Friday, May 06, 2022

Silas House on J.D. Vance: 'He's dangerous. So is his book.'

Former president Donald Trump hosted a rally for J.D. Vance in Ohio on April 23. (Getty Images photo by Drew Angerer)
Tuesday's plurality nomination of Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance for senator from Ohio has prompted a fresh round of media scrutiny for the Rust Belt memoirist and never-Trumper turned Trumper, a move (along with millions from his prime sponsor, billionaire Peter Thiel) that won him victory in his first political race.

After Silas House, the Appalachian Studies chair at Berea College in Kentucky, tweeted on election night, “He’s dangerous. So is his book,” he got a call from Michael Kruse of Politico, who interviewed him and got one of the more salient yet nuanced analyses of Vance yet published.

Silas House
(Photo by C. Williams)
House is "one of the premier thinkers in and about the South and a bestselling writer in his own right," Kruse writes. "From the start [he saw the book] as not a memoir but a treatise that traffics in ugly stereotypes and tropes, less a way to explain the political rise of Trump than the actual start of the political rise of Vance."

House told Kruse, “It’s my job to read any piece of literature or view any media coming out of the region. It’s my job to analyze it and think about what are the intentions of this piece? What is the historical and cultural context of this piece of media? Are some of these stereotypes just coming out of ignorance, or are they intentional?"

He said Hillbilly Elegy is dangerous “because there’s such a lack of complexity in the book in a time when the national conversation lacks more and more nuance. There’s no nuance in the book. There’s a lot that’s false and intentionally misleading, and I always think that’s really dangerous when there’s intentional misinformation being shared. And I think he’s dangerous because he embodies all of that. And it seems to me that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise. And I can think of nothing more dangerous in a politician than that.”

That's how the interview ended, but here's more from House: “If it had just been a memoir, it would be a powerful piece of writing and it would be his own proof. But the problem is it is woven through with dog whistles about class and race, gender. And if your ears are attuned to those dog whistles, you know exactly what he’s saying. . . . The whole reason so many people responded to that book to help them understand the rise of Trump is because in a way it gave them exactly what they were looking for: easy answers instead of really complicated historical answers. And that’s why I think it’s so disingenuous and dangerous because it’s not true. . . . He, ever since Hillbilly Elegy, has always embodied Trumper ideas, even before there was such a thing. . . . 

“I think it’s so telling that this book was pushed as an Appalachian narrative when this man is two generations removed from Appalachia. This is a Rust Belt story, but Appalachian stories, Appalachian literature, is its own genre. In early cinema, one of the most popular movie genres was 'hillbilly movies.' We still have a genre of horror that’s very popular called 'hillbilly horror.' So there’s a market there, in a different way, for the idea of the hillbilly, more than there is for the idea of the Rust Belt. So that alone is manipulative in that it’s sold as an Appalachian story or a hillbilly story, and if you read the book, you realize that hardly any of it is set in Appalachia.”

More dams are in danger of collapse, but the Army Corps won't disclose the condition of some 'high-profile' dams

More than 2,200 of the nation's 92,000 dams are in poor condition and likely to cause deaths if they fail. Alabama doesn't have a dam safety program and Illinois doesn't assign condition ratings to its dams. (Associated Press map)

"An Associated Press analysis tallied more than 2,200 high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition across the U.S. — up substantially from a similar AP review conducted three years ago. The actual number is likely even higher, although it’s unclear because some states don’t track such data and many federal agencies refuse to release details about their dams’ conditions," David Lieb, Michael Casey and Michelle Minkoff report for The Associated Press. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the National Inventory of Dams, a federal database that discloses the condition and hazard rating of most dams nationwide, but it doesn't list data for many prominent dams such as Hoover Dam or California's Oroville Dam. More than 180,000 residents near Oroville had to evacuate in 2017 after its spillway failed. The dam was found to be poorly designed, built and maintained.

"The nation’s dams are on average over a half-century old and often present more of a hazard than envisioned when designed because homes, businesses or highways have cropped up below them. Meanwhile, a warming atmosphere can bring stronger storms with heavier rainfall that could overwhelm aging dams," AP reports. "Decades of deferred maintenance has worsened the problem. But a changing climate and extreme floods — such as the one that caused the failure of two Michigan dams and the evacuation of 10,000 people in 2020 — have brought a renewed focus to an often overlooked aspect of America’s critical infrastructure."

Last year's $1 trillion infrastructure bill allotted about $3 billion into dam-related projects, including repairs and state dam safety programs. "Yet it’s still just a fraction of the nearly $76 billion needed to fix the almost 89,000 dams owned by individuals, companies, community associations, state and local governments, and other entities besides the federal government, according to a report by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials."

Some states are trying to deal with dam problems, but it can be difficult. "Addressing the problems posed by old, unsafe dams can be challenging. Repairs can be costly and take years to complete," AP reports. "Attempts to remove dams — and empty the lakes they hold back — can spawn legal battles and a public outcry from those who rely on them for recreation or to sustain nearby property values."

Roundup: Post and Courier wins Headliner Award for 'Undercover' series; AP gets a director from small papers

Newsprint rolls at a Kentucky newspaper (KPA photo)
Here's a roundup of recent happenings in journalism and the news business:

The Charleston Post and Courier has received a National Headliner Award for "Undercover," its collaborative series with 18 non-metropolitan papers aimed at exposing government corruption and misconduct throughout South Carolina. Read more here.

The Associated Press has a new director on its board, Mark Adams, to represent the interests of small-market newspapers. He is president and CEO of Adams Publishing Group, which he launched in 2013. The company says it employs 2,000 print and digital professionals in 13 states.

There's still a newsprint shortage, Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson reports in his weekly newsletter: "Requiring longer contracts, requiring orders placed a year in advance and refusal to add any new customers for the rest of 2022 seem to be the threads in each report from around the state."

A nationwide survey of 1,000 adults found that 79% believe that big tech companies such as Google and Facebook have too much power over news publishers and want Congress to pass the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow news publishers to bargain collectively to get better compensation when tech companies use their content. Results were similar across the political spectrum. Read more here.

Mich. town is an example of neglected rural water systems, and why more don't seek government loans for upgrades

Many rural areas have substandard, long-neglected drinking-water systems. A small farming community in Michigan shows how that can happen and what it looks like at the local level. In Akron, which once had more than 500 people and fell to 366 by the 2020 census, "Shrinking populations, growing poverty, and diminished state and federal assistance have fueled a crisis of underfunded drinking water infrastructure," Lester Graham reports for NPR affiliate Michigan Radio. "Those problems often are compounded by a lack of qualified staff to keep up with water system operations and little to no expertise in applying for grants and loans that could help bolster utility budgets."

Best Places map
The specific problems in Akron are that families use much more water than they did seventy years ago, when the water system was built, and locals also can't afford to maintain a too-big distribution system or replace a water tower at the end of its lifespan, Graham reports. Another problem is that Akron must now spend more money to executive state-required testing for lead, PFAs, and other toxic substances. 

Though there are state and federal loan programs meant to help communities afford water system upgrades, many communities don't apply for them. "They might not be able to afford the debt. Also, it takes a lot of money to hire contractors to determine a system’s assets," Graham reports. "That’s needed in order to apply for the loans. A lot of these small towns don’t have the expertise needed to fill out an application on their own. It’s a big expense and there’s no guarantee the town will get a loan or grant."

Nonprofit helps schools in poor areas get grants to help older students mentor younger ones toward higher ed

"Schools are often the heart of a community, and in rural Appalachia, community schools are a center of gravity where local and regional partnerships merge to improve outcomes and strengthen local communities," Jennifer Kotting reports for the Brookings Institution. "Community schools in three counties in Kentucky have opened the doors for high-school students to mentor younger students on their way to postsecondary education, for retired teachers to support schools and their own financial well-being, and for family members to engage in enriched learning opportunities."

Kotting said Kentucky was a fertile field for the idea because the state funds Family Resource and Youth Services Centers to help disadvantaged students, "and they grew stronger when U.S. Department of Education funding was expanded. The organization Partners for Rural Impact has increased funding for community schools by bringing together partners and districts to apply for funding, as well as combine programs that improve academic outcomes and build on the strengths of local communities for long-term results." 

The group and its partners, including Berea College, have won $7.5 million in federal community-school grants to Knox County in 2014, Berea in 2018, and Leslie County in 2020. "There are 50 schools under the designation of community schools across southeastern Kentucky," Kotting reports. "Partners for Rural Impact also works with partners like Save the Children, Strive Together, Advance Kentucky, Operation UNITE and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to successfully weave together programs with these community schools efforts."

Partners for Rural Impact is run by the aptly named Dreama Gentry, whom Kotting quotes at length, starting with: “Rural districts don’t always have the staff capacity to adequately identify and apply for federal grants. Partners for Rural Impact serves as a trusted backbone so that multiple school districts will partner with us to design the program and develop the funding applications. Then, the money comes in through us and flows to the school districts. We have flexible models for employee contracts depending on the individual school districts. The result is the same—a local person becomes site coordinator, and that local person belongs to our team. We train them and provide oversight and supervision.” There's lots more here.

Quick hits: USFS needs firefighters; 'forever chemicals' may damage your liver; podcast talks rural Black health

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

A new podcast, "Black in Red," discusses Black health in rural America. Read more here.

Hazardous "forever chemicals" found in a wide range of everyday products could damage your liver, a new study has found. Read more here.

"The rise of fracking in Appalachia has fed visions of turning the Ohio River valley into a petrochemical and plastics hub. But overproduction of plastic, opposition to natural gas pipelines, and public concern about rampant plastic waste are upending those plans," Beth Gardiner reports for Yale Environment 360. Read more here.

The U.S. Forest Service is scrambling to hire enough firefighters before this summer's wildfire season. Read more here.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Abortion is not an issue widely discussed in rural America, but it is widely felt, and has now come to the fore

New York Times maps, source credit adapted by The Rural Blog

Because of its highly controversial nature, abortion isn't well-covered by many local news media, but now it has once again become central to our nation's political discourse, and people everywhere—including in rural America—have thoughts and feelings about it. And for some, the draft opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court has real-life impacts.

"Trigger laws" that would make abortion in 13 states illegal if Roe v. Wade is overturned would disproportionately affect rural women, who are more likely than their urban peers to be impoverished, less likely to have the time or money to drive long distances across state lines to obtain an abortion, and more likely to face stigma over the decision to end a pregnancy.

Abortion isn't often publicly discussed in rural areas, but it is widely felt, as indicated by a recent note to Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog, by Bertie Salyer, retired health director in Magoffin County, in Appalachian Kentucky:

Bertie Salyer
“As a former social worker, social work supervisor, college professor, and health department director, I feel very distraught. Old white Republican men telling all females of childbearing age that they better not have sex unless they can see themselves nine months away successfully having and supporting a family of at least two. Punish the woman, don’t allow her to have sex education in school, don’t give her birth control, don’t give her health care, don’t give her support or any services while pregnant and after birth; just tell her to only have sex for procreation because SHE alone is responsible. Her body must bear the consequences, the lifetime consequences of that weak moment, that rape, that incestuous attack, that failure to think ahead in what could have been a moment of passion. She suffers the societal impact, the disruption of her life through what could have been a lapse in judgement, a mistake, crime victimization. HE can sexually enjoy the moment and move on without a thought. What is fair, equal, and just about that? And don’t allow me the space to discuss the possible outcomes for the child, and the additional social problems for our society.”

Many who oppose abortion rights are just as passionate, saying that all life is sacred and that it begins at conception. Though the topic has been a political football for decades, public sentiment hasn't changed much in the nearly 50 years since the Roe v. Wade ruling. "According to Gallup, 21 percent of Americans thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances in 1975, compared with 19 percent in 2021," Michael Scherer reports for The Washington Post. "Twenty-two percent thought abortion should be legal under any circumstance in 1975, compared with 32 percent in 2021. Fifty-four percent in 1975 and 48 percent in 2021 said abortion should be legal under certain circumstances."

But in the 13 states with trigger laws, sentiment is decidedly different: "43 percent of adults on average say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 52 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases," Nate Cohn reports for The New York Times.

For those covering abortion, The Associated Press has recently updated its Stylebook:

pregnant people
Phrasing like "pregnant people" or "people who seek an abortion" seeks to include people who have those experiences but do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people. Such phrasing should be confined to stories that specifically address the experiences of people who do not identify as women. See gender, sex and sexual orientation.

And our long-standing entry on abortion:
Use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don't use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions. Instead of pregnant women, use "pregnant people" or "people who seek an abortion" in stories that specifically address the experiences of people who can get pregnant but are not women. Such phrasing seeks to include people who have those experiences but do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people.

Rural Pa. school staffers increasingly bore the brunt of pandemic frustration: 'We went from being heroes to villains'

A school in rural Pennsylvania during the pandemic (Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke, via The Conversation)

Penn State
professors wanted to see how schools in Pennsylvania's 235 rural districts fared in the pandemic, so they surveyed and interviewed rural superintendents, principals, teachers and parents. Their findings, which are likely echoed in most other rural communities: Rural schools already faced disparities in technology, broadband access, and teacher staffing before the pandemic, but it made things much worse, Gerald K. LeTendre and Peggy Schooling report for The Conversation, a site for journalism by academics.

"Over the more than two years of dealing with the pandemic, schools increasingly bore the brunt of the frustration local residents had with state or federal guidelines," LeTendre and Schooling report. One school leader even told them, "We went from being heroes to villains." LeTendre is an educational administration professor and Schooling is a professor of practice in educational leadership and the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Study Council.

Through focus groups, the researchers identified four phases in parent sentiment during the pandemic. In Phase 1 there was widespread concern about teacher and student wellbeing, and was marked by "rapid adaptation and improvisation," LeTendre and Schooling report. Phase 2 was about getting back to school and navigating the new rules of sharing classroom space. Common public sentiment in Phase 3, one participant said, held that "Teachers are no good and just do not want to work." And Phase 4, another participant said, devolved into people saying "You can’t make my kid wear a mask! I am the parent! Teachers are the devil!"

Many in rural communities were eager to return to normal by this spring, but there remains a deep divide between those who believe schools should return completely to pre-pandemic practices and those who want to continue to incorporate more technology into normal learning routines so as to be ready for future surges, LeTendre and Schooling report.

Rural residents benefit most from enhanced ACA subsidies, and have highest risk of losing coverage without them

"Rural residents were the most likely to benefit from enhanced subsidies for Affordable Care Act coverage and face the greatest danger of losing coverage if those benefits expire after this year, a new study finds," Robert King reports for Fierce Healthcare. "The study, released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Tuesday, comes as healthcare groups are making a major effort to get Congress to renew the boosted subsidies. ACA enrollment grew to a record-setting 14.5 million people this year, thanks in part to the higher subsidies."

This year's federal poverty threshold for a single person is $13,590, but people whose earnings put them over 400% of the poverty line ($54,360 for an individual) may still have a hard time affording decent health care. Through the ACA, such people have qualified, for the first time, for enhanced subsidies on their insurance premiums. If the tax credits that fund those subsidies are allowed to expire, "Rural residents will have few if any policies to choose from that are both affordable and comprehensive," said Kathy Hempstead, a RWJF senior policy adviser.

Rural residents generally pay higher premiums than their suburban and urban peers for a number of reasons, according to Urban Institute researchers working in collaboration with RWJF. They compared average premiums for benchmark plans on ACA exchanges and found that they were higher in rural areas than in urban areas in 34 states, averaging about 10% more, and "18 of them had average rural premiums more than 10% higher than the average urban premium. In addition, 12 of those states had rural premiums more than 20% of their urban counterparts," King reports. Illinois had the largest disparity, with rural residents paying an average of $217 more for their monthly premiums than their urban counterparts.

Health-care provider and insurance groups wrote an open letter to Congress this week urging them to make the enhanced subsidies permanent, King reports. "Our country continues to work through the economic and public health implications of Covid over the past two years, including rising inflation which is forcing families to pay more at the grocery store and gas pump," said the letter. "We cannot add to these burdens by putting the healthcare of 14.5 million current marketplace enrollees, and millions of future enrollees at risk."

New rural coronavirus infections up 50% in past two weeks

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, April 25-May 1
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The rate of new coronavirus infections in nonmetropolitan counties rose more than half over the past two weeks, "but the overall number of new infections remains nearly as low as it was last summer before the start of the Delta surge," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Nonmetro counties reported almost 29,000 new infections from April 25 to May 1, up about 20% from the week before. Metro counties reported over 335,000 new infections, up 18%.

Meanwhile, "Last week’s death rate grew modestly in both rural and urban counties," Marema reports. "Covid-related deaths increased slightly last week in rural counties, climbing to 699 from 670 two weeks ago. The death rate in metropolitan counties decreased slightly last week ... The Covid death rate has been higher in rural counties than metropolitan ones for 86 out of the last 91 weeks. The cumulative rural death rate is about 36% higher than the metropolitan death rate."

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

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Source says Lee Enterprises could cut up to 10% of payroll this year; Lee confirms that more cuts are coming

UPDATE, May 6: Lee reported a $6.7 million loss in the second quarter while making progress on the digital front: a 9.3% gain in digital subscribers, ahead of its previously announced schedule to double them to 900,000 by 2026. It said growth in digital revenue more than made up for losses from print.

Lee Enterprises has laid off dozens of employees over the past two weeks, and is expected to lay off more than 400 employees this year, as much as 10 percent of its workforce, says an anonymous source familiar with the matter, report Sara Fischer and Kerry Flynn of Axios. The company, which recently staved off a hostile takeover bid from hedge fund Alden Global Capital, "is one of the last remaining independent local newspaper companies," they note. "With these drastic and ongoing cuts, journalists are left to wonder whether a hedge fund takeover could have been better than staying independent," 

Lee has already laid off at least 70 staffers—many of them in editorial—and implemented other cost-cutting measures such as furloughs during the pandemic. The predicted layoffs could come from at least 19 of Lee's 77 dailies and from its corporate offices, Fischer and Flynn report.

A company spokesperson didn't deny the cuts, and told Axios that they were necessary as the company continues its "print-centric" to "digital-first" transition. "These reductions are specifically tied to our legacy print business and in areas where we can become more efficient through business transformation," the spokesperson said, adding that the company isn't planning at this time to lay off any reporters or photographers.

However, many of the employees who were already laid off have been editors and editorial staffers. "Many of the roles that have been cut across those unionized newsrooms have been non-union employees. Many are middle managers," Fischer and Flynn report. "Sources describe scenarios where they are laid off, only to have their same role re-posted online for less money."

Poll worker writes about how redistricting affected her rural neighbors; local news media can help shed light on it

"Through most of the drama surrounding Wisconsin's contentious legislative redistricting process, attention has been focused on urban areas downstate. But redistricting also impacts other units of government – possibly even in your rural community," Donna Kallner writes for The Daily Yonder

Kallner, an election official in her community's sole polling site, said many didn't know they had been redistricted until they went to vote in the primaries. She breaks down how redistricting happens every 10 years at the national, state and local levels, and how rushed deadlines and other problems with the 2020 census may have made those counts less accurate (and thereby affected redistricting). 

The local newspaper mentioned that locals might see some changes in their voting district, but it didn't explain the process more fully, Kallner writes, and the minutes of the county board meeting where the new maps were adopted didn't shed much light on the reasoning, and that upset some people. 

Rural journalists elsewhere may consider reporting more on local redistricting, and seek to answer readers' questions about the process. 

Thursday NNA webinar will help community journalists cover elections; $20 for non-members, $5 for faculty, students

The National Newspaper Association will host a webinar at 4 p.m. ET Thursday, May 5, to help community newspapers cover this year's elections and discuss the critical role election coverage plays in preserving democracy. From the website: "Newspapers should view election coverage as the most fundamental element of their service to democracy in action. Solid coverage and commentary help voters elect better people to make decisions on their behalf. This webinar will address some of the overall issues that newsrooms face as they lay a foundation for substantive coverage of elections."

Jim Pumarlo
Lead presenter Jim Pumarlo is a newsroom trainer who worked for 27 years at dailies in rural Minnesota and served 16 years as the communications director at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He is author of three books: "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper"; "Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Campaign Coverage"; and "Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning Journalists."

Co-presenter Al Cross, who was editor and manager of rural newspapers and longtime political reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal, is the University of Kentucky's extension journalism professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "Election coverage is perhaps the best opportunity for newspapers to reassert their essential role in local democracy," he says, adding that new sample-copying power allows community papers to inform a wider audience.

The webinar is free for NNA members, $20 for non-member journalists, and $5 for students and professors. Click here for more information or to register.

EPA proposes scaling back most use of weedkiller diuron, citing risks to people and wildlife

The Environmental Protection Agency "has proposed to end the use of the weedkiller diuron on most food crops, citing cancer risks to people who are exposed as well as danger to bees and other wildlife," Marc Heller reports for Energy & Environment News. "The agency’s proposed interim decision is part of a regular registration review of pesticides and comes over objections from the Department of Agriculture and farm groups, as well as the chemical’s manufacturer. The proposal’s related documents are available in a public docket. EPA said it’s not endorsing a total ban on diuron, which has been used on farms, in orchards and in non-agricultural settings since the late 1960s. But human health and ecological risk assessments support the proposal to scale back its use, the agency said, adding that farmers have other choices for chemical weedkillers."

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

It's World Press Freedom Day; in U.S., public-notice ads have become much more important to newspapers' survival

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a global observance that is especially pertinent this year because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its denial of a free press to Russians, as well as the increasingly bad treatment of journalists and news media by authoritarian governments.

Public Notice Resource Center graphic
At every level of American government, journalists and their paymasters are fighting for open government and the sustainability of their operations. Open government in this country is a three-legged stool: open records, open meetings and public-notice laws that make government tell you what it's doing (spending your money) or might do (granting a permit).

That third leg is often forgotten in national debates about government transparency, but it's more important than ever because public-notice advertising has become a much more important part of the revenue of local newspapers, which are the main fact-finders in the U.S.  In nearly every state, local governments are asking state legislators to cut back on such advertising, and the Florida Legislature just passed a sweeping bill that could spell trouble for newspapers.

So, as we observe World Press Freedom Day, let's remember that someone has to pay for journalism. Increasingly, that is the audience rather than advertisers, since the digital era has destroyed old business models. But if the audience pays too much, it will become too narrow, so newspapers need public-notice advertising. And not just for the money, but for the information, which is harder to get because they have fewer reporters to dig it out. For more information, go to the Public Notice Resource Center.

And, if you want to help the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog and helps rural journalists in other ways, you can donate by clicking here.

1/2 of methane emissions in U.S. come from low-producing oil and gas wells, which EPA may not regularly monitor

"Low-producing oil and gas wells are to blame for roughly half of the methane emitted from all U.S. well sites, despite making up 6 percent of the country’s total production, according to new research published this week," Carlos Anchondo reports for Energy & Environment News. "The study, published in Nature Communications, is the first comprehensive look at low-production well-site emissions nationwide, researchers said. The paper found that low-producing or 'marginal' wells emit methane at a rate 6 to 12 times higher than the national average — releasing some 4 million metric tons of the potent greenhouse gas a year."

But the draft methane rules released by the Environmental Protection Agency in November say smaller wells don't have to be regularly monitored. That's a mistake, according to lead author Mark Omara, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. There are about half a million low-producing wells in the U.S., he said, and they have the same environmental impact as 88 coal-fired power plants. "Omara said methane emissions from low-producing well sites can come from sources that are common throughout oil and gas operations, including both intentional vented emissions as well as unintentional emissions like those from equipment malfunctions," Anchando reports. "Marginal wells produce less than 15 barrels of oil equivalent per day, according to the study."

Petroleum lobbyists and sympathetic regulators have protested that regulating marginal wells will be overburdensome to operators, but EDF says its research found that about 75 percent of marginal wells are owned by large companies with ample resources, Anchando reports.

Brunswick News reporter wins University of Ga. community journalism award for reporting on Ahmaud Arbery's death

Larry Hobbs accepts the Pete McCommons Award
at Grady College. (Photo by Sarah E. Freeman)
After three white men chased down and killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, local authorities in Glynn County, Georgia, failed to take meaningful action for months. But dogged attention from reporter Larry Hobbs of The Brunswick News kept the issue front and center in the community, and later, the nation. For that, he has won the 2020 Rollin M. "Pete" McCommons Award for Distinguished Community Journalism. The award, sponsored by Grady College, is given each year to a community journalist who displays outstanding leadership, innovation and entrepreneurism on the job.

"I am thrilled that Larry Hobbs is this year’s recipient of the local journalism award endowed in my name by Grady Thrasher and Kathy Prescott," Pete McCommons, the publisher and editor of Flagpole Magazine in Athens, said in a news release. "Larry is a great example of the local reporter who doggedly follows a difficult story in spite of all the other assignments that compete for his time and attention."

At the recent acceptance ceremony, Grady College Journalism Department Head Janice Hume noted the critical role Hobbs played in the case. "It was Mr. Hobbs’ attention to detail and dogged reporting that brought the story of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder first to local and then national attention," said Hume. "Without the work of a local journalist who understood and cared about his community, there would have been no justice for Mr. Arbery’s family. Local journalism matters, and Mr. Hobbs’ work is a fine example of why. We are grateful for his service to the Brunswick community and beyond."

Though Grady College is in Georgia, the McCommons Award is open to journalists nationwide, and the committee is seeking nominations for the 2021 award until Sept. 30. Click here for more information.

Biden administration to scrap blocked 'conscience rule' that allows health care workers to refuse services

"The Biden administration is preparing to scrap a Trump-era rule that allows medical workers to refuse to provide services that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs," according to three people familiar with the matter, Alice Miranda Ollstein and Adam Cancryn report for Politico. "A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that the policy change is underway."

The move comes as many Republican-led states are seeking to limit access to abortion and gender-affirming medical care, and just after a leaked draft majority opinion would have the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

"The so-called conscience rule, unveiled in 2018 and finalized in 2019, was blocked by federal courts after dozens of states, cities and advocacy groups sued, and has never been implemented," Politico reports. "Had it gone forward, it would have allowed doctors, nurses, medical students, pharmacists and other health workers to refuse to provide abortions, contraception, gender-affirming care, HIV and STD services, vasectomies or any procedure to which they object."

The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the proposed regulation, often the final step before one is unveiled to the public, Politico reports.

Colorado man tests positive for avian influenza, but CDC says the virus is still a low threat to humans

"Bird flu ranks as a low threat to public health, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after a Colorado correctional inmate tested positive for avian influenza after culling an infected flock. It was the first U.S. case and the second worldwide of human infection by the H5N1 viruses now circulating among birds globally," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Energy Reporting Network.

But, the agency says humans are still at very little risk of contracting the virus, and that the case is the only one they've seen after tracking the health of more than 2,500 people who had been exposed to infected birds. The patient, who is younger than 40, is tired but mostly asymptomatic, and repeated flu tests have come back negative, Abbott reports. The Colorado Department of Public Health theorized that, because the man was in close contact with infected birds, the virus may have been present in his nose without truly infecting him.

The only other recent bird flu case happened in England in December, and officials say the patient had "very close, regular contact with a large number of infected birds, which they kept in and around their home over a prolonged period of time," reported the BBC. Here's the CDC's guidance on how to minimize the risk of contracting avian influenza.

More than 36 million domestic birds, mostly chicken and poultry, have died from the bird flu or from cullings of infected flocks over the past three months. The Agriculture Department transferred $263 million to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last week, in addition to $130 million in mid-March. "APHIS works with state and local officials to identify outbreaks and carry out response plans that include quarantines, cullings of birds, disposing of dead birds, and sanitizing infected premises," Abbott reports.

Monday, May 02, 2022

More than 1,300 small urban areas will be classified rural under new Census criteria; could affect federal funding

More than 1,300 urban areas will be reclassified as rural under the Census Bureau's new criteria; some worry rural areas could get less federal funding. "A revised list of urban areas won’t be released until later this year, but a third of the areas deemed urban a decade ago would be knocked into the rural category under the new criteria," reports Mike Schneider of The Associated Press.

The biggest change is that the bureau will count housing units instead of people to define urbanity and rurality. Under the old definition, a place with at 2,500 or more residents was considered urban, but many people considered that number, in use for more than a century, too low. Now, urban areas will be those with at least 2,000 housing units, which translates to a population of about 5,000.

"Some communities worry that the switch to housing units will cause some areas to be underestimated if the Census Bureau uses the U.S. average of 2.6 people per household for its calculations," Schneider reports. "A coalition of associations representing cities, counties, planners and transportation groups had objected to many of the proposed changes last year, saying the switch from people to housing units would miss variations in development and land-use patterns.

"The Census Bureau tried to address those concerns by creating three levels of urban-area definitions for census blocks, which are the nation’s smallest geographic unit and show rural areas inside counties that are part of metropolitan areas largely because of commuting patterns. Census blocks will be urban if they have 425 housing units per square mile, the equivalent of 1,105 people. Before the change, census blocks with at least 500 people per square mile were considered urban. The redesignation gives the bureau a way to distinguish between the 'urban nucleus' and less densely populated areas, typically on the fringes of urban areas."

Some stakeholders worry that rural areas could lose federal funding for health care, education, infrastructure and more. Though the bureau warns that the new criteria should be used for statistical purposes only, other federal agencies routinely use its classification system to determine who qualifies for funding, Schneider reports. So more rural areas means blanket funding would have to stretch further, and competition could increase for grants.

Scientists say modern farming methods and climate change have made modern produce and grains less nutritious

The advent of modern farming methods has caused fruits, vegetables and grains become less nutritious over the past 70 years, Stacey Colino reports for National Geographic. Multiple scientific studies show that many current crops have "less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than those that were grown decades ago," Colino writes.

Climate change and rising carbon-dioxide levels are partly to blame, but the biggest problem is "modern agricultural processes that increase crop yields but disturb soil health," Colino reports. "These include irrigation, fertilization, and harvesting methods that also disrupt essential interactions between plants and soil fungi, which reduces absorption of nutrients from the soil."

Nutritional decline could make it harder for people to get the nutrients they need to fight off chronic illnesses, said David R. Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and co-author with Anne BiklĂ© of What Your Food Ate. It's increasingly important to grow nutritionally dense foods, he told Colino: "We can’t afford to lose arable land as population grows. We need to prevent further damage and work to restore fertility to already degraded lands."

Montgomery and other experts still encourage people to eat more fresh produce and less-processed foods, but told Colino they hope this knowledge will inspire more people to care about how their food is grown.

Today is the deadline to apply for a project that will help journalists test-drive strategies to increase reader trust

Today is the deadline to apply for Trusting News' new Pluralism Network, a project in which journalists will learn and test new strategies to increase reader trust in the news media. Click here for more information and click here to apply.

Trusting News, a collaboration of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, will explore five questions through the new Pluralism Network. Stipends for three of the projects are funded by George Mason University's Mercatus Center and cross-disciplinary, cross-idealogical collaborative the New Pluralists. From the project's website:
  • What strategies or tools could help editors assess whether individual stories are contributing to complexity and curiosity rather than overgeneralizations and polarization? Read more about our anti-polarization checklist, which comes with a $2,000 stipend for participating newsrooms.
  • How can newsrooms adopt practices around national wire-service content that help audiences differentiate it from local news? And what resources would be helpful for journalists writing headlines on those stories to avoid triggering polarized reactions and feedback? Read more about our wire news project, which comes with a $2,000 stipend for participating newsrooms.
  • How can newsrooms incorporate outreach efforts with maximum impact and efficiency to learn about the needs and perceptions of people with low trust in news? Read more about our outreach and listening project, which comes with a $500 stipend for individual participating journalists.
  • How can hiring editors and human-resources teams update interview practices to learn more about the "dimensions of difference" that job candidates could add to their staffs? Read more about our hiring project.
  • How can newsrooms talk to their audiences about their election coverage in a way that highlights shared goals and taps into a collective desire for understanding and curiosity? Read more about our election coverage messaging project.
Trusting News will publish what it's learned this summer, just in time for the midterm elections. In the meantime, participating journalists can share what they're learning with each other via a Slack channel. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

At 'Nerd Prom,' a South Africa native looks at Ukraine and reminds us of the blessings of an unfettered, fearless press

The White House Correspondents Association Dinner, aka the Nerd Prom, is annually disparaged for eroding public confidence in journalists' ability to hold Washington, D.C., officials accountable. "Everyone in the room is in a tuxedo or gown; 'reporters' and government 'subjects' sit shoulder to shoulder at the dinner tables, raising glasses of wine and laughing at one another’s jokes; a general mood of 'we’re all in the club' prevails," James Fallows writes in Breaking the News on Substack. But Saturday night, Fallows was impressed by the very serious concluding remarks of comedian Trevor Noah, a native of South Africa, and so were we, so here they are:

“Whether you like it or not, [the press] is a bastion of democracy. And if you ever begin to doubt your responsibilities, if you ever begin to doubt how meaningful it is, look no further than what's happening in Ukraine. … You realize how amazing it is like in America you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth. Even if it makes people in power uncomfortable even if it makes your viewers or your readers uncomfortable.

“Understand how amazing that is. I stood here tonight and I made fun of the President of the United States and I'm going to be fine. I'm going to be fine. Right? [Gestures to Biden, in a joking way. Biden claps.] Do you really understand what a blessing it is?…. Honestly, ask yourself this question: If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods and their freedom for daring to report on what the own government is doing… If they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories, to ask any questions—if they had basically what you have—would they be using it in the same way that you do? Ask yourself that question every day.”