Saturday, July 16, 2022

Local newspaper quashes falsehoods fed by mystery

Top of the newspaper's special section
When the enigmatic Georgia Guidestones were bombed into oblivion July 6, there were many questions, and falsehoods rushed into the vacuum of truth. But the local newspaper fulfilled its fact-finding role.

The Elberton Star "published a story with the actual facts," and Editor Rose Scoggins "didn't stop there," a sister paper, The Northeast Georgian, said in an opinion piece by Matt Aiken and Matthew Osborne. She "turned out an eight-page special section documenting the history of the Guidestones the day following their destruction. It’s filled with photos, and facts and letters from locals lamenting the loss of the stones. . . . It’s a perfect example of why old school journalism is so vital to a community. Every town, no matter how big or how small, benefits from a real local news source that specializes in asking questions and checking facts."

The story and the section were local antidotes to false stories about a reported plan by a pharmaceutical executive to rebuild the structure, and a supposed time capsule beneath it. The Star reported that a marker at the site "described a time capsule being buried six feet below," but "Elberton Granite Association Executive Vice President Chris Kubas said Friday morning that the granite marker was not placed at the site at the same time the Guidestones were unveiled in 1980. The marker included directions to the granite museum, which Kubas said did not exist until 1982."

Falsehoods may have been fed by mystery. The section recounts in detail the history of the monument, funded by a man who identified himself only as Robert C. Christian and bought "a monument that would be dedicated to conservation and would leave behind a message for those at the time and for years to come," in eight languages. In 1981, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted a local banker as saying that "Christian," whose real name was known only to the banker, that he "represented a group of individuals who anticipate a future nuclear, economic or social holocaust and wanted to leave 'guides' for preserving humanity."

Friday, July 15, 2022

Self-serve grocery store in rural Minnesota town is a big hit

Owners Alex and Caileen Ostenson visit with a customer at their Main Street Market in Evansville, Minn. Customers of the self-serve establishment write suggestions on the chalk board for items they'd like to see on the shelves. (NPR photo)

Rural grocery stores continue to become scarcer, leaving many small-town residents without a nearby source of fresh, reasonably priced foods. Some towns have responded by opening cooperative groceries. Another innovative solution? The self-serve grocery store in Evansville, Minn., a community of about 600 two hours northwest of Minneapolis.

It's the brainchild of Alex and Caileen Ostenson, who moved from the Twin Cities five years ago to be
closer to family. The local grocery store closed just before they got to town, so locals had to go 20 miles away to get to the nearest supermarket, Dan Gunderson reports for NPR.

In 2020 the couple got some local donations and remodeled a vacant downtown storefront into the self-serve Main Street Market. "They believed the concept would save on staff costs, provide round the clock access, and convince the community to invest in a local grocery store," Gunderson reports.

Evansville, in Douglas County
(Wikipedia map)
It works like this: The store is manned three days a week, and anyone in town can shop there, but locals can also buy a $75 annual membership (or a shorter-term one) that allows them to access the store at any time. "Those members can use a phone app to open the door, scan grocery items and pay. There's also a key fob option and a scanner on a counter for those who aren't comfortable using their phone," Gunderson reports. "The technology logs everyone who comes to the store and tracks their purchases. The store also has security cameras, and theft has not been an issue, said Alex." The Ostensons hoped to sign up 50 members in the first year but got more than that in the first week.

The couple isn't taking a salary, but last year "Alex was awarded a fellowship through the West Central Initiative Foundation, and the accompanying $30,000 annual stipend allowed him to quit his full-time job to focus on developing and expanding the self-serve grocery model," Gunderson reports. "Alex has a vision for this concept. By next year he intends to be ready to open a second store in a nearby town, and he wants to create a way to share what he's learned, convincing others this idea can help a small town save or replace the local grocery store. . . . In rural communities, the self-serve concept could mean the difference between buying local groceries or driving miles to a regional center."

Facts about the 988 mental-health hotline that goes live Sat.

Starting Saturday, July 16, Americans struggling with mental health, suicide, and/or substance use can call 988 for emergency help.

Callers who dial 988 will be connected with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has been 1-800-273-TALK for many years. Then line has seen a sharp spike in calls in the past few years, "especially as the coronavirus crisis has brought on what some experts are calling a mental-health pandemic," Daniela Altimari reports for Route Fifty. "The suicide prevention line is staffed by behavioral health experts, who are far better equipped to help someone in distress than the police are. . . . Unlike the 911 system, 988 will be staffed not by public-safety dispatchers but by trained mental-health professionals who will listen to callers and provide resources for additional help."

Many states don't have the capacity to handle the influx of calls, texts and chats, and are trying to downplay expectations for the hotline. "While some states answer virtually every contact, others route more than half their calls out-of-state to 15 backup centers funded through the Lifeline network," Krista Mahr and Sarah Owermohle report for Politico. "The feds are aware of the problem. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra complained earlier this month that most states haven’t secured the funding and workforce needed for an expected surge in calls once 988 goes live. HHS has sent new funds to help states expand their crisis networks in recent months, but federal officials say few states have kept their end of the bargain and implemented long-term funding."

Brian Hepburn, executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, "cautioned that the public shouldn’t expect that 'a switch will be flipped' on July 16 and suddenly decades of lacking investment in mental health will be reversed," Altimari reports. "He also pointed out that it took a full decade after the creation of the 911 emergency dispatch line in 1967 for the system to be fully operational." Hepburn said, "It’s probably going to take five years for 988 to be fully implemented across the country. It’s going to take a while to get everything going."

Quick hits: Test-driving electric tractors; light pollution ruining views of starry skies; ever hear of 'light trespass'?

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 Association of Health Care Journalists is accepting applications for fellowships aimed at early-career journalists who want to pursue careers in science, health, and/or environmental reporting. Read more here.

A volunteer firefighter in rural Tennessee has been charged with setting fires that destroyed multiple buildings. Read more here.

A new project in rural Oregon is letting farmers test-drive electric tractors to make sure the machinery holds up in the real world. Read more here.

Bristlecone pines can live for thousands of years, but many are dying because of the one-two punch of climate change and invasive bark beetles. They're not the only trees climate change is hurting. Read more here.

Neighborhoods, even in rural areas, are getting brighter at night. That light pollution, which critics call "light trespass," is ruining our views of the stars, says one op-ed. Read more here.

The Des Moines Metro Opera is telling the tragic story of an Iowa farm family. Read more here.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

New poet laureate wants Americans to encounter poetry in unexpected places; how about their local newspapers?

Ada Limón (Library of Congress photo / Shawn Miller)
Poetry was once a staple of rural newspapers, perhaps because they were the most accessible vehicle for literature, and poetry was once a staple of language classes. But as education and other facets of society have changed, it has become rare for poetry to appear in the pages of a newspaper.

Enter Ada Limón of Lexington, Ky., the latest poet laureate of the United States. She told Tom Eblen of WEKU-FM that she is still thinking about what she wants to accomplish as the nation's 24th poet laureate, but does think that she would like to encourage the appearance of poetry in unexpected places.

When Eblen noted that most poets laureate have some special project and asked if she had decided on one, or was still thinking about it, she said the latter. But she added, "I would like to see a project that might emphasize poetry in public spaces. I would love for people to have accidental and unexpected experiences with poetry."

Limón said the time is right for more poetry. "Right now, we really need poetry in our lives. . . . I really believe in its power and its importance to help us heal, and I think we're just moving from one chaotic event to the next chaotic event and not doing any processing and not doing any breathing . . . and I think poetry is that way of remembering that you are a thinking, breathing human being, living in the world."

So, perhaps readers would appreciate some calming poetry amid the chaos of the news. “I think it would be wonderful if local newspapers would publish poems again,” Limón told The Rural Blog. “I know some still do, but I don’t see it very often. . . . I say bring back poems in the press!”

Limón told Eblen that poems can "help people reclaim their humanity" and have a deeper appreciation of shared experiences, such as the death of  beloved relative. They are "the way we can remember that we're not alone, that someone else may have had that experience," she said. "It's not just empathy, it's the connection of all living things."

Experts' advice to papers: Take more risks, get outside help, create ad agencies, cooperate with other news publishers

Community newspapers need to take more risks, cooperate with other news publishers, and call on people outside the industry for advice about digital adaptation, said speakers at a July 14 webinar sponsored by e-commerce platform Vendasta and the Local Media Association.

"Our industry has a history of avoiding risk, but now newspapers must be risk-takers, in a calculated way, community newspaper consultant John Newby said: "Risk is part of doing business. . . . If you're not risking, you're not trying. The greater risk is not taking the risks."

Risks must be calculated, Newby said, and Mike Blinder, owner of Editor & Publisher magazine, offered a guideline: "Fail fast, fail cheap."

Newby said the industry also has a poor record of bringing in help from the outside, and needs to reverse that, too, as it converts to primarily digital operations: "I'm not sure we have the leadership in our industry, to be honest with you, to make those transitions."

Blinder said there is no one leader to follow, but several good examples, including Hearst's strong sales of digital subscriptions in Connecticut, Adams Publishing Group's success with video, Pamplin Media Group's revenue from sponsored content, and Hometown News Media Group in Florida "figuring out the perfect way to make digital agencies profitable." He called in-house ad agencies "a creative force that solves the advertisers' problems."

Newby said traditional news media are "missing a lot of opportunity right now" by not creating their own advertising agencies. He said some local chambers of commerce have started advertising agencies because local newspapers are not meeting their needs of local businesses.

"If a chamber has to create an ad agency because a newspaper isn't fulfilling what their customers want, what does that tell us?" Newby asked. "Suck it up. You gotta have these products, you gotta have these things to offer."

Newspaper consultant Gordon Borrell has said he expects advertising to be 90 percent digital by 2032. Blinder said that doesn't mean print will disappear, nor should it.

Blinder said "digital is much more profitable for me than cutting down a tree and turning it into pulp and getting the Postal Service to mail it for me. But I'm never giving up that magazine, ever, because it's my differentiator. It makes me different."

Blinder added, "If you want to build your audience and polish up your brand so GenZs and Millennials don't think you're a dead-wood medium, get on podcasts and audio and video now. . . . It's been the most amazing way to build my audience." He said those media can be monetized "to the point that you won't lose money with it."

A better revenue source may be local events, which Blinder suggested may be even more valuable as branding devices or generators of leads for local advertisers to customers, who can then be reached by the digital agency.

Blinder also said, news publishers need to cooperate with each other to emphasize the value of local news, and how it differs from other types of information: "It would be an amazing thing if we could all finally say, 'Wait a second. Our competition is not each other Our competition is Google and Facebook,' and let's get into the game together." Some radio stations use local newspapers' reporting, giving them credit and advising listeners to get the full story from the paper.

The free webinar was the first of three scheduled by LMA and Vendasta. The second, focusing on sales and monetization, is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET Aug. 10; the third, on talent, is set for 12:30 p.m. ET Sept. 15. The webinar recordings are available only to registered participants.

Story about a rural village's struggle to build community is one that can be done in almost any county in the U.S.

 Foothills Forum graphic; to enlarge, click on it; to download, right-click.
 An excellent story in the Rappahannock News of northern Virginia, about the rural village of Amissville, details the unincorporated place's efforts to build and sustain a sense of community. It's no easy task, Bob Hurley reports for the Foothills Forum, a local philanthropy that bolsters the weekly newspaper's coverage.

"With the expansion of U.S. Route 211 from two to four lanes in the 1970s, we lost what was considered our Main Street," third-generation Amissville resident Lorraine Early told Hurley. "Businesses, homes, even the fire department were lost or relocated. People used to congregate at places along the road, but now all that’s gone."

In 2000, another longtime local, Hal Hunter, documented Amissville's past through oral histories and photos of historic buildings, told Hurley it's challenging to build community without a central place for people to congregate. "The truth is there is no village in the village," Hunter said. "We need to continually look for ways to come together and talk with each other." The Amissville ZIP code, which lies in three counties but mainly in Rappahannock, has about 5,100 people. That is expected to grow with a major development four miles east, in Fauquier County. Land use is a big issue in the region.

The story details some of the community's history through interviews with a slew of locals. That's one of the reasons it was well-received, Foothills Forum Chair Andy Alexander told The Rural Blog. The paper's editor, Dennis Brack, was once a graphic director for The Washington Post. But a story like this doesn't require fancy graphics to make an impact and create a connection with readers. Here are some other key takeaways from the package, for other newspapers to remember:
  • People like to read about themselves, their neighbors and their community. It’s their identity and their world.
  • Let people tell their own story. About two dozen locals are quoted in Hurley's story. That required a lot of legwork, but it paid off: Hearing Amissville residents describe their community — in their own words — gave the story richness and credibility.
  • In writing about any community, nostalgia is catnip for readers.

Rural coronavirus infection rate up for third straight week; two-thirds of rural counties now in the red zone

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 5-11
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Last week marked the third consecutive week that new coronavirus infection rates rose in counties outside metropolitan areas. "Three-quarters of all rural counties were in the red zone last week, up from about two-thirds of all rural counties two weeks ago. The red zone is defined as having 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in a seven-day period," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "The increase in new infections was more modest in metropolitan counties, but the metropolitan infection rate remained slightly higher than the rural infection rate."

Rural counties reported 98,293 new cases during the week of July 5-11, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the week before. Metro counties reported 720,721 new infections that week, up about 9% from the previous week, Marema reports. Rural counties reported 419 Covid-related deaths last week, up nearly 17% from the week before, while the 2,044 such deaths in metro counties, down nearly 3% from the week before. 

"The rural death rate of 0.91 per 100,000 residents was 26% higher than the metropolitan death rate of 0.71 per 100,000 residents. The rural death rate has been higher than the metropolitan rate every week except one for the last year," Marema reports. "The cumulative rate of deaths caused by Covid-19 is about a third higher in rural counties than in urban ones." Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Pandemic roundup: 10 states sue to overturn vaccine mandate for health-care workers, citing rural challenges

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

Citing rural workforce challenges, 10 states with large rural populations have filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration challenging the federal mandate that health-care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus in order for their employers to participate in Medicaid and Medicare, Dave Muoio reports for Fierce Healthcare. The states filing suit are Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Some rural hospital administrators say they're skeptical about the Rural Emergency Hospital program, a proposed rule meant to help struggling rural hospitals stay afloat by no longer requiring them to maintain expensive in-patient beds in order to participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Read more here.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the Novavax coronavirus vaccine. Because it's not a messenger RNA vaccine, some who objected to the newer technology might be persuaded to take the more traditional vaccine. Read more here.

Baby formula roundup: More robust shipments from other nations will boost supplies for low-income Americans

"New infant formula shipments landing this week from abroad will provide a small reprieve to the Biden administration and low-income Americans still struggling to find formula amid ongoing shortages," Meredith Lee reports for Politico.

Rural families enrolled in the Women with Infants and Children program are having a harder time finding formula. Read more here.

The formula shortage is also creating more stress for farmworker families. Read more here.

The Biden administration wants to permanently allow carefully vetted foreign suppliers to continue selling baby formula in the U.S. to prevent future formula shortages. Read more here.

The formula shortage highlights the fact that breastfeeding isn't an option for everyone, and that many workers don't receive the workplace support they need to do so, says one op-ed. Read more here.

A few weeks ago, Senate Republicans spiked a bill that would have protected more workers' right to breastfeed. Meanwhile, another bill that would increase job protections for pregnant workers was passed in the House in May, but has not advanced out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

News engagement down, as audiences tire of national topics; can local news leverage that for a comeback?

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

First there was this, at the start of this year:
Axios graph by Kavya Beheraj
Then there was this update, covering the first half of this year:
Axios graf by Will Chase
The headlines on the graphs are different, but the measurements are the same, and so is the message: Americans' consumption of news content through major electronic means since Donald Trump left office continues to plummet, "and in some cases has fallen below pre-pandemic levels," report Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild of Axios.

"The steep drop-off in social-media engagement with news was likely influenced by Facebook's de-emphasizing news in the News Feed as it seeks to move news consumption to its News Tab," but "The percentage of respondents to Reuters Institute's annual Digital News Report that said they sometimes or often actively avoid the news is 42% in 2022, up slightly from 38% in 2017."

Fischer and Rothschild conclude, "Americans have grown exhausted from the constant barrage of bad headlines that have replaced Trump-era crises, scandals and tweets. . . . The war in Ukraine, a series of deadly mass shootings, the Jan. 6 hearings and the Supreme Court's revocation of abortion rights haven't been able to capture the same level of attention spurred by the onset of the pandemic and the 2020 election."

So, what has replaced that sort of news in Americans' media diet? "A country facing one calamity after another appears desperate for diversions," Fischer and Rothschild write. "Sports and celebrity trials have often overshadowed hard news over the last two years."

But what about local news? The metrics cited by Axios are skewed toward national and international news, and likely don't include much community or rural journalism. But there is no reason to think that the audiences for such journalism behave much differently than more urban audiences. The torrent of online information leaves readers with less time to consume local news, which is often not as interesting or entertaining as what they are getting from outside their community. But as Americans turn their attention away from national and international news, it creates a vacuum that local news should fill.

In an earlier piece, written after the Reuters report, Axios leaders Mike AllenErica Pandey and Jim VandeHei offer suggestions for balancing your news diet, and the first one is, "Find sources you trust, and stick to them. Quit getting your news on endless social feeds, which can be littered with misinformation." Another: Remember that most of the world is normal. For every bad or sad story, there are lots of uplifting ones that get lots less attention." Local news outlets need to keep that advice in mind, and share it on all available platforms with their audiences -- and with potential audiences, which include people who once paid attention to local news and might do so again.

Regional newspaper chains owned by families or individuals play an increasing role in America's local-news landscape

Newspaper groups with 40 or more papers (Table from State of Local News 2022; for a larger version, click on it.)

At a time when much attention has been focused on large newspaper companies driven by venture capital, smaller groups of papers owned by families or individuals have gained a higher profile in the industry, often by buying local papers that the big chains no longer wanted.

That is documented by "The Rise of the Large Regional Newspaper Barons" by Greg Burns, the latest installment of the State of Local News 2022 report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "Six of the 10 largest newspaper owners in 2022 are regional chains – with between 50 and 142 papers apiece in their growing empires," Burns reports. "Three of those largest regional chains did not exist a decade ago, while the other three have been family-operated for generations." Burns says three companies "have led the way" since 2020:
  • CherryRoad Media of New Jersey, a unit of CherryRoad Technologies formed in 2020, which owns 63 papers in 10 Midwestern states.
  • Paxton Media Group, based in Paducah, Ky., which owns 115 newspapers in 10 Southern and Midwestern states and a TV station in its hometown.
  • Ogden Newspapers, owned by the Nutting family of Wheeling, W.Va., which has 101 papers in 18 states from New Hampshire to Hawaii.
Ranking above those three, and just below the big chains, is Minnesota-based Adams Publishing Group, owned by Mark Adams, which grew quickly in the last decade but sold 16 papers in the last two years. "Among the regional media chains, several experienced considerable churn in their portfolios during the past two-plus years," Burns reports. "Paxton bought 55 papers, but also sold five and closed or merged 10. Ogden bought 28 and closed or merged 11."

CherryRoad or Paxton bought two-thirds of the 82 papers sold in the last two years by Gannett Co., the industry leader. Gannett has shed many papers it gained in the merger with GateHouse Media, which essentially took over Gannett and adopted its name.

Jeremy Gulban of CherryRoad "wants to use his dozens of newspapers to make a modest profit, build his company’s brand and find new customers for its technology services," Burns reports, quoting him: “It was a good time to get into this business. There were some good values to be had. We’ll definitely look to expand again into the fall. Everything has been going in the right direction, for now.”

Burns reports, "Gulban has added editorial staff where, in some cases, Gannett employed no one in the newspaper’s town," and is making less use of chains' typical principles of proximity, centralized functions and economies of scale: "It has acquired properties in different areas and makes no pretense of being a genuinely 'local' owner. Still, Gulban said, his approach is much more customized than that of Gannett."

University of Kentucky is the first in the South to launch a scholarship fund for LGBTQ+ agriculture students

Seth Riker holds a print of "Ag is for All," an artwork
by Kentucky artist Wylie Caudill, commissioned as a
fundraiser for the scholarship program.
The University of Kentucky's agriculture college has launched a scholarship fund for LGBTQ agriculture students, the first university in the South to do so. The College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment started the LGBTQ Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Fund last year "with the help of a grant from JustFundKY, a non-profit organization that has awarded $520,000 over the last decade to projects supporting LGBTQ communities in every county in Kentucky," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder.

Though the fund only recently awarded its first $2,000 scholarship, just the fact that it exists sends a message, said Seth Riker, the college's marketing and communications manager and steward of the fund. "Speaking as a closeted kid who grew up on a rural Kentucky farm, I wanted to create the message I needed 20 years ago: you are not alone, and you belong here," he told Slepyan.

Creating a more inclusive environment for all ag students is both practical and ethical, Riker said: "If we consider the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing climate, it is inexcusable to have bigotry and ignorance impeding tomorrow’s leaders from stepping into the places they will be needed." The fund "has the potential to inspire other colleges to follow similar paths. Already two other schools have reached out to Riker about establishing a similar fund," Slepyan reports.

The stewards hope to establish an endowment, but for now it's supported by individual donations made through the university's online philanthropy website and fundraiser events like "Drag Me to the Farm," a recent drag-queen brunch at Lexington restaurant Honeywood that raised nearly $10,000.

Honeywood owner Ouita Michel, a James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef who emphasizes locally grown foods at her restaurants, told Slepyan she was glad to host the fundraiser. "I am interested in promoting agriculture to young people as a career path—hopefully helping a young generation of farmers feel included, seen and important to their communities," Michel said.

Abortion roundup: Biden administration says hospitals must provide abortions if woman's life is at risk, despite state laws

Here's a roundup of news about abortion:

This week the Department of Health and Human Services "told hospitals that they 'must' provide abortion services if the life of the mother is at risk, saying federal law on emergency treatment guidelines preempts state laws in jurisdictions that now ban the procedure without any exceptions following the Supreme Court’s decision to end a constitutional right to abortion," Zeke Miller reports for The Associated Press. The directive could provide clarity for doctors who say they're afraid to provide routine care to women suffering miscarriages.

Newsrooms should reframe abortion coverage to capture the complexity of American viewpoints on the topic. They should also reconsider internal rules about avoiding political speech, which often stifle conversation on the topic and leave journalists poorly prepared to capture the nuances of the issue, writes Kelly McBride, the Senior Vice President and Chair of the Poynter Institute's Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

A pharmaceutical company has submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration for an over-the-counter birth control pill. If approved, it would be the first such medication available nationwide without a prescription. Read more here.

More babies will be born now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, but rural areas in many states are so-called "maternity deserts" with little or no access to childbirth services. Some who oppose abortion say the government should expand services that make it easier for people to bear and raise children, but it's a subject of fierce debate among those who favor smaller government. Pregnancy and childbirth costs an average of $2,854 out-of-pocket for people enrolled in large group health-insurance plans, according to a new data analysis.

Even in states where abortion is legal, many women with autoimmune diseases are being denied access to methotrexate, a critical and commonly prescribed medication that can cause miscarriages (and is uncommonly used off-label to induce abortion). One Texas pharmacist refused to dispense it to an 8-year-old girl. Some doctors say they've been ordered to deny prescriptions because of fears that they could be sued. Without medication, many patients risk irreversible organ damage or death. Read more here.

Abortion providers are trying to open new clinics as close as possible to states with abortion bans. Meanwhile, most abortion clinics in Montana have barred out-of-state patients from receiving abortion pills for fear that they could be sued.

Women in the sparsely-populated rural West may face outsized difficulties in accessing abortion. Read more here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Rural Americans are hit hardest by inflation, especially because of higher fuel costs, Iowa State study indicates

Inflation is hitting the most rural Americans harder than their urban and suburban peers, according to preliminary estimates in a report from Iowa State University Extension. The report examines non-metro households in communities with fewer than 2,500 residents or those "in the open countryside."

Consumer prices in the U.S. rose by 8.6% between May 2021 and May 2022, the federal government reported in June. That inflation is caused by three main factors, reports Iowa State sociology professor and extension rural sociologist David J. Peters:
  • Strong, pent-up demand because of the pandemic. Households put off many purchases during the pandemic and saved up money because of reduced spending, higher wages and government aid. Now consumers are making those delayed purchases all at once and there isn't enough to go around.
  • A scarcity of goods because of the increased demand and supply chain disruptions.
  • Increased demand for housing and services.
  • Minor reasons for inflation include the inflationary impact of government pandemic relief and market uncertainty due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
"The current wave of inflation has made rural families more vulnerable than urban families due to rising gasoline prices, higher fuel oil costs to heat their homes, and the ability to purchase less expensive used cars," Peters reports. "In 2022, rural household expenses rose by 9.2% overall, but earnings also rose by 2.6%. The net effect cut rural disposable incomes by 38.0%. Expenses now consume 90% of rural take-home pay. Urban disposable income only dropped by 17% due to slower inflation rates (7.6%) and faster wage gains (4.3%)."

Beef and pork producers get less but consumers pay more

Percentage change in the Consumer Price Index (how much consumers pay) and the Producer Price Index (how much producers get) from May 2021 to May 2022 (Investigate Midwest chart)

"While consumers are paying high prices for beef and pork at grocery stores, farmers producing the meat are making less than they were a year ago, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Kendall Little reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "The number of cattle and hogs have all fallen since 2021, according to the USDA, which may explain the increased consumer price. If the amount of product decreases but consumer demand stays the same, prices will increase for consumers."

Industry consolidation among meatpacking companies is also a major factor, since producers have to go through them instead of selling directly to consumers. In January the Biden administration announced an $800 million investment in smaller meatpackers to help spur competition.

New philanthropy in Georgia invests $2 million in news organizations for minority communities in the state

A news startup with an increasingly rural focus, teamed with a video production firm, are two of the first seven grantees of The Pivot Fund, an Atlanta-based philanthropy that says its goal is to "to raise and invest $500 million nationwide in independent, community news organizations led by Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other people of color who are trusted sources for the communities they serve, bringing proven technology, business practices, and key staff positions to organizations that have the trust of their communities."

The fund announced $2 million in grants today. One went to Georgia Asian Times and Tomorrow Pictures, of Atlanta. They will "collaborate to report and produce a documentary on the Burmese immigrant community, who, like many others, settled initially in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston but are now following chicken processing and warehouse jobs in rural Georgia," the fund says.

The grantees will also get "consulting support tailored for each, to help them increase revenue, develop digital and reporting capacity, and expand audiences," the fund says. "Each organization will be eligible for additional support in years two and three as they move toward sustainability." The fund says it plans to invest $6 million in Georgia news organizations over the next three years.

The fund is led by Tracie Powell, board chair of Local Independent Online News Publishers, or LION Publishers, and former leader of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. She has been thinking about underserved communities in journalism for a long time," Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab reports.) She told Owen, “We spent six months looking across the state, identifying what assets were out there, how people consumed information, where they got it from, what they did with it once they had it. That’s a little different from what most other funders and intermediaries do. They tend to find people they know, or they do open calls. A better way, I think, is asking communities how and where they get information from.”

The other grantees are BEE TV Network of LaGrange, a cable-news outlet available to 600,000 Spectrum subscribers; Pása La Voz Savannah, a Facebook page with close to 15,000 followers, with news and information to help Spanish-speaking immigrants; Notivision of Warner Robins, which is "a bridge between Georgia’s growing Hispanic population and local business, organizations and local government;" Davis Broadcasting and The Courier Eco Latino of Columbus, an effort of Georgia’s largest Black-owned radio network and a bilingual newspaper serving the African-American and Latino communities.

These organizations are in communities that “a lot of people would tag news deserts,” Powell said. “There might have been a weekly newspaper in these communities. There might be a daily newspaper that used to be able to serve them, but there there’s been so much contraction that [it] no longer can. Or, even when the daily newspaper was flourishing, it wasn’t covering these communities. But the different thing now is, not only are these organizations covering communities — BIPOC communities, communities that look like them — their news and information is filling information holes. They’re lifting the entire information system.”

Black-owned acreage has fallen by almost half since 1900, partly because whites exploited informal land ownership

A map based on the 1910 census shows farms owned by African Americans; a dot represents 50 farms.
(Image from Ag Census Library at Cornell University; for a larger version or to download, click on it)

Black-owned acreage fell from 15 million acres in 1900 to 8 million acres in 2017. "Black Americans lost land in the 20th century for a variety of reasons, including violence, intimidation, immigration to the North, and discrimination by the USDA. But legal experts also blame vulnerable forms of land ownership, such as heirs’ property," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder

About one-third of Black-owned land in the South is considered heirs' property, in which each heir owns an interest in the entire property and any one of them can force a sale. It "leaves the heirs more susceptible to losing the land and to not realizing its full economic potential," Melotte reports. "Heirs’ property rights are one way developers walked away with some of the region’s most desirable and profitable land at bargain-basement prices."

Legal snarls from heirs' property still prevent many rural Black landowners from accessing government programs today. "Organizations are trying to fix that problem. The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network, for example, supports Black landowners with the goal of keeping land in the family and increasing wealth through forestry. But there are still pressures that threaten land ownership for Black Americans," Melotte reports. "As development sprawls from an urban center, adjacent rural areas face higher demand for housing and other resources."

Black farm owners in the southeastern Black Belt and the Gullah Geechee Corridor from North Carolina to Florida have been particularly vulnerable to the heirs' property problem.

Sex education is more important in a post-Roe U.S., but state rules vary; see how your knowledge stacks up

Chart compares states by their required emphasis on abstinence in sex education and the availability of abortion, with the squares sized for each state's population of women of reproductive age. (New York Times chart)

Many states have banned or substantially restricted abortion since the overturn of Roe v. Wade. That makes a solid understanding of reproductive health more important than ever for those trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies. But not all states require sex education to be taught, and 28 states require sex-ed instructors to emphasize abstinence as the best way to prevent pregnancy. Most of states that stress abstinence instruction also have severe restrictions or bans on abortion.

But at least 95% of Americans have had premarital sex, and about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. That means comprehensive knowledge of sex education is a critical resource in preventing pregnancy. See how your knowledge stacks up with a 14-question quiz from The New York Times.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Profiles of nursing-home residents by student-run Georgia weekly illustrate a bedrock community-journalism principle

Excerpt from the Echo's recent package
The Oglethorpe Echo
in Macon County, Georgia, recently published a package featuring seniors at a local nursing home, with a photo and a paragraph with interesting tidbits from their lives. It's a powerful and simple but original idea that illustrates a basic principle of community journalism: People are interested in people, and in reading about them. 

Former Echo visual journalist and University of Georgia journalism student Julia Walkup interviewed and photographed the seniors earlier this year as part of a UGA photojournalism weekend workshop that encourages students to capture in-depth portraits of community members. 

UGA students and faculty have staffed the Echo since last fall, when local resident Dink NeSmith, retired co-owner of a community newspaper chain, kept the owner from closing the 148-year-old weekly by turning it into a non-profit and getting the university involved.

Virtual registration is open for Thursday's conference on health journalism in rural areas; registration is $50 tops

Want to attend the Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2022 on Thursday, July 14, but can't make it to Chattanooga? Not to worry: Virtual attendance is available, and registration is now open. The one-day conference is free for (and only open to) members of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Membership is usually $60 a year, but AHCJ will knock $10 off if you use the code RURAL22 when you register.

From the workshop website: "This workshop will bring journalists together with health care and policy experts who focus on the medical challenges of rural areas. Leave with a better understanding of what’s happening – or will be happening – in rural regions, and return to work with dozens of story ideas you can pursue. You don't have to live in a rural area to write great stories about what's happening just beyond the city limits. And think about how much policy is set based on the non-urban population of your state. This special one-day, no-fee workshop will help you find and cover health stories in rural America."

Sessions will cover data resources for reporters, rural health-care resource inequality during the pandemic, the promise and limitations of rural telemedicine, mobile clinics and other creative approaches to bridging rural health-care gaps, how to ask the right questions about opioid settlement money, and how to boost the number of rural doctors and nurses by establishing health-care pipelines in schools. Click here for more information about each session as well as a full list of panelists.

The conference is hosted by the University of Tennessee's Health Science Center, Cempa Community Care and Erlanger Health System, and is sponsored by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The Commonwealth Fund.

Residents of New Hampshire town rouse from civic slumber, reverse local libertarians' efforts to halve school budget

Croydon, N.H., in Sullivan County
(Wikipedia map)
New Hampshire has long been known as a haven for libertarians, especially since the Free State Project encouraged them to move there and made it even more limited-government refuge that reflects the Granite State's "Live free or die" motto. But a recent flap in Croydon, a town of 800, has served as a wake-up call for locals about the need to remain engaged in local government.

"Croydon’s experience resonated well beyond its borders, receiving substantial regional news coverage. It became a cautionary tale for these times — or, perhaps, a reflection of them," Dan Barry reports for The New York Times. "People here have just experienced a fractious come-to-Jefferson moment that has left many with a renewed appreciation for something they had taken for granted: democracy."

It started at the annual town meeting in March when one of the three selectmen, Free Stater Ian Underwood, proposed slashing the school's proposed budget in half, from $1.7 million to $800,000. The budget "covers the colonial-era schoolhouse (kindergarten to fourth grade) and the cost of sending older students to nearby schools of their choice, public or private," Barry explains. 

Underwood "argued that taxes for education had climbed while student achievement had not, and that based in part on the much lower tuition for some local private schools, about $10,000 for each of the town’s 80 or so students was sufficient — though well short of, say, the nearly $18,000 that public schools in nearby Newport charged for pupils from Croydon," Barry reports. "In pamphlets he brought to the meeting, Mr. Underwood asserted that sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them 'crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity'."

His wife, Jody Underwood, the school-board chair with a doctorate in education, spoke in support of the measure, after having endorsed the proposed budget, and the cut passed easily at the lightly attended town meeting, 20 to 14. "The shocking budget cut meant that the school board suddenly had to craft a new financial plan, while many parents suddenly had to come up with thousands of dollars to keep their children in public schools," Barry reports. The Underwoods, who do not have children, moved to New Hampshire from Pennsylvania in 2007.

"I was practically kicking myself in the ass for not being there," Ed Spiker, who has two sons in public schools, told Barry. "I guess I assumed our town would take care of it."

"Many Croydon residents were livid. But they were also chastened. They hadn’t attended the town meeting. They hadn’t fulfilled their democratic obligation. They hadn’t kept informed about the Free State movement. To some observers, they had gotten what they deserved," Barry writes. "The moment revealed a democracy mired in indifference. Turnout at town meetings has been low for years. The town’s websites are barely rudimentary, with school-board minutes posted online sporadically. The select board’s minutes are found at the town hall — open three afternoons a week — or the general store, beside chocolate bars being sold to benefit the local humane society."

Local citizens banded together and overcame the procedural obstacles to call a special town meeting, at which the budget cut was overturned 377-2. But the incident still reverberates. One Croydon resident Barry interviewed wants to serve on the school board again; another has begun working on political campaigns; and Spiker bought a camera and microphone so he can record and post online all meetings of the school board and select board. There's an effort to oust Dr. Underwood and another school-board member, reports Patrick Adrian, a correspondent for the Valley News in nearby West Lebanon.

"As citizens we have many rights, but we also have obligations," Wayne Lesperance, a political-science professor at New England College, in Henniker, told Barry. "And when we don’t fulfill our obligations, we often end up with results we don’t like."

Tourist towns lack housing for summer workers, hard to get

Lack of available housing has made it harder for tourist towns to attract summer workers. 

"Although the summer workforce shortage has been particularly acute this year, the mismatch goes far beyond the national shortage of municipal lifeguards, camp counselors, wildland firefighters and resort housekeepers," Erika Bolstad reports for Stateline. "There are more available jobs in the United States than workers to fill them, and not just in the service or hospitality sector. An estimated 11.5 million job openings exist for 5.5 million eligible workers."

Some towns are offering free housing for summer workers. That includes Medora, N.D., which drew 124,000 tourists last year with a historical-themed musical. Though the community needs only 325 summer workers, "the tiny Western-themed town in the North Dakota badlands is illustrative of the scramble to hire a summer workforce each year," Bolstad reports. "In 2021, despite near-record visitor attendance at the musical, Medora couldn't open its high-end dining room at the Rough Riders Hotel until well into the summer season. The hotel had no chef and lacked kitchen staff—in previous years it depended on foreign workers with H-2B visas to fill many restaurant and housekeeping jobs. The pandemic as well as Trump-era immigration policies slowed participation in the H-2B and J-1 visa programs." In the winter, Medora's population is 120.

'Dry' territory is becoming harder in find in rural Kentucky

Maps by Lexington Herald-Leader (bottom map by Jacob Latimer), adapted by The Rural Blog

Rural Kentucky continues to get wetter, and we're not talking about the weather. Only 10 counties are "dry," meaning that the sale of alcohol is illegal there, and they are all small, rural counties.

"Residents in several of those are trying to get enough signatures on petitions to call for a vote in November on whether to allow sales, according to information from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and local officials," reports Bill Estep, longtime rural reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "A few counties have limited alcohol sales, such as at a golf course or farm winery, and there are a number of wet cities in otherwise dry counties, but the time when many Kentucky residents had to drive an hour or more to legally buy a 12-pack of beer or a bottle of whiskey is gone."

Why? The reasons "include economic concerns, efforts to boost tourism, generational shifts, people moving into rural Kentucky from places where alcohol has long been legal, changes in attitudes — including greater acceptance of alcohol among churchgoers — and even rising problems with other drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl," Estep writes. "There is still a great deal of addiction and other problems like fatal wrecks caused by alcohol, but rising overdose deaths from other drugs make it seem tame by comparison, said Gene Cole, a Baptist minister who heads the Kentucky League on Alcohol, Gambling Problems and Substance Use Disorder." Cole said the perception of alcohol is that “It’s not as bad as some of the other stuff out there.”

"Cole still preaches abstinence from alcohol, but acknowledged some pastors don’t push against alcohol as passionately as they once did, and that many churchgoers no longer see alcohol as evil because of the influence of popular culture and other factors," Estep reports. Nick Catron, director of missions for a regional association of Southern Baptist churches, said some have become complacent about alcohol: “As Baptists, predominantly we frown upon consumption of alcohol. But again, it just seems as if so many people today don’t find any fault in it.”

Economic concerns have been important, too, and a move on that front helped break down the cultural and social obstacles. In 2000, the legislature allowed local referenda to legalize alcohol sales at larger restaurants, golf courses and farm wineries. "Before that, voters had to choose whether to allow the full range of alcohol sales," Estep writes. "It was more than many could swallow, including people worried about liquor stores and bars changing the character of rural communities and small towns. . . . The momentum continued from there as people got used to the idea of having legal sales in their communities, with voters in several cities and counties first approving restaurant sales before voting later to go fully wet. . . . Legislators changed state law to allow votes on alcohol sales at smaller restaurants and dropped the requirement for a city to have at least 3,000 residents in order to hold a wet-dry vote."