Friday, October 09, 2020

Trump leads among rural voters by 24 points, says Pew poll that also finds deep division between the two sides

For a larger version of the chart, click on it.
President Trump leads Democratic nominee Joe Biden among registered voters in rural areas, 59 percent to 35 percent, according to a new poll by the highly respected, nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Biden leads among suburban voters, 51 to 43, and among urbanites 70-25. Overall, he leads 52-42.

Trump's handling of the pandemic appears to have helped Biden; 57% of voters "say they are very or somewhat confident in Biden to handle the public health impact of the coronavirus, while 40% express a similar level of confidence in Trump," Pew reports. In June, Biden held a narrower, 11-percentage-point lead on handling the coronavirus outbreak (52% Biden, 41% Trump).

The poll starkly demonstrates a deep divide. "Fully 89% of Trump supporters say that if Biden wins, they not only would be very concerned over the country’s direction, they believe it would lead to “lasting harm” for the country. A nearly identical majority of Biden supporters (90%) say Trump’s election would result in lasting harm to the United States."

Pew notes, "The survey was in the field when Trump announced on Twitter, early on the morning of Oct. 2, that he and first lady Melania Trump had contracted covid-19. There are no significant differences in voter preferences, or in confidence in the two candidates to handle the impact of the coronavirus, before and after his announcement."

UPDATE, Oct. 11: A new ABC News-Washington Post poll taken Oct. 6-9 has Trump ahead among rural likely voters, 58% to 38%. Biden leads in the suburbs, 53-44, largely on the strength of a big gender gap; among suburban women, he leads 62-34; among suburban men, Trump leads 54-43. The poll did not break down rural voters by sex, probably due to the relatively small rural sample.

New study details rural-urban divide in gun suicides

"A new study shows rural congressional districts have far higher suicide rates than urban ones and that firearms are a major factor," Heath Druzin reports for Guns and America. "The study from gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety underscores a rural-urban divide exacerbated by uneven access to mental health care and the relationship between access to firearms and suicide rates."

Suicide accounts for most gun deaths in this country, and firearms are the most common way for people to die by suicide. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 24,000 Americans died from firearm suicide in 2018, Druzin reports.

"The difference in suicide rates between rural and urban areas has grown over the last two decades, according to a 2018 CDC study," Druzin reports. "What is unique about the Everytown study is that it examines suicide rates by congressional district. The highest rates were in districts with large rural populations in the West and South."

Upper Midwest leads in new rural coronavirus infections

New coronavirus-infection rates in nonmetropolitan counties, Sept. 27-Oct. 3.
Daily Yonder map; click here for the interactive version.

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the Upper Midwest, where high rates of new infections are the norm in most rural counties. More than 90 percent of rural counties in Wisconsin, South Dakota, and North Dakota have troublesome levels of new infections, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Iowa has 66 of its 78 rural counties (or 85%) with high rates of infection. Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Minnesota each has high rates of infection in two-thirds of their rural counties," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Those rural counties are on the Daily Yonder’s red-zone list. The red-zone is a White House Coronavirus Task Force designation that identifies localities that need to do more to control the virus. Red-zone counties have infection rates of 100 more new cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period." Read here for more, including an interactive map with state data.

Two books out this year feature great rural journalism on the opioid epidemic and unsolved murders of the civil-rights era

As the days shorten, it's a good time to curl up with a book. Poynter's Kristen Hare reviews two for your consideration, both with lots of rural reporting.

Jerry Mitchell's Race Against Time chronicles how the Mississippi reporter's reporting years ago "helped revive civil-rights cold cases and put proud members of the KKK behind bars. The book deals with our country’s racist, murderous past, but also feels very relevant right now," Hare writes. After a long career at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018. He won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2009.

From the editor's note: "For the past 30 years, Mitchell has devoted his career to reopening unsolved cold cases in from civil rights era. His work on multiple landmark cases — the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Burning murders, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer — has helped put killers from the Ku Klux Klan behind bars for life, decades after they thought they had gotten away with murder."

In the second book, Death in Mud Lick, Pulitzer-Prize winning former Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre takes a deep dive into the opioid epidemic in a small West Virginia town, detailing one woman's fight to seek accountability from major pharmaceutical companies after her brother's overdose death.

The same day his book came out, Eyre resigned from the paper to deal with his advancing Parkinson's disease. Nevertheless, he has waded back into the fray: He's one of the the co-founders of the new Mountain State Spotlight. In a recent newsletter to readers, Eyre wrote: "The story is far from over. (Looks as if I’ll be adding an epilogue to the epilogue by the time the paperback comes out next year.) A bellwether trial to hold giant companies accountable for the opioid crisis is scheduled to start Oct. 19 in Charleston. I’ll be covering the trial or potential settlement for Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit investigative news outlet in WV."

States allowing online driver-license renewals, written tests

The pandemic has prompted many states to allow online renewals of driver and motor-vehicle licenses, and now some are even allowing driver-licensing tests to go online, another boon for rural residents in states where the licensing function is regionalized and requires out-of-county travel.

"Prospective drivers in Minnesota can go online at home to take their knowledge tests for a learner's permit," which is required before a road test for a license, which must still be done in person, Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Test takers can’t consult manuals or online resources, and the test will close and record an automatic failure if another browser window is opened during the 30-minute window. Proctors are required to check a box before the test launches pledging that they won’t allow the use of other study materials, though that will be entirely on the honor system."

Queram notes similar measures in other states: states "Wisconsin and North Carolina, allowed certain teenage drivers to apply for a waiver for the road test. Georgia implemented a similar policy in April, but amended it a month later to require a modified road test instead. Others, including California and Massachusetts, extended the expiration dates for learner's permits, allowing teens to continue practicing their driving until road tests resumed."

Quick hits: EPA weighs ban of chlorpyrifos pesticide; scientists say invasive insects could increase 36% by 2050

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

Non-native insect invasions are projected to increase by 36% between 2005 and 2050, an international team of scientists predicts. Read more here.

The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children, but says science that finds it dangerous is inconclusive. Read more here.

A new book chronicles the forces that shape agriculture in the era of climate change. Read more here.

A church leader writes about how to respond when a fellow Christian turns to him for help with an opioid addiction. Read more here.

Can Minn. model for helping stressed farmers be replicated?

Ted Matthews talks to a client. (MCIR photo by Thomas Gauvain)
Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared to other occupations; that includes hundreds in Midwestern states in the past few years. But Minnesota has a program deemed so successful that other states are calling to seek advice on replicating it. At the center of it all is Ted Matthews at the Rural Mental Health Outreach Program, who has been the "go-to counselor for Minnesota farmers for decades," Marissa Plescia reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Matthews "takes calls at all hours, including weekends, though he said he’s so passionate for the work that he barely notices the hours he puts in," Plescia reports. "Handling the growing number of farmers who seek counseling as climate change and trade wars uproot their lives requires working around the clock, he said."

Matthews has a matter-of-fact approach that people say they appreciate. After Pam Uhlenkamp separated from her husband earlier this year, she called Matthews right away, Plescia reports. Uhlenkamp remembers that he told her in their first sesssion: "Today sucks. Tomorrow is going to suck. The next three weeks are going to suck."

"He was very honest with me," Uhlenkamp told Plescia. "Sometimes in life you kind of need the two-by-four across the head that says, 'Yep, this is awful and this is the reality'."

The story is part of a yearlong project exploring the ways farmers and farming communities tackle mental health and is supported with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Fact-checking the vice-presidential debate

Wednesday evening's vice-presidential debate likely changed few minds, but it was a calmer affair than last week's slugfest between President Trump and Joe Biden. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris both stretched the truth at times, according to

Here's some fact-checking on issues with rural resonance:

  • Pence said that "universal mail-in voting" will create a "massive opportunity for voter fraud." But election experts say fraud is rare and difficult to accomplish beyond a small scale.
  • Harris said Trump's tax law benefited "the top 1% and the biggest corporations," but that was misleading, since most households received some tax cut.
  • Pence said Biden is going to "raise your taxes," but Biden's plan only raises taxes for those making more than $400,000 a year.
  • Harris said the Trump administration knew the disease was serious on Jan. 28 but called it a hoax, minimized its threat and discouraged people from wearing masks. As for the hoax claim, Trump didn't call the virus a hoax, but said one was being perpetrated by Democrats who found fault with his administration's response to the coronavirus. 
  • Pence said the Trump administration "saw 500,000 manufacturing jobs created" in its first three years, but that ignored the 164,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the pandemic.
  • Harris falsely said the trade war with China cost the U.S. 300,000 manufacturing jobs. The U.S. gained 146,000 factory jobs in the first 18 months after the tariffs took effect.
  • Pence said there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago. That ignores the fact that climate change makes hurricanes stronger and slower, and thus more dangerous.
  • Harris said people with pre-existing conditions would no longer have protection under the law if the Supreme Court overturns the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But that would only affect those who get individual insurance plans; the protections would mostly remain in place for those with employer-sponsored health plans.
  • Pence said that Biden wants to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking. But Biden has said he wants to ban only new fracking on public lands. Most fracking occurs on private land. 

California's first million-acre fire got so big partly because of climate change, partly because rural fires weren't a priority

The August Complex fire perimeter Monday
(L.A. Times map by Swetha Kannan)
Dozens of smaller fires in northern California have merged in recent weeks to form the August Complex, the largest wildfire the state has ever seen. On Monday it became the first in state history to achieve 'gigafire' status, meaning it covers at least 1 million acres. Experts say the fire shows how climate change and factors such as mismanaged forests are worsening the state's fire danger, Hayley Smith and Rong-Gong Lin II report for the Los Angeles Times.

The fire, which covers a large portion of the Mendocino National Forest, is about the size of the developed part of the Bay Area. "The August Complex has contributed to the worst fire season California has ever recorded: 4 million acres in California have burned to date — far exceeding the previous record of more than 1.8 million set in 2018," Smith and Lin report. "One firefighter, Diane Jones, 63, lost her life trying to battle the blaze." Communities have been evacuated as firefighters try to control the fire. 

A record-dry February primed the land for a conflagration. "Increased global temperatures driven by carbon emissions also contributed to 2020’s extreme fire conditions," Smith and Lin report. "California saw its hottest August on record, only to break at least six more temperature records in September. Fourteen of the last 21 years have also seen below-average rainfall in the state."

The complex "makes up more than all of the fires that occurred between 1932 and 1999," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. "If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is."

Another reason the fire got so big? The state prioritized fighting fires in the Bay Area over rural areas because the pandemic left the state with fewer firefighters, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. "It was just an overwhelming number of fires early. And then resources that were then stretched thin,” Stephens told the Times. "And this one, just based on a prioritization, was given a lower priority, and it continued to get bigger and bigger."

Coronavirus and flu could overwhelm rural hospitals

Because the coronavirus pandemic has not yet been controlled, the combination of covid-19 and the annual flu season could make for the "worst fall" the U.S. has ever had "from a public health perspective," according to Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He made the remarks in a recent interview on the "Coronavirus in Context" video series hosted by WebMD, Carolyn Crist reports.

Redfield stressed the importance of social distancing, hand-washing, wearing masks, and getting the flu shot. Failure to keep covid and flu infection numbers down could hurt hospitals that are already stretched thin—such as rural hospitals. "We're going to have covid in the fall, and we're going to have flu in the fall, and either one of those by themselves can stress certain hospital systems," Redfield said. "I've seen hospital intensive care units stretched by a severe flu season, and clearly we've all seen it recently with covid."

Missouri hospital officials say they're particularly concerned about rural hospitals' ability to cope with covid-19 cases along with the seasonal flu, Gladys Bautista reports for KRCG in Bloomfield. It could cause significant staff shortages, said Hermann Area District Hospital administrator Dan McKinney. He told Bautista that rural areas could be more prone to infectious disease spread because they're less likely to take some safety precautions seriously. "I think most rural areas, our counties included in that, are not huge supporters of mask mandates so I do think that does tend to create spread," he said.

Another problem: the symptoms of covid-19 and flu are similar, so people infected with the flu may think they have covid-19 and seek out a test, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. That could strain a testing infrastructure already stretched nearly to its limits, according to Andrew Pekosz, a virologist and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance

"The volume of covid-19 tests across the United States has led to lengthy backlogs at laboratories, which means patients have had to wait days—if not weeks—to get results. In some cases, the long processing time makes the tests essentially useless since the recommended quarantine period after contracting the virus that causes covid-19 is two weeks," Noble reports. "Some states have instituted limits and testing priorities to help address the problems."

New report has detailed stats on how pandemic has affected rural households' finances, jobs, schooling and health care

"Even before the pandemic, the health-care systems that serve rural Americans were in decline; rural hospitals were closing their doors, and the medical workforce was shrinking. This year, as the coronavirus outbreak has made its way from major cities to rural America, threats to the rural health-care infrastructure have only increased," Will Stone reports for NPR. During the pandemic, "One in every four rural U.S households have been unable to get medical care for serious problems. Among those households that had trouble getting care, more than half reported that a family member experienced negative health consequences as a result."

That's according to a new nationwide poll conducted by NPR, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It gathered data through interviews with more than 3,400 adults across the nation (543 of them were rural) and produced reports on how the pandemic affected U.S. households overall, households in major cities, households by race and ethnicity, households with children, and rural households. Here are some of the top findings from the report on rural households:

On financial and job issues:

  • 42% report facing serious financial problems during the pandemic.
  • 31% say they've used up all or most of their savings.
  • 21% report serious problems paying credit cards, loans or other debt.
  • 10% report not having any household savings prior to the pandemic.
  • 43% say that at least one adult in the household has lost their job, lost their business, been furloughed, or had their wages or hours reduced.
  • Among rural households with job or wage losses during the pandemic, 66% report facing serious financial problems.
  • 85% of Black or Latino rural households report facing serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared to 36% of white rural households.
On health care:
  • 24% said someone in their household had been unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it during the pandemic, and 56% of respondents who were unable to get care report negative health consequences as a result.
  • When asked potential reasons they could not access medical care, 46% said they couldn't get an appointment during the hours they needed, 40% said they couldn't find a doctor who would see them, 39% said they could not afford health care, 25% said the health care provider was too far or difficult to get to, and 12% said they couldn't find a doctor who would take their health insurance.
  • 53% report someone in their household has a chronic illness.
  • 42% report someone in their household is at a high risk of developing a serious illness from covid-19 because of their age or underlying medical conditions. Of those households, 33% report that someone in their household has been unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it during the pandemic. 61% of that subset reported negative health consequences as a result of being unable to access care. The numbers for inability to access needed health care and resulting negative consequences are nearly the same for households with a chronically ill person.
  • 46% of rural households report using telehealth since the beginning of the pandemic.
On broadband and education:
  • 34% of rural households report having either no high-speed internet connection at home or problems with their connection that interfere with their ability to do jobs or schoolwork.
  • 40% of rural households with children say they have no high-speed internet connection at home or serious problems with their internet connection that interfere with doing schoolwork or jobs.

Commercial bee colonies keep declining, USDA data show; they and other pollinators face serious risks, says new study

"A collection of threats — habitat loss, pathogens, pesticides, pollution and poor nutrition — have led to widespread decline in bee health and pollinator populations, Jodi Helmer reports for The Revelator, a newsroom of the Center for Biological Diversity, a left-leaning nonprofit. "The threats add up: The number of commercial honeybee colonies declined by more than quarter million between April and June 2020, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Native bees are at risk, too, with one in four native species in North America at risk of extinction."

Climate change has worsened one threat: a single-cell fungal pathogen called Nosema. The fungus "reproduces in the gut, where it ruptures, spreads out and then infects the cells of the digestive tracts. It leads to lethargy, reduced foraging ability, poor sense of direction and, often, death," Helmer reports. The fungus was once seasonal, killed off by the winter cold. But too many too-warm winters have helped it survive in colonies and spread.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

As rural resort towns' tourism season ends, challenges loom

"Many rural resort towns nationwide where people can hike, bike and relax outdoors experienced better-than-expected visitor numbers this summer, and some also are experiencing a real estate boom as visitors snap up second homes or decide to move there permanently," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline.

"But towns that benefited from full restaurant patios and busy shops this summer still face economic challenges. The summer season wasn’t as good for businesses, or for sales tax collections, as the summer of 2019. Spring shutdowns left business owners and local governments with big budget holes to fill, and while mountain towns are hoping to welcome more visitors during fall leaf-peeping season, what will happen during the cold winter months remains an open question."

U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that "urban and rural counties with recreation-focused economies had higher unemployment rates in June than places that relied on other sectors, such as manufacturing or government jobs," Quinton reports. "But rural recreation counties are better off than their urban counterparts. Such counties had a 10 percent unemployment rate in June, according to the agency, three percentage points lower than urban recreation counties."

Quinton reports mainly from Colorado, but reflects a mixed bag across the nation: "One indicator of outdoor recreation activity, National Park Service visitation numbers, are all over the map, said Megan Lawson, who studies rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research nonprofit based in Bozeman, Mont. She told Quinton, “Several of them actually had higher visitation in August than they did in the previous year, which I think is doubly remarkable because they’ve eliminated most of their international visitors.”

CDC's coronavirus tracker now includes county-level data along the rural-urban spectrum

Screenshot from the CDC's Coronavirus infection tracker;
click the image to enlarge it or click here to see the interactive website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's coronavirus infection tracker now parses pandemic data trends by a county's population size, along with other factors. So journalists or researchers can examine and compare, for example, overall rural infection trends, rural infections in Alabama, or even the impact of the pandemic on human mobility in a certain county over a desired time period.

Counties are divided into six categories along the National Center for Health Statistics' urban-rural classification scheme. That includes four metropolitan county types, one micropolitan county type, and one non-core county type for the most rural areas. Read more here.

Rural employment fell 4.3% from Aug. 2019-2020; not great but still better than national average and big-city losses

Employment changes from Aug. 2019-2020 compared to national average
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version with county-level data.)

Employment in rural counties declined 4.3 percent between August 2019 and August 2020, a loss of just under 900,000 jobs. "In most times, this would be a dismal record. But in the economy shaped by Covid-19 over the last six months, rural America is doing much better than the rest of the country," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "For example, in the central cities of the nation’s metropolitan areas with a million or more people, there were 3.6 million fewer jobs this August compared to a year ago. That is a decline of 8%. In the suburbs of those giant cities, the decline in jobs reached 6.9%."

The rural unemployment rate was also lower in August compared with the national average and major cities. "In August, rural counties had an average unemployment rate of 6.8%," Bishop reports. "In the central areas of major metropolitan areas, the unemployment rate in August of this year was 10.3%. The nation as a whole had an unemployment rate of 8.5% in August."

Rural counties that rely on recreation and those that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 were harder hit than other rural counties. The trend is likely because very rural counties, or counties that didn't have a high employment rate to begin with, have been less affected by pandemic-related job losses, Bishop reports.

Session recordings available from National Newspaper Association's annual convention, for $50 registration fee

If you were unable to "attend" last week's convention of the National Newspaper Association, you can still do it, virtually. Every convention session was recorded, and is available online for the registration fee of $50, which is a bargain. As NNA says, "The Great Idea Exchange alone is more than worth the price of admission!" Here's a selection of sessions that seem especially useful, with emphasis on the news side:

Keynote: The Unique Relationship of Rural America to the Mail
Roundtable Discussion: Cover Your Community During Crisis
Facebook Strategies for Weeklies
Google News Initiative - Digital Ad Revenue
New ways to cover Election 2020
Diverse revenue plan of action to kick-start your digital success
How to sell digital audience as total audience
High school students read local newspapers
Report for America: how to apply, what to expect
Adding the Freedom of Information Act to your journalism toolkit
Readership studies help local businesses during the covid-19 recovery
New approaches to covering covid-19
Rethinking paywalls for print newspapers (session for paid papers, another for free papers)
The Future of Obituaries
Building an audience through Instagram
Going Nonprofit: Q&A with publishers who have done it
Reverse Publishing from Website to InDesign
Get the Most Out of Your Newsletter
How to Produce High Yield Content with Video Interviews
Maximize your reader revenue with a smarter, dynamic paywall approach for your website
The young news readers - what is there to know and do for newspaper owners in 2020
The digital revolution in March 2020 and what it means for newspapers
Build readership and revenue with an Art and Science Challenge
Fighting misinformation and disinformation

Groundwater depletion means the peak era for growing grain has passed for some High Plains states, study says

USDA map
The peak era for grain-growing has already passed in some High Plains states, according to a new survey of groundwater depletion.

"To more accurately predict future grain yields, researchers looked at the relationship between levels of water extraction from the Ogallala Aquifer and the amounts of grain harvested in each state over the last 50 years," Brooks Hays reports for UPI. "Researchers adapted analysis techniques previously used to study the relationship between peak oil production and peak grain production. The research team detailed the results of their analysis in a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal PNAS."

Hays reports, "Texas and Kansas reached peak grain in 2016. Grain yields in the two High Plains states have been declining over the last four years. Without new yield-boosting technologies, grain production in Texas could decline as much as 40 percent by 2050."

Over-use of groundwater, especially the Ogallala Aquifer, will continue to threaten grain production across the High Plains, Hays reports.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Rural deaths related to covid-19 increased 12% last week; see county-level data

Red-zone counties nationwide from Sept. 27-Oct. 3. Daily Yonder map. Click the image to enlarge it or click here for an interactive map with county-level data.

"The number of new covid-19 infections remained steady last week in rural America, but troubling levels of new infections placed an additional 68 rural counties on the White House red-zone list – an indication that authorities in those counties need to do more to control the spread of the virus," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as places with at least 100 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 people in one week.

"A record-breaking 54% of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties were on the red-zone list last week," Murphy and Marema report. "New infections in rural America climbed only marginally last week but still managed to set a record for the second week in a row. Last week there were 60,968 new infections in rural counties, an increase of 58." Read more here, including an interactive map with county-level data.

Rural Black Appalachians push for racial justice

A Hazard, Ky., vigil honored Breonna Taylor's memory after the grand-jury decision in her killing. (Photo by Courtney Kilburn)

"Months after a wave of anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter demonstrations stretched into rural, largely White areas, the organizing persists in pockets of Central Appalachia. Young and old are sharpening their political voices and strengthening alliances across races," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "Their work, however, serves as an example of the challenges organizers face in pushing for racial justice in areas where people of color are few."

There are relatively few Black residents in Central Appalachia (and younger Black people often leave for the cities when they grow up), so they're often ignored by the mainstream media and white residents. And there are few non-white people in local political leadership. So it can be difficult to talk about racism in a mostly-white community, Simpson reports.

Ierusha Martin, a 65-year-old resident of Middlesboro, Kentucky, said racism is still alive and well in some areas. "We still do the good ol' boy system: not what I know, but who I know," Martin told Simpson. "So that is a terrible disadvantage for African-American people for the simple fact that we were not a part of the good ol' boy system, OK? A person of stature does not give us a recommendation, then we're left out."

Some older Black Appalachians are hesitant to engage in racial-justice work and protests because, after decades of seeing the personal and professional consequences of sticking their necks out, they prefer to keep to themselves and not make waves, one organizer told Simpson.

But progress is happening. In Pennington Gap, Virginia, near Middlesboro, Jill Carson is the vice-mayor, the first Black woman to hold the office. She and her husband lead anti-racism workshops, have created an Appalachian African-American Cultural Center, and are reaching out to local white pastors to encourage them to address racism with their congregations, Simpson reports.

Younger Black Appalachians and white allies have been organizing marches, vigils in memory of Breonna Taylor, and trying to create open dialogue and cross-racial alliances, Simpson reports.

The article is Simpson's last for Stateline. Later this month she will join the Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation's oldest nonprofit newsrooms. "I will miss covering rural issues, but I look forward to building on what I’ve learned to cover my new beat, racial equity," she told The Rural Blog.

Rural areas more popular vacation destinations in pandemic

The pandemic has been hard on travel. According to the U.S. Travel Association, it has caused $386 billion in cumulative losses, but the pain hasn’t been evenly distributed," Elaine Glusac reports for The New York Times. Cities, which are largely reliant on business and group travel, have suffered more compared to rural and outdoor destinations where it is easier to fulfill social-distancing needs. That sense of safety in extra space has tempted many leisure travelers to venture out on vacation."

Short-term rentals such as Airbnbs and hotels were more popular in rural areas than in cities this summer. "Most of those who have taken a vacation since the pandemic chose rural over urban areas for their getaways," Glusac reports. "Signs point to this pattern of fleeing population centers continuing. In a recent survey, Destination Analysts found nearly 40 percent of respondents who planned to travel this fall planned to visit small towns or rural destinations."

Hotels and resorts in rural and urban areas are rolling out big discounts to attract vacationers in the coming months, but "the rural-versus-urban contest for leisure travelers is still a losing game for most contenders; for example, rural places consider being down 20 percent a sign of relative health," Glusac reports.

Local digital startup offers some strategies for rebuilding our local news systems in the midst of chaos and change

By Constance Alexander

Since 2005, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared. In our town of Murray, Kentucky, the Ledger & Times added an e-edition but goes to print five instead of six days a week, sometimes showing up at a svelte six pages.

As these trends continue, newspapers lose traction on investigative news coverage and stick to bare-bones basics out of necessity. The public becomes less enlightened, leading to less community engagement, resulting in a public that is less likely to vote, according to a study by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.

Jennifer P. Brown
So the free press may be fading away in some places, but if Jennifer P. Brown has anything to say about it, Hopkinsville will still be in the know when it comes to local news. Just a year ago, she created Hoptown Chronicle, an independent, nonprofit news outlet that, according to the mission statement, “explores what’s working, what’s not and what’s next in Hopkinsville’s downtown district.”

After 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Kentucky New Era, she sought a new direction for her life’s work, but not necessarily a new location. Her deep history with Hopkinsville, and the institutional knowledge garnered from years in the news business, helped to guide her to new horizons in her hometown.

After she left the paper in 2016, she took time to explore the possibilities. Traveling, teaching, and doing some photography led her to concentrate on capturing images of old Hopkinsville. For the first time in her career without a deadline looming, she had time to ponder her own future as she wandered downtown Hoptown.

“The aesthetic of decay attracted me,” she admitted.

Her vision of the future sharpened in the autumn of 2018 when a sign for a local auction announced the availability of several downtown properties owned by one of the last great merchant families of Hopkinsville.

“About 50 people were there,” she recalled, adding that some sales became complicated, with side deals happening around her.

“There were private conversations, but I was allowed to listen. And they knew I was taking notes. It was an exciting and exhilarating moment because I realized a lot of people trusted me.”

Inspired by that insight, she went home, wrote the story, and created a Facebook page that eventually sparked the creation of the Hoptown Chronicle website about eight months later.

“If you’re a journalist in a certain size community or neighborhood,” she reasoned, “you can home the community’s geography. You’re so close to the community, you have a relationship with it.”

While there is not a lot of detachment in that perspective, Ms. Brown pointed out, “Institutional knowledge of the community, its nuances and subtle connections” assist in the process.

The duality involved in producing Hoptown Chronicle, a non-profit, combines her role as a member of the community with her expertise as a reporter. “This is one of the most rewarding parts of journalism for me,” she declared.

Learning has been an on-the-job challenge, mitigated by help by a former colleague, Julia Hunter, membership and communications director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. “Julia’s got amazing skills,” Brown remarked. “She created the website and the non-profit organization, and she gives excellent advice.”

Creative thinking and flexibility have been key to the success of the Hoptown Chronicle. Partnerships with other Kentucky news outlets, including NPR affiliate WKMS-FM, and news contacts across the country have been helpful. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, its Kentucky Health News, and The Daily Yonder provide further insight.

With close to 700 subscribers, she sees Hoptown Chronicle as a new community asset with a hyper-local focus, not as competition to the Kentucky New Era.

Lately, reporting on covid-19 has dominated her digital space. “We’ve concentrated on Christian County and Kentucky, interpreting data and visualizing it,” Brown said. “We update it every day, and that has brought in a lot of readers.” A survivor of the virus, she recently assigned herself the unique task of reporting on her own bout with the illness.

Today, Hoptown Chronicle is gearing up for the election and has produced a guide to inform voters of the various ways to vote, and the changes in local polling places. “We’ve developed the voters’ guide,” she said, “and we’re creating guides to city council, mayor, and state house races.”

This is National Newspaper Week, and stories like Jennifer Brown’s offer a positive strategy for rebuilding a local news system that better serves communities and democracy in the midst of chaos and change.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and president of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Kentucky. She can be reached at She and Jennifer Brown are on the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Weekly fact check: misinformation, conflicting statements follow Trump's coronavirus diagnosis

In the days President Trump announced that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for coronavirus, statements from White House staff and the presidents doctors have been confusing and sometimes contradictory. Here's some fact-checking on that and related matters from

"Trump’s medical team has portrayed his illness as relatively mild and improving, but also has shared details that would suggest the president may be sicker than they have described," Eugene Kiely and Jessica McDonald report. They highlight some examples:
  • On the evening of Oct. 1, Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity that he would get his test back that night or the next morning, suggesting he did not know whether he was positive. But he had already tested positive with a rapid-results test, and was referring to a more accurate test that took longer to develop.
  • Trump's doctors falsely said several times that Trump had not received supplemental oxygen, that his symptoms were mild but an anonymous source, later revealed to be White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, told a White House pool reporter that "The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery."
  • Conley sought to clear up confusion about when Trump was diagnosed, since his initial statements made it appear that Trump knew he was positive for a full day before the announcement. 
  • In a briefing on Oct. 4, Conley admitted that he had not disclosed earlier that Trump received supplemental oxygen because he wanted to make things look more upbeat and, apparently, avoid upsetting the president so much that his illness worsened. "I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had," Conley said. "I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction and in doing so, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true."

Monday, October 05, 2020

Local news media could help boost rural covid-19 vaccine compliance by 'telling stories rather than using statistics'
As National Newspaper Week kicks off, a new article notes the critical role local news media can play in making sure more rural residents get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available.

Low compliance for the human papillomavirus vaccine, approved in 2006, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study how it could cut through misinformation and better persuade Americans to get the shot. That research and the resulting public-information campaign can provide a blueprint for increasing coronavirus vaccine rates, Jillian Kramer reports for Undark.

Health-care providers are the most trusted sources for vaccine information, and positive framing for messages is key, according to research. Xiaoli Nan, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Risk Communication, told Kramer that the most successful strategies rely on "trustworthy messengers, telling stories rather than using statistics."

Rural news media, which locals trust more than nationwide media, can play a role in getting out the word using the same tactics. That could make a difference in rural areas, which have overall lower vaccine compliance rates than metropolitan areas. Rural areas have lower voluntary immunization rates for ailments such as influenza or HPV, partly because of barriers such as language, transportation, and money, Kramer reports.

Such factors may help explain why rural Native Americans, who receive free health care through the Indian Health Service, have a higher flu-shot immunization rate (50% in the 2018-19 flu season) than the general population (45.3% in the same season). Rural Hispanic residents, meanwhile, have some of the lowest flu vaccination rates in the nation, at 31% for the same time period, according to the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center.

A preliminary CDC vaccine rollout plan, published in mid-September, says good communication is "'essential' to 'a successful covid-19 vaccination program,' and notes the agency will 'engage and use a wide range of partners, collaborations, and communication and news media channels,'" Kramer reports.

Hunger roundup: food banks struggle; Trump letter in USDA food boxes draws protests; maximum SNAP benefits go up

Here's a trio of hunger-related items:

Food banks seeing record increases in demand

Food banks have seen record increases in demand since the coronavirus pandemic began, but donations and volunteers are down, leaving them struggling to meet the needs of food-insecure Americans.

"Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, projects a 6 billion to 8 billion meal shortfall in the next 12 months, a deficit that may be magnified with federal food assistance programs set to expire in the coming weeks and months," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "The Feeding America analysis estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will reach 17 billion pounds, more than three times last year’s distribution."

Tens of millions of Americans have turned to food banks during the pandemic after losing their jobs or having their hours cut. "About 10 percent of American adults, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat within the past week, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey fielded between Aug. 19 and 31. That is up from 18 million before March 13."

Rural Americans, especially children and seniors, are more likely to be food insecure. According to Feeding America, 2.3 million rural households face hunger. Though 63% of U.S. counties are rural, 87% of counties with the highest rates of overall food insecurity are rural. The organ notes that rural residents may have a harder time accessing food banks because of distance and transportation troubles. 

Letter from Trump in some food boxes; to enlarge, click on it.
Trump letters in food boxes criticized

Some are accusing the Trump administration of attempting to make political hay of the food insecurity crisis in a way that violates the Hatch Act. Lawmakers and ethics watchdogs are protesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recent requirement that federal contractors stuff signed letters from President Trump into food boxes for hungry families. 

The "$4 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program has distributed more than 100 million boxes to those in need since May, with the aim of redirecting meat, dairy and produce that might normally go to restaurants and other food-service businesses," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico. "But organizations handing out the aid complain the program is now being used to bolster Trump’s image a month before a high-stakes election — and some even have refused to distribute them."

Some food banks are removing the letters because they don't want to be seen as endorsing a candidate and risk losing their nonprofit tax status, Reilley and Kim Bellware report for the Post.

Maximum SNAP benefits go up a little        

In related news about hunger, on Oct. 1, the Department of Agriculture increased the maximum benefit amounts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by 5.3%. That translates to $34 more per month for a typical household of four receiving the maximum amount. Rural households are more likely to rely on SNAP benefits.

Tuesday afternoon webinar will discuss the challenges of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in rural America

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday, Oct. 6, to discuss "recent increases in new HIV infections in rural areas, address barriers to HIV prevention and treatment services, and present on the committee's site visit and policy recommendations," according to the website. Click here for more information about speakers or to register for the webinar.

Specifically, the webinar will discuss recent a recent policy brief and recommendations the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services wrote for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The NACRHHS paper made three major policy recommendations: 

  1. HHS should modernize the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 to better meet rural needs. That includes increasing funding to grow existing rural programs and encourage pilot programs, earmarking some funding opportunities for rural areas, giving preference to rural applicants in areas with a shortage of health-care professionals, and expanding telehealth to increase access to services and reduce stigma in rural areas.
  2. HHS should increase rural access to pre-exposure prophylaxis for rural residents through the Health Resources & Services Administration's Community Health Centers Program and the Rural Health Care Services Outreach Program.
  3. HHS should support a streamlined grant application process for cash-strapped rural providers, as well as more virtual grant-writing technical assistance for rural communities so they have a better chance of successfully applying for HHS funding.

FCC's broadband maps, long known to be flawed but still in use, could lead to even more waste of taxpayers' money

Though it has been known for years that the Federal Communications Commission relies on faulty data maps to see which rural areas need more broadband funding, the maps haven't been updated. In March, President Trump signed bipartisan legislation ordering the FCC to change how it collects and verifies broadband data, but it missed the Sept. 21 deadline, Dean DeChiaro reports for Roll Call.

"The agency’s plan to use the current maps to begin auctioning off $20 billion in rural broadband funding starting in late October has concerned lawmakers who want to ensure the money is spent wisely," DeChiaro reports.

The main problems are that major telecommunications companies have an incentive to overstate their rural reach. They also have the lobbying muscle to bend major projects their way, but when they get funding tend to save money by installing slower, cheaper DSL service instead of fiber-optic cable, according to research from the Purdue Center for Regional Development.

The faulty maps work in Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's favor, since they falsely show that "his efforts to reduce regulations on internet service providers has helped reduce the number of unconnected Americans," DeChiaro reports. At a House committee hearing Sept. 17, Pai "blamed Congress, which he claimed has hamstrung the agency’s ability to fix the maps by withholding the necessary funding even though the agency approved a plan to fix the maps last year."

Fellow Republican commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O'Rielly acknowledged problems with the maps, but defended efforts to correct them. They "said the maps set to be used in the Oct. 29 auction, which will sell off $16 billion of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, are accurate. Carr said different maps, which will be used to auction off the remaining $4.4 billion later on, are flawed," DeChiaro reports. "Pai said that delaying the October auction to correct maps that will not be used until a subsequent auction would be a disservice to Americans without internet access."

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC has not made enough progress and accused the Republican majority of putting off vital improvements to the way it gathers data, DeChiaro reports. "We are careening towards a disaster with waste, fraud and abuse here," she said. "We’re giving out billions and billions of dollars a week before the election when we know our data is wrong."

Plugging forsaken oil and gas wells could cost $280 billion

"The American public is facing a potential bill of $280 billion for the cleanup of 2.6 million unplugged oil and gas wells, according to 'Billion Dollar Orphans,' a report from London-based think tank Carbon Tracker," Justin Mikulka reports for Desmog, a nonpartisan climate-scientist website. "While this number is alarming, it does not even include an estimated 1.2 million undocumented orphan oil and gas wells."

The petroleum industry defines "orphan wells" as those that don't produce oil or gas and have no financially viable operator to plug them. "With the current state of the oil and gas industry, the number of financially viable operators is rapidly decreasing while bankruptcies rise, which is exacerbating this whole issue," Mikulka reports. "One troubling aspect of this problem is that it should not exist. Regulators at both the federal and state levels have the tools in place to hold companies accountable for the costs of well plugging and abandonment. Yet those regulators have not used those tools, and now, as the industry is struggling financially, in many cases it simply may be too late."

Oil and gas companies must buy a surety bond to get a permit to drill a well, to ensure that the cost of plugging it will be covered, even if the operator goes bankrupt. "But regulators have set the limits for those surety bonds far below the actual costs to plug and abandon wells," Mikulka reports. "Carbon Tracker estimates that these bonds currently would only cover approximately 1% of the estimated $280 billion clean up tab — leaving the rest of the bill to be paid by the public."