The best read story of 2017? It's The Atlantic's 'My Family's Slave'
Chartbeat has released its third annual ranking of the 100 best read digital articles of the year among its clients as measured by total engaged time. The winner by a wide margin was Alex Tizon's Atlantic cover story on the life of a family servant who was, in fact, a slave.
"My Family's Slave" received nearly 58,000,000 minutes of engaged time, more than triple the next highest piece — an ESPN account of the kidnapping of a football player.
Tizon's story was unusual in several respects. The Filipino-American writer traces how "Lola" followed his immigrant parents to the United States. It recounts his shame as he realized the arrangement and concealed it as he grew up, and later, as an adult, provided for Lola in her old age.
It's a very personal and even confessional piece. After the article was completed but before it was published, Tizon, 57, died suddenly of natural causes.
“People value story, great writing and honest emotion,” The Atlantic's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, said in a press release. “When we published Alex Tizon's piece, we were at the beginning of the Trump presidency, and Trump was seemingly the only thing on everyone's minds. I had no idea that a tragic, very personal story by an esteemed but not particularly well-known writer would connect in such a dramatic way. But we learned that the marketplace still rewards quality.”
Among the rest of the top 10 stories, the New York Times dominated with five of them. The Times account of the stash of weapons found in the Las Vegas gunman's hotel room was ranked third. Its initial expose of Harvey Weinstein's sexual predator practices was seventh, and "You May Want to Marry My Husband," a Sunday Modern Love piece by a dying woman, was eighth. Others were pictures from women's marches around the world and a Dan Barry feature on lost children in Ireland.
Though Chartbeat covered 39 million articles on 50,000 sites, including the BBC and CNN, there are non-clients whose engaged time is not considered — among them Buzzfeed, Huff Post, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.
The New Yorker has published its own list of best read pieces for the year, also ranked by total engaged time. Ronan Farrow's Weinstein expose was top ranked, and his followup on Weinstein's use of investigators against victims and journalists was third. Ryan Lizza's late night call from a profane Anthony Scaramucci was second. (Lizza has subsequently been fired over sexual misconduct allegations.)
The site does not disclose engagement numbers, but Michael Luo, editor of newyorker.com, told me that four of their stories would have placed in the top 20 of the list.
Chartbeat's commentary on the list notes that, as in previous years, intensely personal stories or those pegged to the biggest news events get the greatest attention.
The metrics firm (along with competitor Parse.ly) has long advocated for engaged time as a supplementary and perhaps better metric than unique visitors and page views, still favored by advertisers.
And 2017 has seen growing industry acceptance of the idea that the best of reporting and writing, together with strong connection to the target audience, will serve sites much better than volume of articles and video or click bait.
Politics, surprisingly, did not crack the top 10 this year. The top political story (No. 11) was a Maggie Haberman/Glenn Thrush New York Times piece, "Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles." The Washington Post's best-rated (No. 14) was leaked transcripts of Trump's calls to Mexican and Australian leaders. The Los Angeles Times editorial, "Our Dishonest President," was 51st.
Another genre that did well were stories on the impacts of technology with such titles as "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" (The Atlantic) and "Neuralink and the Brain's Magical Future" (Wait But Why).
The results are discussed in more detail on Chartbeat's blog.