Saturday, February 03, 2018

Iowa editor says state Freedom of Information Council was key to reporting and editorials that won him a Pulitzer Prize

Storm Lake Times Editor Art Cullen said his weekly newspaper in Iowa wouldn't have won the Pulitzer Prize without help from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Speaking at the Iowa Newspaper Association convention Friday in Des Moines, Cullen also warned that newspapers must appeal to younger readers with accountability journalism and editorial leadership to survive.

Cullen's Pulitzer-winning editorials were based on the paper's reporting on nitrate pollution of streams and "prairie pothole" lakes in northwest Iowa, which helped prompt the Des Moines Water Works to sue three area counties for failing to control the pollution. The counties' insurance policies didn't cover such claims, and officials wouldn't reveal how they were going to pay the legal bills, so Cullen got help from the Iowa FOI Council, which demanded the names of donors under threat of a lawsuit. The records were heavily redacted, but showed that the counties had agreed with the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Agribusiness Association of Iowa to keep the donors secret. Cullen said the AAI was subject to the state open-records law because it was acting as an agent for the counties, and the paper knew that representatives of Monsanto Co. and Koch Industries had met with AAI to discuss setting up the defense fund. The paper's investigation provided grist for Cullen's editorials.

Cullen said "a few" readers canceled subscriptions, saying the paper was "anti-farmer," but he said the Des Moines Register poll found that most rural Iowans agreed with the position of the water works, that agricultural fertilizer is primarily responsible for the nitrate pollution. He said the paper's circulation has increased, and "I think people want to see a fighter." He also said accountability journalism and editorial writing "is the future because people want to be told the right way to go."

But to survive, newspapers must use those tools to appeal to younger readers, Cullen said. "All our readers are dying," he said. "We have to figure this out in the next five years or it's goodnight, Irene."

Rural journalists win awards from Iowa Newspaper Assn.

Several rural journalists won top awards from the Iowa Newspaper Association Friday at its Des Moines convention, perhaps the largest of any newspaper association in the United States. Two publishers and a newspaper co-owner were named master editor-publishers, an award based on hard work, sound judgment, unselfish influence and an honorable life. Two editors received distinguished service awards for their contributions to their newspapers, their communities and/or the newspaper industry.

Doug Burns interviewed Barack Obama in 2007.
Doug Burns, co-owner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald and other papers, is “active in all aspects of his family’s newspapers,” his citation said. “He is well known as an outspoken advocate for rural Iowa  . . . few politicians pass through Iowa without being interviewed by him, and he is not known to throw softballs . . . He has acted as a mentor to countless young journalists.”

Paula Buenger, publisher of the Spencer Daily Reporter, was a reporter, “a sports editor in a male-dominated field,” and finally a regional publisher for Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo. “She is known for her penchant for innovation, commitment to community and her stable, reassuring voice in what can be a volatile business.”

Dodie Hook, publisher of the Akron Hometowner, “embodies the ethos of the quintessential small-town family newspaper,” her citation read. After 20 years at her hometown paper, she started a competing paper and “quickly became successful.” She has “a great relationship with City Hall” but “does not hesitate to remind her local public offices of the state’s open-meeting laws.”

Scott Spurgeon of the Bloomfield Democrat received a distinguished service awrad for his “involvement with athletic and extracurricular events,” and being “an active and passionate advocate for young people.” Don Dauterive, who is retiring from the Iowa Falls Times Citizen, got a DSA for “growing a newspaper division from representing one state to more than 15 states, all without a background in the industry.”

In the INA’s annual contest, general excellence awards went to the Carroll paper (small dailies), the N’WestIowa Review of Sheldon (large weeklies), the Dickinson County News (smaller weeklies) and the Prairie City News (smallest weeklies).

Gish Award for 2017 is presented to Cullen family of Iowa; nominations for 2018 award are being sought

Art Cullen, left, and brother John hold the award after receiving it from Institute for Rural Journalism Director Al Cross.
The Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times received the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism Friday at the Iowa Newspaper Association convention. The award, named for the crusading couple that published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years, recognizes the Cullen family's perseverance in covering and commenting on water-pollution issues in Iowa, often to the dislike of agribusiness interests that are sources of much of the pollution. For more on the Cullens, click here.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which gives the award and publishes The Rural Blog, is seeking nominations for the 2018 Gish Award, with a deadline of April 1. Nominations should measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of previous winners, which are detailed at For example, the Gishes withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them.

Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; James E. Prince III and the late Stanley Dearman, current and former publishers of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008; Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian in 2010 for her work as editor of the Corbin, Ky., Times-Tribune and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress; in 2011, Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; in 2012, Jonathan and Susan Austin of the Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.. in 2014, the late Landon Wills of Kentucky's McLean County News; in 2015, the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in EspaƱola, N.M.; and in 2016, Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Missouri.

Nominators should send detailed letters to Institute Director Al Cross, explaining how their nominees show the kind of exemplary courage, tenacity and integrity that the Gishes demonstrated in their rigorous pursuit of rural journalism. Detailed documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Questions may be directed to Cross at 859-257-3744 or

Friday, February 02, 2018

A liberal entrepreneur set out to help West Virginia and got a lesson in humility

Rural areas are fighting uphill battles on multiple fronts: job creation, opioids, infrastructure, health care, and more, and there are no easy solutions. A wealthy urban entrepreneur found that out the hard way after he decided to try to "fix" a small town in West Virginia. Though Joe Kapp has become a staunch and seasoned advocate for the area's blue collar population, he got off to a rocky start with locals who felt his efforts were condescending and hamfisted. It's a long story but well worth the read. Check it out here.

Defining 'small town' in Wyoming, the least populous state

The Casper Star Tribune recently kicked off its year-long "Out Here" series on Wyoming's rural areas with a thorny question: what qualifies as a small town in the country's least populous state?

The word "rural" doesn't have one simple definition: the Census Bureau doesn't define it directly, but it does define "urban clusters" as areas with at least 2,500 people. Less populated areas might be considered rural by that definition. Another federal definition says a county is rural if it doesn't have a city with at least 50,000 people, the requirement for a metropolitan area. Wyoming has 99 incorporated towns, but only two were larger than 50,000 as of the 2010 census: the capital city of Cheyenne at 59,466, and Casper at 55,316. Wyoming has a different legal standard for smallness: any town with a population of at least 4,000 is a "first-class city."

"In a recent online survey, Star-Tribune readers were split on how many people live in a Wyoming 'small town'," Arno Rosenfeld reports for the Star Tribune. "Twenty-seven percent thought it was any place with fewer than 20,000 people, while nearly 22 percent thought a small town in the Cowboy State had no more than 1,500 people."

Ken Johnson, a University of New Hampshire professor and rural expert, said people in rural America have different standards for what qualifies as a big or small town, such as the presence of a Walmart, courthouse or a hospital.

Gale Gunzenhauser, who lives in the 3,000 person town of Bar Nunn, has a more practical definition: "It's not crowded. I know my neighbors and my neighbors know me, but nobody bothers nobody," he told Rosenfeld, adding that he moved there to escape the sound of beer bottles breaking on the sidewalk outside his apartment in Casper. "In Bar Nunn, Gunzenhauser said, you couldn’t hear the bottles breaking: the sidewalks were made of dirt."

Recent accidents prompt more debate about whether children should operate heavy farm equipment

Kholer Schachtschneider, 8, operates a skid steer on his family farm.
(New York Times photo by Alyssa Schukar)
Kids helping their parents on the family farm is an age-old tradition, but a string of grisly injuries has sparked intense discussion among farm safety groups and in rural communities about when and whether it's safe for children to operate or play near heavy equipment such as tractors or skid steers.

A child younger than 16 dies every three days in an agriculture-related accident, and lack of age restrictions on farm equipment are a key factor, according to the National Center for Rural Agriculture Health and Safety. That's a higher number of youth fatalities than in all other industries combined.

President Obama's administration proposed a law to keep kids from operating heavy equipment, but farmers and rural lawmakers decried the move as a nanny state overreach, though the proposal would have exempted children working on their parents' farms. Federal law says children of any age can do any job on their parents' farms at any time.

Farming parents say teaching their children the family business "is a way of passing on lessons about hard work, responsibility and the pulse of the land that their children will some day take over," Jack Healy reports for The New York Times. And with so many family farms barely making a profit, the whole family has to pitch in to help make ends meet.

But an accident can cause financial problems for farmers too, as it did for the Schachtschneider family when 6-year-old Cullen shredded his left leg in a skid steer last year. The Wisconsin family had to apply for a low-income health insurance program for him, and faces a mountain of bills. But Cullen's 9-year-old brother Maric and his 8-year-old brother Kholer are still driving the skid loader because the work still needs to be done.

3 states and a province back plan to keep carp out of Great Lakes; key site is in Illinois, which isn't on board yet

Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario are teaming up to help keep invasive Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes. Other states and provinces on the lakes (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Quebec) have not joined.

"The initiative would support upgrades to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill., a key choke point between the carp-infested Mississippi River watershed and Lake Michigan," John Flesher reports for The Associated Press. "A $275 million draft plan released last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would attempt to block the carps' path toward the lake with a gauntlet of devices, including an electric barrier, noisemakers, and water jets." Illinois has resisted the plan, fearing that it would disrupt freight shipping.

If the carp make it into the lakes, they could out-compete native species and destroy a $7 billion fishing industry. One adult carp was found last June in the Little Calumet River in Chicago, just nine miles from Lake Michigan.

The Brandon Road plan could begin construction as soon as 2022 and be completed three years later. It calls for the federal government to pay for 65 percent of the $270 million projected cost of the project and for "partners outside the federal government to pay about $8 million a year for operation and maintenance once the system is up and running. Coalition members would share those costs for five years while seeking other long-term sources," Flesher reports. Each state and province's contribution would be proportional to the amount of Great Lakes area it contains. Michigan has more than 40 percent of the lakes' surface area so it would pay the most, followed by Ontario with 36 percent, Wisconsin with 10 percent and Ohio with 4 percent.

Environmental group says it will sue coal plant owner for toxic waste from coal ash leaching into Illinois river

Toxic coal ash waste leaks into the Vermilion River (Prairie Rivers Network photo)
In a case that could be repeated all over the country, a nonprofit environmental organization announced this week that it will file suit against a coal company for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Prairie Rivers Network alleges that Dynegy Inc. allowed toxic waste from one of its now-shuttered coal plants to seep into the state's only National Scenic River. PRN said it will sue because federal and state regulators haven't addressed the pollution from the plant, which is located on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River near Oakwood, about 25 miles east of Urbana.

Chicago Tribune graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
The Vermilion Power Station was built in the mid-1950s by Illinois Power and was later purchased by Dynegy. "Before Dynegy closed the plant in 2011, the two companies deposited more than 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash into pits next to the river — enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 2½ times. Testing by Dynegy and the Prairie Rivers Network shows the multicolored waste oozing into the water contains dangerous levels of heavy metals found in coal ash, including arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and manganese," Michael Hawthorne reports for the Chicago Tribune.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency cited Dynegy for pollution at the site in 2012; the case is still open. Because the plant has been closed for so long, the ash pits are exempt from Obama-era federal coal ash disposal regulations. President Trump reconsidered the regulations partly because of lobbying from Dynegy and other energy companies, Hawthorne reports. Dynegy has proposed capping the waste pits to prevent rain and snowmelt from washing coal ash into the water, but the river banks are eroding up to three feet per year, making that plan unlikely to work.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

A green light for work requirements may trigger expansion of Medicaid in conservative Republican states

"Republican lawmakers in a half-dozen states are launching fresh efforts to expand Medicaid, the nation’s health insurance program for the poor, as party holdouts who had blocked the expansion say they’re now open to it because of Trump administration guidelines allowing states to impose new requirements that program recipients work to get benefits," Jeff Stein reports for The Washington Post.

That includes efforts in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, North Carolina, Virginia and Kansas, though it's unclear whether enough conservatives will support expanding Medicaid at all, or whether Democrats will support doing so with work requirements attached. Ten states have already filed requests for work requirements; Kentucky was the first state to have them approved. 

Republican-friendly versions of the program could increase Medicaid's reach into the 17 conservative Republican states that didn't expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, albeit with reduced benefits.

Rural projects to make up a quarter of Trump's infrastructure plan; other details scant

In his State of the Union address, President Trump asked Congress to write a bill that would fund at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure development. A fact sheet released yesterday provided some insight into the long-awaited plan, calling for an unspecified amount of increased federal spending over the next decade to spur additional spending from cities, states and private companies on major projects. "A week ago, a leaked document said the administration would seek $200 billion in grants over 10 years. The federal government now pays a larger share of the cost of infrastructure work," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Though the fact sheet is short on details, it lays out some parameters for the plan. Half of the new infrastructure funds would go toward incentivizing state and local investments, and one quarter of the funds will go to rural infrastructure projects such as "rebuilding roads, providing clean water to rural families and businesses, expanding broadband access, and supplying affordable, reliable power."

The increased infrastructure spending would be offset by as-yet unspecified budget cuts. "Officials would not detail where those cuts would come from, or how the proposal would effectively leverage at least $6.50 in additional infrastructure spending for every dollar spent by the federal government, a ratio many infrastructure experts consider far-fetched," Jim Tankersley and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report for The New York Times. The plan leaves it up to Congress to figure out the details; that may make for an uphill fight, considering the strained relationship between Congressional Republicans and Democrats these days.

'Waters of the U.S.' rule dead; EPA says it will consult with states, farmers, environmentalists about replacement

Today Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt concluded the formal process of suspending the most controversial Obama-era water regulation for the next two years, and said he plans to release a different version of the rule later this year. His order takes effect Tuesday, Feb. 6, and lawsuits are expected shortly thereafter.

The 2015 "Waters of the United States" rule defined the scope of the Clean Water Act, and would have limited the use of pollutants like fertilizers that could run off into small streams. It also defined waterways more broadly, which caused expensive headaches for farmers. At the behest of farmers, rural landowners and real estate developers, eighteen states challenged the rule, and in October 2015 it was blocked by a federal appeals court pending further court challenges, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times.

"The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been racing to pause [WOTUS] since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a nationwide ban on the regulation Jan. 22," Amena Saiyid reports for Bloomberg Environment. "The Supreme Court could issue its final order to enforce its decision as early as Feb. 15, which means the rule would have taken effect across most of the country. A district court has already blocked the rule in 14 states."

Pruitt said the rollback he signed today will avoid confusion and uncertainty that could be caused by the ruling. The attorneys general of California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have signaled that they will consider suing the administration over the suspension, Saiyid reports.

It's unclear when Pruitt will share his replacement plan. He promised to rewrite it no later than May and have it in place by the end of 2018, but the EPA's regulatory agenda says the final rewrite won't be out until June 2019, Saiyid reports. The EPA and the Corps plan to consult with state water, environmental and agriculture officials this month about the scope of the Clean Water Act.

Critics say new insurance policy denying 'non-essential' ER visits expects patients to diagnose themselves

Cloyd with her daughter
(Vox photo by Luke Sharrett)
Anthem, one of the country's largest health-insurance companies, is increasingly denying coverage for emergency-room visits it concludes were not true emergencies. The policy, which has been implemented in Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia and Missouri, exempts patients younger than 15, weekend visits, and patients who live 15 miles or father from an urgent care center. Other patients can be left on the hook with huge ER bills, though, Sarah Kliff reports for Vox.

That was the case with Brittany Cloyd of Frankfort, Ky., after she went to the ER for severe abdominal pain that she thought could be appendicitis. She was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, and was prescribed pain medication and told to make a follow-up appointment with her gynecologist. Anthem refused to pay the $12,596 bill because it deemed pelvic pain not severe enough for immediate care. In the refusal letter, Anthem listed "stroke, heart attack, and severe bleeding" as examples of acceptable medical conditions for an ER visit. Anthem denied Cloyd's bill twice, but approved it after Kliff asked the company for an interview.

"Anthem’s new policy mirrors similar recent developments in state Medicaid programs, which increasingly ask enrollees to pay a higher price for emergency room trips that the state determines to be non-urgent," Kliff reports. "Indiana implemented this type of policy in 2015, and the Trump administration recently approved a request from Kentucky to do the same. Beginning in July, Kentucky will charge Medicaid enrollees $20 for their first 'inappropriate' emergency room visit, $50 for their second, and $75 for their third." 

Anthem argues that it's trying to cut health-care costs and keep people from using the ER inappropriately. But critics say the policy effectively forces patients to practice medicine and diagnose themselves. "It’s not fair to expect the patient [to come] in knowing their diagnosis. If they did, they wouldn’t come in and wait for ours," said Renee Hsia, a practicing physician and professor of health policy studies at the University of California San Francisco.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

National Rural Teacher of the Year is a hunting and fishing teacher in upstate New York

Scott Jordan
The National Rural Education Association has named Scott Jordan the National Rural Teacher of the Year. Jordan teaches fisheries and wildlife technologies in the Cuba-Rushford Central School District in upstate New York. It took a while for the NREA to find Jordan to tell him the big news, because he and his students were hunting in New Zealand. Trips like that are what made Jordan a candidate in the first place, said NREA executive director Allen Pratt.

"It was the impact on the kids," Pratt told Tom Dinki of the Olean Times Herald, "and, I think, the hands-on approach and that he could reach the highest academic student to the student that may not be at the highest level." Jordan also teaches the kids with hands-on activities close to home; he built a fish hatchery, log cabin and deer enclosure on the school grounds. The students have a nationally televised show (which they edit) called "CRCS Outdoors" that airs on the Pursuit Channel.

"Hunting and fishing lets kids gain confidence that you don’t see in a lot of other things," said Jordan, whose program teaches almost 60 high school students. The award includes about $3,000 for Jordan to use in the program.

Senators want to let health-care providers use telemedicine to prescribe drugs to treat addiction, to help rural areas

"Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Alaska's two Republican senators -- Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan -- are requesting the Drug Enforcement Administration issue a new regulation that would let certain health-care providers obtain a special registration letting them use telemedicine to prescribe medication for an opioid addiction," Rachel Roubein reports for The Hill.

Doctors can't prescribe medication for an opioid addiction without an in-person medical evaluation, but rural residents increasingly rely on telemedicine, and few live near a dedicated addiction treatment center. Medication-assisted therapy is the most effective known treatment for opioid addiction.

In their letter, the senators note that President Trump specifically supported expanding telemedicine services in fighting the opioid crisis, but the DEA has not yet authorized a special registration process for doctors to prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine.

The DEA is taking some steps to address the crisis, though: it announced last week that nurse practitioners and physician assistants will now be authorized to prescribe and dispense buprenorphine from their offices.

Fact-checking rural issues in the State of the Union address

In his first State of the Union address last night, President Trump struck an optimistic tone heavy on American exceptionalism, with conservative crowd-pleasers like faith, family, gun rights, and supporting police and the military. He also included some tough language on America's competitors and enemies. Here are some highlights of the speech that touched on rural concerns, along with fact-checking and commentary. For further reference, see the annotated scripts of the speech by The Washington Post, NPR, and Politifact.

"We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world," Trump said. There is no such thing as clean coal, and efforts to make it a reality have stalled.

Trump touted the nation's economy, noting that the stock market is at an all-time high and that unemployment claims are at a 45-year low. Both are true, though rural unemployment continues to lag and most of the world is in a bull market.

The president said the U.S. has created 2.4 million new jobs, with 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. NPR's Scott Horsley notes that this total includes job gains from November and December 2016 as well as January 2017, when Barack Obama was still president, and that job gains were 2.7 million in the last 14 months of Obama. But the past year's slowdown in job growth isn't a slam on Trump; Horsley writes: It means the economy is nearing full employment.

Trump also said the U.S. is finally seeing rising wages after years of wage stagnation. However, Politifact says this is mostly false: "By the most common measure, wages did go up for the first three quarters of Trump's presidency, but they fell in the fourth, wiping out all the gains on his watch and then some."

Trump also talked about the recent tax cuts, which he said were the biggest in American history. But when gauged by their share of the gross domestic product, 0.9 percent, they're only the eighth biggest since 1918 (the income tax was imposed in 1913), Fact Checker Glenn Kessler reports for the Post. And though the cuts may benefit the middle class and small businesses in the short term, Politifact notes that the wealthy will enjoy a disproportionate share of the cuts.

The president touched on international trade, saying "We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones" and that he wants "fair" and "reciprocal" trade relationships. But his protectionist tendencies have hurt agriculture and meatpacking, as when he pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And failing to reach a compromise on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is in its sixth round of negotiation, would likely hurt agriculture and many rural counties, especially in the South. And Trump's tough talk on China, coupled with the new solar panel tariffs, may spark a trade war that would hurt soybean farmers even as it helps coal.

Trump also vowed to keep fighting the opioid epidemic, saying "We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge." Paige Cunningham of the Post found it troubling that he cast the crisis as mainly a law-enforcement problem. He said in passing that better addiction treatment is needed, but offered no details.

The president called on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investment. Politifact disputed Trump's claim that a minor road-building permit can take 10 years: "Recent government studies say the permit approval time ranges from 4.6 to 6.6 years. The only study we found that claims a 10-year approval is common comes from an anti-regulation group, which raises questions about its reliability."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Libraries step in where local news presence declines

In some places where local news presence is declining, public libraries are stepping in to fill the vacuum. "It makes sense that librarians would get it right. Librarians understand the value of accuracy. They are familiar with databases. Americans by and large trust librarians, actually much more than they trust journalists," David Beard reports for The Atlantic. "And in a nation where traditional local news outlets are cutting back, their advertising coffers drained by Google and Facebook, their ownership increasingly by hedge funds or other out-of-town enterprises, where else can a citizen go? In some communities, the questions are basic: Who will sift through and list the best events so residents could decide whether to participate? Who would understand what makes an area distinctive and would get its history right?"

Sometimes a library's role is informal, as happened after a 2012 school shooting in a small town outside Cleveland. Author Marilyn Johnson said the town library's Facebook page was the best place to find detailed breaking news on the shooting. Sometimes it's more formal, like when Weare, N.H., librarian Mike Sullivan volunteered to write a weekly newsletter after residents complained that nobody knew when local events were happening. And some libraries are partnering with established local news sources to create and distribute news.

"To be clear, libraries are no silver bullet to everything that ails local news. Sullivan's New Hampshire weekly won’t break investigations like The Washington Post," Beard writes. "Libraries, with most of their funding dependent on local officials, aren’t a natural source for government-accountability stories. But library-backed efforts can help restore the foundation and appetite for local news—the love of community, curiosity about it, confidence to participate in it."

U.S. poet laureate launches reading tour of rural places

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith has launched a pilot project to visit rural areas, where she says book festivals don't often take her. "I'm tasked with raising the conversation about poetry . . . What I'm interested in within that larger framework is talking about poems and poetry in places where those conversations don't often happen," Smith told Andrew Travers with The Aspen Times in Colorado. "I've been excited about going into small, rural communities that don't necessarily have access to those kinds of regular programming."

Smith, who was appointed last year by the Library of Congress, kicked off her tour earlier this month with a visit to New Mexico. On Jan. 13 she held a reading at Cannon Air Force Base outside Clovis, an agricultural town on the eastern plains of the state. On Jan. 14 she visited Santa Fe Indian School, and the day afterward visited Santa Clara Pueblo, a Native American community north of Santa Fe, Mary Hudetz reports for The Associated Press. She is expected to visit rural Kentucky and South Carolina in the coming months, Travers reports.

A creative writing professor at Princeton University, Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her work Life on Mars. Her memoir Ordinary Light was a National Book Award finalist in 2015.

Average age of American farmers is increasing partly because they can't afford to retire, farmer-columnist writes

Art Thicke, 66, and his wife Jean, of LaCrescent, Minn., were
featured in a recent story in the Winona Daily News about aging
farmers in Minnesota. (Daily News photo by Andrew Link)
The average age of American farmers keeps going up, and one big reason is that older farmers can't afford to retire, Richard Oswald reports for The Daily Yonder. Declining prices for grain, oilseeds and cattle, combined with high input costs and rent, make it hard for farmers to make a profit. So a farmer who wants to retire can often only make money from selling machinery and land. That leaves farmers with no retirement fund if they pass that land and machinery on to the next generation. And farmers get hit with taxes either way, Oswald writes: "Everything Granddad owns is subject to local taxes and debt repayments if he keeps it, or capital gains and income taxes if he sells it."

The situation is especially bleak for small farmers, who tend to be most in debt. A family farm with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's reported average 12 percent debt-to-asset ratio owes about $200,000. And those who don't have debt likely make far too little profit to benefit from the increased inheritance tax exemptions in the recent tax overhaul, which were touted by Republicans as a boon to family farmers.

"It’s a problem that’s likely to continue until a money-following, PAC-driven Congress obsessed with problems of the ultra-rich finally sees the problems real farmers face," Oswald reports.

Thursday is deadline for weeklies' editorial writing contest

Feb. 1 is the deadline to enter editorials or staff-written opinion pieces in the 58th annual Golden Quill Award Contest of the
International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

All newspapers that publish fewer than five days per week are eligible, and entries must have been published between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017. Entries should identify local issues that are or should be of concern to the community, offer an opinion, and support a cause of action.

You can nominate someone else's editorial(s) or send your own, and you can enter two editorials per person. The cost is $20 per person for ISWNE members or $25 for non-members. If two people are entering from the same newsroom, the cost is $40 for ISWNE members and $50 for non-members.

Click here for more information about the contest, and click here for a printable entry form with more specifics about how to enter.

Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal, will republish the 12 best editorials in the Summer 2018 issue. The Golden Quill winner will be invited to ISWNE's annual conference in Portland, Ore., July 11-15, 2018. The winner will receive a conference scholarship and travel expenses up to $500.

'Day of action' Wed. focuses on student journalists' rights

The Student Press Law Center is observing the first-ever Hazelwood Day of Action on Wednesday, Jan. 31 -- 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that student journalists lose some of their constitutional rights at the school door. Because of the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, school administrators can remove material from student publications that they don't like, or even de-publish an entire publication.

The observance will kick off a year of activities and collaborations meant to raise awareness about the importance of a free student news media and the need for legislation, like that advocated by the group New Voices, to protect student journalists' rights.

Planned events for tomorrow include Facebook Live discussions on the SPLC page, coordinated Twitter blasts, and an Instagram selfie challenge.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Rural journalist rushed to the scene of school shooting and discovered her son was the suspect

Marshall County students at a prayer vigil the day after the shooting.
(Courier Journal photo)

A rural newspaper editor recently had a horrific connection with the news she was covering. When Mary Garrison Minyard, the editor of the online-only Marshall County Daily, arrived at the scene of last week's school shooting in Benton, Ky., she soon discovered that the alleged shooter was her son.

Her colleague Ann Beckett said she went to comfort Minyard and take over the story, Andrew Wolfson reports for the Louisville Courier Journal, which published suspect Gabe Parker's yearbook photo; his name has not been officially released, and the Daily has not published it.

Two students were fatally shot and 14 others wounded at Marshall County High School on Jan. 23. Parker, 15, has been charged as a juvenile with two counts of murder and 12 counts of assault. Prosecutors plan to have him tried as an adult.

A neighbor told the CJ that Minyard does not keep guns in her home. Minyard shared custody with Gabe's father, Austin Parker. Gabe's stepmother, Jennifer Lynn Parker, who divorced Parker following a domestic violence incident in 2016, said the elder Parker was "controlling and a bully" and has "always had a short fuse."

Classmates described Gabe as a quiet boy who was well-liked by others in the school band, but said he was "snappy" after Christmas break, and had talked about violence and and an interest in joining the Mafia. Other students said on social media that he may have been bullied, the CJ reports.

Fund redevelops rural and small-town properties to help fund nonprofits in Appalachian Kentucky

Community builder Lora Smith is working to help Eastern Kentucky with a first-of-its-kind fund to boost to nonprofits serving the area. The organization also invests directly in communities on Kentucky's 54 Appalachian counties through real-estate acquisition and development to improve dilapidated small-town downtowns.

"Smith co-founded the Appalachian Impact Fund with Louisville philanthropist Brook Smith (no relation) in 2016; the organization opened its doors in January 2017 in a former hardware store the fund purchased on Main Street in Hazard," Kathie Stamps reports for The Lane Report, a Kentucky business-news outlet. "The three-story building serves as headquarters for the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Appalachian Food Summit, Appalachian Arts Alliance and other nonprofits." They offer lunchtime yoga on Mondays to locals, and will soon offer co-working space and venue rental space.

Smith formerly oversaw grants in Central Appalachia for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, and worked with three other organizers to found the annual Appalachian Food Summit in 2013, which focuses on sustainable agriculture and regional food systems. "Sustainable agriculture and local food businesses are incredibly important to creating a sense of place, supporting healthy communities with good food access, and can be a real economic driver in Kentucky," Smith told Stamps. "It’s community and culture that holds us together and sustains us during difficult times . .  . And it’s our unique natural and cultural assets that are creating an exciting and bright future in the mountains."

The Corbin native has family stretching back seven generations in Whitley County, on the Tennessee border. She studied anthropology at New York University and folklore and documentaries as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, but came back home, saying she "could never stay away too long from Kentucky and the mountains." She, her husband and their two children live on a 120-acre organic farm in Jackson County, near the northwest salient of the East Kentucky Coalfield.