December 21, 2021

Chartbeat’s seventh annual list of the best-read digital stories of the year (as measured by engaged minutes among its clients) was released Tuesday. The winner: a Washington Post scoop as it obtained the transcript of a threatening call President Donald Trump made to the secretary of state of Georgia asking that he recalculate the vote.

National political reporter Amy Gardner published the transcript Jan. 3 that shows the president berating and hinting at possible criminal prosecution of Brad Raffensperger, who had certified a win by 11,000 votes for Joe Biden in the November 2020 presidential election.

The invasion of the Capitol three days later and retrospectives on the riot also were heavily represented in Chartbeat’s and other top story compilations.

Four more of the top 10 were related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and stories about Trump’s last-minute pardons and anger at being thrown off Twitter also made the list.

The highest-ranking story about President Biden and his return-to-normalcy administration ranked 52nd.

Collectively, stories Chartbeat measures recorded engaged time for readers of 368,576,654,888 minutes, down about 12% from 2020.

John Saroff, CEO of Chartbeat, commented by email: “I am in awe of (the) daily commitment to inform, engage, and inspire readers on both topics of global importance like the 2020 U.S. election and the COVID-19 pandemic and the more personal stories that connect us as humans.”

The New Yorker does its own top 25 list (based on visits that lead to subscriptions). Contributing writer Luke Mogelson finished first and second — first for his account of the siege, “Among the Insurrectionists” and second for video of the event he shot with his cellphone.

Digital editor Michael Luo wrote: “Even though he vacated the White House on January 20th, the forty-fifth President has continued to command readers’ attention: nine articles on the list––including three each by Jane Mayer and by Ronan Farrow––are about his disastrous Presidency, the January 6th insurrection, or his election lies.”

COVID-19 did not match the level of interest Trump generated but was represented. Second on Chartbeat’s list was a story, revised through the year by Stat infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell, comparing the three main vaccines.

New York Magazine’s best-read story was by the novelist Nicholson Baker on the lab leak theory of how the COVID-19 pandemic originated.

However, New York’s list also provided examples of the offbeat stories that capture reader interest and pop up on these lists. The second most popular was a “roommate from hell” saga of an apartment share with a stranger who refused to leave. Fourth was a piece from New York’s Curbed site about a woman who found a hidden apartment behind her bathroom mirror.

Fourth on the Chartbeat list was a BBC story headlined, “We found a baby on the subway — now he’s our son.”

Also, for better or worse, breaking news of the “missing white woman” tragedy of Gabby Petito (ultimately found dead in Wyoming) was the subject of three of Chartbeat’s top 25 best-read stories.

Chartbeat’s list has the limitation that it only measures engaged time among its own client list, lengthy but not all-encompassing. It also favors free sites like CNN’s — though The Washington Post and The New York Times have broad enough reach that their stories can be among the best read.

By contrast, The Atlantic had the best-read story three of the first five years of the survey. Since it put much of its content behind a paywall, its site has dropped off by Chartbeat’s measure.

Chartbeat, widely used at news outlets for real-time internal measures of how stories perform, has emphasized engaged metrics as a truer measure of engagement than unique visits or page views (though those remain favored by advertisers).

At the same time, engaged minutes can favor certain formats such as Branswell’s regularly updated vaccines pieces. I thought that one reason for the success of the Washington Post story about Trump and Georgia might be that readers could link to the audio of the hourlong call — but the measure was just of reading time.

This year, I checked out two other lists, including Pocket’s, the app that facilitates saving a story for future reading. The most saved piece was by Wharton professor and management consultant Adam Grant in The New York Times, “There’s a name for that blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishing.”

In print, Grant’s story ran inconspicuously inside the weekly Science Times section. But, of course, this is a digital measure, so social media recommendations of the highly relatable story about the malaise brought on by sheltering picked up wide circulation that way.

Farah Miller, editorial director of the Well section of the Times, emailed me: “Our desk knew we had a hit on our hands from the moment we heard the word ‘languishing.’” That came early in the process in discussions with Grant about what he might write. All that was left to do, Miller added, was to be sure he offered “some solutions, an ‘Rx for languishing …’ — because we knew everyone was feeling this way and wanted to help.”

Mogelson’s Jan. 6 account did make the Pocket top 10 list but the app’s user base gravitates more to self-help topics such as “How to talk with people you disagree with” and “How fit can you get from just walking.”

A couple kiss in front of a barricade set by demonstrators during clashes with police following a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasél in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The Associated Press publishes a compilation of top photos of the year. Coronavirus stories are not photogenic but the most stunning of the collection (destined to become iconic I would guess) is the inside view from the House chamber on Jan. 6 showing officers, guns drawn toward a broken window.

Also on the AP photo list were fires — wildfires in the West and a picture of a couple in Barcelona silhouetted against a barricade set on fire by protesters.

In his essay on top stories, New Yorker digital editor Luo comments that “the year has had a suspended quality” with frightening right-wing politics and the pandemic lingering.

Unfortunately, that looks sure to continue into 2022. Investigations and prosecutions of Jan. 6 together with a threat of another disputed election in 2024 have not gone away. Nor, with omicron, has the news cycle yet wound down for the coronavirus and the extreme stress of living with it.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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