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Scott Applewhite
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The Associated Press
Sen. Joe Manchin became a story in his own right in 2021 as his swing vote in a politically divided Senate gave him power to shape a presidential legacy.

Our Best of 2021 News Stories -- WVPB Reporters Share Insight On Coverage

Even as we are ending the year 2021, it somehow feels right to quote Dickens, who wrote in 1859’s A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

His words ring so true, even in this era, as we all navigated the ravages and uncertainties of COVID. Many of us have embraced a life-saving vaccine, yet most of us continue to remain vigilant as the pandemic stretches into nearly two years. We have endured big changes. We have lost so many. Perhaps in that, we are loving more deeply and caring about different and more important things.

Our newsroom has been vigilant this year, putting an eye — and listener’s ear — to stories about the state and region that we hope have helped you to see your world from an elevated and thoughtful lens. This unique ability of public media — to offer its consumers a deeper dive, perhaps, into issues and people who shape our state, country and world. We see it as a special responsibility and crucial for our democracy. Without a free and engaged press, our nation is diminished and our freedoms are at stake. If you think this isn't important to all of us, you would be dead wrong.

Each December it has been our tradition to ask our staff to pick their favorites story or stories. And to share a bit why they made that selection. It's our way of letting you know why we believe that good journalism matters.

Please enjoy our reflections — with our wishes for a happy holiday season and a 2022 that restores us all. — Andrea Billups, News Director

Eric Douglas — Assistant News Director

I picked two stories for the end-of-year best of collection. I am proud of them both, but for entirely different reasons.

Voting Laws Debated On National, State Level

Polling place in Pettry, West Virgini
Jessica Lilly
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Churches, schools and other spaces opened doors to voters on Tuesday

https://www.wvpublic.org/government/2021-11-17/voting-laws-debated-on-national-state-level

The first is a story on voting and voting rights in West Virginia. This is an important issue that usually gets discussed in terms of hyperbole and bluster with various factions talking about voter fraud and conspiracies to deprive people of the right to vote. This story was a couple weeks in the making and I sat on the original interview for a while to see what else happened. When the street—side press conference happened, I knew I had exactly what I needed.

CBS News Correspondent Weijia Jiang Reflects On Growing Up In West Virginia, Being An 'Other'

https://www.wvpublic.org/section/arts-culture/2021-03-02/cbs-news-correspondent-weijia-jiang-growing-up-in-west-virginia-being-an-other

I liked this story for two reasons. With Weijia Jiang’s status as a network news correspondent, this interview really blew up and became one of the more popular stories on our website in 2021.

More importantly, though, it was an interesting interview to conduct. When I spoke to Weijia, she was in a sound booth in the White House just outside the press briefing room. I really liked how she talked about growing up in West Virginia and feeling like an “other.” For West Virginians who often feel like an other, it was interesting to hear her perspective on that – as an other inside and outside the state.

Her book has not been published yet, but I am hopeful to have a follow up interview with her when the book comes out.

Jessica Lilly — Southern West Virginia reporter

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Jessica Lilly
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WVPB
The Mount Hope Regional Marching Band rehearses each week, drawing on its longtime school pride and providing entertainment for the community.

https://www.wvpublic.org/section/arts-culture/2021-12-14/adult-marching-style-band-assembles-music-and-mustang-pride-in-mount-hope-w-va

This story came together after a phone call to a friend. I was looking for people who had moved away from West Virginia and returned, bringing their skills and expertise with them. I was looking for someone to be a part of our recent Returning Home series. When I got off the phone I had a list of names across the region including Carri Kidd. I remembered when the band first started and had always wanted to visit rehearsals so I could share the story with you, our listeners. After a few phone calls, I just knew that Carrie would be a good fit for the project. The Mount Hope Regional Marching Band rehearses every Thursday evening at 7 p.m. When I arrived, there were so many voices and sounds that helped to paint a picture of what Kidd had accomplished in the band, it didn’t leave much room for her personal journey home. I knew that cutting these sounds would do a disservice to the story. I filed the story and set up an interview with another person for the Returning Home project. I also have to give a lot of credit to my editor, Kelley Libby. While working with her and going over the script, she completely understood my vision of how I thought the story should sound, sometimes without even playing the music. I liked this story because I got to meet new people, adults, still pursuing music and the very thing that made them happy; marching band. It was inspiring to see their smiles and watch them interact for a common cause, many sporting their Mount Hope Mustang attire. I can also relate as my school, Mullens High, closed in 1997. I think this story is important because there have been many schools that have consolidated across the state. With it, we lose a part of our identity and sometimes community pride. The unique way that Mount Hope is working to stay connected and remain Mustangs, is important. We need to remember what makes us smile. It’s important to know that there is hope and people who can relate to your desire to find a place to belong. It took a little time to mix the audio but I enjoyed the challenge.

Liz McCormick — Education and Eastern Panhandle reporter

https://www.wvpublic.org/section/education/2021-08-25/elementary-students-share-pandemic-experiences-in-education-series-finale

Closing the Covid Gap copy.png

The year 2021 really challenged me as a new education reporter, and August marked one year in my new role. I have really come to love the education beat. It’s challenging, and I’m not always able to cover everything that is pitched to me, but it is so rewarding, and I do my best to keep up with the demands and look forward to working on each story. Education is so vastly important to the overall health of the state of West Virginia. There were a lot of important education issues I wrote about this year – mostly dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – but I think my favorite story was when I got to interview five kids from the Eastern Panhandle.

For my Best of 2021 pick, I’ve chosen the finale of my summer education series, “Closing the COVID Gap.” It was an 11-episode series that explored how we, as a state, are tackling the impacts of the pandemic on our K-12 and higher education students. The finale of the series featured an audio postcard, where we heard from five different children in Jefferson and Berkeley counties. Each child shared some of their concerns with going back to school in-person, but they also shared some of the excitement they felt, too.

Roxy Todd, Producer, Inside Appalachia

https://www.wvpublic.org/inside-appalachia-2021/2021-11-19/to-live-here-you-have-to-fight-how-appalachian-women-today-are-building-on-activist-traditions-of-the-past

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Pableaux Johnson
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WVU
Author Jessica Wilkerson is the Stuart and Joyce Robbins Chair and associate professor of history at West Virginia University. Her first book was "To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice."

Our team at Inside Appalachia has produced a handful of knock-out shows this past year, so this was a tough choice for me, personally. Rather than pick a story I reported, I felt more drawn to picking an episode that we all worked together to help produce. The show that I’m most proud of is centered around women who rock. The show takes its title from a book of the same name, “To Live Here You Have To Fight.” That line, and the interview with author Jessica Wilkerson, renewed my faith in my own reasons for staying here in Appalachia, and why I continue to put my heart and soul into storytelling. This episode was inspiring to me to listen to and to help produce, because I got to hear from so many women, and femmes, across Appalachia who have put their work and creativity towards helping make our region a better, and more equitable, place for all. Plus, Caitlin Tan and Mason Adams, who co-host our show, really hit a nice groove in the past few months, and helping guide them to finding their voices as hosts has been one of the most inspiring experiences in my radio career.

Curtis Tate, Environment and Energy reporter

https://ohiovalleyresource.org/2021/06/09/west-virginia-coal-plants-need-upgrades-three-states-will-decide-their-fate/

https://www.wvpublic.org/energy-environment/2021-10-12/utility-regulators-give-green-light-to-keep-coal-plants-open-past-2028

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Curtis Tate
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WVPB
The Mountaineer power plant towers over the Ohio River floodplain in Mason County, West Virginia.

No other story loomed as large on the energy and environment beat this year than this one. It involved three coal-burning power plants, one of West Virginia’s largest utilities, and state utility regulators in three states.

A transition away from coal to generate electricity has been underway across the country for more than a decade. West Virginia has been reluctant to abandon coal, given its importance to the state’s history and culture.

Economically, it’s not clear these three power plants will continue to operate until 2040. But state regulators, under pressure from the coal industry and coal-friendly lawmakers, approved wastewater treatment projects that keep them in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency rules.

The public service commissions in Kentucky and Virginia did not agree that these projects were in the best interest of ratepayers, so they rejected them.

If West Virginia had not agreed to bear the full cost of the upgrades, all three plants would have to shut down in 2028. Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power customers will see their monthly bills go up.

For sure, that decision saved the jobs the plants support and the tax revenue communities rely on to fund a variety of public services. They will keep burning West Virginia coal as long as they stay open, keeping yet more workers in more communities open.

But the transition is happening, and it will catch up to West Virginia. How long the coal will continue to stream from the mines to these power plants is anything but certain.

June Leffler, Health reporter

https://www.wvpublic.org/health-science/2021-02-10/more-west-virginians-finally-full-of-hope-as-thousands-show-up-to-get-vaccine

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WVPB
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New COVID-19 vaccines have given hope to many around the globe, even as new variants continue to spread.

If 2020 was the year of COVID-19, 2021 was the year of the vaccine.

Many of us imagined the mRNA vaccines and the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot as antidotes to everything scary and depressing about the previous year.

Hope was restored, said Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Sherri Young. She would spend her weekends at large vaccine clinics held at Charleston’s convention center in the first few months of the year. These clinics were some of the first large, (somewhat) social gatherings many people had attended after isolating the past 12 months.

“I heard people who were 80 and older say they hadn't left their house since March, this is the first time they get to be around people, and that they were finally full of hope,” said Young in February.

Other stories I produced in the next few months illustrated this same collective sigh of relief. Cars flooded one Walgreens parking lot in March just a few hours in Charleston when there was a tip on social media that the store got a supply of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. High schoolers saw the vaccine as a saving grace for the following school year, after having to deal with classroom quarantines and a lot of remote learning.

“I just see that's like a really, really great step towards a better future,” said then Huntington High senior Mani Frieson.

I wanted to look back at these stories to remember an uplifting moment in the pandemic, even if it was fleeting.

I spoke with Chris Plein at West Virginia University who studies the COVID-19 vaccines from a public policy standpoint.

“We are in this really strange place right now between crisis management, and managing what is now going to be a chronic public health concern,” Plein said.

Perhaps the initial hope folks had is now waning like our antibodies. Federal health agencies said two doses was fantastic protection. Now it’s not enough. Clearly everything we’ve done hasn’t been enough as we go into a third year of this pandemic. I hope 2022 brings more life-saving innovations, like the vaccines.

David Adkins — Huntington-based reporter

https://www.wvpublic.org/section/education/2021-08-24/marshall-university-program-pairs-veterans-with-study-of-humanities-to-connect-experiences-with-history

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NPR
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A Greek vase that dates to the fifth century B.C. and depicts Odysseus tied to the mast to brave the sirens.

Philosophy and history have always been a personal interest of mine. Also, I come from a family filled with veterans. “The Wars Within, The Wars Without,” is a program that utilizes classic and contemporary texts to help veterans connect their personal experiences to each other and to veterans throughout history. Texts such as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” explore contemporary experiences from Vietnam, and Lucan’s “Civil War,” explores the experiences of soldiers from classical Rome. Professor Massimo Pigliucci was the program's inaugural lecturer. He is one of the world’s leading experts on Stoicism, which is a philosophy that has existed since around 300 BCE. The philosophy was adopted by the Romans, and later by Christian philosophers.

For a soldier, how they relate to the decisions they make, the circumstances they have control over, and the trauma they receive, is at a higher intensity than most people face. The program’s approach to connecting with the veterans of West Virginia is relevant to its subject matter, and the way it integrates veterans as discussion leaders ensures that the program begins from a position of understanding.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when everything seemed at its worst, concepts such as Determinism and the Dichotomy of Control helped me get through it. It helped me focus on how I react and adopt to new situations. Also, it helped to think about history; how it systemically unfolds and the way we all fit into how the world changes. Coming out of Covid-19 and having the opportunity to cover “The Wars Within, The Wars Without” and being able to speak with Professor Robin Riner and Professor Christina Franzen, along with Professor Pigliucci, has been very impactful to me.

On another personal note, my grandfather had served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He had achieved the rank of colonel, and taught history at West Point before moving on to be the director of U.S. National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Before he died, I never got to talk to him about subjects he taught or had an interest in. I feel as though we could have connected over a love of history. I believe “The Wars Within, The Wars Without” is providing valuable tools to those participating. Ideas and stories truly have the potential to connect people.

Shepherd Snyder — Martinsburg-based reporter

https://www.wvpublic.org/top-stories/2021-10-28/universities-across-w-va-taking-an-interest-in-esports-offering-athletic-and-academic-programs

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NPR
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Esports have been embraced by colleges and universities across the state of West Virginia with new scholarships and academic programs being offered for online gaming.

I collaborated with fellow intern David Adkins on this, so it’s not just my own story and I can’t take all the credit for reporting. However, it’s the story I definitely had the most fun with during my time here. I also think this story reflects some of my favorite parts about reporting.

Since I started this internship, collaborating with my fellow reporters has probably been the most fun I’ve had while working on stories. Working with others helps me hone my own skills, of course, but being able to bounce ideas off others and tangibly cooperating with my peers has given me a sense of community like nothing else. As an intern working out of the Eastern Panhandle, it can be pretty easy to feel disconnected from the rest of the newsroom, working on much of my news stories remotely. I think this esports story was a prime example of myself being able to connect with both those around the state (David and I interviewed students from three different schools) and with those in the newsroom.

That being said, the other reason why I chose this piece is that I just thought it was really fun to work on. I’m not an esports guy, myself, but I’ve been interested in video games to some extent (like most folks my age) for much of my life. I think it’s a really neat thing to see communities surrounding relatively niche interests start to spring up, and it’s an even neater thing to see those communities actually take off.

The esports industry has obviously become one of those communities. Colleges like Concord and WVU wouldn’t be creating collegiate teams and programs unless they saw some sort of value in promoting them. The fact that schools around my home state are becoming early adopters of these programs fills me with a sense of pride that only West Virginians get when we see other West Virginians succeed.

Trey Kay, Host and Producer of Us & Them

I was most proud of Us & Them’s “COVID-19 Exposes Racial Inequity‘s“ episode.

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Long before the recent global pandemic, the Us & Them team had been reporting about the difference in healthcare outcomes between people of color and whites. COVID-19 raised the stakes on the story. In March 2020, days before any “stay at home“ orders and before we use the term “super-spreader event,“ Romelia Hodges attended a packed church celebration in Marion County. Two weeks later, several of Hodges friends were ill from the coronavirus and some died, including 88-year-old Viola Horton, West Virginia’s first COVID-19 death. For decades, Rev. Matthew Watts has warned about health disparities between black West Virginians and white residents. He said it’s been hard to get people to listen and even harder to encourage action. Watts hopes that COVID-19 might be a catalyst for systemic change so that everyone has access to comprehensive healthcare.

Reporting this story helped me gain a deeper understanding as to the fear and frustration Black West Virginians feel regarding how the state government addresses their unique health concerns. One of the issues that came up while we reported this story was if Black West Virginians — a demographic with higher co-morbidities and a shorter life-expectancy — would be given priority access to COVID vaccines. While reporting this, I feel like I experienced the tension between the government leaders and the various leaders of West Virginia’s African American community. I felt this in a way that I haven’t in any of my previous reporting work.

Kelley Libby, Editor, Inside Appalachia

What is Appalachia?
https://www.wvpublic.org/inside-appalachia-2021/2021-12-10/what-is-appalachia-we-asked-people-from-around-the-region-heres-what-they-said

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Mason Adams
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WVPB
The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

This show started as an idea our host Mason Adams had, to do a segment on the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and why some of its counties are not officially considered Appalachia. The Valley seems like Appalachia, he argued, so why are parts of it drawn out of the region by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC)? What is Appalachia, anyway? It’s a good question. So we sent reporters to towns and cities around the region to ask folks their thoughts. Our host Caitlin Tan went to northern Mississippi of all places. She had learned that some counties there were drawn in to the ARC’s designation, even though those places are also considered the Delta. So Caitlin drove from town to town, including the birthplace of Elvis, asking Mississippians if they considered themselves Appalachian. It’s a fun, sound-rich segment with a lot of local color and a little bit of head-scratching. And our producer Roxy Todd looked into how people in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, think of their inclusion in the region, and why the city is referred to as “the Paris of Appalachia.” The history is fascinating.

What I like about this episode is that it got folks talking. We got loads of responses from listeners, giving us their thoughts on geography and identity and how they feel they fit or don’t fit into “what is Appalachia.” We heard from people all over the region and as far away as Washington State. I think this episode shows that one person’s curiosity can spark a big conversation and get folks excited to join in.