The best read digital story of 2018 was CNN’s obituary for Anthony Bourdain

December 18, 2018
Category: Business & Work

In a another year of explosive Trump and #MeToo news, the best read digital story of 2018 had nothing to do with either.  

Rather, according to Chartbeat’s fourth annual tabulation of engaged minutes among its clients, the top story was CNN’s obituary and tribute to popular host Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life in June.

Also in the top five on the list released Tuesday:

CNN’s Bourdain story, assembled with input from a group of reporters, was written by Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent and host of the network’s “Reliable Sources” talk show.

To my reading, the article professionally reports the when and where of Bourdain’s suicide without dwelling on details; recounts the biographical tale of how he happened, somewhat accidentally, into his broadcasting career; and includes tributes to his unique style and adventurous spirit. All in all, a splendid and appropriate piece of work, it recorded 29 million engaged minutes.

CNN.com supplemented the main story with a video including clips in Bourdain’s voice and another page where fans could post their own tributes.

Mitra Kalita, senior vice president of CNN digital programing (and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board), offered a similar take by email:

“Anthony’s obituary started out as breaking news and quickly earned its place to be much more. By that I mean we initially reported the death in a straight news write but by mid-morning we knew we had to pivot to offer our audience two things – a more beautiful picture of Bourdain’s life AND a mourning spot for his fans everywhere. CNN’s website turned into that place. This obit, masterfully written and iterated by Brian Stelter, literally and metaphorically anchored us on that heartbreaking day.”

Chartbeat has a wide client base and analyzes 60 million separate pieces of content to compile the list, but by no means covers all publications that produce heavily trafficked sites and blockbuster stories. Chartbeat and competitor analytics service, Parsely, measures active engaged time as minutes spent scrolling through text (as opposed to leaving the article open in a browser while the user turns to something else).

With both real-time traffic measures and analysis of what kinds of stories do well or do poorly in attracting audience over the course of a week or month, the two services have become influential. They shape content on newspaper, magazine and digital-only sites and influence the wording of headlines and social media promotion.  

Unique visitors and page views still sell ads, but engagement matters to buyers of  digital subs — and to those advertisers who will pay a premium for the best display environment.

The top engagement list can be read for guidance, even by those editing or writing for much smaller sites. As in years past, many of the pieces that do best focus on “deeply investigated and deeply personal stories of human struggle,” as Chartbeat’s release of the list puts it.

Each year I also see sites on the list I had never heard of. Take for example, Love What Matters, a collection  of reader-submitted inspiring stories, which placed two top engaged stories in the first 100 — work competitive with that of giants like BBC, CNN and The New York Times.

Publications that are not clients of Chartbeat have the option of listing their own most-read stories as measured by engaged time. Newyorker.com has done so for a number of years. The 2018 25 most-read list, together with editor Michael Luo’s commentary, was published December 14.

Its top piece this year: an investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh by Ronan Farrow and Jane Meyer, in which Yale classmates alleged drunken and offensive behavior by the then-Supreme Court nominee while he was in college. It landed Sunday night of the week of Kavanaugh’s dual Senate hearing with accuser Christine Blasey Ford.

As Luo told me when I profiled the site earlier this year, breaking news like the Kavanagh story and quick takes playing off events of the day never appear in the print magazine (though the site does run nearly everything from the current issue over the course of a week).

The New Yorker list underscores trends similar to Chartbeat’s. Four more of Ronan Farrow’s sex abuse stories (some written with Mayer) made the 25 most-read list. Other heavy-duty pieces did well: “What does it mean to die?” by Rachel Aviv (No. 2) and fiction writer Junot Diaz’s recollection of his own childhood abuse (No. 3).  

Celebrity pieces, not the first genre you would associate with The New Yorker, also did well as on Chartbeat. Luo compiled a short list of archived stories with enough traffic to have be in the top 25 were it broadened to include older stories as well as those published in 2018.

Top of that group was a 1999 article by Bourdain, “Don’t eat before reading this,” an insider exposé of unfresh fish and financial pressures in the restaurant business from his years as a chef. The New Yorker’s own tribute to Bourdain by Helen Rosser was 25th on the 2018 list.

The Chartbeat list provides a snapshot of which publications are generating stories with particularly strong audience appeal. This was a great year for New York Magazine, with nine among the top 120 and three in the top 10 — same as The New York Times.

I have one reservation about such lists: They tend to reward very long pieces,  though, of course, only ones attracting readers who stay all the way to the end or at least go deep before exiting. It’s mid-December, and lately I have been seeing any number of door stoppers, wrestled into publishable form in time to qualify for next spring’s Pulitzers.

Huge investigations and gripping narratives (like 2017 top Chartbeat story. “My Family’s Slave” in the Atlantic) merit the extended digital and print space. But the story editor in me wants to take a scalpel or an axe to others.

Speaking of Pulitzers, I do think they are rightly considered journalism’s highest honor, and the Pulitzer Board has generally stayed up to date on non-newspaper organizations and formats that can qualify for consideration. Beyond awarding the coveted honor, why not an annual recognition of extraordinary and important work? Especially when journalists are being trashed by President Trump and his followers.

I wouldn’t argue that these most-read lists should be seen as co-equal to the Pulitzers. But neither is it inconsequential what readers, as opposed to distinguished judges, collectively determine is most worth their time and close attention.

Correction: An earlier version of this story got Brett Kavanaugh’s first name wrong. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.