Friday, February 11, 2022

News Leaders Association is both offering and seeking content to promote Sunshine Week, March 13-19

The News Leaders Association is seeking website content and event calendar submissions for its annual Sunshine Week, held this year March 13-19.

Since 2005, NLA (formerly the American Society of News Editors) has celebrated Sunshine Week to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

News outlets have observed the week by producing special reports and series that featured information obtained from open-records access and highlighted the process journalists had to undergo to get it.

Any news outlet, nonprofit organization or public official holding an event to highlight Sunshine Week can submit it to NLA's events calendar by clicking here, completing a submission form online at or emailing information to:

To submit news stories, editorials, columns, cartoons or graphics for public use during Sunshine Week, email content links to: Please include a brief description and/or headlines suitable for posting on NLA's Sunshine Week web page.

Fentanyl deaths have at least doubled in every state during pandemic; see state-level data and maps

Increase in number of fentanyl-related deaths from May 2019 to May 2021
(Families Against Fentanyl map; click the image to enlarge it.)

Fentanyl deaths have risen sharply during the pandemic, and some states have been particularly hard-hit, according to a new analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by advocacy group Families Against Fentanyl. Fentanyl is a cheap but powerful synthetic opioid often added to street drugs; it causes more fatalities because it's deadly at tiny, easily misjudged doses.

The study measures recent state-level trends in fentanyl fatalities in several ways: rate of increase in fentanyl deaths during the pandemic, number of fentanyl deaths per capita in 2021, total number of fentanyl deaths in 2021, and total number of fentanyl deaths since 2015.

For instance, between May 2019 and May 2021, "Fentanyl fatalities more than doubled in 30 states in just two years, and more than tripled in 15," according to the report. Fatalities increased nearly five-fold in six states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Florida had the highest number of total fentanyl deaths in 2021, a total that more than doubled in two years.

The shortage of overdose mitigation drug naloxone since April 2021 is likely causing more deaths, many of them rural; one organizer estimated that the back-order could lead to at least 11,000 more overdose deaths.

Get ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 18-21; free webinar at 2 p.m. ET Feb. 16 can help you participate

A Carolina wren (Great Backyard Bird Count photo by Gary Mueller)
The Great Backyard Bird Count returns for its 25th year next weekend, Feb. 18-21. Participating is easy: Pick a spot and watch birds for 15 minutes or more at least once, using one of the tools on the GBBC website to tally all the birds you see or hear while you're observing.

Participants can count birds anywhere in the world, and help scientists get a snapshot of global bird populations. Volunteers from around the world count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, and then enter their checklists at In 2021, a record 300,000+ participants counted some 6,436 species.

Birders of all ages and experience levels can attend a free webinar at 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Feb. 16, to "brush up on bird ID, unlock the mystery of bird songs, and practice counting birds no matter how large the flock or busy the feeder," according to the website.

The count is sponsored by the ornithology lab at New York state's Cornell University, the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada. The sponsors say counting birds has become more important, and note that scientists recently reported a decline of more than one in four breeding birds in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. "In addition to these steep declines, Audubon scientists projected a grim future for birds in Survival By Degrees, a report showing nearly two-thirds of North America’s bird species could disappear due to climate change. Birds from around the world are facing similar challenges and declines," the Great Backyard Bird Count website says. To sign up, click here.

Judge restores endangered-species status for most gray wolves, but not in wolf-hunting hotbed of northern Rockies

A gray wolf in Montana (Getty Images photo by Dennis Fast)
"A federal judge on Thursday restored protections for gray wolves in much of the country, reversing a decision by the Trump administration that stripped Endangered Species Act protections and exposed the animals to aggressive hunting in areas where they were nearly killed off years ago," Joshua Partlow reports for The Washington Post. "The decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in Northern California immediately reimposes safeguards for wolf populations in the Lower 48 outside of northern Rocky Mountain states — one of the hotbeds of wolf hunting — and puts federal officials in charge of managing wolf populations in places such as the Great Lakes region, the Pacific coast, and other parts of their range.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took gray wolves off the endangered species list during the Trump administration and gave control back to the states. That was not scientifically sound and didn't adequately address threats to wolf populations outside their main populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies, White said in his ruling.

"Environmental groups hailed the decision but warned that intense hunting pressure in states such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — which were not part of this court case — remains a serious threat to the country’s gray wolves," Partlow reports. "Hunters nearly wiped them out a century ago in much of the country, but federal protections have helped reestablish many packs in recent decades."

Pro-hunting groups criticized the decision. Kansas-based group Hunter Nation said in a statement that White was an "activist judge" and that hunting wolves helps "farmers, ranchers, and anyone who supports a balanced ecosystem with common-sense predator management."

From a weekly in the Texas Panhandle, and close to the Okla. Panhandle, a blend of weather news and photo art

Republished with permission of The Canadian Record, Canadian, Texas; for a larger version, click on it.

Quick hits: $725 million released to clean up old coal mines; National FFA Week is Feb. 19-26

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 us at

The Society of Environmental Journalists is accepting submissions for the SEJ 2022 Awards through March 1. Read more here.

The Interior Department announced the release of nearly $725 million in funding to clean up abandoned coal mines. It's the first tranche of $11.3 billion promised in the infrastructure bill to be disbursed over the next 15 years. Read more here.

The National FFA Organization, called the Future Farmers of America until 1988, will celebrate its seventh annual National FFA Week from Feb. 19-26. Read more here.

A Maine dairy farm's struggles to produce its signature chocolate milk illustrate the complexities of the supply-chain issues facing farmers and others. Read more here.

Unharvested crops dramatically increase the amount of food wasted in agriculture; some farmers are trying to find solutions. Read more here.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Growers see Okla. medical marijuana industry as a model for other states, but detractors warn against lax regulations

Medical marijuana is booming in Oklahoma, and growers say other states considering legalization should consider its example. But critics say lax regulations are causing big problems.

"While Oklahoma has become a kind of nirvana for growers and producers, who enjoy a relatively low start-up cost in comparison to other states, it has some lawmakers leery because of lax regulation," Graham Lee Brewer and Alicia Victoria Lozano report for CBS News

In the four years since Oklahoma voters legalized medical marijuana, "dispensaries have become as ubiquitous as gas stations and churches in much of Oklahoma, where state officials have licensed more than 12,000 marijuana-related businesses and about one in 10 people now own medical-marijuana cards," CBS reports. "Officials with the overwhelmed Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority said they’ve been able to inspect only a quarter of licensed marijuana businesses so far."

Gov. Kevin Stitt said this week that the language of the ballot initiative—which he believes misled voters—has made it difficult to regulate the cannabis industry: "This is causing major problems in our communities, and we must get it under control."

"Stitt said the relatively low cost of getting a business license and the lack of a cap on the number of growers has fueled a black market in Oklahoma that may require legislation to reform," CBS reports. "Rep. Rusty Cornwell, a Republican, has introduced legislation to place a temporary moratorium on issuing licenses, citing concern that out-of-state and foreign growers are exploiting loopholes in Oklahoma’s in-state residency requirements and taking advantage of the state’s limited enforcement resources, which has opened the door for organized crime." Another issue is the strain marijuana farms put on utilities.

"So far, 37 states have adopted medical-marijuana programs, and recreational marijuana use is legal in 18 of them," Brewer and Lozano report. And advocates are hopeful that a few of the 14 states that have yet to pass laws or approve ballot initiatives allowing the use of marijuana will do so in the next year or two, including Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky." Some states considering legalization see Oklahoma as a cautionary tale. Mississippi's legislature studied Oklahoma's oversight issues before writing up a bill legalizing medical marijuana for those with debilitating medical conditions; Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill last week.

China fell short on trade agreement promises, but American farm exports hit record in 2021; farmers pessimistic

Though China failed to fulfill its Phase I trade agreement promises, American farmers still had a banner year in 2021, beating its previous crop export record by more than $22 billion. However, farmers' confidence has continued to decline for nearly a year.

"The 2020 agreement that de-escalated the Sino-U.S. trade war set unrealistically high goals for U.S. exports to China and failed to deliver on them by large margins, say analysts. Overall, China bought just 57% of the goods and services it committed to buying as part of the 'phase one' agreement. The agriculture sector, at 83%, came closest to reaching its export goal," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The phase one agreement expired at the end of 2021, with China clearly far from compliance. The Commerce Department released the year-end trade figures this week. The trade deficit with China widened to $355 billion, an increase of $45 billion from 2020. Overall, the U.S. trade deficit was a record $859 billion in 2021."

Most of the deficit comes from soybeans; they make up about 60% of U.S. agricultural exports to China. "Soybean sales plunged during the first year of the trade war, and although they recovered, in the end they reached just two-thirds of the needed volume," Abbott reports. 

Though exports fell short of the trade deal's terms, China still bought a record $33 billion in U.S. agricultural exports in 2021. In fact, "six of the 10 largest customers for U.S. farm and food goods, led by China, Mexico, and Canada, made record purchases during calendar 2021," Abbott reports. Overall, U.S. farm exports hit a record $177 billion in 2021.

However, farmers' confidence has steadily declined since last April, according to Purdue University's Ag Economy Barometer. "More than 40% of the large-scale farmers and ranchers polled by Purdue said they expect the next 12 months will bring bad times for the agricultural economy, nearly twice the number of those who believe good times lie ahead," Abbott reports. "Producers were even more pessimistic about their own operations; 15% said they expected to be better off financially a year from now, and nearly 45% said they would be worse off. One in four said they expected to borrow more money from the bank to cover operating costs this year than in 2021, with higher input costs the overwhelming reason."

Texas program shows how to care for teens' mental health

Brooks County, Texas (Wikipedia)
Rural teens are dealing with mental-health issues, a trend worsened by pandemic isolation, lack of access to mental-health services and the stigma still attached to the subject. A program in South Texas shows how organizations can make counseling more palatable to teens who need help.

"According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory, recent research into 80,000 youth has found that anxiety and depression has increased in teens during the pandemic," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "As much as 25% of youth reported experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Other negative emotions or behaviors, like impulsivity and irritability, also appear to have increased, the research found. Data also shows that in early 2021 emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher in adolescent boys."

After hearing about another teen suicide in recent months, the Community Action Corp. of South Texas created a program called the Behavioral Health Outreach and Leadership Development Project, or BHold, in Brooks County. The three-year project is funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health's Collaborative Approaches to Well-Being in Rural Communities. "The project started by creating a coalition to address teen mental health that included teens. After creating a strategic plan around mental health and wellness, the group entered into a partnership with Texas A&M-College Station and Brooks County, where the county provided the group with a building, rent-free."

BHold's counselor, Jose Palacios, told Carey the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues is still a problem for many local teens, but his schedule is full both days of the week he works for the program. Palacios said teens are more willing to talk to him because he's not from Brooks County. They would hesitate to talk about mental health issues with someone they've known their whole lives, fearing a local counselor might carry tales out into the community, he said.

April Anzaldua, CAC's director of community services and development, told Carey the program "seeks to make counseling more accessible to teens in other ways – like making counseling more affordable, decorating the waiting room in a way that makes teens feel comfortable, and providing patients with transportation to counseling during school hours, if necessary and applicable."

The program appears to be making a difference in the community. "It’s slowly becoming normalized here," Anzaldua said. "Before, in this huge Hispanic culture that we have, you know, you don’t show your feelings, you don’t talk about your feelings. You kind of suck it up. And when kids were reaching out, to family members saying, 'hey, I need help.' they would wash them off. So, I think… that this little community is starting to embrace mental health, and that it’s okay to not be okay."

Apply for mental-health journalism fellowships by April 6

The Carter Center is now accepting applications for the 2022-2023 Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. From the website: "The yearlong, nonresidential fellowships aim to equip journalists with resources to produce compelling and balanced reporting on mental health and substance use issues and to develop a diverse cohort of journalists who can effectively report on the topics across evolving and emerging platforms."

Each fellow will receive a $10,000 stipend, intensive training on behavioral health reporting, and networking opportunities with advisors and other fellows. Fellows from across mediums pursue a range of innovative journalism projects that tackle some of society’s biggest behavioral health challenges and seek to drive change in their communities and help reduce stigma through storytelling.

Journalists who are U.S. citizens and residents are invited to apply online. The deadline is April 6, and fellows will be announced in July on the Center's website. The fellowship begins in September.

Lack of child care is still keeping many women out of the workforce; a newly increased tax credit could help

Though the job market has largely recovered, child-care issues still prevent many women from returning to work. Most of those who do work outside the home say child-care costs are overwhelming, and that financial support during the pandemic has been critical. One thing that may help such families: Congress beefed up a child-care tax credit to help families afford it.

The U.S. added about 467,000 jobs in January, but women still lag men in employment, according to a National Women's Law Center analysis. "Early into the third year of the pandemic, male workers regained all the jobs they had lost since February 2020. But the same could not be said of women: Since February 2020, 1.1 million women who left the labor force have yet to return," Anne Branigin reports for The Washington Post. The numbers point to long-standing structural inequities that still make it harder for women to return to work at the same rate as men, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at NWLC. And this will continue to affect women’s workforce participation for months, experts say, even as some aspects of American life return to 'normal.'"

Child care is a massive problem. In a September poll of 2,000 parents, 84% said the cost was overwhelming, 70% said they spent their stimulus money on it, and 40% said they had gone into debt over it just to retain a job or a rare space in a center, according to personal finance website The Penny Hoarder. "A majority reported spending at least $750 per month on child care, and half said child-care expenses represented at least 25% of their monthly income," Nicole Dow reports.

The expanded child tax credit was a boon to working parents, but those payments ended in December. However, a less well-known tax credit might also help, Aimee Picchi reports for CBS News. The child and dependent care credit has been around since the 1970s, but it didn't keep pace with the cost. By 2018, the maximum $2,100 credit only covered about 10% of the typical cost of care for two children. But the 2021 American Rescue Plan nearly quadrupled the credit, bumping up the ceiling to $8,000.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

House passes bipartisan postal reform bill that serves the interests of rural residents and their newspapers

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, left, didn't like the much higher
sample-copy limit pushed by Rep. James Comer,
right; Comer won.
The House passed the landmark Postal Service Reform Act Tuesday night in a 342-92 vote, sending to the Senate a bill that addresses key financial solvency issues of the service and advances the interests of rural residents and their newspapers. The bill received strong bipartisan support, capturing a majority of both party caucuses, and enjoys "considerable partisan support" in the Senate, Nicholas Wu and Hailey Fuchs report for Politico.

The bill would allow newspapers to mail many more sample copies to non-subscribers in their home counties at the same rate they pay the Postal Service to deliver papers to subscribers. The current limit is 10 percent of annual home-county circulation, enacted more than a century ago; the bill would make it 50%, which would only boost subscription appeals but provide total market coverage for advertisers that don't normally advertise in newspapers.

Also "among its provisions, the bill would require Postal Service retirees to enroll in Medicare and eliminates the requirement that the agency prefund its retiree health benefits for 75 years in the future, saving the beleaguered agency tens of billions of dollars over the next decade," Wu and Fuchs report. A financially solvent Postal Service is critical to rural America since for-profit delivery services often find it unprofitable to serve rural areas.

The bill "would also mandate that the Postal Service create a dashboard with performance data and continue to deliver at least six days each week," Wu and Fuchs report. The six-day delivery requirement is already in effect, but was in play during negotiations.

National Newspaper Association Chair Brett Wesner lauded the bill in a news release: "We greatly appreciate the hard work of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, and James Comer, R-Kentucky, in crafting a bill that drew wide bipartisan support, despite some unaccountable resistance. These two leaders came up with a complex bill that will give USPS some financial running room and, more importantly, demonstrate to the nation that we value this national treasure, the U.S. Postal Service."

New rural Covid-19 infections fell 40% last week, but metro cases fell 54%; rural deaths rose 13% as metro deaths fell

New cases of the coronavirus, in ranges by county, Jan. 30-Feb. 5
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

As the Omicron surge wanes nationally, it is doing likewise in rural counties. New rural coronavirus infections fell 40 percent from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5. "That’s the biggest single-week drop in cases (both as a percentage and in raw numbers) since the start of the pandemic. But even with the decline, new infections were more numerous last week in rural counties than they were at the previous peak of the pandemic in January 2021," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "In metropolitan counties, new cases fell at an even greater rate – declining by 54% for the week."

Deaths, a trailing indicator, "increased by 13% last week, climbing to 2,895 from 2,567 two weeks ago," Marema reports. "Covid-related deaths in metropolitan counties declined slightly. Metro counties reported 13,208 Covid-related deaths last week, down about 2% from two weeks ago."

Even with the decrease in new infections, almost all rural counties remained in the red zone, which the federal government defines as more than 1 daily case per 1,000 residents over a week, so the task force has urged such counties to take extra precautions to contain the virus, Marema reports.

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

Covid roundup: Child-care programs with mask mandates less likely to close for quarantine; beware of antibody tests

A new x-ray technique shows how Covid-19 ravaged the
lungs of a 54-year-old victim. In the scan above, open
airspaces are cyan, open blood vessels are red, and blocked,
damaged blood vessels are yellow. (National Geographic)
Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic:

Child-care programs that require children 2 and older to wear masks are less likely to close due to infection of a child or staff member, a new study shows. The findings matter because such unpredictable closures make it harder for parentsespecially moms and single parents—to work outside the home.

Many drugstores offer coronavirus antibody tests. But they're often a poor indicator of how protected you are from Covid-19, because different people can be protected from infection with different amounts of antibodies. The test also should not be used instead of a PCR or rapid-antigen test, because it can't tell whether you're currently infected. Read more here.

New X-ray techniques show how Covid-19 can damage the body—especially the lungs—with shocking clarity. Read more here.

Though the Omicron surge seems to be waning, rural hospitals have had a tough time with it and resources are still stretched thin. One Missouri hospital built a makeshift intensive care unit for a critical patient with supplies from Walmart after failing to find a single ICU bed at 19 larger hospitals in the region. And monoclonal antibody treatments are in such short supply that many hospitals use a lottery system to determine who gets them.

Four hospitals in rural Maine were too small to qualify for a federal relief program that sent ambulance teams to help transport patients. So the hospitals banded together and applied as a region, and the tactic worked. Read more here.

A new study links coronavirus vaccines to slight menstrual-cycle changes, but no damage to fertility. Cycles were extended by an average of less than a day for people who got one dose, or two days for people who got two doses within a single menstrual cycle. Read more here.

A right-wing journalist who was hospitalized with Covid-19 showed social-media followers a prescription for ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that has been baselessly promoted as a Covid cure. His testimonial shines a spotlight on a small minority of doctors who reap financial windfalls from prescribing unproven Covid treatments, usually by telehealth. Such doctors rarely face consequences for unethical behavior, though. Lawmakers in North Dakota and Tennessee have restricted medical boards' and regulators' ability to penalize such doctors, and 10 other states are trying to pass similar measures.

Free land programs in rural towns have iffy success rates

Towns in Kansas—and other rural areas—are offering free land in an attempt to lure new residents amid a nationwide housing shortage. But many of those towns have had such programs since the 1990s, and few have been successful. That's because they face a self-perpetuating problem: "Towns can’t survive without enough people, and people are hard to recruit when the local economies are in shambles," Mark Dent reports for The Hustle, which covers business and technology.

It's a pattern that goes back to the Homestead Act of 1862: over a million white settlers flocked to rural Kansas in the decades following, but increasing mechanization and consolidation of farms reduced the need for farmworkers, and many rural Kansans moved to cities with more opportunities, Dent reports. And in the past decade, rural areas mostly lost population because of out-migration. Between 2010 and 2020, for example, Kansas saw 123,792 births, but 118,086 Kansans moved away. The state only netted 60,000 in population growth because of immigrants.

Bottom line, the people who tend to stick around (or move there in the first place) are those who value small-town life, and those who move based on dollar signs could just as easily reverse that decision later when it's advantageous, Dent reports. That's reflected in a recent Pew Research Center survey that found that, though the pandemic has influenced where many Americans want to live, it hasn't really changed what they're looking for in a community.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Coronavirus may be widespread in white-tailed deer; it could mutate and spread to humans and other animals

A researcher swabs a white-tailed deer's saliva. (New York Times photo by Sergio Flores)
Evidence suggests the novel coronavirus may become entrenched in the white-tailed deer population. That could give the virus much more opportunity to mutate and spread to other animals, including humans, Emily Anthes and Sabrina Imbler report for The New York Times. "If deer were to become established as a North American wildlife reservoir, and we do think they’re at risk of that, there are real concerns for the health of other wildlife species, livestock, pets and even people," said Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is a top concern right now for the United States." Behravesh directs the CDC's One Health Office, which focuses on connections between human, animal and environmental health.

"From the start of the pandemic, experts were aware that a virus that emerged from animals, as scientists believe SARS-CoV-2 did, could theoretically spread back to animals. Mink have garnered much attention after the virus spread through mink farms in Europe and North America, leading to massive culls of the animals. But white-tailed deer, which may wander into urban and rural backyards, are also easily infected," Anthes and Imbler report. "Infections in free-ranging deer, which display few signs of illness, are tricky to detect and difficult to contain. Deer also live alongside us in dizzying numbers; about 30 million white-tailed deer roam the continental United States."

Scientists knew mammals, especially deer, would be more susceptible to infection from the beginning of the pandemic; the coronavirus enters cells by attaching to a certain kind of receptor, and many mammals have close cousins of that receptor, Anthes and Imbler report.

Evidence has borne out the theory. In December 2020, scientists analyzed more than 4,000 dead white-tailed deer in Iowa and found that more than 60 percent were infected. And in July, when the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service sampled blood from deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania, 40% had coronavirus antibodies (which meant they likely had already been infected), Anthes and Imbler report. Scientists in Ohio, Texas, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have found similar results.

"Whether the virus makes deer sick remains unknown. There is no evidence that infected deer become seriously ill, but humans might not notice if a wild animal was feeling slightly under the weather," Anthes and Imbler report. Stephanie Seifert, a zoonotic diseases expert at Washington State University, told the Times that, while scientists know many deer have been infected and spread the virus, they're not sure how humans (or other animals) are infecting the deer, how the virus is adapting or what will happen next. Knowing those things, especially how the deer are getting infected, is critical for risk assessment, so scientists are researching it.

Dallas Morning News editorial on Journalism Competition and Preservation Act says it would also help rural publishers

Clip from Texas Press Messenger; click on it to enlarge. 
Out where New Mexico sticks a corner into Texas and the Pecos River cuts into the Llano Estacado lies Winkler County, the latest county in Texas and one of the latest in the United States to be without a local newspaper. The Winkler County News last published Dec. 23, leaving the county of 7,000, about 6,000 of whom live in the county seat of Kermit, without a reliable, independent source of local news. The publisher of The Monahans News of Ward County said he would "endeavor to cover as much of Winkler County's news as feasible." A small piece of Monahans, on Interstate 20, lies in Winkler County, but it's part of an city-limits appendage that appears to be uninhabited or largely so.

"There are plenty of places in Texas, and across the U.S., where local news coverage has been reduced to its thinnest form, if it hasn’t disappeared entirely," the Dallas Morning News says in an editorial endorsing the bipartisan Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which allow give news publishers and broadcasters to negotiate collectively for compensation from Google and Facebook, which "have come to dominate the dissemination of news and information in the free world. . . . Much of this revenue is collected off the clicks and page views these companies gather from hosting the work of journalists. Most Americans now get their news through either or both of these companies."

Opponents of the bill "say that news publishers and broadcasters can simply choose to share their work elsewhere. But everyone knows that reaching an audience without using Google and Facebook is an impossible task these days," the Morning News says. "The other argument, that newspapers are like the horse and buggy and should be allowed to fade away, is also wrong. This newspaper, like many newspapers, now reaches its largest audience in more than a quarter of a century. More than 10 million unique visitors came to our website monthly in 2021.But most of the advertising revenue that once supported the work of our journalists flows instead to a duopoly that even a company as strong as ours — one of the largest regional papers in the U.S. — cannot negotiate with singularly. Imagine what it must be like for mom-and-pop publishers in rural areas of this country."

Apply for competitive National Press Foundation statehouse reporting fellowships by Feb. 27; rural journalists sought

Statehouse reporting is increasingly thin but more important right now, with almost all state legislatures involved in elections this year. To help local and regional reporters suit up for the task, the National Press Foundation will hold a week of journalism training in Austin, Texas, from March 27-31. The fellowship will be held in person, barring a new Covid-19 flare-up or other emergencies, and attendance of all sessions is mandatory.

The foundation will cover airfare, ground transportation, hotel costs, and most meals for the up to 25 fellows selected. Only U.S. journalists are eligible; the foundation particularly invites applications from from local and nonprofit news organizations; journalists covering communities that have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic; Black, Indigenous and other journalists of color; and those attempting to do public-interest reporting about news deserts, which are increasingly rural.

From the website: "In addition to gerrymandering and voting rights, key topics will include the future of democracy, handling misinformation, copycat legislation, Covid as a public health and political issue, campaign finances, how federal stimulus money is being spent locally, and voter-motivating issues such as race and abortion. Expert instructors will help journalists with sources and nuanced background, as well as fact-checking, community engagement, accountability journalism and other skills."

The application deadline is Feb. 27. Click here for more information or to apply.

USDA announces new school-lunch nutritional standards

The Agriculture Department has announced updates to school meal nutrition standards for the 2022-23 school year, aimed at making meals healthier while acknowledging the supply-chain difficulties schools expect to face in recovering from the pandemic. "These transitional nutrition standards -- set to be implemented in the next two school years -- are intended to give 'schools time to transition from current, pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals,' according to USDA. These standards include updates to milk, whole grains and sodium requirements for school meals," Liz Stark reports for CNN.

USDA said in a press release that the nutritional requirements will allow schools to "gradually transition from the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic to normal program operations and meal standards that are consistent with the latest nutrition science."

Here are some of the updated guidelines:

  • Schools can offer flavored 1% low-fat milk in addition to other non-fat and low-fat milk options
  • At least 80 percent of grains in school meals each week must be rich in whole grains
  • Beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, the weekly sodium limit for lunches only will decrease by 10%

Studies illustrate the effectiveness of mask-wearing in slowing the pandemic, especially in rural counties

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graphic; click the image to enlarge it.

A pair of studies illustrates the effectiveness of mask-wearing in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The first, released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed real-world evidence that masks work, and that what kind of mask you wear matters.

"In addition to being up to date with recommended Covid-19 vaccinations, consistently wearing a comfortable, well-fitting face mask or respirator in indoor public settings protects against acquisition of [Covid-19] infection; a respirator offers the most protection," says the early release report.

The study assessed face-mask or respirator use among 652 people who tested positive for the virus and 1,176 who tested negative from Feb. 18 to Dec. 1, 2021 and self-reported being in indoor public settings during the two weeks preceding their test, with no known contact with any confirmed or suspected Covid-19 infection. The samples were randomly selected residents of California.

A second study showed that rural counties with mask mandates saw fewer coronavirus cases than rural counties without such mandates in late 2020. "The study from researchers in Kansas and Missouri and published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine looked at Covid-19 cases across 38 rural counties in Missouri, Iowa, Tennessee and Florida, half of which implemented mask mandates. It found in the month after counties enacted mask requirements, cases were 16.9 percent lower than in counties without mandates," Jessica Piper reports for Bangor Daily News.

Monday, February 07, 2022

CherryRoad Media continues its expansion, promises not to mine rural papers for profit

CherryRoad Media, a division of New Jersey-based tech company CherryRoad Technologies, has expanded its newspaper holdings recently, including several Gannett Co. papers in Texas and Oklahoma. The company also revived a Minnesota rural weekly, the Lake County Press, that folded in 2020. 

Since 2020, CherryRoad has been on a "newspaper buying spree, largely in the Midwest and the South," and now owns 49 papers in 10 states, Pat Borzi reports for MinnPost

CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban told Borzi, the company plans to invest in local news, not mine it for profits, which Borzi notes is "a refreshing change from the shark-tank world of corporate journalism."

"As I’ve gotten more involved with it, I have really come to realize how [important to] a small community the newspaper really is," Gulban told Borzi. "When you go out into these smaller, rural communities, there really is no other real source of news. People really do count on the local newspaper to provide that. It’s really an institution in the community."

Gulban said he's also learned that "it takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail to run these smaller newspapers, and I think bigger companies aren’t necessarily suited for that. We are, because we’re a small organization. We’re more nimble. We’re more able to react. The number of calls I get every day from the various small papers that we have that require a response, it’s very hard for a large organization to handle something like that," Borzi reports.

USDA sees farm profits falling but still well above average

USDA chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Despite record-high expenses and lower federal subsidies that will reduce their overall income, 2022 will still be one of the best years on record for American farmers, according to the Agriculture Department's Farm Income Forecast. USDA's Economic Research Service releases three such forecasts each year, typically in February, August and November (here's the last one before this). 

If the prediction holds, "It would be the second year in a row that net farm income, a USDA gauge of profitability, ran at sky-high levels, boosted by strong commodity prices and a boom in exports, with China back as the No. 1 customer," Chuck Abbott writes for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Here are some other highlights from the report:
  • Net farm income, a broad measure of profits, is predicted to hit $113.7 billion in 2022, down from $119.1 billion in 2021 in inflation-adjusted dollars. If the projection holds true, net farm income would be 15.2% above its 2001-2020 average of $98.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  • Net cash farm income, a more precise measure of profits, is projected to hit $136.1 billion, a $2.9 billion (2.1%) decrease from 2021. If the projection holds true, net-cash farm income in 2022 would be 13.6% above its 2001-2020 average of $119.8 billion.
  • Cash receipts from commodities sales are forecast to increase by $29.3 billion (6.8%) from 2021 to $461.9 billion. 
  • Total crop receipts are expected to increase by $12 billion (5.1% from 2021 because of higher receipts for soybeans, corn, cotton, and wheat.
  • Total receipts for animals and animal products are predicted to increase by $17.4 billion (8.9%) from 2021 because of higher receipts for milk, broilers, cattle and calves.
  • Total cash receipts are expected to increase, but lower direct government payments and higher production expenses are predicted to counteract their net effects.
  • Total farm household income is predicted to remain relatively flat, increasing 2.2% in inflation-adjusted dollars from $83,311 in 2021 to $88,234 in 2022. 

Nonprofit newsroom covering Nebraska statehouse and rural issues has launched, with top reporter Paul Hammel

Paul Hammel
The Nebraska Examiner, a digital nonprofit newsroom focused on statehouse coverage, launched last week with a formidable reporting team that includes Paul Hammel, previously the Omaha World-Herald's top rural reporter. World-Herald veterans make up the rest of the team, including editor Cate Folsom and reporters Cindy Gonzalez and Aaron Sanderford.

The Examiner is the 26th statehouse newsroom affiliated with the States Newsroom, a nonprofit project that has sought to increase such reporting since its inception in 2019. The project is noteworthy because statehouse coverage has been in decline for years, with only 30 percent of newspapers assigning anyone to cover the beat. Report for America has also tried to shore up statehouse reporting, funding reporters for that beat in 14 states in 2019 and more since.

The Examiner covers statewide news—including rural concerns—in addition to statehouse matters, as Hammel's coverage already shows. It is meant to supplement other papers' coverage at a time when newsroom coverage is stretched ever-thinner. Because the newsroom is funded entirely through grants and donations, its content is "free of ads, paywalls and paid subscriptions," Folsom writes in a welcome letter. "Newspapers and broadcast stations across the state (and elsewhere) are welcome to enhance their own report by republishing our articles, free of charge, with proper attribution."

USDA using $1 billion from Commodity Credit Corp. for pilot conservation projects related to climate change

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is announcing today $1 billion in funding for a conservation pilot program called the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities. The money will come from the Depression-era Commodity Credit Corporation, Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. President Biden is following former President Trump's lead in using the CCC for policy purposes; Trump used it to compensate farmers for losses during the trade war with China. The CCC gets its money from Congress.

USDA is encouraging greener practices in agriculture since that sector accounts for about 10 percent of the nation's overall carbon-dioxide emissions. "The goal is to implement climate-friendly conservation practices on working farms and forests (such as no-till, cover crops, rotational grazing or reforestation) and then actually measure and verify the climate benefits of those practices," Bustillo reports. "Those could include sinking carbon into soils, capturing methane or releasing less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."

The funding will be released in two rounds; it's "designed to fit a wide range and variety of production and ideally will not favor one commodity, region or operation size over another," Bustillo reports. "Vilsack said USDA will seek periodic updates from the pilot projects to help inform department policy, as well as programs that could be more permanently established or changed through the 2023 Farm Bill."

At least 499 U.S. counties have seen above-average temperature increases over the past century

Change in average temperature from 1895 to 2021
Map by The Guardian; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"More than a third of the American population is currently experiencing rapid, above-average rates of temperature increase, with 499 counties already breaching 1.5C (2.7F) of heating," Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian. "The U.S. as a whole has heated up over the past century due to the release of planet-warming gases from burning fossil fuels, and swathes of the US west, northeast and upper midwest – representing more than 124.6 million people – have recorded soaring increases since federal government temperature records began in 1895."

A temperature increase beyond the 2.7F threshold matters because climate scientists say that, if the global average temperature increases beyond that, the resulting change in climate will cause increasingly catastrophic weather that will usher in widespread societal upheaval, Milman reports. As part of the 2015 Paris climate accords, most governments agreed to try to mitigate climate change to avoid such a rise in temperature.