When I was a student at Reno High School in the mid1960s, a national organization called Reno a “cultural wilderness.” It took me by surprise, because I was in the habit of stopping at a little art gallery on Ralston Street while walking home from school.
In the years since, I’ve covered dozens of rankings of cities for everything from poverty to fun. And I’ve learned to read those surveys better than I could when I was a high school student. I was a bit alarmed when I read in the Pahrump Valley Times that Pahrump had been designated one of the nation’s worst cities.
But after examining it, I think there is less here than meets the eye.
A lot of outfits now do rankings of communities – magazines, mapmakers, think tanks, businesses, travel guides. Most of these rankings have a single purpose. They are intended to generate publicity for the outfits that put them out.
Many of them are worthless. I once was sent to cover a survey that named Reno one of the best-read communities in the nation. The outfit that produced it had actually hired a local publicist to stage a new conference at a Reno bookstore. Since I usually cover politics, I’m accustomed to reading surveys and when I looked at this one I discovered that Reno was not the best-read city in the United States. It was the best-read among a mere TEN cities surveyed in the United States. It was meaningless, and my report that night said so, not that it kept local promoters from using the claim for the next few years.
The survey dissing Pahrump was done by WalletHub, which may mean everything or nothing. It certainly generated publicity for WalletHub. In hundreds of news stories around the nation, there was a line like, “We’ve pared down WalletHub’s results to focus on the best- and worst-rated Illinois small cities on the list.” That glosses over what WalletHub is, which is because few reporters know. No one I found seems to know what it does except compile surveys. If a media outlet defined WalletHub at all, it usually called it a “personal finance” site, which is what it calls itself on its website.
But a few went a little deeper. One Philadelphia newspaper called it a “rinancial social media company,” whatever that is. The Spokane Spokesman Review: “First off, what is Wallethub.com? Based in Washington, D.C., Wallethub.com touts itself as ‘the Web’s best personal finance resource’.” That lets it define itself and isn’t all that informative. In Texas, a Lubbock news outlet called WalletHub “a personal finance website known for its ranking lists,” which pretty well sums it up.
It appears WalletHub (whatever it is or does) has been around for only a couple of years, not long enough to yet be found on sites like SourceWatch or Wikipedia. So media outlets all over the country are reporting its dumb surveys without knowing what WalletHub is or does.
Why do I call them dumb surveys? Because WalletHub cranks them out like Egg McMuffins. It’s Veteran’s Day, so here’s a survey on the best cities for veterans. Some of the surveys are incredibly banal: “According to a recent WalletHub study, three North Carolina cities are among the 15 worst cities in the U.S. for celebrating Halloween.”
As for the latest survey, the rankings suggest there’s something flawed with its methodology because of the inclusion at the bottom of the list of three Nevada cities that are so dissimilar.
Consider the listing of the state capital. Carson City is one of the few communities on the western frontier that did not experience a major fire that destroyed its original architecture. The neighborhoods on the west side are so well preserved that when the James Stewart/Lauren Bacall movie “The Shootist” was shot there, the only thing the studio had to do was put dirt down on the streets and frame the shots to cut out power lines. Otherwise, the gorgeous 19th century setting with residential architectural influences like Second Empire and Gothic revival, was ready to go.
Including it on this list is preposterous.
There’s no reason for anyone to take the WalletHub survey seriously. But if it does bother anyone, consider the survey I mentioned at the start that described Reno as a cultural wilderness. In the years since, the city has hosted an annual jazz festival, formed an opera company. Today there is a philharmonic and each summer there are 30 days devoted to arts events that draw both locals and tourists by the tens of thousands. And that little Ralston Street art gallery is now on Liberty Street – four stories occupying a half a block.
Our communities are what we make of them.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.