Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tim Crews, a rural editor-publisher who fought for open government and went to jail to protect sources, dies at 77

Tim Crews posed in front of the Glenn County Court House. (Photo by Sharon Barker via the Chico Enterprise-Record)

Tim Crews, a rural editor and publisher who was a leading fighter for open government in California, died Nov. 12 after a long illness from various ailments. He was 77.

Glenn County (Wikipedia)
Crews started the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows in 1991 after a dispute with management of the Willows Journal. He "wasn’t afraid to put government officials in uncomfortable situations," Sharon Martin reports for the nearby Chico Enterprise-Record. "He never shied away from asking tough questions when necessary and always remained persistent. . . . He’d cover crime but also covered the community events like the Glenn County Fair or the Junior Livestock Auction. He wouldn’t charge for obituaries, either."

In 2000 Crews spent five days in jail for refusing to reveal his sources for a story about theft of weapons by a former California Highway Patrol officer, Janie Har reports for The Associated Press. “If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It’s just the American way,” he told the Poynter Institute in 2017.

Crews told Poynter his twice-weekly paper filed an average of more than 20 records requests a year, sometimes going to court fight for public access. In 2013, a judge said his suit to force a school district to turn over 3,000 withheld emails from the superintendent was frivolous, and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs when his income was 20,000 a year. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and Crews won the California News Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award. He received the California Press Foundation’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Small Business Saturday, an opportunity to support and promote local businesses, is Nov. 28

The pandemic has hit small businesses particularly hard, but here's a way you can help them: encourage folks to shop local on Small Business Saturday, which will be Nov. 28 this year.

American Express launched the observance in 2010, and has adjusted its messaging to reflect the pandemic. It is emphasizing online shopping this year, and notes that 62 percent of American small businesses reported that they must see consumer spending return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020 in order to stay in business.

Local businesses often have a symbiotic relationship with local news media, so promoting Small Business Saturday helps everyone. The website includes a searchable map with a list of locally owned businesses in your area, as well as facts, graphics, and other resources for news stories. 

Quick hits: New books explore Dolly Parton's music; new podcast series examines the 1980s farm crisis

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

Decades of corporate-friendly farm policies wrecked rural America, writes a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer. Read more here.

Prisons and jails continue to be a major vector for coronavirus transmission. Read more here.

Two new books explore Dolly Parton's music. Read more here.

The agricultural downturn in recent years was seen as the most challenging stretch for the farm economy in decades. Agricultural Economic Insights has launched a new podcast series, "Escaping 1980," that examines the 1980s farm crisis that brought a wave of bankruptcies and reshaped the industry. Listen to the first episodes here.

Though rural areas disproportionately voted for President Trump, most of his voters came from cities and suburbs; rural areas only have about 20% of the nation's population). Read more here.

A new book chronicles a rural Alabama woman's battle to access basic sanitation services, revealing the scope of the problem for many rural residents and the factors that feed the crisis. Read more here.

Rural Missouri county health director says she faces threats and ridicule for trying to slow coronavirus transmission

Amber Elliott (Washington
Post photo by Whitney Curtis)

Amber Elliott, the health director in rural St. Francois County, Missouri, faces threats and ridicule from locals for encouraging masks and social-distancing measures, she says in an "as told to" piece with Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: "I’ve had strange cars driving back and forth past my house. I get threatening messages from people saying they’re watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids. How insane is that? I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me."

Though she fears for her and her family's safety by telling the Post about the threats, Elliott, who only began the job in January and is now planning to leave it, said the public needs to know that it's happening to her and other health-care officials all over the country.

Elliott said she finds the backlash confusing because politics play no part in her actions to promote public health. "I don’t base our whole response to this pandemic on my own opinion," she says. "This job is nonpartisan. I’m not political in any way. I go off of facts and evidence-based science, and right now, all the data in Missouri is scary bad."

St. Francois County, Missouri
(Wikipedia map)
The local hospital is already at capacity and staffing is low, even as the positive-test rate is 25% and rising. Moreover, the state is ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic because it has the lowest funding in the country for public health, and the county doesn't have the resources to effectively fight the spread on the local level, she says: "We can’t keep up. It’s an uncontrolled spread. I have these moments when it feels like I’m a nurse at the bedside, and my patient is dying, and I’m trying every possible intervention to save them. More social distancing. More masks. More contact tracing. Warnings and more warnings. What else can we try? But in the end, it doesn’t matter how much you do. Nothing will work, because it almost seems like the patient is resisting your help."

Elliott said she gets emails and Facebook comments accusing her of blowing the pandemic out of proportion, saying she's a communist, a bitch, or someone who is pushing an agenda. "Okay, fine. I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep this community safe. I want fewer people to die. Why is that controversial?" she said.

The county health board recently pushed for a mask mandate since only about 40% of locals were wearing masks. When it held a public meeting about it, medical providers spoke in support, but many locals (some armed) showed up unmasked, yelling at them and booing them. Six weeks after the board imposed a the mandate, mask-wearing had declined 6 percentage points; Elliott suspects many locals didn't like being told what to do: "We required it, and people became more likely to do the opposite. How do you even make sense of that? We like to believe we take good care of each other here. This is rural Missouri. We pride ourselves on being a down-home community that sticks together, and now this is how we treat each other? This is who we are?"

The story is part of the Post's "Voices from the Pandemic" series, an oral history of the coronavirus pandemic and those affected.

Rural Massachusetts hospital group and others rely on PPE 'gray market', sometimes competing with the government

A story from Massachusetts illustrates the difficulties many rural health-care providers face in getting medical supplies to fight the coronavirus.

President Trump has boasted that his administration has ensured the distribution of personal protective equipment and ventilators, but rural providers are often at the end of supply chains and have a much harder time getting such supplies. That has led many to buy from third-party vendors in the "chaotic, cutthroat gray market," often paying inflated prices they can ill afford, Doug Bock Clark reports for The New York Times.

Baystate Health, which serves rural western Massachusetts, "had been forced to turn to unproven entrepreneurs like this after the corporate distributor it had once depended on ran out of N95s, when national and international supply chains collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic," Clark reports. "Their predicament wasn’t unique. Many hospitals, states and even federal agencies were also desperate, transforming the normally staid market for health care commodities into a Darwinian competition of all against all."

A Bay State executive "had to wonder: How had the U.S. medical system devolved to this? The Baystate Health team was just at the beginning of a months-long battle to secure PPE from an out-of-control market that the Trump administration would avoid closely managing — despite bipartisan calls to do so from mayors, governors, congressional representatives and the leaders of some of America’s largest health care workers’ unions and industry associations," Clark reports. "Indeed, during the initial outbreak, the federal government would sometimes be the most feared player in that market, acting not in an oversight capacity but as its most powerful buyer and disruptive agent. Though the Trump administration would subsequently take action to improve the PPE supply, the result of its efforts was a characteristically American, ongoing experiment in whether local governments and health-care systems can fend for themselves during a deadly pandemic — an experiment that may have left the country unprepared to deal with a record-shattering 'third wave' of infections this winter."

The Trump administration’s "attempts to deal with the PPE crisis reportedly emanated from a team of unpaid consultants, many in their 20s with little to no experience in health care, assembled by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law," Clark reports. "After distributing the dregs of the Strategic National Stockpile, the federal government focused on procuring whatever supplies it could from corporate medical distributors and the gray market, distributing them through FEMA. An analysis by The Associated Press suggested that rural states with less serious outbreaks were awarded more PPE per confirmed case than states with significantly more dangerous outbreaks. This raised accusations of political favoritism in a life-or-death situation — though the administration has strongly denied this." The same AP story noted that many rural health-care facilities still lacked access to PPE.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Researchers ask for help in finding ash trees that beat borer

Science magazine map; differing county density among states may misrepresent density of emerald ash borers
Green Ash
(Photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois)
The emerald ash borer is "the most devastating insect ever to strike a North American tree," Science magazine said in August, but a few trees somehow resist it, and researchers are asking for the public's help to find them in hopes of rebuilding the species as genetically resistant.

"Finding them in the forest is like looking for a needle in the haystack," writes Carol Lea Spence of the University of Kentucky, where the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources is coordinating the project. But several have been found, and the Kentucky Division of Forestry is raising trees from their seeds. It will take years, as the trees grow, to make sure they inherit the resistance to the borer.

UK forestry professor Ellen Crocker and forest health technician Megan Buland want people to report any surviving trees in the woods through the TreeSnap app. "Researchers are looking for large, mature trees left among those that were killed by the invasive insect," Spence reports. "Seedlings that are springing up in the gaps left by dead ash are not eligible for the study, because once large enough, they too will most likely be susceptible to the borer." Crocker and Buland developed a virtual hunt for "lingering ash" and a video that can help you identify ash trees. North America has 16 species of ash; the mode widespread, the green ash, is the most threatened by the borer. Other species such as white ash are highly susceptible.

Unlikely alliance of Farm Bureau, environmental groups, Farmers Union aims to reduce agriculture's carbon footprint

"The American Farm Bureau Federation, the country's largest and most powerful agricultural lobbying group, has long pushed against climate legislation and worked closely with the fossil-fuel industry to defeat it," Georgina Gustin reports for Inside Climate News. "But on Tuesday, the Farm Bureau announced it had joined an unlikely alliance of food, forest, farming and environment groups that intends to work with Congress and the incoming Biden administration to reduce the food system's role in climate change and reward farmers when they lower their greenhouse-gas emissions."

The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance was founded in February by four groups than now co-chair it: Farm Bureau, the National Council of Farm Cooperatives, the National Farmers Union (in some ways a liberal Farm Bureau) and the Environmental Defense Fund. The group now includes the Food Industry Association, the National Alliance of Forest Owners, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and the Nature Conservancy. The Russell Group, a Washington lobbying firm, is coordinating. The groups' leaders of the groups acknowledge they won't always agree, but told Gustin that they believe they can find common ground.

In the Tuesday announcement, the group unveiled 40 policy proposals on its wish list that could be carried out through legislation, executive order, agency-level policy, and/or voluntary cooperation from farmers and agribusinesses. "The group's recommendations range across six broad categories, including soil health, food waste and agriculture research, Gustin reports. "They include a proposal to give tax credits to farmers who can prove that they've stashed carbon in their soils and a USDA-led 'carbon bank' that would set a minimum amount that farmers would be paid for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions."

All that doesn't address larger issues such as "overuse of synthetic fertilizers and the continued expansion of large-scale animal feeding operations and their excess manure," Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told Gustin. "Voluntary, incentive-based approaches are important, but as long as this industrial system of production is in place, it will be difficult to get deeper traction at the speed with which is needed to meet the climate crisis." Click here for the group's full list of policy proposals.

Interactive map shows how risky a big dinner would be in your county; rural superspreader wedding illustrates risks

Screenshot of interactive map; assumes actual case prevalence 10 times laboratory-confirmed count.
As coronavirus infections surge across the nation, millions of Americans are trying to decide whether to travel or hold large family gatherings for Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against it, but many Americans appear to be gearing up for a trip anyway.

"Coronavirus testing sites across the United States are reporting increased demand for tests ahead of Thanksgiving week, worrying local government leaders that Americans are ignoring their calls to scale back holiday gatherings and travel," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

"Roughly 40 percent plan to attend a Thanksgiving gathering with 10 or more people, according to a recent survey commissioned by Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. He notes an interactive map created at Georgia Tech that shows how risky it would be in your county to hold a large Thanksgiving gathering. 

Meanwhile, a wedding in rural Washington that became a coronavirus superspreader may serve as a reminder of the danger of large gatherings.

Federal and state governments issue conflicting messages about mask mandates as infection rates rise

More than 3 million people in the United States have active coronavirus infections and are potentially contagious, according to a new estimate from infectious-disease experts tracking the pandemic," Joel Achenbach reports for The Washington Post. "That number is significantly larger than the official case count, which is based solely on those who have tested positive for the virus."

Meanwhile, amid the coronavirus spike, federal and many state governments are sending conflicting messages about pandemic safety precautions, sometimes leaving the decision up to local governments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against traveling or holding large gatherings for Thanksgiving, for example, but has some recommendations for if you do. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called those guidelines "Orwellian" in a recent Fox News interview, Quint Forgey reports for Politico.

Some states, such as Oregon and Kentucky, recently announced new shut-downs because of spiking coronavirus infections, and the Republican governors in Iowa and North Dakota, who once dismissed mandatory coronavirus restrictions as ineffective, have issued mask mandates, Forgey reports. (See a list of mask mandates by state here.)

The governors of some hard-hit states, like Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, refuse to enact mask mandates, though Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon acknowledged that many are not acting in the best interests of the community, Eric Levenson reports for CNN. "We've relied on people to be responsible," Gordon said Friday, "and they're being irresponsible." That has left local and county governments in such states to decide on mask mandates, and many are.

Deaths from 'diseases of despair' in Appalachia continue to outstrip nationwide rate, study finds

Mortality rates from "diseases of despair" in Appalachia continue to outstrip national rates, according to a new report commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission and conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and the Center for Rural Health Research at East Tennessee State University.

The report focused on deaths from three main causes: overdoses from alcohol, prescription drugs, and/or illegal drugs; suicide, and cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. Read more here.

We know how to beat the pandemic, we just won't do it, writes former CDC director, who favors strategic shutdowns

The coronavirus is getting worse and will likely last through much of 2021, especially since widespread distribution of a vaccine is probably many months away. "Until then, we need a one-two punch to knock the virus down and then keep it down," Thomas R. Frieden writes for The Atlantic. Frieden is the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until we control the virus, he writes, we can't get the economy back on track.

Frieden advocates strategic, well-timed shutdowns. Many don't believe shutdowns work, but that's because many parts of the country shut down too soon and for too long in the spring, he writes: "By the time covid-19 came to areas that hadn’t yet needed to close, people were tired of waiting and resisted continued restrictions. An effective closure needs to be nuanced, specific, and tightened and loosened based on real-time data about where the virus is spreading."

Governments at all levels should mandate mask-wearing in all indoor public places and require businesses to limit capacity or, where necessary, reduce hours or temporarily close, Frieden writes: "Comprehensive action is particularly important for places where covid-19 spreads explosively, including meatpacking, agricultural, and other workplaces where distancing is difficult, as well as for congregate housing, including nursing homes, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities. In addition to universal mask wearing, these regulations should include installing physical barriers such as plexiglass shields, upgrading ventilation systems, and increasing space between people." But governments can't bear all the burden, he cautions, saying individuals must choose less-risky actions, especially with the holiday season coming up.

The U.S. is also failing to effectively test, trace and isolate the infected. "Outbreaks can be stopped, but only by quick, expert work—and cooperation with public-health measures, which is difficult to secure in an environment of misinformation and mistrust, Frieden writes. "Of the many failures of the outgoing administration’s handling of covid-19, the most destructive has been its failure to communicate honestly and directly from the start." Read more here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

As nursing-home covid cases surge, few have completed government training meant to quell spread; see which ones

Covid-19 cases from May 31-Nov.1 in nursing homes and in the general population. (American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living chart; click the image to enlarge it.)

New coronavirus cases in nursing homes are at a record "despite federal efforts to shield residents through aggressive testing and visitor restrictions, a new report shows," Ken Alltucker reports for USA Today. "Federal data shows 10,279 covid-19 cases during the week of Nov. 1, the most recent data available. The figures surpassed the previous high of 9,903 cases in late July, according to a report by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living."

Nursing homes are a significant vector for spreading the infection in rural areas, but federal rules updated in September loosened employee-testing requirements for many rural nursing homes.

The rise in nursing-home cases is linked to the rise of overall coronavirus cases (see chart above), but the virus is much deadlier for seniors than for the general public. Data from The Atlantic's Covid Tracking Project shows that nursing homes house fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 40% of the nation's covid-19 deaths, Alltucker reports.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has provided billions in emergency funds to nursing homes and long-term care facilities to test, staff and purchase personal protective equipment to prevent infections among staff and residents," Alltucker reports. "Among the initiatives: HHS has purchased point-of-care machines and kits that can deliver test results within minutes."

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Tuesday that only about 12.5% of the nation's nursing homes have completed at least half of the agency's training program meant to help staff slow the spread of the disease, and released a list of the 1,092 homes that have done so. 

Some nursing homes may be seeing a spike because they don't have enough qualified staff. A recent study in Kentucky found that the nursing homes with the highest covid-19 mortality rates had relatively low numbers of registered nurses on staff who spent less time than average with residents.

ProPublica announces six distinguished fellows for longer projects, including some who write about rural issues

ProPublica announced Monday the names of six local reporters who have been chosen as the inaugural members of its Distinguished Fellows program. Several of the names will be familiar to long-time readers of The Rural Blog.

"The program will fund the reporters’ salaries and benefits for three years as they produce important investigative projects from their home newsrooms on topics affecting their communities," ProPublica says. "An outgrowth of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — which since 2018 has similarly funded local accountability reporting projects for one year across more than 40 local newsrooms to date — the longer-term Distinguished Fellows program will enable reporters to pursue a broad range of stories while deepening ProPublica’s relationship with the partner newsrooms and their communities. These partnerships will start on Jan. 1, 2021, and run through Dec. 31, 2023."

Here are a few of the newly announced fellows who write about issues with rural resonance:
  • Ken Ward Jr., who left the Charleston Gazette-Mail this year and joined ProPublica to co-found the investigative news non-profit Mountain State Spotlight. Ward won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and the Institute for Rural Journalism's Tom and Pat Gish Award.
  • Kyle Hopkins, special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News and a member of the Local Reporting Network, who worked for small-town newspapers across Alaska. The ADN's investigation into the sexual assault crisis in rural Alaska, mainly led by Hopkins, won the paper and ProPublica a Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
  • Molly Parker, a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, has been a member of the Local Reporting Network since 2018, and has written about failures in government oversight of public housing. "In her continuing work in partnership with ProPublica, Parker plans to focus on challenges facing the diverse rural communities that make up the Mid-South Illinois region she calls home," ProPublica reports.

Analyst: Rural-urban divide in criminal justice is widening

Rural people can have a harder time with criminal justice than urban or suburban residents, and the gap is widening, Marc Levin writes for The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

"First, rural areas are less equipped to deal with the spike in drug overdoses in 2020, many of which are fatal. In recent years, overdose death rates in urban areas matched or exceeded rural areas, reversing a prior pattern. More recent data by type of jurisdiction is not available; but many of the states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, that saw significant declines from 2017 to 2018 have lost ground so far this year," Levin reports. "While addiction knows no boundaries, research has found that rural areas are less likely to have accessible treatment options. Rural and smaller law enforcement agencies and paramedics may have longer response times and be less likely to carry naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug." Levin is chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Many justice systems have turned to virtual court appearances and probation check-ins, but that could be more difficult in rural areas with poor connectivity. "Fortunately, text messaging and phone applications that do not require this level of connectivity provide an alternative for pretrial services and community supervision officers to keep in touch with those they are supervising," Levin reports.

Indigent defense has long been a challenge in rural areas, and the pandemic "has made it more difficult for defense lawyers to meet with their clients, whether that is due to protocols limiting access to defendants in jail or the challenge of maintaining a safe office environment with frequent visitors," Levin reports. "Rural areas have largely been left behind by advances in urban areas such as holistic defense, through which organizations like Bronx Defenders connect their clients to services and treatment, resulting in better outcomes by solving the challenges that led them to be involved in the justice system."

Another inequality, Levin notes, is that 54% of prisons are in rural areas, which increases the risk of coronavirus transmission among the incarcerated as well as staff and the community beyond.

A recent report from the Southern Methodist University Law School's Deason Center has some recommendations for closing the rural-urban gap in criminal justice. Their suggestions include "innovations in technology and training, law school legal clinics serving Native American tribes and other rural communities, and a combined undergraduate and law program for students seeking to practice in rural areas," Levin reports.

Rural seniors in Illinois (and surely other states) grapple with food insecurity, loneliness during pandemic

Millions of American seniors, about 5.5 million in 2017, are food-insecure, and disproportionately rural. But little research has been done to understand how lower-income rural seniors get their food, and what factors make it harder. A new Indiana University study aims to address that. Read more here.

The study was conducted by IU's Sustainable Food Systems Science Initiative in partnership with the IU Center for Rural Engagement, and relied on 10 public discussions with rural seniors in Illinois and a survey of 5,000 lower-income households.

Among their findings:

  • Seniors said living alone made them less motivated to prepare balanced meals, and reduced the joy they found in eating. 
  • The pandemic has significantly increased their feelings of loneliness. Before it began, 23 percent said they often or sometimes felt "left out" but 40% reported such feelings in the pandemic.
  • Similarly, 7% said they often or sometimes felt "isolated" before the pandemic, but 61% felt so afterward. Before it, 25% said they sometimes or often "lacked companionship", but 42% said so afterward.
  • Seniors who live with children or grandchildren said consistent shopping and cooking routines, along with family mealtimes, helped them eat better.
  • Seniors also said group mealtimes like those offered at senior centers or churches helped them eat better and feel better. However, such meals have dwindled during the pandemic, and even services like Meals on Wheels have reduced deliveries in some areas.
  • Transportation is a major barrier to food access for rural seniors, since many don't drive and public transit is rare or non-existent where they live.
  • Many seniors said they found the paperwork to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to be confusing, which often deterred them from participating, especially since the payoff averages only $13-$15 per month.
  • Many seniors have specialized dietary needs (low-sodium or low-sugar foods, for example) that are often unavailable to them through food programs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

New tourists, prompted by the pandemic, caused increases in trash and bear activity at Lake Tahoe

A bear roots through trash at a Lake Tahoe vacation property in October.
(Photo by Cimmaron Correy of the Clean Tahoe Program)

"Most summers, visitors to Lake Tahoe respect its beauty and its bears. This summer, however was different, resulting in an increase in trash and bear activity, and protests from some of the locals," Erika Mailman reports for The Washington Post. "Many tourism officials and business owners had feared Tahoe would take a major hit because of the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention the poor air quality from the California wildfires. Instead, the famously blue lake that straddles the state line between California and Nevada saw a boost in visitors."

The increase in visitors came after stay-at-home mandates were eased, according to Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "But the vacationers who arrived in droves were not Tahoe’s typical tourists, observers say. Some seemed unfamiliar with wilderness protocols, which include packing out trash, protecting pristine natural elements such as trees and boulders, and not feeding the bears," Mailman reports.

Part of the problem is that many of the new visitors were day-trippers or people who were stopping briefly on their way to other destinations. When visitors stay longer, there's time to warn them about the bears and give them tips on how to stay safe and keep the area less attractive to bears, Mailman reports. Ann Bryant, head of the BEAR League, a 24-hour call center for bear issues, said calls skyrocketed this summer. She said that some tourists didn't know there are bears. Others deliberately left out food to attract bears so they could take pictures, but that makes trouble for the next visitor when the bear comes back for more food, she told Mailman.

Bears weren't the only problem the new tourists brought, Bryant said. She said many visitors lacked "proper forest etiquette" and were responsible for a surge in vandalism and littering. "Trees and ancient boulders were spray-painted, sometimes with obscenities," Mailman reports. "Locals protested with several rallies in August, holding signs that read 'tourists go away' and 'don’t trash Tahoe.'"

Chaplin said the animosity was unfortunate, since tourism is the area's main source of income.

New rural coronavirus infections topped 200,000 last week, breaking record for eighth consecutive week

Coronavirus infection rate ranges by county, Nov. 8-15
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections in rural America hit a record high for the eighth consecutive week from Nov. 8-15, as covid-related rural deaths set a record high for the fourth week in a row. New cases are especially concentrated in the north central part of the country.

"New cases in rural (non-metropolitan) counties climbed to 195,795 last week, a 36 percent increase and more than double the number of new cases that were recorded only three weeks ago. Covid-related deaths in rural counties reached 2,026 last week, an increase of 8% from the previous week," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Eighty-six percent of rural counties are now in the red zone, meaning they have an infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 population in a single week. More than a quarter of rural counties are now above the 500 new cases rate."

Click here for more charts, data insights, and an interactive map.

Wolves may help curb chronic wasting disease among deer through the 'predator cleansing effect'

A wolf near a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming
(Associated Press photo by Jacob W. Frank of the National Park Service)

Chronic wasting disease is an increasing threat to deer, elk and moose, but gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park (and possibly elsewhere) may be a valuable tool in helping slow its spread, according to preliminary data from a research project.

"Researchers are studying what is known as the predator cleansing effect, which occurs when a predator sustains the health of a prey population by killing the sickest animals," Jim Robbins reports for The New York Times. "If the idea holds, it could mean that wolves have a role to play in limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is infecting deer and similar animals across the country and around the world. Experts fear that it could one day jump to humans."

The possible benefit to humans is something to keep in mind as the federal and state governments consider protections for wolves. In the recent election, Coloradans approved restoration of gray wolves to public lands. Meanwhile, the Interior Department issued a final rule in October removing Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves.

Investigation shows how pork-processing plant officials sacrificed worker safety for profits during pandemic

Meatpacking plants have been a major vector for the coronavirus pandemic in rural areas. An investigation into an outbreak at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri, shows how the company failed to enact appropriate safeguards that would have mitigated the spread of the disease, even as company officials said they were doing all they could to protect workers. Though St. Joseph is not rural (the population tops 76,000), the Triumph Foods investigation likely illustrates why other meatpacking plants have been coronavirus hotbeds.

The investigation is by Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe of USA Today and Sky Chadde of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The project receives funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

"The reporting found Triumph failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of covid-19. And local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers," Axon, Bagenstose, Crowe and Chadde report. "At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10 hours a day, crammed side by side. Even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus program that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill."

The findings buttress experts' warnings that meatpacking plants would prioritize production over worker safety. "Workers and their unions have accused companies of doing the bare minimum to protect staff and time and again finding ways to keep their lines running," they report.

How to start a community advisory board for your newsroom

"Community editorial boards — or to use another term, community advisory boards, although both essentially serve the same purpose — are one way to start more of your journalism from a place of listening," Stephanie Castellano writes for the American Press Institute.

"Depending on the makeup of the board and how members are recruited, they can point you toward stories that have gone uncovered and people whose information needs are not being met. And they can help you build — or repair — relationships with groups that are often marginalized or misrepresented by the news media, and perhaps by your own newsroom."

Click here for tips on how to start a community advisory board in your newsroom, including:

  • how to recruit an advisory board that reflects your community's diversity
  • tips for running productive, meaningful board meetings
  • how your newsroom can demonstrate accountability to the board
  • tips for successfully pitching the idea of a community advisory board to your newsroom's leadership

Surging coronavirus in north central U.S. forces leaders and covid-19 patients to grapple with its reality

As the coronavirus surges in the north central U.S., those who have not taken the pandemic seriously or refused to acknowledge its existence have been forced to grapple with the reality of the situation.

Jodi Doering, a registered nurse in a South Dakota emergency room, said that she's seen many covid patients continue to deny that the virus exists, right up until they die from it, CNN reports

"I think the hardest thing to watch is that people are still looking for something else and a magic answer and they do not want to believe covid is real," Doering told CNN. "Their last dying words are, 'This can’t be happening. It’s not real,'" Doering said some patients insist they have pneumonia or other diseases, despite receiving positive test results for the coronavirus.

"The United States surpassed 11 million coronavirus cases Sunday, and health experts warn of even bleaker weeks ahead, urging the public to take the pandemic seriously and abide by strict social-distancing rules," Paulina Villegas reports for The Washington Post. "They have also urged public officials to implement more restrictions, such as statewide mask mandates, to stem the spread."

"In North Dakota, where cases have rocketed in the past month, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has also acknowledged the phenomenon of disbelief among the population," Villegas reports. "Burgum pleaded with fellow residents late last week to take precautions, as the state’s hospitals are overwhelmed with patients."

Meanwhile, "as hospitals in Iowa fill up with covid-19 patients amid a major surge in cases in recent weeks, Gov. Kim Reynolds, who once dismissed coronavirus restrictions as 'feel-good' measures, has abruptly reversed course, issuing the state's first mask mandate," Scott Neuman reports for NPR. Reynolds, a Republican, "signed a proclamation requiring Iowans over the age of 2 to wear masks in indoor public spaces starting Tuesday."

Reynolds also limited public gatherings and restricted bar and restaurant operating hours, though she carved out numerous exceptions for classrooms, office and factory work, and religious gatherings, Neuman reports. In a news conference Monday, Reynolds said she didn't want to order the new restrictions, but said if Iowans don't take it seriously, "businesses will close once again, more schools will be forced to go online, and our health care system will fail."

"In July, the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, reported that a White House Coronavirus Task Force document had prepared, but never published recommendations that 18 states with cases of 100 or more per 100,000 residents should be locked down to prevent the spread of the disease. Iowa was on the list," Villegas reports. At the time, Reynolds recommended that Iowans wear masks but said she trusted Iowans to act in their best interests and said such a mandate was unenforceable.

The Navajo Nation, meanwhile, entered a lockdown Monday in an effort to stop infections, Reese Oxner reports for NPR. The reservation was once a major hot spot for coronavirus cases, but has acted aggressively over the past months to curb the virus's spread.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Election misinformation unprecedented; trusted local news media in good position to remind Americans of the facts

An election worker in Marietta, Ga., worked on the state's
hand recount of presidential votes Sunday. (Photo by John
Amis, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press)
The Associated Press headlines a fact check by Calvin Woodward: "Trump conclusively lost, denies the evidence." AP has long been America's chief vote counter and its most trusted news source, but Trump is taking advantage of the new media environment to create a myth that the election was rigged against him, as he said Sunday on Twitter.

"Local news media should counter this false narrative, especially in rural areas, where the president's support is strongest," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "This narrative may serve the president's purposes, whatever they may be, but it undermines confidence in our democratic processes, and all news media have an interest in preventing that. We are servants of democracy, or we are supposed to be. And local news media are more trusted than national media, so they have an important role to play."

Davey Alba and Joseph Plambeck report for The New York Times, citing researchers of disinformation, that Trump's stance "has left a huge information gap ripe for exploitation by bad actors. That has led to the worst-case scenario for the proliferation of misinformation about the election playing out: The volume of bad information, they say, is unprecedented."

Trump has attempted to cast doubt on the reliability of election results since before the 2016 election, but escalated such rhetoric after the coronavirus pandemic led to increased mail-in voting, Alba and Plambeck report. They note that "misinformation of all kinds, not just about the election, had already been on the rise, compounded by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders that have caused more people to be glued to their screens and consuming social media."

A disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory told Alba and Plambeck that election misinformation tended to revolve around three themes: boosting user-reported, one-off incidents on social media to support claims of illegitimacy; false and misleading information spiking in battleground states; and the re-emergence of misinformation incidents and delegitimization themes that revived earlier allegations of tainted voting machines or a Democrat-led coup, for example.

Meanwhile, Trump's legal team has filed dozens of lawsuits in battleground states alleging fraud and other misdeeds, David A. Fahrenthold, Emma Brown, and Hannah Knowles report for The Washington Post: "Rather than revealing widespread — or even isolated — fraud, the effort by Trump’s legal team has so far done the opposite: It’s affirmed the integrity of the election that Trump lost. Nearly every GOP challenge has been tossed out. Not a single vote has been overturned."

The goal seems to be keeping suspicion alive in Trump fans, and the legal team's approach seems to be "declare crimes first, then look for proof afterward," the Post says. "Again and again, the president or his allies said they’d found evidence that would stun the public and swing the election. But, when Trump and his team revealed that evidence, it often was far less than they had promised. A 'dead' voter turned out to be alive. 'Thousands' of problematic ballots turned out to be one. Election-changing problems turned out to involve a few dozen, or a few hundred, ballots."

Editor-in-Chief Nicole Carroll of USA Today writes that many readers have asked whether the paper is investigating Trump's allegations of voter fraud. Though she affirms that they will always look into credible accusations, "Many of these allegations are unfounded, overblown or have little or unreliable evidence." Enterprise Editor Steve Myers said his reporters have reviewed about 10 lawsuits alleging problems with voting and vote counting in several states, but said "What many people may not realize is how far the lawsuits fall short of what people claim."

Trump has put his personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, in charge of his legal fight. Giuliani has amplified claims of election fraud in interviews on Fox News, but his claims, which Trump has retweeted, have been debunked by Trump's own government, Glenn Kessler reports for the Post's Fact Checker column: "In a statement issued Nov. 12, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and partners such as the National Association of Secretaries of State declared: 'There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.'" Kessler writes that, though he was tempted to simply leave the fact check at the CISA's statement, he provides a more thorough debunking. 

Nov. 19 webinar to discuss new Postal Service program to give some newspaper mail discounts

In a Nov. 19 webinar, U.S. Postal Service representatives will discuss a new policy that will give discounts to some publications that send out their periodical mail in flat tubs instead of sacks. The policy will take effect in January. 

The National Newspaper Association will host the webinar on Zoom beginning at 3 p.m. ET, and invites all newspapers to watch. Nonmembers can watch for $30, and will only have access to the live program, not the recording. Click here for more information.

Rural-urban divide 'vivid as ever', rural Iowa editor writes

Art Cullen
Though Joe Biden flipped several red states blue in the recent election, "the rural-urban divide is vivid as ever," editor and co-owner Art Cullen writes for The Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly paper in northwest Iowa.

Iowa stayed red, and pollsters may have some reasons why. Just before the election, one "found a big shift among independents who wanted a GOP Senate to provide a check on the 'socialists'," Cullen writes, though "running against socialism when Trump larded $60 billion in payments on agribusiness in the past two years for disasters of his own making seemed like a thin soup." 

Not to most. Rural residents who were "immersed in Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting and Facebook lapped it up," Cullen writes. The propaganda, plus Republican efforts on the ground, resulted in a net gain of 20,000 more new registered voters for Republicans than for Democrats in Iowa. That "put a seemingly indelible red lock on what used to be a purple state," he writes, noting that the GOP gained seats on both sides of the state legislature. 

If the rural-urban divide "can’t be closed, the very idea of American democratic liberty remains challenged," Cullen writes. "There is a palpable resentment among those left behind from the economic coastal juggernauts that finds its expression in terrorist rubes from the sticks dressed in Hawaiian shirts planning to kidnap the governor of Michigan and execute her to start a civil war. . . . Joe Biden’s chief job of uniting the country starts on the Great Plains and Appalachia. It’s a tough sale, but Biden knows how from years of horse-trading in the Senate. Two ideas with appeal: renewable energy and agricultural conservation."

Nov. 18 workshop to explore issues with heirs' property, a leading cause of land loss among many rural Blacks

A Nov. 18 virtual workshop will explore heirs' property and the critical role it plays in wealth inequality. Heir's property is land informally passed down to heirs from those without a will, and it is a leading cause of land loss among many rural Blacks, especially in South Carolina. 

The Aspen Institute's Community Strategies Group and the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation will present the workshop. The schedule is as follows:

Plenary session from 1-3 p.m. ET, in which participants can learn the context of heir's property and the Center's work.

Breakout discussions from 3:30-5:30 p.m. ET; you may choose two from the following topics: 

  • Legal and Policy Approaches to Resolving Heirs’ Property
  • The Opportunity for the Conservation Sector: Engaging People of Color and Their Land
  • Building a Movement of Landowner Advocates
  • Heirs’ Property Across Race and Place
  • Forestry and Wealth Creation in the American Black Belt
A screening of America's Forests with Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones from 6-7 p.m. ET.

 Click here for more information or to register.

In-person classes may have helped spread coronavirus in rural college towns in the Upper Midwest and more

"One cause of the spike in covid-19 cases in rural communities in the West, Northwest, and Midwest is likely the return of in-person classes at colleges and universities, experts in infectious diseases said during a briefing last week," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Researchers with the Infectious Diseases Society of America also said the pandemic is likely to stick around until the summer or fall 2021 – with or without a vaccine."

"States like North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Wisconsin and others avoided high numbers of cases throughout the summer," Carey reports. "But cases began to accelerate in early September. That timing leads Andrew Pavia, M.D., chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine, to theorize that the reopening of colleges was a major factor in the surge in those states."

Most of the states with surging coronavirus infections have kept in-person school and extracurricular activities going, Pavia said during the briefing. He also noted that individual events like the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, have contributed to the spike, Carey reports. 

Pavia said he's concerned about the effect of the surge on rural hospitals, which are already stretched thin, and predicts that things will get worse over the next two months: "The big problem is, hospitalizations go up a week to two weeks after case rates go up. Deaths go up about a month after hospitalizations go up. Our case rates are still going up; we need to flatten them. The situation in the hospitals is going to be quite a bit worse (in a few weeks) than it is today."

Scaled-back Thanksgiving celebrations will be the key to lowering rates, Pavia said. The pandemic will most likely end next summer or fall, and advises rural residents to slow the disease's spread in the meantime by wearing protective gear, washing hands frequently, and avoiding crowds, Carey reports.