Friday, October 29, 2021

'The life experiences of people in rural and urban areas are worlds apart, and politicians have exploited this divergence.'

Graph by The Economist shows spread in Democratic presidential
vote share between the most urban and the most rural counties.
Because every state has two senators and Republicans have increased their hold on rural states, the Senate poses the major obstacle for President Biden and other Democrats, data journalist Elliott Morris writes for The Economist. Morris's article is broader than that, but he delved deeper into the rural aspect in a note to Economist subscribers, excerpted below:

"While Mr. Biden won the nationwide popular vote last year, he lost the popular vote by 1.3 points in the median state, North Carolina. The median seat is important because it’s the one that tips control of the chamber. If we pretend that a vote for Mr. Biden is a vote for a Democratic senator and that all states elected Senators the same year, a hypothetical replay of the 2020 election would have delivered 52 Senate seats for Republicans despite their large popular-vote loss.

"To show how unfair this is, we can simulate another hypothetical 2020 election where Mr. Biden and Donald Trump were perfectly tied in terms of overall votes. The returns suggest Democrats would lose the tipping-point Senate seat by nearly six points. Assuming (again hypothetically) that all the Senate’s seats were in play, the Republicans would have won 31 states worth 62 senators—even though the popular vote was 50-50. In contrast, Democrats would have to win the chamber’s popular vote by 15 percentage points to win 62 members. . . . 

"Research has shown geographic polarization persists even after you control for relevant demographic traits. An article published by James Gimpel, Nathan Lovin, Bryant Moy and Andrew Reeves in Political Behavior last year grouped Americans into different demographic buckets and still found geographic polarisation among them. For example, honing in only on people who have college degrees, the authors find that those who lived nearer to cities still vote more for Democrats than those further away. That was true when they sorted people by wealth, religion and age. There is something about the politics of place that isn’t fully captured by our demography-based understanding of politics.

Katherine Cramer's book
"Katherine Cramer, a political scientist, suggests in a book about rural Wisconsinites that 'something' might be the politics of identity and feelings of resentment towards city-dwellers. According to Ms. Cramer, rural voters saw people in cities as both enjoying more luxuries—perhaps including fine dining, recreational amenities and walkability—and as a drain on government spending (even though they generate more in tax revenue than rural folks). Such differences made rural voters see themselves as relatively worse-off in terms of social status and their quality of life, and condescended to by city folk. That breeds resentment. Of course, there is also a strong racial bent to such feelings.

"But culture and the pace of life in the two places also differ. Small towns west of the Mississippi River tend to be traditionalist, with a long history of agrarian, conservative socio-political culture. Many to the east have been battered by deindustrialization. Rural Westerners are often nostalgically individualistic, many holding a settler mindset inherited from their ancestors who made their way west in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cities, by contrast, draw people from all walks of life and many different places, which tends to produce a more cosmopolitan outlook and progressive politics.

"Simply put, the life experiences of people in rural and urban areas are worlds apart, and politicians have exploited this divergence. Ms. Cramer notes that Scott Walker won Wisconsin’s governorship by running as an anti-city Republican tea-party candidate in 2010. Donald Trump, too, frequently demonized cities and the people that live there—continuing a long tradition of right-leaning politicians vilifying and scapegoating 'urbanites' in American politics."

N.C. newspaper family accepts Gish Award; Chuck Todd tells crowd rural journalism 'has never been more important'

Some of the nation's best rural journalists received awards last night as Chuck Todd of NBC News told them that their work “has never been more important.”

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) presented the Tom and Pat Gish Award to the late Tim Crews, editor-publisher of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif.; and to the Thompson-High family, who owned and operated for three generations The News Reporter in Whiteville, N.C. The Institute and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also last night presented the Al Smith Award for public service through journalism by Kentuckians to Becky Barnes, editor of the Cynthiana Democrat, and Murray State University's WKMS-FM.

The Gish Award is named for the late publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., who exemplified the values of courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism for more than 50 years. Their son Ben Gish, who carries on their legacy at the Eagle today, helped choose the winners and present the awards last night at the Al Smith Awards Dinner at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort in Lexington, Ky. It was the first held without Smith, co-founder of the institute, who died in March.

Tim Crews held up a toothbrush outside a jail after serving five
days in 2000 for refusing to give up an anonymous source.
(Associated Press photo by Rich Pedroncelli)
Crews was “one of the greatest fighters for open government at the local level in this country,” Institute Director Al Cross told the crowd. Crews died in November 2020, but his widow Donna Settle, who still publishes the Mirror, accepted the award on his behalf in a video. She said Crews started standing up to bullies in kindergarten, first with an older boy who tried to steal his milk.

Reporting in Fort Morgan, Colo., Crews "changed the town forever," said Settle. He ended a sheriff’s career by discovering he was illegally giving gun permits to family and friends. In Glenn County, California, Crews "had the attention of the county government and the city government and school district, knowing that when he asked for something, he would fight to get it." And when a judge threw him in jail for refusing to reveal his sources, he wrote about it "from jail on little pieces of paper and pencils provided by fellow inmates who admired what he was doing."

Rural journalism was the love of Crews’s life, Settle said, because it offered many challenges and allowed journalists to deeply engage with their communities. But, when they became a couple, Settle discovered the bravery required of a reporter when she had to get used to seeing local officials in public after Crews wrote critical stories about them. “That was a challenge that I hadn’t realized before, and I’m sure practically all good rural, small-town reporters go through the same thing,” she said. “You have to stand up to them. Tim never backed down from a good fight on getting the public the open records they were entitled to.”

Les High and Ben Gish with the Tom and Pat Gish Award
The 2021 Gish Award winners, the Thompson-High family, were no strangers to speaking truth to power. Under publisher Leslie Thompson, The News Reporter and the nearby Tabor City Tribune became in 1952 the first weeklies to win the Pulitzer Prize for public service, for reporting and commentary that quashed the Ku Klux Klan in Columbus County, where the group had become entwined with law enforcement. Thompson “was a principled man who never wavered from his core beliefs,” said grandson and longtime publisher Les High, who accepted the award on the family’s behalf.

"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," said Cross. "The paper has done this despite significant financial adversity, reader and advertiser boycotts, personal attacks and threats against family members; and taking smaller profits to better serve its readers, while always looking ahead. I think it 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."

When Leslie Thompson died suddenly in 1959, son-in-law Jim High took over, husbanding the paper's shaky finances into a healthier state and continuing its tradition. "He did not shy away from a good fight either," Les High said.

High sold the paper to editor Justin Smith in August, but says Smith has the kind of spirit needed for the job. Also, they wanted to keep the paper's ownership local. Not content with retirement, earlier this year High launched the nonprofit Border Belt Independent, which provides in-depth investigative reporting for four nearby rural counties. He aims to support the six papers still operating in rural southeastern North Carolina, and hopes the project will be replicated in other rural communities.

High said he loves the line from the Apple TV series "Ted Lasso" in which Ted is told: “The truth will set you free, but first, it will really piss you off.” He concluded:

“The truth, however, is hard to come by today. When you hear the stories about Tom and Pat Gish or Tim Crews, we wonder if journalists today are made of the same stuff. The answer is a resounding, 'Yes!' Increasingly diverse media outlets are still producing remarkable stories with smaller staffs and fewer resources while operating under a difficult business model. Reporters do this for little pay, work long hours and endure personal attacks where they are cast by would-be autocrats as the enemy of the people.

“But that doesn’t change the mission. Our fragile democracy is under attack – and as we have seen – truth is the first casualty. Many of us tonight, myself included, stand on the shoulders of giants who risked their lives and livelihoods to tell truth to power. We owe it to them, our communities and this nation to persevere with courage and tenacity despite the daunting headwinds that lie ahead.”

Anita Richter of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives,
a dinner sponsor, presented Todd a personalized Louisville Slugger.
Chuck Todd agreed. In his keynote speech, NBC's "Meet the Press" host said the nation is at war over basic facts. But, though their work has never been more important, "Our work’s never been more second-guessed or worse, misconstrued and even attacked." 

Todd said rural journalists play a critical role in helping readers understand the local ramifications of the biggest three stories right now: climate change, inequality, and the future of this democracy. "Rural journalism is truly a community service," he said. "It’s incumbent upon all of us to be ambassadors for this work."

Speaking after presentation of the awards, Todd said, "I have to tell you, this has been a great tonic tonight. . . . This has been a nice time, and it reinforces me. . . . I wish a lot more of my colleagues in D.C. and New York would hear some of these stories. I know we need to do a better job of covering America. . . . If we’re going to break through, if we’re going to earn trust, we gotta cover the whole country, and we gotta cover the whole country with a bit more heart, a but more humanity and a little less judgment, if you will. . . . There’s a lot more to learn, sometimes, in rural American than there is in urban America."

He said journalists need to rebuild their credibility by being careful about their tone and taking themselves out of the story. Too often, he said, "We're more worried about 'takes' than we are about facts. . . . I'm sorry for those of us in this room that sometimes get attacked based on what people think of us in the national media."

Conversely, he said, “The credibility of the national media depend on local media, and local media give us more credibility.” But readers play a critical role too, he said: “Sometimes being a citizen is active work. It’s not stable right now. All of us play a role. If you’re not in journalism, then support it.”

The dinner, which was not held in 2020, also saw presentation by the Institute and the Society of Professional Journalists Bluegrass Chapter of the Al Smith Awards for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, to Becky Barnes of the Cynthiana Democrat for 2020 and to WKMS, the radio station at Murray State University in the far western end of the state, for 2021.

WKMS Station Manager Chand Lampe said in accepting the award, "It’s really hard to tell these stories of impact in rural communities, specifically where local politics and kingmakers make it hard to tell these stories. In some cases, of course, the fact that you know the person that you’re reporting on, and in some cases it makes it extraordinarily challenging. Rural journalism is truly a community service, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to be ambassadors for this work."

This story has been revised to correct an editing error misattributing the quote immediately above.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Disasters hurt much more than buildings: Camp Fire survivors battle PTSD and other mental-health disorders

Post-traumatic stress disorder is most commonly associated with war veterans, but it's increasingly a problem for survivors of weather disasters. The 2018 Camp Fire, for example, was the deadliest in California history, killing at least 42 people and destroying more than 7,000 homes. 

"A study conducted by scientists at the University of California San Diego that was published in February in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that an overwhelming number of Camp Fire survivors were suffering from various mental health disorders, most prominently PTSD," Andrea Stanley reports for The Washington Post

Senior study author Jyoti Mishra, a UC San Diego psychiatry professor, told Stanley they had found "striking and significant" numbers of Camp Fire survivors with PTSD, and that the phenomenon "really shows how climate change is a mental health stressor."

"To say that everyone in the area affected by the Camp Fire suffers from PTSD would be incorrect. But of the dozens and dozens of people I spoke with for this story, nearly everyone reported experiencing PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms," Stanley writes. "There were other things, of course: increased alcohol and drug use, anxiety, depression, anger, survivor’s guilt, grief. A select few were completely fine, telling me how the fire gave them a chance to rebuild their lives in a better way. But mostly, I heard about PTSD."

New toolkit aims to help rural groups create medication-assisted therapy programs for opioid use disorder

A new toolkit from the Rural Health Information Hub aims to help rural communities and organizations develop, implement, evaluate and sustain programs that use medication to treat opioid-use disorder. MOUD programs, sometimes called medication-assisted therapy, are the gold standard for treating OUD, but they're harder to find in rural areas, often because there's not enough money, not enough qualified prescribers, or community worries that treatment centers might attract more crime.

The toolkit has seven detailed modules that provide an overview of MOUD and the challenges rural communities face; identify different models for rural MOUD programs, along with promising examples; and dig into how organizations can implement, sustainably fund, evaluate, and get the word out about their own program.

Target audiences for the toolkit are rural organizations including: healthcare providers, non-profit organizations, faith-based organizations, businesses, and community-based organizations. Click here for more information.

Muscogee Nation votes to amend constitution to include press freedoms, after tribal council abolished them

Almost three years ago, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's National Council passed a law repealing freedom of the press protections for its tribally funded media outlet, Mvskoke Media, dissolving its editorial board, and putting the staff under the authority of the tribal government. The move sparked outrage, and recently citizens of the Oklahoma-based tribe voted to amend their constitution to mandate funding for Mvskoke Media and include protections for its workers, Editor & Publisher reports.

1866 boundaries of tribes in what became Oklahoma;
the Creek tribe is now named the Muscogee Nation.
Because tribal reservations are sovereign nations, they're not required to comply with laws guaranteeing open government, and many tribal governments keep local newspapers on a short leash. "Since tribal councils own the vast majority of the approximately 200 Native American newspapers, little leeway is given to any analysis of government activity," Editor & Publisher reports. "Reporters are often prohibited from writing critical stories about tribal leaders, and access to tribal records on most reservations is nonexistent. As a result, reporters who dare to question the tribal government will often find themselves out of a job or their newsrooms shut down."

A new episode of the webcast "E&P Reports" explores Native American news publishing and the challenges tribal journalists face in accessing press freedoms. Click here to watch.

Study finds agricultural workers 34% more likely to die by suicide than general working-age population

A recently published study found that agricultural workers are an estimated 34% more likely to die from suicide than the total working-age population. The researchers sought to better discern suicide risk among rural residents in general and those in the farming, fishing, forestry and logging industries in particular. Though previous studies have shown these populations are at a higher risk of suicide, the authors of this study believe poor sampling and the relative rarity of suicide may have skewed the numbers. 

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Kentucky analyzed 29 years worth of data from the National Center for Health Statistics' Mortality-Linked National Health Interview Survey. Here are some of the key takeaways they found:
  • The age-adjusted suicide mortality rate per 100,000 people was 22.3 for farmers and farm managers; 28.7 for those in the farming, forestry and fishing industries overall; 15.3 across all other occupations; and 16.1 among rural residents in general.
  • The overall age-adjusted rate for farmworkers was 21.6. It was 28.3 among rural farmworkers and 17.1 for city-dwelling farmworkers.
  • Age-adjusted results show that forestry and fishing workers have a higher suicide risk than all other occupations. 
The researchers note that the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries employ about 2.3 million Americans, and that they are among the nation's lowest-paid workers, with a median annual salary of about $27,000. Low socioeconomic status is linked with increased suicide rates, possibly contributing to the elevated risk among such workers, they wrote. 

Notably, the study includes data from 1986 through 2017. But over the past few years, poor agricultural conditions and the pandemic have worsened mental health and suicide rates among farmers and rural residents.

Daily Yonder offers a spooky survey of rural monster myths

An artist's rendition of what the Beast of Busco
might look like. (Source: Cryptid Archives)
Just in time for Halloween, The Daily Yonder has new updates to its series about spooky local legends. In "Rural Monsters, Myths, and Legends," Liz Carey surveys how communities have leveraged local lore into tourist attractions, TV shows, and more. She notes that the legends aren't "simply silly or scary," but also "offer a valuable window into the unique culture and community life of places often unseen and under-appreciated."

The series includes stories about the Mothman in West Virginia, the Van Meter Visitor in Iowa, and more. The latest update recounts stories about the Beast of Busco, a 500-pound turtle that allegedly lurks in a lake near Churubusco, Ind. Interestingly, it was a columnist for The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne that gave the rumored beast its name. 

Click here to read more from the series, and stay tuned for tomorrow's update about the Big Muddy Monster of Murphysboro, Illinois.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Community colleges can boost ranks of rural nurses, but programs are highly competitive; more teachers needed

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief a long-standing problem: The country doesn't have enough registered nurses, especially in rural areas.

For example, a recent Southern Illinois University Medicine report found that rural Illinois is short as many as 19,100 nurses, Jakob Emerson reports for WICD in Springfield. The reasons cited in the report likely apply in other rural areas: Nurses go for better-paying urban jobs, especially since they likely have large student loans to pay off; medical education is concentrated in urban areas; and rural nurses tend to be older and aren't replaced as quickly as they're retiring. And some rural RNs are being lured away by lucrative traveling nurse jobs.

"Pre-pandemic reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there were more than three million nurses in the nation in 2019, and an estimated 176,000 annual openings for registered nurses across the country," Morgan Matzen reports for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. A data analysis found that nursing shortages in many states are expected to get even worse by 2030.

Another reason for the overall shortage: Nursing schools don't have enough instructors to train more, Yuki Noguchi reports for NPR. The pandemic has worsened this shortage, too: Nursing educators need advanced degrees but typically earn half what they would as a nurse working on the floor. The pandemic increased financial strains for many nursing instructors, forcing them to quit and find more lucrative work. In 2019, colleges and universities turned away some 80,000 qualified applicants because they were short of faculty or other resources.

Colleges in South Dakota and other states, are trying to address the problem by offering more classes, Matzen reports. Community colleges, especially in rural areas, can play a vital role in boosting nursing associate's degree programs, but community-college nursing programs are notoriously competitive, Devon Haynie reports for U.S. News & World Report. Look here to see if your local community college offers an associate degree in nursing.

Covid-19 roundup: Ivermectin poisoning reports up; vaccine-injury claims are hard to prove; mental-health issues grow

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

Though health officials have warned the public that ivermectin doesn't treat Covid-19, many are still taking the anti-parasitic, and reports of ivermectin poisoning are on the rise. Read more here.

Coronavirus-vaccine injury claims are mounting, but there is little meaningful legal recourse for those who say they've been harmed. "More than 1,300 Covid vaccine-related injury claims are now pending before an obscure government tribunal, which to date has decided only two such cases, one involving swelling of the tongue and throat following the jab, the other alleging long-lasting, severe shoulder pain," Jenna Greene reports for Reuters. "In both instances, the government, which requires claimants to prove their injuries are “the direct result” of a Covid-19 vaccine, denied compensation. It’s a steep burden of proof. Lawyers tell me the vaccine is so new that there’s virtually no definitive research on injury causation to cite."

Thousands of workers are opting to get fired rather than get vaccinated. Read more here.

Some epidemiologists say the novel coronavirus is here to stay; much like the influenza virus, it will mutate and continue to infect people. But they note that the coronavirus is not the same thing as Covid-19: Covid-19 is the disease some people develop after being infected with the coronavirus, much like HIV sometimes evolves into AIDS. So, though the coronavirus will likely be around for a long time, the extreme illness associated with it won't be, as long as people stay up on their vaccinations. Read more here.

A recent poll found that nearly 40% of rural Iowans surveyed are struggling with mental health amid the pandemic. The findings are likely true elsewhere. Read more here.

Emergency rooms are now swamped with seriously ill patients, often those whose chronic conditions have become more serious after months of treatment delays. That's straining capacity at hospitals already inundated with Covid-19 patients. Read more here.

Supply-chain issues mean rural residents need to shop early for the holidays, and be prepared to spend more

Supply-chain woes and slower mail delivery mean rural residents should start shopping early for the holidays—and be prepared to spend more.

"Nearly every component of the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, from the disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan to the coffee and pie, will cost more this year, according to agricultural economists, farmers and grocery executives," Kim Severson reports for The New York Times. "Major food companies like Nestlé and Procter & Gamble have already warned consumers to brace for more price increases."

Turkey "has gone up so much that the price per pound is likely to surpass $1.36, the benchmark set by the Department of Agriculture in 2015," Dave Quinn reports for People. "Frozen birds between 8 and 16 pounds already cost 25 cents more per pound than they did a year ago, the organization said." 

The reasons for price increases vary: For turkey, the cost of feed corn has more than doubled. "Canned cranberry sauce will cost more because domestic steel plants have yet to catch up after pandemic shutdowns, and China is limiting steel production to reduce carbon emissions," Severson reports. "As a result, steel prices have remained more than 200 percent higher than they were before the pandemic." 

Those supply-chain issues also drive scarcity. Grocers are short of many popular Thanksgiving dishes and ingredients; several interviewed for local news stories said beef and smaller turkeys are particularly low in supply, even in urban areas. They advised shoppers to place meat orders and buy non-perishable side-dish ingredients now (and consider putting in your Christmas order while you're there). 

Food isn't the only thing in short supply, speaking of Christmas: Experts say some toys and other gifts could be hard to find. And in rural areas especially, slower mail service on top of the usual holiday bottlenecks means it's a good idea to start shopping soon if you want gifts to arrive in time. 

Nov. 3 webinar will advise communities on how to handle the transition when a power plant or coal mine shutters

The federal Interagency Working Group on Coal & Power-Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization is hosting a webinar to provide guidance to communities on how to best handle the transition when a power plant or mine shuts down. From the website: "This virtual event will provide information and best practices for addressing fundamental industrial change in a community. The program will offer a step-by-step guide to engaging on the topic in a community, a checklist of necessary activities, discussion of common experiences, case studies, resources, and a task list for developing a plan that addresses financial, employment, and social disruptions." The webinar will start at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Nov. 3, and will last about an hour and a half. Click here for more information or to register.

Verizon, Amazon to use satellite system for rural broadband

"Verizon is partnering with Amazon to use the tech giant’s coming satellite internet system to expand rural broadband access in the United States, the companies announced Tuesday," Michael Sheetz reports for CNBC. "Amazon is working on Project Kuiper, a network of 3,236 satellites that it plans to use to provide high-speed internet to anywhere in the world."

Essentially, Verizon plans to use the system to expand its current network. The Federal Communications Commission greenlit the as-yet unlaunched Kuiper satellites last year, and Amazon says it plans to invest more than $10 billion in the project, Sheetz reports.

The system will compete with SpaceX's Starlink service. Starlight is still in its infancy, but has more than 1,740 satellites in orbit and 100,000 beta testers—including in rural West Virginia—paying $99 a month.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Rural parents worry most about kids' coronavirus vax, but urban and suburban parents have become more worried

Percentage of parents who said they had "major concerns" about vaccinating their children against Covid-19 because of various factors (Covid States Project chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
Pfizer has sought Food and Drug Administration approval for its coronavirus vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11. But even if Pfizer gets the green light, the progress of children's vaccinations will depend highly on whether parents want their offspring to be vaccinated. A new report says rural parents had more concerns about such vaccinations, but that suburban and urban parents have narrowed the gap since June as their concerns grew.

The report comes from The Covid States Project, a joint effort of Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. Researchers surveyed more than 21,000 people nationwide from Aug. 26 to Sept. 27 and compared their answers with surveys done in June. Key takeaways:
  • Rural parents were more likely than urban and suburban parents to say they had "major concerns" about vaccinating their children, over how new the vaccine is, whether it has been tested enough, whether it actually works, the immediate side effects (such as fever and nausea), and long-term health effects. The average of percentages expressing those concerns in June were 53% in rural areas, 47% in suburbs and 45% in cities.
  • Those concerns rose in all population groups from June to September, when the average percentages were 63.4% in rural areas, 58.6% in suburbs and 57% in cities. The largest concern was long-term health effects.
  • The second-most cited worry was whether the vaccine has been tested enough; the percentage of parents with such concerns in all population areas grew an average of 11 points from June to September, but only 9 points among rural parents.
  • Among the three groups, rural parents' concerns rose the least from June to September. The percentage with major concerns grew an average of 10.4 points, compared to suburban parents' 11.8 points and urban parents' 12 points.

A first: Rural-urban vaccination gap narrows for two weeks straight, as rural rates fall less than metropolitan rates

Vaccination rates as of Oct. 21, 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 click here for the interactive version.

New Covid-19 vaccinations fell in rural and metro counties during the week of Oct. 15-21, but the rural drop was less: 6 percent, while the metro rate fell 10%. "For the first time since the Daily Yonder started tracking vaccination data in mid-April, the gap between rural and metropolitan vaccination rates decreased for two consecutive weeks," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "The change has been slight. The gap narrowed by only a tenth of a percentage point each week – from 12.0 points three weeks ago to 11.8 points last week."

Last week, about 229,000 rural residents completed their immunization, down from 244,000 the week before. That brings the percentage of fully vaccinated rural residents to 43.7%. Comparatively, about 1.3 million metro residents completed their shots last week, down from 1.5 million the week before, bringing the urban vaccination rate to 55.5%, Murphy and Marema report. Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and interactive state- and county-level maps from the Yonder.

Webinar on Nov. 9 will discuss the critical role of family doctors in rural America, and rural-urban differences

The Rural Health Research Gateway will host a webinar at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9 to discuss the critical role of family physicians in rural America, how they're trained, their rural distribution, and differences in scope of practice in rural vs. urban family doctors. The webinar will last about an hour. It's free, but registration is required. Click here for more information about the webinar and to register.

Lars Peterson and Davis Patterson will present the webinar. Peterson is a family physician and health services researcher, vice president of research of the American Board of Family Medicine, an associate professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Kentucky and a faculty member at its Rural & Underserved Health Research Center. His major research focuses on how continuing education can improve quality of care. 

Patterson is a sociologist and research associate professor of family medicine at the University of Washington. He is also director of the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center and the Collaborative for Rural Primary Care Research, Education, and Practice. He is also an investigator in the UW Center for Health Workforce Studies. His research focuses on improving rural areas' health-care access and examining trends in rural workforce supply.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Increasing extreme weather brings more power outages, especially in rural areas, where utilities often adapt slowly

Change in average annual power outage minutes per utility customer, 2013-15 compared to 2018-20 average.
Chart by The Washington Post; click on the image to enlarge it.

"Across the nation, severe weather fueled by climate change is pushing aging electrical systems past their limits, often with deadly results. Last year, the average American home endured more than eight hours without power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — more than double the outage time five years ago," Douglas MacMillan and Will Englund report for The Washington Post. However, "State officials are reluctant to ask ratepayers to foot the bill for investments experts say are needed to fortify the grid against increasingly severe weather."

Already in 2021, Americans have dealt with a near-record 18 weather or climate disasters that cost at least $1 billion. Such disasters have increased in frequency and power in recent years. "An analysis by independent climate research group Climate Central shows the average time between billion-dollar disasters has dropped from 82 days in the 1980s to just 18 days on average in the past five years (2016-2020)," Kerrin Jeromin reports for the Post.

Rural residents are likely to get hit harder by power outages after such disasters; for example, freak winter weather left many without power for weeks in Texas this February, and rural residents of the Florida panhandle dealt with the same issue in 2018 after Hurricane Michael.

"As storms grow fiercer and more frequent, environmental groups are pushing states to completely reimagine the electrical grid, incorporating more batteries, renewable energy sources and localized systems known as 'microgrids,' which they say could reduce the incidence of wide-scale outages. Utility companies have proposed their own storm-proofing measures, including burying power lines underground," MacMillan and Englund report. State regulators have mostly rejected these ideas, saying they must keep utility bills affordable.

But inaction is an expensive prospect too. In New York, one of the few states where regulators have assessed the risk of climate change, a report by utility giant Con Edison estimated that climate risks could cost the company $5.2 billion by 2050, MacMillan and Englund report.

Many member-customers of rural electric cooperatives are pushing for a faster transition to wind and solar, but it's often unpopular notion in rural areas, especially those in which coal is a major economic driver. Solar installations also commonly face opposition from rural residents who worry that it takes up valuable farming and ranching land and stresses local infrastructure.

Rural Georgia police chief's 'shoot to incapacitate' policy is criticized, but he says it's about building local trust

LaGrange in Troup County, Ga.
(Wikipedia map)
"A fundamental tenet of police training in the United States is that officers who fire their weapons in response to a deadly threat should always aim for "center mass," generally the chest. That's the biggest target and so the easiest to hit. But a bullet that finds its mark there is likely to kill," Jamie Thompson reports for The Washington Post from LaGrange, Ga. "The police chief in this picturesque Deep South town says there’s a better approach. Louis Dekmar, who has run the LaGrange Police Department for 26 years, is training his officers to shoot for the legs, pelvis or abdomen in situations where they think it could stop a deadly threat without killing the source of that threat. Doing so, he believes, could make a difference in the more than 200 fatal police shootings nationwide every year that involve individuals armed with something other than a gun."

The move has drawn widespread criticism from other law enforcement officials across the country, and was the focus of Georgia police leaders' annual conference this year. "While such a policy might be supported by the public, explained John B. Edwards of the Peace Officers Association of Georgia, most agencies would find it impossible to implement," Thompson reports.

But Dekmar told Thompson that the program is about the public's trust: "Every time we avoid taking a life, we maintain trust." Dekmar believes the public generally supports the initiative because he's invested more time in building that trust in the town of about 30,000. Other law enforcement authorities can do the same in their own communities to find solutions that fit, he told Thompson: "Policing in a democracy means that a community gets to define what ‘good’ policing looks like, and that definition may vary a bit from place to place."

Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, music greats with Ky. roots who broke out Tennessee's 'Rocky Top,' dies at 83

Sonny Osborne, right, and brother Bobby
Sonny Osborne, an innovative bluegrass virtuoso who was half of The Osborne Brothers, died Sunday at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., about two months after suffering a stroke. He was 83.

Osborne and his brother Bobby, 90, who survives, began their musical careers in Dayton, Ohio, where their family had moved from Hyden, Ky. After working with Bill Monroe as a high-school freshman, Sonny joined Bobby to perform, later in Jimmy Martin's band, then formed their own group with Red Allen. Their first record, "Ruby Are You Mad (at your man)" was a big hit in 1956, featuring the "stacked trio" vocals that were their trademark.

The Osborne Brothers rankled some others in bluegrass by using drums and electric instruments, innovations led by Sonny, but it helped them build an audience broader than most bluegrass artists had, and they joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. In late 1967, they released a single with the ballad "My Favorite Memory," backed on the B side by their up-tempo version of "Rocky Top," a tune that famed songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant had knocked out in less than 15 minutes. When they promoted the record on Ralph Emery's show on Nashville's WSM Radio, the switchboard lit up when Emery played the B side, and a hit was born. It became the University of Tennessee fight song in 1972 after Lynn Anderson had a bigger hit with it in 1970.

"The banjo playing of Osborne . . . has perhaps been heard more than any other bluegrass picker (save possibly Earl Scruggs) thanks to the worldwide fame and enduring presence" of "Rocky Top," John Curtis Goad writes for Bluegrass Today. "However, there was certainly much more to Osborne than what was basically a novelty song at the time . . . He took the basic elements of bluegrass banjo and elevated them to new heights while still maintaining a strongly traditional feel. . . . His playing was both tasteful and complex – just listen to his solo rendition of 'America the Beautiful,' a performance of which brought the audience to tears at the 2001 International Bluegrass Music Asssociation Awards, held just days after the 9/11 attacks."

The brothers entered the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1994. Sonny retired in 2005, after complications from rotator-cuff surgery, but he remained active in mentoring young musicians, and wrote a column for Bluegrass Today. Bobby soldiers on with his band, the Rocky Top X-Press.

UPDATE, Oct. 28: Walter Tunis of the Lexington Herald-Leader sums up Sonny in a nice tribute.

Rural bankers say local economy good but worry about spending bill, jobs, supply-chain disruptions for farmers

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

Rural bankers in the middle of the nation believe their local economies are doing well right now but are less confident about the near future, according to an October survey in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy. The Rural Mainstreet Index rose to 66.1 from September's 62.5, marking 11 straight months above growth-neutral (50). 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 grain prices, the Federal Reserve’s record-low interest rates, and growing exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," wrote Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. Agriculture Department data "show that 2021 year-to-date agriculture exports are more than 25.4% above that for the same period in 2020. This has been an important factor supporting the Rural Mainstreet economy."

More than 82 percent of bankers surveyed said local farmers were in a "solid cash position with little borrowing needs," while nearly 18% said local farmers' borrowing demand and cash position weren't much changed from the past. No bankers said most local farmers were suffering from financial stress or significant financial stress.

However, the confidence index, which reflects bankers' expectations for the economy six months from now sank to 51.8 from September's 65.4. This month's score is the lowest since November 2020. More than 80% of bankers surveyed said they worried that President Biden's $3.5 trillion spending bill would hurt the economy if passed and implemented. 

Also, jobs continue to be a source of concern. Though the new hiring index rose to 71.4 from September's 67.9, regional non-farming employment is still lower than it was before the pandemic, and labor shortages are still a significant problem for local businesses. 

The supply-chain woes plaguing the nation are hurting farmers, too. Backlogs at domestic transportation hubs such as river ports were the biggest problem for farmers, with 32.1% of bankers reporting so. Processing bottlenecks were the next most common problem, followed by delays in "soft input" purchases such as fertilizer, delays in equipment purchases, and congestion at export hubs (see chart below).

Sunday, October 24, 2021

An editor's advice: Some news shortcuts have merit, but don't just cut and paste; look for, and reveal, substance

Jim Pumarlo
By Jim Pumarlo

Many newsrooms, already strained by lean staffs, have seen resources exacerbated by the economic toll of the coronavirus. Circumstances have prompted editors and reporters to take shortcuts in gathering and publishing the everyday churn of news. Some of the practices have merit and can make for an easier read:

Question-and answer profiles: A few paragraphs introduce the significance of an individual, followed by a Q&A. The reporter poses the questions, the newsmaker provides written responses, and the story often is ready to go with minimal editing.

Top things to know: A variety of statistics routinely cross editors’ desks – for example, monthly employment reports or the latest tally of coronavirus cases, vaccinations, Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths. The crux of the report often can be summarized in relatively brief verbiage followed by bullet points identifying the highlights. This format might also be used to report the “top five things” to know from a local government meeting.

Guest columns: Many issues beg for further analysis after an initial story, but reporters simply have less time to pursue follow-up stories. As an alternative, invite experts to weigh in. Provide directive for a guest column. Point/counterpoints on the editorial page are an excellent tool to educate on an issue and generate community conversation.

As useful and worthwhile as some of these practices may be, editors and reporters still must ensure that the reports – whether generated by staff or submitted by individuals – are substantive. In short, don’t just “cut and paste.”

Unfortunately, diminished resources have led to a disturbing trend of press releases and other submissions being published largely verbatim with little or no attempt to edit. A few tips:

Scrutinize Q&A responses: Lead with the news, which may mean shifting the order of the questions. If there is indeed “news” in a response, alert readers in the lead. Be aware that some answers may require a follow-up query just as you would seek in a live interview.

Don’t write for those at the front of the room: Remember the folks at the back of the room. Reporting highlights of a city council meeting – for example, “the five things you should know” – can result in simply recording a body’s actions with no interpretation of what it means for local citizens. In addition, pay attention to those items that warrant follow-up.

Edit everything. All submissions should be subject to careful proofing and revising or redrafting. If a phrase or sentence causes you to pause or scratch your head, readers will similarly stumble.

Electronic delivery of information is an obvious boon to newsmakers. “Cut and paste” allows any number of news sources to distribute releases with ease, the messages reaching mass audiences within minutes. Some organizations take the time to localize releases. Most disappointing however, is when a local group forwards a release from a parent organization, and newsrooms make no attempt to state the pertinence to their community.

The pandemic certainly has strained the ability to gather news. Many meetings still are virtual. Interviews often are left to an exchange of emails. It’s time for editors and reporters to get back to the basics of connecting with news sources. Use Zoom and other videoconferencing tools. Apple’s newest software updates make FaceTime a quick, easy connect for even casual users. Conduct face-to-face interviews when possible. Pick up the telephone.

Be persistent in connecting live with your sources. Establishing personal relationships is at the heart of news gathering, whether it’s a one-time contact for a story or with individuals you interact with on a regular basis. Your stories will be stronger and more relevant to your readers.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle and author of three books on community journalism. He \welcomes comments and questions at