As 2021 draws toward a close, there’s no time like right now to look back at the biggest news storylines that drove readership in the US.
What a year it has been!
We got a new president but not without a bloody insurrection in the chambers of Congress; we received vaccines to fight back against a deadly pandemic, and we watched a seemingly ageless Tom Brady win yet another Superbowl.
But of all that’s happened in the past year, what received the most attention on news websites? The list below includes the top 30 news topics of 2021 in terms of page views to news articles about the topics, as determined by our natural language processing AI.
The sample of readership is drawn from the websites of Taboola’s news publisher partners, which includes over 1,000 sites, from those belonging to local newspapers to the biggest national TV news networks.
The methodology section at the end of the article provides further details on the data set, but there’s just one note before we get started: Readership data from the month of May were not included in this analysis due to a technical error.
Without further ado, let’s get to the top 30 topics of 2021!
30. Gabby Petito – 296 million page views
The case of Gabby Petito, who went missing during a road trip with her boyfriend blew up into a national obsession with over 250 million page views to articles about Petito in September. Many observers pointed to this as a case of what’s called “missing white woman syndrome,” a consistently observed phenomenon characterized by the massive disparity of attention in cases such as Petito’s compared to the many people of color who go missing each year.
29. Dallas – 300 million page views
This is the first of a handful of major cities that appear on this list, and it follows what will become a similar pattern. Of course the names of big cities are in the news everyday for various reasons, but it’s informative to look when readership spiked over normal levels.
For Dallas, that happened in September and October, with nearly 90 million page views in both months, which happen to coincide with the start of the NFL season for the massively popular Dallas Cowboys franchise.
28. China – 313 million page views
Both Wuhan and China were among the top 15 most popular topics in 2020. This year, overall US readership about China declined by more than half. Monthly traffic spikes in 2021 occurred in August, amid the delta variant-fueled surge of renewed COVID interest, and then again in November with news of global climate talks, rising tensions over Taiwan, and professional tennis player Peng Shuai‘s accusations of sexual assault against a former powerful member of China’s government.
27. Aaron Rodgers – 319 million page views
The Green Bay Packers longtime star quarterback is no stranger to the spotlight, but an off-the-field controversy in November led to a spike in readership. Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 in early November and spoke out against both the NFL and what he described as a “woke mob” when he faced criticism for misleading the league about his vaccination status. The NFL went on to fine Rodgers for violating the league’s Covid safety protocols.
26. Harry – 323 million page views
25. Miami – 327 million page views
For Miami in 2021, the traffic peak came in June and July, when a Surfside condominium building collapsed leaving nearly 100 people dead.
24. Pfizer – 338 million page views
23. Tom Brady – 342 million page views
New team? No problem. The 43-year-old quarterback won his 7th Super Bowl title and 5th Super Bowl MVP honor in his first year with the Tampa Bay Bucs, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9. Articles about Brady got nearly 100 million page views in February, the month of the big game.
22. Las Vegas – 353 million page views
More than two-thirds of the traffic to articles about Las Vegas has happened since the start of the NFL season in September. But monthly page views shot up to over 90 million in October when the Las Vegas Raiders high-profile coach Jon Gruden resigned amid a scandal over racist, sexist, and homophobic emails.
21. San Francisco – 361 million page views
With San Francisco, traffic spiked up in September and October, coinciding with the Giants run in the MLB playoffs and the beginning of the NFL season for the 49ers. We told you this would become a familiar pattern…
20. White House – 373 million page views
Rather than referring to the actual building, “White House” is often used as a metonym in news headlines to represent actions taken by the current administration. This year readership peaked in November, coinciding with President Biden signing his biggest legislative achievement to date after Congress passed the White House’s sweeping infrastructure proposal.
There were also legal flare ups around congressional access to White House documents and former officials for the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
19. Amazon – 391 million page views
In 2020, readership about Amazon peaked around the company’s “Prime Day” sale, but this year the readership spike happened in October driven seemingly by a number of different storylines including a lackluster earnings report, worker unionization effort in Staten Island, and a hack of the Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch.
In other Amazon news about the other Amazon (the one that happens to be critically important to mitigating the effects of climate change), activists sought to hold Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro responsible for crimes against humanity due to his role in deforestation.
18. Atlanta – 405 million page views
Over 130 million page views on articles about Atlanta occurred in September and October, suggesting the Atlanta Braves’ run to become World Series champions propelled this topic into the top 30. November brought another 90 million page views with news of a mayoral election, an airport gun scare, and ongoing sports headlines.
17. Congress – 409 million page views
Traffic to news articles about Congress peaked in August when the House was unable to pass an extension to the federal eviction moratorium, enacted originally to mitigate the negative economic impact of COVID. Often political news is at its most popular when the topic has immediate practical implications on citizens.
16. Meghan – 453 million page views
Apparently Meghan Markle is so familiar to our topic detection AI, that they’re on a first name basis. Though Meghan (and Harry) are always popular with news readers, traffic exploded to over 250 million page views in March when the couple sat for an explosive interview with Oprah.
15. Houston – 485 million page views
Readership about Houston began to spike in September and October, coinciding with a major weather event in severe weather (Hoston is increasingly becoming synonymous with extreme rainfall), the start of the NFL season for the Houston Texans, the Houston Astros run to the World Series where they ultimately lost to the Atlanta Braves in early November. Traffic peaked in November with tragic news from the Astroworld Festival, organized by rapper Travis Scott, where 10 people died in a crowd surge.
14. Olympics/Tokyo – 498 million & 487 million page views
Wait, the Olympics were trending during an odd year? Due to the pandemic, the 2020 summer Olympics were held this past July and August in Tokyo. The readership pattern here provides an interesting content strategy insight as more than 90% of the page views for both topics happened in July and August during the games. It seems despite the many months of organizational news and competitive previews, audiences largely only care about this event while it’s happening.
13. Racism – 569 million page views
Traffic to news articles about racism greatly spiked during the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd sparked a worldwide wave of protests against institutional racism in law enforcement.
In 2021, readership of articles about racism has remained high, peaking in March during a surge of racist violence against Asian Americans. June brought another readership spike when the mayor of Chicago declared racism a public health crisis, the US government made Juneteenth a federal holiday, and Republicans in Congress escalated a campaign of alarmism about how America’s history of racism is taught to schoolchildren.
12. Senate – 581 million page views
With democrats in control of the White House and the House of Representatives, the narrowly divided Senate has been the main hurdle for much of the legislative policy put forth this year. Readership about the topic spiked in January, when Georgia democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won a special election and runoff to relieve Republicans of their control of the chamber. The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was likely another major driver of readership.
11. CDC – 631 million page views
The delta variant-fueled COVID case surge over the summer saw page views to articles about the Centers for Disease Control spike to over 100 million in the months of July and August, the highest levels since the early months of the pandemic.
10. Police Brutality – 635 million page views
The issue of police violence, particularly against people of color, has been thrust into the spotlight over the past decade due largely to Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 brought an unprecedented wave of traffic to articles on the topic that has continued through 2021, peaking at nearly 300 million page views in April. Look two topics down to see the likely reason for this spike.
9. Football – 640 million page views
Spoiler alert: NFL appears later on this list. There’s likely plenty of overlap between the readership, with our AI categorizing many articles as about both football and the NFL depending on how the articles are framed and the keywords that appear. The “football” topic may be more oriented toward college football and fantasy football based on how headlines about these topics tend to be phrased.
8. George Floyd – 853 million page views
Floyd’s May 2020 murder at the hands of Minneappolis police officers and the subsequent worldwide protests was the third most read about news topic in 2020. This year, readership returned in a big way with over 400 million page views in April during the trial of Derrick Chauvin, the officer who was accused and convicted of murdering Floyd.
7. Vaccine – 1.05 billion page views
The US got a powerful new tool to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as vaccines became available to all adults in 2021. This important milestone would have been a massive news event under any circumstances, but it became a flashpoint of political controversy and a culture war proxy battle as misinformation about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines spread rapidly — often fueled by commentary by prominent right wing media outlets and politicians.
6. Impeachment – 1.14 billion page views
Talk about deja vu, 2021 was the second straight year that began with a presidential impeachment trial. Trump again faced charges, this time of incitement of insurrection due to his role in the January 6 Capitol riot, and again he was acquitted in the Senate. The topic was slightly more popular this time around with over 1 billion page views compared to less than 800 million in 2020.
5. Biden – 1.4 billion page views
He may be the leader of the country, but he’s not quite the commander-in-chief of readership. Monthly readership about Biden peaked at over 600 million page views in January, coinciding with his inauguration and the ongoing interest in the election due to Trump’s unprecedented refusal to accept defeat.
4. Capitol – 1.9 billion page views
Five people died and over 100 were injured when an armed mob of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the seat of the US government on January 6. None other than Mitch McConnell said Trump himself was responsible for the attempted insurrection due to his “crescendo of conspiracy theories” about supposed election fraud. More than 800 million of the 1.8 billion page views on this topic occurred in January, but the subsequent months have brought news of investigations and arrests that has sustained interest in the topic.
3. NFL – 3.2 billion page views
If baseball is America’s pastime, football is its obsession. Traffic to articles about the NFL nearly tripled year over year after focus on coronavirus took some of the steam out of the 2020 season. That being said, readership peaked at over 400 million page views per month in January through March, but it hasn’t surpassed that threshold in any month since.
2. Trump – 7.6 billion page views
He hasn’t been the president since January, but Donald Trump was still nearly the most popular news topic of the year.
Readership about Trump peaked in January at nearly 2.5 billion page views, fueled by intense focus on his actions on Jan. 6 when a mob of his supporters stormed the US Capitol building and rioted in the halls of Congress. The event was the culmination of a months-long campaign of misinformation during which Trump claimed he lost the presidency due to election fraud.
1. Coronavirus – 8 billion page views
For the second straight year, Coronavirus is the most popular news topic. The readership about the topic in 2020 was nearly twice as high with over 14 billion page views.
This year, page views fell from 800 million per month early in the year to a low of 400 million in June before the delta variant’s disruption of the national recovery brought a surge of renewed interest in August and September.
Methodology: The monthly top 200 topics were exported from Taboola Newsroom’s Topic Insights, which uses natural language processing AI to determine the trending topics across our massive network of news publisher partner sites. We work with thousands of news sites in the US and include data from over 1,000 in Topic Insights, so our data set shows a significant sample of what people are reading on news sites.
We aggregated data for January through November to determine the top topics for the year. Data from May were not included due to a technical error.
State names as well as “America” were excluded because they are overly broad. The topic ESPN was also excluded. Though ESPN is a close partner of Taboola and its excellent sports reporting is often referenced by other news outlets and within ESPN articles, those articles usually aren’t about ESPN itself.
One topic required manual aggregation due to changes in how the NLP system detected the topic throughout the year. This was “Biden” and “Joe Biden.”
In instances where two topics represent the same news event, such as “Olympic” and “Olympics,” we used the topic with the larger number of page views under the assumption that overlap likely represents duplicate page views.
Taboola Newsroom is an editorial insights tool we provide at no cost to Taboola’s news publisher partners. We’ve made the full data set for this research publicly available. Feel free to reach out to @franberkman with any questions or if you’d like to use our data for your research or reporting.