Thursday, December 29, 2022

Long Island weekly revealed George Santos as a fake when he was a candidate, but no other news media took heed

Rep.-elect George Santos
(Photo via North Shore Leader)
Local journalism, which often struggles to prove its worth to an information-drenched public, may have hit the jackpot with an I-told-you-so tale from the story that is dominating national news right now.

"Months before the New York Times published a December article suggesting Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) had fabricated much of his résumé and biography, a tiny publication on Long Island was ringing alarm bells about its local candidate," reports Sara Ellison of The Washington Post.

Maureen Daly, managing editor of the Republican-oriented paper North Shore Leaderreported in September: "Controversial U.S. congressional candidate George Santos has finally filed his Personal Financial Disclosure Report on Sept. 6, 20 months late, and he is claiming an inexplicable rise in his alleged net worth to $11 million. Two years ago, in 2020, Santos' personal financial disclosures claimed that he had no assets over $5,000: no bank accounts, no stock accounts, no real property. A net worth barely above zero. And his income was only just over $50,000 for the prior year, derived from a venture fund called Harbor Hill Capital, that was closed and seized in 2020 by U.S. federal prosecutors as a 'Ponzi scheme.' Santos was the New York director of that 'fund'."

Daly pointed out conflicts between the document and some Santos statements: “Interestingly, Santos shows no U.S. real property in his financial disclosure, although he has repeatedly claimed to own ‘a mansion in Oyster Bay Cove’ on Tiffany Road and ‘a mansion in the Hamptons’ on Dune Road. . . . The house is owned by someone else having nothing to do with Santos, and has a market value of less than $2 million. For a man of such alleged wealth, campaign records show that Santos and his husband live in a rented apartment, in an attached rowhouse in Queens.”

3rd District, with Leader office marked (Wikipedia map, adapted)
After more details, Daly noted, "It is a federal felony to make false filings in federal disclosures."

In October, the Leader said in an editorial, “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for U.S. Congress, but the GOP nominee, George Santos, is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot. … He boasts like an insecure child — but he’s most likely just a fabulist — a fake.” The endorsment went to Democrat Robert Zimmerman, who promised a bipartisan approach like that of retiring Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, who lost in this year's primary for governor.

The Post's Ellison writes, "It was the stuff national headlines are supposed to be built on: A hyperlocal outlet like the Leader does the leg work, regional papers verify and amplify the story, and before long an emerging political scandal is being broadcast coast-to-coast. But that system, which has atrophied for decades amid the destruction of news economies, appears to have failed completely this time. Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers — no one followed its story before Election Day."

“We expected it to pop a lot more than it did,” owner Grant Lally (who had run for the seat in 1994, 1996 and 2014) told Ellison, adding that Zimmerman didn't make enough of the endorsement and failed to push the Leader's revelations into Newsday or the Times. Zimmerman told Ellison that there were “many red flags that were brought to the attention of many folks in the media” but that “frankly a lot of folks in the media are saying they didn’t have the personnel, time or money to delve further” into the story. “This experience has shown me just how important it is for everyone to support local media.”

The Leader bills itself as "The leading news source for Long Island's Gold Coast," but Ellison reports most of its staff "works part time and holds down other jobs to pay the bills." Lally told her, “Nobody can survive on local papers alone.”

Our year-end appeal: not just for us, but for all those news outlets that need more money to pay for journalism

Another version of our bumper strip adds: "to independent journalism"
It seems safe to presume that most readers of The Rural Blog, which is free, subscribe to more than one other publication that is not free. You know that it takes money to pay for journalism, and you probably  know that only a relatively small minority of Americans say they're willing to pay for it. So, it's up to those of us who value journalism to support it by subscribing and otherwise underwriting it with memberships, donations and other devices that news outlets increasingly use to replace the advertising revenue that has moved to social-media platforms.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Commuity Issues, which was founded 20 years ago to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary, especially on issues that have local impact but few good local sources. In the last 10 years, we have increasingly worked to help rural news outlets survive and serve, and our new focus is on the sustainability of rural journalism, which is under threat. Newspaper closures, which have been almost entirely in suburban communities and rural towns that are not county seats, are spreading to county seats, and more than 200 counties in the U.S. have no local newspaper. Many other county-seat papers are struggling, and every month brings news of more closures or mergers.

One of the more encouraging developments in journalism recently has been the influx of philanthropic money to support local and statehouse reporting, but it remains to be seen if philanthropy can be effective in rural areas, where news outlets and their audiences are small. In such places, it is especially important for a news outlet to have the support of the community, and it must earn that support. We like to say that people aren't going to pay good money for bad journalism, so we also remain focused on helping rural news outlets do journalism that helps communities realize their value.

In June we held the second National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, which asked this question: "How do rural communities sustain journalism that supports local democracy?" We began to get answers, and will keep looking for them, with the help of our colleagues at the University of Kentucky. We hope you will help, too, by making a tax-deductible donation. You can do it here. Thanks, and happy new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Appalachian greenhouse-farming firm re-engineers its finances but needs more cash flow, and maybe political help

UPDATE, Feb. 16: The company netted $37.1 million by selling 40 million shares at $1 per share, Rick Childress of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. It issued a prospectus saying, “We believe that net proceeds from this offering, together with our current cash and cash equivalents and other potential sources of financing, will be sufficient to enable us to fund our operating expenses and capital expenditure requirements through the end of calendar year 2023.”
The AppHarvest 15-acre farm just north of Berea, Ky., grows salad greens. (Photo from AppHarvest Facebook page)
AppHarvest, a publicly traded startup that is trying to bring commercial farming back to the Appalachian foothills on a huge scale, sold one of its hydroponic greenhouse farms this week and leased it back to its marketing and distribution partner, "freeing up more funds for the financially struggling fruit and vegetable grower," reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The company also announced the opening of its fourth farm, all in Kentucky, and said it is "focused on operations to ramp up production and revenue." That is an existential challenge, according to its earnings report for the third quarter of 2022, which said, “Absent additional sources of financing, we expect that our existing cash and cash equivalents will only allow us to continue our planned operations into the first quarter of 2023.”

The sale-and-leaseback deal of the 15-acre farm near Berea, the company's smallest, provides cash, but it has production problems. "AppHarvest’s chief financial officer, said that the low numbers were due to crop health issues," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. The company will change the tomatoes it raises to varieties that bring higher prices, a spokesman told Carey.

But James Branscome, a Yonder supporter who started as an Appalachian journalist and ended up evaluating companies for S&P Global, has issues with the firm's business model: “The best high tech in agriculture will not overcome a bad business model based on selling a commodity product – tomatoes – in a highly competitive market,” he told Carey. “AppHarvest does use the highest tech in greenhouse production from the Netherlands, and its commitment to Appalachian Kentucky has rightfully given it a very high profile. The strategy of moving beyond the tomato market to vegetables and berries is a good business strategy; however, the company is in a race against the oldest challenge in business: Can it execute that strategy when the business cash flow is so dismally poor?”

Branscome seems to think not: “At this point their future depends more on financial engineering than agricultural engineering,” he said. “There is value in what they have constructed, but the cash flow from operations is so small that there is no way sales can bail them out over the next few years.”

There could also be some political engineering. Company founder and CEO Jonathan Webb said at the groundbreaking for the firm's 30-acre berry farm in Somerset in July, "Where AppHarvest goes from here is going to be dependent largely on the communities around us." Gesturing to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, he said, "Where we take it from here, I turn to our political leaders, I turn to our community leaders, I turn to our university leaders; we want to partner with you."

Arctic blast shows weak spots in electric, gas, water utilities

"The deep freeze that blanketed most of the U.S. in the past few days killed dozens and temporarily plunged millions into darkness. Yet the country narrowly escaped an even worse calamity as natural gas and power supplies buckled across several states, laying bare just how vulnerable the electric grid has become to a full-on catastrophe," reports Gerson Freitas Jr. of Bloomberg News.

"The storm evoked memories of deadly 2021 winter blast that caused widespread blackouts in Texas. But while that system hit a region unaccustomed to extreme cold, this one spread across the Midwest and Northeast — two areas that should be well-prepared. The fact that they weren’t highlights the flaws of a system that’s facing limited natural gas supplies and the unpredictability of solar and wind power."

Several utilities, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest piublic utility, imposed rolling blackouts. Spire, a natural-gas firm in Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi, asked customers to lower their thermostats to between 65 and 68 degrees. Gas shortages also plagued parts of Texas and Wisconsin, and water systems reported problems with breaks and high usage.

Holiday roundup: Blizzard creates a temporary community of travelers; an enchanted garden also cultivates people

The Alabama Hotel in Basom, N.Y., hosted more than 100 people in the storm. (Photo by Joe Bradt)

When the big blizzard closed the New York State Thruway (I-90) west of Batavia, some travelers headed north on NY 77 and found refuge in the hamlet of Alabama, specifically the Alabama Hotel. "The restaurant was founded in 1840 as a hotel/bar, but it hadn't welcomed overnight visits for decades," Tracey Drury reports for Buffalo Business First. Owner Joe Bradt told CNN some thought from online searches that the inn had rooms to rent, but they had to stay in its 70-seat dining room. Bradt said the guests "came together; they were cooking, they were washing disches, they were busing tables; it was a sight like no other."

The youngest daughter of Donna Reed, who plays Jimmy Stewart's wife in "It's a Wonderful Life," has made it her mission to ensure that small-town theaters can show the classic 1946 film, which was more difficult this year, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post reports.

The Post's Sydney Page has another nice holiday feature, about a 100-year-old woman in an assisted-living facility in Lexington, Va., who makes custom jackets by hand and gives them away!

Woodlake, California (Google map)
At the foot of the Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, Calif., "where square acre after square acre of industrial farmland is planted in precise rows, an unusual garden grows and climbs and spirals, writes Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times. "Papaya, bananas, jujube, three types of guava — fruits that speak of faraway homelands — flourish at the 13-acre Woodlake Botanical Garden . . . No chemicals are used here. Visitors are welcome to pick any fruit they see and to sit in spots so deeply shaded they stay cool in the summer heat and dry in the rains that don’t come often enough." And there's a flock of pelicans in Bravo Lake, in one of many nice photos by Tomas Ovalle. But Manuel and Olga Jimenez also cultivate people. Nice story.

Opinion: Rural America is listening for leadership to support its economic and social renewal, but hears mostly silence

America needs a coherent rural policy, writes Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, leader of the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative and host of its Reimagining Rural podcast.

"Despite widespread acknowledgment since 2008 that rural places have generally been left behind, our nation still lacks a coherent federal rural policy," Pipa writes for The New York Times. "The Rural Electrification Act, Title V of the Housing Act and other national-scale development programs helped bring rural America into the modern era, and its contributions helped make the American economy the envy of the world. But today’s federal programs were built for a different era. We need a renaissance of rural policy to enable a renaissance of rural America.

"What we have are lots of programs — over 400 available for community and economic development spread across every nook and cranny of the federal government. But navigating that maze and the peculiarities of their applications, reporting and matching requirements is a high bar for anybody, let alone the part-time volunteer elected officials and the bare-bones staffs that make up many local rural governments. That leaves most rural communities starved for investment. Very few can get the type and level of resources necessary to reinvent their economy or unleash the full potential of their human, intellectual and natural capital as they face rapid change."

Agricultural policy is often mistaken for rural policy, Pipa writes: "Farming now accounts for just 7 percent of rural employment. Service jobs, retailing, manufacturing and government employment all outweigh agriculture." And contrary to prevailing belief, rural America is ethnically and racially diverse: "People of color make up 24 percent of the rural population. Close to half of rural Native Americans and more than half of rural Black Americans live in a distressed county. That’s compared with 18 percent of rural white residents." The image of rural America as an overwhelmingly white place may have cooled some Democrats' interest in it, but elements of the Biden administration remain interested.

"While the Biden administration has started the Rural Partners Network to embed federal staff members in rural communities to help them identify and secure federal resources, the program is limited to select communities in just 10 states and Puerto Rico," Pipa notes. "The country needs a national rural prosperity strategy that offers a coherent vision for rural America in the 21st century. Someone at the highest levels of the White House should be responsible for its execution and cutting through the bureaucratic entanglements. Canada and Ireland, among other countries, have completed such policies and created cabinet-level positions to carry them out. Governors in Wisconsin and Michigan have created rural prosperity offices."

What about Congress? "Rural policy is one issue where Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground to work together," on such things as the new Farm Bill, Pipa writes. "Yet early indications signal high-profile fights over food stamps, agricultural subsidies and conservation investments — and limited attention to rural development. . . . Rural America is listening for how public leadership and resources can better support the economic and social renewal of rural communities, but it hears mostly silence."

Michigan study that gave families tools to discuss firearm safety finds most did, and 40% changed their gun storage

Photo by Amr Taha, Unsplash
Rural America has the highest per-capita death toll from firearms, mainly due to suicides, and as the new year launches, it's a fitting time to discuss how to decrease the number of firearm accidents and suicides in 2023. A recently published study "shows early promise for an approach that seeks to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death in rural areas, while respecting rural culture and firearm ownership," reports the University of Michigan, citing a multi-discipline pilot study called the "Store Safely" project. "Rural America has the highest per capita death toll from firearms, higher than suburban and urban areas, and the main reason for this difference is firearm suicides."

In what researchers call an intervention, the project gave 45 families in Marquette County with "messages about safe firearm storage and teen firearm suicide," tailored to the rural audience, and "specific tips for improving safety," to implement in conjunction with its website, the university said in a press release.

Three weeks after the intervention, 86% of the parents said they had completed a firearm home-safety checklist suggested by the program, and 88% said they talked about firearm safety with another adult in the household. Nearly two-thirds discussed firearm safety with children in their home, and 40% reported that changed how they store firearms in the home.

Marquette County (Wikipedia)
Ewell Foster, a clinical psychologist in the UM Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, said “We are excited by these findings, and by the variety of actions that these families took, including changing to unloaded and locked storage, and moving hunting rifles to another location less accessible to children . . . . Putting time and distance between individuals who are at risk for suicide and highly lethal means like firearms is a critical part of a comprehensive suicide-prevention strategy."

The press release said, "The program’s materials emphasize the range of options that rural families have for reducing risk within the context of their lifestyle, which includes firearm ownership for both hunting and protection." The researchers "plan to increase the availability of the Store Safely intervention while continuing to evaluate its impact in other rural communities both within and beyond Michigan’s Upper Peninsula." For a related story and video, click here.