemorating the best movies, albums and so forth of the previous 12 months.

But rather than stop there, they like to spice it up a little. Last year that meant 37 pages of lists — like the ‘Year in Rock’ illustrated by a year’s worth of artist Cole Gerst’s concert posters, and the ‘Top 5 Sandwiches I Invented in 2004,’ and ‘6 Reasons Why November 2 Wasn’t a Total Gay Political Nightmare’ — all guaranteed to help Los Angeles readers reflect on the year from a whole new perspective. Plus, in 2004, L.A. Weekly christened this annual wrap-up with a brilliantly appropriate new name: the Zeitlist.

The AltWeekly Award judges were so impressed with the issue — one declared, ‘I’m packing my bags and moving to L.A.’ — that they honored it with a first place in the Format Buster category. Senior features editor Tom Christie edited the Zeitlist last year and came up with the name as a play on zeitgeist, meaning ‘the spirit of the time.’

Christie has been with L.A. Weekly for 10 years, editing this annual roundup for four, and his accomplishments include reading the entire L.A. phonebook to discover the city’s best names: A through M were published in the 2002 end-of-the-year issue, while N through Z had to wait till the end of 2003.

Though he didn’t head up the Zeitlist again this year — that task fell to online managing editor and writer Joshuah Bearman — Christie still helped out, as a project of this size involves most people at the paper, from editor-in-chief Laurie Ochoa and the film, music, and politics editors to the art department and a whole gaggle of writers and artists. We spoke with Christie about what it’s like to rein in such a vast project.

What does it take to put out this issue?

It’s simple in concept but it’s really difficult, actually, to put all this stuff together. It happens at the last minute at the end of the year when people have time off. And there are a lot of lists — probably, last year, a little bit more than everybody wanted. We did some juggling at the very end to make the mix right, which is almost inevitable with something like this. It’s quite a lot of work, and I drove the art staff and production people nuts with it. So I’m glad that it was recognized!

Who implemented the design?

Creative Director John Curry came up with the idea of using a thermometer as a visual expression of zeitgeist. Design Director Ryan Ward did the rest. The earthy colors came from Ryan’s desire to enrich the texture of the page, to get away from the flatness and whiteness of newsprint, so that you forget you’re reading a newspaper.

Given the ubiquity of best-ofs at alt-weeklies, how do you keep an issue like this fresh?

Running different kinds of lists, keeping the headlines fresh and meaningful, and coming up with interesting visuals. One time we did the year in political T-shirts, which was a fun way of looking back at the year. The key word there is fun — that’s what this issue should be even at its most serious.

What makes a good list of lists?

We put the word out to the writers that we want a mix of the political and the silly and the artsy — and the just-plain-interesting. So we have the core obvious and typical lists like best films and so on: That’s pretty set. We try to mix in ideas from artists to help the flow and make interesting visuals.

How heavily are the lists edited?

There’s less writing in a list, obviously, so they’re easier to edit, in that regard. But a list has its own editorial parameters. It should be immediately sharp and smart and witty — and a number that sound good in planning don’t turn out so well and are dropped.

Do you have more freedom to compile lists at an alt-weekly than you would at a daily?

Totally. I can’t imagine most of these things in a daily. I just don’t think you’d see something like the ‘Hairstyles of the Pundits’ in the L.A. Times. I could be wrong — they’re trying to go there. [Laughs.]

What’s your favorite part of putting together the lists?

The best part is stirring it up and seeing the mix in the end. I appreciate the political things — they’re important — but I have more fun with the creative ones, some of which seem to come out of nowhere. I’m thinking of a list by a couple of non-journalists who run a site on which you can complain about your ex; they wrote ‘8 Hollywood Techniques For Breaking Up With the One You No Longer Love,’ which included the Hugh Grant (sleeping with a hooker), the Anne Heche (telling the lover you’re no longer interested in their gender) and the Phil Spector (‘not recommended.’) Needless to say, they’re coming out with a book.

Over the course of the year, do you find that you look at things in terms of lists with a mind toward this compendium?

Yes, but it’s also like tax season — you just kick it into gear when you need to. It’s surprising how the past year comes into focus. We used to have a weekly list in the paper, and when I was doing that I definitely thought in terms of lists. I tend to do that more than other people do, I guess, and that’s how I wound up doing this. I’m just listy.

Nora Ankrum is a freelance writer who lives in Austin, Texas, where she proofreads for The Austin Chronicle.

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