Friday, December 30, 2016

Please consider helping The Rural Blog and its publisher with a charitable donation today

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

As you write those year-end checks to charitable causes, please consider the publisher of The Rural Blog, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The institute does much more than the blog; it serves as a resource for rural journalists all over the country and for metropolitan journalists doing rural stories; conducts seminars and workshops on covering issues; conducts research on rural journalism; makes presentations at national and state news-organization meetings and universities; does a monthly issues column for the National Newspaper Association and state press associations; presents the annual Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism; co-hosts the hotline of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and stands up for the essential role of journalism in democracy.

We are always looking for ways to expand our work. In 2016 we began making appearances on RFD-TV to discuss rural issues, started a Community Journalism Community in the Society of Professional Journalists; got a new advisory-board chairman who spearheaded development of a five-year strategic plan; and was part of an effort by the Kettering Foundation and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications to make service to democracy a stronger part of journalism-school curricula.

This month, the Institute got a favorable mention in a story by Kathy Kiely of Moyers & Co. about the future of journalism. It shorthanded our name, but used one of my chronic laments:
The Rural Journalism Institute’s Al Cross, who is trying to raise money to endow his organization, expresses a similar frustration. “Nobody wants to give money for journalism unless they can compromise your independence,” he says. “Everybody’s got an agenda.”
I was speaking mainly about philanthropies, and did note some exceptions; there are some people who do give money for journalism, and we appreciate that support. It allows me to have a half-time assistant who mainly produces The Rural Blog, but our endowment needs to grow to produce enough income for a full-time assistant that would allow the Institute to come much closer to reaching its potential. At a time when journalism is under stress, outfits like ours need a strong voice to speak up for its essential role in the transparency and accountability that serve democracy.

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Institute’s endowment at the University of Kentucky, via a secure Web site, click here and type “rural journalism” in the search box at the upper right to get a donation form. To contribute to our operating fund, send a check made out to the university, with "Rural Journalism" on the memo line, to the Institute at 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042. Thanks!

Hundreds in E. Ky. seek to keep federal disability benefits put at risk by fraud of lawyer and judge

Attorney Eric Conn advertised widely.
Hundreds of families in Eastern Kentucky are fighting to regain the disability benefits they lost after the federal government said their attorney and a federal administrative law judge awarded the benefits fraudulently. At least three suicides have been blamed on the unprecedented debacle, and the Social Security Administration is refusing to let the people see the medical evidence on which their disability determination was based, though it has acknowledged there is no evidence that they were "involved in the scheme," Claire Galofaro reports for The Associated Press.

About 900 former clients of lawyer Eric Conn of Stanville had their benefits cut off. The suicides spurred U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, to get the SSA "to allow Conn’s clients to keep their checks as they struggled in a series of hearings to prove they deserved them all along. The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a legal-aid organization in Eastern Kentucky, grew so worried they recruited the largest network of volunteer attorneys since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," Galofaro reports. "The band of 150 lawyers – some of the best disability attorneys in the nation – has become a sort grassroots suicide prevention network."
Read more here:

"The government has good reason to ferret out disability fraud," Galofaro writes. "Critics call it a secret welfare program that morphed over the decades from serving the truly disabled to aiding the unemployable: the uneducated, the frail, the unfortunates who live in places where a rotting economy relies on back-breaking labor. Burgeoning claims – in Kentucky’s Floyd County [where Conn's practice was based] 15 percent are on disability – have pushed the disability fund to the brink of insolvency. The government has squeezed other programs for the poor, leaving many in these crumbling corners of blue-collar America with few good options. The mass suspensions laid bare their absolute dependence on disability."

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a physician who led a Senate investigation of Conn, sees "a broken system abused by those who don’t truly deserve it, yet grow dependent on government benefits," Galofaro reports. "They should have known better than to hire a 'shyster lawyer,' he said, and those who didn’t deserve benefits in the first place shouldn’t draw another dime. Government dependency, he believes, is the first step toward tyranny."

Coburn told Galofaro, “Do I feel sorry for them? Yes,” he said. “Do they have hardships? Yes. But do they meet the qualifications for Social Security Disability? Absolutely not. Here’s what the law says: if you can do any job in the economy you don’t qualify for disability. Rules have to mean something, and life isn’t fair.”

It certainly doesn't seem fair for disabled coal miner Tim Dye, the focal point of Galofaro's story, who has been told he could hold down a desk job. He and his wife, who said she nearly committed suicide, "wonder who would want to hire an old coal miner for a sit-down job, with nothing more than a high-school diploma, a crippled back and an eight-year gap on his résumé." Dye told Galofaro, “In a month or two, we won’t have nothing. We’re losing everything.”

The issue of access to medical evidence is in court. "U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar — on President-elect Donald Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court — issued an opinion last month that found a number of Conn’s clients were afforded fewer protections than suspected terrorists and ordered the Social Security Administration to reconsider its process," Galofaro notes. "But another federal judge sided with the agency. The question will now likely be settled by a federal appeals court." Ned Pillersdorf, the lawyer leading the legal-aid effort, has an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Feds offer 5 options, none preferred, to limit mines on public lands to protect greater sage grouse

Grouse mating ritual in Colorado (AP photo by David Zalubowski)
The Bureau of Land Management offered five options Thursday to limit mining on federal property to protect greater sage grouse, but took the unusual step of leaving the choice up to the new administration after a public-comment period ends in March.

"The options range from banning new mining activity on about 15,000 square miles for up to 20 years to imposing no additional restrictions on mine locations," reports Dan Elliott of The Associated Press. "The rules would affect sage grouse habitat on federal land in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Under all the options, mining and exploration projects already approved or underway could proceed. Energy companies could still extract oil and gas from any restricted lands, but they would have to use directional drilling from some distance away to avoid disturbing the surface."
Bureau of Land Management map; click on it to view a larger version
The posture of Trump's pick for Interior secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, toward the regulations is unclear. Up to 877,624 acres (1,320 square miles) in Montana could be affected. Randi Spivak of the the Center for Biological Diversity noted that Zinke describes himself as “a Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” interested in conservation of wildlife, but Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, called the options an “11th-hour attack on Nevada and the West.”

"An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 sage grouse remain in 11 Western states, but their numbers are down significantly because they are losing habitat to development," Elliott reports. "The size of the sage grouse population is considered an indicator of the overall health of the vast Western sagebrush ecosystem and other species that depend on it. The proposed mining restrictions are part of a broad plan to save the chicken-size bird without resorting to the Endangered Species Act, which could bring stricter limits on mining, drilling, agriculture and other activity." The options are part of a draft environmental impact statement.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Coal-fired power plants will continue to close despite change at EPA, Brookings researchers say

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, administrator-designate of the Environmental Protection Agency, has threatened to dismantle EPA's Clean Power Plan to end the “war on coal,” but that phrase "is a false narrative that oversimplifies what is happening in the energy economy," write Devashree Saha and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution, a old-line liberal think tank.

Pruitt and President-elect Donald Trump "are ignoring fundamental market realities" that are buffeting the coal industry "in blaming environmental regulations under the Obama administration as the sole reason for the recent turmoil" in the industry, they write. "The natural gas glut has reshaped how we get electricity across the board, with natural gas-fired generation expected to surpass coal generation in the United States for the first time in 2016. At the same time, renewable energy is continuing to increase its market share aided by declining costs, increasing efficiency, and economies of scale."

The authors note that utilities retired 14.8 gigawatts of coal-fired electric generating capacity in 2015, and 6.5 gigawatts in the first half of 2016. For 2015, "The loss in coal energy represents 5 percent of the nation’s total coal-fired electrical generation capacity, a significant number in a single year," they write, along with a chart showing states Trump carried led the list of coal-plant retirements:
Click on chart to view a larger version
"The Energy Information Administration has identified an additional 14 gigawatts of coal capacity earmarked for retirement through 2028," the authors write. "The proposed coal plant retirements are geographically concentrated, with most closures in the mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Midwest where most coal generation takes place. . . . Two generators in Kentucky are scheduled to close by 2017 that compose 9 percent of the state’s coal-fired capacity. . . . Few new coal plants are in the works to replace those that are being shut down."

The authors predict, "Market forces enabling natural gas and renewable energy penetration across the nation will continue to drive down coal use. Regardless of the fate of the CPP, the utility industry is likely to move forward with cleaner energy. The CEO of Michigan’s largest electric-power provider recently announced that his company is still planning to retire eight of its nine remaining coal plants by 2030, regardless of whether Trump tries to repeal President Obama’s climate policies. Other large electric utilities are also realigning their long-term investment strategies in favor of natural gas and no-carbon power sources."

The writers work in Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. Saha is a senior policy associate and an associate fellow, and Liu is a research assistant. Their article cites a recent paper by Saha and Mark Muro, "Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions ‘decoupling’." On Dec. 6, Saha published an article titled "Five charts show why Trump can't deliver on his coal promises."

EPA goes ahead with new rules aimed at protecting farmworkers from pesticides

Rejecting requests from the American Farm Bureau Federation and state agriculture departments, the Environmental Protection Agency says its new rule designed to protect farmworkers from pesticides will take effect Jan. 2, as scheduled.

"The rule includes a host of new requirements to protect the nation's 2 million farmworkers, including annual training (instead of every five years) for the workers themselves; mandatory posting of no-entry signs for the most hazardous pesticides; and new no-entry 'application exclusion zones' of up to 100 feet to protect workers from spray drift," Stephen Davies reports for Agri-Pulse.

A major objection to the rule is that it would allow farmworkers to designate a third party to receive information about pesticide use at a farm. Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and ecological health at Farmworker Justice, "said it's important for workers, who often do not speak English and are afraid that asking for information might threaten their employment, to be able to designate someone else to receive pesticide use information," Davies reports. "Farm groups and their members are worried that anti-pesticide groups could gain access to the records and 'make it seem as if (the farmers) are doing something illegal,' said Paul Schlegel," Farm Bureau's director of environment and energy policy.

Some experts remain skeptical that new rules for antibiotics in animals will reduce use

New federal guidelines for use of antibiotics in animals, which take effect Jan. 1, may not reduce their use, reports Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio after interviewing farmers and agriculture experts.

Under the new rules, "all antibiotics important for human health" must be obtained with written permission from a veterinarian, "similar to a prescription," Mayer notes. "In the past, farmers could buy feed containing antibiotics at the local feed store without even consulting a vet. Now, they can't." One rule requires such vets to visit the farm and be familiar with its operations.

"Some public health officials, doctors and politicians have questioned whether the rules will bring about any meaningful changes," Mayer reports, quoting James Johnson, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Minnesota: "I frankly am skeptical that we're going to see any drop in amount of drug used or any big shift in which particular drugs are used."

The rules are aimed at stemming the trend of bacteria that develop resistance to antibiotics. "It's very clear that these high-antibiotic use, intensive animal operations are great breeding grounds for resistant bacteria," Johnson told Mayer, who adds: "Johnson also recognizes agriculture's argument that there's limited data definitively linking on-farm antibiotic use to resistant infections in humans. The FDA declined to explain just how its new rules will reduce antibiotic resistance. But, in a written statement, told Iowa Public Radio that it's expanding its data collection on the sale and distribution of antibiotics in hopes of better studying the link between farm use and resistance."

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

769 hospitals penalized for patient-safety shortcomings; rural critical-access hospitals exempt

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has imposed a 1 percent cut in payments to 769 U.S. hospitals that have high rates of potentially avoidable infections and complications such as blood clots, bedsores and falls. "The reductions apply not only to patient stays but also will reduce the amount of money hospitals get to teach medical residents and care for low-income people," Kaiser Health News reports.

This is the third year of the Hospital-Acquired Conditions Reduction Program, created by the 2010 health reform law, but the first year that "the spread of antibiotic-resistant germs" has figured in the assessment, Jordan Rau notes for Kaiser. That may have caused a spike in the number of hospitals being penalized. Rau reports, "Forty percent of the hospitals penalized this year escaped punishment in the first two years of the program, a Kaiser Health News analysis shows."

The many rural hospitals that are designated "critical access" are not subject to the penalties. Neither are "specialized hospitals, such as those that treat psychiatric patients, veterans and children," Rau notes. "Of the remaining hospitals, the Affordable Care Act requires that Medicare penalize the 25 percent that perform the worst on these measures, even if they have reduced infection rates from previous years." The list of penalized hospitals is here; it's also available are a PDF or in a sortable Excel file.

The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality "estimates there were 3.8 million hospital injuries last year, which translates to 115 injuries during every 1,000 patient hospital stays," Rau writes. "Each year, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, including nearly a quarter million cases in hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 23,000 people die from them. Infection experts fear that soon patients may face new strains of germs that are resistant to all existing antibiotics. Between 20 and 50 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are either not needed or inappropriate, studies have found. Their proliferation — inside the hospital, in doctor’s prescriptions and in farm animals sold for food — have hastened new strains of bacteria that are resistant to many drugs."

Obama creates two national monuments; Utah congressman vows to undo one of them

Screenshot of Salt Lake Tribune interactive map; click on it for larger version
President Obama created two new national monuments Wednesday, comprising 1.65 million acres in Utah and Nevada. "White House officials said Obama had hoped that Congress would act to enshrine the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and that he only acted after the House and Senate failed to do so," Bill Tomson reports for Agri-Pulse.

The new Bears Ears National Monument, named after two mountain peaks, covers 1.35 million acres and is the more controversial of the two, Tomson reports: "A commission made up of five representatives from Native American tribes will manage the national monument, and mining, fracking and oil drilling will be barred, said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality."

The tribes are the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute of the Uintah Ouray. Both monuments contain land that tribes consider sacred, important cultural sites, and fragile wildlife habitat.

The White House noted that Obama's proclamation was based on a bill introduced by Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, "but Chaffetz was sharply critical of Obama's action" and vowed to reverse it, Tomson reports.

"After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution.”

Goldfuss said the deed is done: “The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them.”
Deseret News map; for its story on the monuments, click here.

Some LGBT people in rural areas have a tough transition to retired life; some re-enter closet

Interstate health insurance? It's more complicated than it sounds, and might be bad for rural buyers

The idea of letting insurance companies sell across state lines seems simple, but in practice it wouldn't be, and it might disadvantage rural areas and states, reporter Jackie Farwell writes for the Bangor Daily News.

President-elect Donald Trump has proposed interstate health insurance, "a perennial favorite of Republicans," Harwell notes. Maine, Georgia and Wyoming have tried it, but no insurance companies took them up on their offers. "Trump’s proposal is different, aimed at allowing sales of health plans across all 50 states instead of just a few. And he has released no specifics about how it would work," Farwell notes. "But Maine’s experience reveals some of the problems with this general approach."

First, insurers need networks of health-care providers to "keep costs down, by negotiating lower prices with providers in their networks, which should lead to more affordable monthly premiums for consumers. Networks also allow insurers to select doctors and hospitals that meet certain safety and quality standards," Farwell writes. "But networks are expensive to set up. Insurers have to pay lawyers to draw up contracts, spend time negotiating rates and so on. That’s part of why even in states with lax insurance regulations, you don’t see 20 insurers competing for business. Allowing the sale of insurance across state lines wouldn’t make forming networks any easier."

Also, "Health-care costs vary from state to state . . . because of the relative age and health of residents and other factors. That’s reflected in different monthly premiums in each state," Farwell notes. "Under Trump’s proposal, a wide swath of America’s population would presumably become the customer pool for health insurers. States with cheaper health care would likely end up subsidizing customers in other states," which could suppress premium increases. "But health insurers would have to grow even bigger to serve such a big customer base. Is that in consumers’ best interests?" she asks, noting antitrust lawsuits against big insurance mergers.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which has a "Myth vs. Reality" sheet about interstate insurance, "warns of a 'race to the bottom,' in which insurers cherry-pick the healthiest customers in each state, who are the cheapest to insure. That would leave everyone else — the older, sicker and more expensive — to face steep premium hikes, if those people can even find a plan to cover them," Farwell writes. Rural areas and states have older populations.

"Proponents point out that the proposals pushed by Trump’s pick for HHS secretary, Tom Price, and House Speaker Paul Ryan would require insurers to provide a minimum level of benefits in order for consumers who buy them to qualify for tax credits. And Trump has said that health plans would have to comply with regulations in each state," Farwell writes. "But if that’s the case, it’s difficult to envision how the benefits of his proposal would be realized. They’re built, at least theoretically, on doing away with a lot of those regulations." (Read more)

TV shows, which once unified American culture, now define its divisions, mainly urban-rural

"DUCK DYNASTY" Facebook likes by ZIP code (click on image for larger version)
"If you had to guess how strongly a place supported Donald J. Trump in the election, would you rather know how popular 'Duck Dynasty' is there, or how George W. Bush did there in 2000?" asks Josh Katz of The New York Times.

"It turns out the relationship with the TV show is stronger. That’s how closely connected politics and culture can be. The cultural divide largely falls along urban/rural lines. We saw a similar divide in November, with Hillary Clinton winning in cities, college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities. Mr. Trump earned more votes in rural areas."

Katz and his Times colleagues developed 50 localized maps, based on the number of active Facebook users who "liked" certain TV shows, such as the very rural "Duck Dynasty" or "Modern Family," which is urban and suburban. "Together they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations. That "region" likes the show "Empire," about a hip-hop music company.

When there were only three TV networks, shows helped define common themes in American culture. Now cable and satellite channels air hundreds of shows, most of which appeal to niche audiences. Times TV critic James Poniewozik says they get more advertising money by appealing to younger, more affluent, urban viewers. "Still, there are shows that find broader appeal," Katz writes, such as "The Vampire Diaries" and "Orange is the New Black," which has "a minority-rich ensemble cast, but it appeals more to a white audience."

The maps show the most popular areas for 50 TV programs. One shows that "The Walking Dead" is most popular in Central Appalachia. The Trump campaign found that the drama's followers were more worried about immigration. The campaign also may have targeted viewers of "NCIS," the top-rated show, which is "most popular in rural areas," Katz reports. “Family Guy,” an animated situation comedy "that sends up American culture . . . is most popular in cities," he writes. "The show’s popularity was more correlated with support for Hillary Clinton than any other show." Here's its map (click on it for a larger version):
We don't have room for 50 maps on The Rural Blog, but the Times does, here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bath County, Virginia, pop. 4,400, shows cultural tensions in debates about growth and politics

Map from
What happens when an arriviste power couple renew one's roots in the Virginia Alleghenies and help a rural county but don't play politics the way local pols want it played? They get sacked. And people get mad.

Bath County supervisors voted in September to eliminate the job of county tourism director, held by Maggie Anderson, wife of Wayne Anderson, who had brought the county its first new industry in 13 years but wouldn't share details with the supervisors until the deal was done. "A group of citizens has launched a legal effort to have the three supervisors removed from office," Laurence Hamamck reports for The Roanoke Times.

"In a rural county known for its mineral springs and mountain views, and where many of the 4,400-some residents take pride in having not a single traffic light but lots of traffic-stopping sights, the controversy has exposed underlying cultural tensions in a debate about growth," Hammack reports. "The board’s decision was seen as a swipe at tourism, a key industry that revolves around the Omni Homestead, a luxury resort and the county’s largest employer."

Five months earlier, supervisors "opted not to reappoint" Wayne Anderson chair of the county's Economic Development Authority "as he worked to close the deal" with Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, a manufacturer of whiskey barrel staves, Hammack writes. "The Andersons’ supporters believe the supervisors who voted to eliminate her position, and dismiss her husband five months earlier, were peeved because they were not told of some details about the Speyside project until it was announced." Anderson said he had promised the company he would not reveal its identity.

Bath County Supervisors Hall, Collins and Byrd
(Roanoke Times photo by Heather Rousseau)
Supervisors Claire Collins, Richard Byrd and Stuart Hall "have offered few reasons for their vote to cut the tourism position," Hammack reports. "All three declined to comment for this story. Their silence has fueled small-town speculation about personal vendettas and paybacks." But Byrd may have provided clues at the meeting where the tourism job was cut, saying the move was needed “to take the county back. . . . Local people who live here are considered to be nothing. If you don’t come here and own something for a million dollars or more, then you were considered nothing.”

Anderson grew up in the county, but earned his fortune in movie theaters in Maryland and California. His wife, "a native of New York who grew up in California, was also in the movie business, serving as the executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners," Hammack notes. They married at the Homestead in 2004, and she got the tourism job in 2010. In 2014, it was expanded to include economic development. Former supervisor Bruce McWilliams told Hammack that some may see the Andersons as “the rich outsiders who are trying to take over, whatever that looks like. . . . There’s always sort of this us-against-them thing that’s right under the surface. . . . I feel we’re at a turning point, politically and culturally, with the county. I think it’s time for Bath County to recognize the world is changing, and that we need to be a part of that change.”

Supervisor Byrd's comments "appeared to be a reference to simmering frustrations among some longtime county residents, who resent the influx of a newer, more affluent crowd that has pushed for more progressive change, including a greater emphasis on tourism and economic development," Hammack writes. "At the same meeting, the board voted to cut funding to the Bath County Chamber of Commerce and halt plans for a visitors center on a stretch of highway between Warm Springs, the county seat, and Hot Springs, where the Homestead’s tower dominates the landscape. The board later backtracked on those actions, which were also discussed during its closed session."

The Andersons with their home and Angus cattle
(Roanoke Times photo by Heather Rousseau)
Hall said the visitors center and an adjacent amphitheater were “not for the people of Bath County. It was for a handful, and if they want to drink wine or whatever they want to do, they can go to the Homestead or Garth Newel,” which Hammack describes as "a music center where concerts are often paired with gourmet meals.' Hall said, “The local people cannot afford to go there.”

Petitions to a circuit court for the supervisors' removal cite a closed session they held to discuss eliminating the tourism job. The county attorney also cited that when he resigned in November. Meanwhile, Hall has been indicted on an election-fraud charge that alleges he lives in Highland County, not Bath County.

"In normally placid Bath County, the sheriff’s office must now keep the peace at board of supervisors meetings," Hammack reports. "The board requested extra sheriff’s deputies after its Sept. 13 vote drew large, angry crowds. Words like 'ignorant', 'scumbags' and 'band of bozos' were lobbed during public meetings and in letters to the editor published by The Recorder, a local newspaper that has chronicled the controversy. The most vehement speakers were led away by police escorts."

The Recorder is based in Monterey, in Highland County, but is the newspaper of record for Bath County, which has no local paper. Its website is behind a paywall.

Paxton sells Durham Herald-Sun to McClatchy; it's the buyer's first newspaper purchase in a decade

Sperling's Best Places map
The McClatchy Co., in some ways the poster child for the troubles of its trade in the last 10 years, "made its first newspaper purchase in a decade Wednesday, announcing it has acquired The Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C," Dale Kasler reports for The Sacramento Bee, McClatchy's headquarters paper.

The purchase was made, at an undisclosed price, from Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky., which owns five smaller papers in North Carolina. Paxton bought The Herald-Sun in 2004, making it by far the largest paper in its family-owned chain, but it no longer holds that title, as its circulation is less than half the 50,000 it reported in 2003. But it offers synergy for McClatchy, which "already owns the News & Observer in nearby Raleigh, along with the Charlotte Observer and five papers in South Carolina," Kasler notes. News & Observer Publisher Sara Glines will oversee the Durham paper.

"McClatchy hadn’t bought any newspapers since its blockbuster 2006 takeover of Knight-Ridder Inc.," Kasler notes. "That acquisition left the company deeply in debt just as the newspaper industry entered a significant downturn. While it has made some digital investments in recent years, McClatchy has spent much of its spare cash in the past decade paying down its debt while navigating the difficult transition to a digital-first media world."

"I am excited and optimistic," Herald-Sun Editor Bob Ashley wrote in a column. "Our new owners are a news company widely respected by journalists and with a reputation for assiduously serving its markets. In part because several years ago they acquired Knight-Ridder, a group for which I worked for 16 years, six as an editor, I know the reputation of many of its papers and some of their leaders." For the Herald-Sun's story on the sale, click here.

Oklahoma newspaper catches hell for endorsing Clinton; chain owner called Trump unacceptable

Oklahoma's Enid News & Eagle, since it started publishing in 1893, had never endorsed a Democrat for president -- until its parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., said Republican Donald Trump "did not meet our company and journalism values, particularly as they related to the First Amendment," CNHI Executive Editor Bill Ketter told Manny Fernandez of The New York Times.

Writing from Enid, Fernandez reports that the paper's Oct. 9 endorsement of Hillary Clinton cost it 162 subscribers and 11 advertisers, "including a funeral home that had a sizable account. Someone stuck a 'Crooked Hillary' bumper sticker on the glass doors of the paper’s downtown office. A man left a late-night message on the publisher’s voice mail, expressing his hope that readers would deliver, to put it delicately, a burning sack of steaming excrement to the paper."

"The News & Eagle’s 730-word editorial showed the raw power of partisanship in small-town America, the extraordinary divisions exposed in this election and the surprising ways in today’s digital media age that newspaper endorsements still have the power to generate a reaction, even if they don’t necessarily change people’s votes," Fernandez writes, quoting Terry M. Clark, the director of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and a professor of journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond: “There used to be a saying that the editorial page was the soul of a newspaper, and if that’s the case, we’ve got a lot of weak-souled newspapers in the country because they’re afraid to offend anybody,” said  “This is an excellent example of the way American journalism ought to be — standing for something — and, man, it takes guts to do that in Enid, Oklahoma.”

The 10,000-circulation daily had endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. For its general-election choice, Executive Editor Ron Collins transformed notes from Publisher Jeff Funk into an editorial saying Trump lacked “the skills, experience or temperament to hold office” with the headline, “For U.S. president: Hillary Clinton is our choice for commander in chief.”

CNHI's Ketter told The Rural Blog in an email that about half of the chain's 68 dailies endorsed Clinton, and "None went for Trump or published an editorial for a third-party candidate. Most of those that did not originate an editorial published one of the pro-Clinton editorials as a guest editorial or column, usually from the paper closest to their geographic home. The loudest objections occurred in Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia. Enid had the strongest response in loss of subscribers and advertisers, as a newspaper in a deep red city in a deep red state."

The chain, which is owned financed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, had never weighed in on a political endorsement. "We've offered advice on two statewide issues that clashed with our values in the past couple of years -- laws making it legal to fly the Confederate battle flag on government buildings, and religious freedom laws that could legalize discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," Ketter wrote. "The company's values include a commitment to truth, fairness and integrity; respect for diversity and human equality; acting with courage, not being influenced by political, ideological or commercial pressures in doing what is right and ethical; and upholding the rights of the First Amendment: freedom of press, speech, religion, assembly and petition."

Rural areas run short of lawyers, which disadvantages rural residents needing legal help

In some parts of rural America, lawyers are getting hard to find. That is especially true in the Great Plains, where population loss has thinned the ranks of attorneys, reports Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska. "Eleven of Nebraska's 93 counties have no lawyers at all, not one in the entire county," he reports. "It's a symptom of the so-called brain drain in rural America. Young people often go away and don't come back, leaving small towns short of doctors, dentists, lawyers and even farmers."

Lawyer Tim Brouillette told Gerlock, "If somebody local gets charged with a crime simple as a minor in possession or maybe a minor theft or trespassing, they don't want the county to have to pay for indigent defense, so a lot of times they'll plea. And in some cases, you know, they may get jail time where they otherwise wouldn't. If they would have lived in the city, they would have had a public defender. Now, they have a record."

Lisa Davis, a rural law specialist at the University of California-Davis, "says when rural residents do get a lawyer, they often pay more, which puts them at a disadvantage, Gerlock reports, with a sound but from Pruitt: "Especially if, you know, the other side is the federal government, the state government or corporate interest or, you know, even a local school board."

Gerlock notes, "In numerous states with lawyer shortages, there are efforts to fix the problem. North Dakota, Iowa and others send law students to rural firms for summer internships. South Dakota offers a stipend to lawyers working in under-served areas. A new program in Nebraska recruits rural high schoolers to become rural lawyers."

Hillbilly Elegy's Vance says he will return to his native Ohio to start nonprofit for upward mobility

J.D. Vance (Photo by Greg
Lynch, the Journal-News)
J.D. Vance, whose 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy explored the problems of the Appalachian-rooted working class of the Rust Belt, is returning to his native Ohio "to try to do something to make things better," reports Dan Sewell of The Associated Press.

His book "drew extra attention because of Vance's insights into" a key part of Donald Trump's base and made Vance "a popular TV discussion show guest," Sewell notes. "The Yale-educated Silicon Valley investor now wants to do more than talk about the issues." Vance told him, "I just think those of us who think we have something to offer have a responsibility to try to help."

Vance "is forming a nonprofit called Our Ohio Renewal and will relocate with his wife from San Francisco to either Cincinnati or Columbus, where he earned his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University," Sewell reports. "He has spoken at Ohio State and Miami University, near Middletown, in recent weeks and has other speaking engagements lined up that he said will help him learn more." He spoke at the Kentucky Book Fair in November and has received other invitations from that state.

Sewell writes, "Among the issues he wants to target are the needs for more upward mobility opportunities for families in the lower end of the economy, what he calls rebuilding 'the broken pipeline to the middle class,' and the opioid epidemic that has hit his home state particularly hard," as well as Kentucky.

Trump, still looking for ag secretary, will interview former Texas A & M president

UPDATE, Dec. 29: "Former California Lieutenant Gov. Abel Maldonado Jr. is set to interview for the U.S. secretary of agriculture post with President-elect Donald Trump this week," Jerry Hagstrom and Todd Neeley report for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Gary Baise, a lawyer and prominent member of Trump's campaign agricultural advisory committee, told DTN on Monday that Murano is 'opposed strongly by majority of Trump team.'"

Elsa Murano
President-elect Donald Trump has made most of his Cabinet selections, but the job of secretary of agriculture has yet to be filled. This week he is scheduled to interview Elsa Murano, former president of Texas A & M University and undersecretary for food safety in the George W. Bush administration, report Emily Ngo and Laura Figueroa of Newsday.

"Murano, a Cuban-American immigrant, is joining Susan Combs, the former Texas comptroller and agricultural commissioner, and Sid Miller, the current agricultural commissioner, on Trump's list for USDA chief," reports Jordan Rudner of the Dallas Morning News. "Murano, the school's first woman and first Hispanic president, had political friction with then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other high-ranking Perry loyalists, which some speculate led to her eventual ousting." Trump has picked Perry for energy secretary

Miller used a sexual slur to to Hillary Clinton in a tweet, reports The Washington Post. Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota has also been mentioned; her selection would please Republican senators, since a Republican would be likely to win the special election for her seat. Some Republicans were irked that Trump picked Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke for interior secretary, because ZInke was considered their best bet to bear Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.

Abusive teachers skip from state to state as local schools cover up misdeeds

"Despite decades of repeated sex abuse scandals — from the Roman Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts to scores of news media reports identifying problem teachers — America’s public schools continue to conceal the actions of dangerous educators in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom," reports Steve Reilly of USA Today. "Education officials put children in harm’s way by covering up evidence of abuse, keeping allegations secret and making it easy for abusive teachers to find jobs elsewhere. As a result, schoolchildren across the nation continue to be beaten, raped and harassed by their teachers while government officials at every level stand by and do nothing."

The investigation by USA Today and other Gannett Co. newspapers found "more than 100 teachers who lost their licenses but are still working with children or young adults today," Reilly reports. "State education agencies across the country have ignored a federal ban on signing secrecy deals with teachers suspected of abusing minors. . . . Private schools and youth organizations are especially at risk. They are left on their own to perform background checks of new hires and generally have no access to the sole tracking system of teachers who were disciplined by state authorities."

The failure of the system extends to local schools, which "regularly fail to do the most basic of background checks," Reilly reports. "School administrators are rarely penalized for failing to report resignations of problem teachers to state licensing officials."

"At every level, institutions and officials charged with ensuring the safety of children have failed. Lawmakers have ignored a federal mandate to add safeguards at the state level. Unions have resisted reforms. And administrators have pursued quiet settlements rather than public discipline." (Read more)