What Does It Take To Have The ‘Most Read’ Story Of The Year?

You don’t need to be famous or have a massive platform. You just need to do what Alex Tizon did

Janice Harayda
6 min readMay 2, 2022


Alex Tizon / Credit: University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication

There’s going viral — and then there’s what happened to Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” after it appeared in The Atlantic in 2017.

The story soon became “the most read, the most commented on, and the most forwarded piece in the magazine’s internet-era history,” the journalism teacher Sam Howe Verhovek writes in his introduction to Invisible People, a collection of Tizon’s articles. He adds:

“Remarkably, according to Chartbeat’s annual ranking of the one hundred most popular digital articles, it also became the most read English-language article on the Internet for all of 2017, consuming 58 million minutes of readers’ time — more than triple the combined reading time for the next most read piece.”

“My Family’s Slave” won a National Magazine Award, the highest honor in its field, and it achieved all of its distinctions without using a clickbait headline, BuzzFeed–style lists, or other devices that — writers are regularly told — lead to such impressive results.

How did it happen?

Atlantic cover showing Lola and a photo from “My Family’s Slave” showing her as a young woman / Fair Use

Everyone has an ‘epic story’ to tell

Tizon died, at the age of 57, before his article came out, and his explanation for the high altitude of his story is lost to history.

No doubt his stellar reporting helped — Tizon had won a Pulitzer Prize at the Seattle Times — as did spending a year working with an Atlantic editor on the article. “My Family’s Slave” is, in journalism parlance, a “reported essay”: It melds an essay with deeper reporting than is usual for the form. A reported essay requires you to hold your opinions and reporting in equipoise throughout the piece, and a skilled editor can help you find that balance.

But none of this might have mattered if Tizon hadn’t recognized that he had a great story to tell and had the courage to tell it. He believed that everyone had an “epic story” within…



Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.