Friday, December 23, 2022

Quick hits: Chestnuts, horses, igloos, poinsettias, karaoke, cancer vaccines, vertical farms, fantastic beasts, kids' books

How to build an igloo in 10 steps.
(Art by Gil Martinez, New England Today)
This is our last Rural Blog quick hits of the year: from cheer to overcome the holiday slog to discussions by karaoke enthusiasts. Here's to remembering the good and heading into 2023 with hopeful hearts.

When it snows, build an igloo. Rural New Englanders know how.

The American chestnut tree is not quite extinct, and the struggle to bring it back to its former glory is ongoing. To celebrate the chestnuts part in rural history, roast some that Nat King Cole or Mel Torme would be proud of. This Masterclass can help.

Everybody's favorite animal ought to be a horse! Here's how to convert the world.

A cure to cancer? How about a vaccine to prevent cancer? For some cancers, yes. Here's how they work.

In many produce sections, there's often not much to pick from. One company aims to remedy that by building indoor vertical farms, each capable of producing seven tons of greens daily. 

J.K. Rowling isn't the only one with "fantastic beasts." The New Yorker has some lovable, imperiled fantastical beasts drawn by a great illustrator. 

Indigenous to Mexico and Central America, poinsettias herald the festive spirit of Christmas. Read the history of how this shaggy-leaved plant became cherished holiday decor.

Glenn Highway tree (Photo by Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News, via Washington Post)
In south-central Alaska, which has about five and a half hours of daylight right now, commuters to and from Anchorage may never see daylight -- but they see the Glenn Highway Christmas tree.

The holidays can be lonely, cold or filled with family that stress you out. Holiday movies and songs can help, or at least distract, The Daily Yonder has it covered.

Planning a karaoke night? Here's the ultimate guide to finding your go-to karaoke songs with the help of reader suggestions, a panel of karaoke enthusiasts and Pandora music analysts.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff are back!  For gift ideas or delightful 2023 reading, The New York Times Best Children's Books of 2022 is here.

In rural Ga., a seemingly unlikely rebel against Trump is part of 'a precariously narrow but consequential' slice of voters

Cody Johnson leaves Beulahland Baptist Church in Beulah, Ga.,
where he voted in the state’s runoff election for U.S. Senate.
(Photo by Michael S. Williamson, The Washington Post)
Republicans’ midterm shortfall left many political observers asking, "How did that happen?" As the dust settled, the answers included this: an undercurrent of American resistance was making its way through the country. It may have been exemplified by a man named Cody Johnson in northwest Georgia, writes Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post.

On Election Day, "Nearly everything about Cody Johnson suggested he would vote a certain way," McCrummen writes. "He was white. He was 33. He was an electrician with no college degree. He had a beard and a used pickup with 151,000 miles, and he was angry at what the country was becoming. Most of all, he was from northwest Georgia, a swath of rural America where people who looked like him had voted in large majorities to send Donald Trump to the White House."

But Johnson voted against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom he called ”an embarrassment,” and against Trump-backed Senate candidate Herschel Walker because he didn’t want “some stupid s--- to happen,” he told McCrummen, who sums up, “He voted against every single Republican on the ballot for the same reason he supported Joe Biden in 2020, which had been the first time he voted in his life."

“I don’t want extremists in office,” he said. “And I have some small glimmer of hope that maybe things aren’t as screwed up as I think they are.”

Johnson's resistance was not singular. McCrummen writes: "All across the country, a similar uprising was underway as an unexpected tide of people showed up for midterm elections, turning what was supposed to be a rout for the Republican Party into a repudiation of Trumpism. In Arizona, voters rejected candidates who embraced white nationalist ideas and conspiracy theories about election fraud. In Pennsylvania, they rejected a candidate who said America is a Christian nation. Similar results had rolled in from New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and other states including Georgia, where Walker would lose in a runoff earlier this month. Even in the deep-red 14th Congressional District, Greene saw her winning margin from 2020 slip by 10 percentage points."

Neither pollsters nor politicians can see the stories that make up a life. In the case of Johnson, McCrummen writes, "it is the story of a thousand life experiences that add up to a certain kind of American character, one that can arise from the very landscape where the Trump movement took root." To explain how he got where he is politically, he and McCrummen took a trip “across the 14th District, an area that stretches from the Appalachian foothills to the outermost edges of Atlanta’s sprawl.” It’s an engrossing read.

UPDATE, Dec. 24: McCrummen's thesis is supported in a story by The New York Times, which reports, "A precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate broke with its own voting history to reject openly extremist Republican candidates — at least partly out of concern for the health of the political system," write Charles Homans, Jazmine Ulloa and Blake Hounshell. Their examples include a young Republican committee member in Lancaster Township, Pa., who was ousted as committee chair when he criticized the local party's alignment with a group that had spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines; and a former federal worker in Kingston, Nev., pop. 194,who said she believed the 2020 election was marred by fraud, but voted Democratic because of the Supreme Court's overturning of federal abortion rights.

UPDATE, Dec. 27: "Republicans faced similar unexpected setbacks with the small but crucial slice of voters who don’t identify with either major party, according to AP VoteCast, a sweeping national survey of the electorate," The Associated Press reports, with and graph (below) and examples. "Some Republican strategists say the finding is a sign that messages that resonate during party primaries, including searing critiques of Biden, were less effective in the general election campaign because independent voters were searching for more than just the opposition."

Opinion: Industrial policy goes rural as policies of Congress and administration look to help 'left-behind places'

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. (Photo from Ro for Congress)
Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, has taken an active interest in rural areas. Khanna's rural focus has grown substantial muscle with the passage of four large spending bills, the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, columnist Paul Waldman of The Washington Post writes

"Khanna has been touring the country to promote economic development in distressed areas, especially places Democrats don’t usually go. He noted that more and more members of his party now recognize that the decline in manufacturing was not only an economic problem but also 'it had a deep social cost, hurting the social cohesion of this nation."

Yes, Democrats will gain some political swagger if their projects are seen by voters, but Waldman writes, "When I asked [Khanna] whether Democratic losses in small towns and rural areas played a part in the design of these bills, in that they direct money to such left-behind places, Khanna brought up the White House chief of staff and two members of the Council of Economic Advisers." Khanna told Waldman “I know for a fact it was on the top of the minds of people like Ron Klain, people like Heather Boushey, people like Jared Bernstein — I personally have had that conversation with all three of them. And I’ve discussed it with the president himself.”

The Chips Act is now considered the highest-profile industrial project, "Though that law was signed only four months ago, the Semiconductor Industry Association claims it has already spurred $200 billion in private investment in 16 states," Waldman reports. "Some of those projects are happening in places where manufacturing has declined, such as a new Micron Technologies plant outside Syracuse, N.Y., and an Intel factory near Columbus, Ohio. But the bills also have specific place-based strategies meant to lift up entire areas that have fallen behind."

Waldman adds, "The rationale is that we suffer from inequality not only among individuals but also on the level of entire regions." Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution told Waldman the new industrial policies create “a geographical intervention: there’s a reason we’re seeing growing distrust of technology companies and economic elites. That economy seems to be taking place far from where people are. I don’t think you can run a successful economy where 10 metros on the coast dominate."

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Omnibus passes with earmarks and pandemic relief for infrastructure, and making spending website permanent

The $1.7 trillion omnibus budget-and-policy bill passed the Senate Thursday, with 18 of the 50 Republicans supporting it. The House is expected to pass it Friday to keep the government open.

Leahy and Shelby (Photo by Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call)
The bill's prime architects were Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, chair and ranking member, respectively, on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who are retiring after nearly 100 years of combined service in the Senate. Shelby, who became a Republican in 1994, said of the bill: “We know it’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in it.” The Senate rejected an attempt by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, to remove specific projects, or earmarks, from the bill, but it approved one allowing pandemic relief funds to be used for infrastructure projects.

Leahy and Shelby "steered millions of dollars to their home states through earmarks, now known as community project funding," Emily Cochrane of The New York Times  reports. "Mr. Shelby secured more than $762 million for Alabama, while Mr. Leahy sent home over $212 million."

"The spending package drew objections from some Republicans in the Senate and House who said it was bloated and full of unnecessary spending. Critics said that leadership should have released the bill sooner rather than forcing lawmakers to vote after just days to review it," The Wall Street Journal reports. "House GOP leaders had also argued that Republicans should refuse to begin talks on the bill until the next Congress, when the GOP will control the House. But those calls were ignored by Senate negotiators in both parties, in part because they worried that a GOP-led House wouldn’t be able to pass spending bills next year."

The 18 Republicans who voted yes on the 68-29 roll call were Roy Blunt, Missouri; John Boozman, Arkansas; Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia; Susan Collins, Maine; John Cornyn, Texas; Tom Cotton, Arkansas; Lindsey Graham, South Carolina; Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Jerry Moran, Kansas; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Rob Portman, Ohio; Mitt Romney, Utah; Mike Rounds, South Dakota; Richard Shelby, Alabama; John Thune, South Dakota; Roger Wicker, Mississippi; and Todd Young, Indiana.

Three Republicans did not vote: John Barrasso, Wyoming; Richard Burr, North Carolina; and Kevin Cramer, North Dakota. Four Republicans who had previously voted to advance the bill switched their votes to oppose it: Chuck Grassley, Iowa; Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi; Marco Rubio, Florida; and Tommy Tuberville, Alabama.

UPDATE, Dec. 23: The House passed the bill 225-201. Retiring Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth, D-Ky., noted that the bill makes permanent "a requirement that the Office of Management and Budget maintain a public apportionment website." Last year's omnibus required the apportionment website to be operational for the last fiscal year, but this one makes it permanent. Yarmuth said that would improve " congressional and public oversight of executive spending."

Six placed on TVA board, which was almost short of quorum

Sen. Mitch McConnell and new TVA Director Wade White
The presidentially appointed board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public utility, has been without a quorum of permanent members since May because of a political standoff between the White House and Republicans in the Senate. Since then, President Biden nominated two more directors, including a Kentuckian who pleased Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and the Senate confirmed six directors Wednesday.

The confirmation was by unanimous consent, which requires every senator to go along. Otherwise, the nominations were subject to a filibuster that requires 60 votes, and thus some Republicans, to block. The "nine-member board had been whittled down to five people, each appointed by former President Donald Trump, with two members who had been serving after their terms expired in May," reports Jonathan Mattise of The Associated Press. "The seats come with five-year terms. But when a board member’s term expires, that person can keep serving until end of the current congressional session, typically in December, or until their successors take office, whatever comes first."

Beth Prichard Geer
The new board members are Wade White, judge-executive of Lyon County, Kentucky; Al Gore Chief of Staff Beth Geer of suburban Nashville, who had offended Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst with a tweet in 2015; Huntsville, Ala., attorney Joe Ritch, who was board chair in the Obama administration; Bill Renick, former mayor and state legislator from Ashland, Miss.; Robert Klein, "a retired line foreman for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga who also filled roles with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers;" and Michelle Moore, "who grew up in LaGrange, Georgia, and lives in Richmond, Virginia, and heads a clean-energy nonprofit after leading Obama’s sustainability team," Mattise reports. "Three of the new board members' nominations date back to April 2021. Two [including White] were nominated in June, and one was nominated in July."

The board now has a member from each of the right major states served by TVA, another Senate desire. McConnell lauded the Senate for "finally adding a Kentuckian" to the board of directors. Early in the administration, the board was chaired by George W. Bush appointee and former national Republican chairman Mike Duncan of Kentucky, who left the board in 2011.

"Three Trump-appointed board members will remain in the new year: Chairman William Kilbride, whose term expires in May 2023, and Beth Harwell and Brian Noland, whose terms expire in May 2024," Mattise reports. "Environmental advocates have urged the new Democrat-appointed board members, once installed, to move more quickly in transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity, citing the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035."

Christmas on Sunday is a challenge for many Protestants; some churches cancel, change or cut back activities

Most Protestant churches will meet in some fashion on Christmas, but an increasing
number appear to be opting out. (Photo by Joanna Kulesza, The New York Times)
Part of the joy of Christmas Day is getting up, celebrating and hanging out in pajamas. It's time to relax, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday; then there's a dilemma: "Christmas is considered by most Christians to be the second-most significant religious holiday of the year, behind Easter. But most Protestants do not attend church services on Christmas Day when it falls on a weekday," notes Ruth Graham of The New York Times. "If everyone from the pews to the pulpit would rather stay home, what is a practical house of worship to do? This year, some Protestant churches are deciding to skip Sunday services completely."

Timothy Beal, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told Graham, "Christmas morning and Sunday morning are sort of in tension with each other. Most people who are churchgoers think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later." Beal's wife, a Presbyterian pastor, plans a "more relaxed" Sunday service in a smaller sanctuary, perhaps because she expects fewer congregants to attend, and that seems to be the approach of many Protestant congregations; others are dropping Sunday school and other activities.

"The Catholic Church considers attendance at Sunday Mass nonnegotiable, and the same goes for Christmas Day, no matter the inconvenience of the calendar," Graham notes. "Among nondenominational evangelical pastors, who tend to be informal and pragmatic in their approach to church matters, the numbers hosting Christmas Day services are significantly lower: Only 61 percent say they will do so, according to Lifeway research survey."

Some pastors disagree with canceling Christmas Day services. Kevin DeYoung, the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C., told Graham, "If anything, with an extra-special day we ought to be more eager to worship, not less eager. It’s one more time to sing those Christmas songs before they go away for a while.”

Couple fights for nature-friendly lawn and wins, prompting first such state law to rein in homeowners' associations

The yard (Photo by Jason Andrew, The New York Times)
A wise man once said, "The only thing more challenging than your lawn is your neighbor's lawn." Disputes over property maintenance are one reason some people prefer to live in rural areas; the disputes can range from quibbles to outright battle zones, but it's a rare lawn dispute that leads to a groundbreaking state law.

Janet and Jeff Crouch of Columbia, Md., had "lived on their quiet cul-de-sac harmoniously with their neighbors for years, and chose native plants to help insects, birds and wildlife thrive," reports Cara Buckley of The New York Times. Then they got a letter from their homeowners' association saying, "Your yard is not the place for such a habitat." The letter gave the Crouches "10 days to convert their front yard into a lawn that looked like everyone else’s."

The Crouches were not willing to tear up their nature haven without a fight that cost them $60,000. "They hired a lawyer and contacted every wildlife and environmental group they could think of, along with local legislators," Buckley reports. They filed a lawsuit, and two months later, "a Maryland state representative asked if they would allow their case to form the basis of a new environmental law. . . . A bill was drafted that forbade homeowner associations from banning pollinator plants or rain gardens, or from requiring property owners to plant turf grass. The measure gained bipartisan support, passed with near unanimity, and became law in October 2021."

Mary Catherine Cochran, former legislative director for Delegate Terri L. Hill, told Buckley that "Maryland law was the first in the country to limit homeowner-association control over eco-friendly yards."

"Lawns make up one-third of the country’s 135 million acres of residential landscaping," ecologist Douglas W. Tallamy told Buckley. Tallamy, whose book, Nature’s Best Hope, urges homeowners to change their yards into conservation corridors told Buckley, “This idea that humans and nature cannot coexist is destroying the entire planet, which in turn is destroying humans. The only way forward is to coexist. . . . Now people know if they fight back, they can win.”

News-media roundup: 2022 opinion and research gems, predictions and advice for journalism; Alaska weeklies die

Nieman Reports has picked its five best opinion pieces of 2022: Gilbert Gaul on the need to cover land-use decisions that worsen disasters, and how arduous rebuilding after a disaster really is; Isaac Bailey's argument that objectivity is less important than transparency, accuracy and fairness; Gary Langer on the need for better vetting of poll data; Anne Garrels on the courage of Ukrainian journalists; and the argument by Mardi Link of the Traverse City Record-Eagle that media coverage of adoption (especially in the context of abortion) lacks voices of adoptees: “Adoption is a parenting decision and abortion is a reproductive decision,” wrote Link, an adoptee herself. “For reporters to equate one as a solution for the other provides nothing of value to readers and perpetuates a false equivalency.” NR also gives its 10 most-read stories of 2022.

NiemanLab collected several predictions and advice for journalism in 2023, including: Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project says nonprofit news can work in smaller markets with a network model; Sue Cross of the Institute for Nonprofit News predicts more collective action among varied interests to "save the news;" Lisa Heyamoto of LION Publishers says the "independent news industry" has a roadmap to sustainability; Pia Frey and Torsten Schlegel of Opinionary say publishers should ask more questions of users as cookies die out; Kerri Hoffman of PRX says podcasting is going local; Ayala Panievsky of the University of Cambridge says "It's time for PR for journalism;" and Julia Beizer of Bloomberg says news and subscription fatigue should make publishers "focus on the value we provide our users. We must learn everything we can about who they are and what they need. And then we provide it through journalism that helps them navigate their world."

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, which does research in the U.K, the U.S. and other countries, says 22 of the findings from its research in 2022 are still relevant for 2023. They include: Many people see misinformation and harassment as big problems for digital platforms; they make snap judgments about trustworthiness of sources; people who know more about the news media use social media differently; young people increasingly use TikTok for news; and newsroom leaders are still betting on more revenue from readers.

Citing losses, Wick Communications has stopped printing the Anchorage Press and two other area weeklies, The Arctic Warrior and the Chugach Times. The website will continue, as will the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, a big weekly in an area north of Anchorage.

On-farm slaughter growing in rural Vermont, but depends on services of itinerants; USDA rejects requests to relax rules

Itinerant slaughterers load a quartered beef carcass after an on-farm slaughter.
The meat will be taken to a slaughterhouse to be processed and packaged.
(Photo by Alex Driehaus, Report for America/Valley News)

Since the intense meat shortages and processing-plant closings of the early pandemic, itinerant slaughterers in rural Vermont have become an increasingly popular way for farmers to kill animals for personal consumption, reports Frances Mize of the Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt. Now, as a means to ease backlogs in those abattoirs, Vermont livestock producers are looking for ways on-farm slaughter meat could be sold more broadly.

Last year, Vermont's farm and ranch community asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture "to allow meat from on-farm slaughters to be sold in small 'animal shares,' which would operate like community-supported agriculture," which lives on annual subscriptions from consumers. USDA declined, "but before the refusal, and with renewed force since, Rural Vermont, a Montpelier-based nonprofit focused on bolstering community-scale agriculture, has continued advocating that the rules be relaxed so consumers and farmers alike have more choices," Mize reports.

Mize gives readers an up-close description of on-farm slaughter. She attended a kill at the home of farmer who had hired an itinerant slaughterer, and wrote: "Tom Havill’s herd of cattle watched from a hillside as one of their own — secured in a holding pen — lost its life to a single shot fired by Chet Miller," Mize reports. Havill told Mize that he still can’t watch his animals being killed.

Miller told Mize he also has mixed feelings about his work: "It’s not a glorious occupation. I have a lot of people who appreciate me, and my calendar is full of people that need my help. But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and what I’m doing lays heavy on me.” Mize writes, "Some are advocating that the service Miller offers farmers through his work — doing the difficult job, which many of his customers couldn’t do themselves, of killing the animal that they’ve raised — should be reconsidered as a tool toward a more versatile, modernized food economy."

Caroline Gordon, Rural Vermont’s legislative director, told Maze, “People are feeling that the need for more resilient food systems has become apparent. The trust and transparency of our current economic system was called into question during the pandemic. . . .On-farm slaughtered meat allowed to be sold as a product, even within a small market, could alleviate some of the stresses on the slaughterhouses, some of which are booked up for many months."

Entries sought for Hillman Prizes for 'investigative journalism and commentary in service of the common good'

The Sidney Hillman Foundation is accepting entries until Jan. 30 for the 2023 Hillman Prizes honoring excellence in investigative journalism and commentary in service of the common good.

The prizes celebrate investigative reporting and deep storytelling that exposes social and economic injustice and leads to meaningful public policy change. They are awarded in these categories:
Book (nonfiction)
Newspaper Reporting (print/online)
Magazine Reporting (print/online)
Broadcast Journalism (story/series/documentary, with at least 20 minutes in total package length)
Web Journalism (story, series or multimedia project, which appeared online and may include text, photo, video, graphics); and
Opinion and Analysis Journalism (commentary and analysis in any medium)

Entries must have been published or broadcast in 2022 and have been made widely available to a U.S audience. Your material and a cover letter explaining how the entry meets the requirements can be submitted here. There is no fee to enter.

Winners will receive a $5,000 honorarium and a certificate at an event to be held in New York City, on May 9. The judges are Jamelle Bouie, columnist, The New York Times; Maria Carrillo, former enterprise editor, Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle; Ta-Nehisi Coates, bestselling author and former national correspondent, The Atlantic; Alix Freedman, global editor for ethics and standards, Reuters; Harold Meyerson, editor at large, The American Prospect; and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher, The Nation.

“The Hillman Prizes go to watchdog journalists who bring us the stories of the marginalized and voiceless and hold power to account,” said Alexandra Lescaze, executive director of the Sidney Hillman Foundation. “Investigative journalism is a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy and has the potential to initiate the public policy changes that move societies forward. The Hillman Prize is an acknowledgment and a token of gratitude for their essential work.”

Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue investigative journalism and public policy for the common good. Sidney Hillman was the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, a predecessor of the Service Employees International Union. An architect of the New Deal, Hillman fought to build a vibrant union movement extending beyond the shop floor to all aspects of working people’s lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

K.C. Star investigation lays out the dangers of railroads and their unwillingness to fix things without taxpayer money

Wreckage of Billy Barton's dump truck (Kansas City Star photo)
On June 27, 2022, an Amtrak train approached a crossing near Mendon, Missouri, pop. 271. The crossing was "like other crossings across the country; it had no gates or lights; brush along the tracks reduced visibility; and a steep approach could bottom-out a truck or trailer," reports The Kansas City Star. "On the tracks that day was a 2007 Kenworth dump truck driven by 54-year-old Billy Barton II of Brookfield, Missouri. . . . The high-speed collision killed Barton and three passengers on board the Amtrak and about 150 people were injured."

After the collision, the Star began investigating railroad safety, a major concern in rural areas. It found that many people had told railroad companies about dangers, and that the rail lines had refused to act unless improvements were funded by taxpayers. It also revealed:

Dangerous crossings: What happened near Mendon is not unique. Hundreds of unprotected crossings across the country have raised the fears of residents and been put on lists for safety improvements that, tragically, sometimes come too late. The Star spoke with families of victims. 

Blocked crossings cost lives: Trains don’t have to be in motion to cause deaths. States can’t limit how long a train can block motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic at public crossings, the courts have said. The results have been deadly for people like Gene Byrd, who died after a train blocked EMTs’ access to his Oklahoma house. The problem is only getting worse.

Workers endangered on the job: Railroad workers, in the news lately because of a possible strike, worry that changes in the industry are making their jobs even more dangerous. Companies have slashed their workforces and in their pursuit of profits have cut back on safety training and, employees say, equipment maintenance. Trains have gotten longer and crews smaller. Employees share their stories.

Worry about rail companies' merger: In towns up and down rail lines where a merged Kansas City Southern-Canadian Pacific Railroad would operate, residents fear the increased traffic and longer trains the deal would bring. The merger, which could come early next year, forever change the way of life in small towns like Camanche, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, the Star reports.

Who probes suspicious deaths? It may not be who you think

(Photo by Mathew Schwartz, Unsplash)

A chronically underfunded system riddled with egregious conflicts of interest. That's one way to describe the state-by-state system that governs U.S. coroners, reports Samantha Young of Kaiser Health News. The meshwork is so sticky, one physician shared this observation with Young: "If you ever want to know when, how — and where — to kill someone, I can tell you, and you’ll get away with it. No problem."

Nancy Belcher, chief executive officer of the King County Medical Society in Seattle, told Young that in Washington, "A coroner doesn’t have to ever have taken a science class in their life. These are the people that go in, look at a homicide scene or death, and say whether there needs to be an autopsy. They’re the ultimate decision-maker."

How suspicious death is investigated varies from state to state, and even within states. "The job can be held by an elected coroner as young as 18 or a highly trained physician appointed as medical examiner," Young reports. "Some death investigators work for elected sheriffs who try to avoid controversy or owe political favors. Others own funeral homes and direct bodies to their private businesses. . . . It’s a disjointed and chronically underfunded system — with more than 2,000 offices across the country that determine the cause of death in about 600,000 cases a year."

The cost to hire medical examiners or properly train coroners is disproportionately difficult for rural areas, Young reports: "Many Illinois counties also said they would shoulder a financial burden under legislation introduced last year by state Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat. His more sweeping bill would have replaced coroners with medical examiners. Rural counties, in particular, complained about their tight budgets and killed his bill before it got a committee hearing. West told Young, “When something like this affects rural areas, if they push back a little bit, we just stop."

Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, a former medical examiner for Milwaukee, told Young, “When you try to remove them, you run into a political wall. You can't kill them, so you have to help train them." Young notes that a 2011 study by the National Association for Medical Examiners "found that 82% of the forensic pathologists who responded had faced pressure from politicians or the deceased person’s relatives to change the reported cause or manner of death in a case."

Lawmakers have made some progress by allowing counties to "pool their resources and hire shared contract coroners in exchange for ending the dual role for prosecutors by 2025," Young writes. Belcher told Young, “We were just trying to figure out a system that I think anybody would agree needed to be overhauled."

Minnesota town of 1,500 passes sales tax to fund childcare

Lindsey Buegler at the Little Sprouts child-care center
in Warren, Minn. (Photo by Dan Gunderson, MPR)

What was once a childcare challenge is now a crisis, with rural families feeling more of the pinch to secure affordable, healthy childcare. 

Warren, Minnesota, pop. 1,500, was one city that decided to address its shortage of childcare with innovation. In November, Warren voters became the first to approve a local sales tax dedicated to supporting a childcare center. The approval was unexpected since the tax is for a service many Warren citizens won't use, reports Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Public Radio.

Lindsey Buegler was a Warren parent who needed childcare. She told Gunderson: "It was either get involved and beg and plead with people to somehow keep the daycare open or we would have had to move. There were seven of us directly involved with the center that would have had to move. . . . I would say that's huge for this small city of Warren to lose seven families."

City officials "partnered with the First Children’s Finance Rural Child Care Innovation Program" and found "a shortage of 187 childcare slots within a 20-mile radius of Warren," Gunderson reports. "The research also found more than 30 percent of survey respondents had turned down a job, or withdrawn from the workforce because of childcare issues."

Map from
Using those facts, the city proposed a half-cent sales tax, and to the surprise of many, voters approved it, making Warren the only city in Minnesota with a tax for that purpose. "Business leaders pushed hard for the tax. They understood how a shortage of childcare was limiting economic growth," Gunderson reports.

Construction for a new childcare center will begin in the spring 2023 with funding coming from the new sales tax proceeds, community fundraising efforts and a low-interest loan from the Department of Agriculture, Gunderson adds. "The childcare building will be owned by the city and operated by the Little Sprouts nonprofit. City leaders expect that arrangement will help make childcare more affordable."

For flood victims, Ky. looks at reclaimed strip mines, but faces obstacles: coal firms, infrastructure, subsidence

This subdivision on a reclaimed strip mine has had no problems with home foundations because they were properly engineered, the developer said. (Photo by Ryan C. Hermens, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Reclaimed strip mines may become new neighborhoods for some Eastern Kentucky residents whose homes were destroyed or ravaged by record flooding this summer, but obstacles remain.

"There has been relatively little residential development on old surface mines in Eastern Kentucky. The projects being contemplated could hold several hundred houses, dwarfing prior development on mined land in the region," reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It can be expensive to develop such sites, however, and in one case local and state officials have not been able to work out a deal to buy an attractive piece of land from a land-holding company. . . . Coal companies, or companies that hold land to lease for mining, are among the largest landowners in the counties most affected."

Another obstacle: The sites are largely removed from utilities and major roads. “If you’ve gotta run infrastructure very far it’s gonna get really expensive really fast,” Scott McReyolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, which builds affordable housing in Perry, Knott, Breathitt and Leslie counties and does home repairs, told Estep. “Roads and water are expensive.”

Also, some buildings on reclaimed mines have been damaged by subsidence, or settlement of underground layers. Estep notes a 2018 Virginia Tech report that said, “Modern reclamation rarely prepares mined areas for building-support purposes.” He reports, "State and local officials said they’ll make sure any mined land used to develop subdivisions is stable enough to support the houses and other structures. Kristin Voskuhl, spokeswoman for the state Public Protection Cabinet, said in an email, “Extensive geotechnical testing will be conducted to determine the safety and stability of potential building sites at appropriate times in the planning and construction process.”

Gov. Andy Beshear announced Tuesday that a 75-acre site in Knott County will soon be developed for housing. "Beshear said the Knott County project is the first of several communities that are part of his administration’s long-term housing plan," reports McKenna Horsley of Kentucky Lantern

Big bill's rural-health items touch Medicaid money, telehealth rules, mental-health hotline, drug treatment, Native care

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks with reporters as he
walks to a vote at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Francis Chung, Politico)
The whopping 4,155-page omnibus spending bill is whipping its way through Congress. The $1.7 trillion measure is crammed with public-policy changes and funding provisions.

Here are some items with rural resonance that made it in, starting with several health-related provisions:
  • An earlier end to Covid-era state Medicaid funding and rules. Additional funding will end on April 1, 2023, instead of June 30. The change will end rules that effectively barred any state from dropping people from the rolls if the state wanted to get the 6.2% bonus.
  • An extension of rules that supported telehealth options through 2024, which "falls far short of a push from some lawmakers who wanted to make that flexibility permanent," Politico notes. The pandemic ushered in telehealth as accepted medical care.
  • Almost $502 million, a nearly $400 million increase, for the new 988 national hotline for mental-health services. "The ultimate goal is to be able to dispatch mobile crisis teams immediately to anyone in need, no matter where they live," The Washington Post reports.
  • Easier access for health-care providers to prescribe buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction. They would no longer have to get a separate waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
  • More stable funding for the Indian Health Service, a result of perhaps the largest effort by Native American groups "to provide more funding certainty to the federal health agency that helps serve roughly 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives," the Post reports.
  • A limit for tax breaks on land-conservation purchases: "The provision would automatically disallow any deduction that is 2.5 times more than what investors put into a partnership that is making the deals — an indication that easement organizers artificially inflated the value of conserved land to get more tax savings," reports Benjamin Guggenheim of PoliticoPro.
  • "Maine lawmakers successfully included a pause on new regulations they warned would cripple their state’s lobster industry," Politico reports. "The provision delays new rules by six years, which critics argue will allow fisheries to put off actions that would prevent fishing gear from harming and even killing endangered whales."
  • UPDATE: The bill funds a program that gives poor families $40 per month per child for summer groceries, and "allows schools and nonprofits in rural areas to deliver meals or offer pick-up options to families during those months," The New York Times reports.
The bill would also amend the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make clear that the vice president, as presiding officer of the Senate, plays only a ministerial or ceremonial role in the counting of electoral votes from the states. The law's vagueness contributed to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The bill would also raise the threshold for challenging electoral votes to one-fifth of both the House and Senate, from the current one member of each chamber.

Put that phone down. You're missing something. Be present.

By Zonelle Rainbolt
Executive Editor, Wesner Publications, Cordell, Okla.

At a recent celebratory gathering of young, middle-aged and older adults, I was interested to watch as the different groups interacted. One of the most surprising things I noticed was one man who was constantly on his cell phone. He wasn’t one of the younger set; as a matter of fact, he was one of the oldest ones in attendance. He wasn’t talking or texting, he was mostly reading, occasionally pausing to click on a few keys. I suspect he was going over emails, but the work day was long over and the party was just before a major holiday, so I can’t think there was anything so urgent it should take precedence over a celebration he was hosting.

Zonelle Rainbolt
At one point, he took an empty chair beside me, but we never exchanged a word, as he didn’t once look up from his screen. I so wish I had tapped him on the arm and said, “Be present.” He was actively missing a milestone event in the life of someone very important to him. My guess is the next morning he couldn’t recall who had been at the party, or maybe even what was so important in his “In” box. And those were moments and memories he wasn’t going to get back.

Our jobs in the ever-changing, often chaotic world of news reporting keep us hyper-aware there is quite likely something going on in the world that could, legitimately, claim our attention. It is so easy to think we can just take a quick glimpse at our email, text or social media and see what is happening, then get back to being with our family and friends. That is frequently a trap, however, as that quick glimpse often turns into a time-consuming trip through multiple online resources that draw us away from the moment.

It has happened to all of us at one time or another, yet, thinking back, it is hard to pinpoint a time when the public wouldn’t have been as well served if I had waited a bit later to do my work. Although the work we do is vital, we all need to consciously “Be Present” when we have time to be with friends and loved ones. I know that is easier said than done, and I have often been the poster child for putting family on simmer while I work just a little bit longer, go in a little bit earlier, stay a little bit later. And like the man at the party, those are moments and memories I won’t get back.

So, as we celebrate the Christmas season and race toward the start of a new year, I urge all of you to “Be Present” at every opportunity you have with those you love — and even with those you like and maybe even with those you are pretty sure you aren’t crazy about. What we are living right now is the real thing — not a dress rehearsal — and the moments we lose are gone forever. I promise, if you follow my advice, you will thank me later.

Rainbolt is president of the Oklahoma Press Association, which originally published this article.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

'Adam is with us.' A genealogist finds DNA from first man

William Noel has DNA that links back to the first
man. (Photo by Tristan Lorei, The Free Lance-Star)
According to Wikipedia, "a haplogroup (haploid from the Greek: ἁπλοῦς, haploûs, 'onefold, simple' and English: group) is a group of similar haplotypes that share a common ancestor with a single-nucleotide polymorphism mutation."

Very science-ish. Also, very exciting for participants in Virginia genealogist Paula Royster's research, which was "conducted into the origins of some of Fredericksburg’s oldest Black families—and for William Noel [a study participant] in particular," reports Adele Uphaus of The Free Lance-Star

Uphaus shares Royster's research announcement: “Mr. Noel, you are the only person living in these United States with this particular DNA type. You have the same haplogroup as the first human man. Adam is with us today.” 

Noel's DNA results "were so exciting that they kept her awake at night," Royster told Uphaus. Royster is a scholar of the African diaspora and founder of the Center for African American Genealogical Research, a nonprofit whose mission is to reunite African-descended Americans with their distant African relatives.

Mr. Noel's "DNA is part of a group known as A000, which predates modern humans and has as its common ancestor the man from whom all other human men are descended—a person genealogists call 'Y-line Adam,'" Uphaus writes. Royster explained to the group: "That type of DNA is extremely rare outside of Africa and was not even known to exist until 2012, when it was discovered in a South Carolina man. [Mr. Noel's] DNA is 40,000 years older than his. . . . We all have these ideas about who came first. You, Mr. Noel, represent the beginning of all creation.”

According to Uphaus, Royce referred to the slave auction block that stood at the intersection of William and Charles streets in Fredericksburg before it was moved to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, saying “You can see that our history didn’t begin with that 1,000-pound block on the corner."

News-media roundup: Local journalism aid not in must-pass bill; Oregon study faults local news; 2022's best corrections

As expected, neither bill aimed at helping local journalism were included in the omnibus spending-and-policy bill that Congress must pass by the end of the year and hopes to pass by Friday.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act lacks the proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would have established a tax credit for newsroom salaries, or the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would have created a temporary anti-trust exemption for news publishers to negotiate with Google, Facebook and other tech platforms for compensation for use of content.

Dean Ridings, CEO of America's Newspapers, which lobbied with the News/Media Alliance for both bills — told Editor & Publisher, "This is certainly disappointing for us all! Either bill would have been very significant for our members and to the industry. We will need a different strategy for the 118th Congress," when Republicans will control the House.

The Agora Journalism Center in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication "found that Oregonians are unequally served by local news media and that some communities have few places to turn for local news," the university reports. "The report also describes how journalists and civic leaders are deeply worried about the state’s ability to confront its challenges at a time when the number of news outlets is declining, news audiences are shrinking, and misinformation is on the rise." What would a similar study in your state show?

Axios offers its "Best corrections of 2022:"
Jan. 11, New York Times: "The clue for 47 Across in the Monday puzzle may have implied incorrectly that coal is a viable source of clean energy. While it is possible to capture and sequester some of the greenhouse-gas emissions and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants, the technology has never been used on a large scale because of its high cost."
Jan. 22, Deadspin: "We learned after the publication of this article that 49ers OC Mike McDaniel, whom we describe as a 'white guy,' is in fact biracial. The article’s original text remains below. We regret the error."
Oct. 23, Washington Post: "The crossword in the Oct. 23 Washington Post Magazine included an incorrect clue for 95 across ('Fictional graduate of Springfield High School during the 1970s'). The answer, HOMER, refers to Homer Simpson, who didn't graduate from high school in the 1970s because, during that time, he didn't pass Remedial Science 1A, as seen in a Season 4 episode of 'The Simpsons.'"
Oct. 25, NYT: "An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misidentified the performer shown with James Corden in a 'Carpool Karaoke' segment. She is Nicki Minaj, not Cardi B."
(Like this? Here are Axios's best news media corrections of 2020 and 2021.)

Shortage of beds for sick children 'not simply the result of a deluge of sick children' but hospitals' desire for money

(Washington Post graph from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data)
The surge of children with respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and Covid has left hospital emergency rooms and pediatric floors scrambling for beds and staff, report Christopher Rowland, Dan Keating and Daniel Gilbert of The Washington Post. These deep shortages are exposing decades of cuts in pediatric beds at hospitals, especially those serving rural areas, the Post reveals.

The experience of Segura Nino, 29, is playing out for parents nationwide: "Segura Nino had spent 10 sleepless hours in a suburban Houston emergency room with her 3-month-old son Maleek when she boarded a medical helicopter to Corpus Christi, 200 miles away," The Post reports. "Nino was told that Houston, a city renowned for its world-class health system, did not have a bed for one more baby with RSV." After Maleek had come home, recovered, Nino told the Post, "It's crazy to have to go to another city to get care for your child."

The Post rpeorts, "Instead of finding inpatient care at community hospitals near their homes, parents often must travel to larger children’s hospitals that have the most beds. Not only are those facilities farther away, but they also are thronged by patients from an entire region — and even from neighboring states."

The problem is not just acute, but chronic: "The shortage of beds across the United States is not simply the result of a deluge of sick children. Over the past two decades, hospital systems across the country have whittled down the supply of pediatric beds, which lose money because they often are unoccupied," The Post reports. "Even when they are occupied by sick children, pediatric beds generate less revenue for hospitals than do adult beds, medical experts say."

“The major driver is economics,” said Daniel Rauch, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, which "cut 41 pediatric beds, citing market pressures," this year.

Nancy Foster, the American Hospital Association's vice president for quality and patient safety policy, told The Post, “These surges in RSV and flu have reminded us that we need surge capacity beyond what we might have expected for all, including children, and I don’t know we have the perfect solution yet. We’re going to have to MacGyver our way through the next few weeks to meet the surge."

Should you stay or should you go? How sick is too sick?

Image by NIAID on Unsplash
The dilemma: You have holiday dinner plans, but your nose starts to run and you have a shaggy cough. Now what? Even if your Covid-19 test is negative, what about the other 200 different viruses that are known to cause cold symptoms?

Situations like these have a lot of Americans asking, "How can we spend time together safely? How sick do you need to be to sit out the holidays a third year in a row?" writes Caroline Mimbs Nyce for The Atlantic.

She uses an episode to suggest an approach: "Paul Sax is a Harvard infectious-diseases specialist who likes to play poker. Every few weeks, he plays with friends in Boston. Recently, when it was Sax’s turn to host, one of the game’s regulars came down with a cold. The player tested negative for Covid but offered to stay home anyway. . . . Sax took him up on it. “Why go through the hassle of getting a cold?” he told Nyce, offering some practical advice: “If you’re going to the house of an infectious-disease doctor, don’t come with a cold.”

Flu season started early this year with Covid, the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). And while testing can take out some of the guess work: "At-home Covid rapid tests are thought to be a good measure of infectiousness; some experts recommend that you can leave isolation by testing out," Nyse notes. "That’s not an option for the flu, RSV, or a cold."

Getting back to should you stay or go, Nyce writes, "For starters, pretty much everyone agrees that one symptom is an absolute no-go: fever. A temperature equals stay home, for at least 24 hours. (And no cheating with ibuprofen: You should be fever-free without pain meds.) Two other 'red flag' symptoms some experts mentioned are vomiting and diarrhea."

After fever and red flags, deciding how sick is too sick gets stickier. “Your individual health status is going to have an impact on how long you’re contagious,” Donald Milton of the University of Maryland told Nyce, citing flu data suggesting that children and people with obesity stay contagious for longer.

Sax told Nyse, “On average, a bad cold lasts 10 to 14 days. And yet people seem to have almost amnesia about that fact.”

Milton told her, “Basically, you need to ask people, ‘If you’ve got cold or flu symptoms, please stay home.’ If people who are recovering from a virus do come to the gathering, they should wear a mask.”

Then there's the curse of the lingering cough. "Once a person is past the initial phase of being sick, some coughs will continue to be caused by the virus, while others will be from irritation to the airways—almost asthma-like. And sorting out which is which is impossible," Sax told Nyse. Either way, “you’re not going to be very popular at a party if you're coughing a lot."