Friday, July 23, 2021

North Carolina family with seven decades of courage, integrity and tenacity honored with Tom and Pat Gish Award

News Reporter Publishers Leslie Thompson, Jim High and Les High
A family that has demonstrated courage, integrity and tenacity at its twice-weekly newspaper in North Carolina over three generations is the winner of the 2021 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

The Thompson-High family has owned The News Reporter in Whiteville since 1938. In 1953, it and The Tabor City Tribune, also in Columbus County, were the first weekly papers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for a successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, The News Reporter has continued to show courage, integrity and tenacity by holding accountable local public officials – especially those in the criminal-justice system – despite significant financial adversity, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members’ lives; and taking smaller profits to better serve its readers, but always looking ahead.

“The News Reporter also provides an example of how a community newspaper can adapt to the digital age, still perform first-class public service and even extend its reach beyond its home county,” said Al Cross, director of the rural-journalism institute and extension professor of journalism at the UK School of Journalism and Media.

The News Reporter’s print circulation is 6,000; its website,, gets 80,000 unique visitors a month. The paper has secured philanthropic funding to launch the nonprofit Border Belt Reporting Center, which will provide analytical and investigative reporting to residents in three neighboring counties served by understaffed local papers.

“The Thompson-High family represents the very best of community journalism. It is a courageous family of journalistic crusaders, entrepreneurs and evangelists,” wrote nominators Penny Muse Abernathy, who recently left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for Northwestern University, and Ferrel Guillory, who is still at Chapel Hill. Abernathy has used The News Reporter as an object example in her groundbreaking research on community newspapers.

“In an era when the owners of many community newspapers have sold out to big chains or closed their doors when faced with adversity, members of each generation pursued strong public service journalism, even as they adjusted business strategy and mission to provide residents in their region with the critical local news that feeds our democracy at the grassroots level,” Abernathy wrote. “The longstanding advocacy of the Thompson-High family is a testimonial to the difference a small, courageous independent newspaper can make in the history and fortunes of the community and the region where it is located.”

UPDATE, Aug. 2: The Highs have sold the paper to its editor since 2018, Justin Smith.  

The News Reporter’s publisher is Les High, who succeeded his father, Jim High, who succeeded his father-in-law, Leslie Thompson. In the early 1950s, before the civil-rights movement gained much traction, Thompson defied advertiser and reader boycotts – as well as personal attacks and threats on his life – to wage, with Editor Willard Cole, a two-year struggle against the Klan, which had infiltrated local police and fire departments. News stories and front-page editorials documented and excoriated Klan beatings, floggings and drive-by shootings, ultimately leading to the arrest of more than 300 reputed Klansmen and the conviction of 62, including the Fair Bluff police chief. The News Reporter and The Tabor City Tribune received the Pulitzer for Public Service in 1953.

Jim High wanted to be a veterinarian, but became publisher when his father-in-law died suddenly in 1959. He followed his lead, aggressively covering the criminal-justice system, and received national notice for filing suit to overturn a gag order, a device that courts around the nation were using to close sensitive trials to the public. The News Reporter won the case – and almost all the others it has pursued.

Wikipedia map, adapted
Les High has continued his father’s approach, taking on officials who hide public records, cover up problems or abide corruption, though legal action is costly and risky and the paper’s profit margins have dropped into the low single digits. He recently put together a coalition of two local TV stations and another newspaper to sue the county sheriff for withholding incident reports in retaliation for stories and editorials in The News Reporter that exposed conflicts of interest and bullying by the sheriff’s department. High, Editor Justin Smith and their reporters endured social-media attacks, profane harangues and veiled physical threats, reminiscent of those Leslie Thompson got when he took on the Klan. This campaign led to subscriber cancellations and boycotts, further depressing an already fragile bottom line. To help cover the cost of the suit, The News Reporter got a loan of $5,000 from the trade group America’s Newspapers, which the paper repaid when a judge awarded reimbursement of $30,000 in legal fees as a punitive measure.

That impressed Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., whose parents’ names grace the Gish Award. “As impressive as the entirety of their nomination is, they get extra points from me for making sure they repaid the $5,000 loan,” wrote Gish, a member of the award selection committee. “That occurring at the same time the papers owned by the large corporations reap all the benefits of the Report for America-type programs speaks volumes to me.”

Threats to The News Reporter’s bottom line are nothing new. In the late 1950s, Jim High “discovered the paper was on the financial brink” and took a gamble, Abernathy wrote. “He built a new plant and purchased one of the first offset presses in the state. To reverse the slide in circulation and advertising, he committed to ‘providing better coverage than a community of this size might expect’ by adding reporting staff.”

Les High faced a similar challenge in the Great Recession, “when profit margins fell from around 20 percent to the very low single digits, as print advertising from local businesses collapsed,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “Instead of hunkering down and laying off staff – or selling out to a large chain – Les chose to invest in digital transformation.” He persuaded his sister Stuart to return to Whiteville, and she not only improved the paper’s digital presence, but started holding community events. In recent years, Les’s wife Becky and daughter Margaret have joined the effort.

“In 2018, when the paper posted an unprofitable year, the family nevertheless doubled down on its digital investments – creating a metered paywall, redesigning the website, introducing a mobile app, and initiating a 24/7 news cycle to post stories and videos on the newspaper’s website as soon as possible after an event occurred,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “The paper currently hosts a weekly video news report, two email newsletters, several major community events a year and an in-house digital advertising agency that serves local businesses. Despite slim or nonexistent profit margins, Les has also invested in the newsroom,” which has seven journalists. “In 2020, even as the lawsuit against the sheriff weighed on the bottom line, The News Reporter added a reporter to cover the pandemic and the 2020 elections.”

Les High is “an example for other publishers who may lack the courage and conviction to invest for the long term,” Edward Van Horn, retired executive director of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, told Abernathy.

He is also one of a dwindling number of independent newspaper owners, but rather than draw a defensive line around Columbus County, he is expanding to Scotland, Robeson and Bladen counties with his nonprofit Border Belt Project and its online publication, Border Belt Independent. Along with Columbus, “These counties along the South Carolina border are among the poorest in the state, and a majority of residents are members of racial or ethnic communities, including the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi,” Abernathy and Guillory wrote. “All three adjacent counties are currently being served by understaffed local newspapers, owned by a private equity firm. Collaborating with reporters at these newspapers, the center will cover topics – such as the environment, health, education, public safety, economic development and local governance – that will affect the quality of life of current and future generations of residents.” It will provide its reporting at no charge to the other papers. “We’re not competitors,” High says. “We’re partners.”

“I can't think of a better model for an independent, family newspaper,” said Jennifer P. Brown, who is co-chair of the rural-journalism institute’s advisory board. “The Thompson-High family's commitment to serving the community is so hopeful, and shows what is possible.” Brown, who was editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville when it was family-owned, publishes the digital Hoptown Chronicle.

Tom and Pat Gish, 2005
The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Espa├▒ola, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; in 2019, Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes of NPR; and in 2020, the late Tim Crews, who was editor-publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif.

Les High will receive the Gish Award Oct. 28 at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort on Newtown Pike in Lexington, Ky. The dinner was not held last year, so Tim Crews’s widow, Donna Settle, will receive his award as well. The keynote speaker will be Chuck Todd of NBC News.

The dinner also honors recipients of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, which the institute presents with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The 2020 winner is Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, who set a national example by sending an extra of her paper to every address in the county when it had the state’s first Covid-19 case. The 2021 winner is WKMS, the public-radio station at Murray State University in far Western Kentucky, for being “a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets,” Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen said.

Details about the dinner will be available soon on the institute website,

Rural health clinics to get $100 million to boost confidence in coronavirus vaccines; could be opportunity for newspapers

The Department of Health and Human Services is sending $100 million to more than 1,980 rural health clinics for outreach efforts meant to increase locals' confidence in the safety of coronavirus vaccines, according to a press release. Here's a state-by-state list.

Through the Rural Health Clinic Vaccine Confidence Program, clinics can inform locals about existing vaccination sites and and partner with other public-health entities to create strategies to increase vaccine confidence. Clinics can also use the funding to improve health literacy on vaccines in general.

The funding creates at least two opportunities for rural newspapers: to be part of an outreach program, perhaps through sample copying to reach every household in the newspaper's home county; and to keep an eye on how the money is spent. "Compliance is governed by Health Resources and Services Administration rules and regulations, just like any other HRSA grant,” Kentucky Primary Care Association CEO David Bolt told The Rural Blog.

"This funding is vitally important to Covid-19 vaccination efforts in local communities," Bolt said. "Trusted medical providers at our rural health clinics talk to their patients every day about the safety and effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines. Having additional resources will help them reach even more people and further address vaccine hesitancy issues at the community and neighborhood levels."

The funding, announced in May, is part of nearly $1 billion the American Rescue Plan Act authorized for three major programs strengthening pandemic response efforts in rural areas. In addition to the Rural Health Clinic Vaccine Confidence Program, HRSA is providing $460 million to more than 4,600 rural health clinics for coronavirus testing. Another $398 million will go to small rural hospitals for testing and mitigation.

Quick hits: feral hogs pollute environment as much as 1.1 million cars; family farm swaps cows for goats to stay afloat

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

Rural areas are left especially vulnerable when local hospitals shuttered during the pandemic. A University of Alabama partnership is helping fill the gap in such areas by opening special school clinics that treat everyday ailments as well as offering coronavirus testing and treatment. Read more here.

A family farm swaps cows for goats in a bid to stay afloat. Read more here.

Worldwide, feral hogs produce as much pollution each year as 1.1 million cars, according to a new study. Read more here.

Plant-based meat alternative sales grew 27% in 2020 to $7 billion. Fake fish is one of the fastest-rising segments of the industry. Read more here.

Pacific Gas and Electric equipment may have caused the Dixie Fire in California, now the largest fire of this season. The utility has been repeatedly implicated in major fires, and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 Camp Fire. Read more here.

The lack of federal firefighters in California is hampering efforts to control wildfires. It's especially concerning for local leaders in communities that border federal land. Read more here.

A Navajo man has launched a program to deliver water to drought-stricken areas of the Navajo Nation. Read more here.

New coronavirus cases spiked nearly 50% in rural counties last week, and deaths rose for the first time in two months

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 11-17
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

Nonmetropolitan counties saw nearly 50 percent more new coronavirus infections during the week of July 11-17 than the week before, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. That was mostly driven by cases in and near Missouri and Florida, mostly the highly contagious Delta variant.

"New infections in rural counties grew from 19,517 two weeks ago to 28,479 last week, a climb of 46%. The number of new infections in rural counties has more than doubled in the last month," the Yonder reports. "Deaths in rural counties climbed from 282 two weeks ago to 354 last week, an increase of 26%. That’s the first increase in rural deaths in two months. Covid-19 deaths are a trailing indicator, and the increase likely reflects higher rates of new infections that began one month ago."

Infections and deaths also increased in metropolitan counties: "Metro cases grew by 66% last week to 181,638. Metro deaths related to Covid-19 climbed by 5% to 1,1262 last week," Murphy and Marema report. Click here for Yonder charts, regional analysis, and the interactive county-level map.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Where is vaccine hesitancy and resistance strongest? Two new tools can tell you; one even goes to Zip code level

It's easy to find your locality's coronavirus vaccination rate, but what about its vaccine hesitancy rate, or local interest in vaccination? Two new interactive tools reveal those numbers. One uses data gathered by polling done through Facebook; the other shows the relative interest in vaccination shown by online searches. 

The Facebook-gathered data are in interactive maps from the University of Washington, showing 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. 

Another tool, called Google Covid-19 Vaccination Search Insights, uses aggregated, anonymized data from Google searches about vaccination. The weekly data are available by region and by county. 

The trends reflect relative interest, broken down three ways: overall interest, vaccination intent, and safety and side effects. Click here to learn more about how the researchers process the data. 

The Google tool also has trends for each county. For example, searches showing interest and intent to get vaccinated increased in lightly vaccinated Spencer County, Kentucky, between June 21 and June 28, when the state announced a $1 million lottery for vaccinated residents.

Google graph shows searches in Spencer County, Kentucky, June 21-28.

Historic opioid settlement announced; if approved, states and localities could see payouts as soon as next year

The $26 billion settlement with drug companies over their role in the opioid epidemic will allow "communities across the country to secure a jolt of funding to address an epidemic in painkiller addiction that hasn’t abated," Sara Randazzo reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Wednesday’s announcement signifies an important milestone that could clear the way for money to be received by states as soon as early next year."

The nation’s top three drug distributors — McKesson Corp.AmerisourceBergen Corp., and Cardinal Health Inc. — will pay up to $21 billion over 18 years and drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson "will pay up to $5 billion over nine years with up to $3.7 billion to be paid during the first three years," Beth Wang reports for Inside Health Policy.

"The amounts could decrease if not enough states sign on, and the companies can still walk away if they decide the level of participation doesn’t buy them the global peace they are seeking to put the lawsuits behind them," Randazzo reports. States have 30 days to join the deal, and local governments in participating states have up to 150 days.

"Each state’s share of the funding has been determined using a formula that considers the state’s population and impact of the opioid crisis on the state, including the number of overdose deaths, the number of residents with substance use disorder and the number of opioids prescribed," Wang reports.

There are restrictions on how the money can be used. People directly affected by opioid abuse won't receive any money directly, and "states can’t use the money to fill general budget holes, as they did after a $206 billion deal with tobacco companies in the 1990s," Randazzo reports. "Instead, the majority must be spent on social services to address the harms of opioid addiction, like treatment programs, education on how to dispose of pills and needles, and bolstered funds for first responders. One community may use it to help a large problem of addiction in the homeless population, while another may be more focused on opioid-addicted babies."

States will split the money with local governments. A new law in Kentucky gives half of its estimated $460 million share to state programs and half to local governments. Use of the money would be overseen by a new commission created by the law. An agreement in North Carolina gives 80% of the money to local governments, 15% to the state and 5% to an fund creating incentives for local governments to be part of the agreement.

The settlement has other requirements: Johnson & Johnson will be required to stop selling opioids, and will "also will be prohibited from funding or providing grants to third parties for promoting opioids or lobbying on opioid-related activities," Wang reports. "The company also will need to share clinical trial data under the Yale University Open Data Access Project."

Building moratorium caused by drought may make Utah town miss out on remote-worker-fueled real-estate boom

Some of the last new homes being built in Oakley before the moratorium (New York Times photo by Lindsay D'Addato)

Small towns all over the nation are hoping to bring in new residents looking to move away from the city during the pandemic. Oakley, Utah, is one of them, but the drought may cause it to miss out.

"During the coronavirus pandemic, the real-estate market in their 1,750-person city boomed as remote workers flocked in from the West Coast and second homeowners staked weekend ranches. But those newcomers need water — water that is vanishing as a megadrought dries up reservoirs and rivers across the West," Jack Healy and Sophie Kasakove report for The New York Times. "So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West."

Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme told the Times he's had to spend a lot of time defending the decision. But he stands by it: "Why are we building houses if we don’t have enough water? . . . The right thing to do to protect people who are already here is to restrict people coming in."

Oakley's economy could use new residents, as the record-breaking drought dries up groundwater and streams farmers rely on. "While summer monsoon rains have brought some recent relief to the Southwest, 99.9 percent of Utah is locked in severe drought conditions and reservoirs are less than half full," Healy and Kasakove report. "Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California. Farmers and ranchers — who use 70 to 80 percent of all water — are letting their fields go brown or selling off cows and sheep they can no longer graze."

Pandemic roundup: How vaccinated people can be infected; interactive map shows latest rural vaccination rates

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of July 15, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click it to enlarge it, or click here for the interactive version.

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

The Washington Post has a good explainer on how fully vaccinated people can get infected with the virus, and does a good job separating fact from fiction on the topic. Read more here.

The vaccination rate in nonmetropolitan counties rose to 25.5 percent by July 15, an increase of 0.7 percentage points over the week prior, The Daily Yonder reports, offering in-depth data, regional analysis, charts, and an interactive county-level map (above).

In a recent Facebook post, an Alabama doctor shared her experience with dying Covid-19 patients who told her they wish they'd been vaccinated. "They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn't get as sick," she wrote. "They thought it was 'just the flu'. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back." Read more here.

Over the past year, many Republican-led states have passed laws and issued orders preventing local governments from imposing mask mandates and other protective measures. That has made such areas more vulnerable to the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus. Read more here.

A growing number of top Republican lawmakers are urging their supporters to get vaccinated as the Delta variant surges across the nation. Read more here.    

Opinion: Why rural America needs immigrants

A new opinion piece in The New York Times argues that rural America needs immigrant labor to survive and thrive.

"Rural America has a growth problem. Business and industry desperately need workers, but the domestic labor pool is shallow, and the nation’s birthrate is slowing. There’s no better place to help expand our economy than in rural communities like ours. We need smart public policy for sustained growth — and immigration reform would be a big part of it," Robert Leonard and Matt Russell write. Leonard is the author of "Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations." Russell co-owns Coyote Run Farm. Both live in Marion County, Iowa.

Businesses all over the country are having a hard time finding workers. Though some blame too-generous federal and state aid for the worker shortage, it was a problem before the pandemic in many rural areas, and "plenty of research shows that flexible visa programs run federally or by the states could address this problem quickly," Leonard and Russell write. 

Lack of affordable housing for new workers is a problem too, and may continue to be in rural areas since developers will likely be more attracted to higher-profit metro areas and local builders can't find enough laborers, Leonard and Russell write. They recommend that rural local governments pursue public-private partnerships to build new housing developments, possibly with some of the $213 billion President Biden earmarked for housing in his American Jobs Plan. Rural governments have pursued similar funding models for broadband expansion, another low-profit rural buildout need.

Study: the more rural a place is, the higher the incidence of stroke risk factors, especially smoking among the poor

It's well-known that rural residents are at a higher risk of stroke. But a newly published study in The Journal of Rural Health examined the trend across rurality and found that, the more rural the place, the higher the prevalence of stroke risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, smoking, poverty, and more. Most interestingly, the study uncovered a link between stroke incidence and higher smoking rates, especially in poorer areas. 

Previous research has found that more rural areas have higher stroke mortality rates than more densely populated areas, but that's mainly because of a higher stroke incidence, not a higher case fatality, the authors write.

That said, health-care access disparities also worsen rural stroke survival rates, a 2020 study found. Small, rural hospitals often can't quickly transfer stroke patients to bigger hospitals with access to more experienced specialists and newer treatments, according to the study. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Local clinic's purchase of closed hospital could provide lessons for other communities with hospitals at risk

Its old slogan: "Your Friends on the Hill." (HD Media photo)
"Rural hospitals must leverage the full resources of their communities in order to survive." That's the "most critical" lesson learned from last year's closing of Williamson Memorial Hospital in West Virginia, Taylor Sisk writes for National Geographic in a story about Appalachian hospital closures.

The hospital is "scheduled to reopen, most likely in the fall," Sisk reports. It has been bought by the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, "a federally qualified health center that over the past few years has been a catalyst in the community for a wide range of public health initiatives" in a county ranked the state's second unhealthiest. But keeping people healthy also keeps them out of hospital, so "The health of the community and viability of its hospital will be dependent on a successful symbiosis."

The solution to the hospital's problem is not typical, but could provide a lesson to rural communities at a time when rural hospital closures are accelerating and one in five rural hospitals have been estimated to be at risk of closing due to financial difficulties.

"In some cases, the answer is the merging of hospitals or acquisition by an outside entity, solutions that offer economy of scale—purchasing power, consolidated administration, access to advanced technology—but come at the risk of the loss of attention to the community’s needs and concerns," Sisk writes. "The other option, maintaining an independent hospital, is increasingly difficult. Doing so requires rethinking."

There's another unusual aspect to the Williamson hospital, which once billed itself as "Your Friends on the Hill." Sisk notes, "There’s another hospital just a couple of miles from Williamson, across the Tug Fork [of the Big Sandy] River in Kentucky. But crossing state lines creates issues with insurance, both public and private. The closest in-state hospital is 35 minutes away in Logan. Neither hospital is home to 'Your Friends on the Hill'."

Rural population fall mainly from out-migration; international in-migration was more than natural increase; see state data

Daily Yonder graph; click to enlarge
Rural counties as a whole lost population from 2010 to 2020 because people left them, and they gained more from international migration than from natural increase (births totaling more deaths), according to an analysis of new census data by Roberto Gallardo for The Daily Yonder.

 "The decrease from 2010 to 2020 was slight — about half a percentage point," Gallardo writes. But it was apparently the first time an overall decline in rural population -- actual numbers, not percentage -- has been recorded from one census to another. Each year from 2010 to 2015, rural population declined.

Large metropolitan areas also lost population from domestic migration, reports Gallardo, who runs the Purdue University Center for Regional Development. "The international or immigration component buffered population losses in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas," he writes. "This highlights the importance of welcoming and helping these groups assimilate into a community’s culture. Without them, population loss would have been higher coupled with the decreasing natural component and in nonmetropolitan areas, domestic migration."

Gallardo's very detailed story includes an interactive table with state-by-state data.

Remote workers can boost rural towns

Some rural towns are getting a boost from remote work by staffers of big-city employers, Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill, a newspaper that focuses on Congress. Her object example is Wardensville, W.Va, in the state's Eastern Panhandle, 100 miles west of Washington, D.C.

"It's a trend seen in other parts of the country as city dwellers who are able to work remotely, and have the financial means, have turned to rural areas for extra space during the pandemic," Beitsch writes. "West Virginia was one of several states that looked to attract such residents by rewriting its state income tax code to benefit remote workers, in addition to offering state park passes and even cash to entice more people to move. . . . Covid-19 accelerated a steady trend of weekenders buying property where they could work remotely."

That can lead to culture clashes, but Beitsch said that's not the case in Wardensville: "the area at first glance may not seem like an obvious draw for left-leaning city dwellers. Amid the blue-tinted mountains dotted with farms are a collection of Trump flags and churches with signs like 'Thank you God for America.' But those who have bought a permanent or second home here say many of the state’s residents embody a 'live and let live' philosophy."

Rural youth are more likely to land in an emergency room from self-harm, especially from gunshots, study finds

Rural youth are much more likely than their urban counterparts to visit a hospital emergency room after harming themselves, "and when it comes to self-inflicted firearm injuries, the difference is even more pronounced," reports Nara Schoenberg of the Chicago Tribune, citing new research.

"Rural youth in the study were three times more likely to be treated in the emergency room for self-inflicted gunshot wounds than their urban counterparts," Schoenberg reports, quoting Dr. Jennifer Hoffmann, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago: “More attention needs to be given to youth mental health, including earlier diagnosis, and more resources need to be invested in rural areas. . . . It’s important that more messaging goes out about safe firearms storage.”

Hoffmann is a co-author of the study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics. It drew a representative sample of youth aged 5 to 19 from a database of 33 million ER visits in 37 states during 2016. It "didn’t examine the reasons for the higher rates of self-harm by firearms in rural America," Schoenberg writes, "but Hoffmann offered several potential explanations based on previous studies, among them that rural households are more likely to contain guns."

On the broader issue of self-harm, Hoffmann said earlier studies suggest that rural rates are higher because rural areas "tend to have greater shortages of mental health professionals and lower household incomes," Schoenberg writes. "Privacy may also be a concern when people in small communities consider seeking mental-health services. Hoffmann called for more mental-health training for pediatricians and school personnel. She also sees promise in telemedicine, which can allow families in rural emergency rooms to consult with psychiatrists from other regions."

Citing studies that show many children who die of suicide visit an ER in the months preceding, "Hoffmann said she would like to see more emergency rooms embrace suicide screenings for young patients ages 10 and up," Schoenberg reports, quoting Hoffmann: “The emergency department is a critical space for identification of suicidal thoughts.”

Extension conference in S.D. spotlights community revitalization efforts in small towns; this year's is Aug. 11-12

Solutions to the economic problems of rural communities can often be community-specific, but communities can also learn from each other. To help transmit that information, the Community Vitality extension program of South Dakota State University hosts an annual conference called "Energize!"

The conference is "an opportunity for South Dakotans to hear about successful revitalizations, community projects and business opportunities happening in rural communities across the state," SDSU Extension says. Each conference "highlights rural innovation in a different rural community." This year's will be held Aug. 11-12 in Milbank, near the state's eastern border, but will include examples from elsewhere.

Kari O’Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager, said “We will have speakers sharing how they funded community projects, such as Fort Pierre funding their community garden, Roberts County adding a 4-H/Community Building and Langford’s Area Community Foundation completing projects in a town of 350 people.” The keynote speaker will be Amanda Brinkman of the TV series, “Small Business Revolution,” available on Hulu.

Register for the event at by July 30. For more information, contact Peggy Schlechter at 605-394-1722 or

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

CDC: Three of seven rural adults went without dental care before pandemic, especially men, non-whites and the poor

Dental visits in 2019 by adults aged 18 to 64 (CDC chart)
Dentists were forced to shut down during the early months of the pandemic, leaving Americans unable to get appointments for routine dental care. But even before the pandemic, nearly half of rural adults went without it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2019, the CDC says, 42.4 percent of people aged 18 to 64 in nonmetropolitan counties did not visit a dentist that year, compared to 33.3% of metropolitan residents. Rural residents who did see a dentist were more likely to go there for more serious treatment, such as oral surgery. 

Some groups were less likely to visit the dentist in both rural and urban populations, though the disparities were wider in rural areas: men, non-white residents, and the poor. Rural disparities were likely wider because of transportation problems, dentist shortages, and lack of overall health care. 

The report matters because dental care is correlated with overall physical health, and regular preventative care can keep small dental problems such as cavities from becoming large, expensive problems that threaten health and require more invasive treatment.

Aug. 11 webinar to discuss how the loss of community newspapers threatens democracy

At an Aug. 11 webinar, three veteran journalists will discuss how the loss of community newspapers in Minnesota (and elsewhere) threatens democracy. Participants will learn about the struggles of small Minnesota papers, the pivotal role they play in democracy, how their loss hurts the community, and what others can do to support local journalism.

The webinar is organized by West Central Initiative and sponsored by the Bush Foundation. It will be held from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Featured panelists will be:

  • Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association
  • Art Cullen, editor and publisher of The Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa
  • Reed Anfinson, publisher and owner of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., The Stevens County Times in Morris, Minn., and the Grant County Herald in Elbow Lake, Minn.

U.S. has very few millennial farmers; only 9% are 35 or younger, and only 4% of those are non-white, USDA says

96% of young producers in the U.S. are white
(Investigate Midwest chart; click to enlarge it)
In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, farmers and ranchers age 35 and under made up only 9 percent of all American farmers, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"Nearly all, 96%, of the young producers were white. This left 14,111 young producers of color in the U.S. Socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, those who have experienced racial or ethnic prejudice, have additional funding opportunities through the USDA’s 2501 program," Mary Henningan reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "About 80% of the young producers started farming in the last 10 years and about 50% started in the last five years. Most young producers reported a primary occupation that was not farming in 2017. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers support to beginning farmers and ranchers through direct and guaranteed loan programs."

A portrait of one young farmer in drought-stricken California

Liset Garcia posts an Instagram video announcing night hours at her farm stand. (LAT photo by Brian van der Brug)

In 2015, Diana Marcum won the Pulitzer Prize for narrative portraits of farm workers, farmers and others in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. Here's her latest for The Los Angeles Times about how a young farmer outside of Fresno is coping with the drought.

Liset Garcia, 29, owns Sweet Girl Farms in Reedley, Calif., and things are tough right now. The house well went dry over a month ago, and drillers said there's a five-month wait to dig a new one—with no guarantee of success. "Her parents, who grew up in Oaxaca, told her the family would survive just fine without running water," Marcum reports. "At her parents’ farm, her father and brother pumped water from an agricultural well and hauled it down the street to fill a tank for household needs and Garcia’s small flower and vegetable farm."

Garcia, who grew up in L.A. and has a master's in public health, never expected to be a farmer, but after an accident a few years ago, she came home and took over her parents' farm stand, selling local flowers, fruits, vegetables and honey, Marcum reports. She keeps customers coming with a big smile, conveniently cooler night hours, and frequent updates on social media. Though the drought is worrisome and the hours are long, Garcia told Marcum that she finds peace in her work: "I sleep good at night. Every day I put my whole heart and soul into this and I leave it all here and then I can sleep."

Dicamba damage complaints up, despite new label; seed man says he's never seen anything harm U.S. farming more

"An estimated 650,000 acres of soybeans have been damaged by dicamba in Arkansas this summer and dicamba complaints filed with the state have increased at a clip not seen since 2017," Stephen Steed reports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "The estimate by the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture is based on the collective experiences of extension agents, weed scientists and crop consultants who have been inspecting soybean fields across the state's eastern third the past few weeks."

Arkansas isn't the only state seeing the issue. Iowa State University field agronomists reported that they've frequently seen or heard about herbicide injury in soybeans this month, Gil Gullickson reports for Successful Farming. Though there was no statewide damage estimate, agronomist Joel DeJong said cupping—a sign of dicamba damage—was common in about 40 percent of soybean acres in Iowa, whether organic or conventional crops.

The deadline for dicamba spraying was June 30. ISU extension weed specialists said they had hoped the new federal warning label for it would help reduce dicamba damage, but the unusually hot weather may have contributed to more problems, Aaron Viner reports for Iowa Farmer Today.

"It’s difficult to imagine that we are ever going to get to a point when we are using volatile herbicides in the heat of the summer that we are not going to see issues of off-target movement by volatility," University of Illinois extension weed specialist Aaron Hager told Viner. "You can be as careful as you want as an applicator and make the application according to label guidelines, but two days later if that material starts to volatilize, it’s going to move."

Meanwhile, the owner of the world's largest private seed company warned that it's too early to know the extent of dicamba damage. In an email to Gullickson, Harry Stine of Iowa-based Stine Seed Co. wrote: "The dicamba damage frequently does not show up for approximately two weeks after volatilization and moves long distances in every direction from the point of application. . . . Therefore, it is often difficult to determine if the drift is coming from a dicamba application to corn, cotton, or soybeans."

Stine said dicamba drift has damaged hundreds of thousands of the company's research plots in recent years, and said, bluntly: "In my opinion, dicamba has caused more damage to American agriculture than anything I have witnessed in my lifetime."

Monday, July 19, 2021

David Hawpe, who advocated for rural Kentucky as head of the state's largest newsroom, dies at 78; here's a tribute

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

David Hawpe died last night at 78. He was my friend and colleague for more than 40 years, and he was a great friend to rural journalism in Kentucky, where we both lived almost all our lives.

David V. Hawpe (1996 C-J photo)
David was editor of the Louisville Courier Journal (formerly The Courier-Journal), and before and after that managing editor and editorial director. During that span, I was a regional reporter, city reporter, state-capital reporter and political writer, and I still write a political column that appears in the paper.

When another longtime friend and colleague, CJ reporter Andy Wolfson, asked for David's legacy and accomplishments for his story, I said for that me his greatest legacy was the preservation of the newspaper as a statewide voice until his retirement in 2009.

The C-J had a statewide system of news bureaus that I do not believe was surpassed by any other paper, and it was one of the last to close its far-flung bureaus, in 2005. The one closest to David's heart was in Hazard, where one of his first big stories was the Hurricane Creek coal-mine explosion that killed 38 miners at the end of 1970. He told Alan Maimon, the paper's last Hazard reporter, that he vowed after the disaster to "do what he could as a journalist to bring attention to, and advocate for, mine safety," Alan writes in his new book, Twilight in Hazard.

David made good on that promise as managing editor from 1979 to 1987, as editor from 1987 to 1996, and even as editorial director, a job that had no news responsibilities. Hazard reporter Gardiner Harris's revelatory 1998 series about dangerous coal dust in mines might not have been published if David hadn't pushed for it. It helped to have a ranking person in the building who had lived significant pieces of his life in Eastern Kentucky; he was born in Pikeville, in the state's easternmost county, and grew up in Louisville.

Even from an office that was on a floor below the newsroom, David had influence, and people listened to him, because beneath the initial bluster that he would often use to start a conversation, he was a first-class journalist dedicated to our craft's role essential role public service. I have no doubt that without him, the paper would have closed its bureaus earlier; outside the Louisville television market, they made no commercial sense, because Louisville advertising sold very little goods and services in the farther reaches of Kentucky, a state that lies in 10 TV markets.

Map shows TV market areas that include Kentucky.
The state's Balkanized media landscape meant that even after TV became the leading news source for Kentuckians, The Courier-Journal had reach and influence. It was a statewide institution, helping Kentuckians in cities, small towns and rural hamlets realize that they had something in common, and the newspaper was a place to find it. It still plays that role online, but to a much lesser degree.

When Alex S. Jones, then of The New York Times, asked me in the C-J newsroom the day Gannett Co. bought the paper from the Bingham family in 1986 what the test of the new owner would be, I said it would be the maintenance of the statewide news operation. That faded in fits and starts, and it was a proximate reason that I left the paper in 2004. But I am sure that if it hadn't been for David, the fade would have come sooner. For that, rural Kentucky owes a debt to David Hawpe.

Pandemic roundup: County-level map with rural vax rates; hotspots flare where rates are low, as you might expect

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of July 5, 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.

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

The rural vaccination rate grew by 0.7 percentage points over the week leading up to July 5, bringing it to 34.8%. Read more here.

The U.S. surgeon general said coronavirus misinformation is an "urgent threat." Read more here.

As opposition to the coronavirus vaccine hardens, hesitancy morphs into hostility. Read more here.

Newsmax stressed that the network "strongly supports President Biden's efforts to widely distribute the covid vaccine" after host Rob Schmitt said on his show that the vaccines "kind of [go] against nature." Read more here.

Coronavirus hotspots dominate where vaccination rates are low. Read more here.

In under-vaccinated Arkansas, the pandemic upends life all over again. Read more here.

The Delta variant is driving a wedge through Missouri as infections rise, particularly among younger, unvaccinated residents. Many have no underlying health problems, and healthcare professionals say, anecdotally, that such patients seem to be much sicker this time around compared to previous waves. Read more here.

Economic outlook remains high among small-town heartland bankers, tempered by concern over drought and land prices

A July survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on agriculture and energy found continued optimism for local economies amid concerns about employment, drought, and more. 

July's Rural Mainstreet Index fell to 65.6 from June's 70, and May's record 78.8, remaining above growth-neutral for the eighth straight month. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Solid, but somewhat weaker, grain prices, along with the Federal Reserve’s record-low interest rates, and growing exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy. Even so, current rural employment remains below pre-pandemic levels," reports Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index.

Farmland prices remained strong, staying above growth-neutral for a record tenth straight month. For July, the farmland index fell to 71 from June's 75.9. Surveyed bankers worry the trend won't last; the average CEO surveyed projected farmland price growth for the next 12 months at 2.4%.

Weather remains a significant concern; 47% of bankers reported damaging drought conditions for farmers. Jobs are another issue; despite recent gains, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that nonfarm employment for the Rural Mainstreet economy is 1.3%, or 55,000 jobs, below pre-pandemic levels.

Meatpacking roundup: journalist goes undercover at plant during pandemic; Biden order puts meatpackers 'on notice'

Here's a trio of recent news and commentary about the meatpacking industry.

The Atlantic has a freelance journalist's in-depth account of what it was like to work in a Cargill meatpacking plant in Kansas for six months during the pandemic. Read it here.

President Biden's recent pro-competition executive order, which includes provisions to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act, essentially "just put meat packers on notice" after a century of court rulings that have chipped away at legal protections for farmers, writes veteran journalist and agriculture columnist Dave Dickey for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

It's well known that the Trump administration wanted to ensure that meatpacking plants stayed open during the pandemic, but emails obtained by the nonprofit organization Public Citizen reveal that then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue personally lobbied to keep plants open, the Midwest Center reports. As the pandemic continued, and more workers died, Agriculture Department officials across the country kept him informed about closures and whether local officials were being "cooperative." The main takeaway from the emails is the extent to which Perdue and other high-level officials, including from the vice-president's office, tried to keep plants open with tactics such as pressuring state and local officials.

Many small-town Oregon residents, threatened with wildfire, remain skeptical about climate change

The Bootleg Fire is still going strong after burning 241,000 acres in southern Oregon, but many Klamath County residents refuse to acknowledge the role of climate change in the historic drought and heat waves this year. "Among the small towns that have been threatened by the Bootleg Fire — Sprague River, Beatty, Bly — there is little talk of global warming," Joshua Partlow reports for The Washington Post. "Instead, residents vent about the federal government’s water policies and forest management. They blame liberal environmentalists for hobbling the logging industry and Mexican marijuana farmers for sucking up the area’s water."

The Bootleg Fire burn area
(Washington Post map)
Jim Rahi, 71, told Partlow that the real problem is that Biden administration U.S. Forest Service officials are "a bunch of flower children" and said "It’s not that much hotter. It’s environmentally caused mismanagement." Even so, some acknowledge the fire is unusual. One Bly resident, a former Forest Service employee and fire chief, told Partlow the Bootleg fire is "the biggest one ever," and said that, though they have fires every year, they aren't "to this magnitude.

Many small-town residents refuse to evacuate, despite pleas from authorities to do so, because they worry about theft, transporting their animals, or that it might be hard to get back home. "We prayed a lot,” Matt Wolff of Sprague River told Partlow. "'Lord, just keep it away.' And so far it stayed that way."

"The fire that is now larger than New York City prompted a furious effort by firefighters to protect vulnerable communities to the south and east of the spreading flames," Partlow reports. "Nearly 2,000 firefighters and other personnel are battling the blaze that began July 6. As of Friday morning, just 7 percent of the fire had been contained. No deaths have been reported. Bulldozers have been digging trenches as firebreaks, particularly on the southern flank, to protect the more populated areas, and helicopters have been hauling in bags of water."

Climate change has made the West hotter and dryer, with more than 94% of the region in moderate to exceptional drought conditions. "The conditions for this summer blaze are what firefighters are more accustomed to facing at the end of a hot dry season, said Mark Enty, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team 10, which is battling the fire," Partlow reports. "Climate change driven by the human burning of fossil fuels has raised the Earth’s temperature an average of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, a warming that has led to more frequent and extreme natural disasters. Some 800 people died in the recent record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Canada."

The heat wave in Canada is so bad that crops are "baking in fields," Caroline Anders reports for the Post. "Cherries have roasted on trees. Fields of canola and wheat have withered brown. And as feed and safe water for animals grow scarce, ranchers may have no choice but to sell off their livestock."

Canadian farmers have been planning for climate change, but not much can be done if heat waves like the one in late June happen regularly, one expert told Anders. "It will totally upend Canadian food production if this becomes a regular thing," said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. "We can’t farm like this, where there’s a giant disruption every year ... Or we’re going to have to really rethink how we produce food."