Friday, October 02, 2020

Celebrate News Engagement Day on Tuesday, Oct. 6; you can make it part of National Newspaper Week, Oct. 4-10

Tuesday is News Engagement Day. It's a day to encourage people to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to or comment on news, says website, which offers resources for participation in the day.

Though it's not affiliated with National Newspaper Week, which goes from Oct. 4-10, the two observations can easily be combined. 

The day is an opportunity for local news outlets to remind readers (and potential readers, on social-media platforms) why it's important to read the news, and how local journalism and news literacy affects democracy and the wellbeing of communities.

Click here for more information, resources or ideas about how to promote News Engagement Day. The program is sponsored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Twice-weekly paper in Arkansas, closed by GateHouse Media, now has local owners and higher circulation

Helena-West Helena, in Phillips
County, Ark. (Wikipedia maps)
A little over a year ago, GateHouse Media shuttered the Helena World, one of Arkansas' oldest newspapers. But soon thereafter, local entrepreneurs Chuck Davis and Andrew Bagley bought it, and today it's thriving, Stephen Steed reports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The twice-weekly paper had 625 paid subscribers when it closed. Now? "For a recent issue, the World sent out 416 copies to subscribers and had 422 single-copy sales, Bagley said. Circulation has topped 900 in recent weeks, boosted by the return of high-school football," Steed reports. "Single-copy sales spike when "there's a piece of juicy crime news," Bagley said. A goal is 1,000 copies a week, through subscriptions ($100 a year) and single-copy sales at ($1 each)." 

Davis and Bagley now publish the paper once a week, but make sure it has at least two sections with at least a dozen pages per edition. Besides Bagley and Davis, they have a bookkeeper, two freelance writers, and a new editor coming in on Nov. 1, which Bagley says will free him up to concentrate on selling ads, Steed reports from the city of Helena-West Helena, the product of a 2006 merger.

Advertising has plummeted due to the pandemic, but the paper received a $3,000 state grant and $13,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program that helped it stay afloat, Steed reports.

States keep prisoners in county jails to prevent covid-19 outbreaks in prisons, which causes problems in localities

Some states have slowed or halted the transfer of people from county jails to state prisons in an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus in prisons. Not only has that resulted in overcrowding in county jails, which can make the virus spread faster among detainees, but it stretches the resources of the jails, Alex Sakariassen reports for Kaiser Health News.

Montana is one state that implemented such a policy for a time. It has the second-lowest prison infection rate in the nation. Colorado, California, Texas, and New Jersey also suspended inmate intakes from county jails this spring, Sakariassen reports, "But it’s also shifted the problem. Space was already a rare commodity in these local jails, and some sheriffs see the halting of transfers as giving the prisons room to improve the health and safety of their inmates at the expense of those in jail, who often haven’t been convicted."

Sakariassen adds, "Unlike convicted offenders in state prisons, most jail inmates are only accused of a crime. They include a disproportionately high number of poor people who cannot afford to post bail to secure their release before trial or the resolution of their cases. If they do post bail or are released after spending time in a jail with a covid outbreak, they risk bringing the disease home with them."

Quick hits: automated harvesting, pandemic misinformation and a 1921 battle on U.S. soil you probably never heard of

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

The Appalachian Leadership Institute at the Appalachian Regional Commission has announced the 40 fellows for its class of 2020-21. Read more here.

What will automated harvesting mean for rural areas, farmworkers and farmers? Read more here.

House and Senate Democrats proposed spending $1 million to study how misinformation and disinformation have affected the coronavirus pandemic response. Read more here.

A new book, The Road to Blair Mountain, is a fascinating account of "the biggest battle on U.S. soil that most Americans have never heard of," a reviewer says.

Interior secretary to lead Bureau of Land Management for now; Trump administration may appeal Pendley's ouster

The Interior Department will not name a new acting director for the Bureau of Land Management "after its leader was ousted by a federal judge, top officials told employees in an email obtained by The Hill. Instead the job will be left to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt," Rebecca Beitsch reports

A federal judge in Montana ruled Friday that the BLM's controversial acting director, William Perry Pendley, had served unlawfully for 424 days. "The decision was in response to a suit from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who argued Pendley, whose nomination to lead the BLM was pulled by the White House last month, was illegally serving in his role through a series of temporary orders," Beitsch reports.

"The president cannot shelter unconstitutional 'temporary' appointments for the duration of his presidency through a matryoshka doll of delegated authorities," wrote Judge Brian Morris in a 34-page ruling.

An Interior Department spokesperson said an appeal is planned but did not give a timeline, Kirk Siegler reports for NPR.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

New project to seek federal aid, tax incentives and more to revitalize local news

A diverse coalition of local news organizations is backing a new project, Rebuild Local News, that aims to help local news organizations stay afloat—and editorially independent—with funding through federal funding, tax credits for advertisers and philanthropists, and more. 

The idea is the brainchild of Steve Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, and expands on a recent article he wrote proposing many of the same ideas. Read more here.

How Trump's false claims of voter fraud have helped disenfranchise voters; report covers election security issues

A New York Times package details how President Trump has persistently spread false or misleading claims about voter fraud to lay the groundwork for disputing the election should he lose. He has also used his authority and influence over the federal government to prop up flimsy claims of voter fraud and disenfranchise people likely to vote for Democrats, Jim Rutenberg reports

Meanwhile, a special report from StateScoop and EdScoop provides a broad look at current election-security issues, from cybersecurity to misinformation.

Opioid overdoses rising during pandemic despite expanded telehealth

Opioid overdoses and related deaths are on the rise in most states, despite hopes that expanded telehealth implemented during the pandemic would make obtaining addiction treatment easier, Heather Kagan reports for ABC News. Kagan is an internal medicine resident physician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

The problem is widespread. On Aug. 14, the American Medical Association reported that more than 40 states had reported an increase in opioid-related mortalities. There are several likely reasons expanded telehealth hasn't spurred a decline in such deaths, according to Caleb Banta-Green, a principal research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Telehealth isn't "the magic solution," Banta-Green told Kagan. It's "great" for people who already receive addiction treatment, he said, but most people with opioid addictions aren't receiving treatment. 

Also, Kagan notes, many people struggling with opioid use are homeless or have other mental-health disorders. Many people with mental-health disorders don't seek help, and many don't have access to a phone, wi-fi, or other devices that could help facilitate telehealth addiction treatment, according to Farzan Sasangohar, director of the Applied Cognitive Ergonomics Lab at Texas A&M University. The pandemic has exacerbated that lack of access, he told Kagan.

Former coal baron Bob Murray, who fought against black-lung regulations, has filed for black-lung benefits

"Robert E. Murray, the former CEO and president of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, has filed an application with the U.S. Department of Labor for black-lung benefits. For years, Murray and his company fought against federal mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the debilitating disease," Brittany Patterson and Dave Mistich report for Ohio Valley ReSource

In his claim, which is still in the early stages of evaluation, the 80-year-old former coal baron said he heavily depends on an oxygen tank and that he is "near death." He qualifies for black-lung benefits, he wrote, because he worked in an underground mine for 16 of the 63 years he has worked in the industry, and after that went underground "every week until I was age 75," Patterson and Mistich report. But in a 2019 interview with NPR, he said he had a lung disease that was not caused by working in underground mines.

"Reached by phone, Murray declined an on-the-record interview for this story," Patterson and Mistich report. "He disputed that he ever fought against regulations to quell the disease or fought miners from receiving benefits. Murray also threatened to file a lawsuit if a story was published that indicated he had fought federal regulations and benefits."

Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program total enrollment jumped by more than 4 million in first half of 2020

Enrollment in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program increased by more than 4 million in the first half of 2020, according to newly released federal data. 

"The 5.7 percent jump between February and June came as millions of people lost their jobs — and, for many, their health insurance too — amid the public health emergency. Also, a coronavirus relief package Congress passed in mid-March barred states from cutting eligibility and disenrolling beneficiaries during the pandemic," Tami Luhby reports for CNN. "More than 2.4 million adults enrolled in Medicaid, an increase of 7.2%. Also, 1.4 million kids signed up for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, a jump of 4.1%. (This data does not include Arizona and the District of Columbia, which did not report the breakouts for adult and child enrollment for one or more months covered in the report.)"

The increase reversed a slow decline in Medicaid enrollment and uninsured Americans since mid-2017. But it was less than some experts had predicted in the spring because some workers were only furloughed instead of laid off, and therefore got to keep their work-based health insurance, Luhby reports.

Free resources available to help parents, teachers and bosses keep young farmworkers safer

The Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest is offering free resources to help farm supervisors, parents, and teachers protect teens and young adults working on farms. The resources, which are available in English and Spanish, include online training, classroom training, YouTube videos, and safety posters.

The HWC is a partnership of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Nebraska Safety Council. It is one of six Total Worker Health Centers of Excellence funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Fact-checking rural issues and more in presidential debate

President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden faced off in Cleveland last night in a widely panned slugfest. Biden made a few false and misleading claims, but, in the words of CNN's Daniel Dale, "We had an avalanche of lying from President Trump." Most of Trump's claims weren't new and had been repeatedly found false, Dale said.

The debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, covered six topics: the candidates' records, the Supreme Court, the pandemic, the economy, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the election, though the candidates frequently went off-topic. Click here for a full transcript of the debate.

Here's a rundown of topics with rural resonance mentioned in the debate, as well as fact-checking:

The debate began with a discussion of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who Biden insinuated would help reverse Roe v. Wade, but Trump said "you don't know her view" on the case. The president said previously that he hadn't spoken to Barrett about her views on the case, but when asked on "Fox & Friends" if she would help reverse the decision, Trump said "I think it will work out."

Biden also objected to Barrett because, he said, she would help the Trump administration nullify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, costing 100 million Americans with pre-existing health conditions their insurance. They wouldn't necessarily lose coverage, but might have to pay more for it or have more difficulty obtaining it. noted only those who seek individual health plans would be at risk of being denied insurance, and only 6% of people get coverage on the individual market. Before the ACA, employer-based insurance, which covers 49% of the population, couldn't wholly deny insurance on such grounds, but insurers could deny coverage for some conditions for a limited period after a lapse in coverage. 

Told by Wallace that he has not produced a comprehensive health-care plan to replace the ACA, Trump said drug prices will be coming down 80% to 90%. Insulin, which had been expensive, is now "so cheap it's like water." Trump signed four executive orders on drug prices in July, including one on insulin, but it's still unclear how they'll be implemented and whether they'll result in large price reductions on prescription drugs. And insulin is still just as expensive as it was before the order for most people, Nicholas Florko reports for Stat.

Biden said he wants to keep the ACA and add a public option to it, and rejected Republican arguments that it would end private insurance. Trump alleged that Biden supported "Medicare for All," but Biden said that his public option would be for people poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Biden said 10 million people lost their employer-sponsored insurance during the pandemic, but the study he cited also said all but 3.5 million of them would find insurance elsewhere, FactCheck reports.

On the pandemic, Biden accused Trump of not taking social distancing seriously, and said that Trump's own head of the CDC said that 100,000 lives would be saved if everyone wore masks and observed social distancing. Biden mistakenly attributed the quote to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, the projection comes from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, FactCheck reports. However, the CDC chief did agree in Senate testimony that face masks are a critical health tool.

Trump insisted that he has handled the pandemic well, and "We got the masks, we made the ventilators," and said the U.S. was "weeks away from a vaccine" and "far fewer" people are dying when they get infected with the coronavirus. 

A federal relief bill provided billions for hospitals to get protective personal equipment, ventilators and more, but rural hospitals, often at the end of supply chains, had a harder hard time getting critical supplies. Trump was incorrect about how quickly a vaccine may come, though he has encouraged vaccine companies to speed up their development and production. Trump said the vaccine could be available in weeks, but members of his administration have said it might not be widely available until summer. Trump suggested that any delay in the vaccine would be political, but there is no evidence to support that, FactCheck reports.

Biden, meanwhile, said a vaccine wouldn't be distributed at all until summer, but that glossed over the possibility that people with the greatest need for it could receive it this year, FactCheck reports.

Trump said several times that Biden wants to "shut down the country" during the pandemic. In an Aug. 21 interview, Biden said that he will "do whatever it takes to save lives because we cannot get the country moving until we control the virus." That included shutting down the country if scientists recommended it. However, Biden has said he doesn't think it's necessary, FactCheck reports.

Trump said his administration had built the "greatest economy in history." That's false, according to The Washington Post's Fact Checker. (Also, rural economies took much longer to recover from the Great Recession than the nation overall.)

Trump blamed the wildfires in California on poor forest management, but the state and local governments only control 3% of the forests there. The federal government owns and manages 57% of the state's forests.

After the debate, "False stories about Joe Biden’s health continued to spread on social platforms," Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post reports.

Two more presidential debates are scheduled, in Miami Oct. 15 and Nashville Oct. 22. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will debate in Salt Lake City Oct. 7.

Updated federal rules loosen many rural nursing homes' requirements for employee coronavirus testing

Updated federal rules mean many rural nursing homes won't have to test their employees for the coronavirus as often. That could be problematic because the pandemic is increasingly shifting to rural areas.

On Tuesday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services changed some definitions of its color-coded county ranking system, which determines how often nursing homes must test employees, Alex Spanko reports for Skilled Nursing News. The "stoplight" system bases testing requirements on a county's percentage of residents testing positve for the virus, among other factors. Those with less than 5 percent positivity are green, between 5% and 9% is yellow, and 10% and above is red. 

The new rules loosen testing thresholds. "Counties with 20 or fewer tests over 14 days will now move to ‘green’ in the color-coded system,” CMS said in a press release. "Counties with both fewer than 500 tests and fewer than 2,000 tests per 100,000 residents, and greater than 10 percent positivity over 14 days — which would have been ‘red’ under the previous methodology — will move to 'yellow'."

"The difference between a 'red' county and a 'yellow' county is substantial: Under new rules announced at the end of August, providers in 'red' counties must test their staffers twice weekly, as compared to weekly for 'yellow' areas and once per month in the lowest-level 'green' counties," Spanko reports.

CMS made the change after governors of rural states complained that some rural counties seemed to have relatively high positivity rates because of low testing numbers. That meant nursing homes had to conduct staff testing "at a higher frequency than necessary," according to the CMS press release.

Rural counties hit record high for new coronavirus infections last week; see the latest county-level data

Daily Yonder map shows rates of new coronavirus infections reported Sept. 20-26;
click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The number of covid-19 cases reported in rural counties climbed by more than 61,000 last week, setting a record for new infections in a single week and placing half of all rural counties on the White House’s red-zone list," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "The number of new infections in rural America was 14 percent higher last week compared to the previous period, according to the Daily Yonder’s analysis. Since mid-September, the weekly number of new infections in rural counties has climbed by 48%. A record-breaking 990 of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties were on the red-zone list last week, meaning they had an infection rate of 100 or more new cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 in population."

Red zones are defined by the White House Coronavirus Task Force as places that have at least 1 new coronavirus infections per 1,000 people in one week. Click here for more data, graphs, and in-depth exploration of that data from the Yonder.

Mountain Valley Pipeline regains three key permits, moving it closer to resuming construction

"A path across nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands was cleared Friday for the Mountain Valley Pipeline," Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued three permits for the natural gas pipeline being built in Virginia and West Virginia, nearly two years after they were invalidated by a federal appeals court." 

The decision brings the project one step closer to resuming construction, but it's not the only hurdle facing the controversial project, which halted construction in August 2019 following a lawsuit over its impact on endangered species.

"Also on Friday, the U.S. Forest Service released its proposal for the 303-mile pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, an approval that was struck down in a separate ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals," Hammack reports. "A decision on that permit is not expected until the end of the year."

The environmentalists who filed suit against the pipeline project sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an administrative stay of the stream-crossing permits. "Derek Teaney, with the nonprofit law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates, wrote that he intends to file a legal challenge," Hammack reports. "Teaney represents the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Indian Creek Watershed Association, Wild Virginia, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices."

Private equity-owned hospitals more likely to be in low-income, rural areas

On average, hospitals owned by private-equity firms are more likely to be in low-income, rural areas, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week. Read more here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Chris Wallace won't fact-check candidates at tonight's debate, but several news outlets plan to do so live

Many pundits have lauded the choice of Fox News' Chris Wallace as the moderator for tonight's presidential debate in Cleveland, based on the veteran reporter's solid handling of a 2016 presidential debate and his history of pushing back in interviews, especially with President Trump. But the "Fox News Sunday" anchor said he won't fact-check the candidates during the debate, and said on Sunday that his job is to be "as invisible as possible."

Frank J. Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan nonprofit group that runs the debate, told CNN on Sunday that Wallace and other moderators are not expected to be fact-checkers. Fahrenkopf said that, if one candidate says something incorrect during the debate, it's the other candidate's job to bring it up.

However, the lack of live fact-checking may leave many viewers with faulty information, "particularly given Mr. Trump’s tendency to hurl false and baseless claims at his opponents," Michael Grynbaum reports for The New York Times. That's because many viewers don't read fact-checks afterward.

"Lying works on live television," said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, in the same CNN segment as the Fahrenkopf interview. Live fact-checking is "generally not terribly effective," Lukasiewicz said. 

Nevertheless, several major news outlets plan to provide fact-checking live online. USA Today will livestream the debate online with a nationwide team of journalists providing facts and context on-screen during the debate. Click here to view their livestream and see the list of political reporters who will be weighing in.

The Washington Post's Fact Checker team, headed by Glenn Kessler, will also do live fact checks during the debate accessible from a blog on the homepage. NBC News and CNN will also do live blogs of the debate with fact-checking and analysis.

New poll shows Trump with a large rural lead over Biden, but a closer race than four years ago

Half of rural voters plan to cast ballots for President Trump, according to a new poll by DTN/The Progressive Farmer and Zogby Analytics. That's a 17-point lead over Democratic challenger Joe Biden, whom 33% said they would vote for. Eleven percent of respondents said they are undecided, Dan Miller reports for DTN. 

In 2016, Trump led Hillary Clinton 46% to 24% in a similar survey by the same pollsters. Now, Trump has a smaller lead and a lower share of committed voters than last time, and Biden has a higher share of committed voters than Clinton did.

Other findings from the poll:

  • The three top issues that rural voters said will affect how they vote in local, state, and national elections are the economy (62%), health care (48%), and protection of Second Amendment rights (39%).
  • The economy is especially important to Republicans (74% said it was an important issue) and Southerners (67%).
  • Rural Democrats are the only demographic who said health care is significantly more important than other issues affecting their votes, with 64% saying it was the top issue.
  • Similarly, rural Democrats are the only demographic that rated climate change as one of their top issues; 48% said it was important, compared to 27% of respondents overall.
  • 53% of respondents said they approve of Trump's performance as president, including his handling of the pandemic.
  • 42% of respondents strongly or somewhat disapprove of Trump's job performance.
  • Support for Trump is highest in the politically important Central Great Lakes region, where he enjoys support from 55% of rural voters, 60% of seniors age 65 and over, and 57% of married rural adults.
  • 59% of farmers in the poll said their operations would be struggling financially if not for direct federal aid through USDA's Market Facilitation Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
  • 57% of farmers said Trump's focus on agriculture policy has improved their farming and/or ranching financial outlook, and that the 2018 Farm Bill has provided an adequate safety net for their operation.
  • 56% of farmers said Trump's emphasis on trade negotiations with China and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has led to higher income potential for their farming operation.
  • 54% of farmers said that environmental rules and regulations have not hurt their ability to manage their operation.
  • 54% of farmers said that farming has been profitable over the past four years.
  • 39% of rural adults said agriculture is worse off than it was in 2016, 23% said it's better off today, 22% of rural adults said it's about the same, and 17% were undecided.
  • 67% of Democratic respondents said agriculture is worse off than four years ago.
  • 40% of Republican respondents said agriculture is better off than four years ago.
  • Almost 40% of those in the East, Great Lakes, and Western states said agriculture is worse off than four years ago, compared to about 33% of respondents in the South.
The poll only sought responses from rural residents; see the end of Miller's article for a demographic and geographic breakdown of responses.

Podcast explores cracks in the health-care system; first episode discusses closure of rural Kansas hospital

Where It Hurts
, a new podcast that kicks off today, explores the growing cracks in America's health-care system that often leave people vulnerable. The first season, "No Mercy," chronicles how Fort Scott, Kansas, a community of about 8,000 on the Missouri border, lost its only hospital, and what happened to the the townspeople after Mercy Hospital Fort Scott closed its doors. 

The podcast is a collaboration between Kaiser Health News and St. Louis Public Radio. "No Mercy" is hosted by KHN's Sarah Jane Tribble, who spent more than a year and a half reporting on the fallout from Fort Scott's hospital closure.

You can find the podcast here, or anywhere else podcasts are available.

Officials fear cyberattacks to voting systems before election

Federal officials fear that, just before or after the election, hackers will try to get into voting systems and "sow chaos and uncertainty" with tactics such as freezing voter registration data, election poll books, or the computer systems of the secretaries of state who certify election results, Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger report for The New York Times.

Attacks have been ramping up, including a recent attack on Tyler Technologies, a Texas company that sells software that states and cities use to display results on election night. It's "the latest of nearly a thousand such attacks over the past year against small towns, big cities and the contractors who run their voting systems," Perloth and Sanger report. "Many of the attacks are conducted by Russian criminal groups, some with shady ties to President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services. 

Federal investigators aren't sure whether the attack on Tyler was a run-of-the-mill ransomware attack, in which hackers lock data until they're paid a ransom in cryptocurrency. But some of Tyler's clients noticed outsiders trying to log into their systems after the attack, Perloth and Sanger report. 

"With only 37 days before the election, federal investigators still do not have a clear picture of whether the ransomware attacks clobbering American networks are purely criminal acts, seeking a quick payday, or Trojan horses for more nefarious Russian interference," Perloth and Sanger report. "But they have not had much success in stopping them. In just the first two weeks of September, another seven American government entities have been hit with ransomware and their data stolen."

One cybersecurity expert said it's likely that local governments will be hit by hackers around the election, Perloth and Sanger report.

"The proliferation of ransomware attacks that result in data theft is an evolution in Russian tactics, beyond the kind of 'hack and leak' events engineered against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in 2016," Perloth and Sanger report. "By design, whether the attacks are criminal or state sponsored is not clear, and the attacker does not always have to be successful everywhere. Just a few well-placed ransomware attacks, in key battleground states, could create the impression that voters everywhere would not be able to cast their ballots or that the ballots could not be accurately counted — what the cybersecurity world calls a 'perception hack.'"

Rural schools struggle with lack of broadband

Rural school districts are more likely to hold in-person classes during the pandemic, but many that choose distance learning are having a rough time because of poor or absent broadband connectivity. The lag has led many rural districts to worry that their students will fall behind urban and suburban students.

"This pandemic has shone a glaring light on a lot of inequalities," Kirk Siegler reports for NPR. "The federal government estimates that more than a third of rural America has little or no internet. In numerous recent interviews, educators have told NPR they’re concerned the rural-urban divide will only worsen if kids can’t get online to learn."

Many rural districts have had to get creative, from providing kids with tablets or Chromebooks and sending out buses outfitted with wifi hot spots to delivering paper copies of schoolwork to students who don't have internet or cell phone service at home. "Still, it’s widely held that hot spots aren’t a long-term solution for rural learning, especially since cell service can be spotty, if sometimes non-existent in more rugged areas of the West in particular," Siegler reports.

Some rural leaders have lobbied Congress for a public-works project to build out broadband to rural areas, much like the government paid to bring electricity to rural areas during the 1930s, Siegler reports.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Time to start planning promotion of National Newspaper Week, coming Oct. 4-10: 'America Needs Journalists'

Cartoon by Terry Wise
If you're at a newspaper, it's time to start planning promotion of the 80th annual National Newspaper Week, held from Oct. 4-10. The observance, sponsored by the Newspaper Association Managers of the U.S. and Canada, is meant to recognize the service of newspapers and their employees.

This year's theme is "America Needs Journalists," a concept the Iowa City Daily Iowan helped develop. Click here for free content and suggestions for how to make the theme local. You can also access archived materials from years past to spark your imagination.

Acting Bureau of Land Management director has served unlawfully for over a year, federal judge rules

William "Perry" Pendley
"A federal judge in Montana has ordered William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, to leave the position after finding that he had served unlawfully as acting director for 424 days," Maria Cramer reports for The New York Times. He was also barred from using any authority to make decisions about federal lands, according to the 34-page ruling issued Friday by Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana.

The ruling hits at a core tactic of President Trump, who prefers to appoint directors in a temporary capacity so they don't have to be confirmed by the Senate and are more beholden to Trump for their jobs. The last Senate-confirmed BLM director, Neil Kornze, left in January 2017, Cramer reports. Since then, Trump has appointed five acting directors, with Pendley as the latest one in July 2019. He nominated Pendley to fill the position permanently in July, but soon withdrew the nomination after the move drew attention to Pendley's controversial views about public lands, the environment, and other issues.

However, even after Pendley's name was withdrawn over concerns that he might hurt Republicans in tight Senate races out West, Pendley continued to run the BLM. That violates the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which limits acting officers from serving for more than 210 days without Senate confirmation, the judge ruled. "The ruling also prevented Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who appointed Mr. Pendley, from picking another person to run the bureau," Cramer reports.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who is in a tight race with Republican incumbent Steve Daines for a Senate seat, filed the lawsuit in July against Pendley and Bernhardt, Cramer reports. His is one of the races most likely to be affected by Pendley's tenure at the BLM. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican also in a tough race, could also be put in a politically inconvenient spot if forced to vote on Pendley's confirmation.

U.S. judge orders census extension, says some populations — including rural — could lose funding and representation

A federal judge ruled late Thursday that the 2020 census count must continue through the end of October instead of wrapping up at the end of September, Zach Montellaro reports for Politico. The government is expected to appeal the ruling.

The pandemic has seriously delayed the decennial count in rural areas and other places with hard-to-count populations, heightening the risk of an inaccurate count. "As early as mid-April, just weeks into the country shuttering during the pandemic, the Census Bureau pleaded with Congress to extend deadlines for the count for 120 days," Montellaro reports. "The proposed deadlines would have pushed field collection until the end of October, with apportionment data — the population count used for determining the number and population of each state's congressional districts — being submitted to the president by April 30, 2021 instead of by years' end."

Congress never granted the extensions, and in early August, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee, announced it would withdraw its request for an extension and deliver the results to Trump by the end of 2020 (a decision that came from outside the bureau, according to the Commerce Department's inspector general).

"The reversal infuriated municipalities, community groups and experts, who warned of the prospect of a rushed and deeply flawed count that would affect everything from House apportionment and redistricting to how roughly $1.5 trillion in federal spending would be directed over the next decade," Montellaro reports. The federal court echoed those concerns in its ruling.

Voter registration deadlines approach; this year's increases in new registrations lag those of 2016; blamed on pandemic

In many if not most states, the deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 3 election is next Monday or Tuesday, so this would be a good week for news outlets to remind their audiences of that. It's more important than usual because the novel coronavirus has caused a decline in voter registration rates, Peter Miller of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reported last week.

"We analyzed registration rates in 21 states and found that the pandemic has led to a drop-off in new registrations in 17 states relative to the 2016 cycle," Miller reports. "We limited our analysis to the states that make monthly counts of registered voters available on the website of the relevant chief elections official." Here's a screenshot of Miller's table:
"It’s important for those who have not registered to vote to do so as soon as possible," Miller writes. "It’s also important for regular voters to double-check with their local election administrators that they are indeed registered to vote to avoid any problems this election season."

Tues. webinar will explore election issues in rural America

At 11 a.m. CT on Tuesday, Sep. 25, Agri-Pulse will hold a free webinar exploring issues affecting rural America and how they could influence rural voters' turnout and choices. That includes the pandemic, natural disasters such as wildfires, jobs, broadband and other infrastructure, workforce development, and rural economic development challenges.

Managing Editor Spencer Chase will moderate a discussion between Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M, Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers' Kip Eidberg. Agri-Pulse, which covers agricultural news, expanded its election coverage of ag-related issues in 2016 and is continuing that this year with its Campaign 2020 series.

Click here for more information or to register for the webinar.