Friday, April 08, 2022

Five-star restaurant and boutique hotel dominates a rural Virginia town, even the county, and it plans to get bigger

The new Patty O's replaced a local cafe. "A contractor floated the idea of saving money by installing painted Styrofoam beams," Tim Carrington reports. The idea was "waved away derisively" by the owner. (Luke Christopher, Foothills Forum)

About 225 people work at The Inn at Little Washington, a boutique hotel with a five-star restaurant in the county seat of Rappahannock County, Virginia, which was created before Washington, D.C., which lies 90 miles to the west and provides much of the enterprise's business. IT's the county's largest private employer, and it wants to get even bigger and "translate its dazzling culinary success to a broadened hospitality and retail enterprise," Tim Carrington reports for the Rappahannock News and the Foothills Forum, a local philanthropy that bolsters the weekly newspaper's coverage.

Rappahannock County (Wikipedia map)
The story is not just a news feature. Carrington writes, "In a county marked by divisive fights over new structures and new ideas, the Inn’s inventions might be expected to ignite the next culture war. In the 1990s, some local residents railed against the Inn’s postcard-perfect renovations and its parade of glitzy visitors. And the more recent displacement of the humble Country Cafe to make room for the upscale Patty O’s stirred resentful notes on the county’s RappNet listserv. But Washington residents have become accustomed to living in a company town, aware that the Inn generates as much as $600,000 in meals and lodging taxes for Washington’s coffers. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that another 10 rooms would harvest an additional $100,000 in taxes for the town."

That's a lot of money for a town of only 130 people. The inn owns 25 structures in Washington, and has only 23 rooms, most of which cost over $1,000 a night. It wants to add as many as 10, plus an event space, pool, fitness center and spa, and maybe cottages "for guests seeking regular access with few maintenance burdens," Carrington reports. "A meal for two at the Inn – after a bottle of wine and payment of state and county taxes – tops $600."

The proprietor and chef is Patrick O'Connell, 76. Carrington writes, "A recent documentary features O’Connell about to sample an offering from a nervous sous-chef seeking approval; the fork poised mid-air, a smiling O’Connell says, 'It’s either art or it’s garbage.'" The restaurant is the world's longest-tenured Forbes Travel Guide five-star eatery, one of 14 Michelin Star restaurants in the U.S. and the only one on the East Coast outside New York City. The hotel is the longest-tenured American Automobile Association 5 Diamond Award winner for combined accommodation and restaurant.

Labor Dept. watchdog says USDA and OSHA should have better protected meatpacking workers during pandemic

The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration should have worked together more, and done more in general, to make sure meatpacking workers were better protected during the pandemic, says a new report released Tuesday by the DOL's Office of Inspector General.

Then-USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue "made clear he saw no role for the agency in protecting workers and mostly put it off on OSHA," Sky Chadde reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But "OSHA has been roundly criticized for failing to protect meatpacking workers from the coronavirus. In the pandemic's first year, the agency doled out small fines to only a handful of plants, and it failed to inspect every plant where cases were publicly reported."

OSHA “entered the pandemic with its fewest number of inspectors in its history. At the same time, the number of workplaces it has to oversee has increased,” Chadde reports. “Still, according to the inspector general's report, OSHA should have identified what federal agencies oversaw high-risk industries — including meatpacking — and provided training to on-the-ground employees in how to assist with worker safety.”

It was critical for OSHA and FSIS to work together because of the risky conditions in meatpacking plants, the report said, but “OSHA and FSIS had some history that made collaborating challenging … Before the pandemic, when FSIS inspectors would make a referral about potential worker safety violations to OSHA, OSHA would investigate FSIS, not the plant, according to the report. Because of this, FSIS inspectors were hesitant to refer possible violations.” Read more here.

Report finds 'alarming spike' in book bans at U.S. schools

A new report released Thursday by literary and free-expression group PEN America tracked book bans in public schools from July 2021 to March of this year. Its index counted 1,586 book bans targeting 1,145 books in dozens of school districts across 26 states. Sarah Ruiz-Grossman reports for Huffpost, "The report noted that while book bans in public schools have existed throughout U.S. history, the breadth of such efforts has 'expanded rapidly' in the last year, both in the number of books banned and 'the intense focus on books that relate to communities of color and LGBTQ+ subjects'."

The report found that 86 districts (comprising nearly 2,900 schools and more than 2 million students) had banned books. Over 40% of the banned books had prominent characters who were people of color. Texas had the most school book bans at 713, followed by Pennsylvania at 456 and Florida at 204, Ruiz-Grossman reports.

"Much of the recent push to ban certain books stems from Republican-led bills seeking to prevent students from learning about white supremacy and racism, under the pretense of purging so-called “critical race theory” from classrooms," Ruiz-Grossman reports. "While such laws don’t all explicitly mention critical race theory — a college-level academic discipline focused on how racism is embedded in the country’s legal, political and social institutions — they are all written with similar language meant to stifle instruction about racism, privilege and white supremacy."

Quick hits: Bird flu could curtail Easter Egg availability; a newer, simpler word for news organizations proposed

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 bird flu that has wiped out millions of egg-laying hens has raised the price, and could affect the availability, of eggs leading into Easter, according to a new CoBank report. Read more here.

Remember murder hornets? They're invasive pests that kill honeybees. Scientists are trying to keep them from spreading east by using "insect sex spray" to lure swarms of male hornets to their deaths. Read more here.

More on entomology: U.S. scientists are about to release 2.4 billion genetically modified male mosquitoes to try to snuff out their own species. They do this by mating with female mosquitos and producing sterile duds. Read more here.

It's often difficult for people to know what to call a news organization, since it's not strictly a paper, nor a website, etc. One news-media expert argues for using the neologism "newspub." Read more here.

An American Farm Bureau Federation video argues that rural broadband is a necessity, not a luxury. Read more here.

Pandemic roundup: It's deadlier in red states; does their growing health gap with blue states stem from state policy?

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

A new coronavirus variant called XE has been identified and is spreading in the United Kingdom. Early estimates suggest it's the most easily transmissible variant yet. Read more here.

As the United States nears 1 million Covid deaths, Kaiser Health News takes a deep dive into a rural Pennsylvania county that has suffered staggering losses. Read more here.

The pandemic has been deadlier in red states, according to a recently published analysis. That tracks with growing overall health disparities between red and blue states over the past 50 years. Though the divergence might reflect changing demographics and socioeconomic characteristics, public policy of state governments is more likely to blame, writes Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth UniversityRead more here.

The White House has launched a new website,, that's meant to be a one-stop shop for everything from high-quality masks, vaccines, and testing to antiviral medication. Read more here.

The costs of going unvaccinated in the U.S. are mounting for workers and companies. Read more here.

"The world's first 'human challenge' trial in which volunteers were deliberately exposed to the coronavirus has found that symptoms had no effect on how likely an infected person is to pass the disease on to others," Reuters reports. Read more here.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives admitted to the hospital with Covid-19 have had higher death rates than Black and white patients, according to a newly published analysis. Read more here.

Dr. Robert Malone, a coronavirus vaccine critic often cited by others, says he helped invent mRNA vaccines and hasn't been given proper credit for it. He's spreading unfounded claims about the vaccines and the virus. Read more here.

Rural America can learn something from Puerto Rico about boosting vaccination rates. Read more here.

The pandemic is exacerbating the "paramedic paradox" in rural America. Read more here.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

N.J.'s largest independent group of community papers goes nonprofit, allowing it to get grants and tax-deductible gifts

Left to right: Executive Director Amanda Richardson and Chair Nicolas Platt of the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, New Jersey Hills Media Group Executive Editor Liz Parker, and her brother, Business Manager Steve Parker.
The largest independent group of community newspapers in New Jersey has gone nonprofit. The New Jersey Hills Media Group, which has 14 newspapers in the north end of the state, is now owned by the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, created with the help of local fund-raising.

CNJLM "will follow a model first used by the Lenfest Institute and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper group will function as a societal benefits corporation with its own board," the newspapers reported. Owners Liz and Steve Parker, sister and brother, will remain executive editor and business manager, and all "editors, reporters, advertising, and business staffers will similarly remain."

The nonprofit will have a separate board and an executive director, Amanda Richardson. “This structure preserves the traditional editorial independence of the newspapers,” she said. The board's chair is Nicholas Platt, who bear Richardson for township committee in a race "that was notable for its civil discourse and public-spirited debate," the papers report. “We were always in agreement that local news is of paramount importance to a healthy democracy and a strong society,” Platt said.

Liz Parker said much the same in a column, in which she said “We are one of the first community newspaper groups to convert to nonprofit ownership in what is increasingly a national trend for both dailies and weeklies.”

In the news story, she said, “The hedge funds and giant news corporations that have been buying up newspapers across the country come in and gut the news operation, fire editors and reporters, extract as much profit as they can and leave an empty shell. We didn’t want that to happen. Our family has served as stewards of these newspapers for 65 years. Converting to nonprofit community ownership under the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media was the clear solution.”

Steve Parker said going nonprofit “enables us to supplement traditional newspaper advertising and subscription revenue with grants, events, and charitable contributions to fund robust local journalism that enhances civic engagement and builds stronger communities.”

Richardson said, “We are grateful that these newspapers will remain community-owned as they continue to provide responsible local journalism, expand their coverage, serve as watchdogs on local government, and keep their readers informed on the day-to-day lives of the 50 municipalities they serve” in four counties. "Four of the newspapers – one each in Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties – are more than 100 years old, and all 14 have been published continuously for more than 40 years," the newspapers report.

Biden signs postal-reform bill with a 5x increase in the cap on newspaper sample copying, but postage rates going up

Congressional leaders and bill sponsors watch President Biden sign the postal-reform bill.
House sponsors James Comer and Carolyn Maloney are second and third from right, respectively.

Wednesday, President Biden signed a postal-reform bill that "shaves more than $50 billion off the USPS balance sheet. It also extends a new opportunity for newspapers to use mail sampling to reach non-subscribers with promotional copies," says a National Newspaper Association media release. "The Rural Newspaper Sustainability Act, broadening the sampling allowances for Within County newspaper mailers, was included in the PSRA with the sponsorship of Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York; and James Comer, R-Kentucky. It lifts the existing cap on the number of nonsubscriber copies newspapers can mail at the lowest commercial rate from 10 percent of a newspaper’s paid within-county distribution to 50%." The 50% sampling rule is effective immediately.

However, the law doesn't save mailers from steep postage increases. The Postal Service announced yesterday that it would increase periodicals postage rates by an average of 8.5%, effective July 10. "Postmaster General Louis DeJoy this week said the price increases from the USPS Board of Governors would use the full measure of price increase available from the Postal Regulatory Commission," according to another NNA media release. "He said the reason for the big increases was USPS’ continued need for cash to update its vehicle fleet, prepare networks for more packages and make up for losses in earlier years. A small moderation of 0.3% that USPS recognized from the reform bill was offset by rising inflation, postal officials said."

NNA Chair Brett Wesner said that a small bright spot in the periodicals rate hike is that "USPS is finally recognizing the value of our use of flats trays for newspaper containers by passing along a 3.7% increase instead of the nearly 11% for mailing sacks. Increases are never welcomed, but recognition that we are doing a lot to be more efficient is some small relief."

Supreme Court reinstates, for now, Trump-era rule limiting states' authority over projects that could pollute water

"Conservatives on the Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated for now a Trump-era environmental rule that limited the ability of states to block projects that could pollute rivers and streams, a decision more notable because Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined liberals in calling it an abuse of the court’s emergency powers," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post. "The fight is over a rule put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration. It limited objecting states’ ability to stop pipeline and other projects that could pollute navigable waters regulated by the Clean Water Act, reacting to complaints that some states and Native American tribes were abusing their discretion."

In the decision, Justice Elena Kagan criticized the use of the court's emergency docket for what she argued was not an emergency case, a maneuver many call the court's "shadow docket." "The applicants have given us no good reason to think that in the remaining time needed to decide the appeal, they will suffer irreparable harm," Kagan wrote. "By nonetheless granting relief, the court goes astray." Instead, she argued, the case should have had the chance for full briefings and arguments so the court could make a more informed decision.

"Democratic members of Congress have been increasingly critical of the court’s use of the emergency docket, which has expanded since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court to provide a more consistent conservative majority," Barnes reports. "Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor who has documented the court’s use of the shadow docket, said Wednesday’s order was significant for what it says about the chief justice’s role on the court."

"This is the ninth time that Chief Justice Roberts has publicly been on the short side of a 5-4 ruling since Justice Barrett’s confirmation," Vladeck told Barnes. "Seven of the nine have been from shadow docket rulings. This is the first time, though, that he’s endorsed criticism of the shadow docket itself."

"The high court’s action does not interfere with the Biden administration’s plan to rewrite the rule," Jessica Gresko reports for The Associated Press. "Work on a revision has begun, but the administration has said a final rule is not expected until the spring of 2023. The Trump-era rule will remain in effect in the meantime."

Revamped bill would give small news outlets more power in negotiating compensation from Google, Facebook

"Newly revamped federal legislation aimed at helping news publishers negotiate deals with tech giants would create a baseball-style arbitration process to settle disputes and wouldn’t apply to the biggest media companies, people familiar with the proposal said," Alexandra Bruell and Keach Hagey report for The Wall Street Journal. "The legislation amends an earlier proposal called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow publishers to band together to negotiate compensation from online platforms that use their content, including Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, without violating antitrust laws."

The tech giants have claimed increasingly large shares of news sites' digital advertising dollars as many news outlets' ad revenue has collapsed. "The new proposal includes language that would require the tech companies to negotiate with publishers," Bruell and Hagey report. "After 180 days, publishers could initiate 'final offer' arbitration—sometimes called 'baseball arbitration' because of its use in baseball negotiations—to come to a deal, according to the new proposal. In that process, the arbitrator chooses one side’s final offer."

Smaller news outlets have wondered if the proposal would leave a meaningful place for them at the table, and the process seems to be moving in their direction; the new version applies only to news organizations with fewer than 1,500 employees. "The staffing threshold applies to individual publications, even when they are owned by a larger parent company. Any broadcaster with a license under the Federal Communications Commission—which would include all local TV and radio stations—would also be eligible under the new proposal," Bruell and Hagey report. "The new draft also proposes a 10-year antitrust exemption for publishers, rather than the four-year exemption in the initial legislation."

Coincidentally, a new bill was introduced to Canada's legislature this week that aims to ensure fairness in digital advertising rates for digital news, especially rural news organizations. In Australia last month, independent news publishers staged a "news freeze" in an effort to get a bigger voice in such deals in that country, its Press Gazette reports.

Documentarian urges journalists to report more on climate-change solutions aimed at overhaul of world economy

A recent United Nations report warned that the world must take decisive action to cut carbon emissions in the next few years to avoid catastrophic environmental changes. Emissions aren't the only thing that needs to change, independent journalist and documentarian John D. Sutter writes for NiemanReports at Harvard University's Nieman Lab. Sutter says journalists must change how they report the issue.

In the past decade, news organizations have gotten much better at presenting climate change as fact and reporting on how bad things have gotten. "All of that is helpful and should be applauded," Sutter writes. "There’s no point in talking about climate crisis solutions if the public doesn’t understand the massive scale of the disaster we face. We journalists remain terrible, however, at digging into the myriad ways in which 'It’s us.' And we seem even less ready to remind people 'There’s hope.'"

In 2019, major broadcast networks' nightly news and Sunday shows' climate-change reporting mentioned solutions 37 percent of the time. In 2020, that fell to 29%, according to a MediaMatters report. "There are plenty of organizations trying to change this and inject a 'solutions mindset' into climate reporting," Sutter writes. "The Society of Environmental Journalists has published a helpful list of climate-change solution resources. Harvard’s Belfer Center and the Solutions Journalism Network have hosted discussions. And The Guardian and The Washington Post, among others, announced solutions-focused coverage. I’ve hosted two seasons of a climate-solutions podcast for Foreign Policy."

any journalists focus on how individuals can change their behavior to curb emissions, like eating less meat. Though that's valid, "It’s hardly fair to dump this crisis on the shoulders of individual people when large corporations and governments are profiting from it," Sutter writes. "Solutions to the climate crisis must be measured by how far and how fast they take the world toward net-zero emissions. That will require an overhaul of the world’s economy."

Some journalists still hesitate to tackle climate-change stories because the issue is seen as unsettled, but, Sutter writes, there is no serious question among experts that climate change is real, and that it will likely bring catastrophic changes.

"Covering the climate crisis is an all-hands-on-deck affair. We need all approaches — all angles, from all beats. My hope is that our coverage of the world’s biggest long-term threat will include more investigative reporting, more solutions, and more context," Sutter writes. "Some carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere and ocean systems for approximately 1,000 years. The actions we take today matter for at least that long. That fact must motivate us to do better."

Bird flu has killed 23 million but losses could be significantly less than in 2014-15; deaths could reach peak this month

"U.S. poultry producers have strengthened their safeguards against disease, and the nation may see 'significantly less' damage from this year’s outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. The 2014-15 bird-flu epidemic killed more than 50 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, in domestic flocks and created spot shortages of eggs in grocery stores," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "During a teleconference, Vilsack said his assessment was based on conditions at present. The arrival of warmer weather will help end the outbreaks that began in early February, he said."

So far, about 23 million domestic birds have died from the bird flu or been culled along with infected flocks. Iowa  is the hardest-hit state, accounting for nearly 13.3 million culled birds, Jared Strong reports for Iowa Capital Dispatch. But the epidemic might slow down after this month, because the virus is primarily spread by migratory birds, mostly geese and ducks. Most of the geese have already come and gone, and duck migration is at its high point this month.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Number of statehouse reporters up since 2014, but fewer are full-time, and more work for non-profits, Pew finds

Change in number of statehouse reporters from 2014 to 2022 (Pew Research Center map; click the image to enlarge it.)

A Pew Research Center study found that the number of statehouse reporters has increased 11 percent since 2014, the last time Pew studied it but fewer of them are working full-time.

Of the 1,761 statehouse reporters the study found, 850, or 48%, are full-time. That matters because "being fully devoted to this coverage often provides the greatest opportunity to engage with the statehouse and produce stories that go beyond the basic contours of daily news," Pew says. "The remaining 911 statehouse reporters either cover the beat part time, are students/interns (whether at a university-run news service or at another news outlet) or are other supporting staff." In contrast, 904 of the 1,592 statehouse reporters found in 2014, or 57%, were full-time.

The gain in raw numbers "comes largely from two main developments: new nonprofit news outlets that are employing statehouse reporters, and a shift to more part-time statehouse reporting," Pew reports. "Nonprofit reporters alone (whether full time or less than full time) now constitute 20% of the statehouse corps, up from 6% in 2014. In total numbers, that translates to 353 statehouse reporters working for nonprofit news organizations in 2022, compared with 92 in 2014. Nonprofit statehouse reporters now make up the largest portion of the statehouse corps in 10 states, and the second largest in 17 states."

Webinar at 3 p.m. ET Thursday will offer information about new federal grants 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. The series kicks off at 3 p.m. E.T. on Thursday, April 7 with "Orphaned No More: Federal Oil and Gas Well Reclamation."

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."

NCSL Associate Director Aaron Ray will moderate a panel of speakers who include:
  • Dave Andrews, orphan well program manager of Colorado Department of Natural Resources' Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
  • Sarah Solomon, senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues.
  • Steve Tryon, director at the Department of the Interior's Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance.
  • Steve Feldgus, the Interior's deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals management.

Papers in Athens, Ohio, get a new, combined news staff after mass exodus; new editor eliminates anonymous forum

Over a month ago, Adams Publishing Group fired the editor of a weekly in Athens, Ohio, after she warned readers about ads she considered sketchy. Corinne Colbert's firing prompted the resignation of most other journalists at The Athens News as well as its daily sister paper, The Athens Messenger. Today, APG Media of Ohio president Mark Cohen announced a new staff for both.

New editor Allan Brown introduced himself in a column, promising to earn readers' trust. A native of Toledo, Brown wrote that he has most recently worked in retail in Florida, but was the editor of the campus paper at the University of Toledo and has worked for several small papers.

Brown's first big change was to eliminate a popular anonymous forum called the Athens Voice. "While it is vital to receive communication from you, our readers, I prefer they take on the content of a letter to the editor, rather than anonymous posts," Brown wrote. "I encourage you to send those letters to us, following the guidelines established prior to my arrival. And, they definitely must be signed, with contact information provided. Open dialogue is key to progressing in these trying times and I encourage the open, honest and transparent way a letter to the editor provides for that."

New England subsidies help make community-supported agriculture programs accessible to low-income families

A CSA share from Red Fire Farm
(Photo submitted to The Daily Yonder)
Community-supported agriculture is a win-win for rural communities: Farmers get an extra avenue of income, and families who often live in food deserts can access fresh, local produce. But CSA programs typically require an up-front payment of several hundred dollars for the season, and low-income families often don't have the money. Some New England communities have innovative variations on CSAs that preserve the benefits to farmers while making the programs more accessible, Caroline Tremblay reports for The Daily Yonder.

For example, the Northeast Organic Farming Association operates twin Farm Share Programs in New Hampshire and Vermont, which aim to lower CSA costs for low-income residents. Initially funded by a grant, the New Hampshire program is now supported mainly through an annual fundraiser to which community partners contribute a portion of that day's sales, Tremblay reports. Such fundraising covers half the cost of the CSA for each low-income family, while the families themselves and participating organic farmers contribute the 25 percent each. Farmers are able to keep the same profit level because they solicit donations from other CSA members. NOFA has an Agriculture Department grant to establish similar programs in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Red Fire Farm, which has two locations in Western Massachusetts, has a novel way of getting fresh organic produce to low-income families: since 2017 the farm has been a certified retailer for the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. "It’s a streamlined structure to simplify the use of SNAP benefits that was launched by the Department of Transitional Assistance," Tremblay reports. Farms certified as SNAP CSA retailers don't need dedicated equipment to process payment, as they would if they were selling at a farmer's market. Instead, low-income CSA members send a form to DTA, then the monthly benefit funds are automatically sent directly to the farm each month.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Migration of rural Democrats into the Republican Party has made congressional districts less competitive, experts say

"While gerrymandering is a factor that receives an abundance of attention, experts say that the grand political realignment of working-class rural voters abandoning the Democratic Party is a much more salient cause, particularly throughout Appalachia and into the South," reports David Catanese of McClatchy Newspapers.

Catanese's object example is Central Kentucky's 6th District, a once-competitive district that was already trending Republican before the state legislature made it even more so in this year's redistricting. It was held from 2004 to 2012 by Democrat Ben Chandler. He told Catanese that he had to practice the “politics of confusion” in order to survive in a district where most voters identified as conservative: “I had to confuse my constituents so they couldn’t tell whether I was a liberal or a conservative or a moderate.”

That became harder "as data showed him that an increasing amount of his constituents were primarily depending on conservative media outlets like Fox News, which blared narratives that tarred his entire party with the same broad brush," Catanese reports. "More frequently, media of all stripes increasingly seek representatives’ reactions to the latest national controversy, rather than probe their proposed legislation or committee work."

Chandler said, “All politics is national now, and it’s very simple. Everybody gets the same sort of news nationally and they don’t get nearly as much local news as they get national and international news. That’s been a big change. Because of the stances the national Democratic Party takes, it’s easy for the state Republican Party to brand all of the Democrats in the state with that national brand, which is very definitely an unpopular brand statewide and in most of the districts.”

Catanese offers another view: "Scott Jennings, a well-known and well-wired Republican operative, said the reason the seat isn’t competitive anymore is because Kentucky Democrats won’t nominate a Chandler-like moderate." Jennings said, “It would take a Democrat who isn’t completely totally beholden to the progressive left. You’d have to be non-orthodox on abortion, guns, education, some economic issues…If you popped yourself out of the ditch and said, ‘I’m a pro-gun Democrat’, you’d immediately get a primary and parts of the party would swarm you.”

Many communities — disproportionately rural — say 2020 census undercounted them, and are seeking recounts

"Two years after census 2020, many cities and states say the count wildly underestimated their residents, costing them significant federal and state money for the social services and infrastructure their areas need. The numbers also have created confusion in drawing new voting districts, potentially leaving some areas with less political power than they should have in state legislatures and Congress," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline.

The issue disproportionately affects rural counties and communities that are already often at a disadvantage in drawing state and federal funding. The pandemic may have skewed response rates overall, and the digital divide left many rural areas at a disadvantage since 2020 was the first census to rely primarily on citizens filling out forms online. Plus, the bureau used a new statistical technique to keep data anonymous that may have hurt small-town counts. And finally, the Trump administration halted the count early, making it more difficult for hard-to-count rural areas to catch up.

"While the U.S. Census Bureau has created programs to fix the errors, many state and local officials say they are not sufficient," Henderson reports. "The bureau’s Count Question Resolution program allows tribal, state and local governments to ask the Census Bureau to review their counts for errors. It already has drawn complaints from 20 places in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin as well as Puerto Rico. It is accepting challenges through June 2023."

"And a new Census Bureau plan called the Post-Census Group Quarters Review allows state and local officials to flag errors in counts of people living in institutional settings such as college dorms and prisons. Cities and states have only until April 21 to submit comments on the plan and can submit possible errors for review between June of this year and June 2023." The program has already received complaints from 20 places; 11 are from communities with under 7,000 residents.

McNab, Ark., and Hempstead County
(Wikipedia map)
McNab, Arkansas, is one of the smallest places that lodged a complaint. The census showed the community went from 68 residents in 2010 to 30 people in 2020. "As a result, the city’s monthly revenue-sharing payment from Arkansas dropped to less than $209 from about $457 last year," Henderson reports. But Mayor James Conway told Henderson that count was wrong; he went door to door and counted 45 people.

Some of the incorrect counts can't be verified door-to-door, but a new tool from the bureau "allows state and local officials to flag errors in counts of people living in institutional settings such as college dorms and prisons. Cities and states have only until April 21 to submit comments on the plan and can submit possible errors for review between June of this year and June 2023," Henderson reports. "The new plan has drawn 34 detailed complaints from cities, states and their advocates, many asking for a way to correct errors that should have been picked up during review processes that were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The new program will help fix institutional counts for future estimates, which the bureau issues annually between its full census each decade. Any corrections won’t, however, affect official counts used for redistricting."

The National Urban League (which sued to stop an early end to the count) is calling for a thorough review that includes more than institutions. Senior 2020 census adviser Jeri Green told Henderson that the bureau "should not place all the burden of getting the count right on elected officials, many of whom don’t have the resources or technical capabilities to challenge their count."

Canadian study links living near hydraulic-fracturing wells before and during pregnancy to poor birth outcomes

Hydraulic-fracturing wells in relation to
communities in Alberta, 2013-2018
(University of Calgary map)
A newly published study adds to growing evidence that living near hydraulic fracturing wells can harm infants and children. University of Calgary researchers studied nearly 35,000 pregnancies in rural Alberta from 2013 to 2018, and found that people who lived within 10 kilometers of 100 or more fracking sites in the year before getting pregnant were significantly more likely to give birth to infants who were premature and/or small for their gestational age.

"Past studies conducted in California and Pennsylvania have linked exposure to fracking sites and risk of spontaneous preterm birth," Lei Lei Wu reports for MedPage Today. "In addition, previous U.S. studies have suggested that living near fracking sites is associated with greater risk of mortality among the elderly, as well as heightened risk of heart failure.

Several factors could explain the link between fracking wells and adverse birth outcomes, the researchers said. "The quality of water and air may be lower near fracking sites due to contamination and the constant activity of heavy trucks, they noted, adding that around 90% of rural Albertans rely on groundwater for drinking," Wu reports. "They also noted that of the 240 chemicals in fracking fluids with toxicity information available, 103 are linked to reproductive toxicity."

News media roundup: How to reach audiences that mistrust the news; media literacy podcast; a fact-checker's toolkit

Six cues used to make snap judgements about whether to trust a news source (Trust in News Project graphic)

Here's some recent news about media literacy, misinformation, and disinformation:

It's possible to reach people who mistrust the news, but you can't just relying on good reporting and writing, according to a recent Trust In News Project study by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford. Great headlines, graphics, photos, and more are essential too. The study also categorizes six cues audiences use to make snap judgements about which sources to trust (see graphic above). Here's a write-up about the study from Poynter and here's the study itself.

A fact-checker for Snopes discusses how she tells real news from fake and shares the toolkit she and colleagues use. Read more here.

Last year, Illinois became the first state to require all high school students to be taught media literacy skills. NPR podcast "In Case You Missed It" takes a deep dive into why media literacy is an essential skill today, as well as what people need to know who didn't learn about it in school. Listen to it here.

Here's a reminder to consider your source's motives and fact-check outrageous "trends" before reporting: Facebook parent company Meta hired GOP consulting firm Targeted Victory to help turn the public against social-media rival TikTok and draw attention away from Meta's privacy and antitrust issues. The nationwide media and lobbying campaign "includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor," Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell report for The Washington Post. Internal emails obtained by the Post show that the firm wanted to portray "the fast-growing app, owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, as a danger to American children and society." Facebook has already been under fire for engineering its algorithm to push users toward false and inflammatory news.

Thursday AgriPulse webinar will explore how beefing up the electrical grid can help rural economic development

Agri-Pulse will host a free, one-hour webinar at 11 a.m. ET Thursday, April 7, to explore how investing in the national electricity grid can create more rural jobs, "in addition to improved electricity affordability, reliability and sustainability," the Washington, D.C., newsletter says.

Agri-Pulse founder and editor Sara Wyant will moderate a panel of experts, including:
  • Agriculture Department Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small
  • Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
  • Rural Utilities Service Administrator Chris McLean
  • Rob Gramlich, executive director, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (sponsor of the webinar)
  • Denise Bode, a partner with lobbyist consulting firm Michael Best Strategies LLC
Click here for more information or to register.

Pioneering study says Renewable Fuel Standard has steadied commodity markets and boosted farmers' income

"In a first-of-its kind study, researchers at Purdue University have illustrated the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard on the production of biofuels," Madelyn Ostendorf reports for Successful Farming. "The study evaluates the long- and short-term economic impacts of market forces and policies on the biofuels industry, and successfully identified the impact of each market driver."

The federal policy requires transportation fuel to have a minimum (increasing over time) amount of renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel made from corn and soybeans. RFS and market forces have caused biofuel production and consumption to increase in the U.S. since it was enacted in 2005. "Farzad Taheripour, the agricultural economist who led the study, says RFS played a critical role in reducing uncertainties in commodity markets," Ostendorf reports. "Most significantly, RFS helped farmers use their resources more efficiently."

Taheripour told Ostendorf, "With producing more corn and soybeans, over time farmers were able to bring fallow land back to production, and U.S. annual farm income increased by $8.3 billion between 2004 and 2011, with an additional annual income of $2.3 billion between 2011 and 2016."

The researchers used a complicated computation model that sorts commodities into categories by use (vegetable oils vs. grain meals, for example), and factors in variables such as production rate, consumption rate. "The model takes into account the use of commodity feed stocks for food and fuel, and the competition or trade-offs between those and other market uses," Taheripour told Ostendorf. "It also traces land use and handles intensification in crop production due to technological progress, multicropping, and conversion of unused cropland to crop production. This is the first biofuels study to be able to piece out all these factors individually and to combine that information with short-term models to capture finer and shorter-term impacts."

Monday, April 04, 2022

The Storm Lake Times becomes the Storm Lake Times Pilot with purchase of longtime competitor, thanks to big donation

The new nameplate, with the same logo and motto that were used by the Storm Lake Times 

One of rural America's most famous weekly newspapers has a new name because it has bought its local competitor, with the help of a big donation from a philanthropist who says he wants to preserve the free press. The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times has become the Storm Lake Times Pilot, with its purchase of the Pilot-Tribune, formerly owned by Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Rust sold the Pilot-Tribune and its other northwest Iowa papers (including the Le Mars Daily Sentinel, the Cherokee Chronicle Times, the Dickinson County News and the Spencer Daily Reporter) to Hallmark II Publishing of Charles City, owned by Gene Hall and his son Chris, who immediately sold the Pilot-Tribune, its shopper publication and the Cherokee weekly, in adjoining Cherokee County, to Times owners John and Art Cullen, the Times Pilot reports.

Art Cullen's 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing led to a book by him, Storm Lake, and a documentary of the same name by Beth Levison and Jerry Risius. It presented the brothers and their family as an object example of community newspapers trying to stay alive in the digital age, but in its 90 minutes did not mention one of their biggest challenges, that they had an entrenched competitor, which is an unusual situation in rural journalism today. (Dick Tofel writes about that on Substack.)

Art Cullen, left, and his brother John, right, with the 2017
Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and
tenacity in rural journalism, presented by Al Cross of
the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
The Times Pilot tells the story: "For the Cullens, it marks the end of a 32-year contest with Storm Lake’s oldest continuous business, the Pilot. John Cullen founded The Storm Lake Times in 1990 in competition with the Pilot-Tribune," after its owners wouldn't sell to him. "The launch of the weekly started a mini-newspaper war that escalated into both The Times and the Pilot-Tribune going to daily publication — Storm Lake was the smallest town in America with competing daily newspapers — and then reverting to twice weekly. The competition was fierce."

Rust bought the Pilot-Tribune in 2003. The paper's print circulation was below 1,000 last year, the Times Pilot reports: "The Times, likewise, hemorrhaged money during the pandemic, although it was able to hold its circulation near 3,000 copies." It also benefited from donations spurred by Art Cullen's national profile and the documentary, and the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, created by them and other publishers.

John Tu (via Forbes)
But the big difference was made by John Tu, a Taiwanese-American billionaire who made a "large" donation to the foundation after hearing Art on the NPR "Fresh Air" interview show, and that made the purchase possible, reports Courtney Crowder of the Des Moines Register. The purchase price and the amount of the donation were not disclosed, and the Times Pilot story didn't mention the donation, but Art Cullen did a column about it and discussed it with Crowder. He said Tu seems to have no agenda other than keeping the newspapers and their staffs going "and that the free press flourishes – at least in this part of northwest Iowa," Crowder reports. Cullen said, “The only thing he’s told me is, ‘Believe in your dream; it will come.’”

John Cullen said in the Times Pilot story, “We’re grateful to Gene and Christopher Hall, longtime friends, for the opportunity to purchase the Pilot-Tribune and Ad Guide. This concentration of resources will allow us to put out an even stronger newspaper that helps build The City Beautiful. It’s been a long time coming.” The Cullens will move their printing to the Halls' plant. Gene Hall said, “We’re happy that we could help the Cullens realize their ambition to consolidate the local newspapers into one product that better serves Buena Vista County and is locally owned. We look forward to working together in Northwest Iowa to strengthen communities through better journalism.” The county has one other paper, the Buena Vista County Journal, in the small town of Newell in the southeast corner of the county.

Writers and loved ones share stories about bell hooks, 'little country girl from the hills,' at hometown memorial service

UPDATE, April 13: Berea College is hosting a livestream of its memorial service for bell hooks from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday, April 14. Guest speakers include Gloria Steinem, Imani Perry and others.

Wendell Berry speaks at a memorial service for
Gloria Jean Watkins, who wrote under the name
bell hooks. (Hoptown Chronicle photos by Tony Kirves)
"People came from across town, from other parts of Kentucky and from as far away as New York to pay their respects Saturday to the feminist author and activist bell hooks, who was born Gloria Jean Watkins to a working-class Hopkinsville family on Sept. 25, 1952," Jennifer P. Brown reports for the Hoptown Chronicle. "They sat shoulder to shoulder in the Alhambra Theatre, a crowd of about 400 — childhood friends, literary luminaries, relatives, historians, high school classmates, civil rights activists, hometown admirers, clergy and scholars. Each one was a testament to the profound impact of hooks, the author of more than 30 books, who died Dec. 15 of renal failure at her home in Berea. She was 69."

A host of Kentucky writers paid tribute. Crystal Wilkinson, a state poet laureate and like hooks a Black woman, said hooks "had this way of turning the concepts and ideology of feminism into brilliant common sense," Brown reports. When Wilkinson first met her at a writing conference in 1993, she and the others "were listening to bell that day the way that my family used to listen to country preachers back down home."

Hopkinsville Mayor Wendell Lynch presided
at the memorial for his childhood friend.
Wendell Berry, the state's most famous author, said he felt a connection to hooks since they were both raised in rural Kentucky. "As a member of the disappearing class of agrarians," Brown writes, "Berry said he reads bell hooks with a sense of not only being spoken to, but also of being spoken for."

Novelist Silas House, who was also hooks' friend, told of when "he went to a country cafĂ© with hooks. He had to wait while she went to every table and spoke to each diner. She shook hands. She patted their shoulders. She talked to them about cars and how much she liked to shop at Goodwill stores," Brown reports. When House and hooks sat down, he remarked that she must know everyone there. "She said, 'I don’t know a single one of them," said House. "'I wanted every one of them to have to speak to a Black woman today.'"

Home counties: bell hooks' Christian; Crystal Wilkinson's Casey;
Silas House's Laurel; and Wendell Berry's Henry. (Wikipedia, adapted)
House noted that hooks often called herself "a little country girl from the hills" and said she was proud of that, even though it sometimes caused her pain. "She talked about both the joy and the pain," said House. "She was troubled by Kentucky, but she also loved it fiercely. Most of all I keep thinking of that little girl — about the burst of all of that intelligence and fierceness and bravery, as she played in the hills of Christian County, Kentucky, or sat against the tree and read, or wrote in her notebooks. I keep seeing that little girl and think about the way she changed the world."

Vilsack rejects calls to open conservation land for crops to help avert global food shortage, says it would help little

The United States and allies have pledged to plant more crops this spring to avert a global food shortage from the war in Ukraine. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "poured cold water on Republican and industry calls to pull land out of the Conservation Reserve Program and put it back into production," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, wrote in a March 31 letter to the National Grain and Feed Association: "Quickly converting this land to crop production is clearly unfeasible, even if we were to overlook the negative consequences of increased erosion and reduced water quality, wildlife habitat reduction, and decreased carbon sequestration and storage."

Conservation Reserve, once called "the soil bank," pays farmers a yearly rate to allow land subject to erosion and other damage to go fallow for at least a decade to improve its health. "They can receive higher payments by adopting certain climate-friendly practices that improve water quality, increase carbon sequestration or protect wildlife habitats," Bustillo reports.

Vilsack said only 1.3 percent of land in the program is prime farmland ready for planting, much is experiencing "significant levels of drought," and most is grassland far better suited to grazing than crops. Not only would it be impossible to get all of it ready to plant this year, he said, but most of it would produce poorly, and growing crops would create a "significant and detrimental impact on producers’ efforts to mitigate climate change and maintain the long-term health of their land."

U.N. report: The world is running out of ways to reach its climate goals and avert catastrophic environmental changes

"The world is on track to blaze past a crucial climate target within eight years, some of the planet’s top researchers, economists and social scientists said in a sober assessment Monday," Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. "Whether humanity can change course after decades of inaction is largely a question of collective resolve, according to the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Governments, businesses and individuals must summon the willpower to transform economies, embrace new habits and leave behind the age of fossil fuels — or face the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change."

"Governments agreed in the 2015 Paris accord to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) this century, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit)," The Associated Press reports. "Yet temperatures have already increased by over 1.1 C (2 F) since pre-industrial times, resulting in measurable increases in disasters such flash floods, prolonged droughts, more intense hurricanes and longer-burning wildfires, putting human lives in danger and costing governments hundreds of billions of dollars to confront."

Unless wealthy nations (which produce most pollution) take the threat seriously and cut greenhouse gas emissions, the report's authors said they have "high confidence" that the world's average temperature will be increase another 2 to 4 degrees by the end of the century, "a level experts say is sure to cause severe impacts for much of the world's population," Jordans and Borenstein report. Though it's still possible for nations to curb their pollution in time to meet the goal (and could be economically viable), the authors say it's only possible through immediate, widespread action. 

"Monday’s report represents the IPCC’s first analysis of humanity’s remaining paths for climate action since the landmark Paris Agreement, in which world leaders committed to prevent dangerous warming," Kaplan and Dennis report. "The several thousand page document details how coordinated efforts to scale up renewable energy sources, overhaul transportation systems, restructure cities, improve agriculture and pull carbon from the air could put the planet on a more sustainable path while improving living standards around the globe."

Ever more partisan, vicious school-board races in Wisconsin (on ballot tomorrow) may presage nasty races nationwide

"Voters in Wisconsin and three other states head to the polls Tuesday in what are some of the nation’s earliest school board elections this year. In a harbinger of what voters across the country will see in coming months, many of the traditionally nonpartisan school board races have become increasingly polarized. Outsiders who have traditionally stayed out of local races are now trying to influence school board contests across the country, using tactics more typical of elections with higher stakes," Megan O'Matz reports for ProPublica. "Republicans, and particularly the wing of the party that still supports former President Donald Trump, have come to see local races as a way to energize their base and propel voters to the polls — part of what some leaders have called a 'precinct strategy.' Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican, last year encouraged residents to 'take back our school boards, our county boards, our city councils'."

School-board races in Wisconsin have been a bit partisan in the past, but have mostly centered on local taxation and education issues, O'Matz reports: "Today, school board elections are more heated and personal — framed in terms of saving schools, saving children and saving America. Also mentioned: Covid-19 protocols, critical race theory, equity, 'divisive curriculum,' library book bans and parental rights. Parents, who during the pandemic saw their children struggle with remote learning and other issues, are demanding more control over school management and curriculum decisions. The backlash against mask-wearing by students has played neatly into conservative themes of parental freedom."

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon warned on his podcast last May that concerned parents would revolt against the "cultural Marxism" being introduced in schools, O'Matz notes. "The path to save the nation is very simple," Bannon said. "It’s going to go through the school boards."

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, "School board members and other school officials have quit without finishing their terms, saying that the anger directed their way has made serving untenable. Others have declined to run for reelection," O'Matz reports. "Some political observers and academics worry that the politicization of local offices will make it harder to deliver essential school services."