Friday, November 01, 2019

Sign up TODAY to get discounts for Nov. 15 workshop in Ashland, Ky., on covering substance abuse and recovery

Today is the deadline for the discounted registration fee of $50 for Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, to be held in Ashland, Ky., on Nov. 15. After today, the fee will be $60 until Nov. 8, when registration will close. Space is limited. Details and registration are here.

The workshop has been designed with rural journalists in mind, because research at Oak Ridge Associated Universities has found that the stigma still attached to drug abuse keeps people from seeking help. “The increasing news media reports of opioid-related overdoses and crimes has led many to overlook the fact that prevention programs are working and that many people are entering treatment and living in active recovery,” ORAU said in a report on its study.

It also said local news media could help by reporting more success stories from people in recovery. "We think stigma also discourages some news outlets from reporting on substance abuse and recovery, and that’s why we’re holding this workshop," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

"We have a national-quality lineup of reporters who have won Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage, a weekly newspaper editor-publisher who has tackled the subject head-on, a recovering addict who writes a newspaper column about his experiences, and several experts on the subject," Cross told editors in an email this week. "We don’t know of another such workshop having been held anywhere, and we want you to be part of it."

The workshop will be held at the Marriott Delta Downtown from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 15. Early arrivals have an informal gathering at the hotel the night before, and a special room rate of $109 is available through today.

Cross wrote, "As we planned this workshop, I thought of one of the best-known lines from the play Death of a Salesman: 'He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.' Let's pay attention to these people and their problem, and help solve it."

Rural and safety net hospitals brace for federal funding cuts

Rural and other safety-net hospitals are bracing for a body blow. Most are already operating on thin  profit margins, which sometimes disappear, and now they're facing cuts in funding for charitable care. Funding for such programs was expanded under the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but it had an expiration date. Unless Congress votes to protect that funding within the next few weeks, hospitals nationwide will lose it, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline.

"The federal money reimburses hospitals for the care they provide to people who can’t afford to pay and offsets the cost of care that hospitals provide to Medicaid patients that Medicaid does not cover. The federal cuts amount to $4 billion this year and $44 billion through 2025," Ollove reports. "The hospitals’ total loss of funding could be even more significant because the program includes state matching funds. If state cuts are commensurate with federal ones, the overall reduction would go from $4 billion to more than $7 billion in 2020."

Disproportionate-share hospitals, which have a larger than average share of Medicaid patients, increasingly rely on such funding to stay afloat. DSH payments totaled $18.2 billion in 2014, covering more than half of the uncompensated care costs for hospitals that received the money. "By 2019, the total DSH allotment was $22 billion, 57 percent of which came from the federal government; the rest came from state governments," Ollove reports. 

The ACA was meant to reduce hospitals' charitable care expenditures by expanding Medicaid and affordable private insurance; that's why it had a built-in DSH funding decrease. But things didn't go according to plan, Ollove notes: the Supreme Court ruled that states didn't have to expand Medicaid (19 haven't), and Congress rolled back the individual mandate to purchase insurance.

"Those actions, which likely kept millions in the ranks of the uninsured, undercut the premise of the cutbacks in DSH payments: Hospitals needed the money after all. Congress took notice. Four times, it voted to delay the cuts, and in September passed a continuing resolution that would keep funding at 2019 levels through Nov. 21, Ollove reports. "Still, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last month issued rules for states on how to calculate the DSH cuts."

A House bill would cut the DSH reductions by $16 billion in the next three years, but the Senate hasn't produced a similar bill, Ollove reports.

Democratic candidate Tom Steyer rolls out rural plan

Tom Steyer
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, a Democratic candidate for president, rolled out a plan to help rural Americans today. Here are the highlights from his Partnerships with Rural Communities platform:
  • Protect the rights of local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives to build their own broadband networks.
  • Fund $135 billion in Rural Utilities Service grants and loans, along with private loans, to encourage broadband buildout; some money would be set aside for disadvantaged communities, tribal lands and communities where minorities constitute the majority.
  • Increase investment in rural hospitals, including telemedicine.
  • Forgive student loans for some rural health care providers.
  • Fight the opioid epidemic with $75 billion over 10 years for treatment programs and more.
  • Hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.
  • Help rural seniors age in place with in-home assistance.
  • Require insurers to cover mental health, dental and vision.
  • Expand mobile clinics to more rural areas.
  • Increase funding and attention to rural maternity and childbirth facilities and providers.
  • Expand the Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service.
  • Reverse Trump administration actions that have reduced access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
  • Increase rural volunteerism through Americorps and Climate Corps funding.
  • Increase funding to make rural drinking water cleaner.
  • Support free trade policies that will help American farmers.
  • Enforce antitrust laws in agriculture to protect family farmers.
  • Go after predatory lenders in rural areas and increase financial literacy education.
  • Allocate $50 billion to encourage young and family farmers to implement more climate-friendly practices.
  • Shut down hardship waivers for oil refiners under the Renewable Fuel Standard program.
  • Invest in various rural renewable energy programs.
  • Increase funding for wildfire reduction in forests.
  • Divert more funds to upgrading and maintaining public lands.

The Rural Blog reports major statements by presidential candidates about rural policy.

EPA to roll back rules keeping coal-fired power plants from polluting water supplies with heavy metals

"The Trump administration is expected to roll back an Obama-era regulation meant to limit the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury into water supplies from the ash of coal-fired power plants, according to two people familiar with the plans," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times. "With a series of new rules expected in the coming days, the Environmental Protection Agency will move to weaken the 2015 regulation that would have strengthened inspection and monitoring at coal plants, lowered acceptable levels of toxic effluent and required plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash." A significant number of power plants would be exempted from following any of those requirements, according to the sources.

Coal-fired power plants have come under public scrutiny in recent years for their environmental impact. Several plants polluted local water supplies after stored coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, leeched into nearby lakes or rivers, Friedman reports. The move would be the latest of many efforts by the Trump administration to help the coal industry, as coal-fired power plants have increasingly shut down because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

"Environmental groups warned that the regulatory rollback could lead to contaminated drinking water and birth defects, cancer and stunted brain development in young children," Friedman reports. "Energy analysts said the administration’s latest gambit to bolster the industry would not save the industry from its long decline."

Quick hits: Cricket burgers; fewer children have health insurance; EPA shunts blame for FOIA policy

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

The next wave of plant-based "meat" could have an unexpected ingredient: crickets. Read more here.

The Environmental Protection Agency is blaming an advisory board's recommendations for part of its controversial new Freedom of Information Act policy. Read more here.

The number of children with no health insurance continued climbing in 2018, especially among the lower-middle class in states that didn't expand Medicaid. Read more here.

A rural hospital CEO is tapping into people's desire to "buy local" in order to help his hospital stay afloat. Read more here.

As rural pharmacies close, Western states seek a solution. Read more here.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rural seniors face unique challenges; analyst says rural communities of faith can be important in helping them

A senior fellow at The Urban Institute who writes often about issues affecting senior citizens provides a cogent summary of major issues facing seniors who live in rural areas.

"According to a new report by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 10.6 million older adults live in rural communities—roughly one quarter of all seniors. But they represent a much larger fraction of their local populations than urban seniors," Howard Gleckman writes for Forbes. "About 17.5 percent of rural residents are over 65, while only about 14% of urban residents are older adults. Three-quarters of rural older adults live in the South and Midwest, but in states such as Maine and Vermont almost two-thirds of seniors live in rural communities." Gleckman also notes that the more rural a place is, the older average age its population is likely to have.

Here's a brief summary of Gleckman's points:
  • Rural seniors are, on average, poorer and sicker than their urban counterparts. They're more likely to be white and less educated, more likely to be male, less likely to be living in a nursing home, and more likely to be living in poverty. They're also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases. 
  • Transportation is a problem for seniors everywhere, but particularly for rural seniors with little to no public transportation, and especially in the winter.
  • Many rural seniors have a hard time accessing health care because their communities are less likely to have hospitals or full-time physicians.
  • Rural seniors are more likely to live in older, multi-story homes, which limits their ability to get around the house to take care of maintenance. 
  • Because of the mobility and transportation issues mentioned above, rural seniors often have a harder time maintaining social relationships, especially if their grown children have left town to work in a city.
"There are solutions," Gleckman writes. "For example, faith communities are especially important in rural areas, where they may be among the last remaining social institutions. They can work together to support congregants (or others) who need help. Local governments, fraternal organizations and other nonprofits—even with limited resources—can build programs that assist seniors aging at home. Programs such as Meals on Wheels or even postal workers can look in on homebound seniors."

Study: Rural and black N.C. women with breast cancer more likely to lose jobs or pay than urban or white counterparts

Here's an apropos story as Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends today: A newly published study suggests that rural women and black women are more likely to lose their jobs or face pay cuts after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Tamara Mathias reports for Reuters.

In rural North Carolina, 43.6 percent of female breast-cancer patients reported a loss of income linked to their diagnosis, compared to 35.4% of urban women. And 45.6% of of the rural residents sampled reported losing a job or having their hours reduced after being diagnosed, compared with 37.1% of urban women, Mathias reports.

Coauthor Jennifer Spencer of the University of North Carolina said part of the reason may be that treatment is often tiring and time-consuming, and often affects someone's ability to work. "Not everyone has a full-time job with benefits and sick time," Spencer told Mathias.

Epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of Montreal's McGill University wasn't surprised by the results. "These women in general face more precarious forms of labor, fewer employment options, less flexible working hours, greater barriers in access to care," said Kaufman, who wasn't part of the study.

The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, has some limitations: it used data from a resource that only surveyed women from North Carolina, and only black or white women (no other ethnicities). However, Robin Yabroff of the American Cancer Society told Mathias that the study "adds to a growing body of literature that raises questions about the impact of employer benefits -- such as type of health insurance offered, paid and unpaid sick leave and workplace accommodations -- on patient well-being."

Weekly in small New York town illustrates the benefits of local ownership and an innovative micropayment structure

The sign on the side of the Shawangunk Journal's building is purposely backwards. (Amberly Jane Cambpell photo)
Local ownership can play a critical role in helping small-town newspapers stay afloat, writes James Fallows in the newest installment of his "Our Towns" series for The Atlantic.

"Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise," Fallows writes. "The successful counter-examples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance."

Fallows has illustrated the principle in previous pieces; for this one he profiles the weekly Shawangunk Journal in Ellenville, a struggling former factory town of 5,000 in New York's Catskills region. Partners in both life and business, Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman decided to start the paper in 2006. They met in college nearby and moved to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the town's first internet service. Why start a newspaper? "The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one," Shiffer told Fallows. "We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few years . . . We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too."

Ellenville, New York (Wikipedia map)
The Journal has had tough times, especially three years ago. But through a local fundraising campaign and an appeal to readers, the paper was able to raise enough money to stay alive. "Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived," Shiffer told Fallows. 

Today, the paper has a paid circulation of about 2,000. Shiffer and Richman have employed some innovative strategies to make money and stay relevant for readers. Because of their background in internet technology, the duo planned to increase the paper's online presence from the beginning. That has required them to condition readers to accept that they needed to pay for news that they read online, Fallows writes.

The Journal does this in steps: After an introductory offer expires, articles cost nonsubscribers 25 cents apiece. "For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect," Fallows writes. "Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers."

Shiffer and Richman's daughter is doing her part to cultivate future subscribers and, possibly, journalists. Jasmine, a 17-year-senior, was annoyed that her school didn't have a newspaper, so she created a student-run news app called The Devil's Advocate that local teens update daily. Jasmine told Fallows she plans to stay involved in student journalism at least through college.

Grassroots organizer says white supremacists increasingly trying to capitalize on rural frustration, economic struggles

George Goehl
Longtime grassroots organizer George Goehl warns that white supremacists are becoming increasingly active in rural areas, and he believes they have been emboldened by President Trump's rhetoric. "I’ve been organizing for 20 years in rural communities and have never seen this level of public activity by white supremacist groups," Goehl writes in an New York Times op-ed. Goehl is the director of People's Action, an organization that advocates for progressive populist causes. It is one of the largest progressive rural organizing efforts in the nation.

Progressives shouldn't write off rural America as a Republican monolith, Goehl writes: "So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest."

But rural Americans often feel ignored by the powers that be, and white nationalist organizations are trying to capitalize on that. "They’re organizing around people’s pain and using racism to help make sense of changing economic conditions and racial demographics," Goehl writes. "Although these communities may be fertile ground for the Trump administration and other white nationalist organizations, they are also places where people can come together across race and class to solve the big problems facing everyday people. That starts by recognizing one another’s humanity — and with honest conversations."

Nov. 7 webinar will look at HIV/AIDS in rural America

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a webinar Nov. 7 to discuss HIV and AIDS in rural America. The free event will begin at 11 a.m. ET and will last about an hour. A recording will be available on the RHI Hub website afterward.

The webinar will review a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that says the decline in HIV infections has hit a plateau because effective prevention and treatment efforts aren't adequately reaching some populations with the highest need for such services, including rural areas.

Speakers will provide an overview of a federally funded initiative called "Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America. They will also discuss the rural distribution of medical providers funded by the Health Resources & Services Administration's Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, and highlight the work of a Ryan White grantee in rural Alabama. Click here to learn more or to register.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Efforts to avoid rural undercounts in 2020 census could help bridge the rural-urban digital divide

Efforts to increase compliance with the 2020 census could help bridge the rural-urban digital divide, Zack Quaintance reports for Governing.

Next year's decennial census will be the first to rely primarily on citizens filling out forms online. But many rural residents don't have reliable, affordable high-speed internet access at home, which means their areas are at higher risk of being undercounted. States, volunteers and various rurally focused nonprofits are trying to boost broadband connectivity in rural areas since they understand that undercounting means less federal funding and, potentially, less representation, Quaintance reports.

"They must essentially perform digital equity work in the name of the census," Quaintance reports. "It’s a heavy lift, to be sure, but many say there is a silver lining — digital equity work for the census can be executed in a way that has a lasting impact on under-served communities for years to come. Initiatives such as technology training sessions for the census can teach seniors, recent immigrants and others valuable skills to help them thrive in other ways in our increasingly digital world."

Public libraries could take on an important role in such efforts, both as a source of internet education for seniors and others, and as a place where those who don't have other internet access can complete the Census. Learning how to use the internet could be a springboard to other opportunities, said Sheryl Knab, executive director of the Western New York Library Resources Council. She noted that a library patron who learns how to use a computer to complete the Census might feel more comfortable coming back to the library later to apply for a job online. Simply put, she told Quaintance, "that might open doors for them to come back and work with staff on other things."

Study: Rural children are much more likely to be injured by lawn mowers, especially in the South and Midwest

More than 9,000 children in the U.S. are treated in emergency rooms for lawn mower-related injuries; a study suggests that rural children are at the highest risk of getting hurt, especially younger children and those in the South and Midwest, Robert Preidt reports for U.S. News & World Report.

Researchers from the University of Toledo analyzed data on patients under 18 who were seen for lawn mower injuries at 49 U.S. hospitals from 2005 to 2017. "Rural areas had much higher rates of such injuries, younger patients, and higher rates of amputations, surgical complications and infections," Preidt reports.

Rural areas had 7.3 injuries per 100,000 emergency department cases, compared to only 1.5 injuries per 100,000 in urban areas. The South had the highest injury rate (2.7 injuries per 100,000), followed by the Midwest (2.2 per 100,000) and the Northeast (1.3 per 100,000). The West had the lowest rate, 0.6 injuries per 100,000 cases.

Reports of this study, which was presented at a conference, did not link to any publication of it. Left to speculate, we think it's worth considering that rural areas have larger lawns, so homeowners are likely to have larger mowers (and perhaps more children unsafely riding them). And the mowing season in the South and much of the Midwest lasts longer than in other regions.

Preidt reports, "Lawn mower-related injuries in rural areas required longer hospital stays, had higher rates of surgical complications (5.5% vs 2.6%), and occurred in younger patients." Amputation rates for minors with lawn mower-related injuries were 15.5% in rural areas, compared to 9.6% in urban areas. And rural children under age 10 had a higher rate of severe injuries, longer hospital stays, and higher health care costs than older rural minors.

Researcher Ronit Shah, a medical student at the University of Toledo, called for children to receive more education about lawn mower safety, especially in the rural South and Midwest, Preidt reports.

House bill would force government to name oil refiners that get hardship waivers under ethanol blending law

A House bill would disclose names of refineries that receive hardship waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard, a lightning-rod issue that has increasingly incensed both corn and oil interests.

"The waiver program is meant to benefit small refineries who argue that blending in ethanol would cause a hardship. But Democrats have targeted the program since it was revealed that some of those refineries were owned by major oil companies," Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

The bill, proposed in May by Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson of Minnesota, is supported by a bipartisan group of committee members. It "would put an end to what Rep. Jerry McNerney [D-Calif.] called the 'secretive and capricious nature' of the waivers that largely keep recipients a secret due to business confidentiality concerns," Beitsch reports. A subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee reviewed the bill Tuesday. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said "We’re not going to find the perfect solution to give everyone 100 percent of what they want."

President Trump has tried to appease both oil and corn interests, but has largely ended up displeasing both. Corn and ethanol producers are angry because they've had to close plants and lay off workers due to the decrease in ethanol demand. But when the administration recently proposed requiring refiners to blend more ethanol into gasoline and allow year-round sales of E15 fuels, which contain 15 percent ethanol, both corn and oil producers opposed the plan, Beitsch reports.

Farm groups complained that the plan was a bait-and-switch tactic because the Environmental Protection Agency would require large refiners to add more ethanol based on government estimates instead of the actual number of exempted gallons. Refiners opposed the plan too, saying it was unfair to be subject to a government mandate on the issue, Beitsch reports.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

USDA publishing rule to ease widespread hemp production, which could help the young industry's growing pains

The Department of Agriculture is publishing a final rule today allowing farmers to legally begin widespread hemp production. It has "requirements for licensing, maintaining records on the land where hemp will be grown, testing the levels of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana that causes a high — and disposing of plants" that could, David Pitt reports for The Associated Press.

The rule comes none too soon. Though the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production, the industry has had growing pains as the crop's booming popularity has outpaced laws to govern its growth and distribution. Farmers have also had difficulties with banking and a lack of financial protections when distributors and processors don't live up to their promises. An article by Janet Patton in Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader gives examples; other states are seeing similar issues.

A group of Kentucky farmers filed suit against hemp processor GenCanna Oct.11, saying it had exploited their lack of legal and financial protection. They and GenCanna had agreed to buy a building from the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association for $1.2 million and turn it into a hemp-drying facility, but the farmers say the company never provided a promised dryer. They "also allege that GenCanna didn’t provide them with hemp to plant until it was too late in the growing season to make other arrangements, forcing them to accept 'horrific' contracts and plants that have produce a lower yield crop," Patton reports. Some small-time Ohio Valley hemp farmers have formed a cooperative, partly to gain a stronger position in bargaining with processors.

Seed quality is another problem. Lexington hemp company Elemental Processing sued Oregon-based HP farms for $44 million, alleging HP farms sold them the wrong kind of seed. Farmers need the CBD-rich "feminized" seeds, but it's impossible to tell the sex of a hemp seed until it grows. "According to the lawsuit, farmers planted 1,100 acres that had to be plowed under after the plants turned out to be male, costing the company millions," Patton reports.

Hemp processors and distributors are also facing problems, since banks are reluctant to lend to them, Patton reports. Until very recently, even major legal cannabis operations in states like California were obliged to operate as cash-only businesses because banks refused to deal with them. Things should be a little more stable in the hemp industry soon, since the the 2018 Farm Bill stipulates that hemp will be eligible for crop insurance starting next year, Patton reports.

In Vermont, the hemp supply has exceeded demand, so prices have plummeted. One processor told VtDigger that he paid $100 to $150 per pound for it last year, but this year he has paid $20 to $55.

Hemp's most powerful backer in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said in a floor speech today about the USDA rule, "Our work to support the future of hemp is hardly over. There are ongoing conversations with the FDA on CBD products. Ongoing work to help growers and retailers to access credit and financial products. There will inevitably be ups and downs as this new industry develops, but today’s announcement is another crucial step."

Learn all about gun lingo and laws at the Covering Guns for Reporters seminar near Richmond, Va., on Nov. 21

What's the difference between a gun and a rifle? What makes a rifle an assault rifle? With the gun debate so much in the news, it's more important than ever to get the details right when reporting about firearms. You can learn all about it at the "Covering Guns for Reporters" seminar from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET Nov. 21 at the Virginia Press Association's headquarters in Glen Allen, just north of Richmond.

During the seminar, state-police firearms instructors will teach you everything you need to know about firearms, while Firearms Transaction Center personnel will walk you through the firearms purchase process. Admission is $25 for VPA members and $40 for non-members; the fee includes a free boxed lunch. Register here.

Local news media trusted more than national media, but not as well as most other local institutions; partisanship invades

Knight Foundation chart; click on it to enlarge
Local news media enjoy more trust than their national counterparts, but a new study has warning signs for community journalists and their paymasters.

A Gallup Poll funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation shows that "The same forces that have eroded trust in the national media are now beginning to filter down to the local level," John Sands reports for Knight. "That trust is more fragile than previously understood -- and vulnerable to the same perceptions of partisan bias that threaten confidence in the national media."

Six in 10 Americans believe their local news outlets are "accomplishing most of the key tasks of informing communities," Sands writes. "And local journalists are seen as more caring (36 percent), trustworthy (29%) and neutral or unbiased (23%). But local news outlets don’t exist in a vacuum, as this study emphasizes."

Just as with national media, "a person’s political affiliation is a determining factor in how they feel about their local news outlet, with Democrats having more confidence in local than Republicans," Sands notes. "As local news outlets wade into coverage of controversial social and political issues, as is more common on the national level, those levels of trust could also wane."

Sands, who is Knight's director for learning and impact, identifies key points from the poll:
  • More Americans trust local news than national news: 45% trust reporting by local news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to 31% for national news organizations.
  • Local news media are better than national media at covering issues Americans can use in their daily lives (79%) and in reporting without bias (66%).
  • However, local news ranks behind most other local institutions in public confidence, with only local government ranking lower: 37% express a great deal or quite a lot of trust for local news organizations, compared to 73% for local libraries and 56% for law enforcement. (See Knight chart at bottom for other examples.)
  • Most Americans think local news media offer balanced perspectives: 53% describe it as “about right,” while 26% say it is “too liberal” and 15% “too conservative.”
  • But when those numbers are broken down by party, 50% of Democrats in the poll expressed confidence in local media, while only 27 percent of Republicans did.
  • Americans think local news outlets need better accountability reporting; 60% feel local news only does a “fair” or “poor” job of that. 
  • They also say several topics need more attention: drug addiction (65%); K-12 education (64%), the environment (64%), and plans for public works projects (64 %).
The last two bullet points could be translated into a prescription of relief from the three immediately preceding. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, is tackling the drug issue with Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, in Ashland, Ky., on Nov. 15. A discounted registration fee of $50 is good through Friday, Nov. 1; for details and registration, click here.

N.H. hospital to open nation's first emergency department focused on rural seniors; hopes to reduce their visits to it

Google map, adapted, locates White River Junction,
Vermont, across Connecticut R. from Lebanon, N.H.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, is partnering "with a California-based nonprofit to make visits to the emergency department more helpful for people over age 65 and to reduce the need for subsequent visits," Nora Doyle-Burr reports for the Valley News in Lebanon and White River Junction, Vermont.

The hospital and West Health will also work with a group of area nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving health-care access for seniors, in a three-year collaboration to create the nation's first emergency department focused primarily on rural seniors, Matt Leighton reports for WPTZ-TV in Burlington, Vt. They've dubbed it the Geriatric Emergency Department, or GED.

"The $4.5 million research collaboration will help seniors in Northern New England by combining emergency medicine, geriatrics and telehealth resources," Leighton reports. "Medical officials said the GED will have resources, specialized care and protocols to deal with older adults. All emergency department staff will receive training."

Dartmouth-Hitchcock is well-placed to help rural seniors. It's one of only three Level 1 trauma centers in northern New England and has the state's only air ambulance service; rural areas rely disproportionately on air ambulance services. The program will be structured as a hub-and-spoke system, with Dartmouth-Hitchcock at the center and four tele-health centers in the region.

The program is needed because New England is one of the nation's most rapidly aging areas, and seniors who live in poverty are much more likely to live in rural areas. "Limited access to health services, workforce shortages, social isolation, and transportation problems are particularly severe in these remote regions," says a Dartmouth-Hitchcock press release.

Women talk religion, community, volunteerism, politics and more at inaugural Rural Women's Summit

The Daily Yonder has done a stellar job writing up the first-ever Rural Women's Summit that took place in Greenville, S.C., Oct. 27-29. Here's an overview of their can't-miss coverage:

Muslim women who live in the rural South talked about their complicated relationship with their communities. Read more here.

A panel of female journalists discussed the rural issues they've been covering and how women are leading the charge to address those issues. Read more here.

Rural women running for office face unique issues, according to organization that helps female candidates. Read more here.

A rural nonprofit worker talked about how her volunteer work has helped her forge relationships within her rural town that help her as a community leader. Read more here.

Whitney Kimball Coe, national programs director for the Center for Rural Strategies and coordinator of the Rural Assembly, spoke about why they created the summit. Read more here.

Federal funds withheld from local law enforcement units, many of them rural, over their immigration policies

The federal government is withholding millions of dollars in grants from local law enforcement agencies, many rural, in states or communities that have failed to meet some U.S. Department of Justice immigration policy requirements. One reporter writes about how that has affected some law enforcement agencies in rural Colorado.

Since 2017, Colorado has been awarded just over $6 million in grants for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, but has only been able to disburse about $537,000 of the funding. In 2017 and 2018, rural law enforcement agencies requested about $2.3 million of those funds; the DOJ hasn't yet posted info about 2019 recipients, Shannon Mullane reports for The Durango Herald near the southwest corner of Colorado.

The delay in disbursing Byrne funds "really disproportionately impacts these smaller, rural communities," Joe Thome, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, told Mullane. "Smaller, rural jurisdictions look forward to the availability of this money every year, simply because they don’t have the budgets ... to be able to support the modernization of their agencies." Law enforcement agencies use the funding for everything from equipment and staffing to community programs.

"In 2017, the Department of Justice said law enforcement agencies must meet two immigration-related requirements to receive funds" from the Byrne program, Mullane reports. The DOJ "requires states, communities and individual agencies to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security 48 hours before releasing undocumented immigrants and to allow DHS officials into jails to question inmates about their immigration status. If recipients – like courts, correctional facilities and law enforcement agencies – do not meet those requirements, they may not receive funds."

Multiple states and communities have sued the DOJ since 2017 over the immigration-related stipulations. Colorado sued this March, arguing that withholding the funds violates the 10th Amendment, which says the federal government can't compel state and local officials to enforce federal law, Mullane reports.

Lawrence Pacheco, communications director for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, told Mullane that he thinks the state will win its suit, since courts have sided against the DOJ in every Byrne ruling so far. "Federal courts already found the two requirements unlawful in cases brought by Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Evanston, Illinois," Mullane reports.

Largest private coal company, Murray Energy, files Chapter 11 bankruptcy, despite help from Trump administration

Murray Energy, the nation's largest privately owned coal company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today in order to restructure its debt. At the beginning of October, lenders granted the company two extensions to make missed payments; the second extension ended yesterday. The firm plans to continue operating during the restructuring with cash on hand and $350 million in new loans, as long as the bankruptcy judge approves, Brad McElhinny reports for MetroNews in West Virginia.

The company will change its name to Murray NewCo and founder Robert Murray will step aside as president and CEO to become chairman of the board. His nephew, Robert Moore, will be CEO; Moore has been executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer.

It's the latest in a string of high-profile coal company bankruptcies this year as power plants' demand for coal declines. "Eight major U.S. coal producers have filed for bankruptcy since November 2017, including five this year," McElhinny reports.

The bankruptcy comes despite the Trump administration's extensive efforts, many at Murray's behest, to help the coal industry. Soon after Trump's inauguration, Murray, a major campaign backer, sent Vice President Mike Pence a laundry list of 14 actions that would benefit his company. The administration had carried out almost all of them within a year.

Monday, October 28, 2019

South Dakota Newspaper Association and nonprofit news group form partnership, likely first of its kind in the U.S.

David Bordewyk
The South Dakota Newspaper Association announced today that it's entering a two-year partnership with South Dakota News Watch, a two-year-old, independent, nonprofit, public-service journalism organization. Under the agreement, SDNA will take on the day-to-day administrative and fundraising management for SDNW beginning Nov. 1.

This is apparently the first time a state newspaper association has paired up with a nonprofit journalism outfit in this way. As part of the deal, longtime SDNA Executive Director David Bordewyk will add the title of executive director for SDNW.

Letti Lister, board president of SDNA and the publisher and part-owner of the daily Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, hailed the move. "Reliable investigative journalism on topics that impact our citizens on a broader state-wide scale is paramount to the success and growth of our state, but it was missing here until South Dakota News Watch launched in February 2018," Lister said. "Information is power, and America needs journalists."

USDA report confirms farm sector is hurting; says farms with more than $100,000 in sales more likely to be under stress

USDA ERS chart. All values expressed in 2018 dollars.
A new Agriculture Department study confirmed that U.S. farm sector finances have been doing steadily worse since 2012, but that most measures of financial health are near long-run (1970-2017) average levels. However, larger farms, farms with a younger owner, and dairy farms remain particularly vulnerable. The study compares the farm sector's recent financial performance to historic periods of financial stress to provide a better perspective on the severity of the ag sector's current slump. Factors considered include land prices, debt, loan defaults and bankruptcies, commodity prices and more.

Here are some of the highlights from the study, published by the USDA's Economic Research Service:
  • Farm real estate is no longer rapidly appreciating in value and has declined in some regions.
  • Between 2016 and early 2019, interest rates rose, which increased the cost of borrowing for some farmers.
  • Farmers who borrowed big for land or machinery when the farming economy was doing better are at a higher risk of financial insolvency.
  • From 2012 to 2017, farmers saw the biggest multiyear decline in percent of net cash income since the 1970s. But since farm income was near a record high in 2012, the drop left farmers near the long-run average. 
  • Farm sector debt is near the peak levels seen in the late '70s and early '80s. Interest rates in 2018 were forecast to be 23% above average levels from 2000 to 2017, but were still 8% below long-run average levels because of historically low interest rates.
  • Farm assets, especially land, have appreciated more quickly than debt in recent decades. So the sector's debt-to-asset ratio has fallen since the mid-1980s and hit a historic low in 2012. Since then, demand for land has decreased in some areas and the debt-to-asset ratio has increased. The debt-to-asset ratio is now above its 10-year average, but remains low compared to the 1970-2017 average.
  • Between 85-90% of farms in each category are not categorized as financially stressed, but farms with at least $100,000 in annual sales are more likely to be under financial stress than smaller farms. That's because larger operations tend to get more income from farming and tend to take out more loans.
  • The share of larger farms (at least $100,000 in annual sales) in financial distress has increased since 2012. The stress comes from having low levels of solvency or low repayment capacity.
  • Increases in farming sector financial stress are becoming evident in rising loan delinquency rates, though such rates remain below historical averages and below levels seen from 2010 to 2013 in the wake of the Great Recession.
  • If gross cash farm income were to fall by 10 or 20% from 2017 levels, the share of all farms in extreme financial stress would increase from 1.1% in 2017 to 1.3% and 1.6%, respectively. Extreme financial risk means not having enough income to meet loan payments and a debt-to-asset ratio over 55%. Larger farms, farms with a principle operator under age 40, and dairy farms are vulnerable to such an income drop.

Blackjewel coal miners are to get their back pay this week

Nearly four months after coal company Blackjewel LLC abruptly declared bankruptcy and left more than a thousand miners unpaid for several weeks of work, the company agreed to pay its employees the roughly $5.1 million they're collectively owed. The checks should already be in the mail, according to the company, Will Wright and Bill Estep report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"According to a settlement approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky this week, Blackjewel will send $1.99 million in checks to just over 400 Kentucky miners," Wright and Estep report. "The company will send $2.72 million to about 600 Virginia miners, and $369,000 to about 80 miners in West Virginia, according to settlements approved in federal courts of those states."

The backpay could bring some closure to the miners, many of whom blocked a Blackjewel coal train from leaving Harlan County for nearly two months in protest of the company's failure to pay up. Jessica Maggard, whose husband worked for Blackjewel, "said she and other miners and their families are hopeful about the upcoming check, but do not expect to be compensated for contributions to life insurance policies or vacation days," Wright and Estep report.

Program to find, train, support buyers for community newspapers seeks applications for fellowships by Dec. 31

Screenshot of NewStart website
A new program at West Virginia University is trying to develop the next generation of community newspaper owners by recruiting, training and supporting them. NewStart, a collaboration between WVU's Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association, aims to recruit, train, and support new buyers with paid fellowships.

Local ownership of weeklies is declining: a quarter-century ago, half were independently owned, but by 2018 fewer than one-third were, according to research by Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina. Of the 2,100 papers that have shuttered in the past 15 years, Abernathy says all but 70 published three times a week or less, reports Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute. Most were rural or suburban weeklies.

NewStart was driven by the inability of some newspaper owners in West Virginia who want to retire and can't find a buyers for their papers, a phenomenon that has surfaced in other states, such as Texas. Small, family-owned weeklies tend to have a common set of problems, according to New Start Director Jim Iovino: Younger family members who have moved away or don't want to own the paper, and long-time owners who can't find a buyer, don't want to sell to a chain, and don't want to quit and close the paper.

Potential owners could be anyone, from laid-off journalists to recent college graduates to entrepreneurs, and even other local businesses that realize the value of a local newspaper to its owners and the community. For the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Iovino wrote a story about M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a refugee from daily journalism who turned around a New Mexico weekly. It's part of a package about rural newspaper ownership, introduced by a column from Institute Director Al Cross, editor and publisher of The Rural Blog.

NewStart's website says many profitable are available. WVPA Executive Director Don Smith said the owners can make profits of 20 to 25 percent, and the rewards are more than monetary. "There’s a lot of pride in these little papers," Smith told Hare. "Those folks won’t win a Pulitzer, but they are recognized in their community for the job they do, and that’s important, too."

NewStart is taking applications for its first round of fellowships, which will start in June. Applicants must have a bachelor's degree and the intent to buy and run a publication. Fellows don't receive any funding to buy a paper, but they'll get guidance on how to get a loan or direct financing from the paper's current owner. Apply here by Dec. 31.