Monday, November 30, 2020

Hunger in U.S., which is disproportionately rural, at highest point since 1998, first year comparable data available

According to a Washington Post analysis of new federal data, "more Americans are going hungry now than at any point during the deadly coronavirus pandemic . . . a problem created by an economic downturn that has tightened its grip on millions of Americans and compounded by government relief programs that expired or will terminate at the end of the year," the Post reports in a story rich with graphics and maps. "Experts say it is likely that there’s more hunger in the United States today than at any point since 1998, when the Census Bureau began collecting comparable data about households’ ability to get enough food."

Nearly 26 million adults, or one in eight, said they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the past week. That figure rose to one in six adults among households with children, the Post reports. The pandemic, and the government's uneven response to it, has driven the nationwide spike in hunger, according to Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty Executive Director Jeremy K. Everett.

"Hunger rates spiked nationwide after shutdowns in late March closed large chunks of the U.S. economy," the Post reports. "The situation improved somewhat as businesses reopened and the benefits from a $2.2 trillion federal pandemic aid package flowed into people’s pockets, with beefed-up unemployment benefits, support for food programs and incentives for companies to keep workers on the payroll, But those effects were short-lived. The bulk of the federal aid had faded by September, and more than 12 million workers stand to lose unemployment benefits before year’s end if Congress doesn’t extend key programs."

Though the Post story focuses on Houston, rural Americans often face hunger and food insecurity at higher rates than the overall population, according to recent research from Feeding America. The research highlights several reasons for the disparity: rural areas are more likely to be in food deserts, job openings tend to be low-wage, and there are higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. Rural hunger was declining in 2019, but the pandemic spurred a turnaround. 

"Congress left for its Thanksgiving break without making any progress on a new pandemic aid deal even as food banks across the country report a crush of demand heading into the holidays," the Post reports. That goes especially for rural food banks, Kyle Swenson reports for the Post.

Wed. webinar to cover farm income and financial forecasts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Dec. 2,  about its newest farm income and financial forecasts. You can view the reports here after they are released.

During the hour-long webinar, economist Carrie Litkowski of USDA's Economic Research Service will go over the newest figures, which cover a broad range of data and predictions concerning the farm economy for 2020. The forecast is updated three times a year, usually in February, August and November.

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Here's a summary of the 2020 farm forecast from September, and here's the one from last December.

China's bought less than half what it promised in trade deal

In February, China promised to buy about $36.6 billion in U.S. farm goods as part of the "Phase I" trade deal with the Trump administration. But China is less than halfway to that goal as of October, with only two months left in the year, Chad Brown reports for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an independent nonprofit organization.

However, Iowa State University economist Wendong Zhang said recently that China is buying large amounts of U.S. food, agriculture products and seafood that could total $31 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ends June 30. "The forecast included $11 billion worth of soybeans, $2.7 billion of pork, $1.8 billion of cotton, and $1.5 billion of corn," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Last week the Department of Agriculture predicted near-record farm exports of $152 billion in the fiscal year, based on expectations that the pandemic will recede and trade tensions with China will fade under the Biden administration, Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

States can improve rural broadband disparity by fixing FCC maps like Georgia did, says report from governors' group

"States can begin to address inequitable access to broadband by improving coverage maps that detail where connections aren't available or are too slow, similar to a pilot program implemented in Georgia, the National Governors Association said in a white paper released this month," Route Fifty reports.

Rural areas have had little access to reliable, affordable broadband for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that disparity as people were forced to work and learn from home during shutdowns. 

The Federal Communications Commission bases broadband funding on self-reported data from telecommunications companies. That data often overestimates how many rural areas have broadband access. Another problem is that major telecoms often nab rural broadband grants and loans, but cut corners by installing slower DSL broadband instead of fiber-optic cable lines.

Even the FCC maps estimate that more than 18 million Americans lacked access to broadband in 2018. "The vast majority—14 million—of those unconnected people live in rural areas, with an additional 1 million residing on tribal lands," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Multiple studies have found that federal data undercounts those populations, the report adds, so the number of people affected by lack of reliable connectivity may be as high as 42 million."

Bureau of Land Management releases plan to reduce Western sagebrush wildfires, protect sage grouse habitat

"Officials on Friday released an overarching plan for removing or changing vegetation over a huge swath of the U.S. West to stop devastating wildfires on land used for cattle ranching, recreation and habitat for imperiled sage grouse," reports Keith Ridler of The Associated Press. "The plan released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management aims to limit wildfires in a 350,000-square-mile area of mainly sagebrush habitat that includes parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah."

The Obama administration came up with the program, which originally cost about $2 million, as a way of protecting sage grouse habitat without formally listing the birds as an endangered species. That could have hindered mining, ranching and recreation, Ridler reports. 

"Giant rangeland wildfires in recent decades have destroyed vast areas of sagebrush steppe ecosystems that support some 350 species of wildlife," Ridler reports. "Experts say the blazes have mainly been driven by cheatgrass, an invasive species that relies on fire to spread to new areas while killing native plants, including sagebrush on which sage grouse depend." Cheatgrass expansion is driven not only by wildfires but by unsustainable populations of wild horses and burros. 

"The plan released Friday does not authorize any specific projects. Instead, its analysis can be used to OK treatments for projects involving prescribed fires, fuel breaks and other measures to prevent or limit massive blazes that have worsened in recent decades," Ridler reports. "Specifically, the agency said the document can be used to help local land managers comply with an environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, when land managers seek approval for specific projects."

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental watchdog group, worries the plan is essentially a BLM "blank check" that will help ranchers and harm wildlife without further input or detailed analysis. "This is an agency whose track record of vegetation manipulation has overwhelmingly resulted in habitat destruction," Molvar said in a press release.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Blazing the 12,000-mile American Perimeter Trail has been a risky proposition for a hiker from Oregon

McKendrick (Photo by Ryan Brennecke, Bend Bulletin)
Creating the longest American hiking trail can be a risky proposition, as a 40-year-old man from Bend, Oregon, has discovered in 15 months of trying to blaze the American Perimeter Trail, which would be a route of 12,000 miles or so connecting the four corners (loosely defined) of the contiguous states.

"He had guns pulled on him twice in Texas. A tree fell on him in Michigan while he was sleeping in a hammock. In North Dakota, driving snowstorms and a severe illness finally brought Rue McKendrick’s 15-month long trek around the United States to an end," at least for the time being, reports Mark Morical of The Bulletin in Bend, Oregon.

APT coordinator Leilah Grace told Morical that the goal of the APT is “a protected corridor of land and natural resources available for recreational use roughly tracing the continental United States.”

The trail uses several existing trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and the Arizona Trail, and McKenrick used much of them, but in Texas there is little public land, and "Twice he had to talk his way out of confrontations as folks pulled guns on him for trespassing on their property."

In March, when McKenrick crossed the Mississippi River into Natchez, "He found it odd that the town was completely empty. Busy hiking and with little access to news, he had not heard about the pandemic. . . . The Appalachian Trail was closed due to the pandemic, so McKenrick followed his own route on the west side of the mountain range. . . . After slogging his way across Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, he eventually turned west into Ohio.

“Before I crossed into Michigan I had a tree fall on me and I broke a toe,” he said. “I was asleep in a hammock when it happened. It was a bad storm and the tree knocked me clean out. It hit me in the head and I also separated my shoulder.” He "nursed himself back to health in a hotel for four or five days," but "by the time he reached Duluth, Minnesota, he was extremely sick with a stomach ailment," Morical writes. :He went to a hospital where he got an IV and some medications. He headed back out yet again but as he got closer to Montana, the snow, the cold and his illness became too much."

McKendrick plans to complete the loop in the spring, again with the help of hiking-gear outfits that are sponsoring him. And he hopes the pandemic will have eased.

“It was more about the people before covid hit,” McKenrick told Morical. “After that it changed dramatically. I don’t look at backpacking as much as a sport as I do an art. When I was traveling through the South and Southeast before covid, I was running into all these microcultures, which were just fascinating. America is a lot more diverse culturally. It’s something that you can see when you’re traveling at the speed of walking. It’s easier to see these things and to meet these people.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Emotional battle over wild horses on federal lands in the West continues as their numbers double every four years

Wild horses in the Nevada desert (Photographs by Melissa Farlow for The Washington Post)

The saga of wild horses and burros on federal land in the West has rarely been told as well as it was recently for The Washington Post by reporter Britta Lokting and photographer Melissa Farlow. Several real-life examples are wrapped around this description of the problem:

A mare named Shoshone, in South Dakota
"The question of what to do with America’s wild horses is an emotional battle over livelihood, freedoms and how humans view animals. Many ranchers see the mustangs as an overpopulated invasive species that competes for the public land their livestock grazes. Animal rights activists see an icon of the American West that deserves better protection.

"There are over 100,000 wild horses and burros on 26.9 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land, according to the agency. This doesn’t include mustangs on Native American reservations, national parks, several U.S. Forest Service territories and lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM has failed to keep populations at what it considers a sustainable level. To deal with the so-called excess horses, the agency rounds them up, usually using helicopters, puts them in short-term holding pens, tries to adopt them out, and then sends the unwanted ones — currently over 47,000 — to private, grassy pastures in the Midwest.

A herd of wild horses on the move in the Nevada desert
"With unchecked herds doubling every four years, the program is now in crisis mode. 'We’re at a point that we’ve never been before,' says Jenny Lesieutre, a spokeswoman for wild horse and burro issues at the bureau’s Nevada office. “It’s more than three times what the land can sustainably support in the long term, and we are a multiuse agency. That land is shared by all kinds of wildlife and plants.”

"It’s illegal for the bureau to euthanize healthy horses, though it euthanizes ones that have such ailments as blindness or club feet. Officials also can’t ship horses to slaughter or sell them to someone who intends to ship them to slaughter. (Though widely taboo, eating horsemeat is technically legal federally; some consider it a cheap source of protein.) The agency is at a standstill, partly because options like euthanasia or slaughter face intense backlash. . . . The BLM has been interested in spaying wild mares for at least a decade, but various approaches have failed or been blocked by wild-horse activists in court. Two attempts in recent years were met with such public outcry that the agency’s university research partners backed out of studies."

Clyburn promotes Fudge for USDA to get it focused on hunger; Heitkamp and Vilsack are more traditional options

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio
The first public fight over a big appointment by President-elect Joe Biden is about who will be secretary of agriculture. It pits "a powerful Black lawmaker who wants to refocus the Agriculture Department on hunger against traditionalists who believe the department should be a voice for rural America," reports Jonathan Martin of The New York Times.

"Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress and perhaps Mr. Biden’s most important supporter in the Democratic primary, is making an all-out case for Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, an African-American Democrat from Ohio," Martin writes.

While the nutrition-focused faction is all behind Fudge, the traditionalists have two candidates: former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who was secretary in the Obama administration. “I don’t know why we’ve got to be recycling,” Clyburn told Martin, "echoing complaints that Mr. Biden only represents Mr. Obama’s third term," and jabbing at Vilsack: “There’s a strong feeling that Black farmers didn’t get a fair shake” from USDA under him.

The choice "is pinching Mr. Biden between two of his central campaign themes, which he repeated in plain terms this month in his victory speech: that he owes a special debt to African-American voters, and that he wants to be a president for all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him," Martyin notes. "And nowhere did Mr. Biden fare worse than in rural America, particularly the most heavily white parts of the farm belt."

Corps denies permit for huge mine in Bristol Bay watershed after GOP division, surreptitious recordings of executives

New York Times map
The Army Corps of Engineers "denied a permit for the Pebble Mine in Alaska on Wednesday, effectively killing plans to build the massive copper and gold project that opponents had warned could wipe out the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery" in Bristol Bay, report Anthony Adranga and Annie Snider of Politico. "The decision from the Trump administration, which had reversed course several times on the issue, comes just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Biden has said he opposed the project."

Pebble Limited Partnership, said it would appeal. the U.S. subsidiary of Canadian mining firm Northern Dynasty Minerals said it was dismayed because it had revised its plan in recent months to mitigate issues raised by environmentalists. But this time the enviros had unusual allies, and the developers talked too much, dooming their case.

The project "divided Republicans and Alaska politicians normally in favor of expanding domestic mineral production," Politico notes. "President Donald Trump faced a public pressure campaign from Republicans, including mega-donor Andy Sabin, Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to block the project."

Then, secret recordings of Pebble's CEO at the time revealed him "boasting about how he would influence Alaskan politicians," prompting Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to "affirm their outright opposition to the projection after sending mixed signals up until that point," Politico reports. 

In the recording, Pebble executives also "suggested that they were planning for a much larger mine, and one that would operate far longer, than what had been proposed to the Corps," The New York Times reports. "The recordings were obtained by an environmental advocacy group, with two members who were posing as potential investors in the project meeting by video with two project executives. The executives described how the mine could operate for 160 years or more beyond the proposed 20 years, and how its output could double after the first two decades."

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Nov. 29 is Subscribe Sunday, a media campaign encouraging Americans to subscribe to their local paper

Unbranded gif is free for anyone to use
We're all familiar with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But how about Subscribe Sunday? 

Subscribe Sunday is a media campaign encouraging citizens to subscribe to their local newspaper or its digital equivalent. The Boston Globe came up with the idea in 2018. Click here to receive free graphics and other support, or search for #SubscribeSunday on social media. 

Subscriptions are more important than ever to local newspapers' bottom lines, especially since advertising revenue has crashed amid the pandemic,  following the gradual collapse of newspapers' advertising-based business model.

Subscribe Sunday is a news peg to drum up more subscriptions, but it can be more than that. It's an opportunity to get Americans to think about where their essential news originates. In rural areas especially, no one but local news media will cover public-agency meetings or high-school games or civic events. Citizens who understand the value of local journalism are more likely to support it.

Subscribe Sunday also an opportunity to promote media literacy, especially those who prefer to get their news from social media. They can be reminded that not all stories on social media are trustworthy, and that many are from partisan websites masquerading as local news sites. Reputable local journalists, meanwhile, put in the hard work of reporting the facts, and when they get it wrong, they say so.

The Globe is publishing free graphics and new statistics today that you can use in crafting your message (sign up here). In the meantime, here's a sample pitch from us you can use: "As you plan your purchases on the big holiday shopping weekend, please consider investing in a strong democracy. Support independent local journalism and subscribe to your local news organization or give a subscription as a gift. Share your purchase on social media using hashtag #SubscribeSunday."

Finally, here are versions of a bumper sticker we developed a few years ago that anyone can use:

A Thanksgiving roundup: Climate change threatens cranberry industry; what Poynter is thankful for

Here's a cornucopia of Thanksgiving-related stories:

Poynter Institute writers list some of what they're thankful for in journalism this year. Read more here.

Climate change is threatening the cranberry industry. Read more here.

Regenerative turkey production, which helps soil health, is increasingly popular. Read more here.

For many Native Americans, especially during the pandemic, Thanksgiving can be a complicated holiday. Read more here.

Food banks have seen higher demand than usual before Thanksgiving. Read more here.

Quick hits: Purude Pharma pleads guilty to charges in opioid crisis; rural real estate searches up 235% from last October

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Online searches for rural homes increased 235% from October 2019 to October 2020, according to a new report by real estate company RedfinRead more here.

Purdue Pharma pleads guilty in its role in the opioid crisis as part of a deal with the Justice DepartmentRead more here.

President Trump's appointee to lead the Voice of America acted unconstitutionally in investigating what he claimed was bias against Trump by his own journalists, a federal judge ruled. Read more here.

A federal appeals court upheld a 2018 jury verdict of damages to North Carolina plaintiffs who said the noise and smell of Smithfield Foods' hog operations were unbearable. Read more here.

Vulture suggests a list of things to read, watch and listen to instead of Hillbilly Elegy. Read more here.

Rural covid-19 roundup: Pandemic brain drain on nurses threatens rural health care; N.D. gives up contact tracing

Keeping up with pandemic news can be rather like drinking from a firehose these days; here are some of the top stories from this week:

A Texas rancher who lives eight miles away from the nearest town writes about how she felt safe from the pandemic—until she became infected with the coronavirus. Read more here.

Rural doctors share about the realities of working in overcrowded, financially stressed rural hospitals during the pandemic. Read more here.

Rural areas send their sickest patients to cities, straining hospital capacity. Read more here.

A thousand U.S. hospitals are "critically short" on staff, and more expect to be soon. Read more here.

The pandemic's "brain drain" on nurses threatens both budgets and rural health care. Read more here.

Mask mandates work to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a Kansas study has found. Read more here.

A contact tracer says the pandemic is so bad in North Dakota that they've given up. Read more here.

Health-care workers to Americans: 'We didn't go to nursing school to be martyrs'. Read more here.

Artificial-intelligence tool can smell a conspiracy, but it can be gamed, which shows the lasting value of good journalism

As social media become more popular and more siloed, misinformation (all false info) and disinformation (false info spread with the intent to mislead) become an increasing threat. A new artificial-intelligence tool shows promise in weeding out conspiracy theories, but its developer notes that it can be gamed. The bottom line? There's still no substitute for a reporter with a good nose.

A culture analytics group at the University of California has developed an A.I. tool that determines when social-media conversations have the hallmarks of conspiracy theories. "We have applied these methods successfully to the study of Pizzagate, the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-vaccination movements. We’re currently using these methods to study QAnon," Timothy Tangherlini, who co-leads the group, writes for The Conversation. He acknowledges that, if the tool were to be widely used, conspiracy theorists familiar with it might deliberately design their posts to stay off its radar.

However, social-media platforms would have to be willing to employ such a tool in the first place, and it's not clear that they would. Such platforms have long struggled with how much to tamp down on misinformation, but at Facebook, for example, "the company’s aspirations of improving the world are often at odds with its desire for dominance," Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel report for The New York Times.

Facebook changed the site's news-feed algorithm just after the election to boost the visibility of more trustworthy news outlets. Employees hoped that burying more extreme partisan sites such as Breitbart or Occupy Democrats for a few days would slow the spread of false and misleading claims that the election had been rigged.

Some employees lobbied for the news algorithm to always be configured that way, but others feared that playing down partisan sources "could hurt Facebook’s growth, or provoke a political backlash that leads to painful regulation," the Times reports.

In any case, Facebook's efforts were no match for the disinformation pushed by the Trump campaign and its surrogates: President Trump's "false claims of voter fraud have been picked up by many state and local Republican officials across the country, and polls now show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters believe the 2020 election was neither free nor fair," Matt Vasilogambros reports for Stateline.

Regardless of how well the A.I. tool works out, journalists still have their work cut out for them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Rural Midwest banker survey finds record-low loan volume, falling economic confidence; predicts low holiday retail sales

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download the full report.

The November Creighton University survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy showed declining economic confidence and dim predictions for holiday retail sales. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The overall economic confidence index fell for the first time since April of this year, from October's 53.2 to 46.8. (An index of 50 is growth-neutral.) Recent improvements in farm commodity prices and direct federal aid to farmers, plus low interest rates, helped keep the bankers' confidence from dipping further, reports Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who does the survey. Home sales remained strong, but the reported loan volume reported was the lowest since the survey began in 2006. Other findings:
  • Nearly 55% of bankers think holiday sales will be lower than last year's, by about 3.1%.
  • For the first time since 2013, the survey recorded above-growth-neutral readings in farmland prices for consecutive months.
  • New hiring fell slightly from October, but stayed just above growth-neutral.
  • Non-farm employment levels for the Rural Mainstreet economy are down by 132,000 non-seasonally adjusted jobs, or 3.2%, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

New rural coronavirus infections set record for ninth straight week; rural covid-19 deaths at high for third week in a row

Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
New coronavirus infections in rural counties set a record for the ninth straight week, with nine of every 10 rural counties now in the White House Coronavirus Task Force red zone, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. The zone is for counties averaging at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people over a week. Rural covid-19 deaths grew by 20 percent, setting a record for the third week in a row. 

"New covid-19 related deaths in rural counties totaled 2,448 last week," Marema reports. "In the past nine months, just under 32,000 covid-related deaths have been reported in rural counties. New infections in rural counties last week totaled 216,045, a 10% increase from the previous week."

Click here for more data and insights from the Yonder, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

USDA loosens qualifications for farmers to get federal aid; Republican Sen. Grassley says the changes invite fraud

On Wednesday, the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture "restored the previous definitions of 'active personal management,' 'significant contribution,' and 'related phrasing' in a rule on farm-program subsidy eligibility and payment limitations," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

FSA Administrator Richard Fordyce said the rules were meant to help family farms, but critics say the move invites fraud. One was Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a hog farmer, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and former chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"As both a family farmer and senator, I've worked with the USDA over the years in good faith to ensure these programs are used for their intended purposes and aren't being taken advantage of," Grassley said.  "It's a shame that USDA is backtracking after just finalizing a fair rule for this program a couple of months ago."

Grassley said that is "particularly concerning" after the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, "just published a report confirming that farm payments need additional oversight and that 19 of the top 20 operations that use these loopholes are in the South. This revision of the final rule has not deterred me. I'll continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to fix this broken system in the next Farm Bill."

Study: nurse practitioners play key role in opioid addiction treatment in very rural areas

Giving nurse practitioners the authority to prescribe buprenorphine has brought that gold standard treatment for opioid addiction to people who might not have had access to it before in very rural areas, according to a new study by researchers at Washington State University's College of Nursing. Read more here.

Walmart and similar big-box stores win the pandemic with one-stop shopping; some small, rural retailers in trouble

Walmart and other big-box stores like Target and Home Depot have reported strong third-quarter earnings, The Economist reports.

Simeon Gutman of Morgan Stanley told the magazine (which calls itself a newspaper but is fully digital) that such companies get a huge edge from e-commerce, and can draw from "diverse, global supply chains," to keep products in stock and allow shoppers the convenience of one-stop shopping. That's especially appealing during a pandemic when people are trying to avoid unnecessary trips. 

Growth in retail sales overall is slowing, Mitchell Hartman reports for Marketplace. Retail sales grew less than a third of 1 percent in October, reflecting a gain much weaker than expected and much weaker than September's figures, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau

Many small retailers in rural areas, who had a harder time accessing federal aid, are having an especially difficult time. Several rural retailers in Garrison, N.D., especially restaurateurs, said it's hard to stay in business when the state orders limit indoor seating, P.J. Walker reports for KX News in Bismarck.

A Garrison florist said her store was doing better than expected, Walker reports, because more people are sending flowers to funerals for covid-19 victims and isolated loved ones in nursing homes.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Supporting local, independent news could help bridge the rural-urban political gap, writes analyst

Online misinformation and distrust in the news media helps fuel the rural-urban political gap, according to a recent opinion piece. Supporting independent local news media could go a long way towards bridging that gap. More than half of Americans believe the national press doesn't share their interests and concerns, a view encouraged by Republican leaders, Marc Ambinder writes for MSNBC. Armbinder is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

Local journalism is vital to decreasing political polarization and increasing civic engagement, Ambinder writes: "There is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers. If you live in a town with a thriving local news ecosystem, you are more likely to vote."

The best way to increase trust in the news media overall, he writes, is to promote and support local, independent news, which people tend to trust more than national news outlets. "Trust will not come out of a top-down reappraisal of how the media covers people outside of cosmopolises," Ambinder writes. "An energetic local news revival would create models of engagement; it would allow newspapers (in digital form) to intervene in social conversations before misinformation spreads. Local news outlets are an early warning system that benefits everyone, and over time, might increase the level of comfort that mistrustful Americans have with the reporting process."

But the number of working journalists in the U.S. has plummeted over the past decade, and so has advertising revenue (especially since the beginning of the pandemic). So alternate funding models must be considered, Ambinder writes.

"ProPublica is investing in state reporting, which is excellent. To combat misinformation, we need engaged local reporters with audiences who trust them to report in real time," Ambinder writes. "We cannot cure systemic mistrust of media elites from establishment outlets, or hope to completely tame our information disorder as long as the internet exists. But we can recapitalize local news, and we need to make it a national priority."

Biden can reduce rural-urban political polarization by modernizing federal rural policy, researchers write

One reason rural Americans have become more conservative is that they feel left behind by federal economic policy, according to a recent think-piece. Revitalizing rural federal policy could help reduce rural-urban political polarization, Anthony Pipa and Natalie Geismar write for the Brookings Institution. Pipa is a senior fellow in global economy and development at Brookings, and Geismar is a global economy and development project coordinator and research assistant at the Center for Sustainable Development.

Though most of the American economy boomed over the past decade, employment in many rural areas still hadn't recovered from the Great Recession when the pandemic hit. "According to analysis from the Center on Rural Innovation, the four industries at highest risk of being impacted by covid-19 account for 56 percent of jobs in rural areas, compared to 43 percent in metro areas," Pipa and Geismar write.

The pandemic has exacerbated other inequalities rural Americans face: they're more likely to die from covid-19, they have less access to health care, and lousy broadband makes it harder to navigate work, schooling and more while social distancing, Pipa and Geismar write. 

Rural America needs more support, but the current federal programs and tools meant to encourage rural community and economic development are "outdated, fragmented, and constrained, and the resulting incoherence and complexity is not producing deep enough results fast enough," Pipa and Geismar write. 

They say research found that, not only is the bureaucracy governing such programs "bewildering," but that programs are far more likely to administer loans than grants, which increases rural debt load. They also found that "rural communities lack access to flexible grant funding and are often disadvantaged by eligibility requirements, per capita spending formulas, and allocation formulas that privilege densely populated urban areas."

They suggest three broad actions:

  • Launch a domestic development corporation that would award large, flexible block grants for local improvement, empower and support local leadership, provide technical support, and rigorously measure and analyze results to make sure it's working.
  • Create a national rural strategy, and reform current policy to improve its coherence, regional integration, and transparency.
  • Appoint a bipartisan congressional commission to analyze the effectiveness of rural policy and build bipartisan "momentum" for rural policy reform.

Evangelical doctor group begs churches to stop holding services

"As coronavirus cases spike, a national group that represents thousands of evangelical Christian doctors and other healthcare providers is asking churches to stop holding services in person," Sarah McCammon reports for NPR.

Leaders of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, who claim 20,000 members, said that Christians who hold large gatherings may "appear to care only about our individual freedoms and don't care that we may be contributing to others getting this illness because of our selfishness."

According to several studies, most health-care workers infected with the coronavirus got it out in the community, not at work, the statement says. That includes church services.

Dr. Jeff Barrows, CMDA's senior vice president for bioethics and public policy, told McCammon that Christians are commanded to love their neighbors as themselves, and that avoiding in-person gatherings is one of the "most tangible" ways to do that right now.

"Barrows said he's particularly concerned about the risk of asymptomatic carriers of the virus spreading it to vulnerable people with weaker immune systems," McCammon reports. He also said that CMDA members who work in hospitals and emergency rooms are warning that the pandemic has stressed the medical system to its breaking point.

"Polling indicates that political conservatives are more skeptical of the need for social distancing, a category that overlaps substantially with white evangelicals," McCannon writes. "According to a survey in May, white evangelicals – the largest religious group in the country by some measures – also expressed more reluctance than most other groups toward the idea of being vaccinated against covid-19."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Journalists from Rapid City, Lincoln and Eau Claire papers discuss pandemic coverage on CNN's 'Reliable Sources'

Journalists at three newspapers with significant rural audiences talked about the struggles of covering the coronavirus pandemic Sunday on CNN's "Reliable Sources" with Brian Stelter.

Dave Bundy, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska, said his paper has three types of readers: those who say "Just give me the data;" those who say "Tell me what I can and can’t do;" and those who say "Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. . . . There’s covid fatigue, there’s covid conspiracy; there’s a lot of things at work."

Bundy and Kent Bush, editor of the Rapid City Journal in hard-hit South Dakota, agreed that in covering the pandemic, it's important to strike a balance that appeals to all three groups of readers.

"The magnitude of the pandemic makes it difficult to maintain perspective," Bush said, noting that the news of five local covid-19 deaths was in the third paragraph of the Journal's latest story on the pandemic. That would have led the story before the pandemic got so big, he said.

Bush said the virus hadn't hit the newspaper's staff until he dispatched reporters to cover the election. A week or so later, half the staff had tested positive, he said.

In Lincoln, Bundy said, "A long time ago covid stopped being a story and started being real life. Reporters are up to their arms in the same issues readers are." He said his city editor said early in the pandemic that coverage of it "wouldn’t be a sprint," but more like a long relay race. He said someone on the staff is always sprinting.

Sarah Seifert, a reporter for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, said people in western Wisconsin have been more willing to talk about their experiences with the virus in the last two months, as cases have surged. 

"Everyone's writing about covid in one way or another," she said. "It’s a big relief to work on a story that’s not about this virus."

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tim Crews, a rural editor-publisher who fought for open government and went to jail to protect sources, dies at 77

Tim Crews posed in front of the Glenn County Court House. (Photo by Sharon Barker via the Chico Enterprise-Record)

Tim Crews, a rural editor and publisher who was a leading fighter for open government in California, died Nov. 12 after a long illness from various ailments. He was 77.

Glenn County (Wikipedia)
Crews started the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows in 1991 after a dispute with management of the Willows Journal. He "wasn’t afraid to put government officials in uncomfortable situations," Sharon Martin reports for the nearby Chico Enterprise-Record. "He never shied away from asking tough questions when necessary and always remained persistent. . . . He’d cover crime but also covered the community events like the Glenn County Fair or the Junior Livestock Auction. He wouldn’t charge for obituaries, either."

In 2000 Crews spent five days in jail for refusing to reveal his sources for a story about theft of weapons by a former California Highway Patrol officer, Janie Har reports for The Associated Press. “If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It’s just the American way,” he told the Poynter Institute in 2017.

Crews told Poynter his twice-weekly paper filed an average of more than 20 records requests a year, sometimes going to court fight for public access. In 2013, a judge said his suit to force a school district to turn over 3,000 withheld emails from the superintendent was frivolous, and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs when his income was 20,000 a year. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and Crews won the California News Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award. He received the California Press Foundation’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Small Business Saturday, an opportunity to support and promote local businesses, is Nov. 28

The pandemic has hit small businesses particularly hard, but here's a way you can help them: encourage folks to shop local on Small Business Saturday, which will be Nov. 28 this year.

American Express launched the observance in 2010, and has adjusted its messaging to reflect the pandemic. It is emphasizing online shopping this year, and notes that 62 percent of American small businesses reported that they must see consumer spending return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020 in order to stay in business.

Local businesses often have a symbiotic relationship with local news media, so promoting Small Business Saturday helps everyone. The website includes a searchable map with a list of locally owned businesses in your area, as well as facts, graphics, and other resources for news stories. 

Quick hits: New books explore Dolly Parton's music; new podcast series examines the 1980s farm crisis

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Decades of corporate-friendly farm policies wrecked rural America, writes a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer. Read more here.

Prisons and jails continue to be a major vector for coronavirus transmission. Read more here.

Two new books explore Dolly Parton's music. Read more here.

The agricultural downturn in recent years was seen as the most challenging stretch for the farm economy in decades. Agricultural Economic Insights has launched a new podcast series, "Escaping 1980," that examines the 1980s farm crisis that brought a wave of bankruptcies and reshaped the industry. Listen to the first episodes here.

Though rural areas disproportionately voted for President Trump, most of his voters came from cities and suburbs; rural areas only have about 20% of the nation's population). Read more here.

A new book chronicles a rural Alabama woman's battle to access basic sanitation services, revealing the scope of the problem for many rural residents and the factors that feed the crisis. Read more here.

Rural Missouri county health director says she faces threats and ridicule for trying to slow coronavirus transmission

Amber Elliott (Washington
Post photo by Whitney Curtis)

Amber Elliott, the health director in rural St. Francois County, Missouri, faces threats and ridicule from locals for encouraging masks and social-distancing measures, she says in an "as told to" piece with Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: "I’ve had strange cars driving back and forth past my house. I get threatening messages from people saying they’re watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids. How insane is that? I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me."

Though she fears for her and her family's safety by telling the Post about the threats, Elliott, who only began the job in January and is now planning to leave it, said the public needs to know that it's happening to her and other health-care officials all over the country.

Elliott said she finds the backlash confusing because politics play no part in her actions to promote public health. "I don’t base our whole response to this pandemic on my own opinion," she says. "This job is nonpartisan. I’m not political in any way. I go off of facts and evidence-based science, and right now, all the data in Missouri is scary bad."

St. Francois County, Missouri
(Wikipedia map)
The local hospital is already at capacity and staffing is low, even as the positive-test rate is 25% and rising. Moreover, the state is ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic because it has the lowest funding in the country for public health, and the county doesn't have the resources to effectively fight the spread on the local level, she says: "We can’t keep up. It’s an uncontrolled spread. I have these moments when it feels like I’m a nurse at the bedside, and my patient is dying, and I’m trying every possible intervention to save them. More social distancing. More masks. More contact tracing. Warnings and more warnings. What else can we try? But in the end, it doesn’t matter how much you do. Nothing will work, because it almost seems like the patient is resisting your help."

Elliott said she gets emails and Facebook comments accusing her of blowing the pandemic out of proportion, saying she's a communist, a bitch, or someone who is pushing an agenda. "Okay, fine. I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep this community safe. I want fewer people to die. Why is that controversial?" she said.

The county health board recently pushed for a mask mandate since only about 40% of locals were wearing masks. When it held a public meeting about it, medical providers spoke in support, but many locals (some armed) showed up unmasked, yelling at them and booing them. Six weeks after the board imposed a the mandate, mask-wearing had declined 6 percentage points; Elliott suspects many locals didn't like being told what to do: "We required it, and people became more likely to do the opposite. How do you even make sense of that? We like to believe we take good care of each other here. This is rural Missouri. We pride ourselves on being a down-home community that sticks together, and now this is how we treat each other? This is who we are?"

The story is part of the Post's "Voices from the Pandemic" series, an oral history of the coronavirus pandemic and those affected.

Rural Massachusetts hospital group and others rely on PPE 'gray market', sometimes competing with the government

A story from Massachusetts illustrates the difficulties many rural health-care providers face in getting medical supplies to fight the coronavirus.

President Trump has boasted that his administration has ensured the distribution of personal protective equipment and ventilators, but rural providers are often at the end of supply chains and have a much harder time getting such supplies. That has led many to buy from third-party vendors in the "chaotic, cutthroat gray market," often paying inflated prices they can ill afford, Doug Bock Clark reports for The New York Times.

Baystate Health, which serves rural western Massachusetts, "had been forced to turn to unproven entrepreneurs like this after the corporate distributor it had once depended on ran out of N95s, when national and international supply chains collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic," Clark reports. "Their predicament wasn’t unique. Many hospitals, states and even federal agencies were also desperate, transforming the normally staid market for health care commodities into a Darwinian competition of all against all."

A Bay State executive "had to wonder: How had the U.S. medical system devolved to this? The Baystate Health team was just at the beginning of a months-long battle to secure PPE from an out-of-control market that the Trump administration would avoid closely managing — despite bipartisan calls to do so from mayors, governors, congressional representatives and the leaders of some of America’s largest health care workers’ unions and industry associations," Clark reports. "Indeed, during the initial outbreak, the federal government would sometimes be the most feared player in that market, acting not in an oversight capacity but as its most powerful buyer and disruptive agent. Though the Trump administration would subsequently take action to improve the PPE supply, the result of its efforts was a characteristically American, ongoing experiment in whether local governments and health-care systems can fend for themselves during a deadly pandemic — an experiment that may have left the country unprepared to deal with a record-shattering 'third wave' of infections this winter."

The Trump administration’s "attempts to deal with the PPE crisis reportedly emanated from a team of unpaid consultants, many in their 20s with little to no experience in health care, assembled by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law," Clark reports. "After distributing the dregs of the Strategic National Stockpile, the federal government focused on procuring whatever supplies it could from corporate medical distributors and the gray market, distributing them through FEMA. An analysis by The Associated Press suggested that rural states with less serious outbreaks were awarded more PPE per confirmed case than states with significantly more dangerous outbreaks. This raised accusations of political favoritism in a life-or-death situation — though the administration has strongly denied this." The same AP story noted that many rural health-care facilities still lacked access to PPE.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Researchers ask for help in finding ash trees that beat borer

Science magazine map; differing county density among states may misrepresent density of emerald ash borers
Green Ash
(Photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois)
The emerald ash borer is "the most devastating insect ever to strike a North American tree," Science magazine said in August, but a few trees somehow resist it, and researchers are asking for the public's help to find them in hopes of rebuilding the species as genetically resistant.

"Finding them in the forest is like looking for a needle in the haystack," writes Carol Lea Spence of the University of Kentucky, where the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources is coordinating the project. But several have been found, and the Kentucky Division of Forestry is raising trees from their seeds. It will take years, as the trees grow, to make sure they inherit the resistance to the borer.

UK forestry professor Ellen Crocker and forest health technician Megan Buland want people to report any surviving trees in the woods through the TreeSnap app. "Researchers are looking for large, mature trees left among those that were killed by the invasive insect," Spence reports. "Seedlings that are springing up in the gaps left by dead ash are not eligible for the study, because once large enough, they too will most likely be susceptible to the borer." Crocker and Buland developed a virtual hunt for "lingering ash" and a video that can help you identify ash trees. North America has 16 species of ash; the mode widespread, the green ash, is the most threatened by the borer. Other species such as white ash are highly susceptible.

Unlikely alliance of Farm Bureau, environmental groups, Farmers Union aims to reduce agriculture's carbon footprint

"The American Farm Bureau Federation, the country's largest and most powerful agricultural lobbying group, has long pushed against climate legislation and worked closely with the fossil-fuel industry to defeat it," Georgina Gustin reports for Inside Climate News. "But on Tuesday, the Farm Bureau announced it had joined an unlikely alliance of food, forest, farming and environment groups that intends to work with Congress and the incoming Biden administration to reduce the food system's role in climate change and reward farmers when they lower their greenhouse-gas emissions."

The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance was founded in February by four groups than now co-chair it: Farm Bureau, the National Council of Farm Cooperatives, the National Farmers Union (in some ways a liberal Farm Bureau) and the Environmental Defense Fund. The group now includes the Food Industry Association, the National Alliance of Forest Owners, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and the Nature Conservancy. The Russell Group, a Washington lobbying firm, is coordinating. The groups' leaders of the groups acknowledge they won't always agree, but told Gustin that they believe they can find common ground.

In the Tuesday announcement, the group unveiled 40 policy proposals on its wish list that could be carried out through legislation, executive order, agency-level policy, and/or voluntary cooperation from farmers and agribusinesses. "The group's recommendations range across six broad categories, including soil health, food waste and agriculture research, Gustin reports. "They include a proposal to give tax credits to farmers who can prove that they've stashed carbon in their soils and a USDA-led 'carbon bank' that would set a minimum amount that farmers would be paid for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions."

All that doesn't address larger issues such as "overuse of synthetic fertilizers and the continued expansion of large-scale animal feeding operations and their excess manure," Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told Gustin. "Voluntary, incentive-based approaches are important, but as long as this industrial system of production is in place, it will be difficult to get deeper traction at the speed with which is needed to meet the climate crisis." Click here for the group's full list of policy proposals.

Interactive map shows how risky a big dinner would be in your county; rural superspreader wedding illustrates risks

Screenshot of interactive map; assumes actual case prevalence 10 times laboratory-confirmed count.
As coronavirus infections surge across the nation, millions of Americans are trying to decide whether to travel or hold large family gatherings for Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against it, but many Americans appear to be gearing up for a trip anyway.

"Coronavirus testing sites across the United States are reporting increased demand for tests ahead of Thanksgiving week, worrying local government leaders that Americans are ignoring their calls to scale back holiday gatherings and travel," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

"Roughly 40 percent plan to attend a Thanksgiving gathering with 10 or more people, according to a recent survey commissioned by Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. He notes an interactive map created at Georgia Tech that shows how risky it would be in your county to hold a large Thanksgiving gathering. 

Meanwhile, a wedding in rural Washington that became a coronavirus superspreader may serve as a reminder of the danger of large gatherings.

Federal and state governments issue conflicting messages about mask mandates as infection rates rise

More than 3 million people in the United States have active coronavirus infections and are potentially contagious, according to a new estimate from infectious-disease experts tracking the pandemic," Joel Achenbach reports for The Washington Post. "That number is significantly larger than the official case count, which is based solely on those who have tested positive for the virus."

Meanwhile, amid the coronavirus spike, federal and many state governments are sending conflicting messages about pandemic safety precautions, sometimes leaving the decision up to local governments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against traveling or holding large gatherings for Thanksgiving, for example, but has some recommendations for if you do. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called those guidelines "Orwellian" in a recent Fox News interview, Quint Forgey reports for Politico.

Some states, such as Oregon and Kentucky, recently announced new shut-downs because of spiking coronavirus infections, and the Republican governors in Iowa and North Dakota, who once dismissed mandatory coronavirus restrictions as ineffective, have issued mask mandates, Forgey reports. (See a list of mask mandates by state here.)

The governors of some hard-hit states, like Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, refuse to enact mask mandates, though Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon acknowledged that many are not acting in the best interests of the community, Eric Levenson reports for CNN. "We've relied on people to be responsible," Gordon said Friday, "and they're being irresponsible." That has left local and county governments in such states to decide on mask mandates, and many are.

Deaths from 'diseases of despair' in Appalachia continue to outstrip nationwide rate, study finds

Mortality rates from "diseases of despair" in Appalachia continue to outstrip national rates, according to a new report commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission and conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and the Center for Rural Health Research at East Tennessee State University.

The report focused on deaths from three main causes: overdoses from alcohol, prescription drugs, and/or illegal drugs; suicide, and cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. Read more here.

We know how to beat the pandemic, we just won't do it, writes former CDC director, who favors strategic shutdowns

The coronavirus is getting worse and will likely last through much of 2021, especially since widespread distribution of a vaccine is probably many months away. "Until then, we need a one-two punch to knock the virus down and then keep it down," Thomas R. Frieden writes for The Atlantic. Frieden is the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until we control the virus, he writes, we can't get the economy back on track.

Frieden advocates strategic, well-timed shutdowns. Many don't believe shutdowns work, but that's because many parts of the country shut down too soon and for too long in the spring, he writes: "By the time covid-19 came to areas that hadn’t yet needed to close, people were tired of waiting and resisted continued restrictions. An effective closure needs to be nuanced, specific, and tightened and loosened based on real-time data about where the virus is spreading."

Governments at all levels should mandate mask-wearing in all indoor public places and require businesses to limit capacity or, where necessary, reduce hours or temporarily close, Frieden writes: "Comprehensive action is particularly important for places where covid-19 spreads explosively, including meatpacking, agricultural, and other workplaces where distancing is difficult, as well as for congregate housing, including nursing homes, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities. In addition to universal mask wearing, these regulations should include installing physical barriers such as plexiglass shields, upgrading ventilation systems, and increasing space between people." But governments can't bear all the burden, he cautions, saying individuals must choose less-risky actions, especially with the holiday season coming up.

The U.S. is also failing to effectively test, trace and isolate the infected. "Outbreaks can be stopped, but only by quick, expert work—and cooperation with public-health measures, which is difficult to secure in an environment of misinformation and mistrust, Frieden writes. "Of the many failures of the outgoing administration’s handling of covid-19, the most destructive has been its failure to communicate honestly and directly from the start." Read more here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

As nursing-home covid cases surge, few have completed government training meant to quell spread; see which ones

Covid-19 cases from May 31-Nov.1 in nursing homes and in the general population. (American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living chart; click the image to enlarge it.)

New coronavirus cases in nursing homes are at a record "despite federal efforts to shield residents through aggressive testing and visitor restrictions, a new report shows," Ken Alltucker reports for USA Today. "Federal data shows 10,279 covid-19 cases during the week of Nov. 1, the most recent data available. The figures surpassed the previous high of 9,903 cases in late July, according to a report by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living."

Nursing homes are a significant vector for spreading the infection in rural areas, but federal rules updated in September loosened employee-testing requirements for many rural nursing homes.

The rise in nursing-home cases is linked to the rise of overall coronavirus cases (see chart above), but the virus is much deadlier for seniors than for the general public. Data from The Atlantic's Covid Tracking Project shows that nursing homes house fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 40% of the nation's covid-19 deaths, Alltucker reports.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has provided billions in emergency funds to nursing homes and long-term care facilities to test, staff and purchase personal protective equipment to prevent infections among staff and residents," Alltucker reports. "Among the initiatives: HHS has purchased point-of-care machines and kits that can deliver test results within minutes."

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Tuesday that only about 12.5% of the nation's nursing homes have completed at least half of the agency's training program meant to help staff slow the spread of the disease, and released a list of the 1,092 homes that have done so. 

Some nursing homes may be seeing a spike because they don't have enough qualified staff. A recent study in Kentucky found that the nursing homes with the highest covid-19 mortality rates had relatively low numbers of registered nurses on staff who spent less time than average with residents.

ProPublica announces six distinguished fellows for longer projects, including some who write about rural issues

ProPublica announced Monday the names of six local reporters who have been chosen as the inaugural members of its Distinguished Fellows program. Several of the names will be familiar to long-time readers of The Rural Blog.

"The program will fund the reporters’ salaries and benefits for three years as they produce important investigative projects from their home newsrooms on topics affecting their communities," ProPublica says. "An outgrowth of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — which since 2018 has similarly funded local accountability reporting projects for one year across more than 40 local newsrooms to date — the longer-term Distinguished Fellows program will enable reporters to pursue a broad range of stories while deepening ProPublica’s relationship with the partner newsrooms and their communities. These partnerships will start on Jan. 1, 2021, and run through Dec. 31, 2023."

Here are a few of the newly announced fellows who write about issues with rural resonance:
  • Ken Ward Jr., who left the Charleston Gazette-Mail this year and joined ProPublica to co-found the investigative news non-profit Mountain State Spotlight. Ward won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and the Institute for Rural Journalism's Tom and Pat Gish Award.
  • Kyle Hopkins, special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News and a member of the Local Reporting Network, who worked for small-town newspapers across Alaska. The ADN's investigation into the sexual assault crisis in rural Alaska, mainly led by Hopkins, won the paper and ProPublica a Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
  • Molly Parker, a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, has been a member of the Local Reporting Network since 2018, and has written about failures in government oversight of public housing. "In her continuing work in partnership with ProPublica, Parker plans to focus on challenges facing the diverse rural communities that make up the Mid-South Illinois region she calls home," ProPublica reports.

Analyst: Rural-urban divide in criminal justice is widening

Rural people can have a harder time with criminal justice than urban or suburban residents, and the gap is widening, Marc Levin writes for The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

"First, rural areas are less equipped to deal with the spike in drug overdoses in 2020, many of which are fatal. In recent years, overdose death rates in urban areas matched or exceeded rural areas, reversing a prior pattern. More recent data by type of jurisdiction is not available; but many of the states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, that saw significant declines from 2017 to 2018 have lost ground so far this year," Levin reports. "While addiction knows no boundaries, research has found that rural areas are less likely to have accessible treatment options. Rural and smaller law enforcement agencies and paramedics may have longer response times and be less likely to carry naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug." Levin is chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Many justice systems have turned to virtual court appearances and probation check-ins, but that could be more difficult in rural areas with poor connectivity. "Fortunately, text messaging and phone applications that do not require this level of connectivity provide an alternative for pretrial services and community supervision officers to keep in touch with those they are supervising," Levin reports.

Indigent defense has long been a challenge in rural areas, and the pandemic "has made it more difficult for defense lawyers to meet with their clients, whether that is due to protocols limiting access to defendants in jail or the challenge of maintaining a safe office environment with frequent visitors," Levin reports. "Rural areas have largely been left behind by advances in urban areas such as holistic defense, through which organizations like Bronx Defenders connect their clients to services and treatment, resulting in better outcomes by solving the challenges that led them to be involved in the justice system."

Another inequality, Levin notes, is that 54% of prisons are in rural areas, which increases the risk of coronavirus transmission among the incarcerated as well as staff and the community beyond.

A recent report from the Southern Methodist University Law School's Deason Center has some recommendations for closing the rural-urban gap in criminal justice. Their suggestions include "innovations in technology and training, law school legal clinics serving Native American tribes and other rural communities, and a combined undergraduate and law program for students seeking to practice in rural areas," Levin reports.