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The stories Journal readers loved in 2021

Photographs, illustrations and provocative discussions joined high-quality original reporting to produce content that expanded The Journal’s audience.

The top three stories sought out by readers on klcjournal.com this year stand out from the rest of the pack by an order of magnitude. They captured significantly more attention than anything we published and got people talking well beyond the confines of the audience that The Journal typically reaches. 

Two of these stories drew enough readership to rank among the top 10 all-time of Journal stories, not just the top 10 for 2021. The third drew hundreds into a conversation about keeping the republic and inspired our magazine’s first-ever essay contest.

My guess is that these pieces will have staying power and readers will be turning to them for years to come to better understand civic issues in Kansas and their own roles in addressing them. 

Stay tuned for more great stories from The Journal in 2022!

#1:   The preservation of a zany artist’s work brings benefits to his hometown and offers an opportunity to view his legacy differently.

M.T. Liggett spent three decades crafting and erecting hundreds of provocative, vivid metal sculptures and whirligigs. According to his son, M.T. Liggett began cranking out his metal artwork in the late 1980s after someone poisoned his horse and killed it. “He would make gargoyles to keep the evil spirits away,” James Liggett says.

Way back in 2002, I met the folk artist M.T. Liggett while traveling on assignment for The Hutchinson News. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

But if you would have told me that nearly two decades later, Liggett would not only be featured in a civic leadership magazine, he’d be the subject of the publication’s most-read story for the year. I’m not sure I would have believed it.

And yet, holding multiple interpretations about Liggett and his legacy is a task that can bring worthwhile payoffs. Earlier this year, reporter Beccy Tanner profiled Liggett, who died in 2017 at age 86, and his often complicated relationship with Mullinville.

The new twist is that provocative Liggett, who could be a thorn in the side of his neighbors, had also bequeathed an incredible inheritance to his community. The totem poles and whirligigs Liggett built over the years in a pasture alongside the highway had attracted the attention of a national foundation that works to preserve grassroots art. The end result would be a cultural attraction that will bring in tourists and help Mullinville, with a population of fewer than 300, maintain its place on the map.

The visitor center at the M.T. Liggett Art Environment opened earlier this fall, and if The Journal’s story is any indication, it can expect to draw people from across the country. Beccy’s story reached a national audience in all 50 states and easily ranks as klcjournal.com’s most-read story in 2021.

It’s also a good reminder that just because you think you know the story, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look again from time to time to behold something new. Because you just might see something new that you hadn’t seen before.

#2:   Demonstrating the beauty and power of going back to the way of the bison for the benefit of the land and ranching profits

The Hoys on horseback with the Flint Hills in the background.

The pandemic often made life challenging for Jeff Tuttle, The Journal’s chief photojournalist. While reporters can interview their subjects over Zoom or by phone, photographing Kansans in action often requires getting up close and personal.

For parts of 2020 and 2021, that didn’t really feel safe to do. A consummate professional, Jeff found ways to adapt and stay safe from the coronavirus. But we couldn’t quite engage in the stunning visual storytelling that we want The Journal to exemplify.

The release of the coronavirus vaccines not only opened up Kansas, it also reopened a world of possibilities for Jeff. And nowhere is it clearer how he took advantage of them than in his photography of ranchers from three picturesque locations in Kansas.

Jeff’s photography only broadened the impact of fantastic reporting by Michael Pearce about a new generation of ranchers finding success experimenting with unconventional methods and becoming more profitable and having the land in the process. It struck a chord with those who value the link between agriculture and conservation.

At a time when there are fewer and fewer photojournalists chronicling the everyday activities of Kansans, this story puts the spotlight on people, their ways of life and the landscapes they preserve that all too often go unseen in an increasingly urbanizing Kansas.

#3:  By raising uncomfortable questions, this essay encouraged Journal readers to explore how to help keep the Republic

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 proved to be one of the most momentous events of 2021. As much as has been written about the topic of keeping the republic in the days since, there have been few that challenge factions across the political spectrum quite like Marty Linsky’s provocative essay for the Winter 2021 edition of The Journal.

The piece celebrates the 2020 election and its aftermath as a stress test, one that proved the republic could still peacefully transfer power even in the most polarized of times. It also calls upon individuals to do the work of healing the rifts created by the election and the pandemic. Perhaps hardest of all, it calls on all of us to experience loss by giving up the comfort of blaming others, our sense of moral high ground and even some “dearly held beliefs.”

The illustrations for the piece were drawn by Anthony Russo, a Rhode Island illustrator I met through Marty and his wife, Lynn Staley. His beautiful illustrations, particularly on the cover, elevate a provocative piece to an even higher level. I can’t think of a single thing we did as a magazine in 2021 that I’m prouder of.

About 200 people attended our virtual discussion of the essay with Marty and Ed O’Malley, KLC President and CEO. Nearly a year later, it’s still a piece worth discussing and even questioning.

Sometimes great magazine pieces give you clarity and answers. But other times their resonance comes from the nagging questions they lodge in your brain firmly enough that they become harder to ignore.

#4:   Beware the seven destructive sins of civic engagement. They’re seductive but sever us from our obligations as citizens.

Photo of Chris Green, managing editor of The Journal

Chris Green

In these polarized times, it’s often easy to blame the opposing side for what’s wrong in civic life. In fact, it’s extremely popular to do so. If you want to get likes, clicks or plaudits from people who share your views and values, there’s no easier way than pointing out the sins of your opponents.

But if you truly care about shaping civic culture for the better, you’d be wise to spend some time taking a look in the mirror. Exploring how you might be contributing to the mess is crucial for both leadership and for being an effective citizen.

Yet it’s certainly not an easy thing to do. Earlier this year, I devoted an entire column to identifying seven destructive civic sins that get in the way of helping us solve problems. These transgressions undermine our abilities to fulfill our obligations as Americans to shape our country for the better.

My hope in pointing out these failings isn’t to elevate myself toward sainthood. I’m just as much a sinner as everyone else. But it’s my view that being able to recognize these unproductive behaviors and being willing to call them out when we see them will go a long way to helping us keep the republic for decades to come.

#5:   Plenty of jobs but too little child care? A Kansas community has a plan for that.

More than a child care facility will rise from this plot of ground. For, from left, Lucas Neece, assistant Lindsborg city administrator; Mike Drier, president of the Sprout House board; and RoJean Loucks, a Sprout House board member; the construction will be the culmination of a vision.

For the longest time, when people talked about economic development in Kansas, they have talked about jobs. But what happens when your community has plenty of jobs but other factors keep people from taking them?

It’s a challenge more and more places are facing. It’s becoming increasingly complex for many communities to find the right formulas for securing their economic futures. As a result, the range of issues being discussed, from providing more affordable housing to making child care more affordable and accessible, continue to widen.

But Kansans don’t have to sit back and wait for the state or federal governments to solve these problems on their behalf. Earlier this year, reporter Beccy Tanner profiled how Lindsborg officials and community partners formed an alliance to address a lack of child care that could threaten the viability of the community.

The community is in the process of implementing solutions to not only address its own crisis but also create a model that can help other communities provide the services and amenities they’ll need for 21st century economic growth.

#6:  A history of racist violence in Kansas often proves too heavy for words. Some are trying to talk about it despite that.

The Rev. Robert Johnson stands in Saint Mark United Methodist Church

The Rev. Robert Johnson of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita sees an urgency to having community conversations about racism and reconciliation. He says Black Kansans understand the state’s history of racial discrimination, and whites need to learn it too. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

David Condos, the western Kansas correspondent for the Kansas News Service, authored a provocative story that explored how Kansas, despite pride in its free state history, “was at times violently … unwelcome to African Americans” trying to reside here. I was impressed by the piece, as I have been by much of David’s reporting. I wondered if he might be interested in writing a follow-up magazine article for The Journal that looked at how Kansans were responding to that history.

David thought it sounded like an interesting idea for a story, and signed on to do the piece for us. What emerged showed just how difficult it is to spur dialogue about the past. Those who attempt to do it often find themselves standing alone, with some of their neighbors emphasizing that no good can come of it.

But some, in places as varied as Hays, Wichita, Liberal and Ellsworth, are using their voices anyway, in hopes of charting a path toward acknowledgment and even reconciliation.

The story went on to inspire discussions on Kansas City Public Radio and served as the topic of a Journal Live discussion in September.

#7:   A rural, red county in NE Kansas leads the way on COVID-19 vaccination.

Marshall County rural vaccination

The administrator of the Marshall County Health Department in Marysville, Sue Rhodes, strides past one of Kansas’ more successful COVID-19 vaccination venues. About half of the county’s residents have received at least one immunization injection. (Photo by Luke Townsend)

Much of the national narrative over the past year has focused on a growing red-blue divide when it comes to reacting to the pandemic. Counties that voted for President Trump are seeing more cases and deaths and lower rates of COVID-19 vaccination than counties that voted for President Biden.

But one rural, red Kansas county has been able to buck such trends, driven in a large part by the skillful ways county health officials have built deep levels of trust with their neighbors. Reporter Kaylie McLaughlin traveled to Marshall County on behalf of The Journal and filed this report on their efforts and the extent to which other counties might replicate their success.

At the time, the northeast Kansas county had a higher percentage of its population fully immunized against COVID-19 than any other county, which is still true today, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Nearly 59% have received their completed vaccines series as of earlier this week, a full 10-percentage points higher than the state average.

#8:   A lack of trust in government fueling resistance to getting COVID-19 vaccines.

Galen Crippen, pastor of Sharon Springs United Methodist Church

Galen Crippen, pastor of Sharon Springs United Methodist Church, worries some of his parishioners don’t take the coronavirus seriously enough. But he doesn’t think his voice will persuade many of them to get the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, Crippen hasn’t gotten the shot himself because he’s worried there hasn’t been enough testing on how the shots would react with other medication he receives for his health issues. (Photo by Barbara Shelly)

Despite success occurring in places such as Marshall County, more than 4-in-10 Kansans have yet to choose to get a shot. In hopes of understanding the increasingly politicized views of the vaccines, reporter Barbara Shelly traveled to Wallace County, on the Colorado border, which has one of the state’s lowest vaccination rates, over the summer.

She received a warm welcome there and learned that residents didn’t seem to begrudge their neighbors for choosing to get one of the coronavirus vaccines. But their lack of trust in the federal government and state agencies encouraging vaccination and sense of independence meant they wouldn’t be choosing to be immunized.

But reasoning could be very nuanced, too, illustrating how many factors can weigh on people’s minds as they consider whether they want to take the vaccine or not.

#9:   Farm-to-table food took off in Kansas. But what happens after the pandemic?

The Diederich family of Washington County benefitted from Shop Kansas Farms

Last year as COVID roiled the meatpacking business, the Diederich family of Washington County – (from left) Ryan, Evelyn and Mark – had cattle that needed to go to market and no place that would take them. Evelyn got word of a new Facebook group page called Shop Kansas Farms and posted that they had meat on the hoof available. Orders rolled in. (Photo by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

If you’re looking for an example of something good to come out of the pandemic for Kansas farmers and consumers, you might consider ranking Shop Kansas Farms high on your list.

What started as a Facebook group in April 2020 quickly exploded to include more than 130,000 members (it now has close to 152,000). Founded by Rick McNary, the site connected livestock producers and produce growers with hungry consumers worried about empty store shelves. It added a burst of energy into the development of the state’s local and regional food systems.

Reporter Stan Finger chronicles the rise of direct-to-consumer sales in Kansas and what the future holds with demand expected to drop from peak-2020 levels.

#10:  Collaborative leadership paves way for one school district to reclaim stability.

Alicia Miguel, interim superintendent of the district, and Randy Lopez, president of the school board, have been credited with bringing engaging leadership styles to their positions after a period of contentiousness atop the district.

Public school officials have borne some of the brunt of pandemic disruptions. They have often faced difficult choices in keeping students and teachers safe and ensuring the school system continues operating.

It’s a dynamic that’s left some parents deeply unhappy and could be a factor in backlash that forced school board incumbents in places such as Wichita out of office this past fall.

Even before the pandemic, the Kansas City, Kansas School District faced disruptions and challenges. But reporter Mark Wiebe found that, with the help of collaborative leadership from an interim superintendent and the school board president, the district seemed to be finding much needed common ground this past spring. Even as skeptical legislators singled it out for being one of the last remaining holdouts relying on remote classes.

The school eventually voted unanimously to return students to the classroom and a new superintendent started on July 1. The district still faces plenty of challenges, from dealing with pandemic learning loss to recruiting teachers.

But school officials seemed poised to confront them collaboratively, a return to the kind of stability that the district has experienced while having just 16 superintendents in 105 years.

Cover of Journal about Father Kapaun

Read more stories in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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