The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg shares his thoughts on the year’s Most Engaging Article

In December, we released our annual list of the 100 Most Engaging Stories of the year, and it was filled with authentic and impactful stories that ranged from breaking news to longform portraits of the human experience.

In fact, the number one Most Engaging Story on the list came from The Atlantic, with “My Family’s Slave” – a longform, honest, confessional essay on the secret of late author Alex Tizon’s life: of growing up with his caretaker Lola, simultaneously a beloved mother figure and slave in his family home.

Chartbeat spoke to Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief, about this story, the others that made our Top 100 list, and how the state of reader engagement has changed in the past year.

Terri Walter, CMO of Chartbeat (TW): First of all, congratulations on publishing the most engaging story of the year. “My Family’s Slave” was a wonderful, authentic piece, and it drew massive readership. We’ve seen personal struggle storytelling top the list across the board this year. Is this a trend we should be watching closely?

Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic (JG): In a polarized political environment in which people reduce each other to caricatures, when a person like Alex Tizon comes along and tells a gloriously complicated human story, that story connects in remarkable ways.

People value story, people value great writing, people value true emotion.

When we published Alex Tizon’s piece, we were at the beginning of the Trump presidency, and Trump was seemingly the only thing on everyone’s minds. I had no idea that a tragic, very personal story by an esteemed but not particularly well-known writer would connect in such a dramatic way. But we learned that the marketplace still rewards quality. It’s a shocking, original story, and the reader understood that he was being honest.

TW: Can you tell me a little bit more about the reaction and the readership?

JG: We’ve never had more readers in the Philippines. I’m pleased that we can open up a subject for another country in ways that I would never expect – the miracle of the internet. This was the year in which Donald Trump became president and all of the related drama ensued, and yet “My Family’s Slave” was still the most engaging story – about anonymous people from another culture.

It really goes to illustrate the power of epic, human storytelling: Humans are most interesting when they’re most complicated.

It’s an extraordinarily specific story about a small group of Filipino-Americans, but I was watching this live on Chartbeat and I was sitting there with my mouth open trying to figure out what was going on. We were seeing 80-90K people reading the story at any given moment.

I was asking myself “why?” What was it about that story that moved people? And how do we make more stories like that?

We really believe in narrative and strong storytelling. What is it about that moment, about the story, about the writing, about the presentation, that made a very specific story incredibly universal? We’re honestly still trying to figure it out – what was the secret here? But when you marry a heartbreaking story to beautiful writing and put it in the marketplace, the marketplace rewards you. Readers know that this is something extraordinary.

TW: What about The Atlantic article that made the number 5 spot on the list – “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation” – how does that story fit into this dialogue?

JG: Universal anxieties are ripe subjects. Like any good publication, we’re here to understand the worries, hopes, and anxieties of our readers – and we’re here to identify them before people know they’re worries, hopes, and anxieties. The way technology disrupts everything – from parenting and work to democracy itself – is a huge subject for us.

The job of journalism is to explain why people think what they think and why they worry about what they worry about. It speaks to our universal anxieties.

In this piece, the writer gives voice to the anxiety of the reader. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t worry about this, but I had never read in one place such a great explanation of what I’m worried about.

TW: Do you think coverage has changed with the Trump administration?

JG: Everything is accelerated, we’re doing so much more. We’re living in a novel period that we’ve never experienced, and it only follows that readers want authoritative, well-reported, accurate guidance on what’s going on in the world.

It’s a merciless atmosphere for journalists, and first and foremost we have to be accurate and we have to be fair. There’s no forgiveness. But this is what the Atlantic was made for. We were founded at a moment of national fracturing. In its DNA it’s meant to grapple with the biggest questions of the American identity and the American idea, and I think that magazines should listen to their DNA.

Read Alex Tizon’s piece “My Family’s Slave” here, and see what else made the list of Most Engaging Stories of 2017 here.

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