Serial List-Maker WalletHub to Newark: You’re Unhappy, Bad for Business, and You Hate Vets

WalletHub, some kind of financial-social-media-maker-of-surveys thingy*, has dropped a bit of a shitstorm onto our downtrodden neighbors to the west.

According to the company’s most recent list — WalletHub really likes lists — Newark is officially the worst large city in the country for veterans.

This is obviously a topical issue here on Veterans Day, and the report was picked up by what seems to be every single news organization in the state.

If you’re wondering why, it’s probably not because the ranking is accurate. It’s because we reporters love rankings. And things that sound like facts. Especially when we don’t have to actually do any research ourselves. They’re awesome. After all, we have bourbon to drink and fedoras to wear unironically and a democracy to shore up and that shit’s exhausting. So when some PR flack hands us a ready-made “thing” that sounds like “news,” we’re all for it. Boom. Blog post. Cocktail.

WalletHub’s rankings were based on some veteran-specific numbers, like the veteran unemployment rate. But lots of the numbers just reflect broad economic data, like the city’s housing availability and job growth. Also, somewhat inexplicably, factors like “best weather” and “best and worst cities for recreation.”

Sure, that might have some validity. But if there were a good, consistent, meaningful way to rank cities for the needs of a diverse segment of the population — like “veterans,” who might be 90-year-old retirees or college-bound 26-year-olds — you’d expect to have consistent results.

But that’s not really what we see. Take a competing “ranking” of the Ten Best Places for Veterans from another financial-services company, the Unites Services Automobile Association.

According to the listed methodology on each survey, many of the veteran-specific benchmarks the groups use are the same appear similar*, yet their top rankings have not a single city in common.

Of course, regardless of its usefulness, the best way to get reporters to pick up your list is to make sure that basically every city in the country is included on it. While a smaller list — say, the top or bottom 10 — would be far, far more useful for actual veterans, that’s not the point, of course. It’s what we in the biz call brand awareness.

If you rank 100 cities, you can bet that a reporter in every one of them will make with the typey typey. That’s 100 media markets, son! A hundred different places where people will say, WalletHub? Never heard of it. Well, whatever, it’s a thing! It’s been the “Web’s Best Personal Finance Resource” since February 2012! It was in the paper!

It certainly seems to have worked like a charm here, prompting a raft of negative press for a city that probably needs not a drop more.

It’s not the first time that WalletHub has taken a shot at Newark, either. So far it’s declared the town the “Unhappiest City,” and among the worst in at least five other categories, including the worst city in which to start a business; the worst city for recreation; the second-worst city for retirees; and one of the 10 worst cities for Hispanic entrepreneurs.

Of course, it’s not WalletHub’s fault. They’re just doing what they do. You don’t resent the sun for shining.

A spokesperson for WalletHub told the Voice that the rankings, while they incorporated broad economic data, also included enough veteran-specific numbers to make the endeavor worthwhile. And to the company’s credit, it took the Voice’s calls and put up with our rather petulant questioning.

Unfortunately, that’s more than we can say for Newark mayor Ras Baraka’s office, or that of the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau. They weren’t answering their phones — not too surprising on a holiday — but they also seem to have their voicemail system turned off.

*Update 11/18/14: WalletHub took issue with some of our characterizations in this story, so we wanted to take a minute to address its concerns.

John Kiernan, senior editor at Evolution Finance, which owns WalletHub, didn’t appreciate that we described WalletHub as “some kind of financial-social-media-maker-of-surveys thingy.” WalletHub describes itself as a “social network,” not a “social media maker of surveys thingy.” It also identifies itself as a “one-stop destination for all the tools and information consumers and small-business owners need to make better financial decisions and save money,” and Kiernan sums it up as a “personal finance website.” So there’s that. You can view WalletHub’s FAQ here.

Kiernan also doesn’t like the fact that we said, in comparing the WalletHub and USAA rankings, that “many of the veteran-specific benchmarks the groups use are the same.” Kiernan contends that only two are the same. You can see each organization’s methodology here and here (the USAA page lists its methodology at the link that says “How We Chose Our 2014 Top Ten Places”), and you can see our own scientific analysis below.

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