Thursday, January 23, 2020

Staffing issues put one-third of rural ambulance services in jeopardy, National Rural Health Association says

A Tri-State ambulance (Image from WEAU-TV)
One-third of rural emergency medical services are so short-staffed that they are in "immediate operational jeopardy," posing risks to rural residents who rely on them as a health-care safety net, says a policy brief from the National Rural Health Association.

"Dwindling population, losses in the volunteer workforce, and decreased reimbursement threaten continued access to these services," says the the brief by Nikki King, Marcus Pigman, Sarah Huling and Brian Hanson.

"One of the largest contributing factors to the disparity in mortality rate from traumas, such as overdose, for rural residents (discussed above) is travel time and distance to trauma centers," they write. "Rural residents are significantly more likely than non-rural residents to die following traumatic injury."

Hayley Spitler of WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wis., cited the brief in a story that featured Kent Stein, operations manger of Tri-State Ambulance. "We're experiencing the same thing that companies are experiencing nationwide, both volunteer and professional companies. We sometimes can run into a challenge finding EMTs and medics out of school."

Database shows how your local hospital is doing financially

Want to check the financial history of your local hospital? There's a quick and easy way to get the fundamental figures, thanks to a reporting project last year on rural hospitals by GateHouse Media, which has absorbed Gannett Co. and taken its name. The database built for the project now resides on the USA Today Network site.

At right is a screen grab of the financials of Breckinridge Memorial Hospital in Hardinsburg, Ky., which Kentucky Health News reported last year typically had a week's worth of cash flow on hand after it failed to persuade county officials to impose a property tax to subsidize it. The top part shows the hospital's gross revenues by year; the bottom part shows its net income, revealing years of increasing losses. Another chart, not seen here, shows each year's net profits.

William Heisel of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California wrote about using the database, and wants to hear results from other users.

N.C. papers collaborate on watchdog function, fill gaps in rural areas that have lost papers or attention of metro media

Newspapers small and large in North Carolina, many of which have long competed against each other, are collaborating to increase the efficiency of watchdog reporting in the state.

Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute that 22 papers are in the North Carolina News Collaborative, "or NCNC ('nick-nick') for short. Most of those papers have published for more than 100 years. But this is a first for all of them."

“Our egos were the biggest thing getting in the way of us doing this in the past,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of the Raleigh News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun and the McClatchy Co.’s Southeast regional editor. “Now we’re at a point when we recognize that in order for us to be as strong as we need to be for our communities. We have to work together.”

"Egos might seem like a luxury nowadays," Hare writes. "Newspaper employment shrunk 48 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to a study by Pew. In North Carolina, weekly and daily newspaper circulation dropped by 38% between 2004 and 2019, according to the University of North Carolina’s research on news deserts, and the state lost four dailies and 40 weeklies."

In addition to sharing content and resources, the papers agreed to "look for additional resources to increase coverage of the rural area between newsrooms that have become and are becoming news deserts," Hare reports. "In December, NCNC papers published a seven-part series about the growing rural/urban divide in the state. "

Former editor Melanie Sill, a professor in the communications school at Davidson College and the former editor of the NC Local newsletter, did its last edition mainly about NCNC, Hare reports.

Small daily in western Massachusetts hopes newsroom changes will 'help dispel the rumors of the death of print'

Northampton is near Springfield, Amherst
and Greenfield; map shows the cities' New
England County and Town Areas, the New
England adaptation of metropolitan areas.
A daily newspaper serving small towns in western Massachusetts has "decisively executed a unique new staffing plan to better bridge its reporters into local communities the newspaper serves," John Voket reports for the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette is part of the Newspapers of New England chain that includes the Greenfield Recorder and the Amherst Bulletin. Its Massachusetts publisher, Michael Moses, told Voket that he hopes the Gazette’s changes will “help dispel the rumors of the death of print. We have been staffing up in our newsroom; we've reorganized our beats,” including the re-establishment of one for “cops and courts.” That followed several "coffee with the publisher" events to gather suggestions from readers.

Like many larger dailies have done, the Gazette now has fewer editors and four more reporters “out on the street reporting the news,” Moses said, adding that the changes have generated “a 20 percent boost in reporters’ story production – that’s in just about two months. And the reader response has been tremendous.”

The story doesn't give any audience data. Voket is an associate editor at The Newtown Bee in Connecticut, public-affairs director for that state's Connoisseur Media radio stations, and was the 2018-19 president of NENPA.

Another addition is a new nameplate, reflecting the paper's location amid small towns in the Connecticut River Valley. Moses said he had local artist Bob Marstall design it, and “magically he came back with exactly what we had in our heads – on first try he was very close to what we were looking for and after [a few] more passes, we had it.”

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Weekly editors' editorial-writing contest closes Monday, Feb. 3; readers can nominate editorials by paying $20 fee

Entries in the Golden Quill editorial-writing contest of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors must be postmarked by Monday, Feb. 3.

Entries should reflect ISWNE's founding purpose: Encouraging the writing of editorials or staff-written opinion pieces that identify local issues that are or should be of concern to the community, offer an opinion, and support a course of action.

All newspapers published fewer than five days per week are eligible. Entries must have been published in 2019. Each newspaper may submit four editorials or signed opinion pieces; entrant may submit two entries, paying a fee of $20 per entry for ISWNE members and $25 for non-members. Make checks payable to ISWNE and use the PDF entry form at (under Contests). Using a pen or marker, clearly indicate the Golden Quill entry on each tearsheet. Print two copies and mail with two complete page tearsheets of each entry.

Seen an opinion piece that is worthy but that the writer won't enter? You can nominate it by sending the required Information with a copy of the article in the format indicated, a letter telling ISWNE that it is a nomination, and a check for $20. Questions may be addressed to ISWNE Executive Director Chad Stebbins at

The 12 best editorials (the Golden Dozen) will be published in ISWNE's quarterly, Grassroots Editor, in Summer 2020. The winner of the Golden Quill for best editorial will received a conference scholarship and $500 in travel expenses to attend ISWNE's annual conference in Reno June 24-28, where the awards will be presented.

Documentary on missing and murdered indigenous women premieres in Las Vegas; nationwide tour planned

"Somebody's Daughter," a documentary about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, premiered last week in Las Vegas at the Four Directions and Nevada Tribal Nations Native American Presidential Forum.

"The all-indigenous production presented by Alter-Native Media addresses racism, colonialism and genocide, while focusing on missing and murdered indigenous women victims from the Blackfeet Nation and confederated Salish Kootenai tribes in Montana," Nora Mabie reports for the Great Falls Tribune in Montana.

Click here for more information about the film, or click here to watch the trailer. The film will be screened on March 21 at the Indigenous Film Festival in Missoula. After that, the film's creators are planning a nationwide tour.

Industrial farms draining Arizona aquifers; state lawmakers try to figure out a way to help family farmers

As winter planting continues in Arizona, state officials are once again grappling with how to deal with farms' increasing demand for water in the face of drier weather and how to get that water to where it's needed, Howard Fischer reports for Capitol Media Services in Tucson.

In Arizona and other southwestern states, many farms draw water from the Colorado River, but other areas use groundwater. In many rural areas of Arizona, there is no limit to how much groundwater farmers can take. Many large industrial farms have set up shop in such areas, and they're draining aquifers at an unsustainable rate. "As the groundwater is depleted, Arizona is suffering permanent losses that may not be recouped for thousands of years," Ian James and Rob O'Dell report for the Arizona Republic. "These underground reserves that were laid down over millennia represent the only water that many rural communities can count on as the desert Southwest becomes hotter and drier with climate change."

Large farming outfits are drying up water for nearby family farmers, Fischer reports. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said the state needs to see how much groundwater is being taken each year, but also said some residents didn't like the notion of metering wells, Fischer reports.

"Complicating any solution politically is the fact that one of the larger operations uses Arizona groundwater to grow hay to ship to Saudi Arabia to feed cattle there," Fischer reports. Fernandez, who has been a key player in shaping state water legislation, said there needs to be a way to distinguish between family farmers and corporate farmers whom, she believes, don't have a "vested interest" in preserving Arizona's long-term water viability.

Economists doubt Chinese will uphold ag trade deal, citing bumper soybean crop in Brazil, swine fever in China

"There’s mounting skepticism that China will fulfill its pledge to buy huge sums of U.S. farm goods under the new 'phase one' trade deal with Washington. Trade analysts see the proposed export numbers as unrealistic, and any flare-up in hostility could throw a wrench into the limited agreement," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The trade deal, signed last week, preserved tariffs on both sides and stipulated that China will buy $80 billion in U.S. farm products over the next two years. But the agreement comes with a big loophole: China said "higher imports from the U.S. must be based on market demands, comply with World Trade Organization limitations and not affect imports from other nations," McCrimmon reports. "It’s hard to square those conditions with an outright promise to buy a set level of farm goods, along with other products and services. Unless there’s a surge in Chinese demand, which is unlikely, the uptick in purchases from U.S. producers would have to come at the expense of those in other countries."

American soybean growers could be especially hurt, since they have to compete with cheaper soybeans from Brazil's record harvest that will hit the market in February. One analyst said China has already bought half the soybeans it normally needs this year from the upcoming Brazilian harvest. And China may not buy as much soy as it normally does because African swine fever has killed millions of Chinese pigs, lowering the demand for soybeans used for animal feed, McCrimmon reports.

A new report from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Peterson Institute for Economics said China's agricultural commitments appear to be "even more unrealistic than first believed. … Even worse, hostilities might renew, leading to a re-escalation of trade tensions currently on hold."

Jason Grant, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in agricultural trade, told McCrimmon that, in order to uphold its promises, "China will have to purchase U.S. agricultural products earlier and more often in 2020 and 2021 than we are typically accustomed to seeing." But, he said, if the agreement holds up, it could set records for ag exports and increase crop prices that have depressed for years by overproduction and the trade war.

Medicaid rejects Wyoming's request to have Medicaid cover air-ambulance service for all in the sparsely populated state

Government Accountability Office photo
"The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this month rejected a proposal that Wyoming health department officials hoped would allow the state to rein in the high cost of air ambulance service" by having Medicaid cover it for anyone in the state, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

Rural residents rely disproportionately on air ambulances, especially in Wyoming, the nation's least populous state and, except Alaska, the one with the lowest population density. But many patients are faced with high surprise bills, even those who have private insurance. So, Wyoming health officials asked the CMS for a waiver to treat the industry like a public utility and expand Medicaid coverage to all Wyoming residents for the specific benefit of access to air ambulances, Noble reports.

"In its waiver request, Wyoming estimates that about 4,000 people were taken to the hospital by air ambulance in 2018. Approximately 90 percent of those patients do not have to pay for the cost of transport because of insurance coverage. For the remaining 10% of patients, the average out-of-pocket cost per flight is $2,250. But out-of-pocket costs have reached upwards of $40,000 in a handful of cases, the state said," Noble reports. "The state said that its proposal would have allowed Medicaid to determine statewide requirements for air ambulance coverage, issue competitive bids for providers and establish a centralized call center that would direct air ambulance traffic. The price for transport would likely have been lowered through the competitive bidding process, the state said."

CMS rejected the idea in a Jan. 3 letter, calling it an inappropriate attempt to circumvent federal aviation law, which would be a misuse of Medicaid, and that it would cost too much, Noble reports.

Network created to prevent farmer suicides; offshoots pop up elsewhere in Wisconsin; USDA funds other efforts

Logan, Wisconsin (Wikipedia map)
Farmers all over the country are hurting because of financial stress caused by the trade war, bad weather, and more. That has led to a rash of suicides among farmers, who have been the hardest hit. One of them was third-generation dairy farmer Leon Statz, who died by suicide in 2018, Dan Simmons reports for The Washington Post. It was his third attempt in a year.

His death shook his Wisconsin community of Logan, pop. 300. His close friend, Dale Meyer, said the community knew Statz was "stressed out" but didn't know how to help him. After Statz's death, Meyer and others created the Farmer Angel Network to facilitate informal group therapy with farmers. Its efforts, Simmons reports, are "aimed at helping individuals who typically work alone, worry alone and tend to be stoic until the end."

The network seems needed in Wisconsin; its 48 farm bankruptcies led the nation in 2019. But farming communities all over the nation have the same stressors. "So the Farmer Angel Network and similar offshoots are spreading into other communities in the state and bringing in outside resources, including social workers, agricultural educators, economic development consultants, pastors and more. At the same time, money is starting to flow from the federal and state governments," Simmons reports. "The U.S. Agriculture Department allocated more than $2.3 million for special initiatives that will, in part, expand emergency hotlines and support groups. Wisconsin legislators approved $200,000 in September to boost programs addressing farmers’ mental health and financial issues."

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

USDA proposes looser standards for school meals, pleasing food processors; a related proposal could help rural schools

On Friday the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced two proposals that would roll back some Obama-era nutrition reforms for school meals and summer meals for food-insecure children.

The first proposal would allow schools increased flexibility in school menus, promising that children would continue to receive "wholesome, tasty meals." However, the American Heart Association strongly opposes the changes, noting that schools would not have to serve as many healthy foods, could serve more fried foods, and that students would be able to choose unhealthy a la carte items such as pizza without having to put fruit or vegetables on their tray.

The proposal is the latest in a series of moves by USDA to weaken or change nutrition mandates for school meals, partly at the behest of food-industry lobbyists. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has criticized the Obama-era reforms, saying they have increased waste because many students don't like the food, but his own agency has reported that the changes produced "remarkably positive" results, that kids were eating the healthier food, and that waste was "relatively unchanged."

The second proposal would give schools more flexibility over the Summer Food Service Program, including allowing them more control over the menu (as with school meals), meal-service times, and allowing children to take some nonperishable foods home. The proposal would also reduce paperwork, shorten the application process for experienced schools, and would increase program monitoring. That could help rural areas, where administrative headaches have made it difficult for some schools to participate in the program.

Trump tells farmers more trade aid coming soon; Perdue says they hope and expect that will be the end of it

On Sunday President Trump spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention, promising farmers that they will soon get a final round of $3.6 billion in trade-war compensation, though trade deals have been signed meant to spur agricultural export sales. He noted that farm income increased in 2019, greatly aided by the federal Market Facilitation Program payments, and predicted, "The big stuff is yet to come," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Monday that the payments "didn’t have a timeline on when the third MFP payment would be coming, other than to say it is assured and imminent," Successful Farming reports. Perdue said the Trump administration is “hoping and expecting” that recent and upcoming trade deals will make further payments unnecessary.

"So far, producers have received $10.8 billion to offset the impact of the Sino-U.S. trade war on 2019 crops and livestock, on top of $8.6 billion in cash for 2018 production," Abbott reports. "A decision whether to release the final tranche of $3.6 billion, depending on market conditions and the state of trade negotiation, was due this month."

The Agriculture Department's recent Farm Income Forecast said direct government payments, mostly MFP funds, accounted for almost a quarter of all farm income, the largest share in over a decade, and a high-interest alternative lender was the single largest beneficiary of those payments.

Farmers are an important demographic for Trump, and one he wants to keep happy. "Farmers, who are often social and fiscal conservatives, voted for Trump in landslide numbers in 2016. Trump remains highly popular in farm country, partly because of tax cuts, regulatory relief, and support for corn ethanol," Abbott reports. "In a 2019 study by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, farmers in three Midwestern states said the trade war hit them in pocketbook but they agreed with Trump that it was important to end predatory trade practices by China – seeing it as short-term pain for long-term gain. Most of them said the trade-war payments were helpful."

Though the Trump said that the Phase I deal with China and the soon-to-be-signed USCMA deal with Canada and Mexico will "massively boost exports," some trade analysts are skeptical that U.S. exports can be rebuilt quickly enough to hit the $40 to $50 billion a year level required by the China deal. "The National Farmers Union, the second-largest farm group, said the trade war 'bruised our (U.S.) reputation, making other trading partners reluctant to work with us,'" Abbott reports. "The U.S. International Trade Commission has estimated that trade with Canada and Mexico will grow by 1% under USMCA."

Mail-based syringe exchanges could help rural drug users

Mail-order syringe exchanges may help intravenous drug users in rural and other underserved areas access clean needles, Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty.

Syringe exchanges have been proven a safe and effective way to reduce the spread of contagious diseases from intravenous drug users without increasing drug use, but some people, especially in rural areas, have a hard time accessing such services, Coleman reports. Sometimes it's because there are no local syringe exchanges—15 states ban them, and in some other states the can't get required local approval—and sometimes it's because of transportation problems or fear of stigma or lack of confidentiality.

New York-based nonprofit NEXT Distro is trying to help such people by shipping them safe injection supplies like syringes, alcohol pads, tourniquets, gauze, sharps disposal containers, fentanyl test strips, antibiotic ointment, and syringe clippers, Coleman reports. The organization's FAQ page says it also sends clients materials on drug-user health, wound identification and care, family planning, and overdose prevention. It isn't a needle exchange; users don't mail back their sharps. 

"If you live in a rural area, or you’re poor, you should have the same access to support and harm reduction. You can order syringes from online marketplaces like Amazon and people do that—people who have money," NEXT Distro founder Jamie Favaro told Coleman. Favaro got the idea of mailing harm reduction supplies from activist Tracey Helton, who mails the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone to people who ask her for it on a Reddit forum. NEXT Distro also mails naloxone.

The organization was initially supplied by the New York Department of Health, but now relies partly on a GoFundMe page and support from other nonprofit organizations, according to the website.

Paper's investigation nails rural S.C. sheriff on corruption

A South Carolina grand jury recently indicted a rural sheriff on a series of charges related to corruption, some of which mirror the findings from an investigative report last year by The Post and Courier in Charleston.

The Post and Courier's investigation is an increasingly rare example of the kind of watchdog reporting by metropolitan papers in surrounding rural areas. The paper also produced an outstanding multimedia piece in December about a deadly prison riot in rural South Carolina.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Site tracks how often each Congress member votes with Trump; could be helpful in covering this year's elections

Part of the database shows two senators who support Trump much more than their voters do; click on the image to enlarge.
The first votes in the 2020 primary elections will be cast soon, and some primary challengers have attempted to unseat their opponents by criticizing how often their opponents did (or didn't) vote with President Trump. If you're reporting on your local congressional race, it's essential to know how often that actually happened, and to know the details of the issues involved.

Analytics site FiveThirtyEight has compiled a database that tracks how often each member of Congress has voted in line with Trump's position; Trump's local share of the vote in the 2016 election minus Clinton's (as a rough measure of the president's popularity in the district); a prediction of how often each member is expected to support Trump in the future, based on the first two figures; and the difference between a member's actual support for Trump and their predicted support. Also, if you click on the senator or representative's name, you can see the specific bills they voted on.

Retired rural reporter criticizes Facebook for allowing fake news; his op-ed is easily adaptable by all news media

Mark Kelly
In an op-ed published yesterday, a retired rural reporter took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to task for failing to tackle the proliferation of fake news on its social media sites (Facebook has acquired other popular platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp).

Facebook isn't a news site, exactly, but many people get their news from Facebook because friends use it to share news stories. Zuckerberg has a responsibility to police that content to prevent fake news purveyors from spreading lies, Mikel Kelly writes for the Lake Oswego Review, a weekly just south of Portland, Oregon. Kelly retired from the paper a few years ago but still writes a column.

News media have to stand behind the words they publish, no matter their size, platform or how frequently they publish, Kelly writes: "Even the tiniest weekly and monthly newspapers have to figure out a way to sniff out the lies, mistruths and complete B.S. their readers and advertisers would like to sneak into their news, editorial and advertising content — and block them from public view."

Zuckerberg has argued that people should have the freedom to write what they want on Facebook as long as it's not obscene or illegal, but Kelly dismisses that notion: "The classic cliché used when discussing the freedom of expression that we possess in this country is how we all have the right to free speech, but it does not extend to crying 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Mark Zuckerberg's response to that is, 'Hey, I'm no fireman — how would I know if it's really a fire or not?' Well, I'm telling you, Marky: It IS a fire. And your failure to deal with it is embarrassing. You are not helping one bit. Please stop your whimpering and take responsibility for the massive role you and your company play in the world."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, says Kelly's editorial could easily be adapted by any news outlet, and should be, because journalists and their paymasters need to constantly remind their audiences of the fundamental differences in types of media: "News media do journalism, which emphasizes facts and practices a discipline of verification; social media emphasize opinion and have little if any discipline or verification. It’s important to know the difference."

Proposed rule would end requirement for faith-based health-care providers to refer for services they won't perform

"The Department of Health and Human Services has unveiled a proposed rule that would remove a mandate that faith-based providers refer patients to other providers for services they won't offer for religious reasons," John Commins reports for HealthLeaders, a health-care industry publication.

If adopted, the rule could hurt rural patients. At Catholic hospitals, which make up an increasing share of rural health systems, providers often can't offer services related to abortion, birth control, some end-of-life care, and gender affirmation. Rural patients who are refused care because of religious beliefs may have no other local options, as illustrated by a recent story about a Minnesota woman who had to drive for hours and contact several pharmacies to get a morning-after pill. 

The proposal "removes what the Trump administration claims is a discriminatory Obama-era policy that requires religious providers of social services, but not other providers of social services, to make referrals," Commins reports. "HHS is one of nine federal departments, including the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, that were named in a Trump executive order to remove what it said were unfair barriers in federal policies that singled out faith-based groups."

Quick hits: Washington community tries a creative solution for its shortage of mental-health-care providers

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

A rural town in Washington state is trying to mitigate mental health care provider shortage by weaving mental health into primary-care appointments. Read more here.

A new poll shows that rural and small-town voters in Vermont and along the Eastern seaboard believe their communities don't get their fair share of transportation funding, and most also want more environmentally friendly transportation and transit options, writes the Vermont director of The Nature Conservancy. Read more here.

A new book explores the offensive term "white trash" along with the place impoverished white people hold in American society. Read more here.

The Department of Agriculture is hosting a series of workshops about the Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program. The first one will be in Denver, Feb. 12-13. Read more here.

The FBI says it will alert states when local election systems have been hacked. Read more here.

A federal judge has blocked state and local veto power over refugee resettlement. Read more here.

Nebraska bill aims to reduce property taxes for farmers, make up the difference with excess state revenue

As farmland continues to rise in value, more and more farm owners say they're struggling under the weight of increased property taxes, especially after 2019's poor harvest. 

In Nebraska, property taxes are especially high. "On average, Nebraska farmers pay $16,200 in property taxes per year, among the highest figures of any state. And the state relies heavily on that money: More than a quarter of its total property-tax revenue, much of which pays for public education, comes from farmland," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "In fact, Nebraska brings in more cash taxing farmland than any state but California and Texas."

Critics say land value doesn't necessarily indicate what farmers are making off that land, and say "Nebraska’s antiquated system reflects a time when property ownership was an indication of wealth and income," reports Simpson, who notes that property taxes are also high in the northeastern U.S.

A new bill in Nebraska would decrease property-tax assessments, more so on farmland, and funnel excess state revenue to fund schools so districts are less reliant on property taxes, Simpson reports.

Will press associations survive, at a time when local papers, especially independents, need them more than ever?

By Peter Wagner

“By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall,” wrote Pennsylvanian activist John Dickinson in 1768.

Those words held true for the American colonies then and hold true for our free and paid paper industry today.

The newspaper and shopper business is often difficult today. One out-of-state publisher friend sent me a discouraging Christmas message this year. He wrote, “With the economy hovering near a depression, and our farmers saved only by a bumper crop two years in a row, business has been tough. We’ve downsized our operation again and again and both my wife and I have taken outside jobs part of the time.”

But if times are tough with press associations, how would our business be without them?

Trade groups have always banded together to create a bigger voice in Washington and provide better opportunities at home. Our state and national press associations have lobbied for better postal rates, a greater understanding of the need for legal notices, more transparent open meetings, improved independent contractor laws and most importantly, among many other issues, “freedom of the press.”

Many state associations, and at least one national press association, have regularly made an expert available to offer specific advice on how to handle problems with local postal officials. Others in that same national association have time and again traveled to Washington to testify before post office hearings in regard to mailing costs on-time delivery and difficult, sometime unnecessary, postal regulations.

Additionally, paid- and free-paper press associations have helped both young and experienced editors and publishers find needed staff members, connect with professors and administrators at nearby journalism schools and obtain unbiased information regarding new ideas in management and changes in publishing equipment.

Without press associations, many papers would find it difficult to purchase libel insurance, afford a reliable attorney who understands newspaper issues, embark on industry-organized international tours or benefit from organizational sales of regional, state or national advertising sales.’

Most importantly, without press associations, many current and future independent publishers would find themselves without the value of volunteer one-on-one peer mentoring, the sharing of much-needed new revenue ideas, the joy of receiving publishing profession awards and recognition and the enduring social and professional relationships so important to us all.

Unfortunately, press associations are an endangered species. The nation’s large publishing chains are often no longer joining state and even national press associations. Others, when they do join, are requiring membership fees at greatly reduced per-publication rates.

“We have our own training, legal and lobbying departments,” the large groups say. “We can’t justify paying for the same services twice. Besides, we want our people at home, at work, and not off at some convention or conference.”

Smaller papers, too, are also not renewing their membership in local associations. “We just can’t afford it,” they claim.

But the truth is, “You cannot save yourself into success.” Publishers, like all businesses, need to invest in their knowledge and expand their connections to grow and profit. Press associations still provide solid roads to exceptional profit.

Having worked with almost all the press associations in America and Canada over the last two decades, I am worried about the future of press associations. I often tell participants at my seminars “when I make any paper better, I increase the value and longevity of my publications.”

In a time when so many metro papers are declining and even disappearing, I see a good future for smaller, home-owned papers. Those publications, with a continued investment in providing local, credible information not available anywhere else, will still be desired and needed for a long time.

And with the growth of local digital publishing, combined with traditional printed papers, that positive future can extend far beyond anyone’s speculation or expectation.

Even the strongest independent publisher cannot stand alone. We need, and will continue to need, our press associations to be the united “grassroots” voice in our communities, state legislatures and in Washington, D.C.

Encourage your friends and neighboring publishers currently wavering on the sidelines to join in and support the future of the “free press.” Let’s keep our press associations healthy and effective.

Peter Wagner is publisher of the N'west Iowa Review, repeatedly judged to be one of the nation's best weekly newspapers, and other papers. He often speaks at state newspaper association meetings and writes for their publications.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Study: 1 in 3 rural adults have trouble paying medical bills

One in three rural adults has trouble paying medical or dental bills, according to a study by Harvard University researchers. The study was an effort to see what rural adults perceive to be their biggest obstacles. As the study noted: "The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought national visibility to prominent economic issues affecting rural America, yet little has been done to examine serious health or economic problems in rural communities from the perspectives of rural U.S. adults themselves."

The researchers surveyed 1,300 adults in 2018 and 1,405 adults in 2019. Respondents said that, along with trouble paying medical bills, drug abuse and a lagging economy are the most serious problems rural areas face. About half of respondents said they know someone who has an opioid or other drug problem, and about half said they'd have trouble paying off an unexpected $1,000 expense. 

"Although rural communities have traditionally been self-reliant, more than half of rural adults are open to outside help to solve serious problems facing their communities, including major help from government," the researchers write.

In new trade deal, China keeps tariffs on U.S. farm goods but promises to buy more over next two years

Chinese and U.S. officials signed the first phase of several planned trade resolutions Wednesday at the White House. The agreement has more than 50 agriculture-related commitments, including a faster approval process for biotech crops and tariff exclusions for many U.S. commodities.

"The pledged changes will remove obstacles for U.S. ag exports from beef, pork, poultry and seafood to avocados, blueberries, pet food and hay," Ryan McCrimmon of Politico's Morning Agriculture reports. "China won’t lift any of its retaliatory duties on American farm goods, which total $110 billion, but the new tariff exclusions will facilitate an uptick in agricultural purchases from U.S. producers."

China promised to buy about $40 billion in U.S. farm products this year and next year, contingent on market conditions. "Beijing had balked at committing to buy set amounts of U.S. farm goods earlier, and has inked new soybean contracts with Brazil since the trade war started," Ryan Woo and Jeff Mason report for Reuters. "Although the deal could be a boost to U.S. farmers, automakers and heavy equipment manufacturers, some analysts question China’s ability to replace imports from other trading partners with more shipments from the United States."

Another possible issue: if China reneges on its promises, the deal allows the U.S. to again put tariffs on Chinese goods. "But according to the text, if the offending party disagrees with such a result, its only recourse is to quit the agreement. There are no provisions for appeal or levying retaliatory tariffs," David Lawder reports for Reuters. "Trump administration officials insist that they have set up a robust process for resolving disputes, with each country opening an enforcement office to field and review complaints about compliance. Those grievances will be aired through a series of consultations with escalating levels of officials over a roughly 90-day period before penalties can be levied."

Kentucky lawmakers still dubious about rural fiber-optic broadband project that hasn't delivered on its promises

"The much-heralded plan to improve internet connectivity across the state, promised to create financial opportunities through reliable, high-speed internet access for rural communities that have repeatedly been hammered by the loss of jobs in the coal and tobacco industries," the Louisville Courier Journal's Alfred Miller reports with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. "But the project is stalled and its future looks increasingly bleak because of a number of missteps by state officials and Macquarie Capital, the Australian investment bank managing the ambitious plan."

The project, already two years behind schedule, could cost $1.5 billion over the next 30 years, Miller reports. Kentucky's new governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, will soon have to make important decisions about the future of the program, but he hasn't said what he plans to do yet, even as state lawmakers threaten to block funding. "Meanwhile, the project that promised so much to residents in rural communities has yet to deliver, and it’s unclear if and when it will," Miller reports.

The KentuckyWired project aims to bring high-tech jobs and entrepreneurship to impoverished rural counties where jobs are often hard to come by. It was scheduled to be completed nine months from now, but right now "one in 11 Kentuckians — roughly 405,000 mostly rural residents — have no wired broadband service in their area, according to Federal Communications Commission data. For those who do have internet access, it’s either too slow or simply unaffordable," Miller reports.

Part of the problem is that the steep hills and forests in much of Kentucky make fiber-optic cable difficult and expensive to install. The other problem is the "last mile." Even if the state lays fiber-optic cable to rural areas, it's not feasible to lay it to every home. Instead, homes and businesses will need third-party providers to lay fiber-optic cable to connect them to the local hub. But, many third-party providers "are reluctant to make plans without first knowing how much the state’s private-sector partner, Macquarie, will charge for access to the network," Miller reports.

Project managers want the state legislature to approve $100 million for KentuckyWired in the new budget, $28 million more than in the last budget. But lawmakers are frustrated by the program's slow implementation and ballooning costs, especially since their rural constituents are clamoring for broadband access, Miller reports.

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Lebanon, said something needs to give. "Unless somebody in the Beshear administration can come up with a plan to save it — a viable plan, a workable plan — and somebody steps up and says this will work, I don’t see us funding something that’s going down a dead-end street," he told Miller.

Researchers conclude that pain from working in coal mines, not layoffs (as some think), leads to opioid addiction

Common wisdom holds that opioid abuse has skyrocketed in Appalachian coal-mining areas because of despair from layoffs. "But that may not be the case at all. There is evidence that it was the presence of coal mining jobs that helped create the opioid epidemic, not their absence," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

A newly published study notes that coal mining is physically taxing and dangerous work, and that many coal miners who abuse opioids began using the drug after it was prescribed to them for workplace injuries, Bishop reports.

"The two economists found that as active coal mining jobs decreased in counties, the overdose death rate also declined. The national shift away from coal to natural gas hasn’t set off a drug epidemic in coal counties because of economic despair, the two academics write," Bishop reports. To the contrary, they argue that the shift from coal to natural gas has helped mitigate the opioid epidemic.

Jan. 21 webinar on rural cancer prevention, control efforts

Rural residents are more likely to get and die from cancer than their urban and suburban counterparts, and some rural areas have higher than normal rates of certain cancers because of environmental factors. The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free, one-hour webinar at 3 p.m. ET Jan. 21, to discuss comprehensive, innovative and sustainable policies that can improve rural cancer treatment and prevention efforts. Featured speakers will be:
  • Paul Moore, D.Ph., executive secretary of the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, and senior health policy adviser at the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy
  • John Rochat, MD, an oncologist at Anderson Valley Health Center in Boonville, Calif.
  • Peggy Wheeler, MPH, vice president of rural health care and governance at the California Hospital Association.
Click here to register or for more information. If you are unable to attend, a recording will be made available on the RHIH website afterward.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Social studies textbooks are edited to reflect states' political leanings; how does your local version compare?

Students in different states sometimes see different versions of the same textbooks, and the differences are often influenced by the beliefs of political leaders in large states.

In an analysis of recently published eighth- and 11th-grade social studies textbooks widely used in the megastates of California and Texas, The New York Times found hundreds of differences that ranged from subtle to extensive, Diana Goldstein reports for the Times.

For example, an annotated Bill of Rights is given different treatments in two versions of the same textbook. The California version notes that rulings on the Second Amendment have allowed for some gun regulations, but the same space in the Texas edition contains only a blank space, Goldstein notes. Another textbook discusses the Harlem Renaissance, but the Texas version adds that some critics "dismissed the quality of literature produced."

In general, conservative versions of textbooks tend to celebrate patriotism, the influence of Christianity and the Founding Fathers. More liberal versions seek to help students focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as women, African Americans and Native Americans, Goldstein reports.

"The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts," Goldstein reports. Publishers are eager to please big states since textbook publishers are rapidly losing ground to digital sources, and can only publish a few different versions of a book.

Because California and Texas are the nation's most populous states, the textbook edits could affect the country's political future. "Classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters," Goldstein reports.

All of this prompts the question: What do your local textbooks look like, and how might state political leanings have influenced their contents?

Oregon weekly seeks donations to fund investigation after local officials won't waive fees for copies of public records

The Malheur Enterprise, an award-winning weekly in rural eastern Oregon, is trying to raise money so it can get to the bottom of an industrial development that local officials don't want to talk about. (Click here to donate.)

Malheur County officials want to create one or two industrial parks; developing that farmland will require streets, water lines and sewers. "The county has indicated in its documents – that we obtained from the state – that developing this project could require as much as $14 million beyond $2 million it has already borrowed," writes Editor-Publisher Les Zaitz. "Where’s the county going to get that money? We’ve been trying to find out for you for more than two months."

Officials are refusing to talk with the Enterprise, which isn't the county's only paper. That's their right, Zaitz acknowledges, but he is still pursuing the story because locals want to know about the deals. 

Thus far, what information the paper has obtained has come from records obtained under the state open-records law, but officials made the Enterprise pay $1,018 before releasing the copies. "As a veteran of public records fights, we see this as Malheur County’s attempt to blunt our reporting by making it too costly to seek government records," Zaitz writes. "The law allows government agencies to reduce or entirely waive the cost of providing documents when releasing them serves the public interest. We have asked Smith [the county economic development director] for that waiver with every request. He has ignored the request and the law in each instance. We paid. If Smith thought he would price us out of the business of finding the truth, he miscalculated."

But the Enterprise says it doesn't have the money to keep paying so much, so, Zaitz is announcing a fundraising drive called "Dollars for Disclosure" and says the money will go toward a fund that will pay for public-record fees and perhaps legal help. It isn't a charitable donation, but it's a worthy cause, Zaitz writes: "Even $10 would help, and a lot of small donations would be another message to county officials: the public wants the truth. The more we raise, the more we can do."

If you'd like to help out, click here to donate online or you can mail a check to PO Box 310, Vale OR 97918. Checks should be made to the Malheur Enterprise and designated for the disclosure fund. 

GAO report recommends rural transit improvements

The Government Accountability Office said in a recent report that the Federal Transit Agency must better coordinate with state and local governments to help rural transit services reduce costs, increase efficiency, and improve service, Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

An FTA database lists about 1,500 rural transit providers. Such service can be critical for those who can't drive, such as seniors, the poor, or disabled. Coordination among rural areas is essential because passengers often need to travel long distances to access grocery stores or doctors, the report said.

But coordination can be challenging, so the report recommends that the FTA come up with a better plan for communicating with state agencies and local transit providers as well as best practices for carrying out the plan. "This might include taking steps like setting common drop-off points or schedules, or aligning service to ease access to places where people go for medical care," Lucia reports. The report notes that all of the rural transit providers interviewed for the report already coordinate with each other on a limited basis.

Rural transit providers often face obstacles that can limit transit or coordination, including "staff shortages, tight funding, limited technology and long distances between the places where they operate and the neighboring jurisdictions serviced by their counterparts," Lucia reports. In the past three years, "the FTA has allotted about $2.1 billion in grants to support public transit in rural areas, including tribal lands."

Top six Democrats debate trade and more, cite need to support family farmers in last debate before voting

Last night at Drake University in Des Moines, six Democratic primary candidates met for the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Ind., and billionaire Tom Steyer. CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Abby Philip, along with the Des Moines Register's chief political reporter, Brianne Pfannenstiel, moderated.

Here's a few things the candidates had to say about trade and other issues with rural resonance:

Buttegieg and Warren both noted the need for increased cybersecurity. Municipal governments and utilities, especially in small towns, are increasingly vulnerable to foreign hackers.

Sanders said the USMCA trade pact "will result in the continuation of the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing" and said our trade negotiators could have done "much better." Sanders noted that he voted against NAFTA and normalized trade relations with China, and said the deals force American workers to compete against cheaper labor overseas.

Warren said she supports the USMCA because it has modest improvements that help farmers who are hurting from the trade war with China, and "It will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal."

Klobuchar said ethanol and corn interests had been hurt by the trade war, and noted that she had toured an ethanol plant in Iowa that had shuttered because of oil refinery waivers for the Renewable Fuel Standard. She said she supports the USMCA because it could help those hurt by the trade war.

Buttegieg said that while the USMCA has been improved by Democrats' input, it's still not perfect. Still, he said he supports it because it helps those who have been hurt by the trade war.

Biden said the U.S. must strengthen ties with its allies and strengthen trade relationships in order to limit China's global power, and Steyer said that on his first day as president, he would undo Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods and end the RFS waivers.

Click here for a complete transcript of the debate.

New restaurants in SW Va. celebrate Appalachian cuisine

Travis Milton (Photo by Kindler Studios)
A popular chef has returned to his coal-country home in Southwest Virginia to open restaurants showcasing traditional Central Appalachian food, Eric Wallace reports for Atlas Obscura. And those are just the beginning of his plans.

Travis Milton was born about 20 miles from his restaurants in Castlewood, pop. 2,000. His grandparents and great-grandparents babysat him most of the time, so he spent a lot of time at one family's diner and the other family's cattle farm. Both kept orchards and home gardens. That gave Milton a solid foundation with gardening and cooking Appalachian food, and he went on to become a successful chef who incorporated regional ingredients at a hip restaurant in Richmond, Va., Wallace reports.

In 2015, a new boutique hotelier in Southwest Virginia asked Milton to develop two restaurants that featured Appalachian cuisine. "The collaboration led to an eponymous restaurant in the hip and offbeat Western Front Hotel in the 1,000-person town of St. Paul, which was devastated by the near-total loss of regional coal jobs in the early 2000s," Wallace reports. "Situated deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Clinch River, the hotel and eatery is at the center of the town’s effort to overhaul its economy around outdoor tourism."

Milton recently partnered with Kevin Nicewonder (whose family owned Nicewonder Coal Group) to finance two new restaurants. Milton says it's fitting that money from the coal industry is financing his efforts to celebrate Appalachian food, because the industry's arrival in the region helped quash Appalachian foodways. "Men took jobs in coal mines, moving with their families to mining camps and towns," Wallace reports. "Though their families kept home gardens to avoid overpriced goods from commissaries, it was a big step away from subsistence. Over time, higher wages combined with better roads made buying from grocers more attractive. The gardens began to vanish."

In the two new restaurants—a "brews-and-bistro" pub called Taste, which is already open, and a fine dining restaurant called Hickory slated to open this summer— Milton serves up regional varieties of fruits and vegetables once common in coal country, like red Bloody Butcher corn and Candy Roaster squash, Wallace reports. Those aren't available in the supermarket, so Milton collected seeds from Appalachian old-timers and grows some of the food for his restaurants in a garden right next door.

Traditional varieties are worth bringing back, Milton said. "Appalachian gardens were laboratories dedicated to creating new tastes and useful characteristics, like later-maturing squash that grew sweeter with time and kept into the winter. With limited access to sugar, specialty corns were bred to be sweet enough to make delicious cornmeal," Wallace reports.

Google map, adapted
Milton believes the eateries will help the local economy. "Restaurants hire and train workers and, if they source local, support area farmers and food artisans," Milton told Wallace. And, more restaurant traffic brings more revenue to local businesses, Wallace notes: "Visitors bring dollars that drive tourism-related businesses—including pick-your-own berry farms, ATV tour companies, fly-fishing and canoe outfitters, farmer’s markets, breweries, cideries, distilleries, and additional restaurants."

Milton and Nicewonder hope to "redefine a region known for poverty, branded as hick, and defined by its dying coal industry as a thriving culinary destination," Wallace reports.

"We want to build a beacon that tells people that left the region, or those that’re thinking about leaving: 'Things are changing. You can put your talents to work here,'" Milton told Wallace.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Cops mock drug defendants on social media; some papers do, too; experts say that adds to stigma, inhibits treatment

Some law-enforcement agencies are getting sassy in their social-media posts about the disease of addiction, a practice they say attracts a larger audience for their work against drugs and other ills. But health advocates say the practice is dehumanizing, discourages people with substance-use disorders from seeking help, and perpetuates stigma that discourages them from getting treatment, Bobbie Curd reports for the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.

Curd details several cases. One involved an intoxicated man who reported a stolen laptop computer, and told the responding officer that he wanted to go to jail, eventually saying he wanted to be with his girlfriend, who was serving a five-month term. Then he pulled out a spoon, syringe and a large amount of suspected methamphetamine, and was arrested.

Screenshot of Facebook post; for a larger version, click on it.
The Garrard County Police Department posted a release on its Facebook page about the incident Jan. 6 with the headline "True Love" and a subhead "BUT WAIT, IT GETS BETTER," above the drug revelation.

"Hashtags on the post included “#LoveWins, #IsThisMTVCribs, #LemmeShowYouAround, #LoveANDmethAreInTheAir, #WhereCupidAt,” and “#CheckOutMyStash,” among others," Curd writes. After her story appeared, the hashtags were removed.

Earlier, Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson told Curd that a "younger moderator" created the tags, which mimicked what other agencies had done. He said his headline and subhead did not editorialize, and “bringing publicity to what the officers are doing is helpful. It’s not intended to poke fun.”

Curd reported, "Out of the 572 comments on the post, almost all are from people making jokes. The post has been shared 1,300 times. Only a handful of comments question the wording of the post."

Some other police agencies in the area have used similar catchy hashtags, perhaps getting the idea from the Louisville Metro Police Department. A department spokesman, told Curd that the department's more comedic approach helped increased its Facebook followers from 5,000 in 2016 to 130,000 today, a "valuable law enforcement asset" that has spurred apprehension of suspects and enabled police to share knowledge of the law with a wider audience.

But Washington also told Curd that even with “all the fun,” the department never posts mugshots, unless they have an active warrant for someone and want the public’s help; tries not to lose sight that the person involved is a family member; and strives not poke fun at addiction or use slurs like "crackhead" or "doper."

After the Garrard County post went up, the Garrard Central Record, the local weekly newspaper, printed a story that Thursday with the headline, "Might as Well Face It, He's Addicted to Love."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Curd, “This is one reason I did a Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery workshop in November for journalists." One session explained why it is important to not use stigmatizing language when reporting on addiction.

Cross, who is also the editor and publisher of The Rural Blog, said reporters are largely uncomfortable with doing enterprise reporting on the subject and “often default to the law-enforcement narrative. When the law enforcement narrative turns into mocking people with the disease, that is an inappropriate narrative to adopt.”

Several people working against addiction agreed. Robert Fox, who is in recovery from his addiction and is the director of community outreach at the Shepherd's House, an outpatient treatment center in Danville, told Curd that such posts create a feeling of "It's us against the world" and "make people like me seem less-than, to keep us in our place. … We go out every day and work with employers to get them to realize this is a disease, and that these are normal people."

Tanith Wilson, vice president of Shepherd's House and sober 13 years, called the trend "sad and heartbreaking." She said it can create a pack mentality online, with “heinous comments like ‘lock them up forever,’ or ‘just let them die.’ I’m very comfortable sharing my past, especially due to what I’m doing now, but it still makes me feel less than human when I read those comments. It’s a terrible, awful feeling.”

Kathy Miles, coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Police, told Curd that people who struggle with addiction shouldn’t have their “whole persona encapsulated in their addiction like this, or made light of,” partly because it discourages them from getting treatment. “Law enforcement and the media have incredible power to help people get treatment,” she said.

Don Helme, who is running a health-communication campaign in an $87 million grant-funded project at the University of Kentucky to reduce drug overdoses in Boyle and 15 other counties, told Curd, “It has a chilling effect on people seeking help. They become ashamed, fearful and angry. This sort of stigma in these hashtags — it’s heartbreaking.”

GAO to review Trump administration's use of biofuel waivers

"The U.S. Government Accountability Office will review the Trump administration’s use of waivers exempting oil refineries from the nation’s biofuel blending requirements, according to a letter dated Friday, after lawmakers called for an investigation," Stephanie Kelly reports for Reuters.

In August, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives from corn-growing states like Iowa and Minnesota wrote a letter asking the GAO to review what factors the Environmental Protection Agency considered in approving the waivers in 2018 and examine the Energy Department's process for recommending exemptions to the EPA, Kelly reports. The lawmakers wrote that they wanted the review because excessive Renewable Fuel Standard waivers have harmed rural communities. On Jan. 10, a GAO representative wrote to confirm that the GAO will begin the review "shortly."

The RFS requires that refineries add a certain amount of ethanol into their gasoline. The waivers are meant to protect financially distressed small refineries by eliminating the expense of blending ethanol into their gasoline, but corn and ethanol producers and processors have accused the Trump administration of improperly granting them as a boon to the petroleum industry, Kelly reports.

"The EPA has roughly quadrupled the number of waivers it has been granting to oil refineries since Donald Trump became president. The agency has also routinely waived higher volumes than the DOE has recommended," Kelly reports. The increased waivers, plus lower demand, have caused at least 18 ethanol plants to shutter and has left many corn growers without buyers.

HGTV seeking a small town to spruce up for new show

Erin and Ben Napier (HGTV photo)
Home renovation shows are HGTV's bread and butter, but an upcoming series called "Home Town Takeover" has a grander goal: they want to make over a whole community.

HGTV is seeking applications from towns with a population under 40,000 through Feb. 4. Selected public spaces and individual homes in the winning town will get renovated or revitalized, David Haynes writes for HGTV. The process and results are to be aired in a six-episode special in 2021. 

Erin and Ben Napier will host the new series; they got the idea of a whole town makeover from fans responding to their series "Home Town," in which they renovate houses and public spaces in their home of Laurel, Mississippi. "Renovating one house at a time is an awesome experience. But the chance to support an entire town, where we help bring a community back to life — that's something we’ve always wanted to try," Ben Napier told Haynes.

HGTV says, "Applicants should strive to highlight aspects of their town that make it special, fascinating, historic or unique — including distinctive features like vintage period architecture, special destinations or a classic main street." Apply here.

Miners block another coal train in an effort to get back pay; UPDATE: Company pays up, protest ends

Campfire at miners' blockade casts smoke over Kimper. (Photo by Ryan Hermens, Lexington Herald-Leader)
Wikipedia map
Coal miners in far Eastern Kentucky are blocking a coal train from leaving a Quest Energy mine near Kimper; they say it's because they haven't been paid in weeks, and that they don't plan to go back to work until they get their back pay.

"Miners said they worked from Dec. 16 until now without getting paid for that work. They came home last Thursday after a 17-hour shift, expecting to be paid Friday, but that check never came," Buddy Forbes and Lynette Cooney report for Hazard's WYMT-TV. "They were told to wait until Monday and then the date was pushed back again. Now they just want to get what is owed to them."

Within hours, people in the community brought the miners pizza, water and firewood. The situation is similar to a recent protest in southeastern Kentucky, where miners for now-bankrupt Blackjewel LLC blocked a coal train for nearly two months because their paychecks had bounced. The last miner left the tracks in late September, but none of them got paid until a month later.

American Resource Corp., which owns Quest Energy, released a statement disputing that the company makes miners work for 17 hours, and said that, though some employees are due one to eight days back pay, miners have been paid since Dec. 16 and the company doesn't "take this lightly." The statement also hinted at financial distress: "Given challenging markets, we are focused on ensuring the longevity of the employment for all the men and women of our organization."

Will Wright of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, "Records obtained by the Herald-Leader show that neither ARC nor any of its subsidiary companies had posted a performance bond with the state to protect wages as of November, possibly in violation of state law. The performance bond issue made headlines last year when Blackjewel LLC failed to pay the bond and laid off hundreds of employees without paying them for weeks of work."

UPDATE, Jan. 15: ARC says it has paid the miners what they are owed, that they are lying and holding the train for ransom. Some miners said early Wednesday that they were paid Tuesday for two weeks' work, but "the checks did not include overtime pay or vacation days, and that they will continue to protest until they receive full compensation," Wright reports. Tonight, Wright reports that one miner "said the small group of protesting miners packed up and left at nightfall after receiving payment for overtime pay, vacation days and all other money owed to them."

Big-box stores try to get lower taxes, hurting towns' coffers

"Big-box retailers and other businesses around the U.S. in recent years have been battling with local governments to get the assessed value of their stores lowered so that they can pay less in property taxes," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "In some cases, where their appeals are successful, cities and counties can end up owing the companies sizable tax refunds. The localities are also forced to grapple with the long-term effects of the lost revenue, which can mean shifting tax burdens onto others or service cuts."

Property-tax cuts particularly hurt public schools, which depend heavily on such revenue for funding, and can make a big difference in small-town budgets. In Franklin County, Missouri, for example, Walmart wants the county government to halve the assessed value of its two stores there. The county had appraised the properties at more than $24.8 million, but Walmart claims the value is just over $14 million, Monte Miller reports for The Missourian in Washington, Mo. Walmart and other large retailers are pursuing the same strategy in stores all over the country.

Businesses that seek such a reassessment are employing a tax-avoidance strategy some call "dark-store theory." Essentially, "this involves retailers and others appealing property tax assessments on the grounds that their active stores should be valued in line with similar property that is vacant," Lucia reports. "The thinking goes that even though a big-box store may be valuable to its current owner, it’s worth far less on the resale market. Among the reasons that this argument can gain traction is that the stores are often built for a business's specific needs and aren’t easily repurposed, and because there’s a growing abundance of empty retail space available around the country."

Indiana state Rep. Lisa Beck filed a bill this week that aims to help communities who lose tax battles with big-box stores. The bill would allow local governments and school districts to get zero- or low-interest loans to help them cope with the loss of revenue, Lucia reports.

Monday, January 13, 2020

High-deductible insurance hurts rural hospitals and patients

High-deductible health insurance plans are hurting the financial health of small, rural hospitals and their patients, Markian Hawryluk reports for Kaiser Health News.

"Plans with annual deductibles of $3,000, $5,000 or even $10,000 have become commonplace since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as insurers look for ways to keep monthly premiums to a minimum," Hawryluk reports. "But in rural areas, where high-deductible plans are even more prevalent and incomes tend to be lower than in urban areas, patients often struggle to pay."

When patients can't afford to pay, hospitals must eat the cost of treatment; that has contributed to a "substantial" rise in the amount of uncollectible hospital debt in the past few years. "According to the Healthcare Financial Management Association, hospital bad debt increased by $617 million to nearly $56.5 billion between 2015 and 2018," Hawryluk reports. "According to the National Rural Health Association, bad debt for rural hospitals has gone up about 50 percent since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010." Partly because of bad debt, more than 120 rural hospitals have closed in the past decade and many more are on the brink of bankruptcy.

Rural residents often choose these high-deductible plans for several reasons. Consumers tend to shop for insurance based on monthly premium costs, and gamble that they won't get sick and need to pay a deductible. Others may not understand that they will have to pay the full deductible before their insurance covers bills, Hawryluk reports.

Another problem is the lack of choice. "In many rural counties, consumers shopping on their state’s health insurance exchange had little choice. This year, about 10% of enrollees, living in 25% of counties, many of them heavily rural, will have access to just one insurer in their local Affordable Care Act marketplaces," Hawryluk reports.

Maggie Elehwany, vice president of the NRHA, told Hawryluk that the exchanges were meant to provide people with choices, but "There’s no shopping in rural America. You have one choice."

Some places ban dollar stores, blame them for poor diets; research says that won't improve nutrition in 'food deserts'

Photo illustration by
Though dollar stores are a fast-expanding retail segment, some municipalities are banning them, blaming them for contributing to poor health by creating "food deserts," which are defined differently in urban and rural areas. Detractors say they "saturate poor neighborhoods with cheap, over-processed food, undercutting other retailers and lowering the quality of offerings in poorer communities," Steven Malanga reports for City Journal, a national policy publication.

In rural food deserts, dollar stores may be the only easily accessible place to buy groceries, but most dollar stores do not stock fresh produce, and only a limited selection of healthful frozen food. Dollar General Corp., which plans to open 1,000 more stores in the U.S. this year, has put some full-service grocery stores out of business. That's mostly because of Dollar General Markets, a store model that sells limited selections of fresh produce and meat.

However, dollar stores aren't completely to blame for poor dietary choices in food deserts, Malanga notes. Recent research found that households in former food deserts keep buying unhealthy food even after a local supermarket opens. The researchers wrote that stores sell people what they want to eat, and that "lower demand for healthy food is what causes the lack of supply."

"Combatting the ill effects of a bad diet involves educating people to change their eating habits. That’s a more complicated project than banning dollar stores. Subsidizing the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables through the federal food-stamp program and working harder to encourage kids to eat better—as Michelle Obama tried to do with her Let’s Move! campaign—are among the economists’ suggestions for improving the nation’s diet," Malanga writes. "That’s not the kind of thing that generates sensational headlines. But it makes a lot more sense than banning dollar stores."