As the Rochester Beacon wraps up its second full calendar year of publication, we’ve taken a look back at the stories that stood out in 2020.
One way to identify those articles is through data: Analytics tell us which ones generated the most website traffic and clicks on our Weekly Review email.
In 2020, the number of users at RochesterBeacon.com has topped 175,000. No. 1 in their eyes was “On her 200th birthday, should we ‘cancel’ Susan B. Anthony?” by Washington Correspondent Peter Lovenheim. This article, about the famed suffragist who owned and flaunted an alligator purse, argues that it makes no sense to vilify her for failing to conform to the moral standards of our time. Peter also wrote the second-most-viewed piece, “Erin Perrine’s proximity to power,” about the Rochester native who was director of press communications for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Rounding out the top three was “The divide within us,” Managing Editor Smriti Jacob’s look at racism: how it is complex and polarizing—and affects all of us.
Social media and other external factors can drive website pageviews. By contrast, the Beacon’s Weekly Review email—which is free but requires registration—offers a way to gauge the interests of the Beacon’s most loyal readers. By this yardstick, “The risks facing Warren and Doorley,” Publisher Alex Zapesochny’s analysis of the prosecution of Rochester’s mayor by the county’s district attorney, ranked first. “Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?” by Senior Editor E. Catherine Salibian generated the second-highest number of email clicks, followed by “Should the pandemic end now?” This was a point/counterpoint on the state’s pandemic restrictions, written by Opinion Editor Kent Gardner and guest contributor Jim Ryan Jr.
Using data, of course, is only one way to measure the quality or impact of journalism. Some others are more subjective but valid nonetheless. To approach the question from another angle, we asked each of our principal writers to pick the “best” piece they’d contributed to the Beacon in 2020. We didn’t define “best”—it could be the one that most successfully tackled an important subject, had the biggest response from readers or simply meant the most to the writer.
Senior Writer Will Astor’s favorite story was “Six Nations art show goes virtual,” posted in November. The reason? “My affection for this story rests less in what I wrote than in the interviews I did with Katsitsionne Fox, a member of the Mohawk Nation who exhibited a pot she made in the show, and show organizer Peter Jemison, a Seneca and the manager of and guiding spirit behind Ganondagan, the Ontario County historic site where the show is hosted. The show exclusively exhibits work by members of the six Haudenosaunee nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora—that peopled this region before Europeans settled here. Fox’s and Jemison’s passion to express those nations’ traditions and stories as living, breathing and growing forces inspired me.”
For Contributing Writer Mike Costanza, the article that stands out is the one he wrote in June about small farms and COVID-19.
“I’ve always had a kind of soft spot for relatively small, local farms,” he explains, “so I really enjoyed researching and writing ‘A bumper crop of woes,’ a story about coronavirus’ effects on Rochester-area farms’ operations and bottom lines. Gaining an intimate look at the risks that undocumented farmworkers are facing during the pandemic was icing on the cake.”
Kent Gardner’s five-part series on Eastman Kodak was his pick. The series concluded in early January with “What went wrong at Kodak?”
Explains Kent: “Eastman Kodak as a company, George Eastman as a community leader and philanthropist, and the many Kodak-influenced leaders and philanthropists have left an indelible mark on Rochester. My goal in researching and writing the story was to remind us of the ongoing impact of Kodak on the regional economy.”
Smriti Jacob chose “Can trust be restored?” Posted in October, the piece examined the shattered trust in law enforcement in the wake of the death of Daniel Prude.
“I was able to communicate a complex narrative, showing nuance in opinion and diversity in thought,” she observes. “It was an unusual story in the sense I could take the reader back in time, offer historical context and show that despite differences in tactics, members of Rochester’s BIPOC community were united in wanting antiracist policies to keep residents safe.”
Peter Lovenheim did not pick either of the two stories that grabbed the most pageviews on our website. Instead, he selected a recent piece: “A Diversity of Black Voices.”
Notes Peter: “I worked on the story off and on for five months and along the way was fortunate to meet some fellow Rochesterians who I found both courageous and inspiring. I’m grateful to have been able to provide them a platform to express views that are too often ignored by local media.”
Cathy Salibian’s selection was another piece that tackled the racial issues that moved to the forefront this year. In “Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?,” she says, “I mention that I was born of Armenian parents. I don’t mention that my parents were genocide survivors. I’ve always wondered how people could sit by and let their neighbors of another religion or ethnicity be killed. That question was hard on my mind the summer of 2020, as our nation’s streets filled with protests over the death of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans. What was my responsibility as a white person? What did I owe George Floyd and every other Black person at risk in our country today? I wrote the article to explore that question.”
“This is a pretty easy one for me,” Alex Zapesochny wrote in response to our question. “I pick the story about searching for my great aunt in Poland: “Searching for Leah Liwska: A Purim Story.” That piece was very meaningful to me because it chronicled my journey to learn more about a long-lost relative. But it was also meaningful because finding clues about her short and tragic life also proved to be life-affirming for our family. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, she was able to be a good and caring person. During the year of COVID, I think we need to remember that lesson more than ever.”
Unlike Alex, I had a hard time deciding. Researching and writing about antibodies—after finding out I’d had one of the early local COVID infections—certainly was meaningful for me. But instead, I chose a pre-pandemic article: “Learning from the Holocaust.” Recent surveys show that nearly half of Americans cannot identify Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people died in the Holocaust. As the number of survivors dwindles, I wanted to explore the question: What must we learn before there are no more survivors to tell their own stories? This piece was based on my own visits to Auschwitz and interviews with members of Rochester’s Jewish community who are working to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust. As one local survivor told me, “If you see something, don’t stand by; say something, stand up. … We have to stand for each other.”
Taken together, the stories that generated the highest number of clicks and the ones that our chief writers consider their best work of the year show the breadth of subject and in-depth reporting that we’ve aimed to achieve since launching the Beacon in October 2018. We’re eager to continue that work in 2021.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.