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By Shereen Siewert, Publisher

As we prepare for the dawn of 2021, the staff at Wausau Pilot and Review took its annual look at all the ways in which 2020 shaped our lives, our news coverage, and even our newsroom. For us, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges and change.

In January, we were on top of the world. Our advertising slots were completely full. We were one of 14 newsrooms in North America chosen for an exclusive business training and funding opportunity from the Lenfest Institute and Facebook, which included three staff trips to Austin, Tex.; our local sports program was going strong. We had big plans to add student interns, to hold popup newsroom events, to host editorial listening chats, to attend three national conferences on best practices in journalism, and to launch an editorial board.

Then, the pandemic hit. In 48 hours, 80 percent of our advertising revenue was lost. Local sports ground to a halt. Our sports director left journalism altogether after his university job was eliminated. Our plans for events and interns were placed indefinitely on hold.

But eventually, things started to take shape. Our business training shifted to a virtual setting, and the funding piece not only came through, but increased. The portion of our funding that comes from readers increased too, as did our reader base. We earned several top awards for our journalism. New businesses came on board to advertise, and some of the old ones came back, too, as they were able. We quadrupled the size of our newsletter subscribers and added a weekly event roundup to the offerings. Our donor base tripled. We landed a spot as a Report for America newsroom for 2021, which pays half the salary of a new, full-time reporter we’ll be hiring in the coming months.

That’s not to say there weren’t some missteps and growing pains along the way. In the fall, for example, we launched a new local sports initiative that relied on artificial intelligence. It was a dismal failure, and we’re now regrouping for a new direction in 2021. We spent money on a new app that failed to materialize, though that turned out to be a blessing in disguise – our new app is much better than the one we planned on using and miles ahead of the first one we launched. (It’s free, and available in the Google Play and App Store now.)

Looking back at 2020, Wausau Pilot and Review published more than 5,000 stories. Most were written by people in our newsroom. But we also rounded out coverage with stories from the Associated Press, Courthouse News, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Kaiser Health News, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and other well-respected newsrooms publishing stories with huge impact for our readers.

Though the vast majority of those stories are local — something we take great pride in — our coverage expanded to include statewide stories during a crucial election season and national health crisis.

Our audience has grown substantially, too. Our stories were read more than 10 million times in 2020, a nearly 40 percent increase over 2019. That’s great news for our sponsors and advertising partners, many of whom joined us this year. Learn more about opportunities for 2021 by emailing us here.

All in all, it’s been a year of growth. We’re incredibly grateful to you, our readers, for your support in 2020 and we can’t wait to see what 2021 brings.

Which stories had the most impact? Here’s what mattered most to you in 2020, starting with COVID-19.

It should be no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic that completely upended our lives beginning in March dominated headlines and stirred great controversy. Your letters and comments on social media showed just how divided we were as a country over the potential danger of the virus and the best response to it.

One letter, from Wausau Dr. Fritz Riveron, questioned the science and the data early on. This was our most-read opinion piece of the year. The letter was written and submitted after Dr. Riveron’s colleague, Dr. David Murdock, was placed on leave after attending a rally to open the state, something many readers had strong opinions about. Dr. Murdock later voiced his concern about the effects of the pandemic as the health care system became overwhelmed with patients and the death toll edged upward.

Wausau, Weston and Marathon County issued their own orders after Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order was overturned. But the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce fought county officials every step of the way when it came down to drafting a COVID-19 ordinance. Businesses stayed open, but it wasn’t cheap. Big companies spent anywhere from hundreds of thousands to almost a billion dollars in COVID-19-related costs, business analysts say, even as they faced uncertain demand from consumers.

And the infections and deaths kept right on coming.

The mask order created a huge debate. The decision to keep pools closed in Wausau had mixed reaction from residents. The Wausau School District opted for a virtual start, enraging many parents and resulting in hundreds of transfers to alternate districts.

The effects of COVID-19 continue to resonate, from the way we work to the way we shop and spend our time. From a health standpoint, one reader shared her ongoing battle with the virus here, one of our most-read stories of the year.

But then, hope began to emerge as vaccines were developed and approved in record time. Through it all, our COVID-19 resource page, which includes detailed data updated daily, was our most-visited page of the year. We hope we won’t need it much longer.

Hate crimes continued to tick upward in 2020. We took a look at the reasons why.

Hate crimes aren’t just relegated to big cities. We talked to experts and one Klan member about white nationalism and other hate-based ideologies that continue to flourish in rural communities. Some of those groups are increasingly active but harder to track, as they move their networks underground. Read our story, here.

A Wausau car dealer that voluntarily closed in 2020 made headlines in one of our most-shared stories of the year.

Wausau Auto, the company behind all those “199 Ride.com” ads we used to hear and see, had dozens of complaints from consumers who alleged the dealership hid defects and damage before selling vehicles to customers. Our investigation looked at hundreds of pages of records from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which detail allegations of fraud and deceptive business practices. Read the full story, here.

Election news was a big draw this year with local, state and national issues and candidates on the ballot.

Though we publish brief stories about national news on occasion, we generally leave the presidential races (and all the drama that goes with them) to the national outlets who are much better poised to offer data and perspective on such issues. For election issues, we focus largely on local and statewide coverage.

In March, we featured in-depth question and answer sessions with candidates for offices including Wausau mayor and council members. Our coverage of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race and Jill Karofsky’s win was among our top-read stories of the year, as was Katie Rosenberg’s win over incumbent Mayor Rob Mielke.

A downtown Wausau restaurant owner who died this year was fondly remembered by friends, family members and coworkers in a feature obituary that was widely circulated on social media.

Mary Pepowski truly did make the world a better place. Read more about her her in this story.

A video that captured a Wausau man driving a boat onto a landing – without a trailer – went viral.

Bystander video captured 49-year-old Joel Kleiber allegedly speeding across Lake Wausau and ramming his watercraft on to a boat ramp at D.C. Everest Park, 1800 S. Third Ave. Some readers were horrified; others were amused. All things considered, it was probably not the best way to park a boat, though the video provided a momentary escape from reality for some of us. Police, though, didn’t find it funny and neither did prosecutors. We’ll see what the judge says when it’s all said and done. Kleiber was charged with reckless endangerment – a felony. Read more here.

Other, more serious crimes in Wausau and the surrounding area were also widely read in 2020, from the 2,000 meth doses taken off the street to the arrest of a former teacher accused of assault. Crime coverage is controversial, with some newspapers eliminating the public safety beat altogether. Ours continues, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is your right to know what’s happening in your neighborhood.

But our favorite story of the year came from children.

This year we introduced “Letters to Santa,” an opportunity for children to share their wish lists with us. Before sending their letters to the North Pole, we collected them for publication. Their heartwarming notes, wishes for their parents and loved ones and hopes for a coronavirus cure, made the struggles of 2020 somehow all worthwhile. This is a tradition we’ll continue for years to come.

Thanks for a great year, readers. We know this has been a challenge. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we are so ready for 2021 to begin.

Here’s to a much better and happier 2021. Cheers to each and every one of you.

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