The year has seen a range of different stories capture the popular imagination. Different news items garner the interests of different people for various reasons. It’s almost always the case and 2015 was no exception as we look at the Top 10 Carolina Public Press stories of 2015.
The following list is based entirely on readership, so no punches were pulled for anyone’s favorite news items. We looked at page view counts for articles created by CPP staff and correspondents during 2015. Some articles written in earlier years, especially late in 2014, had strong readership in 2015, but were not included in this list. Presumably some of the articles here will continue to draw reader interest in future months.
1. “Previously unknown photo album of Asheville in 1904 surfaces” by Jon Elliston.
With more than four times the page views of any other story in 2015, this glimpse into local history brought a big surge in readers immediately when it appeared on Jan. 15, and has continued to attract readers over time. Undoubtedly the item is of interest to local history buffs as well as those with a strong sense of nostalgia. Of particular importance, many of these images showed previously little known views of the city from this period in its history, such as glimpses of the old City Hall and City Market from different angles. Researchers with an interest in old Asheville will undoubtedly continue to reference this story well beyond 2015.
2. “FBI investigation of Black Mountain College revealed in newly released file” by Jon Elliston.
This surprising look at hidden history from the mid-20th century caught fire with readers since it posted on Aug. 15. Starting in the 1940s, the Feds suspected that several faculty members at the Buncombe County school were Communist agents. Suspicions about the college’s handling of G.I. Bill funds also prompted FBI scrutiny at a time in the mid-1950s when the college was on the verge of financial ruin. Because the institution was built around nontraditional instructional guidance and students did not necessarily attend lectures, the government was suspicious that the college did not meet standards for G.I. Bill support. But students whom the government interviewed said the unusual instructional methods still constituted a substantial program of education. The FBI probe came up empty and was halted in 1956. But the cash-strapped school closed in 1957 anyway.
3. “Duke Energy unveils major plans for new transmission lines” by Margaret Williams.
Reaction to the utility giant’s proposals was swift, fierce and well-organized. This July 15 story introducing Duke’s plans garnered the most page views, but several follow-up reports also had a strong following among CPP readers. As organized opposition to Duke’s plans to stretch lines from the Asheville area to upstate South Carolina, the company delayed its scheduled release of the route lines in October. In early November, Duke announced a change in direction, with no long lines, no South Carolina substation and a different approach to new natural gas plants in Asheville. That was greeted as a victory by the conservation groups that had called on Duke to rethink its future. But in more recent days, those same groups have continued questioning what Duke is doing and sought legal means to ensure that they’ll have a seat at the table as Duke implements its new strategy. Expect this story to continue unfolding in 2016 and beyond.
4. “New WNC health center group raises questions” by Margaret Williams.
This Oct. 19 article didn’t necessarily provide a lot of answers about a new health center based in Asheville with ties to Mission Health. But the article did put a lot of questions that others were asking out there for all to see. Those with existing federally qualified health clinics expressed deep misgivings about the new Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers, which won federal approval in August. With many unknowns, the best answer may have been to wait and see. Expect more to come on this front in 2016 as well.
5. “Wave of changes shaking up Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” by Jon Elliston.
With a new principle chief taking charge, a lot was happening for the Cherokee of Western North Carolina. This Dec. 10 story wasn’t so much one story as several in an overview of changes happening in a short time period. Among the biggest was the rapid turnabout on experimenting with marijuana – the tribal council voted to allow a study of legalizing cannabis, but the chief vetoed that action and the council didn’t fight him. Whether it was the drugs or other issues that drew readers, this article had only a short three weeks to get more page views this year than all but the four higher-ranked stories on this list.
6. “Report cards: 10 of WNCs 235 public schools earn A’s” by Angie Newsome.
This Feb. 6 report included some information that could be found elsewhere about how North Carolina students performed under Department of Public Instruction evaluation. But CPP looked at many small county school districts that were ignored in other media. CPP offered a regional analysis for WNC that showed patterns distinct from those that prevailed at the statewide level. With charts and graphs to illustrate the statistics, this article continues to serve as a great reference on school performance in this region.
7. “WNC lynchings: New study sheds light on a once-pervasive Southern atrocity” by Jon Elliston.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s report on the history of lynching across the American South drew attention from media outlets of all sizes. CPP’s approach in this Feb. 18 report was to examine the phenomenon in Western North Carolina, exploring the cases of seven mountain county lynchings, as well as a South Carolina crime perpetrated by North Carolina vigilantes who pursued an acquitted man across the state line. These accounts put human faces on the statistics, recounting the tragic deaths of people who were murdered by mob violence, often by people who had been their neighbors. Some victims had been accused of crimes. Some had tried to defend themselves against violence. One family was targeted for witnessing crimes. It’s a painful read, but important for understanding the region’s history.
8. “Asheville public housing evictions spark concerns” by David Forbes.
This Jan. 5 article looked at ongoing reaction to a series of evictions in which residents of public housing in Asheville were forced out. Some of the cases raised questions about apparently arbitrary actions by low-level officials exercising vast authority over the lives of poor people. Against a backdrop of related questions about reforming the Housing Authority’s funding and management, the issue drew the interest of activists and readers alike.
9. “Deep cuts savage natural heritage program” by Jack Igelman.
By the time you read this, the rankings will likely be wrong because this Nov. 30 article has rapidly gained statewide attention and will likely move up to the eighth spot in page views and then keep climbing. It wasn’t exactly news that legislators had made some deep cuts to various state programs in recent years. But this article hit a nerve as it examined deep and likely misguided cuts to the state’s natural heritage program. The program collects information about natural species across the state that are used in a range of conservation measures, public and private. Some of the conservative lawmakers who slashed funding apparently thought it was a despised regulatory program. But there’s nothing regulatory about it. Efforts are underway to restore some of what was lost, so expect to hear more about this program’s funding in coming months.
10. “Government behind closed doors” by Jon Elliston.
This March 15 article was the result of a massive dragnet in which CPP gathered records from across the region. Local governments conduct meetings that are generally presumed to be open to the public under North Carolina law. The records from those meetings are also open. But exemptions exist under limited and specific circumstances, so that boards can discuss some issues in closed sessions. Even then, the records from closed sessions are supposed to become public after certain time periods or events have passed, depending on the reason the session was closed. CPP tested that law, seeking the closed records that should now be open and examining just how much of the people’s business is done where they can’t see what public officials are up to and hold them accountable. While CPP may not repeat the exact project again, look for continued exploration of open government in reports and projects.