Friday, December 15, 2017

List of top 10 journalism movies makes us ponder the lack of movies about great rural journalism

The release of "The Post," a movie about The Washington Post's handling of the Pentagon Papers, prompted the newspaper to pick the 10 best movies about journalism and get some major players to write about them. There's no rural journalism among them, with the very limited exception of Charles Foster Kane's early forays into the newspaper business. We have to wonder about the lack of movies about great rural journalism, since there are so many movie-worthy stories.

Some such stories are outlined in You Might Want to Carry a Gun: Community newspapers expose big problems in small towns, a book by Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Granbury, Tex., and Tommy Thomason of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University. It would be a good Christmas gift for a courageous rural journalist (or one who could use a little more courage). It's available on Amazon. (Disclosure: Tommy Thomason is an academic partner of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

The movies in the Post list, in order of release: "His Girl Friday," 1940, recommended by former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson; "Citizen Kane," 1941, reviewed by Chris Matthews of MSNBC; "Network," 1976, described Katy Tur of NBC News; "All the President's Men," recalled by major characters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; "The Killing Fields," 1984, praised by Fareed Zakaria of CNN; "Broadcast News," 1987, appreciated by Katie Couric of National Geographic; "Shattered Glass," 2003, explained by Post editorial writer Charles Lane, who was Stephen Glass's editor at The New Republic; "Good Night, and Good Luck," 2005, loved by Andrea Mitchell of NBC; "Frost/Nixon," 2008, praised by radio interviewer Diane Rehm; and "Spotlight," 2015, limned by Post Editor Martin Baron, a major character as editor of The Boston Globe.

Health-insurance deadline in most states is tonight; your current plan may not be the best for you

Photo by Joe Raedle, Getty Images
The deadline for signing up for health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is midnight tonight in most states. People now on ACA plans will be automatically re-enrolled, but are advised to check their options because changes in the insurance market and government subsidies mean that re-enrolling under the same plan is not the best option for some people.

"As of last week, nearly 4.7 million people had signed up for a 2018 health plan through, the online federal insurance marketplace that serves consumers in 39 states," Noam Levey reports for the Los Angeles Times. "Several million more are estimated to have signed up through marketplaces in 11 other states and the District of Columbia. The pace of enrollment has actually been quicker this year than last, according to federal data. And enrollment by new customers is up nearly 17 percent."

Despite the record pace of signups early in this year's enrollment period, overall signups are not expected to match last year's total of 9.2 million, because the Trump administration cut the enrollment period to six weeks from three months and cut almost all funding for advertising and outreach.

The law requiring almost all Americans to get health coverage or pay a penalty on tax returns would be repealed by the tax legislation pending in Congress, but under the last version available, it would not affect tax returns that will be filed in 2018 for 2017.

"Some consumers who miss the cutoff could be surprised to learn they have the opportunity to enroll later," notes Michelle Andrews of Kaiser Health News. "People are entitled to a special enrollment period when they have specific changes in their lives, such as losing other health insurance, getting married or having a child, or when they have a change in income that affects their eligibility for premium tax credits or cost-sharing reduction subsidies. Those special enrollment periods generally last at least 60 days."

Tax bill has larger child credit for low-income families, no repeal of ban on nonprofit politicking

The final version of the tax bill in Congress will have a larger child tax credit for low- and moderate-income families, and will not include repeal of the law that bans religious institutions and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates.

Yesterday's version of the House-Senate conference committee report on the bill would have raise the tax credit to $2,000 per child from $1,000, but "many lower-income families would only qualify for a $1,100 child tax credit," Damian Paletta, Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis report for The Washington Post. Sen. Kristi Noem, R-N.D., "said Friday the plan’s credit for such families had been increased to $1,400, though it couldn’t be immediately learned how the expansion would work." It remained to be seen whether the change would satisfy Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who wanted a refundable $2,000 credit for all families, said he would accept the change and vote for the bill.

The ban on political endorsements by churches and other nonprofits was enacted in 1954 at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas, later president. President Donald Trump "promised to 'totally destroy' the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast in February," notes Heather Long of the Post. "Getting rid of it has been a priority of some spiritual leaders, especially in evangelical circles that have typically leaned Republican. The tax bill that passed the House in November scrapped the Johnson Amendment entirely for all non-profits, but the Senate bill did not, setting up a difference that had to be ironed out in this final week of negotiations."

UPDATE, 3:35 p.m.: Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who cited deficit concerns in voting against the Senate bill, says he will vote for the conference report, all but guaranteeing its passage.

FCC moves toward lifting cap on ownership of TV stations, which could affect local news reporting

New York Times graphic; click on the image for a larger version.
In addition to its repeal of net-neutrality regulations, the Federal Communications Commission also voted yesterday along party lines to review the rule that limits ownership of local broadcast stations by a single entity. The rule limits each broadcast company to an aggregate reach of 39 percent of U.S. television households, Jason Aycock reports for Seeking Alpha, an investment-advice service.

Repealing the audience-cap rule would mostly benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is the nation's largest owner of television stations and is seeking a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media Co. If the merger goes through -- and the Department of Justice has indicated that it will, if Sinclair will sell off a dozen stations -- Sinclair will control a total of 233 stations across 108 markets nationwide, Brent Kendall and John McKinnon report for The Wall Street Journal.

If Sinclair has stations in 70 percent of the nation's TV news markets, that could mean a big change in the quality of local news, especially in rural areas. The FCC repealed the "main studio rule" in late October, which obliged broadcast outlets to operate a main studio in or near each community in which they are licensed. Without that rule, Sinclair and other conglomerates could shutter local news studios and move news production to larger regional or national hubs to save money, Newsmax Chairman Christopher Ruddy wrote in The Washington Post.

Mitch Herckis reports for Route Fifty, "The outcome will likely be the elimination of many American communities’ primary lens for understanding the impact of local politics and policies, as well as a primary source of guidance when emergencies occur."

Critics are also concerned that Sinclair would unfairly influence audiences with conservatively-biased content. The attorneys general from Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island spoke out in opposition to the merger, saying that the company is too cozy with the Trump administration, and forced stations to provide favorable coverage to Trump during his campaign, Mike Snider reports for USA Today.

Net neutrality repeal could hurt telemedicine, but FCC boosts funds for rural-health broadband

The Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines yesterday to repeal "net neutrality" rules that force internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. "The move represents a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight," Barbara Ortutay and Tali Arbel report for the Associated PressHere's an explainer of what the repeal of net neutrality could mean for you.

"Under the new rules approved Thursday, companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T would be free to slow down or block access to services they don't like," AP reports. "They could also charge higher fees to rivals and make them pay up for higher transmission speeds, or set up 'fast lanes' for their preferred services — in turn, relegating everyone else to 'slow lanes'."

That could hurt the growing field of telemedicine, since it requires a strong broadband connection, Rachel Arndt reports for Modern Healthcare. Rural health-care providers and residents could be forced to pay more for adequate broadband or do without, especially since rural internet service providers often have little or no competition.

The FCC also voted yesterday for a one-time increase to the FCC Rural Health Care program, which covers some of the costs of broadband service for rural health-care providers, Joan Engebretson reports for Telecompetitor. The move appears to be an attempt to mitigate any potential price increases rural areas might see after the net-neutrality repeal.

But broad changes to the internet won't happen for a while, since internet service providers will likely behave while the spotlight is on them. But if the rollback survives the inevitable court and legislative challenges, telecoms companies could misbehave — again. "The Associated Press in 2007 found Comcast was blocking some file-sharing services. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services — which competed with its voice-call business — from the iPhone until 2009," the AP reports.

AT&T and Verizon in particular could benefit from the rollback since they could bump up speeds on their in-house media streaming services and stifle competitors such as Amazon, Sling TV, YouTube, or new startups. 

Contract farmers sue to keep rules designed to protect them from exploitation by meatpackers

In October the Department of Agriculture announced it was rolling back Obama-administration rules that provided basic legal protections for small poultry and livestock producers who are under contract with meatpackers; now an organization representing the interests of small farmers is suing USDA, Nancy Matsumoto reports for NPR.

The lawsuit was filed by three farmers and the Nebraska-based Organization for Competitive Markets, which says it represents the interests of 40,000 poultry raisers, 900,000 cattle ranchers and 70,000 hog producers under contract to meatpackers. The farmers say they're being exploited, and that the rules set by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration made it easier for individual farmers to sue meatpackers for anti-competitive behavior.

"Four packers control 82 percent of the market and they've carved the country into regions and don't compete with each other," OCM Executive Director Joe Maxwell told Matsumoto. "Farmers feel threatened by packers because in their area; there's only one choice."

Farmers can also feel trapped because many have to go into substantial debt for barns and other faciliites. West Virginia poultry farmer Mike Weaver told Matsumoto that his ilk "have to put their home in hock" to raise the $1.5 million to $2 million needed to start an operation. "Then you have to take what the companies give you . . . or take your chances on losing the farm. Companies abuse that, shamefully."

Meatpackers say the rollback of the rules was fair because it discouraged farmers from filing frivolous lawsuits that cost them a lot of money to defend and result in higher meat prices for consumers. Matsumoto adds, "Another rule the USDA withdrew would have helped define which actions are considered unfair, discriminatory or deceptive. Left intact was a third rule, clarifying the rules governing the "tournament system" of poultry producing — which pits producers against each other in a contest of who can produce the biggest chickens with the least amount of feed."

Battery plant in Appalachia to hire 875 at $39/hr.

A bright spot in the economic gloom of the Central Appalachian coalfield just got brighter. Pikeville, a town of 7,000 near Kentucky's eastern tip, "will get 875 jobs paying an average of $39 per hour when a planned $372 million advanced battery-manufacturing facility opens in the next few years," says The Lane Report, a Kentucky business publication.

EnerBlu Inc. will built a 1 million-square-foot plant to make lithium-titanate batteries for transit buses, commercial trucks, military vehicles and other equipment. "Construction is scheduled to start in mid-2018 and the facility’s opening is planned for 2020," says a press release from Gov., Matt Bevin. The company will get up to $30 million in state economic development incentives.

"It’s a big win for state officials and Eastern Kentucky, which has lost thousand of high-paying coal mining jobs in recent years," The Lane Report notes. "EnerBlu also considered Nevada, Utah and Washington as potential locations for the project." The company is "focused on energy storage for military and commercial vehicle applications," it says. It will relocate its headquarters to Lexington, Ky., from Riverside, Calif.

Georgia legislators propose tax breaks and better broadband to lure people to rural areas

"A powerful group of state lawmakers approved sweeping proposals Wednesday designed to encourage people and businesses to move to rural Georgia," Mark Niesse reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The group voted unanimously to support income tax breaks worth up to $6,000 a year, high-speed internet lines in unconnected areas and better health-care access."

The recommendations from the Rural Development Council of the state House could be enacted by the legislature next year. Among the RDC's proposals are an income-tax deduction worth up to $3,000 a year for anyone moving to a rural area, twice that in counties that also give property-tax discounts for new residents; funding for internet companies to offer high-speed service in underserved areas; and a new Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations, possibly at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, to help communities recruit businesses and identify growth areas.

The panel also recommended that as Georgia eliminates its certificate-of-need regulation for hospitals in populated areas with many health-care options, it should keep the rules in effect for rural areas, where hospitals are struggling to survive. Georgia is one of the Republican-run states that did not expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable care Act.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rural suicides remain high, and rate is increasing

Though most suicides occur in urban areas, rural suicide rates have remained high over the past decade and are increasing faster than rates in all sizes of metropolitan counties, according to analysis of data analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One reason: Rural residents have less access to mental health care, underscoring the need for more treatment resources in those areas. The online program for a master's degree in social work at the University of Southern California broke the data down into a host of easily digestible graphics. Click here to see them.
University of Southern California graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.

Study finds rural seniors are more likely to have dementia than their urban counterparts

A new study says rural seniors in the U.S. are more likely to suffer from dementia and cognitive impairment than their counterparts in metropolitan areas. The research, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that the incidence of rural dementia is expected to double by 2050 because of the wave of aging Baby Boomers.

"While many studies to date have focused on individual-level sources of disparity (e.g. racial and ethnic origins), this is the first study to report a rural-urban differential that behooves the scientific and clinical community to address the attendant factors that confer higher risk for dementia in rural seniors," said senior investigator Regina Shih of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.

The study also found that dementia rates in both rural and urban areas are decreasing, perhaps because of higher high-school graduation rates.

The researchers studied rural and urban seniors in both 2000 and 2010 to assess overall trends. They found that cognitive impairment in rural seniors declined from 7.1 percent in 2000 to 5.1 percent in 2010. Cognitive impairment in urban seniors declined from 5.4 percent in 2000 to 4.4 percent in 2010. During that time period, the racial and ethnic minority population increased in rural areas and so did the overall number of rural adults who had more than 12 years of education.

"Our findings linking rural adults' recent gains in cognitive functioning with the improved rates of high school graduation provides a new example of how public investment in education can narrow population health disparities," said lead investigator Margaret M. Weden. "The absence of any prior evidence about the rates and disparities in dementia and cognitive impairment by rural residence that comes from a large, nationally representative study has certainly hampered the ability of these communities to advocate for continued investment in rural healthcare and long-term care services."

Dollar General Corp. expands its rural niche, sometimes making it too tight for other retailers

Chet Davis in his produce section
(NPR photo by Frank Morris)
Discount chain Dollar General Corp. is expanding in most U.S. rural areas, but some residents have mixed feelings about that. Dollar General started out in rural Kentucky, and has more than 14,000 locations in the U.S, (about as many as McDonald's) and says it will have opened about 1,285 this year and plans 900 more next year. There are Dollar Generals in urban and suburban areas, but its expansion strategy is to put stores in rural areas that can't support a big-box store and offer reasonably-priced items rural residents to which might not otherwise have quick access, Frank Morris reports for NPR

"They serve a part of the country that Walmart doesn't serve directly," Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross told Morris. "You have to maybe drive 20 miles to get to a Walmart. You might only have to drive 5 miles to get to a Dollar General."

But Dollar General and competitors Dollar Tree and Family Dollar, are putting the squeeze on rural grocery stores like one in Moville, Iowa, a town of 1,600. After the town's last grocery burned down in 2008, residents pooled their money to rebuild and asked local grocery chain owner Chet Davis to step in and operate the new store. But Davis says Chet's Foods lost a third of his sales after Dollar General came to town, and he might not be able to stay open.

Davis is trying hard to keep the store afloat. He "negotiated a rent reduction earlier this year with the community development group that townspeople funded to reopen a store. The group leases the space to him," Barbara Soderlin reports for the Omaha World-Herald. And Davis opened a dollar section at his store and cut employee hours, but now he says he's asking for a second rent reduction and says he'll have to make a decision about closing in early 2018.

Though the Moville dollar store might sink Chet's Foods because of its convenience items, Chet's offers things Dollar General doesn't have in its traditional stores, such as fresh meat, dairy and produce. If Chet's closes, the closest grocery store is 20 miles west in Sioux City. But Dollar General is competing directly with full-service groceries with Dollar General Market stories, mainly in the region around its Nashville headquarters.

Small-town leaders have mixed feelings about Dollar General; some worry that it could hurt local businesses, but if they have local sales taxes, they are also tempted by tax revenue. The typical Dollar General store generates about $1.6 million in sales a year, Soderlin reports, but the biggest part of its sales comes from food, which is tax-exempt in most states. Locally owned grocery stores circulate more revenue back into the community than a dollar store, as well as bumping up local housing values.

Miner-turned-activist has blunt words for outsiders who judge Trump voters in coal country

Nick Mullins
A ninth-generation Appalachian and fifth-generation miner-turned-activist has some blunt words for those who taunt Trump voters in Coal Country:

"Even before the U.S. Senate recently confirmed President Trump’s pick of a former coal executive to head the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Appalachians were already bracing for the bitter taunts from self-righteous liberals and environmentalists, 'That’s what you get for voting for Trump,'" Nick Mullins writes for the Huffington Post. "We hear it. We don’t like it. And attitudes such as these must change if we ever hope to see change."

Mullins, a southwest Virginia native and Berea College graduate who writes a blog called The Thoughtful Coal Miner, says miners' votes for pro-industry politicians don't come from gullibility or naivete, or because they're "old-style traditionalists dedicated to mining coal as a continuation of the way of life they've inherited." Instead, he says, when they defend the industry -- even when it doesn't necessarily benefit them economically -- it's because of the "assault on their culture by outside elitists and out-of-touch environmental groups."

Miners don't have many choices beyond coal, he says. They'd love to work somewhere that paid a living wage and didn't cause health problems, but relocating one's family away from the supportive network of family and community is hard -- even if a former miner could even get a job in a metropolitan area with competition from graduates of better-funded schools and probably colleges. And, he writes, job retraining is little help when there are no local jobs that can earn someone the same wage and benefits they get from coal mining.

"This is all obvious to us 'ignorant hillbillies.' It is also obvious to us that we are frequently characterized as simple-minded white trash in the national media and by faux-hillbilly authors like J.D. Vance," Mullins writes. "For many Appalachians, the coal industry is a necessary evil for both our economic and cultural survival. We are quite literally damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
We know we don’t have a choice. Why doesn’t the rest of the nation understand this too?"

Fracking connected to low birth weight, other health problems for infants in Pennsylvania

Pregnant women who live near active hydraulic-fracturing sites for oil and gas in Pennsylvania have an elevated risk of giving birth to babies with lower birth weight and other health problems, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

The study found that infants born within 3 kilometers, and especially those within 1 kilometer, of active fracking sites are 25 percent more likely to have a low birth weight. A birth weight of below 5.5 pounds puts infants at greater risk of dying or having health problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or asthma.

The study says about 29,000 of the nearly 4 million annual births in the U.S. occur to women living within 1 kilometer of an active fracking site, most of them in rural areas. About 95,000 babies are born to women who live within 3 kilometers of an active fracking site.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently allowed fracking operations to use chemicals that could cause serious health problems in people who live near active sites, including those that could harm infants and fetuses. Research indicates that fracking wells can contaminate drinking water up to one kilometer away from the well pad, and a study released in October found that multiple air and water pollutants near fracking wells are linked to brain problems in children.
The triangles represent fracking wells; the colored squares correspond to the birth rate.
(Science Advances map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
"It is the first peer-reviewed research that shows large-scale evidence that fracking may negatively affect infant health. It was co-authored by economists from Princeton University, the University of Chicago and UCLA and based on a study of more than 1.1 million births between 2004 and 2013 in Pennsylvania, a major producer of natural gas from shale deposits," Tom DiChristopher and John Schoen report for CNBC.

The American Petroleum Institute panned the study, saying the study ignored important factors that could also cause low birth weight like family history and other environmental factors. But the researchers controlled for those factors by comparing sibling groups in which some of the children were born before fracking operations began and some were born afterwards.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Race meant more in Alabama's election than the rural-urban divide, which the result bridged

The rural-urban divide in yesterday's special election in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat wasn’t as important as race, a demographic that bridged the rural-urban divide that looms large in American politics.

Washington Post charts; click to enlarge
Exit polls showed Democrat Doug Jones got 96 percent of the vote among African Americans, who are concentrated in urban areas and the Black Belt, a swath of land that was named for its soil. The largest plantations were concentrated there, and many freed slaves hung on as sharecroppers after the Civil War.

In his race with former judge Roy Moore, Jones won only one of the exit poll's four regions, Birmingham and South Central, the latter being roughly analogous to the Black Belt — the buckle of which is Dallas County, where the seat is Selma, epicenter of the battle for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "A county where African Americans make up 70 percent of the population gave 75 percent of the vote to Doug Jones," John Nichols writes for The Nation. "That brought the Democrat 7,000 votes closer to victory. And as more votes from more predominately African-American counties came in, Jones moved into the lead."

Higher black turnout was also important. African-Americans make up 26 percent of Alabama's population, but the exit poll determined that they made up 30 percent of the vote yesterday.

Alabama is the ninth most rural state, with 41 percent of the population living in rural areas, but it's becoming more urban. First map below, by Strange Maps contributor Mark Root-Willey, via The Vigorous North blog, reveals the Black Belt by way of distribution of cotton production (2,000 bales per dot) in 1860, just before the beginning of the Civil War (colors of counties indicate their vote in the 2008 presidential election). Second map, showing vote by county, is adapted from CNN. Newly blue counties include Madison (Huntsville), on the Tennessee border, and Tuscaloosa and Talladega, west and east of Birmingham. Dallas County overlaps the "ontgo" in "Montgomery."

Ala. election makes Obamacare repeal less likely

Jones and wife Louise.(Photo: Bastien Inzaurralde, W.Post)
Alabama Democrat Doug Jones' narrow win yesterday over Roy Moore for a U.S. Senate seat will make Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act even more difficult.

"Up until now, the Senate GOP's 52-seat majority allowed the party to lose two votes on a health-care bill, with tie-breaking help from Vice President Pence. That’s an important number, because the two most moderate Republicans – Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine – have been regarded as nearly impossible to bring on board," Paige Cunnningham reports for The Washington Post.

While it may seems unlikely that Republicans will renew their push for ACA repeal before the 2018 midterm elections, "Behind the scenes, some GOP lawmakers are also convinced they should return to the effort once taxes are out of the way; after all, repealing Obamacare is something they relentlessly promised when a Democrat was in the White House," Cunningham writes. "The GOP idea is to pass a new budget resolution for next year, giving them another way to avoid attracting Democratic support for a controversial health-care measure by seeking just 50 votes for it."

In the meantime, Jones isn't waiting until January to make use of the bully pulpit; in his victory speech last night he called on Congress to "go ahead and fund that CHIP program before I get up there." He refers to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which expired without reauthorization Sept. 30 and covers 9 million children from low- and mid-income families who cannot afford health insurance.

Loss of net neutrality could threaten local journalism, Stanford law student argues in essay

Rolling back net-neutrality regulations, as three of the five Federal Communications Commission members plan to do tomorrow, could hurt local journalism, argues an essay by a Stanford University law student Adam Hersh, who is a fellow at the university's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Net neutrality prevents internet service providers from charging more for certain kinds of content, or throttling or blocking other content. "If net neutrality disappears, it could have a significant negative effect on the local journalism market in the U.S.," Mathew Ingram writes for Columbia Journalism Review, reporting on Hersh's piece "Hersh says the market for local news is in an extremely fragile state, thanks in part to the decline of advertising, and the loss of net neutrality protections could hit local providers particularly hard."

Also, as The Rural Blog has reportedAmerican Press Institute Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel believes an increased focus on national news in the era of Donald Trump has reduced the audience for local news.

Hersh says local journalism is often the first source of information in a crisis, and a particularly well-informed one, since local reporters know the local politics and culture. But independent local news outlets won't have the buying power of large media conglomerates, and won't be able to negotiate good deals for reader access with ISPs. That means fewer new readers, especially if outreach efforts involve bandwidth-heavy videos.

The rollback will likely pass on a straight party-line vote, but will also likely be challenged in court, and thus may be delayed. With Ingram's article is a great list of current stories on net neutrality that can help provide context for an issue that can be hard to understand.

Minn. restricts dicamba use; Ark. defers new limits

"Minnesota became the latest U.S. state on Tuesday to restrict controversial weed killers made by Monsanto Co. and BASF SE that were linked to widespread crop damage, while Arkansas took a step back from imposing new limits," Tom Polansek reports for Reuters.

Minnesota will ban spraying dicamba-based herbicides after June 20, according to the state agriculture department. Dicamba spraying will also not be allowed if temperatures are over 85 degrees, since research has shown that high temps increase the herbicide's volatility.

Arkansas had proposed an April 15 deadline for spraying dicamba, but a legislative panel advised a state plant board to review the proposal in light of scientific-based evidence and other factors. Monsanto has sued the state to prevent the state from implementing the April 15 deadline, saying that it would hurt Arkansas farmers. Missouri, Tennessee and North Dakota have also announced statewide deadlines for spraying dicamba.

Dicamba has been used for more than 50 years, on fields only before crops sprouted. With the recent introduction of soybeans and cotton genetically modified to withstand dicamba, farmers now spray it on sprouting crops. That became a problem because dicamba tends to vaporize into a powder and blow into other farmers' fields, damaging crops that aren't resistant to it.

Fight against feral hogs about to run out of money

USDA map; click on the image to enlarge it.

A five-year federal program to help eradicate invasive feral hogs and coyotes nationwide has only one year left to go, but New Mexico officials say the hogs are still a significant problem in their state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that feral hogs cause about $1.5 billion in damage a year, with $800 million in direct damage to agriculture. In response, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began a five-year eradication program in 2012 with an annual budget of $1 million. Funding for the program, which will end in Sept. 2018, is now only $400,000 per year. If the USDA wants to keep working on the program after that, more funding will have to be secured, Adrian Hedden reports for the Carlsbad Current-Argus.

The pigs can weigh more than 1,000 lbs. and grow to six feet long, and "They're just mean animals," New Mexico State University Agriculture Extension Agent Woods Houghton told Hedden. "They can sure eat up a freshly planted field easily. They get everything you planted. It's unbelievable what they can do to an alfalfa field."

While thousands of hogs have been removed by the program, the pigs breed all year, and sows can give birth to a litter of three to 18 piglets at just four to five months old. USDA District Supervisor for Wildlife Services Brian Archuleta said "Exponential population growth is a real possibility."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Alabama Senate race highlights urban-rural divide, other divisions of politics and culture

UPDATE: Jones won, in "nothing short of a political earthquake for Alabama," The Anniston Star reports, noting that the state "has trended ever more strongly toward Republicans since the 1960s."

Moore in Midland City (Photo: Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg)
Today's special election for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama is the latest example of the urban and rural divide in American politics. Even the candidates' Election Eve events bore it out: Democrat Doug Jones held his bash in the state's biggest city, Birmingham. Republican Roy Moore held his event in a barn in the small town of Midland City, in the Wiregrass region of rural southeast Alabama, which is the ninth most rural state, with 41 percent of the population living in rural areas.

The settings "evoked the cultural and political divide that’s come to define the two parties in modern America," Arit John reports for Bloomberg. The race will likely be decided "along the urban-rural lines that played a major role in last year’s presidential election and the votes are being cast amid shifting attitudes about sexual misconduct, intense partisanship and deep anti-establishment resentment in parts of the electorate." That narrative has been accentuated since President Trump stepped into the fray and stumped for Moore.

Many view the race as a lot more than one race between two candidates. The national parties (and most onlookers) see the race as a possible indicator for how the winds will blow in the 2018 midterm elections, especially since rural voters were critical to President Trump's success.

Doug Jones (Photo: Birmingham Times)
The race could also be seen as a test of the power of partisanship and tribalism. Moore has been deviled by accusations of sexually harassing and assaulting teenage girls when he was in his 30s, as revealed by The Washington Post. And most Republican senators refused to endorse Moore. But the pull of party is strong in a state where no Democrat has been elected to a statewide position in more than a decade and Moore is a folk hero to many for his jousts with judicial authorities as a judge. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon emphasized the importance of keeping the seat in Republican hands when he campaigned for Moore. "They want to destroy Judge Roy Moore and they want to take your voice away," Bannon said at a recent rally in Fairhope.

The race could also be construed as a referendum on the way rural residents view the news media. Many Alabama Republicans view the accusations against Moore to be a liberal hit job. Bannon, a vocal ally of Moore, said Moore is the victim of an orchestrated conspiracy between the mainstream media and establishment Republicans.

And finally, many view the race as an indicator of how seriously people are willing to take survivors of sexual harassment and assault. As we have reported, victims in rural areas may face additional obstacles because of limited access to support and resources.

Bigger cattle are changing the way we eat beef

American cows have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, since cattle farmers say it's more efficient and cheaper. The average cow weighted about 1,000 pounds in the mid-1970s, but was 1,363 lbs. in 2016, an increase of about nine pounds a year. And that's changing the way your steaks look. "As U.S. beef cattle have ballooned in size, experts say, restaurants, grocery stores and meat processors have had to get creative in how they slice and dice them up. Increasingly, that means thinner steaks — as well as more scrap meat and 'alternative' cuts designed to make the most of a bigger animal," Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post.

Chart from The Washington Post
But there's evidence that Americans don't like the changes to their steaks, which could hurt beef sales. Josh Maples, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University, told Dewey, "If you buy a steak, you have a picture in your mind of what it should look like . . . If you make that thinner, or you cut it in half — for many people, that ruins the eating experience."

The problem lies in the increasing diameter of the cows' muscles. An upcoming study in Food Policy says they result in huge, expensive portions if they're cut to the traditional thickness, so the easiest solution for butchers, restaurants and grocery stores has been to cut the steaks thinner. Others, like popular steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse, cut the steaks to the traditional thickness, but cut bits off the edges to put in kebab or chili dishes.

With cattle continuing to get larger, Texas A&M University animal sciences professor Davey Griffin says consumers will simply have to adjust, Dewey reports.

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers, state attorneys general urge Army Corps to act on Asian carp

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel maps; click on the image to enlarge it.
"A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to further delay its study on how to upgrade a waterway choke point near Lake Michigan to deter Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes," Melissa Burke reports for The Detroit News.

The Corps of Engineers released a draft in August that detailed a $275 million plan to keep the invasive species from getting into Lake Michigan by using electric barriers and other deterrents at the Brandon Road lock and dam near Joliet, Ill. The original timeline for the project calls for the final version of the report to be done by February 2019.

The Dec. 7 letter co-signed by 26 members of the House urges the Corps to stick to that original timeline, saying more delays will increase the likelihood that the carp will reach the Great Lakes. The letter also echoed a similar letter sent to the Corps by the senators of Michigan, saying that the process is taking far too long. "Current estimates indicate it will take as long as eight years to have a barrier installed at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam," wrote U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, and Gary Peters. "This timeframe is simply unacceptable with Asian carp having been discovered closer and closer to the Great Lakes, including an adult Asian carp captured above the electric barrier, just nine miles from Lake Michigan" in June.

"Construction of the full upgrades for Brandon Road is likely years away," Burke reports. First, the Corps must conduct a feasibility study, then federal and state agencies must review it, then the chief of engineers will issue the final report. If Congress authorizes and funds the project, it could be constructed about four years after authorization.

The attorneys general in three Great Lakes states are urging a faster solution: shut down the Brandon Road lock and dam entirely and put up a big concrete wall. Republican Bill Schuette of Michigan and Democrats Lori Swanson of Minnesota and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the Army Corps proposing the plan, which they say would cost about $5.9 million.

"The group cites an analysis co-authored by Wayne State University supply-chain management professor John C. Taylor and East Lansing transportation consultant James Roach that concludes the Corps overstates the economic impact of closing the dam, which the Corps determined would hit shippers and bulk producers with about $318 million in "lost transportation cost savings," Garret Ellison reports for Michigan Live.

Survey shows young farmers are increasingly female, minority, and environmentally conscious

Young people are bringing much-needed new blood to farming and agriculture, according to a new survey and report from the National Young Farmers Coalition, and they're not shy about getting involved in policy debates about farm and food issues.

Who are they? In a snapshot, they tend to be college-educated and increasingly racially diverse, and many were lured to farming by the increasing demand for local and organic food. About 60 percent of the respondents were women and 75 percent did not grow up on a farm. The survey says they're "strongly committed to environmental stewardship, with 75% of current young farmers describing their practices as 'sustainable,' and 63% describing their farming as 'organic,' though many of them have not sought certification."

But these under-40 farmers can face significant challenges such as lack of land access, student loan debt, knowing about federal aid programs, making a living, and getting affordable health care. Accordingly, NYFC is calling on lawmakers to enact their "Young Farmer Agenda", a raft of suggested policy reforms based on their survey findings that would help young farmers succeed. Suggestions include: "addressing land access and affordability; helping young farmers manage student debt; increasing the skilled agricultural workforce; enabling farmers to invest in on-farm conservation; improving credit, savings, and risk management opportunities for young farmers; and addressing racial inequity among farmers."

Helping young farmers succeed is in the nation's best interests; the average age of today's farmer is 60 years old, and many don't have a family member or other designated successor to pass the land on to at retirement. That means that hundreds of millions of acres of farmland will change hands within the next five years, and qualified farmers are needed to work the land. Some legislators are paying attention, such as Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). who introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in November. The bill proposes a national strategy to address issues farmers face such as "accessing land, building skills, managing risk, reaching financial security and investing in conservation," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Oates writes that securing permanent funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is also important, since the program funds beginning farmer education, outreach, training and land access. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Elite colleges change ways, court rural students

Elite universities and colleges say they have tried for years to bring in more students from rural areas, but their own policies have created obstacles for poor, white students. A study of eight selective colleges in 2009 found that poor, white applicants are much less likely to be admitted to elite colleges, even less so if they had been leaders in 4-H or Future Farmers of America. Rural kids who have high GPAs and SAT scores tend to go to state schools or community colleges, if they go to college at all.

Amid increasing skepticism about the cost and worth of college, especially among Trump voters, some such schools have redoubled their efforts. One is Swarthmore College, a private institution just south of Philadelphia which this year "created a recruiting program targeting rural students called Small Town Swarthmore, which helps fund candidates’ visits to the campus," Douglas Belkin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Public colleges are acting, too. Georgia Tech, the University of North Carolina at Chapel HillColumbia University and Carleton College have all stepped up efforts in recent years to attract more rural students, Belkin reports. "In January, the North Carolina university system approved a plan to increase enrollment of rural students by 11 percent by 2021. Princeton University has expanded its ROTC class and this year is reinstating a transfer program that includes community colleges—both of which disproportionately help students from rural backgrounds." 

It's a problem that needed addressing. "The education gap between rural and urban residents has been growing for decades," Belkin notes. "Though college attendance has risen for both groups, the rural rise has been smaller, and the gap has more than doubled—from seven points in 1980 to 16 points by 2015. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown admissions biases against rural students with financial needs."

HUD says homelessness decreased in most places this year; secretary urges local solutions

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development map; click on the image for a larger version.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told reporters on a conference call last week that homelessness is not just a federal problem, but a "societal problem" and that more local solutions could help.

Overall homelessness increased for the first time in seven years, according to HUD's report, though 30 states saw declines in homelessness. Most of the increase was in West Coast cities. The report says rural homelessness decreased, but getting the true numbers can be tricky since the survey is done in late January when many homeless people are able to briefly stay with a friend or spring for a cheap hotel until the weather warms up. Homelessness among veterans has decreased overall, but youth homelessness has increased (partly due to better counting).

During the call, "HUD officials declined to discuss federal budget proposals and funding mechanisms, like Section 8 vouchers, that could ease the local housing crisis, instead emphasizing the importance of communal response and public-private partnerships in spurring future multi-family and mixed-income development," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty. Increased local funding may be a problem in cash-strapped small towns and rural areas.

Study says accidental gun deaths surged after the post-Sandy Hook spike in gun sales

A study published last week in the journal Science found that a surge in gun purchases after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 caused about 60 more deaths than otherwise would have happened, and that 20 of those killed were children -- the same number of children who died in the school shooting. Most of the deaths were caused by improper or inadequate gun storage, not suicide or homicide, researchers Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight found. Some 3 million guns were sold in the months after the shooting, a spike driven by fears that it would cause new restrictions or bans on guns.

The black line is monthly firearm sales. The blue bars are accidental firearm deaths per 100,000 children between December and April of each year. (Wellesley College graph; click on the image to enlarge it)

"The work by two Wellesley College economists tackles one of the biggest questions in gun research: how to measure the relationship between gun prevalence and gun deaths," William Wan reports for The Washington Post. "For decades, hamstrung by lack of funding and the politically charged landscape surrounding gun control, researchers have lacked data to try to answer that question."

Researchers struggle to find meaningful data on whether gun sales, ownership, laws, type of guns, or other factors that influence gun violence since gun ownership data is hidden from the public on a state and federal level. The Sandy Hook shooting offered an opportunity for the researchers to create what is effectively an experimental model to study what happens after a known spike in gun sales. The researchers measured Google searches for terms like "buy a gun," which has correlated with increased gun sales in the past. They also looked at the number of gun purchase background checks. Those numbers correlated with a spike in gun-related deaths, according to databases of nationwide deaths. 

Levine emphasized that it wasn't the Sandy Hook shooting itself that caused that increase in gun sales and deaths, but the fear of potential legislation being passed. It shows "the unintended consequences of public policy," Levine told Wan.

Data analysis shows Trump's EPA has slowed actions against polluters; some small towns suffer

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has promised that regulatory rollbacks don't mean a "free pass" for those who violate environmental laws, but an analysis of EPA enforcement data shows that the Trump administration has taken substantially less action against polluters when compared with the previous two administrations. Small towns may be suffering because of it.

"The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under Mr. Pruitt's leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period," Eric Lipton and Danielle Ivory report for The New York Times.

That's not the only difference. The EPA sought $50.4 million in civil penalties from polluters in cases initiated after Trump took office, which (adjusted for inflation), is 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought in the same time period and 70 of what the Bush administration sought.

The EPA can force companies to retrofit their factories to decrease pollution, an action known as injunctive relief. Trump's administration has ordered about $1.2 billion worth of such retrofitting; adjusted for inflation, that's 12 percent of what was ordered under Obama and 48 percent of what was ordered under Bush. The Times' data, analysis and methodology was vetted by EPA officials who served under presidents Obama and Bush to ensure accuracy.

Part of the reason for the drop in enforcement may be that EPA enforcement officers no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests necessary for building a case against polluters without receiving permission from Washington. The Times' records analysis showed a drastic drop in requests for tests after the EPA enforcement officers lost that autonomy.

Another reason for the drop in enforcement may be that offices are simply short-handed. More than 700 employees have left the EPA since January, many of whom were offered buyouts deliberately aimed at reducing the size of the agency. Some higher level political appointments have been left vacant for months also.

"Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt's team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives," Lipton and Ivory report.
The Heritage Thermal plant after the July 2013 accident (EPA photo)
 The fallout from the EPA's philosophical change is illustrated clearly in East Liverpool, a small town in Ohio where the residents enthusiastically voted for Trump. Under the Obama administration, the EPA gathered evidence and began a case against Heritage Thermal Services because their hazardous waste incinerator near downtown was repeatedly and illegally polluting the town's air. In 2013 a breach in the incinerator spewed toxic ash containing lead and arsenic into nearby neighborhoods and set off fires at the plant. But under the Trump administrator that EPA has done nothing to punish the plant's owner.

"The Times identified more than a dozen companies or plants like Heritage Thermal that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but as of late November had not faced EPA penalties," Lipton and Ivory report. One of them was S.H. Bell, also in East Liverpool, that allowed toxic levels of dust with heavy metals like manganese to drift beyond its property line. Tests found that the area near S.H. Bell had the highest levels of ambient manganese in the U.S., and research led by the University of Cincinnati found that children in East Liverpool appeared to have lower I.Q. scores because of the manganese present in their bodies.

Maine hunter saves buck trapped in frozen lake, says 'These animals are a gift'

Photo by Justin Wyman
Out of rural Maine comes a heartwarming story about an avid hunter who did the last thing anyone might expect by saving a deer from an untimely death.

Justin Wyman, 28, is a crew leader with the Maine Department of Transportation, but in his down time he loves hunting. "I'm not one of those animal-rights people," he told Dugan Arnett of the Boston Globe.

But late last month, on a drive up rural Route 27, he noticed a dark shape floating in a hole in the ice on Flagstaff Lake. He thought it might be a log, but soon realized it was a deer after pulling over to investigate and talking to a state warden already on the scene. He told the warden, Pat Egan, that he had a boat at his house nearby and asked if Egan wanted to help him rescue the six-point buck. Egan and another warden who had just showed up were all for it. But the rescue would be no walk in the park.

"Rescuing a deer in such difficult conditions would be risky. There were 200 yards of ice no more than 2 inches thick between them and the animal," Arnett reports. "They’d have to break a path and find a way to return the creature to safety without getting into trouble themselves. If they ended up in the water, they wouldn’t last long. And there was no way to be sure the deer would survive in any case."

The story of the buck's rescue is recounted in breathtaking detail in the original story (which you should read), but here's the point: the buck lived, and Wyman says he doesn't think it's strange at all to save an animal he otherwise might have hunted.

"You have to have respect for the animal that could potentially provide for you and your family someday," he told Arnett. "Some people take a lot of things for granted, but those animals are a gift."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Reporters covering rural communities and issues in ProPublica's new Local Reporting Network

Seven local newsrooms and reporters, several of them covering rural communities and issues, have been picked from 239 applicants to start the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

The nonprofit, investigative news organization created the network "to support investigative journalism at local and regional news organizations, particularly in cities with populations below 1 million," it says. "ProPublica will reimburse the newsrooms for salary for the selected reporters and provide extensive support and guidance for their stories. . . . The projects selected by editors should surprise and probe deeply, with the potential to spur positive change."

The network members include the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, Ore., which will hire Jayme Fraser, now a reporter with The Missoulian in Montana, as a third reporter. "Fraser will build on the Enterprise’s work investigating the circumstances of the release by state officials of [a man] accused of murder and assault following his release," the Enterprise reports. "Fraser will delve into Oregon’s system for dealing with those guilty of crimes but insane."

Others whom ProPublica selected for the reporting network are:

Molly Parker, a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale. She "plans to focus on issues related to low-income and federally subsidized housing, particularly, she said, where it concerns the health and safety of residents and the viability of the surrounding communities and neighborhoods in high-poverty areas," the SI reports. "For the past two and a half years, Parker has reported on severe mismanagement of funds and facilities and the neglect of Alexander County's housing projects, which led HUD to take over the local housing authority. HUD is relocating residents from complexes known as McBride and Elmwood and plans to demolish them once everyone has moved."

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the leading environmental reporter in Appalachia, "will be investigating the effects of West Virginia’s economic transition as the coal industry declines and natural gas has become a more dominant industry," the newspaper reports. ProPublica reports, "In 2014, when a chemical leak contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people, Ward exposed significant flaws in federal safety guidelines for the chemicals and in the state’s water sampling program. His disclosures led to the appointment of an independent scientific team to examine the spill’s impacts." He told the Columbia Journalism Review a few years ago,“I can’t think of many places that are in need of good journalism more than West Virginia is, or what higher calling journalists have than to try to write stories that make their home a better place.”

Rebekah Allen, a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., which also covers New Orleans. The newspaper hasn't reported what she will be working on. ProPublica reports, "She is a member of the paper’s small team of reporters focused on investigative projects and enterprise stories. Last year, she produced a three-part series highlighting how the state’s powerful nursing home lobby fought off efforts to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to receive care in their homes."

Rebecca Moss of the Santa Fe New Mexican, "who has covered energy and environment issues for the paper since 2015," it reports, also without revealing what she and ProPublica will investigate. ProPublica reports, "Last year, she co-wrote an article about how a company that processes and distributes fertilizers and other agricultural products had found a friendlier regulatory climate under the state’s Republican governor than under her predecessor. And this year, she wrote about how a New Mexico town had stepped up to be part of a nuclear waste disposal experiment, even as other states and towns had balked."

Abe Aboraya, a Health News Florida reporter based at WMFE in Orlando. "Aboraya has covered the deadly shooting at the Pulse nightclub and produced an hour-long documentary and podcast on the health care workers who responded to the massacre," ProPublica reports. "Aboraya has also looked at HIV’s impact in Florida and how state budget cuts have reduced access to prenatal care."

Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune, who has covered police and public safety stories for the northeast Indiana paper "and recently took on a new assignment covering education," it reports, without revealing what he will work on. His executive editor told him recently that there are two types of police reporters: "Those who try to make friends with officers and get rewarded with juicy tips about crimes, and those who press for answers on such thorny topics as civil rights, misconduct and accountability." He has chosen the second approach, and “That hasn’t gotten me invited to any barbecues,” he wrote in his application, “but I believe I’ve better served my readers with aggressive reporting on issues such as excessive force, the imperfect protective order system for domestic battery victims and policies on deadly high-speed police chases.”