Friday, July 26, 2019

Trump does best where traditional news outlets are weak

"President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn't do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation," Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum report for Politico. "For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points."

The data was drawn from comparing election results with subscription information from more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties from every state except Alaska (which doesn't hold county-level elections). The circulation data was compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies for advertisers the print and digital circulation of newspapers, mainly dailies.

"The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012," Musgrave and Nussbaum report. "Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results."

That puts the president's increasing attacks on the news media in a new light, and bolsters concerns frequently voiced by journalists and academics about the president's frequently false claims about easily verified issues. "Politico's analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims," Musgrave and Nussbaum report. "Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online — went for him in higher-than-expected numbers. In tight races with Clinton in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the decline in local media could have made a decisive difference."

Even in places with local media, Trump preferred to deal with the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting stations. "Now, as president, Trump is openly touting Sinclair, even though his own Federal Communications Commission is wrestling with whether to approve its effort to vastly expand its reach by buying Tribune Broadcasting," Musgrave and Nussbaum report. "And in praising Sinclair, as in many other areas of policy and politics, Trump is utilizing social media rather than speaking directly to reporters, a method of communication that Trump considers essential to his success."

Details of $16 billion farm bailout package revealed

"The Trump administration revealed details of its $16 billion aid package for farmers hit in the U.S.-China trade war — with key provisions meant to avoid large corporations scooping up big payouts at the expense of small farmers," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post.

Here are the highlights:
  • The payout for individual farmers has been raised to $250,000 per person or legal entity, up from $125,000 per category in the 2018 package. Also new this year: a $500,000 cap in total payments across three categories, which was created in response to claims of significant abuse in last year's aid package. The categories are: row crops; specialty crops like nuts or fruit; and dairy or pork.
  • Eligible farmers will get between $15 and $150 per acre, regardless of crop. Counties will determine the exact amount of reimbursement. Payment rates are based on Department of Agriculture estimates of trade damage. 
  • The aid will be paid out in three installments; half will be paid out in the first installment, in August.
  • Most of the aid goes directly to farmers, but $1.4 billion is set aside to purchase food from farmers and distribute it to food banks.
"Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue conceded that the relief would not make up for farmers’ recent struggles with falling farm income and commodity prices, rising debt and floods that disrupted spring planting," Reiley reports. 

That assessment somewhat undermines President Trump's recent tweet saying that American farmers "are starting to do great again, after 15 years of a downward spiral. The 16 Billion Dollar China 'replacement' money didn't exactly hurt!" Reiley reports for a different story in the Post.

"While America’s farmers and ranchers are grateful for the administration’s agriculture assistance package, it only begins to relieve the great difficulty the agriculture industry is currently facing, ranging from extreme weather conditions to depressed markets," said Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

How social media use can harm journalists' mental health

Most journalists check social media frequently to keep up on events and post, but they may not know that over-use of social media use can lead to mental-health problems.

"Social media have long been hotbeds of misinformation and targeted harassment of journalists, both of which can lead to fatigue and even burnout," Kyle Bessey reports for "Amongst key challenges are work performance stress, maintaining work-life balance, pressure to have a non-biased social media presence, avoiding comments from trolls, legal worries, pressure to get the scoop and ethical considerations."

All that can lead to depression and burnout, according to psychologist Jelena Kecmanovic. "All of us face competition and pressure to excel at work. Journalists, however, are receiving almost constant live feedback about how they are doing based on the number of clicks their posts are getting and number of followers they have," Kecmanovic told Bessey. "Their social comparisons are directly related to their jobs, career success, or livelihoods. All the psychological negative effects of social media like envy, depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem are thus likely to be higher for journalists."

Simply being aware that binge-scrolling is detrimental to one's health is a good place for journalists to start, according to editor and journalist John Crowley.

Freelance journalist Philip Eil told Bessey that journalists should put personal boundaries in place like, for example, deleting social media apps from one's phone and only checking them from a desktop. "He also suggested cultivating a non-social media life and enjoying offline activities to build resilience and a support network that journalists can rely on when their feeds turn nasty," Bessey reports.

Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states in 2016; state and local election systems remain vulnerable

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Thursday that Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states in the 2016 election, and issued a bipartisan report warning that the U.S. remains vulnerable in 2020. It also made recommendations, many of them redacted for security reasons, for securing our elections. Though the committee found no evidence that any votes were changed, it said Russian hackers "were in a position" to delete or change voter data in the Illinois voter database, David Sanger and Catie Edmondson report for The New York Times.

"The report — the first volume of several to be released from the committee’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference — came 24 hours after the former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III warned that Russia was moving again to interfere 'as we sit here,'" the Times reports.

Though some details about Russian hacking are well-known, the report calls attention to a more wide-reaching effort than has been previously acknowledged, and one that federal and state officials,  and local election officials, mostly weren't aware of at the time, Sanger and Edmondson report. 

"While the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings were bipartisan, they came on a day when Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, moved again to block consideration of election security legislation put forward by Democrats," the Times notes. "And despite the warnings about the Russia threat, he argues that Congress has already done enough, passing $380 million worth of grants for states to update their election systems and supporting executive branch agencies as they make their own changes. Some administration officials have suggested that the issue is not getting enough high-level attention because President Trump equates any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory."

House passes bill to protect Tennessee Walking Horses from harmful practices; Senate will have much say-so

Photo by Esther Roberts
The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would strengthen protections in the 1970 Horse Protection Act against the practice of "soring" Tennessee Walking Horses. "Soring is a technique used by some trainers to improve walking horses' naturally high gait," reportAndrew Wigdor and Matt Reynolds of the Tennessean. "The technique is accomplished by exposing horses to chemicals, putting foreign objects into a horse's hooves or placing heavy chains" on their lower front legs.

The HPA already bans sored horses from competing in shows, exhibitions or sales, but advocates say the provision is being largely ignored, is rarely enforced, and is subject to loopholes.

The PAST (Prevent All Soring Tactics) Act, which passed 333 to 96, "would ban large stacked shoes and ankle chains used on horses, heighten penalties for violations and expand the Department of Agriculture's enforcement of the Horse Protection Act," Wigdor and Reynolds report. "The new penalties would increase from $3,000 to $5,000 and extend prison sentences from one year to three years. The legislation must still win Senate approval, where it faces an uphill battle. U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee have sponsored competing legislation.

The House bill has 308 cosponsors, led by Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Ted Yoho, R-Fla. Animal-rights activists have long promoted the PAST Act, but it has taken six years to get a vote on the House floor, Wigdor and Reynolds note.

One representative, Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said during floor debate that he opposed the bill because horse inspectors were "abusing the process" and arbitrarily disqualifying horse owners from shows. He said inspection methods are "subjective" and the bill fails to change this, and makes the stakes higher with increased fines and even possible prison time, Wigdor and Reynolds report.

DesJarlais "said a bill he's introduced, the Horse Protection Amendments Act, would be a better solution. He said his bill would require that all inspections be 'objective and science-based.' Desjarlais' bill would also amend 1970's Horse Protection Act to provide increased protection to horses participating in shows, exhibitions and sales," the reporters write. "Under his bill, inspection methods would have to be the subject of testing and would have to produce "scientifically reliable, reproducible results;" be peer-reviewed; and be accepted in the veterinary and other applicable scientific communities."

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Donors erase $10 million medical debt in Central Appalachia

Daily Yonder map
A nonprofit organization called RIP Medical Debt has paid off $10 million in medical debt for more than 10,000 people in mainly rural Appalachian counties of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The donations will wipe out most of the currently reported medical debt in the region. "The donations total $100,000, but paid off much more debt because the organization purchased the debts for pennies on the dollar on the debt market," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Jim and Sharen Branscome on Columbia Glacier in Canada
"The debt forgiveness was paid with donations from two families with ties to Central Appalachia: Jim and Sharen Branscome and Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery," $80,000 and $20,000, respectively, Marema reports. "Jim Branscome is a native of Southwest Virginia. He and Sharen Branscome met when they both worked for the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C. Bishop and Ardery are from Kentucky."

Jim Branscome, of Montrose, Colo., and Bishop, of LaGrange, Texas, worked for The Mountain Eagle, the crusading weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Ky., in the 1970s. Marema notes both families have donated to the Yonder; Bishop and Ardery are the founding editors.

Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop
Branscome and Bishop are on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, and Bishop and Ardery were the 2014 winners of the institute's Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians. Bishop is the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, a 2008 book that remains current; Branscome was managing director of equity research for Standard and Poor's when it was part of McGraw-Hill.

RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by some veterans of the debt-collection industry. Medical providers and others sell debts at deep discounts in hopes of getting back a portion of what they're owed. "When RIP Medical Debt purchases the debt, instead of attempting to make collections, they forgive it," Marema reports. "The organization sends notifications to the affected individuals and reports the erasure to credit bureaus, which improves credit scores."

About 300,000 people have had a combined debt of $800 million forgiven through the organization; the average person has $2,600 of debt forgiven. One of its founders, Craig Antico, "said the forgiveness can have special benefits for rural consumers, where there are fewer medical-care choices and those with insurance may be more likely to face out-of-network expenses," Marema reports. "Uninsured patients are another major source of medical debt. Medical debt contributes to 60 percent of all individual bankruptcies and can reduce access to health care, he said."

Government Accountability Office warns that the Census Bureau hasn't prepared enough for next year's count

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, a top federal watchdog agency warned that the Census Bureau has not adequately tested the planned changes in its data-collecting methods for the next census, which will be taken in less than a year, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

Compliance in past years has relied on door-to-door efforts. In 2020, residents will be encouraged to fill out the questionnaire online, but that could result in areas being undercounted if they don't have good broadband access, among other things, Noble writes.

"These innovations show promise for controlling costs but they also introduce new risks in part because they have not been tested extensively, if at all, in earlier enumerations," Government Accountability Office official Robert Goldenkoff said during the hearing. "Without sufficient testing across a range of geographic locations, housing types, living arrangements and demographic groups, operational problems can go undiscovered and the opportunities to refine procedures and systems could be lost."

Goldkoff also warned that the Census Bureau is running short on time before key operations begin, and said the bureau must devote more attention to developing and implementing cybersecurity and IT system improvements. The GAO issued a report Wednesday detailing its findings.

Study confirms more children, especially rural children, are entering foster care because their parents abuse drugs

Chart from the study; click the image to enlarge it.
Since 2000, the number of children in foster care because of parental drug use has more than doubled, and rural children make up an increasing share, according to a newly published study in JAMA Pediatrics.

"Using data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, researchers found that child removals due to parental drug use rose 147 percent over the last two decades -- from 39,130 in 2000 to 96,672 in 2017," Mattie Quinn reports for Governing magazine. "Parental substance abuse now accounts for about a quarter of foster care entries across the country."

Of all children in foster care because of parental drug use, the percentage of rural children rose from 1.84% in 2000-05 to 2.52% in 2012-17 — a nearly 37% increase. Among all children in foster care for reasons other than parental drug use, the share of rural children decreased from 2.02% in 2000-05 to 1.85% in 2012-17 — an 8.4% drop, the study found.

Among children who entered foster care because of parental drug use, almost half were from the South, and more than half were white. Black children were more likely to enter foster care for other reasons than parental drug abuse, and Hispanic children were equally likely to enter foster care for parental drug use or for other reasons, the study says.

"These troubling trends are playing out at a time when the foster-care system is in the middle of a major overhaul," Quinn notes. "The Family First Prevention Services Act, which was signed by President Trump last year, will restructure the system to focus more on preventing family separations and reducing the dependence on group homes. The new law requires foster care entities to provide mental health care, in-home parenting programs and substance abuse treatment to parents at risk of losing their children."

The law takes effect in October, but the federal government has been slow in announcing details, s most states have chosen to defer implementation for two years, Quinn reports. It will limit stays in group homes, which could complicate foster care in rural areas, which are short of such homes.

 "Critics of the law argue that while its intentions are good, the outcomes might initially do more harm than good," Quinn reports. "With many foster care agencies already struggling to handle the number of kids, dramatically revamping the system to focus on keeping kids with families ignores the maxed-out realities and the lack of resources available to switch to a new framework."

Kentucky tobacco farmer latest convicted of crop-insurance fraud; nearly half a million dollars, and it's not the biggest

A Central Kentucky tobacco farmer pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to a charge of conspiring to file false claims on crop-insurance policies totaling $480,000. Keith Foley "claimed that he grew less tobacco than he actually produced in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015 so that he could get an insurance payment based on the lower yield, according to his plea agreement," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

According to the agreement, Foley sold some tobacco under other people's names, and under separate hail-insurance policies, he submitted false claims. A crop adjuster helped Foley submit the false reports in exchange for part of Foley's insurance payout, Estep reports.

"Authorities have charged several people with crop-insurance fraud in Central Kentucky in recent years," Estep notes. One "faces sentencing in September on charges from an indictment alleging he grossed $2.6 million through fraudulent claims; and four men who farmed in Bourbon and Nicholas counties, who face trial in September."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

More money going to mental health for farmers, who are 5 times more likely than other Americans to commit suicide

Farmers are five times more likely to commit suicide than other Americans, and "A cold, blizzard-filled winter, wet spring, stormy summer and uncertain fall have compounded farmers’ market-instability stress in the Midwest, raising concern for their mental health," Wendy Royston reports for The Daily Yonder.

Even before the bad weather and trade war, farmers had been struggling for years with financial instability, loneliness, lack of insurance or other access to mental-health care, and the pressure to not quit what may have been a way of life for generations.

Some steps are being taken to address the issue. Avera Health created a free 24-hour Farmer Stress Hotline in February for South Dakota residents, and says it's seen an increase in calls as 2019 progresses. "The National Farmers Union also has fielded more calls regarding farmer mental health. They direct their callers to the Farm Aid crisis line . . . Both programs employ the help of counselors who identify caller needs and refer them for further help."

In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a mental-health program for farmers that had been created in the 2008 Farm Bill but left unfunded for over a decade. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network aims to distribute $2 million in competitive grants to develop mental-health resources for farmers. Applications for the FRSAN are due July 25, Oates reports.

Here are some farmer suicide prevention and mental-health resources:
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours)
  • Crisis Text Line: 741-741 (24 hours)
  • Farm Aid farmer hotline: 1-800-327-6243 (Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Eastern)
  • Avera Farmer Stress Hotline (South Dakota residents): 1-800-691-4336 (24 hours)
  • National Farmers Union Farm Crisis Center
  • Suicide warning signs: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Coal miners urge Congress to replenish black-lung fund

About 120 coal miners with black-lung disease and their families went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to fully restore a coal tax that pays for medical care and some living expenses for miners with their condition. "The tax was cut more than 50 percent at the end of last year. It supports the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is more than $4 billion in debt," Howard Berkes and Huo Jingnan report for NPR. Berkes has reported doggedly on black lung for years, and his reporting helped earn him a Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

"The Government Accountability Office has said without an extension of previous tax levels the fund’s debt will rise from $5 billion to $15 billion by 2050 – a burden that would likely have to be met by U.S. taxpayers instead of coal companies," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. "Coal company bankruptcies and a resurgence of the disease are accelerating the risk of insolvency for the fund, according to the accountability office."

Some miners told Volcovici they were left disappointed after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She reports: "McConnell, the Republican leader who represents Kentucky, one of the states that has seen a rebound in the progressive respiratory illness, told them their benefits would be safe, but gave no assurances about the excise tax and left without answering questions or offering details, several of the miners who attended the meeting said."

George Massey, a retired miner from Harlan County, Kentucky, who is on disability, told Volcovici he was disappointed by the brief meeting: "We rode up here for 10 hours by bus to get some answers from him because he represents our state . . . For him to come in for just two minutes was a low-down shame."

The miners' presence in Washington was meant to increase pressure on the Mine Safety and Health Administration, "which has resisted direct and quick responses to the epidemic and silica dust exposure," Berkes and Jingnan report. "As NPR and PBS Frontline have reported, MSHA and the mining industry failed to respond to clear agency data showing three decades of overexposure to toxic silica dust. They also failed to respond to warnings more than 20 years ago about clusters of sick miners exposed to silica and to an urgent call for direct and tougher regulation of silica dust in coal mines. In the wake of the NPR/Frontline investigation, the agency did restart an abandoned effort to consider direct and tougher regulation of silica, but the process could take years."

The miners' visit came a week after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a summary of studies that confirmed an increase in black lung among coal miners, especially in Appalachia. "NIOSH cited NPR and PBS Frontline reporting in the review, including detailed and systematic interviews of 34 miners from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, all diagnosed with PMF," Berkes and Jingnan report. The reporting of Berkes in the last few years formed the basis of a recent documentary on "Frontline."

New reports say Indian Health Service still deeply troubled

The struggling Indian Health Service still has major issues, according two reports released yesterday from the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.

"The IHS is responsible for more than 2 million Native Americans — a population that tends to need a lot of care, much of it specialized. Yet the IHS has been beset for years by underfunding and mismanagement," Sam Baker reports for Axios.

The first audit analyzed and compared opioid prescribing and dispensing practices at five IHS hospitals. It also examined cybersecurity, which is important for protecting information and keeping patients safe. It found that the hospitals often don't follow federal guidelines for dispensing opioids and don't fully use states' prescription-drug monitoring programs to track opioid prescriptions. It also found that the IHS's decentralized IT management structure made it more vulnerable to hackers. 

The second audit is a case study of what went wrong at South Dakota's perennially troubled Rosebud Hospital, which was forced to shutter its emergency department for more than seven months starting in December 2015. Though IHS has made "significant improvements" at Rosebud since the ED reopened, the hospital continues to struggle with hiring adequate numbers of staffers and leadership. 

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader investigated Rosebud and another South Dakota IHS hospital in 2018. At Rosebud, the newspaper found that faulty temperature controls and mold on the walls sickened staff and patients, sometimes preventing staff from working. Dozens of patients died from errors at the hospitals. The federal government had mostly ignored bad conditions at the two hospitals or had failed to make meaningful change, the paper found.

Some tribes seem to do better funding their own hospitals, Baker notes, citing the example of the newly opened 20-bed Cherokee Indian Hospital in North Carolina, which seems to be performing well. But, Baker acknowledges, most tribes don't have access to the kind of financial resources the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians do; revenues from their casino mostly paid for the hospital.

Professor urges college grads to consider living in rural area

"The conventional wisdom among young college-educated people seems to be that living in a small country town would be a dead end for them — that rural America is a homogeneously conservative, isolated and unpleasant place. But these preconceptions are not only incorrect, they are also unduly limiting the opportunities of new college graduates," Samual Abrams writes for The New York Times. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

Now more than ever, young adults prefer to live in cities, partly because they want access to mass transit and amenities like retail shopping, entertainment and recreation opportunities. That includes people who were born in small towns but chose not to return after college, fearing that they could not be successful in their careers if they moved back home.

Rural America doesn't live up to the stereotypes, Abrams writes, citing data from a nationwide survey on community and society: "The data show that rural areas are not ideologically monolithic; that college-educated Americans living in rural areas feel they are meaningfully connected to their communities; that these people are quite satisfied with their communities and the available professional opportunities, and are not looking to move away."

There are tradeoffs to living in rural areas, just as there are with living in urban areas, "but rural America is not 'flyover' country; it is a dynamic part of our nation, even — and perhaps especially — for the highly educated," Abrams writes. "Understanding this reality could improve the lives of many college-educated people. At the very least, it should help rid them of some common anti-rural prejudices."

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Gazette-Mail's owner is in gas industry but praises reporter's work on it; says he seeks balance of readers' wants, needs

Reporter Ken Ward Jr.
When reporter Ken Ward Jr. drove five hours from Charleston, W.Va., to Richmond, Va., to hear oral arguments in former coal operator Don Blankenship's appeal of his conviction for violating health and safety standards at a coal mine that blew up, he met relatives of some of the 29 dead miners. He recalls, "One of them saw me and said, 'We knew the Gazette would be here.'"

Ward's voice cracked as he told that story to Brent Cunningham, executive editor of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, for a long story in Pacific Standard about the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the merger of the business-friendly Charleston Daily Mail, for which Cunningham reported, and the Charleston Gazette, whose unofficial motto was "sustained outrage," as defined by late publisher Ned Chilton. The story's protagonists are Ward, and Doug Reynolds, the Huntington lawyer who bought the paper in bankruptcy last year. Asked to describe his journalism philosophy, Reynolds said, "You've got to kind of balance what people want to hear with what they need to hear."

Paper owner Doug Reynolds
(Beckley Register-Herald photo)
"It wasn't 'sustained outrage,' but it wasn't the rapacious indifference of the vulture capitalists either," Cunningham writes. "Finding that balance, never easy, will be even harder in a newspaper business that continues to struggle. It will be harder still given that Reynolds is entangled in what could be the biggest economic shift in the state since industrialization: the pursuit of shale gas. . . . He is president and chief executive officer of Energy Services of America, which makes natural-gas pipelines. Brian Jarvis, another principal in the group that bought the Gazette-Mail, also is a two-way player. He is president of NCWV Media, which owns newspapers in the north-central part of the state, and also of Hydrocarbon Well Services, an oil and gas service operation."

Recently, Reynolds started Daily Mail WV, "which offers a mix of business-focused opinion pieces and features that is singularly bullish on the future of West Virginia," one of the nation's most rural states. He says he's doing it for revenue to support the newspaper. He also owns the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and some smaller papers. A Democrat, served in the state legislature until making an unsuccessful race for attorney general in 2016.

As for Reynolds' best-known reporter, Cunningham writes: "If there is one person who embodies the complexity Reynolds faces in trying to strike the balance he seeks in the Gazette-Mail's coverage, it is Ken Ward Jr., the paper's 51-year-old environmental reporter. . . . Ward, as much as anyone, helped ensure that 'sustained outrage' continued to define Gazette journalism. He embraced Paul Nyden's belief that journalism's highest calling was not some feckless notion of 'objectivity,' but rather to follow the paper trail and expose the many ways the powerful exploit the powerless." (Ward and Nyden are recipients of this year, along with NPR retiree Howard Berkes, of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.)

"In 2018, Ward was selected for the inaugural class of ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, an effort to support investigative journalism at smaller papers around the country by paying reporters' salaries for a year, helping them develop stories around a theme, and then co-publishing those stories," Cunningham writes. "Ward's project was to scrutinize the state's natural-gas boom from a provocative standpoint: Is West Virginia making the same regulatory mistakes with gas that it made more than a century ago with coal?" Reynolds called Ward's series "The most important thing we've done in my short time here. There's a huge change happening, and an incredible amount of wealth is being created. So the logical question is, where are we going to be at the end of all this?"

Asked about Ward's contention that the state could lose out on its fair share of that "incredible wealth" the gas boom is generating, as it did with coal, Reynolds said, "There is not a doubt in my mind that the state, in this current environment, will take less than other states are going to take." Why? "Because the people who run the gas industry have more influence here. The public decides the kind of people they want running the state. They want less regulation, less environmental regulation . . . No one has won elections in West Virginia lately saying they're going to make sure these mining permits are held to the highest standard."

Cunningham concludes, "Doug Reynolds is not Ned Chilton. But maybe Ned Chilton wouldn't be the same newsman today as the one we celebrate. After all, Chilton's conviction that a newspaper's pursuit of profit could and must coexist with its commitment to public service is a far more difficult proposition now. Reynolds is clear that he intends to profit from journalism. And he seems fine with the public-service end of that equation, as long as it can be monetized. 'The bottom line," he told me, "is I don't care if people are happy or sad about our coverage, as long as they aren't ambivalent.' Maybe that's the best we can hope for these days. I worry, though, that it won't be enough. West Virginia is at a crossroads. With coal in decline, the state has a chance to diversify its economy, to build a future that is environmentally sustainable, one in which opportunity and prosperity are more broadly shared. But for that to happen, it needs leaders who actually put the public interest first—and a vigorous watchdog to make sure they do."

Some rural hospitals find ways to survive and thrive; 'The secret sauce is always ... strong, collaborative leadership'

Rural hospitals across the nation are threatened with closure – more than 100 have closed since 2010 – but many have found ways to survive and thrive, with a generous helping of community support and creative collaboration. 

Take Lakeland Community Hospital, in Haleyville, Alabama. When Mayor Ken Sunseri found that the hospital would close by the end of 2017, he knew it couldn't be allowed to happen. The town of 4,000 would lose a major employer and the nearest emergency room would be at least 45 minutes away. He began making calls to other hospitals, legislators and potential investors to figure out how to keep the doors open, and kept hearing the same message: take ownership of the hospital, Katelyn Newman reports for U.S. News & World Report.

"So that's exactly what the community did. Hospital employees worked extra shifts as Sunseri and the City Council worked on the necessary contracts, partnerships and loans to acquire the facility from Tennessee-based Curae Health, which filed for bankruptcy late last year," Newman reports. "Officials cut the number of inpatient beds from 59 to 49, and local authorities approved a 1-cent sales tax, as well as a county property-tax increase, to help fund hospital efforts. A city and county authority now owns Lakeland, which is operated by Java Medical Group."

A tax hike might normally be a "reelection death notice," Sunseri told Newman, but he never heard any complaints about it, and that he felt the community supported it for the sake of their hospital.

"Simply stated, rural hospitals are anchor institutions – their success or failure dictates the success or failure of the community itself," Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, told Newman. "There's so many other health care services that are anchored into these rural hospitals. So hospitals, schools, small business – if you pull the leg out on one of those three, you're going to lose the little town."
The rural hospitals hit first in the wave of closures tended to be in communities with a high percentage of people of color and high rates of Medicaid coverage. That's because Medicaid tends to reimburse hospitals at lower rates than private carriers, which can erode a hospital's bottom line. "At the same time, states that haven't expanded Medicaid coverage – like Alabama – can be hit especially hard, with hospitals providing pricey, unreimbursed care to large pools of people who don't have any insurance at all," Newman reports.

Rural hospitals also have a harder time recruiting new physicians and other health care workers. One rural hospital in Montana has been able to lure more physicians to the area because of the local skiing industry. "On July 1, nonprofit Kalispell Regional Healthcare opened the first floor of Montana Children's – a $60 million pediatric facility funded by debt, operating reserves and philanthropy that offers high-level specialists and residential options for families whose kids are receiving care," Newman reports. Before then, the closest similar facility was in Spokane, Washington, a four-hour drive away.

In McKenzie County, North Dakota, the natural-gas and oil boom in 2010-18 doubled the local population to 13,600 between. Residents had to drive at least 50 minutes to get some health services, but "Thanks to federal and state loans, oil industry and private-citizen donations, and local funding – including a sales tax increase – the new McKenzie County Hospital in Watford City marked its one-year anniversary in June," Newman reports. "Each rural community is unique, Morgan of the National Rural Health Association says. But among those where hospitals have survived, 'The secret sauce is always just really strong, collaborative leadership'."

Many roads in Missouri River Valley are damaged and made dangerous by floods; repairs are expensive propositions

Flood damage on state Highway 12 in Nebraska in March (Nebraska Department of Transportation photo)
The bomb cyclone followed by historic flooding damaged more than crops in the Midwest; it also wreaked havoc on roads, and it will be a long time before many are repaired, because the damage is so extensive and fixing it is so expensive. Iowa estimates that needed repairs to state-controlled roads will cost $90 million. But local roads have been damaged too, and repairs for those are typically the responsibility of counties, Terri Queck-Matzie notes for Successful Farming.

"As the floodwater flowed south in the Missouri River, it led to widespread flooding in northern and central Missouri. Travel in these areas remains treacherous and cumbersome with many roads still closed due to flood damage," Russ Quinn reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. And in rural Nebraska, state Highway 91 and U.S. Route 30 both had sections washed away by floodwaters, and only recently opened again after three months of repairs.

Damage and closures on main roads means more vehicles are taking detours on rural roads, many of which are also damaged, and not suited to handle the big trucks hauling gravel and sand for road, railroad and levee repairs. That has caused several accidents, some serious, Quinn reports. "Please slow down and keep an eye out for farm equipment on these rural roads. Be courteous and share the road," he advises.

Proposed rural Alabama charter school faces opposition, partly because its manager is a foreign-born Muslim

Flyer produced by charter opponent and included in local newspaper in May
(Courtesy of Alabama Media Group; click on the image to enlarge it)
There are several reasons many locals in Chatom, Alabama, oppose a proposed charter school that state officials recently approved. They worry it will cost public schools enrollment and taxpayer funding; and a nonprofit that reviews charter organizations for the state gave Woodland Preparatory School a thumbs down, saying it didn't have a good curriculum or financial plan, and not enough information was available about the company that will operate the school.

There's another reason many object to the school: The manager is a Muslim with possible ties to a controversial cleric, Trisha Powell Crain reports for Alabama Media Group, comprising the Advance Publications newspapers in the state (including nearby Mobile): "Retired teacher Wayne Blackwell, among others, made his concerns clear in a letter to the editor of the Washington County News in March. 'It personally concerns me that Dr. Soner Tarim,' Blackwell wrote, 'is from Turkey and is of the Muslim faith.'"

Tarim told Crain that opening the school "is an excellent opportunity for me to prove that in a small community where there is no option, no choice, parents are fleeing to find a proper education outside of this county . . . This is the place that I can prove again -- one more time -- that the charter school model can work." Tarim owns charter school company Unity School Services, based in Sugar Land, Texas. He previously co-founded and was chief executive of charter-school chain Harmony Public Schools, which "critics say is part of an informal network of scores of charter schools operated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher from Turkey who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and is wanted by the Turkish government," Valerie Strauss reports for The Washington Post.

"A number of schools in the unofficial network have been investigated over a period of years by state and federal agencies amid allegations regarding hiring practices that favor Turkish nationals, abuse of the H-1B visa process and preferences in the awarding of contracts to related Turkish businesses," Strauss reports. "Former employees have alleged that they were required to contribute some of their salaries to the Gülen political movement, although representatives of Gülen have denied it over the years. Tarim has repeatedly denied that Harmony is part of a Gülen network of charter schools."

Meanwhile, Woodland Prep is having a hard time keeping board members and convincing local parents to enroll their children because of intense pressure from charter opponents. Most recently, Ford dealership owner Gene Brown resigned in early July. (Brown gained nationwide attention in June for a promotion that offered a gun, a flag and a Bible with every car purchase.) "Brown has since shifted his support. Last week, his Ford dealership's Facebook page said he donated a 'large sum to the athletic department' at one of the county's schools," Crain reports.

Local opposition has stopped the school from even being built: "The Montgomery contractor hired to build the school told the state commission that workers have walked off the job after opponents threatened that they'd never again find work in Washington County," Crain reports. It's unclear when or if the school will open. It's suspected that only about 50 children are enrolled so far; without at least 200, it can't open, Crain reports.

Rural bankers say Midwest economy helped by high crop prices and flood rebuilding, hurt by trade war, but favor fight

Creighton University chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
According to the July Rural Mainstreet Index, the economy in a 10 states where agriculture and energy are economically critical (Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming) is still growing this month, but not as much as last month.

The index rose above growth-neutral this month, the sixth time in the past seven months it has done so, reports Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index via a monthly survey of small-bank CEOs.

Higher farm-commodity prices and rebuilding efforts from recent flooding have helped rural economies, but nearly nine of 10 bankers surveyed said the trade war with China had hurt the economy. However, Goss reports that nearly seven in 10 support continuing or raising tariffs on Chinese goods; he doesn't relay any reasons they may have given.

The farmland and ranchland price index rose slightly from June to July, from 41.2 to 44.8, though it remained below 50 (growth-neutral) for the 67th straight month. Farm equipment sales also rose some in the past month, from 31.3 to 35.7, marking the 70th straight month it has been below growth-neutral, Goss reports.

The confidence index, which measures expectations for the economy six months from now, dropped from 53.3 in June to 51.5 in July, marking a positive but anemic outlook among bankers, Goss says.

Goss also reports: Land values are up in Colorado because of demand for hemp and marijuana production; Illinois bankers say crop planting is still significantly behind in some areas of the state; Iowa bankers noted that farmers will get a great price on their corn this year, if they were able to plant it; Minnesota bankers noted that some areas had not experienced the extensive flooding seen by the rest of the Corn Belt, and that their farmers were looking to have a good year.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Coal reporters Howard Berkes, Ken Ward Jr. and the late Paul J. Nyden win 2019 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

Left to right: the late Paul Nyden; Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and Howard Berkes of NPR
Three reporters whose outstanding careers have revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia are the winners of the 2019 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

They are Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR, who nominated Ward for the honor several years ago.

“Each in their own way, they overcame adversity in reporting on coal and other topics in rural America, where doing good journalism often requires more courage, tenacity and integrity than in urban areas,” said Al Cross, director of the institute, based at the University of Kentucky, and publisher of The Rural Blog. “Extractive industries do most of their extracting in rural areas.”

Paul Nyden chronicled a reform movement in the United Mine Workers of America, and wrote a dissertation on it that earned him a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1974. After teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, he came to southern West Virginia and reported for the Gulf Times before being hired at the Gazette in 1982 by the late W.E. 'Ned' Chilton III, “whose philosophy of ‘sustained outrage’ journalism Nyden personified,” Ward wrote in Nyden’s obituary in January 2018.

"Nyden defended the public’s interests by consistently taking on powerful state businesses and challenging political leaders across West Virginia," Ward wrote. "He exposed deadly safety violations, renegade strip-mining and unscrupulous tax scams in a career that spanned more than three decades.” Nyden retired in 2015 when the Gazette merged with the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ken Ward graduated from West Virginia University in 1990 and joined the Gazette in 1991. In 2018 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship that was based on his investigative reporting for the newspaper. The foundation said Ward was chosen because he excels at “revealing the human and environmental toll of natural-resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.”

Ward said when he received the $625,000 fellowship that it was “a strong vote of confidence in local journalism, and more to the point in local journalism that doesn’t just parrot the official line, but questions and holds accountable powerful people, industries, governments and other institutions that might not be acting in the public interest.”

For the last year and a half Ward has been working for the Gazette-Mail as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Last year, his focus was the impact on rural West Virginia of the booming natural-gas industry, which has gained much economic and political influence in the state, partly at coal’s expense.

Howard Berkes retired at the end of 2018 after 38 years in public media, much of it reporting from rural America. His reports on the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens for KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, took him to NPR, where he covered the interior West and later became the network’s rural correspondent.

After covering the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia in 2010, Berkes began investigating workplace safety, and discovered an epidemic of black-lung disease among coal miners in Central Appalachia that federal regulators had ignored or even denied. His work was the basis for “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” a documentary for “Frontline” on PBS.

“Howard spent weeks in rural Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky visiting lung clinics and persuading sick miners to talk with him,” said his editor, Bob Little. “I have plenty of reporters who would not take on an issue like that and choose to put themselves out there in that kind of environment; it does require you to pay a personal price; you have to own your belief in this story. He is inspired by nothing other than wanting to right a wrong.”

Tom and Pat Gish
The Central Appalachian coalfield also birthed the Tom and Pat Gish Award. It is named for the late couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Their son, Eagle Editor-Publisher Ben Gish, is on the award selection committee, with other selected members of the rural journalism institute’s national advisory board.

The Gish awards will be presented Sept. 26 in Lexington, Ky., at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the institute and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Their Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian will be presented to Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, the longest-serving executive of a newspaper association in the United States and a winner of many battles for open government.

Chuck Todd
The keynote speaker at the dinner will be NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press” and “MTP Daily” and author of The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. On election night 2016, as he watched the county-by-county map of the U.S. go mainly red, Todd told viewers, “This is rural America saying, ‘Stop ignoring us!’”

Tickets to the dinner, which is the annual fund-raiser for the institute and the SPJ chapter, are $125 each. Reserve here.

Past winners of the Gish award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas; Jim Prince and the late Stan Dearman, publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa; and Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon.

Nominations for the 2020 Gish Award may be emailed at any time to

Mountain Eagle rejects anti-immigrant views, recalls refugee whose family became pillars of community, state

The Dawahares in front of their first store. Srur Dawahare
is at rear left. (National Museum of American History)
President Trump kicked off a firestorm of criticism with a trio of July 14 tweets which were broadly viewed as racist. Though Trump didn't name names, he encouraged four Democratic representatives, all women of color, to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Only one of the targets is an immigrant:  Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whose family came here as refugees from Somalia.

The incident reminded writers at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., of another American who fled persecution in his home country. Srur Dawahare immigrated to New York City from Syria in the early 1900s, then at his wife's brother's urging, moved to the town of Neon in Letcher County to seek his fortune, the Eagle recalls in an editorial.

Dawahare soon opened a small store, then expanded the family business. He and his family were pillars of the local community. "They famously supported local charities, public housing, education, sports, and regional economic development. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a family that has done more for Eastern Kentucky," the Eagle writes. The Dawahares were known for fairness to customers and employees, and over the next century his family opened more than 30 Dawahares Department Stores in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

"There weren’t many Syrian immigrants in our corner of this world a hundred-plus years ago," the Eagle notes. "It’s easy to imagine that at some point someone told Srur to go back where he came from, possibly even after he had become a citizen. Think what we would have lost if he had followed that advice. Whenever we hear [that phrase], whatever we think of the source or the target, we should think about what could be lost if we closed our doors and hearts to people whose principal crime is hoping for a better life. We should think about the possibility that in some detention center in Texas today there’s a child who, given a break, might grow up to lead her community, or her nation."

Dawahare's children say he told them about the value of helping each other with "the stick story." He showed them that it was easy to break one or two sticks, but impossible to break a bundle of sticks, and encouraged them to stand together. "As Americans, we should remember 'The Stick Story.' Played off against each other, for whatever reason or purpose, we can be divided, and broken," the Eagle says. "But if we could somehow see past the slurs and figure out how to stick together — well, who knows what we might accomplish?"

Small broadband providers claim partial win over telecomms giants in FCC regulations dispute

"The largest U.S. telephone companies last year asked regulators to kill limits on the rates smaller carriers can be charged for connecting to the giants’ networks," Todd Shields reports for Bloomberg. "Now the small carriers are claiming they have successfully defended the regulations as the Federal Communications Commission nears conclusion of a proceeding it has acted on in parts."

Small broadband companies must connect through lines controlled by telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon; the regulations, passed in 1996, aim to ensure that those small companies can access those lines and use them to expand their networks with new fiber links. That makes them more competitive with the big telecoms companies, Shields reports.

USTelecom, a trade group whose members include AT&T and Verizon, petitioned the FCC in May 2018 to eliminate the regulations, which they say will encourage more investment in modern networks. In the petition, USTelecom said greater industry competition and the increasing popularity of wireless service undermines the need for regulations, which they said mostly governed older, copper-wire lines, Shields reports.

Incompas, a trade group that represents small broadband carriers, led a campaign protesting the petition, including letters from more than 9,000 customers to the FCC. In response, USTelecom has made some concessions: in June it withdrew its request to remove regulations around fiber lines that mostly run between rural towns, and in July withdrew its request to eliminate rules about local lines that can carry broadband, Shields reports.

USTelecom is also claiming a partial victory in the issue, since the FCC "eliminated some reporting requirements in April, and earlier this month lifted pricing regulations for lines that carry bulk business traffic in most of the country," Shields reports.

"The FCC must act on the remainder of USTelecom’s petition by Aug. 2, and Chairman Ajit Pai has recommended the agency remove rate mandates on old copper lines that provide voice service, according to a background document provided by the FCC," Shields reports. "The FCC, while not commenting on the outcome, said in a statement that the issues that remain to be decided 'were intended to open monopoly local phone companies to competition in voice services' and are no longer necessary."

'Prison gerrymandering' shifts political power from urban people of color to rural whites in Pa. (and elsewhere)

"By counting prisoners as living in their prisons and not at their home addresses, Pennsylvania’s system for drawing political maps benefits white, rural voters at the expense of voters in urban areas, disproportionately affecting people of color, experts say," Jonathan Lai reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Many states have the same issue, especially since a significant number of prisons are in fairly rural areas that are mostly white and Republican, and prisoners tend to come from urban, often Democratic-led communities, and are disproportionately minorities, Ludwig Hurtado reports for NBC News.

The U.S. Census Bureau's decennial count defines someone's "usual residence" as "where a person lives and sleeps most of the time". That includes prisoners, college students, and patients at long-term medical facilities. But, unlike college students, prisoners cannot vote. Essentially, that gives the votes of white rural residents near prisons more power, Lai reports.

The practice has a 'profound impact' on Philadelphia, according to two Villanova University researchers: the city would gain one or two House districts with majority-minority populations if prisoners were counted based on their home addresses, Lai reports.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Editor of Louisville newspaper reaches out to Eastern Ky.

Rick Green
The Courier Journal was among the last newspapers to close its news bureaus in the far reaches of states the size of Kentucky and larger. That was in 2005. Since then, the paper's reporters made occasional forays from Louisville to cover issues in the great rural swath that runs from the Appalachian ridges to the Mississippi River, but no longer is there regular coverage of the coal industry, poverty and local politics that connected those areas to the rest of the state. The vacuum was felt especially in Eastern Kentucky, where those issues remain critical. Last month the paper's editor, Richard Green, marked his one-year anniversary in the job with a trip to the region, and now he's written a long story about it.

"I want to ensure the Courier Journal fully understands both the progress being made in Eastern Kentucky and the longstanding challenges still confronting those who live there," Green wrote. "That knowledge is essential in shaping our news coverage of November’s gubernatorial election and next year’s races involving President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, as well as surfacing issues our newly reconfigured editorial board should consider."

Here are two key passages of Green's piece:
Everyone wanted to talk politics, but few wanted to put their names next to the opinions they shared.
As one store owner in Pikeville told me: “Both sides so dislike each other and the politicians on both sides. I risk losing business if I say anything negative or positive about either Trump or the Democrats. And trust me, I need every dollar.”
There are many frustrated voters in Eastern Kentucky, I surmised. Despite polls that indicate President Trump remains highly popular in the state, I was surprised how many took swipes at him and his 2016 promise that mines would reopen and coal jobs would return.
A Prestonsburg merchant told me, “We had Hillary Clinton tell us she was going to put miners out of work, and Trump promised us we’d be better off with him. What choice did we have? Our desperation for jobs and a better economy became a throwaway line in his campaign speeches to get elected. He made promises he has not kept. But who will be a better alternative than Trump in 2020? Some crazy liberal who doesn’t reflect our values?” . . .
One other sentiment — perhaps stronger than any other — emerged over the four days: There is a new entrepreneurial spirit sweeping across Eastern Kentucky. New jobs are being created. New careers are being charted. New companies are being launched. . . . Many want to move beyond the unforgiving statistics on everything from unemployment to drug addiction that remind of the challenges still handcuffing Eastern Kentucky." Gary Ball, editor of the Mountain Citizen newspaper in Inez, told Green, “People are tired of being defined strictly by drugs and wars on poverty.”