Thursday, July 19, 2018

Report: rural households spend more on energy bills

Households in rural areas and small towns at all income levels spend a disproportionately high percentage of income on energy bills (4.4 percent of income) compared to the nationwide average of 3.3 percent, according to a new study published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All.

The energy burden faced by rural residents varies across different areas and population groups; low-income, elderly, non-white, and renting households pay more, as do those living in multifamily or manufactured homes. 

Click here to download the report and related resources.

New EPA chief rolls back coal ash waste regulations

"As one of his first major acts as acting director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash, the leftover waste created by power plants that burn coal. The new rules are a revision of 2015 regulations that were put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills," Nadia Kounang reports for CNN.

Under the new rules, which coal industry groups lobbied heavily for, states and the coal industry have more authority to regulate how they deal with waste. States can tailor disposal requirements to specific sites, for example. The EPA said more changes to the 2015 coal ash rules will be addressed later, Kounang reports.

Though some coal ash is recycled into construction materials, about 50 million tons of the 110 million tons generated in the U.S. each year must be disposed of. Power plants traditionally mixed the ash with water and put it in unlined pits, but it can contaminate drinking water. "According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations," Kounang reports.

Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and attorney for Murray Energy, was the EPA's deputy administrator and gained the top post after Scott Pruitt resigned last week.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Bipartisan group of legislators go to bat for newspapers at newsprint International Trade Commission tariff hearing

At yesterday's U.S. International Trade Commission hearing, a bipartisan group of 19 legislators said the Commerce Department's tariffs on Canadian newsprint are hurting American newspapers. "The tariffs already substantially increase the cost of newsprint, leading newspapers to shrink the size of their pages and plan for job cuts in response, the lawmakers said. The tariffs would hasten the decline of local news, they said, harming journalists and communities served by small local publications rather than major newspapers," Jeff Cirillo reports for Roll Call.

The Trump administration imposed the tariffs in March after the North Pacific Paper Co. complained that Canadian manufacturers were selling newsprint at unfait prices. North Pacific, a company in Washington state with a single paper mill, was purchased in 2016 by a New York hedge fund. At the hearing, a NorPac representative said the tariffs have allowed paper mills to increase production and re-hire American workers.

"Speakers against the tariffs included House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania," Cirillo reports. "The group comprised 13 Republicans, five Democrats and independent Maine Sen. Angus King."

Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Michigan. “In these communities, there are no big newspapers to bring people their local news. These tariffs, if continued, would do lasting damage to these local institutions.” Some legislators have introduced bills to block the tariffs, which the ITC could block. Also, Commerce could change its mind.

Sept. summit in N.H. to explore rural journalism and more

Rural reporters, entrepreneurs and other rural leaders are invited to attend the "Radically Rural Summit" from Sept. 27-28 in locations throughout Keene, New Hampshire. Hosted by the Keene Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the summit is expected to attract more than 500 people across New England and beyond. "The event aims to explore the experience of living and working in a rural community and to create a space for innovation," Sierra Hubbard reports for the Sentinel.

Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center, told Hubbard: "We’re hoping to see new connections made, new networks made . . . building a network of people who really care about rural. We want doers. We don’t necessarily want the usual crowd. We want people who are really out there doing it."

Attendees can choose from five tracks, each hosted by a different business or organization in the community: entrepreneurship, arts and culture, journalism, Main Street, and agriculture.   "Also featured at the summit, the Hannah Grimes Center recently launched its PitchFork Challenge, a competition with two tracks. Existing businesses can enter to win the $10,000 prize, and entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses can compete for a $1,000 People’s Choice Award," Hubbard reports. Click here to learn more about the summit or register.

U.S. needs to change approach to firefighting, expert says

Not all wildfires are the same; some are in rural areas, some in wildlands, some in exurbs, and one expert argues that the U.S. needs to stop trying to fight them the same way. "Every major fire rekindles another round of commentaries about 'America’s wildfire problem.' But the fact is that our nation does not have a fire problem. It has many fire problems, and they require different strategies. Some problem fires have technical solutions, some demand cultural calls. All are political," Stephen Pyne writes for The Conversation. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. "Here’s one idea: It’s time to rethink firefighting in the geekily labeled wildland-urban interface, or WUI – zones where human development intermingles with forests, grasslands and other feral vegetation."

In WUI zones, houses and natural vegetation intermix, giving wildfires more and different fuel to spread. WUI is a familiar term in the West, but some of the worst WUI risks are in the Southeast as evidenced by the 2016 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, Tenn. But urban/suburban firefighters control fires differently than firefighters in wild areas, Pyne writes. Urban firefighters are trained to stifle all fire to protect lives; wildlands firefighters try to mostly control fire with water and dirt, removing flammable vegetation so fires stay reasonably contained and the landscape stays healthy.

"The training that each group gets is largely worthless in the other’s setting," Pyne writes. "There are a few instances of cross-training, particularly in rural areas, but the prime example of a major agency that tries to cope with both types of threats is the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Its experience shows what fusing these two purposes can mean."

Cal Fire operates a little like urban fire services and a little like wildlands fire services: it aims to control fire mostly by reducing flammable material in such settings and controlling small burns. Suppressing all fires just creates conditions for worse wildfires, so the firefighters try to protect all lives and keep fires from spreading to other communities. 

But such a model is too expensive to be replicated on a national level, and Pyne notes that firefighting already takes up more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget. Instead, Pyne recommends that WUI communities try to improve their resilience to fires and be more careful about power lines, which cause a lot of fires.

Summer food programs face challenges in rural areas

"Participation in summer food programs for children increased nationwide by 30 percent from 2007 to 2016, but administrative headaches and transportation issues can make it difficult for smaller providers and rural communities to participate, experts said Tuesday" at a hearing the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

According to Kathryn Larin, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office, availability of meal sites and peoples' awareness of such sites were a problem in most states. That goes especially for rural areas where low population density, lack of transportation to meal sites and fewer meal sites limit children's participation. Administrative and paperwork burdens can also be challenging for smaller food programs to cope with, she said.

"The summer food service program, administered by the Department of Agriculture, provides free meals to low-income children and teens when school is not in session. The program administered 149 million meals to children in fiscal year 2016, but participation numbers are unclear due to inconsistent reporting methods across state lines, according to a GAO report released in May," Queram reports. "Tuesday’s hearing addressed those reporting challenges, but focused mostly on innovative summer food programs at the state level."

Public-private partnerships with food programs are an important way of bridging service gaps in rural areas, according to Denise Ogilvie with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, a ministry that serves 21 counties and served more than 15,000 meals at 32 food program sites last summer.

White-nose syndrome confirmed in S.D. for the first time

A bat with WNS in Great Smoky Mountains National
Park (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in a bat in South Dakota for the first time, according to a joint release from several state and federal agencies.

Researchers observed wing lesions on a bat (believed to be of the long-legged bat species) earlier this summer near Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills National Forest, and lab tests in June at the U.S. Geological Survey's Wildlife Health Center confirmed that the bat had white-nose syndrome, the Rapid City Journal reports. The fungus that causes the disease was confirmed the week before then at Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Laramie National Historic Site in eastern Wyoming.

The long-legged bat is the eleventh species confirmed with white-nose syndrome; in June the disease was found in a cave bat in Kansas and the fungus was found on a western small-footed bat in South Dakota--all three western species.

Bats play an important role in ecosystems and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy by pollinating crops, dispersing seeds and keeping insect populations down. But white-nose has decimated bat populations in at least 33 states and experts say some bat species may go extinct because of it.

The press release asks the public to take the following steps to limit the spread of white-nose syndrome:
  • Stay out of caves, mines, and areas that are closed.
  • Decontaminate your caving and hiking gear and boots. Do not reuse gear that has been used in WNS-affected areas. Visit for more information.
  • Contact your state wildlife agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service immediately if you suspect you have seen bats with WNS, or if you see bats flying outside during freezing temperatures.
  • Do not touch live or dead bats.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tests come back positive for Asian carp in East Tennessee

Asian carp are moving up the Tennessee River.
(Map adapted from Sperling's Best Places)
"Tests show one of 50 biological samples researchers took below Watts Bar Dam north of Dayton, Tenn., earlier this year came back positive for bighead carp, a species of Asian carp that can be detrimental to the local ecosystem," Mark Pace reports for the Times Free Press in Chattanooga.

There have been no sightings or reports of the fish so far, but the test means a few fish could be in the region, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fishery boss Frank Fiss, speaking at a meeting of the agency's board last week.

Image from
Fiss said he wants to "get ahead of this" so the fish don't become a problem in East Tennessee. Asian carp have caused huge headaches throughout the South and Midwest, and for good reason: the voracious invasive species can decimate freshwater aquatic ecosystems, outcompeting native species for food. The carp can grow to 100 pounds and leap when frightened, making them a danger to boaters.

"The agency's plan is fourfold: prevent the further movement of carp, remove carp from existing populations, monitor abundance and movements, and communication to inform and request help," Pace reports. The fish are moving up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers from the lower Ohio River; they first found a home in the lower Mississippi River after escaping from fish farms (where they were used for cleaning) but are now threatening to invade the Great Lakes via a Chicago canal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put more money into an appropriations bill to fight the invasion.

Food banks bring mobile pantries to rural food deserts

Food pantries and soup kitchens tend to be in urban areas, but rural areas need help too: Though rural counties make up 63 percent of the U.S., they make up 79 percent of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, according to food bank network Feeding America. "Hunger has decreased somewhat in urban settings since the Great Recession, but it remains stubborn in rural areas." Elaine Povich reports for Stateline, a news service for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Rural poverty levels have exceeded urban poverty for decades, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. In the South, nearly 22 percent of residents who don’t live in metropolitan areas are in poor households. Over 15 percent of rural counties are 'persistently poor,' compared with just 4 percent of urban counties."

Even when rural residents have Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, getting access to affordable food -- especially fresh food -- can be difficult. That's why some food banks are bringing their services to rural areas with mobile food pantries.

The West Alabama Food Bank, for example, recently received a $47,150 state grant to retrofit a 28-foot trailer to bring fresh, frozen and refrigerated foods to residents in nine rural counties near the Mississippi border. WAFB Executive Director Jean Rykaczewski said that people in their service area often lack transportation to get to grocery stores and instead have to go to convenience stores with inflated prices and poor selection. The new mobile food market will give people more control over what they eat and enable them to get food for free or below cost, she told Povich.

FCC chair announces 'serious concerns' about Sinclair-Tribune merger; could signal death knell for deal

"FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced Monday he has "serious concerns" about Sinclair Broadcast Group's acquisition of Tribune Media, saying he would send the transaction through a lengthy administrative process often viewed as a deal-killer," Margaret McGill reports for Politico.

Sinclair is already the nation's largest owner of television stations, and with the $3.9 billion purchase of 42 Tribune stations, would add to its existing 173 stations to give the company access to almost three-quarters of U.S. households. The company owns many small-market stations.

Sinclair has offered to sell 21 stations to gain government approval, but the proposed sales would still have allowed Sinclair to maintain some control over the stations' revenue and programming. Pai said in a statement that that was a problem for the FCC: "Based on a thorough review of the record, I have serious concerns about the Sinclair/Tribune transaction . . . The evidence we’ve received suggests that certain station divestitures that have been proposed to the FCC would allow Sinclair to control those stations in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law."

Pai's move is not just a significant blow for Sinclair, but a surprising move for the Trump-appointed FCC chair. Sinclair has been criticized by Democrats for requiring stations to run editorial content favoring President Trump. And Pai had previous indicated a willingness to smooth the way for the Sinclair merger, reviving a regulatory loophole known as the UHF discount that would have allowed Sinclair to duck federal limits on media ownership.

Two rural communities, one in Mass., one in Eastern Ky., try to bridge the political divide with meetings, visits

Kentucky and Massachusetts residents participated in the first session in October in Leverett, Mass. (Photo provided)
The political divide in America may seem insurmountable, but two rural communities, one liberal and one conservative, are trying to bridge that gap with an ongoing outreach project to better understand one another.

Hands Across the Hills was launched by 18 liberal residents of Leverett, Mass., just after the 2016 election; they reached out to residents of Whitesburg, Ky., because they wanted to better understand not just how people could have voted for President Trump, but Appalachian culture overall, Richie Davis writes for The Daily Yonder (published by the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Whitesburg).

Led by Paula Green, who has led similar cross-cultural efforts for decades in war-torn areas like Bosnia and Rwanda, the project kicked off with a four-day visit in Leverett last October and continued with a visit to Whitesburg this April. "The exchange included home stays with participants and a 'show and tell' of the cultural treasures of each group — like a visit to a . . . coal mine and a bakery to rehabilitate former inmates in the community," Davis writes. "The dialogues, deeply personal and direct, featured one Kentucky woman’s emotional sharing regret over an abortion she’d experienced and stories of family members who’d died in mining accidents, while some Leverett members recounted stories of relatives who had died in or fled the European Holocaust — the first immigrant stories some Kentucky guests had encountered.

Though the groups disagreed on some issues, like guns and Trump, they found common ground in the opioid crisis and worries about the nation's future. "Their dialogue continues online, with monthly calls on follow-up projects: a conversation over guns, a discussion with two African American communities, and even working to nudge their diametrically opposed senators toward dialogue as well," Davis writes. "Critics and cynics may see this work as starry-eyed futility. Yet in the long run, there’s really no alternative if we’re to heal deepening divisions and weave together a United States again."

Monday, July 16, 2018

Trade war splits Missouri county into winners and losers

New Madrid County (Wikipedia map)
The fallout from the U.S. trade war with China is evident in a rural county in the Missouri Bootheel where about 70 percent of the voters in 2016 chose President Trump.

Specifically, farmers in New Madrid County are "delaying equipment purchases, renting their land to hunters and pre-selling crops before harvest - locking in today’s prices for fear they will fall," because of the tariffs on soybeans, P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters. Meanwhile, the tariffs on steel and aluminum lured new owners to buy and reopen the Noranda Aluminum smelting plant that has been closed since 2016.

Neil Priggel sees both sides of it, since he was a smelter employee and also runs his family's 4,000-acre farm. He said he was glad the smelter came back, but worries about his farm, Huffstutter reports. Some farmers told Huffstetter they planned to sell their farms and work at the smelter if soybean prices continue to drop.

Reuters chart; click on the image to view a larger version.

House passes legislation to increase local control of fishing

The U.S. House recently passed, mostly along party lines, legislation to change a 1976 fishing law to give local groups more control in developing recovery plans when fishing stocks get too low. As it stands now, regional councils decide fishing seasons and set catch limits to prevent overfishing.

"Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who sponsored both this recent bill and the original 1976 law, said the update ensures 'a proper balance between the biological needs of fish stocks and the economic needs of fishermen'," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

Environmentalists are leery of the change, worrying that it could trigger overfishing. But critics of the current system say it doesn't account for the amount of time it takes to replenish different kinds of fish--some more quickly than others.

Partisan sentiment is new in such matters. "The Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended and reauthorized in 1996 and then again 10 years later, each time largely with bipartisan support," Grandoni reports. "What’s atypical is how partisan this has become," said Meredith Moore, director of the fish conservation program at the Ocean Conservancy.

Feds propose paying doctors more for care via tele-health

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last week proposed to pay doctors more for tele-health appointments, which should increase the use of the tool that brings better care to rural areas. "In a lengthy proposed rule, the agency said it would pay doctors for their time when they reach out to beneficiaries via telephone or other telecommunications devices to decide whether an office visit or other service is needed," Virgil Dickson reports for Modern Healthcare. "In addition, the CMS also proposed paying for the time it takes physicians to review a video or image sent by a patient seeking care or diagnosis for an ailment."

CMS also wants to eliminate the requirement for doctors to justify the medical necessity of a home visit instead of an office visit, and may eliminate a policy that prevents payment for same-day visits with several practitioners with the same specialty in a group practice. For rural patients who have a hard time getting to the doctor, all those proposals could help with accessing better care.

"Elsewhere in the rule, the agency plans to continue a controversial site-neutral policy launched in 2018. For the second year in the row, off-campus facilities built after Nov. 2, 2015, will be paid 40 percent of the outpatient rates for the services they provide," Dickson reports. But CMS wants to include some changes to the policy, such as "letting physicians decide whether they want to opt in if they have a low volume of Medicare Part B enrollees or reimbursements and offering a waiver for clinicians who participate in a new Medicare Advantage demonstration."

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Retired Vt. editor wins ISWNE's Cervi Award for being a watchdog, a public servant and an exemplary journalist

Ross Connelly (Associated Press photo by Toby Talbot)
Ross Connelly may be most widely known as the editor-publisher who tried to sell his weekly newspaper through an essay contest. But he had a great career as a leader in rural journalism, and now he is the winner of the Eugene Cervi Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, presented Saturday night at the ISWNE conference in Portland, Oregon.

The award is named for a crusading Colorado editor who died in 1970. It honors editors who consistently act with the conviction that good journalism begets good government, have a career of outstanding public service through community journalism, hold to the highest standards of the craft with Cervi's deep reverence for the English language, and consistently and aggressively report on and interpret government at the grassroots level.

Connelly owned The Hardwick Gazette in northern Vermont from 1986 to 2017. He founded the Vermont Coalition for Open Government and was president of the Vermont Press Association and the New England Press Association. "Vermont went from what many considered the worst public record access to one of the best" thanks in part to Connelly, wrote Jack Authulet, the 1998 Cervi winner and former Society of Professional Journalists Sunshine Chair for Massachusetts. He was among the nominators.

"He brought big thinking to his small-town market in remote and rural Vermont," wrote nominator Link McKie, publication manager of the New England press group. "He also brought courage to take editorial positions he deemed important and proper for the public welfare, even when they were not popular. He took the time, despite his intensive long hours leading his newspaper, to join fights on behalf of the First Amendment, locally and beyond."

Connelly's "influence locally, statewide, and regionally cannot be overstated," wrote Johnson State College journalism professor Tyrone Shaw, a nominator and former weekly editor. "Simply put, Ross is the exemplar of the ideal journalist, combining the unwavering advocacy of the watchdog, with a deep, compassionate understanding of the communities he served." Connelly helped create the college’s Community Journalism Project, which deploys students to cover annual town meetings on the first Tuesday of March for the Gazette.

Nominator John S. McCright, news editor of the Addison Independent in Middlebury, recalled big stories he pursued as a reporter with Connelly. "The most notable was a scandal involving auctioneers of dairy cows who also happened to be presidents of three local banks and, as it turns out, first-class crooks. While these weren’t elected officials, Ross knew they were just as important in their roles as keepers of the public trust; and he and I reported the story well beyond the borders of the newspaper’s coverage area up until the disgraced bankers went to jail."

Connelly has won many awards for his reporting and editorial writing. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and master's degrees from the University of Michigan and Boston University. To sell the paper, he ran an entry-fee contest for the best essay on "why they wanted to run a community newspaper."

"In his efforts to sell The Hardwick Gazette, Ross was committed to finding a new owner who recognized the importance of community journalism," wrote nominator Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association. "He was committed to finding a person who would maintain the newspaper as the important 128-year-old institution it is rather than viewing it as a commodity to be exploited for a return on investment. The essay contest . . . brought attention to the reality that weekly newspapers are and remain a critical part of democracy. While the contest did not draw enough entries, it did attract a New England couple interested in carrying on the tradition that Ross and his wife did for several decades."

Editorial decrying closure of Iowa gun-permit records, while reaching out to readers, wins top prize from weekly editors

The Golden Dozen, the winners of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors' editorial contest, are always a marvelous collection of advocacy and public service. This year's top winner, for work published in 2017, earned ISWNE's Golden Quill award with an editorial that made readers think about a new Iowa law making secret the records of permits to carry guns.

Mark Ridolfi
In his 1,200-word piece, North Scott Press Assistant Editor Mark Ridolfi wrote, "Exercising the regulated right to bear and carry firearms, in my view, seems neither an embarrassment to be covered up, nor a benefit to be automatically pushed into print or online. It simply creates a publicly managed record. And publicly managed records, in my view, should be public. Those wanting secrecy say public gun records can be a road map for thieves. But the state’s new stand-your-ground law pretty much assures a grim end to crooks who use that map."

Ridolfi recounted stories that he had done about the records, including one revealing that one in five residents of the Scott County town of McCausland had a permit to carry a concealed firearm. "Now the public records are inaccessible," he wrote. "No one but law-enforcement professionals can look to determine if permits are being issued in accordance with the statewide standard. No one can discern why individuals have been turned down. No one will know if a thrice-denied applicant gets his or her fourth request granted."

The secrecy raises questions that may never be answered, and Ridolfi ticked off several: "Which teachers hold carry permits? Might they be useful in improving school safety? How many private security guards have been denied carry permit requests because of prior offenses? Who has been wrongly denied a carry permit? Who might have been recklessly granted a permit? Are there Iowa permit holders with undisclosed Illinois offenses that should prohibit their use of guns? Or vice versa? Are women denied more frequently than men? Blacks more than whites? Now, only those managing the permits will know."

Ridolfi concluded by noting that the paper had gotten a database of the permit records shortly before they were made inaccessible, and asked readers in the county just north of Davenport some questions: "How would you like to see that record used? Should it be used? Or should the public’s First Amendment rights necessarily defer to its Second?" He pointed out that the First Amendment not only protects freedom of the press, but the right to petition for redress of grievances: "How does the public discern a grievance without access to public records?"

In an editor's note in the latest edition of ISWNE's Grassroots Editor, Ridolfi wrote that "readers bent my ear on the subject. Some acknowledged the value of transparency, even as they flinched about having their own carry permits disclosed. I hope more of my commentary starts discussions, not ends them. I hope it shows our newspaper cognizant not only of press rights prescribed by the First Amendment, but also of press responsibilities, which most readers know little about. . . . We need to remind them over and over that one business in town has their backs. By including details about our reporting activities, we affirm that local news isn’t a collection of thoughts, feelings, philosophies and impressions. It’s about legwork. It’s about triple checking. It’s about afternoons in a courthouse basement plugging through boxes of index cards that reveal who gets guns and who doesn’t. Our news businesses fail when we aim to appeal only to customers who agree with us. We’re unstoppable when supported by readers who respect us."

Others in the latest Golden Dozen are Melissa Hale-Spencer of The Altamont Enterprise in New York; Brian J. Hunhoff of the Yankton County Observer in South Dakota; Mike Buffington of The Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga.; Abigail Whitehouse of The Interior Journal in Stanford, Ky.; Brian Wilson of The Star News in Medford, Wis.; Steve Bonspiel of The Eastern Door in Khanawake, Quebec; Donald Dodd of The Salem News in Missouri; Sarah Kessinger of The Marysville Advocate in Kansas; Paul Fletcher of Virginia Lawyers Weekly; William F. Schanen III of the Ozaukee Press in Port Washington, Wis.; and Brenda P. Schimke of the East Central Alberta Review in Coronation.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Gish Award winner says his work in E. Oregon has lessons for rural weekly newspapers and the rest of the news media

Les Zaitz talked about his open-records battle after accepting the Tom and Pat Gish Award at Lewis & Clark College.
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

PORTLAND, Oregon – Small, rural newspapers can win open-records battles with state agencies and beat larger news outlets at covering big stories in their communities, says a journalist who spent most of his career at a metropolitan daily but has returned to the business of publishing a rural weekly.

Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, made those and other points Thursday as he spoke to the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland and accepted the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Zaitz talked about how the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced.

He said lessons from the episode include: "Even if you’re small, don’t back down from a fight like this. . . . Success in a fight like this depends a great deal on your institutional credibility; they knew that once I sank my teeth into their ankles I wouldn’t let go, because of their experience in prior instances" when he was a reporter at The Oregonian in Portland.

Probably the most important lesson, Zaitz said, is to "bring your community along as the fight heats up. Let them know that we’re not doing it for journalistic prizes. … tell the reader, we’re doing this for you' this is information you deserve." He said the news media have done "a terrible job as a profession of bringing our community along and explaining the profession," but people are still thanking him for taking on the state.

"This fight, and the success and the propose of it, to me, was in the pursuit of the finest ideals of the profession, the pursuit of truth and justice," he said. "We have to always never, never relent in the face of opposition from government. If we don’t stand up to the government, who will?"

Zaitz said the board's new executive director is moving to again restrict access to such records, so "I don't know what kind of brawl I've got ahead."

He also didn't know what he was in for when armed militants seized the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on a Christmas-week Saturday, when it was unoccupied, to protest the convictions of two ranchers for arson on federal land. (President Trump pardoned them this week.)

"I was on a glide path toward retirement at The Oregonian and the last thing I needed was another major assignment," Zaitz said, but he lived in the area and was the natural point man.

The standoff lasted 41 days, and Zaitz led the coverage of it, but he said the experience has lessons for smaller newspapers like Harney County's weekly Burns Times-Herald, the paper closest to the refuge, which "decided to stay our of the coverage for the most part" though Burns was "overwhelmed" by the influx of militia types, news media and law enforcement.

"Your access is one of your primary advantages" in covering a big story, Zaitz said. You’re known in your local communities; you are presumably trusted. … Even in the face of a major news event, where you are being swamped by out-of-towners, that is an asset you cannot overlook."

To stay on top of the story, you must report it when news happens, Zaitz said: "You have to own the audience … online, driving information out. … We reacted to rumors; we would go online and knock those rumors down. … It just makes you indispensable to your audience."

Think ahead, he advised: "Plan for a major news event. . . . It will pay huge dividends." Ask questions such as, "What’s your battery supply? Where do you get water for your reporters in the field when the water is contaminated?"

Turning such challenges into opportunities is essential for local news media, Zaitz told the weekly editors, meeting at Lewis & Clark College: "In the current environment, what we do has become so important that our societies are turning to local news as, frankly, the only news that they can trust. That’s a major, major issue in this day and age. … they know you, they know your organizations, so you need to help build that trust, and build on that trust, to give … some refuge from the storm of fake news. People are feeling whiplashed, they are feeling misled."

Zaitz said his experience as publisher of the Enterprise, where circulation has doubled to 1,500 since hios family bought it in 2015 to keep it from closing, has affirmed his core belief "that readers wanted nothing more than solid, local information" about how their tax dollars are being used. He said he told a reporter not to spend three hours at a school-board meeting, but spend that much time finding out why the local high school's graduation rate is declining.

"I don’t care if you’re small, you can still be good, and you can still be effective," he said. "We can make a difference and turn this around if we all collectively step up our game."

What losing Dairy Queens means to rural Texas

East Columbia Street in downtown San Augustine, Texas, a town of fewer than 2,000 that recently lost its Dairy Queen,
which had been a local gathering spot for 45 years. (Houston Chronicle photo by Michael Ciaglo)
In small towns across the country, Dairy Queen provides not just restaurants, but community water coolers where locals can talk. But in Texas, as the rural population shrinks, many small-town Dairy Queens are closing, while the company expands in metropolitan areas like Houston and Dallas.

A hauntingly beautiful article and photo essay by Emily Foxhall of the Houston Chronicle explores the role Dairy Queen has played in the lives of rural Texans and what they'll do without one nearby.

Interactive map shows how where you live affects income

Brookings Institution map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here to see the interactive version.
A new economic analysis, complete with an interactive map, by the Brookings Institution breaks down how where you live affects your earnings, based on factors such as occupation, income-tax levels, age, and cost of living. Metropolitan areas, unsurprisingly, tend to have higher incomes than non-metro areas, with few exceptions.

The analysis also examines "some of the reasons why places have such different labor markets. When a place seems too good to be true (i.e., with high wages across the board and low cost of living), what could account for its seeming advantage over the rest of the country?" Lauren Bauwe, Audrey Breitwieser, Ryan Nunn and Jay Shambaugh report for Brookings. Economists consider such factors as part of what influences a worker's choice of where to live.

As China stops buying American soybeans, driving down their price, other importers snap up bargain beans

"China's retaliatory tariffs on U.S. soybeans, threatened for weeks and enacted Friday, have driven down prices and triggered a wave of bargain shopping by importers in other countries stocking up on cheap U.S. supplies, according to a Reuters analysis of government data," Karl Plume reports for Reuters.

China, which buys two-thirds of the world's soybean exports, bought an average of 60 percent of all U.S. soybeans over the past decade, but so far in 2018 has bought only 17 percent. Instead, China is buying mostly Brazilian soybeans. Meanwhile, U.S. soybeans prices have fallen 17 percent over the past six weeks to about $8.50 a bushel, their lowest price in almost a decade. That's triggered a 127 percent jump in advance purchases of the next U.S. soybean crop over last year's figures. 

One of those customers is Brazil, the world's top soybean exporter; it normally doesn't need U.S. soybeans but is buying them to use domestically (mostly in cooking oil and animal feed) so it can export more soybeans to China.

"The decline of China's purchases of U.S. soybeans and the jump in those from other countries amount to a collective bet against any swift resolution of the escalating trade war between the world's top two economies," Plume reports.

What Chinese tariffs on U.S. energy exports could mean

China has targeted President Trump's voting base with tariffs on agricultural products like soybeans, but its willingness to levy tariffs on American energy exports such as crude oil, liquefied natural gas, and refined energy products, sends some complicated messages, Meghan O'Sullivan writes for Bloomberg.

Bringing in enough energy imports to fuel its economic growth has been a Chinese priority since the 1990s, so China's willingness to create obstacles to that objective suggests several things. For one thing, it looks like China thinks (probably correctly) that the energy tariffs will probably hurt the U.S. more than they will hurt China, O'Sullivan writes. It also suggests that China is confident that global natural gas markets are going to be cheap and abundant for the foreseeable future.

"Alternatively, the Chinese may have decided that, whatever the costs, they are not comfortable relying on the U.S. as a source of one of their most strategically important commodities, regardless of the financial risks that such a decision may entail," O'Sullivan writes. Besides hurting U.S. businesses, Chinese energy tariffs could also "strike one item off the rapidly dwindling list of areas in which the U.S. and China can identify common interests and see value in cooperation."

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Former coal-company supervisors indicted for faking dust numbers, hiding risk of black-lung disease

"Eight former supervisors and safety officials for Kentucky coal mines were indicted Wednesday on charges that they lied to or misled federal regulators about the amount of harmful coal dust workers were exposed to," Dave Jamieson reports for HuffPost. "Russell Coleman, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, said that officials at now-defunct Armstrong Coal routinely submitted phony records to the Mine Safety and Health Administration in an effort to downplay the amount of coal dust in two of its mines. By doing so, the company would have concealed the true risk of its miners developing pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease."

Miners at Armstrong's Parkway Mine in Muhlenberg County said management had pressured them to register artificially low readings for coal dust on their dust pumps, typically by only wearing them for a short part of their shift. The indictment called it a conspiracy to "conceal from MSHA the ongoing, systemic and pervasive violation of mandatory health and safety standards.”

Mine operators can mitigate coal dust with better ventilation, but that can cause delays in production. Miners are often uncomfortable about speaking up about dust fraud for fear of losing their jobs or being blackballed. So, while the Armstrong indictment is unusual, the practice is widespread in the coal industry, Jamieson reports.

More Americans believe in global warming; Republicans lag

University of Michigan chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
The percentage of Americans who believe in global warming is at a 10-year high, and more than ever believe human activity has caused or increased it, according to new polling by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College. A record high in their joint polling efforts, 60 percent, say they see some level of human influence and 34 percent say humans have a direct influence on the climate, Ben Geman reports for Axios. The percentage who see "solid evidence" of global warming is 73 percent, about the same as it was a decade ago; that number dipped into the low 50's and mid-60s between 2009 and 2015.

However, the gulf between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans is as wide as it has been in this poll since 2008. Among Democrats, 90 percent believe there is solid evidence of global warming and 78 percent believe humans are at least partially responsible. Among Republicans only 50 percent believe in global warming and 35 percent believe humans have an effect on it.

State of New Jersey may subsidize local news coverage

New Jersey could become the first state to provide funding for local journalism, though it's not a done deal. "Last month, both houses of the New Jersey legislature passed the 'Civic Info Bill.' The bill sets up a nonprofit group that will be supported by five of the state's universities. A board of directors will approve grants to strengthen local news coverage," Brain Stelter reports for CNN. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a state budget Sunday night that allocates $5 million for the effort, but he hasn't signed the authorization bill.

The Free Press Action Fund, a liberal public interest group, has been lobbying for such a bill for more than two years, on the grounds that print newspapers are losing staffing and resources and digital start-ups aren't filling the void.

"In New Jersey, this is compounded by the fact that the state is located between two big cities, New York and Philadelphia, that are in other states. The practical effect: Less coverage of hyperlocal issues," Stelter reports. "So advocates and state lawmakers argued that public funds should support 'civic information' -- news coverage, yes, but also things like databases and media literacy initiatives."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rural jails have grown more crowded due to many factors, including drugs, but offer little if any treatment for inmates

By Al Cross
Professor and Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

NEW YORK – Rural jails have grown more crowded even as urban jails have become less so, creating problems for rural jurisdictions, rural journalists heard on the first day of a project aimed at focusing more local news-media attention on the problem facing many rural communities.

“In the last couple of decades, mass incarceration has metastasized from the largest cities to almost every community in America,” Christian Henrichson, research director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said at “Rural (In)Justice: Covering America’s Hidden Jail Crisis,” a conference held by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Henrichson, author of a recent study on incarceration trends, said the phenomenon "is, for the most part, a hidden crisis," driven mainly by drugs. He said 60 percent of rural jail inmates have drug issues. But there are other causes, such as:

Lack of mental-health treatment: Several speakers said states that closed mental hospitals in favor of community-based treatment haven't adequately funded treatment, especially in smaller communities. Judge Steven Leifman, who has helped reform the jail in Miami-Dade County, Florida, said the mentally ill are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than they are to be hospitalized, and 40 percent of the mentally ill will have contact with the criminal-justice system.

Burdeen (The Crime Report photo)
Increasing length of pre-trial detention: “Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial detention” of unconvicted inmates, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute. She said most can't afford their bail bonds, raising questions about how bonds are set, the policies and lobbying of the commercial bail-bond industry, and the decisions of prosecutors and judges, which may be harsher on the accused in rural areas.

Research shows that money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety, Burdeen said: “Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety.”

Some inmates stay in jail because they can't afford even “incredibly small bail amounts,” said G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of Trouble in the Heartland: Challanges Confronting Rural Jails. In such cases, he said, it would make more sense for the jail to loan the inmate the money for bail. “Jails in rural counties suffer from both political conservativism and fiscal conservativism,” he said.

In many states, the crowding of jails has been worsened by state laws or policies that put lesser felony offenders in jails, not prisons that offer rehabilitation. Larry Amerson, former sheriff of Calhoun County, Alabama, said 250 of the 600 prisoners in his jail would in earlier years have gone to state prisons, and the state pays the county only $1.75 per inmate day. Washington Post reporter Kristine Phillips, refreshing her previous beat at The Indianapolis Star, said Franklin County, Indiana, population 22,000, is among many struggling to provide mental-health treatment for state prisoners.

Several speakers said journalists can play an important role in bringing such issues to public light. Burdeen said polls have shown people are generally unaware of the issues, but when told about them, say they are concerned. "We wouldn't be here today if it weren't for journalists," she said.

This report also drew on the work of Marianne Dodson and Dane Stallone, interns at The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, assisted the Center with the conference.

Farmers making more money from oil and gas rights

U.S. Department of Agriculture chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
U.S. farmers are making more money than ever from oil and gas rights on their lands, especially in petroleum-rich states like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas, Claudia Hitaj reports for Amber Waves, a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Almost 67 percent of oil and gas extraction is from farmland; in 2014, that meant $3.8 billion in payments for farm operators who owned $19.1 billion in oil and gas rights, up 69 percent from 2005. "Total payments accounted for 11 percent of net cash farm income in oil and gas counties across all states, and about 30 percent in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas," Hitaj reports. "Respectively, these states received about $1.2 billion, $0.6 billion, and $0.5 billion in oil and gas payments."

Many farmers do not own the oil and gas development rights on their land; separate ownership of such rights is common, especially in areas with a history of drilling. In 2014, about 5 percent of farm operators nationwide and 11 percent in oil-rich areas reported owning oil and gas rights with positive value. In Oklahoma and Pennsylvania that number rose to 14 percent, Hitaj reports. Most payments are in royalties, typically one-eighth of the value of production, but landowners usually also get a one-time, up-front payment for leasing their rights.

Mining and fracking bring jobs but may pollute drinking water; national tap water database has local data

Streams and rivers in Appalachia must be protected to assure clean water for residents, but it's a tricky issue: "The same extractive and chemical industries that bring much-needed jobs and investment into this historically under-employed and over-exploited region also often carry with them environmental risks that materialize into illness and pollution, the causes of which are not only hard to fix, but often difficult to detect, or prove liability of in court," Jan Pytalski reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Meanwhile, some Appalachian communities have discolored, polluted, or entirely absent tap water because of the very companies that bring jobs to the area. Lack of regulatory enforcement may contribute to that. "In recent years, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., published a report that demonstrated a decades-long lack of enforcement on the part of the regulators and revealed that the agency’s 'safety levels' might be misaligned to the real-world environmental damage they cause, meaning that in light of the latest research the levels once deemed safe may, in fact, be harmful," Pytalski reports.

But even when safe levels for contaminants are known, it's still difficult to prove that mining and fracking operations are responsible for area health problems.

It's a complicated issue, but EWG has created a searchable Tap Water Database that makes it possible to check the water quality for every zip code in the U.S.

Negative stories about rural life overshadow the good, essayist writes

When Vivian Medina thinks of rural America, she thinks of a dilapidated barn and home down the street: the once-beautiful home is a "broken-down shell" and the barn looks ready to topple over. But Medina, a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, began to feel ashamed, especially after listening to a lecture by Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs at the Center for Rural Strategies, about how negative and one-sided stories about rural America can hamper readers' ability to see a more balanced picture of rural life.

"I was ashamed because I am a part of the problem," Medina writes for The Daily Yonder. "I think of these rural areas as dying, and I use it as motivation to go to school, to get out of my town. I don’t think of the ways I could help these towns. I don’t think of the opportunity there is to create. I only see the falling barn. I only see the arrests for meth. I only see one story."

If everyone saw the problems in rural areas and decided to run, rural problems only get worse, she continues. But there is "such a great opportunity to help" rural America, even if it's "just by dumping the negative views of these rural areas. Even if it's realizing that there is more than the two severe points on the spectrum, that the middle ground exists and should be acknowledged."

Read more of Medina's insightful essay here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Couple wins $25 million in N.C. hog-farm nuisance case

A jury awarded more than $25 million to a couple in North Carolina in a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, for the smell, files, loud trucks and other nuisances related to living next to one of the company's hog farms. The plaintiffs, Elvis and Vonnie Williams, live in Duplin County in the southeastern area of the state.

"The verdict came on Friday after the jury deliberated for three days behind closed doors. It is the second verdict for hog farm neighbors in a series filed against Smithfield," Anne Blythe reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh. "The decision also comes in a week in which North Carolina lawmakers adopted a new Farm Act that restricts when and how neighbors can bring such claims in court in the future."

The verdict is significant for North Carolina, which has more hogs than any other state besides Iowa. That's why it's also likely to be appealed, which could reduce the amount of the award. The North Carolina Pork Council said in a statement that the verdict is "heartbreaking and could have severe and unforeseen economic consequences for our farmers, the pork industry and all of North Carolina agriculture," Blythe reports.

Almond joy: Apiarists make more on pollination than honey

Mostly due to rising demand for almonds, the average beekeeper now makes more money by renting colonies for pollination than through honey sales, Peyton Ferrier reports for Amber Waves, a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more than 100 years, apiarists have rented bee colonies to farmers to increase yields of melons, orchard fruits and other crops. Pollination service fees for almonds doubled around 2004, when growers began planting more trees, and more densely, to meet increased demand.

In 2016, almond growers accounted for 82 percent of all U.S. expenditures on pollination. Most almond orchards are in California's Central Valley region. "As the crop’s demand for pollination services has outstripped local supply, farmers have paid high fees to bring in colonies from cross-country distances for the February bloom," Ferrier reports. "At 5 percent, the pollination-services share of all farm costs is far higher for almonds than for most other crops (about 1 percent)."

Analysis finds nursing homes across the country underreported low staffing levels; map shows local data

"Most nursing homes had fewer nurses and caretaking staff than they had reported to the government for years, according to new federal data, bolstering the long-held suspicions of many families that staffing levels were often inadequate," Jordan Rau reports for The New York Times.

The daily payroll records, gathered by Medicare and analyzed by Kaiser Health News, show for the first time "frequent and significant fluctuations in day-to-day staffing, with particularly large shortfalls on weekends. On the worst staffed days at an average facility, the new data show, on-duty personnel cared for nearly twice as many residents as they did when the staffing roster was fullest," Rau reports.

But nursing homes often exaggerated staffing levels and rarely revealed these common periods of low staffing. The Times created an interactive, searchable nationwide map of more than 14,000 nursing homes and how their staffing levels stack up:

New York Times map; click on the image to enlarge it or view the interactive version here.

Monday, July 09, 2018

U.S. exporters likely to be surprise losers in tariff fight

Though it may seem counterintuitive, history and economists say that exporters usually end up losing when tariffs are imposed on imports. And though it's early, that seems to be what's happening to U.S. exporters under President Trump's new tariffs: "Soybean farmers face plunging prices as China raises tariffs, Harley-Davidson will move production of motorcycles destined for the European Union out of the U.S., and BMW says foreign retaliation may hit exports from its South Carolina plant," Greg Ip reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Though the phenomenon was known as far back as the 1600s, economist Abba Lerner proved in 1936 that an import tariff is tantamount to a tax on exports. That link was especially strong while the U.S. was still under the gold standard, but is still holds sway. "If the U.S., for any reason, cuts its imports from a trading partner, that country’s economy and currency both weaken, so it buys less from U.S. companies," Ip reports. "If a tariff generated significant new demand for the protected American sector, the resulting boost to prices and jobs would put upward pressure on inflation, interest rates and the dollar, further hurting exports.

Click here for more on how tariffs have historically affected commerce and what's likely to happen next in the U.S.

New novel by Silas House, Southernmost, examines religious faith and gay rights in rural America

Since the 2016 election, journalists have published countless pieces on what makes rural America tick. And so have authors, in the slower cycle of book publishing. Kentucky writer Silas House's new novel, Southernmost, is a provocative entry in this wave of Trump-era literature, examining not just the faith of rural evangelicals, but their works.

The book centers on Pentecostal preacher Asher Sharp, who is horrified when his wife insists they turn away a gay couple after a catastrophic flood, one in which the couple saved some church members. Sharp, who had rejected his own gay brother years before, realizes how much his heart has changed and leaves his wife, which puts him in danger of losing custody of his beloved son. So Sharp kidnaps his son and takes off for Florida, to find his brother and evade his ex-wife.

"What follows is a fast-paced page-turner, a story of redemption with many twists, turns and surprises. It also is a well-written exploration of the complexities of faith, humanity and how hard it can be to change long-held beliefs," Tom Eblen writes for the Lexington Herald-LeaderSouthernmost is more than a good tale; it's a rebuke of modern evangelical Christianity and a scream of frustration at "faith without works."

Research breaks down the closure and merger of American weekly and daily newspapers since 2004 by circulation size

Data from Penny Abernathy, Univ. of North Carolina; chart by BBC
Data from Penny Abernathy, Univ. of North Carolina; chart by BBC
A recent research paper by Bill Reader of Ohio University on the population of U.S. newspaper presumed that most of the 1,639 weekly newspapers that closed between 2004 and 2016 had small circulations. That is confirmed by the continuing research of Penelope Muse Abernathy and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, charted by the BBC in a report on U.S. newspapers. Most papers have small circulations; weeklies average less than 5,000.

The Beeb's story is mainly about the downsizing, merger or closure of local dailies, using The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo., as its object example. But some of the ramifications of those phenomena are probably also true of weeklies: less coverage of elections, less civic engagement, higher costs of government borrowing and "growing blind spots in health," a concern raised by epidemiologists.

"When local papers cut coverage there's essentially nothing to take its place in these local communities," political scientist Danny Hayes of George Washington University told the BBC's Taylor Kate Brown.

Abernathy has some points, as described by Brown: "Local news sets the agenda for public debates by bringing particular issues to public attention, encourages regional business development by connecting local businesses with local residents (whether through ads or coverage) and can reflect what's similar or different about a national problem on the local level." Abernathy said, "A strong local newspaper shows you how you are related to people you may not know you're related to."

Brown ends her story with an appeal: "Local news in the US is on the decline - so how do you stay informed about your hometown? Send us your comments or questions to and we will respond to what you tell us, as part of our 'Ask America' series."

Reporters in the Southeast need to apply by Aug. 10 for environmental reporting training session in Nashville

Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit InsideClimate News is inviting reporters in the southeastern U.S. to apply for its first regional training session for environmental reporting by Aug. 10. Ten winning applicants will attend the day-and-a-half training session in Nashville Sept. 24-25. No previous environmental reporting experience is required.

The session is part of ICN's recently launched National Environment Reporting Network, and will include sessions on "extreme weather and climate science; how to find compelling and impactful environmental stories; how to search for public records and build sources; and other important journalistic skills and tools. You will also receive one-on-one coaching with award-winning ICN journalist James Bruggers, who runs ICN’s Southeast hub, to workshop and launch your story idea," according to ICN. Bruggers was a longtime environmental writer for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Attendees will receive follow-up mentoring after the training session, and can apply to ICN for limited story development funds. Reporters will also have some opportunities for co-publishing on ICN's website. 

Friday, July 06, 2018

Trade war is official: U.S. starts tariffs and China responds; soybean prices hit their lowest level in a decade

The trade war between the U.S. and China is officially on. "The United States imposed the first duties on $34 billion in Chinese goods early Friday," The Washington Post reports. "Moments later, the Chinese side fired back," accusing the U.S. of violating World Trade Organization rules and starting “the largest trade war in economic history to date.”

China did not specify its targets, but it "has promised to slap levies on an equal amount of American goods, including heartland staples like soybeans, corn, pork and poultry — a move President Trump said would compel the U.S. to hit China with levies on up to $500 billion in products," the Post notes.

"Soybeans represent 41 percent of the value of U.S. products on China's retaliatory tariff list," Katie Dehlinger reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The value of U.S. soybean exports to China has grown 26-fold in 10 years, from $414 million in 1996 to $14 billion in 2017, according to the American Soybean Association. Futures prices have dropped more than $2 per bushel since talk of the tariffs began back in March."

The tariffs depressed soybean prices further, Benjamin Parkin of The Wall Street Journal reports: “Soybean prices fell to the lowest point in almost a decade on Monday, as looming Chinese tariffs threatened to kill off demand from the U.S.’s largest customer.” Bloomberg News notes, "In the U.S., average cash prices fell to about $7.79 a bushel this week, the lowest in almost a decade, according to an index compiled by the Minneapolis Grain Exchange." However, the price has since jumped up:

Quick hits: Sessions saves a town's fireworks; Appalachian adoption, foster care; good analyses of Farm BIll and trade

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

The small town of Hamlet, N.C., just east of Charlotte, canceled its Independence Day festivities in 2017 because of threats of gang violence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, infuriated when he heard the news, "sent a team of federal prosecutors to Richmond County to team up with state and local law enforcement along with the courts to combat the area's violent crime, Michael Gordon reports for The Charlotte Observer. After the crackdown, the town felt safe enough to have their usual Independence Day celebration this year. Read more here.

The Ohio University Press Podcast's latest installment is a fascinating discussion with Wendy Welch about her book Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Foster Care and Adoption in Appalachia. The featured review on reads: "In Fall or Fly, Welch invites people bound by a code of silence to open up and to share their experiences. Less inspiration than a call to caring awareness, this pioneering work of storytelling journalism explores how love, compassion, money, and fear intermingle in what can only be described as a marketplace for our nation’s greatest asset." Listen to the podcast here.

As jobs disappear in rural coal country, a private prison pitches itself as the solution to one rural Kentucky town's financial woes. But some residents are pushing back. Read more here.

Farmdoc Daily has an excellent analysis of the Farm Bill and its prospects. Read more here.

The Agricultural Policy Analysis Center offers a solid breakdown of the politics of international trade. Read more here.