Friday, October 16, 2020

Postal Service agrees in Montana federal court settlement to reverse nationwide changes that slowed mail service

"The U.S. Postal Service agreed Wednesday to reverse changes that slowed mail service nationwide, settling a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock during a pandemic that is expected to force many more people to vote by mail," Iris Samuels reports for The Associated Press. "The Postal Service agreed to reverse all changes, which included reduced retail hours, removal of collection boxes and mail sorting machines, closure or consolidation of mail processing facilities, restriction of late or extra trips for timely mail delivery, and banning or restricting overtime."

The agreement, which requires the Postal Service to prioritize election mail, applies to all states. "The settlement agreement was reached a day ahead of a hearing in the U.S. District Court," Samuels reports. 

Bullock sued the service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy Sept. 9, arguing that changes made in June decreased access to mail services in Montana. That not only made it harder for Montanans to vote by mail, he alleged, but also delayed delivery of job applications, payments, medical prescriptions, and more.

Pandemic no excuse for lazy reporting, veteran editor says

City Council candidates in Midway, Ky., participated in an online forum with Midway Messenger student reporters Oct. 5.
By Jim Pumarlo

Editors and reporters are facing some of their biggest challenges in gathering news during the pandemic. Access to everyday sources is increasingly limited with no relief on the horizon.

Reporters no longer can walk into offices unannounced, and appointments are restricted. Remote work remains the norm at many places.

And don’t expect immediate responses to phone calls. Individuals are often consumed by Zoom meetings as the new norm for communications.

Logistics are demanding enough to connect with your regular corps of newsmakers. Then consider everyday readers – the local names and faces who provide so many distinctive stories – who may be approached by a reporter for the first time. They are likely more hesitant – at least extra cautious – as they protect personal health.

Solid reporting still can be done during these extraordinary times, but it takes extra effort. Small and large newspapers are generating excellent stories not only on the pandemic but also on the everyday churn of news.

At the same time, it’s disheartening to see those newsrooms that have taken the shortcuts, all to the detriment of substantive content:
  • Residents object to a proposal under consideration by a school board. The reporter, watching a TV broadcast of the meeting, quotes the speakers but fails to identify them.
  • The primary election determines which candidates for local offices will advance to the general election. Winners are reported, but without vote totals and no apparent attempt to get comments from any of the winners or losers.
  • Three longtime city employees retire, representing nearly 100 years of service. The communications director is the sole source for the story, which is basically a brief bio of each employee.
  • Any number of announcements from new sports coaches to political candidacies to community initiatives are handled by press releases only – no conversation with a reporter.
  • A major employer reopens after being shut down during the pandemic. The story recites what is on the company’s website.
Navigating the pandemic unfortunately has resulted in far too many single-source stories without the benefit of Q & A by reporters. Press releases are published verbatim. Questions are posed, and responses returned via email or text message. Government actions are reported, but there is no follow-up on how decisions affect residents and businesses.

Reporting indeed demands additional effort during the pandemic. It also takes more planning as contacting individuals often requires multiple inquiries.

So take the extra steps. Connect via Zoom or telephone. Zoom offers reporters the option to record and post video of their interviews. Also, digital recording via Zoom offers automatic transcription so reporters can use bits and pieces for tweets, Facebook and other social media, and video clips for YouTube. Meet face to face, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. In-person interviews allow reporters to describe the environment and elaborate on details that distinguish feature stories.

At minimum, reporters need to be honest and transparent with readers. Let them know the nature of the “interviews” – whether information is gathered by an exchange of emails or text messages, participation in a virtual event, or watching a broadcast.

And don’t forget the long-term impact of lackadaisical reporting. Sources will become accustomed to “feeding” stories word-for-word to reporters and may well be more reluctant to engage in an interview.

I remain a firm believer that local newspapers have an edge in the fractured media landscape by being the premier clearinghouse of information in your communities. Your newspaper family represents a valuable, collective set of eyes and ears. But you must use those resources to remain the go-to source for news and advertising.

Consider this event that caught the attention of an entire town and was reported in media across the state:

A speeding vehicle crashed into a historic building causing extensive damage to the business and upstairs apartments. The building was immediately condemned until next steps were determined. Onlookers streamed to the site; roads were closed. The post went up on the newspaper’s website. The report included comments from an eyewitness to the crash, but otherwise relied solely on press releases.

Two days later, the same two stories appeared verbatim in the print edition. Still no interview with the business owner, the employees present when the accident occurred, or the upstairs tenants who felt the building shake. No identification of the displaced residents or information about assistance for temporary shelter. No mention of fundraising efforts or accompanying contact information. No initial dollar estimate of the damage. The fundamental 5 Ws and H of all stories were nonexistent in the report.

For other aggressive reporters, what is the tool you'll use for your live channel? When a story breaks, how fast can you be there live and broadcast in real time? Do you have a URL set up, and do your readers know about it?

Then consider other missed opportunities for the newspaper to shine in its coverage and distinguish itself from competing media. Connect with the building inspector and an engineer to offer perspective on how such a crash resulted in such extensive damage. Chronicle the origins and tenants of the building, one of the more historic structures in the downtown. Work with city officials to videotape the damage and post it on the website. You can add to the list.

Newspapers across the country are fighting for their survival due to economic repercussions of covid-19. Circumstances have prompted editors and publishers to regularly promote the message: “We’re here 24/7 reporting on the stories in your community.”

Such pronouncements are only as persuasive as the supporting evidence.

Jim Pumarlo, a former newspaper editor, writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage (2011), Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage (2007) and Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers (2005). He is at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

Weekly's 'one-woman newsroom' fired after radio interview

Ashley Spinks (Radio IQ photo by Mallory Noe-Payne)
The sole remaining journalist at the Floyd Press in rural Virginia says she was fired by owner Lee Enterprises after talking publicly about difficult work conditions. Lee said the recent interview with Radio IQ was one reason editor-reporter Ashley Spinks was fired, Mallory Noe-Payne reports for Virginia NPR affiliate WVTF. Spinks also spoke to The Daily Yonder in early September.

Lee, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, bought more than a dozen dailies and weeklies throughout Virginia from BH Media for $140 million in March. It cut costs across the board, firing reporters, outsourcing work and furloughing staff. Spinks was furloughed in March and saw the paper's freelance budget slashed, Noe-Payne reports.

Spinks "says she was told she was let go Tuesday afternoon because she had spoken 'disparagingly' about Lee Enterprises on social media and had given an interview without corporate permission," Noe-Payne reports. "She says she was also told she had violated 'journalistic ethics.' She says she asked for specific examples and was given none."

Though Lee wouldn't otherwise comment on Spinks' firing, the company said it would post her job immediately and is will cover her absence in the meantime. Spinks said in a tweet that she was fired while the paper was incomplete, less than 24 hours before going to print, and that it was three days before her wedding, which her superiors knew, Noe-Payne reports.

Spinks got a wave of support and encouragement on Twitter. "Spinks says she’s grateful for the outpouring of support," Noe-Payne reports. "She’s received multiple tips for future journalism opportunities as well as enough financial donations to keep her afloat for some time." Nonprofit newsroom ProPublica has offered to fund an investigative project about local water quality.

Spinks told Payne she's not worried about herself. "It’s not about me… it’s about the situation, which is the dismantling of local journalism and I think people are rightly and deeply concerned about that."

Trump administration rejects emergency aid for California fires, including state's first million-acre blaze

Update: The Trump administration quickly reversed its decision to deny California wildfire aid after widespread outcry, The New York Times reports.

"Fueled by extreme heat and tinder-dry conditions, wildfires exploded across California in September, blazing through almost 1.9 million acres, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and killing at least three people. One wildfire, the Creek Fire, became the largest single blaze in California history and grew so fierce it spun up fire tornadoes with 125-mph winds," Tim Elfrink reports for The Washington Post. "But the Trump administration this week refused to grant an emergency declaration that would open up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for areas devastated in those fires, California state officials confirmed to The Washington Post early Friday."

The Trump administration has granted similar declarations for other wildfires earlier this year, so it's unclear why California's request was denied. "President Trump has previously threatened to withhold emergency fire aid to California over disputed claims that the state isn’t doing enough to prevent wildfires," Elfrink reports. He has repeatedly criticized California for poor forest management, but state and local governments only control 3 percent of the state's forests; the federal government owns and manages 57%. 

The fires have gotten so big because of climate change, which spurred a record-dry February, and because the stretched-thin firefighting forces prioritized more densely populated areas over rural fires where fewer people were in immediate danger.

Quick hits: China's corn buying; rural poverty that created Dolly Parton; how coal miners helped shape labor laws . . .

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.

China is by far the top customer for U.S. corn six weeks into the marketing year. Read more here.

In Appalachia, people watch covid-19, race issues from afar. Read more here.

The rural poverty that created Dolly Parton. Read more here.

A look back at how coal miners helped shape U.S. labor laws. Read more here.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Promotional trailer released for film adaptation of controversial Hillbilly Elegy memoir, which debuts Nov. 24

 

On Wednesday Netflix released the first trailer for "Hillbilly Elegy," an adaptation of J.D. Vance's controversial 2016 memoir about growing up in an Appalachian-transplant family in Middletown, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Dayton.

"Vance’s memoir delves into the social mores and political beliefs of poor conservatives, and, upon publication, was quickly heralded as a touchstone for making sense of Donald Trump’s election," Yohana Desta writes for Vanity Fair

The film could finally net an Oscar or two for director Ron Howard and stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close as a feuding mother and daughter. The trailer alone, Desta writes, is "awards bait of the highest order." The film will debut in theaters and on Netflix on Nov. 24.

USDA agency awards $28.7 million in grants to fund programs to fight stress among farmers and ranchers

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced $28.7 million in grants for programs meant to combat stress among farmers and ranchers, who are among the most likely to die by suicide compared to Americans in other professions.

The grants come from NIFA's Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, first authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill but not funded until the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill had only$2 million for the program, but Congress increased funding this year, Stephanie Hanes reports for The Christian Science Monitor.

The money was split up among four entities that will develop and coordinate regional programs over the next three years. The University of Illinois received $7.18 million for its North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Relief Center, a 12-state collaborative in the North Central region. 

The National Young Farmers Coalition in Hudson, N.Y., received $7.16 million to create an inclusive and comprehensive network for stress relief on farms and ranches in the Northeast, according to the NIFA press release.

The University of Tennessee received $7.18 million to coordinate a program among 12 Southern states and two U.S. territories (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands).

Washington State University in Pullman received $7.18 million for its Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program, coordinated across 13 Western states and four U.S. territories.

Cannabis farmers are stuck without disaster aid or useful crop insurance because federal law disqualifies them

Farmers have had a rough two years, partly because of wild weather: derechos in the Midwest, wildfires in the South and West, and hurricanes in the Southeast. But while most can get disaster aid or crop insurance payouts, cannabis farmers have access to neither, and it's a threat to the fledgling industry.

Cannabis cultivation was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, but "because federal law defines marijuana as an illegal, dangerous drug, neither federal agencies nor conventional banks and major insurance companies will work with marijuana businesses even if they are legal under state law," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline. "Nor are marijuana businesses eligible for federal disaster relief."

Though cannabis growers can buy crop insurance from local providers, one farmer told Quinton he couldn't find a policy worth the money. "Producers and industry supporters now are pushing for changes to federal relief law and seeking state disaster aid," Quinton reports.

Shortage of rural case numbers may hide coronavirus spike

The coronavirus pandemic has been surging in rural areas in recent weeks, but the relatively low number of cases can make the trend look less concerning than it is. But the percentage of recent rural cases has often been just as bad as those hitting big cities in the Sun Belt this summer, Manny Fernandez and Mitch Smith report for The New York Times. The Daily Yonder reported on Wednesday that new coronavirus infections in rural counties jumped a record 16% last week.

"North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, for example, have announced the country’s highest number of cases on a per capita basis. Already, the North Dakota and South Dakota numbers exceed the per capita figures seen at the peak of summer surges in the Sun Belt," Fernandez and Smith report. "Other states with large rural areas — including Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, Iowa, Utah, Alaska and Oklahoma — have recently recorded more cases in a seven-day stretch than in any other week of the pandemic."

In South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem blamed the recent surge on an increase in testing, even though the state saw a new high in the number of people hospitalized for covid-19, The Associated Press reports. Only one county in the state (Edwards County) isn't a red zone, the Yonder notes, and that's mainly because the population is so small that a small variation in cases can swing the needle a lot. Red-zone counties are defined by the White House Coronavirus Task Force as those with a new-infection rate of at least 100 per 100,000 people in one week.

The sheer lack numbers might make people less likely to pay attention, Fernandez and Smith write: "Wessington Springs, S.D., or Shelby, Mont., are unlikely to produce the same alarming imagery amid a pandemic as New York City or Houston, where mobile morgues and packed E.R. hallways became icons of suffering."

Presidential candidate surrogates debate farm policy

"Samuel Clovis Jr., a member of Farmers and Ranchers for Trump, represented President Donald Trump's re-election campaign while Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, represented Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign on Tuesday in a Farm Foundation discussion of the two candidates' agricultural platforms," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "In a civil discussion, Clovis and Johnson agreed on many issues, particularly the importance of conservation and agricultural research, but disagreed on Trump's records on trade and support for ethanol." Read more here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

GAO says Education Department and CDC gave conflicting, incomplete guidance to local school officials on reopenings

"President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talked out of both sides of their mouths on school reopening, a new government watchdog report finds," Evie Blad of Education Week writes about a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"On the one hand, DeVos stressed that plans on how to reopen school buildings during the covid-19 pandemic were 'state and local decisions.' On the other hand, Trump and DeVos suggested schools' federal funding may be at risk if they don't allow students to return for in-person learning," Blad reports.

The GAO also concluded that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided unclear and sometimes contradictory guidance about how schools should minimize the spread of the virus. The report also criticized the Department of Education for leaving out details about wearing masks and social distancing when it summarized the CDC’s guidelines on its website, Blad reports.

"The report's findings echo concerns school administrators have voiced for months as they struggle to interpret layers of local, state, and federal directives amid changing information about the virus and how it spreads. Their push for clearer federal instructions started as early as March, when governors around the country ordered mass closures of their buildings to stop the spread of the virus," Blad reports. "And some complained that the Trump administration's push for schools to open in-person added political fuel to an already raging fire."

A paper in progress by two political scientists suggests that community support for President Trump had a significant influence on many school districts' decisions to resume in-person classes.

Local support for president, more than coronavirus spread, may have influenced rural schools to reopen, research finds

"As cases of the virus continue to spread, the role that schools do or do not play in spreading the virus, and the wisdom of keeping school doors shut to try to contain the pandemic, have become divisive subjects," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. "There's evidence that the presence of unions and community support for President Donald Trump had a significantly bigger influence on school districts' decisions about holding in-person classes than the local spread of the coronavirus, two researchers say."

Michael Hartney of Boston College and Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas, both political-science professors, examined more than 10,000 school districts' reopening plans and "the correlation between those decisions and indicators based on politics, public health, and market forces," Ujifusa reports. "The paper also embodies the challenge of measuring how political considerations have driven school reopening decisions during the pandemic amid a flurry of factors. And some would disagree that political and not practical considerations have been the overriding factor in many districts' decisions."

Though the paper doesn't point to definitive answers about when schools should reopen, "It might help fuel debates about what factors schools have relied on and should be relying on the most when making big decisions that must balance the safety and well-being of their students, staff, and communities," Ujifusa reports.

One caveat about the report: though it links Trump support with schools' decision to reopen, the researchers didn't look into local broadband connectivity as a factor in reopening (though it's arguably difficult to assess broadband connectivity because of the Federal Communications Commission's faulty data maps). Without widespread broadband connectivity, it's more difficult to do distance learning, and that could have influenced schools to reopen in-person classes. So it's possible that poor broadband connectivity and Trump support, both common in rural areas, may be somewhat conflated.

New coronavirus cases jumped a record 16% in rural counties last week; see the latest county-level data

Coronavirus red zones, Oct. 4-10. Daily Yonder map;
click the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.

"Covid-19 continued its record-breaking spread in rural counties last week, climbing by more than 16% over the previous week and placing six out of every 10 rural counties on the red-zone list," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Just over 71,000 rural Americans tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week, October 4-10, according to a Daily Yonder analysis based on data from USA Facts. The previous week’s revised total was 60,883 new cases."

Another 140 rural counties were placed on the red-zone list last week; the White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as counties with at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people in a week. "Sixty-one percent of the nation’s rural counties are on the red-zone list (1,198 of 1,976 counties). In metropolitan America, about 47% of counties are on the red-zone list (538 of 1,115)," Murphy and Marema report. 

Click here for more detailed regional observations about rural coronavirus trends and an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Census count can end early, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration can halt the 2020 census count early, a decision that could result in hard-to-count populations in rural areas and elsewhere receiving less government funding and Congressional representation. 

"The brief unsigned order formally only pauses the population count while the administration and a host of groups advocating a more accurate census battle in a federal appeals court over whether the count could be stopped early," Adam Liptak and Michael Wines report for The New York Times. "As a practical matter, however, it almost certainly ensures an early end because the census — one of the largest government activities, involving hundreds of thousands of workers — cannot be easily restarted and little time remains before its current deadline at the end of this month. In fact, some census workers say, the bureau had already begun shutting down some parts of its count despite a court order to continue it."

The Trump administration sought to wrap up the count at the end of September, but in late September a federal judge ruled that the count had to continue until the end of October. Rural response to the census has consistently lagged, and as early as mid-April, the Census Bureau begged Congress to extend the deadline to the end of October, Zach Montellaro reports for Politico.

But Congress never granted the extensions, and in early August, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee, announced it would withdraw its request for an extension and deliver the results to Trump by the end of 2020 (a decision that came from outside the bureau, according to the Commerce Department's inspector general).

USDA to extend free school-meal waivers through June

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it will extend regulatory waivers that allow schools to serve free meals until the end of the school year in June.

"The department is allowing the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Options to continue through June 30, 2021, essentially letting school cafeterias serve any student for free without checking their qualifications for free or subsidized meals," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "They also have more flexibility to meet nutritional standards and other requirements."

After bipartisan pressure, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue agreed in August to extend the programs through the end of 2020, but said the USDA couldn't go any further without more funding, McCrimmon reports. So Congress gave the USDA the authority and funding to extend the waivers in a recent spending bill.

However, "despite the flexibility provided by USDA for months, there’s been a notable drop in the number of meals served to students, and the School Nutrition Association says Congress still must allocate more money for the feeding programs," McCrimmon reports.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

U.S. Postal Service is a rural lifeline in jeopardy

The post office in Seco, in far southeastern Kentucky, is open two hours a day. It's one of thousands of rural USPS locations that has cut hours to reduce costs. (National Geographic photo)

"Rural post offices and mail carriers connect our smallest towns to the world and provide a sense of community. But a burdensome financial structure, and lack of federal aid amid a pandemic, threaten their future," Sarah Smarsh reports for National Geographic

In addition to adeptly summarizing the necessity of the U.S. Postal Service to rural Americans and threats it faces (such as urbanization and privatization), Smarsh's photo-rich piece recounts her childhood in rural Kansas and what the mail meant for her and her family. Read more here.

Trump administration sends record subsidies to farmers

Federal payments to farmers are projected to hit a record $46 billion this year as the White House funnels money to Trump’s rural base in the South and Midwest ahead of Election Day," Alan Rappeport reports for The New York Times. "The gush of funds has accelerated in recent weeks as the president looks to help his core supporters who have been hit hard by the double whammy of his combative trade practices and the coronavirus pandemic."

The American Farm Bureau Federation forecasts debt in the farm sector to increase by 4 percent to a record $434 billion this year; meanwhile, farm bankruptcies have continued to rise.

Farmers had already been receiving large amounts of government aid. For the past two years in a row, direct federal aid has been the single largest source of income for farmers, accounting for nearly a quarter of farm income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Harvest a particularly dangerous time of year for drivers on rural roads; follow safety tips

"Harvest is a high-risk time for crashes on public roads. The sun sets earlier each night and slow-moving farm equipment may not be well-marked or visible, sometimes lacking lights and reflective tape. Speed adds to the danger for motorists and farmers. Additionally, as ownership of agricultural land continues to consolidate, farmers are on the road more hours and driving equipment longer distances, towing implements and products between field and farmstead," according to the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

Farm equipment collisions with motor vehicles on public roads have caused at least 240 deaths and 135 non-fatal injuries since 2015, according to the AgInjuryNews.org database (which is thorough, but not exhaustive, so the total is likely higher).

Read here for tips on how to stay safe on the roads this time of year.

Mining companies pivot from thermal coal as utilities seek other energy sources

With cheaper and greener energy sources widely available, American utilities are moving away from using coal to generate electricity. So, many mining companies are pivoting away from thermal coal.

For instance, "activist investors are urging Contura Energy Inc. to accelerate its plan to get out of mining thermal coal for power plants, to focus instead on the more lucrative type that’s used to make steel. And Arch Resources Inc. is seeking to shed its thermal assets to also concentrate on metallurgical coal, after an effort to shift them to a joint venture was blocked last week," Will Wade reports for Bloomberg.

"Thermal coal demand in the U.S. has been sliding steadily for years," Wade notes. "Power plants are expected to burn about 433 million tons this year, less than half of what they needed a decade ago, and down 20% from 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, global steel production, the driver for met coal demand, has been climbing steadily since April."

The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to keep thermal coal viable, as shown by documents that detail the administration's failed efforts to save the Navajo Generating Station in rural Arizona, the largest coal-burning power plant in the Western U.S., Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times.

Poor rural broadband access, faulty FCC data maps, limit federal telehealth plan's potential to help

"With the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rolling out its Rural Action Plan last week, there has been much focus on the implementation of telehealth as a solution to rural health care," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. But lack of broadband access limits the $30 million plan's potential to help.

"While telehealth was gaining ground in some areas before the pandemic, it exploded in the months following the start of the pandemic. Since then, all eyes have turned to telehealth visits as a way to solve the problem of dwindling numbers of healthcare workers in rural areas and to bring specialty providers to rural areas," Carey reports. "But some rural officials argue telehealth isn’t much of a solution if rural residents don’t have access to the broadband internet services that their urban counterparts do. While government officials and companies throw equipment and money into telehealth, what’s really needed rural officials say, is rollout of rural broadband infrastructure."

There are three major obstacles to telehealth access, according to Kyle Kopko, director for The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The first is getting access to the technology, like smartphones or tablets, he told Carey. Having consistent broadband access and being able to afford to pay for it are the other two. 

Another problem, he told Carey, is that the Federal Communications Commission falsely says that 98 percent of the nation has access to broadband. "In fact, a study on broadband availability in Pennsylvania by researchers at Penn State, released in 2019, found that while the FCC says that 100 percent of Pennsylvania has access to broadband connectivity, zero counties in the state (yes, zero) had reliable and consistent broadband access for at least half of their residents," Carey reports.

"Other roadblocks to getting more widespread broadband access include state laws that prohibit municipalities from operating or installing broadband," Carey reports. "According to BroadbandNow, an internet service that helps consumer find and compare Internet service providers, more than 20 states have laws banning municipal broadband."

Monday, October 12, 2020

Thursday webinar to discuss managing the trauma that comes from reporting on trauma

At 2 p.m. ET on Thursday, Oct. 15, the Pennsylvania News Media Association will host a free one-hour webinar on how journalists can effectively manage the trauma that comes from reporting on traumatic events. 

From the website: "Reporting on traumatic events has become an all-too-familiar responsibility for editorial teams. Just as first responders need to be aware of the effects their work on the front line brings to them as individuals, so must the journalists who report on stressful and tragic situations . . . We will provide essential tips for reporters to ensure your own physical and emotional well-being as it relates to performing the duties of your job. We'll also include information about mental health and provide coping strategies as well as details about support groups, both externally and within your own media organization."

Though the webinar is free, pre-registration is required. Click here for more information or to register.

Weekly fact check: 'Russia hoax' claims revived; how racist, sexist attacks about Kamala Harris proliferate online

Citing unverified "Russian intelligence," President Trump and many supporters are reviving claims that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the investigation into Russia's involvement with the 2016 election. "But that so-called intelligence is largely a reflection of publicly available information at the time. Federal investigations since then have documented multiple links between Trump associates and individuals tied to the Russian government," FactCheck.org reports.

"On the subject of President Donald Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden misquoted Trump as saying, 'I probably got it from Blue Star parents.' That’s not what Trump said," FactCheck reports. In an Oct. 8 interview on Fox News, Trump said he always assumed he might get infected because, as president, he must often meet with people and can't always remain social distant. He cited as an example a Sept. 27 White House reception for the families of soldiers who died in action. "I met with Gold Star families. I didn’t want to cancel that," Trump said. "But they all came in and they all talked about their son and daughter and father. And they all came up to me and they tell me a story . . . And they tell me these stories and I can’t say, 'Back up, stand 10 feet.' I just can’t do it."

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, has been increasingly the target of racist, sexist attacks on social media, Karen Tumulty, Kate Woodsome, and Sergio PeƧanha report for The Washington Post. Their report digs into how and why such rumors are spreading online.


Confidential data shows thousands of undisclosed coronavirus cases in Illinois at schools, prisons, meatpacking plants and more

"Newly obtained confidential statewide data shows that coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces, schools and prisons are driving Illinois’ rising cases — and many of these outbreaks have never been made public," according to a joint investigation by Georgia Gee with Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Derek Kravitz with Columbia's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and Sky Chadde with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

State health officials said they refused to release the locations of many outbreaks because of state and federal laws meant to protect the identity of infected people. The same thing could be happening in other states.

Columbia's Documenting Covid-19 project and the Midwest Center obtained the internal data from the state health department, which covered four days between July and September, as part of an open-records request. The data gives detailed information and case counts for nearly 2,600 separate cases across the state. Federal, state and county prisons and jails are the single largest source of infections. That's largely driven by the Cook County Jail in Chicago, but there have been significant outbreaks at other prisons in rural areas such as Robinson Correctional Center in Crawford, Gee, Kravitz and Chadde report. Such outbreaks brought the total of prison cases to at least 3,500 as of Sept. 30—nearly double the figure reported by the Marshall Project and The Associated Press.

County election officials on the front line against voter fraud

Many Republican officials, led by President Trump, have voiced concerns that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud. But a new article from Carolina Public Press shows how county election workers in North Carolina process each ballot, and how they safeguard against fraud. Similar pieces could be educational for readers in other states. 

North Carolina readers may have more reason for concern about voter fraud than the average American: the state did have a fraudulent voting scheme recently. "In 2018, a team of operatives for the Republican candidate in the 9th Congressional District collected, paid for and, in some cases, tampered with the ballots of more than 1,000 voters," Victoria Loe Hicks reports. "The scheme failed because of anomalies in the vote tallies: The GOP candidate won by preposterous margins in some of the precincts involved. That raised red flags that something was amiss, and, after a monthslong investigation and dramatic hearings," the state election board ordered a new election. 

Study shows how rural small businesses' proximity to each other in town helps them weather the pandemic

The pandemic has hurt many small businesses and local economies, especially in rural areas. But relief is slower to reach rural businesses. So the Brookings Institution's Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking and the National Main Street Center studied how small businesses' proximity to each other in a commercial corridor, or shopping district, could help them survive, Michael Powe and Hanna Love report for the Brookings Institution.

"The benefits of urban downtowns are well documented, as density and proximity to people, jobs, and amenities can help fuel population and economic growth. And although NMSC has long touted the similar benefits of revitalizing downtowns in rural communities, the advantages of rural downtowns are not as widely documented," Powe and Love report. "Now, understanding these dynamics is more imperative than ever. The pandemic is putting rural downtowns—many of which are still struggling to recover from the last recession—in an increasingly precarious economic position due to their heavy reliance on retail and restaurants, as well as their limited access to the capital and broadband infrastructure small businesses now need to survive."

The Bass Center and NMSC recently conducted a survey of small businesses that netted more than 2,000 respondents, many in rural areas. They asked about the businesses' physical proximity to other businesses and how the pandemic has affected their bottom lines. "Regardless of location, small business owners reported acute economic hardship, with many drawing on personal savings, retirement accounts, and personal assets to cover their operating costs through the crisis," Powe and Love report. 

But proximity and density made a difference. In nearly every circumstance, small businesses in older commercial corridors and Main Streets—with proximity to other businesses, resources, and amenities—were more likely to leverage their physical location to withstand the crisis than businesses in other locations," Powe and Love report. "Prior to the pandemic, during stay-at-home orders, and at present, small businesses in commercial corridors and Main Streets more often used their locations to coordinate with other nearby businesses, collaborate with business associations, adapt operations, and attract people visiting other nearby businesses or tourist attractions."