Monday, Dec. 24, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Good thing my mother is a loyal Times subscriber. She was just about the only reader of some of my columns this year.
Well, yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But while some people like to showcase their greatest hits, at the end of every year I like to offer my list of Greatest Duds. These were columns that, yawn, sent readers away in droves.
My No. 1 Dud was a column called “#MeToo Goes Global,” about the need to address sexual violence not just in the U.S. but all over in the world. In part of Papua New Guinea, I noted, 62 percent of men acknowledged having raped a woman. And worldwide, an underage girl is married somewhere every three seconds.
Sigh. A reader somewhere in the world clicked away from my column every two seconds.
My No. 2 Dud was about the importance of bringing human rights, not just nuclear weapons, to the negotiations with North Korea. After all, North Korea is repressive like no other country in the world today: Did you know that triplets are seized from parents and raised by the state, because they are considered auspicious? We could at least use our intelligence community’s satellites to highlight some of the prison camps there and raise the cost of human rights violations. Still, the column disappeared without a ripple.
My No. 3 Dud was a call to invest more in global education, noting that for one-half of 1 percent of global military spending, we could achieve universal global literacy. Yet aid for education has been falling since 2010, and in poor countries, schools are often dysfunctional. In Mozambique, 0.3 percent of teachers have the minimum knowledge necessary to teach, according to the World Bank.
I told the story through a village school I encountered on my annual “win a trip” journey in Central African Republic. Some of the students have no pen or paper, and there are no desks, but the students were actually learning French and geometry — because they understood the power of education. I found it inspiring; my readers found it skippable.
Another flop was a September column about the disaster unfolding in Yemen, “Be Outraged by America’s Role in Yemen’s Misery.” That was before Jamal Khashoggi’s murder heightened interest in the U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen, and few people read it.
A common thread, as you can see, is that international columns don’t get much of an audience, particularly if they aren’t about issues in the news and don’t relate to President Donald Trump. (Note that I have metrics only for online readership; we don’t really know whether a column is read in print, or simply ends up at the bottom of the bird cage.)
Human rights and humanitarian topics often do particularly poorly by digital metrics, and this affects the decisions news organizations make about what to cover. Central African Republic is a humanitarian catastrophe, but one reason it doesn’t get much coverage is that it’s expensive and dangerous to cover — and then readers or viewers turn the page or switch the channel.
Fortunately, the Times is still committed to such stories, as are some other journalists and news organization. Bravo, for example, to the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who did extraordinary reporting on the killings of Rohingya in Myanmar — and as a result have now been imprisoned for more than a year. But these are tough stories to get an audience for. There’s a reason that CNN, MSNBC and Fox are not all over the Central African Republic crisis, Yemen starvation and global violence against women.
Periodically when I give a talk, someone in the audience will come up afterward and say something like, “More journalists should cover these stories!” Well, the challenge is that if they did, even more news organizations would be going broke.
We in the news media haven’t figured out a good business model to pay for coverage of global stories that are important but don’t have a large natural audience. Philanthropy, through organizations like the Pulitzer Center, may be part of the answer.
On the domestic front, I wrote a column in May about my investigation into the case of a man in California named Kevin Cooper who I believe was framed for murder by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office. That May column was a hit, but two follow-ups about Cooper were also among my year’s worst read.
I’m still hoping for yet another follow-up piece: a governor brave enough to allow new DNA testing that might prove Cooper innocent and show who really did commit the murders.
The column I was perhaps proudest of in 2018 did poorly, although not disastrously: A few people read it besides my mom. It was a report from Rohingya villages that I sneaked into in Myanmar to recount “A Genocide in Slow Motion.”
As for my columns at the other end of the spectrum, the most read, they were a mixed bag. One was about Trump’s missteps on North Korea, one about child marriage remaining widespread in America, and several about guns and the NRA.
In any case, thanks for bearing with me in 2018 and letting me use my op-ed real estate to inflict on you topics that I care deeply about, even if perhaps you don’t. And, of course, this column is, as you’ve noticed, a chance to double down and direct you toward them again. So, go on now.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.