With almost two years of a disruptive pandemic under our collective belts, it’s become increasingly common to remark about a loosening grip on the passage of time. Perhaps you too have struggled to remember where certain events fit in your personal timeline. Did that happen before the pandemic started or later? Was it in 2020 or 2021? The first wave or the third? The tendency from 2020 of our days and weeks to muddle together didn’t entirely go away. In that regard, rituals like celebrating the new year become even more important. The changing over from one year to the next can feel as arbitrary as waiting until January 1 to make positive changes in your life, but there’s no disputing that New Year’s rituals help keep us grounded and offer a snapshot of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

In a year bookended by an insurrection and Omicron, it’s not controversial to say things didn’t go quite as well as anyone hoped. A spring and summer of progress and promise ultimately made way for a winter of dread and discontent — and a fear that we may have found ourselves all the way back where we started once more.

Here at the Daily Yonder, we were not immune to these feelings. Our top stories of 2021 share some common themes with our list from one year ago (it’s probably not hard to guess what’s in the number one spot). Still, there were lots of new things to be excited about too. New email newsletters and ongoing series. A growing roster of reporting talent. More audio, video, and multimedia features. And an Instagram channel to boot.

The work wasn’t always easy in 2021, but as this list shows, it was often fun, interesting, and important.

Honorable Mention: The Yonder on the Radio

This first item isn’t a “story” per se, but we’d be remiss to not include it in an accounting of the year that was. In August, through a partnership with the Public News Service, we launched a weekly radio newscast for rural America. The Yonder Report adapts the best of our reporting into audio form. More than 1,700 radio stations in 45 states have picked up episodes of the Yonder Report for use on their airwaves; meanwhile, the show has been downloaded and listened to more than 15,000 times through popular podcast services.

The Yonder Report

A weekly audio newscast bringing you the news from rural America. The Yonder Report is a short, fast-paced roundup of rural news, featuring a wide variety of rural voices.…

10. Lifting Up the Voices and Experiences of Black Appalachians

Our country’s efforts to reckon with systemic racism continued into 2021, and at the Daily Yonder we again sought to elevate the perspectives of rural America’s Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. This year, like every year, our coverage set out to empower historically marginalized groups and showcase the full diversity of rural places. This review of William H. Turner’s latest book was the story in this category that generated the most attention and conversation over the past year.

9. Rural Places Worth Seeing, and Learning From

Each rural zip code has unique challenges and opportunities, but our work at the Daily Yonder shows us there are some constants. Among those: there’s power in making your community a place where people want to live, work, and play. Kim Kobersmith’s story on these kinds of efforts, what the experts call “Creative Placemaking,” showed how four communities are putting that principle into action. For more inspiring work that gives a real sense of place, we’d also recommend Kim’s ongoing series profiling rural chefs and restaurant owners.

8. Meet the Path Finders

Early in 2021, we launched Path Finders, a weekly newsletter featuring people doing interesting work across rural America. Through Path Finders, we brought you interviews with authors, artists, musicians, journalists, researchers, and more. The three articles below were the most popular of the bunch, offering a good cross section of nearly a year’s worth of insightful and enriching conversations.

7. Redneck, Revisited

When the Blue Collar Comedy Tour of the early aughts hit us with its, “You might be a redneck” routine, it’s unlikely you would have heard anyone conclude that setup with the punchline, “if you were an organized labor activist labeled by coal barons as a communist agitator.” But that’s exactly the sort of story Abby Lee Hood set out to tell here, unearthing some of the historical complexities at play in the ongoing evolution of the term.

The Unexpected, Radical Roots of ‘Redneck’

The term is known best as an insult for backwoods hillbillies, but in one chapter of Appalachian history “redneck” was also used to spread fear of communist militants and oppress organized mine workers.

6. Zoom Towns, Brain Gain, and Hopes of Rural Renaissance

It remains an open question how this moment in history will shape the demographic and economic fortunes of rural America. We likely won’t have definitive answers for many years to come, but 2021 saw a number of stories about early signs of promise. There are several people who are seizing on this moment as a window of opportunity to attract and cultivate talent in rural places. This commentary out of Appalachia was the one that resonated most with Daily Yonder readers this year.

5. In-Depth Reporting From Our Rural Reporting Fellows

Our new Rural Reporting Fellowship picked up speed last year, with eight fellows passing through our newsroom in 2021. These emerging journalists are helping us cover rural stories that matter, including the four selections below which proved particularly popular with our audience. And as a new year gets underway, our fellows continue to author impressive, important work.

4. Trekking Through Rural America

Many were eager to start traveling again in 2021. With some pandemic limitations lingering, the wide open spaces of the “Great Outdoors” continued to be a major draw. Rural America has a lot to offer there, and Daily Yonder correspondent Kim Kobersmith captured it wonderfully in her feature story about the TransAmerica Bike Trail. Come for the striking collection of photos, stay for the memories shared by riders and communities along the trail. And for more in this vein, don’t miss Kim’s latest feature on star gazing and dark sky sanctuaries.

3. Strange and Cryptic Tales

Bigfoot, the Mothman, UFOs, and little green men. These enduring symbols of American legend and lore have distinctly rural roots. While it may seem like silly business, this year we had correspondent Liz Carey take a closer look at the role these larger-than-life entities have played in many rural places. From festivals to statues and public art, the impact for communities can be very real. Several of these stories garnered high traffic, and in honor of the Halloween holiday we packaged them together in a special series, with fantastic art from illustrator Nhatt Nichols.

Rural Monsters, Myths, and Legends

Just beyond the gaze of “normal” existence, strange sightings and odd encounters have lingered in the memories of many rural communities.

2. The Straight Poop

Sometimes our team can predict which stories are going to blow up, and other times stories take us completely by surprise. It was solidly the second with Donna Kallner’s column on rural septic systems. Then again, in hindsight it shouldn’t have been surprising at all. As evidenced by the toilet paper shortages of one year earlier, the bathroom is an essential, universal, and sacred space. But unlike the momentary disruptions to the toilet paper market, the challenges of maintaining a rural septic system are ongoing and ever present. The popularity of Donna’s story reminds us: everybody poops and every year has its poopy parts.

Straight Talk About Rural Septic Systems

Instagram has a “#septicsystem” hashtag with 15.4K posts. Okay, they’re not as glamorous as pictures of heritage breed chickens. But they remind us of a rural reality: We have to manage our own waste.

1. Covid Pandemic Year 2

When Covid-19 first came on the scene almost two years ago, many were quick to note the experience of dealing with the virus would be a marathon rather than a sprint. Our ongoing Covid coverage proved this point and reader interest put all doubt to rest. For the second year running, we published our weekly “Red Zone” reports and maintained our Covid-19 Dashboard for Rural America — through each new wave and variant. By the midpoint of the year, we added a second weekly update focused on tracking Covid-19 vaccination progress for rural America. And this data reporting made other stories possible in turn, including up-close looks at trends in the data and features on rural places that stood out for their efforts to contain the virus or administer vaccines. Taken together, coverage of Covid-19 was again our top story of the year, with these four stories in particular at the top of the pack.

Happy New Year

As 2021 comes to a close, all of us at the Daily Yonder wish you a safe, healthy, and happy new year. Whatever is around the next corner, we’re ever grateful for your ongoing support and we look forward to bringing you more great rural stories in the year ahead.