Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Researchers urged to engage more with Appalachian communities, stop drop-in 'helicopter' research

Joyce Bells-Berry of the Mayo Clinic spoke at the Appalachian
Translational Research Network Summit. (Photo by Melissa Patrick)
"A big step toward improving health in Appalachia would be closer relationships between residents of the region and researchers — who often drop in, gather data and leave," Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News. "That’s what researchers were told last week as they gathered in Lexington to talk about their work in Appalachia, ranging from opioid disposal programs to air and water quality."

Joyce Bells-Berry of the Mayo Clinic, the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Appalachian Translational Research Network Summit, said Appalachian researchers should stop "helicopter" research: "Community engagement allows us to get to the 'why' so that we can answer our research questions in a way that is pivotal for changing the lives of those around us, in a way that builds partnerships and mutual respect, while taking into consideration the needs of those around us, not just our needs as the academics."

The ATRN comprises nine universities in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Tennessee that work together to improve research and training efforts in Appalachia, in hopes of improving health in those communities.

Scott Lockard, director of the Kentucky River Health Department, said Appalachian Kentucky is "ripe for collaboration" with researchers whose work will improve the lives of everyday Kentuckians, Patrick reports. Read here for more about the summit.

Senate Ag Committee chairman says new Farm Bill won't likely pass before election day; current law expires Sept. 30

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said Monday that Congress won't likely pass a new Farm Bill before the current one expires on Sept. 30, and said it will be tough to get it done before the Nov. 6 election. He also said he doesn't want to talk about extending the current bill because that would shift focus to the old bill instead of the new one, which wouldn't help the top four negotiators reach a final agreement, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico

Roberts said he and ranking committee member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., along with their House counterparts Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., "have found a way to reconcile differences in the commodity title, which includes programs like agriculture risk coverage and price loss coverage," McCrimmon reports. But they have yet to agree on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The House wants work requirements for able-bodied adults participating in the program, and its bill would overturn a court ruling that allows the public to see how much SNAP revenue a retailer gets each year. Grocers had lobbied for the provision, saying such information hurts them with competitors. The Senate version does not include work requirements, McCrimmon reports.

"I think if we could get the waiver challenge behind us, working with the administration, that would be very helpful. If we do that, I think we could get ourselves to a Farm Bill," Roberts said.

Judge blocks Yellowstone grizzly hunt, says feds shouldn't have taken the bears off the endangered species list

"The Matriarch" is Thomas Mangelsen's
most famous photo of Grizzly No. 399.
On Monday a federal judge in Montana reversed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to allow the hunting of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. "The order, issued by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, effectively cancels what was to be the first bear hunt in the lower 48 states since 1991," Tim Stelloh reports for NBC News. "Christensen temporarily blocked the planned hunt in Wyoming and Idaho last month, two days before the season’s opening day."

Ruling in lawsuits filed by Native American tribes and wildlife advocates, Christensen wrote that her decision wasn't about the "ethics of hunting," but because she believed the FWS "failed to make a reasoned decision" in deciding Yellowstone grizzlies were no longer an endangered species. She also wrote that the agency didn't consider the impact hunting Yellowstone grizzlies would have on five other bear populations in the U.S., which it was required to do, and that its analysis of threats to the roughly 700 Yellowstone grizzlies was "arbitrary and capricious."

Wyoming issued 22 hunting permits and Idaho issued one for the anticipated hunt. Some of those hunters had their sights on Grizzly No. 399, made iconic by acclaimed wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen. On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Mangelsen talked about how he had documented almost every facet of No. 399's life for more than a decade, including her giving birth to three sets of triplets and two sets of twins. He said, "There's people here who have said that they can't wait for a season to open so they can shoot 399 because that would be the biggest prize, the biggest trophy."

More than 7,000 people entered a lottery to receive one of the 22 hunting permits in Wyoming. Mangelsen put his name in and, against the odds, snagged one. He said that if the hunt were allowed to proceed, he would only shoot with a camera.

Increased soy sales to E.U. bring some relief to U.S. farmers, but can't make up for loss of Chinese buyers

The U.S. recently passed Brazil to become the top seller of soybeans to the European Union, but that "doesn’t come close to replacing the business with China that U.S. soybean growers have lost due to retaliatory tariffs," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "The U.S. exported about $587 million worth of soybeans to Europe over the 12-week period, which is roughly $2.5 billion on an annualized basis. China, the world’s largest importer of soybeans, bought up $12.3 billion worth of U.S. soybeans in 2017 — that’s 60 percent of all U.S. soy exports."

And U.S. farmers are dealing with a double whammy: not only is the E.U. not buying as much soy as China did, but slumping U.S. soy prices mean those sales aren't going as far, McCrimmon notes. Still, the uptick in E.U. sales does blunt the impact of Chinese tariffs for American farmers. Chad Hart, an associate economics professor at Iowa State University, told McCrimmon, "Europe is a sizable market, so growth (hopefully sustained) helps ... but compared to China, this is only a partial offset."

Get ready for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 7-13

With President Trump calling the news media "enemies of the people," it's more important than ever to remind the public about the importance of newspapers. That's why the theme for the 78th annual National Newspaper Week is "Journalism matters. NOW more than ever."

Observance of National Newspaper Week will be held Oct. 7-13. It is sponsored by Newspaper Association Managers, the consortium of North American trade associations representing newspapers on the state, regional and national level.

To help your paper observe the week, organizers have published a content kit with editorials, editorial cartoons, promotional ads and more. All materials are free for download by any daily or non-daily North American newspaper. Learn more here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Crop bailouts may not be enough to keep farmers' votes

U.S. farmers will soon begin receiving bailout funds from the government designed to help insulate them from the ongoing trade war with China, but some think the payments may not be enough to help, and may sway farmers to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections. “Corn farmers get the smallest slice of the aid pie,” Juliet Linderman reports for The Associated Press. “Corn groups estimate a loss of 44 cents per bushel, but they're poised to receive just a single penny per bushel.”

Kevin Skunes, a corn and soybean grower from Arthur, N.D., and president of the National Corn Growers Association, told Linderman: "It's pretty obvious that the rural agriculture communities helped elect this administration, but the way things are going I believe farmers are going to have to vote with their checkbook when it comes time.”

FactCheck Monday: Trump and Clinton claims fall short of reality

Last Monday The Rural Blog began a weekly series that will continue until Election Day, in which we list a few of the most relevant items from FactCheck.org. It's a well-sourced, non-partisan service run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We encourage you to subscribe to their alerts, which you can do here, and republish their findings, which you can do for free with credit to them.

President Trump has said that Medicare has become "stronger" during his administration; in one instance he said "Medicare will be $700 billion stronger over the next decade thanks to our growth." However, Medicare's finances have gotten worse since his inauguration, its current model is unsustainable, and economists don't expect growth to help the program as much as he claims, Eugene Kiely writes. The Medicare Part A trust fund, which covers hospital payments, is projected to run out of money by 2026, three years sooner than last year's projection, partly because last year's tax cut reduced revenues and increased expenses. Meanwhile, "the annual cost for all four parts of Medicare — including physician payments and prescription drugs — is expected to more than double from $710 billion in 2017 to $1.44 trillion in 2027, and general revenues will increase as a share of Medicare financing from 41 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2032," Kiely reports. And though Trump said Medicare tax revenue would increase $700 billion over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in April that economic growth would increase payroll tax revenues for all programs (including Social Security) by only $92 billion.

In a recent op-ed for The Atlantic, Hillary Clinton said President Trump has shown a "complete unwillingness to stop" Russian interference in U.S. elections. That's not true, Robert Farley writes. Though the effectiveness and thoroughness of the Trump administration's actions is debatable, it has taken several steps against foreign interference. The Department of Homeland Security is working with state and local election officials in every state, providing technology assistance and vulnerability assessments. Also, the FBI has been sharing specific threat indicators and social-media account information with social-media and tech companies to help them thwart influence campaigns such as the one Russia carried out before the 2016 election. President Trump expanded sanctions against some Russians who interfered in that election, and signed an executive order that will give the president discretion to impose sanctions on countries that interfere in U.S. elections.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Recovering addict who writes a column for Kentucky and Tennessee newspapers publishes a book about experiences

Phillip Lee, a recovering drug addict who writes a column for newspapers in Appalachian Kentucky and Tennessee, has published a book, The Journey of an Addict.

"Through overdoses and many hospitalizations, through nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, through drug treatment programs and prisons, I survived through it all only by the grace of my higher power," Lee writes on Amazon. "This book is part of a complete dedication in my life to helping others reach recovery. Not being easy at all, I tell how it's the hardest thing I've ever done in life. I tell you about the personal rewards of recovery. The freedom and calm that is gained is second best to nothing. Looking back on some of the insane and dangerous situations, I can even laugh at some of the stories now."

Lee began writing a column for the weekly Clinton County News in his hometown of Albany, Ky., in May 2017. For a while it bore the name of the book as well as the title "An Addict's Corner." Now only the book carries the name.

"The Journey of an Addict is a series of stories and personal experiences I have gone through in active addiction, my experiences now, and what it takes to remain drug-free today," Lee writes. "I give all the credit to my higher power, who is Jesus Christ, whom without today I am nothing. As an addict, I know you will gain understanding of your own addiction through reading this book. As a family member of an addict, you will gain real world knowledge of what we as addicts go through on a constant basis."

Friday, September 21, 2018

Klamath County wins Culture of Health Prize from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for efforts to improve health

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has announced the winners of the 2018 Culture of Health Prize, which recognizes American communities that have improved residents' health or access to health care. Awards are given for different kinds of communities: urban, suburban, rural, and tribal.

Klamath County (Wikipedia map)
The winner in the rural category is Klamath County, Oregon. The county has been struggling economically after the local decline of the timber industry, and was further hurt by the Great Recession. Local Native Americans in the Klamath Tribes were even worse off because of decades of land rights loss. "Steep barriers to health across the county have included inadequate transportation, high rates of substance abuse, uneven access to nutritious food, lack of law enforcement presence, low graduation rates, and limited access to health care," the foundation reports.

But: "In 2012, leaders in health and social services here took action, forming the Healthy Klamath coalition with the mission of creating a healthier community," the foundation reports. "Since then, the county has made progress on key outcomes, boosting graduation rates, revitalizing parts of their urban center, and reducing crime. Now, Klamath County is working to increase access to fresh produce, address transportation needs, and check teen tobacco use. The efforts have expanded as Klamath has taken steps toward creating more and better jobs and cultivating a stronger network of interconnected social, behavioral, and health care services."

Klamath leaders tapped the area's higher education institutions to create innovative approaches to health with cutting-edge technology. For example, professors and students at the Oregon Institute of Technology are using geographic information system technology to help with new health initiatives.

County leaders are also working hard to improve the quality of life for Native American and Hispanic residents. In 2014 Klamath County Public Health launched the Klamath Regional Health Equity Coalition to focus on poverty and other issues in marginalized communities.

See a complete list of the winners here.

U.S. tops Brazil in soybean sales to European Union

The United States has surpassed Brazil to become the top seller of soybeans to the European Union, partly because Brazil had a bad crop year, and partly because in July the EU promised to buy more U.S. soy to fend off threatened tariffs on European car imports. 

"In the 12 weeks to mid-September, U.S. soybeans accounted for 52 percent of imports to the EU, rising 133 percent compared with the same period last year to 1.47 million tonnes. The United States had just 25 percent of the market in the same period of 2017," Andreas Rinke reports for Reuters. "Imports from Brazil dropped to a 40 percent share of the bloc’s roughly 35-million-tonne annual import market for the animal feed staple."

Prices for U.S. soybeans dropped after China mostly stopped buying them in June, making them an attractive option for European markets. "U.S. and EU negotiators have begun discussions on how to free up some trade in what Washington wants to be a bigger deal that would cut the U.S. deficit in merchandise trade," Rinke reports.

Young African American woman, a statewide Democratic nominee in Iowa, knows how to talk to rural voters: values

Deidre DeJear (Photo by Byron Houlgrave,
Des Moines Register, via Associated Press)
A teacher that some would find surprising is giving Democrats refresher lessons on how to talk to voters in rural Iowa, KNIA-KLRS News Director Robert Leonard of Knoxville writes in one of his occasional columns for The New York Times.

"It’s not just diverse urban areas where a person of color can run for statewide office," Leonard reports. "32-year-old Deidre DeJear, an African-American small-business owner, is the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. If Ms. DeJear beats the Republican incumbent, Paul Pate, in November, she’ll become the first African-American to win statewide office in Iowa. About 91 percent of Iowans are white; only about 4 percent are African-American."

At a statewide Democratic dinner in June, DeJear "drew the most applause while being introduced," Leonard reports. "I asked about a dozen people why they felt so strongly about her and her messaging. People spoke of her “charisma,” “quiet confidence,” “her passion”; she “makes us feel like family,” one said. Ms. DeJear has a skill that Democrats would like to have more of: She knows how to talk to rural Iowans. So did Barack Obama. They share some similarities: Their messages are about ideas and values. She told me she doesn’t care if someone she talks with in rural Iowa voted for [right-wing U.S. Rep.] Steve King, or for Donald Trump. People change and candidates change, she noted. “They may no longer share your values,” she said she tells voters. “That’s O.K. Vote your values.” Like Mr. Obama, Ms. DeJear hits a recurring theme: opportunity for all."

The Rural Blog asked Leonard to tell us more about DeJear, and he did in an email: "She became the Democratic nominee much to my surprise. Her opponent was a young veteran, Jim Mowrer, who had great name recognition. He had previously lost to Steve King, and then to Young. Mowrer said all of the right things, but when you looked him in the eye there was nothing there. . . .You could tell it was an act. A script. Or that is my opinion anyway. After all of the people I have interviewed over the years, I can tell in the first ten seconds if they are the real deal or not, D or R."

DeJear "has incredible warmth, and personality, and worked her ass off," Leonard wrote. "Mowrer was calling it in, and didn't try very hard. What Diedre had to do was meet a lot of people. Apparently she did. I've watched her work a room better than anyone, even Obama. When she speaks with you it's like you are the most important person she has met all week." And that transcends race.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bill would keep secret how much revenue individual retailers get from SNAP; newspapers ask Senate to reject idea

The House version of the proposed Farm Bill contains a provision that would overturn a court ruling allowing the public to see how much Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) revenue a retailer gets in a year. The National Newspaper Association, the main lobby for weeklies and small dailies, says the grocery industry and big-box stores are pushing the proposed exemption to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader has been fighting in court for seven years to get the data. After a federal judge said it should get the data, the Department of Agriculture didn't appeal, but the Food Marketing Institute, the grocers' lobby, did so. It argued that releasing the figures "would cause some SNAP retailers substantial competitive harm," and/or "public stigma," the Argus Leader reported. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected those arguments, a month after the House Agriculture Committee included the exemption in its proposed Farm Bill.

NNA President Susan Rowell, publisher of the Lancaster News in South Carolina, told senators in a letter, "Community newspapers see considerable public interest value in USDA’s annual SNAP retailer data. The public availability of this information would enable journalists to probe many aspects of the SNAP program that should concern Congress, such as existence of food deserts, particularly in the rural and highly urban areas; possible food stamp fraud, which a skilled journalist might detect from dramatically disparate utilization of the benefit between similarly‐situated retailers; development of new capabilities by certain retailers who have begun to welcome SNAP beneficiaries, such as new freezers, dispensers and displays; and competitive pricing among locations where SNAP beneficiaries might be able to stretch their resources further."

Rowell also said the Farm Bill is not the place to amend the FOIA. "The gravest danger to transparency and accountability by the citizen-shareholders of the U.S. government is the piecemeal erosion of FOIA from year to year by individual interests hoping to gain their own particular shelters for records," she wrote. "As users of FOIA, community newspapers believe that only serious, the demonstrable and specific harms resulting from disclosure legitimately qualify for FOIA exemption."

NNA has circulated a briefing paper on the issue and urged its members to contact the Senate's Farm Bill conferees: Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas and fellow Republicans John Boozman of Arkansas, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Joni Ernst of Iowa; and Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Here's how some rural schools are arming teachers

Amid fears of school shooters, some rural school districts are allowing teachers and administrators to carry firearms. Here's how they're doing it:

Hallsville, Texas (Wikipedia map)
The school board in Hallsville, Texas (pop. 3,577), voted recently to allow three to five administrators to be armed by August 2019. Approved school guardians will be allowed to display or use the firearm on school property only if there's an active shooter or assailant using a weapon to seriously harm or kill others. Additionally, the district will have its own police department to patrol the district's five campuses," Brittany Williams reports for the Longview News-Journal.

The staff members selected to carry firearms must undergo a psychological evaluation, get a license to carry and handgun and complete extra training in crisis intervention and using a firearm. The approved guidelines didn't say what kind of firearms staffers could use, but specified that they were to use only "frangible" ammunition provided by police. Frangible bullets break into small pieces upon impact, Williams reports.

Lee County, Virginia (Wikipedia map)
In Lee County, Virginia (pop. 24,742), the school board voted last month to allow teachers to carry guns, Jennifer Ludden reports for NPR. The decision was partly an economic one, according to Supt. Brian Austin: "This was a very budget-driven decision, because we have determined that it would cost almost $600,000 to put a school resource officer in every one of our 11 schools. And if we had $600,000 at this point, it would go towards roof repairs and replacement as opposed to school safety -- even though school safety is our number-one priority in schools."

Austin said 37 teachers and staffers were interested in going armed when the proposal was approved. In order to qualify, they will have to pass a drug screen and a psychological evaluation. Guns are a better solution for his rural community than other plans, he said: "We had the incident in Indiana, where the young teacher was trying to defend his students and got shot. And some school boards started issuing buckets of rocks and bats. And we thought we could do better than that."

Butler County, Ohio (Wikipedia map)
A suburban school district in Butler County, Ohio, voted to allow staff to carry firearms in April, but a group of parents has filed suit against the Madison Local School District and its superintendent, alleging that the resolution violates a state law requiring armed school employees to be trained and certified as peace officers, Rick McCrabb and Denise Callahan report for the Journal-News in Liberty Township.

The parents say they have repeatedly asked the school board for specifics about how the staffers will be trained, rules of engagement, and where the firearms will be stored, but have not received any answers. Madison Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff told the Journal-News that the policy would comply with state law, which requires training, drug screens and mental health evaluations.

Maps show the connectedness of counties, divisions in states as measured by where your Facebook friends live a””

How connected is your county to other places in America? Measured by Facebook friends in April 2016, the connections and the borders that define communities are very interesting, and sometimes revealing. Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui of The New York Times report on an analysis of Facebook connections by economists at Harvard University, Princeton University, New York University and Facebook. They found that geography still rules, especially in rural areas, but in ways that might be surprising, or at least intriguing, in some of those places. The data generated two bmasic types of maps. The first shows connectedness between counties; the darker the color, the greater the relative likelihood that any two people living in two different counties are connected on Facebook. Sometimes, state lines make a big difference, as the map above shows.

History can make a difference. Two maps show the continuing connections between counties in the Mississippi Delta and Milwaukee (Chicago is similar) and those where the Dust Bowl drove their ancestors to Kern County, California. "Oil-producing Kern County today is also closely tied" to North Dakota's oil patch, the Times notes.

The story has several similar maps. Its other type of map divides the country into two, different three, four, 10, 20, 50, 100, 150, 200 and 435 parts, the last figure being the number of congressional districts. Those maps are intriguing because they show connections between states and divisions within states. Here's an example of the latter:

Finally, the Times generated a map showing that "some of the most economically distressed parts of the country appear to be the most disconnected: Among the 10 U.S. counties with the highest share of friends within 50 miles, six are in Kentucky." We suspect that has something to do with the state’s prevalence of small counties.

For a larger version of any map, click on it.

Workgroup for Medicaid and Medicare agency develops yardsticks for measuring rural health-care access

Improving patients' health literacy and reducing out-of-pocket costs can help improve the health outcomes of the more than 59 million Americans living in rural areas, according to a report by National Quality Forum, a non-profit organization that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services asked to identify better ways to address and measure rural health outcomes. CMS will use the recommendations to fine-tune its recently announced Rural Health Strategy.

A workgroup created by NQF recommended that health-care leaders facilitate better communication between providers and patients, and educate patients about insurance. For example, patients might not understand the risk of a high-deductible plan, Jessica Kent reports for Health IT Analytics.

The workgroup recommended that insurers speed up processes to help patients see providers more quickly, and develop measures to help them switch from a general care provider to a specialist. And because transportation is a barrier to access for many rural patients, the group suggested health-care organizations partner with existing transportation services and invest more in telehealth.

"Moreover, the workgroup supported the inclusion of measures that address specific conditions that are relevant for rural populations, including measures related to mental health, substance abuse, and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension," Kent reports.

Towns pay cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service for more help managing public lands that bring tourism

Ethan Patterson, 5, explores Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. (Associated Press photo by Chelsea Self)
More people than ever are visiting public lands to ski, hike, camp, and more, but federal funds to maintain those areas have decreased, partly because more than half of the U.S. Forest Service's budget has been used for fighting wildfires in recent years. Because of that, many small towns and rural areas have been obliged to pay Forest Service employees to maintain the land they depend on for tourism and recreation income, Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline.

Communities in Eagle County, Colorado, for example, which includes the ski resort town of Vail, are planning to pay as much as $120,000 next summer for Forest Service employees to monitor trails and campgrounds and enforce park rules, Quinton reports. Eagle County leaders have asked their congressional representatives for more funding, but some work can't wait for the slow process of federal appropriations.

Some in Vail worry that it sets a bad precedent. "Of course, because we have to, it’s how we pay the bills around here," Vail Town Councilman Greg Moffet told Quinton. "Once we take this on, it will never get fixed in Washington. We’ve solved the problem for them."

That could be bad news for small towns that aren't wealthy enough to pay for increased Forest Service help. And though increased visits bring more money to local businesses, fees for resorts on Forest Service land go to the federal government, not local governments. "U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican representing Colorado’s Third District, has sponsored a bill under which forest regions would keep half the rental fees they collect from ski resorts on federal lands, but similar bills have stalled in recent years," Quinton reports.

Florence floods put stress on North Carolina dams, call attention to the poor shape of nation's dams

A map of U.S. dams shows that many are rated "high hazard.
(Federal Emergency Management Agency map)
Devastating flooding in North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence has raised concerns about whether dams across the state, some of them already in poor condition, will be able to hold up under the strain," reports Sarah Rankin of The Associated Press. "State and local officials have been monitoring dam safety and say there have been at least two breaches so far that caused no major issues. But there have been several other locations of concern and false alarms about dam failures that have caused panic."

Of North Carolina's 5,700 dams, 1,445 have been rated high-hazard -- that is, their failure would likely kill at least one person. According to the Army Corps of EngineersNational Inventory of Dams, recent inspections showed that 185 of those high-hazard dams were in poor or unsatisfactory condition; many were in flooded areas, Rankin reports. Before Florence hit, state Dam Safety Program workers tried to reduce the likelihood of dam failure by contacting dam owners and operators to inform them of the threat and ask them to lower water levels temporarily to make room for heavy rains, she reports. 

But though North Carolina appears to have pulled through Florence without major dam failure, the hurricane draws attention to the poor condition of dams nationwide. "The American Society of Civil Engineers gave a 'D' grade to the state of the country’s dams in a 2017 report, noting the average age of the dams is 56 years old," Rankin reports. "The ASCE estimated there are more than 2,000 'deficient high-hazard' dams lacking investment in repairs and upgrades." Along with earthquakes and age, flooding is a leading cause of dam failure, she reports. And as climate change makes extreme weather more common, the risk of dam failure grows.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Child poverty rates in U.S. decline slightly, even less in rural

Child poverty in the United States declined by 1.1 percentage points between 2016 and 2017, though rates in rural areas declined only 0.7 points, according to a report by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. Nationwide, 18.4 percent of children still live in poverty; in rural areas it's 22.8 percent.

The states with the highest rural poverty rates were in the South and Southwest: Arizona with 38 percent, South Carolina with 34.4, Louisiana with 32.7, New Mexico with 31.1, Mississippi with 30.7, and Florida with 30 percent. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware had no rural data.

Child poverty rates declined the most in the West, at 1.4 percentage points. The South declined 1.1 points, while the Midwest and Northeast declined 0.8 and 0.9, respectively. But when only rural areas are considered, the South declined the most at 1.5 percentage points, followed by the Northeast at 1.1 points, the West at 0.6 and the Midwest at 0.3.

"By 2017, child poverty across the nation was still 0.4 percentage point higher than before the Great Recession," the report says. "Child poverty remained higher in cities and rural places than in the suburbs. For the first time, rates in cities dipped below the pre-recession level, although poverty is still slightly higher in rural and suburban places than in 2007."

Mental health worker makes house calls in rural Idaho

Briley meets with a client behind a convenience store.
(Idaho Statesman photo by Darin Oswald)
Rural residents often have a harder time getting mental-health care because they lack the time, money, and/or transport to make the long trip to the nearest provider. That's why one mental-health worker comes to her clients instead, Audrey Dutton reports for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.

Shawn Briley is a licensed clinical social worker in Idaho, where 28 percent of the state's population lives in rural areas and, like Arizona and Wyoming, every county has been federally designated as a mental-health provider shortage area. Briley's office is in McCall, a town of 2,991 in western Idaho, but she makes house calls to all but a few of her 20 or so clients.

"Access to mental health treatment is critically important to rural Idaho," Dutton reports. "Not only are Idaho’s mountain and frontier communities short of psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health specialists, they tend to be poorer, uninsured or underinsured, and more isolated. Between 20 and 30 percent of people have no health insurance in the region where Briley works. Suicide rates are higher in rural areas than in urban cities."

The Idaho Behavioral Health Planning Council wrote in its fiscal year 2017 report to state lawmakers that increased telehealth services would help rural residents get better access to health care, Dutton reports. But telehealth isn't the right fit for everyone, especially those who are homeless or transient and need mental health services. That's why Briley's services are so helpful to her clients. 

Ed Robinson, a client of Briley's with a host of mental illnesses, once told Briley it "'just always seemed ridiculous'" that people without reliable transportation, who might be afraid to leave home — those needing the most help to navigate life — should be expected to independently handle their mental health care," Dutton reports.

Some rural areas are slow to embrace legal marijuana

Michigan voters will decide in November whether they want to legalize recreational marijuana. Supporters of the initiative say it could help the economy in rural parts of the state, but it's been a "mixed bag" for other states, Steve Carmody reports for Michigan Public Radio.

Pueblo County (Wikipedia map)
In Pueblo County, Colorado, so many cannabis businesses have opened in recent years that local lawmakers have put a moratorium on new licenses. "The growing marijuana industry is changing people’s perception of Pueblo County. For many years, steel mills and agriculture – in particular green chiles – defined the county. But now the county is becoming synonymous with cannabis," Carmody reports.

Marijuana has brought more jobs and business investment to Pueblo, but some say it has brought problems too. Rod Slyhoff, CEO of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, said people more frequently fail local employers' drug tests. "Since legalization, the county has seen an increase in property crime and homelessness," Carmody reports. "There has also been an increase in seizures of drugs like heroin and amphetamines. And in the first six months of this year, Pueblo County sheriff’s deputies busted more than 40 illegal grow operations." Some Pueblo residents tried and failed to make recreational cultivation and sales illegal in 2016.

Rural Nevada is also slow to embrace recreational marijuana. Representatives in several rural counties said "they either have ordinances on their books that prohibit marijuana sales locally or have not seen any interest in local sales," Wade Millward reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Other counties and towns said they allow medical dispensaries but no cultivation or sales of recreational marijuana. And some rural Californians protest legalized marijuana, saying that cultivation will damage the land, use up scarce water and bring crime.

Transportation agencies' electronic messaging devices may feature some of the best one-liners in America

Electronic billboard slogans from the Utah Department of Transportation (Photo by Utah DOT)
On long stretches of rural road in states that limit billboards, sometimes the most entertaining signs are the official messaging devices of state highway departments. "As summer car travelers are noticing, state transportation officials have become a bit of a trip," Jennifer Levitz reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Traffic specialists who once stuck to dispatches like 'Westbound I-70 left lane closed at Wentzville Parkway' are spicing up electronic billboards with snark, dad jokes and the occasional eyebrow-raiser."

Examples include an admonition to "Get your head out of your apps" or warnings that "Santa sees you when you're speeding". It's unclear how well the eye-catching slogans help with road safety, but in a Federal Highway Administration-sponsored survey, respondents said roadside safety messages are more likely to change their driving behavior than other kinds of messages, Levitz reports.

Electronic message screens were originally used for more staid reminders about lane closures and reminders to use your seatbelt. But about five years ago, an Iowa Department of Transportation employee helped start the trend toward wit, Levitz reports. Traffic-safety engineer Willy Sorenson was assigned to come up with slogans for times no urgent messages were needed, and decided to have some fun. He and colleague Tracey Bramble brainstorm slogans twice a year, then run their ideas past a committee to make sure the slogans are suitable for use.

Other states' highway agencies decided to get in on the fun, and now have a Facebook group to trade ideas, according to Sam Cole, the traffic safety communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The Missouri DOT recently solicited ideas from the public. Spokesperson Taylor Brune said "Don't be a tool, buckle up, fool," was one entry rejected. "That was was an obvious no for us," he told Levitz.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rural job growth outpaces urban job growth since 2016 election; Trump earns some credit, but it's complicated

Compound annual employment growth rate by county. (Brookings Institution map)
Rural voters came out for President Trump in record numbers in 2016, partly because he promised to improve the economy. Since the election, employment in rural areas has grown faster than in big cities, according to the Brookings Institution. Rates of growth aren't the same thing as employment levels, "but assuming that overall, downtrodden rural Americans are seeing an upswing under Trump, how much credit can the president really take?" Jeff Spross writes for The Week.

The answer is complicated, Spross writes. Though Trump's environmental deregulations likely helped the mining industry, and much of the recent rural job growth is in industries like logging, mining, oil and gas, and construction, Brookings notes that such industries tend to have cyclical growth patterns. A cyclone that temporarily destroyed Australia's ability to export coal also helped.

The trade war with China has also had a complicated fallout: the tariffs on steel help steel manufacturers, but they hurt manufacturers who buy steel. And retaliatory tariffs from China and other nations on U.S. farm products were calculated to hurt rural areas, Spross writes.

The most likely explanation for why rural job growth has outpaced urban job growth is that the recovery from the Great Recession "has simply gone on long enough to reach rural America," which was slower to recover, Spross writes. "If rural America is finally getting its share of the recovery, that's certainly good news. And Trump deserves some credit. But he's also the beneficiary of good timing and circumstance."

Florence floods some N.C. hog manure pools, kills chickens

"North Carolina officials are monitoring swine-waste lagoons that were overrun or threatened by floodwaters after then-Hurricane Florence dumped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the state — and as rivers there continue to overflow," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture" summary. "Environmental and public health groups have warned that bacteria-filled waste from flooded lagoons could contaminate water supplies, though local pork groups argue the safety risks are overstated.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said Monday that lagoon breaches have been reported from one in Duplin County, and in Jones County two flooded lagoons as well as five "overtops," which is when some waste spills over the side of the lagoon. Reports are still coming in, McCrimmon reports. The North Carolina Pork Council stressed that more than 3,000 active lagoons in the state have been unaffected.

Florence has also hurt the state's poultry industry. "Sanderson Farms said Monday that about 1.7 million chickens had been killed by flooding at contractor farms in the state, and another 30 farms — housing a combined 6.3 million birds — were surrounded by floodwaters and couldn’t be reached by feed trucks," McCrimmon reports.

Challenges of rural retailing are balanced by advantages, including connections with the community

Running a retail establishment in a rural area can be tough: store owners must compete with big-box retailers such as Walmart and online sources like Amazon. But rural retailing can have some big advantages, Melanie Plenda reports for The Sentinel in Keene, N.H.

One of the biggest advantages is how invested owners are in the local community. They appreciate the quality of life rural living brings, and are actively involved in their communities, one store owner told Plenda. That's good for the community and good for the store owners, since such involvement makes for a loyal customer base.

But the lack of foot traffic can make running a rural store challenging. Rural retailers are trying to offer more incentives to keep customers coming, like in-store order pickup, rewards programs, and customer appreciation events. But the best thing they offer is customer service, Plenda reports.

"It's understandable in today's world that many retail stores have become discouraged by Amazon and the online sellers," said Elizabeth Hamshaw, owner of pet and farm supply store The Cheshire Horse in Swanzey, N.H. "But there are certainly plenty of ways to compete and remain a business of choice for your customers."

The Sentinel and Keene will host the Radically Rural Summit Sept. 27-28 to explore innovation in rural communities.

Atlantic Coast pipeline construction allowed to resume

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has allowed construction on the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline to resume Monday, a month after a federal court revoked some of the project's permits.

"In early August, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to revisit a key endangered species permit," Brittany Patterson reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "It also ruled the National Park Service needed to reissue a right-of-way approval to allow the pipeline to pass under the Blue Ridge Parkway."

On Sept. 17, FERC sent a letter to pipeline officials saying construction could continue since both permits had been received. Environmental groups, which have repeatedly challenged the pipeline in court, are not happy. D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement: "Rather than taking the time to address the major problems we have seen in federal agencies' reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, these agencies continue to rush through a rubberstamp process that ignores legal requirements – not to mention the public interest."

Outdoor recreation can bring more money to Eastern Ky., especially if locals welcome it, researcher finds

RRGToday.com map
Eastern Kentucky is known for coal production, but as that industry declines, outdoor recreation is becoming a more important part of the regional economy. It can become even bigger if local, regional and state officials can be convinced that preserving the environment will yield big bucks in tourism, contributing columnist Tom Martin writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

James Maples, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University who has done the bulk of his research on the economic impact of outdoor recreation, said rock climbing can become a major source of regional income. His focus has been Red River Gorge, where honeycombed sandstone cliffs have created a world-famous mecca for climbers. He found that climbers spend $3.8 million a year in the gorge area, which has six of the nation's poorest counties, and could spend a lot more. But first the locals needed to get more comfortable with that prospect.

James Maples
"For quite a long time, we saw that outdoor recreation is something that was largely not favorable amongst local residents. Rock climbers weren’t particularly well thought of in the community," Maples said. "But having some basic research on them has helped to change that. Also, we met with Lee County’s tourism board a couple of years ago to talk about the demographics of who these climbers are and they were blown away that they’re these very educated individuals. We found that not only did the community members want to talk to these people, but they wanted to know what is it that you like about these areas. And it turns out that rock climbers and outdoor recreationists love Lee County and these areas for the same reasons that the people who live there do. In the end, they were able to find a lot of common ground and the meeting went about two and a half hours longer than planned. It was one of the highlights of my career as an applied sociologist."

Maples said some in the region think tourism development should shoot for "the next Dollywood," but "We’ve got a Dollywood," in his native county in Tennessee, he said. "We don’t need two of those in the world. . . . The balance is really all about finding the ways to preserve these outdoor recreation areas. We have to think of them as a resource that can be damaged by overdevelopment. If we try to put too many outdoor recreation users into a space and it’s not made sustainable, then we can lose those places and those economic resources. On the flipside, if we can get good policy to make sure these places aren’t overdeveloped and are carefully maintained, then it can be not only a healthy part of our economy, but a healthy part of our community."

Monday, September 17, 2018

Starting a pre-election series via FactCheck: Trump and Obama have both played fast and loose with facts lately

At a time where accusations of the oxymoron "fake news" run rampant and news outlets are under the microscope, it's more important than ever for everyone to get their facts right. That's why each Monday from now until Election Day, and perhaps more often, we will list a few of the most relevant items from FactCheck.org. It's a well-sourced, non-partisan service run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We encourage you to subscribe to their alerts, which you can do here, and republish their findings, which you can do for free with credit to them.

As Hurricane Florence ravages the mid-Atlantic states, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the federal government shifted nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Robert Farley reports for Fact Check. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both agencies, denied the accusation and said the money represented savings from FEMA's routine operating expenses that came in under budget, and was not taken from hurricane disaster response. But FEMA's Operations and Support fund, from which the $9.8 million was transferred, plays a role in disaster response, Farley notes. In the end, whether the $9.8 million could have helped with hurricane response, it's a tiny fraction of the $26.5 billion in FEMA's disaster relief fund, he concludes.

In two early-morning tweets, President Trump rejected research that estimated 2,975 Puerto Ricans had died because of Hurricane Maria, and he made some false and misleading claims, FactCheck reports. Trump said the hurricane-related death toll in Puerto Rico was from 6 to 18, but the Puerto Rico government's earliest estimate of the toll was 64. Trump claimed that the higher estimate was done by Democrats to make him look bad, but it was found by an independent study commissioned by Puerto Rico and done by George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health. Trump said the study counted deaths for unrelated causes such as old age, but that was untrue.

FactCheck called out former President Barack Obama, too. In a Sept. 7 speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Obama said Republicans' changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had caused more than 3 million Americans to lose health insurance. "That’s according to one estimate, but another found no significant change in the rate or the number of uninsured from 2016 to 2017," Lori Robertson reports. "As politicians are wont to do, Obama cherry-picked the higher figure that more strongly supported his point."

In the same speech, Obama said it's important not to threaten the freedom of the press, and that even though he complained about Fox News, he never threatened to shut it down or called its staffers enemies of the people. But FactCheck's Eugene Kiely notes, "The Democratic president did more than complain. His administration at times took action against the cable network. The Obama Justice Department surveilled one of Fox News’ reporters, and a White House spokesman acknowledged excluding Fox News from interviews. And while he may never have called Fox News 'enemies of the people' — a phrase President Donald Trump has used repeatedly for the media at large — Obama did say that its 'point of view' was 'ultimately destructive' to the U.S."

In an Aug. 30 rally in Evansville, Ind., Trump made three unsubstantiated claims about wind turbines: that a single turbine can kill thousands of birds, that wind not blowing causes "problems," and that living near turbines is noisy enough to make someone "go crazy after a couple of years," Jessica McDonald reports for FactCheck. She notes that a 2013 study estimated that each turbine causes about five bird deaths per year, power grid operators can easily handle sporadic periods without wind, and people living near turbines are rarely exposed to sound levels above 45 decibels, which McDonald says is about as much as a humming refrigerator.

Corn futures drop as yield estimates hit record high

U.S. Department of Agriculture map shows estimated bushels of corn per acre in the Corn Belt, with 300 in purple
Citing ample rain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased its national average yield estimate for corn to a record high of 181.3 bushels per acre. "Because the market had been expecting a smaller number and not a larger one, prices dropped by double digits following the report, and December corn futures came within 1/2 cent of the life-of-contract low set back in July," Alan Brugler reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Study: Rural areas hard to count in census will lose funding

Rural areas are likely to be undercounted in the 2020 census and may lose federal funding for needed programs, says a study by the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy.

In an effort to save money, the Census Bureau will try to get people to fill out forms online and use door-to-door census workers mostly as backups. "Many people in already hard-to-count populations do not have internet access, meaning they are even less likely to get counted, said noted demographer Bill O'Hare," Susan Milligan reports for U.S. News and World Report. "Since federal dollars are allocated according to formulas based on census data, that could mean substantial losses to rural states that shared $30 billion in rural-targeted programs in fiscal year 2016."

The census was going to test its new system earlier this year in four locations: Providence, R.I., rural West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and tribal lands in Washington state. But only Providence ended up getting the dry run, which means the bureau doesn't have data on how its new system will do in areas that are rural, tribal, and/or mostly Spanish-speaking.

Some worry that a proposed new question that asks respondents if they are citizens could scare off Latinx residents. "While census forms, by law, cannot be shared with law enforcement or immigration, state officials and advocates believe the question is designed to undercount Hispanics," Milligan reports.

Small towns face rough road in disaster recovery

When natural disasters strike, cities usually have resources ready to respond and rebuild, But "nearly everything about recovery for small and sparsely populated places in the United States is harder," Terrence McCoy reports for The Washington Post. "Residents are more likely to be poor or disabled and contribute less in taxes to local governments. They’re comparatively isolated and can lack the prominence and political clout of their big-city counterparts that can help facilitate the flow of needed funding. When disaster strikes, even small-town residents’ credit scores take a greater beating, according to a Moody’s report last year on Harvey’s aftermath."

Sperling's Best Places map
That's how it was in Nichols, S.C., a town of 400. Many chose not to come back after Hurricane Matthew destroyed the town in October 2016, and other residents say they've only finished rebuilding recently. Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle told McCoy that the town felt "forgotten" during recovery efforts, and said that Florence could be "catastrophic."

Almost all of its residents evacuated this weekend after learning that flooding was likely imminent, Kirk Brown reports for the Greenville News. It's unknown how Nichols is faring now, but a but mid-Atlantic states are still struggling with heavy rains and flooding from Florence. In North Carolina, where a third of the population is rural and more people live outside of metro areas than in any other state but Texas, a meteorologist said "the worst is yet to come," Reuters reports.

"The soil is soaked and can’t absorb any more rain so that water has to go somewhere, unfortunately,” said Zach Taylor, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service. "Those rivers are going to start to crest later today and Tuesday and maybe longer."

One bright spot for small towns: they know how to lean on each other in tough times, according to Jerry Mitchell, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on environmental hazards and vulnerability. "There is evidence of a tighter community structure that can add to resiliency for rural populations that may be harder to come by in a diverse and disconnected urban population, Mitchell told McCoy. "Isolation may help to breed this resilience as the population is used to 'being on their own.'"

But a close-knit community may not be enough. Leroy Green, a Nichols resident whose house was just repaired from Matthew in July, said he doesn't know what he'll do if his home floods again. "I ain’t got that life savings this time," he told Brown. "I don’t know what I’ll do."

Mayor in town GateHouse abandoned says she won't put legal ads in new paper to be called Uranus Examiner

The rash of rural newspaper closings by giant GateHouse Media has spawned at least one replacement paper and controversy about its name. But it shows that people want local newspapers.

In June, before the company closed the Waynesville Daily Guide in south-central Missouri, Natalie Sanders quit as managing editor "to start what she calls a 'fun' paper for marketing the businesses and attractions at the tourist town" of Uranus, six miles east of Waynesville, Andrew Havranek reports for KYTV in Springfield. Sanders announced at last week's local Chamber of Commerce lunch that the operation would be expanded to "a regular newspaper for local news, legal notices, and other things you'd find in a normal local newspaper, to be called the Uranus Examiner.

Waynesville and Uranus are in Pulaski County. (Wikipedia base map)
The "town," which is actually the northeastern arm of the City of St. Robert, "is pronounced the way any self-respecting class clown would say it," The Associated Press reports. "Cue the giggling." (Astronomers pronounce the planet "YOUR-uh-nus.") KYTV notes, "Uranus sits along historic Route 66 and is known for quirky attractions."

Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman asked for the microphone at the meeting and said, "No. I'm sorry. But, the innuendo of that title puts my city up for public ridicule, and I will not be a part of it," meaning that the city's public notices won't be published in a paper with that name. "Right now, the city will have to publish them in the Dixon Pilot [in the northeast corner of Pulaski County] or the Laclede [County] Record" in Lebanon, to the southwest, KYTV reports.

Hardman said, "I think that the 'Pulaski County Examiner' would have been a real hit, and I don't believe it would've been a problem for the cities. But if you're going to place this innuendo on your name, it's not going to fly, at least for the city of Waynesville and the City of St. Robert," which lies between Waynesville and Uranus. KYTV says the Examiner's first issue is planned for late October, with free circulation to 15,000 postal patrons in the couinty.

"Darrell Todd Maurina, owner of the online newspaper Pulaski County Daily News, says despite being the new newspaper's competitor, he's also concerned about the name," KYTV reports. He said that if Uranus businessman Louie Keen "wants to pick up the slack and provide a media product to people in this community who want print media, I want to see that happen. I want to see it succeed. That name does not indicate a serious newspaper."

Friday, September 14, 2018

New TV series explores history of rural Georgia churches

Stinchcomb Methodist Church in Elbert County, Georgia. (Photo by Randy Clegg)
Rural churches were once central to their communities, but many have been abandoned as people move to cities. Georgia Public Broadcasting has started a six-part series called Saving Grace, which explores Southern history through the lens of rural churches with interviews, first-person accounts, old maps, photos and engravings, and roots music. The full episode of the first part is available here.

The GPB series is based on the work of Sonny Seals and George Hart. In 2012 they made it their mission to chronicle and preserve historic rural churches across the state. Their website, Historical Rural Churches of Georgia, documents more than two hundred churches with gorgeous photography and carefully researched histories. It's worth a read.

Daily webinars on farm safety scheduled next week, which is National Farm Safety and Health Week

Next week is National Farm Safety and Health Week, and the AgriSafe Network is observing the occasion with free webinars each day on topics related to farm safety:
  • Monday: New Immigrants in the Midwest and Agricultural Health Implications
  • Tuesday: Respiratory Health and Personal Protective Equipment for Ag Producers
  • Wednesday: Children and Tractors: Myths, Facts, or “Other”
  • Wednesday: Train the Trainer: Hazard Mapping in the Ag Classroom
  • Thursday: Safe and Healthy Recovery After a Farm Flood
  • Thursday: Confined Space - Grain Bin Entry
  • Friday: Optimizing the Health of the Female Agricultural Producer
Click here for more information about the webinars, including how to register. Click here for more resources on National Farm Safety and Health Week.

Committee increases education spending for 2019 budget, doesn't ban schools from using grant money for guns

A committee of House and Senate members struck a deal Sept. 13 that would increase funding to the U.S. Department of Education by $581 million and give more funding to programs for vocational education, special education, Head Start and charter schools. The committee agreed to set total spending for education at almost $71.5 billion in fiscal 2019. It did not ban schools from using Every Student Succeeds Act grants to pay for firearms or firearms training, as Democrats wanted.

"In general, the spending deal rejects the Trump administration's fiscal 2019 proposal that calls for slashing the department's overall budget, the elimination of several programs, and the creation of school choice initiatives," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. "The budget deal does rescind $600 million in previously appropriated reserve funding for Pell grants. If you include that figure in the calculations about decline or growth in spending, then the deal would keep Education Department funding virtually flat compared to current levels. The agreement must now be approved by both the full House and Senate" before going to President Trump.

GateHouse Media's closure of twice-weekly newspapers in two Arkansas county seats runs contrary to industry trend

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

For all the ink and electrons used to lament the shrinking of the newspaper business, most newspaper closures in the United States in the last 15 years have been among small weeklies in towns that are not the largest town in their county or its seat. That's why GateHouse Media's closure of twice-weekly papers in county seats in southwest Arkansas stand out among the company's recently announced cuts.

Today will see the final editions of The Hope Star, a twice-weekly in Hempstead County, and The Daily Siftings-Herald of Arkadelphia, in adjoining Clark County. GateHouse also closed the weekly Nevada County Picayune Times. Earlier, the news-media giant closed papers near Little Rock, the state capital.

The Star's circulation was down to 930, in a town of nearly 10,000, but it was the only paper in the county of 22,000. GateHouse's regional vice president, Matt Guthrie, wrote this week that the Star had fewer than 500 subscribers, in a county with 9,000 homes. (He didn't mention single-copy sales, which often constitute a majority of a rural paper's circulation.) He said Clark County had about the same number of homes, and the Siftings-Herald had about 900 subscribers.

Shifting blame from his company, which is owned by venture capitalists, Guthrie wrote, "In order for a local newspaper to survive it must have the support of the community. . . . The loss of revenue and subscribers was just too much to surmount." He said a new management team brought in a year ago was "saddled with a long history of unprofitability."

Guthrie added, "We have received inquiries from individuals interested in purchasing the papers we are closing and we will explore options there. We have also received calls and comments from disappointed customers expressing concerns for the loss of community coverage; unfortunately, some have included inexcusable hate speech directed to our staff."

In Hope, the news "caused our community to be flooded with emotions," Beckie Moore, executive director of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce, told Jim Williamson of the daily Texarkana Times, in adjoining Miller County. "Those who grew up in Hope remember the newspaper as their lifeline to the community. . .. The Hope Star, as with any local paper, was the community welcome mat. You could read the paper and sense that our town mattered."

Moore told Williamson, "The loss of a news source is a great loss, no matter how you look at it. Not everyone has a phone or Internet service readily available in order to 'view' online news. . . . We are fortunate to have radio stations in Hope for those who are not receiving online news. Our stations will continue providing the 'hometown connection,' and for that we should be grateful. That being said, there is something to be said about holding print and reading articles while viewing pictures." (Read more)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Bristol paper, Montana Public Radio, V.I. paper among small-newsroom winners in AP Managing Editors awards

This year's small-newsroom winners in the Associated Press Managing Editors Awards for Journalism Excellence and Innovation included the Bristol Herald Courier, serving Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, Montana Public Radio and the Virgin Islands Daily News.

The Herald Courier won the small-newsroom public service prize for “Addicted at Birth,” which the judges called "a smart, deeply reported and accessibly presented examination of a little-noticed angle of the opioid problem: babies affected by their mother's use while pregnant. The presentation – from the writing to the headlines to all the visual elements – commanded attention. It was packaged in a very reader-friendly format, offering numerous podcasts, glances, graphics, lists and other chunky bits to both convey key points and pull readers in. Exceptional work." The series also won the Scripps Howard Award for community journalism.

MPR, based in Missoula, won the small-market storytelling award for Nicky Ouellet's “SubSurface: Resisting Montana's Underwater Invaders,” which the judges called "an intelligent and compelling examination of how invasive species threaten Montana’s fisheries, and how various agencies and interest groups are not always on the same page in fighting them."

The Daily News won the small-newsroom award for news reporting for its coverage of hurricanes. The judges called it "amazing, brave journalism by a newsroom working through back-to-back Category 5 storms that literally destroyed the island. In the midst of it all, the Virgin Islands Daily News produced compelling stories, incredible photography and strongly designed work."

In most categories, the contest considers a newsroom to be small if it has 25 or fewer people. For a full list of the awards, go here.

In the First Amendment Awards, there was no small-newsroom winner. The grand prize went to The Kansas City Star for "Why So Secret, Kansas?", which the judges lauded for "exposing the pervasiveness of secrecy in Kansas state government and how that culture subverts the democratic process. The impact of the Star’s work was swift: In a 12-week span, 32 transparency measures were proposed, and the speaker of the House ended the practice of allowing bills to be introduced anonymously."

Meanwhile, APME and the American Society of News Editors (originally Newspaper Editors) are merging into the News Leaders Association, which "is expected to be in place by the 2019 News Leadership Conference Sept. 9-10 in New Orleans," they said in a news release.