B Y ONE MEASURE the covid-19 pandemic is the biggest story of the past 75 years. In 2020 nearly half of articles in The Economist mentioned it, the highest share for a single subject since the second world war. This year news consumers' attention shifted to a wider array of issues. Yet according to Chartbeat, a firm that measures online readership, covid still held the public's interest more steadily than any other topic.
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Chartbeat tracks how many hours audiences spend on each story published by 7,000 news sites, mostly in English-speaking countries. We have calculated the total reading time for articles covering 45 events in 2021. Whereas interest in other topics tended to surge and fade, covid commanded constant attention. Stories about vaccines amassed 43m of the 275m total hours; those on the leading variants of the SARS – C o V -2 virus got a further 27m.
The only subject whose total readership rivalled covid's was America's presidential transition. It yielded three spikes in interest, set off by the riot at the Capitol building, Joe Biden's inauguration and Donald Trump's second impeachment. They combined for 60m hours in January and February, which was by far the highest peak.
Beyond these events, audiences spread their attention broadly. One other political story, America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, gripped readers in August. In less weighty matters, audiences lapped up articles about sporting events like the Tokyo Olympics, football tournaments and the victory of Emma Raducanu, a British tennis player, in the US Open. They also found respite in stories on Oprah Winfrey's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the end of Britney Spears's conservatorship and Daniel Craig's final James Bond film. ■
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “If it spreads, it's read”
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