Friday, March 04, 2022

Postal reform set for Senate vote, indicating likely passage; would keep 6-day delivery and give rural papers a boon

A postal reform bill that would help rural communities and their newspapers and shore up the flagging finances of the U.S. Postal Service appears headed for passage in the Senate next week, after a decade of wrangling that may not quite be over.

Major package-delivery companies still don't like a major part of the bill, but being scheduled for Senate debate indicates that it will pass in bipartisan fashion, just as it did in the House.

The bill would continue the legal guarantee of six-day delivery, an important point for rural USPS customers, and give rural newspapers that depend on the mail a powerful device to shore up their circulation and thus their advertising, which still generates most of their income.

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 enable more sample-copy subscription appeals but provide total market coverage for advertisers that don't normally advertise in newspapers.

U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky
The provision was pushed by the bill's main Republican co-sponsor, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, at the behest of rural journalism interests in the state and the National Newspaper Association, the lobbying group for the nation's weeklies. The prime sponsor is Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on which Comer is the top-ranking Republican. "It was a long, long process," Maloney told Siobahn Hughes of The Wall Street Journal.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy didn't like the 50% provision, but went along to get the bill through the House. Still unhappy are delivery companies FedEx and United Parcel Service, which "oppose a section of the bill that would require the Postal Service to set up an integrated network to deliver packages and other so-called competitive products, worrying that would keep rates artificially low for shippers like Amazon," Hughes reports. "Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., slowed progress on the Senate floor last month, saying that he was worried about costs being shifted to Medicare." The bill would remove the costly law that makes USPS pre-fund its retiree costs and require retirees to sign up for Medicare at 65.

"Comer said that the turning point [in the House] came when postal unions, which tend to align with Democrats, went to committee Democrats to say that legislation was needed and that Mr. Comer would be a sincere partner," Hughes reports. "A person close to the postal unions said that they spoke to Democratic lawmakers and staff to say that Mr. Comer was serious about wanting to get a deal done. It was an important statement at a moment when some feared Mr. Comer would pull away from talks because of his outrage at the treatment of Mr. DeJoy."

Comer said he told Democrats, “They’re going to kill this bill if they continue to say they’re going to get rid of DeJoy. Not because the Republicans are married to DeJoy, but here’s a guy that’s trying to come up with a reform plan.”

"Comer said he also argued to fellow Republicans that rural areas dominated by the GOP depended on a reliable postal service, and that privatization, as Donald Trump had proposed, was no substitute, given that delivery is less lucrative in sprawling rural areas."

Another key Republican was Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, "a longtime oversight committee member who had opposed previous overhaul attempts," Hughes reports. "In part, she said, she was backing it because she trusted Mr. DeJoy, who is well-known in state GOP circles and whose 10-year plan would be incorporated in the bill. She also said she wanted to avoid a taxpayer bailout."

Purdue Pharma owners agree to raise OxyContin settlement to $6 billion after 9 states said $4.5 billion wasn't enough

Oxycodone (John Moore, Getty Images)
"Nine state attorneys general have agreed to drop their objection to a deal granting immunity from opioid lawsuits to members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin," Brian Mann and Martha Bebinger report for NPR. "In exchange, the family has agreed to increase the amount it pays from personal holdings from roughly $4.5 billion under a previous settlement to $6 billion."

A federal judge overturned a prior deal in December after the Justice Department and some states filed an appeal, saying the Sacklers should pay more and shouldn't get immunity from current and future suits. "States demanding more money from the Sacklers — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have among the highest overdose death rates in the country," Mann and Bebinger report.

The extra $1 billion would go toward programs aimed at mitigating the opioid crisis, and the balance would still be divided among state, local and tribal governments, Mann and Bebinger report. The new deal must be approved by U.S. Bankrupty Judge Robert Drain, who has signaled strong support for it.

The Sacklers released a statement that admitted no wrongdoing but said they "sincerely regret" that OxyContin "unexpectedly" became part of the opioid crisis. The epidemic began in the 1990s, but until 2016, Purdue paid doctors kickbacks for public speaking and consulting services, and those who prescribed more OxyContin were most likely to get such fees. Sales reps for Abbott Laboratories, which partnered with Purdue to market OxyContin to doctors, was told to downplay the threat of addiction when promoting the drug. Purdue pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 and 2020 for such fraudulent marketing practices, and didn't stop marketing OxyContin to doctors until 2018.

Justice Department probes whether chicken processors shared plant-worker pay data in order to keep wages low

"The Justice Department is investigating whether poultry companies have engaged in anticompetitive sharing about employment practices that held down plant workers’ wages, according to people familiar with the matter," Patrick Thomas and Brent Kendall report for The Wall Street Journal. Justice "is examining actions at several poultry companies, the people said, and adds to the scrutiny that U.S. meat processors are facing from the government and their workers. The department has put at least some companies on legal notice that they must preserve documents, several of these people said."

Major poultry processors Pilgrim's Pride and Perdue Farms confirmed they had received such notices; other processors such as Tyson Foods, George's and Sanderson Farms declined to comment. The Justice Department also kept mum.

Lawsuits from poultry-plant workers have alleged that their employers—which control more than 90% of poultry sold in the U.S.—shared data on wages for more than 20 years to keep worker pay down.

"The Justice Department has been broadly looking into alleged antitrust issues in the U.S. meat industry for several years, ranging from charging chicken executives with price fixing to examining meatpackers’ activities in the beef market," the Journal reports. "The Biden administration has alleged that the U.S. meat industry uses its scale to inflate Americans’ food bills, and farm groups have accused meat companies of using their market power to keep livestock prices artificially low." Processors have blamed rising prices on disruptions such as factory fires, pandemic shut-downs, and labor shortages.

In a separate but related case, 10 former poultry executives are being tried in federal court for sharing with each other what prices they charged major restaurant buyers, allegedly in order to keep prices high, the Journal reports. The defendants have all pled not guilty, saying that it's not illegal to share such information, and that there's no proof of a broad conspiracy.

The graph tells the story: Gap between rural and urban vaccination rates has doubled since April, CDC study shows

Graph from Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Quick hits: Appalachian businesses sought for local food guide; webinar covers public transit's role in rural health-care access; exposé prompts Ala. police chief resignation

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 Agriculture Department has announced 11 regional positions, including three Farm Service Agency state executive directors and eight Rural Development state directors. Read more here.

Here's a great example of a metro paper doing due diligence in rural accountability reporting: In Brookside, Ala., pop. 1,253, a police chief hired in 2018 spearheaded an effort to bring in more revenue through fines and civil forfeitures. Revenue from such tactics increased by 640% from 2018 to 2020. Meanwhile, the town's part-time municipal judge and prosecutor also got outsized pay raises. The police chief resigned in January after published the first story about the issue. Read more here.

Appalachian Sustainable Development is seeking farmers, food producers, breweries, wineries, restaurants, farmer's markets, food pantries, small businesses, and more to add a free listing to its Local Food Guide. Read more here.

A recent Rural Health Information Hub webinar explored the role of public transportation in rural health-care access, especially for seniors and those with disabilities. Listen to the recording here.

Some ex-city-dwellers regret going rural; their complaints might be instructive for towns trying to lure new residents

A tidal wave of city-dwellers fled to rural areas during the pandemic, and while many adore their new lives, others say they have regrets. Some aspects of rural life aren't changing any time soon—good luck getting Amazon Prime—but other complaints might serve as a roadmap for small towns trying to lure in, and keep, new residents. 

Many New Yorkers who moved to rural areas said their experience in rural America has been positive overall. "But even the most enthusiastic transplants remarked on a raft of unforeseen drawbacks: pests, property damage, social isolation, automobile dependence and a scarcity of health care and child care providers — conditions that locals have grappled with all their lives," Julie Lasky reports for The New York Times.

A November report showed that the pandemic out-migration trend had reversed itself by July 2021, Lasky reports. That dovetails with a Pew Research Center survey showing that, while the pandemic has influenced where many Americans want to live, it hasn't really changed what they're looking for in a community.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Challenges to books some find objectionable are at 'levels not seen in decades' and have prompted counter-efforts

One of the top 10 targets
"Book challenges and bans have reached levels not seen in decades, according to officials at the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and other advocates for free expression," report Heather Hollingsworth and Hillel Italie of The Associated Press.

Yael Levin, a spokeswoman for No Left Turn in Education, a national group opposed to what it calls a "Leftist agenda" for public schools, told AP, "There are some books with pornography and pedophilia that should absolutely be removed from K-through-12 school libraries." 

AP mentions several efforts in states and localities, including a Tennessee school board's banning of Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust; a Missouri school district's effort to remove such books as Gender Queer, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Keise Laymon's memoir Heavy." 

Such efforts have prompted counter-efforts, AP reports: "Two anti-banning initiatives were launched in Pennsylvania," AP reports. "In Kutztown, eighth grader Joslyn Diffenbaugh formed a banned book club last fall that began with a reading of George Orwell's Animal Farm. The Pennridge Improvement Project has started a drive to purchase books that have been removed from schools, including Leslea Newman's Heather has Two Mommies and Kim Johnson's This is My America, and place them in small free libraries around the district."

The AP story concludes with a pictorial list of the top 10 books people wanted removed from schools and libraries in 2020. They include Sherman Aexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a Native American teenager; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck's novel about migrant farm workers in the Depression, which has been “banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes,” showing that intolerance comes from both sides; and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which has caught similar flak.

McConnell, long an advocate of vaccines, says Biden's mandate for health-care workers threatens rural hospitals

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been perhaps the most outspoken Republican leader in favor of vaccination against the coronavirus, but Thursday he objected to President Biden's vaccination mandate for health-care workers, saying it threatens health care in rural America.

‘It’s unfair on a personal level, but even just looking at public health, it is terrible policy for rural America," McConnell said in a Senate floor speech. "We cannot have President Biden mass-firing doctors and nurses when hospitals are already short-staffed. Washington Democrats could safely hobnob in the Capitol all Tuesday evening with no masks, then they ought to stop pushing mass firings of essential health workers."

Rural vaccination rates are 17 percentage points lower than in urban areas, twice the gap that existed in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study published Thursday.

McConnell said vaccines "do not prevent people catching or transmitting the current variant. There is no moral justification for sweeping mandates. The benefits accrue to the person who gets the shot. What’s more, the CDC’s own research says that prior infection provides protection that is at least as strong as the vaccines. But the President’s overreaching mandate ignored that."

McConnell cited examples from his recent week in Kentucky, quoting three unnamed hospital leaders in Benton, Murray and Hardinsburg who said they were looking at "areas that may have to be shut down" due to lack of staff and "I can afford to lose not one more nurse."

Pandemic has cooled in rural America, but its new-case rate is still twice that of metro counties; death rate is 80% higher

Rural and urban infection rates, Feb. 20-26 (Daily Yonder map; for interactive version, click here.)

The rate of new coronavirus cases in rural counties dropped for the fifth straight week Feb 20-26 and is 80 percent below the peak of the recent surge, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

However, "Infections in metropolitan counties have dropped even more rapidly," Marema reports. "New metro cases fell by a third last week and have declined over 90% since their peak in mid-January. . . . The current rural infection rate is twice that of metropolitan areas," Marema reports. "A similar disparity has become more pronounced in recent weeks in the death rates of rural and metropolitan counties."

In the Feb. 20-26 week, "The metro rate improved by 21% while the rural rate improved by about 5%," Marema explains. "Metro America’s faster improvement means that the Covid-related death rate is now about 80% higher in rural areas than in metropolitan ones. The higher rural death rate is a long-term trend. Over the past 20 months, the rural death rate has been higher than the metro rate for all but five weeks. Rural (nonmetropolitan) counties represent only 14% of the U.S. population but account for about 23% of the nation’s Covid-related deaths."

There were exceptions to the national trend, Marema notes: "States where the rural infection rate worsened were Wyoming (71% increase), South Dakota (44% increase) and Alaska (20%)." For more detailed information form the Yonder, including interactive graphs and tables, click here.

Some states want to sanction Russia over Ukraine despite legal barriers and dubious impact; more about 'moral weight'

A New York protest (Associated Press photo by Seth Wennig)
State officials in both parties, "outraged by the Russian invasion of Ukraine ... are seeking to impose economic sanctions of their own" despite legal barriers, Stateline's Sophie Quinton reports.

"Governors in at least 11 states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York and Virginia—are pushing state entities to review or cut financial ties with Russian companies," Quinton writes.

"Lawmakers in at least seven states—California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia—have proposed divestment bills. Some state agencies have announced plans to cut ties with Russian businesses. And the governors of at least a dozen states have issued executive orders or sent letters to liquor regulators and state-run stores to stop sales of Russian vodka and other spirits."

Courts have ruled state sanctions against other nations are pre-empted by federal law, Quinton reports, so "The wave of state sanctions likely will be more symbolic than substantive, experts say." Also, "State pension funds and state agencies aren’t deeply dependent on Russian companies. Russian goods aren’t a major presence on U.S. store shelves."

But state sanctions have value as symbols that “reinforce what’s happening at the national level,” Gary Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Quinton. “It does add moral weight. And that’s important.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

State of the Union speech had much of rural interest, largely implicit; fact-checkers note issues with it and the GOP reply

President Biden's State of the Union address had much of interest to rural Americans, though largely implicit. Here are some highlights, along with some journalistic fact-checking.

Biden's text used "rural" once: "We’re going to provide — provide affordable high-speed Internet for every American — rural, suburban, urban, and tribal communities," but he issued a "fact sheet" about "Historic Investments To Create Opportunity and Build Wealth in Rural America."

He didn't mention his stalled Build Back Better bill by name, but stumped for many elements that would benefit rural areas, perhaps in an effort to appeal to holdout Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. That includes expanding Medicaid and government negotiating of drug prices (as the Department of Veterans Affairs already does, he noted), capping insulin costs, equitable mental-health insurance coverage, and more help for home health and long-term care (and higher nursing-home standards).

Biden demanded more action to combat the opioid epidemic: "Get rid of outdated rules that stop doctors from prescribing treatments."

He emphasized issues of women and children, including universal pre-kindergarten, extending the expanded child tax credit, and cutting the cost of child care in half for most families. "Middle-class and working folks shouldn’t have to pay more than 7% of their income to care for their young children," he said, noting that lack of child care forced women, disproportionately, to leave the workforce during the pandemic. No one earning less than $400,000 would pay extra taxes to fund these programs, he said.

He didn't mention the Big Four meatpackers by name (Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef), but did mention the number, and said lack of competition was hurting family farmers and ranchers. He also called for expanded broadband access in rural areas.

Biden called for more incentives to encourage manufacturing and said the new jobs must pay a living wage. The Daily Yonder points out, "A greater percentage of rural Americans than urban Americans work in manufacturing." Biden suggested that more domestic manufacturing would curb inflation, but that is dubious, The Associated Press said in its fact check.

While he repeatedly calling for unity in the face of a deeply divided nation, Biden raised the issue with perhaps the biggest rural-urban divide, gun control: "You think the deer are wearing Kevlar vests?" He said Congress should “repeal the liability shield that makes gun manufacturers the only industry in 
America that can’t be sued, the only one.” That is false, AP and Politifact said flatly.

Biden also called for securing the Mexican border and fixing the immigration system, which drew a skeptical-looking Sen. Ted Cruz to a standing ovation. Such was rare. Lisa Desjardins of PBS said Republicans weren't clapping even for things they support, like fighting the opioid epidemic.

Politifact noted that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who gave the Republican response, erred in saying Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris hadn't visited the border; he hasn't, but Harris has.

Analysis of census data shows Vermont has highest proportion of same-sex couples; how does your state rank?

Proportion of LGBTQ population by state
(Gallup map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)

The state with the highest ratio of same-sex couples is Vermont, one of the most rural states, and it "has the seventh-highest rate of LGBTQ people in the nation, according to a survey analysis from the Williams Institute" at UCLA, Erin Petenko reports for VTDigger. She notes a recent report that the number of people identifying themselves as LGBTQ is rising nationwide: "About 7 percent of adults said they considered themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something 'other than heterosexual' in 2021, compared to 3.5% of respondents in 2012, according to Gallup."

Data on the LGBTQ+ population has been difficult to pin down. The 2020 decennial census was the first to collect data on same-sex couples, Petenko reports.

The District of Columbia has the highest overall percentage of LGBTQ people, at 9.8%, but Idaho has the highest percentage of LGBTQ individuals with children, at 44%, according to Gallup.

Sunshine Week webinars on March 14 and 16 will discuss how to use government data and bring it to life in stories

For Sunshine Week, coming up March 13-19, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Uncovered: A Cold Case Platform will present two webinars discussing how technology can help or hinder government transparency. Admission is free, but NFOIC welcomes donations.

At 2 p.m. ET on March 14, data journalist Lam Thuy Vo will present "Igniting Inspiration: Using Freedom of Information to Bring Data to Light and to Life." The Sunshine Week website says: it "will focus on FOI and data possibilities — accomplishments via scraping and reporting using FOI requests." Register here.

At 3 p.m. ET on March 16, David Cuillier, Grace Cheng and Ashlee Fujawa will present "Sparking Discovery: Using FOI and Big Data to Tell Stories, Build Community, and Solve Problems." Cuiller is NFOIC's board president and a University of Arizona associate professor; Cheng is the director of government practice and practical law at Thomson Reuters; and Fujawa is the co-founder and head of community at Uncovered. From the website: "The panel will cover the basics of making open records requests, how to deal with denials, and how to present data in ways that engage and empower the public." Register here.

Climate change will reduce much of North America's food production, UN report says with 'high confidence'

Global warming "is causing dangerous and widespread disruptions in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world," according to a new United Nations report on climate change. What does that mean for American farmers and those who depend on what they produce? "Hotter weather and shifts in rainfall are likely to reduce food production in North America and are a risk to food security," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

With what it calls "high confidence," the report predicts that "Climate change will continue to shift North American agricultural and fishery suitability ranges. It also predicts production losses of fish and key crops, and with "medium confidence," lower production of livestock and aquaculture products.

Coastal and eastern parts of the U.S. will become more flood-prone, which will displace Americans and disrupt trade, while the West will suffer more wildfires, more intense droughts and scarcer water availability, the report says. That will endanger farms, especially those that rely on irrigation.

The panel called for immediate action to slow climate change, specifically through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and conserving or restoring ecosystems, Abbott reports.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Rural newspaper companies in California, Kansas and Okla. make Editor and Publisher's latest list of '10 That Do It Right'

MaryLee and J.D. Meisner are renovating a building to house their Oklahoma newspaper company.
Three rural newspaper companies, two 170 miles apart in the Great Plains, are among this year's edition of "10 That Do It Right" picked by Editor & Publisher and reported by Editor Robin Blinder:

Cimarron Valley Communications of Cushing, Okla., publishes the Cushing Citizen, the Drumright Gusher and the Yale News. J.D. and MaryLee Meisner bought the Citizen in February 2020, and a month later, the pandemic hit. But they quickly bought the struggling papers in nearby towns. "They added pages and color to their products, and their rack sales took off. The Drumright Gusher was given an additional boost with the decision to expand its coverage area and report news from an adjacent community that had lost its newspaper a decade ago. They also returned the Yale News to its roots and began reporting micro-community news and sports." Yale's population is 1,059.

At the Gusher, "A student reporter program gives English students a chance to write, get credit and be published in the paper. And art students have the opportunity to work as photographers at events, like galas and banquets that they usually wouldn't attend, and get credit for their work. The paper has started a scholarship program for the student reporters because they can't be paid, since they receive school credit." When schools in the area went to remote learning, Cimarron created Smartypants, a weekly kids' page that is so popular it appears in more than 50 U.S. newspapers and one in Ireland. "The Meisners also gave another publication, Okie Charmed, new life by restarting the glossy print magazine in 2021. It now prints six times a year and is the only magazine in the state that covers Oklahoma women, women-owned businesses and fashion for the Oklahoma woman."

Left to right: Editor Adam Strunk, "marketing dude"
Bruce Behymer, owners Joey and Lindsey Young
Kansas Publishing Ventures
was bought by Joey and Lindsey Young, who first purchased Lindsey’s hometown paper, The Clarion in Andale, in 2012, when they were 27 "and fresh from a handful of years in community papers." They bought KSP, which had the free-circulation Hillsboro (Kansas) Free Press and a book-publishing company, and now have Harvey County Now (formerly Newton Now), circulation 4,000; the McPherson News-Ledger, circ. 1,700; a custom printing and promotional products business and a tech services division.

In the pandemic, "They gave away advertising to local businesses who were hurting" and got other businesses to sponsor listings of those businesses. "They have websites and a social media presence, but they focus on engagement and conversion to paid readers." They host candidate forums and have an annual “Blues, Brews and Barbecue” event that draws more 1,000 people and an event beer, Off the Record Ale, locally brewed.

Gazette Editor Nicole W. Little
At the Mariposa Gazette, “Our philosophy is if we don’t support community, why should they support the paper,” said Greg Little, editor and co-owner. California’s oldest weekly newspaper began in 1854 in the Sierra Nevada foothills, some of which became Yosemite National Park. Little and his wife Nicole bought the paper four years ago "and haven’t stopped growing, expanding this last year to include a new region to their east — eastern Madera County," which "had all but lost their coverage when their corporate-owned newspaper went down to four pages and stopped covering local news."

Print circulation and ad revenues are up "even though they have lost two special publications during the pandemic — a fair book and a visitor’s guide," since resumed. They "were instrumental in getting a veteran’s memorial constructed at their county courthouse — donating all the advertising and promotion over the two years it took to fund and erect the monument. . . . The Littles encourage their employees to join community groups and pay their membership fees to help their employees be a part of the community. They also sponsor and host community endeavors such as political debates for local and congressional races, local sports team sponsorships, various promotional contests and even a float in parades."

The other seven "news publishers that do it right" on this year's list are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Nashville Tennessean, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Community Journals of Greenville, S.C.; Pioneer Publishing of Omaha, and Oahu Publications, new owners of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

White House council calls one-third of nation's census tracts 'disadvantaged' and thus candidates for more funding

Screenshot: Draft of Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (Click image to enlarge or here for interactive version)

"In a significant step toward changing how federal funds are distributed, the Biden administration has preliminarily identified nearly a third of the nation’s census tracts as 'disadvantaged' and in line for more help from the federal government," Kery Murakami reports for Route Fifty.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality identified 23,410 tracts as disadvantaged and noted how each is disadvantaged; you can see the results in the draft of its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Some are in major metro areas, and some are in "rural areas like Mason County, Washington, which has seen a decline in the timber industry after protections were put in place decades ago to preserve the spotted owl," Murakami reports. "The administration considered a wide range of factors, from the expected loss of agriculture and population due to climate change, to traffic volume and diesel particulate exposure, to the cost of housing, to the rate of asthma, diabetes and heart disease."

If your area isn't listed but you believe it should be, the council has posted a notice in the Federal Register inviting stakeholders to suggest ways to improve the database by April 15, Murakami reports.

Half of rural U.S. still not vaxed for Covid; up 0.8% in Feb.

Vaccination rates as of Feb. 24, 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.

The rural coronavirus vaccination rate grew by 0.8 percentage points over the past month, and was at 49.8% as of Feb. 24, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The rural-urban gap grew; the metropolitan rate increased by 1.2 percentage points in the same time frame to 63.7%.

For the second month in a row, the rural rate was higher than the metro rate in Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. "Massachusetts led the nation in rural vaccinations, with 80% of its rural residents fully vaccinated," Murphy and Marema report. "Arizona had the largest growth in rural vaccinations in the last month. The state increased its rural vaccination rate by 4.2 percentage points, reaching 78.4% of the rural population."

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

Some states and counties are yanking Russian-made liquor from stores; what about your local bars and stores?

"At least 11 states, including Oregon, North Carolina and West Virginia, have banned the sale of Russian-made alcohol to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," Joseph Pisani reports for The Wall Street Journal. Local bans are cropping up too, such as in Montgomery County, Maryland. All the states and counties with such bans control liquor sales or have government-owned liquor stores.

Most states have been careful to specify the removal of specific brands such as Russian Standard, Hammer & Sickle, and Ustianochka. That's because Russian vodka sales in the U.S. have plummeted nearly 79% since 2011, and now account for about 1% of sales nationwide, Jordan Valinsky reports for CNN. Other brands with Russian names, like Smirnoff and Stolichnaya, are actually produced elsewhere, Pisani reports. Smirnoff is owned by a British company and manufactured in Illinois, while Stoli is made in Latvia and headquartered in Luxembourg.

However, some bars are pouring out Smirnoff and/or Stoli as a gesture of solidarity. Terry Compton, co-owner of Uncorked Wine & Spirits in Shawnee, Okla., pulled Stoli and Russian Standard from the shelves on Saturday. Though he's aware that Stoli is manufactured and bottled in Latvia, Compton "said he removed it because Stoli’s labels say it uses wheat from Russia, where it’s distilled, and then taken to Latvia," Pisani reports. "A spokeswoman for Stoli said a small amount of wheat comes from Russian farmers, which it plans to stop doing."

Compton said he's replacing the Stoli and Russian Standard with Ukrainian-made Khor. "We want to do everything we can, even if it’s a small part, to support the Ukrainian people," he told Pisani.

Farm life is hard, but 'one of the greatest privileges and sweetest blessings I've ever known,' writes N.C. farmer

Meredith Bernard
(Photo from This Farm Wife)
Running a farm is difficult and exhausting, but is worth it in the end because it "gives so much more than it takes," writes North Carolina farmer Meredith Bernard for DTN/The Progressive Farmer

"To love a farm is not for the faint of heart, though some days it takes all we've got to keep our hearts strong, minds focused and feet moving. It's the hard days of farming that make the good days all the more worth it," she writes. "To love a farm is to push past fears, embrace change for the promise change can bring and learn from the mistakes of yesterday to make tomorrow better."

Read the rest here; read more from Bernard on her blog, This Farm Wife.

Leaky gas system and major meat processors more issues than cows' methane, says livestock farmer and dairy expert

Cows at O'Daniel's Foxhollow Farm (Photo by Kendra Lynne)
People are more concerned than ever about climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions. Much of that comes from the oil and gas industries, but some stakeholders worry about cow burps. That's silly, Kris O'Daniel writes for the Louisville Courier Journal. O'Daniel, a Denmark native who operates a farm with her husband near Springfield, Ky., has a master's degree in dairy science and engineering and worked for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

"Natural gas made up 37 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2021, but there are no reliability standards for pipelines moving energy," O'Daniel writes. "That’s because the fossil fuel industry, supported by congressional conservatives, is opposed to legislation directing the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission to develop reliability and cybersecurity standards for natural gas and other pipelines. The Transportation Security Administration oversees it. The Fossil fuel industry finds any regulation a waste of taxpayers’ money. Contrary to natural gas leaks, cattle’s methane belching is accounted for. But their unique ruminating ability to digest feed from which humans cannot benefit adds value and turns simple forage into high-quality human food. The methane and manure from grazing livestock are sequestered and part of the carbon cycle. That’s how nature is designed."

Also, O'Daniel notes, grazing animals, including cattle, can contribute to healthy ecosystems. "Byproducts from processing food for humans are part of livestock forage, thereby reducing what is going to landfills. Landfills are the third-largest emitter of methane, so taking away ruminating livestock would dramatically increase methane from landfills," she writes. "Incorporating alternative industrial by-products like 'spent grain from distilleries' with high sugar and protein content reduces methane belching. It is a valuable feed input and a win-win as it further reduces waste going to landfills."

O'Daniel says cattle only hurt the environment when they're finished in concentrated animal feeding operations, which benefit big meat processors but can hurt farming communities and farmers.

"A conversation on improving agriculture is needed, but it’s not beef versus beans or cheese versus corn," O'Daniel writes. "We need a transformation based on bio-diverse farming principles, restoring and regenerating soil as we use it. Cropped lands producing corn and soybeans would benefit from livestock eating crop spills, reducing hazardous fertilizers and restoring the soil."

Monday, February 28, 2022

Roanoke Times refugees find success with digital news startup that aims to cover a broad swath of rural Virginia

Cardinal's Megan Schnabel interviews Supervisor Trey Adkins of
Buchanan County, in Southwest Virginia. (Photo by Lakin Keene)
Last September, a group of veteran journalists launched a digital news startup aimed at covering the largely rural Southwest and Southside parts of Virginia, broadly defined. Now Cardinal News is thriving, growing, and making a difference, media columnist Margaret Sullivan reports for The Washington Post. The publication has no paywall or ads, and relies entirely on donations.

"Like many similar start-ups around the nation, Cardinal — named for Virginia’s state bird — is helping to fill the gap left by the shrinking of traditional local news organizations, particularly newspapers," Sullivan reports. Most of the staff came from the Roanoke Times, including Cardinal Editor Dwayne Yancey, and one of the two reporters, Megan Schnabel. The other reporter, Markus Schmidt, wrote about state politics for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, also now a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

The publication's ties to the Times don't end there: "Cardinal’s executive director and chief development officer, Luanne Rife, was a longtime health reporter there," Sullivan reports. "Cardinal’s board of directors includes a former Roanoke Times publisher, Debbie Meade. The paper’s former chief financial officer, Tonya Hart, has helped with finance and budget matters."

Frustrated and burned out, Rife accepted a Lee buyout and started the Cardinal after she was told to scale back on in-depth health beat stories. "When a foundation approached her about a reporting project it wanted to fund, it lit a spark of inspiration for her — and she started exploring whether she could start her own project, one that would be more ambitious and permanent," Sullivan writes. "Yancey made the move after watching the Times scale back its staff in recent years, especially after its sale by longtime owner Landmark Communications in 2013."

Cardinal is already making a difference: The Federal Emergency Management Agency had refused to cover flood and mudslide damages in the community of Hurley last summer, but Cardinal's in-depth reporting and photos of the devastation "brought much-needed attention to Hurley’s suffering residents — and may help them get $11 million of state aid," Sullivan reports.

And, the publication is growing. "A new grant will allow Cardinal to add a reporter soon in Danville, along the North Carolina border; Rife also would like to hire an education reporter and one dedicated to health coverage," Sullivan reports.

Cardinal is also geographically ambitious. Yancey told Sullivan that its mission is to cover Southwest and Southside Virginia, or what he calls “Cumberland County to the Cumberland Gap.” Cumberland County, which lies east of the state's geographic center, is more often defined as lying in Central Virginia, but the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia puts it and Buckingham (which has the center) in Southside. Yancey is based in Botetourt ("Bot-e-tot") County, just outside Roanoke. It and much of the Cardinal coverage counties are in Appalachia, "an easy part of the state to stereotype," he notes.

University of Virginia map, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it to enlarge.

Trade wars etc. already have fertilizer prices sky high; sanctions on Russia and Belarus could boost them more

"In the past year and a half, the fertilizer industry has seen a multitude of challenges. Impacts stemming from winter freezes, Hurricane Ida, Covid-19, production costs, trade sanctions on various countries, and supply chain disruptions have hoisted the price of fertilizer up. On top of all those factors, producers are looking at potential price impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," Madelyn Ostendorf reports for Successful Farming.

Trade disputes with major exporters are mostly blame for sky-high fertilizer prices, one industry stakeholder said last week. "Brooke McMullin, vice president of International Raw Materials Ltd., said while agriculture groups, Midwest lawmakers, governors and others are calling for investigations into fertilizer prices, they need to look no further than ongoing trade disputes with major fertilizer-exporting countries," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "A combination of consolidation in U.S. fertilizer production capacity and countervailing duties slapped on fertilizer imports from Russia, Morocco, Trinidad and Tobago have contributed to higher fertilizer prices, he said."

Meanwhile, Russia's invasion of Ukraine could take prices even higher. "With its most fervent ally in Europe, Belarus, Russia has a 40 percent market share in global production and export of potash fertilizer. The two autocracies form an informal cartel in the potash market, made up of Uralkali and Belaruskali, with the Belarusian Potash Company being the latter’s export arm," Garphil Julien reports for The Washington Monthly. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Belarus last year for a migrant crisis on the Polish border. 

"U.S. sanctions on Belarus are likely to exacerbate the issue, with Belaruskali announcing last week that it wouldn’t be able to meet its contracts. One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies, Yara International, headquartered in Norway, announced it would reduce its sourcing of Belarusian potash by April. Other corporations in the potash industry are not planning on increasing production and would face challenges in their attempts."

Oil and gas industries release far more greenhouse gases than government data accounts for, investigation finds

University of Arizona photo
U.S. oil and gas operators release much more greenhouse gas than previous data suggests, a new investigation shows.

"Over much of the last decade, oil and gas operators in Texas and a dozen other U.S. states have flared, or burned off, at least 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to an analysis of satellite data by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism" at Arizona State University, Laura Kraegel, Mollie Jamison and Aydali Campa report for Inside Climate News. "That’s the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of nearly 42 million cars driving for a year. The industry has also directly released unknown amounts of gas into the atmosphere through a process called venting. Between them, flaring and venting release a noxious cocktail of carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants."

Government auditors have warned for nearly two decades that inadequate data collection has obscured the amount of greenhouse gases released by flaring and venting, "but regulators are largely unaware of the amount of gas being flared and vented, the Howard Center found. It’s a blind spot that’s developed under limited federal oversight and a patchwork of state regulations, lax enforcement and inconsistent data collection," Kraegel, Jamison and Campa report. "The satellite flaring volumes calculated by the Howard Center, with the guidance of scientists who pioneered and used the methodology, far exceed the total reported to regulatory agencies in the 13 states designated by the U.S. Energy Department as having the most active flaring. They also far surpassed the total published by the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. Energy Department analytics agency that says it gets its data from the states."

The story is the first in a four-part series by the Howard Center about the flaring and venting of natural gas by oil and gas companies in more than a dozen states across the country.

EPA chlorpyrifos ban goes into effect; glyphosate may be in short supply because of manufacturing problem

The Environmental Protection Agency's ban on using the insecticide chlorpyrifos on food crops went into effect Monday.

"The EPA in August decided to ban nearly all uses of the pesticide, which has been widely used to grow crops like fruits, vegetables, nuts, corn and wheat, but was also linked to neurological problems in children. The August order set the pesticide on track to be phased out from usage on food crops after six months, making Feb. 28 the official cutoff date," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "Worker advocates and environmental groups, who have been calling for a ban for over a decade, hailed the move. But numerous agriculture industry groups ultimately sued the EPA over the restrictions — the objections that the agency just denied."

Meanwhile, "Agrichemical giant Bayer is alerting retail partners the company may not be able to fill some glyphosate contracts this spring, due to a supplier's manufacturing problem," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "According to letters sent from the company that DTN has obtained, Bayer is declaring this a 'force majeure' event, a term used to describe an uncontrollable event that prevents a party from fulfilling a contract. The situation could leave some farmers who are awaiting glyphosate deliveries on shaky ground."

Sunday, February 27, 2022

'60 Minutes' report on crisis in local journalism gives local media opportunity to elaborate and reinforce the message

Five Report for America reporters were interviewed by CBS for a "60 Minutes" story on the crisis in local newspapering. Back row: ChrisAnna Mink and Camalot Todd; front row: Chris Jones, Gracyn Doctor and Amelia Ferrell Knisely.

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

The local news crisis got its biggest play yet to an American audience Sunday night, as CBS's "60 Minutes" did a story that reached perhaps 9 million viewers. It didn't make the best case ever for local journalism, but as the show usually does, it told the tale through some compelling personal stories.

Most of those stories, and the belief that "Journalism is essential for the survival of American democracy," as one former reporter put it, are familiar to readers of The Rural Blog. But they are not well known by many Americans, so for local news media, the network report is an opportunity to reinforce the message, and elaborate on it.

The story's only evidence of "increased corruption by local officials," was a rather old story: the 2010 revelation by the Los Angeles Times (uncredited by CBS) that officials in the small L.A. County city of Bell were paying themselves exorbitant salaries after "the local newspaper there shut down," as CBS put it. Actually, the area had a paper, but it was covering so many municipalities that Bell got little attention.

There's plenty of other evidence that lack of local journalism is bad for taxpayers, such as studies showing higher interest rates for bond issues, fewer candidates for local office, and more straight-ticket voting and political polarization. But those points didn't have compelling video, like the footage "60 Minutes" used, showing enraged citizens at a meeting of the Bell City Council.

Beyond academic studies, in other places with shriveled journalism we have seen the election of bigoted but unprofiled candidates, parroting of politicians' press releases, and use of disaster funds with little oversight. And lawsuits to get public records are no longer filed mainly by the news media. Meanwhile, partisan websites, often masquerading as news media, fill the vacuum. Even some politicians have voiced concern about reduced coverage of elections.

At the same time, local reporters have also exposed such evils as pharmacies' role in the opioid epidemic and ripoffs by contractors, forced resignation of corrupt officials, and there are examples of newspapers that have improved their bottom lines through accountability reporting. So, there's a much larger story to tell about local news than CBS did, but its report tees up the ball for local news media to remind their audiences of their value to their communities.

Steven Waldman
For some of us in journalism, the headline on the story could have been what Steven Waldman of Report for America said near the end of the report: "We need a dramatic increase in the commitment of foundations, and philanthropists, and donors like you and me, to actually supporting local news."

Waldman elaborates on that in a two-part essay for Columbia Journalism Review, in which he writes, "Our goal should be to create a better local news system than we had in the past, including far better service for communities of color and for rural areas. To make that local news system a reality, I believe that we need to add 50,000 local reporters." He also calls for better business models, enlightened public policy and creating new methods of financing news operations, such as tax credits for organizations that take over local newspapers.

The more philanthropy the better, from big grants to small donations, reader memberships and so on. That said, grants have a way of running out, so they are more likely to be bridges to transformed business models for newspapers as they shift to an online existence -- gradually, so they can still enjoy the revenue generated by print, their main revenue source, as print fans gradually leave the scene. And that's a reality of the newspaper business that papers need to explain to their readers -- and potential readers, using social media.

For those who didn't see "60 Minutes," here are a few excerpts:

The first protagonist was Evan Brandt, sole reporter at the Pottstown Mercury, which has won two Pulitzer Prizes and "at one time had dozens of reporters;" anyone in the town of 23,000 could walk into the newsroom and give a tip for a story to hold local officials and institutions accountable. Now Brandt covers 21 eastern Pennsylvania towns and nine school districts from home.

Evan Brandt of the Pottstown Mercury works from home.

"He says the worst culprit is the hedge fund, Alden Global Capital," the second largest owner of U.S. newspapers, which "has been called a vulture, bleeding newspapers dry." Brandt said he went to Alden CEO Heath Freeman's home on Long Island to ask "What value do you place on local news? And I'm not talking about money." But Freeman walked off before Brandt could pose the question.

As the industry shrinks, correspondent Jon Wertheim asked, "to what extend does democracy shrink with it?" 

Former Chicago Tribune reporter Gary Marx said, "This is an attack on our democracy," which papers serve by "holding our leaders accountable." He and colleague David Jackson investigated Alden before it bought the paper and found profit margins as high as 30 percent in one market. "We felt that Alden didn't realize the civic trust that's embedded in this profit-making machine," Jackson said. 

CBS paraphrased Freeman as saying that "Alden is committed to providing robust, independently minded local journalism and that it's time for tech giants to start paying for the 'billions of dollars' they're making off of news publishers' content."

The story had five RFA reporters in a group interview, including Chris Jones of 100 Days in Appalachia, who covered the Jan. 6 riot because he had developed sources among extremists. The former Marine has a community journalism ethic: "These are our neighbors, you know? We're not writing about someone I'm never gonna talk to again. They're people before they're interview subjects."