Although fundamentally American, Chartbeat’s list of “most engaging” stories is a record of our changing times and a reminder of how much can happen in just 12 months.
Compiled to December 17, the list records the inevitable COVID-19 and Trump stories, but also the human stories that captured attention during 2021.
And as the Chartbeat team say, it’s “as always, a tribute to the incredible journalism that captivated readers over the course of the year… another opportunity to tip our caps to all the journalists who continue to keep us informed and engaged despite the obstacles presented by the ongoing pandemic”.
The format returns to celebrating the most engaging narrative reporting, whereas last year’s had focussed also on live blogs and infographics. “Where the list does remain the same is in the two dominant themes of politics and COVID-19,” they say.
The story with the most “total engaged minutes” this year – the Washington Post’s ‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favour – “speaks not only to the density of political stories on this year’s list, but the way in which news that broke at the end of 2020 continued to develop well into the first quarter of 2021.
“Our second most engaging story, Comparing the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, previews how much attention the evolving public health situation commanded for the second year in a row.”
Chartbeat says the list is not only for the stories that couldn’t be ignored but also the stories that would have gone unnoticed if not for the work of the journalists who brought it to light. Here’s all that and more from the past year.
Chartbeat’s Top 10 Most Engaging Stories of 2021
1: The Washington Post | ‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favor
2: STAT | Comparing the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson
3: Politico | We feel incredibly betrayed’: Thousands of Guardsmen forced to vacate Capitol
4: BBC | We found a baby on the subway – now he’s our son5:
5: Politico | Trump went ‘ballistic’ after being tossed off Twitter
6: CNN | Trump’s last-minute pardons include Bannon, Lil Wayne and scores of others
7: CNN | A timeline of 22-year-old Gabby Petito’s case
8: Politico | A New Darkness Falls on the Trump Movement
9: The New York Times | Pence Reached His Limit With Trump. It Wasn’t Pretty.
10: CNN | US Capitol secured, 4 dead after rioters stormed the halls of Congress to block Biden’s win
The topics that received the most engagement
Storylines and figures that factored prominently in 2020’s list found plenty of engagement in 2021 as well. Between coverage of the January 6 insurrection, the transfer of power after the U.S. presidential election, and vaccine news, our data analysis shows:
Readers engaged with political themes for over 12 billion minutes
COVID-19 content saw an average of nearly 22 million minutes of engaged time each day
This carryover effect from 2020 made January the most engaging month of the year with 4 billion more minutes of engaged time than the next closest month. Throughout the rest of the year, the pandemic’s grip on engagement showed that despite weariness with the real-life ramifications of the situation, engagement remains high when important health information needs to be conveyed. It’s no wonder that “vaccine” was Merriam-Webster’s 2021 Word of the Year.
Violence and unrest
From the Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie search to the tragedy on set with Alec Baldwin to gun violence in Boulder, Indianapolis, and Kenosha, breaking news around guns and violence continued to attract readers who couldn’t look away.
It wasn’t all grave. Among the barrage of breaking news, stories of ordinary people showing incredible strength and resilience also found plenty of readers. The fourth most engaging story of the year is We found a baby on the subway – now he’s our son. Further down the list, San Francisco Giants outfielder Drew Robinson’s remarkable second act and Nil-by-mouth foodie: The chef who will never eat again also reinforce the timeless notion that thoughtfully reported human interest pieces will always resonate with readers despite what else is in the news.
How the most engaging stories were determined
The quantitative factors
Chartbeat’s Data Science team analysed 33 million pieces of content published in 2021, representing 368 billion minutes of Engaged Time. The top 1,000 articles were then sorted by Total Engaged Minutes*, individually reviewed and categorized, and narrowed down to 110 stories based on a series of qualitative criteria we outline below.
How Total Engaged Time was calculated
Total Engaged Time is the total amount of time visitors spent actively reading and interacting on pages.
The qualitative factors
Chartbeat assembled a cross-functional team of readers and curators from inside the company – many of whom have a journalistic or editorial background – to determine the criteria for this year’s list. Beyond Total Engaged Minutes, we wanted to ensure that the list celebrated original reporting. More difficult to determine was the criteria for stories that did not make the list, including:
Live blog coverage that assembled content in excess of 48 hours and multiple news cycles
Republished transcripts or collections of uploaded documents without original reporting
Listicles comprised primarily of social media reposts or images
Sports scores, box scores, and individual league rankings
Quizzes and interactives that do not contain reporting and/or are continually updated throughout the year.
–with thanks to Chartbeat