Friday, June 08, 2018

Poll finds most ruralites don't think urbanites share their values; most urbanites probably think likewise of ruralites

Most rural Americans, and probably most urban Americans, "perceive an urban-rural divide over values," the Pew Research Center reports, drawing on its latest poll.

The error margin for each result: plus or minus 1.7 percentage points
Among people who defined themselves as rural, 58 percent said their values are very different or somewhat different from those of urbanites, and 70 percent said "people who don’t live in their same type of community don’t understand the types of problems faced by those who do," Pew reports

Among the self-defined urbanites, 53 percent said their values differed from those of rural residents, and 65 percent said ruralites don't understand the problems of urban residents. Among self-defined suburbanites, the latter figure was only 34 percent.

The poll's error margin is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points, putting the 53 percent number just short of a statistical majority. No trend is known, because Pew hasn't asked the question before, but much of the difference can be attributed to politics, as seen in the 2016 election results. However, it's hard to sort out cause and effect, reports Emily Badger of The New York Times: "Political scientists warn that place-based resentments — 'no one respects rural America' or 'Trump is at war with cities' — can be easily exploited by politicians."

Badger notes that "urban-rural divides in politics are not new," but something new is seen by Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist and author of The Politics of Resentment, a book mainly about rural resentment of urbanites in that state, which President Trump carried after Barack Obama carried it twice. “We’re in a political moment where cultural divides overlap with political divides, which overlap with geography,” Cramer told her.

The rural-urban divergence since Obama's election in 2008 "mirrors a sharp turn in support for the Republican Party among white voters with a high school diploma or less, a change that Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has argued is closely tied to racial attitudes that came to the fore with Mr. Obama’s election," Badger reports. But Juliana Horowitz, Pew's lead researcher on the project, said other factors are “the recession and the post-recession era. As we’ve seen these different types of communities become increasingly different politically, we’ve also seen them become increasingly different in their demographics and their economics.”

Badger writes that the poll "suggests a particularly troubling dimension to age-old distinctions between city and rural life. Differences in where and how Americans choose to live, which increasingly overlap with politics, are imbued with judgments about each other — and suspicion that others are negatively judging us."

Senate leaders reach bipartisan deal on Farm Bill; includes McConnell measure to fully legalize hemp farming

"Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have reached agreement on a bipartisan Farm Bill that would keep the 2014 farm law largely intact while avoiding a partisan fight over food stamps," Philip Brasher and Spencer Chase report for Agri-Pulse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised to bring the bill to the floor by the end of the month. It includes a McConnell provision legalizing industrial hemp, distinguishing it from marijuana.

The Senate bill has two key differences from the recently defeated House bill: It won't include expanded work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) recipients, and it preserves the Conservation Stewardship Program. It also allows the Conservation Reserve Program to expand to 25 million acres, up from the 24 million-acre limit imposed by the 2014 Farm Bill. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., largely ignored Midwestern senators' requests to overhaul crop-insurance programs to be more attractive to corn growers, since he believed they would have hurt growers in other states, Brasher and Chase report.

McConnell's provision would legalize "as an agricultural commodity by removing it from the list of controlled substances," his office said in a press release. "It also gives states the opportunity to become the primary regulators of hemp production, allows hemp researchers to apply for competitive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and makes hemp farmers eligible to apply for crop insurance." The last Farm Bill legalized pilot programs for hemp farming, overseen by state agriculture departments.

UPDATE, 4 p.m.: Agri-Pulse has the text of the bill: "The adjusted gross income limit for commodity payments would be reduced to $700,000 a year, from the current limit of $900,000." Organic agriculture would get $50 million a year, up from $20 million, along with new rules to fight fraud. One of the few new programs would be "a pilot program to provide produce to low-income people through health-care providers." The bill "steered clear of some regulatory-relief provisions that are in the House bill," Brasher reports. It "omits language sought by the crop protection industry that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to approve pesticides for use without going through the formal consultation process with the Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service." The committee is scheduled to take up the bill Wednesday, June 13.

Trump balks at effort to fund veterans' health care bill he just signed; goal is partly to improve rural vets' access to care

President Trump signed a $50 billion veterans' health-care bill on Wednesday, but is fighting a bipartisan plan to pay for it with increased spending. Instead, White House aides have sent memos to Senate Republicans urging them to fund it through spending cuts, warning them that "without subjecting the program to any budgetary constraint, there is no incentive to continue to serve veterans with innovative, streamlined and efficient quality of care," Erica Werner and Lisa Rein report for The Washington Post.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala., argued Tuesday that such spending cuts would cause other veterans programs to be cut and trigger a "hole of $10 billion" in appropriations.

The Post reports, "The opposition to the funding plan is the latest demonstration of Trump’s variable approach to the longtime stated Republican goal of fiscal discipline. On some issues, most prominently last year’s $1.5 trillion tax bill or immigration measures such as the border wall, Trump has signed off on legislation projected to massively increase the federal deficit. On others, such as the veterans bill and emergency legislation to support communities impacted by last year’s devastating hurricanes and the California wildfires, he has demanded offsetting spending cuts."

Most of the legislation's costs come from allowing veterans to see doctors operating outside the VA system, a move designed partly to resolve complaints from rural veterans that they have difficulty making and keeping appointments. Phillip Carter, a senior researcher at nonprofit think tank the Rand Corp., told the Post that the bill could increase demand for medical care at VA hospitals, since alleviating the backlog would encourage more veterans to seek health care. The bill to fund the veterans health care bill has been attached to the VA appropriations bill and could be up for debate soon, the Post reports.

Quick hits: the history of hillbilly TV; a photo essay of life in former coal boomtowns; supporting rural LGBTQ seniors

Hubie Bobo Lane, Chauncey, Ohio (Rich-Joseph Facun photo)
Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Photojournalist Rich-Joseph Facun brings us a stark, breathtaking photo essay in The Washington Post chronicling life in former coal towns of Appalachian Ohio. See the project here.

For The Bitter Southerner, Gabe Bullard writes a thoughtful essay about the history of television portrayals of rural America, from Andy Griffith to "Duck Dynasty." "When the newscasts were full of footage from My Lai and Saigon, from Selma and Birmingham, Americans looked for laughs in Hooterville. They sought them in Cornfield County, Pixley, and Mayberry. These were fictional rural places full of carefree, unencumbered country folks. There was no racial strife in these burgs because everyone was white. In these worlds, the sheriff didn’t carry a gun, a man could join the Marines and never talk about the war in Vietnam, and nobody even thought about the War on Poverty."  Read more here.

Life in rural areas can be isolating, especially for LGBTQ senior citizens. A new report from The John A. Hartford Foundation outlines strategies employed to help such seniors feel connected to national and local LGBTQ communities as well as how to ensure rural health providers are qualified to care for their needs. Read more here.

Pipeline protesters see parallels with civil-rights activists

Stephanie Davis hugs an ally after her charge was
dropped. (Roanoke Times photo by Nathan Klima)
More than 20 people from all walks of life have been charged with non-violent misdemeanors for protesting the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia, like the mother and daughter who blocked construction for nearly a month by sitting in treehouses in the path of construction, or the group who chained themselves to construction equipment. Some have compared these protesters to those of the civil-rights movement. "Just as those advocating equal rights for blacks saw fit to break unjust laws of the Jim Crow era, the argument goes, pipeline opponents are being arrested for resisting laws allowing a project that they say will ruin individual lives and the environment at large," Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times in Virginia.

Stephanie Stallings Davis, who was arrested April 11 for trespassing on Mountain Valley property with the intent to damage or impede construction, said as she left Roanoke County District Court on Wednesday morning: "It was important to me that I take a stand . .. to protect our water, our land and our rights as citizens. . . . We will not stand down."

The prosecutor dropped the charge against Davis on Wednesday after the judge refused to allow a continuance, but it's unclear whether the charge will be reinstated. About 20 people showed up to support Davis in court, as encouraged by Katie Zawacki, chair of the nonprofit Points of Diversity. During a rally the day before in Roanoke, held next to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., Zawacki asked the 50 or so attendees to back pipeline protesters charged with crimes and attend their trials. "There are no terrorists here," Zawacki said. "In many ways, this entire scene seems surreal to us."

Think last month was hotter than usual? Yes, by far

Mean temperature percentiles for May 2018, compared to previous years dating back to 1895
Almost every place in the 48 contiguous states was warmer than normal last month, breaking a record that dates to 1934. And most of a wide swath of the nation, from the Texas Panhandle to Chesapeake Bay, had the warmest May ever. The average temperature in May, 65.4 degrees, was more than 5 degrees above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's latest climate assessment.

The May average "swept by the previous high mark of 64.7 degrees," set during the Dust Bowl era, Jason Samenow writes for The Washington Post. "One of the main reasons May 1934 was so hot was because it was so dry, posting the least precipitation for the month on record. When the land surface is dry, it heats up faster. . . . In May 2018, temperatures soared to record levels even without as much help from dry soils. Precipitation was a hair above normal averaged over the nation. Maryland, hit by major floods in Frederick and Ellicott City, had its wettest May on record. So did Florida. Asheville, N.C., posted 14.68 inches of rain, its wettest month in history."

Samenow adds, "The toasty pattern presented a massive contrast from April, which ranked the 13th-coldest on record, more than 2 degrees below average. Eight states had their warmest May on record: Virginia, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma."

Thursday, June 07, 2018

States pass their own net-neutrality laws in face of federal repeal, setting up fights in the courts

"States are pushing their own net-neutrality laws and rules in defiance of the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal, heightening the possibility that supporters will be waging another legal battle over the popular Obama-era regulations," Harper Neidig reports for The Hill. "Washington and Oregon have already passed their own laws to fill the void left by the FCC’s repeal, and California appears to be close behind after the state Senate passed a net neutrality bill on Wednesday."

Gigi Sohn, a Georgetown University Law School fellow tracking the issue, told Neidig that open-internet legislation has been proposed in 29 states. Also, "Five Democratic governors have gone with another tactic: issuing executive orders that prohibit the state from doing business with any broadband company that violates the principles of net neutrality," Neidig reports.
The issue appears headed to court, because the FCC repeal bans states from creating their own internet rules. "A potential industry lawsuit against the states that have passed net-neutrality laws could hold some promise for net neutrality supporters, says Marc Martin, a communications and technology lawyer at Perkins Coie," a Washington, D.C., law firm, Neidig reports. He told her, “It’s not a slam dunk” despite the preemption clause. “It’ll be interesting, I think that is one of the more vulnerable parts of the repeal overall.”

Flooding and rising seas threaten America's oldest farmland

Fitzgerald stands on a spot where he says floods
have killed 15 acres of soybean crops.
(NPR photo by Jennifer Ludden)
Maryland's Eastern Shore has some of the oldest farmland in America, but it's being threatened by rising sea levels and sinking land. How old are we talking? Bob Fitzgerald, 80, says his farm has been in the family since 1666, Jennifer Ludden reports for NPR.

Fitzgerald said a tidal creek near his fields floods more frequently than it used to, sometimes covering big sections of his land even though he's tried protecting it with a dirt berm. The encroaching salt water has killed 15 acres of his soybean crop so far, he told Ludden. His neighbor Kevin Anderson, a fifth-generation farmer, said he has 20 acres of farmland that's not producing any crops now. Anderson wonders whether it's worth fighting to keep his land or whether he should let it go.

Kate Tully, an agroecologist with the University of Maryland, hopes to answer that question by tracking the impact of climate change on farmland in the area. "Tully says that as the Atlantic Ocean heats up, it's expanding. That means higher tides and more flooding. But that may not be all that's happening," Ludden reports. "Tully thinks the sea is pushing underneath the land and into the groundwater. She worries this briny mix is then rising with sea levels, killing from below. It's a threat that stretches all the way down the Eastern Seaboard to the Florida Everglades."

Tully is testing more salt-tolerant crops like barley, wheat and switchgrass, to see if area farmers could grow those instead, but says farmers need to plan for longterm adaptations to climate change now. As the Earth warms, this low-lying coastal farmland will end up under water.

The rising seas are already causing record-breaking high-tide flooding along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, according a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased high-tide flooding--also called "sunny-day" flooding--is particularly alarming because it's not caused by storms. "Breaking of annual flood records is to be expected next year and for decades to come as sea levels rise, and likely at an accelerated rate," said the report, which detailed high-tide flooding in 2017 and forecasts the outlook for 2018, Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty.

Alaska Native broadcaster John Active, who introduced his Yup'ik culture to the world, dies at 69

John Active
John Active, 69, the journalist and broadcaster who was known as the "voice of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta," died Monday. He was known for his stories of life in southwestern Alaska among his native Yup'ik culture, Alex DeMarban reports for the Anchorage Daily News.

Rhonda McBride, who hosts the rural-oriented "Frontiers" program on Anchorage's KTVA-TV, told DeMarban that Active was "an amazing traditional storyteller" who "bridged the gap into the modern world, and mastered the art of broadcasting." McBride worked with Active when she was the news director at KYUK in the 1990's.

At KYUK, Active read the local news in Yup'ik and shared traditional stories of his people in English that National Public Radio shared with a wide audience. "He told me his mission was to Yup'ify the world, and he wanted to do it in a joyful way," McBride said. NPR reports that his funeral is today in Bethel.

Ky. man who robbed Indian graves gets 15 months in prison

A Southern Kentucky man who took artifacts from Native American grave sites has been sentenced to 15 months in prison, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The National Park Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began investigating 60-year-old Gary Womack of Franklin after a witness told authorities that Womack had invited him to look at artifacts he said he had taken from Mammoth Cave National Park and other places. An undercover agent, posing as a man who sold and traded Native American artifacts, met with Womack several times and bought items Womack said were from a burial mound in Posey County, Indiana. Womack also told the agent that he had found skeleton parts on several occasions while digging up Native American graves.

"Womack pleaded guilty to three felony violations of a federal law designed to protect archeological resources," Estep reports. Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee Tribe in Miami, Okla., urged the judge to "impose a sentence that would deter people from desecrating graves." All the artifacts involved in the case have been recovered and will be returned to their tribes.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

USDA trade undersecretary asks farmers to be patient as Trump administration tries to stop U.S. from 'gettin' screwed'

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- American farmers worried about trade disputes with major trading partners need to be patient as the Trump administration tries to correct longstanding problems in trade relations, the agriculture undersecretary for trade told a diverse group of agribusiness people in Kentucky on June 6.

McKinney greeted attendees after a question-and-answer session.
"We're gonna have to strap ourselves in," Ted McKinney said. "Keep your seat belt buckled. With China, you might bring your shoulder straps over and click it twice." Earlier, he said some Chinese promises on trade have "fizzled" but the Chinese were recently responsive to U.S. requests to allow beef imports.

McKinney's line about straps was in reply to a question from Scott Travis, a Kentucky grain, cattle and tobacco farmer. Travis told McKinney he had more optimism after hearing him speak, but told him that farmers' profit margins are so small, "One year can kill a farm. . . . Some of us are going to suffer from the time it's gonna take."

McKinney said the administration is ready to help "take the rough edge off . . . if it gets to the point that we're really seeing farmers hurt." The administration hasn't said much about what McKinney called its "mitigation strategy," but he said the Agriculture Department helped pay the legal bills of some farmers hurt by China's 178.6 percent tariff on U.S. sorghum in April.

McKinney's main message to an important part of President Trump's political base was that many non-tariff issues need to be resolved first. "The status quo, we cannot sustain," he said. "We've been gettin' screwed for years." As an example, he cited the inability to export certain genetically modified soybeans to China because that country has delayed approving the beans. "That pisses me off." He also mentioned bans on certain meats and theft of intellectual property.

"We've got to go through this turbulence to right-size this thing," McKinney added later. "All I can say is, hang with us a little bit and see what we can get done." He noted that Trump has said he would not let agriculture "be the tip of the spear and suffer the consequences" of trade disputes.

McKinney answered questions for 80 minutes at Lexington's Keeneland Race Course, the first 45 from Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, the next 30 from people in agriculture and the last 5 from reporters.

At the start, he said he suspected there was much anxiety in the room because of tariffs Trump had imposed on Canadian and Mexican goods and retaliatory tariffs those countries slapped on some U.S. agricultural products in recent days. He said he knows from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence, who as Indiana governor bossed McKinney as state agricultural director, that Trump "has our back. . . . We're gonna have to be patient."

McKinney told reporters that he has not met with Trump, and that a meeting they were supposed to have shortly before the inauguration was scrubbed because Trump was "pulled away on something." In response to questions, McKinney said he would like some face time with the president, and said face-to-face relationships are more important to Trump than previous presidents.

"He values the gut instinct, and there's not a lot wrong with that," McKinney said. "The good news is, I think he has very high regard for Secretary Perdue. We see that, we feel it and hear it."

In the initial dialogue, McKinney said he is eager to pursue one-on-one trade agreements with many countries, but that process mist await renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Reflecting a recent Trump tweet, he said NAFTA might be replaced by bilateral agreements with Canada and Mexico. Asked later how which outcome was more likely, he replied, "The honest answer is, I don't know. We probably need to watch our Twitter feed every morning, 'cause it might change. Either one would work, and I'm for whichever gets us there the fastest." Earlier, he said, "There is so much trade between our countries that I think it will end up OK."

In response to a question about immigration, from a farmer who said agriculture is "in dire need" of foreign workers, McKinney said, "That is so deep into the political quagmire that something's got to happen. . . . The pendulum has to swing a little more, no matter how painful that might be."

Asked later to explain that, he said agriculture has done all it can to get relief on immigration, so "the natural momentum of things says it's got to continue a little bit more." He said it should help that the U.S. now has more job openings that unemployed workers, for the first time in the 18 years the government has tracked job openings, which voids the argument that "every job you give to an immigrant takes a job away from an American. I don't think that holds water anymore."

There may have been a rural jobs bump; if so, will it last?

Brookings Institution map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Employment in rural America improved in 2017, and though the lion's share of the nation's job growth -- 64.2 percent -- happened in the 52 biggest cities, rural areas saw a 16.6 percent uptick in employment, a gain of more than 320,000 jobs. "In short, at least one core portion of Trump’s America finally won a little during his first year in office, which is good news for America’s troubled rural communities," Marc Muro and Jacob Whiton report for The Brookings Institution.

But Brookings has put its own figures into doubt, with an editor's note added to the top of the article, which cautioned that the uptick is unlikely to last: "Many of the industries that added jobs in rural communities in 2017—such as logging, mining, oil and gas, and construction—remain cyclical given economic and commodity trends larger than any Trump-era deregulation drive or tax cut. At the same time, a slump in prices for corn, wheat, and other farm commodities over the past five years has cut total U.S. farm income in half, with further declines expected over the next decade." And many rural jobs are disproportionately vulnerable to automation and globalization.

Also, the mild increase in rural jobs is overshadowed by an increasingly wide urban growth in jobs, population and economic output: "Quite simply, the sharp divergence of large and small communities’ economic fortunes since the financial crisis . . . is becoming even starker than it has been," the writers said in an earlier article.

Rural areas still have not returned to the the employment numbers they enjoyed in 2008 before the Great Recession, a threshold large metro areas passed in 2012. And though rural areas saw a bump in economic output over the past decade, that was mostly driven by the hydraulic fracturing boom, which leveled off in 2015.

"Against that background, the rural job growth of 2017 is welcome but will likely be temporary for communities that will continue to struggle with world commodity price issues, a technological era that favors cities, and out-migration," Muro and Whiton write.

Study shows rural broadband's return on investment

Blandin Foundation chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
"A new study commissioned by the Blandin Foundation may help small communities put some hard numbers behind broadband’s public benefit," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "Return on Investment: Measuring Impact of Broadband in Five Rural Minnesota Communities" looks at places that have spent public funds on building out networks. The words 'high speed' are critical. These communities have run fiber to homes and businesses or have plans to do so in the near future."

The five areas studied (Beltrami, Crow Wing, Goodhue, Lake County and Sibley County) benefited about $150 million annually, along with a $450 million increase in real-estate values, the study concluded. Marema cautions that the estimates vary widely among the different communities and that they don't provide a complete picture of the impact of broadband, but it clearly shows that broadband is a good investment of public money. Read more here.

Entrepreneur convinces California town to let him buy hospital in hopes of saving it with remote lab-services billing

Rural hospitals have been making headlines lately because of questionable laboratory-billing schemes designed to take advantage of higher government reimbursements for rural health-care providers. The schemers buy struggling hospitals and use them to billing for lab services actually provided at other hospitals.

Insurance companies and some in Congress are crying foul over the practice, but one Denver entrepreneur pitched a version of it as a way to save a struggling rural hospital he wanted to buy — and the town agreed. On June 5 the Northern California town of Cedarville voted 83 percent in favor of allowing Beau Gertz to buy the bankrupt 26-bed Surprise Valley Community Hospital, the hospital's interim administrator, Bill Bostic, told The Rural Blog.

Gertz, who owns laboratory and nutraceutical companies, promised the town that he would retain vital services, and that "he’d like to open a 'wellness center' to attract well-heeled outsiders — one that would offer telehealth, addiction treatment, physical therapy, genetic testing, intravenous vitamin infusions, even massage," Heidi de Marco and Barbara Feder Ostrov report for Kaiser Health News. "Cedarville’s failing hospital, now at least $4 million in debt, would not just bounce back but thrive, he said."

His plan to pay for the improvements: Doctors at the hospital would help remote patients through telemedicine, and that way lab-test bills could be issued through the hospital, regardless of where the patients live. "If you do it correctly here is a nice profit margin," he told Kaiser Health News. There [are] extra visits you can get from telemedicine but … it has to be billed correctly and it can’t be abused."

The people of Cedarville were skeptical, since other outsiders had made similar pitches. But they were evidently swayed by his vision, if yesterday's vote is an indication. "The people of Surprise Valley want to keep health care in the valley, and this is how they want to do that," Bostic said.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Les Zaitz of Oregon’s Malheur Enterprise wins Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity, integrity in rural journalism

Les Zaitz
A longtime practitioner of accountability journalism, now making his weekly newspaper a model for investigative and enterprise reporting at the local level, is the winner of the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Leslie "Les" Zaitz is editor and publisher the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon. His family bought the paper, which has a circulation of less than 2,000, to keep it from closing in 2015. In 2016, he became publisher after retiring from The Oregonian, where he had been the senior investigative reporter and winner of many awards, including finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2014 for a 2013 series about Mexican drug cartels in the U.S.

In 2017, the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced. Brown later named Zaitz one of three news-media representatives on the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council, which makes recommendations concerning the state public-records advocate.

The Enterprise’s efforts won Zaitz and his reporters, John Braese and Pat Caldwell, the 2018 Freedom of Information Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. They beat out entries from much larger news outlets, including The Oregonian. The judges wrote that the series was a "classic David-meets-Goliath triumph," and showed "You don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records."

"That’s one reason Les Zaitz and the Enterprise are such a good choice for the Gish Award," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. "Doing good journalism in rural areas often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in cities, but the same state and federal laws apply, and Les knows how to use them for the public good." The Institute publishes The Rural Blog.

The Enterprise is not Zaitz’s first foray into rural journalism. From 1987 to 2000, he was owner and publisher of the weekly Keizertimes in Keizer, Oregon. His family still owns the paper, which consistently wins journalism awards, and much of his investigative reporting has been in rural Oregon. He is a five-time solo winner of the Bruce Baer Award, Oregon’s top award for investigative reporting. In 2016, the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association gave him its highest honor for career achievement, an award not given since 2010.

"Rural journalism is so critical to the American fiber, and even more so today when people are so hungry for a trusted news source," Zaitz said. "Small news outlets don't have to be bad news outlets, and I'm hoping our work in rural Oregon can in some modest way inspire others to redouble their efforts to provide quality journalism. That quality is not only a professional imperative, but a business one as well."

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the late couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Their son, Eagle Editor-Publisher Ben Gish, is on the award selection committee.

“Given the tenacity, courage and integrity Les Zaitz has shown during his career, it would be hard to find a more deserving winner of the award named in honor of my parents,” Gish said. “I find it more than just a little interesting that his father and my father ran statehouse bureaus for United Press [International].”

Past winners of the award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; publisher Jim Prince and former publisher Stan Dearman of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; and the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.

Cross will present the 2018 Gish Award to Zaitz at the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland on July 11. Nominations for the 2019 Gish Award may be emailed at any time to

How VTDigger became a rising star in nonprofit news

Revenue makeup and growth at VTDigger (INN chart; click image to enlarge)
Vermont nonprofit news outlet VTDigger, which started with one employee in 2009, has made a name for itself as an online watchdog juggernaut with with nearly 300,000 monthly users, a full-time staff of 19 and an annual budget of more than $1.5 million. Its recent accomplishments are heady stuff for a publication of its size: "Its three-year, 250-stories-and-counting exposé into alleged fraud at the Jay Peak Resort has stamped it as a major investigative force in the region," Tim Griggs reports for the Institute for Nonprofit News. "It hired the first-ever Vermont-focused D.C. bureau chief to cover the state’s delegation in Washington. It has been featured in the Columbia Journalism ReviewNiemanLab and The New York Times as a new model for success in the nonprofit news movement. And it has secured a multimillion-dollar investment to dramatically improve business, technology, and reporting to bring it to a new level of sustainability."

Griggs outlines VTDigger's history and highlights reasons it succeeded for the benefit of other nonprofit startups:

The first lesson is to understand your market. When VTDigger's founder, Anne Galloway, decided to create a nonprofit news organization in 2009, she first spent a considerable amount of time asking locals if they wanted such a news outlet.

The second lesson is to expand your network: make connections with local organizations that can help you develop relationships with community leaders, philanthropists and others. That can help with fundraising and with getting access for stories.

The third lesson? Start small: Galloway raised $12,500 in seed capital. She didn't want to rely only on foundations, so she secured sponsorships from local businesses. The first big donor was dairy co-op Cabot Creamery, which gave $7,000. Griggs recommends that other nonprofits make small requests at first, prove their value by delivering a good product, and then increase the "ask." In the earliest days of fundraising, when there isn't much product to show, it's important to be able to sell donors on an idea or vision.

The fourth lesson: Prioritize business-side investments. Most of Galloway's seed money went to web development and paying freelance reporters; she didn't pay herself for her 80+-hour workweeks for at least two years. But the first person she hired after she started bringing in some money wasn't another journalist; it was a someone to manage donations and accounting. "Nonprofit news site founders often think they should invest all their time and funding in the journalism in their early years," Griggs writes. "They can end up hobbled by scarce resources far longer than founders who stretch to hire business staff or consultants. . . . These positions help sell the mission."

And the fifth lesson is to invest in good sales people. The second person Galloway hired was Michael Knight, a sales director she had worked with as editor of the Times Argus in the state capital of Montpelier, population 8,000. She needed someone who could sell sponsors on the mission, not just sell ads based on page impressions. Theresa Murray-Clasen, Digger’s director of underwriting since 2015, told Griggs: "You have to know if this person has the capacity to blend mission and ROI and know in any given circumstance how they’re going to pitch a potential underwriter."

Griggs provides a solid, granular look at VTDigger's success; click here to read more. The Institute for Nonprofit News will host an online Q-and-A with Galloway on June 27. Register for the free event here.

Changes in laws help nurse practitioners expand presence; now one in four health-care providers in rural areas

Faylene Dancer, nurse practitioner in Sutherland, Neb.
(NET photo by Grant Gerlock; for story, click here.)
"Nurse practitioners have dramatically increased their presence as the go-to primary care providers in rural America, thanks in part to regulatory changes that allow patients to more easily see these health professionals," contributor Bruce Jaspen writes for Forbes magazine. "Nurse practitioners now account for 1 in 4 medical care providers in U.S. rural practices – a "significant" 43.2 percent increase from 2008 to 2016." They also increased in urban areas.

Jaspen's story is based on research published in the journal Health Affairs, which found that in 2016, nurse practitioners "constituted 25.2 percent of providers in rural and 23 percent in non-rural practices, compared to 17.6 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively, in 2008. States with full scope-of-practice laws had the highest NP presence, but the fastest growth occurred in states with reduced and restricted scopes of practice. . . . Rural practices in states with full scopes of practice generally had the highest percentages of practices with NPs, increasing from 35 percent to 45.5 percent."

Jaspen notes, "Nurse practitioners are educated to perform myriad primary care functions, diagnose, prescribe medications and conduct physical exams, but state scope of practice laws historically prevented them from such care unless they have an agreement with an overseeing physician."

Food trucks can have a hard time operating in rural areas

Gino Cortes mixes chicken broth in his food truck.
(Sunbury Daily Item photo by Emma Ginader)
Food trucks have been a popular everyday sight in urban areas for years, but they're seldom seen in rural areas, except at festivals. That's partly because food trucks do well where there's a lot of foot traffic, but another problem is getting the proper licensing and permits. "For example, a food truck would need a license from the state Department of Agriculture to operate in a town without its own health department, but the truck might need another license issued by a local health officer if they decided to operate in a community with its own health department as well," Emma Ginader reports for The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa.

Some food truck operators are venturing into rural areas, especially to cater to their growing Hispanic populations. That's the case with El Encanto, a food truck that specializes in Latinx regional cuisines in nearby Penn Township. Maria Lorenzo, who owns and operates the truck with her husband Gino Cortes, told Ginader, "A lot of people have to travel hours away to find Hispanic cuisine. It will be nice to have something closer to home for them." She said two other reasons for the lack of rural food trucks might be that it's hard for rural food trucks to find a permanent location and that some communities are not very welcoming.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Trump orders halt to coal- and nuclear-plant shutdowns

"President Trump on Friday ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdown of ailing coal and nuclear power plants that he said were needed to maintain the nation’s energy mix, grid resilience and national security," Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post.

The move was made possible by Cold War-era laws: the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act (President Truman used the latter to support the steel industry), James Rainey reports for NBC News. One likely plan would give preference to power plants that have a secure on-site fuel supply. That means coal and nuclear plants, since they are the only ones that regularly keep fuel on site. Many of the specified plants are owned or supplied by Trump's political allies, like coal magnate Robert Murray.

According to the memo, the rule would be a two-year stopgap measure meant to keep plants open while Perry's Energy Department studies the issue further, Mufson reports.

Critics attacked the proposal, saying it would make electricity more expensive for consumers and put more greenhouse gases in the air. "Some legal experts questioned whether the Energy Department could invoke the Federal Power Act, saying the law traditionally has been used to respond to hurricanes, blackouts and other disasters," Rainey reports." Several critics suggested that they would challenge the action in court, if necessary."

Coal lobby fights to reduce payments for black-lung benefits, even as the disease becomes more common

A federal fund that helps more than 15,000 former coal miners pay for medical treatment of their black-lung disease and living expenses is in danger of insolvency "due to soaring debt and a slashing of coal-company contributions through a tax cut scheduled for the end of the year, according to a report the U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to publish soon," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters.

Black-lung rates are hitting record highs, which stretches the available funds for the Black Lung Disability Trust even further. That could trigger a restriction in benefits or oblige taxpayers to pick up some of the tab. The fund has already had to borrow more than $6 billion from the U.S. Treasury to keep the fund afloat over the lifetime of the program.

That figure will likely increase if the scheduled tax cut goes through. "Coal companies are currently required to pay a $1.10 per ton excise tax on underground coal production to finance the fund," Volcovici reports. "That amount will revert to the 1977 level of 50 cents at the end of the year if Congress does not extend the current rate." A bipartisan effort to extend the tax failed after heavy lobbying from the coal industry; the industry says coal companies are having a hard time financially, that the payments to coal miners are too high, and that the fund has been abused by people who don't really need it.

Bruce Watzman, head of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association, said "More often than not, we are being called upon to provide compensation for previous or current smokers," Volcovici reports. Watzman said his opinion is based on discussion with people who administer the program for companies, and a 1989 study by the University of Louisville School of Medicine that found coal miners who were judged possibly eligible for black-lung benefits smoked more than those who didn't qualify. But Dr. David Blackley, head of respiratory disease studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says it's easy to distinguish black lung from smokers' lungs on an x-ray.

Report shows seniors' health rankings by state, says rural seniors face 'significant health challenges'

Rural seniors face "significant health challenges" when compared to their suburban and urban counterparts, according to an annual report on the well-being of American senior citizens by America's Health Rankings. Some of the report's findings:
  • More rural seniors are physically inactive in rural areas at 34.3 percent, compared to 30.4 percent of suburban seniors and 30.1 percent of urban seniors. 
  • That disparity is reflected in seniors' own assessment of their health: 36.8 percent of seniors report their health as "very good" or "excellent" compared to 42.0 percent in suburban areas and 41.4 percent in urban areas.
  • Significantly more rural seniors (32.4 percent) report falls than suburban seniors (28.5 percent) and urban seniors (29.5 percent). 
  • Only 57.2 percent of rural seniors got the flu vaccine this past year, compared to 61.4 percent of urban seniors (suburban figures were not shown for this statistic). 
  • Rural seniors receive health screenings at a lower rate than their counterparts, with 66.4 percent of rural seniors compared to 74.3 percent of suburban seniors and 75.3 percent of urban seniors.
  • The five states with the healthiest seniors are Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Utah in the top spot. The same five held the top spots last year.
  • The least healthy states for seniors are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana in last place.
  • Utah, Alaska and Rhode Island have improved the most in health rankings in the past five years, while Vermont, Arizona, Kansas and Nebraska have seen the biggest declines in health rankings.
  • With America's senior population now at 15 percent of the total population and rising, senior health-care issues will become increasingly important.

E. Carolina Univ. to establish School of Rural Public Health

East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C, has announced it will establish a School of Rural Public Health in August 2020. "The new school will initially combine departments and centers already in existence at ECU – public health, health education and promotion, biostatistics, health services and information management and the Center for Health Disparities," WITN-TV reports. "These departments are currently spread throughout three separate buildings on the university's two campuses – the Brody School of Medicine, the College of Allied Health Sciences and the College of Health and Human Performance."

A University of North Carolina System Board of Governors' committee approved the program last week. Kimberly van Noort, the system's interim senior vice president for academic affairs, said the program fits the board's strategic plan to reach out to rural communities and students.

"We feel that it's a very important step by East Carolina University to recognize and to honor both their mission and the needs of the people of their surrounding community that they serve," van Noort told WITN. "They have long been a leader in public health in the eastern part of North Carolina and indeed serve as the model for the entire state."

Senators challenge FCC rural broadband map accuracy

The Federal Communications Commission recently published a map of areas eligible for more than $4.5 billion in rural broadband subsidies, but a bipartisan group of senators says the map is flawed and wants more time to challenge it. In a letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai, "the senators said the FCC map shows areas in their home states that are purportedly served by 4G LTE, when experience on the ground suggests otherwise," John Eggerton reports for Broadcasting & Cable.

The map identifies areas eligible for Mobility Fund Phase II money from the Connect America Fund over the next decade, which subsidizes telecommunications companies that expand into underserved rural areas. Most of the money has gone to telecommunications giants like AT&T and Comcast that have lobbied heavily for such funding.

The FCC map's inaccuracy could be because, while these companies have created rural broadband networks, some have been constructed using slower or obsolete technology -- in effect, rural broadband that doesn't go as fast as broadband generally does.

The senators, led by Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said in the letter that leaving these underserved areas ineligible for funding will exacerbate the digital divide and deny fundamental economic and safety opportunities to rural communities, Eggerton reports.

The other senators signing the letter were Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Angus King (I-Maine), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), James Lankford (-Okla.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and Deborah Fischer (D-Neb.).