What 2016’s Most Engaging Stories Tell Us About Journalism in 2017
2016 was an important year for journalism, no matter how you look at it. From Olympics and elections to Brexit and back, 2016 paved the way for both the challenges we face and the many opportunities journalists have to tell their stories in 2017. At Chartbeat, we sought to understand the year-just-past through the lens of engagement: Where did online readers choose to spend their time? We analyzed millions of stories and billions of pageviews to compile 2016’s Most Engaging Stories. The resulting list shows that the audience at large still has a strong appetite for quality content, especially when that content is tailored to their needs.
What did we uncover? Some clear trends that should inform the way we generate and publish content in this new year. No matter the topic, there are three things we should always be thinking about:
- Which form should this story take?
- Which traffic channel(s) should we target?
- How can we maximize the story’s shelf life in terms of audience attention?
Which Form Should This Story Take?
Perhaps shocking no one, interactive presentations, particularly around political topics, dominated the top of the list. In fact, 538’s Election Forecast racked up more engaged minutes that the top five stories on 2015’s list. The key takeaway here isn’t “make everything interactive.” It’s the clear marriage between political coverage and the need for data-driven reporting.
Longform stories are time-consuming and usually expensive to produce. So the things you do after publication can be as important as the things you do before. All it takes is a small hiccup in curation and you can lose the audience on a page — and a deep read is especially important with longform. Using metrics to find those stopping points and adjust the presentation can be the difference between engagement success and failure.
Which Traffic Channels Should We Target?
Social: These readers are drawn to content with an emotional flavor (see #32 on the list: “A sexual assault victim’s powerful message to her Stanford attacker,” a first-person narrative from the Washington Post). These readers didn’t seek out a particular piece of content, they discovered it while browsing social media and had a reaction to it. In covering a topic, find the human element to highlight — either with targeted content or simply in the way you present and promote your content on social. Also, pay attention to timing. Social audiences tend to be the most active from about 8 to 11 p.m.
Search: Search is a different matter altogether. These readers are actively seeking tactical, specific information (such as political trackers and live blogs, as we saw in our 2016 list). Providing unique information that gets straight to the point will attract search visitors. But beware: Outside of breaking news, these do not come in droves, they come in trickles that accumulate over time. Search-friendly content should be evergreen, so you can link to it time and time again to build a long-term audience.
For the second year running, The Atlantic shows that informative journalism doesn’t have to be a list or interactive. Last year, their take on the rise of ISIS topped the Chartbeat engagement list, strongly helped by frequent search surges after news events. This year “The Mind of Donald Trump,” a psychologist’s longform analysis, not only drew almost half of its engagement from search, it did so over the course of nearly eight months.
How Can We Maximize the Story’s Shelf Life?
The days of “publish and move on” are long behind us. Identifying your most engaging content and building a long-term strategy will pay dividends by the end of the year.
Let’s consider #46 on our list, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation.” The article saw a predictable surge of traffic at the time of publication. But it had a second life a few months later, seeing considerable engagement from both search and social. Without that resurgence and the slow burn that followed, this article may not have ranked on the list of engaging articles.
So, where does this all leave us as we prepare for a surely volatile 2017 media world? Channel and lifecycle management. Shift your content and your marketing as your audience changes and grows, not as reactive “give them whatever they want” but as a proactive “arming them with what they need.” Fortunately, it’s a formula that can be applied in any newsroom.
Jill Nicholson is the Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, where she trains journalists around the world on turning metrics into action. Before that, she was a long-time Chartbeat user -- curating a local news site in Westchester, NY. In her two years at Chartbeat, Jill has supplemented her newsroom experiences with best practices learned from the diverse organizations that Chartbeat serves.