Friday, January 31, 2020

Buffett's sale of newspapers a bad sign for local journalism; owners must maintain quality and credibility to survive

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

In 2012, when billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway started a spree of buying newspapers, most of them community weeklies, those of us who look after local journalism were heartened. Here was the Oracle of Omaha, putting his money (and BH shareholders' money) where his mouth had long been. He said at the time:
I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town. That will mean both maintaining your news hole; a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. No one has ever stopped reading when half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors.
Warren Buffett on May 5, 2019 (Associated Press photo by Nati Harnik)
In other words, maintain quality journalism, and you can stay in business and still render public service. But Buffett apparently did not anticipate how much local advertising would shift from newspapers to the digital space. Last year, he told Sam Ro of Yahoo Finance that the newspaper business had evolved "from monopoly to franchise to competitive to — toast. They're going to disappear,” except papers that have national audiences.

So now he is selling his remaining 31 newspapers for $140 million to Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa, which has managed BH Media for the last year and a half and will now borrow money from Berkshire Hathaway, which will keep the papers' real estate — their main asset. It has to be a bad sign for local journalism when a major newspaper owner loses confidence in the industry, but it shouldn't be taken as a signal of doom, Poynter Institute media analyst Rick Edmonds wrote:
For those who may not follow the industry closely, Buffett’s exit will probably be read as a high-profile vote of no confidence. However, there is no reason to think any of the papers will shut down — though they may well shrink further and eliminate print editions some days of the week over the next several years. Buffett was well aware of the digital transformation in progress. But given his age (89) I suspect he had a particular affection for print. And he was not alone in thinking that daily print remains a key to brand identity and community influence. So I do take his exit as one more marker of big changes in the works and of falling investor confidence. One of my industry sources summarized the news as “take my newspapers … please.”
Walter Hussman Jr.
The future of the newspaper industry is not on paper, as Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. is trying to persuade his readers, offering them free iPads to shift to the digital version of the Democrat-Gazette. He and other publishers know that with advertisers fleeing, they must get more of their revenue from the audience. But to do that, newspapers must maintain the trust of their audiences; and to maintain trust and the credibility that goes with it, they must maintain the sort of quality that Buffett talked about. And in a time when the news media are under attack, impartiality is essential to their credibility. Hussman wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal a few months ago:
We seem to be reverting to 19th-century ideas about news and partisanship. While cable-news networks have all done good journalism, they also feature highly opinionated commentators and shows. The problem is that there isn’t a sharp delineation between news and opinion, creating the perception that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News each have their own agenda. If community journalism in America doesn’t survive its economic challenges and we end up with three national newspapers, it is important that the public’s perception of those newspapers not mirror their perception of the cable networks. The solution is for reporters, editors and news executives to look inward, and not only to recommit ourselves to being fair, objective and impartial in our reporting, but to convince the public we are doing it. We also need to separate and clearly label news and opinion.
Hussman's papers keep posted on their home and editorial pages their core values, which begin with impartiality and close with a quote from Hussman's father: "A newspaper has five constituencies, including first its readers, then advertisers, then employees, then creditors, then shareholders. As long as the newspaper keeps those constituencies in that order, especially its readers first, all constituencies will be well served."

A newspaper needs to remind readers, and potential readers, what it stands for and how it works. And everyone in journalism and the news business needs to keep reminding their audiences (and potential audiences, via social media) how they are supposed to work. Here's a "How we work" elevator speech or page blurb I published almost a year ago:

We practice journalism, which reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of the news media. There are two other types of information media: social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, beliefs, etc.

Newspapers once relied on one form of strategic media, advertising, for most of their income. Today, social media get more of the ad money, so newspapers must get more income from the only other reliable place they can get it: their readers, in the form of subscriptions or single-copy sales. As you might guess, we prefer subscribers, so we hope to earn your respect and loyalty.

How do we do that? By being honest and straightforward about our business.

That means we must separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views have some influence over what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us.

Every newspaper in America needs to trumpet how it works, and the values that guide it; and to remind readers and potential readers that newspapers are the primary fact-finders in democracy, from Washington to the smallest places. Please join us in doing that.

States, federal government, plan for climate-change disasters; interactive map shows recently affected areas

Federal disaster declarations, 2014-19 (Stateline map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
"State lawmakers across the country are calling for huge investments to mitigate the effects of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, droughts and other natural disasters made more devastating and frequent by climate change," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "Following the hottest decade on record, which saw record-breaking wildfires in the West, extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, a years-long drought in California, and severe flooding in the Midwest, legislators in many states say it’s long past time to treat such events as the new normal — and invest accordingly."

The federal government is getting ready too: the Department of Housing and Urban Development now has a $16 billion program to help coastal states prepare for natural disasters. That's a departure from the department's usual model of helping by way of its Federal Emergency Management Agency after disasters have happened, Brown reports.

"Even states whose leaders don’t publicly acknowledge the existence of climate change, such as Texas and South Carolina, have applied for federal dollars citing 'changing coastal conditions' or 'unpredictability,'" Brown reports.

Planning for climate-change disasters requires government officials to adopt a different mindset. "Most of what government does is thinking three to five years ahead," Jim Murley, the chief resilience officer in Miami-Dade County, told Brown. With climate change, "We seriously have to think about 2040, 2060, 2100 — that doesn’t happen. We don’t do that for transportation planning, water planning — anything. You have to deal with a lot of uncertainty while at the same time believing the science is taking you on some path among these scenarios."

Ron Howard hints about what to expect in Hillbilly Elegy film

J.D. Vance's love-it-or-hate-it Appalachian memoir Hillbilly Elegy is coming to Netflix (and theatres) this year with a star-studded cast including Amy Adams and Glenn Close and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard at the helm, Haleigh Foutch reports for Collider.

Howard recently spoke to Collider's Steve Weintraub about what viewers can expect from the adaptation: "It’s a story of transformation and while it focuses on that culture, a group of people that I really really relate to given my own family background and history, and my wife’s as well, it really is about being your best self, finding strength in your heritage, and the lessons that you learn, but also recognizing the hurdles that some of that might represent as well, and learning how to grow beyond it. It’s a self-actualization story. It’s powerful."

Howard also praised the cast, saying that the performances were the best he'd seen since Frost/Nixon, Foutch reports. Howard said the film doesn't have a release date yet, but said they've just finished shooting and are still doing some post-production work. Watch the whole interview here.

FCC announces $20 billion rural broadband program

The Federal Communications Commission has established a new program to expand broadband build-out in rural areas. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which would replace the Connect America Fund, will give out $20.4 billion in subsidies for broadband network construction over the next decade, Jon Reid reports for Bloomberg Law. Money for the subsidies would come from the agency's Universal Service Fund, which consumers fund through fees on monthly phone bills. The subsidies would be distributed through a reverse auction to broadband providers.

"The first phase of funding, $16 billion, will go to areas where FCC data shows all buildings lack broadband service. The remaining $4.4 billion will be allocated later, based on more precise location data, to connect unserved buildings near structures that may already have service," Reid reports. "The agency’s two Democratic members criticized the commission for allocating most of the funds without using the more precise data."

Broadband maps are based largely on data self-reported by major carriers; carriers have incentive to exaggerate their rural coverage so they can qualify for rural subsidies. Moreover, an area counts as "covered" if only one household has high-speed internet. The FCC voted last August to require broadband providers to submit more in-depth data, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai "said the agency couldn’t afford to wait for the more accurate broadband data collection when so many rural Americans continue to lack broadband access," Reid reports.

The two Democratic commissioners also criticized the plan for barring funds from going to states, including New York, that already spend a significant amount of their own money on expanding rural broadband. Pai said such exclusions were necessary to get the money where it is needed, Reid reports.

In addition to this broadband fund, the FCC is working on a $9 billion subsidy program to bring 5G wireless to rural areas.

Rural Iowans, days from caucus, talk about which Democratic candidates they like and why

The first major electoral event of 2020 will happen Monday evening as Iowa holds its caucuses. Rural Iowans helped put President Trump over the top, so their views on which Democratic candidate is "electable" may carry quite a bit of weight in the November election.

Alexi McCammond of Axios traveled with former Vice President Joe Biden on a recent swing through Iowa. The rural Iowans McCammond spoke to aren't fixated on impeachment or liberal notions such as the Green New Deal, he reports, though he notes: "There’s a danger in reading too much into any candidate's bus tour, because the people who show up are usually supportive of the candidate even if they're not yet committed."

The Democratic nominee should be someone who can "win over white working-class people who think that they were left behind, and they think that Donald Trump is doing it for them," voter Janet Abbas told McCammond. Abbas said she didn't think Trump was delivering on his promises, and said she couldn't understand why his fans are still backing him.

A Democrat could beat Trump and win some of his supporters if he or she touts their "ability to work with Republicans to get things done," voters Karen and Bernard Pratte told McCammond.

McCammond notes that many Iowans do want someone more liberal, but the Democrats he spoke with who seemed most focused on simply beating Trump tended to like Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. They liked Biden's centrist approach, experience and presence; praised Buttigieg's Midwestern roots and called him "down-to-earth"; and liked Klobuchar's sensible policy proposals.

Feb. 5 webinar on protecting municipal data from hackers

A Feb. 5 Route Fifty webinar will discuss how local governments and organizations can protect critical information from hackers. Click here to register.

Municipal governments, utilities, organizations and businesses have been increasingly targeted by cybercriminals over the past few years. The hackers usually get into computer systems, encrypt, and demand a ransom for unlocking them. Small towns are particularly vulnerable because they often use outdated technology and are less likely to have adequate cybersecurity.

The free webinar will begin at 2 p.m. ET and will last for one hour.

Presenters will be:
  • Alisha Powell Gillis, Senior Editor at Route Fifty.
  • Luis Taylor, Chief of the Office of Access and Function Needs at the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
  • Mario Garcia, Acting Commander of the California Cybersecurity Integration Center in the Homeland Security Division.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Misinformation about coronavirus tests tech platforms' ability to thwart fake news, shows essential role of journalism

Misinformation about the coronavirus is spreading more quickly than the disease itself, "testing Big Tech platforms' ability to police rule-breaking content and China's ability to control domestic criticism," Sara Fischer and Ina Fried report for Axios.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are trying to stop the spread of misinformation, including fake government warnings and false reports about how many Americans are infected. Some misinformation comes from private Facebook groups, The Washington Post reports.

China is also battling misinformation circulating on its social-media platform Weibo, but to complicate matters, the government is spreading misinformation of its own in an effort to allay people's worries. "Chinese state media has tweeted photos purporting to show a new hospital, but which were actually stock images from a company that sells modular containers," Axios reports.

"Health care has long been a target of misinformation, because it plays into existing fears. This is especially true for disease outbreaks, which can spread faster than the news cycle is equipped to handle," Fischer and Fried write for Axios. Such misinformation can make outbreaks worse, because people may mistrust even accurate information about how to stop the spread of diseases.

"This is the latest lesson in why society needs information providers who practice a discipline of verification. In other words, journalists. And news outlets to pay them fairly and enforce standards," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. Here is reliable coronavirus information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hemp companies' bankruptcies illustrate industry's growing pains; stakeholders weigh in on proposed regulations

Two Kentucky hemp processing companies are facing bankruptcy after months of financial problems, highlighting the regulatory problems that plague the fledgling industry.

Three creditors, owed more than $50,000 altogether, recently filed an involuntary-bankruptcy petition to force GenCanna, one of the state's largest hemp processors, into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "GenCanna is also in arbitration with a group of Central Kentucky farmers who sued in October for $5 million over a failed joint venture," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Among other things, the farmers allege that GenCanna didn't provide them with hemp to plant until it was too late in the growing season to make other arrangements, which forced them to accept poor-quality plants and sign "horrific" contracts.

"Separately, GenCanna was sued last year for more than $13 million over debts related to a Graves County processing plant" it's building, Patton reports. Last week, accounting firm Dean Dorton filed suit in Fayette Circuit Court, alleging that GenCanna owes it more than $500,000 in services.

GenCanna isn't the only Kentucky hemp company in bankruptcy court. In January, Sunstrand owner William "Trey" Riddle filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy to liquidate assets. "According to that filing, Riddle and Sunstrand have between $100,001 and $500,000 in assets but owe more than $10 million," Patton reports. "It is unclear if Sunstrand, which specializes in using hemp fiber in a variety of materials, is still operating."

The companies' bankruptcies may reflect legal uncertainty in the hemp industry. The 2018 Farm Bill authorized its widespread cultivation, but left regulations largely up to states. The lack of federal regulation has led to interstate-commerce problems, and the crop's popularity has outpaced state laws governing its growth and distribution. Hemp farmers have also had a hard time with banking, and a lack of financial protections when processors or distributors don't keep their end of the bargain.

Many stakeholders are frustrated with the Wild West atmosphere, as evidenced by the 2,500-plus public comments the U.S. Department of Agriculture received on its proposed regulations for hemp production. Though some commenters complained that federal rules could hamper the industry, "Most commenters were glad to have some guidance after being stuck in regulatory limbo for much of 2019," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The American Farm Bureau Federation asked that the USDA develop a seed certification program for farmers who buy seeds from foreign countries. Such seeds might produce plants with too much tetrahydrocannabinol (the chemical in cannabis that produces a high), and that could jeopardize the crop's ability to qualify as hemp, McCrimmon reports.

"The National Farmers Union took issue with the rule’s 'negligence' threshold: If a plant exceeds a 0.5 percent level of THC, farmers risk losing their license. NFU said that’s too rigid, especially in the early years as producers try to develop best practices for growing hemp," McCrimmon reports. Bumping up the legal THC threshold is also one of the Farm Bureau's 2020 policy goals.

The U.S. Hemp Roundtable, a lobbying group that represents companies that sell hemp products, said they disagreed with the requirement that only labs certified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration can be used to test hemp, McCrimmon reports. That could lead to testing bottlenecks, the group said.

Farmer builds simple device to stop grain-bin deaths

Guy Mills (photo provided)
Grain bins may seem innocuous to non-farmers, but dozens of people in the past few years have died in them, after being engulfed by grain. Nebraska farmer Guy Mills says he's invented a simple machine that can help prevent such deaths by making it unnecessary for farmers to enter a grain bin to manually break up a clump, or plug, of stored grain, Chris Bennett reports for AgWeb.

Mills, a fifth-generation farmer who grows alfalfa, corn and soybeans in Custer County, says two Nebraska farmers died in bin deaths last year alone and the thought weighed heavily on him. "Essentially, Mills' eureka moment centers on the use of a commercial air compressor to blow out plugs as a preventive measure related to the dangers of bin entry and grain collapse," Bennett reports. "Mills contends the shop-solution technology only takes a few minutes to build, is extremely low-cost, and removes clogs in just a few minutes."

Mills got the idea for his invention after snow got into one of his corn bins in early 2019 and caused some of his corn to clump together. "I ran into an employee working for Trotter Fertilizer Inc. of Arcadia Nebraska. He was using a commercial air compressor to remove a plug. I was in shock and wondered why I’d never heard of this," Mills told Bennett. "I made my own version and it worked great, and now I want everyone to know about this."

Removing a grain-bin plug requires a commercial air compressor, much more powerful—and expensive—than those farms normally have. Though such compressors cost about $25,000, farmers can rent one for about $50 per day. With about $150 of parts, a commercial air compressor can be rigged up to unplug a bin auger in three to four minutes, Mills told Bennett.

In the article, Mills explains in detail how to replicate his invention. Ruben Lomeli, who works with Mills, told Bennett he was initially skeptical but is a true believer after seeing it in action. "Nobody has to go inside the bin. The pressure from the compressor breaks all the chunks, and no one has to crawl over the corn or push anything down," Lomeli said.

Mills' invention comes just in time for Grain Bin Safety Week, Feb. 16-22. Insurance company Nationwide began the observance in 2014 to raise awareness about grain-bin deaths and promote safe bin practices on farms and commercial grain-handling facilities. Click here for more information.

USDA webinar on farm income forecast at 1 ET Wednesday

Tune in at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Feb. 5 for a free webinar discussing the latest farm income forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, to be published here.

The USDA makes estimates in February, August and November, covering a wide range of data and predictions concerning the farm economy. ERS economist Carrie Litkowski will discuss updated data and forecasts on farm income and wealth, cash receipts, other sources of income such as government payments and insurance, production expenditures, off-farm income, and breakouts by major commodities and regions. Click here for more information or click here to register.

UPS to add 1,500 access locations, mainly rural, in 2020

Package delivery giant United Parcel Service is moving further into rural areas that are under-served in the era of e-commerce," Anne D'Innocenzio reports for The Associated Press. "The Atlanta-based company said Wednesday it's adding 1,500 pickup and drop-off locations at small businesses primarily located in rural cities and towns across the U.S by year-end. It's through its Access Point program, where UPS pays local merchants a small fee to act as a package pickup location. The move will increase those locations to more than 22,000 this year."

The company said that would put 92 percent of the U.S. population within five miles of an access point. That will help small businesses and give rural residents more access to online shopping, AP reports: "Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer of Publicis Communications, says rural areas are even more dependent on e-commerce as more retailers close stores in those areas."

UPS has made efforts in recent years to expand its rural outreach. In 2019 it added 12,000 new package pick-up locations inside CVS, Michaels and Advance Auto Parts stores, AP reports.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Federal court rules that EPA wrongly granted biofuel waivers to three refineries; could spell trouble for other waivers

On Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency was wrong to give three biofuel waivers to oil refineries in 2017. The decision "has cast doubt on the legitimacy of dozens of other EPA exemptions granted under similar circumstances, according to industry experts and agency data," Richard Valdmanis reports for Reuters.

The exemptions are meant to help small refiners that would suffer financially if forced to comply with the Renewable Fuel Standard's requirement to blend ethanol into the fuel supply. Corn and ethanol interests say the Trump administration has granted an unusually large number of waivers to help the oil industry, and say the increased waivers have hurt the ethanol industry, Valdmanis reports.

"The oil industry argues the waivers are needed to protect refining jobs, and says the waivers do not affect actual ethanol usage," Valdmanis reports. However, at least 18 ethanol plants have shuttered because of the declining demand for ethanol. The court's decision "spells uncertainty for a handful of independent refiners that secured lucrative waivers from the Trump administration, and could fire up prices for the biofuel blending credits those facilities need to comply" with law, Valdmanis reports.

According to the court's decision, "the EPA overstepped its authority to grant the waivers because the refineries had not received exemptions in the previous year. The court said the RFS is worded in such a way that any exemption granted to a small refinery after 2010 must take the form of an 'extension'," Valdmanis reports. "It also noted research showing oil refineries are able to pass the costs of complying with the RFS to consumers by raising fuel prices, suggesting the waivers were not needed to help the oil refineries financially."

Proposed protections for whopper crawdads could tighten regulations on Central Appalachian mining, logging

With adults that top 7 inches, the Big Sandy crayfish is one
 of the largest "crawdads." (US Fish & Wildlife photo)
"A threatened species of crayfish could receive new protections under a proposal submitted Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that might lead to new regulations on coal mining, logging and other development in Eastern Kentucky," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Under the proposal, 362 miles of waterways in Appalachian areas of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia would be designated as "critical habitat" for the Big Sandy crayfish, a species listed as threatened in 2016 under the Endangered Species Act, Wright reports. The proposal also seeks protections for the endangered Guyandotte River crayfish, native to southern West Virginia. The proposal notes that critical-habitat designations are granted to areas that are essential to the conservation of threatened and endangered species that may need extra protection.

The proposal names mining, logging and natural-gas drilling as some of the species' biggest threats. A spokesman for the FWS said it is working with coal companies "to address the conservation of both species," Wright reports. "The public can submit official comments through March 30."

The proposal was spurred by a 2018 lawsuit against FWS by the left-leaning Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that often sues the federal government over proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act. The organization alleged the agency hadn't designated critical habitats for the crayfish within the timeline required by the act.

Zack Crouch, the at-risk species biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said granting the crayfish extra protections wouldn't prevent development, but would require developers who receive federal funding or permits to consult with FWS to ensure that their actions won't harm the species' habitat, Wright reports. 

TVA must do more to generate clean energy, write energy analyst and former environmental reporter

As part of his "Green New Deal" plan, Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders wants the Tennessee Valley Authority to shut down all its fossil fuel-burning plants and generate electricity solely from renewable sources. TVA currently operates six coal-fired power plants, 17 natural gas plants, and one diesel generator site. The rest of its power comes from nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind and biogas.

That may seem fanciful, but two writers say in The New York Times that it's not a bad idea for TVA focus on clean energy generation. Justin Gillis is a former Times environmental reporter; Jameson McBride is an energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center.

TVA, which sells power across parts of seven states, has a history of polluting waterways and property by improperly storing the toxic coal ash generated by its coal-fired power plants, they write: "In December 2008, an immense spill of coal ash at a TVA plant in Kingston, Tenn., polluted a nearby river and caused millions of dollars of property damage. The TVA had failed to carry out elementary safety measures, and the lead cleanup contractor was found negligent in court. Many workers on the cleanup have fallen ill and close to 40 have died; how much responsibility the contractor bears for the deaths is still being contested in court."

Though TVA is moving away from coal, and generates the lion's share of its electricity from nuclear power, Gillis and McBride write that the federal utility is moving too slowly to build more wind and solar generators. The modest solar buildout the agency's has adopted will result in higher electric bills for TVA customers than those who buy from other producers, they believe.

The biggest problem is that TVA has no central boss to drive change; just board members appointed by the president. "So the agency, long dominated by a conservative engineering mind-set, has gotten little pressure from Washington to move faster on the energy transition. But it is starting to get pressure from the other direction: cities that buy power wholesale and resell it to their citizens. Memphis, for instance, is considering pulling out of the TVA system and cutting its own deals for clean power," Gillis and McBride write.

TVA already has some of the lowest emissions in the country, but it could achieve much more in short order if it wanted to, they write: "The backwardness of the TVA on this issue is not just a national embarrassment; it is a betrayal of the agency’s own progressive legacy as one of the signature creations of the New Deal. The next president, whether Mr. Sanders or somebody else, needs to shake up the TVA board and demand that the agency become a leader, not a laggard, in battling the climate crisis."

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Gov. Jim Justice invite conservative Virginia counties to secede and join West Virginia

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice listens. (Photo via TPM)
The boundary of Virginia and West Virginia is barely visible, in this
map of the 2016 presidential vote by precinct, since the states' rural
areas voted Republican.(New York Times map; click on it to enlarge)
"In what they acknowledged is a long-shot bid, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. urged unhappy Virginia counties Tuesday to secede and join a neighboring state where Democrats aren’t in charge," Anthony Izaguirre and Alan Suderman report for The Associated Press.

Liberty University is in Lynchburg, Va., an independent city surrounded by one of the counties encouraged to secede; Falwell, a staunch supporter of President Trump, has helped vault the college into a conservative political touchstone in a state that has recently turned Democratic. Justice, who recently became a Republican and is running for re-election in a state freshly dominated by the GOP, said West Virginia welcomes those who oppose abortion and gun control.

The so-called "Vexit" movement is a response to last November's Virginia election, in which Democrats won full control of the state legislature. With Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam at the helm, Democrats have "pledged to enact gun-control measures, roll back abortion restrictions, and prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people," the AP reports. That sparked a huge backlash in rural Virginia: at least 60 of the 95 counties have since declared themselves "Second Amendment sanctuaries," a largely symbolic gesture that asserts local authorities' right to disregard state and federal gun-control laws, AP reports. More recently, thousands of gun-rights activists protested in the state capital of Richmond, many wearing tactical gear and carrying firearms.

The press conference was met with derision on both sides of the aisle in the Virginia General Assembly; Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican, likened the press conference to a "comedy routine," Izaguirre and Suderman report. A spokesperson for Northam said, "Sounds like it’s an election year in West Virginia," Matt Shuham reports for Talking Points Memo.

However, some West Virginia state legislators are taking the notion seriously. A few weeks ago, lawmakers "introduced formal resolutions inviting parts of Virginia to join their state. One resolution targets Virginia’s Frederick County, but was met with a shrug from the county’s leader," the AP reports. "The other casts a wider net to all Virginia’s counties, saying the 'government at Richmond now seeks to place intolerable restraints upon the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment.'"

Justice noted during the press conference that West Virginia and Virginia share a unique history, alluding to the fact that West Virginia is the only state formed by seceding from a Confederate state. Justice reiterated at the press conference that all Virginia counties have a 158-year-old standing invitation to join the state, Elizabeth Tyree reports for WSET-TV in Lynchburg.

It's unclear how secession would proceed, but Falwell said lawyers had advised him that Virginia counties would need to first conduct petition drives, then hold a referendum, and if that succeeded, the proposal would go before the General Assembly, Izaguirre and Suderman report. Rick Boyer, a conservative activist attorney in Virginia, said he's working hard to make Vexit a reality. "This isn’t street theater; we fully intend to do everything we can to see it through," Boyer told the AP.

Ky. research team explores using drones to monitor cattle

Beef cattle graze in Montana. (Alamy stock photo)
Almost 3 million U.S. cows die from health problems each year, costing the cattle industry more than $1 billion. Better observation of pasturing cows has been proven to reduce deaths, but the are spread out over wide areas, and monitoring them can be difficult.

A mechanical engineering professor at the University of Kentucky is trying to see if drones are the answer. Jesse Hoagg, aided by a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is working on a way to use drones to monitor cattle. "The drones would provide farmers with a way to remotely and autonomously check on the location and health of each cow — allowing them to address cattle health and safety issues much sooner," Lindsey Piercy reports for UK's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. "The new system aims to identify each cow in a pasture through unique characteristics such as facial features and measure vital health information like size and physical activity."

The technology would be especially helpful for the many cattle producers who have off-farm jobs, said Josh Jackson, an assistant extension professor who is one of those producers. He said he had the idea when he was trying to find his black Angus in the dark. "It gets tricky to locate cows this time of the year, when the sun sets so early," Jackson told Piercy. "We want to lessen producers' stress by helping them locate their animals quicker and help sick animals faster."

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A deep dive into the failing local-news ecosystem of a hard-hit rural N.C. county that no longer knows what to believe

New Yorker illustration
"What happens when the news is gone?" The New Yorker asks, in a headline over Charles Bethea's 7,265-word account of the failing local-news ecosystem in Jones County, North Carolina. It is the best case study of the local-journalism crisis we have seen, and a model for future reporting; there are plenty of opportunities.

It's a story about the lack of accountability that occurs when the local newspaper becomes a "ghost newspaper," the term Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina coined to describe papers that no longer fulfill their basic First Amendment functions: "The quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content are significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided."

Jones County, North Carolina (Wikipedia)
Jones County was hit hard by Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The mayor of one of its three towns, Pollocksville, population less than 300, spent $67,000 to fix up the town hall without approval of the town board; later, the board passed an ordinance to limit flood damage, after the mayor posted a notice in the New Bern Journal, the daily paper in the county to the east. "Few people in Pollocksville read it," Bethea reports. "Most people would tell you that Jones County doesn't have a newspaper."

But it does, in name only: The Jones Post, which has no dedicated staff and is run out of the Kinston Free Press, a daily in the county to the northwest, owned by Gannett Co. Inc. (actually GateHouse Media, which absorbed Gannett and took its name). Bethea said he asked Gannett's regional editor, Chris Segal, "if the paper could serve as a civic watchdog, covering crime and corruption." Segal replied, “Our reporters are keeping an eye on those things. . . . We called the sheriff last week. He still hasn’t scheduled an interview with us, because he’s so busy.”

Segal's predecessor, Bryan Hanks, told Bethea, “It’s scary. Because government officials, they know. You like to think they’re good people, especially in a community as small as Jones County, where everybody knows everybody. But if you don’t have media that’s going to hold them accountable for their actions—or, heck, even just report what they’re doing—how are the citizens going to know? They don’t know.” County Commissioner Sondra Ipock Riggs, a former Jones Post reporter, told Bethea, “We got officials here think they can get away with things.”

Jones County is typical of many small, rural counties where weekly newspapers have closed or become ghosts. It is North Carolina's fifth least populous county, with about 9,000 people. Its median household income in 2010 was $38,354, well under the state average of $45,570 and the national median of $51,914. In terms of supporting a news outlet, Pollocksville is even worse off; it's not the county seat and is the county's smallest town. When the mayor spent the money on the town hall without board approval, "No one in Pollocksville had a professional responsibility to ask annoying questions about the things that matter only to the citizens of that town, and to no one else, and to print the answers," Bethea notes.

And the loss of a newspaper has a broader impact, he writes: "Dan Ryan, a town commissioner in Maysville, told me that the region didn’t understand itself as well as it should in the absence of local reporting. 'The census is coming up,' he pointed out. 'How many people have we lost since Florence that aren’t ever coming back? . . . Reporting along those lines hasn’t happened, along with the ongoing recovery effort — who’s doing what, grants that had been received, money that’s been distributed, who’s been helped. It just gets left to be told through the rumor mill.”

Apply for ProPublica project where newsrooms nationwide collaborate to cover voting barriers and electoral integrity

ProPublica is seeking local newsrooms to be a part of its Electionland project, a collaboration that will cover voting access, cybersecurity, misinformation and election integrity in the 2020 elections. Participating in Electionland is free.

"Rather than covering the race and the results, Electionland’s goal is to document, nationally and in real time, voting impediments such as long lines, harassment at the polls, misinformation about voting, registration purges, changed voting locations, provisional ballot use, voter ID issues, ballot design problems and vote disruption caused by hacking," says the website.

TV, radio, digital and print reporters are encouraged to apply. Freelancers can apply, but must have a relationship with a local news outlet where their stories can appear.

Participating newsrooms will receive real-time alerts about local polling location problems, data about how elections are run in their counties (including details on voter registration, turnout and absentee balloting), access to reporting tip sheets and community calls, training about covering election administration, access to a private Slack group where participants can compare notes and collaborate, customizable alerts for real-time data about the races they're following, and inclusion and promotion of their election stories on Electionland's website and social media platforms.

Click here for more information or to apply.

Farm Bureau ratifies 2020 policy goals, including support for trade bailouts, relaxed THC threshold in hemp, and more

Delegates from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest general agriculture organization, ratified the final version of its policy goals for 2020 during its annual convention last week in Austin, Texas. The delegates also re-elected President Zippy Duvall and Vice President Scott VanderWal for their third terms, according to the AFBF website.

Bailout money for farmers hurt by the trade war continues to be a top Farm Bureau priority. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the convention that a third tranche of Market Facilitation Program payments for 2019 crops would come soon, but said there will be no trade relief for 2020. "Still, Farm Bureau members voted to keep language in the policy book supportive of MFP payments even with President Donald Trump touting trade wins in China and the congressional approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement," Chris Clayton notes for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

"Our members are basically saying, 'Show us results'," VanderWal told Clayton. Essentially, he said, farmers are waiting for proof that the trade agreement with China will bear fruit, and noted that "no products have moved, implementation hasn’t happened yet, and it’s kind of a 'prove it to me' thing."

The Farm Bureau also wants the Agriculture Department to change the way it determines the pricing structure of fluid milk in the Federal Milk Marketing Order, a system meant to help dairy farmers by setting minimum prices. Dairy farmers have been under increasing financial stress in recent years, and changing the pricing structure would make it more fair, VanderWal told Clayton.

Hemp was another big issue. Farm Bureau members want hemp to be allowed to have up to 1 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in cannabis that gives people high. Hemp and marijuana are identical except for THC content; under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is limited to 0.3% THC, and must be destroyed at 0.5% THC. Delegates also want to eliminate THC testing for hemp grown for non-consumption purposes, such as grain, fiber, seed, oil or ethanol, Clayton reports.

Farm Bureau delegates also support "right to repair" legislation so farmers can fix equipment less expensively. And they want USDA to permanently move the haying, grazing and chopping date for prevented-planting acres from Nov. 1 to an earlier date. "Following the 2019 crop year that had roughly 20 million prevented-planting acres, farmers had complained that Nov. 1 would be too late to get any value out of haying or grazing a cover crop, so USDA moved the dates to early September last year," Clayton reports.

Farm Bureau also proposed mandatory study, testing and monitoring of synthetic meat analogues, and want to make sure such products don't get any regulatory or administrative edge over naturally grown meat, dairy and other such products. Delegates also support voluntary compliance with Country of Origin Labeling; mandatory compliance would put the U.S. in violation of the new treaty with Canada and Mexico, Clayton reports.

Finally, Clayton notes, delegates also voted to repeal USDA "swampbuster" rules, "which effectively means eliminating wetland delineations on farms that restrict farm-program payments. Farm Bureau wants USDA to better specify wetland designations and streamline the appeals process for producers." The move will likely upset conservationists, but the delegates said farmers are increasingly frustrated with conservation compliance practices within the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

USDA to take applications for rural broadband loan and grant program starting January 31

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin accepting applications for loans and grants under the ReConnect Program on Jan. 31. This will be the second round of applications for the program, which aims to increase broadband buildout in rural areas, according to the USDA website.

The USDA will provide up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and up to $200 million for 50/50 loan/grant combinations. Applications must be submitted by March 16.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipal governments are eligible to receive the funding. The agency will award funds to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring high-speed internet to rural homes, businesses, farms and community facilities such as health care sites and schools.

The USDA is hosting technical assistance and training webinars and workshops all over the country to help applicants learn more and complete their applications correctly. Click here for more information about workshops and webinars.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Town bids farewell to a major industry; paper treats it rightly

Workers who completed the final engine on Line 51 were, from left,
Jeff Durham, Chris Paschall, Carlos Cartagena and Alex Aizpurua.
How do you write the obituary of a factory that has been important to your town for decades? John Wright of the Murray Ledger & Times in southwestern Kentucky provides a good example, as he chronicles the closing of the city's Briggs & Stratton small-engine plant and the loss of 300 jobs.

"Fittingly, it rained Friday in Murray, providing seemingly the perfect backdrop for a sad day," Wright begins, but his story isn't maudlin.

"The final engines that will ever be shipped from this place, a large complex that once housed the Tappan appliances plant and became Briggs & Stratton in 1985, were sent into the world. And with that, the final chapter was written: a total of 91,650,827 small engines, mainly for push lawn mowers, had been built at the Murray plant." Wright spells out the number in capital letters and quotes Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes: "Say that again? Wow! That’s just astounding. I don’t think anybody realizes that. But, more importantly, the employees they hired down there produced over 91 million of those things that have gone worldwide."

Mark Manning, president of the Murray-Calloway County Economic Development Corp., "recalled his own uncertainty more than 30 years ago when he lost a job as a field laboratory technician in the oil business," Wright writes, quoting him: “I know how bad it hurts, on a personal level. I’m not just saying, ‘Oh, I feel for you.’ No! I’ve been there.”

"Manning eventually climbed out of that situation, and he said he believes the same will be true of the Briggs workforce because it consists of a wanted commodity," Wright reports. And the community didn't burn bridges with Briggs & Stratton, which moved Murray's production to Poplar Bluff, Mo., 125 miles west. “We have consciously worked as a community to maintain a positive relationship with the company because there’s no benefit to anyone in trashing the company on its way out of town,” Manning said. “First of all, how’s that going to look to others wanting to relocate here? We can’t ignore the fact that Briggs & Stratton has been an outstanding community citizen here for many years.”

National News Literacy Week helps identify standards-based journalism, explains bias and role of news media

National News Literacy Week kicks off today, an initiative that the News Literacy Project and E.W. Scripps Co. designed to raise awareness of the importance of news literacy for students and the general public. It differs from Media Literacy Week in October.

According to the News Literacy Week website, half of the public is only slightly familiar with the term "op-ed" or doesn't know what it means, 63 percent of people worldwide agree that the average person can't tell good journalism from rumors or falsehoods, and 96% of high-school students surveyed didn't consider why ties between a climate-change website and the fossil-fuel industry might bring the site's credibility into question.

At a time where it's harder than ever to differentiate real news from fake online information, and there are predictions of even greater disinformation than in 2016, journalists, nonprofit organizations and governments are increasingly trying to make news literacy a priority. The BBC, for instance, just announced a project with actress Angelina Jolie aimed at helping teenagers spot fake news.

As part of National News Literacy Week, local Scripps TV stations are collaborating with schools on student-produced news reports, and Scripps sites like Newsy and Stitcher are running stories and a national advertising campaign on the need for news literacy and the role of a free press in democracy.

Also, the News Literacy Project is releasing free daily media literacy lessons for students in grades 6-12 from its Checkology virtual classroom. Completing each lesson unlocks the next. Here's the daily schedule of themes and their related Checkology lessons:
  • Monday, Jan. 27: Navigating the information landscape (“InfoZones”).
  • Tuesday, Jan. 28: Identifying standards-based journalism (“Practicing Quality Journalism”).
  • Wednesday, Jan. 29: Understanding bias — your own and others’ (“Understanding Bias”).
  • Thursday, Jan. 30: Celebrating the role of a free press (“Democracy’s Watchdog”).
  • Friday, Jan. 31: Recognizing misinformation (“Misinformation”).
To follow the conversation on social media, search for the hashtag #NewsLiteracyWeek.

Extension roundup of farm trade news creates cogent narrative of recent developments and what could come next

Farm Policy News, an online periodical of the extension program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has just published an excellent roundup of recent U.S. agricultural trade developments with China, Europe and India. The article, which features several great charts, includes links to dozens of recent news stories to weave a complicated issue into a coherent narrative about what has been happening in foreign trade and what could come next. Coming from a land-grant university, this material is in the public domain and is useful to inform and expand local coverage of these topics. Read it here.

Series examines Midwest evangelicals' attitude about Trump

A series from The Guardian examines the role of rural evangelical Christians in electing, and perhaps re-electing, President Trump. It focuses on Midwest counties that Barack Obama carried in 2012 but went to Trump in 2016, helping deliver swing states and the presidency to Trump, Chris McGreal reports.

Trump dominated rural areas, especially among white evangelical Christians, who are disproportionately rural. In exit polls, about 80 percent of white evangelicals said they voted for Trump. Research has identified many reasons for this: fears of losing their rights, fears of losing white cultural primacy, and resentment of "coastal elites" while rural economies still struggled to recover from the recession. Many of those fears were fanned by evangelical media sources that have filled the void left by weakened or closed newspapers.

Forest County, Wisconsin
(Wikipedia map)
The Guardian is writing a story apiece about three rural Obama-to-Trump counties in Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. In Forest County, Wisconsin, pastor Franz Gerber said he voted for Trump because he wanted conservative Supreme Court justices and anti-abortion laws, but is disturbed that many in his congregation appear to worship the president more than Jesus. "It seems like there are many evangelical Christians that are willing to die on the hill of supporting the Republican president, supporting Donald J. Trump. And to me, that hill is not worth dying on. No matter who the candidate is, no matter who the individual is," Gerber told McGreal. "To put all your hope into that individual is a dangerous road. Scripture would warn us against that."

Gerber said that many in the county of 9,000, which includes two Native American reservations, have strained relationships because of politics. Farmer Jennifer Nery, a former local Republican Party official, said she regrets her vote for Trump and thinks many others do too, but thinks they're being quiet so as not to ruffle feathers. Her change of heart led to a falling out with her friend Terri Burl, now the Forest County GOP chair, McGreal reports.

Burl says she doesn't think Trump's support is declining in rural areas, and waves away notions that the president should not receive support because of his morality. "People always say, look at how he treats people, his affairs, how he cheated on his wife," she told McGreal. "People like me say I’m not voting for him to be my pastor, my father, my role model. I’m voting for him to get some things done in Washington, D.C., that have never been done before. We forgive him because of other things."

Ky. may have to pay millions to fix environmental violations after bankrupt coal companies posted inadequate bonds

Coal company Blackjewel made nationwide headlines last year when laid-off miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, blocked a coal train from leaving for months because the bankrupt company had not paid them for their last weeks of work. New court documents show that the company and affiliate Revelation Energy may have hurt Kentucky in other ways too.

The two companies "have failed to make progress on scores of environmental obligations and might leave Kentucky taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in reclamation costs, state officials contended during a bankruptcy hearing this week," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Filings in federal bankruptcy court show that Blackjewel’s violations alone account for 30 percent of all outstanding non-compliance notices sent by the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources as of Dec. 31. The state warned the court that the company has made little or no progress in addressing those violations."

Adding to the problem, it appears that the companies posted far too little in bonds to cover reclamation costs. "Kentucky has had longstanding problems with coal companies posting inadequate bonds to cover reclamation," Wright reports. The KDNR reviewed 20 percent of the permits held by Blackjewel and Revelation, and wrote in a Jan. 13 court filing that reclamation costs would exceed the bond amounts for those permits by about $38 million.

Fertilizer use poses environmental risks, even climate change, but state-based regulation hasn't proven effective

Orange area is annual "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico,
caused mainly by fertilizer in Mississippi River watershed.

(Image from four-minute video by Grist)
Fertilizer has caused more environmental problems in recent years, and regulation by states has been ineffective, Joe Wertz reports for The Center for Public Integrity's nonprofit newsroom.

"In America’s Corn Belt and around the world, some of the fertilizer applied to fields escapes the soil in new forms that contaminate and warm the planet. Some of these compounds enter the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas that’s now at its highest concentration in the last 800,000 years, helping fuel climate problems like the flooding that upended farmers’ lives last spring," Wertz reports. "Other fertilizer byproducts contaminate water wells, especially in agricultural areas, where the U.S. Geological Survey says one in five has levels exceeding federal health limits. These contaminants also wash into streams, rivers and lakes, where they become what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls 'one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.'"

Farmers are using 40 times more nitrogen than they did 75 years ago, and though EPA has advised limiting its use for years, states have most of the authority and have preferred to depend on voluntary cooperation instead of laws that enforce compliance. "An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, Grist and The World found that when states do try to regulate farms and reduce pollution linked to fertilizer, rules are often derailed or softened after industry pushback and political pressure," Wertz reports.

The video with the report emphasizes one solution: cover crops that keep rain and snow from hitting bare soil and leaching its nutrients into streams. It says only 4 percent of U.S. cropland is planted in cover crops after harvests. It cites a cover-crop experiment in the small watershed of the William Baker Ditch in northern Indiana, which reduced runoff by half, nitrates 20% and phosphorus 70%.