Friday, September 23, 2022

National, regional groups help drive book bans across the country; more than 1,600 titles were banned last school year

PEN America map, not adjusted for population; for a larger version, click on it.
The drive to ban certain books in public schools is not simply fueled by small pockets of disconcerted parents but is also driven by organized groups that operate at national, state and local levels, says a recent report from PEN America, a nonprofit for writers committed to protecting free expression.  

PEN America identified 50 groups nationwide involved in pushing for book bans and of "those 50 groups, eight have local or regional chapters that, between them, number at least 300 in total; some of these operate predominantly through social media," the report says. More than 70 percent of these regional groups were formed since 2021 and those regional groups played a role in at least half of the 2,532 book bans that the nonprofit recorded during the 2021-2022 school year. 

"These groups share lists of books to challenge, and they employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about 'grooming' and 'pornography,' and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians," the report says.

The report cites Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit with more than 200 chapters aimed at banning specific literature, and MassResistance, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which also claims nationwide membership and has taken credit for book bans around the country.

State legislators have also applied pressure to local school districts. PEN America says a Republican lawmaker in Texas sent a list of 850 books to school districts across the state and asked them to report which of the titles they had in their libraries and classrooms. 

The book bans spanned 32 states and more than 5,000 schools. Texas led the way with 801 bans across 22 school districts, while PEN America recorded 566 bans in Florida.

The nonprofit's index of banned books includes 1,648 unique titles 41% of which addressed LGBTQ+ themes and 40% included prominent characters of color. Three-fourths of the banned titles are fiction.

Graph by PEN America; for a larger version, click on it.

Senate panel sends Journalism Preservation Act to the floor; House committee could act on similar bill next week

A Senate committee approved legislation Thursday to allow smaller news publishers to negotiate with digital platforms for compensation for use of their content, after adding a Republican amendment to exclude content moderation from the negotiations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act 15-7 after adding an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that limits the exemption to talks conducted  “solely to reach an agreement regarding the pricing, terms and conditions” for content usage. Cruz and other Republicans have alleged that content moderation disfavors conservatives.

Cruz said his amendment makes the bill “the first meaningful consequence for and protection against censorship based on viewpoint and content in the big tech space. . . . Big Tech hates this bill. That to me is a strong positive for supporting it.” The committee's top Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, voted for the bill, but most other GOP senators on the panel voted against it.

The vote came after two weeks of negotiations between Cruz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who said during the vote, “Platforms like Facebook and Google are counting on Republicans and Democrats being unable to put aside their differences to agree on meaningful legislation in the tech sector. This is our moment to prove them wrong.”

Opposition came from both ends of the political spectrum, The Wall Street Journal notes: "Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah) reiterated his fear that the bill could make publishers more dependent on big tech platforms. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said the bill didn’t guarantee that working journalists would benefit and argued that some of its protections for news outlets could actually exacerbate problems of hate speech on the internet. Some of those concerns were echoed by tech and public-interest groups, who said the legislation could benefit right-wing media organizations."

Opponents of the bill include Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. The bill applies to "most newsrooms that employ fewer than 1,500 full-time employees," The Hill reports. "The employee cap is largely aimed at excluding the country’s three largest newspapers and national broadcasters." The News Media Alliance called on key House members “to bring the bill before the House Judiciary Committee for a vote next week, likely the last opportunity to move the JCPA out of committee before the midterm elections.” The National Newspaper Association thanked the NMA "for its perseverance in working out objections to the bill," it said in a news release.

Legal weed in Calif. hasn't been economic boon expected, and has corrupted some local officials, L.A. Times finds

A dispensary advertisement in California.
(Photo by Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times) 
Hoping for increases in tax revenue and an economic kickstart, some rural California communities quickly embraced the legal cannabis boom after a 2018 state law allowed them to decide whether weed businesses could sell or grow pot inside their borders. But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that the state's decentralized system has set the stage for rampant bribery and corruption of local officials. 

Over half of California's cities and counties don't allow any type of recreational marijuana sales or farming, but the newspaper found that those that do allow sales generally issue a limited number of business licenses, "creating fierce competition among entrepreneurs looking to cash in." The local officials, who have the power to issue those licenses or make local laws more weed-friendly, are essentially able to "choose winners and losers."

“You pay your way into one of the few spots,” Dominic Corva, a sociology professor and co-director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research at Cal Poly Humboldt, told the Times. “Once the game was limited licensing … it was like, who gets to have it?”

The Times report details numerous instances of local officials receiving suspicious payments from weed entrepreneurs looking to get an upper hand in the local market. In the small border town of Calexico, local officials projected $700,000 in annual tax revenue. But since 2018, the city has only collected $220,000 and lost a councilman and city commissioner to corruption. 

In early 2020, a city commissioner and councilman for Calexico, began meeting with who they thought was a businessman hoping to open a dispensary in their town of 40,000. The businessman agreed to pay the city officials $35,000 for what would be a "top spot in the queue" for city permits. After the city officials accepted the money in cash, the businessman revealed his true identity -- an undercover FBI agent. Both government officials would eventually plead guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. 

David Romero, the city commissioner who accepted the bribe, told the LA Times that the city made a mistake in only allowing for 12 permits. “If you put a number on it, you’ll turn it into a political mess,” Romero said. “It was just a ticking time bomb.”

Covid-19 death rate in rural areas is the highest since May

Rate of new coronavirus infections by county, Sept. 13-19
Map by The Daily Yonder; for the interactive version, with county data, click here.

President Biden may have declared the pandemic over, but rural Americans are dying from Covid-19 at the highest rate since May, Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder.

Health officials attributed 625 more deaths to Covid-19 last week. "That’s 130 more reported deaths than two weeks ago and a 26.3% increase in the number of deaths. Last week, the rural death rate was 1.21 deaths per 100,000 residents," Melotte writes. "Metropolitan counties, meanwhile, reported 2,700 deaths. The death rate in urban America was .83 deaths per 100,000 residents, a 1.4% increase from two weeks ago." For the entire pandemic, the rural death rate was 389.99 deaths per 100,000 people, "while the cumulative urban death rate was 285.16 deaths per 100,000."

New-case rates dropped in rural counties, but far less than in metro counties, Melotte reports: "Rural counties reported 109,374 new cases last week, a 2.89% drop from two weeks ago. The infection rate in rural America was 233.1 new infections per 100,000 residents, compared to 240 two weeks ago. New infections in metropolitan counties totaled 664,195 last week, a 10.31% drop from two weeks ago. The metropolitan infection rate was 235.4 infections per 100,000 residents."

Quick hits: Earmarks return; flooded post offices may not; pipelines leak carcinogens; a monk unites a community . . .

The return of congressional earmarks, with more transparency, is a boon to the selected local governments and their citizens, Route Fifty reports.

Kentucky communities worry the July flood will make them lose their post offices, the Jackson-Breathitt County Times-Voice reports.

How a solitary monk, known for his soup, united a rural community, from The Washington Post.

"A rural doctor gave her all, then her heart broke," from The New York Times.

The Associated Press has a feature story on the Ojibwe of Minnesota harvesting wild rice, imperiled by climate change.

A former county clerk in northeast Arkansas was sentenced to 57 months in prison for stealing more than $1.5 million in the first six months of 2020. He's 34 years old and was already in state prison serving a 10-year term, The Jonesboro Sun reports.

The University of Kentucky has established a center to research medical use of cannabis, following a law passed after a medical-marijuana law couldn't pass the legislature. Read about it here.

A study called "first of its kind" documents carcinogenic emissions from gas pipelines. Read it here.

A rural Virginia county considers deeding a Confederate statue and its plot to a private group in order to fend off possible attempts to remove it, The Washington Post reports.

Rural areas aren't going back to the way they were, so how do we hold on to what we have? So asks retired farm editor

By Mychal Wilmes

A ride along to purchase five Holstein bull calves from a dairy producer in southeastern Minnesota was welcome on a glorious late afternoon when the rolling hills best showed their beauty.

It is a strong dairy area, in contrast to the prairie that the calf buyer and I call home. Silos and barns — to an extent relics of a bygone time — remain in sharp contrast to the large dairy we stopped at. Truckloads of fresh-chopped alfalfa were being transported to the edge of a large pile, where it was packed tight by a four-wheel-drive tractor.

Along the way we talked about how vital dairy used to be across Minnesota. Local stores sold milking equipment and other supplies, and small towns were crowded with cars on weekend nights when checks were cashed, and families came to eat and be entertained.

West Concord (Wikipedia map)
West Concord — a town of less than 1,000 in the 1950s and now — once had a couple of tractor and car dealers, a clothing store, two hardware stores, two banks, a railroad line, and more. A mural painted on a building’s side depicts Mainstreet circa the 1950s.

It’s a shame, I said, that those days are no more.

“You can say it’s a shame," the pickup driver said, "but they are never going to come back."

There are many reasons why that is so: ease of transportation, technology, cost of living, efficiency of scale, and an unstopping exodus of people to metropolitan areas.

Keeping family farmers on the land has been the goal since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiated the farm program framework in the Great Depression. Supply management through land banks and Conservation Reserve Program sign ups have been tried with mixed success ever since the government moved away from parity pricing formulas.

History suggests that the dominance of diversified farms blossomed only briefly. The driver raised a valid point when he said that we tend to remember the good times more than the bad. Cultivating row crops four times followed by whacking weeds, sick calves in pneumonia-filled barns, picking frozen silage from silo walls, and dealing with untiled fields was no one’s idea of fun.

Maybe a more reasonable goal is to hang on to what we have. It will not be easy. The public school closed in the early 1990s, and a start-up school that followed several years later folded. Three churches, hurt by declining attendance, have closed. The lone restaurant closed during the pandemic and won’t reopen in its wake. The American Legion, housed in a building constructed in the early 20th century, struggles for members.

Mychal Wilmes
The pickup driver asked and answered his own question: “Would your children want to move back here? No, they wouldn’t, because there is nothing to do here.’’

Well, that is not 100% true. There is much to be said for raising a family away from the busyness of a big city, the community that remains strong in its commitment to schools and other institutions.

The movement away from rural areas is a worldwide phenomenon unmatched in history. The slums of Third World nations are crowded with now-landless people. Europe and the United States are far better equipped to handle the migration as rural residents move for better opportunities.

Thomas Jefferson wrote centuries ago that the strength of American democracy is found in its millions of family farmers. It remains true to this day, which may explain why countless surveys find that support for family farmers remains strong.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy. This was first published on AgWeek.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

News-media roundup: Brehm Communications sells 18 papers; Knight puts $4.75M into Institute for Nonprofit News

Brehm Communications of San Diego is selling a daily newspaper and 17 weeklies. River City Newspapers of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., is buying the Mohave Valley Daily News in Bullhead City, and three weeklies: the Wickenburg Sun, the Laughlin Times and the Needles Desert Star, along with associated shopper publications. In a separate transaction, River City is buying the Kingman Miner and the a printing plant in Golden Valley from Prescott-based Western News&Info. A news release said River City is a 27-year-old alliance of Western News&Info and Wick Communications.

Gold Mountain California News Media is buying 11 Brehm papers, six north of Sacramento and five in the San Bernardino Mountains and adjacent high desert. The Northern California papers are the weekly Folsom Telegraph, Roseville Press-Tribune, Placer HeraldLincoln News Messenger, The Loomis News and the twice-weekly Auburn Journal. The southern group is the Big Bear Grizzly, the Lake Arrowhead Mountain News, The Hi-Desert Star, The Desert Trail and The Desert Mobile Home News. A press release said Gold Mountain has papers "throughout the U.S. and Canada, including several in California," including the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, the Lodi News-Sentinel and the recently acquired Grass Valley Union, near Auburn.

CherryRoad Media is buying three Utah weeklies from Brehm: The Richfield Reaper, The Vernal Express and the Uintah Basin Standard. The purchase gives CherryRoad properties in 12 states, according to a news release from Dirks, Van Essen & April, which brokered all three deals, terms of which were not disclosed. "CherryRoad Media has been among the most acquisition-minded companies during the past two years," the release says. "The company believes the newspaper is an essential resource for developing strong communities, and that it can leverage technology to supplement the printed newspaper with enhanced digital capabilities."

Money for nonprofit news: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will invest $4.75 million in the next three years to catalyze the growth of the Institute for Nonprofit News Network. INN will use the funds to help the network expand from more than 400 newsrooms to at least 600 by 2026, and grow revenue from more than $400 million to $1 billion annually. “INN is committed to multiplying every dollar of this funding from Knight into greater growth for our members, providing services that allow them to invest even more in great reporting and building new models of community support for journalism,” said Sue Cross, INN’s executive director and CEO.

The grant will help expand opportunities for collaborative reporting and collective fundraising; help members diversify their funding; and "build a talent pool and pipeline in nonprofit news that centers diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially in leadership positions on the editorial and business side," a news release said. It quoted Karen Rundlet, a Knight Foundation journalism officer: “INN provides strategic support for the growth of nonprofit news, which is starting to fill some of the holes left by the collapse of the newspaper industry, while also serving communities that never previously received the type of coverage they deserve.”

School boards often violate open-meeting laws; news media, parents and citizens should hold them accountable

Local school boards are often repeat offenders when it comes to flouting state open records and meeting laws, argues Editorial Editor David Travis Bland in South Carolina's The State newspaper -- and also published in The Island Packet on Hilton Head. Those lawbreakers ought to be held to account by local news media, parents and the state attorney general, Bland writes.

Citing multiple reported abuses of South Carolina's sunshine laws by school boards across the state, Bland calls for greater public scrutiny of the locally elected boards. South Carolina's open records and meeting laws — much like many other states — govern when a board can hold a private session to discuss matters in secret. Such meetings can be detrimental to the wider public, Bland argues.

A South Carolina school board meets.
(Photo by Tracy Glantz, The State)
"The public also would be left in the dark if — as too often happens — the board illegally voted behind closed doors to give themselves raises," Bland wrote. "Unfortunately, the public rarely finds out if their school board is illegally conducting executive sessions because its members bow to a code of silence."

The State sued one local school district after board members, in a closed session, approved paying a former superintendent $226,368 in a resignation settlement. One board member even resigned because of the private vote. After the newspaper's suit, the board held a public vote on the issue. 

A recording and later police report showed that in another school board "an executive session turned into a verbal slugfest" with one member making profane threats against another, Bland reports.

The attorney general threatened a school board in Charleston County with a lawsuit after a group of parents said the board wasn't giving proper notice of what would be discussed at its meetings, the Charleston Post and Courier reported. 

Local media and state officials shouldn't hold back when it comes to scrutinizing local school boards — which so often evade the public pressure of larger elected bodies — because, Bland writes, that pressure will force boards to better serve the public: "The public needs to know what the board is doing so it can criticize decisions. Criticism makes boards better."

Politicians' columns are often self-serving; one weekly editor says he's tired of it, and writes a counterpoint column

The Enterprise's Sept. 22 opinion page; right-click to download
By Al Cross, Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Columns from state and national legislators are standard fare for many community newspapers' opinion pages. They bring a wider perspective to publications that have been called "relentlessly local," but often the editor's main purpose is to fill the page.

And what is the politician's purpose? In many cases, such columns are primarily informational, giving readers updates on legislation. But in many other cases, they are primarily political, selling the politician's point of view and often attacking his or her adversaries.

That's what Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell did in his latest column for Kentucky newspapers, according to Denis House, editor of The Lebanon Enterprise, in a column that House put on his opinion page above McConnell's. "The bulk of his column is laying the blame on the opposite party," House writes. "That’s how it is with almost every political column I receive or read in other publications. One party blames the other. And I’m tired of it."

I've long thought that editors ought to exercise more discretion about such columns. If they're attack pieces, look for a piece from the other side, or don't run them at all. Also, use news judgment; if the politician is writing about topics of interest to your community, that's a plus. And remember that these columns can be edited for space and relevance.

Timing is also important. Is the politician running for re-election? The Enterprise's page also has a column from a state representative, who is new to the county because of redistricting. He is opposed in the Nov. 8 election, but his column appears to be the first for the Enterprise, introducing himself to the county, and he doesn't discuss any issues. It's self-promotional, but the readers deserve to know about who's representing them. Any further columns before the election deserve strictest scrutiny.

Gannett, cutting costs after a big quarterly loss, is trying to sell at least 60 of its smaller papers, 'industry insiders' say

"Industry insiders say Gannett is shopping at least 60 of its nearly 500 publications, after dumping more than 100 since 2020," former media executive Greg Burns reports for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. Burns notes several recent purchases of Gannett weeklies by CherryRoad Media, "an acquisitive tech company from New Jersey that has purchased dozens of Gannett newspapers over the past two years."

CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban told Burns that Gannett is shedding smaller papers in more isolated markets. “This is a tough time for the newspaper business. They’ve got to play the best hand they can,” he said. “They have a national brand in USA Today and strong regional markets. No one disputes that print revenues will continue to decline. It has to be replaced with digital revenues and the question is, how much and how fast?”

Burns's story is mainly about Gannett's cost cutting following a $53.7 million loss in the second quarter. Soon after that was announced, Chairman and CEO Michael Reed's forecast that by 2024, the company's digital revenues will grow enough to more than make up for the decline in its print business. "So far, Wall Street isn’t buying it," Burns writes. "Gannett stock has plunged 70% to $2.10 on Sept. 20, from a peak of $7 a year earlier, as Reed’s optimistic forecast for 2024 failed to move the share price higher. Also leaving investors unmoved was his decision to invest $1.2 million of his personal fortune in Gannett stock shortly after reporting the second-quarter loss. The stock spiked on the news, then went down again even more."

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The original Las Vegas, in New Mexico, sees a rebound from state's record wildfire now that the smoke has cleared

The Hermit's Peak fire (Photo by firefighter Terry McShane, via the Las Vegas Optic)

The largest wildfire ever in New Mexico destroyed more than 400 homes near the town of Las Vegas, population 13,000, this summer. On top of that, the town has to deal with flooding and a water crisis caused by ash from the Hermit's Peak fire limiting the capacity of its reservoir. It has obtained equipment to use an alternate source, but now locals are upset that the U.S. Forest Service has resumed controlled burns in the Santa Fe National Forest, like the one that got out of control and caused the fire, the Las Vegas Optic reports.

But there is a "silver lining," writes author Sallie Bingham, who lives in Santa Fe: Fire crews from several states boosted Las Vegas businesses, including the La Castaneda Hotel, "recently completely restored after years of ruin by an inspired investor/designer—Allan Affeldt—who understands that renovating a hotel central to the life of the town inspires and invigorates many small, previously struggling local businesses. There are no big box stores in Las Vegas (they hover on the outskirts), no Starbucks on the Plaza, which makes it—as a new friend in an antique store there told us—'The best town in New Mexico to move to, offering what Taos and Santa Fe offered years ago'."

Las Vegas, New Mexico (Google map; click on it to enlarge)
The "silver lining" phrase comes from Bingham's friend Jim Terr and his online (and occasionally printed) Hermits Peak Howler. He sees a "renewed sense of optimism in the town—even while the immediate countryside, devastated by the three hundred thousand-acre fire and then by flooding in the burn scars," Bingham writes. In the July edition of the paper, Terr noted the widespread news coverage of the fire and wrote, "Now is our chance to build on that awareness to increase tourism to our still-beautiful area."

Bingham writes, "Our new friends, the husband and wife who run the big antique store on Las Vegas’ main street, are not dismayed by what has happened; in fact they radiate hope. While showing me a rare 1940’s Zuni needlework necklace—not needlework but tiny turquoise chips inlaid in silver—they talked about the resilience that marks out their little town. Then, while persuading my somewhat reluctant friend to buy a Taxco silver man’s necklace—there is such a thing, turquoise symbols of Mayan origin inlaid in silver—they told us about the many businesses that have revived since the fire or appeared brand new such as the Buffalo Hall & Cowboy CafĂ© where we’d just eaten huge green chili and barbecue hamburgers in an enormous bar, pool hall, and soon to be dance hall, to resound one day with the heel tapping of country western dancers—some day not too far in the future, I hope. They didn’t mention the little roadside stand with the Hawaiian name—Ohana—where we’d eaten the best coffee ice cream I’ve ever had, which provided Jim with his afternoon caffeine."

How easy is it to vote in your state? Here's how it ranks

New York Times chart; for a larger version, click on it. To download it, right-click.
How much time and trouble does it take to vote in your state? In other words, how much does it cost? The answer is available, at least in relative terms, from the Cost of Voting in American States: 2022, a nonpartisan academic study. The previous report was in 2020, before an "avalanche of voting laws passed by state legislatures across the country after the 2020 election," The New York Times reports.

"Voters in New Hampshire and Mississippi face the highest personal cost in the country in terms of the time and effort required to cast a ballot. Voters in Oregon and Washington have it the easiest," the Times reports. "Researchers focused on 10 categories related to voting, including registration, inconvenience, early voting, polling hours and absentee voting. The two categories given the most weight, according to Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University and an author of the study, were ease of registration to vote and the availability of early voting, both in person and by mail. . . . The study draws a distinction between early voting and in-person absentee voting, which, according to Dr. Schraufnagel, 'looks a lot like early voting but is not the same thing,' because it can be limited to county election offices rather than more numerous polling sites."

UPDATE, Sept. 23: The report has a similar graph showing voter-registration deadlines; here's a map from The Washington Post with essentially the same information:


To cover politics and democracy, re-engage with your community, including people who don't trust the news media

One of the "Pints and Politics" community listening sessions held by WABE, a public radio station in Atlanta.

In the third part of her series on covering politics and democracy, Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute urges news outlets to repair their relationships with their communities, including people and groups who don't trust the traditional news media, and she offers examples.

"In September, a group of North Carolina news and journalism organizations, organized by the NC Local News Workshop, held a community dinner in rural North Carolina, inviting residents to 'share your views about local issues that matter to your community and tell news and information organizations how you want to be informed.'

"For help in engaging communities, news organizations have turned to collaborations with local civic groups, a partnership that can be complicated but not impossible. The Richland Source newsroom in Ohio launched a series of community conversations last year and worked with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative on one of its largest sessions." Brittany Schock, the newsroom’s engagement editor, advised against duplicating civic education efforts: Instead, “find people who are already doing this work. They understand that elections matter very much.”

What about "people who believe conspiracy theories, righteously share misinformation, and profess to hate the media?" Trusting News "has a list of questions that can help guide those tense, complicated conversations. An important tip: If you begin with questions that acknowledge the lack of trust in media ('What do journalists often get wrong about you or things in your life?') you can gradually build to the issue you’re there to cover." Avoid politically charged words and phrases; saying "the big lie" in discussing the 2020 election makes people who believe it stop listening, says Sharon McMahon, a former government teacher who has a non-partisan podcast with 1 million Instagram followers.

Other ideas:

  • "Opinion pages that include reader-submitted letters and regular local guest columnists."  Here is advice from API on how to make your opinion pages completely local.
  • “Pints and Politics” gatherings, which can include trivia contests, focusing on facts. Elizabeth cites The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, WABE in Atlanta and The Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., as examples.
  • "Expand your definition of community leaders and think in terms of influential residents. A community’s most knowledgeable and effective representatives could be a local store clerk, a grandmother, a middle school teacher or a librarian."

Officials in Kentucky and West Virginia have ignored plans that could have mitigated the damage from recent floods

Cleaning out in Fleming-Neon, Ky. (Photo by Justin Hicks, Ohio Valley Resource)

Officials in Kentucky and West Virginia repeatedly ignored plans to prepare for catastrophic floods like those that hit Central Appalachia in late July, Alexa Beyer reports for Mountain State Spotlight.

"West Virginia has had a comprehensive flood mitigation plan on the books since 2004, though officials have taken little concrete action to implement it," Beyer writes. "And in Kentucky, extensive regional plans spell out how communities could decrease the potential for flood damage. In these cases, planning and taking action haven’t gone hand in hand." West Virginia's plan "was loaded with actionable suggestions on floodplain and wastewater management, ordinance enforcement, better flood warning systems, improved building codes, and a tougher approach to resource extraction. Yet it was never implemented by any of the state agencies that would have had jurisdiction over parts of the plan."

In Kentucky, there is no effective statewide plan. The state delegates disaster mitigation planning to counties and cities, "which in theory allows communities to tailor their plans to their specific needs," Beyer writes. "In practice, most municipalities in turn delegate disaster planning to regional area development districts." The state has 15 of those, 120 counties and 4.5 million people.

Bill Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, told Beyer that there is no coordinated effort to prevent flooding in the state: “There are people in state government in our Division of Water, for example, who do work on flooding, but there’s no really highly concentrated intense statewide effort.”

Longtime Letcher County Surveyor Richard Hall told Beyer, “This is just the truth in Appalachia right here. … We have never followed the rules in Appalachia.” Hall "ensures structures built within the floodplain comply with local codes in his current role, but he had no knowledge of the county’s flood mitigation plan. Neither did the county’s flood coordinator nor the 911 director." And Letcher County was one of the hardest hit in the latest flood.

"Nearly five years after the Kentucky River Area Development District made its five-year plan recommending two action items for the [Letcher County] town of Fleming-Neon, officials hadn’t made any progress on one of them: moving City Hall out of the flood plain. Mayor Susan Polis said she didn’t recall it being something they planned to do," Beyer reports. "Calls to dozens of emergency management officials for cities and counties in Eastern Kentucky hit by the most recent flood revealed that most did not know what their local flood mitigation plan was, or that their area development district was the entity that had made it."

Children in the food deserts of the Black Belt in Alabama are 'still being forgotten,' researcher says

Children in the food deserts of Black Belt in Alabama are "still being forgotten," Brandan Renfroe, who researched food insecurity at University of West Alabama, tells AL.com. Renfroe surveyed 742 students in 16 Black Belt high schools and "found that a quarter of the students self-reported as experiencing food insecurity, with about 9% facing very low food security, meaning food has run out and they’ve gone a day or more without eating, far exceeding the national average," Savannah Tryens-Fernandes reports.

The story begins with this example: "Angela Pettway drives 90 miles round trip to the grocery store almost every day. Food runs out quickly in her rural Alabama household. She homeschools two of her children and feeds them all three meals. She also helps care for her dad. More and more recently, neighbors have been coming over to ask if she has any food to spare."

The Black Belt was named "for the dark, fertile soil that made this region of Alabama a hub of cotton production and therefore slavery, with one of the highest concentrations of enslaved Black folks in the South," Tryens-Fernandes notes. "Today, the name refers to the majority Black population that live there, people who can mostly still trace their ancestors back to the plantations. But over the past century, local food production has decreased, with many farmers aging out of the profession, being priced out, or affected by severe soil erosion."

Tryens-Fernandes, a Report for America reporting fellow, examines various food programs in the region. It's a good example of how to report on a problem that's big but may not be obvious.


Sunday, Sept. 25, is First Amendment Day

Sunday, Sept. 25, is First Amendment Day, promoted by The Freedom Forum.

"It’s a great day to reflect on the five freedoms the First Amendment protects," the foundation says, listing three ways to "celebrate our fundamental freedoms":

· Learn more about your freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition by following us on Twitter and Instagram.

· Listen to this new episode of “Reelfoot Forward: A West Tennessee Podcast” to hear about how we’re celebrating our freedoms at a Freedom Forum First Amendment Festival in Union City, Tenn., on Sept. 24.

· Read how the First Amendment shields our beliefs and views from government interference in a new column by Freedom Forum Senior Fellow Gene Policinski.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

National Newspaper Week starts in 12 days; site includes many resources, including presentation for civic groups

It's time to start planning for National Newspaper Week, which starts Oct. 2, in only 12 days.

The 82nd annual observance "is a recognition of the service of newspapers and their employees throughout the United States and Canada and is sponsored by Newspaper Association Managers," the National Newspaper Week website says.

Newspapers need more recognition as servants of their communities, now that social media have become dominant. Among the editorials on the website is one titled, "Social media may be fun, but they're no replacement for newspapers."

The website also has logos, cartoons, house ads, ads from the Free Speech Center and the Public Notice Resource Center, information on how to hold community forums on any topic, and a presentation that editors and publishers can give to community groups. And don't forget to make your case on social media, too!

API on political coverage: Collaborate, involve community, cover the voting process and make your plans public

The second installment of the American Press Institute's guide to covering elections and democracy suggests changes in traditional political coverage, and much of it relates to rural places.

API's Jane Elizabeth suggests looking at other news organizations as potential collaborators, not competitors, to serve the public better. She cites the Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire and Spotlight PA as examples, but this applies to state legislative races, too.

Other ideas: Involve the community in your planning, and tell your audience how you plan to cover the election, perhaps with a mission statement, as WyoFile did. The weekly Chatham News+Record of Siler City, North Carolina, laid out its coverage plan Aug. 31. That includes what it won't cover: "No fundraisers, no partisan events, no endorsements. . . . Rather, it’s our sincere hope that full and complete coverage — in print, and online, in front of our website’s “paywall” — will give you the information you need to do your duty: make an informed, intelligent choice when you cast your ballot."

The News+Record said it will also cover the voting process, to "promote transparency in the process, and by extension, provide stories about how voting in Chatham County works — as well as a look at the people who are responsible for ensuring a smooth, integrity-based voting experience."

Along that line, "We’ll be asking each candidate his or her opinion on the stubbornly persistent, but factually incorrect, claim that the 2020 presidential election was 'stolen' from then-President Donald Trump, and that Joe Biden in fact did not win that election," Publisher Bill Horner III wrote. "We won’t be a party to misinformation or disinformation. If a candidate speaks untruths or shares incorrect information, we’ll point that out and provide details about why."

UPDATE, Oct. 17: For more on the News+Record's election coverage, including Horner's interview with Buck Ryan of the University of Kentucky journalism school, click here.

For the first installment of API's series, which The Rural Blog summarized yesterday, click here.

Rural counties with the most population loss voted the most Democratic for president in 2020, The Daily Yonder reports

Map by The Daily Yonder, adapted by The Rural Blog; for the interactive version, click here.

Joe Biden carried only 10% of rural counties in the 2020 election, but "There was a certain type of rural county where Biden doubled that rate of victory. Unfortunately for Democrats, it was rural counties that are losing the most population," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder.

"From 2010 to 2020, 244 rural counties lost 10% or more of their population. Biden won the popular vote in 20% of those counties, as opposed to the rest of rural America, where he won at about half that rate," Melotte writes. "Population loss didn't cause those counties to support Biden. Rather, it's the demographics of those counties that are losing population that explain the difference. The rural communities with the most population loss had higher percentages of ethnic or racial minorities than the rest of rural America. And these are populations that tend to vote more Democratic." The major example of that is Southern counties with large Black populations.

Free one-hour webinars at noon and 2 p.m. CT Wed. will focus on mental health of farm youth, workplace protection

As part of National Farm Safety and Health Week, the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety will present free back-to-back webinars, from 2 to 3 p.m. CT Wednesday, Sept. 21.

From noon to 1 p.m. CT, Diane Rohlman of the University of Iowa and the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest, will present, “Protecting and promoting the health of young agricultural workers: The role of employers and supervisors.” Click here to register. Adolescents and young adults working in agriculture (under 25 years old) are at increased risk for occupational injuries.

From 2 to 3 p.m. CT, “Farm youth mental health: What we know and how to help” will be presented by Josie Rudolphi, assistant professor and Extension specialist at the University of Illinois. She says in a press release, “From adapting to changes to feeling overwhelmed, like adults, children also experience stress and anxiety; however, they may be unsure of what they are feeling and how to respond. We will recognize causes of stress among youth living in farming and rural communities and highlight the resources available to assist families.”

Rudolphi's research focuses on mental health conditions among agricultural populations. She is principal investigator on the Farm Adolescent & Mental Health study with the children's agricultural center. She is director of North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance, a 12-state collaborative that increases and expands stress and mental health services to agricultural producers, workers, and their families. Her co-presenter will be Jana Davidson, program manager for the Progressive Agriculture Foundation.

The webinars are presented by AgriSafe, which is hosting two free webinars each day of National Farm Safety and Health Week, Sept. 19-23. Based on the daily themes of tractor and roadway safety, overall worker health, children and youth, confined spaces, and women's health, AgriSafe has partnered with experts from across the country to share the latest research and education. To register, click here.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Local election offices often have a low social-media profile, and many don't try to build a following, researchers find

For an interactive map with county information, click here; to download the map, click here.

"Local election officials are trying to share voting information with the public on social media but may be missing some key platforms – and the voters who use them," Thessalia Merivaki and Mara Suttman-Lea report for The Conversation, a site for journalism by academic researchers.

For example, "Young voters in Boone County, Missouri, complained that they had missed the registration deadline to vote in the county’s Aug. 2 primary election. They claimed no one “spread the word on social media.” The local election office in that county actually has a social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. But its accounts don’t have many followers and aren’t as active as, say, celebrity or teenage accounts are. As a result, election officials’ messages may never reach their audience."

And Boone County does better than most, the researchers have found. "The vast majority of local election officials don’t even have social media accounts beyond Facebook," they write. "And, when they do, it is likely that they are not effectively reaching their audience."

But the researchers have also found that "When local election officials not only have social media accounts but use them to distribute information about voting, voters of all ages – but particularly young voters – are more likely to register to vote, to cast ballots and to have their ballots counted."

American Press Institute is reporting daily this week on how to cover democracy, or civics in a democratic republic

"How do local newsrooms cover elections at a time when democratic principles are under attack, basic voting procedures are questioned, and many people fear the future of personal rights?" So asks Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute, starting a report "meant to help news organizations think about their politics and campaign coverage in different and more effective ways."

"From community meetings in Ohio to “democracy reporters” and a focus on diverse voters, journalists are experimenting and finding better ways to cover an election like no other, Elizabeth reports, in the latest installment of API's Election Coverage & Community Listening program, which gives grants to organizations to "create journalism that better serves the needs of the public." It will add new chapters to the report every workday this week, each with a different focus that we believe is essential for any media organization covering elections and democracy. The full report, with a comprehensive list of resources, will be available Friday, Sept. 23, at americanpressinstitute.org.

Elizabeth writes, "Many local newsrooms aren’t ready to deliver more powerful coverage. Massive layoffs, hedge fund ownership, dwindling budgets and a lack of training and experience in covering an intensely divided culture — those realities have left media leaders distracted and unprepared." She suggests a refresher course for newsrooms and their audiences on what democracy is all about, and transparency by new organizations about how they cover it.

One challenge is terminology, especially after President Biden used "democracy" 34 times in a "partisan-tinged speech in Philadelphia" this month, Elizabeth notes. Some argue, "We don’t have a democracy. We have a republic." Yes, but it's a democratic republic, points out civics podcaster Sharon McMahon, who uses history lessons and plain-language explainer from the Customs and Immigration Service. She suggests using the word “civic” to describe the new beat, with repeated references to “the democratic principles of our republic.”

The urgency of the topic was illustrated Sunday by The Washington Post and The New York Times, which found several Republican nominees for statewide office unwilling to say that they would accept the certified election results. The latest large-scale journalistic treatise on threats to our democratic system comes from David Leonhardt of the Times; his essay is analyzed by Jon Allsop of Columbia Journalism Review, who says the topic "should inflect day-to-day coverage of American politics." To be crystal clear: Allsop wrote "inflect," not "infect." In other words, influence, not disrupt.

Inflation keeps small-town economic index in Ill.-Wyo. region below growth-neutral, but farmland prices continue to rise

Graphs from Farm Journal AgWeb
An index of small-town economies in 10 heartland states dependent on agriculture and energy remains below growth-neutral, as bank CEOs in the region said inflation is the top economic challenge.

The Creighton University Rural Mainstreet Index for September is 46.3, with 50 representing growth neutral. That was a slight improvement from the August index of 44, but rural economies in the region are “experiencing a downturn in economic activity,” said Ernie Goss, the Creighton economist who compiles the index. “Supply chain disruptions and inflationary pressures from higher farm input costs continue to constrain growth. Farmers and bankers are bracing for escalating interest rates, higher farm input costs, and drought below growth-neutral for the fourth straight month.”

The index report says, "Four of 10 bankers indicated that high and escalating farm input costs were the greatest economic challenge to their bank and area over the next 12 months." About two in 10 "reported drought impacts were the greatest economic challenge going forward."

Despite the current pressured, the region’s farmland-price index for September rose to 61.1 from August’s 60. It has been above growth-neutral for two years. "According to Jim Rothermich of the Land Talker, five farmland sales auctions between Aug. 27 and Sept. 2 yielded sales of greater than $20,000 per acre" in Ida, Dubuque and Sioux counties in Iowa.

"After falling below growth neutral in August, the farm equipment-sales index soared to 58 for September from 45.9 in August," the report said. "The index has risen above growth neutral for 21 of the last 22 months."

The index is based on a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Goss and Bill McQuillan, former chairman of the Independent Community Banks of America, launched the survey in January 2006.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Biden says pandemic is over, but that's not so in Appalachia

New York Times map, adapted by The Rural Blog; for the interactive version and county list, click here.

Screenshot of Times' top 20, labeled; click it to enlarge
President Biden said in an interview telecast on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday night, “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s – but the pandemic is over.” Not everywhere, Mr. President.

A widely accepted definition of a pandemic is the widespread presence of a disease over a wide geographic area, affecting a significant portion of the population. That leaves plenty of gray area, but it’s clear that there is still a pandemic in Central Appalachia, which consists primarily of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and some other rural areas around the nation.

The Mountain State ranks first in the nation for the rate of new cases in the last seven days, and on The New York Times county-level map, Eastern Kentucky is redder than West Virginia. As a whole, Kentucky ranks ninth among the states; a week ago, it ranked first.

Chambers County, Texas, across Trinity Bay from Houston, ranks first on the Times list. The next six, and 15 of the top 20, are in Central Appalachia. After that come Athens County, Ohio; Upshur County, W.Va.; and Boyd and Greenup counties in Kentucky. Several other West Virginia and Kentucky counties are in the Times' list of the top 100.

More broadly, an end-of-pandemic declaration "is hard to believe given an average of 400 Americans are dying each day," writes Katelyn Jetelina in her Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter. "But, as I’ve written before, the 'end of a pandemic' isn’t purely epidemiological, but also physiological, cultural, political, and moral. Essentially we’re collectively deciding where we place SARS-CoV-2 in our repertoire of threats. To me, this winter will be a true test as to whether we are still in an 'emergency' phase, at least if we define this by deaths, hospitalizations, and health-care capacity," as opposed to infection rates and "long Covid," examined in this report from Kentucky Health News.