Opinion: My worst-read columns of 2017


We journalists like to boast about how many clicks our stories get, or how our columns go viral. Fair enough, but today let me show off my clunkers.

These are pieces I wrote that nobody read. Well, not nobody. I read them. My mother did. And that’s about it. These weren’t necessary my actual worst columns — that’s just a clickbait headline — but they were among my worst read. These had an audience that was about 3 percent that of my best-read columns, and one troubling conclusion evident from a cursory look at my most-read and least-read columns is this: Trump sells, and overseas news doesn’t.

I’m not allowed to give raw numbers, which are proprietary, but I can say that on average my columns about President Donald Trump had readership more than twice that of my columns about foreign topics. The news industry, especially television networks, understands that anything about Trump draws an audience, while pieces about overseas crises involve an unfortunate trifecta: They are expensive to cover, sometimes dangerous to report, and often do poorly with audiences. I’m grateful to my editors for letting me spend their money on these global stories, and to my readers for sticking with me as I cover them.

Here are some of my worst-read columns of 2017. To read them, go to nytimes.com.

  • Kevin Cooper is on death row in California, but even a federal judge argues that he is probably innocent and was framed by police. He’s black; if he were white, this travesty would be much less likely. Gov. Jerry Brown should review the case.
  • One gauge of how China has become more repressive was its brutal treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo as he was dying. He was one of the people I admired most, and I wrote him an open letter; I don’t know if he was allowed to see it before he passed away. His brave widow, Liu Xia, remains in detention.
  • There was a video, not a column, looking at the disgraceful policy of sending Central American refugees back to risk death. I focused on a 14-year-old Honduran girl, Elena, who was forced into a relationship with a gang member when she was only 11. Elena personifies why refugees deserve protection.
  • Lots of people doubt whether humanitarian aid works. Fair enough; some doesn’t. But an inspiring example of how aid can be transformative involves a common deformity called clubfoot, in which one or both feet are turned upward. In Liberia on my win-a-trip journey, I showed how it can be easily fixed — preventing a child from ending up disabled and unable to go to school or hold a job.

  • Trump has attempted to starve diplomacy while feeding the military, and I argued that this is myopic and dangerous. Many of our threats can best be addressed, cheaply, by diplomacy and education, and I argued that the biggest security threat of all in recent years was Ebola — and we can’t bomb Ebola.

As noted, the common thread of these poorly read columns was, disconcertingly, a spotlight on injustice or humanitarian needs, and my Trump-related columns received incomparably greater readership. But I don’t entirely despair, for my two best-read columns of 2017 were about child marriage in America and about religious hypocrisy in opposing Obamacare, and both of those also have a social justice element.

Thanks to all of you for reading my columns in 2017 — well, most of my columns, even if you did leave a few to my mom and me — and let’s hope for a calm and peaceful 2018 that gives columnists nothing to rage about.

Writes for The New York Times.



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