Saturday, October 07, 2017

NNA chief says weeklies aren't mainstream media; forerunner says tax bill could limit ad deductibility

The new president of the main trade group for weekly newspapers tried to separate them from "the mainstream media" as she took office at the National Newspaper Association convention Saturday morning in Tulsa.

"Community newspapers are not the mainstream media. They're Main Street media," Susan Rowell, publisher of The Lancaster News in South Carolina, told members of the organization, which also includes some small daily newspapers.

Rowell's remarks came after she noted that a Charlotte TV reporter had tweeted prematurely that a shooting victim had died, but were also responsive to the "fake news" claims made by President Trump and his allies in partisan and social media. "We report real news every day," she said.

The outgoing president, Matt Paxton of The News-Gazette in Lexington, Va., said NNA is in good financial shape, with a stable membership, but has been stymied in its main legislative priority, passage of a bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service, on which NNA members rely for delivery and fear will increase rates without reform. Without naming Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who is refusing to let the bill on the floor until tax reform passes, Paxton called on members "to put pressure on to move this bill."

Paxton said newspapers are threatened by a provision in the tax-reform bill that would limit the ability of businesses to deduct their advertising expenses from their taxable income. He said the idea is "frightening, and would be a severe blow to our already challenged industry. . . . We must not allow our elected representatives to rush through a bill merely in the interests of a political win, at the expense of careful consideration of the merits and demerits of this sweeping legislation that affects our entire economy."

Former NNA president, publisher of small, rural weekly win organization's top service awards

Chip Hutcheson
A recently retired editor-publisher who is becoming a minister, and one who has shown how outstanding journalism can be done in a small, rural county, received the top lifetime honors at the National Newspaper Association's annual convention in Tulsa this morning.

John S. "Chip" Hutcheson of Princeton, Ky., won the James O. Amos Award, given to men, and Anne Adams of The Recorder in Monterey, Va., won the Emma C. McKinney Award, given to women, for distinguished service and leadership to the community press and their communities. Adams was unable to attend, but gave thanks by video and promised to attend next year's convention in Norfolk; Hutcheson's acceptance speech was at times sermonesque, and both were well received.

Hutcheson retired this year as publisher of The Times Leader of Princeton and The Eagle Post of Oak Grove, Ky., both owned by the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville. He also oversaw another New Era property, the Dawson Springs Progress. He was president of the Kentucky Press Association in 2010, entered the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2012, and was president of NNA in 2015-16. Perhaps most remarkably, he was president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention in 2013-14, only the sixth layman of 75 people who have held the position.

Anne Adams
Hutcheson referred to the story in Chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles, about believers wanting to merely touch the shadow of Peter to be healed. He told the crowd that many shadows have touched his life and helped him, and "Your shadow has probably impacted many more people than you would imagine. . . . We have such an opportunity to impact lives."

Adams had been general manager of The Recorder for many years when she bought the small weekly in 2007. "I was afraid if Lee [Campbell] had sold it to someone else, I might have been laid off," she said, adding that she didn't have credit for the purchase, but five local people co-signed the loan -- even after she told them that their backing would have no influence on her editorial decisions. "I'm nosy as hell, and I ask a lot of questions," she said.

That sort of hard-nosed reporting and editorial leadership has won The Recorder the top public-service award from the Virginia Press Association in six of the last nine years, and "The paper has never flinched from taking a stand," said the narrator of the presentation video. Adams is immediate past president of VPA. Ginger Stanley, recently retired as VPA's executive director, said Adams has "put her heart and soul into our profession."

For more on Adams, click here; for more on Hutcheson, here. For background on the awards, go here.

Natl. Newspaper Assn. announces contest winners in five circulation divisions and many categories

California's Antelope Valley Press, North Carolina's The Pilot, New York's Riverhead News-Review, Wyoming's Jackson Hole News & Guide and Alaska's Petersburg Pilot won divisional awards for general excellence in the National Newspaper Association's Better Newspaper Contest, announced Friday at the NNA convention in Tulsa.

The Antelope Valley Press, of Palmdale, won the contest's division for daily newspapers. NNA's membership is mostly weeklies, defined as those publishing fewer than four days a week. Iowa's Sioux City Journal placed second and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle of Cheyenne was third.

The Pilot, of Southern Pines, N.C., won the division for weeklies with circulations of 10,000 or more.  The Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum placed second, The Washington Missourian placed third and The Sun of San Luis Obispo, Calif., was fourth.

The News & Guide won the division for weeklies with circulations of 6,000 to 9,999. The Suffolk Times of Mattituck, N.Y., placed second; The Ellsworth American of Maine was third and the Yamhill Valley News-Register of McMinnville, Ore., was fourth; it won for best editorial pages and editorial in the division. The American won second in a non-divisional contest for best website, won by The Daily Universe, the student newspaper at Utah's Brigham Young University.

The Riverhead News-Review, also based in Mattituck, won among non-dailies with circulations of 3,000 to 5,999. Second place went to Nevada's Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard; third to Nebraska's Blair Pilot-Tribune and fourth to Minnesota's Hutchinson Leader. It won first place for best investigative or in-depth story, by Ruby Redekopp on drinking water.

The Petersburg Pilot won among weeklies with less than 3,000 circulation. The Tioga Tribune of Crosby, N.D., placed second; The Ark of Tiburon, Calif., was third and The Imperial Republican of Nebraska was fourth. The Ark won the division award for best local news coverage.

In another contest category without divisions, the Cedar County News of Hartington, Neb., won for freedom of information. The judges cited "multiple persistent editorials and effective editorial cartoons."

Among category first-place winners who were present to receive their awards, Wyoming's Buffalo Bulletin won for best local news coverage, The Galena Gazette of Illinois won first place for editorial, and Oklahoma's McAlester News-Capital won first place for investigative or in-depth story, for reporting on misuse of municipal credit cards. For a list of winners in each category, by division, click here.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Public trust in news media rebounds

In good news for journalists, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll says public trust in the news media is on the upswing. "The poll of more than 14,300 people found that the percentage of adults who said they had a “great deal” or “some” confidence in the press rose to 48 percent in September from 39 percent last November. Earlier this year, Trump branded the entire industry as the 'enemy of the American people,'" Chris Kahn reports for Reuters. Meanwhile, "the percentage of those who said they had 'hardly any' confidence in the press dropped to 45 percent from 51 percent over the same period."

The public's confidence in President Trump's administration is going in the opposite direction. In late January, Reuters/Ipsos found that 52 percent of Americans had a 'great deal' or 'some' confidence in the new president, but that dropped to 51 percent in May and 48 percent in the latest poll. Kahn says that shift isn't just Democrats disliking a Republican president. "From January to September, the percentage of people who had a 'great deal' or 'some' confidence in the executive branch dropped 6 percentage points among Republicans and 3 points among Democrats. The percentage of those who expressed similar levels of confidence in the media rose 3 points this year among Republicans and 11 points among Democrats," Kahn reports.

Why is the shift in public opinion happening? Presidential historian Martha Kumar said people are beginning to recognize the importance of the press because of a president whose campaign is under federal investigation for alleged collusion with Russia. And different media outlets offer differing perspectives on Trump, she said, so people can find a press source they like, whether they support Trump or not.

"Ari Fleischer, former Republican President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said any shift in the way people viewed the press and the president was likely the product of an oppositional relationship that both sides had pushed since the 2016 presidential campaign," Kahn reports. "But the press has played into it by the mistakes they’ve made, by missing the rise of Trump, by being too liberal," Fleischer added. "They’ve helped create this environment."

Rural weekly columnist warns readers of the pitfalls of Facebook, Twitter, other social media

The dangers of "fake news" from social media have been explained often in major news media, but has reported more than once. Some rural journalists are trying to help their audience understand the differences in news media, which practice a discipline of verification, and social or partisan media, which do not.
not so much in rural media, where many publishers and journalists seem to think they are insulated from the problem.

One of those is Mary Jane McKinney, a grammarian and "Plain English" columnist for The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle. She writes this week, "Americans blindly trust social media out of ignorance. Now that Congress has forced Facebook and Twitter to divulge the ads purchased by the Russians, our attitude toward social media will be changed forever."

The degree of that change in attitude remains to be seen, but McKinney performs a public service by explaining some of what has been happening: "Facebook users reading the Russian posts on the company's News Feed assumed that the propaganda was legitimate news. . . . Twitter has not been screening who posts on the website. Twitter does not ask for a name, address, phone number or birthday. The design of Twitter also makes it easier for internet robots (bots) to penetrate the system and determine the popularity of a tweet."

McKinney warns,"Our spam filters and firewalls are not fortresses that keep us safe. Bad stuff gets through. Lone-wolf propagandists create fake news." She goes on to explain lone-wolf posters, "troll farms" overseen by the Russian government, and sockpuppets, "false identities created to manipulate public opinion. Sockpuppets are used to skew online polls or defame a person, organization  or policy."

There's a lot more that could be written about fake news on social media, but McKinney's column has limited space. "We'd like to see more rural journalists address this topic and help their readers understand the value of journalism and the need to be skeptical of social media," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "They need to grasp the difference in news and opinion, and the differences in forms of media."

Microsoft announces program to boost rural broadband and technology jobs in six states

Microsoft's President Brad Smith announced Oct. 5 that it will create private-public partnerships with small metro and rural communities in six states to invest in tech and tech jobs, including broadband internet. Smith said there are 23.4 million rural Americans who don't have broadband.

The TechSpark program was announced in Fargo, N.D., one of the six participating communities. Smith called TechSpark a "multi-year, multi-million dollar investment to help teach computer science to students, expand rural broadband and help create and fill jobs, among other things. The other programs will be in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming," Dave Kolpack reports for the Associated Press. Appleton, Wisconsin is the only other community that has been specifically named. The others will be named later.

Microsoft had announced in July that it wanted to expand broadband services in rural America by using white-space technology, a controversial concept we've covered here, here and here. Microsoft says the tech, which harnesses unused bandwidth between television stations to provide a sort of wi-fi, is cheaper than laying fiber-optic cable.

Once communities have broadband access, Microsoft says residents will be able to get jobs that require high-speed internet access.

CDC report: Suicide more common in rural areas

Rural Americans are more likely to die by suicide than people living in more populated areas, according to a report released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers studied deaths from 2001 to 2015 and found more than half a million suicides during that time period. Rural death rates were 17.32 per 100,000 people, while suicides in medium or small metropolitan counties were 14.86 per 100,000, and 11.92 per 100,000 in large metropolitan counties.

"While we’ve seen many causes of death come down in recent years, suicide rates have increased more than 20 percent from 2001 to 2015. And this is especially concerning in rural areas," said CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald. "We need proven prevention efforts to help stop these deaths and the terrible pain and loss they cause."

The trends in suicide rates by demographic factors like sex, race, ethnicity, age, and method of suicide were magnified in rural areas, according to James Mercy, director of CDC's Division of Violence Prevention. "This report underscores the need for suicide prevention strategies that are tailored specifically for these communities," he said.

Other findings from the CDC study:
  • "Across metropolitan and rural areas, suicide rates for males were four to five times higher than for females during the study period.
  • Suicide rates for Black Non-Hispanics in rural areas were consistently lower than suicide rates for Black Non-Hispanics in urban areas.
  • White Non-Hispanics have the highest suicide rates in metropolitan counties while American Indian/Alaska Native Non-Hispanics have the highest rates in rural counties.
  • Findings by age group revealed increases in suicide rates for all ages with the highest rates and greatest rate increases in rural counties."

Record wildfires strain state budgets

"State and federal lawmakers across the country are looking back on a record fire season and asking whether there’s a way to better prepare financially for major wildfires. The federal government spent more than $2 billion on fires from Florida to Washington this year. States spend untold millions more," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline, the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stateline graphic; click on it to see a larger version.
Western states usually spend less than 1 percent of their budget on wildfire fighting and prevention, but when fires are bad that can more than double. In states like Montana with a small tax base and a tight budget, wildfires can use up reserve funds and usher in a fiscal crisis. Montana now faces a $200 million budget shortfall, in part because the state had to spend more than $60 million fighting wildfires. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said in Sept. that it was the most expensive fire season in Montana history.

It could get worse. Wildfire seasons are getting longer and fires larger and more dangerous because of a number of factors, including climate change. That means state and federal agencies must spend more money on fighting fires and less money on programs that help prevent or lessen the impact of fires in the future.

States pay for wildfire fighting differently. "Lawmakers in many wildfire-prone states set aside part of their general fund each year for fighting fires. Programs in Oregon and Washington are partly funded by taxing timber companies and other forest landowners, for instance. Most states also set aside pools of money to pay for natural disasters and other emergencies," Quinton reports. When that money runs out, lawmakers have to figure out where to find the rest.

The location of the fire can sometimes add to the confusion of figuring out who pays for what. The federal government usually pays to put out fires on federal land, but fires often cross from federal land onto private or state land (which states pay for). And even more complicated, sometimes local and state firefighters, firefighters from out of state, and a hodgepodge of local, state and federal equipment is used to fight fires.

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse states for three-quarters of the cost of putting out fires that threaten lives and critical infrastructure," Quinton reports. "But some fires are too rural or remote to qualify. States also spend a lot of time and money putting out smaller, less dangerous fires." And federal reimbursement for fire suppression usually only covers a small portion of what states spend. In 2015, nine states in a study spent $1.8 billion to fight wildfires, but were reimbused for only $300 million, Quinton reports. 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Some Congressional Republicans consider banning 'bump stocks' used in deadly Las Vegas shooting

In the wake of the deadly Las Vegas shooting, gun control has predictably become a hot topic. Such talk generally comes to nothing, but this time may be different: several House Republicans have said they may consider a ban on bump stocks, an accessory used by the Las Vegas shooter to make semi-automatic weapons fire as rapidly as fully automatic weapons. (Read this Mic article for an excellent explanation of how bump stocks work.)

A gun store employee demonstrates how a bump stock works.
(Associated Press photo by Allen Breed)
"Clearly that's something we need to look into," said Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) on MSNBC. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia told The Washington Post that "We're going to look at the issue," and said that he had a "personal concern" about the shooting. "Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the ­second-ranking Senate Republican, said that hearings on banning bump stocks would make sense. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that a potential ban 'is worth having a conversation about, and some of our members agree with that,'" Mike DeBonis, Elise Viebeck and Ed O'Keefe report for The Washington Post. And Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told reporters he had "no problem" banning bump stocks.

They may not be the only Republicans considering action. "A House Republican with close ties to leadership who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations said there was a growing willingness to address the accessories among GOP lawmakers — if only to combat the perception that Congress has done nothing to address mass shootings," the Post reports. The anonymous lawmaker said he didn't think the National Rifle Association would "put up much of the fight" and pointed out that bump stocks were made legal by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during President Obama's tenure.

The Democrats have not been idle. "Congressional Democrats on Wednesday unveiled new, narrowly tailored proposals to ban devices used in the shooting and revived old ideas to close loopholes and restrict some gun purchases," the Post reports. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California introduced a bill to ban bump stocks that now has 38 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he plans to reintroduce a bill that closes a loophole gun dealers had exploited. Under current laws, if the FBI has not completed a background check on a gun buyer after three days, dealers can go ahead and sell the weapon to that buyer. "Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) also intends to reintroduce a bill to change the national background check system. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) plans to reintroduce legislation that would allow qualified gun owners to use 'smart gun' technology that can restrict who can use a weapon," the Post reports.

After Sept. 30 deadline, here's what the 2018 ACA marketplaces look like

Sept. 30 was a critical deadline for many of the moving parts in the nation's health insurance system. We've covered in another piece what's going on with the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expired on that date without reauthorization. But beyond that, the Senate had to muster the votes to repeal the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act if it wanted to accomplish it with a simple majority vote; and insurers had to file plans for their 2018 plans by that date.

The Graham-Cassidy bill failed to pass, but a new budget resolution suggests that Republicans may still try to repeal key portions of the ACA in the coming years.

Because insurers didn't know what the health insurance laws would be in 2018, and because President Trump threatened to withhold subsidies to help pay for low-income plans, insurers played musical chairs all summer: withdrawing from some marketplaces and filling others. At several points, rural areas in different parts of the country were left without an insurer to provide individual marketplace plans.

Now that the dust is clearing, we can see what the 2018 ACA marketplaces will look like. Bloomberg has been an invaluable source throughout the summer, with a continuously updated blog with news of insurers' moves and county-level maps of coverage. The most important thing to note is that all counties will be covered by an insurer, and most counties will have multiple insurers to choose from.

Click here for an animated map showing how marketplace coverage changed over the summer. And below is the final county-level map of insurance coverage for 2018:
Bloomberg map

After Congress doesn't reauthorize CHIP in time, states scramble to cope; Minn. an example

In the heat of trying to pass the Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Congress didn't reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program before it expired at midnight Sept. 30. CHIP provides insurance to children whose parents make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but who still cannot afford private insurance. "From the perspective of health officials at the state level, this inaction on the part of Congress has done more than jeopardize the health of as many as 8.9 million children. A delay in CHIP reauthorization has left state budgets in limbo and has seriously strained the relationship between the federal government and its state health partners," Quinn Libson reports for Route Fifty.

If the program is not reauthorized, as many as 10 states will run out of CHIP money by the end of the year, and all states plus Washington D.C. will run out by next summer. The situation is particularly dire in Minnesota, where CHIP covers around 125,000 children, 200 babies and 1,700 pregnant women. Because it wasn't renewed, the state had to start paying a much larger share of costs than normal. That could potentially cost the state $60 million, and cause pregnant women and infants to be cut from the program, Libson reports. Emily Piper, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, says the state may use unspent CHIP funding from 2017 to cover the pregnant women and infants. But such a move would violate a federal rule and the state could have to pay up to $10 million as a penalty.

The Senate is trying to play catch-up and pass an five-year funding extension of CHIP proposed in mid-September, Libson reports in a different story. The Hatch-Wyden plan would extend CHIP for five years, but it would cut federal contributions to the program in half in 2020 and eliminate them in 2021, leaving states to fend for themselves. House Republicans are trying to pay for the program by cutting Medicaid and/or Medicare, setting up a tussle with the Senate.

Interior Dept. official who spoke out on Alaskan climate change, and was reassigned, quits

"An Interior Department executive turned whistleblower who claimed the Trump administration retaliated against him for publicly disclosing how climate change affects Alaska Native communities resigned Wednesday," reports Darryl Fears of The Washington Post.

Scientist and policy expert Joel Clement had been removed from his job by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shortly after the Alaska climate disclosure "and reassigned to an accounting position for which he has no experience," Fears reports. "Clement was among dozens of senior executive service personnel who were quickly, and perhaps unlawfully, reassigned in June, but he was the only person who spoke out."

The department's inspector general is investigating to determine whether the transfer process was legal. "By law, executives are to be given ample notice of a job switch," Fears notes. "Many of those reassigned say they were given no notice, according to attorneys who are representing some of the employees."

Clement told Fears that Interior employees are outraged by Zinke’s comment in a recent speech that they are disloyal: “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.” Meanwhile, Fears reports, "Former top Interior executives under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama ripped Zinke for his comments about loyalty at Interior."

Senate confirms top deputies to Perdue at USDA

The Senate confirmed two high-ranking Department of Agriculture officials Oct. 3, including one who will be filling a newly created office, Don Davis reports for The Duluth News Tribune.

Stephen Censky
Stephen Censky will be the deputy secretary responsible for running USDA day-to-day, along with helping Secretary Sonny Perdue create farm policy. He grew up on a soybean, corn and livestock farm near Pipestone, Minn., got his bachelor of science in agriculture from South Dakota State University, and received a postgrad degree in agricultural science from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He has been the CEO of the American Soybean Association for the past 21 years and has served in the USDA under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"Censky played a major role in last year’s passage of the first federal law to mandate labels for foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — a controversial and wide-ranging initiative that affects soybean farmers, grocery stores and food companies from Kraft to General Mills," Maya Rao reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. "The federal law invalidated a GMO labeling law in Vermont that agricultural and food interests opposed over concerns that different standards in just one state would lead to higher costs for national companies."

In his testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee at his confirmation hearing, Censky said there were three specific goals he wants to work on during his tenure:
  1. Diversification of markets: This includes expanding foreign trade and promoting local and regional food markets for farmers and consumers alike. In addition, diversification of crops through research, Extension and crop insurance coverage.
  2. Preparation for and adaption to changing weather and climate: Our agricultural production systems and forests truly are on the front line of impact by changes in weather and climate. I believe USDA has an inherent responsibility to help our farmers, ranchers and forests become more resilient. USDA’s research, conservation, forestry, extension, crop insurance and other programs all have major roles to play.
  3. Expansion of broadband to rural America. Broadband technology can be transformative for agricultural producers and rural communities. From precision agriculture that allows producers to farm more sustainably to promoting rural development and jobs, America’s rural areas truly need broadband technology. USDA has a unique role to play within the administration and through its own programs.
Ted McKinney
Ted McKinney will be the undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs--a newly created office. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Tipton, Indiana, and received a bachelor's in agricultural economics from Purdue University. He worked for 19 years at Dow AgroSciences and for 14 years was the director of global corporate affairs for Elanco, an agricultural chemicals division of Eli Lilly. In 2014 then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence appointed him to lead the state Department of Agriculture, Maureen Groppe reports for The Indianapolis Star. He co-founded and was the interim director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, an agriculture biotech promotion group funded by BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Traditional government measurements may underestimate the needs of remote rural areas

According to researchers at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Salvation Army, "persistent pockets of poverty in rural America may not be apparent from traditional government measures like unemployment data, SNAP [food stamps] usage and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Poverty Report." The two organizations have partnered since 2015 to create and update the Human Needs Index, a way of measuring human needs such as food and shelter that they say is more accurate than government tools.

The newest report, from September 2017, says that states with more remote rural areas -- such as Nevada, Colorado and Michigan -- have higher levels of need than indicated by government data-gathering measures. "One potential explanation for remote states' showing higher levels of need than those indicated by government measures is that households in remote areas may face challenges in accessing government services. If need in these states is not being identified or met by government services, it would be expected that these states would have higher HNI values, since The Salvation Army provides services to households located in remote areas," said Salvation Army spokesperson Kurt Watkins in a press release.

To read more about the Human Needs Index overall (including reports and downloadable infographics), click here.

Opioid epidemic strains foster-care systems; states' initiatives to help could lose funding

Recovered opioid addict Raven Mosser credits her success in staying sober to Kentucky's START program. She moved to Ohio to become a recovery coach for other parents struggling with addiction. (Kaiser Health News photo by Sholten Singer)
One of the less-discussed effects of the opioid epidemic has been the strain it places on foster-care systems. Ohio, which has the nation's highest rate of heroin-overdose deaths, has been particularly hard hit. "Ohio's opioid epidemic is seen as the direct cause of an 11 percent increase in children in state custody over the past six years, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio," Dina Berliner reports for The Athens News.

Only 7,200 families are registered as foster parents in Ohio, but there are 15,000 children in the state's foster-care system, says state Attorney General Mike DeWine. And half of those kids are in foster care because one or both of their parents are opioid addicts, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Children Services Association.

It's a trend seen in other states. "Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that from October 2012 to September 2015, as addiction surged, the number of kids entering the foster system rose 8 percent," Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News. That's because heroin use has surged among women and among people ages 18 to 25--and young mothers are at the intersection of those two demographics.

States are trying new approaches to reduce the impact of the crisis on state agencies. "Kentucky was a pioneer, starting in 2007, when opioid addiction first emerged as a public health concern. The program, called 'Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams' — or START — emphasizes a wraparound approach for at-risk parents that includes frequent home visits, vouchers for child care and transportation and mentorship from people in recovery," Luthra reports. "Under the Kentucky model, when child protection specialists learn a child is at risk, authorities specifically assess whether substance abuse could be a factor. If so, the parent is fast-tracked into treatment and assigned a 'recovery team,' which coordinates among agencies such as children’s aid, mental health, social services and recovery mentors."

Ohio's new plan is modeled explicitly on Kentucky's, and Indiana and North Carolina are launching initiatives too. But the funding for these programs might be in danger, since they're heavily financed by Medicaid. Senate Republicans haven't made public their budget resolutions for Fiscal Year 2018, but Budget Committee member Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) published a five-page report saying GOP senators want to cut $1 trillion from Medicaid and $473 billion from Medicare over the next decade.

In rural areas, getting parents off drugs so they can keep custody of their kids can be difficult because of limited resources. Parents have to see an addiction specialist or go to rehab or a recovery group. "Those are all relative rarities in the small, rural areas where opioid addiction rates are relatively high," Luthra reports.

Young journalists tour nation to grasp its divisions

The five Crossing the Divide fellows in the top row (L-R): Mahlia Posey, Eric Bosco, Gabriel Sanchez, Rachel Cramer and Brittany Greeson. On the bottom row, field producers Ben Brody and Qainat Khan. (WGBH photo)
"A group of young journalists have set out on a road trip to learn about issues that unite and divide Americans," April Simpson reports for Current, a nonprofit news service for and about public media in the U.S. The project was organized by Boston's WGBH and GroundTruth, a journalism nonprofit housed at the station. During the three-month "Crossing the Divide" trip, which began Aug. 30. the five journalists are interviewing people in diverse communities about their concerns and detail their experiences through social media and a website. Universities, high schools, and local media outlets are hosting events along the way.

GroundTruth came up with the project after seeing deep divisions between American voters during the run-up to the last presidential election. After the election, many journalists began navel-gazing about whether the mostly urban-oriented news media were adequately covering rural areas; if they had, some think, they might have been better able to understand the despair felt by rural Americans that helped elect President Trump. Rural Americans might also have found it easier to trust the news media if their concerns were being reflected in the news. The Texas Observer's Rural Reporting Project is one result of that national conversation; the Crossing the Divide project is another.

Restoring Americans' trust in journalism is one goal of the project, says Charlie Sennott, executive director and founder of GroundTruth. "We want to be attentive to serious stories that are pulling the country apart, and we also want to be attentive to stories that unite the country and pull people together," he told Simpson.

The five fellows for the project were chosen from public universities in red and blue states: Western Kentucky University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Minnesota, the University of Montana and the University of California-Berkeley. "The fellows comprise a photographer, videographer, audio reporter and two writers, one focused on narrative, the other on data," Simpson reports.

Rural hospital in Tennessee closes

Ducktown in Polk County in Tennessee
(Wikipedia map)
Another rural hospital in a state that did not expand Medicaid has closed.

"The Copperhill and Ducktown communities in Tennessee are now without medical care as the rural area's only hospital, Copper Basin Medical Center, shut its doors for good Sunday. CEO Dan Johnson told local ABC News affiliate NewsChannel 9 that doctors had only been seeing about 10 patients a day in the emergency room, which is about one-third of what a hospital of that size needs to stay afloat," Jeff Lagasse reports for Healthcare Finance News.

"He said changes in health-care administration led to a gap in funding for the hospital, as well as less of a need. Yet the next closest facility is 15 miles away in [Georgia's] Fannin County, which means those in need of emergency care would likely need to be transported by helicopter. According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the hospital had not been accepting new patients for some time, but had been providing inpatient and emergency services."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has tried to expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, citing the threat to Tennessee hospitals, but the Republican-controlled Legislature has refused.

The North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina says 81 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. "Many more are struggling to stay open," Lagasse notes. "The implication is that the rural health safety net is unraveling; 41 percent of rural hospitals are operating at a negative margin, the data showed. Numerous factors impact these operating margins, including payer mix and the percentage of uninsured; allowable cost-based Medicare reimbursement; the employment rate and the related availability of employer-sponsored commercial insurance; payer-negotiated rates; the availability of primary care; and population health and health disparities."

Montana farmer uses his technical skills to decrease water use from fluctuating river

Jeff Reed on his farm.
(Enterprise photo by Nate Howard)
A farmer with a technology background has come up with a way to reduce the amount of irrigation his farm needs. Jeff Reed was once the chief technology officer at Arrow Electronics, but these days he can be found raising organic alfalfa along the Yellowstone River in Montana. Water must be pumped up from the river to water his crops, but last year the river was briefly closed to fight a parasite infestation that killed thousands of fish. Researchers said low water in the river could have weakened the fish and made them more susceptible to the parasites. It got Reed to thinking about how much his farm depended on the river, which led him to think of ways to help his farm sip from it rather than guzzle.

"He installed high-tech sensors to monitor a variety of data, including — but not limited to —  rainfall and the moisture content of the soil, which, when tied in with his pump and irrigation system, allowed him to water only as needed, rather than turning his pivots on and allowing the water to flow all season," Liz Kearney reports for The Livingston Enterprise in Montana. The results were dramatic: He was able to run his farm with 30 percent less water this season (helped by a wet spring and early summer), and predicts he could make his farm use water up to 50 percent more efficiently in the future.

Reed also hopes to increase the nutrients in his farm's soil, thereby increasing the nutrients in his alfalfa. "If I can double the nutritional value, it’s like doubling the amount of my land," Reed told Kearney. "And land’s expensive."

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Newspaper trade group enters second phase of 'Support Real News' campaign

The News Media Alliance, the main trade group for daily newspapers in the U.S., is launching the second phase of its #SupportRealNews campaign, which calls on the public to support real news by using trusted news sources produced by trained journalists.

Social media profile badge
Each month, the $10 million campaign offers print and digital ads targeted to officials, the general public and news organization employees in all 50 states. It also includes a social-media "profile badge" that supporters can use to promote the cause, and infographics that can illustrate stories, columns, editorials or independently produced ads or other materials.

"The campaign is aimed entirely at news consumers, but it also aims to give industry employees the uplift of knowing that the industry writ large is fighting hard for the principles reporters care about," reports Sara Fischer of Axios Media Trends, a daily newsletter.  "You know the state of the news industry is a mess when a newspaper trade group is taking out newspaper ads to message newspaper employees about the importance of newspapers." Here's the latest print ad:

Planting prairie grasses and flowers along edges of crop fields reduces soil loss and chemical runoff

Prairie strips, photographed by Christopher Gannon of Iowa State University
Polluting runoff from farm fields in the Midwest could be mitigated by small patches of native prairie grasses and flowers planted along the edges of fields, say researchers at Iowa State University. “What we've been able to document over a decade worth of research on prairie strips is that by converting just a little bit of that crop area to prairie strips we get very substantial benefits,” ISU professor Lisa Schulte Moore told Amy Mayer of Harvest Public Media.

The benefits include reducing soil loss by 95 percent, reducing phosphorus runoff by 77 percent, reducing overall nitrogen loss by 70 percent, attracting pollinators and increasing the number and diversity of birds. The research was done at 47 farm sites in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and other states.

Moore's study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "also included a survey to assess attitudes toward conservation and prairie strips in particular," Mayer reports. "It found strong support for the practice," and not much difference between farmers and non-farmers in Iowa. Farmers' top reasons for supporting the idea are improving water quality and preventing soil loss.

"Farmers have come under increasing pressure to prevent nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which they apply to fields to enhance crops, from washing off their fields and into streams and rivers," Mayer notes. "Water flowing into the Des Moines Water Works, for example, has required treatment due to unacceptable levels of nitrates. The size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an oxygen-starved area where much aquatic life cannot survive, relates to the amount of farmland nutrients flushing down the Mississippi River from the upper Midwest."

Oct. 19 event will show innovate ways to help rural workers get into jobs and get ahead

As rural economies recover slowly from the Great Recession, many rural employers can't find enough workers. Some would-be employees "lack training or can’t manage their family commitments while working the hours employers require," says The Aspen Institute. And some rural employers say they can't find enough potential employees who can pass a drug test.

But some employers and other innovators "are implementing strategies to help rural residents earn credentials for better jobs in their future, access the services they need outside of work to land and keep a job, and stabilize the family finances and situations of rural employees so they can start saving and planning to get ahead," the institute says.

Rural areas also suffer from another form of under-employment. The institute notes that the most recent American Community Survey data by the Census Bureau shows more than 1.5 million rural residents are "working poor," earning below the federal poverty rate, and living one emergency away from losing their job.

The institute is sponsoring a dialogue Thursday, Oct. 19 in Washington, D.C., that will "highlight a range of rural-grown innovations to help families get into and get ahead in rural jobs," it says. The event will be held from noon to 2 p.m. ET at the institute's offices at 1 Dupont Circle, Suite 700. To register to attend, click here; to register to watch online, click here.

Speakers at the event will be Lynne Russell, executive director of the United Way of Mason County, Michigan, discussing employer resource networks, in which rural businesses band together to help employees overcome financial crises and life events; Greg Williams, president of Odessa College in Texas, speaking about how his community college boosts educational attainment in a boom-and-bust, resource-extraction economy; Sheila Hoyle, executive director  of North Carolina's Southwestern Child Development Commission, presenting "The Quiet Rural Crisis: Increasing Child Care Access, Quality and Worker Income;" and Beth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, with "Documenting the Issues: Rural Data Realities."

The event is the latest in a series called America’s Rural Opportunity, co-sponsored by Aspen's Community Strategies Group and Rural Development Innovation Group. To learn more about the series, click here.

Interior secretary's travels are under investigation

Zinke with President Trump
(Las Vegas Review-Journal photo)
The Interior Department's inspector general is investigating Secretary Ryan Zinke’s travel, "from his use of taxpayer-funded charter and military planes to his mixing of official trips with political appearances," reports Lisa Rein of The Washington Post.

“It’s not just one trip,” Nancy K. DiPaolo, a spokesperson for Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, told Rein. “It’s seven months of travel.” DiPaolo said the investigation was prompted by complaints from the public and recent newspaper articles. "Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachin (Va.), the top Democrats, respectively, on the House Committee on Natural Resources and the panel’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, also requested an investigation," Rein notes.

"Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander and former congressman from Montana, is one of several Trump administration cabinet secretaries whose travel is under scrutiny," Rein notes. "Tom Price, another former member of Congress who was secretary of [the Department of] Health and Human Services, resigned Friday after taking at least $400,000 in chartered flights at taxpayer expense. The watchdog for the Environmental Protection Agency also is investigating agency head Scott Pruitt’s frequent travels to his home state of Oklahoma."

SEJ raising money for annual grant for reporting on environmental health issues

The Society of Environmental Journalists is raising money to fund its first annual grant for environmental health reporting. The grant will be named for Elizabeth Grossman, a longtime SEJ member who died in July. "She devoted her career to uncovering environmental health issues while tirelessly advocating for freelancers," SEJ said in a news release.

As an SEJ board member, Grossman "proposed such a grant to the board several months ago," SEJ reports. "The grant will provide up to $5,000 to help cover travel and other expenses related to sustained coverage (e.g., a series of articles) of a particular topic in environmental health. It will be offered under the Fund for Environmental Journalism. The grant has been seeded by Lizzie’s legacy gift to SEJ," but applications for the grant won't open until $10,000 has been raised.

Questions about the grant and how to contribute can be directed to SEJ President Bobby Magill ( or Susan Moran (

Monday, October 02, 2017

With broadband definition change, rural areas could look like they get fast internet service

"Is the government doing a good enough job getting Internet access to the people? Until recently, the government's own assessment was no — things could be better for many Americans fed up with slow service, high prices or a lack of competition. But a looming change in the way officials define Internet service may soon prompt the Federal Communications Commission to change its mind and say that, in fact, it looks like consumers are doing just fine, thank you very much," Brian Fung reports for The Washington Post.

Until 2015, broadband was defined as service with a download speed of 4 megabytes per second. That was fine in the pre-Netflix era, but not now. "That year, the agency revised its minimum definition of broadband to be any service that offered at least 25 Mbps downloads and 3 Mbps uploads," Fung reports. "By this definition, the FCC said, 55 million Americans lacked high-speed Internet. Almost overnight, the FCC essentially created a big mission for itself to solve, using all of the policy tools and money at its disposal."

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai says the 2015 study’s revised definition deliberately created a problem for the agency to solve through regulation. So for this year’s study (which the agency must do by mandate) Pai is floating the idea of adjusting the standards down to 10 mbps download and 1 mbps upload speed. He believes setting higher standards wouldn’t make internet providers upgrade their networks more quickly. In 2015, Pai said that internet service providers had indicated that “their caution stems primarily from regulatory uncertainty and in particular their concerns about whether and how Internet Protocol-based (IP) networks are going to be regulated in the future,” Fung reports.

High-court case on redistricting could set new standard to limit partisan mapping, force changes

One-third of all modern redistricting maps passed by state legislatures failed the standard that reformers want the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt in a case that will be argued Tuesday, the Republican solicitor general of Wisconsin wrote in defending the state's maps in the case.

Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin also argued that the standard suggested by the plaintiffs "is unreliable and favors Democrats," writes Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But attorneys for the Wisconsin Democrats said just 10 percent to 20 percent of past maps could have faced challenges under their test — and a majority of those questionable maps helped Democrats."

Both sides' calculations went back to 1972, the first major round of legislative and congressional redistricting under "one person, one vote" rules that the Supreme Court established in the 1960s, reducing rural influence in state legislatures and, to a lesser degree, in the U.S. House. The Senate, with two senators from every state regardless of size, retains much rural influence.

"The Wisconsin Democrats proposed a new test to determine whether maps were unfairly one-sided. Their test counts 'wasted votes' — that is, any votes beyond those needed to elect a candidate — to determine the 'efficiency gap' of a map," Marley explains. "Maps have large efficiency gaps when they spread one party’s voters into districts in a way that creates a significant number of wasted votes for them."

The U.S. Court of Appeals "cited the efficiency-gap test as evidence that Wisconsin’s maps were unconstitutional, but did not entirely rely on the test for its decision," Marley reports. "Attorneys for Wisconsin have told the Supreme Court the test is biased against Republicans because Democrats tend to cluster in cities such as Madison and Milwaukee."

The Supreme Court "has found maps can be so heavily skewed to favor one party as to violate the U.S. Constitution," Marley notes. "But the justices have never struck down a map on those grounds and have disagreed on whether courts can measure when that happens. Both sides see Justice Anthony Kennedy as the key vote in the Wisconsin case."

Tseytlin, a native of Russia, was a law clerk for Kennedy. Thirteen years ago, Kennedy asked for suggestions for standards by which partisan redistricting could be judged. "If workable standards do emerge to measure these burdens . . . courts should be prepared to order relief," Kennedy wrote.

VA proposes rule to increase tele-medicine access for rural veterans, across state lines

“The Veterans Affairs Department proposed a rule Friday that would allow VA providers anywhere in the country to conduct telehealth visits with VA patients across state borders, regardless of state licensing,” Rachel Arndt reports for Modern Healthcare.

Expanding telemedicine services would help veterans in rural areas, who are often too far away from brick and mortar facilities to receive adequate care. Of the 702,000 patients VA providers saw via telemedicine in the fiscal year of 2016, almost half lived in rural areas.

But in order to expand telehealth access, doctors would need to be able to see patients across state lines. Because of current state restrictions, that's not easy. A doctor could lose his or her credentials or be fined for treating patients via telemedicine who live in a state where that doctor isn't licensed to practice. The VA's proposed federal rule would get quicker results than waiting for every state to withdraw the penalties separately. And though such a rule would only apply to VA providers and patients, it could pave the way for a national medical practice licensing concept.

“The rule would complement the VA's push to increase the use of technology in veterans' healthcare, an effort VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin called ‘anywhere to anywhere VA health care’ when President Donald Trump announced the initiative in August,” Arndt reports.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Interior Department is moving to overhaul Obama administration's sage-grouse protection plan

Sage grouse mating dance (Photo:Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Managment)
As expected, the Interior Department is moving to change habitat management plans for the sage grouse, which were adopted under the Obama administration to keep the bird off the endangered species list, Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times.

"Several Western state officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak for their governors, said Interior Department officials indicated they would seek amendments to the sage grouse plans in a conference call on Monday," Friedman reports. "Precisely what changes the Interior Department may seek are yet unknown, but the regulatory process could take years. People on the call said Interior Department officials suggested they needed to start the process now in order to complete it within President Trump’s first term."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had ordered a review of the plans to see if "they were hindering energy production," Friedman notes. "A task force recommended changes that could loosen protections for the bird . . . which looks like a chesty chicken but struts like a spiky-tailed peacock, is renowned for its elaborate mating dance."

The plans are for 10 states, but Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma told Friedman that they incorporate an overly broad approach that exaggerates the threats posed by mining and drilling. “This Interior Department is much more willing to cooperate with states, and I think that is very positive for ensuring the sage grouse is protected without killing jobs and economic opportunities,” she said.

Trump lieutenants vow quicker pipeline permitting

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry told an oil-industry group last week that "the Trump administration is focused on quickening the pace of oil and natural gas pipeline permitting as it works towards a mammoth reorganization of the federal government," reports S&P Global Platts, an energy newsletter.

"The government's not going to be in your way," Perry told the National Petroleum Council. "Zinke said federal rules and regulations, particularly the Endangered Species Act, have been 'abused' and the government's permitting process has become 'arbitrary,' arguing that companies should be given a clear time frame for approval," the newsletter reports.

On another topic, "Zinke said a massive reorganization of the Department of the Interior is expected to take place in 2019, fixing what he called a 'structural' issue in federal government permitting efforts, Platts reports.