Saturday, May 08, 2021

Eula Hall, one of the best friends the poor in E. Ky. ever had, dies at 93; one of the region's saints, congressman says

UPDATE, May 17: The New York Times obituary gives a more complete view of Hall's life.

Hall is the subject of this book, published in 2013. In the cover
photo, she stands in her clinic's ruins after a fire destroyed it.
For an Appalshop film about Hall and her clinic, chick here.
Eula Hall, who founded a clinic to serve the poor in one of the poorest parts of the nation, the heart of Central Appalachia, died Saturday. She was 93.

An anti-poverty worker in the 1960s, Hall founded the Mud Creek Clinic, Kentucky's first rural clinic for low-income families, with $1,400 in donated money in 1973. It is now named for her.

“Nothing comes easy up on Mud Creek,” Hall’s longtime friend and ally, former Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It was always a fight.”

Hall was also president of the Kentucky Black Lung Association and "fought for better water service and free lunches for schoolchildren," reports the Herald-Leader's Karla Ward. "Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Hall Funeral Home in Martin. Visitation will begin after 6 p.m. Sunday will continue all day Monday at the funeral home."
Read more here:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Hall a "one-of-a-kind Kentuckian . . . She was among the toughest women I’ve ever met, overcoming one challenge after another to serve those who had nowhere else to turn. Even after a fire burned down the clinic, her team didn’t miss a single day. Slowing down was simply never an option. When we spoke on the phone just a couple of weeks ago, Eula’s entire focus remained on those she could help.”

Hall's congressman, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, said in a release, “Eula Hall was one of Eastern Kentucky’s greatest saints. . . . Driven by her own experience with poverty, Eula dedicated her life to ensuring every person had access to medical care, regardless of their ability to pay for services or prescriptions. She pioneered hope on Mud Creek and far beyond the borders of Floyd County. When I called Eula on her 90th birthday, she was doing what she loved most: working at the clinic that she transformed from a home-grown operation into a modern facility with state-of-the-art equipment. She will always be a legend in Kentucky’s Appalachian region and an inspiration to never stop serving those around us.”

Friday, May 07, 2021

UN says methane emissions need a 40-45% cut by 2030; The Economist says it's the big, low-hanging fruit for climate

Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez for The Economist
A United Nations assessment of methane says the world needs to cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas almost in half by 2030 to avoid warming Earth by another half-degree Fahrenheit.

Methane in the atmosphere warms the planet about 10 times as much as carbon dioxide, on a per-unit basis, but accounts for only a fourth of global warming because it is produced in smaller amounts and stays in the air for about 10 years; CO2 can remain for up to 1,000 years. Axios reports, "Methane [CH4] concentrations have been increasing at an alarming rate in recent years," due in part to the growth in U.S. oil and gas output from hydraulic fracturing, and UN environment director Inge Andersen says CH4 must be cut to meet the Paris Agreement's temperature targets.

"Without tackling this, we cannot hit 1.5°C and we will certainly overshoot" the 2°C target of the agreement, Andersen told reporters. Her report calls for a cut 40 to 45% by 2030 and says about 30% of that could come from specific measures such as finding and fixing leaks in gas pipelines; another 15% "would come from broader efforts to decarbonize the economy," Axios reports.

Chart by The Economist; for a larger version, click on it.
Stephen Comstock, head of corporate policy for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement, "API is focused on working with the Biden administration in support of the direct regulation of methane for new and existing sources and building on the significant progress our industry has made in reducing methane emissions through technological advancements." Leaky pipes are easy to fix, compared to cutting methane emissions from coal mines and agriculture, especially animal agriculture, mainly ruminants such as cattle and sheep, which are estimated to account for 30 percent of global methane emissions.

Methane is the big, low-hanging fruit for slowing climate change, The Economist said in last week's edition: "Few people in those parts of the world made rich by carbon-dioxide-emitting enterprise are going to volunteer for a cut in living standards. And it is hard to ask those from parts of the world that are not yet rich to sacrifice the chance to become so." So, "It makes sense to concentrate on doing things which affect neither the comforts of the former nor the aspirations of the latter. Technological change that shifts economies away from using fossil fuels as their principal energy sources may be able to achieve this in the long term. But some sort of effective action is also needed now . . . and the methane problem looks a lot more tractable in the short term than does the carbon-dioxide one." In an earlier editorial, The Economist calls on governments to set goals for reducing methane emissions.

Rural telecoms, others ask FCC to delay T-Mobile's killing of Boost Mobile, a 3G service many rural residents use

Seven public interest groups, including the Rural Wireless Association, have asked acting Federal Communications Commission chair Jessica Rosenworcel to delay T-Mobile from shuttering an older wireless network many rural customers depend on, Kelly Hill reports for RCR Wireless News.

The network is Boost Mobile. It was once a Sprint service, but was sold to Dish Network so T-Mobile and Sprint could begin merging last year without running afoul of anti-trust laws. As part of the merger, T-Mobile agreed to help set up Dish as an independent wireless carrier, but now T-Mobile wants to shut down the 3G network that many Boost/Dish customers rely on by early next year, Allison Johnson reports for The Verge. In essence, T-Mobile was forced to create a future competitor, and is now kneecapping that competitor. 

That will likely hurt many low-income rural residents. More than half of Boost's 9.4 million customers use its very low-cost prepaid service, which allows them access to older, slower 3G wireless. Boost customers using the 3G service "are likely doing so not because they prefer it, but because they can’t afford a new phone. In less than a year, they’ll be forced to choose between making that purchase or losing their current cell service altogether," Hill reports. "Bearing disproportionate effects of the pandemic and related economic fallout, it’s likely not a great time for these customers to be shopping for a new phone. Dish also points out that the global chip shortage makes it an especially bad time to try to secure a large number of new devices for customers."

Wind farms bring rural schools new tax money, but state laws often steer it to facilities rather than cutting class sizes

Wind turbines loom over Okarche Elementary in Oklahoma. (Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman)

Property-tax revenue from wind farms has benefitted many rural schools, but "because of the complexity of how schools are financed, the impact on student achievement is limited, according to a new study that we conducted as researchers in public finance, education economics and energy policy," Eric Brunner, Ben Hoen, and Joshua Hyman write for The Conversation. Brunner is a University of Connecticut economics and policy professor, Hoen is a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research scientist, and Hyman is an Amherst College assistant economics professor.

Wind power is increasing. In 2020, more than 1,600 farms with nearly 68,000 turbines generated over 100 gigawatts of electricity—about 7 percent of U.S. energy needs. "The industry is continuing to grow rapidly, with another 200 gigawatts of projects applying for grid connections as of the end of 2020," Brunner, Hoen and Hyman report. "With all this rural development come property tax revenues. Wind projects paid an estimated $1.6 billion in property tax revenues to states and local jurisdictions in 2019."

The money is welcome in cash-strapped rural school districts, but Brunner, Hoen and Hyman wanted to find out how much it was really benefitting schools. Their research found a mixed bag: "Wind energy installations led to large increases in local revenues to school districts," they write. "Schools dramatically increased spending on capital outlays, such as buildings and equipment, but made only modest increases to their operating budgets, like hiring more teachers to reduce class size."

The authors note that smaller class sizes improves student achievement, and wanted to know why many districts spent new revenue on building or repairing facilities instead of hiring more teachers to reduce class size. They discovered that local and state tax laws often give schools a strong financial incentive to put new revenue into construction and renovation instead of teachers and operations. Read more here.

Quick hits: Black Appalachian music; cicada cooking; long-term agricultural issues; longing for your hometown

A close-up of a hand holding about a dozen cicada nymphs
Want a snack? Cicadas could be on the menu.
(Washington Post photo by Allison Dinner)
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

President Biden has a 23 percent approval rating among white evangelicals, according to new data from the Pew Research Center. In general, Biden's approval rating among various religious affiliations is nearly the reverse of former President Trump's at the same point in his presidency. Read more here.

Insects could be the wave of the future for cheap protein in animal feed. But if you want to give it a whirl yourself, here's how to catch and cook cicadas (which will soon be plentiful as the Brood X batch surfaces after 17 years). Read more here.

A new study evaluates how laws banning tobacco-product sales to people under 21 have affected electronic cigarette use in rural and urban youth. Read more here.

The Agricultural Economic Insights team lists of the top 10 "front burner" issues that could affect the farm economy for years to come. That includes the pandemic, lingering effects of African swine fever, child nutrition policy, and immigrant-related farm-labor issues. Read the rest here.

A lawsuit by doctors who advocate plant-based diets claims Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines are driven by meat and dairy marketing concerns, not nutrition. Read more here.

More small towns are offering cash bonuses and more to attract new residents. Read more here.

Kids with a desk and a quiet place to study do better in school, research shows. Read more here.

Research shows that California's carbon-credit system actually allowed polluters to add millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Read more here.

The Smoky Mountain Air podcast is kicking off a new series exploring Black Appalachian music. Listen to the first episode here.

Apply for one of these science, health and environmental reporting fellowships by 6 p.m. ET May 10.

New author Rainesford Stauffer reflects in The Atlantic on how she couldn't wait to move away from Owensboro, Ky., pop. 55,000, when she was a teenager, but has found herself longing for it ever since. Many small-town natives move to big cities in their 20s, she writes, but wonders if they might find just as much fulfillment from staying home. Read more here.

The Justice Department says the federal government never instructed Tyson Foods to keep its plants open in the early months of the pandemic. That's according to documents in a federal lawsuit against the department from four relatives of meatpacking workers who died from Covid-19. It many have broad implications for similar lawsuits elsewhere. Read more here.

Covid roundup: Low vaccination rates among police risk public health; some places offering kooky freebies with a jab

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

Many police are refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine, and departments aren't making them. The low immunization levels could put public health at risk, experts say. Read more here.

Fully vaccinated seniors are 94 percent less likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19, according to newly released findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read more here.

White House officials and public-health experts recently held an online focus group aimed at better understanding what motivated former vaccine skeptics to get immunized. Read more here.

Real-world data from 385,000 vaccinated people in Qatar shows that the Pfizer vaccine offers strong protection against key variants of concern. Read more here.

Cities and states are using oddball incentives in an effort to get more people vaccinated, offering freebies that range from alcohol, donuts and marijuana to free target practice at a shooting range. Read more here.

The Daily Yonder reports on efforts to deliver vaccine information through extension offices. 

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Rent debt 'is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels,' analysis says; see interactive state- and county-level data

"Renters across the U.S. are facing increased rent debt, with 14 percent of all renter households behind on payments. That is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels based on an analysis released by the National Equity Atlas and Right to City Alliance," Brent Woodie reports for Route Fifty. "Among those who have fallen behind on rent payments, 76% are people who lost employment during the pandemic. Plus, 78% of low-income households making less than $50,000 per year have struggled to keep up with rent payments along with 63% of renters of color. This makes renters more vulnerable to eviction and a rise of other forms of debt like credit cards, utilities and car payments, according to the report."

More than 5 million Americans are behind on rent, owing an estimated $3,400 in renters' debt per household, or $19.75 billion nationwide. "When examined by state, renters in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Alaska and Georgia have the highest percentage of housing debt. On the other hand, Utah, Maine, Ohio, Idaho and Kansas are states with the lowest," Woodie reports. The share of renters with debt appears to be declining as the nation reopens.

You can see regularly updated national-, state- and county-level data for the project on an interactive data visualization tool called the Rent Debt Dashboard.

The December stimulus-and-relief package had $25 billion to help pay up to a year of back-rent, and the recent $1.9 trillion package gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help people pay one month's utilities and mortgage or rent to help prevent evictions and service cut-offs.

Elise Stefanik, likely Cheney successor in House leadership, has rural district but questionable rural bona fides

Rep. Elise Stefanik
Rep. Elise Stefanik, the likely House Republican leadership successor to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, represents the rural 21st District in upstate New York, but she's been focused on moving up, Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports in a series of tweets with links to his years of reporting on her:

"In 2014 she presented herself as a moderate and her past career suggested as much - including her writings at Harvard and her work with Democrats . . . She also worked closely early in her career with moderates and people who've emerged as never-Trumpers . . . had a remarkable resume in 2014 and a strong track record working in Washington, D.C. Not the typical resume for someone seeking an Upstate N.Y. House seat. . . . Reporting at @ncpr found, however, that she was eager to downplay her D.C. cred and her identity as a political insider. She claimed to have grown up in a rural Adirondacks community in NY-21. I couldn't find anyone there who knew her." Stefanik lives in the Hudson River village of Schuylerville, near Saratoga Springs.

New York U.S. House District 21 (GovTrack map, adapted)
Mann goes on to report that Stefanik "
was a skilled campaigner, disciplined, dogged, fierce. She got better and better, dismantling Republican and Democratic challengers. Stefanik made it clear that she wanted a national profile in the GOP, but her rise was complicated by the victory of Donald Trump in 2016. At first [she] was wary of Trump, criticizing him often but in careful ways. During the Trump years however [she] executed a complete pivot, embracing Trump using the impeachment to build her national profile, securing more Fox News appearances, endorsing him fully in 2020."

Having fully branded herself as a Trump ally, "She secured this position more fully by embracing and amplifying Trump's lies about the election and downplaying his role in the 1/6 insurrection," Mann writes. "Throughout the process [she] showed steady ambition, an ability to adapt and evolve her politics, and a willingness to shed old loyalties and allies while amplifying factual untruths when necessary. Her brand may be a perfect match for the modern GOP."

Stefanik "has regularly echoed Trump’s falsehoods" and made false claims about the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, reports Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.

Small-town leaders say some tech practices for constituent service adopted during the pandemic are here to stay

In a recent survey, local government leaders from mostly small and midsize communities said they believe the coronavirus pandemic "will have a lasting impact on the way they deliver services to constituents. But the day-to-day work of municipal governing probably won’t change forever," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

The New Normal Survey, conducted online from March 24 to April 7, asked local government officials to share their predictions about how public services will evolve because of the pandemic; 599 officials completed it. They were asked about their government's priorities and how those changed, the pandemic's impact on the local economy, adoption of new technology, and general questions about the future, Queram reports. The survey is a collaborative effort from organizations that work with local governments: The Atlas, Engaging Local Government Leaders, CivicPulse, CivicPlus and Route Fifty. It's a follow-up to a similar survey from last summer that asked about initial changes in service delivery during the early months of the pandemic.

"According to the results, priorities in local government agencies have shifted dramatically since 2020. Last July, for example, 43 percent of survey respondents said they were prioritizing 'work from home and workflow management;' by last month, that number had dropped to 28%. By contrast, 44% of respondents this year said they were focused on community engagement, a 14% jump from last year," Queram reports. "Despite those shifts, most respondents said they expected their governments to continue to prioritize pandemic-related issues up to a year from now, including community engagement (50%), small business support (38%) and public health and wellness (33%)."

Respondents said the daily changes, such as shifting from paper to digital services, won't likely remain permanent, and that local governments will probably only continue to use some of the digital platforms they've embraced during the pandemic, Queram reports.

"For example, 81% of survey participants said they conducted board meetings virtually during the pandemic, but only 54% of them expect to continue that practice indefinitely. But  . . . 90% of respondents expect forms to remain digital, while 87% predict that residents will continue to be able to pay fees and bills online. Other likely permanent adoptions include digital permitting (84%), community engagement (83%) and citizen requests (81%)," Queram reports. "Those results line up with citizen expectations, according to the survey, which found that 53% of respondents expect residents to demand faster response times moving forward, up from 38% last year. Seventy percent of governments expect to adopt more technology to meet those needs, while 33% said they would rely more on “external partners” and 29% pledged to continue to work to remove silos within their organizations."

Rural chef is 'queen of the food scene' in Kentucky and recognized nationally; webinar tonight to discuss cookbook

Ouita Michel
Ouita Michel (Photo by Rob Bolson)
One might expect to head to a major city for nationally recognized restaurant food, but Central Kentuckians are lucky enough to have Ouita Michel nearby. Michel, who owns eight restaurants in and around Lexington, has been nominated multiple times for James Beard Foundation awards ("Oscars of the food world")for Outstanding Restauranteur and Best Chef in the Southeast.

She earned those nominations by serving up locally sourced cuisine with home-cooked flair, reflecting her childhood in rural Wyoming and New Orleans and her life in Kentucky since 1972, Rob Bolson reports for Kentucky Monthly. Using local products has a dual purpose, hen reports: "As stated on her website, her use of local foods helps sustain Bluegrass-area family farms and provides her customers with the freshest, best-tasting fine cuisine. Her restaurants reportedly have purchased more than $3 million of Kentucky-grown meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables over the past 20 years."

Cover of 'Just a Few Miles South'
Michel gives back in other ways. "She is a board member of Lexington’s FoodChain, a nonprofit food incubator, and founder of FEAST (Food Equity and Access Sustains Tomorrow), a fundraiser for FoodChain that celebrates women chefs. FoodChain’s mission is to forge links between the community and fresh food through education and demonstration of sustainable food systems," Bolson reports. "Michel also is an alumna of the James Beard Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, a collaborative for chefs who work to improve the world’s food systems. She was recognized earlier this year on Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2021 'Power List' for how she is building community among businesswomen in the industry."

Michel will discuss her newest cookbook, Just a Few Miles South, in a free webinar tonight hosted by the Kentucky Book Festival. The hour-long event will begin at 7 p.m. ET. Click here to read more or register.

Biden's 30x30 conservation plan is not as extreme as some Republicans claim, Tennessee agricultural economists write

A Biden administration conservation plan has some conservative politicians and farming stakeholders concerned, but it's not as extreme as it may sound, and may be important to preserving America's agricultural capacity in the future, write Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

President Biden's 30x30 plan aims to conserve at least 30 percent of the nation's lands and waters by 2030. Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kansas, said in a tweet that the plan is an "egregious" "land grab." Schaffer and Ray write, "While 30 percent seems like a large number, we need to put it into perspective. Currently, 12 percent of the land in the US is permanently protected. At the same time 'approximately 60 percent of land in the continental US is in a natural state.' That suggests that the remaining 18 percent will not have to come from agriculture alone but could involve activities on other lands as well."

And, they note, climate change could significantly harm farmers and ranchers with flooding, droughts, and more: "There is a significant possibility that farmers, ranchers, and orchardists could be at greater risk from the results of climate change than from the 30×30 plan."

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

A little moderation on masks could go a long way in rural areas, Kentucky writer tells a national audience

Writing from Anderson County, Kentucky, population 23,000, for The Washington Post, columnist Teri Carter says some advocates of mask wearing go too far for rural areas like hers.

Teri Carter
"Even as Americans are getting vaccinated, we are still fighting about masks," she writes. "Because thanks to dangerously bungled messaging from the former president and his mask-snubbing administration, as well as conflicting messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fights about masks are long past being about safety. Many of my neighbors stopped thinking about the coronavirus pandemic a long time ago. But they may never be finished arguing about it."

Carter writes about politicians, pastors and churches, and also about national news media.

"When I hear politicians and national media organizations saying that vaccine hesitancy is due to the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or because rural people in Trump country don’t believe in science, I wonder how many people they’ve talked to in towns like mine," Carter writes to introduce her key anecdote:
I live on a small lake. On Sunday afternoon, my next-door neighbor (a Trump supporter) came over to help us back our boat trailer into the woods. The first thing he said was, “I’m vaccinated! I can hug you now!” After we finished with the trailer, as we talked about coming out of the pandemic and having an outdoor party to celebrate, he said, “Okay, what’s this whole thing about wearing masks outside — outside! — after the shots? It’s such complete bull----. For crying out loud, if they want people to trust the vaccine, they need to give people a reason to get the vaccine besides how much it will help everybody else.”
Carter concludes, "From where I sit — out here where neither I nor anyone I know has ever worn masks outside — vaccine hesitancy and debates over masks are not about people needing more information, but about the need to get local leaders that people trust, like their preachers, Republican club heads and volunteer firemen, to do the talking. They would be a significant improvement over national politicians who continue to knowingly spread falsehoods about everything from the coronavirus to the 2020 election results."

White House refocusing efforts to raise rural coronavirus vaccination rates; see latest rural infection and death rates

Daily Yonder map of the U.S. showing the percentage of the rural population in each state that's completely vaccinated
Percent of rural population completely vaccinated
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

The federal government will put more focus on rural communities "in an effort to get more Americans vaccinated by July 4, the White House announced Tuesday," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "The announcement says the Biden administration is raising the goal for vaccinations to get at least one shot into the arms of 70 percent of American adults, and for 160 million U.S. adults to be fully vaccinated by July 4." About 95 million of Americans 18 and up, or 45%, were fully vaccinated as of May 1; metropolitan counties have a 29.7% vaccination rate, compared to 26% in other counties.

"To raise the rural vaccination rate, the administration will send vaccines directly to rural health clinics in underserved communities and provide $100 million in American Rescue Plan funding for 4,600 rural health clinics to use for vaccine outreach in rural communities," Carey reports. "Additionally, the Health Resources and Services Administration will provide rural health clinics and rural hospitals with $860 million to broaden Covid-19 mitigation efforts. The funding amounts to about $100,000 for each of the rural health clinics and $230,000 for each of the 1,730 rural hospitals.

The administration also plans to direct pharmacies to begin offering walk-in vaccinations, and tell he Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with local leaders to vaccinate the hardest-to-reach individuals with more mobile clinics, pop-up clinics, and smaller community vaccination sites, depending on local needs. "The president announced nearly $250 million in two funding opportunities for community-based organizations to ramp up personal outreach by hiring community outreach workers, community health workers, social-support specialists, and others," Carey reports.

New rural coronavirus infections fell by 5% last week from the week before, but metropolitan counties  dropped 15%. See the Yonder for the latest rural coronavirus infection and death rates, including an interactive, county-level map and regional analysis.

Finalists announced for Livingston Awards for outstanding work by young reporters; four have rural resonance

The University of Michigan has announced the finalists for its 2021 Livingston Awards, which honor outstanding reporting and storytelling by young journalists. Here are some with rural resonance:

Opioid epidemic accountability trial begins; states try to block Purdue Pharma owners from legal immunity

The opioid epidemic has hit Appalachia particularly hard, so it's perhaps fitting that the first federal trial against drug companies in the epidemic began Monday in West Virginia. "Cabell County and its seat, Huntington, will test a legal claim made by thousands of cities, counties, Native American tribes and other plaintiffs that drug companies ignored red flags and flooded their communities with addictive pain pills, causing a 'public nuisance' and fueling an epidemic of substance abuse, overdoses and deaths," Meryl Kornfield reports for The Washington Post. "The landmark trial in West Virginia against drug distributors known as the 'Big Three' — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — comes after an 11th-hour settlement averted an Ohio trial in October 2019 and coronavirus-related delays stalled opioid cases across the country."

In the trial, described as the most complex civil case in the nation, "Thousands of local governments and jurisdictions are arguing that the companies had a responsibility to ensure that the billions of pain pills pumped into their communities were not diverted for illegal use," Kornfield reports. "The distributors say they complied with the law, delivering drugs approved by the government to pharmacies." The verdict could lay the groundwork for settlements in other such cases.

There's only been one other opioid epidemic trial: in 2019 in a Cleveland courtroom, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $465 million after the other defendants, Teva Pharmaceuticals and OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma settled, Kornfield reports.

Speaking of Purdue, attorneys general from 24 states and Washington, D.C., are trying to block the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, from gaining legal immunity from future opioid lawsuits. "In exchange for what amounts to a legal firewall for the Sacklers and their remaining empire, members of the family have offered to forfeit control of their bankrupt drug company and pay $4.2 billion from their private fortunes," Brian Mann reports for NPR.

Though such a settlement could prevent years of expensive litigation and get struggling communities financial aid more quickly, "a growing group of public officials and activists is mounting a last-ditch effort to derail the plan, describing it in legal briefs as an unethical, and possibly unlawful, use of the bankruptcy court's power," Mann reports.

Nation's school chiefs offer advice for how to help students make up for pandemic learning loss

After more than a year of classroom disruptions due to the pandemic, a paper highlighting ways states and educators are accelerating student learning was released by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers," Brent Woodie reports for Route Fifty. "The preliminary analysis shows ways states and school leaders have helped K-12 students make up for gaps in learning. Available state plans, websites, media reports and gubernatorial State of the State addresses for most states were reviewed."

The report highlights four major steps some states are taking to accelerate learning:

  • Getting organized and understanding what needs to happen. States and educators are encouraged to communicate their plans and engage key stakeholders.
  • Start or enhance summer programs to help students catch up.
  • Provide more overall support to help students better learn. That includes using new federal funds to strengthen learning time, both during and after school, to address students' academic and overall needs.
  • Strategically use one-time federal funds to address future issues that will crop up because of pandemic-related learning loss. That includes recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers at the schools that need them most, and identifying and supporting struggling students.

U.S. chicken shortage due to pandemic and fast-food demand

You may have difficulty getting chicken in grocery stores and restaurants these days; pandemic supply-chain problems and a nationwide craze for fast-food fried chicken have caused a nationwide shortage.

"Chicken has for years been the most popular meat in the United States, and experts and analysts have cited several reasons for the current deficit," Reis Thebault reports for The Washington Post. "Some are related to the coronavirus — pandemic-spurred disruptions in the market and supply chain and an increased demand for a comfort food that is takeout- or delivery-friendly. Others, industry watchers say, include increased competition, volatile feed prices and even the deadly winter storms that swept over the South in February, halting the work of chicken processors."

Fast-food trends are partly responsible for the shortage, after some major chains increased their chicken-sandwich offerings in 2019. But pandemic pressures on meatpacking plants are another major cause. "Nearly 60,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 291 have died, according to data compiled by the Food and Environment Reporting Network," Thebault reports. Industry lobbying kept poultry plants open, but increased line-speed limits meant to boost production made social-distancing more difficult for workers and appears to have accelerated coronavirus spread.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Florida passes big slash to public-notice ads; newspaper-backed compromise has breaks for smaller papers

The Citrus County Chronicle in Crystal River, like
most newspapers, also puts public notices online.
The Florida Legislature has passed "the most significant piece of public-notice legislation in modern history," reports the Public Notice Resource Center, an advocate for the "legal ads" that have become a much more important revenue source for local newspapers as their advertising bases have shrunk. Even journalists sometimes forget that the ads and open-records and open-meeting laws are the "three-legged stool" of open government, says the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Florida is the first state to "significantly dilute the statutory requirement that notices must be published in print newspapers, but there’s a lot for the newspaper industry and residents of the state to like about the bill," PNRC reports. An alternative "would have moved public notice in the state from newspapers to government websites." The compromise bill passed the Senate bill Thursday and Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign it. The Florida Press Association supports it.
The Senate bill "authorizes state and local governments in Florida to publish most notices on newspaper websites in lieu of their print editions. Notices relating to property rights, like foreclosure and self-storage notices, must still be published in print," PNRC reports. "Before they can move their notices to newspaper websites, though, government agencies must first hold a public hearing and determine whether there is sufficient broadband access in the area to ensure that 'internet-only publication of governmental-agency notices would not unreasonably restrict public access' to the notices. Moreover, after an agency decides to move its notices to a local newspaper website, it still must publish a weekly notice in the print version of the paper informing readers that the notices can be accessed online."

The bill also allows publication of public notices in free-circulation newspapers, with "rigorous standards," PNRC reports. To qualify, they "must have a combined print and online audience equaling at least 10 percent of the households in the county or municipality publishing the notice. In addition, at least 25% of the audited print editions must be delivered to homes or offices and the newspaper must also must be available for pickup in at least 10 public outlets in the region. Newspapers must also be published for at least two years before they can qualify to publish notices.

"The bill gives a leg up to small papers by exempting newspapers in 'fiscally-constrained counties' from having to meet the audience requirements as long as they maintain a periodical permit issued by the U.S. Postal Service. But even newspapers outside of those 30, mostly rural, counties, will have more than two years before their periodical permit will no longer qualify them to publish notices and they will be required to meet the 10 percent audience standard instead."

NPR stations' bureau in Mountain West shares content with smaller stations, papers in areas less served by news media

A collaboration of radio stations in the Western U.S. aims to bring more local and regional news coverage to areas poorly served by other news media.

Finding an analog radio station has always been a challenge in the Mountain West, partly because of sparse population and partly because of Federal Communications Commission rules that once limited how many stations a company could own. "But as the events of the past year have shown, when people need information about what’s happening in their communities, radio is one of the first places they’ll go. Kate Concannon, managing editor of the Mountain West News Bureau, a consortium of NPR stations that serve New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, cites the region’s 'shared issues' as the reason why her team has found success and relevance across such a broad area," Rachel Del Valle reports for Harvard University's Nieman Lab. "She manages six reporters embedded in public radio stations, plus one roving reporter who travels the region, sometimes by bike."

During the pandemic, the bureau began making its content free to smaller, community radio stations without a news budget and with small newspapers; small affiliates that want access pay for content on a sliding scale. "We’ve continued that," Concannon told Del Valle. "We’re really trying to get the content out, we’re all about collaboration and sharing."

It's an ideal partnership for news media in the rural Mountain West. "Despite the trend toward syndication nationally, a localized approach really does play to FM radio’s strengths, both for advertisers and listeners," Del Valle reports. "By design, it’s a localized medium — signals can only travel so far. As a technology, radio matches the expectations the internet has set for modern media consumers. It’s free to use and — in most parts of the country — easy to access. You don’t even need an internet connection to consume it. You just turn on the tap and it’s there. In this way, radio is uniquely positioned to fill in local news gaps. And when shared on digital platforms, stories can go beyond individual communities and into larger regional and national conversations."

When rural Americans hear the term 'diversity' they should realize they are part of that, rural Iowa editor writes

Rural Americans put off by the increased push for diversity in public life and all facets of society should think again, writes Doug Burns of the twice-weekly Carroll Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa.

"For too many rural Americans, the term diversity is synonymous with otherness because residents of remote regions don’t realize that we, too, are underrepresented and misunderstood. Policies and structures strand and marginalize us," Burns writes.

"We rural Americans need to focus on correcting this, finding allies in other demographics who are similarly left out of the modern American economy and higher education and top levels of the judiciary — and yes, even my profession, journalism, where rural voices can be absent or hard to find in key power centers. Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy — one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to coastal tech clusters."

Burns goes on to note the lack of news-media coverage and academic and legal scholarship of white poverty, his conversation with Barack Obama about the need for a rural voice on the Supreme Court, and his newspaper's collaboration with a Spanish-language paper and its preparation of journalism students as rural interns for jobs in big cities and national media.

"They bring an understanding and empathy of rural Iowa to decisions on how we will be covered at the national level," Burns writes. "By embracing diversity as a community with these student journalists, we help to form world views in which we are considered beyond easy-reach rural stereotypes — for the diversity we bring to the American experiment. That’s not zero sum. It’s new math that adds up to good things for us."

In upholding FCC rule on broadcast and newspaper ownership, Supreme Court expands list of possible buyers

The Supreme Court last week unanimously upheld a Federal Communications Commission decision to deregulate ownership of television stations, including the ownership of a station and a newspaper in the same market. For newspapers looking to sell, the ruling expands the list of potential buyers.

"The commission proposed the rule change in 2017 under Trump-appointed FCC chair Ajit Pai," Jody Simon reports for JDSupra. A lower court overturned the changes, saying the FCC didn't adequately consider the effect its changes would have on broadcast media ownership by women and racial minorities. but proponents of the changes "argued that they were long overdue," Simon reports. "Local TV and newspapers have long been facing stiff headwinds, first from cable competition and now from hyper-targeted digital advertising on Google and Facebook. The mom-and-pop broadcast outlets and local station groups would be doomed unless they can join deep-pocketed national station groups."

However, Simon writes, "the argument for continued diversity has its appeal, however, when one looks at Sinclair Broadcasting, a large station group that made headlines for forcing the news broadcasts of its stations to run right wing segments. Even short of a conservative takeover of local news, widespread consolidation could result in homogenization and the loss of independent voices."

Rep. Cheri Bustos, whose rural strength made her a useful adviser to other Democrats, says she won't seek re-election

Rep. Cheri Bustos
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of northwest Illinois, a leading voice for rural interests in the Democratic Party, surprised her colleagues Monday by saying that she would not seek an sixth two-year term in 2022.

“As I turn every corner on each decade of life, I take time to reflect and evaluate what my next chapter might bring,” Bustos said in a prepared statement. “That’s how, 10 years ago, I decided to run for Congress. And it’s why, today, I am announcing I will not seek re-election.”

As campaign chair for House Democrats in the last election cycle, Bustos tried to increase the party's appeal to rural voters but came up short. "Democrats expected to expand their majority. Instead, they lost 13 seats," notes Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming. Bustos resigned as campaign chair but stayed on Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team as co-chair of the caucus Steering Committee.

Bustos, of East Moline, was re-elected in the 17th District "by 4 percentage points, compared to a 24-point romp two years earlier," Abbott notes. "The race — a prime target of Republican campaign operatives — reflected the surprisingly tight margins in many races, particularly in rural areas, around the country," Politico notes. Her 2020 foe, Republicam Esther Joy King, is running again.

"Her decision also reflected the shrinking influence of the farm and industrial heartland in the House," Abbott writes. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia writes, "Her strength with rural voters made her insights valuable to both Democratic leadership and other candidates; she won her first three reelection campaigns by double-digits in an Obama-to-Trump district."

Bustos, 59, is a former reporter and editor for the Quad City Times, based in Davenport, Iowa. She worked in health-care public relations for a decade and was a council member in East Moline (which makes the Quad Cities really the Quint Cities; the others are Rock Island, Ill., and Bettendorf, Iowa.)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Use World Press Freedom Day and #followlocaljournalists hashtag to remind readers where to get reliable information

Today is World Press Freedom Day, an annual celebration of free, independent media worldwide. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization first observed it 30 years ago after the Windhoek Declaration, which stated that an impartial press was vital to the public good.

Some news organizations, including Gannett and McClatchy, are promoting use of the Twitter hashtag #FollowLocalJournalists to spotlight the work of local journalists they respect and rely on. Jon Allsop, editor of Columbia Journalism Review, writes, "Twitter, for one, is right to observe that local reporters merit a national spotlight. They need an awful lot more than new followers, though. #FundLocalJournalists."

You can use the hashtag and World Press Freedom Day as a news peg to remind readers of the value of local news media in your community. Research shows that when local newspapers shrink or close, fewer people vote or run for local office, and people are more likely to vote straight-party ticket.

UNESCO says the day "acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story. This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme 'Information as a Public Good' serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind. The theme is of urgent relevance to all countries across the world. It recognizes the changing communications system that is impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies and sustainable development."

Find out more about World Press Freedom Day here, including a press kit and information about the 2021 Global Conference. 

Two stories from Appalachia show the challenges facing vaccine advocates and journalists who report on the topic

Appalachian Regional Commission map, highlighting Harlan and Greene counties
By Al Cross
, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Jan Hoffman of The New York Times spent a week in Greene County, Tennessee, to report on resistance to vaccination for the coronavirus. Such "parachute journalism" exercises are fraught with pitfalls, but her story rang true for me, as someone from the region.

Hoffman turned up some nuggets that vividly illustrate the problem with vaccination in a significant segment of rural America: A nurse practitioner who says she's still undecided about vaccination and doesn't mention it to her patients. A retired professional couple who still haven't been vaccinated even after a discussion with their doctor, which Hoffman witnessed and quotes from.

That's the end of her story, which begins with another conversation, more uncomfortable: among a new pastor's wife and members of her church, one of whom greeted her by asking, “So, have you gotten the vaccine yet?” She “fumbled through a non-reply . . . sensing a chilly blast of judgment from a never-mask, never-vax companion.”

Hoffman's long story is a stark contrast to another recent long dispatch from another, even more rural county on the coal-bearing side of Appalachia's 100-mile-wide Ridge and Valley Belt: Alex Acquisto's report for the Lexington Herald-Leader about pastors in Harlan County who are gently working to get their parishioners vaccinated. In Greene County, the pastor in question told Hoffman, “Honestly, I wish people wouldn’t ask. I think it’s none of their business. And it’s just dividing people.”

The stories are two sides of the same coin. We need stories that tell both sides of the coin. That is especially true for community newspapers, which have a higher level of trust than their national or metropolitan counterparts but are typically reluctant to do enterprise reporting about deeply divisive issues, or lack the time do do it. But I think most community newspapers, after a few weeks of listening to their neighbors, could write the sort of summary paragraph that Hoffman did:

"People say that politics isn’t the leading driver of their vaccine attitudes. The most common reason for their apprehension is fear — that the vaccine was developed in haste, that long-term side effects are unknown. Their decisions are also entangled in a web of views about bodily autonomy, science and authority, plus a powerful regional, somewhat romanticized self-image: We don’t like outsiders messing in our business."

The other side of the coin is science and public health, which say we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which will provide a significant level of protection even for those who are unwilling or unable to be vaccinated. That's how Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News, another of our publications, began her main vaccination story last week. She included many of the concerns (which include myths) and the experts' responses to them.

But as I told Kentucky news outlets in our weekly KHN update, "We offer you this story with the knowledge that many vaccine-hesitant people are not likely to take the word of experts, but at our level, that’s the best we have. At your level, you have more trusted sources: physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, health-department leaders, local officials, civic leaders, faith leaders and more, so we urge you to do your own story, with what such folks have to say about Covid-19 vaccination."

Appeals court gives EPA 60 days to either ban or better regulate a pesticide linked to brain damage in children

"After blasting the Environmental Protection Agency for '13 years of interminable delay,' the federal appeals court in San Francisco on Thursday set a 60-day deadline for the agency to either ban agricultural use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos or set newer and safer exposure levels for the chemical. The dissenter in the 2-1 decision said the short time frame 'virtually guarantees' a ban.

Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network, "Regulators cut off residential use of the organophosphate pesticide two decades ago. First marketed in 1965, chlorpyrifos is commonly used in agriculture, most prominently on corn but also on soybeans, cotton, vegetables, and fruit and nut trees. It has been linked to learning disorders and can cause nausea, dizziness, and confusion." Read more. sets the record straight on its funding, and Biden's positions on guns and meat has a trio of recent posts worthy of mention here. 

The first involves itself, or more specifically, a feature called SciCheck launched in 2015 to help the public better understand scientific research, Eugene Kiely reports. SciCheck began a Covid-19 Misconceptions page in December, funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky, recently alleged in a tweet that presents biased information about coronavirus vaccines because the late Robert Wood Johnson II was president of Johnson & Johnson for decades, and because the foundation still holds stock in the company. 

"Contrary to Massie’s suggestion, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — as is the case with all of our funders — has no control over our editorial content. Period. Full stop," Kiely writes. "As with our funding, we are also transparent about our editorial process for selecting, researching, editing and, if necessary, correcting our articles." Kiely notes FactCheck's financial transparency policies and briefly discusses where its writers get their facts. 

Conservative news sources, politicians and social media accounts have accused President Biden of seeking to force Americans to mostly stop eating red meat to help the environment, but that's false, Robert Farley reports

The rumor stems from Biden's opening remarks at the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22, where he talked about how parts of his American Jobs Plan would help the U.S. cut greenhouse-gas emissions in half by the end of the decade. He mentioned that farmers could deploy "cutting-edge tools" to reduce carbon emissions, but didn't mention beef or cattle ranching (which Farley notes does account for some greenhouse-gas emissions). 

Afterward, British publication the Daily Mail ran a story with an alarmist headline: "How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5K a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55K on an electric car and ‘crush’ American jobs." The story cites a University of Michigan study showing that Americans could cut its diet-related greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2030 if they cut their red-meat consumption to about four pounds per year. "But again, nothing in Biden’s stated plans mentions anything about reducing beef consumption," Farley reports.

But conservative news outlets, social media accounts and politicos boosted the signal on the story, insinuating or outright stating that Biden sought to force Americans to cut meat consumption. For example, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said in a tweet that "Joe Biden’s climate plan includes cutting 90% of red meat from our diets by 2030. They want to limit us to about four pounds a year. Why doesn’t Joe stay out of my kitchen?" On April 26, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack categorically denied that the Biden administration has any plans to reduce beef consumption.

And finally, President Biden "opposes the sale of assault weapons, and he supports a mandatory federal registry and a voluntary buyback program for all legally purchased assault weapons. But a video shared on Twitter by Sen. Ted Cruz leaves the false impression Biden wants to confiscate all guns," Farley reports.

The April 27 video, released the night before Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress, includes a clip in which Cruz accuses Biden of seeking to "erase the Second Amendment," Farley reports. Then the video shows a clip of CNN's Anderson Cooper prompting Biden: "To gun owners out there who say, well, a Biden administration means they're going to come for my guns." Then, the video shows Biden answering, "Bingo."

"Left out is Biden’s full answer, which makes clear he was referring only to the purchase of semi-automatic firearms, or so-called assault weapons," Farley reports. In the interview, Biden explicitly says he would not try to confiscate legally purchased assault weapons.

If it sounds like FactCheck is unfairly coming down on Republicans, we would note that the site has plenty to say about Biden administration claims, including a thorough fact-check of his recent address to Congress (The Rural Blog ran a similar one).

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Rejection of Biden's election is becoming an unofficial litmus test for Republicans, with much pressure from rural areas

Rejection of the 2020 presidential election result "has increasingly become an unofficial litmus test for acceptance in the Republican Party," The Washington Post reports, with small-town examples.

Reporters Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor note the division among Republicans in Congress, but report local and state officials "are facing censure and threats" as "local party organizations have fervently embraced the falsehood" of Donald Trump that he lost unfairly.

They begin their story with Debra Ell, Republican precinct delegate from Frankenmuth, Michigan, a town of 5,200 near Saginaw: “I think I speak for many people in that Trump has never actually been wrong, and so we’ve learned to trust when he says something, that he’s not just going to spew something out there that’s wrong and not verified,” so she's circulating a petition to remove the state Republican Party's executive director, who told Politico that “the election wasn’t stolen” and that “there is no one to blame but Trump.”

Grassroots embrace of what Democrats call "the Big Lie" was seen at Utah's Republican convention Saturday, where a resolution to censure Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, for voting to convict Trump on impeachment charges got 47 percent of the vote, losing 798-711.

"Several local Republicans have either stepped down or been forced out of their party positions for not supporting Trump’s baseless election claims or for criticizing the former president’s role in inciting the deadly Capitol riot," the Post reports. "In Iowa — after telling a local newspaper that Trump should be impeached for his 'atrocious conduct' in egging on the Jan. 6 attacks — Dave Millage was called a 'traitor' and forced to step down as chair of the Scott County Republican Party."