Friday, August 17, 2018

What does rural culture mean?

Howard Sacks
Howard Sacks is a former Kenyon College sociology professor and former director of its Rural Life Center. His family has operated a farm in central Ohio for decades, and though Gambier in Knox County still has plenty of rural character, city folk have been attracted to the housing development down the road. "The new influx of residents to this rural community like the idea of living in the country, but don’t care much of the scents of farm life, or the sounds of machinery during harvest time, that are a practical part of living in the country," Sacks writes for WXVU-FM in Cincinnati.

Locals, alarmed about all the new residents, held a public discussion about how to preserve the town's rural character. But what does rural character mean?

Sacks answers, "For most Americans, 'rural' means little more than the absence of what we associate with urban life, from cultural amenities to social diversity. The federal government defines rural simply as low population density. But, these definitions fail to capture the distinctive elements that constitutes a rural way of life. In simple terms, rural character means seeing the night sky, working the land, knowing your neighbors, and valuing community. We’ve lost much of this in modern society, at a great cost to our individual and collective well-being." Read more here.

Farmers must work together to prosper, writes Mary Berry, Wendell Berry's daughter

The high turnout in rural areas for Donald Trump in 2016 reflects not just the growing rural-urban cultural divide, but also the fading of a culture in which farming communities cooperate for their betterment, Mary Berry and Debbie Barker write for Civil Eats. Berry's father and Barker's friend, Kentucky author-farmer Wendell Berry, called attention to the phenomenon in 1978 in The Unsettling of America:
"We see the hideousness and the destructive-ness of … the kind of mind that can accept and even applaud the 'obsolescence' of the small farm and not hesitate over the possible political and cultural effects; that can recommend … tillage of huge monocultures … massive use of chemicals … and not worry at all about the deterioration or loss of soil. For cultural patterns of responsible cooperation we have substituted this moral ignorance, which is the etiquette of agricultural 'progress'."
Mary Berry
Mary Berry and Barker say dismantling small-farm economies and communities in favor of large-scale farming is part of the reason for the high suicide rate and opioid addiction among farmers. To build better local food and farm economies, landscapes, and cultures, they recommend that smaller farmers band together the way tobacco growers once did. In eight Southern states, the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association helped keep income stable and equitable in rural communities from the mid-1930s until the federal tobacco program of production quotas and price supports ended in 2004.

"The program—led by John Berry Sr. and later John Berry Jr. (father and brother of Wendell Berry)—organized regional cooperatives and established essential tenets of production control and parity pricing, which meant that farmers received enough money to cover the price of production and provide an equitable, fair profit. It allows for pricing to be adjusted based on farm input costs, which can go up or down from year to year," Berry and Barker write. "The government provided powerful backing for the farmer co-ops, which had struggled mightily against the tobacco industry cartel. Federal and state governments worked with and on the behalf of farmers of all sizes to provide long-term stability."

Mary Berry and Barker founded The Berry Center in 2011 in an attempt to recapture the alliances among farmers, processors, distributors and retailers that once helped rural America prosper. "A healthy American democracy requires rural communities with vibrant local economies and environmental stewardship, and farming is at the heart of this vision," they write. "And we won’t become a nation that treats each other and the land well as long as we are willing to accept an economy that allows people and land to be sacrificed for quick profit."

Berry will speak at the Oct. 18 Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Anti-press rhetoric may have boosted J-school enrollment

The Trump administration's anti-journalist rhetoric has triggered a wave of pushback from the news media, as we reported yesterday, but it may be inspiring more students to go into journalism.

Though it's difficult to find hard nationwide data, knowledgeable sources at several universities told Adam Harris of The Atlantic that they were seeing increased enrollment in their journalism schools. Gail Wiggins, interim chair of North Carolina A&T University's journalism department, said it saw a 6 percent jump in enrollment from 2016 to 2017. And because Wiggins requires incoming students to write about why they want to major in journalism, the source of the bump is clear. More and more write that "They want to tell their own stories . . . they want to provide truthful information to improve their communities," Harris reports.

Madeline Purdue, editor-in-chief of The Nevada Sagebrush at the University of Nevada at Reno said the attacks on journalism make her want to be a better journalist. "I want to protect what I love by doing my absolute best work," she told Harris. And though she acknowledges that the news media aren't perfect, she and her classmates agree that "honest, hardworking" journalists do a good job.

Coal town in Southwest Virginia passes resolution supporting Black Lung Disability Trust Fund

The City Council of Big Stone Gap in Southwest Virginia (pop. 5,643) unanimously passed a resolution supporting the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, the first in the nation to do so.

"At the July 10 council meeting, concerned residents of Big Stone Gap, Pennington Gap and Whitesburg, Ky., came together to ask council to support the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund," Terran Young reports for The Post in Big Stone Gap. "The per-ton excise tax that currently supports the fund will be cut in half at the end of the year if Congress doesn’t act. This would leave more that 20,000 people uninsured, 8,000 of those in central Appalachia."

The resolution notes that Central Appalachia is economically distressed because of the coal industry's decline, that black-lung rates are surging among coal miners, and that those coal miners need the benefits provided by the trust fund, Young reports.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Small town of Muscle Shoals made Aretha Queen of Soul

Franklin helps open the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Rebecca Smeyne, NYT)
Aretha Franklin, who died today at 76 of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, may have been the greatest singer we ever heard. But in the music trade, talent does not guarantee success. You need good evaluators, collaborators and promoters. And she got the collaborators she needed in the small town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, then less than 7,000 souls and now about 14,000. It was the career "pivot point" that sent her to stardom, says The New York Times:

"Jerry Wexler, the producer who brought Ms. Franklin to Atlantic [Records], persuaded her to record in the South. Ms. Franklin spent one night in January 1967 at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., recording with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the backup band behind dozens of 1960s soul hits. Ms. Franklin shaped the arrangements and played piano herself, as she had rarely done in the studio since her first gospel recordings," Jon Pareles writes. "The new songs were rooted in blues and gospel. And the combination finally ignited the passion in Ms. Franklin’s voice, the spirit that was only glimpsed in many of her Columbia recordings." Franklin was born in Memphis and was living in Detroit.

Rick Hall's studio in Muscle Shoals (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith)
"The Muscle Shoals session broke down, with just one song complete and another half-finished, in a drunken dispute between a trumpet player" and Franklin's husband, Ted White, whom she would divorce two years later, Pareles writes. "But when the song completed in that session, 'I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),' was released as a single, it reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 9 on the pop charts, eventually selling more than a million copies. Some of the Muscle Shoals musicians came north to complete the album in New York. And with that album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, the supper-club singer of Ms. Franklin’s Columbia [Records] years made way for the “Queen of Soul.”

For The Bitter Southerner, Chuck Reece recounts the Muscle Shoals sessions with the help of David Hood and Spooner Oldham, two of the musicians (all of whom were white). "Coming to Muscle Shoals probably resonated the Southern experience in her brain, even though she had been gone forever," Oldham said. "And then, when she was allowed to turn loose with all that Southern expression, we just played our hearts out, because we were used to that stuff."

Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark recalls how Franklin helped him understand, as a musician and a young writer, "the rhythm of sentences and the voice of the writer," and how an artist can take over a song, just as Franklin seized Otis Redding's "Respect," much as Redding had turned the 1933 Bing Crosby standard "Try a Little Tenderness" into a whole 'nother thing: "The same text can be delivered to different audiences at the same time with different effects."

Rural newspapers defend the importance of a free press

This North Dakota paper's home page highlights its editorial.
This week hundreds of newspapers joined The Boston Globe in defending the importance of a free press and standing up to President Trump's assertions that journalists are enemies of the people. Here's what some rural papers said:

Terri Lynn Oldham House writes in The Pagosa Springs Sun in Colorado: "We are not your enemy. We are your ally." His concern with President Trump calling the media enemies of the people isn't about "whether you’re a conservative or a liberal. Heck, on any given day we have been called both conservative and liberal two or three times over. That doesn’t matter to us. What matters to us is keeping the public informed. We agree with the president that 'fake news' is irresponsible and dangerous. You find it everywhere on social media these days, but you won’t find it in this community newspaper."

Editor Jeff Neal of the Commonwealth-Journal in Somerset, Ky., writes that, like all professions, "there are a few journalists out there who don't need to be in the business. But about 90 percent of us are hard-working and invested in what we do." Far from trying to promote an agenda, the reporters at the Commonwealth Journal "strive, day in and day out, to report the news fairly and accurately. And we do so even with supporters of these politicians screaming 'fake news' at every piece of information they don't want to see."

Co-publisher and general counsel Jack Clark of the Idyllwild Town Crier in California questions the source of allegations that the news media is unreliable: "When President Trump attempts to brand these institutions as 'enemies of the people,' he tells us far more about himself than he does them. When — as he did regarding the Charlottesville incident — he states one opinion on Saturday, says the opposite on Monday, returns to his original statement on Tuesday, and then on Thursday denies any contradictions at all, he marks his own statements as unreliable — even as to his opinions. He has repeatedly, virtually daily, made misrepresentations to the American people. The Washington Post publishes a running report on Trump’s spoken and tweeted falsehoods, which to date tally more than 4,000, just since becoming president."

The Van Buren County Democrat in Arkansas says local newspapers are part of the community, though "not everybody likes it when their business is put out for public review, even when it’s public business, even when it deserves review, even when it’s done by the guy from the paper."

The Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., says Trump isn't the first president who has tried to intimidate news organizations, but "the language he employs is different in quality and quantity, and poses the very real danger that it will incite some troubled soul to an act of appalling violence. Emotions are running high these days, and Trump’s rhetoric fuels that fire not only at home but also abroad, where authoritarian leaders have seized on his 'fake news' condemnation to undermine independent journalism in their own countries."

Some other headlines: "Stand against president's slur" —The News-Enterprise, Elizabethtown, Ky.
"Committing an act of journalism is not a crime" —The Kentucky Standard, Bardstown, Ky.
"Make no mistake: This attack on our free press — your free press — is deliberate and calculated." —The Commons, Brattleboro, Vt.
"Join America’s free press in defense of freedom: Every size publication plays a role in democracy." —The Daily Astorian, Astoria, Ore.
"Perspective on truth, lies, respect and hate" —The Lakeville Journal, Falls Village, Conn., and The Millerton (N.Y.) News
"Anger and Divisiveness Are the Enemy—Not the Free Press" —Coachella Valley Independent, Cathedral City, Calif.
"We are not your enemy" —The News and Farmer (The Augusta Chronicle), Louisville, Ga.
"We are the people" —Hays Free Press and News-Dispatch, Kyle and Dripping Springs, Texas
Thanks to The New York Times, from whose compilation most of these examples were drawn. The Globe has its own compilation from "editorial boards both conservative and liberal."

Package deep dives into local rural slaughterhouse job stats

Mean hourly wages for slaughterhouse workers in different areas of the country (MCIR chart)
Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants employ more than half a million rural Americans, making them one of the biggest sources for steady, full-time employment in places were jobs can be scarce, Christopher Walljasper reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Though wages tend to be fairly high compared to other non-professional rural jobs, the average pay at slaughterhouses varies widely from state to state. The Midwest Center has put together an excellent package with interactive graphs and maps that gives a granular look at the industry, from regional wages to locations. Take a look here.

U.S. farm export prices drop most since 2011

U.S. Labor Department graph
Prices for U.S. farm exports fell 5.3 percent from June to July, the biggest drop since October 2011, according to Labor Department figures. Soybean prices fell 14.1 percent, and prices for corn, wheat, fruits and nuts also slumped. China has targeted all of those products and others with tariffs in retaliation for U.S. tariffs. 

"The report also showed that import prices were unchanged from the previous month, matching the median estimate of economists. Prices were up 4.8 percent from a year earlier, the biggest advance since 2012, driven by a 40.7 percent rise in fuel import prices," Jeff Kearns reports for Bloomberg

Declining coal industry hits Appalachia twice: fewer jobs and 'crippling' bills for more expensive power as demand falls

"As coal mining has collapsed across Appalachia, residents in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have been socked with a double whammy—crippling electric bills to go along with a declining economy," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News.

American Electric Power subsidiaries Wheeling Power and Appalachian Power requested permission from the West Virginia Public Service Commission in May to increase residential bills 11 percent because of declining sales. That's on top of a 29 percent increase between 2014 and 2018, in a region where many residents live in poverty. Residential bills for another AEP subsidiary, Kentucky Power, have nearly doubled in the past decade and are among the highest in the country for an investor-owned utility, Bruggers reports.

One reason for the increasing power bills is that, as mines and other businesses shut down, residents move away in search of other jobs. That means utilities must spread their fixed costs among fewer residents, including the expense of closing old coal-burning power plants and cleaning up the toxic coal ash they leave behind. And many Appalachian utilities keep buying coal when though it is more expensive than natural gas, Bruggers reports.

Kentucky Power spokesperson Allison Barker told Bruggers that last winter's unusually cold weather was partly to blame for high bills , and said customers could save money by turning their thermostats down when the weather turns cool. But she acknowledged that losing thousands of customers since 2014 caused the utility's demand to drop 15 percent, and said it must pay new costs to comply with environmental regulations.

Some Appalachians blame coal's decline on such rules, but James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University law professor and director of its Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, told Bruggers that's not the case: "These people have been sold a bill of goods for the last 10 years that everything in the coal industry would have been fine if the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) had just left us alone. It's been cheap natural gas and it's been cheap renewables."

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Plan to move Economic Research Service out of USDA's HQ draws critics, including a former chief economist

Screenshot of ERS Amber Waves home page
The Daily Yonder is sounding the alarm about Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's plan to move the Economic Research Service out of USDA headquarters in Washington and put it under the direction of the department's chief economist.

USDA says moving the center to ERS "will reduce the cost of operations, make it easier to attract staff, and put researchers in closer contact with 'stakeholders'," the Yonder reports. USDA also cited “significant turnover” at ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is also being relocated: “It has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C., area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.”

"Critics say the change is an effort to shake up the research agency and diminish ERS’s role in providing data that informs decision making," the Yonder reports. "They also say that moving ERS into the Office of the Chief Economist (where it was located once before) will increase the political pressure placed on the agency’s researchers."

Eric Katz reports for Government Executive, "The transition has raised eyebrows in the agriculture and statistics communities, with some experts questioning the Trump administration’s motives. The White House proposed slashing the Economic Research Service budget nearly in half in the president's fiscal 2019 budget," and cutting NIFA "a comparatively modest 8 percent."

The Yonder and The Rural Blog regularly use ERS research and publications such as Amber WavesRural America at a Glance and the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. As the Yonder says, "There is no comparable public source of information about the economic and social conditions of rural America." It has compiled a list of comments that it received or that were published in other news outlets about the ERS move and the related relocation of NIFA.

One comment is from Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Yonder: "ERS may be the last stand of reliable information in this government that has not been nudged, fudged, or sawed up for some special interest. You can trust the work product from ERS. You can’t always say that about other parts of the government.”

Joseph Glauber, who was chief economist from 2007 through 2014, told Government Executive, “I don’t think the independence is compromised by reporting to a chief economist,” but relocation of ERS would cause problems. “My fear is it will just result in a big loss of personnel,” he said, adding that he would “want my economists close by.” He said they would miss important meetings, and it “just doesn’t make a lot of sense” for chief economists to travel hundreds of miles to visit employees.

Columnist: We must fight back in the war on journalism

Dan Gillmor
Journalism is under attack from President Trump and some of his allies, and journalists are speaking out, but it's not enough, author and Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor writes for Medium.

"Here’s a plea to my friends who work in journalism’s non-commentary operations: If you don’t follow up on this collective complaining with real muscle, your organizations will have demonstrated the kind of weakness that Trump and his supporters are convinced — maybe correctly — rests at the core of the craft," Gillmor writes. "You — and probably free speech — can’t play constant defense. You can’t win if you rise to Trump’s bait and start calling him an enemy. And as my friend Jay Rosen said the other day, you need to go way, way beyond Washington Post Editor Marty Baron’s famous but too-facile admonition: 'We’re not at war. We’re at work.'"

Journalists must fight not against Trump, but for a free press and freedom of expression, Gillmor writes. One way they can do that is to partner with other news outlets to produce bigger pieces than one alone would be capable of. Another is to dig deep into topics to provide critical context for topics so that readers can understand the big picture.

"The kinds of collaborations I’m talking about would be difficult to set up and manage, to put it mildly. Certainly the international consortium proves it can be done brilliantly on certain kinds of stories. Can it be done right on the bigger and broader ones? Why not at least try?" Gillmor writes. "Do this right, and you’ll achieve something we all need right now: an affirmation of why journalism still matters."

Survey: Americans think internet media help inform people, but should be more regulated, less filtered

Just a few days after Alex Jones' ouster from most social media platforms, the Knight Foundation and Gallup teamed up to dig into Americans' attitudes about the media's role as content gatekeepers.

"For the survey, 'Major Internet Companies as News Editors,' Knight and Gallup asked more than 2,000 U.S. adults for their opinions on whether the platforms are doing a good job of delivering the news, whether they need to change, and if so, how," Mathew Ingram reports for Columbia Journalism Review. "The good news is that more than half of those surveyed said they believe internet companies in general help people become better informed about the world around them. The bad news is that about 85 percent feel the platforms aren’t doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation."

Respondents worried that platforms needed to stop fake news, but more than 60 percent said they were concerned that removing any content from news feeds gives people a biased picture of the news and restricts the expression of some viewpoints, and 80 percent said internet platforms should show all users the same news information without filtering it.

"Then there’s the real kicker: Almost 80 percent of those who responded to the survey said they believe internet companies should be regulated like traditional media—although it’s not clear exactly what they meant by this," Ingram reports. "Newspapers aren’t subject to a lot of regulation about what kind of content they can publish, apart from obscenity rules. Broadcasters are regulated and licensed by the FCC, but in general, the mainstream press are free to publish misinformation in much the same way that Facebook is, with one very important difference: They can be sued for slander or defamation, and Facebook can’t." Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects internet platforms from such lawsuits.

Proposed Alaskan gold mine, which could be world's largest, clears regulatory hurdles; some local tribes oppose it

Donlin Creek Project as mapped by the developer, Nova Gold
A proposal for a huge, open-pit gold mine in western Alaska cleared a major regulatory hurdle Monday, but still faces opposition from Alaska Natives. After six years of environmental review, the Donlin Gold Project, which will be one of the biggest gold mines in the world, received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management.

Corps approval was needed because the project because it would affect thousands of acres of wetlands. BLM approval was needed because the plans include a 315-mile gas pipeline that crosses over BLM-managed federal land, Krysti Shallenberger reports for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The mine would bring jobs to the impoverished rural area, which mainly consists of Native Alaskan tribes who live a subsistence lifestyle "heavily subsidized by government checks," Suzanne Downing reports for Must Read Alaska. "During operations, some 434 jobs would be filled in the first year, increasing to 1,000 jobs annually for the life of the mine, which is estimated to be 27 years. Total payroll would be $98 million per year. Mine closure and reclamation would require fewer workers."

But many Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Native Alaskans oppose the project. "Nearly a dozen have passed anti-mine resolutions in the past two years. The tribes fear the mine would damage their subsistence lifestyle. And they fear a mine accident could contaminate the Kuskokwim River, a vital food source," Shallenberger reports.

The mine is far from a done deal. It will require more than 100 other permits, and a ballot initiative in November could kill the project. The measure would designate all Alaskan water bodies as salmon habitat unless proven otherwise, and would require tougher standards for developers to prove that an area isn't a habitat. Opponents say it's so strict it would stymie development, Downing reports.

ProPublica program helps local papers tell big stories without parachuting in; apply for next year by Sept. 14

ProPublica has announced it will continue its grant-funded Local Reporting Network program for another year. The foundation-funded nonprofit will pay salaries and benefits allowances for full-time reporters at seven local or regional news organizations, and give them professional support in an investigative reporting project. Though the projects for this first round of the LRN have covered diverse subjects, the second round will have a special focus on state-government accountability reporting. The deadline to apply is Sept. 14. Click here for more information.

The seven local news outlets participating this year say they like the way ProPublica has helped them tell in-depth stories without overshadowing them, Christine Schmidt reports for the nonprofit.

Ken Ward Jr., an environmental reporter at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, told Schmidt that "It’s nice when you’re in a small newspaper in a little place like Charleston to feel like you’ve got a literal army of people at ProPublica that are on your side, trying to help you take these stories to the next level."

Carbondale, Ill.., reporter Molly Parker said "We’re really proud of our work at the Southern Illinoisan, but we have a flashlight, not a lighthouse . . . Giving some of these issues that we’ve been seeing a national spotlight or introducing them to a national audience might help change the nature of the conversation."

First year after childbirth deadly for opioid-addicted women

For low-income women addicted to opioids, the first year after childbirth can be deadly. According to a study published this month, opioid overdose deaths decline during pregnancy, then peak between seven and 12 months after delivery.

 "Sleep deprivation, dramatic hormonal shifts and the day-to-day realities of caring for an infant create enormous stress for all women, but especially for those who are struggling to stay in recovery from drug use. And yet most medical protocols and social safety net programs are set up to shift attention away from the mother after delivery and focus exclusively on the new baby," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline, the news outlet of the Pew Charitable TrustsRead more here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Rural residents less likely to get HIV testing; researchers say rural health-care providers should routinely offer it

Rural residents are less likely to have had an HIV test than their urban counterparts, according to a study of responses to a continuous national poll conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study of the the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that HIV tests for rural people were less likely in the past year and over the course of their lives. That's worrisome because rural America is experiencing an increased incidence of HIV, especially in the South and Midwest.

The research used data from 2015. Out of about 250,000 respondents, 24.5 percent of urban residents said they had received an HIV test within the past year, while 20.2 percent of rural residents did. Overall, 26.9 percent of urban residents reported having ever had an HIV test, compared to 21.5 percent of rural residents.

The researchers also dug into where people tend to get HIV tests. In rural areas, people tended to get tested in hospitals, emergency rooms and clinics, and are less likely to get tested in their doctor's office.

The study's authors conclude that rural medical providers should routinely offer HIV testing to patients, and that "targeted interventions are needed to remove structural barriers in rural communities such as long distances to clinics and low availability of free HIV testing at clinics serving the un- or under-insured."

Interactive map of when mothers have their first babies highlights education, urban-rural differences

Average age of mother at first birth. (NYT map; click on the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version)
An analysis of four decades of birth records shows that the age when women become mothers varies significantly by geography and education, which results in children born into different family lives and headed for diverging economic futures. "Researchers say the differences in when women start families are a symptom of the nation's inequality — and as moving up the economic ladder has become harder, mothers' circumstances could have a bigger effect on their children’s futures," Quoctrung Bui and Claire Miller report for The New York Times.

Women in rural areas, the Great Plains and the South tend to become mothers earlier, and so do women without a college degree. Younger and/or less-educated first-time moms tend to be poorer, which means they sometimes can't afford enriching activities like violin lessons or math tutoring for their children. On the other hand, younger and more rural moms are also more likely to live near their own parents, which is helpful for child care and overall support.

"The gulf aligns with other disparities in the way Americans live — including differing attitudes about the role of women," Bui and Miller report. "Law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn described in a 2010 book how red and blue families were living different lives. The biggest differentiating factor, they said, was the age that mothers had children. Young mothers are more likely to be conservative and religious, to value traditional gender roles and to reject abortion. Older mothers tend to be liberal, and to split bread-winning and care-giving responsibilities more equally with men, they found."

Spotted lanternflies destroying crops in southeast Pa.

A spotted lanternfly
(Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture photo)
Southeastern Pennsylvania is ground zero for an outbreak of an invasive species that's destroying farmers' crops. The spotted lanternfly was first sighted in 2014 and has now spread to 13 counties, including Philadelphia, and has turned up in small pockets of Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. The native of Southeast Asia, doesn't carry human diseases or bite people, but damages plants by sucking sap. That can hamper photosynthesis and weaken the plants. Also, lanternflies excrete a sticky fluid called honeydew that coats the surface of fruits and plants and promotes mold, Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

It's unclear how much damage lanternflies have caused, though some farmers have reported to state authorities that the pest has destroyed entire fields of crops. Berks County farmer Calvin Beekman, who has 42 acres of wine grapes, said that lanternflies decimated them, even after he sprayed with insecticides. "Last year, he harvested 62 tons, losing an estimated $100,000. This year he expects just four tons at best," Lucia reports. "In addition to sucking the life out of the grapes, the lanternflies consumed nutrients their vines depend on, weakening some to the point where Beekman said they did not survive last winter. Other plants that weathered the cold months didn’t grow properly, some with stunted shoots."

Though the lanternflies largely spared Beekman's 80 acres of apple trees, the flies are considered a threat to fruit trees, grapes, hops and hardwood timber. And because they are less picky about their diet, they could do more damage than pests like the emerald ash borer, Lucia reports.

The state and federal governments are taking the threat seriously: "Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put forward $17.5 million to help combat the lanternfly in Pennsylvania," Lucia reports. "This money was in addition to state funds of $3 million in the most recent budget. In prior years, government spending to fight the pest in Pennsylvania was in the ballpark of $1.2 million."

Big internet service providers blame consumer protections for their disregard of rural America, columnist writes

Ernesto Falcon
Large telecommunications companies like AT&T and Comcast are using a devious tactic to fend off consumer protection laws, Ernesto Falcon writes in a scathing opinion piece for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization that champions civil liberties in the digital world.

Specifically, internet service providers tell state legislatures that laws protecting consumers will harm their ability to expand into rural America. "They claim that any legislator eager to protect their constituents from the nefarious things that can be done by companies that control access to the Internet is somehow hurting residents most desperate for an Internet connection," Falcon writes. "But ISPs' unwillingness to invest has nothing to do with net neutrality or privacy, because today they are nearly completely deregulated, sitting on a mountain of cash, and have shown no intention of connecting rural Americans to high-speed Internet while their smaller competitors take up the challenge." Read more here.

Investigative reporting is critical for the future of local news. Here's a project to help it, and it needs YOUR help!

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

Here's a great idea that needs your active support: a project to put experienced investigative editors in local newsrooms that want to do investigative reporting.

Reporters Danielle Gable, left, and Bob Clark pose with editor
Rose Ciotta and their award from the New York State AP.
And it's more than just an idea; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rose Ciotta has proven it can work, with six months as a projects editor with the Olean Times Herald, in Olean, N.Y., and the Beaver County Times in western Pennsylvania. She helped the Olean paper win its first statewide award for investigative reporting.

The Times Herald, which has a Sunday circulation of 9,000, won third place for investigations by small newsrooms in the New York State Associated Press contest for "Olean’s Weak Anti-Blight Plan Puts Stress on Rental Housing," which exposed bad rental-housing conditions in the city in New York's Southern Tier. Now Tom Dinki, a reporter for the Community Media Group paper, is working on the plight of shrinking rural school districts.

In Pennsylvania, GateHouse Media's Beaver County Times did a four-part series on the impact of the opioid crisis in and around Beaver, population 4,500, which has had the state's highest death rate from fentanyl overdoses. "Soon after the January report, the state’s governor declared a statewide opioid disaster emergency," Ciotta reports.

Ciotta's work was funded by the Investigative Editing Corps, a pilot project funded by the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. Now Ciotta is seeking major funding to keep it going, and needs to hear from local newsrooms so she can show funders that there is a demand for such help.

Gamble wrote in a support letter, “I’m no longer the same person I was — I am more capable of delivering good journalism to my town, and I am more motivated than ever to serve it.” Times Editor Lisa Mascaro wrote, “This type of editor help is critical to small newsroom operations. As quickly as our industry changes, the one constant is the need for investigative journalism. A program such as Investigative Editing Corps would ensure that small newsrooms could make a difference.”
Ciotta writes, "The reporters heard from people in the community grateful to them for exposing the city’s failure to enforce housing codes. . . . Investigative reporting is what will endear readers to their local news organizations. Citizens need to know that their local news outlet — whether it’s print, radio, digital or broadcasting — will take on important local issues and will uncover the truth regardless of who is involved."

For an independent look at the project, read this story by Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute. Ciotta says such help "would work best in small newsrooms where editors are too busy with daily duties to drive any investigative work and where reporters can benefit from working with an experienced mentor." Please let her hear from you, by taking this short survey.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Election officials want money, training to improve security

Regional U.S. election officials at a hacker conference last week said they need more money and training to improve cyber-security for elections. Local election officers, they said, don't have the knowledge or resources to rebuff foreign attackers and need support from both the state and federal government, Todd Prince reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Their concerns appeared not to be entirely unfounded. As an exercise, hundreds of hackers at the annual Defcon conference attempted to infiltrate websites that are identical to the infrastructure used to conduct elections around the U.S. "One session reportedly featured an 11-year-old who successfully hacked into a replica website for the Florida secretary of state and changed election results," Bret Molina reports for USA Today.

Children as young as eight years old were invited to try to hack the voting sites. Jake Braun, a former White House liaison for the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC News, "These websites are so easy to hack we couldn’t give them to adult hackers — they’d be laughed off the stage." Last year at DefCon, attendees were able to find and exploit flaws in five different kinds of voting machines in less than a day, Molina reports.

Harri Hursti, founding partner of Nordic Innovation Labs, told Prince that because so many different kinds of voting machines are used, hackers might have a harder time influencing nationwide elections, but that they could cause big changes by focusing on a few key local elections or precincts.

The National Association of Secretaries of State said in a statement that the DefCon exercise isn't a realistic scenario, since most hackers don't have unlimited physical access to voting machines. But the machines are only part of the problem; election employees let hackers in when they click on phishing emails that introduce viruses into their systems, Prince reports. Improved training for officials is just as needed as better firewalls, said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

House Republicans voted along party lines to reject a Democratic effort to increase election security spending last month, saying that "Congress had fully funded states’ election security needs over the years and that states still have plenty of grant money left to spend from a $380 million allocation for 2018," Erica Werner reports for The Washington Post.

Both sides stretch truth about tariffs' impact on grain prices

Both liberals and conservatives have stretched the truth in talking about the trade war's impact on American soybean farmers, Meg Kelly reports for The Washington Post's Fact Checker.

President Trump tweeted July 20: "Farmers have been on a downward trend for 15 years. The price of soybeans has fallen 50% since 5 years before the Election. A big reason is bad (terrible) Trade Deals with other countries." On July 24, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., tweeted, "A study shows that corn, soybean and wheat farmers across the U.S. have already lost $13 billion because of the administration’s trade war. We need trade policies that make sense for North Dakota, protect farmers and ranchers, and open up markets."

The facts are a bit more complex, Kelly writes. Prices for soybeans and other agricultural products are based on many factors such as how much was planted, global trends, weather, and more. And though American farms made big profits from 2011 to 2014, farm income started dropping in 2013 because of bumper crops that made supply exceed demand.

Heitkamp's $13 billion figure came from Christopher Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, who was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article. But Hurt told Kelly that his figure depended on commodity futures prices, which change daily. By Aug. 8, Hurt calculated a drop of only $9 billion in corn, soybean and wheat crops, a 40 percent improvement in two weeks.

"Heitkamp also neglects the nuances of the agricultural market by pinning the blame on one factor — albeit probably large — in the collapse of the commodity prices," Kelly reports. "There is little doubt that the administration’s trade policies and tariffs have had a negative effect, but by citing an ever-changing estimate as a study, she creates a false impression that the consequences are fixed. The future may look bleak, but it’s still too soon to know the full impact." Heitkamp's office deleted its tweet after the Post pointed out the source's inaccuracy, though Kelly notes that it would have been better if the tweet had been deleted with an explanation.

Trump, meanwhile, was incorrect about both when American farm income began declining and its cause. Farm income has been in decline since 2013, not 2003, as Trump claimed, and the cause was good weather, not bad trade agreements. Also, soybean prices have dropped 29 percent, not the 50 percent that Trump claimed, Kelly reports.

Though trade war is hurting the Chinese economy, economics columnist worries it could backfire on America

We've reported much about how the ongoing trade war with China is affecting America; how is it affecting China?

To start with, Chinese investors are getting "jittery," which may be part of the reason that the Chinese stock market has fallen sharply in the past four months, The Economist reports. "And this is just one of a series of awkward facts for China as its trade war with America deepens. The yuan is down 8 percent against the dollar since April, and near its weakest in more than a year. A shrinking trade surplus produced a current-account deficit in the first half of 2018, China’s first such gap in at least two decades. More broadly, China’s growth is slowing at a time when America’s economy is expanding at its fastest pace since 2014."

China's ability to retaliate with tariffs of its own is limited: since the U.S. buys more products from China than vice versa, the U.S. can impose effective tariffs on more products. China is reluctant to borrow money to ease domestic pains from the trade war, as Trump proposes to do, because the Chinese government has been focusing on reining in the national debt over the past two years.

But it's not all bad news for China: the boost in exports, caused by the falling yuan, could make up for some or all of the money lost to tariffs, according to Andrew Tilton, the chief Asia economist at Goldman Sachs. And Chinese government officials have made it easier for cities to get funding for infrastructure projects, which they hope will stimulate the economy, The Economist reports.

"The economic backdrop to the trade war could also change over the next year. As China tiptoes towards easing, its credit growth should pick up," The Economist reports. "Meanwhile, America may be near the top of its growth cycle, with gains from last year’s tax cut set to dissipate. Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics, a research firm, says the divergence in their stockmarkets might reflect overconfidence in America and an evaporation of confidence in China."

Economics columnist Robert Samuelson writes for The Washington Post that Trump's trade war may backfire. Not only will targeted countries not give in to his demands, U.S. companies, hurting from tariffs, are raising their products' prices, which hurts American consumers. 

But the biggest threat, Samuelson writes, is that the U.S. dollar might lose its place as the world's major currency. "It dictates trade policy in ways not widely understood and is the ultimate cause of chronic U.S. trade deficits," Samuelson writes. "The dollar’s role as the major world currency means it’s used to settle trade transactions and make cross-border investments, even when Americans are not involved. As I’ve written before, the extra dollar demand boosts its value on foreign exchange markets. U.S. exports become more expensive and U.S. imports less so."

The dollar's role as the world's currency means that the U.S. will almost certainly always have a trade deficit, but Americans still benefit because imports keep inflation at bay and tend to lower interest rates. "Trump has maneuvered himself and the country into a no-win conflict," Samuelson writes. "He has infuriated America’s allies by his reckless actions to raise tariffs and disrupt existing trade arrangements. If the impasse continues for months or years — a possibility — the damage to the world economy would be significant."

Investigation finds federal and state regulators change rules to help natural gas industry, as they did with coal

Last week a federal appeals court ordered a halt to work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, designed to carry natural gas from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit unanimously ruled that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had not adequately vetted the project to make sure it would not hurt the environment. But an investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the ProPublica Local Reporting Network found that such developer-friendly actions were not rare.

"Over the past two years, federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws have moved repeatedly to clear roadblocks and expedite the pipeline, even changing the rules at times to ease the project’s approvals," Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward of the Gazette-Mail and Beena Raghavendran of ProPublica report. "Projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline ... require a variety of approvals before being built. Developers and regulators must study various alternatives, describe a clear need for the project, and show that steps will be taken to minimize damage to the environment and reduce negative effects on valuable resources like public lands and the water supply. But in numerous instances, officials greenlit the pipeline despite serious unanswered questions."

For example, when citizen groups sued on the grounds that pipeline construction would illegally block the flow of rivers for too long, the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved to rewrite their rules for how long pipeline construction can block rivers' flow. West Virginians have seen such behavior from state and local governments before with the coal industry, and the pattern is continuing with natural gas, Mishkin, Ward, and Rahavendran report.