Commentary

2020 in review: Top 10 most-viewed Mercury stories of the year

January 1, 2021 12:04 am

(Getty Images)

Journalism, of course, isn’t a popularity contest. The value of the work isn’t meant to be judged by how many people click on a given story.

Indeed, wise reporters and editors stop questioning early in their careers why some stories, especially those that might seem more trivial, take flight while others of equal or greater import fail to land with a big audience.

Here’s just a sampling of the important work Mercury journalists did in a year more challenging than any I’ve seen in my 15-year career that’s not on this list:

• Kate Masters’ unrelenting coverage of the state’s response to the pandemic, from testing capacity to surging deaths and secrecy surrounding nursing homes to the rollout of vaccines.

• Sarah Vogelsong’s exhaustive reporting on Virginia’s implementation of the Clean Economy Act, the landmark energy legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020, in our Virginia’s Clean Energy Transition special series. I promise you won’t find as comprehensive, insightful and crucial coverage on this critical legislation that will affect every Virginian (through their power bills and air quality) from any other news outlet. Sarah also broke a story about Virginia health officials backing away from a push to close poultry plants to protect workers from COVID-19.

• Ned Oliver’s photography and coverage of the George Floyd protests in Richmond and what the General Assembly did and didn’t do in a special session called in part to address racial inequities in our criminal justice system.

• Graham Moomaw’s insightful and leading reporting of one of the biggest things on Virginia’s ballot this year, a redistricting amendment that voters approved in November and which will dramatically alter how we draw political boundaries here, as well as the battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year.

• The work of our experienced and talented roster of columnists and contributors, including Roger Chesley, Bob Lewis, Ivy Main, Samantha Willis and Wyatt Gordon.

All that said, it can be an interesting exercise to check which stories generated the most views. Spoiler alert: It was a big year for marijuana policy, venomous caterpillars and coverage of Virginia’s struggling unemployment system as pandemic idled workers desperately searched for news on their claims.

Here they are:

No. 10: Northam: ‘We are going to move forward with legalizing marijuana in Virginia’

In November, Gov. Ralph Northam formally announced that the state would pursue recreational marijuana legalization, less than a year after the legislature decriminalized the drug. The news wasn’t exactly a shock, coming after a state mandated study looking at the ins and outs of legalization that said a recreational cannabis industry could generate more than $300 million per year in tax revenues by the fifth year of operations and, combined with decriminalization, could reduce marijuana arrests by 84 percent. Legalization could also create more than 11,000 jobs, the study found.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

No. 9: Will Virginia sign on to Trump’s plan to boost unemployment benefits by $400?

Throughout the pandemic, stories about unemployment benefits, eviction and utility relief and other kitchen table coverage, set against the muddled plans put forward by the Trump administration and the inability of state systems to come to grips with the crush of claimants, were among the most-read articles on the Mercury. “Governors, lawmakers and state unemployment agencies on Monday wrestled with confusion created by President Donald Trump’s executive action extending unemployment benefits, and it appeared some states could settle for $300 a week in benefits instead of the $400 that the president touted,” States Newsroom national correspondent Jacob Fischler reported.

No. 8: Yes, disobeying Virginia’s mask order could carry a criminal charge. But Northam appears to be counting on compliance.

In May, after a good bit of “will he or won’t he” speculation, Gov. Northam joined other leaders in imposing a mask mandate on Virginians. But there were a lot of unanswered questions. And the Mercury’s Kate Masters got to the bottom of what Northam’s rule would, and wouldn’t do, which thousands of readers were looking for answers about.

Jay Breneman and his daughter, Anna Grace, browse footwear at Walkabout Outfitter in Richmond, Va., May 16, 2020. Even though some restrictions on businesses have been lifted, “we’re still trying to do everything as smart as we can,” said Jay. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

No. 7: Virginia says it accidentally overpaid 35,000 workers receiving unemployment insurance

It’s hard to sum up this story from May on another SNAFU in pandemic-related unemployment benefits administration better than Ned Oliver did in his one-two lede:

The good news: After waiting weeks for the state to set up an online system to allow self-employed workers to collect pandemic assistance through the CARES Act, people began receiving their first checks last week.

The bad news: Just over 35,000 of them were overpaid between $600 and $1,200 — money the state says will be deducted from future checks.

No. 6: Virginia expects to begin distributing $300-a-week unemployment supplement in late September

Remember that $300 extra in unemployment benefits the Trump administration and states were trying to coordinate in August? By September, it was supposed to be on the way but hadn’t gotten to Virginians. Virginia would actually be one of the last states to start doling out the money, not getting around to it until mid-October. Thousands of Mercury readers were wondering why it hadn’t arrived yet.

No. 5: Venomous caterpillar ‘no one has heard of’ sends New Kent woman to ER

It was no surprise that in a year when so many of us spent so much of our lines online, every weird and terrible animal tale (remember the murder hornets?) flew around the internet as evidence that 2020 had dropped yet another dreadful shoe. Rex Springston — who built a career out of those stories and many more about nature and the environment at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and now kindly contributes them to us — had a big hit by recounting the ordeal of a New Kent woman who was stung by the poofy-but-poisonous puss caterpillar. The story became such a sensation, with outlets around the world recasting Rex’s reporting, without actually doing any of their own, that he wrote a followup marveling on what passes for journalism sometimes in the information age. “Each day each headline got more and more preposterous,” said Michelle Stoll, the Virginia forestry department’s public information director.

The puss caterpillar, (Megalopyge opercularis) which can inflict a painful sting on people. (CDC Public Health Image Library)

No. 4: Virginia lawmakers vote to decriminalize marijuana, set $25 civil penalty for possession

What can we say? The people want cannabis coverage. Ned Oliver had the big sweep story on the legislature’s historic vote in March to deciminalize marijuana possession. “This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the Senate.

No. 3: Metalheads with kazoos drown out Westboro Baptist Church at Capitol

Call it an oldie but a goodie. This story actually isn’t from 2020. It’s from 2019. But because of the mysteries of the internet, it began circulating again (mostly on Facebook and Reddit it seems) and was again launched into one of our most-read stories of 2020. Can’t keep those metalheads down.

No. 2: Virginia cuts off unemployment benefits to 12,000 people for refusing to return to work

In June, with lots of questions looming about how state health officials would ensure that workplaces were COVID-19 safe for Virginia workers, since regulations on that front hadn’t been approved yet, the Virginia Employment Commission said it had cut off unemployment benefits to more than 12,000 people the agency says had refused to return to work.

“As employers have resumed operations, many have attempted to recall furloughed or laid-off employees to work,” the agency said in a statement. “While certain circumstances, such as health, childcare or other caregiver responsibilities, may warrant continued payments of unemployment benefits to a claimant who has refused to return to work, the payments will be paused pending the outcome of an administrative review.”

Drumroll please …

 No. 1:Marijuana is now decriminalized in Virginia. Here’s what that means.

Did I mention that people really want cannabis coverage? Ned Oliver’s explainer on the details of Virginia’s decriminalization legislation makes marijuana policy news the alpha and omega of our list this year. That underscores how rapidly typically slow-moving Virginia altered course on the issue.

“It’s a significant shift in a state where police reported a record 29,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2018 and a study the prior year found 127 people were being held in jail solely on a marijuana charge — enforcement that disproportionately targeted Black Virginians,” Ned reported.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]

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