Saturday, July 17, 2021

Legacy-saving editorial wins weekly editors' top prize; other winners deal with pandemic, impact of protests, local issues

New York's Helderberg Escarpment overlooks a site an editorial helped save. (Photo by UpstateNYer, Creative Commons)
Editorials are falling out of favor at many American newspapers, for various reasons, including a desire not to upset and chase away readers. Unfortunately, many rural newspapers don't opine. But one journalism organization with mainly rural members was founded to encourage and advance editorial leadership in newspapers, and the only awards it gives are related to editorials.

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors gave its 2021 Golden Quill award for best editorial to Melissa Hale-Spencer of The Altamont Enterprise in New York for her piece that was central to a campaign that ensured fairness for an incapacitated subscriber and preservation of historic structures on her 87 acres at the foot of the scenic Helderberg Escarpment, the northeast extremity of the Allegheny Plateau, which overlooks the capital of Albany and the Hudson River.

Hale-Spencer discovered that a court-appointed lawyer was going to sell the property to a developer. “We believe the price is not right and the assets are being ignored in the name of haste,” she wrote, raising other questions about the procedure that seemed to favor the developer. The editorial stirred interest in preserving the property and prompted the judge in the case to appoint an attorney to look out for the subscriber's interests, and to pick another buyer, who not only paid more money but agreed to a conservation easement that preserved the centuries-old house and barn.

Melissa Hale-Spencer
“I feel incredibly lucky to have a newspaper that brought people in our community together to solve a problem,” Hale-Spencer said in accepting the award at ISWNE's annual conference, which was held online. (Next year it will be at the University of Kentucky, July 20-23.)

Pandemic and protests prompt commentary and courage

Noting that two of the 12 winners in the contest's "Golden Dozen" wrote about the pandemic, Hale-Spencer said, "The pandemic has made clear that accurate information can be a matter of life and death." She told the editors, "I urge you to stay strong, to believe in the worth of your work."

Mark Ridolfi, assistant editor of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, warned Sept. 2 that inconsistency in state and Scott County measures against the coronavirus were putting residents at risk, and noted the infection of the school superintendent and 40 students. To those who wanted to let the virus "take its own course" and develop herd immunity, he asked, "Who is it OK to infect?"

Fines Massey, editor of the Laclede County Record in Lebanon, Mo., wrote Oct. 17 that virus cases were “skyrocketing” because residents were not wearing masks and keeping their distance. We have to stop shrugging this away,” he wrote. “We have to take this more seriously before it becomes seriously too late.” He also knocked the herd-immunity folks, calling them “incredibly heartless.” He told the editors that local attitudes are "much worse" now, and his publisher "asked if we were beating a dead horse," but Massey said, "If even sway one person, it's important that we continue."

The pandemic was also the topic of the winner of the college division of the contest, The Observer, the student newspaper for the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary's College and Holy Cross College. On Aug. 21, as students prepared to return, the editorial board implored readers to “approach this virus in an appropriate and serious manner” and “Don't make us write obituaries.”

Two of the Golden Dozen editorials stemmed from the protests spawned by the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd. Rachel Woolworth, managing editor of the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo., criticized the local sheriff and police chief for writing, “The media has chosen to focus on Mr. Floyd’s skin color and the police officer’s skin color, because that is what sells.” She wrote, “These words dismiss the existence of institutional racism in our country.”

The hostility displayed by Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protesters on either side of the main highway in Beacon, N.Y., led Jeff Simms, Beacon editor of The Highlands Current, to acknowledge “the anger and frustration our neighbors feel after a lifetime of slights and centuries of abhorrent treatment. Conversely, most police officers are not racists or rogue and must feel unfairly criticized and taken for granted.”

Other winners were purely local, except Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a statewide publication. He warned against a possible return to a bounty-style compensation system for local prosecutors' offices, which "just looks and sounds bad."

Steve Bagwell, editorial-page editor of the McMinnville News-Register in Oregon, questioned the legal analysis of a judge in allowing "a remorseless teen murderer" to be free at age 25.

Tamara Botting, news editor of The Sachem in Stoney Creek, Ontario, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the area to deal with a land claim by some local First Nations.

Donald Dodd, publisher of The Salem News in Missouri, called for creation of a utility board "that can acquire an expertise of sorts" after a billing debacle in the city's $8.5 million utility department. 

Lori Freeze, news editor of the Stone County Leader in Mountain View, Ark., endorsed a school-tax hike, saying "It’s generally understood that local economies in rural America are consistent with the success of local school districts." (It lost in a referendum in late May, 927 to 826.)

John Hueston, editor-publisher of The Aylmer Express in Ontario, noted a high local death rate from alcohol and its contribution to the local court docket, and said the province's Liquor Control Board should hear some testimony from victims of alcohol abuse.

Jeremy Waltner, editor-publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota, used a detailed description of the decline of Main Street to encourage the Freeman City Council to make improvements.

The editorials and judge's comments are in the latest edition of Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Rural Americans invited to share their internet bills and speeds to help shed a spotlight on fair prices and service

A national campaign aims to find out whether Americans pay a fair price for internet service. 

This week, "Consumer Reports launched 'Let’s Broadband Together' in partnership with a coalition of groups across the U.S. — including the Rural Assembly, a program of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes The Daily Yonder," the Yonder's Adilia Watson reports. "The project is asking consumers to submit their internet bills and download speeds to a national database that researchers and consumer advocates will use to analyze what American families pay for internet access and what their money buys them."

At least 60 percent of rural residents say it's difficult to access high-speed internet, according to recent Pew Research Center data, Watson reports.

"To participate in the campaign, consumers will be asked to share a monthly internet bill showing cost of service, to complete a speed test, and to fill-in a short survey. The entire process is estimated to take about seven minutes," Watson reports. "The data will be aggregated and analyzed to develop benchmarks around the cost of service and speed. The project will help analysts understand how and why prices and performance vary. No personally-identifiable information will be recorded as part of the project’s analysis ... Participants will receive a free Consumer Reports membership and access to educational materials about broadband reliability and affordability." Campaign organizers hope to gather at least 30,000 submissions by the end of September.

Report for America accepting host newsroom applications; seeking rural newsrooms to help thwart 'news deserts'

Report for America is especially seeking rural newsrooms as it accepts applications for newsrooms to host reporters and editors next summer. Click here to apply.

Rick Edmonds reports for Poynter that the program is in its fifth year and "has partially funded roughly 300 journalists this year. That number will substantially expand, president and co-founder Steve Waldman told me, but he is not sure yet by how much, depending on funding and other factors. Report for America typically places journalists early in their careers, but last year it added slots for some more experienced reporters and editors. It had 1,800 applications for 130 new positions in 2021 (some of the 300 are being funded for a second or third year). Organizations hoping to receive reporters also go through a competitive screening process."

Waldman said the program will emphasize rural placements because of expanding "news deserts" that leave areas underserved. "You have to be strong there if you are going to tackle the problem," he told Edmonds. "We also see it as a way to make an impact on the issue of polarization. … Our premise is that the vacuums in local journalism are being filled by national news and disinformation."

Capital Gazette gunman found guilty of five murders

Three years ago in June, a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. On Thursday, a jury found the shooter criminally responsible, rejecting his claim of mental illness. 

"The verdict means Jarrod Ramos will be sentenced to prison, not a maximum-security mental health facility, for one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in the U.S.," Brian Witte reports for The Associated Press. "Prosecutors are seeking five life sentences without the possibility of parole. The jury needed less than two hours to find that Ramos, 41, could understand the criminality of his actions and conform his conduct to the requirements of the law when he attacked the Capital Gazette."

The trial was mainly about whether Ramos was competent to stand trial. Photojournalist Paul Gillespie said he suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression since the attack. In court, he said of Ramos: "He’s evil; he’s not crazy. He deserves to be in prison, and I hope he gets all five life terms." A date has not been set for the sentencing, but the judge estimated it will happen in about two months, Witte reports.

"Ramos developed a long-running grudge against the newspaper after an article it published about his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of harassing a former high school classmate in 2011," Witte reports. "He filed a lawsuit against the paper in 2012, alleging he was defamed, but it was dismissed as groundless. His appeals failed."

His defense argued that he was mentally ill, and believed the courts and newspaper were conspiring to ruin his life, but prosecutors said the defense's mental-health evaluations were insufficient to prove mental illness, and argued that the shooting was a calculated act of revenge.

How ecologists fixed a wildfire hazard with beavers

Place Land Trust land manager Elias Grant discusses the importance of beavers in
the ecosystem at Doty Ravine Preserve in Lincoln, Calif. (Sacramento Bee photo)
"Seven years ago, ecologists looking to restore a dried-out Placer County floodplain [near Sacramento] faced a choice: Spend at least $1 million bringing in heavy machines to revive habitat or try a new approach. They went for the second option, and turned to nature’s original flood manager to do the work — the beaver," Isabella Bloom reports for The Sacramento Bee. "The creek bed, altered by decades of agricultural use, had looked like a wildfire risk. It came back to life far faster than anticipated after the beavers began building dams that retained water longer."

The project cost about $58,000, mostly spent on preparing the site for the beavers. The project is "supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife program," Bloom reports. "Since 2014, it has worked with the Placer Land Trust to restore and enhance habitat for migratory birds, waterfowl, salmon and steelhead by unleashing the beavers, a keystone species."

Though FWS officials thought the project would take a decade, the beavers reconnected the stream to the floodplain in only three years. "It was insane, it was awesome," said Lynnette Batt, the conservation director of the Placer Land Trust, which owns and maintains the Doty Ravine Preserve. "It went from dry grassland. .. to totally revegetated, trees popping up, willows, wetland plants of all types, different meandering stream channels across about 60 acres of floodplain," she told Bloom.

There are probably dozens of smaller projects in the state employing the same approach as the method becomes more popular, Bloom reports.

Quick hits: rural migrant health; covering critical race theory; Biden rejects free-trade doctrine of Dem. predecessors . . .

A former pet goldfish pulled from a lake near Minneapolis.
(City of Burnsville photo)
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

Experts offer journalists four tips on covering critical race theory. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub has a new backgrounder guide to rural migrant health. Read more here.

More than 7,500 have applied for a program that promises incentives for remote workers who move to West Virginia. Read more here.

Wildlife officials are asking people to stop dumping their pet fish in lakes; the former pets grow so large that they could disrupt lake habitats. Read more here.

Though President Biden has not fully shifted away from President Trump's protectionist policies, Biden is the first modern Democratic president to reject "the dogma of free trade," George E. Condon Jr. writes for the National Journal. Read more here.

In a first for a federal criminal trial, prosecutors used tree DNA to prove that defendants had stolen valuable bigleaf maple trees from Olympic National Forest in Washington and sold them to local lumber mills. Read more here.

The industrial hemp boom has largely gone bust; experts speculate on what could happen next for growers, processors, and the hemp market in general. Read more here.

A Black family farm is fighting climate change and racism in agriculture. Read more here.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Analysis suggests fewer rural college students major in STEM fields because of inadequate high-school prep

Fewer rural college students major in science, technology, engineering and math than their suburban and urban peers, according to a new analysis of federal data. "Only 13 percent of rural and small town students major in math and science in college, compared with almost 17% of students in the suburbs ... Urban students also trail suburban students when it comes to studying science, but only by a little, according to the federal data." Jill Barshay reports for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education newsroom.

That's a problem when more jobs than ever require training in so-called STEM fields. "According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations in these fields are projected to grow 8 percent by 2029, more than double the growth rate of non-scientific professions," Barshay reports.

Part of the reason for the gap is that fewer rural high-school students go to four-year colleges, but even those who do are less likely to major in STEM fields. A June 2021 data analysis may offer some clues as to why, Barshay reports. Researchers at Claremont Graduate University studied a federal dataset of more than 20,000 students nationwide, and found that rural students had the same interest in math and science careers as their suburban counterparts at the start of high school.

But many rural students weren't as well-prepared for STEM fields: "Rural students posted lower scores on math assessments in early ninth grade than their suburban counterparts and they had taken half as many high-school level courses in middle school," Barshay reports. "By the end of 11th grade, rural students’ desire to pursue a career in math or science dropped below 9%. Some suburban students became disenchanted with a life in math or science too, but their enthusiasm fell only 1 percentage point. At the same time, the math achievement gap between rural and suburban students grew even larger."

The researchers posited three explanations for rural students' declining interest in STEM fields: lack of advanced math and science classes; math and science teachers who weren't as qualified or confident; and fewer opportunities for extracurricular math and science through activities such as science fairs, robotics competitions, or math clubs, Barshay reports.

"Solving these problems won’t be easy. The Rural STEM Education Act proposes to improve teacher training and increase both online and hands-on science education in rural schools. It has bipartisan support, has passed the House and may become law," Barshay reports. "But it will remain hard to justify hiring an Advanced Placement physics teacher for just a handful of students in a small school and harder to recruit an excellent teacher to teach it."

Rural stakeholders encouraged to speak up to get federal aid for water systems; more funds may be on the way

As state and local governments decide how to spend their share of federal pandemic aid, rural water experts are encouraging stakeholders to educate themselves about the available aid and speak up about their water-system improvement needs, Daniel Vock reports for Route Fifty.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act included $350 billion in direct aid to help state and local governments cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic, but the law also allows recipients to use the money for other priorities such as water infrastructure, Vock notes.

Liz Royer, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, is encouraging rural water systems in her state to tell town officials about their needs. Royer said some of the smallest systems would have few other options to get money from the state, especially those run by fire districts instead of town governments. But even small amounts of funding could be critical to small water systems.

"You’re not going to do a loan application [through the state] for a $10,000 or $20,000 project," Royer told Vock. "But some of these very, very small systems may only have 50 customers, so for them to do an upgrade that’s going to cost $25,000 is going to be a big hit to their customers with low incomes."

Mike Keegan, a regulatory analyst for the National Rural Water Association, told Vock that educating local government officials about the aid will be one of the biggest hurdles for rural water systems to get a share of the funding.

Meanwhile, federal aid specifically for rural water systems continues to flow. The Agriculture Department Rural Development office is allotting $307 million to modernizing rural drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in 34 states and Puerto Rico. Click here for a list of recipients, and click here for more information about the program or to apply).

Congress may approve more money for water-utility improvement as well. Earlier this month the House passed a $715 billion infrastructure bill that would authorize up to $117 billion in drinking-water projects over five years and $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure, Vock reports. 

Most Republicans opposed the Democrat-led bill, but a narrower bill focused on water infrastructure only passed the Senate with only two dissenting votes in April. That bill "would spend up to $35 billion over five years on water infrastructure. That includes nearly $15 billion each for both the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds," Vock reports. "While the Senate bill’s authorization levels might look small compared to the House’s levels, it would still nearly double the money for the drinking water fund in the first year and increase those levels after that."

Friday webinar to discuss rural-led climate-change solutions

The Aspen Institute's Thrive Rural will host a free online webinar Friday to highlight rural communities' efforts to address climate change. 

"Pathfinders: Climate-Smart Solutions from Rural America and Native Nations" will run from 1:30-3:15 p.m. ET July 16. Click here for more information or to register. The event is part of the ROAD Sessions, a series that highlights and unpacks rural development ideas and strategies to address the coronavirus and long-term rebuilding and recovery issues.

From the website: "The series reflects and emphasizes the full diversity of rural America, spotlights rural America’s assets and challenges, and lifts voices and lived experience from a wide range of rural communities and economies. Each Session includes an added opportunity for peer exchange. Overall, the ROAD Sessions aim to infuse practitioner stories and lessons into rural narratives, policymaking and practice across the country, and to strengthen the network of organizations serving rural communities and regions."

The fallout of climate change—increased wildfires, droughts, and more—often falls disproportionately on rural residents, so it makes sense that rural leaders should be part of the solution, according to one of the event's organizers. "Any solution to climate change must involve rural places — the rural people and places that are deeply impacted by a changing climate," Clifford Devin Deaton, communications manager of Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, told The Daily Yonder.

The ROAD Sessions are co-designed and hosted in partnership with the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute and with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – in collaboration with the Housing Assistance Council, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the Federal Reserve Board.

Missouri, Arkansas fuel 25% bump in new rural virus cases

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 4-10
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

Driven by outbreaks of the Delta variant, new rural coronavirus infections over the week of July 4-10 rose more than 25 percent over the week before, while the number of rural red-zone counties jumped more than 50%, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The government defines red zones as those with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 residents in a week

Missouri and Arkansas are at the epicenter of the uptick. "Missouri’s statewide rate of new infections grew by about two-thirds last week. The new-infection rate in rural counties was 10% higher than in metropolitan counties. The same was true in Arkansas, where new cases grew by nearly 50% last week," Murphy and Marema report. "Two thirds of Arkansas’ 26 rural counties were in the red zone last week."

Covid-related deaths, a lagging indicator of the pandemic, "fell for the sixth consecutive week, dropping by about 13% to 282, the lowest number in more than a year," Murphy and Marema report. "Deaths from Covid-19 lag several weeks behind upticks in infections, so the drop in deaths last week reflects the decline in Covid infections that occurred in late spring and early summer. New Covid-19 infections fell for eight out of nine weeks in May and June."

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Rural population fell a bit over past decade while metro rose

Screenshot of interactive map produced by The Daily Yonder
Daily Yonder graph, adapted by The Rural Blog
The populations of non-metropolitan counties fell slightly from 2010 to 2020 while populations in other areas grew, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates made public in advance of the full decennial census count.

There were 238,000 fewer people living in non-metropolitan counties in 2020 than in 2010, the Census Bureau estimates. That amounts to a half of a percent decline in the total number of people living in rural counties (46.2 million people in 2020). Rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties lost population for seven out of the last 10 years," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "The nation’s medium-sized and large cities showed the largest gains in population in the decade. The core counties of these metropolitan areas of 250,000 or more residents grew by 7.8%, or 10.3 million people. Suburban counties in these larger metro areas gained 9%, or 9.3 million people. Smaller cities (under 250,000) gained 1.4 million, or 5%. Rural counties lost population."

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

Biden administration drops Trump administration's idea that would have greatly expanded unofficial definition of 'rural'

Map by The Daily Yonder, based on Office of Management and Budget data

The Biden administration has dropped a Trump-administration proposal that would have doubled the threshold to qualify as a metropolitan area, a move that would have greatly broadened the rough but most widely used definition of "rural" in the United States.

At the end of the previous administration, the White House Office of Management and Budget proposed that the metro threshold be raised from a central city of 50,000 to one of 100,000. OMB announced in a press release Tuesday that the threshold would not be changed, but studied for 2030.

The idea was not popular, and prompted a campaign against it, reports Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder. Of the 734 comments OMB received about it, 712, or 97%, were opposed, the agency said in its report to be published in the Federal Register on July 16. Some rural advocates feared that it would dilute the impact of programs designed for nonmetropolitan counties.

"The change would have reclassified 251 currently metropolitan counties as nonmetropolitan, based on current population figures," Marema reports. "The affected counties contain a combined population of about 18 million. The change would have raised the nation’s nonmetropolitan population from about 46 million to 64 million."

OMB says the definition is not meant to draw a rural-urban line, but it is "incorporated into an undetermined number of federal funding programs," Marema notes. "Even the venerable USDA Economic Research Service uses the nonmetropolitan classification as the starting point for much of its research on rural conditions."

OMB noted, "Counties included in metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas [central cites of 10,000 to 50,000] may contain both urban and rural territory and population. For instance, programs that seek to strengthen rural economies by focusing solely on counties located outside MSAs could ignore a predominantly rural county that is included in an MSA because a high percentage of the county’s residents commute to urban centers for work."

Report: Appalachia needs billions to clean up old mines

Unreclaimed and partially reclaimed acreage for all current
mine permits in Appalachia (Appalachian Voices map)
A new report found that it will cost Appalachian states billions to clean up abandoned coal mines, much more than the now-bankrupt coal companies were required to provide for the purpose.

"It will cost from $7.5 billion to $9.8 billion to reclaim 633,000 acres of just coal mines that have been closed or idled since 1977 across seven Appalachian states, according to the report from environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices," Mike Tony reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "That’s twice as much as the $3.8 billion in total bonds available to those states, according to the report."

"The report’s author, Appalachian Voices senior program manager Erin Savage, said in a teleconference Wednesday that Appalachian state environmental regulators need to do far more to address the shortfall poised to grow as more coal companies declare bankruptcy, ditch their reclamation obligations and leave state bonding systems on the hook," Tony reports.

"Lack of reclamation can be a burden and hazard to coal communities, Savage said [during the teleconference]. They pointed to Blackjewel, a bankrupt coal company that was once the nation’s sixth-largest coal producer," Liz Moomey reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "In March, a bankruptcy judge approved Blackjewel’s plan to abandon or transfer its mining permits, but the majority of their Kentucky permits have either not been transferred to other coal companies or have no interested buyer and are likely to be abandoned."

After the Blackjewel ruling, Sierra Club senior attorney Peter Morgan said he feared the case might signal a trend in which bankrupt coal companies "dump their coal mine cleanup obligations onto communities and taxpayers who simply don’t have the money to pick up the tab."

Rebecca Shelton, policy director at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, echoed Morgan, Moomey reports. "We are really worried that this bankruptcy is a harbinger of what’s to come if no action is taken to ensure that bonding is sufficient to cover reclamation cost in all currently permitted mine sites," she said when presenting the report to state lawmakers last week.

During the teleconference, Savage said state agencies haven't taken bond shortfalls seriously enough, but said Blackjewel's bankruptcy might serve as a warning to other states, especially as the coal industry continues declining and more companies go bankrupt, Moomey reports.

Anti-vax sentiment may be rising among prison staff

Cumulative Covid-19 case rate in prisons, jails and detention centers.
UCLA Law map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"Health experts had warned that getting sufficient vaccines to prisons would be a logistical challenge. But a new slate of difficulties — from a deadlier Covid-19 variant to anti-vax misinformation — has slowed vaccination rates in prisons, particularly among corrections staff," Eva Herscowitz reports for The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York

For example, only 22 percent of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections guards were vaccinated as of mid-June. "An April report by the Prison Policy Initiative found a similar trend nationwide: designated a priority group, prison staff have refused the vaccine in vast numbers, leaving entire prison populations — and surrounding communities — at risk," Herscowitz reports. "According to the report, 48 percent of prison staff members nationwide had received at least one dose, although in some states rates remained in the teens."

John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, told Herscowitz that all demographic groups have some vaccine hesitancy, and said vaccination should be an individual choice. But others, such as a New York corrections officer, say guards are less likely to get vaccinated because they don't want to look weak, and because of misleading right-wing social media posts.

"That rationale aligns with the tactics commentators are deploying on right-wing networks, including Fox News. According to The New York Times, high-profile hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been spouting a stream of falsehoods — that vaccines are dangerous, people should refuse them and public authorities are inappropriately endorsing inoculation — even as the Delta variant fuels outbreaks," Herscowitz reports.

For the unvaccinated, "the more contagious and now-dominant variant is especially dangerous in prisons, where cramped conditions make social distancing and proper hygiene nearly impossible," Herscowitz reports. That's according to Josh Manson, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles Law School's COVID Behind Bars Data Project. Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons can hurt the other prisons and surrounding communities as infected officers bring the virus home with them, and transferred prisoners bring it to other facilities.

Texas abortion law, which citizens can enforce, draws suit

More than 20 Texas abortion providers filed suit against state officials Tuesday in response to a recently passed law with one of the nation's most restrictive abortion limitations. 

"Known as the 'heartbeat bill,' [it] was heavily criticized because it limits abortion to two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, a time when some women don’t yet know they’re pregnant," Heidi Perez-Moreno reports for The Texas Tribune. "It aims to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is considered a misnomer as a fetus doesn’t possess a heart at six weeks’ gestation."

Several states have passed heartbeat bills; the Texas law, set to take effect Sept. 1, has a novel enforcement provision intended to make the law harder to block in court: Any private citizen can sue abortion providers or anyone else they believe isn't complying with state abortion laws. "Citizens who file such suits would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion or even reside in Texas. Those who win lawsuits would be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees," Perez-Moreno reports.

Opponents of the law say it could stress an already overburdened court system and leave abortion clinics and women vulnerable to intimidation and harassment, Perez-Moreno reports. They also say it sets a dangerous precedent, since a person who files suit is typically required to have sustained harm as the basis of the suit.

Anti-abortion organization Right to Life East Texas, which helped write the bill, was named in the suit. The group is also behind ordinances in several small towns that declared them as "sanctuary cities for the unborn." Anti-abortion organizations in other states have successfully pitched similar sanctuary city ordinances; it's unclear whether any are pursuing similar statewide laws such as the one in Texas.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Critics say postage-rate hike plans threaten small papers

The U.S. Postal Service's plan to raise rates threatens community newspapers already struggling from the pandemic advertising dip, according to the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing nearly 2,000 U.S. news organizations. Many small daily newspapers now circulate mainly by mail, not carriers.

Rates on newspapers and other periodicals would increase by more than 8 percent on Aug. 29. "The price jump is part of a broad plan pushed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to overhaul mail operations," David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre report for The Associated Press.

The move could force publishers to reduce staff, sell papers entirely from news racks instead of providing home delivery, or could cause papers to shutter entirely, NMA senior vice president Paul Boyle said. In comments to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission, the NMA said the plans harm the public interest but do little to improve the Postal Service's financial condition.

"It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line, especially if you are an independent publisher who is operating at break even or in the low single digits of profitability. And most are," Penelope Muse Abernathy, a Northwestern University professor who has extensively studied the decline of the news industry, told AP.

Child tax credit checks start going out Thursday; biggest blow at poverty in decades, and could improve student learning

On Thursday, July 15, the first payments for the newly expanded child tax credit will go out to some 39 million families with about 65 million children. This is the first time the federal government has tried to reduce child poverty through widely available direct payments, and could be the greatest blow struck against poverty in decades.

"For some families, the money could be transformative," writes Moriah Ballingit of The Washington Post. The colossal and historic investment is expected to cut child poverty in half, according to an analysis from Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy."

Though the initiative has been much in the news since its approval in March, many Americans are still confused about it. A recent Ally Bank survey found that nearly half surveyed weren't sure if they qualified, and a quarter weren't sure how to access the credit, Reinicke reports.

So, here's some basic info about the plan, per Kiplinger and CNBC:
  • Payments will be issued on or near the 15th of the month through December. Payments won't continue in 2022 as of now, but President Biden and many Congressional Democrats want to approve the extension.
  • For most people, the combined total of the six monthly payments will equal 50 percent of the child tax credit they're expected to qualify for on their 2021 tax return. They can claim the other half when they file their 2021 tax return. 
  • For 2021 only, the credit is increased from $2,000 for each child age 16 or under to $3,600 per child for kids 6-17 years old. 
  • The maximum monthly payment is $300 for each child under age 6 and $250 for children ages 6-17.
  • The full credit is available to married parents who file taxes jointly and have adjusted gross income less than $150,000, or $75,000 for individuals. The credit phases out for taxpayers who make more money and ceases for individuals earning $95,000 and married couples earning $170,000 filing jointly.
  • The monthly child tax credit payments won't include the $500 credit available for older children, elderly parents, and other dependents.
  • The IRS will deposit the money directly into your bank account, if you receive your tax returns that way, or will mail you a check or debit card.
  • Click here to check whether you're set up to receive the payment by electronic deposit.
  • Click here to calculate how much you'll receive.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a former superintendent of Denver schools, "cited a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found that increasing tax credits could boost test scores," the Post reports. Economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman, then of Harvard University, and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia estimated that the boost in academic achievement could reap gains over a child’s lifetime, increasing the likelihood they would graduate and attend college, and boosting their earnings," Ballingit reports.

Pandemic roundup: Low-vax areas put rest of U.S. at risk of new variants; GOP governors ask people to get shots

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

Five areas with low vaccination rates could put the entire U.S. at risk of spreading new coronavirus variants, according to new research. The areas are "scattered across eight states and concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, touching Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas," The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Read more here.

Republican governors are asking residents to overcome their vaccine hesitancy as the delta variant becomes more prevalent. Read more here.

A new study on the Delta variant underlines the importance of receiving both vaccine shots, and highlights the challenges posed by mutations. Read more here.

The highest coronavirus infection rates in California (and likely, other states) have shifted to rural counties. Read more here.

Rural Kentucky health officials press on, one coronavirus vaccination at a time. Read more here.

Rural Tennessee is struggling to get people vaccinated. Younger adults may be a big part of the problem. Read more here.

Whether Republicans get vaccinated is highly correlated with which right-wing news station they watch, according to a survey. Read more here.

New safety booklets aim to improve youth safety on the farm

One of the available booklets
Youth commonly help out on family farms or work after-school jobs on the farms, but it can be dangerous work. Over the past decade, more youth have died working in agriculture than in all other industries combined. 

Three new booklets (available in English, Spanish and French) aim to help youth stay safer on the farm. The booklets were developed by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety and cover more than 50 commonly performed tasks. Each guideline has warnings about common hazards, tips for important protective strategies and the roles adults play in ensuring a safe work environment.

Each booklet addresses a specific topic: farm equipment operation, working with animals, and gardening. The Children's Center also has a set of information sheets with safety guidelines for hired adolescent farm workers.

Grant funds Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, a reporting network based at Missouri School of Journalism

The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water desk website has this map of the basin.

The Mississippi River basin, which covers almost half the continental United States, will be the focus of "a collaborative network of journalists focused on increasing coverage of agriculture, water and environmental issues," based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

The Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk is funded with a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which a university news release calls "a leading funder of environmental journalism in the United States."

By partnering with Report for America, the network will put 10 journalists in newsrooms in the region to cover issues such as pollution, flooding, land use and climate change, with training and mentorship from the journalism school, along with experts from the Society of Environmental Journalists. The journalists will also be supported by five veteran journalists from the region who will serve as advisers and collaborators.

Content will be delivered to regional and national audiences. The journalism school will hire an editorial director and associate director to help run the program. Sara Shipley Hiles, an associate professor, is executive director of the project. Earnest Perry, associate dean for graduate studies and research, and Ryan Famuliner, associate professor and news director at KBIA-FM, are advisers.

The network will be "a signature program of the School of Journalism’s emerging Center for Science Communication, which will include the development of student courses in immersive, multi-platform storytelling," the release says. David Kurpius, dean of the journalism school, said, “In our service to the public, it is important that journalists are able to help translate these very complex ecological issues to the communities we serve.”

Applications are being accepted from newsrooms for the 10 Report for America positions. Applications for the five veteran journalist positions will open in August.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Interactive map shows vaccine hesitancy by Zip and county, based on 50,000 daily responses to Facebook survey

Screenshot of Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation interactive map, available here, shows ranges
of percentage of unvaccinated residents who are vaccine-hesitant. Another map shows data by Zip code.
It's easy to find your locality's coronavirus vaccination rate, but what about its vaccine hesitancy rate? A new set of interactive maps from the University of Washington, using data gathered by polling done through Facebook, shows what counties (and even what Zip codes) are most hesitant to get a shot.

The maps by the university's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reflect answers to this question: "If a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 were offered to you today, would you choose to get vaccinated?" The answers are "Definitely," "Probably," "Probably not" and "Definitely not." People giving one of the last three answers are considered vaccine-hesitant.

The maps do not break down the data by individual answers, but are interactive, and can be switched to show the percentage of people saying "Probably" and "Probably not." That allows simple subtraction to produce the "Definitely not" figure for each area. Excel spreadsheets giving the data by county and Zip code can be downloaded here.

Rural Black homeowners denied FEMA aid because of informal inheritance; FEMA is less likely to help the poor

Many rural Black homeowners are denied federal disaster relief because of an informal system of property inheritance common in the South, reports Hannah Dreier of The Washington Post.

Under the "heirs' property" system, land is passed down to descendants without a will or deed, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires proof of ownership for relief. There's no legal basis for the policy, but FEMA began requiring it to stave off scammers.

"In 2018, under pressure to resolve the crisis in Puerto Rico, the agency created a process for people to self-certify homeownership," Dreier reports. "But the fix applied only to islands and tribal areas, and it was not extended to the Deep South, where in internal correspondence, FEMA has recognized heirs’ property as 'a perennial issue.' A FEMA spokesperson said the agency still requires most disaster survivors to prove ownership because 'land ownership is recorded as a standard practice' in all of the continental United States and 'self-certification of ownership increases the agency’s vulnerability' to fraud and improper payments."

And if that wasn't bad enough, FEMA aid is, in general, more often denied to those in poverty, Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR: "FEMA's own analyses show that low-income survivors are less likely than more affluent people to get crucial federal emergency assistance, according to internal documents NPR obtained through a public records request."

NPR's investigation found that impoverished renters were 23% less likely than higher-income renters to get housing aid, and that the poorest homeowners got about half as much money to rebuild their homes as higher-income homeowners; that disparity can't be explained by relative repair costs, researchers said. Also, "FEMA was about twice as likely to deny housing assistance to lower-income disaster survivors because the agency judged the damage to their home to be 'insufficient,'" Hersher reports.

Biden includes right-to-repair, other rural-interest topics in pro-competition order; net neutrality awaits filled-out FCC

President Biden signed an executive order Friday meant to increase business competition and blunt the power of big businesses. It addresses right-to-repair laws, long a goal of farmers, and a host of other issues with rural resonance. In fact, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for a fifth of the order's 72 action points, Chuck Abbott reports for Food & Environment Reporting Network.

"The order looks to build off of an Obama-era executive order which encouraged agencies to consider competition impacts in their decisions," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "But that order was not closely followed and was later overturned by Trump appointees."

Writing in The Constituent, economist Matt Young says "Biden gave what I believe to be the most important speech by any president at least in my lifetime, and perhaps for decades longer. . . . Economic theory doesn’t work without competitive markets. . . . Free markets and competitive markets are not the same thing, and making this mistake has caused a lot of economic harm in the United States."

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department "unveiled new funding and regulations to reduce concentration in the meat sector," Bustillo reports. "USDA will offer $500 million in grants, loans, and other assistance to help new meat and poultry processors enter the market, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in Iowa on Friday. The department will also move forward with a series of regulations to protect farmers and ranchers who work with large agribusinesses. USDA is also moving to enhance its enforcement of the century-old Packers and Stockyards Act, which monitors anti-competitive practices in the meat and poultry sector; increase whistleblower protections; and tighten the rules for poultry grower tournament systems — a payment system where farmers are ranked against each other."

The order also calls for bringing back "net neutrality rules" repealed during the Trump administration. However, that is opposed by cable companies and is "unlikely to make headway until the Federal Communications Commission, which would carry out the proposed regulations," is filled out with a fifth member, is fully staffed, reports Drew Fitzgerald of The Wall Street Journal.

Here are some other key areas addressed in the order, from a WSJ list:
  • Occupational licensing requirements that often curb workers' geographic mobility. In rural areas, this is of especial interest to military spouses since many can't get jobs in their chosen field when they move to a base in another state.
  • The order seeks to lower prescription drug prices and increase the use of generic drugs.
  • The order encourages the Federal Maritime Commission to increase enforcement against ocean carriers levying excessive charges. That would help farmers that depend on export markets.

Researchers: Rural communities can benefit from pandemic real-estate rush, especially if they are prepared

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred many city dwellers to move to rural areas. But researchers wonder how the trend will affect thise areas, and whether it will continue after the pandemic, Caroline Tremblay reports for The Daily Yonder. The story is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural stakeholders in Keene, New Hampshire. This year it's Sept. 22-23.

States and municipalities have been hoping for young remote workers to invigorate local economies, but many of the rural transplants are aging baby boomers. That's partly because moving is expensive and they can more likely afford it, one researcher speculated. "An influx of new residents could be beneficial for the widespread labor shortage. But not if the newcomers are predominantly retirees," Tremblay reports. (Or, we would add, people wanting second homes.) "On the other end of the spectrum, how will rural towns respond to youth members who migrated to the big city but returned when jobs disappeared as a result of the pandemic?"

Such returning rural residents might have a hard time finding housing, since fleeing urbanites snapped up much of what was on the market. The resulting shortage is driving up housing prices in many rural areas, Tremblay reports.

Building more housing may seem like the obvious solution, but many communities aren't prepared to do so in a way that preserves the environment and protects the rural beauty that lured transplants in the first place, according to Megan Lawson, a Montana-based researcher, statistician and economist with Headwaters Economics

The new residents could be a big asset to rural communities' economies, but preparation is key, said Peter Nelson, a professor of Geography at Middlebury College in Vermont. "Communities that can develop strategies to plug those newcomers in and harness their energy in a productive direction will do much better than those communities that just passively receive them," Nelson told Tremblay.

New Colo. law bars use of Native American school mascots

A Lamar High School student walked back to school after playing in a soccer game in 2015. (Lamar Ledger photo)

Colorado's governor has just signed a law barring public schools from using Native American mascots as of June 1, 2022; schools that violate the law will be fined $25,000 per month. At least 25 schools in the state—many rural— had such mascots as of earlier this year, Michael Alcala reports for The Lamar Ledger. Native American tribes have called on Colorado schools to stop using such mascots for the past 30 years, saying that their use is racist and contributes to stereotypes. 

"Sponsor Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat, told House members Wednesday that the bill is about putting a stop to the harm and belittling caricature mascots cause to American Indians, particularly children. Studies have shown the effects of these mascots on children’s psyche, Benavidez noted, contributing to depression and creating hostile environments, in addition to furthering stereotypes," Alcala reports. "Although some opponents of the bill argued that many of the mascots are not meant to be derogatory, others like Republican Rep. Tim Geitner of Falcon, considered the bill an unfunded mandate because it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to change mascots. The bill allows schools that need financial assistance to apply for grant funding from the state."

The law has exceptions. Schools that are named after a tribe or person can use the name without Native images or symbols. Schools can also continue using their mascot if they have an existing agreement with one of the 48 federally recognized tribes in Colorado, but those tribes can revoke their agreement at any point. In such cases, schools will have a year to name a new mascot, Alcala reports.

The law hits home in Lamar, pop. 7,804, where the high school's mascot is the Savages. The Lamar School District Board of Education will hold a community forum Thursday, July 15, to discuss the new law and what steps the district will take over the next year, reports Alcala, who is editor of the CaƱon City Daily Record.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Publisher junks general-interest-newspaper assumptions; aims for audiences, plural; and new sources of revenue

By Buck Ryan
Associate Professor, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Simon & Garfunkel’s lament—“nothing but the dead and dying”—may be the haunting anthem for a struggling newspaper industry, but not for Bill Horner III’s town of Siler City (population 8,078) in rural Chatham County, North Carolina.

There the publisher and editor of a feisty community newspaper, the Chatham News + Record, is working to defy the odds, providing a light out of the wilderness for other family-owned or independent journalism enterprises.

Just as Chatham County sees gains in population and median household income, Horner reports increases for average weekly circulation revenue, digital subscriptions and weekly newsletter open rates, though print sales and advertising revenue have remained frustratingly flat.

The paper has partnered with a local coffee roaster.
The paper’s e-newsletter, The Chatham Brew, promotes a special blend of coffee for sale by the same name as part of the paper’s innovative collaboration with a local coffee roaster.

Drink coffee while you read the newspaper? Now you can buy the same brand. Read all about it in the newsletter, which is sent on email three times a week to 3,800 recipients.

Taking the bold move of publishing a spinoff of the newspaper all in Spanish, La Voz de Chatham (The Voice of Chatham), Horner saw his gamble pay off handsomely with seven full-page ads in the 18-page publication.

Mailed directly to 2,500 Spanish-speaking households in the market, the publication gained more than moral support among its new readers. The spinoff project is expected to generate a total of $32,000 in new sponsorship revenue with $24,000 in hand and an additional $8,000 in the works.

The new revenues came mostly is a $16,000 sponsorship from a local chicken processing plant, Mountaire Farms, which employs many Spanish-speaking workers in the community.

Chatham Hospital contributed an $8,000 sponsorship and is entertaining a request for an additional $8,000 to keep the new publication rolling.

Follow-up print editions of La Voz are planned for August, December and April as interest increases.

Learning to unlearn  

Horner is doing a lot of things right. He has received national recognition through a featured webinar for America’s Newspapers and acceptance as one of only 30 publications nationally into a Facebook Membership Accelerator grant program, and an article on the Medill Local News Initiative site.

But they are not always the things he learned from his grandfather, who founded the Sanford Herald, 20 miles south and now chain-owned, in 1930. In fact, Horner has developed a new skill for a new age: learning to unlearn habits of general-interest newspapering.

Coaching on alternate ways of thinking from the Facebook training program and Table Stakes, a Knight Foundation and Lenfest Institute initiative, brought Horner to the brink of despair.

So did the realization that the strategy “build it and they will come” has largely fizzled for him and his two business partners in the last two and a half years since they purchased two money-losing weekly newspapers, the Chatham News and the Chatham Record.

Horner’s goal in Table Stakes is to fill a $100,000 annual revenue gap in loss of advertising that he attributes to multiple factors: the pandemic, a come-and-go ad sales staff, and national trends.

Shifting from subscriptions to memberships with varying benefits levels, launching a parenting newsletter, and gaining sponsorships for a video newscast are among the future revenue-generating ideas.

It’s a gamble, for sure, and one as great as trying pull Chatham County officials and citizens together for the public good.

Google map, adapted
When Horner explores the various potential audiences for his newspaper, he sees a county split more ways than a roulette wheel with several divisions: political (Trump flags in the west and BLM signs in the east), socioeconomic (very rich and very poor) and racial (12.7% black, 12.5% Hispanic).

These are the times that try a community newspaper publisher’s soul. To share some common sense, Horner agreed to take a break for an interview.

He hopes his hard-fought epiphanies can benefit his journalism colleagues nationally. Here goes the Q&A:

You got hit from both sides—Table Stakes and Facebook—with the coaching advice that “the general-interest newspaper is dead.” That stung pretty hard. How did you get back on your feet?

With lots of conversations on this topic with friends and colleagues in the industry who are succeeding. The feedback I got was everything from, “That’s ridiculous—just ignore that!” to “Well, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a lot of truth to that.” Ultimately most all of us agreed that you have to produce a product that has specific appeal to your potential audiences because there’s so much competition for attention, especially in the digital sphere.

Table Stakes emphasizes the “s” at the end of “audiences” and talks about “growing the audience funnel.” That means moving readers from wide but shallow interest down the funnel to loyal, paying customers.

To create more customers like that demands a strategic approach, not the traditional general-interest, scattershot product. Getting from “A” to “B” requires deep thinking about your audiences. The noise of the digital landscape is so loud that if you don’t, you’ll get pushed aside.

We all have to think really, really hard about what we’re doing, what we’re publishing for. If we’re not out there trying to solve a specific problem for our readers, then why are we working so hard?

You’re now most of the way through the year-long Table Stakes program, facing a final presentation in September on meeting your goals. What would you say are your top three lessons learned at this point?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just three, but I’d say:

A. You have to be audience-driven. The days of our front pages setting the news agenda, and assuming the audience would take cues from us, are long gone.

B. You need to go to where your audiences are. You can’t expect them to come to you. Meet them where they are. That’s the only way connection and engagement are created. I think our Spanish-language newspaper is the best example of that.

C. You need to explore diversifying ways to grow revenue. That’s more obvious than ever. There aren’t silver bullets, but there are ways you can test and innovate to create a value proposition to your readers and advertisers.

I think our collaboration with a local coffee roaster to create The Chatham Brew blend is a good example. We spent $600 to buy at a wholesale price bags of coffee we’re offering as gifts to entice new subscribers. That way we can support a local business, add value to our new readers and bring a smile to our e-newsletter readers who see the promotion.

Your Facebook Membership Accelerator grant lived up to the warning: “Beware of gifts that eat.” You devoted one full workday a week with staff to Zoom coaching sessions in a 12-week program. Now that the sessions are complete, how did it go, what have you learned and how will you spend the grant money?

Since the program began, our weekly digital subscriber revenue grew to $1,600 a week from $1,100, so that was a real “win” for us.

Each of the news organizations in my cohort of 30 publications is getting $50,000. We had to create a budget on how we would spend the money, and most of it will go to vendors to help us work more profitably.

The new vendors will include BlueLena, designed to convert anonymous website visitors to registered customers and support audience growth, engagement and monetization; Second Street, which will help us manage contests and collect and manage email databases; The Newspaper Manager, software to improve ad sales; and Pico and Stripe (through BlueLena), which will help us accept and send payments more efficiently.

For the Facebook training, we were split into two groups — larger and smaller news organizations—and we were in the smaller organization group.

There weren’t many legacy print organizations like ours in the program, which surprised me at first. Most were online-only, but all were doing good journalism and were focused and driven.

The Accelerator program has really reinforced what we’ve talked about in Table Stakes about the audience funnel, but it’s much more focused on things like being agile, moving audiences into the funnel and creating a great UX (user experience). So much good stuff through this program. But one thing that stands out is taking a critical look inward, at everything we do, and tossing aside old assumptions.

One of the things we said in our final presentation is that just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come to you. And “they” isn’t one single unified “audience.” We now have the tools at our disposal to determine how to reach and connect to and engage with our existing audiences and potential audiences to drive loyalty.

We already do great journalism and outreach. Our e-newsletter, for example, was named the best for North Carolina community newspapers the last two years. That in itself is not enough. We have to do “the other things” to deliver quality to our market in a way that creates strategic engagement, which leads to sustainability.

The “backlog” we’ve created in Accelerator — the list of things we want to do, to do differently, to test, to experiment with — is pretty long. It involves looking hard at social media platforms, testing a video news program, adding a new podcast and so much more. We don’t know what’s going to work best — that’s why we test — but we know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, sustainability will be out of reach.

You’ve seen average weekly circulation revenue grow and e-newsletter open rates skyrocket. To what do you owe this success?

Well, I think we have a stellar product, first of all. But I think the bulk of that growth is because we’ve focused on it and are measuring it. As the old management expression goes, “What gets measured gets done.” You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

We’re asking people to read us, to subscribe, to check out our newsletters. We are no longer just casting fishing lines and hoping for the best. We’re now more purposeful, making direct asks.

Also we’re paying more attention to how to measure our impact. We now can say our weekly e-newsletter reaches 3,800 readers, up from 2,100, because we updated our email list by adding registered website users. Our goals are to increase print newspaper sales by 25 percent, to 2,002 from 1,601, and digital subscribers by the same percentage of increase to 3,351 from 2,681. But we’re not there yet. Most of our print circulation is street sales from convenience store purchases.

One of the most common questions from participants in an America’s Newspapers webinar dealt with the differences between subscriptions and memberships, particularly the benefits from a membership. How did you explain that to other owners of family-owned or independent newspapers?

A subscription to the News + Record, whether it be print or digital, has a set cost. For us, it’s $52/year for print plus digital. We have so many people in our market who have the capacity and desire to support us financially with more than just a subscription. Creating a membership program, with benefits, allows us to tap into their desire to support good journalism in various other ways and with a higher level of financial support.

We are planning to roll out a membership program at different prices for individuals as well as companies and organizations as a result of our Table Stakes coaching.

We can provide added value, for example, through events that share expertise and provide networking opportunities. We saw success with holding events before the pandemic, and now that Chatham County is opening up more and more, we will be able to get back on track with that strategy.