Friday, July 17, 2020

Quick hits: rural Wisconsin embraces hyperlocal food production; judge blocks rollback of methane emissions rule

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.

As pandemic batters rural African-Americans in the South, a doctor and her plant biologist husband make house calls, offer herbal remedies to ease symptoms. Read more here.

Rural Wisconsin embraces hyperlocal food production in community spaces: Read more here.

Federal judge blocks Trump administration move to ease methane emissions for drillers on federal or tribal lands: Read more here.

As economy dips, producing more food at home might help, writes one author. Read more here.

Project to explore digital agriculture's impacts on rural America: Read more here.

A rural example of 'the tight connection between local news and good citizenship,' from an important new book

By Margaret Sullivan

The framers of the Constitution understood just how important local news would be to the success of their ambitious American experiment. Alexander Hamilton explained the issue this way in Federalist No. 84, using as an example one locality in Maryland:
What are the sources of information by which the people in Montgomery County must regulate their judgment of the conduct of their representatives in the state legislature? Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations. This does not apply to Montgomery County only, but to all the counties at any considerable distance from the seat of government.
To hold public officials accountable, in other words, “intelligent men”—all people, in fact—need reliable reporting about the activities of government and politicians. But these days, local news is withering in many places across America. The United States is dotted with “news deserts,” regions where no newspaper or other local news organization exists. In many other places, once-vibrant local outlets have become “ghost newspapers”—their name remains, and you can still buy a subscription, but their staff and ambitions are so diminished that they can no longer do the day-to-day reporting that allows citizens to make good decisions at the polls about their governmental representatives.
Local news makes a huge difference. A PEN America study concluded last year that as local journalism declines, “government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness,” and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office, according to the study. Democracy loses its foundation. 
Ballotpedia map
The tight connection between local news and good citizenship became abundantly clear in 2018 to Nate McMurray, the Democratic candidate for Congress in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York. Although McMurray, the supervisor of the town of Grand Island, was battling a party enrollment skewed against him (the gerrymandered district is the size of Rhode Island and spreads into eight counties), he did have one monumental advantage: His Republican opponent, the incumbent Chris Collins, had just been indicted on insider-trading charges.
One would expect that to be disqualifying—but it wasn’t. News of Collins’s indictment did make a difference in the campaign in areas where local news was strong: The Buffalo News has an excellent Washington correspondent, Jerry Zremski, who had broken a major part of the insider-trading story and followed its developments diligently for months. Many people living in the area around Buffalo, where this newspaper still has a wide circulation, who would have likely voted for the incumbent, crossed the aisle to vote blue. This is clear by a comparison of the election’s results with past voting patterns in the district.
But in the more far-flung parts of the sprawling congressional district, voters were far less informed. The largely rural and suburban district includes Orleans County, which, according to the criteria of University of North Carolina journalism researcher Penny Abernathy, is a news desert—one of just a few in New York state.

“I’d be going door to door, or meeting with people at a diner or a fair, for example, and in the most isolated areas, a lot of people had no idea that their own congressman had been indicted,” McMurray told me. Orleans County, west of Rochester, he said, was “one of the toughest places.” Some people didn’t even know who Collins was, and many were incredulous when McMurray told them of the federal charges.

“People told me I was making it up,” said McMurray. That shouldn’t have been the case, given that television news stations in both Rochester and Buffalo were giving plenty of airtime to the scandal as it developed, and those stations were available throughout the district. Nevertheless, the constituents lacked access to the in-depth coverage that a newspaper would have provided. At one time, almost everyone in the district had ready access to print editions of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle or The Buffalo News, or were within easy reach of smaller newspapers in nearby Niagara Falls or Lockport.

As a result, Collins—the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president—was taking full advantage of the decline of credible news sources. He sent fundraising emails to constituents, blasting what he called “fake news” about his misdeeds—and relied heavily on TV ads to promote his supposed effectiveness in Congress. McMurray put it to me this way: “The lack of real journalism in a lot of the more remote parts of the district meant that people were relying on gossip, conservative radio, or social media. People were really deep into their echo chambers, or they just didn’t care.”
McMurray lost that 2018 election by a whisker: less than half a percentage point—far less than expected, given the natural party skew of the district. As for the incumbent Collins, he later pleaded guilty to two felonies, resigned from Congress, and was sentenced to prison. Some of his constituents may be unaware of that too, or wouldn’t believe it if they saw it in a neighbor’s Facebook post. Of course, citizens may be uninformed about their public officials for many reasons—among them the spotty civics education in schools and the public’s increased reliance on social media—but the loss of newspapers is surely a contributing factor.

Despite some hopeful signs, such as the many nonprofit news sites that have cropped up around the country, the overall trends are troubling. As Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, told me: “If we don’t monitor power at the local level, there will be massive abuse of power at the local level.” That’s something that Alexander Hamilton and his fellow constitutional architects could not have reconciled with what they had in mind: a society in which citizens are well-informed and active participants in how their government operates. If we in the 21st century are to remain true to their vision, we must find a way—indeed, many ways—to reinvent local journalism before it is too late.

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post and former editor of The Buffalo News. This article from The Atlantic was adapted from her recent book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.

Wyoming budget hammered by coal decline, pandemic-spurred drop in oil and gas production and prices

Coal production and jobs have been declining for years, hurting local economies that depend on it. Meanwhile, the pandemic triggered a worldwide drop in energy demand, which meant bottoming out oil and gas production and prices. At the epicenter of both trends sits Wyoming.

"The state, one of the nation’s least populated and most politically conservative, is bracing for a sharp drop in revenues over the coming two years as the coronavirus continues to disrupt the nation’s economy and as oil and gas production and coal mining in the state falter. Wyoming depends heavily on those industrial and energy sectors to fuel the state’s budget," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "Wyoming’s financial health has for years been deeply intertwined with how the mining and oil and gas industries are performing. The state collects not only severance taxes on fossil fuel production, but also revenues like mineral royalties from production on in-state federal lands and sales and use taxes that flow from the energy sector."

Right now, minerals are directly responsible for about two-thirds of the state's revenue. The state's Republican governor, Mark Gordon, said at a press conference Wednesday that one-third of the state's income is gone, that he has no way to raise revenue, and that he must make cuts in order to balance the budget, Lucia reports. He rejected a suggestion that the state could dip into its rainy day fund: "That might last for about a year, and then we have nothing to fall back on."

Rural-health lobby wants relief bill to allow limited number of rural hospitals to get exemption, critical-access designation

Rural hospitals will be on the mind of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he works on the next coronavirus relief bill, he said this week.

McConnell didn't commit to supporting a specific proposal of the National Rural Health Association, making it easier for struggling rural hospitals to qualify as critical-access hospitals, a designation that gets them extra reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid in return for limiting their beds, services and length of patient stays.

The NRHA proposal would allow a limited number of hospitals to get the designation even if they are less than 35 miles from another hospital. In McConnell's home state, the Kentucky Rural Health Association identified nine hospitals that could be helped by the change.

McConnell was asked about that on one of his many visits to hospitals, where he talks about funding they received from the $2 trillion Coroinavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act as he runs for re-election.

"Certainly, rural health care has been a focus already," he replied, saying "Kentucky rural health got about $370 million" from earlier relief bills. "I have a particular interest in that, as you can imagine, given the nature of our state, and we're very attuned to that, not only in the bills that we've already passed, but in the one that we'll be putting together."

NRHA circulated the proposal to its state affiliates, asking them to contact their senators. Its Kentucky memo said "We currently believe there are 18 rural hospitals across the state vulnerable to shutting their doors for good. . . . If these hospitals are forced to fend for themselves, with sub-par reimbursements and uncertain funding streams, it's uncertain how long they can last."

Is your hospital on the vulerable list? Ask NRHA or your state affiliate. 

Coronavirus data returns to CDC site, for a limited time, after outcry; HHS system will have more data, but . . .

"On the eve of a new coronavirus reporting system this week, data disappeared from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website as hospitals began filing information to a private contractor or their states instead," Lena Sun and Amy Goldstein report for The Washington Post. "A day later, an outcry — including from other federal health officials — prompted the Trump administration to reinstate that dashboard and another daily CDC report on the pandemic."

The announcement appears to be a win for public transparency, "but with any policy regarding an American hospital, the fine print is essential: The CDC site will only provide the data on availability of hospital beds and intensive care units up to July 14," Matt Stieb reports for New York magazine's Intelligencer. "Moving forward, the American public will have to access coronavirus hospitalization data from private sources."

The administration insists the move is about efficiency, and that the data will remain available to the public. Instead of reporting data to the CDC and the Department for Health and Human Services, hospitals will share information only with HHS through a portal created and maintained by a private contractor. The contractor, TeleTracking Technologies, was awarded a $10 million no-bid contract in April, Jon Allsop reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

For some, the change could have merit. For example, they say the CDC system "was built for tracking hospital-acquired pneumonias and urinary-tract infections, and it wasn’t perfect for keeping up with coronavirus data," Nicholas Florko and Eric Boodman report for Stat. "The HHS system, however, was built specifically to track the covid-19 pandemic and it will compile far more data than just what’s currently being produced by hospitals. Plus, hospitals were already reporting similar data through the TeleTracking system. The federal government has been using those reports to determine each state’s allocation of Gilead’s covid-19 drug, remdesivir."

Many have concerns about the switch, though. "Hospitals are being asked to learn a new data system as they’re struggling to keep up with a raging pandemic," Florko and Boodman report. "Streams of data that the CDC was making available to researchers and the public have suddenly been cut off, exacerbating fears that the Trump administration is trying to stomp out any evidence that the pandemic is worse than ever."

However, the move is consistent "with the administration’s habit of paying private contractors to do research or execute tasks that taxpayers are already paying for: A report from ProPublica published on Wednesday details how federal and state governments paid McKinsey over $100 million this year for pandemic advice, while the White House cast aside the recommendations of its own public-health experts," Stieb reports for the Intelligencer.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Local Media Association starts Center for Journalism Funding with help from Google; apply in early August

"Journalism funded by philanthropy represents a burgeoning opportunity for many local media companies. Yet the path to unlocking this potential stream of funding isn’t always easy to navigate or access," That’s the Local Media Association says as it announces the launching of the Center for Journalism Funding, with financial support from the Google News Initiative.

The center "aims to strengthen the understanding and capabilities of local news organizations regarding fundraising programs and working with philanthropic organizations to support journalism projects," LMA says. "Many local news organizations, in particular those owned by and/or serving people of color, struggle with the complexities of journalism funded by philanthropy."

Applications for funding lab be accepted in early August, with 15 news publishers chosen for a six-month program. The group will be "a diverse mix of newspapers, broadcasters and digital news sites," LMA says. It is recruiting a managing director to run the program, and subject-matter experts to serve as coaches. "The lab has two goals: drive at least $2.25 million in funding for journalism projects for the 15 publishers combined, and publish an extensive industry playbook on funding journalism through philanthropy."

Rural Virginia teen holds second Black Lives Matter march after cross burnt in his front yard

Travon Brown (megaphone) led a second Black Lives Matter march through Marion, Va., July 3. (Washington Post photo by Earl Neikirk)
Communities across the nation have seen demonstrations and marches in recent weeks protesting racial injustice and police brutality, and many have been held in small towns. Though news coverage of rural protests has been largely positive, it's worth noting that not all have gone without friction.

Travon Brown, 17, led a Black Lives Matter march on June 13 in Marion, a town of 6,000 in western Virginia near the Tennessee border with a 10 percent Black population. That night, a neighbor burned a cross in his front yard. "When Travon came home the next day, he saw the charred cross in the driveway, surrounded by police tape, and felt both sad and defiant," Michael E. Miller reports for The Washington Post. "When his family had moved to Marion seven years earlier from the majority-Black city of Vicksburg, Miss., he’d been stunned by the Confederate flags on his block and the small noose left on the porch of their house when they moved in. The protests were a chance for Marion to finally change, he felt. Instead, the cross burning showed just how stuck in the past it was."

A white neighbor, James Brown, ran to help when Travon's mother, Briggette Thomas, discovered the burning cross. But on June 26, the police arrested Brown for the crime. Thomas told Miller she was in shock, and said their families had once been close, but had had a falling out about a year ago. Even though Brown confessed quickly, Travon's family was repeatedly harassed in person and online and subjected to false rumors, including one that his mother was a drug dealer.

After the cross-burning, Travon vowed to hold another protest, "but as the day of the second protest drew nearer, the personal attacks gave way to something darker in Facebook groups with names like 'Smyth County Militia' and 'Virginia Patriots Group'" in which some threatened violence, Miller reports.

The July 3 demonstration attracted hundreds of counterprotesters, many from out of town who came armed and with Confederate flags to rally around the town's Confederate monument. Dozens of police officers also came to town in an attempt to preserve the peace. "And at the center of it all was Travon, who in a few short months had gone from preparing for his high school track season to leading the largest civil rights march in Marion in a generation to being targeted with an apparent hate crime," Miller reports.

Travon was nervous about giving his speech to the crowd of about 300, but quickly found his voice, Miller reports. "This is our chance, young people," Travon said. "Y’all complain about the laws? Go change those laws. You don’t have to destroy anything. You don’t have to tear down statues."

During the march, some counterprotesters shouted or chanted insults at the protesters, but at the end of the march, Travon found words that had perhaps a bigger impact on the counterprotesters: "Travon began shouting 'I love you' across the divide, and soon all the protesters were shouting it and the faces opposite them were momentarily quiet and confused," Miller reports.

Partisan websites masquerading as local news are a growing trend; map shows whether any are near you

Screenshot of interactive map showing distribution of partisan media outlets. Red buttons and shaded areas are conservative; blue are liberal. (Nieman Lab map; click here for the interactive version.)
"The growth of partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting is a troubling trend we’ve seen emerge amid the financial declines of local news organizations. But what do these outlets mean for journalism in American communities?" Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli report for Harvard University's Nieman Lab.

"Using previous research and news reports as a guide, we’ve mapped the locations of more than 400 partisan media outlets — often funded and operated by government officials, political candidates, PACs and political party operatives — and found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that these outlets are emerging most often in swing states, raising a concern about the ability of such organizations to fill community information needs while prioritizing the electoral value of an audience." The partisan media sites are particularly thick on the ground in Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina.

Conservative sites generally differ from liberal sites on other ways, Mahone and Napoli report: "We found that while the (few) left-leaning sites prioritize statewide reporting, right-leaning sites are more focused on local reporting, suggesting different strategies for engaging with targeted audiences and indicating the potential for these sites to exacerbate polarization in local communities."

Nieman Lab created an interactive map showing where the partisan news sites are anchored as well as the congressional district's political leanings. Click here for an in-depth explanation of how the map was created and what layers of data can be accessed.

Government payments to farmers are at historic highs, but some warn it's unsustainable

Federal farm aid over past decade. (Politico chart: click the
image to enlarge it.)
Direct government payments to farmers are at historic highs under the Trump administration as the president and the Department of Agriculture try to help farmers struggling with the trade war, record wet weather and the pandemic.

"But as agriculture grows more reliant on unprecedented taxpayer support, farm policy experts and watchdog groups warn the subsidies are growing too big and too fast, with no strings attached and little oversight from Congress — and that Washington could have a difficult time shutting off the spigot," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "The massive payments have been a political boon to Trump in farm country — he tweeted in January that he hoped the money would be 'the thing they will most remember' — but risk creating a culture of dependency, as farmers and ranchers work the bonus subsidies into their financial plans when making large, up-front investments in seed, feed and farm machinery."

The amount of aid, the speed with which the government is handing it out, and the lack of oversight should concern taxpayers, says Neil Hamilton, emeritus professor and former director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center. And, Hamilton says, the handouts have insulated the administration from political fallout stemming from their policy decisions. "The administration picked these trade fights promising agriculture that this would lead to some better world at some point," Hamilton told McCrimmon. "Rather than suffering any consequence for the ill-conceived strategy, they just said, 'Hey, let’s tap the bank. We’ll buy our way out of this.'"

As frackers hurtle toward bankruptcy, some fear taxpayers could be stuck with cleanup costs and pollution

"Oil and gas companies in the United States are hurtling toward bankruptcy at a pace not seen in years, driven under by a global price war and a pandemic that has slashed demand. And in the wake of this economic carnage is a potential environmental disaster — unprofitable wells that will be abandoned or left untended, even as they continue leaking planet-warming pollutants, and a costly bill for taxpayers to clean it all up," Hiroko Tabuchi reports for The New York Times.

There's little incentive for executives to steer companies clear of the cliff, if past examples are to judge, since many ensure that executives are paid millions with golden parachutes in the form of bonuses or consulting fees, Tabuchi reports. 

For instance, in the months before Texas-based oil company MDC Energy filed for bankruptcy eight months ago, the company paid its CEO $8.5 million in consulting fees, a debtor alleged in court. The company's debts exceed its assets by more than $180 million, and it would cost more than $40 million to clean up its wells if they were permanently closed. But "as of last week, dangerous, invisible gases were still spewing into the air," Tabuchi reports.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Iowa newspaper editor reflects on what it's like to be a rural Black journalist in today's political climate

Rushing looks over a new edition of the paper.
(Photo by Caroline Cummings)
What's it like for a Black journalist from Kansas City to move to rural Iowa for a newspaper job? Ty Rushing, managing editor of The N'West Iowa Review in Sheldon, joked that he didn't unpack his bags for months when he moved to rural Iowa more than seven years ago. After a few stints at area newspapers, he's now in Sheldon, a largely white community of more than 5,000 in the most conservative corner of Iowa, Caroline Cummings reports for KTVO.

"Being a Black journalist at this moment—when there’s a collective reckoning over the killings of black people at the hands of police and the systemic racism that allows for it—is not lost on him. He has covered protests over George Floyd's death in his community and those around it in Northwest Iowa," Cummings reports. 

Rushing says he has experienced racism, both in Iowa and elsewhere, but said most of his encounters in rural Iowa are positive and he's glad to have frank conversations about race. "For me to say black lives matter—I’ve been wearing this on my wrist for years—I don’t feel like that’s me being biased. I could quit my job tomorrow, get fired tomorrow and guess what: I’m a black man," Rushing told Cummings. "Being able to say that, hey, as a black man I should be able to live and enjoy the perks of being an American without concern or worry or fearing for myself from a simple traffic stop—I don’t believe that’s damaging my credibility as a journalist. It’s simply a human-rights issue."

Biden unveils $2 trillion climate plan, links it to economy

Former vice president Joe Biden unveiled Tuesday an expanded—and more expensive—version of his plan to address climate change and stimulate the U.S. economy. The plan proposes spending $2 trillion over four years, "calling for front-line, fence-line and environmentally vulnerable communities to get 40% of the benefits from his climate plan," Adam Aton reports for Energy & Environment News.

Last week a task force formed by Biden and more liberal primary rival Bernie Sanders recommended Biden set goals of eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, making all new buildings have net zero emissions by 2030, fund energy-saving upgrades to existing structures, install 500 million solar panels and manufacture 60,000 wind turbines.

Biden did not necessarily adopt all the task force's proposals, but they were taken into consideration, CNN reports. Biden did adopt its recommendation to make power plants carbon-neutral by 2035, Aton reports, as well as its recommendations on installing more solar panels, manufacturing more wind turbines, and making existing structures more energy-efficient.

Biden's plan, which carries a higher price tag than any of his other policy proposals, is a "leftward pivot" possibly meant to appease more liberal Democrats, but it also "reflects how the falling cost of renewable energy has made it easier to pitch climate policy as economic stimulus," Aton reports. When Biden announced the plan yesterday, he emphasized that plans like retrofitting buildings with LED lighting would mean jobs for electricians and union workers.

"Republicans responded by accusing Biden of trying to destroy millions of oil and gas jobs," Aton reports, but such arguments may be less powerful these days because falling clean-energy costs have made it easier to make a case for growing the economy with renewable-energy jobs. Renewable energy is a major source of jobs in the rural Midwest (a presidential battleground), far more than oil, gas or coal jobs, according to a January report.

Daily rate of new coronavirus infections in rural America climbed 150% since mid-June; see county-level data

Non-metropolitan rate, per population of new corinavirus cases, June 13-July 12
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
The number of new coronavirus cases in counties outside metropolitan areas is 150 percent higher now than a month ago, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. "In the last week, nonmetropolitan counties surpassed a record-breaking 7,000 new cases on three consecutive days. The seven-day average of new cases also hit an all-time high Monday, at 6,185 per day," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder, with a map showing in red the 78 rural counties where the equivalent of at least 1% of the population tested positive for the virus from June 13 to July 12 are shown in red.

Rural counties with high infection rates tend to have prisons or meatpacking plants, Marema notes. Also, "Rural counties with high infection rates frequently have large proportions of residents who are African American, American Indian, or Hispanic/Latino."

Click here for a more detailed breakdown of regions with higher infection rates and a searchable, ranked list of rural counties with the highest rates.

Some states putting names of banned law enforcement officers online

"In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody, Oregon has released the names of over 1,700 officers whose transgressions over the past 50 years were so serious that they were banned from working in law enforcement in the state," Andrew Selsky reports for The Associated Press.

"In the absence of an official nationwide database, a non-profit maintains a website intended to be a national registry of certificate or license revocations," Selsky reports. "The National Decertification Index provides access to records from agencies in 44 states and was created by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training."

The database isn't comprehensive; California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, don't certify or decertify officers. Georgia does decertify officers but doesn't contribute to the registry. Contributions to the database are voluntary.

Study: Rural Westerners strongly support environmental protections, but not necessarily from the government

Rural voters in the West strongly favor environmental protections and conservation, even when those actions might hurt economic growth, but they are wary of such protections when paired with government oversight, according to a study by researchers from Duke University, the University of Wyoming and the University of Rhode Island.

Rural, urban and suburban Western voters agreed on the importance of the environment and conservation: 73 percent of rural voters and 75% of urban and suburban voters said such topics were very or pretty important to them personally. Also, Western voters are more likely to support U.S. action on climate change than rural voters nationwide.

The big rural-urban divide came over the role of government regulation in protecting the environment: only 25% of rural Westerners said there needs to be more governmental oversight, compared with 42% of urban voters.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Thursday webinar aims to help reporters background info to cover a 'greener' economic recovery from pandemic

The Society of Environmental Journalists will host a free Zoom webinar from 1 to 2 p.m. ET Thursday, July 16, to give journalists a deeper understanding of the connections between climate change, covid-19 and the economy, and how all of those can influence the potential for rebuilding the economy in a more environmentally friendly way. Click here to register or for more information.

The website says: "With economies opening up and emissions once again rising, we face decisions about infrastructure, industry, and regulation that will have enduring impacts on our climate and our health. What do journalists need to know to cover these decisions and help the public understand the options and tradeoffs?" Energy & Environment News reporter Nick Sobczyk will moderate a panel:
  • Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at Ceres Policy Network
  • Jonathan Pershing, environment program director, Hewlett Foundation, and former special envoy for climate change, U.S. Department of State.
  • Justin Worland, energy and environment correspondent, Time magazine.
All journalists are welcome, and the webinar will be available as a recording a day or two afterward on the SEJ website. Click here for recordings of past webinars in this series.

New Yorker magazine writer takes a look at the poultry processing industry, and one company in particular

President Trump is helping poultry-processing companies like Mountaire Farms put the squeeze on their workers, even during the pandemic, Jane Mayer reports for The New Yorker magazine.

"Unlike meatpackers, two-thirds of whom belong to unions, only about a third of poultry workers are represented by organized labor—and those who are unionized face mounting pressure," Mayer writes. The industry, which is dominated by large multinational corporations such as Mountaire, has grown increasingly concentrated, expanding its political influence while replacing unionized employees with contract hires, often immigrants or refugees. These vulnerable workers are technically hired by temp agencies, relieving poultry plants of accountability if documentation is lacking. Trump has weakened federal oversight of the industry while accepting millions of dollars in political donations from some of its most powerful figures, including Ronald Cameron, Mountaire’s reclusive owner. In 2016, Cameron gave nearly three million dollars to organizations supporting Trump’s candidacy."

Wikipedia base map
Mayer's story begins in Selbyville, Delaware, where the National Labor Relations Board ordered an election among Mountaire workers on a petition to decertify the United Food and Commercial Workers as their bargaining agent. (The election is being held by mail, and ballots are due today.) "When the union protested that this would violate the customary bar on overturning contracts before three years, the NLRB decided to broaden the case, reëxamining the entire concept of barring challenges to settled union contracts," Mayer reports. "The move has shocked labor-law experts. By statute, the NLRB has five members and is bipartisan, but the Trump Administration has filled only three seats, all with Republicans."

Meanwhile, "On April 28, 48 hours after Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest meat company, ran a full-page ad in several newspapers warning that 'the food supply chain is breaking,' Trump issued an executive order defining slaughterhouse workers as essential. The White House had appointed Cameron to an advisory board on the pandemic’s economic impact. The executive order commanded meat-processing facilities to 'continue operations uninterrupted to the extent possible.' The Labor Department released an accompanying statement that all but indemnified companies for exposing workers to covid-19. It assured employers in essential industries that the agency wouldn’t hold them responsible if they failed to follow the CDC’s health guidelines, as long as they made a 'good faith' effort. Meat and poultry workers had to keep working and risk infection—or lose their jobs. By July 7, OSHA had received more than six thousand coronavirus-related workplace complaints but had issued only one citation, to a nursing home in Georgia."

Mayer's 8,565-word story has a lot more about Mountaire and the poultry-processing industry.

Poynter offers primer for covering accelerating business bankruptcies during the pandemic

More than a hundred major businesses of all sizes, from J.C. Penney to J. Crew, have declared bankruptcy in recent weeks, citing the economic pressures of the pandemic as the underlying cause. But the phenomenon is much farther-reaching than that, and local journalists have much to cover.

To that end, Poynter offers a primer on bankruptcies, including what the different types mean and other important background information, a link to a frequently-updated Bloomberg database of larger business bankruptcies, and tips and tools to help journalists navigate court records and cover bankruptcy stories. Read more here.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Coal-communities transition plan calls for 'restorative economic development' like that undertaken by Ky. nonprofit

By Peter Hille
President, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development

The coalfields of Appalachia—like coal-producing communities around the country—literally fueled the growth of the entire nation. Despite that, the coal economy didn’t create lasting prosperity in these communities. In fact, today, these are some of the most economically disadvantaged places in the US. These places that have given so much now bear the brunt of changes in global energy markets. They sacrificed lives, health, water, prosperity, ecosystems—and there is a debt to be paid.

Justice demands that we bring new investment to these places. That investment is needed to build a new economy, revitalize these communities, educate people of all ages to be prepared for new opportunities, and create demonstrations of what the new economy can look like – whether that is local food, health care, the creative economy, sustainable forestry, tourism, affordable housing or clean energy.

From here in Appalachia to Wyoming to the Navajo Nation, leaders from communities that once relied on coal are developing and implementing promising solutions to create inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth, driven from the ground up. These leaders need supportive public policy and investment at the local, state and federal level to accelerate this work of building a new economy.

Over the past year, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development worked with 17 public, private and nonprofit partners from throughout Appalachia and across the country to develop a platform of seven pillars that policy makers and leaders should understand in order to support our communities. The National Economic Transition platform is based on community-driven solutions, crafted by local, tribal and labor leaders living and working in America’s coal communities. It serves as a guide for legislators and philanthropic leaders, and encourages them to develop policies and make investments that support the just and equitable national transition our communities need and deserve.

One pillar of the National Economic Transition platform calls upon policymakers to invest in restorative economic development in our communities. Here are just a few examples of how MACED has been supporting that approach in Kentucky:

We have invested more than one million dollars in solar installations for small businesses and non-profits in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, saving money for these vital local enterprises, making them more resilient as energy prices rise and reducing their carbon footprint.

We’ve invested in a local wood products manufacturer, helping them double in size, adding good jobs with benefits and using sustainably harvested timber.

We’ve helped addiction recovery centers get established and grow—meeting a critical need.

We’ve trained former coal miners to work in the new clean energy economy and helped them start their own businesses in this growing market.

There’s a lot more work to be done, but there is hope and determination in these places, and a fierce commitment to a brighter future. These communities can thrive again, they just need a fair chance, and that’s what the National Economic Transition platform is all about. The livelihoods of Eastern Kentuckians, and tens of millions of people across the country, rely on us getting this transition right. Our leaders must make the decision to engage and make big, bold investments in an ambitious national community and worker transition program.

MACED is based in Berea, Ky. Information on the NET platform is at nationaleconomictransition.org or by contacting Peter Hille at peter@maced.org.

Rural sheriff, stricken with covid-19, says he should have worn a mask more, and pleads for others to wear them

Lauren and Norman Chaffins (Facebook)
The sheriff of a rural Kentucky county, stricken with covid-19, pleaded on Facebook Sunday for his readers to wear a mask. Grayson County Sheriff Norman Chaffins, a former state trooper, said he thought he got the coronavirus on a Western RV trip. "We maintained our distance as much as we could, but did not always wear a mask," he wrote. "I am now paying the price."

His post gives detailed descriptions of his many symptoms, concluding: "The worst thing during this is that when one symptom starts to subside, I would develop two different ones. It is almost like someone is controlling them and taking turns turning them up and down as a sick joke. . . . I have had the flu. I’ve had the mumps (on the pancreas), chicken pox, measles, broken neck, and had total knee replacement. If you were to combine the painful effects of all those into one, it would not touch the hell I experienced the past six days with this coronavirus. There is no comparison. Nothing that I know of or have ever experienced compares to it."

Grayson County, Kentucky (Wikipedia)
Chaffins, a Republican, wrote three days after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear ordered wearing of masks in public spaces indoors, or outdoors where six feet of social distancing can't be maintained. Initial enforcement is up to businesses, which are subject to enforcement from health departments.

"I’m telling you this because I want you to wear your mask," Chaffins writes. "Not because I am the sheriff, not because the governor said so, and not because the business tells you to. I want you to wear a mask because I do not want anyone to have to go through what I went through. I want you to wear a mask because I don’t want my kids or grandbabies to get sick. I want you to wear a mask because it’s just the right thing to do. It may not 100% guarantee that you won’t contract it, but wearing a mask will certainly reduce your chances. Please understand this: I am not telling you to wear a mask. We are not going to fine you or insist that you wear a mask. As your friend, I am asking you to wear a mask when you are around others and when you go out into public at least until there is a vaccine."

Last reporter at Pennsylvania paper is still asking the hard questions, even to the hedge fund that is bleeding it

Evan Brandt
(NYT photo by Haruka Sakaguchi)
Newspaper reporters play an integral role in local democracy, "but they are an endangered species being nudged toward extinction by the most important news story in decades: the coronavirus," Dan Barry reports for The New York Times. "The economic paralysis caused by the pandemic has clobbered a newspaper industry already on the mat. With revenues plummeting, substantial layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions have followed in newsrooms across the country. Meanwhile, the hedge funds and private equity firms that own many newspapers often siphon away profits rather than reinvest in local journalism."

One such hedge fund is Alden Global Capital, which controls the Pottstown Mercury in Pennsylvania, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The Mercury has served the town of 23,000 since 1931, and is the smallest-circulation newspaper to have won two Pulitzer prizes: in 1979 for spot news photography and one in 1990 for editorial writing, Barry notes. But after three successive owners that whittled the paper down for maximum profit, the Mercury has one reporter left: Evan Brandt, 55.

Pottstown, Penn. (Wikipedia map)
Brandt worked at suburban weeklies before joining the Mercury in 1997. "Nearly all of his colleagues who didn’t quit have been laid off or bought out, effectively making him the last reporter covering Pottstown," Barry reports. "His newspaper’s distinctive building was abruptly emptied and later sold, so he works in his attic, surrounded by a display of 36 journalism awards, many for public service."

Brandt has adapted to his lone-wolf status. Because Alden consolidated the Mercury's printing with other nearby newspapers, the Mercury has a 6 p.m. deadline that makes it impossible for him to cover evening borough-council meetings for the next day's paper, so he often shares meeting notes on social media and his blog, then writes an article for the print edition the next day, Barry reports.

Brandt is responsible for covering more than a dozen other local governments and school districts, Barry writes: "He can’t bear to think of communities not knowing about a proposed tax increase, or the politics behind a town official’s ouster, or yet another public agency violating the open-meetings law by conferring in private. But it’s impossible to be everywhere. The demands of election coverage only intensify his frustration. Stretched too thin to profile the dozens of candidates in more than a dozen communities — once de rigueur for newspapers — he does what he can when he can, sometimes with bare-bone questionnaires."
Brandt visited the home of Alden co-owner
Heath Freeman to ask what value he places
on local news. He didn't get an answer.
(Photo by Lorraine Dusky)

"Evan is the voice of the voiceless," local NAACP President Johnny Corson told Barry. "He speaks for the little people. If we lose him, we’re in trouble."

Former Mercury editor Nancy March told Barry that she blames the public a little for the Mercury's downfall: "People do not recognize — do not champion — what we do. I walk around my community and they thank me. But they don’t want to support it. They don’t want to pay for it."

Brandt, the local shop steward for the NewsGuild union, reserves a healthy dose of blame for Alden, believing that the company "has no lasting commitment to Pottstown, to an informed electorate or to any other lofty ideals embodied by the best of newspapers." He told Barry that Alden is like a transient neighbor: "You rent an apartment, open all the walls, sell the plumbing, and rip out and sell the hardwood floors. Then you walk away. You don’t pay the rent, and you don’t care about your neighbors."

In 2018, news industry analyst Ken Doctor wrote in a column for Harvard University's Nieman Lab that Alden had earned $160 million in profit in fiscal 2017 from "wrecking local journalism," including $18 million—a 30% profit margin—from Philadelphia-area newspapers such as the Mercury. Brandt was incensed by the column, and became even angrier after reading that Alden co-owner Heath Freeman was expanding a $4.8 million mansion in Montauk, New York, Barry reports.

Since Brandt was in Long Island visiting family, he decided to drive to Freeman's home and try for an interview, Barry reports: "Given Freeman’s reputation for reticence, he knew he might get to ask only one question. His choice: What value do you place on local news? In other words, what is local news worth? Not in monetary terms, but in terms of an informed electorate; an accountable government; a sense of place. It would be a provocative question, posed by a proud professional in his mid-50s whose cherished world was vanishing around him. Posed to a 40-ish vulture capitalist who surfaced well after the local newspaper model was already damaged, but who was now profiting from and perhaps accelerating its decline." Freeman shook his head at the question and walked away.

Rural areas may have advantages in economic recovery from pandemic

Though the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the nation's economy as a whole, rural areas have seen fewer job losses and shorter shutdowns than average, and may be at an advantage in economic recovery, according to a quarterly report by rural lender CoBank. Job losses in rural counties averaged 9 percent, compared to 14% in metropolitan counties, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"Some 7.5 million people gained jobs in May and June, but two-thirds of people who lost work due to the pandemic were still out of work," Abbott reports. The Daily Yonder notes that rural areas, especially ones that rely on agriculture rather than tourism, were somewhat insulated from job losses, but says such rural areas were hurting economically even before the pandemic.

CoBank Vice President Dan Kowalski writes that, while rural areas might be better positioned to recover, the overall economy is fragile, and signs point to the recovery hitting a plateau. The economy could fall again after that, and economy recovery will be "shallower than previously expected" if the virus can't be controlled, Kowalski wrote.

DeVos provides few details on Trump administration push to reopen schools in the fall

School districts are grappling with how or whether to reopen schools in the fall, and though the Trump administration has called for reopening, it hasn't said how to accomplish that. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sat for interviews Sunday on CNN and Fox News, but offered little clarity on the matter.

"Pressed on how schools in areas with high rates of the coronavirus should protect children and communities, she provided few details," Evie Blad reports for Education Week. "Also unclear: the details of repeated threats made by DeVos and President Donald Trump to withhold federal funds from schools that don't reopen, and exactly what a satisfactory school reopening would look like."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that schools limit bus riders, ensure that students wear masks, and space desks six feet apart, but DeVos stressed to CNN's Dana Bash that those are only recommendations, that no two schools are the same, and said that education leaders are smart enough to figure out how to tailor CDC prevention and outbreak-containment guidelines to each individual school, Blad reports.

"Pressed by Fox's Chris Wallace on why the administration would threaten schools' funding during the pandemic, DeVos reiterated previous statements that seemed to allude to a push for a private school choice option," Blad reports. DeVos, who has been a strong proponent of private education, told Wallace: "American investment is a promise to students and their families . . . If schools aren't going to reopen and fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds. Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise."

Wallace pointed out that DeVos didn't have the authority to redirect federal funds authorized by Congress; DeVos said she is considering "all options," Blad reports.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

List of federal Paycheck Protection Program's forgivable loans is a reporting opportunity with several challenges

Photo provided to Detroit Free Press
By Al Cross
, Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

"Lisa Freeman received a curious inquiry from a TV news reporter Wednesday, writes Mark Kurlyandchik of the Detroit Free Press. "Why had her quaint, seasonal ice cream shop — a longtime fixture in downtown Saugatuck that Freeman has owned for 2½ years — been given millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program funds from the U.S. Small Business Administration?"

Turns out that it only got about $100,000 in forgivable loans. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about reporting on the PPP, a relief program that reached most American towns. The SBA database has errors, even including companies that didn't even apply for the funds, as CNBC reported, so any listing needs to be checked out before it's part of a news story. 

And it's important to remember that no local story on the loans can be comprehensive, at least for now, because the database is incomplete. Freeman's business should have even appeared on the public list, because it was supposed to include only those businesses getting $150,000 or more. Out of nearly 5 million recipients, only about 660,000 are listed.

Finally, you may have problems fetching information from the database, but The Washington Post has transformed it into a national interactive map, which can be focused by your location.

After clearing those hurdles, ask yourself: Aside from stories about connections with politicians, such as the one by Alfred Miller of the Louisville Courier Journal about the rural-development center started by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, what is the newsworthiness of the data? 

I publish a newspaper for Midway, Ky., a town that has only 1,800 people but a number of interesting businesses, including some that got PPP money. They include the local private university, four Thoroughbred horse farms, two restaurant companies, two small manufacturers, a big landscaping service and an arborist.

What's the news in all that? Sure, there's a story, but it wouldn't be fair to list the names and numbers (which are in ranges, not precise dollar amounts) without some context. That context is shifting as the pandemic continues, so we willook for inflection p loints for the timeliest "news pegs."

The university is private, so we don't get much information about its finances unless there is a crisis like the one it suffered eight years ago, from which it has recovered. It stopped in-person classes in March and is planning to resume classes Aug. 17, and it's the city's second-largest employer, so there's a story in its reopening, which should include some mention of the taxpayer money it got.

Midway is a big restaurant town, so there's a story in how that industry is coping with limitations on capacity and a recent rise in coronavirus cases that prompted the governor to require masks. The two firms got different ranges of PPP money, probably reflecting their different number of locations. We'll explore that with both, about which we've reported before. And we'll ask the other restaurants how they're doing, and if they got forgivable loans of less than $150,000, as seems likely.

The horse industry is important to Central Kentucky, but its inner workings are almost opaque, because most if not all farms are privately owned. Again, the loan amounts differed by farm, so the list gives us an opportunity to cover the industry – and perhaps others – in a way we haven't before.

So, the list is an opportunity, but also a challenge – especially for my students, who will be doing most of the reporting. Our school doesn't have a course in business journalism, so I hope this opportunity will give students some valuable training and experience in this area.

In a similar vein, business reporting has suffered at most newspapers and broadcast stations in the last two decades, and the pandemic has exacerbated that. Ironically, a pandemic-related action by the government now gives news outlets all over the country a chance to learn more about important local businesses, and tell their audiences about them. Let's get to work.

Biggest creditor wins bankruptcy auction for McClatchy Co.

Hedge fund Chatham Asset Management won the bankruptcy auction for McClatchy Co. Sunday, McClatchy announced. Chatham is the main creditor of the family-owned firm that is the nation's second largest local-news company, with 30 titles in 14 states.

Margaret Sullivan, media critic for The Washington Post, said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that Chatham was the better of "two lousy options," the other being Alden Global Capital, which owns MediaNews Group and about a third of Tribune Co.

"Chatham is majority owner of Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia Network Canada. The hedge fund said, “Chatham is committed to preserving newsroom jobs and independent journalism that serve and inform local communities during this important time.”

Sullivan said, "I find that a little hard to believe because hedge funds have not been the best newspaper owners," but she said that among McClatchy people she had talked with: "There is something of a sense of relief."

Mayors of four cities served by McClatchy wrote the bankruptcy judge last week, asking him to consider the impact of the sales on the communities it serves. In Kentucky, McClatchy's Lexington Herald-Leader,  unlike most other metropolitan newspapers, serves a large rural area: Eastern Kentucky.

“Yes, the newspaper holds our feet to the fire through investigative stories and in-depth coverage,” Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton wrote. “While it’s not always comfortable, it’s always important to challenge the decisions cities make, and to deeply examine the actions of government.”

Noting her city's population of 325,000 "Unlike major media markets, we do not have a large press corps." The Herald-Leader has three journalists in Eastern Kentucky, two of them funded  by Report for America. Gorton is a Republican, but her office is nonpartisan.

Ky. economist: Trump has run a losing 'con' on promises to bring back coal; regulation not to blame, study says

This was initially published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
By Donald Mullineaux, emeritus professor of economics, University of Kentucky

“Con Man Donald Trump” into Google’s search engine yields 87.8 million prospective readings. The dean of con artists, P.T. Barnum, would be green with envy at that number. A prolific showman and huckster, he foreshadowed Mr. Trump in many ways, including holding several political offices in Connecticut. But while Barnum wore his “badge of con” proudly, Trump routinely portrays himself, with no sense of irony, as the victim of “con jobs” and “hoaxes.” Countless examples in the media identify Trump as a con man, but one is quite relevant to Kentuckians. President Trump has promised many times “to bring back coal” and restore mining jobs. How well has he delivered on that promise?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total U.S. coal production in 2019 was 705.3 tons, down 6.8 percent from the previous year and the lowest level of output in over 41 years. In 2018, production likewise fell by 2.4 percent. According to the Kentucky Annual Economic Report 2020, the state’s coal production likewise fell 5.2% in 2018 to 39.6 million tons, the lowest level of output since 1954. Noting that coal production accounts for less than 1 percent of Kentucky gross domestic product and just 0.3% of total employment, the report cites “cheaper sources of energy, like natural gas and renewables, more stringent air quality regulations, and weaker-than-expected demand for coal in Asia” as the primary sources of the industry’s current woes.

The USEIA forecasts that, given the onset of the pandemic induced recession, coal production will fall 22 percent this year. During the period 2009-16, when we had a different president, coal production averaged over 1 million tons per year. Even P.T. Barnum would be hard pressed to sell the recent numbers as a “comeback for coal.” As with most of President Trump’s promises, he has said virtually nothing about his strategy for reversing the fortunes of the coal industry.

The number of coal-mining jobs has likewise been in long-term decline for decades, but the trend reached a temporary bottom in 2016. Coal industry employment was relatively stable over the last few years, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis. About 178 thousand people worked in coalmines in mid-1988, but the number of jobs ranged between 51-52 thousand from 2016 through the end of 2019. As of this May, the number of jobs had dropped to 46.6 thousand, a decline of a little over 8%. Over the same long-term horizon, the number of coal miners in Kentucky dropped from a little over 29,000 in the late 1980’s to a low of 5,300 in January 2018. From there the number of jobs increased for some months, only to begin declining once again in the spring of 2019. As of this April, employment was at an ail-time low of 3,400.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence of President’s Trump’s failure to revive the coal industry lies in the number of coal-company bankruptcies and mine closings. As of Oct. 30, 2019, 11 companies, including the largest privately held operation, had declared bankruptcy since Trump’s inauguration. And according to the USEIA, more than half of all mines operating in 2008 had closed by the end of 2018. The consumption of renewable sources of energy surpassed coal consumption in 2019 for the first time in over 130 years, according to USEIA.

Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, Mitch McConnell, has repeatedly cited regulation as the primary factor accounting for the demise of the coal industry. But a study conducted in 2019 by professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School entitled “Whither the Regulatory War on Coal: Scapegoats, Saviors, and Stock Market Reactions,” finds no significant impact of regulation (or deregulation) on the industry’s performance. Coal is simply a noncompetitive commodity in today’s marketplace and Washington politicians can do next to nothing to change that fact.