The Secret Behind How The New York Times Creates Viral Articles

Written by: Robby Smith | From the Science of People

Have you ever wondered what makes a story so compelling? Or why certain stories go viral?

At the Science of People, we were curious and wanted to know the true ingredient of a powerful story. This led us on a discovery to explore one of the largest organizations people can rely on for a great story, the New York Times (aka NYT).

One of the Largest

The New York Times is a media giant. It is not only an industry leader on digital platforms (second highest in digital trafficking), but also one of the highest in regards to traditional newspaper circulation. Since September 15, 1851, NYT has won 117 Pulitzer Prizes–more than any other news organization.

And digitally, they have it dialed in. On Aug. 6, 2015, NYT became the lone digital-only company to reach the one million mark for digital subscribers. Check out their insane growth:

Most Emailed

Ok, NYT is huge—how can we learn from them? The New York Times is a leading engineer in storytelling. Nothing they do is by accident. We wanted to know which kinds of articles go viral. The NYT aggregates their most popular articles in a specific tab. This makes it easy to see the trending articles.

The Most Popular list includes:

  • Most Emailed
  • Most Shared on Facebook
  • Most Searched on the web
  • Most Tweeted
  • You can also view which top articles have been trending over the ‘Last 24 hours’, ‘Last 7 days’, and the ‘Last 30 days’.

    So Vanessa asked me back in October of 2015 if I could archive NYT’s ‘Most Emailed’ on a spreadsheet and see which articles are trending every week. I would start every Monday by looking at all 20 articles and listing out:

  • The Headline of the article
  • Subheading
  • Promise (what the article promised)
  • Topic (what the article was about)
  • Whether the article went viral or not
  • And finally, the link to the article itself
  • Then on Friday, I would look at the articles and mark the ones that stayed in the Top 20 as viral and then add the new articles from that week. The longest an article would stay in the Top 20 would be a full week (from one Monday to the next Monday). Here are a few examples of great stories that were up:

  • The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare
  • Addicted to Distraction
  • Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture — and Your Mood

  • After archiving these articles for four months, I put these in a graph to see which ‘Promise’ and ‘Topic’ were at the top of the trending list. Below are the descriptions of what we were looking for in each section.


    The promise of each headline is what the article promises the reader. In other words, if the reader clicks on it, what will it give them? A new outcome? A learning? A surprise? An update? Here are the categories we used:

    Question: this is anytime a headline referred to a question.

    How to: this is when a headline suggested tips, self-help, or even a way of doing something new.

    History: this applied when the headline included a time, period, or moment in history.

    Snark: this is when a headline had a clever, funny, or punny title that didn’t quite explain the article.

    New: this is anytime the headline suggest any type of new research or if there was a new discovery.

    Story: this is when a headline implied that you would read a great story about a person or particular place.


    As you can see, the articles with a promise of a Story overwhelmingly populated our results with 195 articles and Newcoming in second with 109.

    Next, is an image of all the articles that went viral (The ‘Y’ in the Viral section from Fig. 3) over the four-month span.

    As you can see the story still managed to stay at the top with 72 of the articles going viral from Monday to Friday, or from Friday – Monday of the following week.


    Up next, let’s look at topic and its meanings. The topic category is simply what the headline implies about the content of the article:

    Location: this is anytime an article mentions a country, area, region, city, or landmark.

    Your Health: this is anytime an article talks about losing weight, diseases, brain activity or a new health discovery.

    Person: this is whenever an article mentions a person; politician, actor, death, or historical figure.

    General Interest: this is anytime the headline suggests any type general interest like demographics, culture, or economics.

    The results below show us that the leader of the pack was General Interest, with 252 articles and Person coming in second with 135.

    Nothing changed in the viral section either; General Interest still managed to stay at the top with 104 of the articles going viral from Monday to Friday, or from Friday – Monday of the following week.

    This tells us that regardless of the topic, a story can still resonate with those around the world. But how? What is that secret ingredient that makes people want to share stories with their friends and family through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter?

    The Secret Sauce

    Paul J. Zak, a scientist, author, and public speaker has done numerous studies on this topic and suggests that the key to a great story is to produce Oxytocin with your audience. Oxytocin is one of the most powerful hormones we produce because it plays a big role in feeling connected to another human being.

    Stories produce oxytocin. This is why our brains love great narratives and films; they use amazing tools that grab you and me by the shirt and keep us emotionally engaged all the way through the sequence. This is why Nicholas Sparks is best known for writing romantic novels like “The Notebook”– he emotionally engages his audience with compelling stories about relationships. And that is why we, as guys, watch action flicks like “300”, and “James Bond”, and feel like we can do 100 pushups then save the world. Character-driven stories with some sort of emotional substance get us hooked and ready to take action.


    Stories are your hook. Do you want your pitch to go viral? Do you want more people to like your status updates? Stories are key. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about as long as you can take your reader on a short journey. For example:

    Boring Update: Yay! Seeing Grandma today! Look out, big grandma hug + homemade cookies

    Story Update: Yay! It’s been two years since I’ve seen my Grandma–not sure what I am more excited for.. getting a grandma hug or eating grandma’s cookies! #cantwait

    You can add the story element—the emotion element to everything you do– to harness the power of connection.