Friday, March 05, 2021

W.Va. supports nonprofit news site, suggesting business model based on philanthropy and rural readers can work

Ken Ward Jr., left, and most of his colleagues at Mountain State Spotlight, in a photo from its About page.

About a year ago, Ken Ward Jr. decided that his considerable and frequently proven talents as a reporter needed a better platform, so he followed his editor Greg Moore out the door of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and they soon co-founded with ProPublica a nonprofit news organization, Mountain State Spotlight, to serve one of the nation's most rural states.

Ward told the Knight Media Forum this week that he had tired of working in a newsroom that had many empty chairs and calculated the affordability of pursuing stories, and "I decided West Virginia needed something new, a new model." He got help from the American Journalism Project and Report for America, and now from West Virginians who appreciate accountability journalism.

"The community's out ahead of us about a need for a new model" for local news, he said. "They have caught on to the fact that this is the way they can get it, by supporting organizations such as Mountain State Spotlight." He said MSS has raised $150,000 from 800 contributors, including lawyers who represent Gov. Jim Justice's coal companies, long an object of Ward's accountability reporting, which he continues. 

Ward told The Rural Blog in an email, "What's been most moving - humbling, really - to me over the last year is the extent to which West Virginians have stepped up to support Mountain State Spotlight. It's great to have strong financial backing from national partners. That's key to our success so far. But when retired teachers from the Eastern Panhandle or little old ladies from Southern West Virginia send us a check for $15, with a note about how important the news is to them. Well, that's what gives our team energy and makes us realize how important what we're doing is."

He added, "People who rely on those small-town newspapers know what they are missing when they don't get enough information to know what's going on in their community. And all of us in the journalism community need to follow the lead of those readers. I'll say this, too: We're starting to hear back from those small town editors, those that are publishing our stuff, and they're telling us about stories in their communities that they know need covered, but that they don't have the resources to cover anymore. And they are asking to partner with us to get those stories done. And those collaborations back and forth will be a huge part of what saves local news."

Ward told the forum that Mountain State Spotlight offers its stories to every news outlet in West Virginia at no charge. "We've signed up about two dozen small weekly and daily papers . . . with total print circulation of about 60,000," he said. "We're giving them state-government coverage they couldn't get otherwise and it's increasing our audience around the state."

Mountain State Spotlight has broken stories such as Justice's manipulation of the state's pandemic map, flaws in the state's effort to feed out-of-work families and the financial implications of a bill to eliminate syringe exchanges established to fight the opioid epidemic.

Can Biden deliver on promises to coal country, especially Central Appalachia? Residents and experts weigh in

The Central Appalachian coalfield is home to some of the poorest areas in the country, and economic revitalization is badly needed. President Biden has promised to bring high-paying jobs to the region through his climate-change plan, "but after generations of promises, communities once reliant on coal mining are understandably skeptical. Administration after administration has tried to bring the region sustained prosperity, yet many communities remain on the brink," Will Wright reports for The New York Times. "Without direct federal help, local residents and experts say, people living in those communities could suffer increasingly dire consequences as the nation moves away from coal for good — ending the boom-and-bust cycle that dominated their economies with a final and decisive bust."

But Biden must try new tactics and ensure widespread impact to get his promises to stick, said two experts who are on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog). It's unclear what those new tactics must be, but they told Wright that Biden can start by avoiding past pitfalls that often exacerbated rural disparities.

Ron Eller, author of the Appalachian economic history Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, said previous administrations vowing to revive the region "have largely followed the same formula: job training programs, the recruitment of outside industry and a model that has consolidated power in the hands of few companies and public officials," Wright reports. "The result has been a wildly uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity that is evident to anybody who strays off the highways or outside the county seats. Some towns, such as Pikeville, are centers of wealth within the region, with a private university, several grocery stores and law offices. Outlying rural areas have largely been left out."

Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association, a Kentucky-based community-development nonprofit, told Wright that past administrations have "accomplished really important work . . . but it has not been fundamentally transforming," so change for coal communities will have to be "some order of magnitude larger" than previous efforts. In a recent op-ed, Hille expanded on how Biden needs the right policy initiatives and large-scale investment to fulfill his promises to coal country.

Wright interviewed a diverse sampling of Eastern Kentuckians, including local leaders. Coal miner Thor Campbell said he thinks his children will struggle if they stay in their hometown after high school and said he expects coal mining jobs to disappear completely in the next five years. He doesn't know how to do anything else and said there are no clear substitute careers for older miners like himself. Bakery owner Gwen Johnson said she would welcome federal funding, but said she's "just sick and tired of outsiders saying what we need" because such funding is often mishandled and misplaced. Locals know better how to transform their communities, she said.

Matt Wireman, the judge-executive of Magoffin County, said it has a new industrial park, broadband access and tourism potential, and he thinks a little help from the federal government could help put it over the top. But he told Wright, "I want to see action, I want to see things that are tangible. . . . They can talk and talk and talk. Let’s see things we can see, feel and touch."

Study examines why some LGBTQ+ Americans prefer rural; some say urban gay culture is too focused on sexuality

Pop culture portrays LGBTQ+ Americans as urban dwellers, but between 15 and 20 percent of them live in rural areas, a greater share than the rural population. A new study delves into why some choose to be ruralites and what life is like for them. Christopher T. Conner, assistant sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has conducted in-depth interviews with 40 rural LGBTQ+ Americans since 2015 and analyzed various survey data to augment his research. 

Many view their sexual identity very differently than their urban counterparts and "question the merits of urban gay life," Conner writes for The Conversation, a site for academics to write journalistically about their research. The stereotype is that LGBTQ+ young adults who grow up in rural areas escape to large cities with thriving "gayborhoods" so they can feel normal and accepted, but research by Conner and others shows that many who flee to the cities ultimately return home. His interview subjects commonly downplayed their sexual or gender identities and focused on other parts of their lives such as sports, music, nature or games. They said they found urban gay culture to be shallow and too focused on sexuality as the defining characteristic of life. 

Rural LGBTQ+ Americans are often shown as lonely and less able to live openly, "but my analysis of a 2013 Pew survey of LGBTQ Americans – the latest available comprehensive national survey data on this population – showed that LGBTQ rural residents are actually more likely to be legally married than their urban counterparts: 24.8% compared with 18.6%. This aligns with what I’ve heard in interviews. The rural LGBTQ people I spoke with placed a high value on monogamy – on what many of them consider a 'normal' life," Conner writes. "Those who returned home from urban gayborhoods also told me they found gay city living rarely delivered on its promises of companionship and inclusion. Many said they had experienced rejection while trying to date or develop a social circle. And they had missed the charm of small-town life."

However, Conner notes, rural Black and Latino LGBTQ+ people tend to face more difficulties because, according to a 2019 report, "discrimination based on race and immigration status is compounded by discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."

Some interview subjects said they'd rather live in rural areas because they would face discrimination no matter where they are, and living in small towns allows them to focus on other parts of their lives they feel are more important. "For some LGBTQ Americans, then, rural life allows them to more fully express themselves. Given the variety of issues facing LGBTQ Americans, from health care access to work problems, the rural world is not an escape from discrimination," Conner writes. "But neither are urban areas."

Quick hits: Solutions needed for overdue utility bills; Maine 'hackathon' aims to boost rural economic recovery . . .

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

Abandoned oil wells are polluting air and groundwater; who's going to clean it up? Read more here.

Maine and six North Atlantic countries are hosting a 48-hour virtual brainstorming competition offering cash and business-development opportunities for big ideas related to rural economic recovery. Read more here.

Medicare Advantage enrollees living in rural areas are more than twice as likely to switch to traditional Medicare as urban dwellers, according to a new study. Read more here.

Commentary: As Americans, especially poor and people of color, struggle to pay water bills, solutions are past due—especially since utility shutoff moratoriums expire soon. Read more here.

A report from a nonprofit discusses how to attract young people to rural upstate New York (and, by extrapolation, many other areas with similar economies). Read more here.

Scientists are testing a novel treatment that could help fight citrus greening. Read more here.

A federal proposal to change how the federal government classifies metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties could have big economic implications for rural America. Read more here.

Study: people who live near fracking wells are routinely exposed to harmful chemicals. Read more here.

U.S. agriculture faces new international trade challenges. Read more here.

Oregon's logging industry says it can't afford new taxes, but lumber prices and profits are soaring. Read more here.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, big in rural TV, plans to lay off hundreds of employees, citing economic impact of pandemic

"Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Sinclair Broadcast Group said on Wednesday that it will reduce its workforce by approximately 5 percent, amounting to hundreds of layoffs across the company," Oliver Darcy reports for CNN Business. "Sinclair, which operates 186 television stations across 87 markets in the United States, reported in February a 7% drop in total revenue for the fourth quarter of 2020, compared to the fourth quarter of 2019."

The coronavirus pandemic is to blame for the layoffs, a Sinclair spokesperson said in a statement: "From local businesses and advertisers to distributors and partners, no component of our business's ecosystem has been fully shielded from the impact of the global pandemic."

The spokesperson told CNN that the company employs 9,211 people; Darcy reports that a 5% reduction from that means about 460 people will be laid off. Sinclair tends to own stations in small markets with large rural audiences. Read more here.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

N.C. weekly editor Tom Boney, jailed after seeking access to court hearing, receives NNA's First Amendment Award

Tom Boney Jr.
Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News, a weekly in North Carolina, was removed from a court room in the county seat of Graham and jailed after protesting that a hearing in a controversial case should be open to the press and public. For his determination to stand up for open government and freedom of the press, the National Newspaper Association has given Boney, a long-time crusader and accountability journalist, its First Amendment Award.

Boney's "arrest followed charges against News reporter Tomas Murawski, who was arrested while covering the rally, which was aimed at highlighting voting inequities in the area," NNA reports. Boney also took on the local district court for holding hearings in high–profile cases without journalists in attendance. He took an appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals to force public hearings. The appeal was dismissed in January after the district court agreed to make accommodations for journalists to cover proceedings. But charges against Murawski are still pending."

NNA Chair Brett Wesner applauded Boney’s efforts in a statement: "The impulse of governments to conduct themselves behind closed doors and limit journalists from access to events is ever present, particularly when the news is hot. It takes grit and determination to force transparency and accountability when you live in the community where these events occur. But it is what we do. The case for the value of the local newspaper is never clearer than when a courageous champion of the First Amendment like Tom Boney puts his newspaper on the line for his readers."

The award will be presented March 18 during NNA's virtual Community Newspaper Summit, timed to coincide with Sunshine Week.

Pharmacy deserts leave many rural Americans with few options for vaccination; see interactive county-level map

Retail pharmacy availability in non-metropolitan counties (Click the image to enlarge; click here for interactive version.)
(Kaiser Health News map based on Rural Policy Research Institute data) 

"As the Biden administration accelerates a plan to use pharmacies to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, significant areas of the country lack brick-and-mortar pharmacies capable of administering the protective shots,"  Markian Hawryluk reports for Kaiser Health News. "A recent analysis by the Rural Policy Research Institute found that 111 rural counties, mostly located between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, have no pharmacy that can give the vaccines. That could leave thousands of vulnerable Americans struggling to find vaccines, which in turn threatens to prolong the pandemic in many hard-hit rural regions."

The confluence of several economic trends has exacerbated the problem of rural pharmacy deserts. "From 2003 to 2018, 1,231 independent rural pharmacies closed . . . leaving some 630 rural communities with no retail drug store," Hawryluk reports. "The changing economics in the pharmacy industry did them in, a combination of national pharmacy chains expanding and consolidating, big-box stores and supermarkets opening their own competing pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers eating into small-pharmacy profits. Mail-order options siphoned off business." But, Hawryluk notes, "you can’t get vaccines in the mail." And for many rural Americans, those pharmacies were the only source of nearby health care.

More than 1.6 million Americans live more than 20 miles from the nearest pharmacy, according to a recent analysis by the University of Pittsburgh's School of Pharmacy and the West Health Policy Center. Those residents must drive long distances to get vaccinated (twice, if they're getting a two-dose vaccine) and may have to deal with poor road conditions or difficult weather, Hawryluk reports.

"So far, with a limited quantity of doses and strict limitations on who is eligible, that hasn’t been a problem," Hawryluk reports. "But as vaccination opens up to the general public and supplies of the vaccines increase, local health departments may be overwhelmed with demand and may need to offload the task of vaccinating local residents to other health care providers."

Rural Chamber of Commerce aims to help rural economies; sets March 9 webinar on racial issues in rural America

The Rural Chamber of Commerce, a new organization of rural business leaders and entrepreneurs aimed at encouraging rural economies, is open for business.

"The goals of the Rural Chamber are manifold, but a primary purpose of the organization is to help develop rural economies by supporting rural entrepreneurship," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder. "Members have access to services, including trainings from business coaches, mentoring sessions where members can discuss best practices and problem-solve collectively, networking opportunities, and an online sales platform." (Learn more about becoming a member here.)

The organization is the brainchild of Sherri Powell, a native of rural Georgia who wanted to support and connect rural business owners. She and the organization's 11-person board, also want the Chamber to address social issues facing rural America. So, one of their first acts is to launch a virtual panel series discussing "Racial Reconciliation Throughout Rural America and Beyond." The first panel discussion will be held March 9. Click here for details.

"We are digging in, and we are going to attack and focus on and address the social issues facing rural America—it’s going to be a centerpiece of who we are," Powell told Slepyan. "I don’t think that we can talk about rural issues honestly and effectively if we just ignore the social piece."

Bipartisan bill in House aims to invest in rural areas, revive White House Rural Council that Trump disbanded

A newly reintroduced bipartisan House bill aims to bolster economic opportunities in rural America and reinstate the White House Rural Council that was disbanded in 2017.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and a host of bipartisan sponsors first introduced the Transforming Hiring in Rural Industries and Vital Economies (THRIVE) Act in February 2020 but the bill didn't get anywhere. The co-sponsors for the current version are Reps. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.; Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.; Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.; Jim Costa, D-Calif.; Rick Crawford, R-Ark.; Jahana Hayes, D-Conn.; Ann Kuster, D-N.H.; Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz.; Chris Pappas, D-N.H.; Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; and Don Young, R-Alaska.

"Among the programs overseen by the Rural Council was the 'Livable Communities Initiative,' which supported local government efforts to improve transportation and develop housing in small towns," according to a press release from Rogers, who represents Kentucky's Fifth District, one of the nation's most rural. "The Council also worked in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education to provide online educational resources for teachers and students in rural communities, which was bolstered at the time by a $2 billion commitment by the Federal Communications Commission for broadband deployment across the country. Additionally, the Rural Council launched the National Water Quality Initiative to work with farmers to improve conservation of working lands and ensure they can be used for years to come."

Vaccine disparities pit rural America vs. urban America

"The U.S. vaccine campaign has heightened tensions between rural and urban America, where from Oregon to Tennessee to upstate New York complaints are surfacing of a real — or perceived — inequity in vaccine allocation," Travis Loller, Jonathan Mattise and Gillian Flaccus report for The Associated Press.

"In some cases, recriminations over how scarce vaccines are distributed have taken on partisan tones, with rural Republican lawmakers in Democrat-led states complaining of 'picking winners and losers,' and urbanites traveling hours to rural GOP-leaning communities to score Covid-19 shots when there are none in their city," AP reports. However, it should be noted that many rural counties lack the health infrastructure to administer vaccines, forcing residents to drive long distances.

Part of the problem is that the Trump administration provided vaccine-eligibility guidelines but let states distribute vaccines. Many delegated authority to county governments, sometimes resulting in large disparities, wasted doses, and wildly inconsistent eligibility standards, AP reports.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Rural teachers struggle to connect during pandemic with students who lack adequate internet access

About 15 million K-12 students in the United States lack adequate internet access for participating in distance learning, Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline.

"The problem is especially acute in poor and rural communities, where the pandemic-driven switch to remote education has been particularly challenging. Nearly a year after Covid-19 upended schools, many rural educators still struggle to reach and engage with students," Wright reports. "Teachers say they worry about the mental health and well-being of the students they can’t see. And students miss deadlines and the chance to forge relationships with their peers, threatening both their academic achievement and social development. While these issues affect students in urban and suburban areas, they can be worse for rural schools, whose sizes often allow for close-knit student, teacher and community relationships."

Many state and rural education agencies have tried to help, using federal pandemic-relief aid for wi-fi hotspots or provide internet access and devices to families. But many rural districts are obliged to hand out paper packets when students don't have internet access. "This furthers educational inequities because paper packets do not afford students the opportunity for teacher-student interaction the way a traditional classroom setup does," Wright reports.

Even when rural schools do internet learning, they're less likely to help students access it. "A study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, found that of 477 school systems across the country conducting remote learning, rural school districts were less likely to provide students with hotspots or devices than urban districts," Wright reports. "About 48% of urban school districts provided hotspots, 20 percentage points more than rural school systems. And 84% of urban school districts provided devices, almost double the number of rural ones."

Rural teachers shared with Wright the creative strategies they've adopted to help students with inadequate or no internet access participate in distance learning; students shared how the lack of access makes them feel frustrated and isolated. One rural education expert noted that schools are often one of the easier ways rural students can access mental-health services, but the pandemic means those kids could be falling through the cracks. 

"Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to improve public education, said it is essential to 'find out how many students became invisible' during the pandemic. Students who faced trauma, social isolation or just didn’t show up, he said, need support," Wright reports. "Pruitt said states should survey students and families to identify the barriers to internet access, from cost to megabyte usage."

"There’s got to be a really deliberate attention to a long-term plan for how you build and sustain infrastructure," Pruitt told Wright. "This is not just an education issue. This is something that states need to take on as an economic driver."

Vilsack promises 'aggressive' action on encouraging farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices

In his first speech to a major farm group since his confirmation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shed more light on his environmental priorities and how he may go about achieving them.

In a speech for the National Farmers Union's virtual annual conference Monday, Vilsack "predicted farms would provide 'early wins' for the Biden administration’s efforts to counter climate change, and hinted he will draw on the department’s borrowing authority to fund initiatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," Mike Dorning reports for Bloomberg Green. He said he believes the Agriculture Department "has 'some flexibility' to draw resources for climate change initiatives from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a New Deal-era entity with borrowing authority that President Donald Trump tapped to fund his $28 billion trade bailout."

Vilsack suggested he would act soon, and said farmers can more quickly and easily begin implementing more climate-friendly practices than other sectors such as power generation, construction, and transportation. "He predicted many farmers and ranchers would move to sequester more carbon in soil and reduce emissions if they are given 'additional resources' through existing USDA conservation programs and carbon markets," Dorning reports.

"I intend to be very aggressive in this space because I honestly believe agriculture is primed to create a series of early wins on the climate agenda," Vilsack said.

Vilsack, who headed USDA throughout President Obama's administration, has said he intends to help further President Biden's goal to make the U.S. the first nation to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions in farming with initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve lands and plant cover crops.

New owners of newspaper in tourist town on Alaska's Inside Passage struggle to survive and thrive during pandemic

Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff
(Photo provided to Columbia Journalism Review)
Columbia Journalism Review recounts a rural Alaska newspaper owner's quest to find the right kind of successor for his paper, and how the new owners dealt with not only learning the newspaper business, but doing so just as the pandemic began.

Larry Persily, owner of the twice-monthly Skagway News, announced in 2019 that he wanted to give the paper away to one or two people with the gumption and grit to handle reporting in an Alaskan port town of nearly 1,200, Lauren Harris reports. He had taken over the paper in 2019, working from Anchorage nearly 800 miles away, but quickly realized the town needed someone local to properly cover the town. He only considered applicants willing to move to Skagway long-term.

"You gotta be part of the town," Persily told Harris. "You gotta go to the basketball games. You gotta be a trusted part of the community. . . . Small-town papers need small-town editors. I wanted an owner who was going to live there happily ever after." After months of intense phone interviews and an in-person visit, in January 2020 the paper went to Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, teachers in Anchorage who co-wrote a blog for Alaskan families.

Munson, Wehmhoff and their families were able to move to Skagway just before pandemic shutdowns would have made that all but impossible, Harris reports. With the local economy largely dependent on tourism—ships cruising the Inside Passage bring more than a million visitors each year—times quickly became tough during the pandemic, and local businesses didn't have much money for advertising in the Skagway News or its summer-only tourist publication, The Alaskan.

Skagway, Alaska (Wikipedia map)
The new owners worked hard to adapt to the new reality. "When the pandemic began, Munson and Wehmhoff had quickly suspended subscription fees so struggling local residents could still get news. They also stopped paying themselves," Harris reports. "Revenue from The Alaskan vanished completely, and the paper had to return some funds to advertisers. The paper’s printing press, located in Canada, was cut off from Skagway when the border closed, so the women had to rapidly transform a print publication into a digital product. They revived a website redesign that Persily had begun. Because the paper had always been delivered in print copy, Munson and Wehmhoff didn’t have a list of subscriber email addresses. Using mailing addresses, Facebook messages, and a local phone book in its final year of publication, they began building electronic contact information for their subscriber base."

Some older residents said they wished the paper still had a print edition. "Late last year, the Skagway Assembly awarded the paper $10,000 in small-business grants from the municipality. Munson and Wehmhoff are using it to reestablish a print edition of the paper," Harris reports.

Harrris notes that, though Munson and Wehmhoff should be celebrated for their resilience and optimism, it's important to acknowledge the size of their task. "Their response to the curveball of the pandemic is at once inspiring and harrowing. They’ve worked overtime monitoring social media platforms popular among Skagway residents, countering rumors by corroborating information and steering readers back to their coverage. Both continue to teach remotely to supplement the modest income they’ve taken for their journalism work. They spend significant amounts of time crafting the paper; Munson’s children often accompany her to the newsroom," Harris reports. "Nearly a year into their time at the paper, Munson and Wehmhoff are still learning how they can best serve Skagway, even as they wonder whether they can survive long enough to figure that out."

"Quitting isn’t something that just happens easily for either of us," Wehmhoff told Harris. "I think that has been good for the community."

Decline of coronavirus infections in rural areas slows greatly after six weeks of big decreases; see county-level data

New coronavirus infection rates, Feb. 21-27
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The number of new coronavirus infections in rural counties fell by only 1 percent last week, Feb. 21-27, compared to an average decline of about 20% for the preceding six weeks and a 30% decline for each of the preceding two weeks, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

Meanwhile, "The number of Covid-related deaths in rural counties dropped by 15% last week to its lowest level since the second week of November. Changes in Covid-19 death rates generally lag changes in infection rates by several weeks, due to the time it takes infections to run their course," the Yonder reports. "The number of new infections in rural counties last week was 55,498, which is a drop of 801 cases from the previous week’s total. This was smallest decline in new infections since the infection rate began to decline seven weeks ago."

The number of rural and urban counties on the red-zone list rose slightly last week after seven straight weeks of decline. Red zones are those with 100 or more new coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents in one week. It's unclear whether extreme winter weather in the South over the past two weeks may have skewed data reporting. "But Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, which were affected by the storm two weeks ago, were three of the states with the largest increase in red-zone counties," Murphy and Marema report.

Click here for more data, charts and regional analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map with county-level data.

Newsrooms sought for effort to learn what conservatives think about local news media; application deadline March 8

A news research project is looking for 25 local newsrooms to interview local conservatives about their attitudes toward local news media. 

"We know there’s a partisan divide related to trust in news: people who lean right are much less likely to trust what journalists produce. You probably don’t need polling data to tell you that. A spin through comment sections and reporter inboxes can provide plenty of evidence," writes Joy Mayer, organizer of the Trusting News project. "As we first told you a couple of months ago, "The Trusting News team is committed to learning more about this problem and helping newsrooms navigate it, and we’re starting with a listening project. We are inviting journalists from local newsrooms to interview right-leaning individuals in their own communities about their perceptions of journalism."

The application deadline is March 8. Click here to learn more about the project, run in partnership with the Center for Media Engagement.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

In pandemic, rural papers show how journalists are essential workers; build online audiences; consolidate to survive

The pandemic exacerbated financial problems for local newsrooms across the U.S., resulting in thousands of layoffs and more than 70 newsroom closures. Two journalism professors set out to document the impact on small community newsrooms in seven states and show how local journalists are truly "essential workers," Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute, host of the project.

Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas and William Mari of Louisiana State University "got funding to capture the moment from state newspaper associations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Arkansas, and from their own universities." The idea "was to capture history as it was happening and to grab memories while they were fresh of journalists surviving a pandemic of global proportions for the first time in a century," Mari told Hare. 

Finneman and Mari documented the big changes spurred by the pandemic. Many newsrooms "hit an inflection point with their digital presence that they hadn’t before," Hare reports. "Weeklies became dailies, at least online and through social media. And journalists that dismissed the internet saw how powerful it was for them and their communities."

Many of the newsrooms are rural, and are playing all-the-more vital roles in their communities. "These weekly rural community newspapers have just been a significant lifeline for people during this pandemic," Finneman told Hare, "and I don’t think that can be overstated." Here are a few tidbits:

Amy Wobbema, owner and publisher of the New Rockford Transcript, a 1,000-circulation weekly in North Dakota, said there was so much pandemic news to report that she found her paper operating more like a daily, and sometimes saw a 600% increase in web traffic. "It seemed like whenever there was a breaking story that was Covid-19 related, it always happened right after the newspaper went to press," Wobbema said. "We were starting to write articles immediately after and post them on our website to keep the community informed in real time."

Cecile Wehrman, publisher of the Crosby Journal and Tioga Tribune, two weeklies in northwestern North Dakota, likewise saw huge online traffic spikes. Their staff of six worked tirelessly while trying to find creative ways to keep the paper funded and afloat. "It just seems in my mind like one really long day, and I look at all those stories and I just go, 'Wow. How did we do all of this?' But that’s what we’re here for," Wehrman said. "This type of historic coverage gives us the opportunity to be the best that we can be and to show why newspapers are so important."

The weekly Freeman Courier in South Dakota has been in editor and publisher Jeremy Waltner's family for over 35 years. He's the only reporter in his community of 1,300 and has juggled the influx of pandemic news and decline in ad revenue with supervising his children doing remote learning at home. A few months in, he was worried the paper would have to shutter, but said the local business community rallied to support it and he's determined to keep it going. He said he wants readers to know that "we’re in it for the long haul, that we’re in it for the good fight, that we’re going to continue to be there for you . . . Don’t know exactly what that format is going to look like. It might be different than what you’re used to, but we’re not going anywhere, and I’m not going anywhere."

Letti Lister, president and publisher of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, S.D., provided gloves and sanitizer to employees, including paper carriers, to make them feel safer. She said being locally owned helped her make decisions quickly without being bogged down by bureaucracy. She increased subscription prices in June to make up for a 40% drop in ad revenue, but refused to cut publication days as many papers have. "I do not want to break the daily habit of our readers,” she said. “I want them to keep getting that paper every single day so that they form that habit and they want it. And the news is moving so fast and furious we have to keep doing that in order to get everything out there that everybody needs to have access to."

Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, the managing editor of the West River Eagle on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, has a circulation of 1,700 and is the primary news provider for an area the size of Connecticut. In June, she often got only four to six hours of sleep a night as web traffic jumped from 5,000 visitors a month to 250,000. "The decisions that (tribal officials) were making that were having real-time impacts on the lives of our people here — getting that out was so important to me and, quite frankly, there’s nobody else to do it," she said.

Bill Blauvelt is editor of three rural Nebraska papers: the Superior Express, the Jewell County Record, and the Nuckolls County Locomotive-Gazette. Because there are few retail businesses in the area, the papers rely on commercial printing and advertising from social events and special sections. Blauvelt combined the Record and the Express into one publication early in the pandemic to save money. Poor postal delivery has been a huge source of stress for Blauvelt: "The post office has delayed our deliveries so bad, and they’re talking about doing it some more. . . . They’re driving business away by slowing the delivery of the mail, and I attribute much of our circulation loss to the post office."

Amy Johnson, editor of the Springview Herald and president of the Nebraska Press Association, said the pandemic obliged the staff to shift more to posting on social media. She also said the pandemic illustrates the importance of rural journalism. "There is so much information online," Johnson said. "Our community newspaper is directed to them in this local area, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve noticed — the comments from people that they’re looking to the newspaper for current regulations and changes in the Covid landscape."

Cynthia Haynes and her husband Steve own seven small papers and a shopper in northwest Kansas. Early in the pandemic, she bought the Rawlins County Square Deal to keep it from closing. Her staff grew closer since they began having meetings on Zoom. "We had almost quit having meetings of the whole staff simply because we’re spread across six counties, and it’s really difficult, you know, it’s a two-hour drive from one end to the other" Haynes said. "So we have learned to use Zoom, and we’re having more regular meetings now, and I think it’s helping all of us to talk to each other, bounce ideas off of each other, know what’s happening, know what we should be doing. So that’s helped us a lot."

Consolidation of papers seems to have accelerated. Carrie Pitzer, owner and publisher of Pitzer Digital in rural Nebraska, took on a nearby weekly, the Stanton Register, during the pandemic so it didn't have to close, and it had a revenue base: public-notice ads, as the county's only paper. "Where would those legal notices go, you know? How would the subscribers receive information on meeting notices, meeting minutes, budgets, bonds, things like that?"

Jill Friesz, who oversees four rural papers serving 2,000 households in western North Dakota, made up for lost revenue by walking 10 miles to deliver copies to the 44 subscribers who lived at lake cabins and offere a summer subscription. "This lake has been here for all of the time I’ve been here, but I have never gone up there and just put the work into it," Friesz said. "And maybe it’s just time that we start looking at things differently and do things differently and change the way we can serve our readers."

Joey Young and his staff of 30 at Kansas Publishing Ventures run community papers in the south-central part of the state. Sales dropped by about 40% and online traffic went up so much early in the pandemic that they had to buy more bandwidth to keep the sites from crashing. To save money, they consolidated some of their papers into a weekly called the Harvey County Now and found that readers liked it. Subscriptions went up and the company got a Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan, but Young says the pandemic has taken a big toll on him. "You know, when you’re trying to build a company, it feels like your personal life is the company," Harvey said. "So, I’m just super stressed out about the company all the time." Read more here.

Opinion: Senate Republicans fear Deb Haaland but should fear alienating Native American voters more

If Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is confirmed as interior secretary, she would be not only the first Native American in the role, but the first in any cabinet-level position. That matters because the Interior Department governs Native American affairs, writes Julian Brave NoiseCat for The Washington Post: "We have had many interior secretaries with close ties to powerful men in the C-suite and on Capitol Hill. But we have never had an interior secretary who tended to traditional gardens, cooked for pueblo feast days and stood with the Oceti Sakowin Nation at Standing Rock in defense of tribal treaty rights." NoiseCat is vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress and a fellow of the Type Media Center.

But Haaland, a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo, is facing a great deal of push-back from Senate Republicans because of her views on oil and gas mining and national parks. The contentious confirmation hearing for Haaland, now entering its second week, has become a battlefield on which Senate Democrats and Republicans fight a proxy war over fossil fuels policy, Oliver Milman and Nina Lakhani report for The Guardian.

Some of Haaland's biggest critics in the hearing are from states where fossil fuels are big business, NoiseCat writes, and notes that many have received large campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries. Though conservatives have portrayed her as an extremist in the hearing, "in 2019, she introduced the most bills with bipartisan support of all House freshmen," NoiseCat writes. "What Haaland actually brings — and what the Republican Party seems to consider so dangerous — are experiences and perspectives that have never found representation in the leadership of the executive branch. In fact, Republicans’ depiction of the first Native American ever nominated to the Cabinet as a 'radical' threat to a Western 'way of life' revealed something about the conservative id: a deep-seated fear that when the dispossessed finally attain a small measure of power, we will turn around and do to them what their governments and ancestors did to us."

NoiseCat cites examples where the Native American vote helped one party or another win recent elections, and writes that Republicans need Native American voters for future elections. But, he warns, if Republicans block Haaland, Native Americans will remember at the ballot box: "With moderate Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia publicly backing Haaland, her path to confirmation is clear. It would be unwise for the GOP to stand athwart Indian country’s chance at history." 

Ultimately, Republicans' slow-walking of the nomination is unlikely to do them much good since the Interior "is already moving to lock in key parts of President Biden’s environmental agenda, particularly on oil and gas restrictions, laying the groundwork to fulfill some of the administration’s most consequential climate change promises," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times.

Some Republican lawmakers spread misinformation about Capitol riots, coronavirus pandemic

Many Republican lawmakers are spreading false or misleading information about the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting journalists' critical role in keeping the story straight for the public.

"A legion of conservative activists, media personalities and elected officials are seeking to rewrite the story of what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to undermine the clear picture of the attack that has emerged from video and photo evidence, law enforcement officials, journalistic accounts and the testimonials of the rioters themselves: that a pro-Trump mob, mobilized by the former president’s false claims of a stolen election, stormed the seat of American government to keep Trump in power through violent means," Mike DeBonis and Jeremy Barr report for The Washington Post. "Six weeks after the attack, some are taking advantage of fading memories and unanswered questions to portray the riot in a different, more benign light. The effort comes as federal authorities begin prosecuting scores of alleged marauders, congressional committees seek to plug obvious security failures, and lawmakers consider establishing an outside commission to examine the matter."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for example, "spent much of his allotted time reading a firsthand account from Jan. 6 suggesting the violence was perpetrated by a small cadre — including left-wing extremists — who were out of character in an otherwise jovial crowd," DeBonis and Barr report. "The campaign to minimize or deny the events of Jan. 6 has been weeks in the making, with the efforts to muddy the waters about what happened and who participated taking shape on pro-Trump television networks while rioters were still on the grounds of the Capitol." Other popular talking points include casting doubt on whether the rioters were armed and seeking to validate the rioters' motivations.

The misinformation campaign, including widespread attempts from conservative news media and lawmakers to pin the blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is an attempt to "deflect attention from Trump’s central role in stoking the fundamental motive for the riot — the false claim that the November election was stolen from him," DeBonis and Barr report.

Meanwhile, many Republican state lawmakers are promoting misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. "In their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic," Julie Carr Smyth and Becky Bohrer report for The Associated Press. "In some cases, the misstatements have faced swift backlash, even getting censored online. That’s raised tough questions about how aggressively to combat potentially dangerous misinformation from elected officials or during legislative hearings while protecting free speech and people’s access to government."

Pandemic roundup: Black churches help fight vaccine hesitancy; fact-checking Biden on vaccine claims; more ...

Here's a roundup of the latest stories on the pandemic and the coronavirus vaccine: 

People hesitate to get the coronavirus vaccine for several reasons, so fighting vaccine hesitancy requires a multi-pronged approach, experts say. Read more here.

Fact-checks cover President Biden's misleading remarks on the vaccine at a recent event at a Pfizer manufacturing site, rumors that Biden reduced coronavirus testing of detained immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border (he didn't), and rumors that the vaccine affects fertility (it doesn't, so far as scientists know).

This explainer discusses how the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine works, when it will be available, and other details to know. Read more here.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is widely used in other parts of the world, hasn't been approved for use in the U.S. because the company hasn't applied an application here, saying it needs to finish its phase 3 U.S. trial. Read more here.

The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine may make it easier to vaccinate harder-to-reach communities, but it also could drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system where marginalized communities believe they're getting an inferior product. Read more here.

Rural vaccination rates vary, and data is hard to come by. Read more here.

Black churches fill a unique role in fighting vaccine fears. Read more here.

Many rural hospitals could close because of pandemic-related expenses, according to a report from the American Hospital Association, which is lobbying for $35 billion in funding for rural hospitals in President Biden's American Rescue Plan. Read more here.

A mix of technologies and public/private partnerships are needed to expand rural broadband

"To expand broadband to more rural areas, a mix of different technologies and public/private partnerships are going to need to be used in the future. Major issues with accurate mapping of where broadband is and high costs associated with high speed internet are a few obstacles that must be overcome to expand high-speed in rural areas," Russ Quinn reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "These were some of the topics discussed at the 'Connectivity in Rural America' session at the USDA's 97th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum last week. A panel discussion followed three virtual presentations discussing how important rural broadband is and ways to improve the technology."

Rural broadband mostly comes from buried fiber-optic cables, but not all rural areas have that, which creates two tiers of service in some areas. Mo Shakouri, director of Community Broadband Initiative for Joint Venture Silicon Valley, said advancing 5G wireless technology will help get broadband to remote areas, Quinn reports. Though fiber must be part of the solution, it's too expensive to connect spread-out rural homes to fiber, Shakouri said.

Read here for more perspectives and ideas from speakers at the forum.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Fact-checker: Trump attacks opponents, spreads falsehoods in CPAC speech

Former President Trump attacked opponents and spread well-refuted falsehoods in his Sunday afternoon speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, his first major address since leaving office, according to fact-checkers.

"Trump's unrepentant repetition of his election fraud claims was noteworthy in light of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which Trump didn't mention," William Cummings reports for USA Today. "And his old attacks on wind energy added overblown claims that it was responsible for Texas' recent outages."

On Sunday, Trump blamed the recent power outages in Texas on iced-over wind turbines. "Traditional sources of energy such as natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems, were responsible for nearly twice as many outages in Texas as frozen wind turbines and solar panels, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid," Cummings reports. "ERCOT reported that of the 45,000 total megawatts of power that were offline statewide during the winter storm, about 30,000 consisted of thermal sources — gas, coal and nuclear plants – and 16,000 came from renewable sources. Wind only supplies about a quarter of the electricity in Texas."

Trump also "doubled down" on claims that the election was fraudulent, Cummings reports. "Had we had a fair election, the results would have been much different," Trump said. However, Cummings reports, "All 50 states certified the election results, and both state and federal judges (including Trump appointees) rejected scores of court challenges from the Trump campaign. Though isolated cases of fraud and irregularities were uncovered (as they are in every election) none came anywhere near the widespread level that would have been required to alter the result." Cummings also reports that many of the legal challenges mounted against the election results were dismissed based on their merits, meaning they didn't present enough evidence of fraud.

Trump claimed that Democrats used the pandemic as an excuse to illegally change election rules without the approval of their state legislatures. But the rule changes enacted were not illegal, Cummings notes. "Many states, including some controlled by Republicans, expanded mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Those changes were sparked by the very real concerns about the threat posed by the virus, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans," Cummings reports. "The U.S. Constitution leaves the manner of how elections are conducted to state legislatures. While in most cases the changes to mail-in voting were not directly approved by state legislatures, those legislatures had empowered their respective secretaries of state to make such emergency changes through legislation they approved."

The former president criticized the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying he's changed his advice on masking now that President Biden is in office. "First Fauci said you don’t need masks, no masks, no good. Then all of a sudden, now he wants double masks," Trump said. But that's misleading or exaggerated, Linda Qiu reports for The New York Times. Though initial government guidance on mask-wearing was "muddled," health agencies urged the practice long before Biden took office. In March 2020, Fauci said he wasn't against the general public wearing masks, but said he worried health-care workers would face a shortage if everyone wore them. By April, both Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging the general public to wear cloth masks, Qiu reports.

Trump made several false claims about undocumented immigration and refugees. He said his administration brought illegal border crossings to historic lows, but that's false, Qiu reports (and quotes the numbers to prove it). Trump also claimed that Biden "has effectively ordered a shutdown of ICE, halting virtually all deportations. Everyone, murderers, everybody." Though the Biden administration ordered a 100-day pause on deportations, it didn't apply to "murderers" and everybody. "In a memo in February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it would 'focus the agency’s civil immigration enforcement and removal resources on threats to national security, border security and public safety.' That would include anyone convicted of an aggravated felony, such as murder," Qiu reports. "Moreover, deporting immigrants is not the agency’s sole function. As ICE has scaled back removal operations, it has continued to conduct investigations into other illegal activity." Trump also said "nobody knows anything about" refugees" and that the U.S. doesn't have criminal records or health records about them. That's false, Qiu reports, since mandatory background checks for refugees take one or two years to complete.

The trade war was also in the cross-hairs, as Trump said his tariffs took "billions and billions of dollars from China." But tariffs are paid for by American consumers, not China, Qiu reports. Additionally, Trump said the U.S. used to have a $504 billion trade deficit with China. But that was "a reference to the trade deficit in goods — which does not include services and is not a 'loss' — with China, which grew to $538 billion under his watch," Qiu reports.

The Times debunked several other claims Trump made during the speech about election security, the U.S. economy, and the number of jobs the Keystone XL Pipeline would provide.

Democrats strip from Covid relief bill derecho aid for farmers, help for seafood processors

The House passed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package this weekend but took out a few provisions aimed at helping farmers and the seafood industry first.

"Democratic committee leaders quietly stripped out language in the bill that would have authorized federal payments to farmers who lost crops to natural disasters including 'high winds or derechos,' like the powerful wind storm that flattened Midwestern cornfields last August," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. The winds in last summer's derecho were as strong as a Level 2 hurricane and did billions of dollars of damage to farms and homes.

"In another late change, Democrats on Friday cut out references to seafood processing facilities and vessels in the agricultural aid section," McCrimmon reports. "They also removed “'seafood' from a provision directing the Agriculture Department to purchase and redistribute various farm goods to needy families."

Vaccine tourism prompts many states and communities to tighten eligibility rules

Differences in vaccine eligibility requirements have prompted many people go to nearby towns, counties or states in hopes of getting the coronavirus vaccine. "The so-called vaccine tourism has prompted some states and public health departments to more strictly enforce residency requirements at local vaccination sites," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty

"With more than 50 unique vaccination plans across the United States, one’s access to the Covid-19 vaccine depends in large part on where one lives. In Wisconsin, mink farmers are being considered for the next phase of vaccine prioritization. In New Jersey, smokers can get priority access to the vaccine. In Colorado, journalists fall under the category of frontline workers," Kiran Misra reports for The Guardian. "Without standardized protocol, and because of the fractured American health system, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have gotten vaccines outside their home states."

Though not all vaccine tourism is city dwellers traveling to rural areas, that's what's happening in Missouri as residents of St. Louis seek out vaccines in surrounding rural areas, Kayla Drake reports for St. Louis Public Radio. One St. Louis resident told Drake that, for every person she knows who has found a shot in the city, she knows five who have traveled elsewhere to get one. Some people pre-register for shots at several locations in hopes of scoring an appointment. Many criticized Missouri Gov. Mike Parson for poorly distributing the vaccine so that rural areas got too many and St. Louis not enough.

Vaccine distribution varies wildly across rural areas. Some rural areas don't enough vaccines to go around, prompting rural vaccine tourists to go to cities for a vaccine. But in Missouri, at least four recent rural mass vaccination events had doses left over when the events had concluded.

Illinois the first state to eliminate cash bail; issue disproportionately affects poor, helps overcrowd rural jails

"Illinois this week became the first state in the country to eliminate cash bail, a system that critics say leaves poor people—most often minorities—in jail for months awaiting trial," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Under the new law, judges will not be able to set any kind of bail for most defendants. Instead, they’ll use a risk assessment system to determine whether a defendant is a good candidate for release. Detention is a last option to be used only when “it is determined that the defendant poses a specific, real and present threat” to another person, or 'has a high likelihood of willful flight.' Judges will still be able to detain defendants charged with felonies, including murder and domestic battery."

The issue disproportionately affects the poor, who often can't make bail and must pay bond companies (typically 10 percent of the bail) to get out of jail, CNN reports. Those who can't bond out are stuck in jail, contributing to the overcrowding that's especially pronounced in rural and county jails. The numbers of people awaiting trial far outnumber people serving sentences.

Growing support for elimination of cash bail could make prison expansion—a popular rural economic tactic—less profitable, according to bail reform proponents.

Rural and poor counties less likely to have clean drinking water; Southern towns struggling after winter disaster

Poor, rural and Latino-majority counties have some of the worst drinking water in the nation. Violation points assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Map by The Guardian; click the image to enlarge it.)
More than a week after a rash of winter weather left the South reeling, many towns are still trying to get clean water to residents. "For years, experts have warned of the need to upgrade aging and often-neglected waterworks. Now, after icy weather cracked the region's water mains, froze equipment and left millions without service, it's clear just how much work needs to be done," Melinda Deslatte and Leah Willingham report for "The still-unfolding problems have exposed extensive vulnerabilities. Many water systems have decades-old pipes, now fragile and susceptible to breaking. ... Many systems in the South were not built with such low temperatures in mind. But with climate change projected to bring more extreme weather, problems like those seen last week could return."

Millions of Americans have drinking water that doesn't meet federal health standards, especially in rural America and among the poor and racial and ethnic minorities, according to a six-month investigation of five years of data from the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources. "America’s worst public water systems – those that have accrued more than 15 'violation points' for breaking standards over five years – serve more than 25 million Americans, the research shows," Emily Holden, Caty Enders, Niko Kommenda and Vivian Ho report for The Guardian. "Rural counties have 28 percent more violation points than metropolitan ones" and "poorer counties have more than twice as many violation points as wealthy ones." Latino communities, many near farms with agricultural pollutants in the water, have some of the worst drinking water in the country.

Water systems in poor, Latino, and rural areas struggle to meet federal drinking water standards. (Chart by The Guardian)