Friday, April 07, 2023

Gannett creates news deserts or ghost newspapers; some digital startups fill gap, but it's hard, especially in rural areas

"America's largest newspaper company is creating news deserts," NPR headlines over an interview with Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, about Gannett Co.

"Gannett owns a lot of very small newspapers, a lot of weekly newspapers, a lot of very small daily newspapers," Benton told host Adrian Florido. "Those larger weeklies and smaller dailies are in a really tough position economically. It's very difficult to manage the cost while emphasizing digital subscriptions and getting enough of them to make things work out. There are also communities where there often isn't as much of an alternative in terms of a local television station or a local digital news outlet that's covering the area. So in a lot of communities, there just aren't a lot of options. And these places will become more like a news desert."

Or a "ghost newspaper." There is no agreed-upon definition of those terms, but both may apply to Gannett markets like Salinas, Calif., where at last report the Salinas Californian had no reporters and the only local news was obituaries. Benton cites The Register-Guard in similarly sized Eugene, Oregon, which was owned by a local family until 2018 when it sold to GateHouse, "which was then merged into Gannett. And in that time, the newsroom has gone from over 40 employees to what on its current staff listing is seven."

Florido asked Benton if he saw "any solutions here for the local communities that are being left behind in these sort of information deserts." Benton said, "I think it is very difficult to manage the transition from a print daily to an effective digital news outlet. It's often much easier to start from scratch. It's not happening everywhere. But there are communities across the country where smart digital outlets are growing to the point where in some cases, they have bigger newsrooms than the local daily newspaper does. It is possible, but it's a challenge." Especially in rural areas.

And what is the future of local news? "I see a lot more uncovered city council meetings. I see a lot more corruption that doesn't get noticed. I see a lot more uninformed voters, more people who take their cues for how they view their government from national media and the politicized world there as opposed to their local government. There certainly are bright spots. There are green shoots going up, but the challenge is just very difficult."

Some places will shift from rural to metropolitan this year, and that will likely make the rest of rural America look worse

Screenshot of part of Daily Yonder interactive map that
shows major growth in rural counties near metro areas
in Texas, Oklahoma, southwest Missouri, Tennessee,
Georgia and elsewhere. (Rural Blog adaptation)
"Rural" is defined in many ways, and because one major definer is changing its definition, "Some of the nation's most economically successful 'rural' counties will be reclassified as metropolitan, moving their populations and economic output from non-metropolitan to metropolitan," writes Saran Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "This year, the Office of Management and Budget will create a major revision for its list of metropolitan statistical areas based on 2020 Census data. . . . It’s one of the most common ways that policy makers, federal agencies, and researchers use to define what we mean by 'rural'."

MSAs are defined by a combination of population figures and commuting patterns. The 2020 census found that the rural counties that were growing were thsoe closest to metropolitan areas, and some of them have likely grown so much that they will be reclassified as metropolitan. In the last reclassification, in 2013, "OMB shifted 112 non-metropolitan counties into the metropolitan column, moving 5.7 million residents into metro areas," Melotte notes. Their counties either gained enough population to have a central city of at least 50,000, or the share of the county's workers "who commuted to an adjoining metropolitan county grew past 25%. The latter factor is "more commonly the cause of reclassification," according to Daniel T. Lichter of Cornell University and Kenneth M. Johnson of the University of New Hampshire. They call this the paradox of rural population decline and say it "gives a falsely bleak impression of rural America," Melotte writes.

"You might think you know rural when you see it. But what if you had to provide a clear definition?" Melote asks. "That's where things get messy. Even geographers, demographers, and statisticians can't agree on a single definition of rural. Depending on which definition you use, rural Americans either comprise 46 million residents or over 60 million residents. Rural populations are either growing or stagnating, economically vibrant or persistently poor, predominantly white or rapidly diversifying. . . . Demographers stress the importance of considering how our definitions might obscure the truth about rural America. . . ."When counties that have large rural populations are lumped into the metropolitan category, it can make rural America look poorer and smaller than it really is."

Melotte notes, "Federal agencies use over a dozen definitions of rural. But at their core, those definitions are generally variations on two categorization systems," the MSA or the Bureau of the Census definition, which recently raised the threshold for an urban place from 2,500 to 5,000 or 2,000 housing units.

Got milk? Gen Z says 'Nope.' Coffee drinks, water, nut milks and Gatorade and have moooved in

Taylor Swift's 'Got Milk' mustache from 2012 (YouTube)
Things Gen Zers do
: Go to brunch (a lot! and pay with Venmo), follow Scrub Daddy on TikTok, and diss anything that takes more than 60 seconds. But they're not into drinking cow's milk. This group of "teenagers and young adults grew up ordering milk alternatives at coffee shops and toting water bottles everywhere," reports Kim Severson of The New York Times. "Turned off by the no-fat and low-fat milks served at school, worried about climate change and steeped in the increasing skepticism toward the dairy industry on social media, many of them have never embraced milk. Last year, members of Generation Z bought 20 percent less milk than the national average, according to the consumer market research company Circana. . . . Dairy milk's real competition is other beverages, like bottled and tap water and specialty coffee drinks."

The dairy industry took notice and "has embarked on a full-frontal marketing assault intended to do what the 'Got Milk?' mustaches on celebrities like Taylor Swift and Dennis Rodman did for previous generations. Yin Woon Rani, the chief executive of the Milk Processor Education Program, a marketing and education arm of the dairy industry, told Severson, "We have to reclaim milk's mojo." To reclaim said mojo, Severson reports, "Marketers are trying to reboot milk as a sports drink for Generation Z. . . . Although the science about milk's health benefits and drawbacks isn't settled, some studies have shown that chocolate milk contains basic electrolytes and a precise ratio of carbohydrates to protein that can help muscles recover after workouts."

There are several parts to dairy's big push. The MPEP began the "26.2 project, an ambitious effort to provide training, gear, advice and other support to every woman who runs a marathon in the United States this year," Severson reports. Women who join the program are featured on the Gonna Need Milk website and get to join #TeamMilk. . . . Dairy is also making a play for gamers. Dairy Management Inc., a trade organization, hired the gaming superstars Preston Arsement and Jimmy Donaldson to introduce seven new cows to Minecraft. The two streaming celebrities heaped love on the nation's dairy farmers and explained sustainable dairy-farming practices."

Milk is big but has lots of competition." Some have turned to nut milks and other plant-based alternatives, whose sales are expected to grow by more than 9 percent a year through 2027, far faster than milk." Severson reports. Maybe the mojo is key since nut milks aren't the real problem for dairy. Curt Covington, senior director of partner relations at AgAmerica, an agricultural lender, told Severson, "People come to work with a Gatorade or a Coke in one hand and a Starbucks cold brew drink in the other. . . . It has clearly taken away from the milk sector." Severson adds, "All this is not to say that young people don’t eat plenty of cheese, yogurt and ice cream."

As seed and food companies invest in Ukrainian farms, Ukrainian refugees trek to help tornado victims in Mississippi

Agriculture was responsible for 40% of Ukraine’s exports
before the war. (Photo by Julia Kochetova, Bloomberg News)

What's it like to farm while your country is at war? Ukrainian farmers can tell you. "Equipment has been destroyed, land has been expropriated and mined and export routes choked off. Financing is hard to come by," report Patrick Thomas and Alistair MacDonald of The Wall Street Journal. "Foreign countries and some of the world's largest agriculture companies are donating or lending hundreds of millions of dollars to Ukrainian farmers. . . . even as the war shows little sign of ending soon."

Farmers need seeds, which Ukrainian farmers struggle to afford. "Seed giants such as Bayer and Corteva have stepped in to help supply farmers with products for this year's harvest. Bayer said it had donated about 40,000 bags of corn and vegetable seed, worth about $2 million," Thomas and MacDonald write. "Bayer has said it was investing some $38 million in a seed plant in the country. Corteva said it intended to increase corn-seed production in the region by 30% over the next five years."

Ukrainian farmers also need export help. "Grain merchants including Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge have said they intended to keep shipping crops from the country," the Journal reports. Japan and Canada have also delivered aid, and "foreign banks, including Credit Agricole of France and Austria's Raiffeisen Bank International  have taken part in a government plan that has lent more than 5,000 farmers about $2.43 million," Thomas and MacDonald report. "For many Western companies, the help could bolster crucial partners struggling during the war. It also could preserve or strengthen these companies’ reputations with local farmers and their position in the country, which is an important agricultural exporter, analysts said."

Meanwhile, seven Ukrainian refugees who had resettled in Minnesota headed to Mississippi to help "several towns in Mississippi recovering from a devastating tornado that killed at least 25 in late March," reports Daniel Wu of The Washington Post. "They made the 16-hour drive south to donate bottled water and volunteer with aid workers, buoyed by the idea that they could help a community facing a similar struggle to theirs." Rfugee Denys Pavliuk told Wu through an interpreter, “We had to leave our home, and they don’t have a place to go back, either.”

From left: Viktoriia Hasiuk, Taras Zhmurko, Sofiia Rudenko, Iryna Hrebenyk, Dmytro Fedirko, Denys Pavliuk and Nazar Teteruk in front of the van of water bottles they delivered to towns in Mississippi on March 29. (Photo by The American Service via The Washington Post)

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Postal inspector-general report on rural service could help rural areas and their papers stave off post-office closures

Office of Inspector General graphic, adapted by The Rural Blog
The U.S. Postal Service makes rural newspaper publishers gnash their teeth, but its Office of Inspector General has given the papers some ammunition to use as they lobby Congress.

Amid concern that USPS will close more rural post offices because they lose money, the OIG issued a summary of its recent reports on rural service this week, along with a handy graphic.

"We found nearly two-thirds of post offices in rural areas cost more to run than the revenue they bring in. In contrast, only around 7 percent of urban post offices have costs that exceed their revenues," the summary said, adding, "The law protects postal services in rural areas by prohibiting the Postal Service from closing small post offices just because they operate at a deficit."

Nevertheless, "USPS does regularly close rural post offices and cites other reasons," National Newspaper Association Public Policy Director Tonda Rush told The Rural Blog. "USPS is going to close more post offices and subject many more to radical changes as it introduces new sorting and delivery centers, which will cause letter carriers to shift their home base to a central, regional facility."

Congress will decide these issues, and NNA and  its Postal Committee "already have procedures in place to work out as much disruption as possible for newspapers," Rush said.

The OIG summary and graphic both have a pointed last line: "By law, the Postal Service is allowed to ask Congress for up to $460 million annually to cover the cost of providing rural service. But it has not requested these funds since 1982."

Feral swine from Canada threaten Minn., No. 2 pork state; in Georgia, landowners start trapping them in corrals

Feral swine can be attracted to a feeder, which can then be moved
to a corral where they can be shot. (Photo from The Oglethorpe Echo)
Feral swine have come to Minnesota, and in Georgia, landowners are starting to trap them in corrals so many more can be shot and killed at one time.

"Minnesota has long enjoyed its status as a state free of wild pigs, avoiding the billions of dollars of damages suffered each year by other states from invasive feral swine," reports Madison McVan of Investigate Midwest. "Now, Canadian 'super pigs' are threatening the state, and pork producers and regulators are concerned about the destruction and disease the animals could bring if they were to establish a population in Minnesota."

Wild swine are smart and hearty. "They have no natural predators besides humans. . . . The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service estimates that feral hogs cause up to $2.5 billion in damages nationwide per year," McVan writes. "The animals consume crops, destroy fencing, transmit diseases and parasites, and contaminate bodies of water by wallowing and defecating. . . . Once feral pigs take over a territory, it's nearly impossible to eradicate them, said Eric Nelson, wildlife damage program supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources."

The swine from Canada are descendants of hybrids created by breeding domestic pigs with wild boars for more hardiness. "In some cases, farmers released them from fences due to economic hardship during Canada's droughts of 2001 and 2002," McVan reports. "There is a very legitimate risk and concern about them coming straight into Minnesota," second-largest pig producer in the U.S. The Minnesota Pork Producers Association worries about diseases spread by feral swine, "especially African swine fever," which has no vaccine or treatment. "Farmers can lose entire herds to the disease, and countries often pause imports" from nations where the disease is spreading.

In Georgia, Morgan Quinn and Jack Rhodes of The Oglethorpe Echo are covering the feral-swine problem, and report that vegetable farmer Kendall Strickland has concluded that the best way to reduce the population is attractign them into corrals where they can be trapped and disposed of. “If you just shoot one or two at a time, you’re not really getting ahead of the problem in any type of way,” Strickland told the Echo. Here's a guide to how it's done in Scotland.

Farmers are bullish on biodiesel vs. ethanol, but biodiesel's five-year outlook is not as clear to them, Purdue reports

As demand for biodiesel increases, it may outpace ethanol as a renewable energy source. "Farmers are far more bullish about the chances of expansion of the renewable diesel industry than in ethanol, the dominant 'green' fuel in rural America, said a Purdue University poll on Tuesday," reports the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The telephone survey for the monthly Ag Economy Barometer also found nine of 10 farmers expect higher soybean prices at the farm gate as more and more renewable diesel fuel reaches the market."

Farmers have differing views on what the biodiesel market will look like in five years. "Some 46% of farmers said they believed the renewable industry would be larger; a quarter said they believed the ethanol industry would be larger; 55% said they expected it would be 'about the same' size," FERN reports. "Larger production of renewable diesel would boost soybean prices, said the lion's share of producers polled by Purdue."

As an alternative fuel, "Renewable diesel is an infant industry with 2022 production of 2.6 billion gallons," FERN reports. "But the number of plants producing the fuel could double, to 32, by the end of 2025, which would raise production capacity to 6 billion gallons, said the farmdoc daily blog last week. 'The renewable diesel boom that began in earnest during 2021 looks to continue unabated over the next few years. Driven by policies in place to stimulate investment, another doubling of renewable diesel capacity by the end of 2025 appears to be feasible.'" The Ag Economy Barometer is available here.  

Report for America corps members work with high schools

Raegan Miller works at KRBD in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Report for America
 says its corps members are working with thousands of high-school students across the nation to interest them in journalism and give thme some basic training.

Raegan Miller, who covers the Native and Asian American communities for KRBD in southeast Alaska, has been working with an English class at Revilla High School in Ketchikan. She told RFA, “When we started they had no experience with journalism, with writing professionally, some of them were still struggling to put together an essay or meet deadlines. We started at the building blocks of a story, and we worked up to quotes, how you build a story, how you find sources and we worked up to the point where every Wednesday that I go in we have a roundtable and each is working independently on their stories.” 

"These types of mentorships repeat every week in classrooms all over the country," wrote Kevin Grant, RFA co-founder and chief partnerships officer. "In the last year alone, our corps members have worked with more than 3,000 youth adding to a total of over 5,800 since the start of the program. Not all of them will become journalists, but students walk away with a better understanding of what’s news and how it differs from misinformation. And for some, it might be the start of a journey open with possibilities."

Corps member Linsey Dower, who works with students at McKinley High School in Honolulu, told RFA, “The way that some students have so much passion for the subjects they write about is surprising to me. They truly want to understand the topics they report on and are thoughtful about how they convey new ideas to their readers. Their genuine interest in their work shows me how much potential each of them has as journalists, whether they choose that career-path or not.”

Grant writes, "That potential is present in all the young people of America. It only needs someone to unlock it. The volunteer work of our corps members is helping form a more critical and better prepared generation that we’re sure will be instrumental for the future of journalism. If you want to learn more about our service projects or if you would like to have a corps member working with the youth of your community, check out our site and help us support this valuable initiative."

Why an AR-15 is so lethal: bullets fired at very high speed

Screenshot of Post 3-D animation of AR-15 bullet impact*
What does the average American know about the AR-15? It's powerful? Controversial? It's both, but why? It's about the automatic rifle's bullets and their speed.

"The AR-15 fires bullets at such a high velocity — often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession — that it can eviscerate multiple people in seconds. A single bullet lands with a shock wave intense enough to blow apart a skull and demolish vital organs," report N. Kirkpatrick, Atthar Mirza, and Manuel Canales of The Washington Post. "The carnage is rarely visible to the public. Crime scene photos are considered too gruesome to publish and often kept confidential. . . . Medical examiners who, in some cases, have said remains were so unrecognizable that they could be identified only through DNA samples."

Joseph Sakran, a gunshot survivor and a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told the Post, "It literally can pulverize bones, it can shatter your liver and it can provide this blast effect." The Post explains, "The bullets from an AR-15 are uniquely lethal. . . . Consider a .223-caliber-sized round inside an AR-15. What makes the weapon so deadly is the speed of that bullet. It is small and light. Its cartridge holds enough propellant to send the bullet flying out of the barrel at a speed that would cross six football fields in a second."

Handgun rounds are heavier and slower. "Any bullet can kill, and instantly, when it hits a vital organ," the Post reports. "The higher speed of a bullet from an AR-15 causes far more damage after it hits the body and drastically reduces a person's chances of survival." Trauma surgeon Babak Sarani, an authority on casualties from mass killings, told the Post, "As that bullet slows down, that energy is so massive it has to go someplace, and your body will literally tear apart."

"In a hypothetical scenario, the bullet bursts into the chest cavity. It shreds lung tissue, severs nerves and vessels and causes massive bleeding. It also begins to tumble, taking a chaotic path in the body," the Post writes. "The speed at impact creates a blast effect, like the wake that follows a boat, causing internal injuries far outside the bullet's path."

And finally, "The bullet from the AR-15 leaves behind a gaping exit wound. The 9mm bullet fired from the handgun has a much smaller exit wound," the Post adds. "In this scenario, with immediate medical care and minimal bleeding, the victim has a chance at surviving the 9mm shot to the chest. . . . The bullet from the AR-15, however, causes torrential bleeding that is quickly lethal. . . . It works with brutal efficiency."

*Washington Post editor’s note: We are publishing these 3D animations to show the destructive power of the AR-15. The images may disturb some people.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Wis. puts on top court a judge who broke norms by taking positions on big issues; some rural counties shifted her way

Janet Protasiewicz, center, celebrates her victory.
(Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

In the latest twist on Wisconsin politics, "Voters on Tuesday chose to upend the political direction of their state by electing a liberal candidate to the State Supreme Court, flipping majority control from conservatives, reports The Associated Press. Thus, the court is likely to reverse the state's 1849 abortion ban and "end the use of gerrymandered legislative maps drawn by Republicans," reports Reid J. Epstein of The New York Times. "Janet Protasiewicz, a liberal Milwaukee County judge, overwhelmingly defeated Daniel Kelly, a conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who sought a return to the bench."

The race was officially nonpartisan but Democrats lined up for Protasiewicz and Republicans for Kelly. Some rural communities that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then twice for Donald Trump returned to the "Democratic" column. Abortion-rights supporters credited the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, which reactivated the state's old abortion law, for the shift. "Rural voters moved 5 points toward the Democratic candidate compared to the 2020 presidential and 2022 U.S. Senate elections," The Daily Yonder reports. But that was not as much a shift as was seen in metropolitan areas.

"Judge Protasiewicz, 60, shattered long-held notions of how judicial candidates should conduct themselves by making her political priorities central to her campaign," Epstein writes. "She made explicit her support for abortion rights and called the maps, which gave Republicans near-supermajority control of the Legislature, 'rigged' and 'unfair.'. . . The contest, which featured over $40 million in spending, was the most expensive judicial election in American history. Early on, Democrats recognized the importance of the race for a swing seat on the top court in one of the country's perennial political battlegrounds."

"Justice Kelly, 59, evinced the bitterness of the campaign with a testy concession speech that acknowledged his defeat and portended doom for the state," and said Protasiewicz was "not a worthy opponent," Epstein reports. "In an interview at her home before the results were known, Judge Protasiewicz (pronounced pro-tuh-SAY-witz) attributed her success on the campaign trail to the decision to inform voters of what she called 'my values,' as opposed to Justice Kelly, who used fewer specifics about his positions."

A high-school newspaper covers LGBTQ+ issues and gets closed by the school district; ACLU files federal lawsuit

Marcus Pennell holds a June 2022 edition of the
Viking Saga. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Foo)
A high school in Nebraska is defending a federal lawsuit after it closed a school newspaper that reported on LGBTQ issues, reports Zach Wendling of The Grand Island Independent: "The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska filed on behalf of the Nebraska High School Press Association and a former student journalist, Marcus Pennell. The lawsuit alleges violations of the rights to be free from viewpoint discrimination and retaliation and the right to receive information. . . . District officials shut down Grand Island Northwest High School's student newspaper, the Viking Saga, last June. One article in that month's edition, written by Pennell, addressed Florida's so-called 'Don't Say Gay' law, but other articles were unrelated."

While school officials "have stated the decision to shutter the paper days after the June edition went to print was unrelated to its content," Wendling writes, "public comments and internal emails suggest otherwise. . . . Zach Mader, vice president of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education, told the Grand Island Independent last summer there was 'a little bit of hostility amongst some' to the paper. . . . 'There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.'. . . Emails between Dan Leiser, school board president, to Superintendent Jeffrey Edwards were also included. . . Leiser said students should not be allowed to write opinion articles in a publication paid for by taxes because platforms such as Twitter, Facebook are available."

"Nebraska High School Press Association Executive Director Michelle Hassler said in a statement that litigation 'is not a step that we take lightly'," Wendling reports. "'Our involvement hopefully speaks to our level of concern about what happened at Grand Island Northwest and the implications for the students we serve. . . . Our mission is to support and advocate for Nebraska's high school media, and that's exactly what this case aims to do.'. . .  Hassler continued that student journalists have a right to learn and hone their skills consistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." Pennell told Wendling, "We have a right to be who we are and to write about our lives. I am hopeful that censorship is not the end of this story."

Goat's 9-year-old keeper didn't want her slaughtered, so Mom saved the animal; then the law came with a warrant

Jessica Long’s 9-year-old daughter with her goat, Cedar.
(Photo courtesy of Advancing Law for Animals)
A mother saved her daughter's goat, sold at auction, from the slaughterhouse. County-fair officials took offense and sent detectives to apprehend it.

"Thus began the legal saga of Cedar the goat, a 7-month-old white Boer goat with chocolate markings framing its face who is now the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit naming Shasta sheriff's officials, Shasta County, the Shasta District Fair and other defendants who are accused of involvement in the apparent slaughter of Cedar for a community barbecue," reports Sam Stanton of The Sacramento Bee. 

"Every day for three months, Jessica Long's young daughter walked and fed her goat. . . But when it was time for Cedar to be sold and slaughtered at the Shasta District Fair last year, the 9-year-old just couldn't go through with it," Stanton reports. "The animals are then entered in an auction to be sold and slaughtered for meat in hopes of teaching children about the work and care needed to raise livestock and provide food."

Once Long realized her daughter was not ready to part with her goat, she "decided to break the rules and take the goat that night and deal with the consequences later," reports Salvador Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. Long wrote Shasta District Fair Chief Executive Melanie Silva, offering to reimburse the buyer the winning $902 bid and saying, "Our daughter lost three grandparents within the last year. . . . I couldn't bear the thought of the following weeks of sadness after the slaughter of her first livestock animal." Silva replied, "Making an exception for you will only teach [our] youth that they do not have to abide by the rules. . . . This has been a negative experience for the fairgrounds as this has been all over Facebook and Instagram."

When Long did not return Cedar, B.J. Macfarlane, livestock manager for the Shasta Fair Association, called the cops. "Armed with a search warrant, detectives drove more than 500 miles across Northern California in search of the goat," Stanton writes. "Echoing language used when law enforcement searches a home for drugs, the warrant allowed deputies to 'utilize breaching equipment to force open doorway(s), entry doors, exit doors, and locked containers' and to search all rooms. . . . any kind large enough to accommodate a small goat'." 

Cedar was found, "taken and slaughtered," Hernandez reports. Long's suit claims fair officials and the county "committed an 'egregious waste of police resources' and violated her and her daughter's Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights protecting them from unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process. Long and her attorneys allege the dispute was a civil matter she was willing to resolve."

Officials declined to comment. Ryan Gordon, an attorney with Advancing Law for Animals, told Hernandez, "A child can't be held to the same standard as an adult can. When she wanted out, she had an absolute right. . . . It's shocking. It's a little girl's goat, not Pablo Escobar."

Flora/fauna quickies: How snails travel so far, pet-inspired art, what to do when baby bird falls from a nest, and more

Sybil Gorby with an heirloom tomato she grew
in her garden. (Courtesy family photo)
Big-vegetable photos aren't just for rural weeklies. The Washington Post spotlights Sybil Gorby, 92, who has been planting tomato seeds from the same lineage since 1965. "Sometimes, the seeds turn into giant heirloom tomatoes, including one from last year's harvest," reports Sydney Page. Gorby's daughter, Sandy Marody, "shared a photo of her mother holding the large fruit in a Facebook group called 'Appalachian Americans.'. . . . People were quite impressed with the photo of Gorby proudly cupping the supersized tomato in her hands."

The "alpha wolf" myth has a long history as a paragon of power and dominance. But new research shows the myth is false. Researcher David Mech describes the wolf as "one of the wildest and shyest of all the animals in the northern wilderness," reports Rivka Galchen of The New Yorker.

Thom van Dooren wonders this about snails: "How do organisms that are so sedentary end up being so incredibly widely dispersed?" Find out how these notoriously slow animals get around.

Robin fledgling (Photo by Jeanette Tasey, Audubon)
A baby bird is out of its nest. Now what? Do you attempt to help? Walk away feeling bad but not wanting to make things worse for the little guy? This timely article gives some advice

As a child, Jessica Gauley, a kayak tour operator, once romped about Honey Island Swamp in Louisiana. Now she's working to reclaim a wetland, reports Anya Slepyan of The Daily Yonder. "Poisonous pollutants from industrial plants had turned nearly 10 acres of the healthy, primeval swamp into a toxic wasteland. . . . She calls the area the 'kill zone' because of the contaminants' toll on the local wildlife. . . . Gauley began cleaning up the kill zone, one kayak-load of trash at a time. . . . . a tour group she lead offered to help her. . . .The zone still has a long way to go, but Gauley has already started workshopping a new name for the area: the resurrection swamp."

Calling all pet artwork! Beth Novey of National Public Radio zipped out a missive asking for submissions, "We were curious to see what other pet-inspired artworks were out there, so we asked you to share some of yours, and dear readers, you did not disappoint. Below is just a small sampling of the hundreds of masterpieces we received." They've got a cat snow sculpture, "The Goatie Boys" Christmas drawing, Meow Lisa, and artwork with real horse hair.

Billy the Goat was a popular sight on Lake Cumberland
in Southern Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Blum)
A huge Kentucky lake has lost one of its longtime fauna friends. "Billy the Goat, a wild creature who had made his home along the busy shores of Lake Cumberland, is being mourned and remembered by the legions of lake users who had taken a shine to him, after recently being found dead, apparently by gunshot," reports Christopher Harris of the Somerset Commonwealth Journal. "And like Billy's exploits in life, the news of his death has become something of a local viral sensation."

There's just no explaining some couples. "A rescue dog and goat are best friends. A shelter put them up for adoption as a pair," Cathy Free of The Washington Post reports. Jennifer Federico, director of animal services at the Wake County Animal Center, told Free, "It's a weird duo, but it works for them. Who are we to judge? They obviously love each other."

Citizens' Institute on Rural Design is seeking rural and tribal communities to apply for four local design workshops

A vacant building with a large parking lot was transformed into a community center for the arts
when the area partnered with CIRD. The space is shared with the local high school.

The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design applications are now open until April 21, 2023! CIRD is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council and design partner, To Be Done Studio. It will offer at least four Local Design Workshops that address the selected community’s specific rural design challenge, and a Design Learning Cohort program that will invite at least 15 rural communities to engage in peer learning and expert-led sessions online.

All rural and tribal communities of 50,000 people or less are eligible to apply for the CIRD opportunities. It encourages applications from nonprofits, tribal or municipal governments, regional planning and arts organizations, and other community partners. It says it hopes to hear from a variety of rural communities from a wide range of backgrounds, geographies, and capacities. Visit for a full press release.

The Request for Applications contains further details about the program goals, eligibility, benefits, expectations, and a preview of all the application questions.

To learn more about the CIRD program and its application process, check out the recent CIRD Informational Webinar recording. Next month, CIRD staff will be hosting virtual office hours on April 11 from 12 to 5 p.m. ET (Zoom link here) to assist potential applicants.

To enlarge any image, click on it. 

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Community-college enrollments have dropped by one-third; red tape and lack of advisers discourage those who enroll

Santos Enrique Camara quit community college and now works
in food service. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson, The Associated Press)
Community colleges are important for rural areas because they offer a more accessible path to a degree, both in terms of distance and money. But they're in trouble.

"Even though community colleges are far cheaper than four-year schools —published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, with many states making community college free and President Joe Biden proposing free community college nationwide — consumers are abandoning them in droves," reports Jon Marcus for The Hechinger Report, which covers education.

For some students, enrolling in a community college can be a difficult, confusing transition that often ends in failure. "When Santos Enrique Camara arrived at Shoreline Community College in Washington state to study audio engineering, he quickly felt lost." Camara told Marcus, "It's like a weird maze. You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number, run from office to office, and see if you can figure it out."

Marcus reports, "Advocates for community colleges defend them as the underdogs of America's higher education system, left to serve the students who need the most support but without the money required. Critics contend that this has become an excuse for poor success rates that are only getting worse and for the kind of faceless bureaucracies that ultimately prompted Camara, who had finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average, to drop out after two semesters; he now works in a restaurant and plays in two bands." Camara told Marcus, "I seriously tried. I gave it my all. But you're sort of screwed from the get-go."

The future doesn't looks good. "Although the enrollment drop-off sped up during the Covid-19 pandemic, it started long before then. The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37 percent since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center," Marcus reports. "With scant advising, many community-college students spend time and money on courses that won't transfer or that they don't need. Though most intend to move on to get bachelor's degrees, only a small fraction succeed; fewer than half earn any kind of a credential. Even if they do, a new survey finds that most employers don't believe they're ready for the workforce."

"The reckoning is here," Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, told Marcus. "When we talk about transfer students, I just want to cry. And the sad thing is, they blame themselves." Marcus adds, "Even if they had enough advisers, students like these often wouldn't know the right questions to ask, said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School." Fuller told Marcus, "They do have ambition, but they're worried about discussing it with anybody for fear they're going to be told it's unrealistic or a dumb idea. And that just makes you want to cry. . . .The lack of resources inside community colleges is a legitimate complaint. But a number of community colleges do extraordinarily well. So it's not impossible."

But the 'maze' is reported by many students. David Hodges, 25, is another example, Marcus writes, "He enrolled at Essex County College in New Jersey to move beyond the odd jobs he'd been working since high school, including seasonal gigs at Amazon and FedEx. But he was stymied by red tape. . . . Hodges said he called and visited the school to try to get information about enrolling but kept being told that he needed his mother's tax information to get financial aid. . . . Finally, the college told him he needed to take remedial courses in writing and math, for which he paid $1,000 out of his own pocket. . . . Hodges, too, soon dropped out."

Jenkins told Marcus, "Community colleges don't treat adults well. They don't treat part-time students well, who are predominantly adults. . . . What community colleges need to do, he said, is ''focus on students’ motivation, and help them plan and make sure their programs — the content and the delivery — enable very busy students in a relatively short amount of time and at a low cost to get out with a degree."

How can providing 'social capital' help rural areas attract health-care professionals? A new study offers insights

Puzzle photo by Hans-Peter Gauster, Unsplash
"Social capital" is a wonky phrase for "a personal and professional relationship network."A new report from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service shows that those relationships "were crucial to recruiting and retaining healthcare professionals in rural areas of nine states," reports Kristi Eaton of The Daily Yonder. ERS Economist John Pender, an author of the study, told Eaton, "In the case of health-care professionals, the relationships that they consider when making these decisions include social relationships with family, friends, and other people in the community, and professional relationships with professional colleagues, supervisors, staff, and patients."

Eaton adds, "Another factor cited as important by most health-care professionals for deciding to stay in the towns that were part of the study was their investment in their practice. That likely reflects investment in relationships with patients and others as well as investment in facilities and recruitment and training of staff, Pender said. . . . While some of the findings likely hold more generally in other contexts–we cannot be sure that they apply in every context."

"Pender said this study found that factors within the control of rural communities – such as their friendliness toward newcomers, being a good place to raise a family, the quality of the local schools, and the quality of the local medical community and facilities – are among the most cited factors considered important by healthcare professionals in their decisions," Eaton writes. "The study examined 150 small rural towns with a population between 2,500 and 20,000 in ... Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin." The report notes, "These findings suggest that rural communities can have a significant influence on attracting and retaining healthcare professionals through investments in social, human, and physical capital."

'Remarkable and unexpected,' colorful northern lights (aurora borealis) filled skies from Arizona to North Carolina

A brilliant aurora appeared Thursday night in Shenandoah National Park. (Photo by Peter Forister)

In a word, breathtaking. "As soon as the sun set Thursday, extreme weather photographer Peter Forister excitedly headed for the hills. Forecasts had suggested that recent storming on the surface of the sun could set off auroras — brilliant dancing streaks of light, also known as the northern lights — in the Lower 48 states," reports Kasha Patel of The Washington Post. "At around 11 p.m., the sky lit up with vibrant red and yellow streaks visible to the naked eye." Forister told Patel, "You just step back and jaw drop and just watch the show for a few minutes. It was really remarkable, like the kind of show that will make you stop and just catch your breath." Patel writes, "Yet the light show wasn’t in an aurora hot spot such as Canada, Iceland or even the northern tier of the United States. This was in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, 75 miles southwest of D.C."

That show was no average sun storm. "On Thursday night, a 'severe' geomagnetic storm — rated a level four out of five by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — brought vibrant, bright auroras as far south as Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Iowa, New Mexico and North Carolina, according to reports on Twitter," Patel notes. "Some even reported seeing another newly discovered aurora-like phenomenon called STEVE, or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, which shows as bright streaks rather than the aurora's curtain effect. Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, told Patel, "We were not expecting that level of storm by any means. A lot of variables come into play. … It's difficult to get people spun up for the aurora because so often things don't work out much more often than they do." Patel adds, "The last time a severe 'G4' level storm like this occurred was 2017."

How does this work? "Murtagh explained: Think of the coronal mass ejection as a magnet shot out from the sun. That magnet now interacts with the Earth's magnetic field," Patel reports. "Like two bar magnets, the fields connected in such a way that 'just opened things up.' Murtagh told Patel, "The [sun's] magnetic field coupled perfectly with Earth's magnetic field, and the consequence was severe storming and beautiful aurora extending down into the mid-latitudes."

It also involves something called a "puff." Patel reports, "NASA solar physicist Alex Young said 'a puff' appeared to come from the center of the sun and practically had a straight shot at Earth. . . . Those kinds of puffs are called stealth coronal mass ejections, which Young thinks kicked the geomagnetic activity up a notch. . . . Young said we're also in what some people loosely call 'aurora season.' Auroral activity tends to pick up around the equinoxes, one of which just passed on Monday."

Opinion: U.S. has subsidized news from the founding; it needs to be content-neutral, universal and future-friendly

The notion of government support for news media, especially newspapers, is anathema to many journalists and even some of their paymasters, but Steven Waldman of the Rebuild Local News Coalition reminds us that the federal government has subsidied newspapers since its inception.

Writing in Politico, Waldman gives some little-known details of how newspapers paid only token postage at first, then were free within a 30-mile radius or if sent to any other newspaper, to spur the circualtion of information and help the federal government function over a large land mass. He cites Alexis de Tocqueville writing in Democracy in America that early U.S. newspaper circulation was "astonishing" and the greatest in the world, Waldman notes.

Waldman quotes scholar Robert McChesney: “If the U.S. government subsidized journalism today at the same level of GDP that it did in the 1840s, the government would have to spend in the neighborhood of $30-$35 billion annually.” And Waldman makes this point: "Now, the Internet has made the cost of distribution almost zero — while local news creation has collapsed. Some 1,800 communities have no local news source and thousands more have ghost newspapers. By one study, only 17 percent of the articles in local newspapers are about local issues."

Waldman's piece coincided with reintroduction of the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which may find traction harder to get in Congress than last year, but he notes that his coalition is working in several states on legislation to help local news publishers, and argues that "If modern policy makers want to follow the model of the founders they should focus not on the literal construct of the postal subsidy but rather its policy principles," to-wit:

Steven Waldman
"The policies were content neutral. The subsidy was based on distance traveled, not content. This meant that both parties benefited. It meant that sometimes scurrilous rags were helped; sometimes great local reporting benefited. Everyone tolerated the idea that some publications they disliked might survive because it also helped the ones they liked, and a vibrant free press as a whole. Second, it provided a near universal entitlement. Small and large, rural and urban, publications both benefited to some degree. Third, it was future friendly. It did not target only publications that existed before a certain date. If new newspapers arose, they got benefits, too. So it supported innovation and not just legacy players. Fourth, the strategy constituted a political compromise. Although the subsidies were content neutral, each policy did have biases. The low flat rate fee favored city newspapers; the exemption for circulation near the home office benefited smaller towns. So they did both, drawing broad political support. The payroll tax credit that passed the House of Representatives last year had a similar balance: It would have helped cover the costs of local reporters at both Fox and NPR affiliates."

The unending tragedy of Sutherland Springs: Life goes on, but for some shooting victims, wounds and losses remain

David Colbath visits the church where he was shot nine times.
It now serves as a memorial to the dead. (Photo by Lisa Krantz, The Washington Post)

On a quiet Sunday morning in November 2017, the First Baptist of Church of the rural hamlet of Sutherland Springs, Texas, was filled with worshipers. Around 11 a.m., Devin Patrick Kelley entered the church, "Wielding a Ruger AR-556 rifle, fired 450 military-grade bullets inside the church within minutes. . . . Over two dozen parishioners were killed," report Silvia Foster-Frau and Holly Bailey of The Washington Post. "Twenty others were wounded, sentenced to lives of unending pain and illness."

A 25-year-old woman survived the attack but now struggles to live. "Multitudes of purple freckles dot Morgan Workman's legs, arms, chest and cheekbone — tiny shards of metal from bullets and shrapnel that struck her as she worshiped in her church more than five years ago," the Post explains. "The fragments are leaching lead. Workman suffers from toxicity symptoms, including body pains, fatigue, depression — and has been told by doctors that she probably can't have a baby. . . . Workman was shot twice."

Entire families were decimated. "John Holcombe and his now-12-year-old daughter, Evelyn, cling to each other for support. His pregnant wife, Crystal, had shielded Evelyn from the gunman and was killed along with Evelyn's three siblings and grandparents," the Post reports. Rusty Duncan, a paramedic who happened to be driving by and was one of the first responders, described the scene to the Post, "It was like walking into a war zone where everyone was already dead. . . . It looked like a bomb went off in there. . . Just pieces of people everywhere."

"David Colbath was shot nine times in the arm, leg and back. He recalled needing six surgeries in the weeks after the shooting, as doctors decided which bullet fragments to remove and which were buried so deep they were better left inside him," the Post reports. "He takes eight to 12 ibuprofen pills a day, he said, in addition to a handful of Tylenol at night." Colbath told the Post, "I've normalized pain every night. I've normalized pain every day. I'll never be normal again."

Life goes on, but will never be the same. "Five years on, many in the working-class town of 600 — nestled in the dusty-road countryside an hour southeast of San Antonio — still attend services every Sunday. They pray in a new church built next to the old one. The sanctuary, funded by donations from around the country, has fortified walls and security cameras," the Post reports. "Many of the congregants — in addition to those in the church's new security team — carry guns on their hips for protection. . . . Children hobble through the pews with leg braces. Men carry colostomy bags that sometimes leak. Some, like Workman, are marked by sprays of odd-looking freckles. . . . Every Sunday, they chime a bell in the church's tower where 25 portraits of those lost hang high, along with an image of angels to honor Crystal's unborn child."

After the shooting, professionals assessed the combined carnage of a killer's malice and his choice of weapon. "Kelley stormed the church and stalked the aisles, shooting people at point-blank range. He fired 196 times inside the church in 16 separate bursts. . . . The dead ranged from age 1 to 77," the Post reports. "Terry Snyder, a longtime Texas Ranger among the first on the scene, later described seeing victims where bullets had 'disintegrated the skull' — including a toddler's." Snyder told the Post, "Even the survivors, the wounds that I saw … it was unbelievable, just the damage the bullet would cause." 

The Justice Department has reached a $144.5 million settlement with the surviving family members from the Sutherland Springs massacre, reports Glenn Thrush of The New York Times. The Texas church shooting killed 26 people and "lead to an acrimonious legal battle in which the government claimed it was not liable for its failure to update the national firearms background check system. . . . Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has signed off on the deal, which lawyers in the Justice Department’s civil division negotiated with lawyers representing the families of victims and survivors. . . . The settlement is among the largest of its kind, exceeding previous ones the department reached over mass shootings that stemmed from the government’s failure to take steps to prevent mass shootings by sharing intelligence and other information that might have been used to stop them."

Monday, April 03, 2023

Weather hits coast to coast; why does U.S. have the most?

People walk through damage from a late-night tornado in Sullivan,
Ind., 1 April 1 2023. (Photo by Doug McSchooler, AP Photo)
Tornadoes, floods, wildfires – and the hits keep coming. "The United States is Earth's punching bag for nasty weather. Blame geography for the U.S. getting hit by stronger, costlier, more varied and frequent extreme weather than anywhere on the planet, several experts said," reports Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press. "Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, jutting peninsulas like Florida, clashing storm fronts and the jet stream combine to naturally brew the nastiest of weather."

That's not all. "Nature dealt the United States a bad hand, but people have made it much worse by what, where and how we build, several experts said," Borenstein writes. "Then add climate change." Rick Spinrad, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Borenstein to be prepared to: "Buckle up. More extreme events are expected."

U.S. weather reads like a horrifying menu: "Hurricanes. Flash floods. Droughts. Blizzards. Ice storms. Nor'easters. Lake-effect snow. Heat waves. Severe thunderstorms. Hail. Lightning. Atmospheric rivers. Derechos. Dust storms. Monsoons. Bomb cyclones. And the dreaded polar vortex," Borenstein lists. Victor Gensini, a Northern Illinois University meteorology professor, told Borenstein, "It really starts with kind of two things. Number one is the Gulf of Mexico. And number two is elevated terrain to the west."

The past year's extreme weather has vetted the dire warnings. It also highlights areas, many of which are rural, are ill-prepared to "buckle up" In 2022, "July floods reveal troubling truths about Kentucky's severe weather emergency alert systems. Imprecise weather forecasting and spotty emergency alerts due to limited cellular and internet access in rural Kentucky meant that many others were wholly unprepared for the historic flood," reports Claire Carlson of The Daily Yonder. "Efforts to improve these systems are underway, but state officials say expansions to broadband infrastructure will take at least four years to be completed in Kentucky's most rural counties. . . . In a state where flooding is common, these improvements could be the difference between life and death for rural Kentuckians."

Borenstein reports, "If the United States as a whole has it bad, the South has it the worst, said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd." Sherpherd told Borenstein, "We drew the short straw (in the South) that we literally can experience every single type of extreme weather event. Including blizzards. Including wildfires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes. Every single type. . . . There's no other place in the United States that can say that."

"Shepherd noted that poverty makes it hard to prepare for and bounce back from disasters, especially in the South," Borenstein writes. Another Northern Illinois meteorology professor, Walker Ashley, told him, "Safety can be bought. Those who are well-to-do and have resources can buy Safety and will be the most resilient when disaster strikes. ... Unfortunately, that isn't all of us."