Friday, March 18, 2022

Rural hospitals have accelerated maternity ward closures during pandemic, citing lack of personnel and money

Hospitals have been shuttering maternity wards for years, but the trend seems to have accelerated during the pandemic, especially in rural and Black or Hispanic communities. That will likely hurt health outcomes for rural pregnant women and their babies.

The U.S. "already sees far more deaths per capita among infants and pregnant women than comparably wealthy countries. And during the first year of the pandemic, the number of maternal deaths in the United States rose sharply," Dylan Scott reports for Vox. "Researchers from the University of Minnesota have found when a labor and delivery department closes, there tend to be more emergency deliveries and more preterm births, which are the leading cause of infant mortality."

Rural and minority communities are less likely to have access to all types of health care as it is, including obstetrics. "Before the recent closures, more than half of the rural counties in the United States already didn’t have a nearby hospital where babies could be delivered," Scott reports.

Hospitals cite various factors for closing maternity wards, including declining birthrates and staff shortages. And with fewer births, hospitals worry that staffers' obstetrics skills might get rusty, leading to worse health outcomes for patients, Scott reports.

Finances are also an issue. "Pandemic relief funding that has helped stabilize hospitals’ finances is also starting to run out," Scott reports. "Some hospitals argue that these closures are not financially motivated, but labor and delivery services are not a moneymaker for them. More than 40 percent of births in the United States are covered by Medicaid, and the program’s low reimbursement rates have been cited in the past to explain a hospital’s decision to close its OB department."

Closing a maternity ward can also hurt a community's relationship with the hospital. "There is a fundamental shift in a rural community when a hospital closes its OB unit," University of Minnesota professor and maternal mortality expert Katy Backes Kozhimannil told Scott. "It’s like a place where you can’t even be born. You can only die. The sense of that is really palpable."

Gannett closes, merges suburban weeklies in eastern Mass.

"Gannett is closing at least 19 print weekly newspapers serving at least 26 communities in Eastern Massachusetts, according to notices posted on those papers’ websites. In addition, nine weeklies are being merged into four," Northwestern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy reports for Media Nation. Many of the papers "have been zombie papers for quite some time, carrying little if any local news. And the current round of closures follows the revelation several weeks ago that staff reporters at nearly all of Gannett’s Massachusetts weeklies would be assigned to regional beats, pulling them off bread-and-butter coverage of local government and community events. The only weeklies not affected by that earlier change were the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial of Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner." Kennedy's article lists all the Massachusetts papers Gannett has closed or merged over the past year.

Gannett is the nation's largest newspaper chain, publishing more than 100 dailies in 46 states and over 1,000 weeklies. "As I’ve said before, I have no problem with moving to digital in order to save costs and invest in local journalism. But Gannett is cutting print and journalism simultaneously," Kennedy writes. "Fortunately, there are many sources of independently owned local news outlets in Massachusetts. Please support them."

The move follows the trend that most newspaper closures are in the suburbs; even industry veterans often fail to distinguish between such papers and rural weeklies. But, though these closures are mostly suburban, "It is not a good sign for rural papers," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Pressure mounts for radio station in suburban Kansas City to stop broadcasting Kremlin-funded propaganda

"As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, so do broadcasts of what critics decry as Kremlin-funded propaganda on KCXL, a radio station in Liberty, Mo., a Kansas City suburb of 30,000. Pressure is mounting for KXCL to end broadcasts that have kept the station in business," Kavahn Mansouri reports for Kansas City's KCUR, a PBS affiliate.

KCXL frequently airs content from Radio Sputnik, which is produced in Washington, D.C., and funded by the Kremlin. A handful of other U.S. stations air the programming too, including WXHF-FM in Washington, D.C., KCUR reports. The content includes shows such as "Fault Lines," which features political commentary from Jamarl Thomas. "The week of March 7, Thomas spent a large portion of the three-hour program painting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the instigator of the Russian invasion, pinning responsibility for it on Ukrainians and the United States," Mansouri reports. Thomas said Zelenskyy "isn’t the brimming, shining hero the West has made him out to be. . . . That’s the narrative that’s required in order to solidify this idea this is unprovoked."

National Association of Broadcasters chief Curtis LeGeyt called on U.S. broadcasters to stop airing all Russian state-sponsored content. KCXL owner Pete Schartel "called the NAB’s request a 'knee-jerk reaction' that trampled KCXL’s freedom of speech and led to a maelstrom of angry calls to the station, labeling Schartel and his wife Jonne as 'traitors'," Mansouri reports.

Schartel was once struggling financially, KCUR reports, but nets $5,000 a month to air Radio Sputnik programming since a 2020 deal with Kremlin-run media agency Rossiya Segodnya.

Quick hits: Released prisoners need better access to jobs; cloud-seeding may not help much with drought

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

Several drought-stricken states are experimenting with cloud seeding to bring rain. But it's not a simple process, and not as promising as they might have hoped. Read more here.

Though Congress passed a law requiring states to report the number of people who have died in custody, it was never properly implemented, so the federal government doesn't have reliable statistics on how many people die in U.S. jails and prisons each year. That matters for a lot of reasons, including accountability. Read more here.

Rural white people and Blacks face the same high barriers to finding a job after imprisonment, putting both groups at similarly high risk of recidivism, a study found. The study found strong links between unemployment, "fatherlessness" as a result of having a parent in prison, and child poverty in rural areas, much the same as in urban areas. The study found that long-term imprisonment is associated with these issues, but not short-term stints in jail. Policies that make it easier for former prisoners to find work could significantly reduce recidivism and improve child welfare. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub has an updated backgrounder guide on Rural Emergency Preparedness and Response. Read more here.

Pandemic roundup: Even mild Covid-19 can damage brain; more young children have been hospitalized during Omicron

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

Hospitalizations of children under the age of five increased fivefold during the Omicron surge, but few died, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, even hospitalizations matter, not just because of the potential long-term side effects from a severe Covid-19 case, but because a glut of patients strains local and regional health-care resources. Read more here.

Even mild cases of Covid-19 can lead to brain damage, a new British study found. Read more here.

More than 200,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19, but efforts to help them have been haphazard. Read more here.

Moderna is seeking authorization for a second booster shot of its coronavirus vaccine for people ages 18 and up, citing concerns that immune protection from the vaccine wanes over time. Pfizer has also sought permission for a second booster, but only for seniors. Read more here.

An Israeli study found that health-care workers who got a second booster (the fourth shot total) only got a little more protection from reinfection than peers who only got three shots. However, the fourth shot did seem to make Covid-19 symptoms less severe. Read more here.

How permanent daylight saving time would change sunrise and sunset times across the nation

New maps from The Washington Post show how permanently adopting daylight saving time would change sunrise and sunset times. In the winter, some areas in the northwesternmost parts of time zones wouldn't see the sun rise until 10 a.m. or later. Read more here

Time of the year's latest sunrise, by county, if daylight saving time is made permanent. Alaska and Hawaii do not observe daylight time. Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Texas J-school chief: Journalists should consider buying rural weeklies; university programs can show you the ropes

In a still image from a documentary in production about her paper, editor/publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown shoots photos for The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas. Her award-winning paper is for sale.(Image courtesy of Heather Courtney)

Many journalists who consider striking out on their own think of a digital startup. But here's another idea: How about buying an rural weekly newspaper? More should consider it, and several university-based programs can teach you the ropes — possibly for free, Kathleen McElroy, professor and director of the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austinwrites for Poynter.

The benefits of owning an independent weekly are many, she writes: "Community engagement is a given," and the papers, some published for more than a century, come with high awareness in the community. And owners can make a good living. Jim Moser, president of Moser Community Media, estimates that a rural Texas weekly in a county of 15,000 can bring $450,000 a year in revenue, and "A publisher at a larger weekly can make $85,000 a year, plus bonuses," he told McElroy. "No one will get rich . . . but you can make a good living and be an important part of a community."

Plenty of papers are looking for new owners, too, such as The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle. Laurie Ezzell Brown's family has owned the paper since the 1940s, and she took over as editor/publisher in 1993. She wants to retire but her son doesn't want to follow in her footsteps, so she's looking for a buyer. The paper is in pretty good financial shape, and the new owner could look forward to other upsides. "Be your own boss, be a community leader," Brown told McElroy. "Own your own house and make a difference."

The Record's importance in the community spurred award-winning filmmaker Heather Courtney to make a documentary about the paper. Courtney grew up in a small town and was interested in the importance of rural papers even as many were shuttering. She approached Brown in 2017 about making the documentary. "After spending just a day at The Record, I knew I wanted to tell the story of Laurie’s tireless effort to keep the paper alive, and of a community that loves and depends on their paper even when they don’t always agree with its politics," Courtney told McElroy.

New rural-paper owners can get help, McElroy writes: "Two universities seek to identify and train the next generation of publishers. West Virginia’s NewStart initiative, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, launched in 2020. The University of Texas at Austin, where I teach, has just developed the Rural Journalism Pipeline Project, funded internally by the IC2 Institute." And she also mentions the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, as a resource.

If you're interested in buying The Record or another Texas paper, UT-Austin may fund your enrollment in NewStart. The program offers master's degrees and certificate programs, and will hold information sessions March 22, March 29 and April 5. To be considered, email the Rural Journalism Pipeline project at

April 7 webinar will provide information about new federal infrastructure funds for plugging orphan oil and gas wells

Environmental Defense Fund map locates abandoned oil wells. To enlarge any image, click on it.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is hosting a webinar series that can help you study up on policy issues that can affect your readers (along with its target audience of state legislators). The webinars are free, and will be recorded for those unable to attend. 

"Orphaned No More: Federal Oil and Gas Well Reclamation" is the first in the series, and starts at 3 p.m. E.T. on April 7. From the website: "States across the country face a backlog of orphaned oil and gas wells, which can continue to emit methane and other pollutants if left unaddressed or improperly sealed." They also pose safety risks. "However, the costs of plugging and reclaiming oil and gas well sites often exceeds the amount available for reclamation. Further, many older wells have long been abandoned, and their owners no longer exist. It is often unclear who can or should be responsible for paying the plugging and reclamation costs. Recognizing these challenges, Congress included $4.7 billion for orphaned well plugging, remediation and restoration in the federal infrastructure bill. This webinar will educate state legislators on this new program, how their states can obtain funding and their options for directing these funds to meet their states’ needs and reclamation priorities." Register here.

New rural coronavirus infections at lowest level in 10 months; rural death rate still one-third higher than metro rate

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, March 6-12
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New cases of the coronavirus in rural America fell for the seventh straight week, "reaching the lowest level in 10 months," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "New infections dropped by more than 40 percent last week. . . . New infections in metropolitan counties fell by about 25% last week.

The rate of Covid-related deaths remained fairly steady in both rural and metro counties. "Rural counties reported 1,755 deaths last week, nine more than two weeks ago," Marema reports. "Covid-related deaths in metropolitan counties fell about 5%, to 6,520 for the week."

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

Education roundup: School choice debate heats up in rural Oklahoma; how policy can help rural schools thrive

Here's a trio of recent stories about issues in rural education:

School choice is a hot-button issue in many parts of the country. NPR affiliate KOSU in Oklahoma City explores how an out-of-state interest group poured money into attacking a rural state legislator over a controversial school-choice bill. Read more here.

In the third part of a series on rural education, The Daily Yonder explores how education policy and other initiatives can help rural schools overcome challenges. Read more here.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sat down for a "fireside chat" earlier this week with members of the National Indian Education Association, who were in Washington, D.C., for the organization's annual Capitol Hill Week. Read more here.

Shasta County recall effort funded by former local who wanted revenge; other efforts can't count on such money

Reverge Anselmo in 2012 (Redding
Record Searchlight
photo by Greg Barnette)
In February, a far-right militia successfully ousted a Republican county supervisor in Shasta County, California. A Los Angeles Times deep dive profiles the man whose wealth funded their efforts: Reverge Anselmo, 59, "a quixotic Connecticut-bred cowboy with a grudge and bottomless pockets with which to fund his political revenge," Jessica Garrison reports.

Anselmo, a former U.S. Marine, novelist, and filmmaker, left Hollywood for Shasta County in 2005 after critics panned one of his movies. He started over as a rancher and vineyard owner, but left the county in 2014 after several land-use disputes with county authorities. When he learned in 2021 about the militia's efforts to oust three county supervisors, he decided to provide financial backing, Garrison reports.

The article notes that Anselmo's deep pockets were critical to the militia's success, and that he spent more than $550,000 into Shasta County races since 2020. He also admits to helping fund a documentary about the effort that aims to encourage far-right efforts elsewhere to replicate what happened in Shasta County.

The recalled supervisor warned others about copy-cat efforts in a recent CNN article, saying "Don't think this can't happen to you." However, the LA Times article insinuates that other efforts might not be as successful since they probably wouldn't have the kind of money Anselmo brought to the table.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Senate's no-debate passage of daylight-time repeal could founder on later sunrises' effects on children and health

Bureau of Transportation Statistics map, adapted by The Rural Blog; Alaska and Hawaii don't observe daylight time.

There was no dissent and no debate Tuesday when the Senate passed legislation to make daylight saving time year-round, and the idea has majority support in national public-opinion polls, but some Americans may change their minds and dissent when they realize that "fast time" in the winter will make daylight begin unusually late in places near the western edge of time zones.

For example, on Dec. 20, the sun will rise in Indianapolis at 8:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. On daylight time, that would be after 9 a.m., at time when many businesses and almost all offices and schools are open. In early January, it would be 9:06, according to the federal government's sunrise-sunset calculator. (Just because the winter equinox has the shortest day doesn't mean it has the latest sunrise. Also, Indiana once exempted itself from daylight time but now follows it.)

Farmers have long objected to daylight saving time, and the National Association of Convenience Stores opposes the change, Reuters reports. The NACS told Congress, "We should not have kids going to school in the dark." And while there is evidence that changing clocks has bad effects such as traffic accidents and health episodes, sleep scientists think there would be even more risk from year-round daylight saving time. They like standard time.

"Sleep scientists point out that standard time — winter time — is more closely aligned with the sun’s progression," The New York Times reports. "They say that bright mornings help people wake up and stay alert, while dark nights allow for the production of melatonin, the hormone that triggers sleep. When it is too light at night, it can be hard to fall asleep. When it is too dark in the morning, it can be hard to wake up. Together, that could lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which has been linked to a range of health conditions, like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Light cues from the sun also regulate metabolism, insulin production, blood pressure and hormones."

Citing such views, Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake decries the lack of debate on the resolution. He notes that when Richard Nixon decreed year-round daylight time to fight the energy crisis in 1973, Americans said they liked it the idea, but changed their minds when it took effect: "The overriding reason: Without standard time in the winter, they were going to work when it was darker and colder, and they were putting their kids at the bus stop when it was darker and colder."

The resolution, offered by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, passed by unanimous consent, meaning there were no objections and no recorded vote, but "There were plenty of speeches made for the Congressional Record," note Luke Broadwater and Amelia Nierenberg of the Times.

In the House, "A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred a reporter to comments made by Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who wrote on Twitter that he was 'hopeful that we can end the silliness of the current system soon'," the Times reports. But Majority Floor Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was wary, citing school concerns.

The legislation would continue to allow states and localities to exempt themselves until its effective date of Nov. 5, 2023, so that could lead to a patchwork of time zones that the Uniform Time Act of 1966 was passed to prevent. It could also lead to a reversal of the mostly westward shift of U.S. time-zone lines in the last 70 years.

Fact-checking assertions about oil and gasoline prices

Who or what is to blame for the record-high price of gasoline, which does disproportionate harm to rural areas? A video ad by former Vice President Mike Pence's political group "falsely blames" President Biden for increased purchases of Russian oil, thus helping the invasion of Ukraine, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler concluded March 9. A week later, Kessler produced a much longer fact check, headlined "The truth about gas prices and oil production." With his permission, we republish it.

By Glenn Kessler

In a moment of national unity against Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Democrats and Republicans are fighting passionately over the steep increase in the cost of gasoline. Prices have already risen sharply since Biden became president — and he acknowledged that his ban on Russian oil and gas exports could send them even higher.

Figuring out the root causes of inflation is subject to interpretation. Biden has been quick to claim that it’s mostly the result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, tagging the latest inflation report as “Putin’s price hike.” But a credible case has also been made by some economists, including former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers and former Obama treasury official Steven Rattner, that the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan passed by Congress helped spark the current rise in prices across the board.

A separate debate is taking place over U.S. oil production and whether Biden administration policies have played a role. Partisans on all sides, as is often the case, are misrepresenting the facts, obscuring the complicated truth about oil production, gas prices and the role of renewables. Here’s a guide to that issue.

Gasoline prices have soared overnight. How is that possible?

The war — and efforts by the United States and its allies to stem purchases of Russian energy products — sent the price of crude oil skyrocketing. Many gasoline stations have only two or three days of product in stock, and so price gasoline at what it will cost to refill those tanks underground. This is an economic term known as “replacement cost.”

Every $10 increase in the price of crude oil adds about 24 cents to the cost of each gallon of gasoline and is quickly reflected in what you pay at the pump. It’s not an example of price gouging. Still, the price of gasoline is nearing — or may exceed — previous inflation-adjusted highs reached in 1918, 1981 and 2008.

Is the United States ramping up its oil production, or holding it back?

The oil business in the United States is run by private companies, not the U.S. government. It’s also a cyclical business and oil prices have been low for some time and drilling has also been low.

During the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, when oil prices fell sharply, to about $23 a barrel, production plummeted because it was no longer as profitable. Now, with crude oil above $100 a barrel, there is more of an incentive to ramp up U.S. production, though it is still below the high reached in 2020 before the pandemic struck.

In February 2020, U.S. oil production reached 13.1 million barrels a day. Two years later, in February of this year, production was about 11 percent lower — 11.6 million barrels a day.

Gasoline prices have steadily risen in the United States since April 2020, when the weekly price dropped to as low $1.77 a gallon. It had already risen to $2.38 a gallon when Biden took office.

There’s little evidence that Biden’s policies have had any direct impact on oil production. However, the U.S. government can have an effect of shaping market perceptions that on the margins can affect prices.

As soon as he took office, Biden terminated the Keystone XL pipeline and signaled a hostility to the fossil fuel industry with a major push for clean energy, including a pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.

Keystone XL still would not have been built by now even if Biden had permitted it to go forward — and even if it were in place, the impact in prices would be measured in pennies. Moreover, even without Keystone XL, imports from Canada have increased about 50 percent over the past decade. But Biden’s actions early in his tenure, some experts say, sent “yellow light” signals to the market that cost of drilling for oil might rise and so caution was warranted.

The reverse can also be true. The Trump’s administration’s opposite “green light” approach — few regulations and no restraints — led some oil drillers to invest in unprofitable wells.

Biden also issued an executive order that paused new oil and gas leases on government land, but within months a federal judge blocked it. After his first year, Biden had outpaced Donald Trump in issuing drilling permits on public lands.

Just because a company has received a permit to drill, it has no obligation to do so. One important metric is what is known as a DUC — a drilled but uncompleted oil or gas well. In other words, production equipment has not been installed and so the well cannot yet produce hydrocarbons. The number of DUCs reached a high of 6,340 in June 2020, and as of February had dropped to 4,372, according to EIA.

Can the U.S. truly change oil prices by encouraging more drilling and allowing pipelines?

Not really. The United States in 2020 was the biggest oil producer in the world and also the biggest consumer, but it is just one player in a global oil market. (“Oil” includes crude oil, all other petroleum liquids, and biofuels.) Much of what happens in the market is beyond the government’s control.

In 2021, the United States slipped to third place in oil production, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. That’s mainly because large shale companies committed to Wall Street that they would continue to limit production and return more cash to shareholders — “an effort to win back investors who fled the industry after years of poor returns,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, told investors in February: “$100 oil, $150 oil, we’re not going to change our growth rate.”

U.S. oil producers boosted output by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2020, so it’s certainly possible for the United States to once again become the world’s biggest oil producer. But investors are demanding that companies do not overspend on new investments this time around.

If the United States is a top oil producer, why do we still need to import oil?

The United States actually exports more oil than it imports. In 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration, the United States imported about 8.47 million barrels per day of petroleum, compared to exports of 8.63 million barrels per days. Crude accounts for about 35 percent of those exports. One key reason is that foreign countries use more diesel than the United States and the United States uses more gasoline.

The boom in U.S. shale oil has certainly reduced reliance on foreign oil imports, but not all crude is the same. Refiners on the Gulf Coast, for instance, have been optimized for Venezuelan crude, which has a high sulfur content. When the Trump administration put sanctions on Venezuelan petroleum, refiners started imported Russian petroleum products because they are roughly similar. Now that Russia has been sanctioned, refiners probably will have to adjust to a cleaner type of crude.

In other words, the United States cannot be an island in the worldwide energy market. But it is more secure as a net exporter of petroleum.

Would funding more renewables help make the U.S. energy independent?

Not in the short run. Renewables replace natural gas or coal. You still need oil to drive cars and trucks and fly planes. At this point, the electric-vehicle market is not growing fast enough to make much of a difference in the current standoff with Russia. But long-run investments over time could begin to make a difference.

Comic illustrates what the temporary expansion of the child tax credit — and its loss — have meant for rural America

Excerpt from Daily Yonder comic by Nhatt Nichols

The expanded child tax credit disproportionately helped rural Americans, so it follows that they were disproportionately hurt when it lapsed at the end of 2021, when the "Build Back Better" bill stalled. Graphic journalist Nhatt Nichols created a comic for The Daily Yonder to illustrate how the refundable credit (meaning that it went to households that didn't earn enough to pay taxes) helped rural Americans, and what's at stake moving forward. Click here to read it.

Skyrocketing bird-flu toll surpasses 7.6 million; see when migrating birds are most likely to spread it in your area

Weather radar network can track heavy migration of birds, which can spur the spread of avian influenza;
click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) more than doubled last weekend to 7.65 million birds in 15 states. Egg-laying hens account for two-thirds of the cases, echoing the last major outbreak in 2014 and 2015. "Since the first outbreak was confirmed in U.S. domestic flocks on Feb. 8, the largest losses have been in Wisconsin, followed by Delaware with 1.4 million birds, Maryland with 1.3 million, and Iowa with 965,741 birds. Fifteen states have seen outbreaks," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The virus is blasting through commercial operations and backyard flocks alike. Infected birds generally die from it, and there is no readily-available vaccine. Since HPAI can quickly destroy entire flocks, "Agricultural officials ruthlessly cull infected flocks in hopes of preventing the disease from spreading," Abbott reports. It could get a lot worse, too: More than 50 million poultry died in the 2014-2015 epidemic, either because of illness or through preventative culls.

The virus can spread through contact with infected birds, or contaminated clothing, equipment and vehicles. But the virus is thought to be spreading so widely because of droppings from migratory birds, David Pitt reports for The Associated Press. Migratory birds such as ducks or geese can catch the virus without any ill effects, and can spread it to poultry through feces or shed feathers when flying overhead. Infected wild birds have been found in 21 states.

Since migratory birds are spreading it, poultry owners should keep an eye on when such birds are most likely to be on the move, Rae Yost reports for KELO in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. BirdCast might be a good way to do that. The website, created mostly by members of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, features bird migration forecast maps, live bird migration maps, and local bird migration alerts. Check it out here.

New federal effort targets financial issues facing rural areas; agency seeks advice from rural stakeholders

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency Congress created during the Great Recesssion, is launching an initiative to focus on financial issues that rural Americans disproportionately face, Shawn Sebastian reports.

There is substantial need for intervention, since larger economic trends in the past few decades have disproportionately hurt rural areas, Sebastian writes: "The number of jobs in rural areas have still not fully recovered from the shock of the 2008 financial crash and job growth in rural areas has been less than a third of the rate of job growth in urban areas. Rural wages are lower , and rural poverty rates are higher than in non-rural areas and the gap is growing . Increasing corporate consolidation across the economy has hit rural areas particularly hard, suppressing wages and leaving rural people with fewer employment options . In addition, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on rural populations have been severe, with significant negative impacts on unemployment and the economic outlook."

The CFPB asked rural organizations about challenges to rural financial resiliency, and heard the same answers cropping up over and over. That includes expanding rural banking deserts; discriminatory and predatory practices from agricultural lenders; and a lack of quality, affordable housing.

It's unclear what actions the CFPB is taking to address these issues, but defining the scope of the problem seems to be a good first step. In the meantime, the agency is still seeking feedback if you want to tell them about other issues your rural area is facing.

Fertilizer price increases gobble up agricultural profits; advocates for farmers blame consolidation of the industry

Graph by Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Click the image to enlarge it.

"Farm advocates say that record-breaking fertilizer prices are decimating farmer profits and pulling wealth out of rural communities for the benefit of a handful of corporations that control the market," Claire Carlson reports for The Daily Yonder. "Groups such as Farm Action are calling on the federal government to enforce antitrust laws against the small number of fertilizer manufacturers that remain in the industry."

The price of most fertilizers has skyrocketed since 2020, but crop prices aren't, so farmers are eating the difference. The fertilizer industry blames pandemic supply-chain issues and increased natural gas prices, but many farming advocates blame fertilizer industry near-monopolies. "Four corporations supply 75% of the nitrogen fertilizer in the U.S.: CF Industries, Nutrien, Koch, and Yara-USA," Carlson reports. "Two corporations supply all of North America’s potash, a potassium-based fertilizer: Nutrien Limited and the Mosaic Company. Between 1980 and the mid-2000s, the number of fertilizer producers for the U.S. dropped from 46 to 13 firms, according to Farm Action."

The war between Russia and Ukraine could affect fertilizer prices as well, since both countries are major exporters of natural gas and fertilizers. But the full impact may take a few months to become clear, according to an executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Carlson reports.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Reader's query answered: Big spending bill, infrastructure package have money for rural septic systems and wells

A recent post here on rural sewage problems in the Black Belt of Alabama prompted Rural Blog reader Alan DiCara ask us what federal funding is available (including in the recent omnibus spending bill) for homeowners to upgrade outdated water wells and/or septic systems. "Life is hard enough paying income taxes, state and federal, to subsidize local water and sewer systems and getting nothing for our own septic and well water systems for costs and regulations imposed by federal and state and local governments," DiCara wrote. We checked and here's what we found:

The omnibus spending bill has several earmarks for septic systems in Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine and Washington, requested by House and Senate members from those states, according to Danielle Smoot, spokeswoman for Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky's 5th District. He is expanding his PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment) program through the Environmental Protection Agency's State and Tribal Assistance Grant Program to make private septic projects eligible. The earmark will give Eastern Kentucky PRIDE $800,000 to implement a grant program to provide septic systems to households in southeastern Kentucky.

UPDATE, March 27: Rogers told Bill Bryant of Lexington's WKYT-TV that the PRIDE program has funded 7,400 septic systems in Eastern Kentucky.

Other legislators who got STAG grants for septic projects included:
  • Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), $700,000 for septic tank installations in Lowndes County, in the Black Belt.
  • Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), $2.5 million for a sewer conversion project in Quail Valley.
  • Rep. William Steube (R-Fla.), $3.2 million for a septic-to-sewer conversion project in Charlotte County.
  • Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), $550,000 for a septic tank effluent pump system for the City of Presque Isle.
  • Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), $185,000 for a septic system project in Clinton.
  • Rep. Jack Bergman (R) and Sens. Gary Peters and Sen, Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, $3.5 million for a septic-to-sewer expansion and modernization project for Tuscarora Township.
  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for $900,000 for a septic receiving facility upgrade for Rochester.
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) for $800,000 for a septic elimination program in the Clark Regional Wastewater District.
Earmarks have returned after 12 years, but must follow new guidelines aimed at preventing abuse.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package contains $55 billion for upgrading water infrastructure overall. Out of that, $15 billion of that goes to lead-pipe replacement, $10 billion goes to cleaning up toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (also called "forever chemicals" for their long-lasting nastiness), and $8.3 billion goes to western water infrastructure. Additionally, "decentralized households" are granted $150 million over five years to help low-income homeowners construct or repair failing septic systems.

The Agriculture Department's Rural Development has a host of water and waste infrastructure programs, funded in the omnibus bill at $653.3 million. Generally, only state or local governments, non-profit organizations, and federally recognized tribes can apply for these grants and loans. Some of those governments may solicit bids from individuals at the local or regional level, but that's not reflected on the main page. One exception is the Individual Water & Wastewater Grants program, but the only eligible households are those in areas recognized as a Colonia before 1989. Those are only located in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

New tool helps journalists more quickly sift through data dumps agencies send them in response to records requests

When journalists request documents from a government through the Freedom of Information Act or a state law, the data often arrive in huge, unorganized batches. Sorting through it can be a daunting task for any journalist, especially for smaller newspapers with fewer resources. A new tool could make the process easier, Paroma Soni reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

New York University journalism professor Hilke Schellmann teamed up with senior research scientist Mona Sloane, computer-science professor Julia Stoyanovich, and a team of graduate students at NYU’s Center for Data Science to develop Gumshoe, "an artificial-intelligence tool that uses natural language processing to sort through large caches of text documents and categorize them by relevance to the journalist’s main topic of investigation, reducing the time needed to sift through everything," Soni reports.

When users enter search terms, the tool can evaluate which documents or sections of documents are more likely to be relevant to the subject matter. "MuckRock, a nonprofit news site devoted to record requests, plans to integrate Gumshoe into its DocumentCloud platform, which is used by journalists for posting and reviewing public records," Soni reports. "The Gumshoe team developed the tool with an initial grant from the Center for Digital Humanities at NYU. A subsequent $200,000 grant, awarded last month by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, will enable the team to build out Gumshoe’s user interface and distribute the product widely. At the moment, the team is inviting journalists and newsrooms to test out the tool and help review/improve it."

MuckRock data and investigations editor Derek Kravitz told Soni that Gumshoe could be a critical resource for newsrooms: "Having this accessible when it’s needed might be the difference between some really important stories getting told and some stories never even being looked at."

Bipartisan efforts are needed to reduce the growing rural-urban gap in Covid-19 vaccinations, Oklahoma prof says

The pandemic is waning, but so are are rates of new Covid-19 vaccinations, leaving wide swaths of the country – especially rural areas – more vulnerable to the disease and acting as potential reservoirs for mutations of the coronavirus into more contagious or deadly strains.

Through January, 59% of rural residents had received a first dose of a vaccine, but 75% of urban residents had, and that gap has more than doubled since April 2021, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC graph, adapted by The Rural Blog
The divide is particularly stark among children and teenagers who need parental consent to get vaccinated," notes Angel Adegbesan of Bloomberg News. "Only about 15% of children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated in rural areas, compared with 31% in urban areas."

However, Adegbesan writes, "In President Joe Biden’s National Covid-19 Preparedness Plan there’s a glaring omission: efforts to improve on high levels of vaccine hesitancy in rural parts of the U.S. . . . While the administration says it has improved vaccine equity among adults of different races and ethnicity, particularly in rural areas, vaccination among children and adolescents remain alarmingly low.
Perhaps it’s time to consider a bipartisan approach."

So says Matt Motta, a political scientist and an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. He told Adegbesan, “We need more of an effort, not just from the Biden administration, but from Republicans who are sympathetic and enthusiastic about vaccinating.”

Adegbesan notes, "Partisanship remains a major contributor to vaccine hesitancy. Unvaccinated adults are now three times more likely to lean Republican than Democratic, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And those who refuse to be vaccinated are also less likely to vaccinate their children."

"Motta says people might be more amenable to getting the vaccine if someone in their community who shares the same political beliefs encourages them to do so," Adegbesan reports.

Nature Conservancy says it will build six solar power plants on old coal-mine sites it owns in southwest Virginia

Site of one of the proposed solar farms (Photo from the Nature Conservancy)
Six former surface coal mines in Southwest Virginia "are being transformed into solar installations that will be large enough to contribute renewable energy to the electric grid," Zoeann Murphy reports for The Washington Post. The sites "owned by The Nature Conservancy will be some of the first utility-scale solar farms in the region — and the nonprofit group hopes it’s creating a model that can be replicated" at other sites in Appalachia and nationwide.

Several thousand acres of old mines came with 253,000 acres of forest the Conservancy acquired in 2019, which it calls the Cumberland Forest Project. Why develop solar on an old coal mine? It's not just for the irony. Murphy reports: "Solar developers partnering with the Nature Conservancy, such as Dominion Energy and Sun Tribe, say the mine sites have vast flat areas exposed to sunlight that are a rarity in the mountains, and the sites offer advantages like being close to transmission lines." Sun Tribe and Sol Systems are partnering on the first two, the Conservancy announced last year.

Solar farms need a lot of ground, and "It would be better to build on a lot of these mine sites than some prime farmland or some areas that maybe don't want solar in their community," said Daniel Kestner, innovative reclamation manager for the Virginia Department of Energy.

Most of the project area is in Wise County, on the Kentucky border, The Coalfield Progress in Norton reported last year; some is in Dickenson County, to the northeast; some is Russell County, to the southeast. “We’re very proud to be an energy-producing community,” said Lou Wallace, chair of the Russell County Board of Supervisors. “This is helping us to reimagine how we produce the energy. So we’re still able to say we’re keeping the lights on somewhere.”

Monday, March 14, 2022

As some governments misinform, Sunshine Week is a better time than ever to advocate government openness, honesty

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

This is Sunshine Week, but I fear it's dimming.

The annual observance to remind Americans of the importance of open government seems to be fading, as journalism and the news business face business-side challenges that are more pressing than government secrecy.

The observance is led by the News Leaders Association, formerly the American Society of News Editors, ad before that the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The name's evolution reflects the flattening of the editorial corps at U.S. newspapers, who have been the leading advocates of open government. Editors and other leaders are more pressed for time than ever; you can detect that in the papers' content every day.

Perhaps reflecting all that, the NLA Sunshine Week page offers no content for news outlets to share with their audiences, its Sunshine Week page on Facebook hasn't been updated since 2021, and its last tweet about the observance was March 9. That didn't even appear on the @SunshineWeek page on Twitter, which hasn't been updated since last year's Sunshine Week. NLA has not replied to my request for comment.

Thankfully, open-government activists are posting on social media about #SunshineWeek, often sharing articles and graphics posted by state newspaper associations, which seem to have taken the lead. That's great, but most of the articles I've seen from them are designed for use in their home states. We're missing a broader overview, at what seems to be an ideal time for it.

Sunshine Week is about open government. That means governments should be transparent, and transparency suggests that they should also be honest. That is especially meaningful right now, when there is a global information war about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Russian and Chinese governments are flooding the media with misinformation and disinformation, and that should make Americans appreciate the type of government we have.

We have a democratic republic that is responsive to the citizens, or is supposed to be. An open, transparent government is by nature more responsive, and thus more democratic. At a time when our nation faces powerful adversaries who use disinformation and attack the very idea of democracy, we need to remind Americans that their democratic republic requires open government.

Adams Publishing Group fires editor who warned of ads she thought sketchy, sparking an exodus of other journalists

Athens, in Athens County
(Wikipedia map)
In the past few weeks, nearly every journalist working for the two newspapers in Athens, Ohio, has been fired or resigned in protest over a conflict with owners Adams Publishing Group, Brook Endale reports for the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer.

The exodus began after Adams fired Corrine Colbert, editor of The Athens News, on Feb. 25. Colbert told Endale she and other editors repeatedly complained to management about Federated Mint collectible-coin ads that she believes to be scams (based on a Better Business Bureau 'F' rating and reader feedback), but said management told her they needed the revenue from the ads. On Feb. 23 she ran an editorial in the News and sister paper The Athens Messenger warning readers about the ads.

Two days later she was fired, allegedly for violating the company's social-media policies by posting unrelated political opinions on Twitter, Endale reports. In a Twitter thread about her firing, Colbert noted that the company had never cared about her political tweets before and believed it was an excuse to get rid of her for warning readers about the ads. Mark Cohen, president of APG Media of Ohio, told her that "our job is to protect APG" before her firing, she alleged on Twitter. But, she continued, her "first responsibility was to the people of Athens County."

Newspapers need money to function, but informing readers is the top priority, Colbert said in the Twitter thread. She said Athens readers haven't been well-served since APG, which bought the papers in 2014, drastically cut editorial and production staff, and she criticized APG for allowing people who don't live in Athens to make decisions about its papers. She said Cohen lives in Columbus, and the advertising staff for the papers is two counties away. "Local journalism thrives when the people in charge of it are personally invested in the community — and when those people understand that good journalism speaks truth to power regardless of who holds it," she wrote.

In a statement in the March 4 Messenger, Cohen defended the ads. He said Federated Mint had had an A rating with the BBB for more than five years, but it was lowered to an F last year "due to two ads that ran in a very small newspaper that contained wording not permitted in a previous agreement the company had with the BBB," Cohen wrote. "The wording was corrected and the company has had no additional occurrences since that incident on the matter." A Federated Mint spokesperson told a Messenger assistant editor that the company is experiencing longer shipping times than usual but is complying with the law on shipping dates, Cohen wrote. He protested Colbert's characterization of him as an outsider, noting that he lives only 30 minutes from the Athens County line, at a location that allows him to better reach the six newspapers he oversees.

Colbert's firing set off a chain reaction. Associate Editor Cole Behrens was the only reporter and employee left at the News after Colbert was fired; in five days, he resigned, Endale reports. Messenger Editor Alex Hulvachick resigned Feb. 24, mainly, she told Endale, because the workload was too much. But Hulvachick was one of several editors who raised concerns about the ads, according to former associate editor Dani Kington, who published a story about Colbert's firing on The New Political, a digital publication run by students of Ohio University, which is in Athens.

The departures could make local news harder to come by in the county of about 65,000, Endale reports, alluding to news deserts: "Hundreds of counties all over the country have the same issue, including Klamath County in Oregon. There, the Herald and News, another APG-owned newspaper, just lost its entire staff, according to Jefferson Public Radio."

Colbert launched a fundraiser seeking $15,000 to start a locally owned paper, tentatively called The Athens Independent. As of this writing on March 14, it had received $18,161 from 296 donors.

Rural Arizona district's senator cashes in on shift to the far right, becomes a face of her party's 'radicalized wing'

Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers of Arizona has found fundraising success in espousing extremist political views. Her trajectory shows how political and financial incentives may sway some politicians to cater to conspiracist beliefs with inflammatory populist rhetoric, The Washington Post reports.

She could also be a sign of things to come: the latest round of redistricting made many districts safer, so Republicans may increasingly get challenged from the right, The New York Times reports.

Wendy Rogers
(AP photo by Ross Franklin)
Rogers, 67, made a splash on the national scene after a speech in late February at a white nationalist conference in Orlando. She called for graphic violence against "traitors" to make examples of them and called the coronavirus vaccine a "bioweapon," report Beth Reinhard and Rosalind Helderman of the Post.

The Arizona Senate voted 24-3 to censure Rogers after the speech, but she criticized "elites" for trying to silence her and has refused to apologize. Rogers "has found a rising national profile as a face of the radicalized wing of the GOP," the Post reports. Her "trajectory shows the political and financial incentives of going to extremes. After losing her earliest races as a mainstream Republican, she moved further and further right until she beat an incumbent by campaigning as the more conservative choice. Now, after a year of fanning bogus allegations about election fraud and other false claims, she is the most successful fundraiser in the Arizona state legislature."

Her increasingly extreme views gained her a re-election endorsement from former President Donald Trump and attention from his supporters, but she hasn't always taken such stances. The retired U.S. Air Force pilot ran and lost five times for state House and Senate seats with more centrist messaging that promoted her as a veteran, small-business owner and mother of two, the Post reports. Then in 2020 she essentially district-shopped her way into qualifying to run in the more conservative, more rural area around Flagstaff.

"Republicans who have watched Rogers over the past decade wonder if her views have changed or if she is merely opportunistic. Either way, Rogers’s MAGA-charged rants helped her achieve a long-elusive victory at the polls," the Post reports. "Her shift to the far right has coincided with an outpouring of grass-roots, small donors. Nearly 40,000 individuals contributed to her campaign last year, of which only a handful gave the $5,300 maximum. That means Rogers can keep dipping into this large pool of donors in 2022."

Rogers has made election reform her signature issue, promoting the false claim that Trump lost Arizona in 2020 because of vote fraud. She has sponsored a dozen voting-related bills that experts said would wreck the electoral process and other state Republicans said they couldn't endorse, Reinhard and Helderman report. The bills won't pass, but Rogers is arguably measuring success in attention and fundraising, not how many bills pass or what they do.

State of Wyoming has an new app to claim roadkill

Jaden Bales provided this picture showing the outline of a mule deer doe that was struck by a friend's car on US 287 near Lander, Wyo. He claimed the carcass for food using Wyoming's new roadkill app. (Photo via The Associated Press)
About 30 states have laws allowing residents to collect roadkill for food, but we've only heard of one that has an app for that. It's a new feature in the Wyoming Department of Transportation's app, which "helps people quickly claim accidentally killed deer, elk, moose, wild bison or wild turkey after documenting the animal and reviewing the rules for collecting roadkill to eat," reports Mead Gruver of The Associated Press. "Unlike in other states such as Alaska, roadkill meat in Wyoming can’t be donated to anybody, including charities."

"Another purpose is to help people follow the rules," Gruver reports. "For safety reasons, roadkill in Wyoming may not be collected after dark, along interstate highways or in construction zones." And it helps collect data for the state: "By geotagging roadkill with their phones and documenting the species, app users will contribute to the data that help Wyoming wildlife biologists and highway officials decide where to install wildlife crossing signs and other ways of reducing critter deaths."

Omnibus has record funding to protect horses from soring, maintains ban on horse slaughter

The $1.5 trillion omnibus bill heading to President Biden's desk has record levels of funding for enforcing the Horse Protection Act, which prohibits sored horses from participating in shows, exhibitions, sales or auctions, according to a press release from lobbying group Animal Wellness Action. Soring, most often seen with Tennessee walking horses, is the practice of hurting the horses' feet or forelegs to make them adopt a more pronounced, exaggerated gait. But enforcement has been lax at times; in 2019 a trainer and rider was allowed to compete in the Tennessee Walking Horse World Championship even though he was about to begin a suspension for repeated HPA violations.

The bill has just over $3 million in funding for HPA enforcement, over $1 million more than last year's appropriation bill. The bill also maintains the current de facto ban on horse slaughter in the U.S., according to the press release.