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Vasché: Year's top stories filled with tales of turmoil, struggle

It been quite a year, 2009.

And thank goodness we're about to put it behind us — or at least the tests and turmoil that grabbed headlines for most of the past 12 months.

Just think about it for a moment ...

As a nation, as a state, as a region, we all struggled with the same things: job losses, bankruptcies, home foreclosures, polarized leadership, huge government deficits, horrific crimes, deadly illness, notable deaths and more.

It's no wonder, then, that the end of 2009 can't come a moment too soon for many if not most among us. While there were some bright spots, all in all the year's news was more down than up. And while the outlook for 2010 isn't much brighter, perhaps having survived the past one will have made us stronger and better suited for whatever the next year has in store.

Without a doubt, the year's big story — here at home, up and down our state and across the country — was the economy.

Despite a mind-boggling $787 billion federal stimulus package, America's economy struggled throughout the year as unemployment hit double digits, banks and businesses failed, the auto industry hung on for dear life and the stock market fell to a 12-year low.

In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, it was even worse, as most counties — including Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced — consistently led the nation in some of the worst ways: joblessness, foreclosures and bankruptcies.

In many ways, the economic woes overshadowed everything else — not just in the headlines in this paper but in people's everyday lives.

Still, lots else happened:

Modesto held its first-ever district elections for City Council. Voters throughout the area tossed more than a dozen incumbents from office. Cities, counties, school districts and just about every agency funded by the public struggled to make ends meet; of the larger bodies, one of the worst off was Modesto City Schools, which saw its projected budget deficit grow from $9 million to as much as $29 million.

Public outrage grew as details emerged of legal but questionable spiking of county employee pensions. And some public agencies descended into dysfunction, with Hughson and Riverbank leading the way and Turlock not far behind.

Law enforcement grabbed its share of headlines, from Modesto's top cop leaving for a city manager job in Turlock to controversy over deaths by suspects who had been Tasered by officers to a major crackdown on gangs to more than two dozen homicides in the greater Modesto area. And more local soldiers lost their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Business also had its ups and downs. Gottschalks' closure was the last of three major retail losses, following Mervyn's and Circuit City; despite that, most spaces were filled at Riverbank's Crossroads Center and Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto. But high costs, low prices and a growing water crisis battered agriculture, including the area's top commodity, dairy.

New home construction was virtually nonexistent; at the same time, a continued decline in housing values, which hurt homeowners and drastically reduced property tax revenues, made homeownership possible for many and increased existing home sales.

There was much, much more, from the YMCA of Stanislaus County closing its doors to state Sen. Dave Cogdill and U.S. Rep. George Radanovich deciding not to seek re-election to Modesto hosting a stage of the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race to Modesto Christian High School bringing home the city's first state football title.

Much of what happened here mirrored what grabbed headlines on a national level.

Each year The Associated Press, which provides much of the wire service news that appears in The Bee and most of America's papers, asks the nation's editors to rank the top stories of the year.

This year the 117 of us who voted ranked the economy as the top story of 2009. That was followed closely by Barack Obama's inauguration and first year in office. Interestingly, a year earlier, Obama's election was voted the top story, followed by the economy.

Health care reform was the third- highest vote-getter, followed by the auto industry woes, the swine flu pandemic, the growing conflict in Afghanistan, Michael Jackson's death, the Fort Hood rampage, Edward Kennedy's death and the miraculous jet landing on the Hudson River.

For the first time since 2001, the war in Iraq did not make the top 10; it was voted No. 16.

The Bee's ballot was similar but not identical to the AP's final top 10 list. While we listed the economy and Obama as the top two, we also included on our list Sonia Sotomayor becoming the first Latina on the Supreme Court. That bumped the "Miracle on the Hudson" off our list.

Our top 10 list was, in order: the economy, Obama, Fort Hood, Jackson's death, health care reform, swine flu, auto industry, Afghanistan, Sotomayor and Kennedy's death.

For the first time, the AP also conducted a poll on Facebook. In that unscientific but interesting voting, Obama edged out the economy as the top story. Fort Hood and Afghanistan didn't make the list while Iran and Sotomayor did.

Finally, which local stories drew the most attention on The Bee's Web site, modbee.com?

It wasn't the economy, or elections, or swine flu, or sports, or anything like that.

The most popular story, with a little more than 1 million page views, was about the 5 millionth baseball fan at Modesto's John Thurman Field. Not far behind was a Jeff Jardine column on a couple's lost tax documents. Rounding out the top 10 most-viewed local stories on modbee.com were additional Jardine columns and some crime stories.

Together, the top 10 drew nearly 19 million page views.

With all of that behind us, you can't help but wonder what lies ahead of us in the New Year.

Mark S. Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, can be reached at mvasche@modbee.com or 578-2356.

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