Saturday, October 20, 2018

Here's a manifesto for strong rural and community journalism, from an outstanding practitioner of the craft

Al Smith, for whom the award was named, and Stevie Lowery
Rural journalists have to educate, take stands, be watchdogs and be willing to lose friends, the winner of an award for public service through community journalism said as she accepted it Thursday night.

"Often times, newspapers have to take a stand on their opinion pages and state the obvious – something many people are afraid to do for one reason or another," said Stevie Lowery, editor and publisher of The Lebanon Enterprise, a Landmark Community Newspapers weekly. "In small towns, that can cost the newspaper staff a friend or two. But, at the end of the day, newspapers have a responsibility to be the watchdogs for their communities, for their country. It’s not always the most popular thing to do, but it needs to be done nonetheless."

Lowery won the Al Smith Award, given to Kentuckians by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues of the University of Kentucky, publisher of The Rural Blog. She was cited for taking strong stands and tackling tough subjects: helping pass a school-tax increase, doing a five-part series on drugs in Marion County and doing stories on sex and gender issues.

After giving several examples of why "newspapers still matter" – local school issues, obituaries, public records, young athletes' photos, a story about a missing mother, news for "hometown soldiers stationed overseas" – Lowery explained why she followed in the footsteps of her late father, Steve Lowery, who was editor and publisher of the Enterprise.

"The newspaper helps people open their minds," she said. "I think it’s what I love the most about my job. At my small community newspaper, I have written stories about the first gay couple to legally adopt in our community, the first gay couple to legally marry in our county, and this year reporter Emily LaForme wrote about an amazingly brave transgender teenager – a story that will undoubtedly win awards. But, it’s not about the awards. That’s not why we do what we do. . . . We write these stories to educate people – to help them understand, to open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Total U.S. fertility fell in last decade, but less in rural areas

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
The U.S. fertility rate fell during the last decade, but less in rural counties than in large metropolitan counties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Total fertility rates – representing the estimated number of lifetime births expected per 1,000 women – fell 18 percent in large metro counties and 16 percent in small or medium metro counties between 2007 and 2017," Gaby Galvin reports for U.S. News and World Report. "Yet while the rate in rural counties fell 12 percent in that time frame, the decline slowed after 2011, resulting in a 14 percent gap between total fertility rates in rural counties and large metro counties last year. The gap was just 5 percent in 2007."

The age at which women became mothers also rose in the past 10 years, the study found, but rural women still tend to have their first births earlier. In 2017 the average age of first birth was 24.5 in rural counties, 25.8 in small and medium metro counties, and 27.7 in large metro counties.

The rural-urban age gap isn't new. "Back to the 1950s and 1960s, there were these differences between rural and urban areas, but there was also this expectation that at some point, these differences would disappear," CDC health statistician Danielle Ely told Galvin. The pattern's persistence indicates "There might be different needs in rural counties than large metro counties in some ways … in terms of medical care for mothers and for infants."

The higher rural birth rate is concerning in light of the fact that rural counties are increasingly losing access to prenatal, obstetrical and maternal health care. "The share of rural counties with hospital obstetric services fell from 54 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2014," Galvin reports.

How Indiana's prison reform hurt rural counties

Then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed a criminal-justice reform bill in 2015 meant to, among other things, reduce the state's prison population by housing low-level felons in county jails. That shifted the financial burden from the state to counties, most of which were rural and ill-equipped to house more prisoners. While the number of people in stae prisons dropped 1 percent, the jails' population rose 32 percent.

"To ease the jail overcrowding precipitated by the bill, many counties are expanding their jails or constructing new ones, the costs of which are borne by taxpayers in Indiana," Oliver Hinds and Jack Norton report for the Vera Institute of Justice., which has been tracking local jail problems for years. "In the past two years, the state legislature has approved laws for several counties allowing them to raise income taxes to pay for jail expansion; this, in a state where rural counties are struggling with poverty, drug addiction, and rising HIV rates resulting from cuts to health care and social services." Read more here.

In promoting journalism as essential, let's not forget it has problems with bias and misinformation, rural editor writes

If your newspaper took note last week of National Newspaper Week, did your editorial, column or other material acknowledge that while "journalism matters, now more than ever," as the week's theme had it, journalism also has some issues? Some did not, and Sharon Burton noticed.

Burton is editor and publisher of The Farmer's Pride, Kentucky's statewide agricultural newspaper, and the Adair County Community Voice in her hometown of Columbia. She stands tall for good, watchdog journalism, as evidenced by her Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian and her work that has been excerpted on The Rural Blog. She promoted Newspaper Week, but with caveats.

"I tend to disagree that journalism matters now more than ever," Burton wrote. "I think it has always mattered. The industry is on the defensive, however, and part of that comes from the barrage of accusations of 'fake news' and a president who said he considers 80 percent of the press to be the 'enemy of the people.' In all of the articles I have read concerning National Newspaper Week, I have yet to see anyone in the industry admit that we do have problems with bias and misinformation.

"Let me first say that I do think we have some house-cleaning we need to do. There have been inaccurate stories in several large newspapers across the country and there is plenty of one-sided news on television every single day. There are also, however, a whole lot of hardworking, honest journalists out there covering the news and doing everything they can to ask the hard questions and be a watchdog for the people."

Burton concluded by thanking her readers for subscribing (she competes with The Adair Progress, also a weekly) and summing up the reason for Newspaper Week: "Journalism may not be done perfectly, but this nation would be ill served were journalism not allowed, encouraged, and supported by our citizens."

Parts of the Southeast are in a new 'Tornado Alley'

Northern Illinois University map
Everyone knows about Tornado Alley, the area stretching from Minnesota to Texas where such storms are most frequent. But a new study shows that tornado activity over the past 40 years has decreased in Tornado Alley and increased in the Midwest and Southeast, giving rise to hotbeds dubbed Dixie Alley, Hoosier Alley and Carolina Alley.

"Although Tornado Alley still remains the top U.S. area for tornadoes, areas to the east are catching up, based on data from 1979 to 2017. That includes portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky," Doyle Rice reports for USA Today.

Those areas are feeling the financial pain of increased storms: "Severe thunderstorms accompanied by tornadoes, hail and damaging winds cause an average of $5.4 billion of damage each year across the United States, and 10 billion-dollar events are no longer uncommon," according to the Northern Illinois University study, which was just published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science. The human toll is considerable too. An average of 40 people in the Southeast die each year from tornadoes, Rice reports. More than 70 people nationwide are killed on average from tornadoes, about 10 in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

The study predicted that tornado activity will increase, and that a swath of the Mid-South, with Memphis in the center, has the greatest potential for increased tornadoes by the end of the century.

Why scientists aren't sure how many people abuse opioids: They don't ask the right questions, or the same ones

The opioid epidemic is an undeniable public-health crisis, but it's hard to estimate how many people are misusing narcotics or dying from overdoses, Joseph Palamar writes for The Conversation. Palamar is an associate professor of population health at New York University.

Though overdose and death data are fairly reliable, researchers are struggling to understand more about opioid misuse that doesn't leave a paper trail from a hospital visit or death. Drug surveys are the main method of collecting such data, but they're often inaccurate because many respondents underreport or overreport opioid use; sometimes that's because they're lying, but sometimes it's because they don't understand what the survey is asking, Palamar reports.

Palamar, who has done survey research about drugs for almost 20 years, writes that there is no easy answer to finding more accurate information with such surveys, but believes researchers will get better results if they ensure that respondents understand the survey questions. "On surveys, opioid misuse is sometimes defined as using without one’s doctor telling you to do so. Other times, it’s defined as using without a prescription. The most accurate definition is use not directed by a doctor, including using opioids without a prescription or using greater amounts, or more often or longer than directed," Palamar reports. "It’s important to include definitions of opioids and misuse on surveys. However, such definitions are meaningless if those taking the survey refuse to read them."

Some respondents may be unfamiliar with the terms "opioids" or "narcotics" or may not know which drugs are considered opioids and which aren't. "For example, my colleagues and I discovered that a over a third of high school seniors who reported nonmedical Vicodin or OxyContin use denied using opioids nonmedically overall. This suggests many users may be unaware that these drugs are opioids." Respondents may also be confused by similar drug names like methamphetamine and methadone, and it's important for researchers to make sure respondents understand survey questions, since the answers results inform further research, prevention, harm reduction and policymaking, Palamar writes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fracking boom in Texas and N.M. brings in money but also overwhelms local resources and increases pollution

Traffic in the Permian Basin begins early. (Photo by Jerrod Foster, The Texas Tribune)
An oil boom in West Texas and New Mexico has made the U.S. again the world's top oil producer, but it's increasing local air and water pollution and has caused growing pains for communities struggling with the onslaught of new oil workers. Towns all over the region are facing housing shortages that have made prices soar and increased problems like traffic accidents and homelessness, according to an investigation by several news outlets.

West Texas is no stranger to oil, but hydraulic fracturing operations have pulled in record hauls. "In December, companies in the Permian Basin — an ancient, oil-rich seabed that spans West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — were producing twice as much oil as they had four years earlier, during the last boom. Forecasters expect production to double again by 2023," report Kiah Collier of The Texas Tribune and Jamie Smith Hopkins and Rachel Leven of the Center for Public Integrity. The increase in Permian production is projected to account for 80 percent of growth of the world's oil supply over the next seven years.

The boom boosts state coffers, but residents worry they'll pay the price with more pollution. Conservationists and climate scientists worry that it will worsen climate change by increasing the world's reliance on fossil fuels. The Tribune and CPI, in collaboration with Newsy and The Associated Press, spent eight months investigating the local impact of the boom. They found that increased production, as usual, hasn't increased local tax revenues fast enough to address the needs triggered by more residents. That means packed schools and hospitals and police forces spread too thin. The state often fails to object when drillers pollute the air, too. "Unpermitted air pollution is higher in West Texas counties than in much of the state, and regulators are giving operators the OK to burn off far more excess natural gas there than was allowed a decade ago," Collier, Hopkins and Leven report. They also found that the industry is using water at an unsustainable rate.

Though Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the boom will help the U.S. depend less on foreign energy (the U.S. is a net importer), much of the oil isn't staying in America. "The U.S. sold 230 million more barrels of crude to other countries in the first half of this year than it did three years earlier," Collier, Hopkins and Leven report. Most of that was made possible by the increase in Permian production. Meanwhile, "the country will keep buying oil from other parts of the world indefinitely even as it sells more abroad, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts." The U.S. is exporting much Permian oil because U.S. refineries, built for heavier oil, can't handle the lighter weight of Permian oil.

Survey: rural millennials less likely to invest income

Rural and urban millennials have very different investment habits, says a new survey. Younger adults in urban areas tend to be more financially secure and savvier than their rural counterparts, the survey found, while "adults aged 22-37 from rural areas are less likely to invest over the next five years, less assured in making investment decisions and have fewer investment accounts. They are also less optimistic about financial markets," Janna Herron reports for USA Today.

Part of the reason rural millennials invest less is that fewer of them have steady work or a college degree. Though overall poverty rates in rural and urban areas are almost the same, rural millennials are less likely than urban millennials to have full-time employment (50 percent vs. 70 percent). And only 39 percent of rural millennials believe they'll someday escape a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, compared to 49 percent of urban millennials. And even among urban millennials who don't have a bachelor's degree or more are still more likely to invest, Herron reports.

Robert Stammers, director of investor engagement at the CFA Institute, a co-sponsor of the survey, said rural millennials could use online tools like apps and planning calculators to get more comfortable and informed about investing, but said lawmakers must work to increase access to such tools in rural areas. Increasing broadband access in rural areas would surely help in such an endeavor.

Missouri weekly sheds light on violent bullying in small town

Edina, Missouri (Missourian map)
Big dailies often get the lion's share of attention (and newspaper awards), but stories like this prove that papers of all sizes produce great journalism -- like The Edina Sentinel, a weekly in the Missouri town of 1,200.

After hearing rumors of sexual assaults involving the Knox County Middle School football team, Editor Echo Menges investigated. Three seventh- and eighth-grade players had allegedly sodomized up to five fifth- and sixth-grade players with metal objects while other students watched, over the first several weeks of the football season.

Numerous people called the Sentinel, wanting to know the facts, but the school superintendent and sheriff wouldn't confirm details of the incident, and the school board wouldn't let parents talk about it at a recent meeting. So Menges began talking to the children and parents. The town's small size means the assaults are relevant to a higher percentage of the town, but also made it harder for Menges to investigate. Many of her sources insisted on anonymity, which she granted. If she's asked in court to reveal those sources and refuses, she would face jail time since Missouri doesn't have a shield law protecting journalists from having to reveal anonymous sources. But: "This is an important enough story that I would be willing to go to jail for it," Menges told Anna Brett of The Missourian, the newspaper of the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.  The Sentinel published Editor Echo Menges' investigation last Friday.

Trade war has hidden impact on grain storage

U.S. soybean farmers have already been hurt by the trade war with China, but the dispute has triggered another problem: not enough storage space in grain elevators. "Some farmers are gathering more soybeans than they can sell or store, jam-packed silos are running out of room, and the trains that usually carry soybeans to the Pacific Northwest for shipping to China aren’t moving," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. The backups caused by the storage shortage have driven soy prices down even more.

North Dakota, which became a soybean state because of its rail lines that allow fast export to China from the Pacific Coast, is particularly hard-hit. Increasing Chinese demand has driven an American soybean production boom for the past 10 years. "Great Plains farmers directly fed the overseas markets, harvesting more than 243 million bushels in North Dakota, at a price of $2.1 billion in the last market year. The majority of that crop fattened Chinese livestock," Kyle Swenson reports for The Washington Post. But after Beijing responded to American tariffs with, among others, a 25 percent tariff on soybeans, "the escalation essentially hit pause on what had been a rollicking international market for North Dakota’s farmers."

Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has promised up to $12 billion in relief, that money won't come until the crop has been harvested, and rainy and snowy weather has delayed the harvest. "This year might not be as bad because a lot of guys have forward-contracted a lot of this year’s crop already," soybean farmer Joe Ericson told Swenson. "But if it goes into next year, it could be tough for soybean."

Global insect population drop could spell trouble for farmers

Studies from around the world agree: the world's insect population has decreased dramatically in the past few decades, and agriculture and other industries, as well as wildlife populations, will suffer if it continues. 

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that arthropods (animals with an exoskeleton) had decreased by 45 percent worldwide over the past 45 years. In some places it's more: a study showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in German nature preserves over the past few decades, Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post. That has triggered a decrease in populations of animals that eat insects, like lizards and birds. 

Fewer insects means trouble for humans too. "Thirty-five percent of the world’s plant crops require pollination by bees, wasps and other animals. And arthropods are more than just pollinators. They’re the planet’s wee custodians, toiling away in unnoticed or avoided corners. They chew up rotting wood and eat carrion," Guarino reports. "Wild insects provide $57 billion worth of six-legged labor in the United States each year, according to a 2006 estimate."

Human behavior is believed to be the overarching cause, either because of pesticide use, habitat loss, or global warming. In tropical areas the decrease is more likely caused by rising temperatures, since those insects can only thrive in a very narrow temperature range, and the average temperature of rain forests has increased four degrees in the past 40 years. 

In temperate areas, including the Americas, the decrease is more likely because of the effects of climate change, such as droughts. And what bugs are left are likely to eat more of farmers' crops as their metabolism increases, Guarino reports. But global warming isn't the only cause, since insect population declines in northern Europe and New England have been happening since before climate change was a problem there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

White House shelves plan to prop up ailing coal and nuclear plants in the name of national security — for now

The Trump administration has shelved a major effort to help the coal industry on the advice of the president's advisors on the National Security Council and National Economic Council, according to four sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed and promoted the plan, which would force power companies to keep unprofitable or barely profitable coal plants running for the sake of national security. But "Perry’s proposals — which would also keep aging nuclear power plants operating — have riled up the oil and gas industry, which has prospered as inexpensive natural gas has increasingly eaten away at coal’s share of U.S. power markets," Eric Wolff and Darius Dixon report for Politico. "Other critics include consumer groups worried about rising power bills for customers, environmental organizations concerned about the threat to wind and solar power, and conservative policy organizations that oppose what they see as heavy-handed federal intervention in the economy."

President Trump has argued that coal and nuclear power store their fuel on-site, making them less vulnerable to attack than oil and gas, which must use pipelines that are more easily attacked. But an Energy Department-ordered study that disagreed with that assessment was kept under wraps for the past six months after its submission.

Energy Department advisors have had a hard time deciding on a rubric for which plants get funding and who would pay. And without a solid legal justification, advisors are leery of enacting such a plan. But the plan may not be dead. "It is unclear whether Trump himself has decided against following Perry’s proposal. Even if he has, the sources warned that Trump frequently changes his mind, and the idea could re-emerge in advance of the president’s reelection campaign," Wolff and Dixon report.

Marsy's Law ballot initiatives promise to protect crime victims, but could cause legal problems too

Six states will soon vote on ballot initiatives to grant crime victims certain rights under the state constitution equal to those of criminal defendants, like the right to be treated fairly, confer with prosecution, and attend important court proceedings. But some legal experts worry that approving "Marsy's Law" amendments "could set up a clash over core aspects of the U.S. legal system, such as the accused person’s Sixth Amendment right to due process and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline.

Marsy's Law is named for billionaire Henry Nicholas's sister, who was murdered in 1983. Nicholas's mother ran into Marsy's killer in public a few days after the murder; no one had notified her that he had been released on bail. Since then, Nicholas has spent $27 million funding victims' rights amendments in 12 states, Quinton reports. In Kentucky yesterday, a judge ordered that the results of the referendum not be certified because the ballot language specified by the legislature is vague and  doesn't make clear that the law would add 10 new rights for crime victims.

Because criminal cases are technically between the prosecutor and the suspect, victims and their families have not historically had many rights during the process. Over the past 40 years, laws have been enacted by all states and the federal government to give victims more rights, such as the right to be notified when a defendant is out on bail. But some say these laws aren't enough, and that enacting a constitutional amendment rather than a statute will make it more likely for victims to receive the protection and notification they deserve. On the other hand, "the American Civil Liberties Union, defense attorneys and some prosecutors say states already are doing plenty to protect victims, and that the proposed amendments could make it harder for the accused to get a fair trial," Quinton reports.

John Piro, the chief deputy public defender for Clark County, Nevada, told Quinton that Marsy's Law would interfere with defendants' due process rights by allowing victims the right to be present and heard in court before the defendant has entered a plea. "Now the prosecutor is going to be unduly influenced by a passionate person who wants to see vengeance — they’ll call it justice — handed out," he said. Research backs Piro up: emotional statements in court can make jurors more eager to punish defendants, especially if the victim is white.

Marsy's Law can trigger logistical problems too. In South Dakota, defendants ended up staying in jail longer while courts waited for victims to be notified about bail for even minor crimes like vandalism, Quinton reports. But University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a victims' rights expert who has supported Marsy's Law, told Quinton he hasn't heard of the law leading to major problems in most states. The law is beneficial, he said, because it allows victims to refuse to share personal information with the defense that could put them in danger, such as their address or phone number.

Northern California transitions to legal marijuana economy as pot harvest begins in the Emerald Triangle

International Business Times map
As the cannabis harvest begins in northern California, those interested can begin to get a picture of whether legal grow operations will help or hurt the area economy, especially in a region sometimes hostile to growers. Last year was the first year marijuana growers had to follow new local regulations in Mendocino County; the high costs of complying with those regulations as well as wildfires disrupted the harvest though. This year will be the first with a regular harvest and will provide a more reliable benchmark, Julie Johnson reports for the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa.

"It’s unclear how rural counties like Mendocino where residents have long depended on the medical marijuana and illicit markets will weather the transition from an underground industry to a corporatized and commercialized one," Johnson reports.

Genine Coleman, who serves on the California Growers Association's board, told Johnson that Mendocino is in a "hard place" because its illegal grow operations have been bolstering the county's economy. Fewer seasonal workers appear to be needed for legal operations, she observed, since those jobs aren't as lucrative, and growers are more inclined to give those jobs to locals.

Most of the area's estimated tens of thousands of growers are still operating on the black market because it's expensive to comply with regulations, but many are trying to make a go of it legally. Though profit margins are slimmer, even legal marijuana can be a cash cow. "Roughly 279 acres are licensed for outdoor cannabis cultivation across a five-county Northern California marijuana growing region — the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity and lesser-known cannabis country in Sonoma and Lake counties, according to a Press Democrat analysis of state licensing and Sonoma County permitting data," Johnson reports. "That translates to a legal outdoor harvest worth about $474 million a year, barring catastrophic crop loss and based on industry standards for yield and the current wholesale value of marijuana, about $500 a pound."

Poll shows rural Americans are worried about opioid addiction and the economy but remain optimistic

Rural Americans believe that drug addiction or abuse and economic issues are the biggest problems facing rural areas, but most say they value rural life and are optimistic about the future, according to the 'Life in Rural America' survey by NPR, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Key findings:
  • 57 percent of respondents agreed opioid addiction is a serious problem in their community, and 49 percent personally know someone who has struggled with it.
  • 23 percent of rural adults said drug addiction or abuse is the biggest health problem in their community, followed by cancer (12 percent) and access to care (11 percent).
  • Appalachian residents, especially were more likely to say that drug abuse is the biggest problem in their community (41 percent) than respondents from other rural areas.
  • White Appalachians are more worried about the opioid epidemic: 52 percent said the opioid epidemic has gotten worse in their community in the past five years, compared to 32 percent of African-Americans and 30 percent of Latinx respondents.
  • Nationwide, 48 percent of respondents said the opioid epidemic has gotten worse in their community in the past five years, and 40 percent said it has remained about the same; 5 percent said it has gotten better in the past five years.
  • 55 percent of respondents rated the local economy as only fair or poor.
  • 64 percent said the most helpful thing for the local economy would be better long-term job creation. Good ways to do that? 61 percent believe improving local schools would help, 55 percent believe improving access to health care would help, and 51 percent recommend making sure advanced job training is available. 
  • 52 percent said they're active in solving their community's problems, with younger adults participating more.
  • 81 percent said they feel attached to their community, and 67 percent said neighbors have helped them in times of need.
  • 42 percent said their lives are turning out as they expected, and 41 percent said their lives are turning out better than they expected. 15 percent said their lives are worse than they thought they would be.
  • 54 percent said they're better off financially than their parents were at the same age.
  • 55 percent of rural parents said they think their children will be better off financially compared with themselves.
  • 42 percent of parents with children over 18 said their children have moved out of their hometown, and another 16 percent said some of their children moved away and some stayed.
  • Of the grown children who moved away, 61 percent went to a city, 17 percent moved to a suburb and 21 percent moved to another rural area.
  • 52 percent of parents whose grown children who moved away said they did so for a job, and 13 percent said their children had a hard time finding a good job in their hometown.
  • 36 percent of younger rural respondents said the overall number of good jobs available in their community has increased over the past five years, compared to 25 percent of older rural Americans.
  • Most respondents said minorities don't face discrimination in their community with some exceptions: 30 percent said they believe transgender people are discriminated against, 29 percent said recent immigrants to the U.S. are, and 27 percent said gay and lesbian rural residents are discriminated against. Only 9 percent of respondents believe that whites are discriminated against, while 10 percent believe Asian-Americans and discriminated against, and 12 percent believe disabled people are discriminated against.
  • White rural Americans are less likely to believe that minorities are discriminated against than minorities do.
  • Half of the respondents believe their town's problems will be solved in the next five years, and most think the government, especially the state, will play a major role in solving them.

"'Life in Rural America' illustrates that rural Americans have strong ties to local communities and value life, family, and jobs in rural America, On one level, rural Americans express concern about challenges facing local communities, such as money/financial problems, health and health care, and in particular, drug addiction/abuse and troubled local economies. At the same time, residents also report numerous reasons for valuing life in rural communities, and a majority report feelings of attachment to their local communities," the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation summarizes.

The survey was conducted June 6-Aug. 9 with cellphone and landline phone numbers among a nationally representative sample of 1,3000 adults age 18 and up living in the rural U.S. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Results have a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Rural areas are defined in this survey as areas that are not part of a metropolitan statistical area, as defined in the 2016 National Exit Poll.

2/3 of U.S. counties have no daily, and scores have no paper at all, study finds; interactive map shows local data

See an error? Email, who says "That's how we make it better." Here is the interactive version.
More than 1,300 American communities have completely lost local news coverage since 2004, says an ongoing study at the University of North Carolina's School of Media and Journalism.

About 9,000 newspapers were being published in the United States in 2004. Since that time, about 1,800 community and metro papers -- about 20 percent -- have gone out of business or merged since then. About 70 percent of the papers that died were in suburban areas with multiple news sources, but many others were in non-county-seat towns that are losing population. "The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated," says the study report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, the school's Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics and a former executive at major national newspapers.

Tom Stites of the Poynter Institute summarizes the report: "Of the 3,143 counties in the United States, more than 2,000 now have no daily newspaper, 1,449 have but one newspaper of any kind, and 171 counties, with 3.2 million residents in aggregate, have no newspaper at all." The study report says. "Roughly half of the remaining 7,112 [newspapers] in the country – 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies – are located in small and rural communities. The vast majority – around 5,500 – have a circulation of less than 15,000."

Of the communities that still have news coverage, hundreds of papers have scaled back so much that they providing little local coverage and have become what Abernathy calls "ghost newspapers. . . . Once stand-alone iconic weeklies have merged with larger dailies and gradually disappeared. Metro, regional and state papers have dramatically scaled back their coverage of city neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural areas, dealing a double blow to communities that have also lost a local weekly." Online and broadcast entrepreneurs are trying to fill the void, but rarely in rural areas.

The study found that 516 of the closures or mergers were of rural newspapers, while 1,294 were in metropolitan areas. "Most of these counties where newspapers closed have poverty rates significantly above the national average," the study report says. "Because of the isolated nature of these communities, there is little to fill the void when the paper closes."

The study paints a grim portrait of the future, noting that hedge funds and private equity firms, which are concerned with profits more than journalism, now own many newspapers: "More than half of all newspapers have changed ownership in the past decade, some multiple times. The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies. Not surprisingly, the number of independent owners has declined significantly in recent years, as family-owned papers have thrown in the towel and sold to the big guys. The consolidation in the industry places decisions about the future of individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome."

Monday, October 15, 2018

Energy grid operator and quashed Energy Dept. report agree: Don't force grids to buy electricity from coal plants

The CEO of "the largest power market in America cautioned the Trump administration on Thursday not to use emergency power to keep coal and nuclear plants alive, urging the president to leave analysis and solutions to the experts," Josh Siegel reports for the Washington Examiner. Interference from the Trump administration would be "very inefficient" and "would be damaging to the markets and therefore costly to consumers,"said Andrew Ott of PJM Interconnection.

PJM Interconnection serves utilities in these geographic areas.
Ott spoke at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in response to a question from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Ott referred to a study PJM is conducting, due Nov. 1, about the resilience of the power grid in the 13-state area it covers, which has 65 million people. The study shows that coal and nuclear closures scheduled for 2021 and 2022 can proceed without hurting the grid. 

"The Trump administration is considering requiring federally overseen grid operators such as PJM to buy electricity from select 'critical' coal and nuclear plants for two years, using emergency authority that is normally meant for exceptional crises such as natural disasters, war or a terrorist attack," Siegel reports.

A study commissioned by the Energy Department that doesn't support President Trump's plan is still being kept under wraps, six months after it was submitted, Ari Natter and Jennifer Dlouhy report for Bloomberg. The report's principal author, Michael Webber, tweeted on Friday that "the report hasn't seen the light of day."

The report, done by the University of Texas's Webber Energy Group, "debunks the administration's primary argument for taking extraordinary measures to keep coal plants operating," Natter and Dlouhy report. "Supporters argue that the unprecedented steps are needed to preserve the dependability of the power grid. They say gas-fired power plants rely on pipelines that are vulnerable to attack while coal and nuclear plants generally store fuel on site, making them more reliable."

The Webber analysis says on-site fuel is only one of at least a dozen factors to consider in judging power generators' resilience. The reliability of individual facilities is another. Every power type has pros and cons, the report found.

Though not all reports commissioned by the government are released to the public, the failure to release the Webber report is "eye-raising" because it contradicts the administration's pro-coal narrative, and because the administration released a report that supports its plan, Natter and Dlouhy report.

Ballot initiatives in Michigan and North Dakota test whether Midwest is ready to legalize recreational marijuana

Voters in Michigan and North Dakota could be the first in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana in November, but the region is deeply divided on the topic. "Advocates will have to overcome opposition campaigns arguing that legalization will make the drug more available to children and endanger public safety if people are driving high," Graham Vyse reports for Governing.

Polls in Michigan suggest that a majority supports legalization, but polling in North Dakota has been limited and gives mixed results, Vyse reports. Fund-raising indicates that the ballot initiative is more popular in Michigan than in North Dakota. Pro-legalization groups in Michigan have raised $1.7 million, while opponents have raised only $286,062. But in North Dakota, anti-legalization groups have raised $110,000, while pro-legalization groups have raised $28,900. In America overall, 62 percent support legalizing marijuana, including 69 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

Pro-legalization advocates view the initiatives as a matter of personal liberty and as a means to reduce criminal drug convictions and save taxpayers money. Foes of legalization worry that legalization could lead to more use, and worry about businesses marketing the drug to addicts and children, Vyse reports.

The initiatives have a few differences. Michigan's Proposal 1 would set up a licensing and taxation system, while North Dakota's Measure 3 would not. Michigan's initiative would limit how much marijuana people can keep in their house, and would allow cities and counties to prohibit or restrict pot shops. "North Dakota's ballot initiative is unique in that it would create a system for automatically expunging some previous marijuana convictions," Vyse reports. Both measures would legalize it for ages 21 and up, while penalizing younger people caught using it.

Recreational marijuana is legal in eight other states: Through referenda in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Oregon, and by a legislative bill in Vermont.

Fact Check: Trump wrong about 'Medicare for all,' school violence funding; ad criticizing Tenn. Republican spins facts

Here's another installment of a series we are running weekly until Election Day, in which we list some of the most relevant items from and other nonpartisan fact checkers. We encourage you to subscribe to their alerts, which you can do here, and republish their findings, which FactCheck lets anyone do for free with credit to them.

In President Trump's Oct. 10 op-ed for USA Today about 'Medicare for all' proposals, "almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood," Glenn Kessler writes for The Washington Post's Fact Checker column. Kessler presumes the president must know that most of his claims have already been debunked by Fact Checker, since Trump links to two of them in his op-ed, but chose to ignore the facts. Trump is correct that the plan promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would cost the federal government $32.6 trillion over 10 years, but doesn't mention that overall national health expenditures might not increase because costs for individuals and state governments would go down. Kessler does a point-by-point debunking of Trump's claims in the op-ed; it's too long for us to detail here, but well worth the read. Read more here.

A TV ad criticizing Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., spins the facts about her votes on health-care issues, Lori Roberts reports for Majority Forward, an organization affiliated with the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority, launched the ad in early October to help Blackburn's Democratic challenger, former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen. The ad claims Blackburn voted in 2012 to "give members of Congress health care for life," but lawmakers had already received a health insurance retirement benefit. "There was a possibility at the time that lawmakers could have lost the benefit, but that never happened," Roberts reports. The ad also says she voted in 2017 to take away maternity coverage, but that's not necessarily true. Her vote to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would have meant that some states would no longer require insurers to offer maternity coverage, but insurers could still keep that coverage. Similar claims are likely being made against other Republican House members.

At an event for law enforcement officials, Trump said his administration's STOP School Violence Act had provided "historic levels of funding to improve school safety" and "hire more officers." But this is untrue, because the new law doesn't fund school safety at "historic levels," Eugene Kiely reports for The act, which was signed in March, was funded with $75 million shifted from an existing school safety program. "But a single program created in the late 1990s and since disbanded, called COPS in Schools, provided as much as $180 million in fiscal year 2000, according to a 2017 government report. That’s $260 million in 2018 dollars," Kiely reports.

How the rural-urban divide is changing the Democratic Party in Minnesota

The Democratic Party has been losing rural voters for years, most notably in the 2016 election when rural voters came out en masse for Republican Donald Trump. Even in Minnesota, usually rock-solid blue, the tension between rural and urban residents is eroding the Democrats' rural support.

The Democratic Party's hold on Minnesota is formidable, in part because the state-level party merged with the Farmer-Labor Party long ago to create a populist powerhouse. "Republicans have not won Minnesota’s electoral votes since 1972. No Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat or the governorship has won more than 50 percent of the vote since Arne Carlson in 1994," Reid Wilson reports for The Hill. "President Trump lost Minnesota by just 45,000 votes in 2016, the closest any Republican has come to winning the state since Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid in 1984. Trump became the first Republican to win parts of Minnesota’s Iron Range, like Itasca County in the northeast corner of the state, since Herbert Hoover in 1928." Trump won 19 Minnesota counties that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

The big problem for the DFL Party: Rural people worry that it doesn't care enough about blue-collar workers and farmers. Obama limited copper and nickel mining in the Iron Range, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law requiring farmers to leave a buffer of up to 50 feet between fields and waterways to limit fertilizers pollution, reducing the land cash-strapped farmers could use. "You’ve lost productivity, the ability to raise a crop," Kevin Paap, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Blue Earth County and the president of the state Farm Bureau, told Wilson. "Many feel like it was a taking."

"The far left is trying to stop [blue collar] jobs. You can't tell people you're for them when your party is trying to take away jobs," Jason George, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, a mining union, told Wilson. "Minnesota is emblematic of the problem that Democrats have around the rest of the country." The DFL, he said, "has abandoned the F and the L."