Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Rural Blog's Top 10 stories for 2021 illustrate the rural journalism institute's history, mission and forms of service

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

When our friends at The Daily Yonder listed their Top 10 stories of 2021, it made us wonder what the top stories of the year were on The Rural Blog, as measured by individual page views.

Al Smith
Sadly, three of of our top 10 dealt with death: a news story and an opinion piece about the passing of Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, and a story on the death of former Louisville Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe, who was born in Eastern Kentucky, was a reporter there, and made sure that the C-J paid attention to the rural region even as most newspapers forsook rural coverage. Al and David were keys to whatever success I have had, and I miss them every day. But I'm glad the stories about them got attention.

As The Rural Blog says on its right rail, it's about facts, not opinion, but you may read an opinion here occasionally. We've had a little more opinion in the last few years, because of the issues facing our democracy and journalism (and especially lately, rural journalism). Soon after the Jan. 6 insurrection, I wrote that rural newspapers should "speak the truth, stand up for it and have respectful dialogue" with readers who believed then-President Trump's lie that the election was stolen from him.

When The Associated Press finished its meticulous investigation of election-fraud claims and published a story saying that there was far too little fraud to make a difference in the election, I asked AP to make the story available to weekly newspapers that don't subscribe to the wire service. AP agreed, and our story about that was one of the most-read on The Rural Blog in 2021. Thanks again to Adam Yeomans and his superiors at AP!

The most-read post on the blog this year was a piece I wrote about Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl ad for Jeep, which drew fire from The Washington Post's pop-music critic, who said it felt "insulting and wrong" in the wake of the insurrection to suggest that "we should all swiftly and metaphorically travel to the nucleus of white, rural America to make up and move along." I wrote that it was the columnist who was insulting and wrong, and quoted other, better takes and provided background.

The most-read news story on the blog was about the departure of a prominent local editor in Paxton Media Group after it bought her newspaper and the others in Landmark Community Newspapers in one of the biggest community news media transactions of the year. The story came from the Yonder, which quoted the unhappy editor at length but had nothing from Paxton. We sought comment from the company and added it; no other such examples have surfaced.

Another widely read story was about this year's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, which went to the Thompson-High family of Whiteville, N.C., which published The News Reporter for more than 80 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. It's great to see high readership for a story about exemplars of rural journalism.

The 10th most-read story is also gratifying. It alerted readers to a re-airing of the Institute's 2020 documentary, still available online, "about a soldier from one of the most isolated places in America who repeatedly put his life on the line for his country – but quietly returned to his very rural life and wasn’t fully honored for his heroism until 73 years later." His name was G. Murl Conner.

This didn't start out to be an article about the Institute and what we do, but that's what the page-view statistics tell us. And we wouldn't be doing right by ourselves if we didn't take this opportunity to ask for tax-deductible contributions to support our work. You can do that online, by going here. Thanks!

Rural areas are losing grocery stores, while gaining dollar stores and regional supercenters, USDA research shows

Economic Research Service graph shows census of food retailers in rural counties.

Rural places lost single-location grocery stores but gained dollar stores and regional "supercenters" from 1998 to 2015, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The trend continues as dollar stores proliferate, especially during the pandemic.

"Most counties without access to a grocery store or a food retailer are rural nonmetro and urban nonmetro," says the report by Alexander Stevens, Clare Cho, Metin Çakır, Xiangwen Kong, and Michael Boland of ERS. "The number of grocery stores has been declining in these counties, particularly after the Great Recession. As a result, the share of grocery store sales in total food sales has been declining during this time, replaced primarily by convenience stores. These trends suggest that access to grocery stores has been declining over the last 25 years."  

Retail chains selling food have gained market share. "The number of single location grocery stores has been declining particularly after 2009, which was also the main source of the large decline in the total number of grocery stores," ERS reports.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Republicans use mask disputes and 'critical race theory' to push for partisan elections of local boards of education

A crowd attends a board meeting on mask mandates in the Kalamazoo 
County Schools in Michigan. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher, Getty Images)
Republicans are pressing local and state officials to make historically nonpolitical school-board races partisan "in an attempt to gain more statewide control and swing them to victory in the 2022 midterms," Andrew Atterbury and Juan Perez Jr. report for Politico.

Tennessee recently allowed school-board candidates to list their party on the ballot, and Arizona and Missouri legislators may do likewise. Similar legislation in Florida "would pave the way for partisan school board races statewide, potentially creating new primary elections that could further inflame the debate about how to teach kids," Politico reports. "The issue is about to spread to other states."

The American Enterprise Institute says conservatives should “strongly consider” letting partisan affiliations to appear on school-board ballots, "as part of broader efforts to boost voter turnout for the contests," Politico reports. A group of conservatives, including representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and Kenneth Marcus, former Education Department civil-rights chief, say school-board elections should be held on the same schedule as partisan elections "as part of sweeping efforts to 'end critical race theory in schools'," an unproven presumption.

"In Florida, school boards are among the last elected officials who blocked policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis," Politico notes. "If Republicans succeed in pushing the state to strip school-board elections of their nonpartisan status and gain more representation on school boards, they could break the last holdouts who regularly defy the governor," a possible presidential candidate absent Donald Trump.

“We’re out there trying to elect good conservatives that will follow essentially the governor’s mission as it relates to education,” said Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), who leads both the Senate Education Committee and the state Republican Party.

Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Politico, “I do think party labels would produce more informed voters. But, at the same time, it would likely accelerate emerging trend of nationalization of local education politics.”

Politicization of school-board races doesn't necessarily mean changes to ballots. The Texas Republican Party recently "formed a new Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections, where issues like mask mandates and the teaching of what some conservatives call critical race theory have become flashpoints," the Texas Tribune reports. "The state Democratic Party has been supporting local nonpartisan candidates through a program, Project LIFT, that started in 2015. The program, which stands for Local Investment in the Future of Texas, recruits, trains and provides resources to people running for municipal offices and school board."

Omicron variant makes better masks necessary, experts say

Chart from; click on it to elnarge.
"With another coronavirus variant racing across the U.S., once again health authorities are urging people to mask up indoors. Yes, you’ve heard it all before," Maria Godoy reports for NPR. "But given how contagious Omicron is, experts say, it’s seriously time to upgrade to an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you’re in public indoor spaces.

“Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron,” Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses transmit in the air, told NPR.

Omicron "spreads at least three times faster than Delta," Godoy notes. "One person is infecting at least three others at a time on average, based on data from other countries."

Robert Wachter, chair of the medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Godoy, “The kind of encounter that you could have had with prior versions of the virus that would have left you uninfected, there’s now a good chance you will get infected from it.”

Early research at the University of Hong Kong shows "Omicron multiplies 70 times faster inside human respiratory tract tissue than the delta variant does," NPR reports. "That study also found that Omicron reaches higher levels in respiratory tract tissue 48 hours after infection, compared with Delta."

Marr said, “That would suggest to me that maybe it reaches higher levels and then we spew out more [virus particles] if we’re infected,” Also, Omicron may be so contagious that it takes fewer viral particles to create an infection.

Also, "Virus particles from an infectious person can linger in the air indoors for minutes or even hours after they leave a room in some situations, says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University," Godoy reports.  Karan told her, “I think that people need to realize that transmission here can happen even when you’re not near somebody.”

Godoy says, "Given all this, you want a mask that means business when it comes to blocking viral particles. Unlike cloth masks, N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are all made out of material with an electrostatic charge." That “pulls these particles in as they’re floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles,” Karan told her. “And that really is key.”

Surgical masks also have an electrostatic charge, but they tend to fit loosely, "A snug fit — with no gaps around nose, cheeks or chin — 'really makes a big difference,' says Marr, who has studied mask efficacy," Godoy reports.

"KN95s tend to be a bit more comfortable than N95s, but counterfeits continue to be a problem. For safer shopping, check out a site like Project N95, a nonprofit that helps consumers find legitimate personal protective equipment. Or check the CDC’s site for advice on how to spot a counterfeit and a list of trusted sources for surgical N95s. For maximum protection, make sure your N95 fits snugly as well, creating a seal around your mouth and nose. The CDC explains what makes a good fit and how to test that yours is sealing well."

As coronavirus cases set new daily records, rural hospitals with staff shortages brace for a wave of Covid-19 cases

A nurse cares for a Covid-19 patient in Apple Valley, Calif. (Photo by Ariana Drehsler, AFP/Getty, via Marketplace)

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing new cases to reach record levels in the United States, hospitals are bracing for another wave of Covid-19 patients, and rural hospitals "are running out of backup plans," Savannah Maher reports for Marketplace, a syndicated public-radio program.

The pandemic has already "caused an exodus of doctors and nurses" and "the more transmissible omicron variant is sending some of the remaining workers home," Maher reports. "With the national shortage of health care workers, small, rural hospitals are having a hard time hiring."

“Just because of their locations, their financial situations are often more precarious,” Joanne Spetz of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, told Maher. They are made more so by rural communities’ low vaccination rates: “You’re looking at potentially a large number of people coming into the small hospital and possibly having staff out sick.”

Maher has some state-by-state examples: "In New Mexico, more than half of hospitals face critical staffing shortages." In Vermont, “Our workforce is shrinking and stressed, you know, at a time when we need it to be growing and resilient,” said Jeff Tieman of the Vermont Association of Hospitals.

Teenagers are the entire staff of a rural New York volunteer ambulance service that had been depleted by the pandemic

From left, teenagers Nicklas Brazie, Sophia DeVito, Dalton Hardison and Graydon Brunet stand at the rear of their ambulance in Sackets Harbor, N.Y. (Photo by Kara Dry, Watertown Daily Times)

Volunteer fire departments and ambulance services in rural areas have been running short of volunteers for many years, and the problem has worsened in the pandemic. In one small town in northern New York, teenage volunteers have become essential to the local ambulance service.

In Sackets Harbor, a town of 1,400 near Watertown at the east end of Lake Ontario, "A lot of older volunteers stepped away because of Covid-19 health concerns," NPR reports, introducing a story from Amy Feiereisel of North Country Public Radio.

Every member of the eight-person ambulance crew is under 21, Feiereisel reports: "Twenty-year-old Grayden Brunet is the EMS captain. He manages the budget and runs the ship." When the pandemic hit, "Brunet says a lot of the older EMTs stopped responding to calls altogether."

"We came in one day and realized we were the only ones coming in," Brunet told Feiereisel, who reports, "Three teenage boys were shouldering an almost unfathomable burden, responding to heart attacks and car accidents and suicides, transporting Covid-19 patients to the nearest city hospital. In New York, like many states, 17-year-olds can become certified EMTs."

Then, "A whole new batch of teenagers applied to join the crew, starting with Sophia DeVito. She was 16. Her entire family had gotten Covid-19. After that, she wanted to help people," Feiereisel reports. DeVito told her, "It's someone's mother. It's someone's father. It's a grandmother. It's a parent. It's a child. These are actual people's lives."

As for the EMTs' education, "Their school, Sackets Harbor Central, allows the 17-year-old members to leave class to go on calls," Feiereisel reports. "If they don't, the ambulance might not run."

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Mite that devastates beehives may have been enabled by beekeepers' breeding practices; if so, a fix will take time

A bee infested with varroa destructor mites (
Beekeepers hate Varroa destructor, the aptly named mite that has infected nearly every beehive in the United States and devastated many of them. But new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests that apiarists' own beekeeping practices have unwittingly cleared a path for the mites.

The research focused on propolis, "a sticky material that bees make from a mixture of wax and resins gathered from a wide variety of plants," The Economist reports. "They use it to coat the inner walls of their hives, to plug holes in the hive wall that might otherwise admit predators, and to encase the bodies of those intruders which do manage to breach that wall and have subsequently been stung to death."

Alberto Satta of Sassari University in Italy discovered that hives invaded by Varroa send out more foraging bees to gather plant resins used to make propolis, which contains toxic phenols. He and Francesco Nazzi of Udine University, also in Italy, found that propolis helps protect against mite infestations. They wondered why bees don't use more of it in brood cells, which the mites invade.

"A plausible answer is that the ability to do so has been bred out of them," says The Economist. "Until the revelation of its antimicrobial properties, beekeepers saw propolis as nothing but a nuisance. . . . When hives with removable frames, for the easier collection of honey, were introduced in the mid-19th century, bees retaliated . . . by pasting propolis over those frames, making them hard to extract. To counter this behavior, generations of beekeepers have favored colonies that produced less of the stuff. As a result, modern bees are fairly economical with its manufacture and deployment. Reversing the consequences of such selective breeding will not be easy."

That could involve hybridizing domesticated bees with wild strains of the species, or with other species of bees "that have not lost the knack of making propolis," the Economist speculates. "For that to work, though, would require a concerted effort spread over many places. A more immediate response might be to make it easier for bees to gather the phenol-rich resins which do the mite-killing—perhaps by growing relevant plants near hives. Alternatively, a synthetic version of propolis, introduced into hives by human hand, might then be deployed by the workers in mite-unfriendly ways. Regardless of the exact path out of the mess, though, the sad tale of the honey bee, the propolis and the Varroa mite looks like an object lesson in the law of unintended consequences."

Monday, December 27, 2021

Builders have thwarted code changes that would provide more shelter in tornadoes

Amid more than 100 newsroom closures in pandemic, more than 50 have started, and some are serving rural areas

Screenshot of the Border Belt Independent, which serves rural southeastern North Carolina

More than 100 U.S. newsrooms have closed during the pandemic, but more than 50 have started, and some of them serve rural areas.

"As they did before the pandemic, the majority of digital startups sprang up around major metro areas, said Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism," Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. "That happens thanks to better access to for-profit and philanthropic funding. But Abernathy has been excited to see newsrooms launching in rural areas, including The Border Belt Independent in North Carolina."

The Independent, created by 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award winner Les High, covers four counties in southeastern North Carolina "with a focus on poverty, health, mental health, adverse childhood experiences, race, education, and the economy," it says.

Hare's list of 2021 newsroom startups also include these that serve rural areas: The Arkadelphian in southwest Arkansas; the Omaha-based Flatwater Free Press, which aims to cover all of Nebraska; 
the Harpswell Anchor in Maine; the Highway 58 Herald in Oregon; the Mississippi Free Press; Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia; the New Hampshire Bulletin; the Northern New Mexico Independent; the Philomath News in Oregon; and the Shasta Scout in Redding, Calif.

Hare also listed new newsletters, including The Border Chronicle in Tucson; the Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate in North Carolina (including part of the Border Belt's territory), and Down in the County in Pamlico County, North Carolina (part of the Coastal Plains); the Kerr County Lead in Texas; The Goldenrod, which says it's "a news and culture publication covering the vibrant small towns, hamlets and communities of Central and Eastern Kentucky;" and The E'ville Good, which says it's for northeast Iowa and southwest Minnesota and looks like it's based in Estherville.

All this activity encourages Abernathy, who started tracking newspaper closures and mergers while at the University of North Carolina. “I think there was an acknowledgement among news consumers that local news is important,” she told Hare. “The pandemic brought that home in ways nothing else had.” And among her students, “Now there’s a real understanding of how important local news is to the quality of our everyday lives, and that gives me tremendous hope for the long term.”

Major towns in Arkansas' part of the Mississippi Delta fight to reverse decline, demonstrated by loss of population

Partial map of Arkansas shows the Mississippi Delta in brown.
The Mississippi Delta is a place of poverty, poor health and other problems, often given short shrift by news media that serve the region. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette took a look Monday at the state's part of the Delta, through two large towns, Blytheville and Pine Bluff, after a broader story Sunday.

"Poverty, population loss, abandonment and crime are issues that affect the rural parts of the Delta, but some urban parts of the region have also suffered from those things," Stephen Simpson reports. "At its peak, Blytheville’s population was nearly 25,000 in the 1970 census, but by 2020, the number of people had dropped to close to 13,000. . . . From the 1970 to 1990 censuses, Pine Bluff had a population of about 57,000, but as of the 2020 census, the population has declined to a little more than 41,000."

Blytheville has lost several major employers in the last 30 years, most notably the Air Force base that closed in 1992. "Local government officials and businesses turned their sights into making Mississippi County the steel capital of the state," Simpson reports, quoting Cliff Chitwood, Mississippi County’s economic development director: “We played our part in bringing 4,000 jobs to Mississippi County, but 4,000 is not 8,000.” And not all those folks have moved to the county.

"Steel-mill jobs pay so well that [they] attract people from far away," Simpson reports, citing Chitwood: “The job is a four-days-on and four-days-off type of business, so people are coming here from Little Rock and Fayetteville, staying in their fancy trailers while working here and then going back . . . It wasn’t because people didn’t like it here. It wasn’t because we didn’t have the amenities.”

In Pine Bluff, which is near Little Rock and overlooks the Delta, drugs, crime and poor health have contributed to decline. Now health officials are worried that depression is a major health risk in the area. “You need a healthy economy to have healthy people and you need healthy people to have a healthy economy,” Dr. Brookshield Laurent, the executive director for the Delta Population Health Institute, told Simpson. “If you don’t have opportunities for jobs in the workforce then people will leave and there will be a disinvestment in the communities.”

J.D. Crowe dead at 84; 'none finer on the five-string banjo'

J.D. Crowe, right, accepted an honorary degree from University of Kentucky
President Eli Capilouto in 2012. Faculty Trustee Robert Grossman is at left.
J.D. Crowe, a maestro of the banjo and bluegrass music, died Saturday at 84.

"His place in the pantheon of banjo players is certain," John Lawless writes for Bluegrass Today, which says there was "none finer on the five-string banjo."

"Among those who followed the example of Earl Scruggs, Crowe was perhaps the first to rise as a disciple of the new style who not only made it his own, but did so with a precision and power that set him apart from the herd," Lawless writes. "No one ever played bluegrass banjo more passionately, more inventively, or more interestingly than he did. Two generations of pickers have studied his playing, and even those who are taking the three-finger style in new directions, like Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Noam Pikelny, will readily acknowledge Crowe as a major influence and an unmistakable stylist in his own right. If Earl Scruggs was a machine, J.D. Crowe was a carnival ride. His playing was fun, lighthearted, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality."

After playing with Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys, which had on mandolin and vocals Doyle Lawson, another member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. They became J.D. Crowe and The New South, and in 1975 their album The New South "changed the sound of the music forever," Lawless writes, noting that the record was better known by its number, Rounder 0044. "With Tony Rice on guitar and lead vocal, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and tenor vocal, Crowe on banjo and baritone vocal, Bobby Slone on bass, and Jerry Douglas on reso-guitar, 0044 announced to the world that a new generation of bluegrass music had arrived, with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound. . . . The combination of Rice’s Clarence White-inspired rhythm guitar with Crowe’s driving and dynamic banjo defined a novel sound that remains with us today." 

“That particular record from 1975 was what really gave me a passion for wanting to play music,” Allison Krauss says in "A Kentucky Treasure: The J.D. Crowe Story," the 2008 documentary by Russ Farmer. Krauss, Crowe and Rice were later in the Rounder All-Stars Bluegrass Band.

Lawless says Crowe rivaled bluegrass founder Bill Monroe "with the number of stellar artists he brought to prominence as members of The New South. Not long after the departure of Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, Crowe brought in Keith Whitley on guitar, and Gene Johnson on mandolin, both of whom saw huge success in country music in a few years’ time. Other noted grassers who worked for J.D. would include Don Rigsby, Phil Leadbetter, Rickey Wasson, Richard Bennett, and Ron Stewart." Crowe's aptly named "Fireball" won the 1983 Grammy for country instrumental.

Crowe's funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Jessamine Christian Church in Nicholasville, Ky., near his native Lexington, with visitation there from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

A year-end message about saving our country’s local free press system, 'never intended to be a Wall Street bauble'

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, whose family also owns smaller community newspapers, published this letter to readers on Dec. 26. This is an edited version; the original is here. 

Frank Blethen Jr.
In my Seattle Times 125th anniversary letter in August, I shared that there would be three parts to my message this year: August focused on the national opportunity to save our local free press system and our democracy; September focused on The Seattle Times’ role as our community’s storyteller and town square.

Today, I share an update on the remarkable progress of the “Save the Local Free Press” movement. This progress is fragile, but promises to help stabilize the system, begin to grow back the 40,000 lost local journalism jobs and begin freeing “ghost” newspapers from their absentee overlords, returning them to local control and vitality.

An additional message will soon share insights into the Blethen family’s 125-year stewardship of The Seattle Times, as well as our 30-year stewardship of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and 50-year stewardship of the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Local Free Press Stewardship

It has taken several years to remind the public and Congress that our founding fathers created the local free-press system as the essential platform for our democratic experiment. The founders understood that the rich and powerful appreciated the value of information and would always seek to control it, and that a democracy could not develop without the ubiquitous availability of news and a literate citizenry. Their solution was brilliant:

The First Amendment to protect citizens’ free speech from the government they were creating.

The subsidy to provide ubiquitous distribution of information by creating the post office, subsidizing publishers’ distribution costs and making some of them postmasters.

Literacy, through a heavy investment in common schools and public education.

The free press is the only business mentioned in and protected by our Constitution. It was never intended to be a Wall Street bauble milked for short-term gain and then cast aside. It was intended to be a national system of locally independent newspapers that served to bind the citizens of each unique community to our new self-government experiment. This localism created trust, good local self-government and a national consciousness.

In our era of mistrust and suspicion, it might surprise you that local newspapers (print and digital) are regarded as the most trusted news and information source by a majority of Americans. This is particularly ironic since so many are now ghost newspapers with decimated staffs, tiny news holes and almost no quality local news, as they are controlled by absentee short-term financial profiteers.

The fragility of our local free press system is one of the two primary reasons we are in a national crisis and have become a nation riven by the worst civil discord and deepest societal fault lines since the Civil War – a crisis driven by the disinvestment in our once-vaunted national local newspaper system.

During the last 25 years, the loss of local stewardship and responsible local journalism has steadily accelerated. Since the quickest way to increase short-term profits is to cut news staff and eliminate robust reporting, local newsrooms have been decimated. News deserts and ghost newspapers are fast becoming the norm.

To save our democracy, we must do three things with urgency:

Rebuild our local newspaper newsrooms: Add back the 44,000 local newsroom jobs lost in the last 10 years.

Replace absentee financial mercenaries: Prevent further absentee consolidation.

Rebuild local stewardships:
Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act in the short term.
Develop a replacement for the lost United States Post Office subsidy for the long term.
Create incentives for new local stewardship where news deserts and ghost newspapers now exist.
End the Google and Facebook digital advertising monopoly.
Require Google and Facebook to pay for the newspaper content they use.

Not long ago, Washington state was a bastion of local newspaper stewardship. Today a majority of our daily newspapers are absentee-owned ghost papers. Without strong local newspaper stewardship, many of our communities are beginning to drift and lose connection. Without strong local content, our communities with news deserts and served by ghost newspapers are become feeding grounds for the fake news, misinformation and civil discord spewed by social media and Fox News.

Big Tech and social media reform

The second primary reason for the potential collapse of our democratic experiment is the monopolistic behavior of Big Tech, both their egregiously irresponsible management of social media and their illegal digital advertising monopolization of newspapers’ primary funding source for journalism.

The combination of absentee newspaper owners’ disinvestment in good local journalism and Big Tech’s advertising monopoly and social media abuses has created a national crisis for the future of our democracy. Reform of Facebook and Google are essential so newspapers can compete in a fair marketplace. Reform of social media abuses by Google and Facebook are essential to return us to being a civil and safe society.

Local Journalism Sustainability Act

The most promising first step in halting the newsroom carnage is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Like most legislation, it isn’t perfect, but if passed it could become the foundation for paving the way to restoring our fragile local newspaper system, rebuilding trust and reducing social discord. (Full disclosure: The Seattle Times has played a key role in creating awareness and helping craft the legislation.)

Next steps

Going forward and building momentum, the critical steps to restoring our once vibrant and trusted local newspaper system and saving our democracy are:
Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
Develop a permanent subsidy to replace the lost postal subsidy our founders created.
Severely limit absentee newspaper ownership in the future.
Break up Big Tech marketplace abuse and monopolistic practices.
Hold Big Tech accountable for fake news, misinformation and irresponsible social media.
Create incentives for new local stewardships to replace the absentee short-term investors.

Journalism ecosystem

All communities have a journalism and news ecosystem that needs to be nurtured. The key to a strong ecosystem is a strong local newspaper. Academic studies have verified that a local newspaper produces more than 60% of a community’s original reporting. Local newspapers produce more local reporting than TV, radio and online outlets combined. In a strong local news ecosystem, smaller organizations amplify and sometimes expand upon original newspaper content and have specific and important market segments often based on ethnicity.

The bottom line: First and foremost, save and nurture the daily newspaper as the ecosystem foundation, but don’t forget these ecosystem niche products.

On behalf of the Blethen family and our Seattle Times family, thank you for supporting the free press. We could not succeed without you.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Lapse of bigger child tax credit will hurt rural families more, especially in WV, but Manchin may not get much blowback

Rural families will be disproportionately hurt when the expanded child tax credit expires at the end of the year, but the holdout vote on the bill may not face much political blowback from his constituents.

The wildly popular program, enacted in March as part of the American Rescue Plan, marked the first time the federal government tried to reduce poverty through widely available direct payments. It was particularly effective because it made the credit accessible for the first time to those too poor to file federal taxes. "Before the credit was expanded, an estimated 56 percent of all rural children didn’t receive the entire tax credit because their families didn’t earn enough money to qualify," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "In metropolitan areas, about 48% of children lost some or all of the credit. The American Rescue Plan eliminated the income threshold and expanded the credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000, with an additional $600 for children under 6," Marema reports. "The changes raised an estimated 4.1 million children out of poverty, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. All but 15% of the poverty reduction was because of elimination of the income requirements to receive the tax credit."

The Build Back Better Act had a one-year renewal of the tax credit, but Congress adjourned for the year without voting on it, and the credit expires Dec. 31. Even if Congress does pass the law in the new year, tax credit payments would likely be disrupted, Marema reports.

At the heart of the struggle over the program is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Since all Senate Republicans oppose the bill, Democrats need all 50 votes (and a tie-breaker from Vice President Kamala Harris) to pass it. But Manchin said he couldn't support the bill. In private talks with President Biden, Manchin laid out a version of the bill he would vote for that included universal pre-kindergarten for 10 years, expanded Obamacare and had hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change, Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager report for The Washington Post. Notably absent was an extension of the child tax credit.

Manchin has cited worries about the cost of the bill, but private comments point to general concerns that low-income people would abuse benefits received through the package. "Specifically, Manchin said parents would use child-tax-credit money to buy drugs and workers would abuse the paid-family-leave program in the legislation to get out of work and go on hunting trips," Grace Panetta and Joseph Zeballos-Roig report for Business Insider.

"Recent Census data shows that more than 90% of families that have received payments from the expanded Child Tax Credit have spent the money on basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and utilities," Marema reports.

Manchin recently said in a Fox News Sunday interview that he can't vote for the bill if he "can't go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia." However, Marema notes: "Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia are especially vulnerable to the elimination of the expanded tax credit. The state has one of the highest child poverty rates in the U.S. About 48% of children 17 and under live at 200% of the poverty rate, considered an indicator of serious financial challenge. West Virginia's rate of children living at or below 200% of poverty is the fifth highest in the U.S. In West Virginia, expiration of the Child Tax Credit expansion will eliminate or reduce the credit for approximately 72,000 low-income rural children and nearly 100,000 low-income children who live in metropolitan areas."

Even so, West Virginians may not punish Manchin for not supporting the package. Though West Virginians are some of the nation's most-dependent on direct government payments, they see themselves as "flinty and self-reliant" and that "partisan tribalism, cultural issues and an attachment to the vanishing coal industry drive voter sentiment there, creating what is a paradoxical hostility to government," Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty writes.

But, Manchin "is also well aware that government has a vital role when it comes to bettering the lives and futures of his constituents. Which means things might not be over yet for some version of the Build Back Better bill," Tumulty writes.

How to close rural vaccine gap? Facts, teamwork, respect and patience, with no politics or confrontation, experts say

Rural Virginia couple Everett and Kristin Jiles got Covid-19 in July, but only she was vaccinated. After he had a much harder time recovering, the conservative Christian couple became crusaders for vaccination. Here, they talk about their story. (Assn. of American Medical Colleges video)

"Many people in rural and conservative areas remain frustratingly resistant to vaccination, challenging public health officials to come up with more convincing — and sensitive — approaches to promoting greater vaccine uptake," Beth Howard reports for the Association of American Medical Colleges. "It’s not enough to refute misinformation, experts say. To reach the vaccine-hesitant, public-health officials urge a combination of approaches, from connecting with local physicians to having respectful conversations."

The problem is persistent. A recent University of Pittsburgh study shows that, although overall vaccine confidence rates have increased nationwide since Covid-19 vaccines became available early this year, the same percentage of people who strongly opposed vaccination in January felt the same way in May. Even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, race, employment status and education, people in very rural counties were 23 percent more likely to be vaccine-hesitant than urbanites.

Partisanship is also strongly correlated with attitudes toward coronavirus vaccination. "People in counties with the highest support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election were 44% more likely to be vaccine-hesitant," Howard reports. "Those living in a state with a Republican governor were 34% more likely to be hesitant than people living in a state with a Democratic governor."

Rural emergency medicine doctor Edwin Leap, who grew up in West Virginia, told Howard that the pandemic has exposed cultural rifts that go back generations. Because of that, mandates won't work, he said: "People in rural America are a culture. They tend to be fiercely independent. . . . The very last way you’ll get them to comply is by telling them they better do what’s right. They’re not going to have you tell them what to do."

Health and communications experts suggest the following approaches to increase coronavirus vaccination rates in rural areas:
  • Just provide the facts. Rural Americans resist mandates because they want to make their own decisions. So providing unbiased, basic information that will help them make an informed decision is the way to go.
  • Leave politics at the door. The coronavirus has been deeply politicized, so it's important to avoid saying anything even remotely political in discussion vaccination. One expert told Howard that, if the subject of politics comes up, the best way to respond is something along the lines of "This virus does not care who you are or what you believe." That removes the discussion from politics and enables you to address the other person's concerns.
  • Team up with community influencers. Rural Americans trust local health-care professionals much more than outsiders, so they're more likely to listen to fact-based vaccine recommendations from a community doctor, nurse, pharmacist or community health worker.
  • Don't refute false claims about the vaccines. By bringing up misinformation, even if you do so to disprove it, you end up reinforcing the belief in the person's mind. So don't repeat falsehoods when providing vaccine information. "For instance, if someone says that vaccines give you Covid-19, you don’t have to say they don’t give you Covid-19," Howard reports. "Instead, provide an answer that addresses the vaccine’s overall safety — why and how they’re safe."
  • Treat people with care and respect. Regardless of what someone believes, take their concerns seriously and treat them with respect. Don't talk down to people or make them feel judged or shamed.
  • Be prepared to play the long game. It will likely take more than one conversation to change someone's mind about vaccination. When you're wrapping up a discussion about vaccination, "give them a call to action, such as offering additional resources to learn about the efficacy of the vaccine and inviting them to come back and talk about it more so that you can answer any other questions," Howard reports.

Americans not paying much attention to news of Omicron variant, one of most contagious viruses ever discovered

"New data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans' engagement in Covid news, despite indications that it may be one of the fastest-spreading variants to date," Sara Fischer and Neil Rothschild report for Axios. That matters because "a lack of widespread appreciation of the threat could hamper the response."

Americans' social media interactions on news articles about the coronavirus have fallen from an average of 1,171 per article in March 2020 to 326 in December 2020, to 108 over the past three weeks. Engagement spiked when the Delta variant was first identified, but that hasn't happened with the Omicron variant yet, Fischer and Rothschild report.

The decline in news interactions likely stems from pandemic fatigue, and a perception that Omicron is no more dangerous than previous variants, University of New Haven political science professor Chris Haynes told Axios.

The reasons for not paying attention vary: Vaccinated people may believe there's not much more they can do or need to learn, while unvaccinated people may believe the coronavirus isn't a threat or is inevitable, Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson told Axios.

But, Fischer and Rothschild note, "as the Omicron variant spreads, interest in Covid news could start to spike in coming weeks, especially as it pertains to holiday travel."

EPA says label changes for weed killer dicamba didn't cut damage reports, and can't make changes in time for 2022

A new Environmental Protection Agency report says last year's label changes for three herbicides didn't reduce reports of dicamba drift and injury this year, and "said the agency cannot move fast enough to make regulatory changes to dicamba use by the 2022 spray season,"reports Emily Unglesbee of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "But in the report, EPA promised to help states 'restrict or narrow the over-the-top uses of dicamba' if state officials found it necessary for over-the-top herbicides XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium. The agency also said it would not allow states to expand the use of dicamba for next year."

In 2021 EPA received about 3,500 reports of dicamba-related incidents, "including reports of alleged injury to more than 1 million acres of non-dicamba-tolerant soybean acres, as well as other crops such as sugarbeets, rice, sweet potatoes, peanuts and grapes," Unglesbee reports. "The agency also described damage to non-agricultural landscapes, such as a 160,000-acre wildlife refuge, and called out 280 incident reports in counties where endangered species are present." The true amount of dicamba-related damage is likely much higher, the agency said.

The Center for Food Safety and other environmental groups are likely to use the report in their federal lawsuit against EPA; they're seeking "to vacate the current dicamba registrations of XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium, just as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did in June 2020," Unglesbee reports.

Biden administration will provide up to $1.5 billion to mitigate disruptions to schools' food supply chains

"The Biden administration will provide up to $1.5 billion to states and schools to help them deal with costs driven by supply chain disruptions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Friday. School lunch operators are grappling with both goods shortages and rising costs as the nation contends with broader supply chain and inflation difficulties," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "Under the newly announced initiatives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will funnel $1 billion for schools to purchase food for their meal programs and another $300 million for food that states will distribute to schools. The $1 billion will be distributed as cash payments known as Supply Chain Assistance funds. USDA said it anticipates that money going to as many as 100,000 schools in all 50 states." The administration will provide another $200 million for schools to buy local foods from farmers, especially historically underserved producers. 

Schools, and the state and local governments that fund them, have been hammered by rising costs and shortages. "A School Nutrition Association surveyed about 1,200 school nutrition directors between October and November about supply chain issues," Lucia reports. "Those findings, released this month, showed that top challenges school lunch programs faced—cited by over 98% of respondents—included shortages or insufficient quantities of menu items, other supplies or packaging, as well as discontinued menu items. Over three-quarters of respondents said those challenges were 'significant.'"

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

This year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards winners feature a 'ninja prairie dog' and more

Two of this year's winning Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards entries (Photos by David Eppley, left, and Arthur Trevino)

The bald eagle is usually an awe-inspiring sight, but it's looking a little less so in two winning entries in this year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Wildlife photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks created the annual competition in 2015 in an attempt to "widen understanding and engagement with global conservation - for the preservation of biodiversity and the health and enrichment of everyone on Earth," according to the website. Click here to see all the winners.

This year's winning photos span the globe, from some Taiwanese mudskippers doing an impression of Sesame Street Yip Yips, to a raccoon pulling some Mission: Impossible moves on a screen window. And, of course, the eagles: one face-planting into a branch during a botched landing, and the other getting menaced by a 'ninja' prairie dog.

If you'd like to submit your funny wildlife photos for next year's competition, click here for more information.

Bipartisan Senate bill would protect small rural TV stations from being bumped off air by big stations' interference

A new bipartisan bill in Congress aims to strengthen protections for small, rural television stations. The Low Power Protection Act, introduced by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would increase spectrum rights for some low-power television stations.

"LPTV stations usually provide locally oriented or specialized service in their communities, the senators said. However, LPTV is currently considered a secondary broadcast service by the Federal Communications Commission. As such, LPTV licensees are not granted protections from harmful interference or displacement, and must accept harmful interference or displacement from full power television stations," George Winslow reports for TV Tech.

The bill builds on a 1999 law that opened a one-time filing window for LPTV stations to apply for Class A status. Class A stations are protected from being bumped off the air by harmful interference. The bill would require the FCC to open a new filing window for Class A status, Winslow reports.

"That, in turn, will help ensure they are able to continue providing local coverage, and allow them to better protect existing investment and incentivize further investment in their stations and communities, the Senators said," Winslow reports. "The bill has garnered support from numerous broadcast organizations and advocacy groups, including the LPTV Broadcasters Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Missouri Association of Broadcasters, the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Public Knowledge."

Weekly rural coronavirus vaccinations rose a bit last week; metro rate is 27% higher, causing higher rural death rates

Vaccination rates as of Dec. 16, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

About 172,000 rural Americans completed their coronavirus vaccinations during the week of Dec. 10-16. That's an increase of about one-third of a percentage point from the week before, one of the slowest growth rates since vaccines became widely available this spring, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Through last week, 21.5 million rural Americans were vaccinated, or 46.8 percent of the rural population.

"In metropolitan counties, the vaccination rate grew by about 0.7 percentage points to 59.5% of the metropolitan population. That’s 27% higher than the rural rate," Murphy and Marema report. "Rural America’s lower vaccination rate is the primary cause of its disproportionately high number of Covid-19 deaths, according to Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center. Rural residents are currently dying of Covid-19 at more than twice the rate of metropolitan residents. The gap between rural and urban death rates has gotten worse with each successive wave of the pandemic, the Daily Yonder has reported."

Monday, December 20, 2021

Opinion: News media must focus on systemic cause-and-effect in pandemic coverage, not just individual choices

Shutdowns in response to the Omicron variant are reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. But journalists shouldn't cover it the same way they did then (and still do, in many cases), Jon Allsop writes for Columbia Journalism Review.

U.S. news media have tended to emphasize personal responsibility in preventing infection, and though that's important, systemic and institutional factors must also be acknowledged, Allsop writes. That includes availability of tests and vaccines, and fear of losing work from vaccine side effects. "Even coverage that centers systemic risk sometimes treats it as a separate phenomenon from individual action. But systems are made up of individuals, whose choices rebound beyond themselves," he writes. "We don’t yet know exactly what will happen with Omicron, but as we wait to find out, coverage must conceive of individuals’ decisions not only as discrete calculations tailored to their personal circumstances, but as component parts of society-wide chains of transmission and response."

Focusing coverage on individual choice and repercussions means missing the pandemic's greatest impact, Allsop writes: "What we know of Omicron so far suggests that its biggest risk is at this systemic level: most vaccinated people who get it will probably be more or less fine, but so many people could get it that a relatively small percentage of severe cases might overwhelm hospitals anyway—and if that does happen, by the time we can see it, it’ll be too late to stop it." (Throughout Covid, news outlets have struggled conceptually with such lags between cause and visible effect.) Even coverage that centers systemic risk sometimes treats it as a separate phenomenon from individual action. But systems are made up of individuals, whose choices rebound beyond themselves."

Allsop advises, "Coverage must conceive of individuals’ decisions not only as discrete calculations tailored to their personal circumstances, but as component parts of society-wide chains of transmission and response." His report has links to other articles about Covid-19 and coverage of it.

Rural Vermont weekly goes fully remote, puts building up for sale, relies on citizen journalists to survive pandemic

Photo courtesy of the Hardwick Gazette

A 132-year-old weekly newspaper in Vermont is going fully remote and seeking volunteer journalists in an attempt to turn the paper's finances around. Ray Small, editor-publisher of the Hardwick Gazette, recently put its building up for sale. If it sells, he "plans to use to use part of those profits towards continuing its online platform, which the paper pivoted to during the pandemic," Mary Engisch reports for Vermont Public Radio.

The Gazette is no stranger to bold action for the sake of the paper. In 2016, longtime editor-publisher Ross Connelly held an essay contest to find a new owner. He charged $175 per entry and hoped to get 700 entries, enough to ensure the paper's financial health. Connelly abandoned the idea when entries fell short, entries, but Small, an entrant, fell in love with the paper and bought it. The business analyst and his wife, Kim, moved from Stamford, Conn., and took over the paper in February 2017.

The Gazette was losing money when they took over, but until the pandemic "we were slowly clawing our way back to at least break even," Small told Engisch. "Covid wiped out 90% of our revenues, ad revenues. They really haven't come back." Going online-only has saved costs, but it had its downsides: Fewer local businesses wanted to buy digital ads, so their advertising revenue went down. And many paid public notices no longer ran in the Gazette, reducing revenue even more.

So Small is trying several tactics to keep the paper afloat. Besides going online-only and trying to sell the building, he's trying to secure non-profit status so the paper can fundraise through donors. He's also trying to focus more on selling subscriptions than bringing in ad revenue.

He's also recruiting volunteer journalists to help cover the community. The approach proved popular with residents when the Gazette tried it out a few years ago. "We ran some special sections once a month in the towns of Greensboro and Craftsbury. And have the local residents cover their towns," Small told Engisch. "We had great response. I still edited every piece and we did the professional layouts and residents choosing the topics do a much better job than a Gazette correspondent who has limited bandwidth to cover any particular town."

Pandemic roundup: Interactive graph shows death disparity; hospitals sound the alarm; rural pharmacies struggling

Deaths per 100,000 residents per week, March 7, 2020 through Dec. 11, 2021
(Daily Yonder graph; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

The Covid-19 death rate in rural America is twice as high as the urban rate, and has been higher than the urban rate since the second wave back in late summer 2020. That's mostly because of rural America's lower coronavirus vaccination rate, but other factors are also in play, Liz Carey and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Rural Americans are also less likely to wear masks, socially distance, or take other precautionary measures. They're also, on average, older and in poorer health than Americans in metro counties, and have less access to health care.

The Yonder digs further into rural-urban pandemic death toll disparities in a series of interactive charts. Read more here.

In Vermont, Pennsylvania, and other states, an influx of Covid-19 patients is straining resources in rural hospitals' intensive care units.

As hospitals fill up, paramedics spend more time moving patients and have less time to treat them. Read more here.

Rural pharmacies are struggling, and the pandemic has made it worse. Here's how some rural pharmacists bucked the trend.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Rural bankers report strong local economies and record farmland prices, grow more confident about next 6 months

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

Rural bankers in 10 central states that rely on agriculture and energy reported strong local economies for the 12th straight month, along with record-high farmland prices, in a December survey. The Rural Mainstreet Index polls bankers in about 200 rural places averaging 1,300 population in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The overall index fell slightly to 66.7 from November's 67.7; anything over 50.0 is growth-positive. The confidence index, which measures bankers' expectations for the economy six months from now, rose to a growth-positive 55.2 from November's 48.4 after declining for five consecutive months. Some bankers expressed concern about inflation and said it was affecting locals.

"Solid grain prices, the Federal Reserve’s record-low interest rates, and growing exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," wrote Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. Agriculture Department "data show that 2021 year-to-date agriculture exports are more than 20.7% above that for the same period in 2020."

Though non-farm employment in Rural Mainstreet states remains 2.5% below pre-pandemic levels, the new hiring index rose to 72.4 from November's 67.7. And December's farm equipment sales index jumped to 74.1 from 62.1 in November, marking the 13th month straight above growth neutral and the strongest index recorded since April 2011.

Alden Global Capital sues to install its Lee Enterprises board members, protests company's 'poison pill' strategy

"Hedge fund Alden Global Capital has turned to the courts to try to gain leverage in its hostile takeover bid for Lee Enterprises," Rick Edmonds reports for Poynter. "In a suit filed Wednesday, an Alden affiliate argues that Lee was protecting the jobs of entrenched managers in rejecting three Alden nominees for its board of directors. The action also says that Lee was improperly abrupt in rejecting Alden’s Nov. 22 bid of $24 a share, while quickly adopting a 'poison pill' defense aimed at preventing Alden affiliates from building their share of stock beyond 10% over the next year." Edmonds notes with interest that Alden's suit essentially says its opening bid was a lowball offer and that the company is open to counter-offers.

The suit also asks for the reinstatement of its three candidates to Lee's eight-member board. "Alden’s strategy seems to have shifted back to gaining influence and seats on the board to make a case against Lee management," Edmonds reports. "It pursued that gradual approach in pushing cost-cutting moves at Tribune Publishing over a period of two years before prevailing in a contested effort to buy the company this summer."

Lee has staunchly resisted the unsolicited takeover bid, with the support of unions at its papers. Alden is known for slashing newsrooms to increase profits, and if it were successful in buying out Lee, a majority of the nation's dailies would be owned by hedge funds. The move would also create a local news duopoly of Alden and Gannett Co. (which merged in 2019 with Gatehouse Media, which took Gannett's name.

New rural coronavirus infection rate still 30% higher than metro rate; death rate still twice as high as metros'

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Dec. 5-11
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Nonmetropolitan counties reported about 146,000 new coronavirus infections during the week of Dec. 5-11, a decline of about 1 percent from the previous week. The new rural infection rate remains about 30% higher than the metro rate, and has been significantly higher than the metro rate since mid-August when Delta variant cases began surging, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Meanwhile, rural counties reported 2,253 Covid-related deaths last week, 53 fewer than the week before. "Since the start of the pandemic, 139,000 rural Americans have died from Covid-19. In the second half of 2021, the rural death rate from Covid-19 has been, on average, two times higher than the urban death rate," Marema reports. "In metropolitan counties, new infections increased by 6% and deaths increased by nearly 4%."

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Judge overturns $4.5B Purdue Pharma opioid settlement because it shields Sacklers from liability in civil cases

"A federal judge on Thursday evening unraveled a painstakingly negotiated settlement between Purdue Pharma and thousands of state, local and tribal governments that had sued the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin for the company’s role in the opioid epidemic, saying that the plan was flawed in one critical area," Jan Hoffman reports for The New York Times. The judge "said that the settlement, part of a restructuring plan for Purdue approved in September by a bankruptcy judge, should not go forward because it releases the company’s owners, members of the billionaire Sackler family, from liability in civil opioid-related cases."

The Sacklers had agreed to pay $4.5 billion and forfeit membership in Purdue in exchange for immunity, Hoffman reports. Though the settlement would bring much-needed funding to state, local and tribal governments to address the harms of the opioid epidemic, the settlement has been criticized because it allows the Sacklers to remain wealthy and avoid other legal consequences.

U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon noted that the Sacklers put $10 billion in Purdue money in offshore accounts to keep it away from U.S. authorities. Those withdrawals sped up after top Purdue executives pleaded guilty in 2007 on criminal and civil charges related to its opioid marketing. That left the company unable to resolve thousands of opioid lawsuits and forced it to declare bankruptcy.

The judge essentially invited a federal appeals court to weigh in on the ruling, writing in her opinion that appellate courts disagree on the issue and lower courts need clarity, Hoffman reports. Attorney General Merrick Garland agreed with McMahon Thursday night, saying "The bankruptcy court did not have the authority to deprive victims of the opioid crisis of their right to sue the Sackler family."

Quick hits: How agri-tourism can empower rural women; what's working and what's not in rural programs to lure remote workers; Amazon opening more rural delivery hubs

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

Clean-up after disasters is a costly, messy, wasteful process that often takes years. Researchers who study disaster management write in an op-ed that governments need better strategies for it, especially since climate change will likely increase the frequency and potency of disasters. Read more here.

Biden's rural investments run up against the culture wars in Wisconsin. Read more here.

Rural Virginians are being offered training in mental-health first aid. Read more here.

A recent webinar discussed how agri-tourism can empower rural women. Watch the recording here.

Amazon has opened more than 30 new rural delivery hubs in the U.S. this year in an effort to save money by cutting out the U.S. Postal Service. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department has a program for hog farmers hurt by the pandemic. Read more here.

USDA has also announced four new state-level directors: two for the Farm Service Agency (New York and West Virginia) and two for Rural Development (Maine and Missouri). Read more here.

The pandemic turned a rural Colorado county into a battleground for national political issues in a fight waged by millionaires. Read more here.

A supportive social network is a key to overcoming substance abuse, but a study found many rural abusers' social networks are often heavily populated with fellow substance abusers. Read more here.

Mobile-phone emergency alerts can play a vital role in warning people of tornadoes and other disasters, but many blue-collar workers are not allowed to have their phones with them while working. After six Amazon warehouse employees in an Illinois warehouse died in the Dec. 10 tornadoes, the company is reviewing its no-phones policy. Phones have been a critical resource in other disasters. Read more here.

Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents from expensive coastal cities, but most haven't seen much success. A Stateline article digs into what has worked and what hasn't. Read more here.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Far too little fraud to make a difference in election, AP finds; it allows non-subscribing weeklies to republish story

Screenshot of one Associated Press chart of votes by state; for other states, click here.
By Christina A. Cassidy
The Associated Press (republished with permission; weekly newspapers without AP may republish)

An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump has found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election.

Democrat Joe Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and their 79 Electoral College votes by a combined 311,257 votes out of 25.5 million ballots cast for president. The disputed ballots represent just 0.15% of his victory margin in those states.

The cases could not throw the outcome into question even if all the potentially fraudulent votes were for Biden, which they were not, and even if those ballots were actually counted, which in most cases they were not.

The review also showed no collusion intended to rig the voting. Virtually every case was based on an individual acting alone to cast additional ballots.

The findings build on a mountain of other evidence that the election wasn’t rigged, including verification of the results by Republican governors.

The AP review, a process that took months and encompassed more than 300 local election offices, is one the most comprehensive examinations of suspected voter fraud in last year’s presidential election. It relies on information collected at the local level, where officials must reconcile their ballots and account for discrepancies, and includes a handful of separate cases cited by secretaries of state and state attorneys general.

Contacted for comment, Trump repeated a litany of unfounded claims of fraud he had made previously, but offered no new evidence that specifically contradicted the AP’s reporting. He said a soon-to-come report from a source he would not disclose would support his case, and insisted increased mail voting alone had opened the door to cheating that involved “hundreds of thousands of votes.”

“I just don’t think you should make a fool out of yourself by saying 400 votes,” he said.

These are some of the culprits in the “massive election fraud” Trump falsely says deprived him of a second term:

A Wisconsin man who mistakenly thought he could vote while on parole.

A woman in Arizona suspected of sending in a ballot for her dead mother.

A Pennsylvania man who went twice to the polls, voting once on his own behalf and once for his son.

The cases were isolated. There was no widespread, coordinated deceit.

The cases also underscore that suspected fraud is both generally detected and exceptionally rare.

“Voter fraud is virtually non-existent,” said George Christenson, election clerk for Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, where five people statewide have been charged with fraud out of nearly 3.3 million ballots cast for president. “I would have to venture a guess that’s about the same odds as getting hit by lightning.”

Details of AP's investigations in each state are at

Editor's note: At the request of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, AP has agreed to allow weekly newspapers that are not AP subscribers to republish this story, along with links to it and the sidebar, linked above. That request does not apply to electronic versions of print editions. The mainbar is at