Friday, April 05, 2019

Closure of coal-fired power plants has taken away the economic 'lifeblood' of small towns across the nation

The J.M. Stuart Station, seen from the Kentucky shore of the Ohio River, is the largest coal-fired power plant to have been closed in the United States. It was one of 19 that closed last year. (Photo by Luke Sharrett, The Washington Post)
Much has been written about the loss of coal jobs because natural gas had become the leading fuel to generate electricity, but some of the largest single-site job losses have come at coal-fired power plants that have been closed, and they are often in small towns along rivers that provide cooling water for such plants. Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson told that story in The Washington Post., with a focus on the J.M. Stuart and Killen plants in Adams County, Ohio, upstream from Cincinnati.

"The slow retreat of coal plants has brought what many scientists, environmental advocates and policymakers say is much-needed change. Burning coal causes air pollution that can damage the health of nearby residents. It releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, which fuels climate change. And the leftover waste lingers in landfills and storage pits that can threaten water supplies," they write. "But in places like Adams County, with a population of about 28,000 and already one of the poorest corners of Ohio, the death of a coal plant can leave an unmistakable void. When the Stuart and Killen stations closed last year, with them went the area’s highest-paying jobs, its largest employers, its biggest taxpayers and, in many ways, its lifeblood." The plants employed 700.

“It’s devastating, really, to be honest,” Adams County Sheriff Kimmy Rogers told the Post. “The only thing we had going for us, really, were the power plants.” Rogers "has fewer deputies than when he started in 2010 and, during some shifts, has only two to cover 583 square miles," the Post reports.

Adams County
(Wikipedia map)
In addition to the story of Adams County, the reporters explain that coal is not just the victim of cheap natural gas, but increasingly cheap renewable energy, environmental measures by the Obama administration, increased competition in regional electric grids, state-by-state goals for increased use of renewables, and "pressure from climate-conscious companies such as Google and Amazon," who want 100 percent renewable power for data facilities.

N. Carolina tells Duke to dig up all coal-ash ponds in state

UPDATE, April 12: Duke says it will appeal administratively the order requiring the addition nine ponds to be excavated, Sean Reilly reports for Environment & Energy News.

The state of North Carolina has ordered Duke Energy to excavate millions of tons of coal ash from six power plants, Bruce Henderson reports for The Charlotte Observer.

"Ash has been mixed with water and stored in open, unlined ponds at Duke’s coal-fired power plants for decades," Henderson notes. "A 2014 ash spill into the Dan River, near the Virginia line, exposed the potential for heavy metals in ash to contaminate water, including the groundwater." That prompted "lawsuits and a new state law that ordered Duke to phase out its ash ponds, with the timing and method of closing the ponds dependent on their risks to nearby water supplies."

The electric utility, one of the nation's largest, "had already begun or finished ash excavations at 22 other N.C. ponds under state law requirements, legal settlements or the company’s own decisions," Henderson notes. Now the state has decided that all 31 of the company’s ponds in North Carolina will be drained, "with the ash dug up and removed as environmental advocates have long demanded. But Duke warned that the DEQ order will extend the job of cleaning up its ash by decades and add billions of dollars to the cost, with customers likely paying the bill."

Duke said in a statement that it will review the DEQ decision and “continue to support solutions that protect our customers and the environment.” It also said the work would take decades.

Chinese approval process for genetically modified crops is a sticking point in talks to end trade war with U.S.

"China's lengthy approval process for genetically modified crops remains a sticking point in talks to end the trade war between China and the United States, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks," Chris Prentice reports for Reuters. "Beijing has taken years to approve new strains of GM crops, which U.S. companies and farmers have complained stalls trade by restricting the sales of new products from companies such as DowDuPont Inc., Bayer AG, and Syngenta AG."

Relaxation of the approval process is among the demands that the Trump administration has made of China "if it wants to end trade disputes that have cost both countries billions of dollars and slowed the global economy," Prentice writes. Before the trade war, China bought 60 percent of U.S. soy exports.

The issue of genetically modified organisms "has been a source of tension between the two countries for years," Prentice notes. "China is the biggest buyer of U.S. soybeans, the bulk of which are genetically modified. If it does not approve new strains, then farmers in the United States cannot plant them because China may reject shipments that include them. Seed companies cannot fully commercialize sales of new strains without those approvals."

Prentice reports that there appeared to be progress on the issue in January, "when China approved a handful of GMO crops for import. They were the first in about 18 months. The move did not address the core U.S. concerns over delays to the process. . . . It is unclear what differences on the issue remain. The United States wants China to accelerate its approval process and make it more similar to Washington's. Beijing allows imports of GMO soybeans and corn for use in animal feed, even though it does not permit planting of them."

'The American Farm,' an eight-part documentary about five farm families, has started on the History Channel

The Robertsons of Contoocook, N.H., have a dairy farm.
A new documentary series, "The American Farm," began last night on the History Channel, "telling the story of five family farms across America facing the risk and reward of chasing the American Dream," Austin Anderson reports for Successful Farming. "The eight-part series comes from producers Thom Beers and Jeff Conroy, who have produced popular shows like 'Deadliest Catch' and 'Storage Wars'."

"Beers grew up around farms in upstate New York," Anderson writes. "He was familiar with the inside world of agriculture, and the passion and sacrifices needed to make the operation run. . . . As a storyteller, he was surprised that he’d never seen a great series showcasing the authentic life of farmers." But as he developed the concept, "He didn’t think the audience was ready. Major networks didn’t think the idea of documenting the life of farmers would be exciting enough for television."

But now, “I think the curiosity of people in urban areas [has increased]. All of a sudden there is a heightened awareness of the quality of food. We’re trying to explain where it all comes from and the struggle to get it there.” The farm families are in New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, Alaska, and Tennessee. The shows can be viewed online; the next telecast is scheduled for noon Sunday.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Investigation finds special interests wrote at least 10,000 bills introduced in state legislatures over past eight years

'Model bills' introduced, broken down by type of special interest;
Mississippi had the most (USA Today/Arizona Republic graphic)
A two-year investigation by USA Today, its Gannett Co. sister paper The Arizona Republic, and the Center for Public Integrity reveals the extent to which state legislators introduce bills written by special interests such as corporations, trade groups and think tanks.

"USA Today and the Republic found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law," Rob O'Dell and Nick Penzenstadler report. "The investigation examined nearly 1 million bills in all 50 states and Congress using a computer algorithm developed to detect similarities in language. That search – powered by the equivalent of 150 computers that ran nonstop for months – compared known model legislation with bills introduced by lawmakers."

A separate analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found tens of thousands of "copycat" bills with frequently identical phrasing. "In all, these copycat bills amount to the nation’s largest, unreported special-interest campaign, driving agendas in every statehouse and touching nearly every area of public policy," O'Dell and Penzenstadler report.

Such lobbyist-created bills generally have deceptive titles and descriptions to disguise their true intent. "The Asbestos Transparency Act didn’t help people exposed to asbestos. It was written by corporations who wanted to make it harder for victims to recoup money," O'Dell and Penzenstadler report. "The HOPE Act, introduced in nine states, was written by a conservative advocacy group to make it more difficult for people to get food stamps."

The report includes an interactive chart of "model bills" by state and type of interest from 2010 to 2018. Mississippi had the most, with 744 such bills introduced during that time period.

Outdoors group says Geological Survey underestimates number of ephemeral streams; see interactive map

Trout Unlimited has submitted data to show that the U.S. Geological Survey underestimates the number of streams that only flow after rain.

"The fishing and conservation group says that for every mile of stream mapped in the National Hydrography Dataset, another 1.5 miles of ephemeral streams exist," Ariel Wittenberg reports for Energy & Environment News. "The analysis comes as the Trump administration is soliciting comments on its Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, rule that would eliminate Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams, which flow only following rainfall."

The National Hydrography Dataset shows that 18 percent of U.S. streams are ephemeral, and stand to lose federal protection. Trout Unlimited and other outdoors groups oppose the new rule, saying that ephemeral streams are an important habitat for many fish species and provide critical supplies of clean water to other habitats downstream, Wittenberg reports.

Mapping specialists working for Trout Unlimited looked at other studies of when and where ephemeral streams form. "That science showed that ephemeral streams initiate in steep areas where more than 2 acres of a watershed drain to a particular point. In flat areas, ephemeral streams initiate when roughly 24 acres of watershed drain to a particular area," Wittenberg reports. "So Trout Unlimited estimated that 'unmapped' ephemeral streams existed in areas where more than 11 acres of watershed would be draining." 

The scientist leading Trout Unlimited's efforts, Kurt Fesenmyer, said the approach was conservative, and would generally lead to overestimating the number of ephemeral streams in flat places and underestimating them in wet areas. Trout Unlimited created an interactive map and state-specific estimates. Click here to see them.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers wrote in their economic analysis of WOTUS that the National Hydrography Dataset should not be used because it mostly doesn't generally differentiate between permanent and ephemeral streams, Wittenberg reports.

Ag Secretary Perdue calls for uniform definition of 'rural'

Most longtime readers of The Rural Blog realize that researchers studying rural America must generally take pains to define what, precisely, they consider rural. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, defines it by what it isn't: anything that isn't metropolitan is rural. But different federal agencies define rural in different ways, which leads to confusion as communities qualify for some rural programs but not others.

"As larger socioeconomic forces have shaped demographic changes in rural communities and spurred population shifts, some experts and policymakers — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue among them — have called for an updated calculation that takes more factors into account beyond population size," Liz Crampton reports for Politico.

Many federal programs for rural communities require a population under 10,000, but others require a population under 20,000. A metropolitan designation requires a city of 50,000. Some growing communities can qualify for programs via grandfather clauses. And some federal officials can take into account whether an area is "rural in character" when determining whether a community qualifies, Crampton reports.

Perdue pushed for a comprehensive definition of rural to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. While the bill didn't include that measure, "It did increase the population limit for eligibility for water, community facilities and broadband programs to 50,000 people. A USDA spokesperson said the department is working on implementing those provisions," Crampton reports.

Changing the qualifications for programs would cause major disruption to non-profits and other organizations that facilitate rural development programs, warned Tom Collishaw, president and CEO of housing non-profit Self-Help Enterprises. "We’ve built our business models around this, and our delivery systems around this and we’ve built economies of scale," Collishaw said. "We’ve figured out how to do this."

WordPress to launch web hosting platform for small- and medium-sized news outlets

The Bangor Daily News in Maine and nonprofit investigative website Oklahoma Watch have been chosen as two of the 12 small and medium-sized news organizations from all over the world that will form the core of Newspack, a new platform WordPress has started to allow publishers to dedicate more resources to journalism. WordPress will host and update the websites for the participating publications, which it says will allow publishers to focus on content rather than web development.

"The journalists at these 12 publications will work with the Newspack development team to identify the needs of publishers with small and medium-sized newsrooms," Steve Beatty reports for Newspack. "They will help design, test, and deploy the first live versions of the platform, using some tools not yet available to the wider WordPress community."

Google, through its Google News Initiative, is the lead underwriter for the project, contributing $1.2 million. Other major contributors include The Lenfest Institute, contributing $400,000; ConsenSys, contributing $350,000; and the Knight Foundation, which is contributing $250,000, Beatty reports.

Newspack is expected to launch in the fall. If all goes well, WordPress expects to issue a call for new applicants next summer, and could bring up to 50 more publications on board in the next round. The news outlets participating in Newspack in these first two phases will receive the service for free until March 2020. WordPress expects the service to cost $1,000 a month for the lowest level of support and features, Beatty reports.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Small water, sewer systems show vulnerablity to hackers

Nearly 70,000 small and mid-sized water and wastewater systems in the U.S. are vulnerable to hackers, according to interviews with security experts and water company operators, Blake Sobczak reports for Energy & Environment News.

For example, hackers hit the water and wastewater facilities of the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District last month, infecting the computer systems with ransomware. Ransomware encrypts a victim's computer files, refusing to unlock them until a ransom has been paid online, Sobczak notes.

"Some larger utilities are well-positioned to thwart an attack by hackers backed by a foreign government, said Michael Arceneaux, managing director for the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the industry's clearinghouse for getting the word out about the latest hacking threats and vulnerabilities," Sobczak reports. "But in a sector that encompasses tens of thousands of local water systems, securing America's vast and disparate drinking water supply remains a significant challenge."

Cybersecurity for water utilities is only lightly monitored by the federal government and often ignored by state utility commissions. But water security is critical after a disaster: "In many emergency planning exercises, it isn't the lack of electricity that triggers chaos and widespread casualties. It's the lack of clean water that forces people from their homes," Sobczak reports.

"Sixty-three cyber vulnerabilities were uncovered in the 'water supply' sector in 2018, according to federal data, accounting for 15 percent of all industrial security problems. Only the energy and manufacturing sectors had more vulnerabilities in 2018," Sobczak reports. Power distributors use many of the same equipment providers and use similar computer systems as water utilities, and so may be vulnerable to the same kinds of cyberthreats.

Idaho Press and Southeast Missourian among 10 papers picked for Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab

Two non-metropolitan newspapers have been chosen to participate in the Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab. The Local Media Association announced that the 10 participants include the Idaho Press of Nampa, owned by the fast-growing Adams Publishing Group, and The Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, the flagship of Rust Communications, a local, family-owned firm.

Jon Rust
CEO Jon Rust said, “Digital subscriptions are the key to our future, and this initiative supercharges the effort for newspapers outside the largest in the country, including small ones like us. We believe profit is like oxygen, and we’ve got to have it to live. But we don’t live just to breathe. Our mission covering local communities with original journalism is bigger than that. Building a new business model that supports community journalism in a world of digital reliance would be like developing oxygen on Mars. The Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab is an important and exciting step in that direction.”

Google and the LMA, which helped judge the 21 applications for the lab, call it "an ambitious six-month program that will be laser-focused on finding a path forward for reader revenue strategies. . . .Judges looked for newspapers that were growing their digital subscription business and were ready to fast track it to the next level."

Each paper will undergo "a full diagnostics evaluation . .. across multiple dimensions – people, process, technology, marketing, and content," LMA says. "They will benchmark current performance, identify short-term optimization opportunities, and recommend longer-term transformation roadmaps. This includes providing a detailed scorecard to show how each publisher sizes up, and a dashboard for measuring ongoing progress. The publishers will also have robust support from Google teams that bring expertise in data, strategy, technology, product, and marketing. LMA will lead the cohort community building with the participating publishers, helping them benchmark their progress and share key learnings and best practices. These insights will then be shared with the industry at large. A three-hour workshop on September 18 at Elevate, a joint LMA/LMC event, will feature the top recommendations and lessons learned."

The other eight newspapers are The Baltimore Sun, The Buffalo News, The Columbus Dispatch, the Houston Chronicle, the Portland Press Herald of Maine, The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina; The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper.

What it's like to be LGBTQ in rural U.S. may surprise you

USA Today map defines 'majority rural' as states in which people in a 
 majority of counties live in rural areas (click the image to enlarge it)
Pop culture frequently depicts rural LGBTQ people as miserable and eager to leave for the city. Real life is a bit different, according to a newly published study of the 2.9 to 3.8 million LGBTQ people living in rural areas, Susan Miller reports for USA Today. The report was conducted by the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that examines LGBTQ issues.

"Rarely do we see images of LGBTQ people in rural areas, and when we do they are portrayed as the only one there and stick out like a sore thumb or a target of violence," said report author Logan Casey. "It’s a stereotype that’s not the case."

LGBTQ people like living in the country for the same reasons others do, according to MAP Executive Director Ineke Mushovic: connection to the land, family roots, or love of the country life, Miller reports. But life can still be harder for them in rural areas.

"When an LGBTQ individual does feel the sting of rejection in a rural setting, the repercussions can be amplified in ways not seen in big cities, the report notes. For example, if people are excluded from their faith community for being gay, they could face difficulty finding work in a tight-knit town if a church member is a potential employer," Miller reports. "And religious exemptions laws – which let someone cite a religious belief as a reason not to enforce a law – can loom large in smaller settings with fewer services. That is why the passage of non-discrimination protections for work, housing and public accommodations is so crucial, Mushovic said."

Rural LGBTQ people can face health care obstacles too; according to an American Association of Retired Persons survey cited in the MAP report, only 11% of LGBTQ people age 45 and older have access to an LGBTQ health center in rural areas, compared with 57% in urban areas, Miller reports.

On the other hand, Casey said, the tight-knit nature of rural communities can work in an LGBTQ person's favor: when someone stands up for them, others are more likely to follow, Miller reports. Read the full report here.

Editor and Publisher's annual '25 under 35' lists includes several rural (well, at least non-metropolitan) journalists

Ten of Editor and Publisher magazine's "25 under 35," young professionals moving the newspaper industry forward, work at non-metropolitan papers. They are:

Josh Bergeron, 26, editor of the Salisbury Post in North Carolina, where he was associate editor before 14 months as managing editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Kentucky, where he "launched well-received redesigns of its monthly community magazine and the newspaper, which publishes five days per week, and its web traffic grew by 30 percent," E&P reports.

Taylor Buley, 34, chief technology officer of McNaughton Newspapers and publisher of the Winters Express in Fairfield, Calif.: He rebuilt the paper's website, linked it to social media, launched live video and created a tool for the community to share content, which has produced more than 1,500 posts, E&P reports.

Corey Friedman, 34, editor of The Wilson Times Co. in North Carolina: He oversees content for five publications, "writing editorials on statewide and regional issues for the group and local editorials for the company’s flagship daily," E&P reports. Yesterday he won the News Leaders Association's Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership, for editorials that criticized the local school board for stifling parents' and students' voices during meetings.

Stephanie Highfill, 29, multimedia sales executive at Arkansas' Hot Springs Village Voice, which "has seen a 70 percent increase in digital growth in 2018 over 2017," E&P reports. "She also won Best of Show in the 2018 Arkansas Press Association Better Newspaper Advertising Contest beating out newspapers of all sizes, dailies and weeklies."

Mary Koester at the 2018 Clayton 9/11 Memorial
Stair Climb, one of her many community activities.
Mary Koester, 35, editor of the North County News in Red Bud, Illinois, about 40 miles south of St. Louis: "To increase reader interactions, Koester added various contests, more features, special sections, new columns, an online/social media presence and experimented with augmented reality," E&P reports. "Newspapers are the lifeblood of a community, especially a small, rural one," she says. "We are our community’s cheerleaders and ambassadors. We preserve the community’s history for future generations. It is imperative to help our communities continue to prosper."

Courtney A. Lamdin, 31, news editor of the Times Argus in Barre, Vermont, which she joined in March after editing three weeklies: the Colchester Sun, the Milton Independent and the Essex Reporter. The papers won many state and regional awards, and she won a fellowship from the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Kate Lisa, 25, managing editor of Columbia-Greene Media in Hudson, New York, who advises other young newspaper professionals: "Don’t be timid. If sources give you a road block, try every person or avenue to get around it to get the story. You never know who knows something, or knows someone else who does, so ask and be persistent. Be a pest. Show people you won’t go away until they respond. If people aren’t answering the phone or emails, get off your tuckus and go there. Put a face to the byline. Talk to random people on the street. This job is all about making relationships."

Rob Miller, 33, digital editor of the Bulletin in Norwich, Connecticut. He has "done wonders for the Bulletin’s website and their social media platforms," E&P reports. "According to executive editor Jim Konrad, Miller’s ability to manage the digital realm of the Bulletin as well as his growing writing and reporting skills led him to become the newspaper’s morning reporter, delivering the news to readers electronically."

Adam Rogers, 32, managing editor of innovation for The Villages Daily Sun in The Villages, a retirement community in Central Florida. Under his leadership, the paper "has twice been a finalist for The Society of News Design’s Worlds Best Designed Newspapers," E&P reports. "His individual work has won more than 40 awards at the state, national and international level." Executive Editor Bonita Burton said “Adam is the Swiss-army knife of one of the few American newsrooms that is still growing. . . . If the future of newspapers is bright—especially the future of community newspapers—it will be because people like Adam Rogers led us there.” (The paper is owned by the development's operating company, a New York Times profile noted. It has an outside competitor,

Samantha Anderson, 24, editor and only full-time staffer at the Cloverdale Reporter in Surrey, British Columbia, a Vancouver suburb that borders Blaine, Washington. "Under her direction, the paper has established a digital reach that surpasses other publications of its size," E&P reports.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

State laws passed after Parkland massacre prompt counter-reaction; some county officials refuse to enforce them

In New Mexico, Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace has vowed
not to enforce new state gun controls. (Photo by Morgan Lee, AP)
The massacre at a Florida high school a year ago promoted some states to pass new gun controls, and that has prompted a backlash: Some counties in those and other states are refusing to enforce those laws, Stateline reports.

"More than 200 counties across nine states have vowed not to enforce new state measures that restrict gun access, and 132 have declared themselves to be Second Amendment 'sanctuaries,' borrowing a term at the center of the immigration debate," Matt Vasilogambros writes. "For gun rights supporters, it’s a defiant rebuff to state leaders they believe are attacking their communities’ gun heritage and way of life."

Local officials "have not translated their rhetoric into action by, for example, defying a 'red-flag' court order to confiscate guns from a person deemed to be dangerous to himself or others, but there is no doubt the movement is gaining momentum," Vasilogambros reports. "Except for 52 counties in New York and three in Maryland, which acted in 2013 after their states passed new legislation following the Sandy Hook mass shooting, all of the counties have made their declarations since the Parkland [High School] shooting 13 months ago."

No fooling: Today is International Fact Checking Day

Today, the day after April Fool's Day, is International Fact Checking Day, promoted by the International Fact-Checking Network in partnership with fact-checking organizations around the world. We believe, as they do, that fact-checking shouldn't be something only professional fact-checkers do. As they say, "An accurate information ecosystem requires everyone to do their part."

Fact-Checking Day is billed as "a rallying cry for more facts in politics, journalism, and everyday life," but is meant to be both lighthearted and practical. “It’s not about being killjoys, shaking a finger at everyone, so we’re trying to do it with a sense of fun,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the IFCN, based at The Poynter Institute.

On its website you will find tip sheets and a reading list for everyday media consumers, lesson plans for high-school and college students, an interactive quiz and more. Follow @factchecknet, #FactcheckingDay and #FactCheckIt on Twitter. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote about last year's inaugural day, calling it "a global counterpunch on behalf of truth."

Here's a list of resources, compiled by Ryan Craig, publisher of Kentucky's Todd County Standard:

ASNE, APME announce first News Leaders Association Awards; several have rural resonance

The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors, which are merging into the News Leaders Association, have announced the winners of the first NLA Awards for distinguished writing, digital storytelling and photography in journalism. The annual awards will combine and replace the ASNE and APME Awards. Several winners in the division for smaller news outlets had rural resonance:

Corey Friedman, editor of The Wilson Times in eastern North Carolina, won the Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership for editorials that criticized the local school board for stifling parents' and students' voices during meetings. The award is sponsored by The Dallas Morning News , where the late Osborne was editor and publisher, and comes with a $1,250 award.

"It offered readers information to get involved and it effected change," the judges said. "A fine example of a news organization looking out for its readers."

The two runners-up were the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and editor Jeffery Gerritt of the Palestine Herald-Press in Texas. The Capital Gazette left the front page of its editorial section nearly blank the day after five employees were shot to death, with a small paragraph in the center of the page saying "Today, we are speechless" over the shooting, and promising the page would return the next day to its regular offerings. The Herald-Press editorials were unflinching calls for accountability from various public officials.

The Capital Gazette's news coverage of the shooting earned it the Al Neuharth Breaking News Reporting Award and made it a finalist for the Visual Journalism Award.

Ed Williams of Searchlight New Mexico won the Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting in the Small devision for "A Pattern of Failures" which revealed how a private foster care agency allowed foster parents to abuse already-traumatized children, and how the state provided little oversight into how such agencies operated. The award is sponsored by The Seattle Times in honor of its publisher, and comes with a $1,250 award. SearchlightNM is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news outlet with content-sharing partnerships with over two dozen news organizations.

"This small, feisty organization produced an investigation into New Mexico's private foster care industry that was compelling and expertly written, pulling readers through a complex topic," the judges said. "And it got results: spurring a state investigation and putting the issue front-and-center in the state's gubernatorial race."

AP announces Stylebook changes, including rejection of 'Indian' as a shorthand for 'Native American'

The Associated Press has announced the latest round of changed to its Stylebook, the essential manual for those who write for publication. "This year, many of the changes centered on racial, ethnic, and gender entries, some new and some revised," writes Merrill Perlman, a member of the executive committee of ACES: The Society for Editing, formerly the American Copy Editors Society. AP makes its announcement at each annual ACES conference. (Mary Hufford, grammar guru at The New Yorker, has an entertaining report on the meeting.)

“Indian” is no longer allowed for references to Native Americans, "and should be reserved for people from South Asia or the nation of India," Perlman notes. "In another change, the stylebook now says that 'Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective' for people of Spanish heritage. 'Latina' is the feminine form. As for the gender-neutral 'Latinx,' the stylebook now says its use 'should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation.'"

AP will no longer use hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, such as “African-American,” a term in which many other organizations dropped the hyphen years ago. A hyphen is more meaningful than you might think. "Dropping a hyphen does not appear to be a big deal," Perlman writes, "but it reflects a growing acknowledgment among news organizations that racial and ethnic identities are individual, that the individuals have differing views on how to portray themselves, and that news organization should be aware of those desires."

Perlman says Asian Americans "have eschewed the hyphen for years, but the African American community has been less unified in whether to use it or not: the National Museum of African American History and Culture does not use the hyphen, for example, while some other institutions, including student organizations, still hyphenate. The trend in recent years, though, has been to remove the hyphen."

Federal aid won't cover crops ruined by Midwest floods

The federal government can't compensate farmers for the millions of bushels of stored crops ruined by flooding in the Midwest, Tom Polansek reports for Reuters.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture partially reimburses farmers who lose cattle in natural disasters, or who can't plant crops because of bad weather, and even helps them remove debris left in fields after floods, but the USDA doesn't have a mechanism to pay farmers for crops in storage that have been damaged, and has never seen such a problem on this scale, according to U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary Bill Northey, Polansek reports.

"That’s in part because U.S. farmers have never stored so much of their harvests, after years of oversupplied markets, low prices and the latest blow of lost sales from the U.S. trade war with China - previously their biggest buyer of soybean exports," Polansek reports. Most of the stored crops are uninsured, so crop insurance won't cover it either.

U.S. farmers across the country had more than 2.7 billion bushels of soybeans stored as of March 1, which the USDA said was a record for that time period, and corn stocks were the third-largest on record, Polansek reports.

More than 1 million acres of farmland in nine major grain-producing states were damaged in the flood, P.J. Huffstetter and Humeyra Pamuk report for Reuters.

"Indigo Ag, an agriculture technology company, identified 832 on-farm storage bins within flooded Midwest areas," Polansek reports. "They hold an estimated 5 million to 10 million bushels of corn and soybeans - worth between $17.3 million to $34.6 million - that could have been damaged in the floods." Since there is no mechanism for compensating farmers with ruined stores, Northey said Congress would have to pass legislation to make it happen.

Right now, farmers are worried about being able to remove the flooding debris in time to plant corn. "To be fully covered by crop insurance, Iowa farmers must plant corn by May 31 and soybeans by June 15, as yields decline dramatically when planted any later. Deadlines vary state by state," Huffstetter and Pamuk report.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Democratic candidates try to woo rural Iowa voters in Heartland Forum, hosted by weekly editor Art Cullen

Art Cullen greets Amy Klobuchar at the Heartland Forum
(Des Moines Register photo by Bryon Houlgrave)
Hillary Clinton got trounced in rural areas in 2016, but Democratic candidates this time around appear to be trying to connect more with rural concerns. Part of that is to be expected at this stage of campaigning: candidates must woo rural voters, and those with rural interests, to do well in the Iowa caucuses that begin the voting for the nomination.

Several got a chance to do that on Saturday at the Heartland Forum on rural issues, hosted by Art Cullen, editor and co-owner of the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times in the northwest Iowa town of 10,700.

UPDATE, April 2: "No one really had an answer about what to do to help farm country right now," Cullen writes for The Washington Post.
Most major candidates were invited, but only five attended: former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Cullen said candidates' attendance — or failure to attend — the forum spoke volumes about how much they really care about rural voters. Though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his campaign with promises to help rural America, he did not attend. "If he cares about rural issues, then why isn't he here?" Cullen told the Des Moines Register, which did a story looking at his role in the caucuses.

Cullen had similar words for former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who only appeared in a short video before the forum. "He has time to dance with Oprah, but he doesn't have time for the Iowa Farmer's Union?" Cullen told the Register. "That pisses me off — excuse me, it disappoints me."

Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing and the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in 2017 for the twice-weekly paper's coverage of local water pollution caused by agribusinesses. Those honors helped catapult Cullen into the national spotlight as a voice for rural America.

Candidates who did attend shared their visions for rural America. "For Warren, whose campaign has embraced the senator's focus on policy, the event was preceded by a rollout Wednesday of her plan to support family farmers. The proposal calls for a rollback of regulations that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment, limiting of foreign ownership of farmland and breaking up agribusiness conglomerates -- the latter reminiscent of her earlier pitch to dismantle large technology companies," Adam Kelsey reports for ABC News.

Last week, Delaney released a plan called the Heartland Fair Deal, which his campaign says contains more than 20 policies to strengthen the economy, infrastructure, and health care in rural areas. At the forum, he called for updating anti-trust laws to increase competition in ag markets, Kelsey reports.

Klobuchar agreed with strengthening anti-trust laws, and said, "If we stifle competition through monopolies, we’re not just going to bring up the prices for consumers, we’re going to stifle entrepreneurship," Alexandra Jaffe reports for The Associated Press.

Most candidates at the forum also endorsed increasing investments in rural hospitals, especially to provide mental-health care for farmers, Kim Norvell reports for the Register. "We absolutely need a better conversation about how to prevent suicide by gun, but we also need to work on the stigma and the care that people can receive as they have suicidal thoughts and that goes to our health care policy and the investments that we make," said Castro.

Castro said rural populations could grow by welcoming immigrants, and noted that in Storm Lake the population is majority Hispanic because so many immigrants work at the local Tyson meatpacking plant. Delaney promised to pass immigration reform that would create a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, Norvell reports.

"Most candidates also called for gun reform, including comprehensive background checks, prohibiting access to persons on the terrorist watch list and closing loopholes that allow firearms to be transferred by licensed dealers before background checks are completed," Norvell reports.

Candidates who didn't attend the forum have spoken out on rural issues, too. "In a video shown at a rally for family farmers, Sen. Cory Booker also endorsed a 'Farmers Bill of Rights,' which his campaign described as 'a series of commitments that will restore opportunity and competition in rural communities across the country," ABC News reports.

The day O'Rourke launched his campaign, one of the first issues he spoke about was the need to expand rural broadband. "If we want to lift up rural America, let’s begin by listening to rural America. Let’s partner with them by investing in hospitals and schools and infrastructure like broadband internet," O’Rourke said in El Paso, according to ABC. "And then let’s ensure that every farmer, every rancher, every grower, every producer can make a profit as they grow what feeds and clothes not just America, but so much of the rest of the world."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has emphasized her rural roots, including her home congressional district in upstate New York, where she was first elected to office, Elena Schneider reports for Politico. Speaking to voters at a deli recently, she said, "I grew up in a rural place, and I represented a rural place."

As the mayor of mid-size city South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg (pronounced "boot-a-judge") has few rural bona fides, but he has leaned on his status as a Midwesterner. In a recent interview with KQED-FM in San Francisco, Buttigieg said coastal voters don't seem to take seriously the concerns of Trump voters. In places like California, he said, "I feel sometimes like I’m an emissary from the middle of the country just pointing out that things look a little bit different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine and that we really need to find ways to knit this picture back together into one America."

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state has made fighting climate change his signature issue. He noted in a recent interview with New Hampshire Public Radio that renewable energy is creating many new jobs in rural areas, and could be an even bigger instrument of rural economic revival.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California agreed with Inslee that climate change hurts rural areas. In a tweet last November, she said: "Rural communities are tightly connected with agriculture and are especially vulnerable to climate change. Increased drought, severe storms, and degraded water quality will hurt their ability to cope economically. We must act on climate change now to protect these communities."

John Hickenlooper of Colorado has experience balancing rural and urban needs. "While serving as governor, Hickenlooper led the effort in 2011 to create Colorado’s Health Benefit Exchange and expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act," PBS reports. "He also signed into law critical rules that altered the hospital provider fee in Colorado. The law allowed billions of dollars to flow into the state’s rural areas, and helped keep open many rural clinics."

Aging farmers can face tough choices as retirement nears

The average farmer is 58 years old, and nearly a third are over 65, but many are having a hard time retiring. "Farm operators who don’t have children willing to take over often end up selling to developers or neighbors who may be near retirement themselves. When farmers do have a son or daughter ready to take the reins, poor financial planning, family infighting or lack of communication can still leave descendants no choice but to sell the farm," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline.

The result of this turmoil: "Between 1992 and 2012, almost 31 million acres of farm and ranch land have been taken out of production, according to American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. That’s an area the size of New York state," Quinton reports. Since 63 percent of farmland will need a new farmer in the next 25 years, even more farmland could be taken out of production if measures are not taken to help aging farmers pass on their farms.

In Colorado, where the average farmer is 59, the state Agriculture Department is considering ways to help retiring farmers, such as supplying mediators to help work out legal issues. One mediator, Colorado State University Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch, told Quinton it's more complicated to turn over a farm than a typical business: "It's a family, it's a business, it’s personalities, it’s history, it’s all wrapped into one big thing . . . And that makes it exceptionally complex."

Another problem: farmland and equipment are expensive, but farming profits are often low and uncertain, so it's hard for young would-be farmers to afford to buy and run a farm. But retiring farmers need that liquid cash when they sell, since most of their assets are wrapped up in land and equipment rather than liquid cash. Selling to a family member is complicated too.

"To avoid estate taxes, farm families need to wrap their assets in trusts, limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships," Quinton reports. "They need mechanisms to allow a retiring farmer without a 401(k) to continue to draw income from the farm after his child takes over ownership. They might need livestock leases, conservation easements or options to purchase." Since many rural tax and estate planning specialists are also retiring, such services can be in short supply.

Dozens of levee breaches in Midwest expose a 'Swiss cheese' system of flood protection, aging and under threat

The Missouri River breached this levee near Fortescue, Missouri. (Photo by Tim Gruber, The New York Times)
Hundreds of miles of Midwest levees have been overwhelmed by floods, "leaving 'Swiss cheese' infrastructure and reigniting a flood-control debate," The New York Times reports.

"With dozens of costly breaks across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and nearby states, the surging waters have left large areas without even cursory flood protection," Mitch Smith and John Schwartz report. "And with the fear of more floods in the coming years — and perhaps even the coming weeks — many people said living and farming near the water might not be viable much longer without major changes."

The reporters note that the levees are old, "subject to uneven regulation and, in many cases, never designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade. . . . The situation has been exacerbated by wetter rainstorms, which are expected to worsen over time and have been attributed to climate change. . . .The recent flooding — which has devastated farms, roads and Native American reservations — has pushed to the foreground a debate that has raged quietly for generations. It boils down to this: How should the rivers be controlled, who should make those decisions and how much protection should be given to those most vulnerable?"

The levees are mainly managed by local levee districts, which "often do not coordinate or even follow the same rules," the Times reports. "With increased flooding in the past few years, the levees are being tested more frequently than ever before, straining the finances and expertise of some of those districts. The levee situation has become so grave that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s levee system a D grade in 2017, suggesting $80 billion in investment over 10 years."

Drug-maker payments to doctors may influence choice of what drugs to prescribe; that can cost patients real money

If your doctor is prescribing an expensive drug, you might want to consider alternatives, and check to see if the physician has been taking money from the company that makes the drug, Trudy Lieberman of Rural Health News Service suggests in her latest column. As she often does, Liberman tells the story through a patient, a 94-year-old Indiana woman "who is rapidly spending down her minimal savings to pay for prescription drugs," according to her daughter, Peggy, who wrote to Lieberman.

"Peggy said that every time her mom visited the physician, the doctor told her she was lucky to take the expensive blood thinner instead of the other 'stuff' which he called 'rat poison,' implying a cheaper drug was inferior, even dangerous," Lieberman writes. "Then a family member discovered," a Medicare database that shows what doctors get from makers of drugs and medical devices in speaking, research and consulting fees, and for food and drink expenses.

"Her mom’s cardiologist had received nearly $80,000. Peggy had a bad feeling about the doctor, and switched her mom to another physician who kept her on the high-priced drug for two months. Then she was diagnosed with anemia, taken off blood thinners and prescribed low-dose aspirin. In the meantime, Peggy’s husband had a heart attack and developed a blood clot. His doctor prescribed a low-cost blood thinner that’s been on the market for years. She said he’s doing just fine on the 'rat poison' disparaged by her mother’s first doctor. His cost: a $6 copay every 30 days."

However, "The drug-and-device database may be one of health care’s best-kept secrets," Lieberman writes, noting a study that found only 3 percent of patients "knew their doctor had received payments from the medical industry. Unlike Peggy’s family, they had no idea that Medicare’s Open Payments database existed. . . . Peggy had some advice of her own: 'Do the research. Did the doctor receive money to push the drug? Ask questions? How much does the drug cost? Is it really a better alternative?'"