Friday, September 20, 2019

Environmental experts warn House lawmakers that climate change could overwhelm flood insurance program

Environmental experts warned House lawmakers this week that the increasing risk of flooding due to climate change could overwhelm the National Flood Insurance Program.

"The hearing, hosted by the Financial Services Subcommittee on National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy, focused on the macroeconomic effects from climate change and the monetary risks associated with it," James Jarvis reports for The Hill. "The NFIP covers more than 5 million flood insurance policies and collects approximately $4.75 billion in premiums, fees and surcharges each year."

Andy Karsner, who was assistant energy secretary for efficiency and renewables under George W. Bush, said flooding will continue to be a major risk, and "It is imperative for [insurance companies] to develop new tools of risk management because they are operating on very old model inputs and ancient legacy flood maps."

The repeated major hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 bled the program dry, leading to billions in losses. The disaster aid bill included provisions to help the NFIP pay off the claims, Jarvis reports.

Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth science at Stanford University, said the hurricanes will continue to be a problem: "We don’t have clear evidence that there will be more or less of them — but we know they will be more powerful and move more slowly. That will dramatically increase the likelihood of coastal flooding."

The uptick in hurricane has led some lawmakers to explore the idea of expanding the role of private insurers in the NFIP. That way they could share the risk and ensure the availability of flood insurance. "But it is unclear whether letting private insurance companies take on more risk will effectively help mitigate the problem," Jarvis reports.

Central Appalachia chefs elevate traditional regional food

Braised rabbit and onions with apple fritters at
Benne on Eagle. (New York Times photo by Mike Belleme)
Appalachian food has long been stereotyped or ignored in popular culture. But an increasing number of chefs in the area have been paying homage to homecooking in surprising ways.

"The effort to brand Appalachian food has been on a slow simmer for years. Since 2013, a small but dedicated band of academics, chefs and farmers has hosted a food summit to celebrate and raise awareness of culinary traditions. In 2017, the cookbook author Ronni Lundy won two James Beard awards for her love letter to Appalachia, Victuals," Jane Black reports for The New York Times.

In Asheville, North Carolina, for example, some restaurants put modern spins on traditional dishes, like AUX Bar's vinegar pie, while others fearlessly fuse Appalachian dishes with those of other cultures, like Chai Pani's offerings of specials like dal with collards and country ham, Black reports. Other restaurants focus on certain segments of Appalachian cooking: another Asheville restaurant, Benne on Eagle, focuses on the cuisine of African-American Appalachians.

One Asheville chef, Graham House, says he didn't always respect Appalachian cooking as real cuisine. But, over time, he began to appreciate it more. His veggie-focused restaurant Sovereign Remedies serves foods that rely heavily on locally-available fare. That's in keeping with traditional Appalachian cooking, he told Black. "Honestly, we chuckle at the term 'farm to table,'" House said. "Appalachian cuisine has always relied on what was available."

Freelancers (temporarily) and newspaper carriers exempted from California law limiting independent contractors

A newly signed California law that limits the use of independent contractors has exemptions for some newspaper workers.

Assembly Bill 5 was mainly aimed at app-based companies like Uber which, critics contend, should treat their gig workers as employees. However, the California News Publishers Association persuaded the bill's sponsors to include exemptions for freelance photographers, photojournalists, writers, editors, and newspaper cartoonists. Under the exemption, freelancers can provide up to 35 submissions to a single publication per year, the CNPA reports.

Also, legislators agreed to amend a separate bill, now signed, to give newspaper carriers and distributors a one-year exemption, CNPA reports. That exemption will expire on Jan. 1, 2021.

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 6-12; this year's theme celebrates freedom of the press from the First Amendment

The 79th annual National Newspaper Week is Oct. 6-12 this year; the theme for 2019 is "Think F1rst—Know Your 5 Freedoms," a celebration of freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The event is sponsored by Newspaper Association Managers, the consortium of North American trade associations representing newspapers on the state, regional and national level. The "Think F1rst" theme is an extension of a campaign developed in 2018 by Media of Nebraska; a number of other state broadcast and press associations adopted and expanded the program, relaunching it on a nationwide level in August 2019.

Organizers have provided a host of free resources you can use to help your local paper observe the week, including editorials, editorial cartoons, studies about the importance of journalism, and links to related sources like Trusting News and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. For more information on National Newspaper Week, click here.

Quick hits: Ag Census by ZIP code; chocolate-milk-ban blowback; new book about reporter's move to rural Minn.

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A potential ban on chocolate milk in New York City schools draws opposition from farmers, David Lombardo reports for The Times Union of Albany.

Want to an easier way to look at local data from the Census of Agriculture? The National Agricultural Statistics Service has released 2017 the data by ZIP code. Read more here.

Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for The Washington Post who moved to a rural Minnesota town about which he had written an unfavorable story, has a book out about his experience. Read more.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

New USDA rule allows pork processors to take responsibility for some inspections, increase slaughter line speeds

Pork processing plants will have fewer federal inspectors, and could have faster line speeds, under a controversial rule the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized this week.

Inspectors reject live animals that look sick, or carcass sections that look suspect. "Under the new rule, just announced, pork companies have a new option," Dan Charles reports for NPR. "They can hire their own people to help out. These company employees would be at each inspection station, weeding out any problematic pig parts before the USDA inspector gives the meat a green light. There will be fewer USDA inspectors in the plant because they won't have as much to do."

The new rule also eliminates limits on slaughter line speeds. Critics worry that will injure more workers, but industry representatives say it won't. Casey Gallimore, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group, "says that the new rules will allow plants to try out new ways of operating that could be more efficient," Charles reports. "She says it won't affect food safety. The additional company employees will be highly trained, and USDA inspectors still will look at every piece of pork that goes into the food supply."

Critics say company employees aren't required to have extra inspection training, and worry they won't be as aggressive as USDA inspectors in looking for problems. Patty Lovera, an industry critic with the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, told Charles that "to ask company employees to be under that pressure, of pulling product out and costing their employer money, is a lot to ask."

The new rules will go into effect in two months, and pork processors have several months to decide whether to switch to the new inspection system, Charles reports.

Deadliest rural N.Y. wrecks involve tractors, combines, etc.

In rural New York state, wrecks involving farm vehicles were five times more likely to be fatal than other collisions, and more severe overall in terms of injuries and number of vehicles, according to a newly published study by the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health.

The researchers studied motor vehicle crash data from 2010 to 2012 from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and were able to pick out agriculture-related crashes by selecting for vehicle registration type and vehicle body type. Of the 203 ag-related crashes, which involved 381 vehicles and 482 people, 91.6 percent caused property damage and 36% caused injury, according to the report.

"Accidents involving tractors and other ag-related equipment on rural roads occurred most often on straightaways with a grade, according to the data analyzed. Erika Scott, the center’s deputy director, speculates that this is due to motorists attempting to pass slower-moving tractors or agricultural machinery," The Altamont Enterprise reports.

Rural roads are overall more dangerous than suburban or urban roadways: though less than 20% of the population lives in rural areas, more than half of all fatal road accidents happen in rural areas. Perhaps related: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data have shown that agriculture, forestry, and fishing as an occupational group has the third highest rate of work-related roadway crashes," the Enterprise reports.

'Rural Homecoming' initiative aims to celebrate rural innovation and what makes each community unique

Many people think rural America is in decline, and while many rural communities struggle, there are also many inspiring examples of innovation. So, a pair of rural nonprofit executives are launching Rural Homecoming to celebrate rural communities across the nation Oct. 18-20.

"Rural Homecoming encourages communities to host or build upon existing events driven by local community leaders that highlight what makes each community special," Nathan Ohle and LaMonte Guillory write for The Daily Yonder. "This could mean high-school alumni socials, community service days, historical remembrances, innovation days, or streaming of sporting events like local high-school football games. Each will be unique to every community, collectively highlighting the innovation that makes them special." Ohle is the CEO of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a network of nonprofit partners facilitating access to sage drinking water, sanitary wastewater and economic development in rural areas. Guillory is chief communications officer for LOR, a family foundation that aims to increase rural prosperity in the Mountain West.

Ohle and Guillory have furnished a free online toolkit to help communities participate and celebrate, including customizable event invitations, press releases and social-media graphics. "It’s up to each community to decide how to design its homecoming events, but the goal is the same, to give current and former residents a reason to reconnect to their hometown," Ohle and Guillory write. "For those who do physically return to their hometown next month as part of a Rural Homecoming event, we’re not expecting them to necessarily move back for good. But we do hope that Rural Homecoming will foster ways to stay connected in some way, and to give back to their community. Whether in person or virtually, we hope people contribute to a national dialogue on what being rural truly means."

Cost to get chemical out of groundwater on and near military bases will likely surpass original $2 billion estimate

"Military leaders said Thursday that 'forever chemical' contamination costs are likely to surpass their original $2 billion estimate as Congress works to push the Department of Defense to clean up contaminated water across the country," Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

PFAs (the collective name for per- and poly-fluoroalkyls) have been found in hundreds of drinking-water sources in 43 states, especially near military bases and other places that use fire-fighting foam. The chemicals, which are used in everything from nonstick cookware to raincoats, have been linked to serious health problems including birth defects, cancers, infertility and weakened immune systems in children, and they've been dubbed 'forever chemicals' because it likes to stick around in the environment and in the human body, Beitsch reports. According to a recent estimate, more than 19 million Americans have been exposed to water contaminated with PFAs.

The Pentagon has provided filters or bottled water to 24 military sites where PFA levels were higher than 70 parts per trillion, which is the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended maximum exposure level, but there are still 401 other military sites with lower levels of PFAs in the water. The amount of PFA exposure one can safely face is under debate; the pro-regulation Environmental Working Group argues that even one part per trillion could be harmful.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are concerned about "how DOD will take responsibility for nearby communities whose water supply has been tainted at least in part by the military’s use of products containing PFAS," Beitsch reports. "The House and Senate are preparing for a conference committee on the National Defense Authorization Act this month, and both versions of the bill push for greater military response to clean up PFAs that spread from military installations to nearby communities."

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Liberal super PAC launches $50 million social media campaign to reduce Trump's margins in battleground states

If you're a rural voter in a swing state, you may see ads popping up in your Facebook feed trying to persuade you to vote for a Democrat for president. American Bridge, a "super" political action committee aligned with the party, has launched a $50 million campaign to sway rural voters away from Trump in 2020 with "hyper-local" social media ads, Alex Roarty reports for McClatchy.

"Already, officials with the group said they have raised $21 million for the effort while deploying staffers to three of presidential race’s most critical battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan," Roarty reports. "They plan to send staffers to another swing state, Florida, and said they have done extensive research on the most effective arguments to persuade rural voters."

Apparently, the most effective argument is one from a neighbor. The ads will feature personal testimonies from real voters, ideally in the white working class, who share how they have been hurt by Trump's policies, Roarty reports. American Bridge deployed door-to-door canvassers this summer to find people for the ads who had stories that could resonate with other rural voters.

The ads seek to capitalize on polling American Bridge commissioned in June, which showed that Republican-leaning voters in small towns and rural areas of battleground states approved of Trump overall, but were much less approving on key issues such as health care and tax cuts. And 53 percent of those surveyed do not identify Trump as "honest and trustworthy," according to the polling.

American Bridge doesn't believe the effort will flip rural areas to the Democratic column, but hopes to reduce support for Trump in the areas where he did best and wher eit mattered most to the outcome of the 2016 election. American Bridge Vice President Shripal Shah told Roarty, "If we don’t cut these margins, we don’t win."

Big U.S. farms get even bigger as trade war wears on

America's farms may be undergoing a Darwinian winnowing because of the trade war with China, Reuters reports: "The number of U.S. farms fell by 12,800 to 2.029 million in 2018, the smallest ever, as the trade war pushes more farmers into retirement or bankruptcy," Mark Weinraub reports. "By the end of 2018, the average U.S. farm size rose to 443 acres, a 12-year high and up from 441 million in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data."

The smallest farms, which tend to have the least financial resources, are at the highest risk of bankruptcy, so the farms that survive are more likely to be large operations with the funds to weather the storm: "The declining number of U.S. farmers could hurt the world's top grain merchants such as ADM and Bunge, who will have fewer suppliers," Weinraub writes. "Additionally, farmers will have less need to rent space in the merchants' grain silos, as big farmers . . . have plentiful storage on their own farms."

The biggest farms can grow by buying or leasing farmland from exiting small farmers. Only the largest farms generally can get the loans to buy land and high-tech equipment for expansion. "They also receive deep discounts -- as much as $40,000 for some combine harvesters that can cost as much as $400,000 -- allowing them to upgrade more often," Weinraub reports. "Manufacturers are increasingly willing to cut such deals to keep clients as the number of customers falls."

Rural Suicide Prevention Toolkit can help communities

The Rural Health Information Hub has created a Rural Suicide Prevention Toolkit to help rural communities create and implement effective suicide-prevention programs. The toolkit is undoubtedly a welcome resource, since rural residents tend to have a higher risk of suicide. The toolkit has six modules:
  • An overview of suicide rates in the U.S.; risk factors for suicide; the costs of suicide to families, communities, and more; and the unique challenges rural communities face.
  • Seven program models designed to address and prevent suicide.
  • Examples of promising suicide prevention programs in different areas.
  • Implementation strategies for rural prevention programs, and factors to consider when developing one.
  • Tools that can help in evaluating a suicide prevention program.
  • Resources and strategies to help create a sustainable program, including funding, workforce retention, strategic vision, and program adaptability.
  • How to share your program's results so others can learn from it.  

Hackers paralyze communities by targeting regional providers that handle local gov't computer services

Local governments, utilities, and small- to mid-sized organizations and businesses have been increasingly hit over the past few years by cybercriminals who hack into computer systems, lock the files, and demand a ransom for unlocking them. Now, the hackers have a new target: the managed service providers that handle computer systems for local governments, medical clinics and more in the region, Renee Dudley reports for ProPublica.

MSPs chiefly market themselves on cost savings; they can be an attractive prospect for small towns and businesses that lack the funds to hire experienced IT staff. "While many MSPs offer reliable support and data storage, others have proven inexperienced or understaffed, unable to defend their own computer systems or help clients salvage files," Dudley reports. As a result, cybercriminals profit by infiltrating dozens of businesses or public agencies with a single attack, while the beleaguered MSPs and their incapacitated clients squabble over who should pay the ransom or recovery costs."

In 2019 alone, thousands of small businesses and public agencies have been hit by hackers via MSP attacks. MSPs that provide inadequate service help increase the likelihood of such cyberattacks. "By failing to provide clients with reliable backups or to maintain their own cybersecurity, and in some cases paying ransoms when alternatives are available, they may in effect reward criminals and give them an incentive to strike again," Dudley reports. A Federal Bureau of Investigations spokesperson told Dudley that hackers know MSPs are likely to pay the ransom so they won't lose business.

Major rural-urban digital divide persists; slow DSL remains the most common type of internet service in rural America

Gray areas are census blocks without broadband providers. (Purdue University map, enhanced for clarity; click to enlarge)
Almost 70 percent of households with no access to high-speed broadband service are in rural areas, according to a study by the Purdue Center for Regional Development. That's about 4.8 million people in 2.2 million housing units who don't have internet with speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps upload, according to data submitted by internet service providers.

It has been difficult to assess the availability of rural broadband availability, since the Federal Communications Commission's maps rely on self-reported data from internet providers who have incentives to exaggerate their coverage areas. The study report acknowledges the limitations of the data it used, but says it is still a valuable tool when interpreted carefully, Roberto Gallardo writes for The Daily Yonder. Gallardo is the co-author of the study report and the center's assistant director.

"A sizable digital divide persists between urban and rural," Gallardo writes. "Consider that the share of rural housing units with no access to 25/3 was 20 times larger than the share of urban housing units (26.9 versus 1.4 percent). When it comes to symmetrical 25/25 speeds, the share of rural housing units with no access more than doubles from 26.9 to 64.7 percent." Upload speeds are important to businesses and homes that create content instead of just consuming it.

Advertised internet speeds were lower overall in rural areas than in urban areas, regardless of provider type. In rural areas, the most commonly available broadband is Digital Subscriber Line, which uses phone lines. But the median download/upload speed for a sample of more than 9 million DSL users was only 15/1, which fails to meet the FCC's definition of broadband, Gallardo reports.

Part of the problem is that big telecommunications companies won contracts to build out rural broadband, then saved money by using the slower, cheaper DSL instead of cable or fiber optic networks. DSL once met the minimum download speed of 10 Mbps required by the Connect America Fund, but after major pressure, the FCC increased the definition of broadband to 25/3.

Smaller providers cover a larger share of rural America than the top six telecoms, the study found. So, the report recommends federal incentives and state broadband programs to help these smaller providers to expand or upgrade infrastructure.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

West Virginia initiative seeks to recruit, train and support new rural community newspaper owners and publishers

Rural journalism is facing a problem: many newspaper owners want to retire but can't find a buyer. A new initiative, NewStart, addresses that issue by trying to recruit, train and support new community newspaper owners and publishers. NewStart is a collaboration between West Virginia University's Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association.

Buying a community paper is no act of charity, the NewStart website says: Rural papers "are often family-owned and remain trusted sources of news and information in the communities they serve. They also remain economically viable because of the continued demand for their exclusive hyper-local coverage and their commitment to improving their local communities." In other words, the website says, "They're profitable. And they're available. Right now."

Potential new owners could be anyone from college students with a thirst for entrepreneurship, journalists who want to own their own paper, laid off journalists from larger publications who want to start over, or entrepreneurs who have no journalism experience but value its importance, according to the website. NewStart aims to provide a transition plan that matches buyers with publications and extensively trains new owners on how to run and grow the paper. Read more about NewStart here.

Air ambulances offer rural residents iffy memberships

Rural residents rely disproportionately on air ambulances to reach distant medical care in emergencies, but many have been hit with huge, unexpected bills since many such services aren't in insurance networks. To combat fears about such bills, ambulance services have been increasingly advertising prepaid subscriptions that promise patients free use of their helicopters in an emergency. 

"Nationwide, though, state insurance leaders, politicians and even one of the nation's largest air ambulance companies have raised concerns about the slickly marketed membership campaigns," Sarah Tribble reports for NPR. "The memberships often don't include every ambulance company in an area, and the choice of which medevac service answers a call is out of a consumer's hands."

Meanwhile, the cost of air ambulance services has soared in recent years. The median price for an air ambulance trip increased from $22,100 in 2012 to $36,400 in 2017—a 65 percent jump. Medicare and Medicaid patients pay lower fees or even nothing for such trips, but those with private insurance often find their plans don't cover the entire cost of the service, leaving them saddled with "balance bills" for the uncovered portion, Tribble reports.

States can't regulate air ambulance rates, routes or services, but several, including North Dakota and Montana, have introduced or passed bills to limit air ambulance memberships or decrease the likelihood that subscribers would get stuck with balance bills, Tribble reports.

The federal government does have the power to regulate air travel, though; Congress formed a committee last year to look into air ambulance bills. Air ambulance lobbyists blamed inadequate Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for the high rates and asked that the federal government reimburse them more, Harris Meyer reports for Modern Healthcare.

Rural town hunkers down for viral Area 51 event though most bands will be in Vegas and town says 'stay away'

Rachel, Nevada
(Wikipedia map)
A Nevada town of about 50 people is battening down for an influx of tourists this weekend, drawn to a viral campaign to storm Area 51.

The whole thing began when Arkansas college student Matty Roberts created a Facebook event inviting people to storm the area, famed for rumors of government coverups of alien vists. It soon went viral and garnered more than 2 million RSVPs (most aparently tongue in cheek). Roberts decided capitalize on the fun and hold a music festival called Alienstock from Sept. 20-22 in Rachel, the closest town to Area 51, Elinor Aspergren reports for the Reno Gazette Journal.

However, most townspeople weren't happy about the event, and the town's home page warns people not to come to Rachel this weekend. The music festival was poorly organized, it says, and says most of the bands slated for the festival will instead play at an alien-themed bash in Las Vegas. The town website elaborates: "The organizers are suing each other, and in the meantime nothing is being done to prepare for the event. We expect riots when those visitors that may show up and paid good money find out that the reality looks nothing like what they were promised. People will get hurt. STAY AWAY FROM RACHEL NEXT WEEKEND!" The event page is still up for Alienstock and accepting money for paid parking and camping spots.

Despite the official warnings, townspeople are trying to prepare for the partiers. Connie West, who co-owns the Little A'Le'Inn motel in Rachel, said ambulances, an air ambulance, and 130 portable toilets will be on site, along with law enforcement and a security team. West had originally worked with Roberts to put on the festival, but Roberts backed out last week and moved the event to Las Vegas over safety concerns, Benjamin Brown reports for Fox News.

Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said he and other law enforcement are trying to prepare for up to 15,000 people, but isn't sure how many will actually show up. He said the visitors could cause traffic, parking and congestion problems in Rachel. "I think this started out as a joke but there may be enough people taking it seriously and it could be a problem," Lee told The Associated Press. "Someone is going to get hurt and people may go to jail. It’s not anything to joke about.”

Moderate Democrats object to House plan to exclude farm-bailout money from bill that would keep government running

"House Democrats, amid a backlash from moderates, are backing away from a plan to block President Trump from extending new farm bailout funds, people briefed on the discussions said," Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report for The Washington Post. "Trump had authorized the bailout funds in response to an outcry from farmers who claimed they were caught in the middle of his trade war with China."

Last week, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., proposed excluding the farm bailout, which could cost almost $30 billion, from a short-term spending bill aimed at preventing a government shutdown on Oct. 1. But a number of moderate House Democrats, many representing rural districts, objected and said the continuing resolution should include language safeguarding the farm bailout program, Werner and Stein report.

Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., emphasized in a statement on Monday that he and other committee leaders were trying to protect the bailout. "As members of Congress who represent agricultural communities, we repeatedly hear from farmers in our districts whose livelihoods have been severely impacted by the ongoing trade wars," the statement said. "Although we mutually have concerns with President Trump’s approach to trade negotiations, we refuse to engage in the same tactics that punish our constituents and harm our communities that rely on agriculture. . . . We cannot and will not allow our farmers to be used as political pawns."

If Congress does not approve the bailout, some of the money Trump has promised may not be paid on the administration's schedule. That's because the Depression-era program Trump is using for the program, the Commodity Credit Corp., is expected to hit its $30 billion borrowing limit this year before the second round of payments are completed, the Post reports.

Heartland author sees signs of 'brain gain' in some rural areas, starts a podcast to explore 'shift in the zeitgeist'

In news and pop-culture narratives, rural America is often represented as a dismal place to live, but some studies show that most people in rural areas like where they live and feel hopeful about the future. And though 80-plus percent of Americans live in urban areas, 27% say they wish they lived in a rural area. That may be helping to fuel a population shift across the U.S., writes Sarah Smarsh in an op-ed for The New York Times. Smarsh is the author of rural Kansas memoir Heartland.

The nation's biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, are losing population but cities in the South and the West are gaining population. Some rural areas are gaining, too, Smarsh notes, citing a study that found most rural Minnesota counties gained well-to-do early- and mid-career adults from 2000 to 2010, and only a third are returning to their hometowns; the rest are new to their new rural homes.

Many urban and suburban residents deeply miss their rural hometowns, Smarsh writes. In the year since Heartland was published, Smarsh said she has been approached by thousands of such people—a surprisingly diverse crowd—who spoke longingly of their rural roots and their desire to return. "These aren’t just white people lamenting the loss of the family wheat farm. They are black women missing their families in the rural South, Muslim women organizing workers in meatpacking towns on the plains, young gay men hoping to return to their small-town roots," Smarsh writes. "This is the rural America I know and love — a place rife with problems, yes, but containing diversity, vibrancy and cross-cultural camaraderie."

Smarsh is exploring this "shift in the zeitgeist" with a new podcast, The Homecomers, featuring rural and working class advocates from all over the country. "From where I sit, they are heroes of the American odyssey — seeing value where others see lack, returning with the elixir of hard-won social capital to help solve the troubles of home," Smarsh writes.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Tribal journalists severely limited in freedom of press

American Indian Media Today graphic; click on to enlarge.
Journalists on many Native American reservations face severe limits in freedom of the press, since tribal governments own (and many exert considerable control over) 72% of tribal newspapers and radio stations. The problem is even worse since there is often no other media outlet that covers local news, including government accountability reporting.

"As past president of the Native American Journalist’s Association, I witnessed many of my colleagues working for tribal press who were fired for performing even the basic journalistic duties such as publishing the tribal police blotter," Mary Annette Pember reports for The Daily Yonder. "One colleague was fired for reporting that a tribal council member was arrested for drunk driving; the editor was also fired for allowing her to report the fact."

Because tribes are sovereign nations, they're not governed by laws that guarantee American reporters access to open records or freedom of the press; many choose not to enact such laws for their tribal press, and those that have such laws sometimes don't abide by them, Pember writes. Tribal journalists who get stonewalled don't have much recourse, since tribes are immune to judicial proceedings without their consent or a Congressional waiver.

"Although the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 guarantees tribal citizens a free press immune from government influence, tribal governments' control of media’s purse strings acts as a potent deterrent to journalists looking to report the truth," Pember writes. Tribal newspapers might have more freedom from repercussions if they were financially independent, but some tribal leaders have found ways to retaliate or keep control of papers through withholding advertising. Since reservations are often remote, the tribal government can be a major customer and losing its ads could devastate a paper's bottom line.

Still, financial independence is possible, as the Navajo Times proves. Tom Arviso worked hard to help make it that way; when the paper was owned by the tribe, Arviso got fired for reporting on corruption within the tribal leadership, Pember writes. In 2004, the Times achieved independence from the tribe, and still publishes today.

Indian Country Today is another source of independent tribal news, but on a national level. The publication shut down in September 2017 because of financial pressures but rebooted in February 2018 with Mark Trahant of the Shoshone Bannock tribe as the editor. "Native people are eager for Indian Country Today’s survival for the simple reason that we desperately need authentic, informed coverage of Indian Country," Pember writes.

Sessions in Casper show it's hard to change minds about news bias, but local editor says 'conversations help'

The findings from a six-month project on trust in the media in Casper, Wyoming, indicate that, while it's very difficult to change people's onions about news, it helps to explain the process of news gathering and decision making, Rod Hicks and Zoë Berg report for the Society of Professional Journalists. Hicks, SPJ's "journalist on call," led the project, and was aided by Rebecca Travers.

SPJ and its foundation conducted Media Trust & Democracy: The Casper Project to get a deeper understanding of why many people distrust the news media. From February to July of 2019, Hicks and Travers asked 36 people from all walks of life to explain why they were skeptical about news stories. All participants were also asked to attend five discussions and presentations that showed them the process through which journalists research, write, edit and publish news stories.

Wikipedia map
SPJ said it picked Wyoming, one of the most rural states, because it has a slightly higher share of residents who say they distrust the news media. Casper is home to the only seven-day-a-week newspaper in Wyoming, the Casper Star Tribune. "Conservative Wyoming residents who participated said the press is biased against conservative values, intent on smearing President Donald Trump and uninterested in changing its ways," Hicks and Berg report. "They, like moderates and liberals in the project, made no significant changes in their news consumption habits or level of trust in the news media after going through the sessions."

Star Tribune Editor Josh Wolfson said in a panel discussion at the SPJ convention in San Antonio Sept. 7 that he was struck by focus on national coverage and Trump, "a small component for our newsroom." But Hicks noted on the panel that the choices, play and headline of wire stories are important to readers: "They wonder where the judgments come to make those decisions."

Hicks wrote in his report that "One of the big takeaways is that conservatives do not see themselves reflected in mainstream news coverage." On the panel, he said journalists "are too quick to dismiss this accusation about liberal bias." He also said the sessions showed "some misunderstanding" among readers of the difference in news and opinion, which he said is exacerbated by cable news. "That is an area that we really need to focus on so people understand that," he said.

"Conversations help," Wolfson said on the panel. "Just having people engage with us has been a really useful part of the process." Casper real-estate broker Chuck Hawley, the critic on the panel, said journalists should hold each other accountable for their shortcomings.

While none of the participants changed their views, the project showed the issues many people have with the news media, and most participants said they thought the project was worthwhile and that they learned a lot. SPJ makes five recommendations for news organizations:
  • Enage with readers, listeners or viewers regularly to see what stories they're interested in and seek feedback.
  • Explain how your news organization works and how journalists do their jobs (including how they ensure accurate reporting).
  • Seek out bias; consider ways to make opinion pieces more distinct from hard news, especially in television news.
  • Be transparent, and tell your audience the motivation behind your controversial decisions.
  • Create your own version of the Casper Project, tailored to a local audience.

Study shows who's more likely to pay for local news, and who's more likely to think local news outlets are prospering

Pew Research Center graphic; click the image to enlarge it.
Only 14 percent of Americans pay to get news of their locality through subscription, donation or membership, but who's more likely to pay? The Pew Research Center has the facts and some ideas.

"Americans ages 50 and older are more likely to pay for local news than their younger counterparts,"  Mason Walker reports for the center. Pew polling found that 29% of those 65 and older and 15% of those 50-64 "say they have paid a local news organization in the past year," Walker writes. "By comparison, just 9% of those ages 30 to 49 and 7% of those 18 to 29 say they have done so."

White Americans and those with a college degree are more likely to pay for local news. About 22% of Americans with a degree say they've paid for local news in the past year, compared to 13% of those with some college education and about 10% of those with a high school diploma or less.

Americans who prefer local news in print are much more likely to pay for it than those who prefer it from other sources. About 39% of people who prefer print have paid in the past year, compared to 16% for people who prefer it from radio, 12% who prefer it from news websites or apps, 10% who like their news on TV, and 8% who like to get local news via social media, Walker reports.

"U.S. adults who are more civically engaged – those who have participated in a political event in the past year or are currently active in or a member of a local group or organization in their community – are far more likely to pay for local news than those who are less engaged," Walker writes. About 29% of people active in their community say they've paid for local news in the past year, compared to 14% of people who are somewhat active and 6% of people who are inactive in their community.

People who feel attached to their community are more likely to pay for local news too: 24% who said they were highly attached said they had paid for local news in the past year, compared to 14% of those who feel somewhat attached and 7% who said they feel not very or not at all attached. 

Pew asked how important it is to follow 11 local news topics, including weather, crime, politics and sports. Those who were highly interested in five or more topics were no more likely to pay for local news than those who said they were interested in fewer topics. The only exception: People who said they were interested in following none of those topics were less likely to pay for local news.

"Notably, those who express interest in a broader range of topics are much more likely to say their local news media are doing well financially," Walker reports. "For instance, among those who say five or more topics are important for their daily lives, almost eight in ten (79%) say their local news outlets are doing well financially, compared with just 55% who say no topics are important."

Majorities of all groups think local news outlets are doing well financially; people with a college degree, those 18-29, and whites are a little less likely to believe that. Only 63% of people who prefer their news via print or radio believe their local news outlets are prospering, compared to 77% of people who prefer TV news. People who prefer their news online fall between the TV and print/radio consumers. Moreover, people who feel highly attached to their community are much more likely to believe their local news outlets are doing well financially (75%) versus 64% of people who are not very or not at all attached to their communities.

As coal jobs decline, coalfield women win the bread, and gender power balance shifts with 'a little taste of freedom'

Letcher County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map)
Coal once provided solid employment and a comfortable living in many areas, but as the industry has declined, women who were once able to stay home have been increasingly going back to work -- and staying there.

"The share of women in the workforce rose substantially in places throughout Central Appalachia, as well as in parts of the industrial Midwest and the rural South," Campbell Robertson reports for The New York Times from Letcher County, Kentucky. "Few places have seen a more dramatic change," he writes. "For generations the archetypal worker was a brawny, coal-dusted man in reflective overalls. Just 10 years ago, nearly three-fifths of the work force was male. Now the majority is female."

Coal-mining jobs in the county fell from more than 1,300 in 2009 to under 50 in 2017, then increased to about 100 this summer. "Coal mining has always been boom-and-bust, but it is hard to shake the feeling that this might be the last bust," Robertson reports. "Some men picked up and left at word of mining jobs elsewhere, some went to work as linemen or truck drivers, and others, figuring they were too old or physically broken to start over, just dropped out of the labor force. It was as if the very identity of a Letcher County man had been declared insolvent."

Employment of women has always increased in coal country when mines lay off workers. Women once did mostly entry-level work like housecleaning or waitressing when their husbands were laid off from mines, but when coal jobs picked back up, women generally went back to staying home or cut back their hours, Robertson reports. That's partly because child care is often hard to find in rural areas, but mostly because such work wasn't nearly enough to replace a coal miner's income.

Now that coal is in a long swoon, many women are considering investing time and money in going back to school for long-term employment that pays better, helped by a state program that pays tuition and some living expenses for miners' families. Because of the area's high rates of chronic disease and addiction, health-care jobs are in demand. Women fill almost all of those nursing jobs in Letcher County. At the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp. clinic in Whitesburg, only four of the 110 nurses are men, Robertson reports.

Employment is changing the way some women feel about themselves, and shifting the longstanding power balance between men and women in coal country, Robertson reports. Ciara Bowling, for instance, went to school to become a medical assistant when her fiancé couldn't find a mining job. But when he was finally able to get a job, she didn't drop out of school. "There was now the prospect of real independence, of not always having to defer to a husband because he paid the bills," he writes.

"Women now, they got a little taste of freedom," Bowling told Robertson. "Men has been able to do whatever the hell they want for so long, while women has had to sit in a chair and keep their legs closed and be nice and polite. Now they don’t have to. . . . All these men, they just don’t know what’s about to happen."

Sunday, September 15, 2019

First episode of 'Country Music' explores its rich origins

Thomas Hart Benton died in 1975 as he reviewed his "The Origins of Country Music" at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It's the closest thing visually to what country music sounds like," says singer Kathy Mattea, who was a hall tour guide.
Only one African American appears in "The Origins of Country Music," the last painting of Thomas Hart Benton, which graces the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. But African influences were a lot more important to the beginnings of the genre, according to the first episode of "Country Music," the eight-part Ken Burns series that began on PBS Sunday night.

"It's probably white man's soul music," says Kris Kristofferson, followed immediately by Charley Pride, one of the very few African Americans in the genre, who says "You can find a country song to fit any mood you're in." Bill C. Malone, country music's leading historian, says "You can't conceive of this music existing without the African American infusion."

The first episode is titled "The Rub." When the genre formed in the 1920s, segregation was enforced, except in music, and "The rub is people mixing," black fiddle and banjo player and singer Rhiannon Giddens says. You may know Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by blacks with whom he worked on railroads in Mississippi, but did you know that Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong? That DeFord Bailey, son of a slave, and Dave Macon, son of a Confederate soldier, were the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and that Bailey played the first tune the night the Opry was named? And that A.P. Carter, who couldn't remember melodies, rode the ridges to find songs with black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who could?

The show notes that audience for country was "predominantly white, working-class Southerners," which black and country recording pioneer Ralph Peer called "hill country music," and then "hillbilly music," which didn't set well with some. The adjective "is almost like a racist remark," Dolly Parton says. That suggests common ground; script writer Dayton Duncan says the music met "the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories."

"It's about those things we believe in but we can't see -- dreams," says Merle Haggard, who died not long after he was interviewed. And the old songs brought from England, Scotland and Ireland were also an early form of rural journalism; Parton says her mother told her that songs were once how people learned the news.

One thread that runs through the series is the role of the Carters, whose extended family came to include Johnny Cash; in the first episode, Maybelle Carter is given credit for popularizing the guitar style in which the thumb plays the bass or rhythm line; her granddaughter and step-granddaughter, Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash, reminisce and even sing along with recordings of their ancestors. Magic moments.