Saturday, February 06, 2021

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's conspiracy theory about big wildfires wasn't the first

Rural wildfires have been topics of wild conspiracy theories before Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a U.S. representative from northwest Georgia, "theorized that a space-based solar generator, used in a clean-energy experiment with the goal of replacing coal and oil, could have beamed the sun’s energy back to Earth and started the fire" that destroyed Paradise, Calif., the Los Angeles Times reports.

"California wildfires have been ripe for conspiracy for years, but Greene’s comments surface at a time when a sizable segment of the American population is treating false conjecture as fact," write reporters Hailey Branson-PottsJoseph Serna and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde. Branson-Potts knows wildfires; she's from Perry, Okla., north of Oklahoma City.

The Camp fire that destroyed Paradise was sparked by equipment of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., "some of which was nearly 100 years old," the reporters note. "The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter last June."

That didn't stop theories like the one Greene espoused in a 2018 post that has since been deleted but was found by Media Matters for America. The House took her off committees by a party-line vote Thursday after "unprecedented punishment that Democrats said she’d earned by spreading hateful and violent conspiracy theories," The Associated Press reports. "Greene tried to dissociate herself from her 'words of the past' . . . but she didn’t explicitly apologize for supportive online remarks she’s made [such as] the possibility of Jewish-controlled space rays causing wildfires."

Conspiracy theories can be hatched when people seek explanations for events that seem so strange they defy traditional explanations. "When fires are extreme or wind-driven, their burn patterns can seem completely illogical to the uninitiated, and thus ripe for conspiracy as people try to make sense of what happened, said Jack Cohen, a wildfire expert and retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter," the Times reports. "Cohen said he first started hearing conspiracy theories about space-based directed-energy weapons after high-definition drone images showed the Camp fire’s pattern of destruction. People he said, are 'obscenely obsessed' with what causes wildfires and fill in the blanks when they can’t explain them."

Sometimes, theories can turn into action that is harmful or dangerous. "Last year, firefighting crews in Oregon encountered groups of people who were convinced that wildfires burning there were started by antifa," the Times reports. "The people were stopping residents from moving on local roads and, in at least one case, prohibited firefighters from going onto their property to help set up a defensive position for oncoming flames." Fact-checkers, including USA Today, debunked the claims.

Here is Greene's Facebook post about the California fire:

Friday, February 05, 2021

Report shows Ky. papers provide essential public service at a trying time, especially for them; let's hear from other states

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

In December, as the first coronavirus vaccines were being approved, the Commonwealth of Kentucky bought advertising in most Kentucky newspapers to get Kentuckians ready for the vaccination process. The $281,184 expense was a modest one, among billions of dollars in federal relief money that came to the state, but it was a timely boon for the newspapers. They were suffering from the double whammy of social-media competition followed by a pandemic that eroded even more of their ad revenue.

That ad order was also a recognition: that newspapers are still a good way to reach a large number of people with a broadly important message. And it could also be seen as a reward: for the newspapers’ performance in the pandemic. In perhaps the most challenging year for newspapers in their history, the community papers of Kentucky came through for Kentuckians.

When Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued a mask mandate,
the Bourbon County Citizen signified it as only a newspaper can.
They published special editions devoted to the pandemic. They told the stories of people affected and anguished by it. They published tributes to front-line local heroes. They served as trusted sources of information about a subject that became scientifically confusing and politically contentious. They helped readers separate fact from fiction, and they held public officials accountable.

Despite their financial squeeze, the newspapers took down paywalls, gave discounts to seniors and businesses, and kept sending papers to people who couldn’t pay their subscription bill, said Jeff Jobe, outgoing president of the Kentucky Press Association and publisher of seven weeklies in Southern Kentucky. His papers also made their body type larger to help seniors spending more time at home.

At Jeff's request, I produced a report about Kentucky newspapers' performance during the pandemic, which you can read here. There may have been similar efforts in other states, but we haven't heard of them. If there haven't been, there should be. As a headline in the report says, newspapers have shown that they remain the best sources of essential local information. They haven't always done the best job of marketing that brand, and now's a good time to do it.

UPDATE, Feb. 22: Tom Silvestri of The Relevance Project, an effort by state newspaper association managers, recommends that all associations produce such a report.

Vilsack, in line for confirmation as secretary, says he will have 'a serious focus on getting stuff done quickly' at USDA

Tom Vilsack
(Getty Images photo by Alex Wong)
Tom Vilsack is one step away from another term as agriculture secretary, following the Senate Agriculture Committee's unanimous voice vote for his nomination Tuesday. The virtual hearing "was full of references to climate change, greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon credit programs, and lessons learned from the pandemic about the vulnerabilities of our food system," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post.

Vilsack was the only cabinet member to last all eight years of the Obama administration. The former Iowa governor and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council didn't want to come back at first, President Biden said in December, but Biden said he persisted because Vilsack knew the department "inside and out."

Vilsack said recently that he would arrive at USDA with a "serious focus on getting stuff done quickly" and would have the advantage of understanding the breadth of what the department can do and the challenges it faces, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Vilsack will face a new challenge in the pandemic, but will have considerable latitude in taking action to help those hurt economically, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture that USDA is sitting on a $30 billion (for now) war chest that . . . Biden could tap to prop up struggling restaurants, pay farmers to implement climate-friendly production and potentially much more."

Policies have changed little since Vilsack left, University of Tennessee agriculture economists Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray write: "With the exception of the trade payments and the Covid-19 payments, the farm policies Vilsack inherits as he returns to the agriculture secretary job are essentially the same ones he shepherded through Congress when he previously served."

But other things have changed, so Vilsack's familiarity will be critical, said Ben Lilliston, director of rural and climate strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "USDA was decimated by the Trump administration, including the attempt to end the undersecretary for rural development and the decision to physically move two key research agencies [the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture] resulting in a major loss of research capacity," Lillston told Jan Pytalski of The Daily Yonder. "Vilsack knows the department and will rebuild USDA’s capacity and function in the short term."

Schaffer and Ray write that critics have called Vilsack ineffective, but "one could argue that in developing farm policy Vilsack had to deal with a Republican Congress that limited what he could do" after 2010. "For instance, he worked with chicken farmers on contracting issues and held a series of high-profile hearings, only to have Congress fail to fund the writing of new rules."

Progressives worry Vilsack is too cozy with Big Agriculture and has a poor track record on race. "A two-year investigation by Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Stucki of The Counter unearthed a series of other concerns related to Black farmers, including alleged manipulation of census data to cover-up historic discrimination and to falsely claim there was a renaissance in Black farming under Vilsack’s leadership," Martin Longman writes for the Washington Monthly.

Lilliston told Pytalski, "In terms of setting a new course for rural communities, one that isn’t primarily extractive and tied to the interest of often multinational companies, there are reasons to be skeptical that Vilsack will shift much from the Obama years." But Oleta Garrett Fitz, regional administrator of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice, told Pytalski that Biden’s inital USDA appointments "give a semblance of hope that this administration will pay more than lip service to the rest of the department’s mission to support the health and economic wellbeing of all of rural America, including its most diverse populations."

Longtime rural Kentucky editor and 'Humble Reporter' Bill Mardis, who was still working last month, dies at 89

Bill Mardis was a master of the language but cherished dictionaries.
Few people have been identified with a rural daily newspaper as Bill Mardis, editor emeritus of the Commonwealth Journal in Somerset, Kentucky, who died this week at 89, not long after writing his last stories for the paper.

Mardis was working at Somerset's WTLO when CJ Publisher George "Jop" Joplin III invited Mardis to join him in 1964 as The Somerset Commonwealth and The Somerset Journal, competing weeklies, began the transition to a single daily, Carla Slavey reports for the paper.

"Along with being the newspaper’s editor, Mardis was known regionally as the 'Humble Reporter,' named after the column that shared homespun insights and was written in countrified spelling," Slavey reports. His annual staple was the prediction of how many snows deep enough to track a rabbit would fall in the winter, equal to the number of August-morning fogs he recorded at a local farmer's field.

"Mardis stepped down as editor in 1998 and returned in 2002, later being named editor emeritus. He continued to work three days a week up until January of this year," Slavey reports. "In September 2013, a mural was unveiled on the Maple Street side of the Commonwealth Journal offices depicting Joplin and Mardis." Joplin, a former National Newspaper Association president, died in 1990.

Another star at that event was longtime U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Somerset. "The careers of Congressman Hal Rogers and Bill Mardis ran parallel to one another -- and the two men had quite a few similarities," growing up poor and rural, and starting out in radio, Editor Jeff Neal writes. "The two men became perhaps the most recognizable Pulaski County icons of their era."

Friends and former coworkers wrote for the CJ, owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., that all of Pulaski County has lost a friend, and that Mardis won't be forgotten. 

Retired editor Ken Shmidheiser told Slavey that Mardis "loved his job, he loved Pulaski County, and he loved its people." Mardis "was not shy" about telling people about his poverty-stricken childhood, and that experience inspired his 'Humble Reporter' column, but "Bill was much more than the 'Humble Reporter,'" Shmidheiser said. "He was a chronicler of Pulaski County life and its people. During his prime he covered fender benders and interviewed presidential candidates. And his legacy includes scores of state and national awards for outstanding journalism."

Neal, who calls Mardis his hero, writes that "Humble Reporter" fit him better than the title of editor: "'Humble" described Bill's personality. It described his very essence — not only as a reporter, but as a human being."

But despite his humility, "Bill Mardis was much more than the heart and soul of this publication -- his essence is woven into the very fabric of Pulaski County. Bill wasn't just a part of the Commonwealth Journal — he WAS the Commonwealth Journal," Neal writes. "It goes without saying Bill touched us all here at the CJ. His passion for community journalism was unparalleled -- and, for me, it was contagious. I listened to him — even when he chewed me out — and I learned from him."

House panel investigates major meat companies for hundreds of Covid-19 deaths among meatpacking workers

"A key congressional panel launched an investigation this week into the wave of Covid-19 infections that killed hundreds of workers at meatpacking plants nationwide last year and highlighted longstanding hazards in the industry," Bernice Yeung and Michael Grabell report for ProPublica. "The congressional investigation, opened by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, will examine the role of JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, three of the nation’s largest meat companies, which, the subcommittee said, had 'refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers' and had 'shown a callous disregard for workers' health.'" The inquiry will also scrutinize the federal government's failure to protect meatpacking workers.

Meatpacking plants have been a major vector for the spread of the coronavirus in rural America. Employees, many of them immigrants, must work packed in close quarters, and many don't speak English or have paid sick leave. "To date, more than 50,000 meatpacking workers have been infected and at least 250 have died, according to a ProPublica tally," Yeung and Grabell report.

JBS and Tyson representatives said the companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to temporarily increase pay and benefits and implement coronavirus protections in their plants. A Smithfield statement said the company took "extraordinary measures" to protect workers, and spent more than $700 million on testing, equipment, and workplace modifications, Yeung and Grabell report.

The House subcommittee noted that reports from a variety of news organizations had illuminated problems with how the meatpacking companies handled the pandemic, and with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts. The subcommittee cited ProPublica’s reporting on how meat companies blindsided local public health departments, and on Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ efforts to intervene when local health officials tried to temporarily shutter a JBS plant amid an outbreak," Yeung and Grabell report. "ProPublica has also documented how meat companies ignored years of warnings from the federal government about how a pandemic could tear through a food processing facility, and chronicled the role that meatpacking plants like a Tyson pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa, have played in spreading the virus to the surrounding community."

A successful, innovative rural newspaper publisher offers advice for meeting the digital challenge

Peter Wagner
The “good old days,” when the hometown newspaper was often the only game in town, are gone forever. New digital platforms are arriving, and sometimes disappearing, quicker than an editor can shout “stop the press.”

Those words were written by Peter Wagner, one of the most innovative and successful publishers of weekly newspapers, to start his latest column for state newspaper associations. Wagner, of Sheldon, Iowa, has long been a defender of print papers and a highly regarded adviser of how to promote them. Now, like other small-town publishers, he faces a digital challenge, and has some ideas for how to face it.

Here are excerpts from his latest column:

Newspapers and shoppers have one exceptional advantage over Google, Facebook, streaming channels and commercial television operations: a variety and abundance of important and valuable local news. Still, there are some key considerations that publishers, editors and investors need to consider to stay vital and profitable this year and the years ahead.

GREATER UNIFICATION: Fifty years ago, the newspaper industry was energized by the establishment of central printing plants. Many were cooperatives, but almost all reached out to print smaller publications, relieving those publishers of stressful financial and employment issues. In the future, the same approach to multi-paper centralization could be applied to other essential services: accounting, billing, ad design, editing, page design, circulation management and postal paperwork, for example. The time could come when smaller publication editors and publishers choose to outsource areas difficult for them and concentrate on reporting, writing, sales or other disciplines they enjoy most. As with the introduction of central printing, these additional centralized services could result in reduced expenses and greater efficiency for all size publications.

IMPROVED CONTENT: Being an excellent source of “all that’s’ local” will no longer be enough. Readers are going to demand more top-quality content. Newspapers and shoppers will never “save themselves into success.” Content alone will drive change and growth. But change takes talent and fresh ideas. Thankfully, for community papers, there are many excellent reporters and editors looking to move from some corporate daily to a weekly where they can feel secure and can excel. Finally, paid and free distribution publications will need to be more nimble in 2021 if they are going to survive. From expanding their news coverage to responding to an advertising sales opportunity, publishers will need to learn to innovate faster. . . . 

READER SATISFACTION: Too many papers have forgotten that they exist primarily to report the news, support the community, lift the afflicted and afflict the self-serving. Gone are the opinion pages, heartwarming stories of social interaction, under-the-microscope investigations of local government, coverage of non-scholastic sports and in-depth reporting on health, business and education. In their place are far too many canned news releases.

Readers grew up expecting their hometown paper would always have all the details about all that is happening in their community. They can get headlines, rumors and tidbits from the internet and broadcast media; but they expect to get the details and the facts from their local paper.

There are many more ways hometown papers can reestablish themselves with community. Newspaper websites are going to have to expand the variety of what they offer while actually going live, for example. Shoppers are going to find new opportunities in areas where the local newspaper ceases publication. They’ll supplement their weekly advertising paper by producing, with freelance writers, lucrative bonus sections honoring that year’s graduates or promoting the community’s annual celebration.

Yes, there will be many changes in 2021. Some will seem disastrous, but many will be create exciting new revenue opportunities and lead to new heights of community involvement.

Quick hits: How FCC has wasted broadband money; Rep. Kinzinger says he's following his duty as an evangelical

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

Book review: A political memoir, Rural Rebellion, describes how Nebraska became a Republican stronghold. Read more here.

Shifting economic recovery trends in the U.S. food-service sector affect the animal protein industry. Read more here.

Justin Timberlake says his upbringing in the rural South helped him relate to his character in his new movie Palmer, about an former football player who returns to his small town after a decade in prison. Read more here.

The last in a five-part series on Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission under President Trump, examines how the agency's choices for rural broadband buildout subsidies wasted money. Read more here

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., talks about why he felt it was his duty as an evangelical Christian to vote for Donald Trump's impeachment. Read more here.

Arrestees in the Capitol riots include a disproportionate number of current and former military. Read more here.

Registration is open for an online class series aimed at teaching beginners how to draft proposals for rural health grants. Read more here.

Pandemic relief and changes to a federal tax form last year may mean taxpayers get a smaller tax return this year or may end up owing money. Read more here.

Rural sanitation activist Catherine Coleman Flowers writes that policymakers must consult more rural voices. Read more here.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Publisher of West Virginia newspapers sues Google and Facebook, alleging anti-trust violations in online advertising

Huntington, W.Va.-based newspaper publisher HD Media has filed a federal anti-trust lawsuit against Google and Facebook for alleged price-fixing in advertising. The publisher, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington says it hopes "every other newspaper in America" will join in. 

"The lawsuit focuses on what it portrays as illegal monopolistic practices by the tech companies, and on a secret agreement — code-named Jedi Blue — between Google and Facebook, which is also at the heart of a separate, price-fixing lawsuit brought by several state attorneys general," Margaret Sullivan reports for The Washington Post.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the haunting question of "What if?" Sullivan writes: "What if local newspapers had been able to compete successfully for digital advertising revenue as their readers moved online? What if the powerful 'duopoly' of Google and Facebook hadn’t sucked up all the oxygen in this new digital economy, essentially asphyxiating traditional media by depriving it of the ad dollars needed to survive? Would the newspaper industry be healthier — and therefore would our democracy be healthier? Is there still time for an industry to get up off its death bed?"

Google and Facebook say the Jedi Blue agreement was legal and above board, Sullivan reports. She notes that both companies have contributed to journalistic causes over the years, but Mountain State Spotlight investigative reporter Eric Eyre, formerly of the Gazette-Mail, told Sullivan he's unimpressed: "They try to make up for what they’ve done by donating huge sums of money to support local journalism while they’re killing local journalism."

Click here for a video interview about the lawsuit from Editor & Publisher Publisher Mike Blinder, lawsuit co-counsel Paul T. Farrell Jr. and HD Media’s VP of News and Executive Editor Lee Wolverton.

Local reporters help people seeking pandemic answers

Americans tend to trust local news media more than national or regional outlets, and that trust has led many to reach out to local papers or stations in the pandemic for help with a wide range of requests that aren't in a journalist's job description, such as helping elderly viewers make vaccine appointments.

Ashley Alvarado of Southern California Public Radio says listeners have asked her team "about unemployment benefits, about whether or not they should cancel a family wedding or if it was illegal to hold a graveside service for a relative who died," David Bauder reports for The Associated Press. Alvarado said her team frequently gets calls that result in potential new stories, which she shares with reporters. However, Alvarado said she's trying to be protective of the mental health of colleagues who answer the phones and repeatedly hear traumatic stories.

Lisa Krieger of the Mercury News in San Jose "has spent nights and weekends answering messages. She speaks to church groups and her newspaper has set up online seminars," Bauder reports. "She realizes that her first responsibility is to report and write stories, but said management has supported her efforts to help readers." 

To Krieger, it's an opportunity to show the paper is worthy of readers' trust. "This is payback time for us . . . These are readers who are very loyal and they need us. The least we can do is return their calls and emails," she told Bauder. "Over recent years we’ve been told that journalism is dying and is becoming obsolete . . . It’s gratifying to be a comfort to readers and provide them with information they literally can’t get anywhere else. It’s so rewarding and it’s why we’re in this business."

"There’s nothing wrong with doing your best to help people with information, Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, told Bauder, who writes: "But it’s wise to avoid situations where you learn someone’s medical records, or make a specific medical appointment or recommendation, she said."

Chauncey Glover of KTRK-TV in Houston has invested a lot of time in trying to convince the city's Black and Latino communities that the vaccines are safe, including through televised town hall meetings, Bauder reports.

C.C. Davidson-Hiers, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, has helped many elderly readers readers navigate online vaccination sign-ups, but told Bauder she worries about the ethical implications of setting up the appointments for the readers (which she has done a few times), since journalists are trained to observe and not get involved in their stories.

Tuesday webinar to discuss Rural Development grants, introduce viewers to one-stop shop for rural grants, loans

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Feb. 9 to discuss strategic economic and community-development funding opportunities and introduce viewers to the new USDA Innovation Center, a one-stop shop for grant and loan programs and guidelines. It will last about an hour.

The program, authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, prioritizes projects that support the implementation of regional economic development plans through several Rural Development funding programs. Organizations, non-profits, and local leaders are encouraged to attend. Click here to register and get info.

700,000 left their jobs in 2020 because of child-care problems; rural residents have an especially hard time

About 700,000 workers left their jobs in 2020 because they had trouble finding decent child care. Lack of accessible, affordable child care disproportionately hurts rural workers, according to a study conducted just before the pandemic. Though it's unclear how the pandemic has affected rural child care and the need for it, overall child-care availability has suffered.

Beyond those forced to leave their jobs because of the need to care for children, thousands who remained employed were forced to miss work because they couldn't find child care, according to a data analysis from the Center for American Progress, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. Major manufacturers have reported that child care-related work absences are a key reason they're struggling to increase assembly-line output, according to the report.

Rural residents have a harder time finding child care, according to another study. "Researchers at the Bipartisan Policy Center calculated the number of childcare slots available locally and compared it to the number of children who likely needed such care because their parents were in the workforce," Olivia Weeks reports for The Daily Yonder. "They found that the 'child-care gap' in rural areas exceeded supply by 35 percent, compared to 29% in metropolitan areas. The findings were true even though researchers accounted for the longer distances rural families are likely to drive to get their children to daycare." Though the organization meant to cover all 50 states, it was only able to collect data on half of them before child-care facilities shut down in March.

The study also found that rural parents were 13% more likely to rely on informal child-care arrangements with family and friends and 6% more likely to move nearer to such people for this reason, Weeks reports.

It's unclear how the pandemic has affected the rural-urban child care gap. Recent job losses may mean less demand for child care. Women take on a disproportionate share of child-care responsibilities, and all 140,000 jobs lost nationwide in December were women. However, as Queram notes, many child-care providers have cut back on staff and hours or shuttered entirely because of the pandemic, reducing the number of slots available.

"Operating costs have increased while enrollment has plummeted. More than half of care centers nationwide were reporting daily financial losses late last year, according to one survey," Queram reports. Without more stimulus money and sustained investment in the child care sector, many parents may not be able to return to work, which could hurt economic recovery, according to the CAP analysis. The relief act passed in December included $10 billion for child care.

Study outlines lessons and opportunities in advancing rural health during pandemic

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

States begin once-a-decade redistricting fight after census; local officials have received preliminary figures

With the 2020 census completed except for final figures (many local officials have received preliminary figures for their jurisdictions), statehouses across the nation are about to begin the once-a-decade fight to redraw voting-district lines. "Redistricting debates will heat up in many states as Democrats try to stop Republicans, who control most statehouses, from drawing district lines that would solidify their political power for another decade," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline.

Republican control will likely result in rural areas gaining more electoral power. "In states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas that have conservative legislatures and liberal cities, Republicans will try to preserve their majorities by drawing congressional and state legislative districts that favor GOP incumbents and dilute Democratic voting strength," Henderson reports. 

This is likely to be true especially in Southern states, according to Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "After the red wave in 2011, you had some really aggressive line-drawing in places like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania," Li said at a recent seminar. "Now I think the hot spots are going to be in the South—North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas."

Though federal courts in the past decade have ruled against Republicans in gerrymandering cases, state courts are now the last word, because of a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Henderson reports.

Spurred by endless litigation and partisan battles, an increasing number of states are turning toward independent commissions to determine districts fairly. "A total of 19 states now have commissions with input on redistricting, and another five use commissions as a backup if the legislature can’t agree or overcome a veto," Henderson reports.

Analysis: Capitol riot arrestees not disproportionately rural

Daily Yonder chart; click on the image to enlarge it.

"Extremists like those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 are no more likely to be from small towns or rural areas than from any other parts of America, say experts who study far-right movements," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder. "Since the insurrection, more than 180 people have been arrested for their involvement in the violent incursion on the Capitol. The Daily Yonder’s analysis of those arrests shows that the rioters came from . . . urban, suburban, and rural counties at about the same rate as the overall population. And those arrested were only slightly more likely than the overall population to come from counties that Donald Trump won by a landslide."

The rioters were unified neither by geography nor ideology, according to Madelyn Webb of anti-misinformation organization First Draft. They ranged from libertarian anti-vaxxers to anti-abortion activists to QAnon conspiracy theorists. "The thing that all these people have in common is that they think the election results were manipulated," she told Slepyan.

The Yonder's Tim Marema writes, "About 14% of the U.S. population lives in rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties. Only 10% of the people arrested for the Capitol riot list their homes in one of these rural counties. That means rural people are under-represented on the list of arrestees versus their share of the population." No such data is available for the people who stormed the Capitol and were not arrested, or went through police lines but didn't breach the building.

Analysis says number of rural homes for sale nationwide down a record 44% from last year, and prices are up 16%

Redfin chart shows same-month change in number of homes for sale. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The rural real-estate market is tightening, probably driven by urban residents fleeing the city to work remotely during the pandemic. According to a data analysis by real-estate brokerage Redfin, "The number of homes for sale in rural areas nationwide declined a record 44.4 percent year over year in the four weeks ending January 21, and fell 38.4% in suburban areas. Those mark the biggest annual inventory drops since Redfin started tracking this data in 2017," Dana Anderson reports. "The shortage of homes for sale is more severe in rural and suburban neighborhoods than urban areas. In urban neighborhoods, the number of homes for sale dipped 16.9% over the same time period, less severe than the 21.5% drop seen in May and June."

The squeeze could cause growing pains for small towns. Surging housing prices could make it difficult for rural residents to afford moving, and could trigger rent increases in their current housing. The influx of new residents, which many rural areas have already reported seeing during the pandemic, can cause problems such as overcrowded schools.

Rural counties saw record Covid-19 deaths in Jan., keeping rural rate ahead of urban rate; see latest county-level data

Coronavirus infection rates, Jan. 24-30
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

In the deadliest month of the pandemic for both metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, the rural new death rate continued to outstrip the metro rate. Rural counties had 16,332 total Covid deaths in January—an average of 527 per day—up from 16,179 in December.

"Covid-related deaths were higher at the start of January and have relented in the last two weeks. But after a 13 percent drop in deaths two weeks ago, rural deaths only dropped 1% last week," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. During the week of Jan. 24-30, rural counties averaged 7.7 new Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 residents, 20% higher than the urban rate of 6.4. The weekly rate of new Covid-19 deaths in rural America has surpassed the urban rate for more than five months.

"The number of new infections has also fallen in the second half of January. New infections dropped 17% last week in rural counties, to a total of 122,278, compared to 148,302 new cases two weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. Since March, nearly 68,000 rural Americans have died from Covid-19. Click here for more data and in-depth analysis from the Yonder, including regional trends and an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Paper in New Hampshire is applying conflict-mediation skills to increasingly irate submissions of opinion-page content

Sperling's Best Places map
The increasing animosity of opinion content submissions has prompted the Laconia Daily Sun in Laconia, N.H., pop. 16,581, to make some innovative changes over the past year in an attempt to increase local civility and bridge political divides.

The paper began considering the issue seriously after a well-known local candidate submitted a letter denying that the Holocaust had happened. The paper's founder, Ed Engler, had established a tradition of printing almost every letter to the editor he received as a means of elevating local discourse. After much discussion, the paper's leadership decided to print the letter, triggering widespread outrage. "It was painful evidence that Engler’s commitment to publishing as many letters as possible was no longer advancing a healthy dialogue among readers, if it ever had," Digital Editor Julie Hart writes for the American Press Institute.

About the same time, the paper won a grant from the nonprofit Endowment for Health to explore how civil discourse affected community health. It allowed the Sun to hire a new "solutions journalism" reporter who would write only about the critical issues facing the community as well as how other communities (or groups within the community) were addressing the issues, Hart reports. 

The Solutions Journalism Network trained the paper in practices such as "looping," an active-listening technique in which one person restates—without opinion—what they heard from their conversational partner, Hart reports. Editors at the paper realized looping could help with their opinion-page problem after two regular letter writers, who hold opposing political views, had lunch one day and heard each other out, Hart reports. They co-wrote a letter to the editor sharing what they discovered when they focused on listening instead of trying to change the other's mind.

Managing Editor Roger Carroll and others at the paper were "encouraged by the civility we’d seen when the writers came out from behind their names on a page and had a discussion face-to-face," Hart reports. The editorial staff and SJN staff decided to co-host a virtual roundtable discussion in May with frequent letters to the editor writers, instructing participants in the looping technique to help them listen while withholding judgment. "The group told us they learned a lot, and saw how these tactics could aid them in communicating more constructively in their contributed content," Hart writes.

The Daily Sun is still tinkering with its opinion page. It recently decided to stop printing all political cartoons and are using the space for local commentary. "We continued to re-evaluate our opinion pages, establishing guidelines around length, topic and frequency of contributions that are meant to focus the content on issues of public interest instead of personal attacks on other writers," Hart writes. "We published a policy that encouraged contributors to write in the third person, rather than take personal potshots in the second person, as too often happened."

The paper still believes printing letters serves a valuable function for the community, especially with the changes they've made. At the very least, the staff hopes hope to provide an opportunity for people to read constructively stated viewpoints from people who disagree with them, Hart writes.

"For other small papers considering changing the format of their opinion pages, consider ways to model constructive dialogue between groups in your community," Hart writes. "Maybe that means changing your editorial submission guidelines, offering training in looping, or dedicating your opinion section to local issues and reducing national political content."

Sen. Manchin criticizes vice president's interview with W.Va. station, highlighting Biden's tricky Senate balancing act

Vice President Kamala Harris is facing blowback after a Jan. 28 interview with a West Virginia TV station about the administration's pandemic relief package, highlighting the complicated politics surrounding the issue and the Biden administration's precarious position in the Senate. 

During the interview with NBC affiliate WSAZ-TV in Huntington, Harris noted that the pandemic has hit the state's economy hard and spoke about finding work for laid-off coal miners in reclaiming abandoned mines (though she misspoke and said "abandoned land mines," which spawned social-media mocking). Sen. Joe Manchin, the only Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia, complained to the station the next day that the White House hadn't asked his advice about persuading West Virginians, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports for The Washington Post. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has been in regular contact with Manchin for weeks and will continue to be, but said the administration also wants to make a case for its recovery plan directly to voters. 

Though Harris had a very liberal voting record as a senator, her appearance "seemed to be part of an effort to pressure moderate senators, since she also spoke to a news station in Arizona, home to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who like Manchin is a centrist Democrat," Wootson reports. An evenly split Senate means "means centrist Democratic senators, who are most likely to defect, will often control the fate of Biden’s initiatives."

An anonymous Manchin adviser said the senator is not unaware of this power, Wootson reports. But Manchin has made his name — and kept his seat — by cultivating a reputation as a maverick, according to West Virginia-based political scientist Patrick Hickey. So an early clash with the Biden administration could be a "political boon" for the senator.

At any rate, the dust-up, "while minor in many ways, makes it clear how difficult it may be for Biden to achieve the unity he has called for — even within his own party," Wootson reports.

Friday webinar to discuss first USDA Farm Income Forecast of 2021; keep an eye out for predictions on farm loans

The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service will release the first Farm Income Forecast for 2021 on Friday, Feb. 5. That same day, ERS economist Carrie Litkowski will host a webinar at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the contents of the report. Click here to register for the webinar.

The most recently published farm income forecast, in December 2020, noted that net farm income likely rose from 2019 to 2020, but mainly because of direct federal relief. The report also found that farm debt and the average debt-to-asset ratio were increasing, raising concerns about the farming economy's sustainability.

One thing to keep an eye on? Increasing concerns about farm loans. A survey of rural Midwestern bankers in January found that, though their confidence in the economy was increasing, their top worry is lower lending activity. And a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that, though the average size of farm loans grew for the last two quarters of 2020, smaller loan volumes were driven by a lower number of new loans to farmers."

The ERS releases the farm income forecast three times a year, usually in February, August and November. From the webinar page: "These core statistical indicators provide guidance to policymakers, lenders, commodity organizations, farmers, and others interested in the financial status of the farm economy. ERS' farm income statistics also inform the computation of agriculture's contribution to the U.S. economy's gross domestic product."

Bureau of Land Management lost more than 87% of staffers in move; it's unclear whether Biden will bring it back to DC

Moving most of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters staffers to Grand Junction, Colo,, "prompted more than 87 percent of the affected employees either to resign or retire rather than move, according to new data obtained by The Washington Post," Juliet Eilperin reports for the paper. "The exit of longtime career staffers from the agency responsible for managing more than 10 percent of the nation’s land shows the extent to which the Trump administration reshaped the federal government." 

Of the 388 jobs at BLM headquarters, it moved 328, and "287 BLM employees either retired or found other jobs," according to the Department of the Interior. Only 41 went to Colorado. The move was "designed to shift power away from the nation’s capital," Eilperin reports. By shedding longtime employees, the agency could hire employees more loyal to the administration.

Interior communications director Melissa Schwartz declined to comment to Eilperin on how the move had affected the bureau's operations, "but several experts, including former high-ranking Interior officials, said the shake-up has deprived the agency of needed expertise and disrupted its operations. The bureau oversees all oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which has emerged as a flash point in the early days of the Biden administration."

It's unclear whether the Biden administration will—or should—move headquarters back to D.C. Though the 287 employees who didn't make the move either retired or found new jobs, "a key justification for undoing the move to Grand Junction is that a significant number of the Washington-based staffers who left the bureau are still in the D.C. area, and Biden administration officials have said privately that Interior will try to rehire some of these employees," Scott Streater reports for Energy & Environment News.

Steve Ellis, an Obama-era BLM deputy director of operations, told Streater that some of the staff would likely return to BLM if the agency headquarters were moved. That would help the agency, he said, since many employees with institutional knowledge had been lost.

Pandemic roundup: AstraZeneca vaccine promising; research shows virus mostly spreads by air

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

New research shows that the single-dose AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine gives 76 percent protection for three months. Testing also shows that vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit the disease. Read more here.

A year into the pandemic, research overwhelmingly shows that the coronavirus mainly spreads via the air, prompting calls to revise government advice to the public. Read more here.

A small-town college offered to let the local hospital use the science department's ultra-cold freezers to store the coronavirus vaccine. Then college staff received the vaccine while some front-line workers went without, prompting questions about the growing nationwide concern about privilege and line-jumping. Read more here.

Older adults with fewer friends and family have a tougher time getting the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

Some rural Texans are driving hundreds of miles across the state in search of the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

Some rural county governments in Kentucky say they're worried that the state's plan to set up regional vaccination sites might make it harder for rural residents to get their shots. Read more here.

Several rural counties in Nevada have passed resolutions defying state pandemic restrictions. Read more here.

The coronavirus vaccine is being distributed to rural Alaska via sleds, snowmobiles and planes. Read more here.

The Navajo Nation begins mass vaccinations after lifting their lockdown order. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paid $44 million for software meant to manage the vaccine rollout, but it's so bad most states have abandoned it. What went wrong? Read more here.

USDA: rural residents appear more vulnerable to Covid-19

Three-week moving average of new Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 adults aged 20 and up.
USDA chart; click the image to enlarge it.

Rural residents appears to be more likely to die from Covid-19 or come down with a serious case of it in 2020, according to data reported in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural America at a Glance: 2020 Edition report.

Though the virus didn't begin to spread widely in rural areas until last summer, in September rural Covid-19 death and infection rates have consistently surpassed those in urban areas. Rural populations appear more vulnerable to the virus in several ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top two characteristics of people highly vulnerable to Covid-19 are older age and the presence of underlying medical conditions. People may also be more vulnerable if they have difficulty accessing medical care, either because they lack health insurance or live more than 32 miles from a county with an intensive care hospital. Rural residents score worse on those metrics across the board: the rural population is, on average, older, sicker, and has a harder time accessing health care.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Tom Brokaw advises TV journalists to get out of the biggest cities, get to know the rest of the country

Tom Brokaw
The Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol shocked many Americans, but broadcaster Tom Brokaw says it might not have been so surprising to cable TV journalists if they were more attuned to life outside of the biggest cities (where most large nationwide news sources are based), David Bauder reports for The Associated Press

Television new is “much, much too wedded to the East Coast and West Coast only," Brokaw told Bauder, noting a two-decade decline in local news coverage from nationwide broadcasters. "Take some of the people who are only in Washington and send them to Salt Lake City or Kansas City, or St. Louis for that matter." Brokaw said he believes relocations can be accomplished for a reasonable price.

Brokaw, who turns 81 this month, is retiring from NBC News after 55 years. The native of Yankton, South Dakota, pop. 14,573, said he's been impressed with the work of young journalists, but said stationing reporters in different parts of the country can help reduce the phenomenon of parachute journalism. "I don’t want to knock what they’re doing now because they get on an airplane and go to these places and they do a good job," Brokaw told Bauder. "But I always found it was best to invest yourself in different parts of the country and get to know the politics and culture."

Brokaw said he doesn't think it's possible to fully erase the damage to public perception of the news media after the Trump presidency, though. "I don’t think there will be a full recovery," Brokaw told Bauder. "I think this is baked in."

Report lists rural hospitals at risk of closing; see local data

Number of hospitals at immediate or high risk of closure before pandemic.
CHQPR map; click the image to enlarge it.

A newly updated report from the nonpartisan Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform lists the more than 800 rural hospitals—40 percent of all rural hospitals in the U.S.—in danger of closing even before the pandemic. That includes over 500 hospitals that were at an immediate risk of closure because of longterm financial losses and lack of financial reserves. Another 300 hospitals are at high risk of closure in the near future, most because of low financial reserves or high dependence on revenue from non-patient sources such as local taxes or state subsidies. The report is based on the latest data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Almost all of the rural hospitals at immediate risk are in isolated rural communities, making such locations all the more critical to locals, the report says. Almost every state had at least one rural hospital at immediate risk, and in 22 states, at least a quarter of rural hospitals are at immediate risk. In every state, more than 20% of rural hospitals are at high or immediate risk of closing, and in 14 states, the majority of rural hospitals are at high or immediate risk of closing. Click here for a searchable database of all rural hospitals in the U.S.

Many more hospitals may be at risk due to the pandemic. "Margins at many hospitals may be worse in 2020 because of the combination of the higher costs hospitals incurred during the pandemic and the reduction in revenues because patients avoided seeking non-emergency services," the report says.

"A major cause for financial struggles at rural hospitals is that they earn lower profits on basic services like emergency departments – a critical service in a rural community, but one that requires basic staffing and equipment costs that urban hospitals can more easily translate to profits," Erik Neumann reports for NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon.

So says Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform CEO Harold Miller, who noted that more than 130 rural hospitals have closed over the past decade. "In a small rural area, you don’t have as many emergency department visits as you do in a larger urban area. So, you don’t generate as many visits and you don’t generate as much revenue for those visits as you do in an urban area," he told Neumann.

Miller says the solution is to get private health insurance plans to pay enough for rural hospitals to stay afloat. "The hospitals are not losing money because they’re too expensive, they’re losing money because they don’t get paid enough to be able to sustain those services," Miller told Neumann. Here's another recent take on what the Biden administration can do to improve rural health care.

Click here for an interactive map showing at-risk hospitals in each state, and click here for a report overview and table with statewide figures.

Union food-distribution workers striking across nation, reflecting push for better food-industry working conditions

Union workers at Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market in the Bronx, the world's largest wholesale produce market, recently staged a successful strike for safer working conditions and better pay during the pandemic. 

"The Hunts Point strike was part of a series of actions across the country by unionized food-distribution workers for higher pay and better workplace protections, both in general and specific to the pandemic," Amir Khafagy reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "Led by the Teamsters, the push echoes the more spontaneous protests and general outcry that has arisen from other food-industry workers and their advocates—from meatpacking plants and farm fields to restaurants and food-delivery services—after the virus made it impossible to continue to ignore the neglect and abuse these 'essential' workers had long endured."

President Biden's Labor Department has just issued stronger worker-safety guidelines that call on employers to conduct a hazard analysis and implement measures such as masking and social-distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus on the job, Chuck Abbott reports for FERN.

Entries due today for Golden Quill editorial- and column-writing contest of Intl. Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors

Did you write an editorial or column in 2020 that made you proud? Enter the Golden Quill editorial-writing contest of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors; entries are due today.

All papers published fewer than five days per week are eligible. Entries should reflect the purpose of ISWNE: "Encouraging the writing of editorial or staff-written opinion pieces that identify local issues that are or should be of concern to the community, offer an opinion, and support a course of action." 

Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal, will reprint the 12 best editorials as the Golden Dozen in the 2021 summer issue. The top winner, of the Golden Quill winner, will be invited to attend ISWNE's annual conference in Reno, Nevada, at the Ryerson School of Journalism. The winner will receive a conference scholarship and travel expenses up to $500.

Entries must have been published between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. Each entry is one editorial or column. One person can have two entries, and each newspaper can have up to four. ISWNE prefers original tearsheet(s), but will accept PDFs; in either case, the entry should be clearly marked.

Entries must be postmarked or emailed today. The cost per entry is $10 per person for ISWNE members, $15 for non-members, and $5 for students. Two entries are allowed per person, and four per newspaper. Make your check to ISWNE Golden Quill and send it with your entries to Missouri Southern State University, c/o Dr. Chad Stebbins, 3950 E. Newman Rd., Joplin MO 64801-1595.
To pay with a credit card, go here. To use PayPal, use the “Send” button on the PayPal homepage, enter in the “Send money to” box, use the "Next" button, enter the amount, and in the "Add a note" section enter “Golden Quill Entry” in the Add a note section, then "Continue" to complete your payment.