Saturday, January 04, 2020

Journalists should remind readers how to be responsible with social media, and how that differs from news media

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

I like to say that every American has the First Amendment right to commit journalism. The verb is instructive; if you're going to represent a writing as journalism, there are some basic news-media rules you should follow, such as accuracy, verification and fairness. But why shouldn't those rules, or at least their spirit, apply to social media?

Many people fail to distinguish between news media (which emphasize fact and practice a discipline of verification) and social media (which have no discipline, no verification and emphasize opinion), and the lines have blurred between fact and opinion, so we think it's important for journalists to frequently remind readers of those distinctions. The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky., did some of that with an editorial that started with recommending a new year's resolution, from a Facebook post: “In 2020, we’re going to read the article before we share it.”

"We’ve all probably been guilty of it at one time or another," the editorial acknowledges. "We read the headline, even the first couple paragraphs of an article and decide it’s something worth sharing. Later, we realize it’s not an accurate or reliable article; or maybe it’s based on fact but is misleading; or perhaps it’s an old article from several years ago. If we haven’t done it ourselves, we’ve surely seen our friends on social media do it a time or two. . . . It can be disheartening to see our friends fall prey to the trolls on the internet who want to spread lies and 'fake news'."

The editorial offers other advice "on how to be a more conscious about what you share and how to decipher if what you are reading is reputable," such as considering the source, consulting reliable online fact checkers, and seeking the same news from other sources.

"Users need to make sure the information they are absorbing and then disseminating is accurate," the editorial concludes. "Be mindful in the new year. Resolve to be a more responsible news consumer and sharer."

Dems' wish to ban fracking on public lands could cost votes

Though not all Democratic presidential candidates support a ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, most want to ban drilling on public lands. That wouldn't move the needle much on drilling activity or climate change, since public-land drilling accounts for only a tenth of the nation's drilling.

"Still, it's a seemingly unprecedented level of hostility from a major political party toward domestic energy production. Even centrists in the nomination fight see little risk in attacking the industry as they try to protect their left flank and top one another in their devotion to fighting climate change," Mike Soraghan reports for Energy & Environment News. "The anti-drilling fervor risks losing votes next November in key oil and gas states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. But if the Democratic nominee wins, it could mean a difficult four years for the oil business. And industry is starting to worry." Read more here.

Newly proposed EPA rule goes easier on coal-ash dumping

A newly proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule will weaken an Obama-era regulation meant to limit toxic metals from coal-fired power plants leeching into water supplies.

Essentially, the EPA has created a new subpart to the rule that shields all but the most high-hazard plants from the old regulations. It "establishes narrower definitions, and more flexible application, modification, and termination requirements and procedures. Significantly, it also establishes a 'tiered' approach to compliance deadlines," Sonal Patel reports for Power, a generating-industry magazine.

The EPA is encouraging states to come up with their own permit programs, and has approved programs from Oklahoma and Georgia so far. "States have been hesitant, owing in part to regulatory uncertainty and legal challenges related to key portions of the Obama administration’s broad April 2015 final coal ash rule," Patel reports. "Other states, such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Illinois, have meanwhile moved to address power plant coal ash disposal through state-level legislation." The newly proposed EPA rule would govern Native American reservations and states that choose not to adopt their own rules.

In related news, Duke Energy will dig up nearly 80 million tons of coal ash at six sites in North Carolina, as part of a settlement with the state Department of Environmental Quality signed Dec. 31. The DEQ ordered the utility to dig up the toxic ash, but Duke filed suit because the company wanted to keep the ash in place and seal off the sites with caps. "DEQ said the excavation would be the largest coal-ash clean up in U.S. history," Lynn Bonner reports for The Charlotte Observer.

Biden says coal miners could easily learn computer coding, but retraining programs for them can be problematic

Biden speaks in Exeter, N.H., Dec. 30. (AP photo by Charles Krupa)
On Dec. 30, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said at a rally that coal miners could easily learn computer coding, Alexandra Kelley reports for The Hill. "Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well," Biden said in Derry, N.H. "Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!" (Note to the former vice president and Pennsylvania native: Coal miners don't throw coal into furnaces.)

The remark fit Biden's proposal to reduce Americans' reliance on fossil fuels while helping coal-mining communities develop other sources of income. Retraining programs for miners have received bipartisan support, but they have a "questionable record of success," Kelley reports. "Some displaced coal workers do transition into other fields or industries, but critics say that the jobs that former coal workers usually find tend to pay only $12 to $15 per hour as opposed to the approximate $75,000 a year salary that coal workers had while working in the mines."

Some careers for which miners retrain have few jobs in their local areas, and some miners say they don't retrain because they hope the coal industry will rebound. "Some miners, especially older ones, find it too daunting to learn a complicated new trade later in life," Kelley reports.

For instance, in a Blackjewel miners' Facebook group, one miner commented on Biden's remark: "Yeah learn to program my azz. I’ll soon be 60 years old and can’t find a job. Even told at one grocery store the position was filled by a younger person." Other comments were overwhelmingly negative, reflecting general offense and a sense that Biden was disrespecting or undervaluing the contributions of coal miners. But "the need for a solution for coal miners continues," Kelley writes. "Although the industry added 4,500 jobs from 2016 to 2018, U.S. coal production decreased by 10 percent in 2019 and jobs are at risk."

UPDATE, Jan. 6: Another Democratic candidate, millionaire businessman Andrew Yang, posted a YouTube video saying that turning coal miners into coders is not the answer to automation, because of the growing advance of artificial intelligence.

Students in small Calif. town illustrate rural 'homework gap'

In Alpaugh, Calif., a town of about 1,000 one hour north of Bakersfield, students enjoy a fully wired school experience with all the latest broadband technology. But only 13.8 percent of Alpaugh families have broadband at home; most can't afford it, and there are few internet options for residents.

"The divide between students who have access to internet and computers required to do assignments at home and those who don’t is known as the homework gap," reports Sydney Johnson of PBS NewsHour. The gap is part of a broader rural-urban disparity in educational opportunities.

The broadband gap in Alpaugh illustrates a larger trend: nearly 3 million U.S. students have trouble keeping up at school because they don't have home internet, The Associated Press reports. About 17% of students don't have a home computer and 18% don't have access to broadband at home. Some students try to make do by using their smartphones, but that is often difficult to manage.

Teachers in Alpaugh try to accommodate students by assigning homework that doesn't require use of the internet. The schools provide Chromebooks for use during school, but students who take the bus or eat breakfast at school don't have much extra time outside of class to use them, Johnson reports.

Carmen Diaz, a middle school history and English teacher who grew up in Alpaugh, told Johnson: "It makes them choose between breakfast and go to work on homework."

Friday, January 03, 2020

Documentary condemns vulture capitalists in news industry

Academy Award-nominated director Rick Goldsmith is producing a documentary about growing threats to local journalism and journalists' efforts to fight back. Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads says it will take a particularly hard look at the role of media chains and vulture capitalists in the current crisis.

View the trailer below, and donate to the project if you feel so led.

Trump administration shuts down pollution database

The Trump administration has shut down a federal database that tracks pollution.

"Toxmap, an interactive map hosted by the National Library of Medicine and accessible to the public, allowed users to track pollution-producing factories and other environmental concerns such as superfund cleanup sites," John Bowden reports for The Hill. "However, on Dec. 16, all links to the application on the NLM's website were deprecated, following an announcement from the agency in September notifying users that the site would be 'retired.'"

The NLM's statement at the time said most content would still be available through other NLM databases and from other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, but said some databases would no longer be available, Bowden reports.

However, Toxmap presented all that data in one interactive site and allowed users to toggle and overlay data. Those capabilities "earned Toxmap a devoted following among researchers, students, activists, and other people keen to identify sources of pollution in their communities," Michael Schulson reports for Popular Science. "Those capabilities appear to no longer be available to the public."

Claudia Persico, an an assistant professor at American University who studies the impact of pollution on children's health, told Schulson she used Toxmap in her research, and that she was stunned that NLM retired "this pretty essential tool for our environmental right-to-know."

Quick hits: Appalachian Trail mural project; how a Texas town bounced back after losing its Walmart

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

A rural Wisconsin doctor fights to manage patients' opioid use amid the addiction crisis. Read more here.

Proposed bipartisan legislation would expand federal housing aid to rural volunteer firefighters and first responders. Read more here.

An op-ed writer writes about why rural voices must be included in the renewable energy debate. Read more here.

Here's how one small Texas town rebounded after it lost its Walmart. Read more here.

An art project reflects the beauty of nature through murals in towns along the Appalachian Trail. Read more here.

Texas GOP to launch fake campaign sites targeting Dems

"Texas Republicans plan to use a disinformation campaign to help them win back a dozen state House races in 2020, buying up website domains that look like they belong to Democratic candidates and loading the sites with negative information, according to a leaked document from the party," Andrea Zelinski reports for the Houston Chronicle. "Republicans are seeking to maintain control of the Texas House after a bruising 2018 election cycle. If Republicans lose nine seats in the 2020 elections, Democrats would take control of the chamber and have a leading role in drawing new congressional and legislative district boundaries after next year’s census."

The plan to spread misinformation through fake campaign sites is akin to recent partisan efforts to spread biased content through websites masquerading as local news sites.

Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey confirmed that the document was authentic, and told the Chronicle he wasn't sure why it's news that "we’re aggressively working to earn the support of all Texas voters for all our candidates," and said that the draft discusses just one of the strategies they plan to use to increase GOP voter turnout, Zelinski reports. Other strategies in the document include publishing videos that highlight diversity within the Republican party and finding ways to combat President Trump's "polarizing nature."

Story ranks top 10 open-government stories of 2019 for Ky.; journalists in other states should do such stories too

A recent article in Forward Kentucky ranks the top 10 open-government news stories in Kentucky (and nationwide) in 2019. It's an excellent example of something journalists in every state should do to remind readers of the value of a free press and its role in keeping government open.

Amye Bensenhaver, co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, included in her detailed piece such things as open-records victories in state courts, failed legislative attempts to narrow the public's rights under open-records laws, passage of a law requiring public agencies to respond to emailed requests for records, and the Supreme Court's ruling against the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, which wanted food-stamp data by retailer.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Evangelicals fear for their rights; 2016 poll suggests concern is overblown, and that they have an 'inverted Golden Rule'

"White evangelicals fear atheists and Democrats would strip away their rights," headlines The Washington Post. "Why? Right-wing media is warning of a civil war — and urging evangelicals to stock up on guns." The headline is based on research and conclusions by Paul A. Djupe, associate professor of political science at Denison University in Ohio and an affiliated scholar with the Public Religion Research Institute. His article appears in the Post's "Monkey Cage," a section where academics share their recent research on topics of public interest.

Djupe notes "voices on the extreme right" warning that President Trump's impeachment is the first shot in a civil war to come. “The Democrats are forcing me to stockpile ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies to defend my family, home, and church,” says Rick Wiles, who Djupe identifies as a "conservative evangelical conspiracy theorist." He notes that Trump has "said that Democrats were coming for the rights of Christians, and that evangelist Franklin Graham "claims that 'demonic forces' are pressing for the impeachment of someone that a significant proportion of evangelicals believe is God’s anointed president."

Those views are reflected among evangelicals, according to an online survey that Djupe and colleague Ryan Burge conducted in May of 1,010 U.S. Protestants, selected through Qualtrics Panels "and weighted to resemble the diversity of Protestants in the country," Djupe writes. "White evangelical Protestants made up 60 percent of our sample."

"We found that 60 percent believed that atheists would not allow them First Amendment rights and liberties," and that Democrats in Congress wouldn't allow them to "hold rallies, teach, speak freely, and run for public office," Djupe reports. The results showed party-affiliation influence; 23 percent said Republicans in Congress wouldn't respect their rights, either, but "Those were primarily the views of a small contingent of white evangelical Democrats in the sample," he writes.

But when Democrats were asked in a similar 2016 poll about civil liberties, the results didn't provide great support for those fears. It asked Americans to choose the group they “liked the least” among atheists, Christian fundamentalists, immigrants, white supremacists, Muslims, Trump supporters, Hillary Clinton supporters and homosexuals. "Just 5 percent chose Christian fundamentalists," Djupe reports. "That included only 5 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of atheists."

Asked whether their least-favorite group should be allowed to give speeches, teach in public schools, run for public office and exercise other liberties, "only 30 percent were willing to allow their disliked group three or more such activities," Djupe reports. "But 65 percent of atheists and 53 percent of Democrats who listed Christian fundamentalists as their least-liked group are willing to allow them to engage in three or more of these activities. That’s a much higher proportion with tolerance than the sample overall."

How about the folks who feel threatened? "A smaller proportion of white evangelicals would behave with tolerance toward atheists than the proportion of atheists who would behave with tolerance toward them," Djupe reports. Among the 13 percent of white evangelical Protestants who said atheists were their least-liked group, "32 percent were willing to extend three or more of these rights to atheists. In fact, when we looked at all religious groups, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked."

Djupe concludes, "Conservative Christians believe their rights are in peril partly because that’s what they’re hearing, quite explicitly, from conservative media, religious elites, partisan commentators and some politicians, including the president. The survey evidence suggests another reason, too. Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them. White evangelical Protestants express low levels of tolerance for atheists, which leads them to expect intolerance from atheists in return. That perception surely bolsters their support for Trump. They believe their freedom depends on keeping Trump and his party in power."

Trump administration stops probing most bird deaths, even discourages protective measures and death reporting

Dozens of bird-preservation efforts have been dropped since Trump administration officials changed enforcement policy for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. They called it a clarification, but it has had dire consequences for birds, their advocates say.

"Across the country, birds have been killed and nests destroyed by oil spills, construction crews and chemical contamination, all with no response from the federal government, according to emails, memos and other documents," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times. "Not only has the administration stopped investigating most bird deaths, the documents show, it has discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary measures to protect birds."

Essentially, the update ends legal consequences for businesses or other entities that kill birds, as long as the deaths were accidental. "In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action," Friedman reports. "In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found."

The Western Energy Alliance, an oil-and-gas trade association, put a bird-law fix at the top of a wish list sent to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. WEA president Kathleen Sgamma said the Obama administration had "weaponized" the law to hurt the industry. Six months after WEA's memo, the Trump administration announced the change.

FWS spokesman Gavin Shire "said in a statement that other federal laws like the Endangered Species Act remain on the books. The Trump administration, he said, 'will continue to work cooperatively with our industry partners to minimize impacts on migratory birds,'" Friedman reports. Some state and local governments and companies are still acting voluntarily to protect birds. 

"Habitat loss and pesticide exposure already have brought on widespread bird-species declines. The number of adult breeding birds in the United States and Canada has plummeted by 2.9 billion since 1970," Friedman reports.

"Migratory birds are important ecological and economic drivers," Brittany Patterson reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-radio consortium. "Each year, birders spend an estimated $41 billion on trips and equipment. Birds are the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine,' and also literal ones. As ecological indicator species they inform us when environmental conditions have changed."

Study links auto-plant closures with upticks in opioid deaths

Counties included in this study; click the image to enlarge it.
A newly published study found a strong link between the closure of automotive factories and opioid-related deaths nearby, Nicole Karlis writes for Salon.

The researchers gathered data on opioid-overdose and related deaths in 112 counties near major auto manufacturing plants between 1999 and 2016. During the studied period, 29 counties had a nearby auto plant close. "Researchers found that in those counties where automotive assembly plants had closed five years earlier, opioid deaths were about 85 percent higher among people between the ages of 16 and 65 compared to counties where such plants remained open," Karlis reports.

The authors emphasize that the auto-plant closures, and the despair they bring to laid-off workers and their families, are not the only cause of opioid overdoses. The prevalence of prescription opioids is also a key factor, Karlis reports. The researchers write that they hope the study will raise awareness of some of the underlying causes of the opioid epidemic, and recommend policies that work to reduce both prescription and illicit opioid supply as well as increased diagnosis and treatment of substance-abuse disorders.

Population and thus political power have shifted to the South and Southwest, and the trend seems likely to continue

Wall Street Journal chart based on Census data
Newly released Census Bureau data shows that population is continuing to shift from the North and Midwest to the South and Southwest; since a higher population means more seats in the House of Representatives, that could increase political clout in such areas, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report for The Wall Street Journal.

The bureau estimated state populations as of July 1, 2019. Since the date of the decennial census is April 1, 2020, the figures are a decent predictor of which states will gain and lose congressional seats and electoral votes based on the count, Adamy and Overberg report.

"Texas is poised to gain two congressional seats, while Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon are each expected to gain one," Adamy and Overberg report. "Eight states are likely to lose one seat: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia and California. It would be California’s first such loss since it became a state in 1850."

The shift could help the Republican Party, since the losses come mainly from Democratic and swing states and the gains mostly go to Republican or swing states, according to Kimball Brace, president of the bipartisan political consulting firm Election Data Services. However, "Democrats have said in Texas and Arizona, the growth of the Latino populations and new residents from other states could eventually turn them blue," Adamy and Overberg report. "Democrats noted how population movements in recent years have moved the partisan makeup of some states in their favor, including Virginia and Colorado."

The power shift will also depend on which party controls each state's legislature after the November elections, since legislators redraw districts, Adamy and Overberg report. Political power also depends on whether voters are moving to urban areas, which tend to be more liberal; or rural areas, which tend to be more conservative. A decades-long trend of Americans moving to larger cities will likely result in Democrats benefitting from the new Census, Reid Wilson reports for The Hill.

Rural areas could bear brunt of stricter SNAP work rules

According to one nonprofit, rural residents may be most hurt by changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, Mary Kuhlman reports for Ohio News Service.

Liz Shaw, president of Indivisible Appalachian Ohio, told Kuhlman she hears stories every day from the rural working poor. "Shaw said work requirements are especially harmful for rural communities where employment opportunities, child care and public transportation options are often scarce. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, of the 150 counties in the U.S. with the highest SNAP usage, 136 are rural," Kuhlman reports. She notes, "Data from the Food Research and Action Center shows rural communities account for 78 percent of counties with the highest rates of overall food insecurity."

Shaw told Huhlman she fears the SNAP work requirement will worsen food insecurity for those in rural food deserts, places 10 miles or more from a full-service grocery: "If you're having to drive 40 miles to get food and you barely have enough money to buy the gallon of milk, much less a gallon of gas to get you to these areas to purchase food, that compounds already a problem that is untenable." Shaw also said Appalachian food pantries are already struggling to feed the hungry.

The new SNAP rules create stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents under the age of 50, but such adults may have informal dependents, such as an ailing parent or step-children, that aren't acknowledged by the program.

Shared workspaces promote digital economy in rural areas

Rural residents are often less able to access jobs that depend on a broadband internet connection, since rural households are less likely to have such a service. However, an increasing number of small towns are investing in shared, wired-up work spaces to make such jobs more available.

"As remote and digital careers continue to grow in popularity, shared spaces offer workers community, collaboration and connection in remote areas, just like you’d find at the local general store," Sunny Naughton reports for The North Star Monthly in Danville, Vermont.

Click here to read more about what that looks like in small towns across Vermont, and how a statewide tech initiative is helping fund it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Trade-aid payments questioned due to regional differences, even within states, and less transparency of calculations

The program to compensate farmers for low crop prices caused by the trade war with China has paid higher rates in the South, sparking some regional resentment, April Simpson of Stateline reports.

"The payments are intended to support farmers for crops like soybeans and corn that were subject to retaliatory tariffs from China," Simpson explains. "In North Dakota, which typically sends more than two-thirds of its soybeans to China, it’s more expensive to send exports to new markets such as Europe. Lawmakers, academics and farmers question whether the aid has favored certain regions and states, and whether the payments line up with farmers’ actual economic losses."

The rates for the Market Facilitation Program vary even within states. Farmers in western North Dakota are generally getting a lower rate than those in the eastern part of the state. The program has picked “winners and losers between regions and crops,” Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee said in a November report.

"The minority members represent the Corn Belt, West and Northeast," Simpson notes. "The report provides evidence that the 2019 MFP awarded 95 percent of top payment rates to Southern farmers; helped wealthy farms and foreign companies; and offered no long-term investment or plan for rebuilding lost markets."

This year's payments were calculated differently than last year's, which were based on production and county averages. "A lack of transparency in how this year’s payments were calculated has opened the USDA to criticism," Simpson writes. "This year’s payment rates were distributed on a per-acre basis and range from $15 to $150. Rates of more than $100 an acre are concentrated in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Arizona, according to the University of Illinois publication farmdoc daily. The difference is caused in part by the increasing MFP payment per pound of cotton, which went from 6 cents to 26 cents between 2018 and 2019. Cotton is largely produced in the South. By contrast, the payment per pound of corn went from 1 cent to 14 cents. Counties in the West, upper Midwest and Eastern seaboard tended to be paid at rates below $50 an acre." Read more details here.

American Press Institute president says journalists know less than they used to about the people they're covering

Journalist and novelist Tom Rosenstiel put forth a controversial claim in a recent Poynter op-ed: "For a host of reasons, journalists today understand less of the truth about the people they’re covering."

Rosenstiel, the president of the American Press Institute, cites a number of reasons for what he says is a subtle shift. That includes technological advances in the late 1980s that allowed more journalists to report live on the scene of breaking news. Though that meant more news coverage, it also meant that investigators and other officials had a harder time developing trust with a few experienced journalists. Newer reporters complained about uneven access when they got scooped, so it was just easier for public officials to mandate that all reporters had the same access.

"More outlets covering the news had the ironic effect of shifting power away from journalists toward newsmakers. It was simple economic theory at work: More outlets competing for stories made it 'a sellers' market' for information," Rosenstiel writes. "Sources, rather than journalists, were more able to dictate the terms of the sale, cherry-picking friendly outlets and angles (Trump and his Fox and friends)."

And, with the rise of social media, newsmakers can get content to their audience without the news media. "The press is no longer a gatekeeper over what the public knows — the classic definition of the media. It is now instead often an annotator of what the public has already heard," Rosenstiel writes. "This annotator’s role is powerful and important. It forces journalists to away from being gullible stenographers and emphasizes verification and proof. Trump in many ways, ironically, has made the press more disciplined, more careful and more transparent. I love stories that note the reporting is based on interviews with 27 officials in the West Wing speaking anonymously."

Read more here:

S.C. lawmaker proposes mandatory news literacy classes

A South Carolina state legislator has proposed a law that would require public schools to teach students media literacy. The state department of education would be required to develop the curriculum with input from an advisory committee composed of experts in media literacy, including teachers, librarians, parents, students, and other stakeholders, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

"The bill aims to improve media literacy among young people as a way to combat the spread of misinformation and 'fake news,' according to Rep. Seth Rose, a Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor," Queram reports. "Multiple states currently require some aspect of media literacy in the K-12 curriculum, although details vary from place to place."

Monday, December 30, 2019

Study: Online ordering and delivery of groceries through SNAP useful in urban areas, but not much in rural areas

A newly published study shows that online purchase of groceries purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) helps low-income people in food deserts—but very little in rural areas.

The 2014 Farm Bill funded a pilot program that allowed SNAP beneficiaries in eight states to buy groceries online and have them delivered; the 2018 Farm Bill made the program national. The researchers, whose study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sought to quantify the potential effect of SNAP delivery in rural and urban food deserts. 

The study looked at 1,191 urban census tracts and 59 rural census tracts defined as food deserts (the definitions for rural and urban food deserts are different); 1,108 (93 percent) of the urban tracts were fully able to access online grocery purchase and delivery, but none of the rural tracts were; 18 were partially able to access it. Among the remaining urban tracts, 13 (1.1%) were partially able to access online purchase and delivery, and 70 (5.9%) were unable to access it.

Study assesses importance of SNAP in rural areas, proposes changes to make the program more accessible

Newly published research assesses the needs of rural residents who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly food stamps) and how the program can be improved for them. 

Many changes have been proposed that would make SNAP more accessible to rural residents, especially since rural households are slightly more likely to receive SNAP benefits than their urban counterparts, and rural SNAP recipients sometimes have difficulty accessing such benefits because of transportation and other issues.

"The special considerations we identified include allowing canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables as eligible items in financial incentive programs in rural areas; changing direct education programming to address transportation-related barriers many rural families face in attending in-person classes; and supporting rigorous research to evaluate the potential benefits and unintended consequences of proposed program changes for which scant high-quality evaluation data exist," write the paper's authors, all from the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.

Accessing the study online carries a fee upwards of $24, but you may be able to obtain a free copy by emailing the authors.

Upper Midwest farm bankruptcies surpass Great Recession levels; calls to state crisis lines up 57% since 2015

"An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that 84 farm operations in the upper Midwest filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy from June 2017 to June 2018," Michael Sykes reports for Axios. That's more than the number of such bankruptcies in 2010 at the height of the Great Recession. The report predicts that bankruptcies will continue to rise in the Upper Midwest, which includes the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana, and Wisconsin.

Dairy farms were particularly hit hard, the report said; Wisconsin had 50 farm bankruptcies in the time period studied—more than any other state.

"Farmers around the country are struggling to pay for basics like groceries and electricity as farm bankruptcies rise and farm debt hits a record high. Calls from farmers in financial crisis to state mediators have soared by 57 percent since 2015," Annie Gowen reports for The Washington Post. The story illustrates the trend with a portrait of a dairy farming family in rural New York.

Federal Reserve study finds Trump tariffs have backfired

"President Donald Trump’s strategy to use import tariffs to protect and boost U.S. manufacturers backfired and led to job losses and higher prices, according to a Federal Reserve study" released Dec. 23, Greg Robb reports for MarketWatch.

Over the past two years, Trump has imposed tariffs on imported goods from China in an effort to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector and protect it from what he deems unfair trade practices. And while the tariffs succeeded in reducing domestic competition in some industries, increasing input costs and retaliatory tariffs more than offset that benefit, Robb reports. 

"Tit-for-tat trade retaliation is an idea best relegated to the past, given the presence of globally interconnected supply chains, the Fed researchers found," Robb reports. "The top 10 manufacturing industries hit by foreign retaliatory tariffs were producers of: magnetic and optical media, leather goods, aluminum sheet, iron and steel, motor vehicles, household appliances, sawmills, audio and video equipment, pesticide, and computer equipment. The top ten industries hit by higher prices were: aluminum sheet, steel product, boilers, forging, primary aluminum production, secondary aluminum smelting, architectural metals, transportation equipment, general purpose machinery and household appliances."

EPA proposes new rules on weedkiller atrazine, and environmentalists object; OKs 10 pesticides for hemp

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new restrictions on the herbicide atrazine Dec. 19. U.S. farmers use about 72 million pounds of it annually, mostly on corn, sorghum and sugar cane.

"In a proposed interim final rule, EPA said it would impose new requirements to minimize workers' exposure to atrazine, including limiting applications on sod and reducing the amount combined with fertilizer," Marc Heller reports for Energy & Environment News. The agency also said it would bar atrazine from being sprayed in liquid form by airplane, which it says would reduce the risk of atrazine hitting waterways or wildlife.

"Environmentalists say EPA's plan weakens protections and would allow 50 percent more of the endocrine-disrupting herbicide linked to birth defects and cancer to end up in waterways," Heller reports. "Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity have pointed to bans on atrazine use in Europe and said EPA hasn't properly consulted with other federal agencies regarding compliance with the Endangered Species Act."

EPA also approved 10 pesticides for use on hemp, Heller reports.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Not just another newspaper obit: California's oldest weekly

A Mark Twain bust looks on as Don Russell edits The Mountain Messenger. (Los Angeles Times photo by Kent Nishimura)
About 2,000 newspapers in the United States have closed or merged in the last 15 years, all but a few of them weeklies, about two-thirds in metropolitan areas and close to third in rural areas. That's more than two and a half papers a week, many with only local notice. But when California's oldest weekly announces it's folding, that's worth broader attention -- especially when it once carried the byline of Sam Clemens, who later adopted the name Mark Twain.

Sierra County, California, with Plumas
County to the north (Wikipedia map)
The Mountain Messenger serves Sierra County, which has a population of only 3,240, not enough to support a newspaper, as several very small U.S. counties have learned in the past century, increasingly in recent years. It also served Plumas County, pop. 20,000, which has its own papers.

"Editor-Publisher Don Russell had spent the past year trying to sell the state’s oldest weekly newspaper with no luck. He is planning to retire by the middle of January, at which point publication will end," Brittany Mejia reports for the Los Angeles Times. He told her, “I haven’t taken a salary to speak of” for the last two years. “Nobody in their right mind would buy this paper. . . . I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’m tired of it.”

The Messenger's circulation is "about 2,400 on its best day," Mejia writes. "The paper dates to 1853, when it was started as a twice-monthly publication. It became the Mountain Messenger in 1854 or 1855 and moved to La Porte and then to Downieville, a Gold Rush community about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento. The paper’s claim to fame is that Twain once wrote there while hiding out from the law. He was only there for a couple of weeks, writing under his real name, Sam Clemens, according to Russell, who read some of his articles on microfilm."

“They were awful,” Russell told Mejia. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

As most of America's early newspapers did, the Messenger has survived in recent years on income from public notices bought by local and state governments, and from other legally required ads. Now Sierra County won't have an official organ. County Supervisor Lee Adams told Meija, “It has chronicled our history for 166 years, and to see it disappear now is just quite sad. This is more than a newspaper; it really is an institution.”