Tech & society

What do the most popular news stories for 2014 say about us?

There were some awfully big news stories in 2014: Cuba, Ebola, Ferguson, ISIS, Malaysian Airlines, mid-term U.S. elections, Russia/Ukraine/Crimea, Sony/Korea, and the Winter Olympics. We landed a robot on a comet. High profile celebrities died (Philip Hoffman, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams).

So what can we learn from this New York Times list of most visited digital content? Where the top five stories have nothing to do with world events or even strife but are, instead, classic human interest stories?

  1. Forty portraits in forty years (Oct 13, 2014)
  2. An open letter from Dylan Farrow (Feb 1, 2014)
  3. How y’all, youse and you guys talk (Dec 21, 2013)
  4. Philip Seymore Hoffman, actor of depth, dies at 46 (Feb 2, 2014)
  5. The 52 places to go in 2014 (Jan 10, 2014)
most popular NYTimes content
The most popular digital stories on the NY Times site, 2014

First, there’s a clear difference between major events and features

In the blog post announcing the list, the New York Times notes that it offered extensive coverage of major stories like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the Ebola outbreak fears in the U.S.

But the “big news” story is the exception in this list; the most read stories are human interest 0r explainers.

There are only five stories that I would classify as a traditional “news” story — something extraordinary, breaking news: two celebrity deaths, one suicide bomber death, a local doctor diagnosed with Ebola, and results of the Michael Brown autopsy. There are two explainers: Ebola and Ukraine.

Everything else (13 stories) is, in one form or another, entertainment.

If ever there was an illustration of the importance of “soft news and entertainment” as a subsidy vehicle for “hard news” this might be it. Ditto our need and appreciation for “explainers” — stories that put today’s news or ongoing stories into context. (Note: this is my largest and most persistent heartache with journalism in the age of digital content/linkages and unconstrained — for the publisher — time/space.)

Second, the gulf between “most clicks” and analyses of what is “most talked about” is enormous

There are many ways to peak inside Internet conversations to see what people are interested in. Twitter, Facebook and Google provide a perspective that is very different from the NY Times.

No top-10 list from Twitter. Instead, scroll through a by-the-month infographic that shows relative importance of a story or hashtag by its bubble size.

Twitter moments Feb 2014
Snapshot of February 2014 in Twitter moments

This list of important moments on Twitter is, like the infographic, arranged in chronological order; it is based on my interpretation of bubble sizes and is not intended to be definitive. Data are from the Twitter blog post announcement.

There’s a mix news and entertainment, of domestic and global. But the most retweeted tweet? That would be entertainment (not without controversy):


The entire timeline is worth exploring but you can also focus on news and politics.

Over on Facebook, the FIFA World Cup was number one, driving “more conversation than any other event in Facebook history.” Conversation not defined in the report.

  1. FIFA World Cup
  2. Ebola outbreak
  3. Elections in Brazil
  4. Robin Williams
  5. Ice bucket challenge
  6. Conflict in Gaza
  7. Malaysia Airlines
  8. Super Bowl
  9. Michael Brown/Ferguson
  10. Sochi (Winter) Olympics

On Google, our number one search for the year was “Robin Williams.” Our top “news” search was Ebola.

Google trends 2014
Google search and news trends for 2014

This compare-search-terms trend analysis from Google suggests how difficult trends can be to tease out of millions – billions – of searches.

Google search term comparison
Google search term comparison shows the complexity of teasing out trends

I’ve added a more general search term to the very specific (mh370 lost/found) terms Google linked to in its year-end countdown. Important note: the methodology used to create all of these lists is opaque.

Echelon Insights, a consulting group led by two GOP strategists, produced this chart of Twitter conversations for 2014 (pdf). The landscape looks very different, contextually, from the NY Times page-view data.

In part, that’s because this is an insight into the psyche of a sub-set of people who use Twitter.

For this sub-set of Twitter accounts, Echelon said, “the intertwined cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner” was the top story of the year. Note that the data are from 185 million tweets; Twitter reports there are 500 million tweets per day. So this analysis is based on less than 50% of the tweets made on one day.

This is not “what America talked about” on Twitter in 2014. But it is an interesting analysis of what about 2,900 politically-minded people talked about.

Twitter news topics for 2014
Twitter news topics for 2014, per Echelon Insights


A bit about their methodology, which makes clear that they are looking at a subset of Twitter accounts and not in a manner that strives to be statistically representative:

Through a process we call Optimized Listening, we build highly tailored lists of Twitter accounts and listen to all their public tweets, rating each group’s relative interest in different news stories, cultural trends, or political leaders. To analyze the year in news, we started with political insiders (a Beltway-centric list of influencers), and highly-followed conservative and liberal activists.

Take-aways for news organizations

First, take year-end reports like these with a grain of salt. It’s practically impossible to compare reports directly, because the platforms have different customer bases and we don’t know how they developed their lists.

Second, move your business focus from individual articles to The Story. That’s what you’ll see in the FB/Google/Twitter analyses. We care about the big stories even if we don’t read (or watch) each and every one.

Third, take a page from the pre-Internet magazine world: provide in-depth features that put today’s headlines in context. And figure out how to do that by telling a human-centered — not ideas or data — story.



By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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