Friday, September 27, 2019

Local ownership, which doesn't require as much profit as private-equity chains, can help small papers stay viable

Ed Miller and Teresa Parker with the first issue of
The Provincetown Independent (Photo by Sophie Ruehr)
James and Deb Fallows have spent the past six years writing stories about small towns all over the U.S. for their "Our Towns" project. More recently, they've been highlighting examples of local newspapers in those towns that are doing well, in hopes of showing other small newspaper owners some strategies that can help them succeed.

"The conventional view of the local-journalism crisis is that running a small-town newspaper just isn’t a viable business anymore—now that internet advertising has drained off revenue, and now that virtual communities and social media have displaced real-world connections and communities, James Fallows writes for The Atlantic.

Though those issues are real, success stories suggest that the ownership structure of local news organizations matters just as much in determining which papers survive and which don't. Specifically, local ownership may help smaller papers survive. "Increasing evidence suggests that the local newspaper business may still be viable, simply as a business. What it can no longer do is provide the super-profit levels that private equity groups expect from their holdings, and that they demand as a condition of even letting the papers exist, Fallows writes. "But the same papers that are doomed under private-equity ownership might have a chance in some different economic structure."

In 2008 the Provinctown Banner was sold to private-equity firm GateHouse Media, now the largest
owner of U.S. newspapers. Since then, the Banner has been subjected to a familiar profit-maximizing model: cutting costs to produce short-term profits, mainly by layoffs, until there's little left of the paper and it closes or declares bankruptcy. The Banner had a staff of 20 when it was sold to GateHouse; earlier this year it had four, Fallows writes.

Provincetown, in Barnstable County
(Wikipedia map)
Ed Miller, who started as an editor at the Banner in 2015, told Fallows that content or usefulness to the readers was incidental to GateHouse: "The fact is, they couldn’t care less what you write," he said. "Their only interest is how much profit you can squeeze out of the operation, so the way they actually undermine the reporting of news is simply by laying off staff. The cuts make the job so overwhelmingly difficult to do that there’s just no possibility that you will get into serious news coverage, or investigating the stories that need to be dug out."

This July, Miller quit, and this month he and his wife Teresa Parker started a new weekly called The Provincetown Independent. The paper covers all the towns in outer Cape Cod, and Miller notes that the communities are home to a lot of people who are interested in the news and able to pay for it. Their business model mixes for-profit and non-profit, Fallows reports.

"The business plan is based on a four-year, hoped-for course to profitability, at which point the paper would have total paid circulation of 6,000 per week, and 19 full-time staffers," Fallows writes. "So far Miller and Parker have raised a little more than half of the business capital they are looking for. The nonprofit operation has raised three times as much as its original target." The money will go to special projects like training young journalists, investigative reporting, and long-term projects on issues the community cares about.

"People are saying we need to come up with a new business model" for small newspapers, Miller told Fallows. "Actually, the old business model for a local newspaper that really does its job can actually work pretty well."

Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, S.C., Oct. 27-29

The Rural Women's Summit will bring together a diverse group of rural officials, business and nonprofit leaders, funders and advocates to discuss and encourage policy and public-interest efforts that benefit women in rural America. It's run by the Rural Assembly, a group that seeks to build a "smarter, greener, more inclusive rural America," according to its website.

The summit is scheduled for Oct. 27-29 in Greenville, South Carolina. Click here for information.

Op-ed: Some aspects of journalism have changed over the years, but the need for a free press remains the same

Kathy Kiely
Some superficial aspects of journalism have changed over the years, but the need for a free press remains the same, writes University of Missouri journalism professor Kathy Kiely in an op-ed for the upcoming National Newspaper Week, Oct. 6-12.

It's not just the switch from printing presses to digital layout, or the advent of social media that's different these days. An increasing number of places lack local news, as University of North Carolina professor Penny Abernathy has documented in her research on news deserts; more than 1,300 communities have lost their local paper since 2004. But, Kiely writes, journalists should resist the temptation to dwell on that.

"Real newshounds don’t wallow in the cozy memories of a sepia-stained past. We are about the now and the next. Our job has always been to help our communities recognize the today’s challenges of today and turn them into the tomorrow’s promise," Kiely writes. "Yes, it’s awkward that of today’s biggest challenges involves us —the newshounds. We’ve always been better at telling your story than telling our own. Yet this is your story too: The future of democracy is inextricably bound up with the future of a free press."

Quick hits: Why one doctor loves practicing in rural W.Va.; rural maternal mortality bill; Medicaid hospital payment cuts finalized

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Proposed legislation would add incentives to bring health-care providers and equipment to rural areas and gather better data on rural maternal mortality. Read more here.

Many doctors practice in rural areas because of incentive programs, but one doctor explains why working in rural West Virginia is a labor of love for him. Read more here.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has finalized a rule for cuts to disproportionate-share hospitals, which have higher-than-usual numbers of Medicaid patients. Read more here.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said it's not feasible to declare all PFAs as hazardous substances in one year. To do so would require circumventing the agency's current procedures for doing so, he said. Wheeler also said it would be hasty to lump all PFAs in together as hazardous when there isn't enough data to determine whether some PFAs pose enough of a health risk. Read more here.

New guide has facts and resources for lending and farm programs for veterans

The Center for Rural Affairs has released a guide with facts and information on lending and farm program resources for veterans.

Though the guide has some content particular to Nebraska, where the center is based, much of it can be applied to veterans in any state. The average farmer is almost 60 years old and there aren't enough younger farmers to keep tending the land after they die or retire, so it's in the nation's best interests to help veterans get into and succeed as farmers. Though the 2018 Farm Bill included some provisions meant to improve access to farming for beginners and veterans, but many producers still face barriers to starting and maintaining a successful farm, the guide says.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Appeals court blocks FCC relaxation of rules against cross-ownership of newspapers and stations in same market

This week a panel of judges on a federal appeals court struck down a 2017 decision that allowed the Federal Communications Commission to relax rules about cross-ownership of media outlets. One strategy for sustainability of local news media may be consolidation of print and broadcast outlets, and this is a roadblock in a move toward that.

The 2017 decision ended the ban against one company owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same major market, and also ended limits on cross-ownership of radio and television stations in the same market. "The 2017 decision also allowed television broadcasters to own two TV stations in markets with fewer than 8 independent owners and made other changes to the radio and TV ownership rules. Yesterday’s decision also put on hold the FCC’s incubator program meant to assist new owners to acquire radio stations," David Oxenford reports for Broadcast Law Blog.

In the decision, Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that the 2017 decision did not consider whether marketplace changes justified the change in ownership rules or what impact that undoing the changes would have on ownership of media companies by women and racial minorities. Oxenford noted that the decision didn't speak to whether any of the rule changes made in 2017 were necessarily a problem; it said the rule changes may still be permissible even if the FCC finds that its rules adversely impact women and minority ownership, as long as it decides that the public interest requires the rule changes.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that the commission intends to dispute the ruling, and complained that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has thwarted rules updates for the past 15 years.

Farmers increasingly putting solar panels on their land

Wall Street Journal chart from U.S. Energy Department
and National Renewable Energy Laboratory data
Click on it to view a larger version.
An increasing number of U.S. farmers are installing solar panels on their land, both for personal use and sale to utilities, as a way to make extra money and become more self-sufficient. Around 90,000 U.S. farms had solar equipment in 2017, about three times as many as in 2012, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"Solar panels are being installed across the Farm Belt for personal and external use on land where growers are struggling to make ends meet," Kirk Maltais reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The tit-for-tat tariffs applied by the U.S. and China to each other’s goods have cut demand for American crops. Futures prices for corn, soybeans and wheat are all trading around their lowest levels since 2010. Making matters worse, record spring rainfall left many farmers no time to plant a decent crop."

Farmers who want to sell electricity to utilities generally lease land to power companies to build the panels. That can generate more than $1,000 in revenue per month, according to farmers and renewable-energy experts. "Some farmers say they are hesitant to sign control over their land to power companies for years at a time. If crop prices rebound, they say, rent from power companies could fall behind what they could make growing crops on that land," Maltais reports. "But the worst downturn in decades is leading others to take that risk. Farm bankruptcies, known as chapter 12 filings, increased 13 percent in the first half of this year to the highest level since 2012, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

New trade deal with Japan would lower or eliminate tariffs on $7 billion in American food and agricultural products

"President Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a trade-enhancement agreement that will lower agricultural tariffs in Japan, industrial tariffs in the U.S. and set new rules for digital trade between the world’s first- and third-largest economies," Vivian Salama and Josh Zumbrun report for The Wall Street Journal. The White House wants to implement the agreement by Jan. 1, 2020, but Japan's legislators will need to approve it first.

If implemented, the agreement could provide for farmers "a badly needed win for an industry that’s been hit hard by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Japan will reduce tariffs on $2.9 billion of U.S. food and agricultural products in stages, including fresh and frozen beef and pork. Tariffs will be immediately eliminated on more than $1.3 billion of U.S. products including some berries and tree nuts, sweet corn, grain sorghum, food supplements, broccoli and prunes. Tariffs on $3 billion of products will be eliminated in stages, including wine, cheese and whey, ethanol, frozen poultry and more. If the entire agreement is implemented, more than 90% of U.S. food and agricultural exports to Japan will be either duty-free or receive preferential treatment.

The USTR also noted that U.S. farm products will have the same advantages in the Japanese market as products from countries that signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump pulled out of the TPP upon taking office. However, "for some commodities, like dairy, there would be a slight dropoff in benefits from the original Pacific Rim pact. A senior administration official said more than 80 percent of dairy products will receive the same market access as the 11-nation pact," McCrimmon writes. "Cheese and whey, two of the top U.S. dairy exports to Japan, will receive similar tariff cuts to what was on the table during TPP talks, according to the International Dairy Foods Association."

"For its part, the U.S. will reduce or eliminate tariffs on some industrial goods from Japan including certain machine tools, fasteners, steam turbines, bicycles, bike parts and musical instruments," Salama and Zumbrun report. "The U.S. will also reduce agricultural tariffs on items including certain plants and flowers, green tea, chewing gum and soy sauce."

Outdoor recreation sector grew faster than the overall economy in 2017, says Commerce Department report

Outdoor recreation value added as a percent of state GDP in 2017; map by U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
The outdoor recreation economy is growing faster than the overall economy, according to a new report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce.

The outdoor recreation sector grew by 3.9 percent in 2017, compared to the overall U.S. economy's 2.4% growth. Outdoor recreation accounted for 2.2% ($427.2 billion) of the gross domestic product in 2017, more than mining, utilities, farming, ranching, and chemical products manufacturing, Amelia Arvesen reports for recreation-industry publication Snews.

For the first time, the report includes information on specific types of recreation activities. They are divided into three categories: "core" (such as camping and hunting), "other core" (gardening, outdoor concerts, etc.) and supporting activities (including construction, travel and tourism, local trips, and government expenditures). "Conventional outdoor recreation accounted for 30.6% of the outdoor recreation economy nationwide in 2017, other recreation accounted for 19.3%, and the remaining 50.1% was supporting activities, Arveson reports.
Chart by U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
The report includes a deep data dive into the outdoor-recreation economy. Read more here.

Some rural public housing is crumbling after decades of USDA program funding cuts and reduced oversight

An Okeechobee Center house has crumbling
outer walls. (NBC photo by Suzy Khimm)
An Agriculture Department program that subsidizes affordable housing for more than 400,000 low-income rural families is supposed to ensure that the properties are "decent, safe and sanitary." But an NBC News investigation found that some of the housing is crumbling. "Tenant advocates fear that years of under-investment and neglect could leave aging properties in such poor shape that they ultimately become uninhabitable, accelerating the affordable housing crisis in rural America and putting its most vulnerable residents at risk," Khimm reports.

"Amid staffing cuts and with limited resources to fix aging buildings, the USDA has pared back its housing inspection protocol, provides little public information about properties’ physical conditions, and can be slow to take enforcement action when housing fails to meet federal standards, NBC News found in an investigation based on USDA documents, including inspection records and emails; government watchdog reports; and interviews with tenants, local officials and a dozen current and former housing officials," Khimm reports.

The number of USDA staffers overseeing the rural housing program has dropped 26 percent over the past decade, while repair and maintenance requests have increased. "About 15 percent of properties built through the USDA’s two main rental housing programs are in poor or below average condition, according to a 2016 analysis commissioned by the agency," Khimm reports. "The report estimated it would cost $5.6 billion over 20 years to make all the capital repairs the properties need." However, the Trump administration wants to eliminate funding that could help fix the dilapidated properties. 

The USDA blames conditions at some properties on landlords and tenants at places like at the Okeechobee Center in Belle Glade, Florida, which houses more than 370 farmworker families. Residents at the center complained for years about mold, roaches, peeling paint, leaking sewage, and other problems, but say they have few alternatives in the area. The local housing authority estimated long-term repairs would cost more than $17 million.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Agricultural economists say farmer bailout necessary, but criticize Trump and Congress for work on trade, ag supply

The two-year pricetag for farmer trade aid is an estimated $28 billion; some readers have asked agricultural economists Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray of the University of Tennesseee if that money could have been better spent on a different farm program.

In their latest "Policy Pennings" column, Schaffer and Ray say that the money is needed for farmer bailouts, but note that the government would have needed less money to bail out farmers "if the President had been more judicious in his handling of outstanding trade issues with China." They also take Congress to task: "If Congress had implemented a supply management program as the core of the 2018 Farm Bill, crop prices in general would be higher than they are today."

Schaffer and Ray take a deep dive into crop pricing and production trends of the past few years to support their argument. Read more here.

How a rural N.C. paper transformed itself to a 24/7 digital-first publication and raised subscription revenue 493%

Columbus County, North Carolina
(Wikipedia map)
The News Reporter of Whitesville, North Carolina, transformed itself from a twice-weekly print paper with a minimal website to a 24/7 newsroom that focuses on online news. Since the new website launch in April 2018, it has doubled its pageviews and increased circulation revenue by 48 percent, print circulation by 90%, and digital subscription revenue by 493%. Though the paper has lost advertising revenue, the increased subscription money made up for it "almost to the dollar," Publisher Les High told Kristen Hare of The Poynter Institute.

High and his team accomplished the change with lessons from the University of North Carolina's Knight-Temple Table Stakes program, which was a joint creation of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The program, launched in 2015, first worked with The News Reporter and seven other North Carolina newspapers to try mobile and digital news practices, then kept honing the techniques as it expanded in subsequent years. The project has identified seven major "stakes" that can help newsrooms improve their digital footprint.

The newspaper was founded in Columbus County in 1896 and has been owned by the same family since 1938. Like many papers, it saw a decline in print circulation and ad revenue for years before its digital overhaul, Jenny Clore (the paper's director of marketing) writes for Better News. Shifting to a digital-first strategy allowed it to tick the boxes on the first four stakes: Serve targeted audiences with targeted content; publish on platforms used by your targeted audience; produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs; and funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists.

Before making the change, Penny Abernathy from the UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism encouraged High and his team to gather data to make sure they were taking the right steps. They did this with a survey and focus groups, Clore reports.

The News Reporter posted more and sooner on social media and the web. Before, it had kept stories offline until they appeared in print, but this resulted in low engagement since the stories were old news by the time they appeared online, Clore reports. The paper also made video posts a bigger priority, since those get a lot of views. And, the publication examined its analytics to see what kind of stories readers were looking at, and launched weekly newsletters based on that data.

The changes weren't just online. The paper switched from Monday/Thursday print publication to Tuesday/Friday, which meant reporters who were posting online all the time got Sunday off, and started delivering by mail, not by carrier, which saved money. Many papers have abandoned carriers.

Eight months after the website had launched and readers were accustomed to looking for news on it, The News Reporter launched a metered paywall. A longtime donor sponsored digital subscriptions for every student and teacher at the local high school, which the paper hopes will increase civic engagement among students. They also recently began offering corporate subscriptions, which employers can buy at a slight discount and offer to employees as a benefit.

Read more here for comments on what worked, and Les High's other advice to publishers who want to make similar changes.

Democrats ask USDA to halt food-stamp change that could end free school meals for some children and schools

About 500,000 students nationwide could lose access to free school meals under a Trump administration plan to eliminate people from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The Agriculture Department proposal would cut an estimated 3 million people from the program who qualify for certain other forms of government aid. "But the impact of the cuts is anticipated to go further: Children in those households could also lose access to free school lunches, since food stamp eligibility is one way students can qualify for the lunches," Moriah Balingit reports for The Washington Post.

Democratic members of the House Committee on Education and Labor published an open letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday asking him to jettison the rule. They noted that almost one in seven children lived in food-insecure households in 2018 and that food insecurity among children correlates with increased health care costs in the short and long term.

They also said that, with fewer children eligible for SNAP, some high-poverty schools would no longer qualify for the Community Eligibility Program, which allows them to provide free meals to all students regardless of income. Without CEP, many children whose families make just a little too much to qualify for SNAP would be forced to pay for school meals. About a third of eligible schools in rural areas participate in the CEP program, especially in the Southeast.

The letter also protested that, when the rule was published in the Federal Register, its impact analysis didn't assess how it would affect eligibility for free meals. The committee also noted that USDA hasn't given it any information on that, or explained why that it wasn't included, despite requests.

"Brooke Hardison, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, said the figure was not published because the department only included information about the impact on the food stamp program — not the ripple effects on the school lunch and other programs," Balingit reports. "The comment period for the proposed rule closed Monday, bringing it one step closer to taking effect. Children affected by the change would lose eligibility next school year, but they may still qualify under other criteria."

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Trump's trade bailout for farmers reaches $28 billion, more than twice as expensive as Obama's bailout of automakers

Lavender segments in U.S. Department of Agriculture chart show government payments to farmers.
President Trump has funneled $28 billion of taxpayer money to compensate American farmers for their losses from his trade war with China, making the program "more than twice as expensive as the 2009 bailout of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, which cost taxpayers $12 billion," Mario Parker and Mike Dorning report for Bloomberg News. As a result, farmers "have become more dependent on government money than they’ve been in years." Total federal aid this year is estimated at $61 billion.

Farmers' feelings about that range from complacent to uneasy to frustrated. One in the middle is Illinois soybean farmer Stan Born, who told Bloomberg: "The aid package that has come in is a relief, and it softens the landing, but it’s not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid." When reporters asked him if the trade relief made him whole, he said "Of course not," and said he'd rather have free trade.

Trump has been able to fund the bailout without action in Congress, by using the Depression-era Commodity Credit Corp., but action is likely to be needed because the CCC is expected to reach its $30 billion borrowing limit before the second round of payments are completed, Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post reported last week.

The trade war "is being waged primarily for the benefit of such sectors as manufacturing and tech," Parker and Dorning note. "Agriculture is actually one of the rare U.S. industries that consistently runs a trade surplus, and not just with China—testimony to the gains that have accrued to American farmers from globalization."

Farmers' global success is the main reason many are at a disadvantage now. Until the trade war, China was the nation's biggest soybean customer (exceeding $12 billion in 2017), and a major purchaser of many other farm products like pork, Bloomberg notes. Though China has made a few soybean buys as goodwill gestures during trade talks, some this week, it's not buying anywhere near what it used to.

"For American producers, the hit to exports has further strained finances that are at a breaking point because of a six-year slump in prices for agricultural commodities," Parker and Dorning report. "Net farm income is projected to be down 29% this year from 2013 levels, and debt to total $416 billion." This year's bad weather and conflicts over ethanol policy have added to farmers' worries.

E-cig crackdown could hurt mom-and-pop 'vape shops'

Washington Post map based on Yelp data; click on the image to enlarge it.
President Trump's proposed rackdown on electronic cigarettes could hurt small, independent shops that are "the fastest-growing retail segment of the past decade, as well as the one with the highest share of employees at small businesses," Andrew Van Dam reports for The Washington Post. "Two thirds of "vape shop" workers are employed by the 93 percent of businesses with fewer than 10 employees — a higher rate than for any other retail segment."

Tobacconists (the broader category that includes the shops) have far outgrown other retail segments over the past decade, according to Labor Department data. That's because of electronic cigarettes, according to online review site Yelp; it says the shops have been the fastest-growing large retail segment since the end of 2012. Yelp's data show that the shops are concentrated in the South and West, with the highest numbers in Nevada and Oklahoma.

In response to recent deaths related to electronic cigarettes and concerns about their appeal to teens, the Trump administration recently announced it will ban most flavored e-cigarette liquids. The governors of Michigan and New York have announced similar bans, which will kick in sooner. "Vape shops in those states are reeling," Van Dam reports. "Customers are racing to stock up on flavored liquids while store owners and employees ponder an uncertain future. Refills of liquids that e-cigs heat to the point of vaporization make up the bulk of these shops’ businesses, multiple managers said — and their adult customers overwhelmingly prefer flavored options."

E-cigarettes do not produce just a vapor, which is a gaseous form of a liquid; they produce an aerosol, in which particulates are suspended. The industry has branded itself with "vape" and "vaping."

Since vape shops open mainly combustible-cigarette smokers seeking alternatives, the shops could be as disproportionately rural as smoking is, and a federal ban on flavors could hit many small-town vape shops hard. Ryan Brown, who manages one such shop in Iron Mountain, Mich. (pop. 7,000), told Van Dam the shops are a major source of support for local community events and even helped fix up the disc golf course. If the flavor ban goes through, "It’s going to affect our town," he said. "They rely on mom-and-pop stores to keep these mining towns going when the mines are gone. Imagine how much tax revenue they’re going to lose."

Mom-and-pop stores could also lose out when the Food and Drug Administration begins requiring approval for electronic-cigarette liquids already on the market, a bureaucratic step that could cost between $117,000 and $466,000. Expensive regulatory barriers could wipe out small businesses and leave only the largest vaping companies like Juul on the market, Van Dam writes.

Minn. town divided over efforts to expand schools because of swelling numbers of immigrants, unaccompanied minors

Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Some residents in a small Minnesota town are balking at the recent influx of Central American immigrants, many of them unaccompanied minors. Worthington, Minn., population 13,000, has received more than 400 unaccompanied minors since 2013—almost more per capita than almost anywhere else in the U.S., according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data. The immigrants have increased the student population by almost a third, crowding classrooms and straining resources, Michael Miller reports for The Washington Post.

Since 2013, more than 270,000 unaccompanied minors have been released to relatives across the U.S. to await immigration hearings. And though most of them end up in large cities, the ones who go to small towns have a disproportionate impact on local resources. School districts have had to scramble to hire more teachers who speak Spanish to accommodate such students. "Many unaccompanied minors live with unfamiliar relatives who offer little support. Teachers often fill the void, arriving early, staying late, even buying their students groceries," Miller reports.

"Five times in just over five years, the district has asked residents to approve an expansion of its schools to handle the surge in enrollment. Five times, the voters have refused — the last time by a margin of just 17 votes. A sixth referendum is scheduled for November," Miller reports. "The divide can be felt all over Worthington, where 'Minnesota nice' has devolved into 'Yes' and 'No' window signs, boycotts on businesses and next-door neighbors who no longer speak. A Catholic priest who praised immigrants was booed from the pews and has received death threats."

Don Brink picks up students, some of whom are refugees.
(Photo by Courtney Perry for The Washington Post)
School bus driver Don Brink and a few other white farmers, operating under the name Worthington Citizens for Progress, have organized opposition to school expansion. Brink told Miller: "Those kids had no business leaving home in the first place . . . That’s why we have all these food pantries, because of all these people we are supporting. I have to feed my own kids."

The resistance from Brink and others is a facet of larger dissatisfaction with the changing face of Worthington. The town used to be almost entirely white, but by the year 2000 the population was about 20 percent Hispanic because of workers drawn to area poultry farms and a meatpacking plant. "In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 230 undocumented workers at the plant," Miller reports. "Immigrants kept coming, however, mostly from Central America and Southeast Asia. Today the town is almost two-thirds minority. Hispanics outnumber whites."

Because of immigrants, Worthington has grown while others nearby have shrunk, but the town's tax base still mostly depends on white farmers who worry they'll have to pay the lion's share of school expansion efforts. Bond referenda have failed repeatedly, but the schools are still in dire need of improvement, Miller reports. The issue has increasingly divided residents. Many who support school expansion believe the opposition is because of racism, while many who don't support school expansion say their concerns are purely financial, especially since farmers are already hurting from the wet spring and the trade war with China, Miller reports.

Seven easy ways to help protect American bird populations

Birds often die after mistakenly eating plastic.
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
A recently published paper estimated that nearly 3 billion birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, meaning there are about 2.9 billion fewer birds in the sky right now than there were 50 years ago, with steep losses among even common birds like robins.

There are probably many causes for the drop, including habitat loss and pesticide use, the report says. Such issues would most effectively be addressed at the broader policy level, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has issued a list of seven simple actions anyone can take to help birds. Here's a brief overview:
  1. Up to 1 billion birds are estimated to die each year in the U.S. and Canada after hitting windows. Help birds detect windows by installing screens or breaking up the reflection with film, paint, string, or other visual cues.
  2. Keep your cats indoors or put them on a leash. Cats kill more than 2.6 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada each year, the top human-caused reason for bird deaths except for habitat loss.
  3. Add trees and plants to your lawn or garden that help feed birds or give them a place to nest or rest during migration.
  4. Avoid pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which are lethal to birds. Glyphosate (found in Roundup) can also be toxic to wildlife. Birds can be exposed to pesticides directly or indirectly through the seeds or insects they consume.
  5. Drink coffee certified as "Bird-Friendly". That means the coffee plants were grown in the shade, which means the coffee farms didn't cut down the forests that birds and other wildlife depend on for shelter. More than 42 species of North American songbirds winter in coffee plantations, so drinking shade-grown coffee could affect bird populations in the U.S.
  6. Reduce single-use plastic usage and recycle what you do use. Birds often eat plastic, thinking it's food, which can kill them. 
  7. Help scientists with your bird observations. Monitoring bird populations is essential to protect them, but tracking bird populations is a huge challenge for scientists. So, many have crowdsourced the job with projects such as eBird, Project FeederWatch, a Christmas Bird Count, or a Breeding Bird Survey.

Third resident of Massachusetts dies from rare mosquito-borne brain infection; outbreak is mainly in Northeast

A third person from Massachusetts has died from a brain infection called Eastern equine encephalitis; seven other people have also been confirmed as infected in the state.

"EEE is a rare but potentially fatal disease that can cause brain inflammation and is transmitted to humans bitten by infected mosquitoes, according to federal authorities," Danny McDonald and Abigail Feldman report for The Boston Globe. "Those who recover ... often live with severe and devastating neurological complications. There is no treatment."

Incidence of EEE from 2009 to 2018 (CDC map; click on it to enlarge)
This year's outbreak of EEE is mainly in the Northeast and is the biggest since the 1950s, with more than 30 Massachusetts towns at the highest level of risk. It's not limited to Massachusetts: at least three people in Rhode Island have been diagnosed with EEE this year, and one died this month, McDonald and Feldman report.

EEE is generally rare because the primary transmission cycle happens in and around freshwater hardwood swamps, especially in the Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes regions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An average of seven human cases are reported annually, usually from Florida, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Most independent weeklies will close or merge in the next five years, one of the nation's top small-weekly editors fears

Ryan Craig
Most U.S. newspapers that have closed or merged in recent decades have been weeklies not based in county seats, but now those papers are increasingly at risk, one of the nation's best editor-publishers of a small weekly writes for Nieman Reports at Harvard University.

"I have started to believe that weeklies aren’t as safe as destinations as they once were, that there will sooner rather than later be a vacuum of local news in rural places across the country," writes Ryan Craig, owner of the Todd County Standard, who put the paper up for sale almost two years ago, saying it wasn't enough to support his family and get them the health insurance they needed.

"Until recently I was sure that weeklies, especially good ones, would survive the downturn of newspapers or would hold out a lot longer before the eventual transition to digital," Craig writes. "I was so sure of the fortitude of weeklies that I would encourage the students I advise at the University of Kentucky not to underestimate a career in local newspapers. One could do worse than being a crusading small-town editor. Now, I tell my students to be diverse in their skill sets—good reporting and multimedia skills are welcome everywhere—and warn them to seek jobs at places, regardless of size, where they can practice good journalism in as stable a newsroom as possible."

Craig notes the decline in retail and a loss of jobs in rural areas, which exacerbates businesses' shift to digital. "Real estate, automobile and classifieds have migrated to the internet and will not be returning," he writes. "Many rural weeklies, especially those not in areas with tourism, may face ruin if they lose the local public notices," or legal ads.

Readers, too, increasingly rely on digital media "as cellular service becomes more consistent in rural areas," Craig writes. Now people post photos on social media of events or games or the occasional wreck, and that is enough local news. The hard stuff—the budgets, tax rates and how government operates—doesn’t make it on social media much and many people are OK with that level of bubble-wrapped ignorance.' 

Todd County (Wikipedia map)
He recalls how a group of farmers told him that they didn't show up at a meeting on agricultural zoning because they knew he'd be there. One said, “I’ll read what you’ll write in the paper and decide if I need to be mad or not.”

Craig concludes, "My reluctant prediction is that within five years most independent weeklies will close or merge, and most corporate-owned weeklies will merge or become a de facto bureau of a larger sister publication nearby, something that is already happening. That could mean swaths of rural America with no local newspaper. That would mean no one at the meetings, politicians rarely held accountable, and fewer stories for farmers to read and decide if they need to get mad or not. I hope I’m wrong. I really do."

Air ambulances and 'dark money' interests fight pending bill in U.S. Senate that would limit surprise or 'balance' billing

This ad claims the bill would help insurance firms and hurt patients.
Unknown people and businesses are giving millions of dollars to kill legislation nearing passage in Congress that would protect consumers from surprise medical bills. That's who's paying for those ads you're seeing on television. They're called "dark money" groups because they don't reveal their contributors.

"Pity the poor consumer trying to understand the coming congressional debate," writes journalist Trudy Lieberman, who considers patients' point of view. She says surprise bills have heaped "staggering amounts of debt ... on unsuspecting patients after they believed insurance had paid for their care. Those bills are growing rapidly and ensnaring more and more Americans in what has become one of the medical industry’s most unsavory business practices." Rural areas have been increasingly plagued by surprise bills from air ambulances, whose services they disproportionately rely on.

Lieberman notes a study just published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine: "The number of surprise bills for both ER and inpatient admissions are rising. In 2010, about 32% of all ER visits resulted in surprise bills. In 2016, nearly 43% did. Surprise bills for inpatient admissions jumped from about 26% to 42% over the same period. What’s more, the average amount billed to patients for ER visits nearly tripled and the cost for inpatient admissions more than doubled."

With the TV ads, "the special interests that benefit from socking patients with additional bills" are trying "to convince consumers that any congressional efforts this fall to correct the surprise billing problem may actually harm patients," Lieberman writes. Noting the "Harry and Louise" ads that helped kill the Clinton health-care plan in 1994, she says "This kind of advertising works."

Lieberman says the industry is fighting hard because it fears "any kind of cost containment . . . something sorely needed, and bitterly fought for decades by the medical businesses whose incomes are at stake."

The advertisers include a dark-money group called Another group, Doctor Patient Unity, which is targeting eight Republican senators. KARE-TV in Minneapolis notes in an analysis that one of the bills "doesn’t set actually set rates for out-of-network procedures, but instead sets benchmarks for how much out-of-network providers can collect if a surprise bill shows up," Lieberman notes. "But in a TV ad that lasts a few seconds, how would the viewer be able to make that distinction?

Chart from University of Southern California via Brookings Institution
"The air ambulance industry, which has gained notoriety over the last few years for its surprise billing tactics, too, has added its own ads to the confusing pile of persuasion aimed at the public," Lieberman reports. "According to OpenSecrets.org, the industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads" using the name Global Medical Response. "The scary message is that air medical services are at risk. More than 30 bases have closed this year, disappearing from rural communities that need these services the most, the ad says."

The ad urges viewers to contact Congress about the surprise-billing legislation. "It’s not hard to see that someone living in a remote rural area might just do that," Lieberman writes. "Never mind that in the last few years media stories have revealed how families have been financially devastated from air ambulance bills, and that state laws are ineffective in regulating this industry."

"And if all this isn’t confusing enough," Lieberman writes, "there’s yet another group, called the Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing. It represents large employers, health insurance agents, and business associations like the National Business Group on Health." This coalition wants to eliminate "balance billing," the main type of surprise billing, when "a patient is involuntarily treated by an out-of-network doctor, and wants to require health insurers to reimburse out-of-network providers based on local market rates negotiated by local providers. That would avoid what it calls a cumbersome arbitration process, the approach preferred by the aforementioned doctors’ groups.

Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health, told Lieberman, “I believe that the investor-driven physician staffing firms fear that if our preferences become law, their business model — go out of network and raise prices — is shot.” He added, “Everyone agrees on banning balance billing. The disagreement is over payment rates and processes for determining payment for out-of-network physicians.”

Lieberman concludes, "The scary TV ads flooding the airwaves from this group or that mask the real issue. It all comes down to money and who gets how much. . . . How this turns out is anyone’s guess right now, and it may be that Congress has been sufficiently spooked by the TV ads targeting its members that it will be too timid to pass any legislation addressing this growing problem. But there’s one thing we do know from the history of health care battles: The longer the legislative fixes twist in the wind and the attack ads run, the less likely any real protections for patients become."

Farmers no longer have to publish ads for seasonal jobs in newspapers before they can hire foreign workers

Starting in October, farmers will no longer have to publish ads for seasonal workers in newspapers before they're allowed to hire foreign workers. Under the new rule, finalized Friday by the Department of Labor, farmers can instead post jobs to the department's newly overhauled job registry website," Katie Dehlinger reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

"The agency says the updated website is mobile-friendly, compatible with third-party job-search websites and will make it easier for Americans to find and fill open jobs," Dehlinger reports. "It also gives state workforce agencies greater ability to promote awareness of H-2A job opportunities."

The National Newspaper Association and more than 500 newspapers filed objections to the rule when it was first proposed, saying that it's cheaper and yields better results when farmers advertise in local papers that reach nearby potential workers. The NNA noted in its complaint that ads in small-town papers are much less costly than those at the major metropolitan dailies the government studied in their research.

Duke Energy to stop burning coal by 2050 as part of pledge to eliminate or offset all carbon emissions

"Duke Energy Corp. agreed to eliminate carbon emissions from its power plants and offset those that it can’t by 2050, joining a slew of power producers taking steps to limit the effects of global warming," Chris Martin reports for Bloomberg. "Duke, one of the largest U.S. emitters of greenhouse gases, plans to shift away from burning coal and invest in solar, nuclear and other carbon-free technologies, as well as natural gas, during the transition."

Duke joined a host of other power providers in its pledge. According to the Clean Air Task Force, utilities that provide about a third of the electricity in the country have promised to cut carbon emissions, Martin reports.

However, critics say the plan isn't as squeaky-clean as it looks on the surface. Dave Rogers, a regional campaign director for Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign, noted that Duke's most recent plans show that the company expects to burn coal until 2048 and will also ramp up its natural-gas capacity. "Both of those commitments are totally incompatible with a clean energy future that avoids the worst impacts of climate change," Rogers said in a statement. The greenhouse-gas impact of gas is about half that of coal.