More than just COVID-19 news attracted readers in 2020

In this photo taken on March 19, 2020 the Sentara RMH website states “Effective Monday, March 16, all routine visiting was being suspended until the transmission of COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our patients, staff and community.”

Compiled by Ryan Alessi, publisher

Say what you will about 2020, but it was certainly … newsy. 

The Citizen’s list of most-read stories of 2020 reflects the depth and breadth of ways the community changed over the last 12 months. And sure, the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic are prominent on the list — but only one part of a year’s worth of change. At the same time, 2020 election coverage, which devoured much space and time in national news outlets, didn’t crack The Citizen’s most-read stories. (Locally, the election resulted in the three school board incumbents winning re-election and two returning members of the city council winning.) 

The list does reflect how a movement for racial justice manifested itself in the Valley, and how institutions like JMU were forced to make changes. It reflected the evolution of the local economy and the integration of new technology (delivery droids!). And it reads like a time capsule of some of the key ways the community suffered, such as the explosion that leveled a shopping center, and came together to try to prevent suffering, as it was with the four organizations that ramped up efforts to protect vulnerable populations from being exposed to COVID-19. 

And the list includes enterprising journalism readers found only on The Citizen

Here’s the list of the most-read stories of 2020: 

  1. ‘He uses your fear and the love of your animal against you’” (Aug. 3). This piece by assistant editor Randi B. Hagi looked into the record of the Harrisonburg Emergency Veterinary Clinic, which included a civil suit, multiple complaints to the local Better Business Bureau and the owner’s history with a state regulatory board. It was the result of months of reporting and was, by far, the most-viewed story that seemed to touch a nerve with area animal lovers.
  2. Early in the pandemic, publisher Andrew Jenner interviewed one of the first people in the Valley to test positive for COVID-19. The Keezletown resident offered insight not only into what the symptoms felt like but other challenges in fighting the virus in the Q&A piece: “‘This is a real thing, and it’s here.’ One local patient’s experience recovering from COVID-19” (March 23).  
  3. The number of COVID-19 cases locally only climbed from there, and a month later, Harrisonburg had a higher rate of infection than any other Virginia community, as Jenner reported in his article “City infection rate is by far the state’s highest, for reasons that are unclear” (April 21).
  4. Before Harrisonburg’s hospital had to deal with COVID-19 patients, The Citizen was first to break the story that Sentara RMH was restructuring how it pays doctors and medical personnel, which prompted turnover at the hospital, as reported in senior contributor Jeremiah Knupp’s article “Sentara RMH restructuring doctor compensation, closes two rural clinics” (Jan. 12).  
  5. Numerous Harrisonburg businesses closed because of the pandemic, including restaurants Food Bar Food and Brickhouse Tavern. But even before the arrival of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, the owners of Red Front — the iconic local grocery store — announced it would close much to the chagrin of many in the northwestern Harrisonburg neighborhoods around it, which contributor Nicole Hostetter chronicled in “‘Heartbreaking.’ Residents grapple with Red Front closing and what it means for a changing community” (Feb. 20). As a coda to this story, contributor Calvin Pynn reported nine months later that the building’s new purpose would be to provide a 45-bed shelter through Open Doors.  
  6. In the wake of police officers killing Black people in cities like Minneapolis and Louisville, activists across the Valley organized peaceful protests and marches. When some in Elkton sought to do the same, it almost got derailed. The council meeting, which was open to public via Zoom because of the pandemic, at one point included a closed-session discussion, prompting contributor Calvin Pynn and a Harrisonburg Daily News-Record reporter to remind the council that state law requires votes to occur in open public session. Ultimately, the council reconvened in public and voted to approve the permit for the protest, as reported in the article “Plans for Elkton Black Lives Matter protest sparked controversy on social media and debate at Monday’s town council” (June 16).
  7. Pynn also reported on the arrival of 21st century food delivery Starship Technologies robots, which began crisscrossing JMU’s campus with cargos of burgers and subs. Pynn’s first-person essay, “The delivery droids have deployed at JMU” (Sept. 4) explains how it all works. So not all the most-read stories were super serious — that is until the robots become our overlords. 
  8. The challenge of keeping students, teachers and school staff healthy and away from the spread of COVID-19 meant a huge shift in the way education is delivered. The Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ board decided in July to have most students go to class virtually, as Hagi reported in “With U.S. COVID cases rising, school board changes plan to mostly online learning this fall” (July 22). That meant many parents had to scramble for childcare and the district partnered with organizations for innovative options, like outdoor classrooms. Hagi, who covers education and the school board for The Citizen among her many beats, has followed both the effects of the online-heavy format and the ongoing debate over how soon to bring students back and which students. 
  9. The Regal Cinema on University Boulevard was another pandemic-induced closure. But that’s already allowing for a new development of that prime real estate, as contributor Eric Gorton reported in “Apartments, retail stores may replace shuttered Regal Cinema property” (Oct. 27). 
  10. As if 2020 wasn’t hard enough already, an early morning explosion Oct. 17 caused by a natural gas leak destroyed the Miller Circle shopping center, as The Citizen reported in “Explosion and fire level shopping center on Miller Circle; 3 people injured” (Oct. 17). Publisher Bridget Manley’s photos of the resulting fire were among some of the images shared with news organizations across the world. 
Smoke billows from the Miller Circle shopping center about 45 minutes after a natural gas explosion leveled part of it. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

And here’s the rest of the Top 20 most-read Citizen stories of 2020: 

11) “Constitutional institute warns Broadway and Elkton police about coordinating with militia groups,”  Sept. 18, by Randi B. Hagi. 

12) “I’m not sick, I’m crying ,” a first-person account from March 13 by senior contributor Harrison Horst who had to evacuate China by way of India at the beginning of the year because of the spreading COVID-19 threat. 

13) “Four organizations teamed up and ‘probably saved some lives,’” May 21, by contributor Tristan Lorei.

14) “Linville-Edom school’s legacy fuels efforts to keep it open,” Jan. 14, by Randi B. Hagi. 

15) “On and off campus, pressure mounts to rename several buildings at JMU,” June 18, by Bridget Manley.

16) “Schools kick in $275k for childcare, including for an outdoor school at Camp Horizons,” Aug. 19, by Randi B. Hagi. 

17) “First local substance abuse recovery house for women opens in Harrisonburg,” Feb. 19, by contributor Kyle Kirby.  

18) “Concern for poultry plant employees ratchets up after worker dies of COVID-19,” April 28, by Randi B. Hagi and contributor Jacob Lester. 

19) “Area castle becomes an attraction,” from Nov. 19, which was a piece about a medieval-looking Timberville residence written by contributor Jordan Simal with photos by Tristan Lorei.  

20) And senior contributor Jeremiah Knupp’s pre-pandemic piece offering a look at “Mennonite Groundhog Day,” accompanied by photos by Holly Marcus, from Feb. 3 rounds out the Top 20. 

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.

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