Friday, June 18, 2021

Nominations sought for Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism

Tom and Pat Gish
Each year the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues presents the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, named for the couple who exemplified those qualities as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 51 years.

Nominations for the Gish Award may be made at any time, but the deadline to be considered for this year's award is July 19. To nominate a candidate, send a detailed letter explaining how the nominee shows the kind of courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated at their weekly newspaper in the Central Appalachian coalfield. Documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Send your nominating letter, initial documentation and any questions to

The Gishes withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them. Tom and Pat died in 2008 and 2014, respectively; their son Ben is the Eagle's editor and publisher and is on the award selection committee. 

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of the Gishes and other previous winners. After the Gishes, winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in the Texas panhandle; Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and late publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian for her work at The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and Jacksonville Daily Progress in Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in western North Carolina; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in northern New Mexico; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in western Missouri; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa; Les Zaitz of The Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon; an
d in 2019, three reporters whose outstanding careers have revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia: Howard Berkes, retired from NPR; Ken Ward Jr., then with the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul Nyden. Last year's winner was the late Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif., a longtime crusader for open government.

Small-town editor who won Pulitzer, other awards for prison editorials scores again with a Sigma Delta Chi award

The editorial started on a front page dominated by coverage of the pandemic.

Jeff Gerritt
Jeff Gerritt, the small-town editor who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for editorial writing, is this year's winner of the Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing in newspapers of 100,000 or less circulation.

The award, presented by the Society of Professional Journalists, honors Gerritt's April 28, 2020, editorial calling for mass testing of Texas prisoners for the coronavirus. He wrote it for the Palestine Herald-Press, which serves Anderson County, the site of five state prisons.

"Texas prisons, as those in most states, rest largely in rural areas," Gerritt noted a little over than a month and a half into the pandemic. "In Anderson County, local prisons have become the largest catalysts for Covid-19. Prison employees make up 13 of Anderson County's 20 confirmed cases . . . In truth, hundreds of people in this county may have the virus, with most cases coming, directly or indirectly, from local prisons."

Gerritt further localized the issue: "Treating a pandemic without comprehensive testing is like taking a trip without a road map, Palestine physician Carolyn Salter told the Herald-Press editorial page. 'In any institution without freedom of movement, everyone should be tested,' she said."

A week after the editorial ran, Gerritt won the Pulitzer " "for editorials that exposed how pre-trial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail—reflecting a rising trend across the state—and courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies," the judges said. Earlier in the day, Gerritt won the News Leaders Association’s Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership in small markets, and that was on top of the 2020 National Headliner Award for editorial writing.

Soon afterward, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. named Gerritt editor of the Sharon Herald and New Castle News in western Pennsylvania. There, he has started a podcast called New Generation, "for those who desire a new way of gaining information rather than reading a traditional newspaper," with "everything from sports, pop culture, politics, and local news." In the latest episode, he discusses his three-part editorial advocating abolition of the death penalty, with a local couple explaining why they opposed it for their daughter's murder.

Other awards: In upstate New York, North Country Public Radio won the award for public service journalism in small markets for its report on the challenges of child care during the pandemic. Searchlight New Mexico won the Covid-19 newspaper feature reporting award for its report on the pandemic's impact on five New Mexican towns.

Vilsack meets with farm lobbyists, bipartisan senators, to make a game plan for passing farm-labor immigration bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is spearheading efforts to pass a bill to allow undocumented farmworkers to stay in the U.S. and bring in more immigrant workers. Vilsack told reporters Wednesday, saying he had made a commitment "on the part of the president to get this done."

He spoke after meeting with Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and farm lobbyists to discuss the issue. "The House passed a bill, but the Senate so far has been resistant to considering the House bill and no Senate bill has been released," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Vilsack said both farmers and agribusiness executives, already in "a very stressful time" for many reasons, are increasingly concerned about their 'current and future workforce.'"

Crapo and Bennet both committed to round up votes, Bennet and Vilsack told reporters after the meeting. Crapo, who didn't speak to reporters, was more measured in a release: "There is no question we must deal with the insufficiencies of the existing agriculture guest worker program in order to ensure a stable and high-quality food supply across our country. The bipartisan roundtable with Secretary Vilsack, Sen. Bennet and stakeholder groups was a meaningful, collaborative discussion. It was an opportunity to engage in robust dialogue on the best path forward for legislation in the Senate."

Farm lobbyists are somewhat divided on the prospect of a bill, Hagstrom reports. David Puglia, president and CEO of farmers' lobby Western Growers, said he's more optimistic about passing a bill this year than in the previous 16 he's been in the produce industry. It's important to pass this year, he said, because it would be a harder sell during an election year. The United Fresh Produce Association and United Farm Workers, among others, said they support a possible bill. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation was cagier in its response. "Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for the Farm Bureau, who attended the meeting, said Farm Bureau nationally wants more year-long visas and is concerned about wage rates and farmers' legal exposure," Hagstrom reports. "But the California Farm Bureau supported the House bill, and Crittenden noted the American Farm Bureau said it did not support the bill but did not use the word 'oppose'."

New rural coronavirus infection rate up slightly after seven weeks of decline, but new cases still at lowest rate in a year

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, June 6-12
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New rural coronavirus infections during the week of June 6-12 were slightly higher than the week before, the first such increase after seven straight weeks of declining numbers. "The number of new rural infections grew by about 6 percent last week, to 16,741," Tim Marema and Tim Murphy report for The Daily Yonder. Despite the increase, new cases remained at their lowest rate in a year. New infections are down by more than 90% in rural America since the peak of the winter surge in January." New rural deaths fell from 538 two weeks ago to 524 last week, a roughly 3% decline.

Comparatively, new infections in metropolitan counties "fell for the ninth consecutive week, dropping by 11% to 72,071," Murphy and Marema report. "Covid-related deaths in metropolitan counties fell by 16%, from 2,478 two weeks ago to 2,058 last week."

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

U.S. birth rate falls as young women delay childbearing to focus on school and work; decline seems less in rural areas

Change in birth rate by county. In 1996-2007, rates grew fastest in small cities and rural areas; in 2007-2019, they fell nearly everywhere. New York Times maps, adapted by The Rural Blog. Click map to enlarge; here for interactive version.

Younger women across the U.S., including in rural areas, are increasingly delaying childbearing to focus on education and careers. "The result has been the slowest growth of the American population since the 1930s, and a profound change in American motherhood," Sabrina Tavernise, Claire Cain Miller, Quoctrung Bui and Robert Gebeloff report for The New York Times. "Women under 30 have become much less likely to have children. Since 2007, the birth rate for women in their 20s has fallen by 28 percent, and the biggest recent declines have been among unmarried women. The only age groups in which birthrates rose over that period were women in their 30s and 40s — but even those began to decline over the past three years."

The trend became evident in the past decade, with the birth rate falling fastest in places with the highest job growth (which are more often metro counties). No cause has been established, but women in such areas may therefore have more of an incentive to delay motherhood, said Caitlin Myers, a Middlebury College economics professor who analyzed county-level birth records for the Times. As women become more educated, they become more convinced that motherhood has a price, she said.

It's happening in rural counties, too, though not as much as in metro counties. "The large urban counties that have gained the most jobs and population since the recession have seen birthrates fall twice as fast as smaller, rural counties that have not recovered as strongly," the Times reports. Fertility tends to be higher in economically stagnant areas, and childbearing often has more cultural importance for women.

Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that rural women seeking higher education may have skewed the numbers toward metro counties by moving to cities to pursue a degree and a career afterward. Several women interviewed in the Times story had done just that. 

Percentage of people 25 and up with at least a bachelor's degree, from 2005-09 on the left, and 2015-19 on the right. U.S. Census Bureau maps, adapted by The Rural Blog. Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the original report.

Quick hits: Fire-department funding model could help rural ERs; developers say new plant 'milk' tastes like real thing

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

The American West has 620,000 miles of fencing; that may threaten the migration of deer and other species. Read more here.

A recent study found rural Americans and Native Americans on average must travel the farthest to receive certified stroke care. Read more here.

A federal fire-department funding model could help rural emergency departments stay afloat. Read more here.

Developers of the newest plant-based milk alternative say it looks, tastes and behaves more like real milk than any other substitute. The brew is being sold at Whole Foods and will reach nearly 3,000 U.S. grocery stores this year. Read more here.

Jennifer Rocha picks peppers alongside her parents. She worked with
 them from high school through college. (Photo by Branden Rodriguez)
A new book tackles the issue of rural gentrification in a Washington tourism town. Read more here.

A recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego, wanted to honor her immigrant parents' sacrifices for her education, so she did her graduation photos in the Coachella Valley vegetable fields where they had all worked for years. Read more here.

For the first time since last July, the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service has updated its Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America with new data on employment, poverty, income, and more. The resource features an interactive, county-level map that can be toggled to display data on a host of topics, including population change, race, rurality, and veterans. Read more here.

An Oregon writer explores the roots of a conflict over water rights in the nearby Klamath River basin, where anti-government activists are threatening to dynamite open a closed irrigation canal. Better compromise and innovation could provide a solution for all parties involved, she writes, both there and in other areas where climate change is making water more scarce. Read more here.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

National-park tourist tide strains local economies, park staff

The line to enter Canyonlands National Park can stretch
up to two hours. (Photo by Niki Chan Wylie)
Visits to state and national parks are booming, thanks to Americans tired of being cooped up during the pandemic. The surge is boosting local economies in areas that depend on tourism, but it's also causing problems for local businesses, residents and visitors, Allison Pohle reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The hospitality sector is having a hard time hiring nationwide; in towns slammed with tourists, the need is even more dire. One McDonald's in Moab, Utah, is hiring workers starting at $18 an hour. 

Another issue: The mess and crowds are triggering complaints from residents and visitors. "Many residents say they are increasingly frustrated, as graffiti and piles of human waste are appearing where people are camping far from toilets, trash cans and any law enforcement. In addition, more visitors are parking illegally, walking along roadways not intended for pedestrians, and spilling off designated trails and damaging fragile soil crust, according to park officials," Pohle reports. "Some tourists say their visits are less enjoyable because they are surrounded by Disneyland-caliber crowds at popular attractions like Delicate Arch" in Utah.

Park staff are finding it difficult to keep parks clean and deal with crowds. "Funding for the national parks hasn’t increased in proportion to visitation. Between 2011 and 2019, the National Park Service lost 16 percent of its staffing capacity while at the same time witnessing a 17% increase in visitation," Pohle reports. "The Biden administration has proposed an increase in funding for U.S. national parks in its budget for next year."

Study: Earth traps twice as much heat now as it did in 2005, contributing to global warming; humans partly to blame

"The amount of heat Earth traps has roughly doubled since 2005, contributing to more rapidly warming oceans, air and land," according to recently published research from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Tik Root reports for The Washington Post. "Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer for NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and co-author of the study . . . said the energy increase is equivalent to four detonations per second of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or every person on Earth using 20 electric tea kettles at once."

NASA scientist Norman Loeb, the lead author of the study, told Root that "the magnitude of the increase is unprecedented. . . . Earth is warming faster than expected."

"Using satellite data, researchers measured what is known as Earth’s energy imbalance — the difference between how much energy the planet absorbs from the sun, and how much it’s able to shed, or radiate back out into space," Root reports. When Earth absorbs more heat than it loses, it's a sign of global warming. The news comes as drought and record-breaking heat consume much of the Western U.S.

"The study points to decreases in cloud cover and sea ice, which reflect solar energy back into space, and an increase in greenhouse gases emitted by humans, such as methane and carbon dioxide, as well as water vapor, which trap more heat in the Earth, as factors in the imbalance. But it is difficult to discern human-induced changes from cyclical variations in the climate, the researches said," Root reports. Natural climate fluctuations such as the El NiƱo current cycle may have played a significant role in the findings, but Johnson told Root humans aren't without blame. Though it's unclear to what extent, "We’re responsible for some of it," he said.

One-third of rural America now fully vaccinated against coronavirus, but rural-urban gap expanded last week

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of June 14, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

About 425,000 rural Americans completed their coronavirus vaccinations last week, increasing the fully-vaccinated rate in nonmetropolitan counties by about 1 percentage point over the week before and bringing the rural vaccination rate to 32.6 percent as of June 14, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

However, "the metropolitan rate of completed vaccinations grew by 1.6 percentage points during the same period and now stands at 41.7%," Murphy and Marema report. "That means the gap between the rural and metropolitan vaccinations rates expanded last week and now stands at an 9.1-percentage-point difference."

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

Podcasts explore how federal rural policy could improve

A new podcast series explores rural policy and how it can be changed for the better. The series is produced by Rural Matters with underwriting and editorial leadership from the Brookings Institution.

Anthony Pipa and Natalie Geismar of the Center for Sustainable Development write: "Through conversations with influential thinkers, practitioners, and policymakers, the series provides a road map for the Biden-Harris administration to reimagine federal policy so that it meets the diverse realities of today’s rural people and places: investing in their leadership and institutions, building on their assets and innovation, and providing their communities an on-ramp for sustained prosperity.

In the first episode, "Reimagining Rural Policy," Brookings Senior Fellow Tony Pipa and Janet Topolsky, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Community Strategies Group, draw from Brookings' "Reimagining Rural Policy" report to provide an overview of federal rural policy, which they describe as fragmented and incoherent, and suggest reforms policymakers should consider.

Episode 2, "Federal Policy to Meet the Diversity of Today's Rural America and Tribal Nations," features rural-development experts discussing how policy can be sensitive to diverse rural and tribal communities. Participants are Gbenga Ajilore, a senior advisor in the Agriculture Department's Rural Development section; Kennedy O'Dell, a senior research and policy associate at the Economic Innovation Group; and Erik Stegman, executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy.

Episode 3, "Capacity Building as Key to Successful Rural Development," explores how the federal government can jump-start equitable rural prosperity by investing in workforce development and encouraging regional collaboration, as well as how it can better leverage development programs through pandemic relief funding. Speakers are Cheryal Hills, executive director of Region 5 Development Commission in Minnesota, and Rob Riley, president of the Northern Forest Center in New England.

Invasive 'crazy worms' threaten trees in the Northeast, could hurt maple syrup production

A crazy worm, distinguishable from common earthworms by the
clitellum, a band around its body (University of Vermont photo)
"Earthworms are often seen as a welcome presence in gardens, and even on fishing hooks. But in the Northeast, experts say invasive 'crazy worms' from Asia are creating havoc in forests — and they say the unusual worms are a danger to animals and plants, and especially to sugar maple trees," Bill Chappell reports for NPR.

Crazy worms, also called jumper worms for their wiggly nature and propensity for jumping right out of your hand, "reproduce rapidly. They also love to tear through the nutritious layer of decomposing leaves and nutrients that blanket the forest floor — a habit that can be very damaging to forests, including maple trees," Chappell reports. "Plus, they alter the composition of the soil, creating a texture that's often compared to coffee grounds. The modified soil is ruined for many native plants, as it's stripped of vital nutrients and prone to increased erosion."

The worms are present in other areas of the U.S., but the Northeast is particularly vulnerable to them because the last Ice Age left it with no native earthworms. Common earthworms have since populated the area, and crazy worms have been around since the 1800s, but it wasn't until recently that their numbers became a problem. Crazy worms resemble common nightcrawlers but are smaller.

"The worms mainly spread within the U.S. through the domestic market, both through the horticulture industry and through their sale as fish bait," Chappell reports. States such as Maine and New York have banned them, but scientists haven't yet found a way to control them. Part of the problem, one scientist said, is that worms' benign reputation makes it difficult to find someone to fund the research.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Pastor known for racial reconciliation work is narrowly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention

Ed Litton speaks at a Southern Baptist Convention luncheon.
(Washington Post photo by William DeShazer)
The Southern Baptist Convention elected the Rev. Ed Litton as its president Tuesday, signaling a defeat for the "hard right" in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports for The Washington Post.

Litton narrowly defeated Georgia pastor Mike Stone, the favored candidate of the right wing, with 52 percent of the vote in a runoff election at the group's annual meeting in Nashville

"For the past few years, the convention has been mired in debates over racism, politics and sexual misconduct that mirror many of the same debates in the Republican Party," Bailey writes. "In recent weeks, as leaked letters and backroom deals dominated conversations among Southern Baptists, Litton, pastor of First Baptist Church North Mobile in Alabama, pitched himself as someone who would lead the convention toward more racial reconciliation. Fred Luter, the first and only Black pastor to serve as president of the SBC, nominated Litton for the position."

Critical race theory, a framework for examining structural racism, was a hot topic at the meeting. "Opposition to CRT among SBC leaders led to an exodus of Black pastors over the past year and some feared more would leave if the convention had voted to condemn it," Bailey notes. SBC considered several proposed resolutions concerning the notion, but ultimately adopted a resolution that condemned racism but didn't address CRT specifically.

Ed Stetzer, who once led the SBC's research arm, LifeWay Research, said there was some concern before the meeting that more conservative members would push back against recent SBC efforts to advance racial reconciliation. But "the crowd was younger and more diverse than most expected, and that crowd carried the day," he told Bailey.

Industries with big worker shortages have big rural stakes

As the nation rumbles back to life after the pandemic, many industries—some with a large rural presence—are having trouble finding new workers. 

It's a tight market, but not a true labor shortage in most cases: there were a record 9.3 million job openings in April, but 9.3 million Americans were unemployed in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Andrew Van Dam reports for The Washington Post. The problem is more often that workers in industries that largely shut down during the pandemic found work elsewhere, have health and safety concerns about returning to work in certain industries, or lack child care. 

Many employers have been able to fill positions when they raise wages, but sometimes that isn't enough, Van Dam reports. The Post analyzed federal data for hundreds of sectors and identified those that haven't been able to find new workers despite raising wages to sometimes record levels. The story lists the top sectors most desperate for workers and discusses why each is having such a hard time.

Sawmills top the list, with employment only recently returning to pre-pandemic levels despite paychecks that have increased nearly 10 percent since last year. Henry Spelter of Forest Economic Advisers told Van Dam that sawmill workers aren’t highly paid, and some may have preferred to stay home, avoid the coronavirus and draw stimulus checks and extra unemployment benefits.

Other industries noted in the story include textiles, specialized long-haul truckers, movers, specialty contractors and veterinarians. Pandemic demand is a common thread in many of those: people have been moving out of cities and trying to fix up their new houses, and interest in pet adoption soared during the past year. So did reports of stress and poor mental health, Van Dam reports.

Many meatpacking plants are also struggling to find enough workers, prompting companies like Tyson Foods to sweeten the deal with more attractive work schedules, more convenient medical care, and higher pay, Christopher Doering reports for Food Dive.

AP to stop naming minor crime suspects, as more newsrooms agree to delete stories from their archives

"The Associated Press told its journalists on Tuesday to no longer name suspects in minor crimes or publish photos of them "in brief stories about minor crimes when there is little chance the organization will cover the case beyond the initial arrest . . . out of concern that such stories can have a long, damaging afterlife on the internet that can make it hard for individuals to move on with their lives," the AP's David Bauder reports. "The AP said it will also not link to local newspaper or broadcast stories about such incidents where the arrested person’s name or mugshot might be used. The AP will also not do stories driven mainly by particularly embarrassing mugshots."

The AP's announcement comes after several news organizations have said they would start removing stories from archives, under limited circumstances.  In 2019 the Cedar Rapids Gazette implemented a case-by-case appeals process for removing old stories, and The Boston Globe announced a similar policy this year.

A 2018 survey found that "some 80 percent of news organizations had some policy about removing stories from archives, up from less than half a decade earlier. But in some cases, the policies aren’t written down, aren’t talked about in public or aren’t even publicized in their own newsrooms," Bauder reports. 

In community newspapers, the "long tail" of online information can be an issue in real time. In 2007 The Anniston Star chose not to name a high-school football player whose ineligibility forced his team to forfeit its perfect season, for fear his mistakes as a juvenile could haunt him for decades.

The survey about removing material from archives was conducted by journalism researcher Deborah Dwyer. Her Unpublishing the News website covers the issue extensively and includes resources for newsrooms, including a recent webinar with the News Leaders Association (see below).

Roundup: Farmers, ranchers struggle amid heat, drought

Heat and drought are having a serious impact on much of the U.S. Here's a news roundup:

A brutal heat wave is descending on the American West, prompting wildfire warnings. Read more here and here.

Two new reports draw attention to scanty laws protecting farmworkers from extreme heat. Read more here.

Northern Plains states, especially the eastern half of the Dakotas, are seeing a deepening drought. That's hurting ranchers whose cattle are now having a hard time finding forage. It's also hurting the hay crop, which in turn makes it harder to feed cattle. That's resulted in an increase in cows and calves sold at auction. Read more here.

It's not all bad news for livestock producers, though: they've been left out of previous pandemic aid, but they'll get a share of newly announced Agriculture Department aid, possibly starting within the next 60 days. Biofuels producers, the timber industry, dairy farmers, contract poultry producers, organic farmers, and other areas underserved by previous pandemic aid will also get some of the aid. Read more here.

Corn and soybean conditions are worsening with the hot, dry weather. Read more here.

Giving older farmers dinner and a show, with safety messages, makes them safer farmers, a study concludes

Deborah Reed
(Photo by Mark Cornelison)
An award-winning program that aims to educate older farmers on safe practices is remarkably effective, a recent study shows. University of Kentucky nursing professor Deborah Reed came up with the idea for Farm Dinner Theater a few years ago after reading research that found that older farmers are more likely to absorb and implement safety advice from other farmers, especially from stories about real situations. 

At Farm Dinner Theater, participants are treated to a free meal while they watch each other performing funny skits about serious topics such as wearing ear protection. A recent study by Reed and other researchers at UK and the University of Alabama backs up her concept, finding that participants were more likely than those who read safety pamphlets to report embracing safer practices on the farm. Participants were also more likely to report making more changes than those who simply read pamphlets. Read more here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Why it's so hard to predict tornadoes

The ingredients for Tornado Alley (Wikipedia map by Dan Craggs)
are notoriously difficult to predict and people often get warnings only minutes in advance, especially those in rural areas who tend to be less-covered by weather radars.

"As of 2011, the average lead time for tornado warnings was just around 13 minutes. But as The Washington Post has reported, lead times have been getting worse in recent years, dropping to 8.4 minutes between 2012 and 2020. Some people have even less warning," Brian Resnik reports for Vox. When tornado warnings do come, an actual twister may not follow. The vast majority of tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service prove to be false alarms; in some years, the false alarm rate can be as high as 70 to 80 percent. Tornado forecasting hasn’t improved much since the 2011 tornado disaster in Joplin, Missouri, killed 162 people."

One big problem is that tornadoes are harder for scientists to observe than other natural phenomena such as hurricanes: They're so short-lived and often so violent that it's difficult to gather data about them. They may disperse before scientists can drop instruments in the area, and tornadoes often destroy scientific equipment. Click here for an in-depth explainer (including a video) of how tornadoes form and why it's so difficult to predict them.

Current rural job recovery is above average, but most rural counties had fewer jobs in April than after Great Recession

Job gains and losses from April 2010 to April 2021; Daily Yonder map with Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

As of April 2020, the United States had regained 96.7 percent of the employment that it had in April 2019—some 5.2 million jobs shy of 100%—and rural America had regained 97.1% of its jobs, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. But those rural job numbers are still worse off when considering the trends of the past decade, including just before the pandemic. 

"In April 2010, rural counties had 14.1% of the nation’s jobs, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing report for The Daily Yonder. "By April of this year, rural counties had 13% of the nation’s jobs. The major metros (those with more than a million people) increased their share of the nation’s jobs from 56.7% to 58% in the same time period. More than half of all rural counties (56.7%) had fewer jobs in April 2021 than they had eleven years earlier. Among metropolitan counties, 31.1% had fewer jobs in April of this year compared to April 2010."

Click here for more analysis and graphics from the Yonder, including an interactive county-level map.

Covid roundup: Fishing crews exempt from mask rule; rural health clinics get funds for tests; anti-vaxxers misuse info

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

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation" that the Delta variant of the virus now accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. cases, but will likely become the most dominant strain. Read more here.

Those who catch the Delta variant are twice as likely to be hospitalized as those infected with the Alpha strain, a recent study found. Read more here.

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have proven highly effective in preventing hospitalizations for those infected with the Delta variant, a recent study found. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Coast Guard now say fully vaccinated commercial fishing crews don't have to wear a mask while above deck. The updated guidelines come after Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, protested that masks were a safety hazard. Read more here.

The Department for Health and Human Services is providing $425 million to more than 4,200 rural health clinics for coronavirus testing and mitigation. Later this summer, HRSA will issue up to $35.3 million in additional funding to rural clinics that meet eligibility requirements. Read more here.

Anti-vaccine activists are using a federal database of reported vaccine side effects to spread disinformation about safety of vaccines. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System has unvetted reports of side effects that may be coincidental, and shouldn't be cited as proof. Read more here.

Novavax's coronavirus vaccine is proving highly effective in clinical trials, a company spokesperson said, meaning it likely to become the fourth vaccine available in the U.S. Read more here.

The FDA has ordered Johnson & Johnson to throw out 60 million doses of its vaccine that may be contaminated. Read more here.

Health experts worry that states with low vaccination rates could see an uptick in cases if the natural immunity of those exposed to the coronavirus begins to wane. Read more here.

Bipartisan bill aims to help struggling rural ambulances services by extending Medicare reimbursement boost

A bipartisan bill aims to help ground ambulance services, especially in rural areas, by making sure they get more generous Medicare reimbursements. Many rural ambulance services are in danger of closing, partly because they serve a disproportionate share of Medicare patients, and Medicare reimbursement rates are often lower than the cost of providing the service. 

Congress authorized add-on payments through 2022, and plans to review Medicare cost data to decide whether the payments should be made permanent. But the coronavirus pandemic has kept the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from doing the first two rounds of data collection. 

The bill would extend those rates for five years. It would also protect ambulances from reimbursement changes tied to census data that, the bill's sponsors say, may not accurately show rural need for emergency services. Each ZIP code's rurality is reassessed after every decennial census; the bill would ensure that rural ZIP codes continue to be classified as such so ambulances can keep getting add-on payments. 

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow, (D-Mich.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Its House counterpart was introduced in early May by Reps. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Terri Sewell, (D-Ala.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

USDA launches guide to rural workforce loan and grant programs

The Agriculture Department 's Rural Development branch has issued a resource guide to help rural community leaders, lawmakers and business owners train, recruit and expand the rural workforce. The guide outlines grant and loan programs and services available through USDA and other federal agencies for creating jobs, training workers, expanding educational opportunities, and providing technical assistance. It also has examples of how organizations and communities have used such programs locally.

The programs are organized by four types: workforce development planning; infrastructure and equipment financing; industry and employer engagement, entrepreneurship and local business development; and education, training and apprenticeship. Click here to access the guide.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Writer explores idea of four Americas, defined by their own narratives: Free, Smart, Just and Real (the most rural one)

A country with a two-party system and a three-piece geography (urban, suburban and rural) is actually four nations, George Packer writes in a seminal piece for The Atlantic. Based on recent history and current events, he names them with names they might choose themselves: Free America, Smart America, Just America and (this is the most rural one), Real America.

They are not really nations, of course; they are competing narratives about what the United States is and what it has been. To Free America, "the most politically powerful of the four," it is libertarian ideals and consumer capitalism, Packer writes. Smart America is based on the new "knowledge economy" and is mainly urban residents, but "their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions. They believe in credentials and expertise—not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry." Just America (or Unjust America, the name Packer actually prefers) "assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today." And what about Real America?

"Real America has always been a country of white people," Packer asserts. "Real America has also been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist, hostile to modern ideas and intellectual authority. . . . Its attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist, hostile to humanitarianism and international engagement, but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests. The purity and strength of Americanism are always threatened by contamination from outside and betrayal from within. The narrative of Real America is white Christian nationalism." That is strongest in rural areas, but those areas have more diversity than many think.

Recent events have alienated Real America, Packer writes: "Meeting anyone in uniform in Iraq who came from a family of educated professionals was uncommon, and vanishingly rare in the enlisted ranks. After troops began to leave Iraq, the pattern continued in Afghanistan. . . . The financial crisis of 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, had a similar effect on the home front. The guilty parties were elites—bankers, traders, regulators, and policy makers. . . . Working-class Americans [were] thrown into poverty by a pink slip. The banks received bailouts, and the bankers kept their jobs. The conclusion was obvious: The system was rigged for insiders. The economic recovery took years; the recovery of trust never came."

But Donald Trump came. "He had a reptilian genius for intuiting the emotions of Real America—a foreign country to elites on the right and left. They were helpless to understand Trump and therefore to stop him," Packer writes. "He was the first American politician to succeed by running against globalization—a bipartisan policy that had served the interests of 'globalists' for years while sacrificing Real Americans." Packer says that became clear to him during Trump's campaign, "in a town near Canton, Ohio," where local locked-out steelworker Jack Baum told him he liked Trump’s “patriotic” stands on trade and immigration, "but he also found Trump’s insults refreshing, even exhilarating. The ugliness was a kind of revenge, Baum said: 'It’s a mirror of the way they see us.' He didn’t specify who they and us were, but maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe he believed—he was too polite to say it—that people like me looked down on people like him."

Packer says racism played a role in Trump's rise but it has been overblown. "Racism alone couldn’t explain why white men were much more likely to vote for Trump than white women, or why the same was true of Black and Latino men and women. Or why the most reliable predictor for who was a Trump voter wasn’t race but the combination of race and education. Among white people, 38 percent of college graduates voted for Trump, compared with 64 percent without college degrees. This margin—the great gap between Smart America and Real America—was the decisive one. It made 2016 different from previous elections, and the trend only intensified in 2020."

Summing up, Packer says all four narratives "emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years. They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid. They rise from a single society, and even in one as polarized as ours they continually shape, absorb, and morph into one another. But their tendency is also to divide us, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself."

He concludes, "We remain trapped in two countries. Each one is split by two narratives: Smart and Just on one side, Free and Real on the other. Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future. The tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on."

Local journalism's supply-side problem comes mainly from the demand side; fewer people seem to want local news

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

Local news is in trouble because not enough people want it, Politico media reporter Jack Shafer writes, and I agree. But I think he misses some causes of the problem.

Shafer lays out the familiar arguments for local news, with references: "Local news makes representative government more accountable, scholars claim. Books and monographs extolling the virtues of local reporting on everything from public health to economic vitality abound. When local reporting goes south, researchers tell us, political polarization, civic corruption, lower voter turnout, reduced civic engagement and even authoritarianism follow."

Photo from Politico
Then he notes the hard facts: "A 2018 Duke University study of 16,000 local news outlets (including broadcasters) in 100 communities deemed only about 17 percent of articles as truly local (i.e., they took place in or were about the local municipality), and just over half were hard news. Another 2018 finding by Pew revealed that only 16 percent of Americans get their news 'often' from a newspaper, further lowering the status of the press. . . . Last year, when Facebook went prospecting for local news to include in a new section called 'Today In,' it found that one in three of its users lived in places where there wasn’t enough local news published to sustain the section." Meanwhile, newspapers are in a death spiral of fewer readers, fewer ads and high subscription costs that make up some ad-revenue losses but also drive away readers.

Shafer cites a 2018 Emory University study of local TV news suggesting that "low-cost, quality national news online . . . has siphoned off readers who might otherwise partake of local news." Surprisingly, he does not note the study's top two findings: "substantial increases in coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics" and "a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage," driven partly by Sinclair Broadcasting, which disproportionately serves TV markets with high rural population percentages.

And what was going on during the study period? Donald Trump was getting elected, dominating news coverage with his unorthodox approaches and attacking traditional news media. That affected rural and community journalists even before Trump was inaugurated, as I wrote in early 2017. In the last four years, some newspapers (notably those of Arkansas-based publisher Walter Hussman) have done a better job of explaining how journalism is supposed to work, but overall I don't think most news outlets do that well, and they fail to remind Americans of the differences in news media and social media.

Social media and the torrent of other online information leave readers with less time to consume local news. And that news is often not as interesting or entertaining as what they are getting from outside their community. As people spend more time in those communities of interest, they have less time to spend with their geographic communities, and those communities are the basis for most news outlets. Lower readership means fewer ads, which leaves less room for news, which drives down readership and continues the decline. Stopping it requires smart decisions about giving readers what they want, but also giving them what they need to be good citizens. The real trick is making them want what they need.

Despite his omissions, Shafer's piece is worth reading. He concludes:

"The groups most enthusiastic about saving and expanding local news are journalists, whose self-interest is self-evident; good-government types who savor the watchdog function of the press; tech giants like Google and Facebook, which have donated millions to local news to disarm critics who claim they destroyed newspapering (they didn’t, but that’s another column); politicians like Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, who regard the news as “infrastructure”; and academics and foundations that say local coverage is integral to a functional society. The local news movement won’t make much progress until its proponents realize that its primary obstacle is a demand-side one, not a supply-side one. It’s not that nobody wants to read local news; it’s just that not enough people do to make it a viable business. Maybe the surfeit of local news of yesteryear was the product of an economic accident, a moment that cannot be reclaimed. But even if you were to underwrite local news with taxes and philanthropy, and distribute it to citizens via subsidies, you’d still have to find a way to get people to read it. Until some editorial genius cracks that puzzle, the local news quest will remain a charitable, niche project advanced by journalistic, academic and political elites."

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Southern Baptists gather as race, gender issues and politics tribulate their convention and other evangelical churches

Revs. Ronnie Floyd and Dwight McKissic in 2014
after Floyd was elected president of the Southern
Baptist Convention. (AP photo by Steve Ruark)
The Southern Baptist Convention, which was created because of race and slavery 15 years before the Civil War, is arguing about race, sex and other touchy social issues as it prepares to convene Tuesday in Nashville. And it reflects simmering political conflicts in much of American evangelicalism.

With talk of critical race theory, "demands for political loyalty" and "a fight between conservatives and ultraconservatives, it sounds like current debates within the Republican Party," writes Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post. The meeting will shape the future of the 14-million-member denomination, and will be "probably the largest religious gathering since the pandemic, as well as the biggest Baptist meeting in decades," with 16,000 attendees expected.

"What is especially unusual about the meeting is infighting at the highest levels of leadership that has become public in recent weeks," Bailey reports. "New details released to news-media outlets have shined a light on the backroom dealings of several of its high-profile leaders." Russell Moore, who ran the SBC's public-policy office, "recently left his position and his church for a new position at Christianity Today magazine. On his way out, two letters he sent to SBC leadership were leaked to media, in which Moore described a culture of racism and mishandling of sexual-abuse claims."

The current flash point is critical race theory, the concept that racism is a product of society, not only individuals, and is often embedded in societal institutions. "Prominent members of the SBC, including Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s oldest academic institution, have demonized C.R.T., calling it, among other things, Marxist and anti-Biblical. Mohler, of Louisville, and south Georgia pastor Mike Stone, who has called CRT a “weapon of division,” are running for SBC president. The other candidate is Ed Litton, "a soft-spoken pastor who has been involved in racial-reconciliation efforts in Mobile, and who believes that the fight over CRT has become a way to avoid talking about the need for structural change" in the convention, Eliza Griswold reports for The New Yorker magazine.

If Litton doesn't win, that is expected to accelerate the departure of Black pastors and congregations, Griswold reports. Her object example is the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas, who got SBC help to start his church 38 years ago but isn't going to the convention: "Until recently, much of the racism that he’d encountered in the SBC was 'passive,' McKissic said. But after the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, he felt that the racist rhetoric became more overt. McKissic was also unsettled by what he saw as a growing antipathy toward allowing women to serve in leadership roles in the church."

The long-simmering gender conflict in the denomination, which limits the roles of women, was highlighted this spring when "Beth Moore, a hugely popular speaker and author, stepped away from the SBC because of what she saw as its continued racism and sexism," Griswold notes.

Bailey notes that the convention, like most evangelical groups, is less of a denomination than most denominations: "The SBC prides itself in the 'autonomy' of individual churches, which operate independently but contribute to multi-million-dollar budgets for missions, seminaries and other collective efforts" of the convention. "The transactional nature of the denomination allows pastors and lay members to financially benefit from things such as pastors’ health insurance and reduced tuition rates at its schools. What matters at the convention is that individual members come forward and vote collectively to find a unifying voice on different matters and to vote for its next president."

The tribulations of the SBC reflect those in other evangelical groups and society, Baptist professors told Griswold. Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said she sees an “evangelical reckoning . . . These tensions reflect an emerging schism in what it means to be an evangelical. Theological conservatives are reclaiming the moral authority of following Jesus without blindly following the old battle lines of the culture wars.”

Keith Whitfield, a theology professor at Southeastern, told Griswold, “We’ve understood since 1995 that we have to open the doors for other people to come in if we’re going to remain viable for the future—if not, the effectiveness of our gospel witness will be compromised. . . . The SBC is a mirror for what’s happening in American evangelicalism, and the culture writ large.”

Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist who runs the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, told Griswold that churches have become increasingly politicized: “People are now sorting themselves into churches that align more with their political ideology than their theology They want the sermons they hear on Sundays to align with what they hear on cable news all week.”

Students in federal Bureau of Indian Education schools test two grade levels below the national average, data reveals

Chart by ProPublica and The Arizona Republic

Students in federal Bureau of Indian Education schools get slightly better test scores than Native students in local public schools, but still score well below the national average on standardized tests, ProPublica and The Arizona Republic found in the first-ever analysis of BIE students' scores.

The BIE has long failed to obey the federal law requiring all schools to report publicly "how well they help children learn . . . despite repeated warnings about the quality of education Native American children receive in its schools," reporters Alden Woods and Agnel Philip report.

After analyzing 200,000 scores going back nine years, with Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project, they found "above-average learning rates for students in the BIE’s classrooms compared to Native students who attended nearby public schools . . . but the analysis also revealed an achievement gap that even the BIE’s highest-performing schools cannot close," they report. "BIE students performed more than two grade levels below the national average on standardized tests. And compared to Native students attending the nearest public school district, the BIE students still remained nearly one-third of a grade level behind."

The reporters write that the results indicate "that the pace of learning in nearly all BIE schools wasn’t rapid enough to compensate for centuries of disinvestment in tribal communities and families or a lack of early childhood learning opportunities, which contribute to many BIE students being behind schedule academically by the time standardized testing begins in the third grade."

“We have kindergarteners that are two years behind,” Charles Cuny Jr., superintendent of Little Wound School, a tribally controlled school on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, told the reporters. “The question is, how are you two years behind in kindergarten?”