Friday, October 14, 2022

News-media roundup: Nonprofit no longer means low pay; layoffs were less likely in 2021; paywalls have problems

The Osborne County Farmer is a weekly newspaper in Osborne, Kansas. (Photo by Jeremiah Ariaz, LSU)
Louisiana State University photography professor Jeremiah Ariaz is documenting the offices of small-town newspapers in his native Kansas in a "mournful but hopeful" way, Eric Thomas of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association writes for the Kansas Reflector. One is above.

Nonprofit doesn't mean low pay: The boom in funding for nonprofit news organizations has made more of them them fully competitive with traditional news outlets, according to a study by the Institute for Nonprofit News. "The INN Member Compensation Study shows that salaries for editorial positions have grown significantly, with the average reporter salary jumping to $82,943 from $58,858 in 2020, when the first study was conducted. Benefits have markedly increased, too, with 86% of news organizations offering paid time off, compared with just over half in 2020," INN reports. Its chief network officer, Jonathan Kealing, said, “The financial benefits of working for a nonprofit news organization in the INN network have gotten better over time, and they compare favorably with advertised compensation packages at comparably sized legacy media outlets.”

Pew Research Center graph
Layoffs at large newspapers and digital news sites were less prevalent in 2021 than in the pandemic-stressed year of 2020, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of news stories on the subject. It says 11% of large papers and only 3% of high-traffic digital-native news outlets – those with a monthly average of at least 10 million unique visitors – had layoffs in 2021, the lowest percentages since Pew began tracking them in 2017. A caveat: "The decline in circulation at U.S. newspapers also may play a role in the decrease . . . The number of daily newspapers with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or more – the threshold for inclusion in this analysis – declined from 110 in 2017 to 73 in 2021."

Paywalls have become an essential feature of the news business, so it can keep paying for journalism. But what sort of paywall fits what sort of market? In his free Second Rough Draft newsletter on Substack, former news executive Dick Tofel makes some key points: "Paywalls work only when a publication is producing high quality content in high quantity," and most don't do that often enough to attract a large digital following: "The average Gannett or Lee chain paper, for instance, has about 6,000 paying digital subscribers. That’s not enough to make this economic model work in the long term."

Also, the harder the paywall, the harder it is on people with less money. "Setting the meter at an economically optimal level is relatively easy for larger organizations, with big audiences and sophisticated analytic capabilities, but it’s much harder for smaller organizations, especially community papers that have neither," Tofel writes. "The growing economic dependence of these publications on their readers is having increasingly troublesome editorial consequences. This dependence, I think, is the principal source of the rising tide of consumerist features and the increasing celebration of luxury items and trends. Even worse, at least in my view, is what I am starting to see as a reluctance to challenge readers’ preconceptions."

Mississippi River nears a historic low, leading to grounded barges, high shipping rates and less profit for farmers

Crews move pipes across Wolf River Harbor in 
Memphis. (Photo by Patrick Lantrip, Daily Memphian)
Dropping water levels in the Mississippi River have caused shipping costs to rise just as harvest season approaches for many Midwestern soybean and corn farmers, reports Keely Brewer in a story for the Daily Memphian that was republished by Investigate Midwest via the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. Near Memphis, the river was just a few feet higher than an all-time low set in 1988 and the National Weather Service projected that the water level could get close to the record by the end of the month.

Eight barges ran aground in the low water last week and the dropping water level means fewer will be able to transport their loads to New Orleans, where they can be shipped globally. "A low river’s impact on barge traffic is twofold," Keely writes. "The lower the water, the narrower the river, and the fewer barges can fit in the channels. And the lower the water, the lighter the load." Barges are the most efficient shipping method as one barge has the capacity of 35 train cars or 134 semi-trucks. The American Commercial Barge Lines said that capacity has been reduced by at least 20%.

Ultimately that leads to higher shipping costs and less profit for farmers. "The majority of our product goes down the Mississippi River for export," said John Dodson, a farmer and a representative of the Soy Transportation Coalition. "And if the terminal cannot take it, if the barges cannot move the grain down to the ports in New Orleans, we’re at a standstill, so those crops just sit in the field." Farmers have lost about $1 per bushel, which is a 10-20% loss, Dodson said.

"The upper Mississippi River is managed by locks and dams, while the river below St. Louis is free flowing," reports Brewer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can release water from the dams upriver to increase depth but that's reserved for "dire situations." For now the Corps is dredging the river to deepen channels while the Coast Guard manages traffic.

During the pandemic, many sought solace in raising backyard farm animals; now many of them need new homes

Lenore Braford holds a rooster named Percy.
(Photo by Travis Long, Raleigh News & Observer)
The isolation common to the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many remote workers to adopt a cat, dog and, in some cases, a whole flock of chickens or other farm animals. Some turned out to be too much to handle for those unaccustomed to raising livestock, and now many need new homes while the few shelters left to house them run out of room, reports Martha Quillin for The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. 

"A lot of people started backyard flocks during the pandemic," said Lenore Braford, who runs Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge in Pittsboro, N.C. "Some of them really didn’t know exactly what they were getting into." Braford told Quillin that the refuge is full. After getting the birds, Quillin writes that many didn't account for "housing, feed, a watering system, security, veterinary care, disposal of at least 8 pounds of manure per bird each month, and a six- to eight-year natural life span."

Rebecca Reynolds, who runs her own animal rescue about 60 miles east of Raleigh, said the top issue where she lives is pigs. "I’ve had 12 emails in the past week alone about pigs," Reynolds said. Many folks adopted "teacup" pigs while being promised that the swine would stay small, however "'teacup' is not a swine breed, just a misleading label for a pot-bellied pig, which is smaller than a market pig but still can reach 150 pounds and root up hardwood floors," Quillin reports. 

Because of the pandemic, many more typical animal shelters are also full, said Rachel Cronmiller the manager of a shelter in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cronmiller said the pandemic canceled many spay/neuter operations, leading to an explosion in the population of cats and dogs. 

Appalachia may be left out of soon-to-rise exports of natural gas; industry sources blame difficult pipeline permitting

Despite projections for growth in U.S. natural-gas exports, investments in gas production may shift away from Appalachia, Joseph Markham reports for Yahoo!Finance. A tough regulatory environment in northeastern states has made it hard for gas companies to build pipelines to transport gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations — one of the nation's largest gas reserves, which lies beneath much of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and southern New York.

Investment capital is headed "down to the Gulf Coast," Kevin Little, senior vice president for natural gas at Macquarie Energy at a natural gas conference held by Hart Energy. As demand for gas is rising in Europe, due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there are expectations for growth in the U.S. gas industry, especially in Texas, Louisiana and the Midcontinent region, Little said.

After a couple years of pipeline construction in the northeast, many states, like New York and New Jersey began to push back and deny certification for pipelines, Markham reports. Lawsuits over proposed pipeline projects traveled to the Supreme Court, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has struggled to pass legislation allowing for the completion of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would pass through his state and Virginia.

"If you have to get an act of Congress to get your permits to build a pipeline, if you’ve got to go to the Supreme Court and you still can’t build a pipeline, this is not a great environment to build midstream infrastructure," Little said. "And so, you’ve not seeing a whole lot of new pipelines proposed."

Quick hits: USDA lending system called outdated; rewriting the history of farming; who funds pink-slime publications?

The Department of Agriculture's outdated underwriting system hobbles rural lending, Maria Volkova reports for National Mortgage News.

America's lost crops rewrite the history of farming, Sarah Laskow writes for The Atlantic.

The Daily Beast names one billionaire who is funding "pink slime" journalism.

Montana wants to be the next wine country, from the Daily Yonder

The West is losing 1.3 million acres of sagebrush steppe per year, writes Sarah Trent for High Country News.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Farm families' income from off-the-farm jobs, always significant, is becoming even more important, study says

University of Missouri map; for a larger image, click on it.

The economic success of rural communities, especially those based on farming, is increasingly tied to "connectiveness" to nearby urban counties as more farmers rely on off-farm jobs to drive income, says a study by researchers at the University of Missouri and commissioned by CoBank, which makes loans to cooperatives, agribusinesses, rural public utilities and farm-credit associations.

Rural economies are becoming more diverse as the efficiency of modern food production has required less workers for agriculture. In 1970, 15% of nonmetropolitan county employment was agriculture-based, by 2019 it was 6.5%. 

According to the study, those who do work in agricultural production are also becoming more dependent on off-farm income. Over half the principal farm operators in the U.S. had a main job off the farm in 2017, in 1974, it was 37%. In a survey, farmers said more reliable income and health benefits were their top reasons for off-farm jobs. Half of farm households reported negative farm income in a given year. 

Rural economies are becoming more diverse as they play roles in larger regional economies that ignore county lines. Nearly 65% of the rural population lives in counties that adjoin metropolitan areas, and a willingness to commute to those areas has created more off-farm jobs. "By 2018, over half of nonmetro (54%) and farm-dependent (62%) county residents commuted outside of their county for work – up more than 10 percentage points from two decades ago," the study said. Over the past 50 years, the available work inside rural counties has become more oriented toward service jobs like healthcare, retail, professional services and restaurants. In 1970, 40% of nonmetro jobs were in those service fields and that number increased to 57% by 2019. 

America's longest ongoing strike, by UMWA coal miners in central Alabama, has lasted more than 18 months

United Mine Workers during a protest outside BlackRock
offices in New York. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)
Coal miners in central Alabama, carrying on America's largest and longest current strike, continue to resist calls to settle, reports Ericka Willis for Labor Notes. The strike, the result of a dispute between the workers and Warrior Met Coal, involves about 900 miners and began 18 months ago in April 2021, writes Willis, who is a professor in the University of Wisconsin's School for Workers. 

The roots of the strike go back to 2016 when Walter Energy, the previous owners of the Brookwood, Ala., mine, filed for bankruptcy. At the time, the miners' union agreed to a 20% wage and benefits cut until profitability could be achieved by the new owning entity Warrior Met — which is funded by a group of private equity firms, Willis writes. The mine posted record profits and large returns for shareholders in recent years but did not reverse the wage cuts, prompting the strike by the United Mine Workers of America. Not long into the strike, the union voted down a tentative proposal for a new contract from Warrior Met. A year into the strike, the firm BlackRock — the largest shareholder throughout the strike — released a public statement "calling for a labor agreement and questioning Warrior Met executives’ choices in protracting the strike," Willis reports.

The strike is believed to be the longest in Alabama history, William Thornton reported for in a September story that asked American labor historians how it might end. Gabriel Winant, a history professor at the University of Chicago, said the length of the strike was "certainly not the norm. It   typically tells you the employer has really dug in their heels for one reason or another." The length of the strike is also likely due to the size of the company and the number of workers on strike, both not large enough to likely involve government intervention, Thornton writes citing Winant. 

Warrior Met told that it had proposed eight contracts to the union, offering a 10-12% raise. The union said the eight proposed contracts were "virtually indistinguishable" from the tentative proposal they voted down at the beginning of the strike, Thornton writes.

Rural public radio stations' study says they are sometimes the only source of trusted information in news deserts

Despite operational and staffing challenges, public radio stations serving rural areas continue to serve their audiences, reports a first-of-its-kind study from the Alliance of Rural Public Media, comprising rural public radio stations across the U.S. According to the study, which is based on a survey of over 100 public radio stations in May 2022, public radio stations are increasingly becoming one of the few sources of trusted information in expanding news deserts. 

About 20% of rural radio stations operate in communities with only one or two sources of daily news, and 40% serve in areas where there are one or two weekly news sources. Some respondents in Alaska, Minnesota, North Dakota and Texas said they were the only source of weekly or daily news in their communities, the study finds. The majority of rural radio stations said they air five hours or less of locally produced content each week, be it music, news or educational content. Additionally, nearly 63% of rural public radio stations said there were natural disasters in their areas in the past 18 months, making them key sources of information during emergencies. 

Building and maintaining broadcast infrastructure can be costly to stations operating in tough terrain over large expanses. A third of surveyed stations say they spend 20 to 30% on infrastructure costs annually while nearly one in ten spending more than 50%. Like many rural outlets, the radio stations also have trouble recruiting local journalists to the area and some remote locations work only with part-time journalists. KISU in Pocatello, Idaho, told the survey that they have "three local news employees, all of which hold a degree in journalism but have full-time careers in other fields. These employees average 10 hours per week, 30 hours collectively."

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Gannett slashes more personnel costs: unpaid leave; freeze of 401(k) matches and most hiring; optional unpaid time off

The nation's largest newspaper publisher, its stock down 70 percent since Jan. 1, imposed big cuts Wednesday, including unpaid employee leave in December and suspension of 401(k) contributions.

In a memo to employees, Gannett Co. CEO Mike Reed cited the “deteriorating macroeconomic environment” and said it would also freeze hiring except for positions deemed crucial and offer employees shorter hours and unpaid sabbaticals of up to six months. It did not mention layoffs.

“In order to sustain the mission of our company to empower communities to thrive, sustain local journalism and support small businesses with digital solutions, we need to ensure our balance sheet remains strong,” Reed wrote in the memo, quoted by The New York Times. “This mix of temporary and permanent actions allows us the near-term flexibility we need to drive improvement while preserving our ability to quickly pivot as we see the economy and areas of our business progress.”

The Times' Katie Robertson and Benjamin Mullin note, "Two months ago, Gannett cut 400 jobs and paused hiring in 400 more, after weak second-quarter earnings results. The company reported a 6.9 percent decline in revenue year over year to $748.7 million, with a loss of almost $54 million. . . . The company has more than $1 billion in debt from its merger in 2019 with Gatehouse Media. The company said this month that it had repaid $55 million of the debt since June 30 from the sale of real estate and other assets." It's sold scores of small papers and is trying to sell 60 more, sources say.

UPDATE, Oct. 13: Editor & Publisher offers more details.

Kentucky newspaper offers $3,000 for proof of vote buying

A newspaper in an Eastern Kentucky county that has been notorious for vote buying is offering a cash reward of $3,000 for evidence of the illegal act. The weekly Salyersville Independent made the offer in a full-page ad last week.

"Owner Ritt Mortimer says it wasn’t a decision he came to lightly," reports Kelsey Souto of WKYT-TV in Lexington.

Mortimer told Souto, “It’s of my opinion that every election of my 51 years has involved vote buying in Magoffin County, either to a small or very large degree at times, depending on the races involved, the money, the other factors.”

Souto reports, "He says new technology is making it easier than ever to record video or audio that could be used to prosecute individuals. It’s his way of trying to protect democracy in his hometown, but it will take a committed effort from everyone."

Typically, votes in rural Kentucky are bought through use of mailed absentee ballots, and sometimes through machine absentee voting that can be subject to manipulation. Magoffin County has long been a leader in the use of absentee voting; in the 2010 primary election, 17 percent of the vote came from absentee ballots; 7.7% of the total came from mailed-in absentees. The statewide shares were 4.3% and 1.6%, respectively.

Federal courts agree to reimburse users of online service for excessive fees; legislation would resolve issue long-term

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has agreed to reimburse users of the Public Access to Electronic Court Records system for excessive fees they have paid. The head of the main lobby for rural newspapers hopes the deal will lead to passage of legislation that would limit the fees and make it easier and more affordable for rural journalists to use the PACER system.

Under the settlement with the National Veteran Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice, PACER users can be reimbursed for up to $350 for 10-cents-a-page fees paid between April 21, 2010, and May 31, 2018. Higher amounts could be paid if money is available; the settlement guarantees $125 million for reimbursements and legal costs.

The groups' lawsuit alleged that the fees had become a funding source for other programs that had nothing to do with PACER. Under the agreement, which is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the court system will seek congressional appropriations for such programs, as it does for most of its budget, rather than relying on user fees to raise money.

Journalists and others who used PACER during the settlement period should watch for emails later this year with information on receiving reimbursement, National Newspaper Association Chair John Galer, publisher of the Hillsboro Journal-News in Illinois, said in a news release. Galer said the fees can be a barrier to the public’s right to know, and he urged Congress to pass a bill named the Open Courts Act, S 2614, by Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Wyden of Oregon, which would limit the fees by law.

"Advocates for court transparency say the unusual case has put pressure on the judiciary to overhaul the system and prompted Congress to act," reports Ann Marimow of The Washington Post. "Lawmakers in the House passed a bipartisan bill to ensure free access to PACER, and a similar proposal passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. . . . A federal appeals court in 2020 upheld a lower court finding that the charge of 10 cents per page is 'higher than necessary to operate the system,' and the court limited fees to the amount needed to cover the cost of providing access online. . . . While the lawsuit was pending, the judiciary eliminated fees for about 75 percent of users and doubled the quarterly fee waiver to $30, according to court records."

Galer said, “This reimbursement for the past users is long overdue, but if Congress doesn’t set the ground rules, nothing in this lawsuit is going to prevent the same problem from happening again. The federal courts are a primary news source these days. They are dealing with hundreds of cases that involve public policy affecting Main Street and community newspaper readers. Reporters need to be able to see these records to report on the news affecting our towns. Maybe even more importantly, our readers need access so they can make sure that both the courts and our journalists are telling them what they need to know.”

The intensity of rain is rising in most of the U.S., mainly in eastern states, study of two 30-year periods concludes

It's raining harder in the U.S., reports a study published Tuesday by researchers at Northwestern University in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters. "The research offers confirmation of what atmospheric scientists have been warning of for years: a warmer world is, on balance, a wetter world. And as global temperatures continue to rise, an uptick in precipitation extremes is expected," meteorologist Matthew Cappucci writes for The Washington Post

A man launches a boat during late July's severe flooding in Eastern
Kentucky. (Photo by Ryan C. Hermens, Lexington Herald-Leader)
The study did not rely on forward-looking projection models, as many recent studies have, but used historical data to compare rainfall over two periods, 1951-1980 and 1991-2020, to see what changed, Cappucci reports. In the Eastern U.S. the researchers saw a 4.5% to 5.7% increase in average daily rainfall on the days that it rained. That doesn't mean that it rained on more days or that there was more rain overall, but there "may be places where precipitation intensity is increasing but frequency is decreasing. We might not know if there’s an overall increase or decrease. That’s one thing that we’re working on," said Ryan Harp, the study's lead author. 

Data for the severely drought-stricken Western U.S. offered "mixed signals," Cappucci writes. The overall trend didn't hold true there, especially the Pacific Northwest. Citing Harp, Cappucci writes that "changes in the overall placement of weather systems are 'suppressing' any tendency for heavier precipitation in the West."

Cappucci notes that the findings of the study are consistent with a basic tenet of atmospheric physics: "For every degree Fahrenheit that air temperature rises, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more water; this is known as the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship. Where storm clouds develop and the atmosphere is sufficiently moist, it means a warmer climate will support more intense rainfall." It could help explain why the U.S. has seen five 1,000-year rain events in a five-week span this year.

Benefit concert for Eastern Ky. flood victims raises $2 million

Chris Stapleton, who organized the concert, was its star.
(Photos by James Crisp for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
An all-star cast of country musicians from Eastern Kentucky raised $2 million last night at a concert for flood relief in the region, contributing critic Walter Tunis reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Organized by Chris Stapleton, the "Kentucky Rising" concert at Rupp Arena also included Tyler Childers, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, the latter two not announced in advance. "It was an occasion where multiple generations of Eastern Kentucky artists gathered to honor their artistic and cultural heritage and, in the process, help out their neighbors in a time of unfathomable crisis," Tunis writes.

Tyler Childers was another headliner.
"On the surface, Yoakam’s performance – his first Rupp outing on over two decades – seemed devoted exclusively to the sleekness of the Bakersfield country sound of which he has so long been a torchbearer.  "Yet, more than any other artist playing Kentucky Rising, he offered the most detailed imagery of his Eastern Kentucky (specifically, Pikeville) roots . . . Stapleton’s concluding set was as solid as oak without the guests as it was with them. The inflection and, to a great degree, intent of his singing was used to color songs rich with vintage country narratives."

The concert had some touches of Western Kentucky, which has a separate coalfield that spawned one of the most popular coal songs. "With all performers and band members onstage in an assemblage worthy of The Band’s The Last Waltz, Stapleton and company performed 'Paradise' together on the evening after what would have been the 76th birthday of its late composer, John Prine," Tunis reports. (At Nashville's Ryman Auditorium that night, another great cast paid tribute to Prine, American Songwriter reports.)

The recovery from the flood has been slow, and the impact is felt every day. "A 97-year-old Letcher County woman who received national attention in July for a photo of her surrounded by water in her home when flooding devastated Eastern Kentucky has died," the Herald-Leader's Valarie Honeycutt Spears reports. "Missy Amburgey Crovetti said her grandmother Mae Amburgey died Saturday, not fully aware that a photo of her sitting on a bed surrounded by four feet of water in her Letcher County home, had gone viral and brought her national attention. 'I believe she died of a broken heart,' said Crovetti, noting her grandmother missed her home. Amburgey had been staying in Alabama with her son for about a week, unable to return to her flood-ravaged home."

Mae Amburgey in her flooded home
(Photo by Gregory Amburgey)

Can a state regulate conduct outside its borders for moral reasons? Supreme Court faces question in Calif. pork case

Pigs in tight quarters (Photo by Jordan Gale, Reuters)
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of a California law that could affect pork producers in the rest of the country. A 2018 California ballot measure, approved by over 60% of voters, required that all pork sold in the state "come from breeding pigs housed in spaces that allow them to move around freely," reports Adam Liptak for The New York Times. But since the state consumes 13% of pork produced in other states while producing almost no pork of its own, the court has been pushed to consider a larger question: Can a state regulate conduct outside its borders?

In oral arguments, the attorney for the National Pork Producers Council maintained that California "could not impose a state law that principally affects what happens in other states," reports Nina Totenberg of NPR. The attorney said the law's main impact would be on "the state where the business is located," noting that Iowa has 65,000 sow farms.  

Justices peppered both sides with questions. One notable back-and-forth came when Justice Elena Kagan asked a federal attorney, arguing for pork producers, if it would have been "impermissible for a state to have said, we’re not going to traffic in products that have been produced by slavery?" The attorney said, "I think the logic of our position would say yes." Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wondered if the issue was better suited for Congress under the Constitution's commerce clause. Kagan also observed that such laws could be weaponized by states trying to get back at one another. 

"We live in a divided country, and the Balkanization that the framers were concerned about is surely present today," Kagan said. She added: "Do we want to live in a world where we’re constantly at each other’s throats and, you know, Texas is at war with California and California at war with Texas?"

Co-ops in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware band together to increase the rollout of high-speed internet to rural areas

Electricity was slow in coming to rural areas because investor-owned utilities felt connecting widely dispersed people in sometimes tough terrain would be unprofitable. Rural electric cooperatives filled the gap, and now a group of co-ops has formed a multi-state broadband co-op to bring greater internet access to rural areas in the mid-Atlantic, Chris Teale reports for Route Fifty

The Virginia Maryland and Deleware Association of Broadband Cooperatives says it has connected 30,000 rural Virginia residents since 2017 and is planning to add 200,000 over the next three to five years. "Broadband uses most of the same infrastructure the co-ops do to provide electricity, including public rights of way," Teale writes. "This next phase of fiber deployment across Virginia could be challenging, however, due to the topography of the communities and low population density."

Gary Wood, the CEO of Firefly Broadband, a subsidiary of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, said his service area includes parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which sometimes forces installers to dig into rock or cross marshland to lay fiber cables. Internet can also be expensive in the area since it averages only eight customers per mile, but the larger co-op could reduce consumer costs by larger purchases of equipment. 

Co-ops across the nation have had success in expanding rural broadband. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association says that about 200 co-ops "are providing or building out broadband, while another 200 are assessing the feasibility of providing service," Teale reports. Over 6 million homes in co-op service areas still lack access to high-speed internet.

Opinion: Rural Americans should identify as part of nation's diversity and seek roles in economy, centers of influence

Doug Burns
Rural Americans have a diverse set of experiences that are being increasingly left out of the modern economy, and they need to assert themselves by using a term that they may think doesn't include them, argues Douglas Burns in a column on his Substack newsletter, The Iowa Mercury: "For too many rural Americans, the term diversity is synonymous with otherness because residents of remote regions don’t realize that we, too, are underrepresented and misunderstood. Policies and structures strand and marginalize us. We rural Americans need to focus on correcting this, finding allies in other demographics who are similarly left out of the modern American economy and higher education and top levels of the judiciary — and yes, even my profession, journalism, where rural voices can be absent or hard to find in key power centers. Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy — one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to coastal tech clusters."

At his family's Carroll Times Herald, Burns works "aggressively" to get a mix of students from urban and rural areas for their internship programs, to let them "see rural Iowa up close and personal," he writes. That way if those students end up going to larger news media organizations with more reach "they bring an understanding and empathy of rural Iowa to decisions on how we will be covered at the national level."

Residents of remote regions are often "underrepresented and misunderstood" and are marginalized by their lack of representation in the wider culture, Burns writes, Citing a Daily Yonder interview with a legal scholar and his own conversation with former President Barack Obama, he notes how the rural experience is misunderstood by the legal system and the Supreme Court lacks a rural voice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Rankings show how micropolitan areas, centered on towns with 10,000 to 50,000 people, fared during the pandemic

Heartland Forward's key focus area and top 25 micropolitans
(Click the map to enlarge; click here for the interactive version.)
Micropolitan areas — centered on towns of 10,000 to 50,000 residents — have faced varied economic challenges over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, shows a ranking of micropolitans by Heartland Forward, a nonprofit focused on economic development in the central U.S. The nonprofit's 2022 ranking of the country's "most dynamic" micropolitans examined changes in key economic conditions from 2015 to 2020. The rankings also paid special attention to the change in employment in each micropolitan from Sept. 2020 to Sept. 2021 to study a town's ability to rebound from the economic halt of the early pandemic. 

Los Alamos, N.M., population 19,330, was ranked as the most dynamic micropolitan. The community benefited from an expansion of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which secured a $2.5 billion contract with Triad National Security, the rankings showed. Several western towns made the top 25, four in Colorado and three in Washington. Jefferson, Ga., was the only town east of the Mississippi River to crack the top 10. 

Towns that were centered around outdoor recreation but still offered strong, stable internet connection benefited from the pandemic, the report says. Communities "driven by food production and processing found success, in part, because such operations remained open throughout the pandemic to prevent food shortages." The National Beef Packing Company in Dodge City, Kan., helped propel the town to No. 22 in the rankings. It was ranked No. 358 in 2020.

Newspaper ownership is shifting back toward local; regional and family-owned chains expand, buying from larger ones

Chart by Simran Pawani, Axios
"A group of regional newspaper chains and family-owned newspaper groups are beginning to buy back newspapers from major groups like Gannett, Alden Global Capital and Lee Enterprises, which are trying to reduce their footprints to save costs," reports Sara Fischer of Axios Media Trends. However, "The churn rates for papers sold to smaller groups, in some cases, remains high."

Fischer draws on the State of Local News 2022 report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The report was authored by Penelope Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin, with contributions from other writers.

Family-owned Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky., "has bought 60 papers in the past two and a half years, but also sold five and closed or merged 10," Fischer reports. "Ogden Newspapers, another family chain, has bought 28 in that time frame, but it's closed or merged 11."

Fischer notes, "In the past two years, roughly two-thirds of the 90 papers that newspaper giant Gannett has sold were bought by either Paxton or CherryRoad Media, a regional chain based out of New Jersey that was launched in 2020. Today, six of the 10 largest newspaper owners in the U.S. are regional chains, and half of those chains didn't exist a decade ago."

Gannett and other chains are expected to keep offloading newspapers. Abernathy and Franklin say most newspaper purchases are for between "two and six times cash flow, or approximately 10% to 30% of revenue if a property is unprofitable."

Many Mississippi courts have no records of search warrants, concealing an important key to monitoring police work

The site of a no-knock warrant in Greenville, Miss.
(Photo by Rory Doyle/ProPublica, via Daily Journal)
Over a third of Mississippi's courts are breaking record-keeping rules that require them to to keep all search warrant records, reports Caleb Bedillion for Tupelo's Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in partnership with ProPublica. The news organizations surveyed the state's 82 county justice courts in the state and the municipal courts in the 10 largest cities, and found that 15 courts had no search warrants among their records and 16 only had partial records, essentially blocking public access to them.

The problem of missing records becomes more acute when trying to track down no-knock search warrants — which hand officers the ability to search a residence without announcing themselves. The practice has attracted widespread national scrutiny, most recently after Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville police in 2020 during a no-knock raid that has resulted in the indictment of three officers.

Merrill Nordstrom, a Mississippi public defender, found that many of the warrants being issued in Greenville were no-knocks. Yet the warrants, which had been signed by a local judge and should have been returned to the court after the search, were not in the court's possession. Instead the local police department kept them, and they were "hidden from view because law enforcement agencies, unlike the courts, can claim a broad public-records exemption over records in their possession," Bedillon reports.

Define democracy as part of election coverage; increased sample-copy power lets newspapers reach all in a county

Four weeks from today, Americans will finish voting in some of the more fraught elections of our time, the first national midterm election since the presidential in 2020, which millions of Americans falsely believe wasn't fairly conducted. (Here's proof of why that belief is false.)

The American Press Institute asks, "How are newsrooms supposed to 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 — especially when we can’t even agree on what the term democracy means?" API has guidance on that, drawn partly from news organizations. The first one is from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

​​✅ Newspapers should consider using their newly increased power to send selected editions to non-subscribers at subscriber rates, in an effort to inform every household in their home county about the candidates and the issues — and be a more attractive advertising vehicle for campaigns.

✅ Brush up on the basics. Can you adequately define democracy for all readers? Can you explain what happens in a non-democratic society? Check out former high school government teacher Sharon McMahon’s Instagram for a refresher. And don’t forget to be clear with readers about your intentions; here’s how the Texas Tribune defined its election coverage.

✅ Share basic voting information in multiple formats, such as running your election guide as a Facebook ad or creating videos intended to be shared on social media. And consider translating voter guides to other languages, like VTDigger did here.

✅ Consider the diversity of the pool of experts you’ll be reaching out to throughout the election season, and update your roster. The Trusted Elections Expert Network database is a place to start.

✅ Get to know local polling officials and share polling information — and check often for changes.

Other examples: Carolina Public Press built a quiz for readers to test their knowledge of democracy and voting in North Carolina; The Washington Post offers readers the ability to create a personalized election guide using its Democracy ToolkitThe New York Times outlines top challenges to democracy; and The Nevada Independent defines what “independent” means in its Election 2022 Coverage Mission Statement.

API invites you to attend a free webinar Oct. 20: “Finishing Touches: Fine tune your midterm election coverage plans with The Associated Press and the American Press Institute.” API Executive Director Michael D. Bolden, Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel and the Lenfest Institute’s Amy Kovac-Ashley share 24 lessons for the 2022 elections — also on a Twitter thread. Here is API's series on how local newsrooms can can prepare for a series of historic elections and how back-to-basics reporting became essential in 2020 election coverage.

News media, especially local media, have an important role to play, writes Rachel Kleinfeld in a new report on U.S. democracy from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Trusted local media appears to serve as a bulwark against rabbit holes, democracy-eroding corruption, and polarization. Local media is also correlated with a host of prodemocratic habits from voting and split-ticket voting to civic participation. Local media appears to amplify the effects of counter-measures that help fight disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation.”

How do rural communities recover from disaster? Recovery is often bumpy, and that can lead to loss of population

A fire truck in Hindman, Ky., after historic flooding
in the area in late July. (Brynn Anderson/AP photo)
When a major disaster strikes a rural area, the rebuilding process is often bumpy. If there's not much temporary housing for displaced families or a lack of community cohesion then a community can often end up "smaller than they were before the event," said Susan L. Cutter, a professor and director of the Hazards Vulnerability & Resilience Institute at the University of South Carolina. In the wake of devastating flooding in some Eastern Kentucky counties and an active hurricane season, Daily Yonder Editor Tim Marema interviewed Cutter about rural disaster recovery. 

"What happens is, there’s a lot of out-migration," Cutter said. "People leave, and they seek opportunities elsewhere. You know, they’re given some resources from FEMA to assist, and they simply move out of the area. Others stay in the area and are very much focused on rebuilding, but that rebuilding is — you’re talking years to rebuild and reconstruct communities. In those instances people may start out wanting to reconstruct but ultimately end up leaving."

There have been some exceptions to the trend, Cutter said, pointing to Princeville, N.C., and Valmeyer, Ill., as examples. Princeville, a historically African American community that faced multiple hurricane-related floods, has been able to bounce back because of the high level of interest in preserving the community, leading to an influx of external resources to help rebuild. Valmeyer, a Mississippi River town that periodically flooded, is the "classic example" of post-disaster resilience, Cutter said. The tight-knit community all agreed to "physically relocate the town on a bluff instead of down in the flood plain. So they reconstructed the community with most people’s buy-in, in another location." A strong sense of place, good local leadership and often outside help can all go a long way in helping a  community keep from deteriorating after disaster, Cutter said. 

Monday, October 10, 2022

Across the country, election workers prepare for possible clashes with aggressive, conspiracy-driven poll watchers

A Republican election challenger watches over 
election inspectors in Michigan in 2020.
(David Goldman/AP Photo)
Election workers across the country are preparing for potentially confrontational volunteer poll watchers as many Republican-supporting groups, still skeptical about the results of the 2020 election, are recruiting and training volunteers to search for irregularities at precincts in November, report Hannah Schoenbaum and Nicholas Riccardi for The Associated Press. In North Carolina, aggressive poll watchers in the spring's primary election brought a tense atmosphere to some precincts and election officials had to ask poll watchers to back off at times. 

"It becomes complete babysitting," Anne Risku, the election director in North Carolina's Wayne County told AP. "The back and forth for the precinct officials, having somebody constantly on you for every little thing that you do — not because you’re doing it wrong, but because they don’t agree with what you’re doing." During the primary, Risku said that in her county there were issues with poll workers from both parties, but the 13 incidents she reported back all involved Republicans. 

Laws governing poll watchers vary in every state; their role is to generally observe and question deviations from required procedure, Schoenbaum and Riccardi report. But officials "fear that a surge of conspiracy believers are signing up for those positions this year and are being trained by others who have propagated the lie spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud."

The Republican Party in Brown County, Wisconsin, has recruited over 100 poll watchers, reports Alexa Corse for The Wall Street Journal. Ken Glowacki, a 70-year-old retiree who signed up to be a poll watcher because he was unsure about the results of the 2020 election, told Corse that he thought Democrats used the pandemic as excuse to change election rules. Nationally, Democrats have accused Republicans of recruiting partisan poll watchers to intimidate at the precincts. Republicans have rejected the notion, saying they want to increase transparency and increase confidence in elections. Jim Fitzgerald, chairman of the Brown County Republican Party said they "wanted to be a partner in restoring the integrity of the ballot box."

Southern Baptist Convention head says blind partisanship 'destroys everything,' criticizes Christian nationalism, Trump

Bart Barber, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is opposed to Christian nationalism, the leader of of America's largest evangelical institution told Anderson Cooper in an interview that aired Sunday on "60 Minutes." Barber was critical of the SBC's handling of a years-long sexual abuse scandal and Donald Trump, and said blind partisanship "destroys everything."

Bart Barber (60 Minutes)
About 60% of white evangelicals believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen, said Ryan Burge, a professor, pastor and data analyst on religion and politics. Barber, however, said he believes that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. Prior to the 2016 election, Barber called Trump a "demonstrably evil man" and didn't vote for him. Barber did vote for Trump in the 2020 election, noting that he was encouraged by the former president's advocacy for sentencing reform and his consistent pro-life support. The pastor's opinion of Trump turned negative again after the president incited a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

"I, and I think a lotta Southern Baptists, would be thrilled to have the opportunity to support someone for leadership in our country who's strong on the values that matter to us, who can do that without putting the vice president's life in danger," Barber said. 

Barber was elected president of the SBC in June, just a month after an investigation revealed that the convention's prior leadership had for decades "ignored hundreds of credible accusations of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and seminaries, partly to avoid being held financially liable," Cooper reports. Barber said that sort of behavior is what he's trying to work against, adding that at times the SBC did more than just ignore sexual abuse victims but sometimes "impugned their motives. Sometimes we attacked them." Barber said he's cooperating with a Justice Department investigation and appointed a sexual abuse task force that's building a registry of credible abuse reports to help churches track predators. 

"I have strong feelings about this," Barber said. "I'm -- it's not just anger. Although I'm angry about it. God called me to be a pastor when I was 11. I believe in this. For people to sully this hurts me. I'm not doing this to try to accomplish some PR objective for us.  I'm doing this because I wanna serve God well."

Democratic and Republican voters in Washington state are split on more than just candidates, polls show

Voters on opposing sides of the political divide in Washington state's upcoming elections are split not just on candidates but on what they think are the most important public issues, writes Danny Westneat, a columnist for The Seattle Times. In a recent poll of 782 Washingtonians conducted by Emerson College, crime was a top issue for Republican voters while just four Democrats said they were focused on crime. A poll conducted by Seattle pollster Stuart Elway showed that environment and climate change are a top-five issue for Democrats while no Republicans in the survey cited it. “It’s as if there’s two different elections going on,” Elway told Westneat.

The divide may be more acute in Washington where the urban-rural divide is accentuated by geography — the Cascade Mountains runs north-south through the western end of the state, separating the more populated coast from the largely rural eastern portions. 

Elway's poll showed that Republicans and Democrats even measured their personal lives differently from one another. Nearly 70% of Republicans told Elway that they were doing worse financially this year than last, while 75% of Democrats said they were doing just as well or better. "There’s very little chance that that finding can actually be true,” Elway said. “People are putting themselves into tribal camps with their answers, even on questions that aren’t about issues or the state of the world."

Westneat writes that this divide could have a real impact on public issues. "Crime is clearly a major issue — last week, the Seattle police chief said the city has hit a 25-year high in violent crime. Tacoma and some suburban cities are also suffering unusually high crime rates," Westneat writes. 

"But the extreme partisanship has gotten to the point that if Republicans are going to be saying crime is a huge problem, then the Democrats are going to say it’s not. Even if it is," Elway said.

Some N.Y. sheriffs say they won't enforce the state's new law banning concealed weapons in many public places

Several sheriffs in upstate New York say they don't plan on aggressively enforcing the state's new law that forbids concealed weapons in a long list of public spaces "including, but not limited to, government buildings and religious centers, health facilities and homeless shelters, schools and subways, stadiums and state parks," reports Jesse McKinley and Cole Louison for The New York Times. In an interview Wayne County Sheriff Robert Milby said the law covers "basically everywhere. If anyone thinks we’re going to go out and take a proactive stance against this, that’s not going to happen."

Sheriff Robert Milby
(Lauren Petracca for The New York Times)

The legislature passed the law over the summer. It took effect Sept. 1 but its legality has been the subject of court battles. Last week, a federal judge blocked large portions of it. The New York State Sheriffs' Association called the law a "thoughtless, reactionary action" that punishes law-abiding citizens. The sheriff of mostly rural Montgomery County said that almost every household in his jurisdiction had some sort of gun. Mike Filicetti, the sheriff in Niagara County, said his office will make no arrests on the law without his authorization and that the law is "a very, very low priority for me."

Supporters of the law accused the sheriffs of endangering the public for not supporting the law, McKinley and Louison report. David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, which works to lessen gun violence, said that several states have laws restricting concealed weapons in places like airports, courthouses and bars. “The statements that we’ve been seeing here are ideological statements,” Pucino said of the sheriffs. “And that’s not an appropriate basis for a sheriff to enforce or not enforce laws.”