Friday, September 07, 2018

Big hospital tries to keep small town from building one

Wikipedia map, labeled by The Rural Blog
A small farming town in southwest Florida wanted to build a small hospital but found an unlikely enemy: a larger hospital nearby.

About 50,000 people live in the Collier County community of Immokalee, but when Dr. Beau Braden moved there to open a medical clinic he discovered that the town, about 40 miles inland from Naples, had fewer hospital beds per person than Afghanistan, Jack Healy reports for The New York Times.

Braden proposed a 25-bed hospital to serve Immokalee and nearby Ave Maria, but this summer NCH Health Systems, which operates a hospital in Naples and another nearby, "derailed those plans by asking the state to deny the proposal, saying that the small, rural hospital would siphon away patients and revenue, Healy reports. "The move has upended people’s hopes around Immokalee and delayed any plans to start building the hospital for months. Maybe for good." The NCH said its hospitals provide coverage for Immokalee's residents and questioned whether Braden was experienced enough to run a hospital.

Braden and other local health officials said the NCH hospitals don't adequately serve Immokalee and that it and other rural areas all over the country are suffering from the lack of hospital and emergency care: "Babies are regularly born in ambulances before they can reach a hospital, and adults drive themselves bleeding to the hospital when the three available ambulances get swamped with calls, emergency responders say. Children younger than 1 die at triple the rate of the rest of Collier County, and the number of people dying in places like fields or parking lots grew by 143 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to state health statistics that Dr. Braden submitted to regulators," Healy reports.

NCH's action is one example, albeit a rarer one, of the challenges rural communities face in trying to secure local hospital care. It's all the rarer since far more rural areas are losing hospitals than gaining them: 87 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. since 2010. "But as Dr. Braden learned, even when a town wants to open a new hospital to make up for the loss in care, the challenges can be enormous," Healy reports. "Just to open the doors, rural hospital projects need to raise millions of dollars for construction, equipment and salaries for doctors and nurses. They need to woo highly trained staff to out-of-the way towns. They must thread a maze of regulations without an army of experts and high-priced consultants, which are available to larger hospitals.

Chances of trade deal with China fade, at least until after elections; U.S. looks elsewhere for leverage

The prospect of resolving the U.S. trade battle with China is fading as the White House draws closer to a deal to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement," Bob Davis and Lingling Wei report for The Wall Street Journal: "The outcomes are related, U.S. officials say. Relaxing trade tensions with Mexico and Canada, plus a preliminary trade agreement with the European Union, have made it easier to forge a multilateral front to oppose Chinese trade practices. The U.S., the E.U. and Japan have already held meetings on such a strategy."

Friendlier relations with trade allies could come in handy as the U.S. prepares to hit China with 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion in goods, since those allies would be less likely to allow Chinese exporters to get around U.S. tariffs by shipping goods through a third country. 

So what happens next? Some trade associations are considering suing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to stop the tariffs, on the grounds that the administration has acted arbitrarily and exceeded its authority in issuing the tariffs. Meanwhile, Chinese officials are trying to buy time, reassuring nervous stock market investors that talks with the U.S. are proceeding.

Lighthizer "has been pressing for deep changes in the Chinese economy, including reduction of subsidies and other industrial policies favoring domestic firms, the Journal reports. Earlier negotiations had focused more on boosting Chinese imports of U.S. goods. . . . But structural changes are the toughest for China to meet."

An unnamed Chinese economic-policy advisor told the Journal that China can afford to be patient until the Nov. 6 elections, in which tariffs could figure. "That would leave very little time to conclude a deal in November, before the G-20 summit," Davis and Wei report. "Chinese officials believe that if Republicans fare poorly in the elections, the president will be weakened in talks with China."  

The U.S. and China could negotiate at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, but President Trump plans to skip it. If bilateral talks until then bear no fruit, that leaves only the G-20 conference later in November to reach a deal, the Journal reports.

Bee careful: Your honey might be partly corn syrup

When you think of counterfeit items, you might think of Rolexes or money. But these days you might just find something fake in your grocery cart: imported honey is increasingly likely to be diluted with cheap fillers.

Part of the problem is that Americans' appetite for honey has almost doubled since the 1990s, with prices following, but American bees produce 35 percent less honey now than 20 years ago. "This has given honey-sellers an incentive to dilute it with cheaper things like corn, rice and beet syrup," The Economist reports. "According to US Pharmacopeia’s Food Fraud Database, honey is now the third-favorite food target for adulteration, behind milk and olive oil."

Because domestic production can't keep up with demand, Americans import a lot of honey. And though there are tests to make sure honey hasn't been tampered with, the most common one is more than 25 years old and most honey counterfeiters know how to get around it, The Economist says.

Another problem: Food and Drug Administration guidelines require honey sellers to list additional ingredients, but those rules aren't legally enforceable. And the FDA's legal definition of honey may be so loose as to allow additives such as corn syrup.

Domestic production is unlikely to increase as long as beekeepers make more money renting out their bees to pollinate crops than they do from producing honey. Crop pollination "involves up to 90 percent of the commercial bee population in America, leaving few bees to pollinate everything else that requires their attention," The Economist reports. Such pollination services have been made more necessary because of dense planting, especially of almond trees, that make it less likely that natural pollination would occur. And bees are having a harder time surviving in nature because of climate change, diseases, and possibly the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Sept. 12 webinar will discuss rural poverty, 50 years after report on it from a presidential commission

In 1967 President Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty issued a report called The People Left Behind. In a webinar on Wednesday, Sept. 12, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty will discuss the nation's progress in reducing rural poverty in the half-century since the report.

Moderators Ann Tickamyer of Pennsylvania State University and Bruce Weber of Oregon State University will also offer suggestions for future research and policies. The webinar will take place from 2 to 3 p.m. ET Sept. 12, and a recording will be available afterward. Click here to register or for more information.

Indiana U. gets $6 million for investigative journalism center

A wealthy alumnus of Indiana University has given its Media School $6 million to start a center that will focus on the production and teaching of investigative journalism in Indiana and beyond.

"We've all recently been reminded of the need for strong and independent investigative journalism," Media School Dean James Shanahan said in a news release. "Michael Arnolt shares this recognition with us and is helping us take a strong step toward producing great journalism and training great journalists."

Michael Arnolt
Arnolt earned journalism degree from IU in 1967, reported for The Elkhart Truth for five and a half years, then went into private business. He co-founded the Graston Technique, "a physical therapy method adopted by clinicians, outpatient clinics, university advanced-degree teaching programs and more than 450 amateur and professional sports organizations across the U.S., Canada and Europe," the release says. "Despite the career change, he maintained his passion for and belief in the responsibility of journalists to uphold the watchdog function of the news media."

The university says the center will open in fall 2019, and its work "will be available at no cost to local, regional and national news outlets and will seek to supplement their reporting at a time when many are losing newsroom staff." Arnolt's gift will provide fellowships for up to four graduate students and scholarships for as many as 10 undergraduates to work on investigative projects. A director will provide editorial guidance. A search for the director launches today.

"We are all immensely grateful to Michael Arnolt for this gift," said IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel. "Investigative journalism is critical to a healthy democracy and healthy civil society. We need to ensure that we continue to give future journalists the education and the tools to work in our communities so we can be better-informed, better-equipped citizens. This gift makes that possible at The Media School."

National Farm Safety and Health Week coming up

Since 1944, the third week of September has been designated as National Farm Safety and Health Week. And for good reason: Farming is one of the most hazardous jobs in the U.S., and about 100 agricultural workers will suffer an injury every day, according to the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety.

This year the theme is "Cultivating the Seeds of Safety" and organizers will focus on different aspects of farm safety each day:

  • Monday: Rural roadway safety
  • Tuesday: Health, suicide and opioids
  • Wednesday: Child and youth health and safety
  • Thursday: Confined spaces in agriculture
  • Friday: Tractor safety

Click here for educational videos, statistics, and other resources for coverage next week.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Exchange program aims to bridge rural-urban gap in Ky.

Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange participants do a square dance in Harlan County. (RUX photo)
Today the cultural, political and economic divide between rural and urban areas is as wide as it has ever been -- even in a state like Kentucky where many urban residents have rural roots. But bringing rural and urban residents together can help bridge that gap.

"That’s the idea behind the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, a program that brings together leaders in diverse fields from across the state," Sarah Baird reports for CityLab. "Over the course of a year, RUX participants go on three weekend-long retreats to strengthen bonds with people from other parts of the state, creating a 'currency of connection' (in the words of RUX organizers) to increase mutual understanding, spark collective problem-solving, and, of course, develop friendships across divides, whether real or perceived." RUX was launched in 2014 by Eastern Kentucky arts group Appalshop and rural culture non-profit Art of the Rural.

The retreats take place in different parts of the state and revolve around activities that emphasize local culture and issues. And while rural residents might not deal with the same issues as urban residents, all participants can find common ground. "In the city, we have a gentrification issue that might not be a rural issue, necessarily. But they have some of the same fallout—like the rent being too high and generational poverty. So we began to really talk about these issues that we thought had totally different causes, and we started to see commonality," said Tanya Torp, a past RUX participant who lives in Lexington.

The genius of the program is that rural residents can be especially skilled in connecting with others, according to Savannah Barrett, an 11th-generation Kentuckian and Art of the Rural's program director. "There’s an interdependence. It’s more natural to look across whatever political or social differences when you have to count on each other. And in the 21st century, when people aren’t really conditioned to connect with one another, that’s a skill everyone needs to learn."

Rural interests in Oklahoma form a lobbying group

The declining potency of rural interests in state legislatures, as most states become more urban, is freshly reflected by the formation of a lobbying group aimed at "improving rural parts of the state" of Oklahoma, reports Dale Denwalt of The Oklahoman. The state's population at the 2010 census was one-third rural.

The Oklahoma Rural Association will recruit members from the energy, agribusiness, manufacturing, financial services, equipment and utilities sectors, President Monica Miller told Denwalt, who reports, "The organization also plans to address issues in education and health care."

Miller, who until recently was executive director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, told Denwalt, "Over time there has been an erosion of rural community and economy. This association came together with like-minded individuals who saw a void that needed to be filled on a variety of fronts."

The group will also lobby in Washington, D.C., but there the Senate, which has two senators from every state, helps ensure that many rural interests are represented.

New Indiana map, viewable by public, shows where first responders have given naloxone for opioid overdoses

To help fight the opioid epidemic, Indiana has launched a new interactive mapping tool that shows where first responders have administered naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses, Kate Queram reports gfor Route Fifty. Unlike the ODMap being used by first responders and leaders in 27 states, Indiana's map is viewable by the public.
Screenshot of the interactive map.

The Naloxone Administration Heatmap, announced by the Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse, obscures addresses for privacy, but labels overdose sites within 100 meters in urban areas and 500 meters (about one-third of a mile) in rural areas. Users can toggle the settings to select for overdoses within the past 30 days, within the year to date, or from years dating back to 2014. Other adjustable settings include whether the overdose happened roughly during the day or night, or on a weekday or weekend, Queram reports.

The tool was developed by a partnership between the Indiana Management Performance Hub and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. Providers send EMS data to the state's homeland security database, which the management performance hub then analyzes and plots on the map.

"Not every naloxone usage is an overdose, according to the commission, but 'preliminary analysis indicates' that approximately 75 percent of administrations of the drug are to treat overdoses," Queram reports. "About 15 percent of 'naloxone incidents' have not been added to the map because the address was poorly formatted or missing, according to the website."

Tennessee electric co-op buys controlling interest in internet service provider to bring broadband to its rural customers

A rural electric cooperative and an internet service provider near Nashville have taken advantage of a new state law to expand broadband access in rural Tennessee, Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder. The deal between Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. and United Communications, announced last month, is the state's first partnership between a co-op and a private company to offer broadband. A state law pushed by telecommunications firms has blocked cities in the state from extending broadband service outside their city limits or utility service areas.

Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. service area
MTEMC, which buys electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority, has 225,000 business and residential members in Williamson, Wilson, Rutherford and Cannon counties. Instead of building out its own broadband network, as co-ops in some other states have, it bought a controlling interest in United. That way the co-op has more control over broadband quality, pricing and reliability, and may gain access to state and federal grants, Settles reports.

The partnership is already helping rural customers, including the Peytonsville Volunteer Fire Department in Williamson County. "Gigabit broadband means the volunteer force will have significant advantages," Settles reports. "Reports are created and processed faster and more accurately. In a world in which seconds mean the difference between life and death, the web-based dispatch application means firefighters and EMTs are on the trucks faster and with more accurate data."

UPDATE: Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Democratic nominee for U.S. senator, writes in a column for the Nashville Tennessean that TVA should become a provider of rural broadband. "They have long-standing relationships with local electric distribution utilities and co-ops that can be an integral part of the effort," Bredesen notes. He writes that in Humphreys and Hickman counties, just west of well-to-do Williamson, almost 60 percent and over 40 percent of residents, respectively, "are without broadband internet. This affects the quality of life and the ability to attract and retain jobs in these counties. . . . In today’s world, the internet is quickly becoming as vital as telephones, or electric power, or roads, or water and sewer services — a fifth utility."

Author is touring rural America for a book to show how it is hurt by lack of broadband; first stop: Staunton, Va.

Many Staunton homes need a satellite dish to stay connected.
(Brookings photo by Mark Williams-Hoelscher)
In rural areas and small towns like Staunton, Virginia (pop. 23,746) the lack of reliable high-speed internet hurts businesses and exacerbates "economic, social and political marginalization" of the poor, the elderly, immigrants and people of color, Nicol Turner-Lee reports for The Brookings Institution. The problem is widespread; of the 55 million Americans who lack broadband access, 14 million live in rural areas.

Turner-Lee, a fellow in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, made Staunton (pronounced "Stanton") the first stop on a 10-city tour in advance of her book Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass, which explores how the lack of broadband hurts rural America and how more flexible and creative public policies and private initiatives can increase access. You can follow her tour on Twitter or Instagram; the book, with extensive photographs, will be released in 2019.

Staunton, Va. (Brookings Institution map)
"This photo essay confirms that rural areas like Staunton are in critical need of high-speed broadband networks for economic and talent development, especially as access to technology has become the lever to avert the expected outcomes of poverty and social isolation, at least for vulnerable populations," Turner-Lee reports. "The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the deployment of broadband nationwide, reports that it would cost $40 billion to bring broadband access to 98 percent of the country. Expanding broadband access to rural areas would be even more expensive, given the vast topography and far proximity from telecommunications facilities."

Sept. 18 webinar will explore why rural areas lag in getting children a vaccine that can prevent a major type of cancer

The Rural Health Information Hub will hold a webinar to discuss the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent report showing that rural teens are less likely than their urban peers to know about the human papilloma virus or meningococcal conjugate vaccines or receive them. HPV is the known cause of several genital, anal, and throat cancers. Featured speakers will be:
  • Tanja Walker, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases
  • Electra D. Paskett, a cancer-research professor at Ohio State University
  • Robin C. Vanderpool, an associate professor in the Department of Health, Behavior & Society in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health
The free webinar will take place at noon ET on Sept. 18. A recording will be available on the RHI website afterward. Click here for more information or to register.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Built-up levees worsen Mississippi flooding in cross-river towns, according to new Army Corps computer model

If the calamitous Mississippi River flood of 1993 happened today, some towns would fare far better while others fare worse, according to a new computer model by the Army Corps of Engineers that simulates how floods affect the Upper Mississippi. That's because some communities have raised their levees without obtaining the proper permits, which shunts floodwaters to neighboring towns and their farms. Residents of Pike County, Missouri, say their floods are worse their neighbors across the river, in the Sny Island Levee Drainage District in Illinois, have raised their very long levee too high.

"It’s for this very reason that the Corps regulates levee heights. Levees are designed to prevent rivers from overflowing, but they create a zero-sum game where raising levees in one area can push extra flood risk onto others," says the story, a collaboration between Lisa Song and Al Shaw of ProPublica, Patrick Michaels of "Reveal," a program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Alex Heeb of The Telegraph in Alton, Ill., just downstream.

Communities fight floods by putting up sandbags, but are expected to remove them afterward. But not all do, and over time the sandbags add up to too-high levees. The Corps is stretched too thin to monitor levees like those built up by the Sny Island district, so they get left up, the story says.

Early tests show that if another big flood happens, "communities with higher levees — found in a handful of levee districts on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the river — would be far better protected, and those without them would fare far worse," the story reports. "On the Illinois side, the land behind the Sny’s higher levees would be much drier, with some areas saved from more than 16 feet of flooding. The Missouri side would weather floodwaters up to 1.7 feet higher than it experienced in 1993."

The first publicly available results of the simulation say that the worst impact of flooding would be in Pike County, the Union Township area, and the city of Hannibal, all in Missouri, ProPublica reports.

Hydraulic fracturing has unproven long-term finances, writes author of new book about the industry

McLean's book, out Sept. 11
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing has "turned the energy world upside down" in the 10 years it's been practiced in earnest, turning the U.S. into the world's largest producer of natural gas, but some Wall Street forecasters worry that the industry is financially unstable. Specifically, frackers haven't proven that they can make money, Bethany McLean writes in an opinion piece for The New York Times. "The 60 biggest exploration and production firms are not generating enough cash from their operations to cover their operating and capital expenses," writes McLean, author of a new book about the industry. "In aggregate, from mid-2012 to mid-2017, they had negative free cash flow of $9 billion per quarter."

Part of the reason is that fracked oil wells produce far less after the first year of operation. "According to an economist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve [Bank], production in the average well in the Bakken [Formation] — a key area for fracking shale in North Dakota — declines 69 percent in its first year and more than 85 percent in its first three years," McLean writes. "A conventional well might decline by 10 percent a year. For fracking operations to keep growing, they need huge investments each year to offset the decline from the previous years’ wells."

After horizontal fracking was perfected, it took off quickly, partly because of record-low interest rates after the Great Recession. It has survived because investors are still willing to buy in, buoying an industry bogged down by increasing debt, McLean writes. Hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos told McLean that "the industry has a very bad history of money going into it and never coming out."

In the first quarter of this year, only five of the top 20 fracking companies made more money than they spent, mostly because of wells in the oil-rich Permian Basin in West Texas and southeast New Mexico. Most companies' market value is based on profits, but fracking companies' value is based on the acreage they own — their potential profit. "It’s all a bit reminiscent of the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, when internet companies were valued on the number of eyeballs they attracted, not on the profits they were likely to make," McLean writes. "As long as investors were willing to believe that profits were coming, it all worked — until it didn’t."

McLean's new book, Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It's Changing the World (Columbia Global Reports, $15.19) comes out Sept. 11.

Webinar to cover cybersecurity issues in elections

Covering your local or state elections? You may want to tune in for this webinar on the state of cybersecurity for the 2018 midterms. Route Fifty will host the free webcast from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET on Sept. 20. Click here to register or for more information. Here's a list of the speakers:
  • Judd Choate, Colorado elections director
  • Jim Condos, Vermont secretary of state
  • Noah Praetz, Cook County, Illinois, elections director
  • Dave Nyczepir, Route Fifty news editor
  • Jeff Jennings, national Single Large Expensive Disk practice director at cybersecurity company Fortinet

U.S. stayed in NAFTA and Korea talks because staffer stole withdrawal letters from Trump's desk, new book reports

Bob Woodward's new book Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster, $30) paints a somber portrait of a senior staff obliged to work around President Trump in order to keep the government on its rails.

"A central theme of the book is the stealthy machinations used by those in Trump’s inner sanctum to try to control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for the president personally and for the nation he was elected to lead," Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report for The Washington Post. "Woodward describes 'an administrative coup d'etat' and a 'nervous breakdown' of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to pluck official papers from the president’s desk so he couldn’t see or sign them."

According to Woodward's interviews with staffers, in the spring of 2017, Trump ordered a letter written to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was drawn up and placed on his desk, but Gary Cohn, then his top economic adviser, and others worried what that would do to the nation's economy and foreign relations. Cohn told the staff secretary he would simply take the letter off Trump's desk, and the U.S. did not withdraw from the trade agreement.

Woodward reports that Cohn did likewise with a letter that, if signed, would have withdrawn the U.S. from a trade agreement with South Korea. Trump did not notice it was missing, and the U.S. remained in negotiations with South Korea until a deal was struck in March 2018.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

It's time for all journalists to speak up against 'the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media'

A volunteer at a Trump rally in Evansville last week tried to keep
photographers from taking pictures of protesters. (AP/Evan Vucci)
By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Journalists need to speak up for their work, to counter "the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd writes for The Atlantic, where he is now a contributing editor. My friend Chuck makes some good arguments, but his 2,284-word piece appears aimed at journalists and their paymasters in the national news-media establishment. They need some backup from news outlets in smaller places, where the campaign probably has the greatest traction.

Todd's biggest target is Fox News, its prime-time commentators, and its longtime chairman and CEO, the late Roger Ailes, who, starting with his service to Richard Nixon, cited journalists' "errors of omission and commission, inadvertent inattention and willful disregard, unconscious assumptions and deliberate distortions" and "collapsed all of it into the single charge of bias. . . . There are some great journalists at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith, but it’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism."

Chuck Todd (NBC News photo)
Todd, host of "Meet the Press," says other news outlets and their reporters have made mistakes that accelerated Ailes' campaign, picked up by President Trump. But they "own up to mistakes, and learn from them so they can do a better job the next time." But they have been taught not to engage with their critics, and journalism "finds itself on the ropes because it allowed a nearly 50-year campaign of attacks inspired by the chair of Fox News to go unanswered," Todd writes. "If you hear something over and over again, you start to believe it, particularly if the charge is unrebutted."

Washington Post Editor Martin Baron likes to say "We're not at war, we're at work," but Todd seems to disagree. "The idea that our work will speak for itself is hopelessly naive," he writes. "Reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. . . . I’m not advocating for a more activist press in the political sense, but for a more aggressive one. That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them. Access isn’t journalism’s holy grail—facts are. The truth is that most journalists, in newsrooms large and small across the country, are doing their best each day to be fair, honest, and direct."

Yes, but too many journalists in those small newsrooms don't see themselves as targets of the anti-journalism campaign, and some of them even sympathize with it, having bought into Ailes' 50 years of stereotyping. But I believe most rural journalists feel a bond with those who cover the national scene, and they are in unique positions in their communities; they are trusted by their readers, listeners and viewers, largely because they are members of the same community. But they are also members of the American journalism community, and should take opportunities to explain and defend journalism at large. Let's remember what Jason Robards said as he played Post Editor Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men, telling reporters who had made a mistake: "Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country."

Retiring Maine weekly owner Alan Baker a gentleman, a champion for his community, and an advocate for 'real news'

Alan Baker
Alan Baker, the retiring owner and publisher of Maine weeklies The Ellsworth American and Bar Harbor's Mount Desert Islander, leaves big shoes to fill. The 88-year-old has received numerous awards, including the National Newspaper Association's James O. Amos Award, one of the highest recognitions in community journalism. "His retirement is the end of a distinguished career in service to community newspapers and to we, the readers," Jill Goldthwait writes for the American. In addition to his years of experience as an East Coast journalist, Baker brought to the table "character and personality that added immeasurably to both his job and to the life of his community."

Baker was "unfailingly polite" and notoriously well-dressed, but knew that being a gentleman was "more than skin deep," Goldthwait writes. "He has a deep attachment to Ellsworth and has worked tirelessly to promote the city and to initiate or support changes to help with economic development."

Baker also challenged President Trump's criticism of the press as "fake news" and changed the American's masthead to read "Real people. Real place. Real news." in January 2017. "There is nothing fake about Alan Baker or the newspapers he published. He set the standard for reporting local news fairly and accurately. When he was wrong, he said so," Goldthwait writes.

Baker now hands the reins to Reade Brower, who owns almost all of Maine's dailies and many of its weeklies. Baker said that multiple small papers in the same area can't stay viable in the digital age and believes Brower will bring "intelligent consolidation," Fred Bever reports for Maine Public.

MS-13 gang uses rural Calif. town as base of operations

Sperling's Best Places map
The MS-13 gang took advantage of a rural California farming town's limited number of law-enforcement officers, using it as a base of operations to "conduct their crimes, to hide out from crimes that they committed in other jurisdictions and to prepare to commit crimes in states as far away as New York," according to Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. A recent McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that rural areas all over California face a growing shortage of law-enforcement officers. That includes Mendota, the town of 11,000 just west of Fresno where MS-13 set up shop.

More than two dozen gang members were arrested and charged Friday after an investigation dubbed Blue Inferno "uncovered evidence tying the gang to at least 30 murders and assaults in Mendota, Los Angles, Las Vegas, New York City and Houston. The evidence has prompted additional prosecutions in other cities," according to McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento.

"President Donald Trump has singled out the MS-13 gang as a threat to the U.S. and blames weak border enforcement for the group’s crimes. But many gang members were born in the U.S.," Sudhin Thanawala reports for The Associated Press. The gang was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by El Salvadorean refugees. Most of Mendota's population is Hispanic and includes many El Salvadorean immigrants.

Chinese soybean imports from U.S. to hit 'historic lows' by November, but may increase a little in early 2019

"China will almost entirely replace its soybean imports from the United States with Brazilian beans and other origins in the upcoming season, but may run out of the oilseed in early 2019," Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton report for Reuters. citing an executive of a top soybean processor. "The world's top buyer of soybeans bought about 60 percent of U.S. soybean exports last year, but has been mostly out of the market since Beijing imposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. beans on July 6 in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods."

Last year China imported 27.85 million metric tons of soybeans from the U.S., but this year will only import 700,000 tons, according to a spokesperson for the Jiusan Group, a Chinese company that produces, processes and sells soybean products. China's overall soybean imports could drop to about 85 million tons this year, down about 11 million from last year, said the spokesperson and one from another company that crushes soybeans and processes them into oil and meal.

Because China is shifting more of its buying to Brazil, supplies could hit historic lows by November and run out by February or March of 2019 when Brazilian soybeans are in short supply. That could trigger "very high" prices for soymeal and hurt demand in early 2019. Some private companies may buy soybeans from the U.S. then, the Jiusan spokesman told Reuters. To make up for the drop in soy imports, China is expected to increase imports of alternative seed meal products, boost domestic crushing volume and sell some from state reserves, Reuters reports.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Weekly newspaper publishes state audit revealing abuse of special education to boost student test scores to high levels

A weekly newspaper in Eastern Kentucky has revealed a state Department of Education audit's finding that local school officials jacked up student test scores to some of the highest in the state by putting students in special education classes.

The audit "suggests that some in the district may have been more concerned with test results than the quality of education provided to students," Mary Meadows reports. "The 87-page audit, provided by the KDE in response to an open records request from the Floyd County Chronicle and Times, indicates that the Floyd County Schools District is using special education designations as a 'substitute' for real education so students can get extra help on state tests. It reports that Floyd County schools referred students without disabilities to special education even though they didn’t need those services."

The audit also found "that the district encouraged parents of kindergarteners with 'challenging behaviors' to withdraw their children from school . . . placed kids with behavior problems on home or hospital instruction, and placed disabled students in alternative education settings where they didn’t even have a teacher." Meadows writes.

The audit found numerous other irregularities. The superintendent at the time, who resigned last June, called the audit report “utterly ridiculous and false.” He said special-education decisions were made at the school level, not at his level. The current superintendent "said he has not seen any evidence to substantiate any of the findings in the audit, but he could not say they were not true," Meadows reports.