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Opinion Readers spent 110 years with Atlantic’s feature on family slave

Here’s the media industry’s reader-engagement statistic of the year: According to web-metric firm Chartbeat, readers spent 57,949,110 minutes with The Atlantic’s remarkable feature by Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave,” regarding the life story of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, or “Lola,” as she was known in Tizon’s world. There are about 525,600 minutes in a year, which gets you to a total reader engagement figure of 110 years.*

“It blew away all of the Chartbeat records,” says Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg. But the high-minded Atlantic doesn’t much care about metrics, does it? “Sure, I care,” responds Goldberg, whose magazine had seven stories in the Chartbeat top 100. “I mean, it’s in some ways more important than prizes. This is actual data showing how many minutes readers around the world engaged in our stories.”

“My Family’s Slave” recorded three times the amount of reader engagement of the second story on the rankings — ESPN’s “I Just Wanted To Survive,” about the abduction and torture of a college football player and a friend. And the engagement figures don’t count the plume of think-pieces that derived from “My Family’s Slave.” “It proves that there remains a large audience for complicated, well-produced stories,” says Goldberg. The other pieces in Chartbeat’s top five include a New York Times piece on the Las Vegas shooting, a CNN piece on the Las Vegas shooting and another Atlantic feature: “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” One caveat: The statistics don’t include non-clients of Chartbeat such as Buzzfeed, Huff Post, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

Where in the world was President Trump? Actually, he’s represented amply through the balance of the list, with multiple Trump-related investigative and news pieces by The Washington Post, the New York Times and other news outlets scoring well on the reader-engagement front. A new form of journalism altogether — the satiro-investigative-opinion-enterprise story — secured nearly 6 million minutes of engagement under the byline of Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post opinions section with the headline, “The true, correct story of what happened at Donald Trump’s inauguration.”

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Another notable Trump entry: “Excerpts From Trump’s Conversation With Journalists on Air Force One.” That’s No. 89 on the list, and it features some remarkable thoughts from the president, including these riffs on his border-wall idea:

One of the things with the wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it. In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.
And I’ll give you an example. As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.

The ratings-obsessed president might make note of his appearance on Chartbeat’s top 100. You can just hear the talking point: My words, alone, engage readers like nothing you’ve ever seen.

“My Family’s Slave” runs laps around the field because it’s a unique and stunning thing. Over the course of a long narrative, Tizon talks of how his family moved from the Phillipines to the United States and managed to enslave Lola over the course of nearly six decades. Why did the Erik Wemple Blog speed-read the whole affair without getting distracted by Twitter? Because of the lead paragraph:

The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.

From there, a complex story of shame and expiation spilled forth. Details abounded, as in this passage about the family’s treatment of Lola:

In the old country, my parents felt no need to hide their treatment of Lola. In America, they treated her worse but took pains to conceal it. When guests came over, my parents would either ignore her or, if questioned, lie and quickly change the subject. For five years in North Seattle, we lived across the street from the Misslers, a rambunctious family of eight who introduced us to things like mustard, salmon fishing, and mowing the lawn. Football on TV. Yelling during football. Lola would come out to serve food and drinks during games, and my parents would smile and thank her before she quickly disappeared. “Who’s that little lady you keep in the kitchen?,” Big Jim, the Missler patriarch, once asked. A relative from back home, Dad said. Very shy.

Alex Tizon, the author, died as the story was in editing. As Goldberg told this blog, Tizon “always said that within every person, no matter that station in life, is an epic story.” With all respect to the late Tizon, we’d have to disagree with this generality. Nothing in the Erik Wemple Blog’s youth in upstate New York or adulthood behind desks in Washington — for example — can equal the epic-ness of “My Family’s Slave.” This was an exceptional situation — the sort of story that never gets told at all.

Such was nearly the case here. “From a strictly technical standpoint, when the writer of a complicated article dies midway through the edit and the family wants you to continue publishing the story, you are presented with particularly difficult challenges as editors,” says Goldberg.

When the editor of “My Family’s Slave” emailed Tizon to alert him that the story had been chosen for the magazine’s cover, she never heard back.

Updated to include caveat about sites whose work isn’t included in the analysis.

*Correction: Post originally indicated incorrectly that the Atlantic’s story clocked “the highest reading time since Chartbeat has been tracking such things.”