2021 was quite a year: for our newsroom, for West Virginia, for the nation and the world. There was still COVID-19, which like it was in 2020, remains the story of the year. But there were also stories to tell about state policies, about broken promises, about who holds power in West Virginia and who doesn’t.
As we wrap up this year, we asked our staff to pick their most memorable stories — both ones they wrote, and ones from their colleagues. The topics ran the gamut, from legislative coverage to the opioid crisis to ATV riding. Maybe you read these stories when they were first published, or maybe you’re seeing them here for the first time. Either way, they’re worth a look as we wrap up 2021 and look forward to all that 2022 may bring.
Photo by Lauren Peace
This was the year of a landmark federal trial, pitting Huntington and Cabell County against the nation’s largest three drug distributors. While the outcome of the case is still unknown, Mountain State Spotlight had reporters in the courtroom almost every day of arguments, from April through July. But it was the stories our reporters produced outside of the courtroom, from their observations in places like Cabell and Raleigh and Mingo counties to an analysis about laughing at West Virginians’ expense that stuck in our memory.
“This is the first piece of commentary I’ve ever written in my 30-plus years as a journalist. Since my Mountain State Spotlight colleague, Lucas Manfield, was writing a daily story about the disparaging emails, I felt compelled to provide some context about this giant drug distributor, AmerisourceBergen, given that I had spent the past eight years covering the company and wrote a book, in part, about its role in the opioid crisis.”Eric Eyre, Co-founder
“I love that this story shows the perspective and lives of people who are on the frontlines of serving West Virginians in the wake of the opioid epidemic and who will continue serving in this capacity regardless of what trials come and go.”Molly Ballard, Development Manager
“I don’t just like this story because I was quoted in it! As a reader I was impressed, now as a writer I’m jealous. I thought Lauren did a great job of contrasting civil and criminal trials and showing the reader how the pharma litigation is connected, even a driver, of the individual drug cases around the state. It is frustrating that ultimately whatever happens to companies or their executives, it’ll never make up for that pain that individuals, families, and communities have felt for the last decade and more.”— Quenton King, Public Health Reporter
“A Mountain State Spotlight story that was really important to me this year was our piece on small West Virginia communities with pending lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The quick response team in Mingo County works tremendously hard on helping people throughout their community who are dealing with substance use disorders, and I’m really glad we could include their work in our ongoing coverage related to the country’s first-of-its-kind trial in Huntington against the nation’s largest distributors.”— Emily Allen, Community Watchdog Reporter
Photo by Giorgio Tomassetti/Flickr.
The 60-day 2021 legislative session created, as it always does, a flurry of activity. But for our staff, the most impactful legislative stories were ones that were (mostly) told outside the statehouse, looking at how proposed policies and new laws affect regular West Virginians.
“The writing is beautiful and the story felt to me like a thriller! While most reporters would’ve probably just made a couple phone calls on coyote hunting legislation, Douglas was literally and quite obviously there with the hunters (and he makes you feel like you’re there with them, too.) This story was a lot of fun to read, but it was also very informative and serious. I definitely walked away having a little more compassion for Fayette County farmers who are trying to protect their livestock and livelihoods, and who are struggling to get help from state officials.”— Emily Allen, Community Watchdog Reporter
“Far from Charleston, a community thought they were starting to get a grip on a serious health and community issue that had plagued them for years. Then, without any consultation from policymakers, the local solution they had was taken from them and barriers were imposed in order to bring it back. I thought this was a small example of what the state and country has seen the last 2 years of the tension between science and policy.”— Quenton King, Public Health Reporter
“I started following redistricting pretty much from the start when I arrived here in June. Following the process closely, I learned so much about the legislature here, the lawmakers, and of course how redistricting could impact West Virginians, that I was ready to confidently write informative and accountability-driven stories that could peel back what was happening and why it mattered while the process unfolded.”— Ian Karbal, State Government Watchdog Reporter
“Emily takes what essentially is designed to be a photo-op for state lawmakers, and she turns it into a compelling piece about a community struggling for survival after being abandoned by the coal industry. Her story shows that even towns close to thriving cities like Morgantown haven’t rebounded in the wake of coal’s decline. Also, excellent photos.”— Eric Eyre, Co-founder
Photo by Douglas Soule
While we thought COVID was the story of 2020, it turned out to be the story of 2021, too. Our reporters kept on top of stories about vaccine distribution, state spending of federal money and the many ripple effects of the ongoing pandemic on ordinary West Virginians.
“It seems like five years ago, but this look at the first 2,634 West Virginia who died of COVID-19 by former MSS reporters Lauren Peace and Lucas Manfield and former intern Gabriella Brown was stunning when it came out in March. Now, the reported COVID death toll in West Virginia is almost double that number.”— Greg Moore, Co-founder
“Douglas’ reporting shows how great the impacts of COVID have been in West Virginia, even in ways I might not have originally considered. The social and emotional impacts are as great as the economic impacts, especially now that major events for small towns have been canceled two years in a row.”— Molly Ballard, Development Manager
“I love that this story surfaced from an open records request. Quenton did a great job looking at the struggles of West Virginia’s rural emergency services departments — both during COVID and in non-pandemic times.”— Erica Peterson, Managing Editor
Photo by Duncan Slade
West Virginia has the highest per capita number of kids in the foster care system, a sad designation. Despite the urgency and long-lasting effects of time in the system on a child, major issues and resource challenges plague the state agency tasked with their care.
“This story was the culmination of more than a year of looking into the state’s troubled foster care system and, specifically, its use of dangerous out-of-state facilities. This was the longest investigation to-date of my career, and I’m really proud to have included the voice of a West Virginia teen who was abused while in the state’s care and to have used state documents to create a paper trail of neglect and abuse.”— Amelia Ferrell Knisely, Poverty Reporter
“This piece is what Mountain State Spotlight is all about. It not just holds higher authorities accountable, but it had and continues to have a notable impact — it’s a catalyst for positive change that will hopefully help make kids safer and make the state more transparent in what they’re doing to protect them.”— Douglas Soule, Business and Economic Development Reporter
“Amelia and Molly’s investigative reporting on foster care in West Virginia is the kind of work that made me want to be a journalist. It’s unflinching, thorough and driven by care for the people the system let down. It also started serious conversations in the legislature about how to address the issues they exposed.”— Ian Karbal, State Government Watchdog Reporter
Photo by Duncan Slade
A key tenet of accountability journalism is following up. What do people in power promise will happen, and what actually happens? These two stories do just that.
“This story by intern Duncan Slade hits many important themes for West Virginia. It’s a tale about broken promises for economic salvation, and also about local communities trying to find new paths forward and not getting the help they need from the state. And it’s all in the context of an outdoor activity that is very West Virginian (but also potentially dangerous to public health if not done safely). It’s a great West Virginia story.”— Ken Ward Jr., Co-founder
“This piece by Ian dissects Gov. Jim Justice’s vaccine lottery, and examines how all of the evidence showed back in August it wasn’t successful. Even so, the program has continued, spending millions of dollars that was supposed to go toward immediate pandemic-related needs on trucks, guns and other incentives for the lottery. Plus, there are fantastic pictures.”— Erica Peterson, Managing Editor
Justice and injustice
Photo by Maddie McGarvey/ProPublica
A lot of our reporting is along this vein: pointing out how powerful systems work to disadvantage ordinary West Virginians. These two pieces stood out for our reporters: an in-depth look at the effect of industrial pollution on one of West Virginia’s few Black communities and an analysis of the failures of the state’s bail reform.
“Over the years, I wrote dozens and dozens and dozens of stories about the Institute chemical plant. But so often they were reactive, stories about an explosion or a fire. This story was an opportunity to address the broader, more systemic issues at play in Institute and so many other places around our country. I’ve been fortunate that longtime residents like Pam Nixon have shared their stories with me time and again and I hope this story does justice for the work they’ve done fighting for their community.”— Ken Ward Jr., Co-founder
“With this piece, I endeavored to uplift the voices of those who are incarcerated and hold my home state accountable for a system that keeps many people behind bars unnecessarily. Putting a spotlight on this issue required a lot of work and resources, and I am proud to work for a newsroom that goes the extra mile to do investigations that need to be done and tell stories that need to be told.”— Douglas Soule, Business and Economic Development Reporter
“This story took an in-depth yet digestible look at the state’s juvenile justice system. Intern Anya Slepyan’s reporting was the result of months of research and her understanding of a complex system and issue really shone through. I really liked how she showed that a lack of data and sprawling systems had real consequences for children.”— Amelia Ferrell Knisely, Poverty Reporter