Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Trump OKs second round of aid to farmers hurt by trade war, after renewed Chinese soybean buys aren't enough

President Trump said Monday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will proceed with a second round of payments to farmers hurt by the trade war with China. The aid package could amount to as much as $12 billion, split into two rounds; the first has already been distributed.

"USDA expects direct payments to farmers under the program to total $9.567 billion, with around $7.3 billion for soybean farmers, the hardest hit from the trade war," Doina Chiacu and Humeyra Pamuk report for Reuters. "The USDA program includes an additional $1.2 billion in food purchases, and around $200 million to develop foreign markets, bringing the total estimated aid to just below $11 billion."

There was some doubt about whether the second round of aid would happen. President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping agreed recently to a brief ceasefire in the trade war, and China began buying a small amount of U.S. soybeans again. Though the Chinese only bought 1.13 million tons, a tiny fraction of what they usually buy, the Trump administration delayed the second round of farmer aid in hopes that Chinese purchases would make it unnecessary. That has not been the case, Chiacu and Pamuk report. Soybean sales to China are unlikely to pick back up soon; Brazil's soybean crop is ready for harvest, and China generally buys there in the early months of the year.

New photography and story project provides an intimate portrait of the rural South

Richloam, Florida, resident Eric Burkes sits in front of a local store. (Photo by Eric Dusenbery)
A new photography and story project, Sidetracked, shows viewers a "local's view" of the rural South. In an interview with The Daily Yonder, photographer Eric Dusenbery talks about how the project goes past stereotypical images of the South "to explore the people and communities that are known only by the locals — to create a new sense of place." Read more here.

Struggling rural Texas hospitals accuse Blue Cross Blue Shield of 'strongarm tactics' in contract negotiation

Rural hospital administrators across Texas allege that insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield is using "strongarm tactics" to force them to accept unfavorable contracts, Christopher Collins reports for Texas Observer. Blue Cross has considerable clout in Texas, claiming a quarter of the state's marketplace. As much 80 percent of charges at rural hospitals are reimbursed through private insurers like Blue Cross, compared to 20 to 30 percent covered by Medicaid. Unlike most other states, Texas has not expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Iraan, Texas (Wikipedia map)
At Iraan General Hospital in Iraan (pop. 1,229), a proposed contract this spring "proposed slashing the reimbursements that Blue Cross, the hospital’s biggest source of revenue, would pay for patient services such as outpatient clinic visits and emergency room care," Collins reports. Keith Butler, the new interim CEO at the struggling hospital, told Collins the contract "would have hurt this hospital a lot."

After Butler sent Blue Cross a counteroffer, he said he didn't hear from the company until a few months later when the company began using what he calls "strongarm" tactics. Blue Cross sent letters to customers saying that problems in contract negotiations could lead to the facility being considered out of network for Blue Cross policyholders. "Put simply, patients covered by Blue Cross would have to travel dozens of miles to another hospital if they expected the insurance company to pick up the bill," Collins reports.

Butler says townspeople were angry at him, and that that was the point of Blue Cross's campaign: to create pressure forcing him to sign the original offer. He eventually signed a slightly better deal than the original, but says the hospital will still lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on payments for laboratory tests.

Iraan isn't the only rural hospital where Blue Cross has used the same tactics, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. And rural hospitals lack the experience with contract negotiations to fight insurance giants like Blue Cross, he said. Rural hospitals are unlikely to have the leverage to fight with such insurers, especially since state antitrust rules bar rural hospitals from collectively bargaining with Blue Cross to get a better deal.

A spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas told the Observer in an email that it has pushed renegotiations with some rural hospitals because their outdated contracts "needed to be updated to include new protections for members and employees," Collins reports. "The spokesperson said the company 'continues to negotiate in good faith with a group of rural hospitals across the state' and pointed to a $10 million initiative it funded last month at Texas A&M University to explore new health care delivery options in rural areas."

Rural charter school splits Oklahoma town, may test state's authority to override local school decisions

Seminole, Okla. (Wikipedia map)
An Oklahoma businessman's success in opening a rural charter school over objections of the local school board could "test the popularity of charters in Oklahoma, and the role of the state in overruling community decisions," Caroline Preston reports for The Hechinger Report, an education journal. "More broadly, it’s a test case for whether these privately operated, publicly funded schools can open in small communities without eroding public education."

Paul Campbell and his family moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma three years to aerospace manufacturing company Enviro Systems, but had a hard time finding qualified workers in Seminole, a town of 7,300 just east of Oklahoma City. He believed part of the problem was a school system that didn't prepare students for highly skilled labor, and thought he could offer the town a better choice, Preston reports.

At the Academy of Seminole, which opened this past fall to 29 freshmen and sophomores, Campbell has focused on career readiness from the beginning. He's brought in speakers from different careers, and each student is required to choose a career and do a semester-long project on it. That dovetails nicely with Oklahoma's new requirement that all students must develop a career plan in order to graduate.

It sounds like an easy sell in theory, since "Campbell’s can-do, pro-business attitude fits in with the ethos of this working class, Trump-supporting town," Preston reports. But his charter has divided the town since he proposed it. Supporters thought the charter could bring new employers and skilled workers to the town, and liked the school's emphasis on workforce preparation.

Critics worried it would take students and their state funding away, leaving only the poorest children at the town's underfunded public schools, Preston reports. They were also concerned that Campbell didn't have an education background and that his program didn't offer students opportunities they couldn't get from existing programs. And though the school focuses on workplace readiness, locals worried that it might be used to incubate workers for Campbell's company.

Campbell said he met with local school-board leaders several times to discuss how his company could help kids in the system but was rebuffed; board members say that's not accurate. After that, he said, he began planning his own school and submitted an application to the Seminole School District in August 2016 to open one of the state's first rural charters, Preston reports. The board twice voted unanimously to reject the application, but the state board overrode it.

Because rural charters are so rare -- only about 11 percent of the nation's 6,747 are rural -- it's been difficult to predict how this one affect the community. So far, "much of what inspired the charter’s supporters, and troubled its opponents, hasn’t yet come to pass," Preston reports. "The small size is good financial news for the Seminole district, which stands to lose between $3,500 to $9,000 in state funding for every student who departs for the charter. To critics, of course, the small enrollment is evidence that there was never much demand for a charter school in the first place. For his part, Campbell is pointedly unsympathetic to worries over the charter school’s financial impact on the district," His advice: "Adapt."

Small-town Vermont feud leads to tall middle-finger statue

Boston Globe photo by Michael Swensen
In Westford, Vermont (pop. 2,000), local mechanic Ted Pelkey's frustration with the state and local government led to him commissioning, and publicly displaying on a tall pole, a huge hand with a raised middle finger.

"For the past decade, Pelkey said, he has been attempting to move his business, Ted’s Truck and Trailer Repair, from the town of Swanton, 20-some miles away, to the 11.4 acres on which his home sits in Westford," Dugan Arnett reports for The Boston Globe. "The move would not only eliminate his daily 30-minute commute, he said, but save him thousands of dollars a year in rent. It would also require the construction of an 8,000-square-foot building on his property."

Town officials originally approved the move, but withheld the permit necessary to begin construction after a few neighbors complained to the state environmental court, Pelkey said. He estimated for the Globe that he has spent $100,000 in legal fees over the past 10 years in an expensive battle with Westford officials and the state's environmental court.

A few months ago, Pelkey, 54, said he got the idea for the middle finger sculpture as a way to get back at the town. He paid a local sculptor $3,000 to create the middle finger salute from a 7-foot-tall chunk of pine and hoisted it onto a 16-foot pole in his front yard, Arnett reports. Locals immediately noticed; some were horrified, but most thought it was funny.

Pam Sargent, who works at a local deli, told Arnett the town should "capitalize on it" and proposed selling t-shirts featuring the sculpture that say "Westford's Number 1."

Town officials were less amused, and told Arnett in emails that Pelkey "has a history of directing animosity toward town employees and town volunteer boards" and said the case is “definitely not a tale of David v Goliath."

Pelkey figured he'd be ordered to take it down in a few days, but it turns out that, because the piece is considered public art, the town can't make him. Arnett sums it up: "The bird, in other words, is free to soar. And it has."

Monday, December 17, 2018

Essay: Farm Bill doesn't do enough to help farmers, who bear the brunt of climate change, adopt greener practices

A thoughtful essay from nonprofit think-tank The Aspen Institute says the Farm Bill can help mitigate climate change via better funding decisions without hurting farmers' finances, but the 2018 version doesn't do enough.

A 2016 study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that agriculture accounted for 9 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas output; that figure is about 33 percent worldwide. "In Congress, lawmakers have the opportunity to implement policy with the goal of reducing agricultural GHG emissions and assisting farmers and ranchers who are faced with the devastating impacts of a changing climate resulting in extreme drought, wildfires, and shorter growing seasons," Greg Gershuny and Kate Henjum write.

The recent climate report released by 13 federal agencies said that climate change will cause problems for farms and ranches more quickly than technology can solve them. The 2018 Farm Bill has some provisions that can help farmers adapt to an already-changing climate and help mitigate further changes, like a program that incentivizes farmers to build healthier soil. But Farm Bill funding is finite, and adding money to one program means taking it away from another. Because of that, some programs that would help farmers follow more sustainable practices are underfunded, Gershuny and Henjum write.

"It is critical that funds are appropriated in full to designated programs. Traditional farming practices are still important, but an openness and commitment to more sustainable and transformative practices that reflect the present reality faced by farmers and ranchers is necessary," Gershuny and Henjum write. "In the quickly changing agricultural landscape that is suffering from drought and forest fire, pests and disease, it is no longer enough to simply consider sustainable practices. By cutting funding or merely maintaining funding for research and programs that are used to improve rural economies, mitigate impacts of climate variability, address water availability issues, and train the next generation of agricultural workers, the burden falls hardest on the farmers and ranchers who are faced directly with these impacts.

Rural school principals have some of the hardest jobs, and some of the highest turnover rates, in education

"Rural school leaders have some of the most complex, multifaceted jobs in education. They also have some of the highest turnover. Half of all new principals quit their jobs within three years, according to a 2014 study," Caroline Preston reports for The Hechinger Report, an education journal. "A national survey released in July found that principals in rural school districts are even less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to stay at their school the following year and more likely to leave the profession altogether. The schools they preside over, meanwhile, often struggle with persistent poverty, low college-going rates and extreme racial disparities in student outcomes."

It can be difficult to lure a new principal to a rural area unless they grew up in the area (or any rural area). And even when a new principal agrees to come on board, chronic shortages in other areas of education make the job even harder, Preston reports.

Cheraw, Colorado, is located in
Otero County (Wikipedia map)
For example, Matthew Snyder is the new principal of the elementary, middle and high schools in Cheraw, Colorado (pop. 252). He's also the district superintendent, the maintenance director, a substitute teacher, and soon will be a fill-in bus driver. He grew up in a farming town in northern Colorado and told Preston that, although he was daunted at the prospect of filling so many roles in Cheraw, his brother encouraged him to try it. The job turned out to be very hard, but Snyder said he hopes that's just because he's new. "The light at the end of the tunnel for me is I’m hoping this is just adjusting," he told Preston.

A nationwide initiative aims to help multitasking principals like Snyder. Mark Shellinger, a former dual superintendent-principal in rural Alaska, runs a group called the National SAM Innovation Project. It operates in Colorado and 22 other states "to help principals better plan their days and train colleagues to assume more of their schools’ management tasks," Preston reports.

First-of-its-kind federal report shows GDP figures for all U.S. counties; that and another report show rural areas lagging

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The most sparsely populated U.S. counties were most likely to have seen a decline in economic output from 2014 to 2015, according to newly published federal data. "The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis for the first time last week released gross domestic product, or GDP, data for all of the nation's 3,113 counties. The statistics only cover 2012 through 2015. That makes them somewhat dated. But the share of small counties with falling GDP numbers in 2015 is one aspect of the statistics that stands out," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

The BEA classified counties as large (population over 500,000), medium (population between 100,000 and 500,000), and small (fewer than 100,000). Only 13 of the 138 large counties (about 9 percent) saw GDP decreases from 2014 to 2015. Of the 461 medium counties, 120 (or 26 percent) saw GDP decreases from 2014 to 2015. But of the 2,514 small counties, 1,024, or 40 percent, saw an economic output decline in that time frame, Lucia reports.

A 2017 report from the National Association of Counties provides more recent and more granular data. "The report says that in 2016, almost eight in 10 county economies had returned to their pre-recession GDP levels and that while economic output growth was slower than it was in 2015 in almost two-thirds of counties, virtually none had GDP declines," Lucia reports. "It added that the counties where GDP had not recovered to pre-recession levels had fewer than 50,000 residents and were mainly located in Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia."

Both studies affirm that rural America continues to lag economically behind urban areas. The BEA said it plans to release more timely data next December.

Volunteers help rural elderly get health care, and more

U.S. Census Bureau chart;
click the image to enlarge it.
Accessing health care and other support services is difficult for seniors in rural America, and because rural populations are increasingly older than those in suburban and urban areas, that adds up to a significant issue.

The strains and limits on the country’s caregiving system are especially acute in non-metropolitan areas, where one out of four Americans 65 and older live—some 10 million people. Around 65 percent of the areas that are short of health professionals are rural or partially rural, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, Clare Ansberry reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Because so many people moved away from rural areas after they grew up, "the percentage of family caregivers—unpaid relatives or friends—living in rural areas fell to 16 percent in 2015 from 31 percent in 2009, according to reports by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute," Anberry reports.

Rural elderly residents face a host of barriers to accessing health care, like lack of transportation or ability to drive. And since rural hospitals keep closing, many rural patients have an unusually long drive to get to the nearest health care provider, Ansberry writes. Some seniors simply need to be watched, but it's difficult to find adult daycares in rural areas.

Volunteers are increasingly filling the gap in providing services for rural seniors. In Cavalier, a town of 1,200 in the northwest corner of North Dakota, a local volunteer group called Faith in Action takes seniors to medical appointments, grocery stores, dentists, and hair salons. Michelle Murray, who runs the group, says her 46 regular drivers are increasingly needed: they logged about 89,000 miles this year, compared to 76,000 miles last year, Ansberry reports.

"Partnerships are important, says John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, an association of foundations seeking ways to improve the experience of aging in America," Ansberry writes. "In Tennessee, he says, Meals on Wheels drivers alert the local Habitat for Humanity office when they see an older adult living in a home that isn’t safe or needs repairs. Such local efforts that can be replicated help foundations and other organizations see what is possible."

USDA launches $600 million broadband program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching a $600 million pilot project to build out high-speed internet service in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipal governments can apply for funding from the ReConnect Program.

During a ceremony last Thursday announcing the program, "Chad Parker, the Rural Utilities Service assistant administrator for telecommunications policy, explained that USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants with applications due to USDA by April 29 as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations with applications due May 29 and $200 million for low-interest loans with applications due by June 28," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload, Parker said." In order to be approved, projects must provide speeds of at least 25 Mbps for uploads and 3 Mbps for downloads.

During the ceremony, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that high-speed internet is "a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity . . . We don't want an urban-rural divide in the country." The USDA will hold a series of webinars and regional in-person workshops to help applicants learn more. The full list of events can be found here.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Metro researchers say investment in smaller cities can help rural areas

"It would be a mistake to enact policy solutions to save rural America at the expense of cities," write senior research assistant Nathan Arnosti and Director Amy Liu of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

"Recent efforts to bail out farmers amidst a trade war and exempt rural counties from work requirements to receive Medicaid and other safety-net services in effect hurt people and businesses in cities and suburbs," they write. "While these policy moves seem like clever ways to rebalance urban-rural economic divides, they could ultimately harm rural communities, too, by choking off the very engines that make rural investments possible. In fact, one of the best ways to help rural America may involve helping cities: supporting a distributed network of economically vibrant small and mid-sized cities across the United States."

The researchers argue that cities are the main drivers of prosperity that enables federal and state governments to maintain subsidies to rural areas; "proximity to cities can contribute to rural communities’ well-being due to the spillover benefits that cities generate;" and cities are places of opportunity "for ambitious rural residents to gain new skills and experiences, benefitting workers and their home communities. As described in Vox, sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas found that some people who leave their rural hometowns end up returning, filling specialized jobs in medicine, law, and other professions using the skills they developed in cities." They say this “return migration,” animates economic development strategies in some cities.

Here's their policy prescription: "Rather than sprinkle limited resources across every rural county, state and federal policymakers could target efforts to small and mid-sized markets by helping them strengthen commercial corridors and modernize existing industries." They say such cities "are better positioned to offer social and economic benefits to rural communities than distant, high-cost cities." They quote J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: "There’s a difference between out-migration from Eastern Kentucky to southwestern Ohio, and Eastern Kentucky and San Diego, because the former allows you to preserve some social connections; it’s cheaper to move there, it’s less culturally intimidating to move there. . . . If we can regionally develop big cities like Lexington, like Pittsburgh, like Columbus [it] enables people to maintain social connections even as they move to places with higher employment, and still play a positive role in communities back home."

The researchers have other prescriptions that are also likely to be controversial in rural areas. Read the article here.

Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is out

President Trump said in tweets Saturday morning that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will resign and he will appoint a replacement next week. Here's the first tweet:
Ryan Zinke (Photo by Greg Lindstrom, Flathead Beacon)
"Zinke’s personal conduct and management decisions have spurred at least 15 investigations, several of which have been closed, The Washington Post notes. "The most serious one, which the Interior Department’s acting inspector general referred to the Justice Department, focuses on whether the secretary used his office for personal gain in connection with a land deal he forged in Whitefish, Mont., with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar and other investors." Zinke is from Whitefish.

The Post adds, "While the former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman worked aggressively to promote Trump’s agenda of expanding domestic energy production, administration officials concluded weeks ago that he ranked as the Cabinet member most vulnerable to congressional investigations once Democrats took control of Congress in January. . . . The White House had been pushing Zinke to resign for weeks, administration officials said. Last month, these officials said, Zinke was told he had until the end of the year to exit or be fired."

The Post story concludes, "The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee."

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ky. appeals court OKs release of records showing how Purdue Pharma promoted OxyContin, opioid epidemic

The Court of Appeals of Kentucky on Friday upheld an Appalachian judge’s ruling to release secret records about the marketing of OxyContin, the branded form of oxycodone that "has been blamed for helping to seed today’s opioid-addiction epidemic," reports Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, which fought to get the records.

Purdue Pharma is privately held. (AP photo by Douglas Healey)
In the court file is a deposition of Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma, the family-controlled company that makes OxyContin and pleaded guilty in federal court to fraudulently marketing of as less addictive than other painkillers.

The deposition "is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family has been questioned under oath about the marketing of OxyContin and the addictive properties," Stat's David Armstrong and Andrew Joseph report. "Other records include marketing strategies and internal emails about them; documents concerning internal analyses of clinical trials; settlement communications from an earlier criminal case regarding the marketing of OxyContin; and information regarding how sales representatives marketed the drug."

The case was a lawsuit filed in 2007 by then-state Attorney General Greg Stumbo, alleging similar fraud and increased costs to the state for drug treatment and health care. It was transferred to federal court, where it lingered for several years under then-AG Jack Conway, who got it transferred back to Pike Circuit Judge Steven Combs. Depositions were taken, and in December 2015, as one of his last official acts, Conway settled the case and agreed to destroy 17 million pages of documents he had obtained through discovery.

However, some copies of the documents remained on file in Pike County, and Stat asked for them. in May 2016, Combs ordered them released, but stayed the order pending Purdue's appeal. He wrote, “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves.”

Jack Conway
Almost a year and a half after oral arguments in the case, the three-judge appeals panel unanimously agreed, saying it was the only way to hold Conway accountable. Without naming Conway, Judge Glenn Acree wrote, “Some agent of the government compromised the claim against Purdue; i.e., some agent sold the people’s property. . . . Without access to court records, how can the public assess whether a government employee’s decision to compromise a valuable claim of the people adequately protected their interest or maximized the claim’s value?”

Conway told the Louisville Courier Journal Friday, “Kentucky got many times over what any state has gotten from Purdue Pharma. After eight and a half years, I thought it was best to get what we could. I hope it all comes out, (that) all of the documents eventually get released, and sooner rather than later.”

Purdue has 30 days to appeal, and indicated that it would, either to the state Supreme Court or through a rehearing by the appeals court. Either could refuse further action.

“It's taken a long time, but we're now very optimistic that these records will see the light of day very soon,” Stat Managing Editor Gideon Gil, a former health reporter and regional editor for the Courier Journal, told Kentucky Health News.

Louisville lawyer Jon Fleischaker, who represented Stat, told the publication, “Really what the court is saying is these are public records. The public has an interest in them, and the public has a right to them.”

Stat Editor Rick Berke said, “More than two years after we filed this suit, the scourge of opioid addiction has grown worse, and the questions have grown about Purdue’s practices in marketing OxyContin. It is vital that that we all learn as much as possible about the culpability of Purdue, and the consequences of the company’s decisions on the health of Americans.”

The hard truths of trying to 'save' the rural economy

In the Sunday Review of The New York Times, economics reporter Eduardo Porter offers a 2,000-word analysis of rural America's economic problems and what might be done about them. Excerpts:

"Nobody — not experts or policymakers or people in these communities — seems to know quite how to pick rural America up. States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But they haven’t yet figured out how to hitch this vast swath of the country to the tech-heavy economy that is flourishing in America’s cities."

"Overall, manufacturing employs about one in eight workers in the country’s 704 entirely rural counties. . . . But factory jobs can no longer keep small-town America afloat. Even after a robust eight-year growth spell, there are fewer than 13 million workers in manufacturing across the entire economy. Robots and workers in China put together most of the manufactured goods that Americans buy, and the high-tech industries powering the economy today don’t have much need for the cheap labor that rural communities contributed to America’s industrial past. They mostly need highly educated workers. They find those most easily in big cities, not in small towns."

"This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become. This dynamic feeds on itself, drawing more high-tech firms and highly skilled workers to where they already are."

"Consider a recent Brookings Institution study by Benjamin Austin, Edward Glaeser and Lawrence Summers. They focus on the alarming rate of joblessness in what they call the Eastern Heartland, the region roughly between the Mississippi River and the states on the Atlantic coast, where rural communities are doing particularly poorly.
Share of county population not employed, 2015 (Brookings Institution map)
"After examining a range of potential policy interventions, they conclude that a targeted employment subsidy, such as the earned-income tax credit, is probably the most powerful tool available to revive employment. But they, too, are not sure it will work. “Our call for a wage subsidy is us saying, ‘We can’t figure this out, and we hope the private sector will,’ ” Mr. Glaeser told me."

"What if nothing really works? Is there really no option but to do nothing and, as some have suggested, return depopulated parts of rural America to the bison? Instead of so-called place-based policies to revitalize small towns, why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are? Geographic mobility hit a historical low in 2017, when only 11 percent of Americans picked up shop and moved — half the rate of 1951. One of the key reasons is that housing in the prosperous cities that offer the most opportunities has become too expensive."

"There are compelling reasons to try to help rural economies rebound. Even if moving people might prove more efficient on paper than restoring places, many people — especially older people and the family members who care for them — may choose to remain in rural areas. What’s more, the costs of rural poverty are looming over American society. Think of the opioid addiction taking over rural America, of the spike in crime, of the wasted human resources in places where only a third of adults hold a job. And if today’s polarized politics are noxious, what might they look like in a country perpetually divided between diverse, prosperous liberal cities and a largely white rural America in decline?"

Porter quotes Brookings' William Galston: “Think through the political consequences of saying to a substantial portion of Americans, which is even more substantial in political terms, ‘We think you’re toast.’” Porter concludes, "The distress of 50 million Americans should concern everyone. Powerful economic forces are arrayed against rural America and, so far, efforts to turn it around have failed. Not every small town can be a tech hub, nor should it be. But that can’t be the only answer."

UPDATE, Dec. 17: It's not, Roberto Gallardo writes for The Daily Yonder.

Creators Syndicate refuses to run column calling out 'hedge-fund scavengers' in journalism; Texas Observer prints it

Jim Hightower (2015 photo/Flickr)
Progressive columnist Jim Hightower's latest column criticized venture capitalists who damage journalism for the sake of investors, and singled out Digital First Media and GateHouse Media as the worst offenders, calling them "hedge-fund scavengers" and "ruthless Wall Street profiteers out to grab big bucks fast" at the expense of newspapers and their readers.

Hightower paid the price when his distributor, Creators Syndicate, refused to place his column in any publications out of fear of retribution from Digital First and GateHouse. Creators Managing Editor Simone Slykhous defended the move in an email, saying they only wanted to protect Hightower, according to the editorial staff of The Texas Observer. Hightower's assistant said Creators didn't want to anger its powerful customers.

The Observer's editorial staff decided to run Hightower's column in full, saying "He's angering all the right people." Hightower's staff circulated the column to selected newspapers, such as The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. Read it here; it's a scorcher.

Illinois hunter may have shot largest buck ever killed in U.S.

Kavin Szablewski with his possibly record-breaking kill (Photos by Illinois Department of Natural Resources)
Keith Szablewski of Johnston City, Illinois, may have shot the largest buck ever recorded in the United States: 51 points.

"The largest buck on record now is a 47-point buck taken by a Tennessee hunter in 2016, according to the Tennessean. Stephen Tucker of Gallatin, Tennessee, shot that buck in Sumner County with a muzzleloader rifle," Matthew Martinez reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

Szablewski shot his buck with a shotgun on private property in Williamson County, which is about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis, in November. "I was just sitting there, and I heard the deer behind me," Szablewski told WSIL Radio of Harrisburg. "When I walked up to him, I looked at it and thought, 'What a blessing.'"

Szablewski is waiting for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to confirm the record.

Farm Bill includes help for rural hospitals, rural broadband

At 807 pages, the new Farm Bill takes a bit to read through. We've mentioned the SNAP debate and industrial hemp legalization, but here are a few more provisions of interest to rural Americans:

The bill could grant the U.S. Department of Agriculture more authority to dispense $350 million a year in grants and loans for local rural broadband buildout, but only for areas where service speeds are slower than 10 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads. That's lower than the Federal Communications Commission's threshold for broadband, which is 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, Dave Nyczepir notes for Route Fifty. Also, USDA launched a pilot project Thursday to allocate an extra $600 million from the 2018 omnibus bill for encouraging private investment in rural broadband, using the 10 Mbps rule. That means some rural residents could be caught in the middle, with speeds too high for federal aid but too low to get first-class service.

Another problem with awarding such grants and loans is that the FCC's map of internet service provider coverage may be inaccurate.

"The Farm Bill does, however, direct grant funding more toward places with low population densities, while using loans for those with higher densities—a win for rural areas that limits providers’ ability to reserve service for more populated communities," Nyczepir reports. "Instead, the Farm Bill will enable co-ops to both modernize the electric grid and offer retail broadband to consumers." Rural areas that do well with the initial funds could be rewarded with more federal funding. The bill also requires USDA to restore an undersecretary for Rural Development.

The bill could also help rural hospitals. It "includes a provision that would allow rural hospitals to refinance substantial debt through lower-interest loans" from USDA, Susannah Luthi reports for Modern Healthcare. "Rural hospital lobbyists acknowledge the provision won't change much overnight for the 44 percent of rural hospitals which operate at a loss. The USDA requires applicants to show levels of financial viability that the really struggling hospitals likely can't currently meet." But longer-term, the provision could "transform finances" for rural hospitals, allowing them to get lower interest rates on USDA loans, Luthi reports.

China resumes some soybean sales after G-20 agreement; White House delays additional trade-aid payments

"Traders said on Wednesday that China, the world’s top soybean importer, had booked its first significant U.S. soybean purchases in more than six months after a trade truce was reached on December 1," Julie Ingwersen reports for Reuters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on Thursday the sale of more than 1.3 million tonnes of soybeans, though soy futures fell because traders are hoping for more deals.

The sales came after President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping negotiated a 90-day ceasefire in the trade war after the recent G-20 summit. 

It's not clear how many soybeans China will buy, since U.S. tariffs are still in place and Brazil has a record crop about ready for harvest, Ingwersen reports. Still, the renewed sales are a promising sign that will be undoubtedly well-received by soybean farmers.

China was once America's biggest customer for soy, and without those sales and few other customers forthcoming, many soybean farmers have been obliged to try to store their crops in hopes that the trade war will end soon and they can then get a better price, Adam Belz reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Soybean prices have hit record lows since the start of the trade war.

StarTribune chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
One Minnesota soybean farmer, Tim Velde, said he sold about 40 percent of his crop on the futures market this year at a tiny profit, and has stored the other 60 percent at his farm and the local grain elevator. "It’s at a point where I can’t afford to sell them, because I can’t take that much of a loss," he told Belz.

Though the amount of soy the Chinese have purchased is a small fraction of what they buy annually from the U.S., the White House has delayed giving out the second round of aid for farmers hurt by the trade war in hopes that renewed sales will make the payments unnecessary, Humeyra Pamuk and Jarrett Renshaw report for Reuters.

Quick hits: more people want to live in the country than actually live there; two rural states top online sales

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

A new Gallup poll shows that 27 percent of Americans would rather line in a rural area than a city. Since about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, sounds like a few city dwellers are yearning for the country. Read more here.

A news analysis predicts that, though President Trump has made a mighty effort to help the coal industry, he won't be able to save it. Read more here.

Holiday shopping is up almost 20 percent this year, recently hitting a record $80.3 billion. Though two of the top states for amount of stuff bought online are predictably states with large populations (California, New York and Washington), the other two in the top five are Alaska and Wyoming. Read why here.

Can gold mining save a fading town in Washington state? Read more here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Chinese tech company, whose equipment is used by many rural wireless carriers, may be declared national security risk

House lawmakers are reportedly preparing to express concerns about Chinese tech companies whose equipment are used by a quarter of U.S. rural wireless carriers. A 2012 government report warned that the Chinese government could use Huawei and ZTE equipment for espionage, but carriers use it anyway because it's "apparently good and cheap," Mike Dano reports for tech site FierceWireless. The CEO of one wireless carrier, James Valley Telecommunications, said the company went with Huawei tech because it was 40 percent cheaper than the next cheapest option.

A group of House lawmakers is reportedly about to send a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who heads the Committee on Foreign Investment, warning that the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile would increase the risk that Huawei tech could be used in developing the nation's 5G infrastructure, which could make the U.S. more vulnerable to espionage. "Interestingly, as Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner pointed out, the letter to Mnuchin apparently makes no mention of Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent company and the firm that will own 42 percent of the combined Sprint and T-Mobile," Dano reports.

There's a lot at stake for Huawei, ZTE and their customers: in April the Federal Communications Commission banned any U.S. company that receives government money from using equipment from companies deemed a national security threat, Dano reports.

Seven rural wireless network operators, all of which use Huawei tech for much of their network, filed a comment with the Federal Communications Commission expressing their support for the company: United TelCom, which has 20,000 wireless customers in southwestern Kansas; SI Wireless, which has 20,000 customers in western Kentucky and Tennessee; Viaero, which has 110,000 mobile customers across eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota; JVT, which has almost 10,000 customers in South Dakota; NE Colorado Cellular and United Telephone Association (no customer count provided for either)' Nemont Telephone Cooperative, which has almost 12,000 mobile customers in Montana and North Dakota through its subsidiary Sagebrush Cellular; and Union Telephone Company, which has nearly 40,000 customers in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

A Huawei executive in the U.S., Thomas Dowding, said in an FCC filing that the company doesn't threaten U.S. national security and said that the U.S. government had never found any deliberately compromised Huawei product in his his 15-year tenure at Huawei. 

"It’s hard not to link all the current noise over Chinese threats to national security back to Trump’s brewing trade war with the country. It seems clear that companies like ZTE and Qualcomm are probably being used as chess pieces in a broader game," Dano writes. "And if that’s the case, companies like United TelCom, Viaero and NE Colorado Cellular might need to prepare themselves to enter a chessboard where they will probably serve as pawns, not queens."

FCC investigates whether internet service providers lied about covering rural areas to access government funding

On the heels of its report showing that many internet service providers aren't giving customers the advertised speeds, the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether those ISPs falsely said they covered some rural areas in order to access government funds to build out rural broadband.

The Mobility Fund II project is meant to allocate more than $4.5 billion to encourage building out mobile broadband service in rural areas. As part of the project, the FCC requested coverage maps from carriers, which it could then use to determine which areas needed support," Colin Lecher reports for The Verge, a publication of Vox Media. "The agency said a review of more than 20 million speeds tests raised serious questions about the accuracy of the data, and it has suspended the next steps of the project while it investigates."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his "top priority" is ensuring that rural Americans have access to broadband, and that the investigation will make sure coverage data is accurate before proceeding with the Mobility Fund II project, Lecher reports.

Suprise gift from HGTV stars helps struggling dairy farm

L-R: Joanna Gaines, Guy and Ginger Coombs,
Curtis and Carilynn Coombs and Chip Gaines
A family dairy farm in north-central Kentucky has received some badly needed help from an unexpected source: HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. 

The Coombs family was hit hard this year after Dean Foods dropped their contracts with more than 100 small dairy farms; the family had to sell most of the cows from their farm Jericho Acres. After seeing an NBC News feature about the plight of the Coombs family, Chip Gaines called them in July to ask how he could help and the families became friends, Tammy Shaw reports for the Henry County Local.

The Gaines family owns an umbrella company called Magnolia, and under that, a crowd-funding apparatus called Chipstarter which they hope to use to help other families.
"The Gaines family invited the Coombes to attend Silobration, in Waco, Texas, Magnolia’s annual festival featuring a free vendor fair, food trucks, daytime activities and evening concerts," Shaw reports. "At a concert, Chip Gaines asked the family to come up on stage, then showed a clip from footage a film crew, on behalf of the Gaines family, shot during two days on the farm." After showing the film, Chip presented them with a no-strings-attached check for $50,000.

"We will be eternally grateful for their graciousness and the wonderful people they are. I’m blessed to be able to call them friends," Cherilynn Coombs told Shaw. The family plans to build and operate a micro dairy processing plant and perhaps open a farm store to sell agricultural products. If successful, they say they could create a place that could help other dairy farmers in the same situation.

Farm Bill goes to Trump on strong bipartisan votes

The new five-year Farm Bill is headed to the White House for President Trump's signature after getting strong, bipartisan support; 87-13 in the Senate and 369-47 in the House. The roll calls "masked months of partisan and sometimes personal debate between ag leaders in both chambers," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

Outgoing House Agriculture Commottee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas and his predecessor and successor, ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, "projected a positive working relationship for next year," McCrimmon reports, "despite the bitterly partisan experience in the House during this farm bill cycle. Peterson’s looking to build the Democratic bench on ag policy."

The House vote "shattered the record for most 'yes' votes for a farm bill, Conaway and Peterson said. The total for H.R. 2 included a nearly even number of Republicans (182) and Democrats (187) — a complete reversal from June, when the GOP-written Farm Bill squeaked through on a 213-211 vote with no Democratic support. Just three Democrats voted no on Wednesday: Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Lloyd Doggett of Texas."

In the Senate, the "no" votes came mainly from fiscal conservatives such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, even though the bill included what was once one of his signature causes, legalization of industrial hemp. The 807-page bill is a veritable Christmas tree of spending, including "provisions to create a feral-hog control project; extend a federal ban on animal fighting to U.S. territories; develop a crop insurance policy for hop producers; and set up a USDA office for urban agriculture and innovative production," McCrimmon reports.

He adds, "The only drama Wednesday was a narrow 206-203 procedural vote on the House rule, setting up the final Farm Bill vote, after House Republican leaders inserted controversial language in the rule to essentially block any House action on the war in Yemen for the rest of the session." That passed thanks to votes from Peterson and four other Democrats interested in the Farm Bill: Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's (Md.), Al Lawson (Fla.), David Scott (Ga.) and Jim Costa (Calif.).

The bill expands the Conservation Reserve Program to 27 million acres, an increase of 3 million acres, "with the cost offset by a lower rental payment to landowners," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "Funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program would expand while spending on the green-payment Conservation Stewardship Program would drop."

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

ProPublica picks 14 news outlets and reporters for support of investigative work on state governments and other topics

The non-profit investigative news outlet ProPublica has named 14 newsrooms and local reporters for the second year of its Local Reporting Network that supports investigative journalism at local and regional news organizations. Seven projects will focus on state government, while the rest will cover a broad range of subjects. None of the news outlets is rural, but several of them serve large rural audiences, such as the largest newspapers in Alaska and West Virginia and non-profit news organizations in Mississippi and Illinois.

"This expansion is an effort to help stanch the decline in statehouse and state government coverage nationwide, as fewer outlets have the resources to hold accountable those in powerful state offices, from executive and legislative branches to secretaries of state to attorneys general," ProPublica said in a news release. It said the newsrooms selected for 2019 were chosen from more than 215 applicants in all but seven states.

The selectees for investigative reporting general subjects are:
Anchorage Daily News  — Kyle Hopkins
Illinois Newsroom (University of Illinois) — Rachel Otwell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting — Jerry Mitchell
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (Memphis) — Wendi C. Thomas
NOLA.com (The Times-Picayune, New Orleans) — Joan Meiners
The Public’s Radio (Providence, Rhode Island) — Lynn Arditi
Reckon by AL.com (The Birmingham News) — Connor Sheets

The state-government investigative projects will come from:
Charleston Gazette-Mail (West Virginia) — Ken Ward Jr.
Connecticut Mirror (Hartford) — Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Ill.) — David Bernstein
Louisville Courier Journal — Alfred Miller
The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) — Joseph Cranney
The Sacramento Bee — Jason Pohl
WNYC (New York City) — Nancy Solomon

Buried FCC report shows many internet service providers aren't providing advertised speeds to customers

Federal Communications Commission chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
Many internet service providers aren't providing advertised speeds to customers, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report. The worst offenders are telecommunications companies selling "aging, slow and pricey DSL," or digital subscriber lines, Karl Bode reports for TechDirt. That's mostly because cable companies are increasingly monopolizing broadband service; phone companies like AT&T and Verizon are focusing on wireless, video and ads while ISPs like CenturyLink are focusing more on enterprise.

"As a result, millions of customers are stuck on aging, expensive, (and often unnecessarily usage capped) DSL lines nobody really wants to upgrade because the return on investment is too slow for Wall Street's liking," Bode reports. "The result: less competition, higher prices, slower speeds, and worse customer service as cable secures a monopoly over high speeds" which 5G wireless isn't likely to fix.

The report is notable not just for its data, but for the fact that it was released at all (albeit buried in the appendix of a 581-page report). FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to release last year's report, and dodged reporters' questions about why. But the news media's efforts appear to have nettled and prompted Pai: This year's report was released the day after a blistering Ars Technica piece calling out the FCC for stalling and speculating that the report wasn't released because slow ISP speeds would show that the net neutrality repeal has not improved broadband for customers.

Trump is net popular only in rural areas and small towns

The 2018 midterm election underlined the nation's rural-urban divide, with Democrats mostly winning votes in cities and Republicans owning rural areas. Two recent polls suggest that the 2020 election might play out the same way, Nathaniel Rakich and Dhrumil Mehta report for FiveThirtyEight.

The first one, by Iowa-based Selzer & Co., found that President Trump had a 43 percent approval rating and a 45 percent disapproval rating nationwide, but his approval numbers were far better in rural areas and declined with increasing population density. The president enjoys his highest approval rating in rural areas, with 61 percent approving and 26 percent disapproving. In small towns it's 44 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval. In suburban areas, he has a 41 percent approval rating vs. 50 percent disapproval, and in urban areas only 31 percent approve while 59 percent disapprove, Rakich and Dhrumil report. The poll was conducted from Nov. 24-27 for Grinnell College and was based on telephone interviews with 1,000 U.S. adults age 18 or older, including 828 likely voters in the 2020 voters and 769 who said they voted in the 2018 midterm elections. The answers have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

November's monthly Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll echoed those results: Overall his approval rating was 39 percent while his disapproval rating was 55 percent. "Trump again got the highest marks from residents of rural areas — a 62 percent approval rating and a 35 percent disapproval rating. And yet again, his standing took a nosedive among suburbanites and urbanites," Rakich and Dhrumil report. In suburban areas his approval rating was 32 percent and his disapproval rating was 60 percent. And in urban areas his approval rating was 27 percent vs. 67 percent disapproval. It's worth noting that this pollster has been touted as the most accurate in the past four election cycles.

"This is perhaps stating the obvious, but Trump would do well to improve his standing among suburban and urban voters before 2020. Less than 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas," Rakich and Dhrumil report. "According to the Congressional Density Index from CityLab, a news website covering urban issues, just 70 congressional districts are 'pure rural,' and an additional 114 are a 'rural-suburban mix.'"

New Census study has county-level data on poverty, income, broadband subscriptions and more from 2013-2017

U.S. Census Bureau map; click on the image to enlarge it.
A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau features detailed profiles of more than 40 social, economic, housing and demographic topics in the U.S. from 2013 to 2017. The American Community Survey is the only full set of data available for the 2,316 least-populated counties in the country, whose populations are too small to produce a complete set of single-year estimates. Highlights from the report:
  • All five of the counties with the lowest median household incomes (with populations over 10,000) were rural: Holmes County, Mississippi; Sumter County, Alabama; and Bell, Harlan and McCreary counties in southeastern Kentucky.
  • Poverty rates declined in 441 of the nation's 3,142 counties and increased in 264 from the 2008-2012 period to 2013-17.
  • The overall poverty rate was 14.6 percent in 2013-17, compared to 14.9 percent in 2008-12.
  • On average, rural areas had higher poverty rates than urban areas.
  • Counties with the lowest internet subscription rates tended to be in rural areas in the upper Plains, the Southwest and the South.
  • Twenty of the 24 counties with populations above 10,000 with the lowest level of home broadband subscriptions were classified as mostly rural or completely rural. 

Report highlights health risks of living near a surface coal mine, alleges Trump administration ignored science

Many peer-reviewed studies have shown that living near a large-scale surface mine increases health risks, but a new report produced by the left-leaning Human Rights Watch "draws attention to the ways that science has been suppressed, and how the costs of dealing with the mining’s health risks shifted from industry to communities," Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource., a nonprofit radio news collaborative serving Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Some of the report's key points:
  • A 2016 rule meant to protect streams from surface-mine pollution was jettisoned by Congress as one of its first acts under the Trump administration; that was the first of an "avalanche" of deregulation on coal mines.
  • Trump and his administration have appointed industry lobbyists and insiders to top regulatory positions, in effect putting the industry in charge of regulating itself.
  • The Interior Department canceled a study it had funded assessing the potential health impacts of strip mining (in a previous item we noted that an Interior official repeatedly met with coal-industry lobbyists but almost no conservation lobbyists before canceling the study).
  • Health experts consulted for the report said that other factors such as high levels of poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, smoking and obesity in areas near strip mines undoubtedly contribute to residents' poor health, but said the pollution from coal mining may worsen health problems.

New editor at rural N.H. paper, at 30 the youngest ever, aims to help it increase its digital presence

Maggie Cassidy
The new editor at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H, is breaking barriers: Maggie Cassidy, 30, will be the paper's youngest-ever editor and its first woman when she takes over the 25-person newsroom next week, though neither of those things landed her the job, Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute.

"She has really been the driving force behind our movement to more of a digital presence, and she has really earned the respect from all of her colleagues in the newsroom," said publisher Dan McClory in an article announcing the hire.

As the daughter of a journalist and a careful but dedicated advocate for digital news, Cassidy is well-placed to help a newspaper embrace new technology. "What I think strikes a lot of people about Maggie is the bridge that she provides between the old and the new," said Martin Frank, the 30-year veteran editor she's replacing. Frank has been the editor of the Valley News for the past five years.

West Lebanon, N.H., is across the Connecticut
River from White River Junction, Vt. (Google)
"The old, he said, are the principles of good journalism. The new is how to apply those principles to new forms of journalism," Hare reports. It will be a challenge: many residents in the area don't have much internet access and some still use dial-up. But Cassidy, who became the paper's first web editor in 2012, has been working to increase the paper's digital presence while still respecting old-school tenets of journalism such as factual accuracy even with breaking news; that can suffer sometimes in the report-it-now world of digital news.

The stereotype of small newspapers being slow to change is a little bit true, Cassidy said, but told Hare that her experience has been that "journalists want to do good work, they want to reach readers in the best way . . . but they don't want to do something for the sake of doing it."

The Valley News, named for the Connecticut River valley, serves 24 towns in Vermont and 22 in New Hampshire. It is owned by Newspapers of New England, a family company that owns 10 papers, including the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire's capital and the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Time magazine names journalists who risk their lives as People of the Year, cites 'war on truth'

Staff of the Capital Gazette
Journalism can be a dangerous profession to those who put themselves in harm's way to report the truth, putting them squarely in the cross-hairs of dictators and despots the world over -- and sometimes even at community newspapers in the United States. That's why Time magazine chose "The Guardians" against "the war on truth" as its 2018 Person of the Year.

Time issued four different covers of the magazine announcing the pick with different examples of journalists who have died or been imprisoned in the past year:
  • Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an expatriate Saudi who wrote pieces criticizing the Saudi royal family. Khashoggi was murdered, which the CIA found was likely by Saudi operatives with the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • The staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. Five of its staffers were killed in June by a gunman angered by the newspaper's coverage of his legal troubles. Abby Vesolusis writes, "The Capital’s staff is accustomed to covering harrowing news — all community journalists are. They’re the ones who are there when fires incinerate buildings or when cars bend around utility poles. But they never imagined the hardest story they’d have to tell would be their own."
  • Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose news site Rappler has written stories critical of  authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, may face prison time. After her Dec. 3 arrest, she has posted bail and is scheduled to be arraigned in February. She has been charged with tax evasion, which a United Nations official has called "a censorship tool" that constitutes "an attempt to silence the news outlet's independent reporting."
  • Two Reuters reports in Myanmar, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting the deaths of 10 minority Rohingya Muslims.
"This year brought no shortage of other examples," Time reported. "Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than 100 days for making 'false' and 'provocative' statements after criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview about mass protests in Dhaka. In Sudan, freelance journalist Amal Habani was arrested while covering economic protests, detained for 34 days and beaten with electric rods. In Brazil, reporter Patricia Campos Mello was targeted with threats after reporting that supporters of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro had funded a campaign to spread false news stories on WhatsApp. And Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times, was forced out of Hong Kong after inviting an activist to speak at a press club event against the wishes of the Chinese government. Worldwide, a record number of journalists—262 in total—were imprisoned in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expects the total to be high again this year."

Farm Bill poised to pass by end of week, with hemp, and without FOIA exemption sought by SNAP retailers

"The compromise Farm Bill unveiled Monday night avoids partisan minefields on food stamps and commodity policy that would have jeopardized its chances of clearing Congress before the end of the year," Catherine Boudreau and Helena Evich report for Politico. "Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees rejected sweeping changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that House Republicans and President Donald Trump had sought, clearing a path for bipartisan support in both chambers. The final bill also sidesteps a Senate attempt to tighten limits on subsidies for wealthier farmers."

The bill also legalizes industrial hemp, a pet project of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell said in a tweet that he signed the reconciled bill with a pen made of hemp.

The estimated price tag for the Farm Bill is $867 billion over the next decade. Supporters hope the bill can be quickly approved by the House and Senate so President Trump can sign it before next week. If the bill isn't signed by then, it could become a hostage in negotiations on the year-end government spending package.

The bill does not include House language that that would overturn a court ruling allowing the public to see how much Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) revenue a retailer gets in a year. The National Newspaper Association, the main lobby for weeklies and small dailies won the battle with the grocery industry and big-box stores. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader has been fighting in court for seven years to get the data.

Trump administration will use rhetoric and indictments to challenge China's behavior, complicating trade war

In a move that will not be welcome news for American farmers and other exporters to China, "The Trump administration is preparing a series of actions this week to call out Beijing for what it says are China’s continued efforts to steal America’s trade secrets and advanced technologies and compromise sensitive government and corporate computers," report Ellen Nakashima and David Lynch of The Washington Post.

"In perhaps the most significant move, the Justice Department is expected to announce the indictments of multiple hackers suspected of working for a Chinese intelligence service and participating in a long-running espionage campaign that targeted U.S. networks," the Post reports. "The announcements represent a major broadside against China over its mounting aggression against the West and its attempts to displace the United States as the world’s leader in technology, officials said. They are part of an intensifying government-wide approach to confronting China and would come as the two countries have reached a momentary detente in their trade war."

Ely Ratner, executive vice president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said tit-for-tat tariffs are “a bit of a sideshow to the broader geopolitical competition that is almost inevitably going to heat up.” Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “People don’t really understand the depth or breadth of the Chinese government’s actions, so this will be an important statement by the administration. This is long overdue.”