January 24, 2017

Chartbeat has released its second annual ranking of the best-read digital stories of the year, as measured by engaged time, among 46 million client articles it tracked during 2016.

Politics dominated, no surprise. And the top of them all was a 2016 presidential election forecast by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

In fact, Silver’s interactive opus registered more engaged time than the top five stories of 2015.

The winner that year was The Atlantic’s longform “What ISIS Really Wants,” which received huge attention when it was published in April 2015 and again after the Paris terrorist attack that November.

Silver’s chosen format helped run up those big numbers — the URL stayed the same as the forecast was updated periodically over a period of a couple of months.

Ironically, Silver’s popular forecast backed the wrong horse (Hillary Clinton).  He has argued in subsequent articles that the result fell within the margin of error for polls and other data in swing states and that many other forecasts put Clinton’s odds of victory higher.

The second most popular story of the year, by Chartbeat’s measure, was the BBC’s Brexit blog.

The analytics’ firm found that political stories, interactives and breaking news were present in many other highly ranked stories as well as the top two.

Fox News election night coverage scored high, as did CNN accounts of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings and the fatal gator attack on a 2-year-old boy at Disney World.

Longform did not do as well this year as last, but ESPN’s profile of Tiger Woods after his father’s death (#15), Politico’s reconstruction of 9/11 aboard President Bush’s plane (#17) and Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview/profile of El Chapo (#21) were in the top 25.

Chartbeat noted that opinion pieces and stories about justice and rights were among the best-read, especially those told from a first-person perspective. Case in point a Stanford student’s letter to her assailant (#28), published by the Washington Post.

The entire list of 102 engaging stories makes for an entertaining skim for news junkies. A few that I noticed:

  • The top-rated traditional newspaper story (#14) was the Washington Post David Fahrenthold’s scoop on Trump’s 2005 comments about groping women. The Post also scored (#28) with the tale of a woman who “crashed her own funeral” after her husband tried to order a hit on her.
  • Trump’s sexual conduct was also grist for attention at The New York Times, whose best read story (#25) was a takeout on how Trump has treated women in private during his beauty pageant and TV years.
  • Offbeat and clickbaity stories were not especially competitive, but a few were represented in the top 50: “10 things I wish I knew when I started Pokemon Go” (Forbes) and “21 baby names voted the worst so far of 2016.” (The Stir)

The rankings, as noted above, are based on data about Chartbeat’s client base, which includes 50,000 sites.  But that leaves out some popular non-client sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, which might have placed stories on the list.

Chartbeat is hosting a 1 p.m. Friday Twitter chat to discuss the results and implications for journalists who want to make their own stories engaging.

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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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