Thursday, October 04, 2018

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail wins a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant' of $625,000

Ken Ward Jr.
Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, for years the leading reporter on extractive industries in Appalachia, is among this year's 25 winners of fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The fellowship, generally known as “the genius grant,” carries a stipend of $625,000 over five years, with no strings attached, to give fellows "maximum freedom ... to follow their creative vision, whether it is moving forward with their current activities, expanding the scope of their work, or embarking in entirely new directions," the foundation says.

MacArthur looks for exceptional creativity; promise for important future advances based on a record of significant accomplishments; and potential that the fellowship will spur further creative work. It said Ward was chosen because he excels at “revealing the human and environmental toll of natural-resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.”

Ward sees the fellowship as "an indication that the reporting done here is valuable," the Gazette-Mail reports, quoting him: “This shows the importance and value of the kind of journalism I believe in, and that most of us have been trying to do for decades here. This incredible honor from the MacArthur Foundation is a strong vote of confidence in local journalism, and more to the point in local journalism that doesn’t just parrot the official line, but questions and holds accountable powerful people, industries, governments and other institutions that might not be acting in the public interest.”

"Ward, 50, is the only journalist in the group of 25 fellows announced today, a group that includes scientists, artists, authors, scholars and advocates," the paper notes. "Ward is the first person to be living in West Virginia at the time he received his MacArthur grant; the previous three had moved away." One was Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who was in the first class of fellows, in 1981. "He and Gates share a hometown, the small town of Piedmont in Mineral County. As a boy, Ward and his family moved to nearby Keyser." He graduated from West Virginia University in 1990 and joined The Charleston Gazette in 1991. For the past year, he's been in ProPublica's new Local Reporting Network, "working on longer-term stories on the natural-gas industry," the paper reports.

Ward told the Gazette-Mail that he plans to continue working there, "but that the MacArthur fellowship gives his family a safety net -- and challenges him to perhaps explore some new ways to ensure local news reporting remains strong." He said, “It's great to have some financial security. It's great to have this recognition, but … it seems very clear that this is not a lifetime achievement award. This is supposed to help you do more to realize some potential. I feel a lot of responsibility and pressure to figure out things to do to live up to that. What is it that these people saw in me that they think I can somehow go and do to make life better for people in West Virginia? I gotta figure out what that is and go do it.”

Opioid bill headed to Trump would improve access to residential drug treatment, a major problem in rural areas

Congress has passed a big bill to fight the opioid epidemic, and President Trump says he will sign it. "Addiction treatment advocates say two provisions — one that would allow Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance plan for the poor, to pay for residential treatment in large facilities; and another that would allow Medicare, the federal health plan for people 65 and older, to pay for methadone treatment — will substantially improve access to treatment," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline, a service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Access to treatment is a big problem in rural areas.

The 1965 Medicaid law says the program can't pay for mental-health and addiction treatment in facilities with more than 16 beds. The “institutions for mental disease” (IMD) exclusion "was intended to prevent states from using federal dollars to warehouse people with addiction and mental disorders," Vestal notes. But a later law allowed federal officials to waive the rule, and more than half the states have received or applied for waivers because of the opioid epidemic.

The opioid bill "is designed to make it easier for even more states to get similar approval," Vestal reports. Getting a waiver has been "typically an arduous and lengthy regulatory process."

Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, told Vestal, “This provision alone will go a long way to improving both the quality of addiction treatment and its availability to low-income people.”

However, the National Council for Behavioral Health "is disappointed that the legislation did not do more to fund community-based addiction treatment," Vestal reports. That is often the most available alternative in rural areas.

California enacts laws making police records more open

Law-enforcement agencies in the nation's largest state will have to be more open in several ways, as a result of bills passed by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

One "makes accessible an entire new universe of police records which the public has long been unable to access," the California Newspaper Publishers Association reports. Senate Bill 1421 "grants access to police-officer personnel records and the investigations conducted by law-enforcement agencies into their employees. The bill requires three categories of disclosure: in cases where a police officer discharges a firearm or causes a person great bodily injury, or when there has been a substantiated charge against an officer of sexual assault or a serious case of dishonesty, like perjury."

California law "has long allowed access to only information held by police but not the actual records," CNPA reports (emphasis added). Assembly Bill 748 relaxes that ban by requiring disclosure of video or audio footage related to "critical incidents."

In another police-related measure, lawmakers required police agencies to post all "of their standards, policies, practices, operating procedures, and education and training materials that would otherwise be available to the public if a request was made pursuant to the California Public Records Act," CNPA reports. Senate Bill 978 was "a slightly narrower version" of a bill Brown vetoed last year.

A broader bill makes clear that a "requester" of records can recover attorney fees in public-records disputes. The old law was limited to plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging denial of records. Senate Bill 1244 makes clear "that the Legislature has always intended the fee-recovery law to protect requesters who defend the public's right to know, regardless of the requester's technical title in litigation, CNPA reports. "Increasingly, requesters have been sued by agencies in public records dispute, or are drawn into litigation without being the technical 'plaintiff' in the action."

Here's help for covering stories that involve gun issues

When reporting on stories involving firearms, it's important to get the details right. Here are some resources to help.

Seven things journalists should know about guns: What percentage of gun deaths to mass shootings represent? Is 'assault rifle' an appropriate word? What's the difference between a bullet and a cartridge? Find out the answer to these questions and more from Seven things journalists should know about guns by Journalist's Resource.

Pew Research Center has assembled an in-depth list of their findings about Americans' attitudes about and experiences with firearms. Read more here.

Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, has also provided a roundup of studies about safe gun storage. Read more here.

NPR cites E. Ky. district as example of bad water systems; U.S. News says it's in worst majority-white county for health

Gary Ball, editor of the weekly Mountain Citizen, has been reporting on water issues in Martin County for nearly two decades, prompting the state to open the first investigation into the local water district. (Photo: Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR)
"You take it for granted until you don't have it," meaning clean water, BarbiAnn Maynard told NPR, as she cleaned a plastic jug used to fetch cooking water from a spring because the water system in Martin County, Kentucky, is so lousy. "I think that's the attitude of a lot people right now, but I don't think they understand how close they are to it happening to them."

Kat Lonsdorf of NPR reports, "Americans across the country, from Maynard's home in rural Appalachia to urban areas like Flint, Mich., or Compton, Calif., are facing a lack of clean, reliable drinking water. At the heart of the problem is a water system in crisis: aging, crumbling infrastructure and a lack of funds to pay for upgrading it. On top of that, about 50 percent of water utilities — serving about 12 percent of the population — are privately owned. This complicated mix of public and private ownership often confounds efforts to mandate improvements or levy penalties, even if customers complain of poor water quality or mismanagement."

Martin County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map)
In Martin County, the main problem is leaky pipes that allow contaminants to enter the system. Also, the Martin County Water District has relatively little accountability to any government. The local weekly newspaper, the Mountain Citizen, has been reporting on the district's problems since 2002 and prompted the first state investigation of it. The district board's resigned, "and new leadership was brought in," NPR reports, "but the fixes all require money, and the utility is more than $1 million in debt — and it will need millions of dollars to upgrade the system. That's money Martin County simply doesn't have."

Appalachian Citizens' Law Center attorney Mary Cromer told NPR, "This isn't just confined to Appalachia. We have dilapidated infrastructure all over this country. And so, if you're going to have rural areas that are going to survive, much less thrive, you've got to pay attention to these critical infrastructure needs." And health is an issue, too; U.S. News and World Report ranked the county the nation's worst predominantly white county in health performance, citing water as one reason.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A column for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 7-13: 'Everything in this newspaper is important to someone'

By Matt Geiger
Executive editor, News Publishing Co., Black Earth, Wis.

“Everything in this newspaper is important to someone.”

It’s become something of a mantra for me, in recent years. Weekly community newspapers are eclectic, to say the least. We publish photos of ribbons being cut at bakeries, and donations being dropped off at local food pantries. We print the school honor roll, the court report, and -stories on decisions made by planning commissions and town boards. Sometimes we cover murders, abuse, and horrific car crashes, and when we do our community journalists often experience these tragedies as both reporters and neighbors — as both professionals and human beings. We cover the referendum that will determine whether a new school is built and our readers’ taxes will rise. We publish birth announcements, obituaries, and the various things that, when wedged between those two book ends, make up the lives that make up our communities.

Matt Geiger
I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about sewage, in order to cover the approval and construction of a new treatment plant. I interviewed a survivor of the Iran hostage crisis about what it’s like to be held prisoner in a foreign land while the world looks on. I’ve interviewed grandmothers about their favorite holiday recipes.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve interviewed little kids about what they want to be when they grow up, and what type of world they hope to inhabit. I’ve even eaten lutefisk — a type of gelatinous Scandinavian fish that is usually only consumed as part of a dare — in the warm hum of a local church’s kitchen. (I even liked it, which I think qualifies as a kind of small-town gonzo journalism.)

People sometimes ask me why community newspapers are important. My reply is always the same. It’s because everything in those pages is important to someone. Maybe the ribbon cutting isn’t flashy enough to go viral, and the Thanksgiving turkey recipe is not going to change culinary trends across the nation. But these things, these small things in communities across the county and across the world, are what give meaning and purpose to all of our lives.

The ribbon cutting is the culmination of a childhood dream. The donations at the food pantry will allow a family to gather around their table without worrying if there is enough to fill each plate. The honor roll goes on the fridge, of course, because it’s a reminder to a young student that she can flourish when she applies herself. The birth announcement marks the proudest, greatest moment of a mother and father’s life together. The face looking out from the obituary is one that a wife, and children, and grandchildren, will never kiss again. The new school being paid for with the referendum is where a young student might develop an interest in science, growing up and developing a treatment for cancer or Alzheimer’s, allowing millions of people to live a little longer, and have their faces kissed by those who love them a few more times.

Journalism matters, now more than ever, because people matter. Community journalism matters, now more than ever, because roughly half the world’s population lives in small communities, and in the pages of their newspapers, they see themselves and the ones they love.

Matt Geiger is the winner of numerous journalism awards, and his debut book, The Geiger Counter, a collection of humorous newspaper columns, won a Midwest Book Award and was named as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the American Book Fest. He lives in Mount Horeb, Wis. You can find this column and other resources at

Aftermath of Florence will last long in the Carolinas

Though Hurricane Florence is long gone, the Carolinas will be feeling the effects for a long time to come. Not only did the storm kill 45, but flooding from the slow-moving storm (which set records in some places) hurt crops too. 

"For farmers, Florence could not have come at a worse time; crops were maturing, and harvest had only begun. Depending on their production patterns, many farmers have seen several years of financial losses due to low crop prices. This leaves farmers, many of whom have not fully recovered from Hurricane Matthew two years ago, in a weakened financial condition before the hurricane hit," Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray write in their Agricultural Policy Analysis Center column.

Early estimates of farm losses range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. North Carolina grows 50 percent of the nation's tobacco, is the second-biggest pork production state, and the nation's largest source of sweet potatoes. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates that 3.4 million chickens and 5,500 hogs died in the floods; those farmers will not only be deprived of the profits from those animals, but will have to pay to dispose of them as the floodwaters recede. They will also need to clean up hog manure if it overflowed from the lagoons. Other affected crops in the Carolinas include cotton, peanuts, corn, and soybeans.

Most farmers have crop insurance, but payouts are based on crop prices. "When prices are low, and farmers need the protection the most, they receive the lowest insurance payments," Schaffer and Ray write. "If Congress were to adopt a supply-management program with loan rates near the full cost of production, and if the price component of crop insurance were based on the loan rate, farmers would be better protected than they are under current policies."

In addition to damage suffered by crops and livestock, many farms and roads sustained structural damage that will take a lot of time and money to fix, Schaffer and Ray write. And finally, the toxic ash pools from coal-fired power plants flooded in some areas, releasing hazardous waste. Schaffer and Ray recommend revisiting containment regulations for hog waste and fly ash to better cope with increasingly extreme weather.

In major boost to coal industry, EPA plans to propose rule that will make it harder to regulate mercury pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency "has completed a detailed legal proposal to dramatically weaken a major environmental regulation covering mercury, a toxic chemical emitted from coal-burning power plants, according to a person who has seen the document but is not authorized to speak publicly about it," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. The plan would repeal an Obama-era finding that when EPA regulates toxic pollution such as mercury from coal-fired power plants, it must consider additional health benefits of the side effect of reducing other pollutants. "The economic benefits of those health effects, known as 'co-benefits,' helped to provide a legal and economic justification for the cost to industry of the regulation," Davenport writes.

The Obama administration estimated that the mercury rule cost the electric utility industry $9.6 billion a year, making it the most expensive clean-air regulation ever. It found that reducing mercury brings up to $6 million a year in health benefits, plus $80 billion in benefits from reducing the soot and nitrogen oxide that occur as a side effect. Though the proposal wouldn't completely eliminate the mercury regulation, it's designed to provide the legal justification for the administration to weaken several pollution rules and possibly repeal the rules eventually, Davenport reports.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is expected to send the proposal to the White House soon. Wheeler's former boss, Robert Murray of Murray Energy Corp., was a major donor to President Trump's inauguration fund and personally requested the rollback of the mercury rule as part of a written wish list he gave to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Davenport reports.

The proposal also highlights a possible consequence of confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the coal industry sued to roll back the mercury regulation, it lost its case in the U.S. Court of Appeals but Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion, leading observers to believe that he would side with the coal industry in similar Supreme Court cases.

Study: Rural residents less likely to vote for boy named Sue

A recent study found that rural voters are less likely to pull the lever for a candidate with a feminine-sounding name, Tom Jacobs reports for Pacific Standard. What sets the study apart is that it focuses on names rather than candidates' campaigns or voters' knowledge of or perceptions about individual candidates.

The study examines the electoral success of major-party candidates in general elections for state legislative seats from 2003 to 2010. It found that candidates with names usually given to girls capture a smaller share of the vote than otherwise similar candidates with ambiguous or masculine names. "This result holds for both men and women, suggesting that voters, in this context, tend to discriminate against those sending relatively female-seeming signals: it is not failure to conform to stereotypes so much as sounding like one is female that reduces vote share," writes the study's author, Iowa State University political scientist Robert Urbatsch.

Urbatsch used Social Security Administration data, which records all given names of newborn children as well as their sex to determine the likelihood of a person's gender based on their name.  Read more here. The overall estimated difference in vote share between a candidate with a feminine name and one with a masculine name is about 1.5 percentage points, enough to make a difference in many close elections. In rural areas, it's 2.5 percentage points.

Report shows how one judge's practices contribute to chronic jail overcrowding in two Kentucky counties

Mercer (top) and Boyle counties (Wikipedia map)
Rural jails all over the country face constant overcrowding, and though the problem is usually blamed on jail construction delays or outdated jails, judges share some of the blame. A recent study of the criminal justice system in Kentucky's Boyle and Mercer counties found that one circuit judge was largely responsible for overcrowding at the Boyle County Detention Center because of "'discriminatory' bond practices and lethargic case-processing times," Ben Kleppinger reports for The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky. "The jail is stuffed with pretrial felony defendants who can’t afford their bonds and must wait months to resolve their cases, according to the blunt assessments of consultant Dr. Allen Beck in chapter two of the 106-page 'Jail and Justice System Assessment.'"

Kleppinger is a fellow of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, which held a conference on rural jails in July and publishes The Crime Report, which is currently featuring Kleppinger's story as an example of good local reporting on the issue.

The consultant's report, which the counties commissioned, found that Circuit Judge Darren Peckler is a major contributor to overcrowding by requiring cash bonds, setting limits on the number of pleas he will hear, having only one arraignment date per month, revoking bonds when defendants are indicted, and not offering bonds to participants in a new "rocket docket" program intended to quickly dispose of cases, Kleppinger reports.

Requiring defendants to pay a cash bond is the biggest cause of overcrowding; the report found that only 3 percent of defendants in the two counties are able to leave jail without a cash bond, compared to 18 to 55 percent in neighboring counties. The report notes that research shows that non-financial bonds are as effective as financial bonds. Requiring cash bonds also can cause poor defendants to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit in order to speed up the process, Kleppinger reports.

Peckler refused to participate in the study, and forbade District Court Judge Jeff Dotson from participating as well. The consultants combed through tens of thousands of documents and interviewed people at every stage of the local criminal justice system before writing their report.

"The report does note a 'major decline in the jail population in the last several months,' which it attributes to the public defender’s office and defense attorneys 'advocating for the pretrial release and use of non-financial bonds during circuit court arraignment,'" Kleppinger reports. The report also notes that it's common for such a decline to happen during a criminal justice system study because the sudden attention often prompts members of the system to reconsider habits.

Still, the report found that there is still a strong "local legal culture" in which participants reinforce each other's incorrect belief that financial bonds improve appearance rates in court. The consultant recommended that someone from the Pretrial Justice Institute hold a presentation for local criminal justice officials.

Rural workers get fewer benefits to help with elder care

"Rural employees who care for elderly family members are less likely than urban employees to receive helpful workplace benefits like flex time, paid leave or the option of telecommuting," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. That's according to a study by Carrie Henning-Smith, an assistant professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, and co-author Megan Lahr.

In addition to fewer benefits, rural caregivers likely face other hurdles such as a lack of transportation. That's a problem when 90 percent of the long-term care senior citizens receive is freely given by friends or family; if someone were paid to do that work, it would be worth $500 billion a year nationwide. And because rural populations tend to be older, they face a greater overall need for caregivers.

The study found that, though rural and urban caregivers spent a similar amount of time providing care and felt similar amounts of personal strain because of their caregiving activities, the big difference was their employee benefits. "Urban workers were more likely than rural workers to have an employee assistance program (which provides referrals for medical and other services). They were more likely to be able to telecommute and be able to use paid leave to care for a loved one," Marema reports.

Henning-Smith speculates that the difference in available employee benefits may be because rural and urban workers tend to work in different industries, and also that rural workers may have fewer jobs available and may not be able to be choosy about the jobs they take. 

"We also know that there are broader structural issues at play," Henning-Smith told Marema. "One of them is access to broadband internet. It’s one thing to tell an employee they can work remotely if you have really good access to internet. If you don’t, it might be impossible for someone to work remotely." Local, state and federal policies governing paid sick time and minimum wages may also contribute to caregivers' ability to help their elderly family members, she said.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Rural hospital closures heaviest among government-reliant, for-profits, and states that didn't expand Medicaid

Government Accountability Office report delves into the recent spike in rural hospital closures. Between 2013 and 2017, 64 rural hospitals closed, and another eight closed and reopened. That's more than twice as many closures as the previous five-year period. The 64 closed hospitals were 3 percent of all rural hospitals in 2013. In the same period, 49 urban hospitals closed; that was 2 percent of urban hospitals.

Most closures stemmed from financial problems, and declining levels of inpatient care contributed to that, the GAO noted. "These declines stemmed from increased competition from federally qualified health systems and other larger health systems, as well as a declining rural population overall. The report notes 2010-16 was the first period of rural population decline in American history," Emily Rappleye reports for Becker's Hospital Review.

The GAO notes that rural hospital closures have spiked before. Between 1985 and 1988, 140 rural hospitals closed, about 5 percent of the total; a new Medicare payment system was blamed.

Medicare and Medicaid are still important factors. The average rural hospital depended on Medicare reimbursements for almost half of gross patient revenue in 2016, and the hospitals that closed were even more likely to rely on Medicare than other rural hospitals; 25 percent of the hospitals that closed were designated "Medicare dependent" in 2013, compared to 9 percent of all rural hospitals.

Because of that dependence, reductions in Medicare reimbursements and bad debs disproportionately hurt rural hospitals' bottom lines, the GAO found. Rural hospitals rely more on Medicaid too, so those in states that expanded Medicaid were far less likely to close than those in states that didn't

Most of the hospital closures — 77 percent — happened in the South, where few states expanded Medicaid. Texas, which did not, accounted for 22 percent of the closures, the entire Midwest accounted for only 11 percent, Rappleye reports.

The closed hospitals were more likely to be for-profit faciliites; 36 percent were for-profit, though only 11 percent of rural hospitals were for-profit in 2013, GAO found.

The report also notes that, while 47 percent of the rural hospitals that closed ceased all services, the rest converted to another type of health-care facility, such as an urgent treatment center, primary care, or emergency services, Rappleye reports.

Rural schools are less likely to participate in program that gives free lunch to all children in poverty-area schools

U.S. Department of Agriculture chart
Though rural families are more likely to be poor, rural schools are less likely to participate in district-wide free lunch and breakfast programs according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The USDA Community Eligibility Program allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals for every child rather than doing so only for those in need. That means schools don't have to process individual applications, and the reduced paperwork saves them money. More than 10 million students in more than 20,000 high-poverty schools participated in the program in the 2016-17 school year, but rural schools did so at a lower rate than their urban counterparts. The study "found that only a third of eligible rural schools participated in the program, while 46 percent of eligible schools in urban areas did. The study also found that the Southeast had the highest percentage of eligible schools participating in the program," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Why would schools decide not to participate in CEP if the program feeds kids and saves money? The study's authors speculate that, in some cases, "Switching to CEP might increase demand for school meals in ways that put a strain on the district or a specific cafeteria. Also, districts might not be able to overcome the initial administrative hurdle of qualifying for CEP, even though it would save staff time in the long run," Oates reports. "CEP is a relative new approach to school nutrition programs that followed the update of school meal standards in 2012. Once the new standard was implemented, according to ERS, 'Schools in rural areas were more likely than other schools to report increases in student complaints, decreases in meal participation, and higher costs due to lower meal volume.'"

Rural schools also faced larger increases in the paid meal price when the Obama administration implemented the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That meant fewer students wanted to buy lunch, and the cost of giving students free lunch increased further. Also, USDA's formula for reimbursing CEP schools may mean that CEP is not cost-effective for some rural schools.

Coal jobs are up in West Virginia, but so is the poverty rate

Though President Trump has boasted that he has turned around West Virginia's economy during his tenure, poverty is a growing problem there. "The Appalachian state is, along with Delaware, just one of two states where poverty rose last year, bucking the national trend of growing incomes and declining hardship, according to U.S. Census data released earlier this month," Aimee Picchi reports for CBS News. "West Virginia's poverty rate climbed to 19.1 percent last year from 17.9 percent, making it just one of four states with a poverty rate above 18 percent."

West Virginia gained about 1,400 coal jobs in 2017, an 11 percent increase over the annual average for 2016, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. From early 2013 to late 2016, it saw a net job loss of 26,000, much if it in coal. It has the lowest labor force participation in the U.S., at 53 percent, according to a West Virginia University study.

The state's coal production through the second quarter of 2018 was up 3.1 percent over the first two quarters of 2017. The state's gross product grew by 1.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, putting it 37th in the nation and slowing from its 2.6 percent growth in the first quarter of 2017. The problem is that that growth has been in low-wage industries. "Folks who find jobs haven't found jobs that keep them out of poverty," said Sean O'Leary, senior policy analyst for the liberal-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

"West Virginia's dismal trends point to an economic issue that's impacting states across the country: Workers at the bottom of the pay scale aren't benefiting from the growing economy," Picchi reports. "Their issues range from low pay to unstable and scanty work hours, which makes it difficult to earn a living wage. Almost one in four West Virginians is employed in a low-wage job, the WVCBP found."

West Virginia is also reeling from the opioid epidemic and a shortage of college-educated adults. About 21 percent of West Virginians aged 25-64 have a college degree, making it one of the least-educated states in the country. In the post-recession economy, people with college degrees tend to fare better. "But many who lack that credential have been left out of the recovery, as evidenced in West Virginia," Picchi reports. The state's climb out of poverty is also hindered by its small workforce size, older population, and higher rates of disability; all make it hard to attract employers.

FactCheck: Trump makes bogus claims about trade

Here's another installment of a series we will run weekly until Election Day, in which we list some of the most relevant items from and other nonpartisan fact checkers. This one is all about President Trump and trade. We try to make these bipartisan, but are still trying to find a nationally relevant fact-check of a Democrat or Democratic-allied group; please suggest one!

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been much in the news lately because of the newly negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement which replaces it. But some of President Trump's rhetoric about NAFTA and U.S. trade in general has fallen short of reality. Read more here.

In his 2018 State of the Union address, Trump said "America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our nation’s wealth," but the trade deficit at that time had increased during his presidency, and is still increasing, Fact Check reports: "The U.S. trade deficit for goods and services was $46.9 billion in January 2017, the month Trump took office. In July 2018, according to the latest figures available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, it was $50.1 billion. That’s an increase of $3.2 billion. The monthly figures are seasonally adjusted. Comparing January through July of this year with the same six-month period in 2017, the trade deficit is up by $22 billion. And it’s up $49.4 billion from the first six months of 2016."

Trump has blamed bad trade deals for U.S. farmers' recent financial woes, but agricultural economists say trade "has been a 'bright spot' for an industry that has been in decline after record income levels from 2011 through 2014," FactCheck reports. "U.S. agricultural exports totaled $140.5 billion in fiscal year 2017 — increasing by $10.9 billion, or 8.4 percent, from the previous year to the third-highest amount on record, according to the Department of Agriculture. China ($22 billion), Canada ($20.4 billion) and Mexico ($18.6 billion) were the United States’ three largest export customers." The U.S. agricultural sector had a trade surplus of $21.3 billion in fiscal year 2017, up almost 30 percent from the previous year's $16.6 billion. 

In August, Trump said the trade balance had improved by $52 billion from the first quarter of 2018 to the second quarter, but the actual figure is $20 billion, FactCheck reports. Though the monthly deficit dropped from March through May, it went back up in June and July.

Trump has claimed that the U.S. has a negative trade balance with "every country," which is untrue. Though the U.S. had an overall trade deficit of $552 billion, it had "positive balances with six of 15 trading partners the Census Bureau highlighted: Hong Kong ($35 billion), Brazil ($28.5 billion), Singapore ($20.3 billion), the United Kingdom ($15.6 billion), Saudi Arabia ($5.3 billion) and Canada ($2.8 billion)," FactCheck reports.

During his campaign, Trump blamed President Bill Clinton for NAFTA, saying it was "his baby." That's misleading and partly wrong, Fact Check reports: "NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton’s predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. It is true that Clinton signed the bill enabling NAFTA in 1993; however, it took Republican congressional support to get that bill to his desk." The Senate passed the NAFTA implementation law 61-38, in November 1993, "with 34 Republican votes, and the House passed it 234-200, with 132 Republican votes."

President Trump has claimed that the United States has a trade deficit of "over $100 billion a year" with Mexico, but that's incorrect. Census Bureau data shows that the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico "was $69 billion in 2017, up from $63 billion in 2016 and $58 billion in 2015. And it was almost $36 billion through the first two quarters of this year," FactCheck adds. That's almost five times smaller than the U.S.'s $337 billion trade gap with China.

President Trump said at a roundtable discussion in April that China "won't take" U.S. cars, but the U.S. had a trade surplus with China for passenger cars of $8.9 billion in 2017, FactCheck reports.

FactCheck a well-sourced, non-partisan service run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We encourage you to subscribe to its alerts, here, and republish their findings, which you can do for free with credit to FactCheck.

Iowa editor Art Cullen parlays Pulitzer Prize into a memoir of rural journalism, community issues, politics and his town

Art Cullen, who led his family's weekly newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, has written a book about his life as a journalist in Iowa, with much about the politics and issues of the state and the town where he grew up and still edits the Storm Lake Times.

Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper, was published by Penguin Random House today. It may be the best memoir ever published by a crusading editor of a rural newspaper. That is evident in an early excerpt.

Amazon says the book is "an unsentimental ode to America's heartland as seen in small-town Iowa" and Cullen writes with "the optimism and the stubbornness that is still the state's, and his, dominant quality. . . . Cullen describes how the rural prairies have changed dramatically over his career, as seen from the vantage point of a farming and meatpacking town of 15,000 in Northwest Iowa."

From right: Art Cullen, wife Dolores, son Tom, sister-in-law
Mary, brother John in the office of the Storm Lake Times
Storm Lake is not a typical rural town, but perhaps a leading indicator of change in rural America, as the home of a meatpacking plant and residents who speak 30 languages. Amazon says, "Storm Lake's people are the book's heart: the family that swam the Mekong River to find Storm Lake; the Latina with a baby who wonders if she'll be deported from the only home she has known; the farmer who watches markets in real time and tries to manage within a relentless agriculture supply chain that seeks efficiency for cheaper pork, prepared foods, and ethanol."

Cullen and his family won the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Startup trains Kentuckians for coding jobs, thanks to bipartisan cooperation, which professor says is needed

Matthew Watson designs cell-phone applications.
With the coal industry fading in Appalachia, it can be difficult for people to find good jobs, but a Louisville tech start-up called Interapt is trying to change that by training rural residents to code. Support for Interapt and similar efforts will require bipartisan cooperation to secure funding, Arlie Hochschild writes for The New York Times.

Hochschild is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She writes of success stories: Matthew Watson, 33, of Hueysville, Ky., signed up for the company's 24-week course and eight-week apprenticeship after hearing a radio ad. He had two associate's degrees at the time, but said the best job he could find was selling cigarettes for $10 an hour in Hazard, 45 minutes away from home. Within a year of starting Interapt's course, he landed a work-at-home job as a software engineer for a Florida-based company for more than $50,000 a year.

Interapt is the brainchild of Owensboro, Ky., native Ankur Gopal, and got off the ground after he and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky's Fifth District persuaded the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide $2.7 million in funding. "With millions of U.S. tech jobs out there, we could help transform Eastern Kentucky," Gopal told Hochschild.

Izaak Pratts of Interapt works with students in Glasgow, Ky.
(New York Times photos by Mike Bellune)
"Gopal is at the forefront of a new movement to bring money and jobs from the coastal capitals of high tech to a discouraged, outsource-whipped Middle America," Hochschild writes. "But continuing to increase access to good jobs in Middle America will take deliberate efforts to cooperate across the bitter political and regional divide. President Trump is not helping by proposing cuts in education funding that will raise the cost of student loans by more than $200 billion over the next decade," and tried to cut all the funding of the Appalachian commission.

Rogers, a Republican, found an ally in Rep. Ro Khanna, the California Democrat whose district includes Apple, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo. He asks, “Why outsource coding jobs to Bangalore when we can insource jobs to Eastern Kentucky, poor in jobs but rich in work ethic, and every one I.T. job brings four or five other jobs with it?”

U.S. and Canada reach last-minute deal to replace NAFTA; would give U.S. limited access to Canada's dairy market

An hour before the midnight deadline imposed by the United States, the U.S. and Canada reached a deal last night to join the recent U.S.-Mexican agreement in a trilateral trade pact that will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new agreement will be called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and will boost American access to Canada's dairy market "and protect Canada from possible U.S. auto tariffs," according to sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations, Alan Rappeport reports for The New York Times.

The deal must still be approved by Congress. It would protect Canadian industries from U.S. anti-dumping tariffs, but in exchange, "Canada had agreed to provide U.S. dairy farmers access to about 3.5 percent of its approximately $16 billion annual domestic dairy market," the Times reports. U.S. dairy farmers have been struggling, and President Trump had called for opening up the Canadian market; Canada taxes imported milk at more than 200 percent, Marketplace reports.

"The new trade deal also includes standards designed to protect intellectual property and trade secrets, tougher labor requirements for Mexico and environmental obligations designed to combat trafficking in wildlife, timber and fish," Michael Collins reports for USA Today. "The agreement will run for 16 years but will be reviewed after six years and could then be extended for another 16."

The deal failed to resolve U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum exports, but Canada and Mexico will receive partial exemption from any potential future American tariffs on automobiles. The proposed USMCA also requires that, in order to avoid tariffs, "cars must be built with at least 75 percent of parts made in North America, up from 62.5 percent under NAFTA," Collins reports. "Also, 40 to 45 percent of an auto will have to be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour," in an attempt to shift auto manufacturing jobs from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada.

Courts make states provide expensive hepatitis C treatment

Recent court rulings and settlements in Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, and Colorado, among others, have found that states can't withhold expensive but potentially life-saving medications from Medicaid beneficiaries and prison inmates with chronic hepatitis C, a liver disease that infects millions who don't know they have it.

"Hepatitis C kills far more Americans than any other infectious disease. But when new antiviral drugs that for the first time promised a cure for hepatitis C hit the market in 2014, states blanched at their eye-popping prices and took steps to sharply limit the availability of those treatments for Medicaid beneficiaries and inmates. According to one recent survey, only 3 percent of inmates in state penitentiaries with hepatitis C receive the cure," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "The antiviral drugs have since become cheaper, but judicial decisions and settlements have consistently found that states cannot deny treatment because of cost in any case."

Kentucky, which has the highest rate of new infections of hep C, spent $83,673 per case in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Since then, the cost of treatment has fallen. Colorado expected to pay $56,000 per case for treating prisoners, but is paying "significantly less," Kellie Wasko, deputy executive director at the Colorado Department of Corrections, told Stateline.

"Other experts say that with discounts, Medicaid and corrections systems can now pay as little as $10,000," Ollove reports. Greenwald told him, “Even at those prices, states are waiting for us to litigate before they’ll remove these restrictions. And the only explanation for that is the stigma.”

Hep C is often spread by opioid users sharing needles or engaging in risky sex while under the influence. Appalachian counties are some of the most vulnerable to the infection in the U.S., but fear of stigma keeps people from seeking testing or treatment.

"While providing the treatments will cost states tens of millions of dollars, health-policy experts insist the spending will provide an overall economic and public health benefit," Ollove reports. "Attacking hepatitis C in prisoners and in Medicaid patients, they say, will go a long way toward eradicating the disease while also saving money by preventing patients with untreated hepatitis C from progressing to liver failure and cancer."

Sunday, September 30, 2018

SPJ convention closes with tributes to local journalism; less reporting leads to corruption, veteran Fla. reporter says

Tributes to local journalism were a big part of the evening as the Society of Professional Journalists wrapped up its annual convention in Baltimore Saturday night.

"The power of local journalism is what I'm most concerned about, and have been most inspired about tonight," said Chuck Todd, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," who was honored as an SPJ Fellow, the society's highest honor.

Mary Ellen Klas
SPJ Sunshine Awards went to Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald for 30 years of reporting about the influence of money in Florida politics and Rachel LaCorte of The Associated Press for reporting that led to a successful lawsuit invalidating the Washington Legislature's secrecy of email and text messages. The Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award and $10,000 went to the Kansas City Star for its series about secrecy in state government in Kansas, which resulted in passage of laws, including one to open records on children who died of abuse or neglect. The Arizona Republic and other Gannett Co. newspapers won the New America Award for "The Wall," a series about past, present and possible future along the Mexican border.

Klas, a Harvard University Nieman fellow this year, said she is researching how the decline in local reporting leads to increases in corruption. She said Florida has seen "a general and persistent erosion" of government ethics, but the number of complaints to state ethics agencies "have declined dramatically" and officials there blame a reduction in journalism. LaCorte said the full-time state-capital press corps in Olympia, Wash., is down to five from 20.

Todd, who grew up in Miami, said SPJ leads all other journalism organizations in advocating transparency, not just of government, but of the news media. "We're all in this together, as journalists," he said. "We hold each other's credibility in our hands. I'm aware of it at NBC all the time. We make a mistake, and it reverberates across the entire journalism landscape, and vice versa -- especially in these times, when we have people who have weaponized the First Amendment, right? Started organizations that claim to be journalistic organizations but really are designed to undermine us. Undermine democracy, undermine many things. . . . We've never had more pressure on us to get it right."