Saturday, April 03, 2021

Pros and cons of Ga. election law include some rural pros

Georgia's controversial new election law "does contain new restrictions on voting; some are likely to make it disproportionately more difficult for poorer voters and voters of color to cast their ballots. It’s also correct that there are ways in which the law expands voter access, particularly in ways that will be visible in rural areas," writes analyst Peter Stevenson of The Washington Post.

Perhaps the most controversial provision bans handing out food and water within 150 feet of a polling pace, or within 25 feet of any voter. "Republicans say this is aimed at stopping outside groups from influencing voters; Democrats say it’s supposed to make it harder for people to wait in long lines, particularly on hot or cold days," Stevenson reports. "Election officials are permitted to set up water stations — but they’re not required to do so."

Also controversial, "because critics say it is likely to disproportionately affect Black voters," is this: "Voters who cast mail ballots will have to provide one of several forms of identification," not just a signature that matches their voter registration, Stevenson reports. "The state’s old system required a cumbersome, and some said unreliable, signature-matching process. That’s actually a little bit less strict than some of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country, where photo ID is required."

On the other hand, many rural counties, many of which have heavy Black populations, will now be guaranteed ballot drop boxes. "The law for the first time codifies requirements for a minimum number of drop boxes in each county," Stevenson notes. "The number of drop boxes is so limited, it might not make a huge difference for voters." The law limits drop boxes to one per early-voting site, or one for every 100,000 voters in a county, whichever is least. (Most Georgia counties are small.) The law gives most rural counties one day of early voting, requiring it on at least two Saturdays.

Other major changes in the law include shortening the period for requesting absentee ballots to 78 days from 180, and the start of mailing out ballots 29 days before the election instead of 49, which critics said is too short because of increasing delays in mail service.

A very unusual change has the legislature, now strongly Republican, pick the chair of the state election board, which can take over local elections by suspending up to four county election chiefs at a time. The chair has been Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused Donald Trump's request to "find" votes for him. "This provision seems like a direct reaction to that," Stevenson writes.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Leading advocate of printed weekly newspapers says retailers are no longer their best source of ad revenue

Peter Wagner, still a believer in print
Iowa weekly newspaper publisher Peter Wagner, who has fought a rearguard action against the digital revolution and social-media advertising, knows the facts when he sees them.

"Publishers looking to reboot their markets following the pandemic need to recognize the retail sector is no longer their best revenue source," Wagner starts his latest column for state newspaper associations.

His object example is the late, lamented Warroad Pioneer of northern Minnesota, which died last year and was memorialized in The New York Times, The Rural Blog (including this commentary) and now Reader’s Digest. Wagner consulted publisher Rebecca Golden 21 years ago, and knows the market.

"Golden published a good paper. It was well written and nicely designed. But her dependence on retail advertising was her Achilles’ heel," Wagner writes, noting that many retailers depend on the area's tourist trade, the local grocery uses mass mailing and the car dealer's ads have gone mainly online.

Retailers "thought they didn’t need to advertise to locals they believed were already 'loyal' customers. Most didn’t understand how important a local paper is to holding a community together," Wagner writes. "All across America, newspapers and free-circulation publications are facing the same situation. Most national and regional chain stores, once a lucrative source of revenue, have deserted smaller communities. The small, local boutiques that replaced them are often poorly informed regarding the reach of digital advertising, too tightly financed to afford traditional advertising and are more of a hobby for the owner than a business."

Wagner reports that his rural markets in Northwest Iowa, "We’ve turned to the service providers, local manufacturing firms and once-overlooked professionals as fresh revenue sources. Locally owned banks and credit unions as well as full-service insurance agencies are good examples of service providers that continue to be excellent potential advertisers. Others include locally managed hospitals and medical facilities, home construction and sales organizations, privately owned colleges, universities and regional community colleges.

"The city itself, the local chamber of commerce, community celebrations and annual event organizations as well as the economic development director also are emerging sources for new advertising dollars. These are major-dollar advertisers who understand that the local newspaper is key to creating community and a spirit of consensus. Without a strong, united community those businesses have a limited future with a declining number of clients, students, employees and attendees. It also will lead to a diminishing tax base. These resources have the deep pockets and good reason to underwrite the future of their hometown paper."

Wagner maintains his proven belief in special projects and sections, and gives examples, saying they "have been well received and supported by local-minded businesses that appreciate sections that promote the history, fun and value of living in their town. . . . So, take a big breath and put a smile on your face. There continues to be a strong future for community papers. We simply need to direct our attention to the advertisers that believe in the community and the value of the hometown paper. It will require hard work and fresh thinking, but the survival of the printed paper is well worth the effort."

Study: many legal-aid programs don't work in rural areas because they're designed for cities

"Many legal-aid programs don’t work in rural areas because they are designed to serve large cities, a new research study says. The result is that low-income rural residents aren’t getting equal access to justice, according to a new paper published in the paper in the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law Policy," Olivia Weeks reports for The Daily Yonder.

The report, based on case studies in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, found that such programs fail the rural poor in three ways: they don't account for the lack of broadband access, they incorrectly presume that anyone in crisis can competently serve as their own attorney, and their standards for justice don't line up with rural Americans' expectations, Weeks reports.

Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin have high poverty rates, low employment, an economy mostly reliant on mining, and "an absence of large legal firms, limited social services, and rural lawyer shortages that are accelerated by a graying pool of local attorneys. 'Legal deserts' like this one significantly reduce the efficacy of state and federal legal aid funding. Even if the cash support is there, the practitioners aren’t around to take advantage of it," Weeks reports. "In rural areas, only 14 percent of civil litigants receive legal assistance. The other 86% are left to defend themselves in court. This rate of civil representation is less than half the national average." The authors say defendants in rural Wisconsin can wait as long as four months for a public defender. 

The authors write that lawmakers' access-to-justice solutions are often inaccessible to rural defendants: "Most simply, the initiatives touted as advancing 'equal administration of justice for all' often prove to be the very same self-help forms, helplines, and online resources that low-income rural residents identify as barriers to justice." 

Lack of broadband access, lower tech literacy, and too little legal guidance also make a just legal result less likely for the rural poor, they write: "Without addressing the rural digital divide, the ability of technology to close rural civil justice gaps remains limited."

Opinion: Biden may succeed where past presidents have failed in bridging the rural-urban broadband gap

Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump promised to bring affordable, reliable broadband access to all Americans, but didn't deliver. Joe Biden is making the same vow, but he might actually make it happen where past presidents have failed, editor-at-large Steven Levy writes for Wired.

That's because, Levy writes, Biden is doing something none of his predecessors did: he's seeking $100 billion in the new jobs-and-stimulus package to extend connectivity to underserved areas and asking for laws to introduce real competition to drive prices down. 

Biden has his work cut out for him since broadband in the U.S. is behind the rest of the developed world, Levy writes: "We still have huge connectivity deserts, particularly in rural areas. Also, compared to the rest of the world, we pay far too much for bits that get to us way too slowly. Millions in the US who connect wirelessly face punitive caps on data. This exacerbates a problem known as the digital divide, where less-well-off folks, especially communities of color, can’t afford or aren’t provided with high-speed internet, which has become a basic necessity. Of the 33 relatively wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US pays the second most for broadband, behind only Mexico. (South Korea pays a third as much.)"

Before the pandemic, the broadband gap held back productivity and access to resources among rural Americans and other segments, but the pandemic made it "a full-blown crisis" as broadband became critical for accessing school, work, health care and more, Levy writes. He goes into detail about what Biden's proposals entail and why large telecommunications corporations oppose it. Read more here.

Quick hits: Billionaires buy up farmland; USDA wants feedback on rural renewable-energy pilot program...

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

The new jobs-and-stimulus package dedicates $20 million for efforts to preserve tribal languages. Read more here.

A pilot project in rural Maine aims to use paramedics to improve health-care access. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department wants feedback on the creation of a rural renewable-energy pilot program. Read more here.

An Illinois billionaire has quietly bought about 24,000 acres of farmland in the state since 2015, saying it's a good investment. Farmland purchases by hedge funds and the wealthy have surged in recent years, and economists say it's a good investment because of its stability. But wealthy investors paying top dollar for farmland contributes to the shortage of land available for farmers to purchase. Read more here.

The Hospital (St, Martin's, $28.99), a new book by journalist Brian Alexander, examines the state of rural health care by focusing on a small hospital in northwest Ohio. Read more here.

University of Tennessee agricultural economists Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray have dedicated their "Policy Pennings" columns over the past month to a look back at crop export trends over the past 60 years, and what they can teach us now. Read more here.

A legal scholar who was raised in rural America discusses academia's blind spot towards rural areas. Read more here.

if you're looking for a story that delves deeply into coal ash and how it impacts people nearby, this is one of the best we've ever seen. Read it here.

An op-ed says the USDA shouldn't be funding rural jails. Read more here.

A study examines the impact of solar farms on rural property values, and notes that such projects increasingly compete with rural residential developers and concentrated animal feeding operation farmers for rural land. Read more here

Health-care providers and housing experts explore the intersection of rural housing quality and health. Read more here.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Biden administration says it will spend $10 billion to boost coronavirus vaccine access in under-served areas

The Biden administration says it will spend $10 billion to expand coronavirus vaccine access and education in rural and other underserved communities nationwide.

The American Rescue Plan, which Biden introduced yesterday, will provide $6 billion to expand vaccinations, testing and treatment in community health centers. "The administration said the Health Resources and Services Administration would provide funding to nearly 1,400 centers across the country. The centers serve one in five people in rural communities," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "More than $3 billion will be awarded to local communities to increase the number of people who will take the vaccine. Those awards will go directly to states and territories, so that they can support local health departments and community-based organizations launching new initiatives to increase vaccine acceptance."

The administration will also spend $330 million to support community health-care workers. "That funding, the administration said, could be used to address the disparities in access to Covid-19 related services, like testing, and contact tracing," Carey reports. "The money could also be used to address factors that increase risk of severe Covid-19 illness like chronic diseases, pregnancy and food insecurity. The administration said it was also working with dialysis clinics to provide vaccinations to their patients."

No April fool: Tomorrow is International Fact-Checking Day; webinars, other resources available for journalists and public

International Fact-Checking Day is tomorrow (not coincidentally, the day after April Fool's Day), an observance spearheaded by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network, which celebrates, promotes and funds fact-checking through grants, weekly newsletters, fellowships, training, conferences and more.

In celebration of the day, IFCN is hosting two virtual panel discussions. The first panel, held in conjunction with, will discuss the state of fact-checking in 2021, accusations of censorship against fact-checkers, the potential impact of misinformation and disinformation on the safety of fact-checkers, and what the future holds for sustaining and scaling the field of fact-checking. 

The second panel will look at how fact-checkers communicate and connect with their audiences. Panelists will discuss projects their organizations have been working on that have helped them form a deeper connection with their audiences, followed by insights on the best ways fact-checkers can meaningfully engage with the people consuming their fact-checks. Click here to register for either panel.

Coming up in April: Rural Assembly, Earth Day, and more

Today The Rural Blog kicks off a new feature: a monthly calendar with upcoming events and observances so newsrooms can get a head start on planning coverage. If you know of an event for our calendar, please email

International Fact-Checking Day, April 2. Read more here.

Trade and Climate Change virtual conference, April 7-9. A joint effort of the U.S.-based Farm Foundation and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute to explore topics in the context of a global trading environment. Read more here.

ReConnect program webinar, April 14. Discusses the Agriculture Department's rural broadband program. Read more here.

Child Nutrition Conference, April 20-22. Part of Child and Adult Care Food Program Week, a campaign meant to raise awareness of how the USDA's CACFP works to combat hunger. Read more here.

Rural Assembly Everywhere, April 20-21. A virtual gathering of rural stakeholders for discussions, performances and more. Read more here.

Earth Day, April 22, with virtual events April 20-22. Read more here.

National Institute of Animal Agriculture annual conference, April 21-23. Read more here.

Water Week, April 25-May 1. Raises awareness about safe drinking water. Read more here.

Small-town newspaper editors can still be heroes, but they have to be essential, like the library or the doctor's office

Uniontown, Pennsylvania, honored its late editor. (Photo by John W. Miller)
This was first published by The Poynter Institute.

By John W. Miller

The monument on Main Street in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, that caught my eye was not for a quarterback or soldier.

This gritty industrial community of 10,000 in Southwestern Pennsylvania named its central square after a newsman.

“Community journalist for more than six decades,” says a plaque for Walter “Buzz” Storey, introducing Storey Square. This is who a newspaper editor could be in small-town America: a hero.

And that’s the missing piece in the conversation about rebuilding local journalism and its artisanal truth-gathering practices with the holy superpower to defang conspiracy theories, rebuild shared narratives and make democracy possible.

To trust the work of journalists they don’t know, Americans need to see journalists they do know making phone calls, knocking on doors and printing corrections when they screw up.

“It’s one thing to look at a TV and say ‘national media sucks,’ it’s another to look a journalist who you actually know in the eye and say that,” John Isner, co-host of the popular West Virginia-based Appodlachia podcast told me. Without local journalism, he added, “the connection of rural America and national-level news is forever fragmented.”

America is becoming a land of news deserts. The U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers in the last 15 years, and many of the surviving 6,700 papers have become “ghost newspapers,” shadows of their former selves, according to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There is hope — in the form of digital startups, philanthropic aid and reinvestment in local news. ProPublica is partnering with local newsrooms around the country. Report for America has funded hundreds of new local journalism jobs. The American Journalism Project is raising $50 million to invest in newsrooms. More investment — a Marshall Plan, to invoke the legacy of Uniontown’s own Gen. George C. Marshall — is needed.

“Local journalism can’t take place without institutional support,” said Victor Pickard, author of Democracy without Journalism? “You have to fertilize for new shoots to arrive.”

The money going into coding new websites, apps and algorithms is welcome, but the legacy of people like Buzz Storey is a reminder that good journalism is really about people, and that journalists have often been treasured members of working-class American communities.

In Moundsville, West Virginia, where I co-directed the PBS film “Moundsville,” an attempt to create a shared narrative of a classic American town, people still talk about editor Sam Shaw, who died in 1995. He rode his bicycle around town, covering the courthouse, knocking on doors for interviews and collecting the news from conversations on the street. The eccentric bachelor was celebrated for his integrity — and beloved for his bird-watching, choir-singing and fondness for walking marathons and finishing last.

Storey was born in Uniontown in 1921. After working a paper route as a teenager, he joined the news staff of the Daily News Standard, which became the Herald-Standard. He learned his craft, overcame a stutter and learned to read newstype upside down. For the next 61 years, he wrote about council meetings, crimes and fires, mainly as city editor.

Occasionally, there was a really big story. Hometown hero Gen. Marshall, who has his own statue near Storey Square, visited in 1953. In 1962, a mine explosion killed 37 men. In 1985, Uniontown flooded on election day, forcing Storey to cover the disaster from a helicopter.

Buzz Storey had his own politics. He was an FDR Democrat, but Republicans respected him “because he was fair-minded,” said Ted Storey, one of his six children. “And he did what a lot of small-town papers used to do, which is foster civil debate.” That integrity gave Storey a respect that transcended partisan politics, and fueled support among town elders for naming the square after him when he died in 2004, said Mark O’Keefe, former executive editor of the Herald-Standard. (The paper still exists, in diminished form. The current editor declined an interview.)

It might sound crazy in the age of unverified information flooding our senses and Facebook-fueled partisan bickering, but there’s a hopeful, and heroic, cohort of news pioneers now figuring out how to make local online journalism work.

These successful new digital journalists understand the human quality of journalism.

“It’s simple, people are looking for somebody who will go knock on the door of their favorite bar to find out why it closed,” said Shamus Toomey, co-founder of Block Club Chicago, a digital startup covering Chicago neighborhoods that started in 2018. “And with stories going online so quickly, you can gain instant credibility.”

Local journalism actually demands more accountability than national reporting.

“It’s a lot harder to write a story that makes the wife of your kid’s soccer coach look bad than it is to parachute in for The New York Times, write a story about dirty water and then leave,” said Ken Ward Jr., co-founder of the Mountain State Spotlight, a digital startup covering West Virginia that’s partnered with the American Journalism Project, ProPublica and Report for America. Ward believes that the solution to funding new local news outlets is tapping into local philanthropic networks. Americans will have to recognize that “a news organization is like the local health care clinic or the local library,” said Ward, who in 2018 won a MacArthur fellowship for his coverage of coal mining.

When Chris Horne founded The Devil Strip, an online newspaper which also publishes a monthly magazine edition in Akron, Ohio, in 2015, he spent months introducing himself in person to as many people in the community as possible.

“You have to be willing to be the person readers call on the phone to yell at,” he said. The Devil Strip now has a monthly audience of around 40,000 and is run by a co-op board elected by readers.

Of course, old-school pipe-smoking newspaper editors tended to be male and white. The next generation is already looking more like America.

In 2017, veteran Black journalist Wendi C. Thomas started MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, a digital-only newsroom, with the goal of covering social justice issues in Memphis. It has around 30,000 readers a month, and an annual budget around $700,000, mostly from grants. When Thomas started the site, it helped that she had been a metro columnist in Memphis for 11 years.

She’s found an appetite to understand how journalism works. “Some of our most popular Facebook posts are where I explain how we got the story,” she said.

And that, in the end, is how you rebuild trust in journalism — by doing the work.

“It may sound like an opinion to you, but if you disagree when I say wealth in Memphis has been hoarded by whites, I say let’s go check out Census Bureau data,” said Thomas. “If you’re transparent about what you’re doing, and people can see the work, you get respect.”

That kind of integrity, incarnated by somebody keeping their finger on the pulse of their community, resonates with people who remember Buzz Storey.

“One time, somebody in our neighborhood killed a lady with a car and wanted to keep it out of the paper,” Phil Storey, another son, told me. “My dad said, just because I know you doesn’t mean I can treat you any differently.”

The story ran.

John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and filmmaker. He is a columnist and contributor at America magazine, published by the Jesuits of the United States.

Interest-group report on Kentucky and Tennessee jail costs show how and why rural jails are getting more crowded

The Grayson County Detention Center in Leitchfield, Ky., has added another wing with 200 beds for women since this picture was taken. It houses many state prisoners and federal detainees, to the benefit of the rural county's budget.

new report from the Vera Institute of Justice examines state spending on local jails across the rural-urban spectrum in Kentucky and Tennessee in 2019. It's a topic worth examining, the report says, because millions of people are booked into local jails for crimes related to poverty, mental illness, and substance use. Most people in jail haven't been convicted, and are incarcerated because they can't afford to pay bail. Putting a community's most vulnerable in jail instead of treating them is "a harmful practice that diverts scarce resources away from the community," says the Institute, which generally opposes cash bail. 

Jails are also increasingly holding state-sentenced prisoners and detainees ofederal authorities such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the report says. Jails are typically paid a daily rate for people they house for such authorities, which effectively creates a market for jail beds and ties county revenue to continued incarceration.

"While jail populations have been declining in the nation’s major cities over the past decade, they have continued to rise in small and rural counties," the report says. "And although many communities saw substantial declines in jail populations following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many jails began to refill in the second half of 2020. By the end of that year, three out of five people incarcerated in local jails were in smaller cities and rural communities." Read more here.

The report shows how jail spending varies across counties in both states and how reducing the locally held jail population could reduce government spending. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Biden to unveil $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan today with plenty of rural resonance

President Biden will introduce a $2.25 trillion jobs-and-infrastructure package today in Pittsburgh. More details on the American Jobs Plan will be available later—and rural interests will be looking closely to see what’s in it for them—but the broad strokes are known. Click here for a breakdown.

"Biden’s plan will include approximately $650 billion to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, such as its roads, bridges, highways and ports," The Washington Post reports. "The plan will also include in the range of $400 billion toward home care for the elderly and the disabled, $300 billion for housing infrastructure and $300 billion to revive U.S. manufacturing."

The plan also includes $100 billion for broadband, $100 billion for public schools, $25 billion for child-care facilities, $18 billion for veterans' hospitals, $111 billion for water infrastructure, and $12 billion for community colleges, Alicia Parlapiano reports for The New York Times. Of the $115 billion earmarked for roads and bridges, the plan calls for modernizing 20,000 miles of roads and highways and repairing 10,000 smaller bridges. On top of the $2.25 trillion in new spending, the plan will include about $400 billion in clean-energy credits.

The eight-year plan would be paid for by 15 years of increased corporate taxes to avoid deficit spending, Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane report for the Times. The Republican Congress and President Trump cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21%. Biden would make it 28% and have rules meant to make multinational corporations to pay more tax on profits they earn and book overseas.

The plan "forms one part of the 'Build Back Better' agenda that the administration aims to introduce. [Press Secretary Jen] Psaki has said the administration within weeks will introduce a second legislative package," the Post reports. "That second package is expected to include an expansion in health insurance coverage, an extension of the expanded child tax benefit, and paid family and medical leave, among other efforts aimed at families."

National Rural Health Association names top 20 rural and community hospitals nationwide for 2021

The National Rural Health Association has released its annual list of the top 20 rural and community hospitals in the U.S. The list, released March 23, is based on an evaluation by the Chartis Center for Rural Health using the Hospital Strength Index. The factors considered in the ranking are: inpatient market share, outpatient market share, quality, outcomes, patient perspective, cost, charge and financial efficiency. The hospitals will be recognized on May 6 during the NRHA's virtual Rural Hospital Innovation Summit.

Here's the list in alphabetical order:

  • Brookings Health System in Brookings, South Dakota
  • Cedar City Hospital in Cedar City, Utah
  • Columbus Community Hospital in Columbus, Nebraska
  • Columbus Community Hospital in Columbus, Texas
  • Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers in Bryan, Ohio 
  • Garrett Regional Medical Center in Oakland, Maryland
  • Guadalupe County Hospital in Santa Rosa, New Mexico
  • Hill Country Memorial Hospital in Fredericksburg, Texas 
  • Lakes Regional Healthcare in Spirit Lake, Iowa 
  • Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper, Indiana 
  • Monroe Clinic in Monroe, Wisconsin 
  • Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital in Cadillac, Michigan 
  • Pratt Regional Medical Center in Pratt, Kansas 
  • Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onancock, Virginia 
  • Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, Indiana 
  • Sevier Valley Hospital in Richfield, Utah 
  • SSM Health St. Clare Hospital – Baraboo in Baraboo, Wisconsin 
  • St. John’s Health in Jackson, Wyoming
  • UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado 
  • Vail Health in Vail, Colorado
The NRHA also recently announced the winners of its 2021 Rural Health Awards, which you can view here, in recognition of outstanding individuals and organizations in rural health care.

Urban Texans, possibly spurred by pandemic fears, bought up record amounts of rural land in the state last year

In an extreme example of a nationwide trend, urban Texans bought up record amounts of rural land in the state last year, possibly because of coronavirus pandemic fears. 

"A report by the Texas Real Estate Research Center said purchase of rural land in the state by city-dwelling Texans reached a record high in 2020 of 552,707 acres for a total of $1.69 billion. Across the state of Texas, there were 7,684 land sales, an increase of nearly 29 percent over the previous year," and an increase of nearly 18% from 2019, Claire Kowalick reports for the Wichita Falls Times Record News. "The average size of a land sale was 1,139 acres – a decrease of about 13% from 2019. Average price per acre increased by 3% to $3,064."

Rural areas near Austin, Waco and the Hill Country saw some of the largest increase in land sales, with sales up 85.1% over 2019, but had some of the smallest price increases. "In the third and fourth quarters, there were 1,103 sales in this area – the first time the region recorded more than 1,000 sales in a quarter," Kowalick reports. "Land prices increased in all Texas regions except the Panhandle and South Plains." Likewise, far West Texas—which was hit hard by falling oil prices—was the only region in the state to see a land sales decline.

Rural real estate prices nationwide are soaring because of city-dwellers looking to relocate during the pandemic, pressuring markets in Central Appalachia and more.

Rural community college enrollment has tanked

Community college enrollment nationwide plummeted an average of 9.5 percent since last March, according to a recently published study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

"Although college enrollment decreased across the board by an average of 4.5% across all types of institutions, decreases were most pronounced for rural community colleges (-9.9%) and urban community colleges (-10.3%)," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder. "Data also suggests that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on rural students. Last December, the National College Attainment Network reported that the number of rural students who filled out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), an important indicator of students’ intentions to go to college, dropped by more than 18%, 2 percentage points lower than urban students."

The decline in rural enrollment is likely because the pandemic has made it more difficult for many types of students who make up a large portion of rural community colleges' enrollment. That includes high school students in dual-credit programs and students with children, Slepyan reports. The trend contrasts with the last time the economy crashed, during the Great Recession, when community-college enrollment rose by 33% from 2006 to 2011.

"In a report by the Association of Community College Trustees, Rachel Rush-Marlowe outlined several of the reasons rural students are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban peers. These include financial barriers; household incomes in rural areas were 20% lower than those in non-rural areas prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. This economic disparity has likely grown even greater over the last year, as many small rural businesses have closed and rural unemployment rates exceeded the national average," Slepyan reports. "Rural students are also more likely to be first-generation college students and are less likely to perceive a college degree as a high priority." 

Also, "attending college often is seen as a barrier to working full time, and those going to school may be seen as selfish, a burden to their families, or shirking real responsibility," Rush-Marlowe wrote in the report. And, she wrote, "going to college can also be associated with leaving the community, a decision that carries with it its own set of economic and social implications."

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

California newspapers' campaign targeting social media as sources of misinformation could be model for national effort

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

The California News Publishers Association has started a digital advertising campaign that targets social media as sources of misinformation and contrasts them with local journalism outlets.

"If not us, then who?" says local reporting is a critical source of reliable information, and ends with the tag line, "The truth has never been more important." The tag line "builds from a visual showing doctors and nurses fighting vaccine disinformation online," CNPA said in a news release.

"Voters who see the ads on their various devices are urged to contact their California legislators and ask them to protect local professional journalism," the release says. "The ads will facilitate the contacts through links to a forthcoming customer landing page at"

The ads will be delivered first "to legislators, voters and key influencers in high-priority legislative districts throughout the state," CNPA says. The ad's embed code is available for use on other sites.

The release asserts, "The industry's credibility with readers has never been higher. The Pew Research Center reports that two of three consumers now rely on their local newspaper for credible news, and 71 percent do so because they trust the accuracy of local journalism. Proof lies in the surge of newspaper and digital subscriptions since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic."

The campaign theme is reminiscent of the Project Watchdog campaign conducted by The Advertising Council and the Society of Professional Journalists in the early 1990s. It asked, "If the press didn't tell us, who would?"

In the mid-1990s, I chaired SPJ's independent effort to make Project Watchdog an ongoing function of its chapters. In recent years, some of us have thought digital media have made the original campaign theme outdated, since people might answer the question "the internet" or "social media."

By taking social media head-on, as carriers of misinformation, the CNPA campaign provides a model for another national campaign, or at least campaigns in other states. One element of that could be some lines you have read before, in various permutations, here on The Rural Blog:

Americans should understand the differences between the news media and social media. News media employ journalists, who seek the truth, emphasize facts, and practice a discipline of verification: They tell you how they know something, through attribution. Social media have no discipline and no verification, and they're mainly about opinion, not the facts. For the facts, you need the news media.

Biden's carbon-banking plan for agriculture plan draws support and criticism from across the political spectrum

"The Biden administration's ambitious plan to create a multibillion-dollar bank to help pay farmers to capture carbon from the atmosphere is running into surprising skepticism, challenging Agriculture Department officials to persuade the industry to get behind the massive climate proposal," Zack Colman, Liz Crampton and Helena Bottemiller Evich report for Politico. "Arguably one of the federal government’s most ambitious attempts to combat climate change, the concept aims to use market forces to produce sharp reductions in the human-made emissions that are the primary cause of global warming."

"Though specifics of the plan haven't yet emerged, the concept is a novel one: With scores of major corporations having made grand promises about achieving carbon-neutrality, USDA would help offer a chance to buy credits to offset their pollution by supporting farmers who plant an extra batch of crops such as cereal rye and clover or make other on-farm changes to help absorb carbon dioxide into the soil. Such agriculture techniques would bring about a net reduction in greenhouse gases," Politico reports. "The benefits of switching to more climate-friendly practices could quickly disappear if farmers deviate from recommended actions. For instance, disturbing soil could release all the accumulated carbon back into the atmosphere, an issue USDA could prevent by serving as referee, carbon-bank advocates say."

Support and criticism of the notion is coming from both liberal and conservative groups. It's popular among some environmentalists, but others worry it could let polluters off the hook. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute recently announced its support for carbon trading. "The American Farm Bureau Federation, the most influential farm group in Washington, indicated recently that it has some hesitations about the carbon-bank idea, even though it could put millions of dollars into the coffers of its members," Politico reports. "The questions reflect the difficult politics of climate change, questions about the science of carbon sequestration, and fears that big food and agriculture companies will use the scheme as an inexpensive way to avoid reducing their own carbon footprint. Farmers and ranchers worry they won't end up benefiting much from the potential gold rush, as corporations and financial middlemen race to get into the markets."

New rural virus cases last week stayed mostly steady and deaths were down, but more counties were in red zone

Rural counties had 41,520 new coronavirus infections last week, March 21-27. "That’s a slight increase (2 percent) from the week before. But it marks an interruption in the rapid decline in new infections that rural America has experienced since the beginning of 2021," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder

Meanwhile, "the number of rural counties in the red zone increased by 10%, from 498 two weeks ago to 546 last week. Red-zone counties have an infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents in a one-week period," Murphy and Marema report. "The higher incidence of red-zone counties could be an indicator of the virus establishing itself for another surge. This hypothesis is supported by the new-infection numbers being reported in metropolitan areas, which grew by 15% last week (from 332,000 to 387,000 new infections last week compared to two weeks ago)."

Covid-related deaths, continued declining nationwide last week, with rural counties reporting under 1,000 deaths for the first time since mid-September. "A total of 882 deaths were reported in rural counties last week, a decline of 23% from two weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. "Metropolitan deaths declined by 18%, to 5,886 for the week."

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

Formal religious affiliation in the United States falls below the majority for the first time since Gallup started polling

Gallup Inc. chart; click the image to enlarge it

The share of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped below 50 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Monday. That hasn't happened since Gallup started asked the question in 1937, when membership was 73%, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports for The Washington Post: "In recent years, research data has shown a seismic shift in the U.S. population away from religious institutions and toward general disaffiliation, a trend that analysts say could have major implications for politics, business and how Americans group themselves. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. The polling firm also found that the number of people who said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48%, a new low point in the polling since 2000."

Other findings from the poll and other research:
  • The decline in religious membership is primarily due to the increasing number of Americans who say they do not identify with any organized faith. The percentage of Americans who say that grew from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.
  • Church membership is strongly correlated with age; 66% of people born before 1946 (known as traditionalists) belong to a church, compared with 58% of Baby Boomers, 50% of Generation X and 36% of Millennials. The limited data on adult members of Generation Z suggests similar figures to that of the Millennials.
  • Faith, or at least the organized version of it, has been lost. Since 2000, the percentage of traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers with no affiliation has nearly doubled; from 4% to 7% for traditionalists, from 7% to 13% for Baby Boomers, and from 11% to 20% for GenXers. The percentage of Millennials with no religious affiliation is 31%, up from 22% a decade ago, and 33% of Generation Z that has reached adulthood has no religious preference.
  • Each generation has seen a decline in church membership among those who have a specific religious affiliation. For traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Gen X those declines have ranged between 6 and 8 percentage points over the past 20 years.
  • Over the past 10 years, the share of religious Millennials who are church members has declined from 63% to 50%.
  • Despite all that, Americans are more likely than people in other countries to say their religious faith has become stronger during the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.

USDA data gives in-depth look at absentee farm landlords

Newly published data from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service provides a nuanced portrait of absentee farm landlords, called "non-operating landlords" (NOLs), from 2012 to 2017. Landowners who live 100 miles or more from farmland they rent out is considered an absentee landlord. They are major players in farming; only a small portion of farmland is sold each year, so newcomers and farmers who want to expand must rent. Here are some of the highlights from the report, which ERS cautioned did not look into causes:
  • Three of every 10 acres of U.S. farmland in the contiguous states, about 268 million acres, is rented to tenants by an owner who doesn't farm.
  • In 2014, 39% of farmland in the contiguous U.S. was rented. Of that share, 80% was owned by NOLs.
  • Most NOLs live close to their land. About two-thirds of rented acres—185 million—are owned by absentee owners who live within 50 miles of their rented land. In 2014, NOLs in the Midwest tended to live much closer to their land than those in other states.
  • NOLs who live 50 to 100 miles from their land rent out 24 million acres.
  • Land rental rates tend to be lower when the owner lives farther away and in areas with higher percentages of NOLs.
  • The prevalence of absent landlords was consistently higher in counties and states with lower rents and land values and weaker indicators of local economic development.
  • At the state level, the relationship between absentee ownership and per-capita income in 2017 was not statistically significant, but per-capita income growth went down as distance from the owner increased.
  • There was no statistical link between the percentage of absent landlords and the percentage of acres using conservation tillage or no-till farming practices in 2017. 
  • Higher shares of absentee landlords in a state are associated with a larger increase in acreage using such conservation practices and the number of practices used from 2012 to 2017.
  • States with a higher percentage of absentee landlords had a lower percentage of cropland using cover crops in 2017, but there was no statistical link between the percentage change in cover crop usage over the period studied.

Pandemic roundup: What happened when people gave up on Spanish flu pandemic measures a century ago

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

Commentary: people gave up on Spanish flu pandemic measures a century ago when they grew tired of them, and paid the price. Read more here.

Commentary: How to build trust in the coronavirus vaccine among communities of color. Read more here.

In rural Louisiana, officials look for answers to improve lagging vaccination rates. Read more here.

Americans are becoming more confident in the safety of attending in-person religious studies, according to a recent poll. Read more here.

A research group is seeking responses from local government employees to help determine how the pandemic has changed their work. Read more here.

Community leaders in Alabama and Mississippi are trying to shrink the racial disparities in Black residents' access to coronavirus vaccination. Read more here.

Vaccine hesitancy among guards and inmates (as well as other first responders) could threaten state prisons and general public safety. Read more here.

Monday, March 29, 2021

First county-level report on coronavirus vaccinations shows no big rural-urban disparity, but indicates a political disparity

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The first nationwide look at vaccination across counties reveals vast differences in the rate that people are receiving protection from the coronavirus, with notably lower rates in predominantly Black areas and counties that voted most heavily for President Donald Trump in 2020," The Washington Post reports. However, "The data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the success in vaccination in Native American areas" and among Alaska Natives.

"The records don’t indicate large differences between urban and rural areas," the Post reports. "Major cities, suburbs, smaller cities and rural areas have roughly the same rates for all adults and for adults 65 and older."

The county-level numbers are sometimes spotty because some states aren't collecting or sharing basic facts about vaccination, and others aren't sharing much; that's why the Post's interactive map has data from fewer states than the one published by the CDC. The Post showed only states where data was reported for at least 85 percent of fully vaccinated people. 

Click here for more charts and analysis about the CDC data from the Post.

Farmland prices and rents in Midwest climb as farmers seek to expand amid booming agricultural economy

"Across the Midwest, prices to buy and rent farmland are climbing as demand is driven by rallying grain markets, historic government payments and low interest rates, according to economists, agricultural lenders and land managers," reports Jesse Newman of The Wall Street Journal. "The battle for farmland is playing out in small town community centers, online portals and parking lots, where . . . auctioneers are peddling parcels of land to farmers eager to cash in on the best commodity prices in nearly a decade. They are also presiding over intense jockeying for fields that can test the fabric of rural communities as a shrinking set of growers compete for control of the nation’s prime soil."

Some parcels of land are selling at or above prices in the farm boom almost a decade ago, say farmland managers. "U.S. farmland values surged in the decade leading up to 2014, more than tripling in big farm states like Iowa and Nebraska, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. By 2020, however, land values in those states had fallen by about 15%, pressured by a drop in crop prices that cut farmers’ incomes and drove some out of business," Newman reports. "Now, a sharp turnaround in the farm economy is breathing new life into the land market. Farmland values rose during 2020 as soaring grain prices last fall revived farmers’ fortunes, according to February reports from three regional Federal Reserve Banks. Land prices in the Chicago Fed region, which covers parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin, climbed 6% last year, the largest such increase since 2012, the bank said."

An agriculture economy roundup from the University of Illinois' Farm Policy News illustrates the trend with charts and links to numerous reports. The trend is also reflected in rural Midwestern bankers' record-high sunny outlook on their local economies, compiled in Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index.

USDA broadband funding webinars set Tues. and April 14

At 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 30, the Agriculture Department will host a free webinar covering the recently published final rule on the ReConnect regulation, which codifies policies and procedures for the ReConnect Program that offers loans, grants, and loan/grant combos for rural broadband buildout.

During the webinar, Rural Utilities Service Assistant Administrator Laurel Leverrier and ReConnect Director Ken Kuchno will provide a brief overview of both rounds of program funding and an in-depth overview of the ReConnect Regulation, which was published Feb. 26 and will take effect April 27.

USDA will hold another webinar on the same topic at 2 p.m. April 14. Click here to register for either.

Hunting hasn't done much to eradicate feral hogs, but an ecologist's new trap called 'The Pig Brig' might help

Capturing and euthanizing pigs in a trap system designed by Anthony DeNicola (Photo by Sully Sullivan)

An estimated 6 million to 9 million feral hogs roam across at least 42 states in the U.S., causing more than $2.5 billion in agricultural damage each year. Their numbers have exploded in recent years because of their adaptability and their value to hunters. Ecologists, wildlife managers and farmers have used a range of tactics to combat the spread, but none have made much difference. Stephen R. Miller reports in a collaboration between the Food & Environment Reporting Network and National Geographic.

"Dave Pauli, wildlife conflict resolution program manager for the Humane Society of the United States, says lethal control will always be part of the solution, but he notes that 'there are very few modern-day examples of 'killing your way to controlling a wildlife species,'" Miller reports. "Success will require a task-force approach of nonlethal means used in concert with trapping and shooting carried out by trained experts, he says. Over time, state agencies and private landowners 'need a cultural shift from ineffective pig hunting revenue to pig control income streams' that view the killing as long-term management, not sport."

Ecologist Anthony DeNicola has spent the past 20 years working on a trap he says could help. "The Pig Brig, as he calls it, is a circular corral like most pig traps, but it’s made out of netting instead of heavy metal panels. Rather than relying on an expensive remote-operated trap door that requires a cellular signal, his trap takes advantage of a pig’s natural tendency to root," Miller reports. "The animals push under the net, which is draped in an unbroken circle from a ring of rebar posts, then find themselves in a lobster trap. The hem of the net drapes a few feet toward the corral’s center and becomes an impenetrable barrier once boars stand upon it. Importantly—for both the scale of the problem and DeNicola’s intent to put these traps in the hands of multitudes—the Pig Brig is lightweight, simple to set up, and relatively cheap (a basic model costs $1,500)."
National Geographic map, adapted by The Rural Blog; for a larger version, click on it.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Who's that guy in the bleachers writing about a girls' high-school basketball team? One of our greatest sportswriters

Cheryl and Dave Kindred, before her stroke (Jim Benson photo)
Dave Kindred is one of our greatest sportswriters. He has been to "40-something" Super Bowls and 52 Masters golf tournaments, and was Muhammad Ali's hometown favorite when he worked for the Louisville Courier Journal. For the last decade, he has been the beat reporter for the girls' basketball team at Morton High School, between Peoria and Carlock, Ill., where he lives.

"I've written more than 300 games, probably more than 500,000 words. I've written more about that girls basketball team than I've written about anything, including Ali," Kindred told John Wertheim of CBS News for a "60 Minutes" story that told "how his decade-long reporting on Morton girls basketball has helped him navigate some of the most difficult times in his life," Randy Kindred (no relation) of the Bloomington Pantagraph wrote March 7.

"Included is the death of his 25-year-old grandson, Jared Kindred, in January 2014. Delving into the life Jared lived, hopping trains and suffering from alcohol addiction, is the subject of Kindred’s recently released book, Leave Out The Tragic Parts. It is gut-wrenching and glorious, exposing addiction for the monster it is and how beloved Jared Kindred was."

CBS gave the book one line. Kindred gave the Pantagraph a quote that best summed up what the high-school beat did for him after his mother's death, Jared's death and his wife's stroke, which left her a noncommunicative invalid: “In that darkness, writing about the girls basketball team was light. The first five years were fun. The last five years it’s been life-affirming, maybe even life-saving. It gave me a community, it gave me a schedule, it gave me things to do. I like to write, and it took me back to where I started … all of those small gyms around Bloomington.” He started at point guard for Atlanta High School, southwest of Bloomington.

When the Morton Potters resumed play after pandemic restrictions, Kindred wrote, "We've lost so much that was so long familiar. Then the Potters gave us a gift. They played a game. . . . The joy that high school athletes feel when every trip down the court is a trip toward possibility. Joy in these days. So long without joy." We're glad Dave Kindred still writes.

Google map of Central Illinois shows Morton, Atlanta, Bloomington and Carlock, where Kindred lives. Click to enlarge.