Friday, July 14, 2023

News outlets can apply through Sept. 18 to host a journalist from Report for America, which seeks rural applicants

Report for America seeks Partner Newsrooms from GroundTruth on Vimeo.

Report for America, the national service program that places emerging and experienced journalists into local newsrooms, has opened the portal for news organizations to apply to host an RFA "corps member" for up to three years, starting next summer. The deadline is Sept. 18.

Sofi Zeman, a recent University of Missouri
graduate, is a new RFA corps member at
the weekly Uvalde Leader-News in Texas.
This week, 60 new RFA corps members began their onboarding and orientation in new positions in newsrooms in every corner of the country. More than 600 reporters have been placed in more than 300 newsrooms since the GroundTruth Project launched the program in 2017. The program is making a special effort to place corps members in rural newsrooms.

Charles Sennott, GroundTruth's founder and editor-in-chief, told his mailing list this week, "If you live in a big city or a small town where there are under-covered issues and overlooked communities and if you see a need for stronger local reporting on important issues like the environment, criminal justice, and health, please encourage your local news organization to reach out to us."

Earl Johnson, RFA's vice president of recruitment and alumni engagement, said in Sennott's email, “We understand the challenges today’s newsrooms face, not only finding talented journalists but also providing the mentorship and support they might seek. By partnering with Report for America, local newsrooms are better positioned to cover important issues, diversify their newsrooms, and grow sustainable, local support within their communities.”

RFA is also seeking mentors for its corps members, Sennott wrote: "The mentors are a diverse group in many ways, but they are bound together by a belief in our mission and are working hard to support and build the future of local journalism. So if you know a journalist who might have the time to help the next generation, or if you fit that bill yourself, please reach out."

Newsrooms can go here to learn more about the program and to access the application.

Peer-reviewed study by clean-energy group says if only 0.2% of natural gas leaks, it's as bad as coal for the climate

A New York Times video with an infrared filter, at right,
captured natural gas leaking from a plant in Midkiff, Texas.
"Natural gas, long seen as a cleaner alternative to coal and an important tool in the fight to slow global warming, can be just as harmful to the climate, a new study has concluded, unless companies can all but eliminate the leaks that plague its use," reports Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times.

The study found that if only 0.2 percent of gas leaks into the atmosphere, it is "as big a driver of climate change as coal," Tabuchi reports. "That’s a tiny margin of error for a gas that is notorious for leaking from drill sites, processing plants and the pipes that transport it." Her story does not give any estimates of what the actual leak volume might be, or any comments from the gas industry.

The study was led by Deborah Gordon, the lead researcher and an environmental policy expert at Brown University and at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that promoptes clean energy. It also involved researchers from NASAHarvard University and Duke University, and is scheduled for publication next week in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It "adds to a substantial body of research that has poked holes in the idea that natural gas is a suitable transitional fuel to a future powered entirely by renewables, like solar and wind," Tabuchi writes.

Power plants' shift from coal to gas "has helped reduce carbon emissions from power plants by nearly 40 percent since 2005," Tabuchi notes. "But natural gas is made up mostly of methane, which is a far more potent planet-warming gas, in the short term, than carbon dioxide when it escapes unburned into the atmosphere. And there’s mounting evidence that methane is doing just that: leaking from gas systems in far larger quantities than previously thought. Sensors and infrared cameras are helping to visualize substantial leaks of methane from oil and gas infrastructure, and increasingly powerful satellites are detecting “super-emitting” episodes from space."

Farm-spread sludge from wastewater plants and factories is a main source of 'forever chemicals' in South Carolina water

Sludge-spreading sites and wells with "forever chemicals" are marked on this satellite image, part of the multimedia package with The State newspaper's story. The image shows part of Darlington County, South Carolina.
The spreading of wastewater sludge on farms is a main suspected source of toxic "forever chemicals" found in streams across South Carolina, says the state government that allowed tens of thousands of acres to be unknowingly contaminated, Sammy Fretwell reports for The State newspaper in Columbia.

“It’s sad. We didn’t know what we were doing to the ground,’’ farmer Robbie O’Neal said of the sludge spreading program his family once relied on. “We were told it was supposed to be good, supposed to be nothing wrong with it. It wasn’t supposed to hurt anything. . . . It has leached into our drinking water and poisoned us.’

Fretwell reports, "More than 3,500 farm fields have been approved to receive sludge. Sewage plants, factories and other types of industrial facilities were approved to spread sludge and wastewater. Now, increasing evidence shows that some sludge contains chemicals with a toxic punch called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The class of toxic compounds has only in recent years become widely known to the public. Commonly called forever chemicals, the material is of such concern that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a strict drinking water limit of 4 parts per trillion on some types of the chemicals. Forever chemicals got their name because they do not break down easily in the environment, meaning they can pollute the earth, rivers and groundwater for decades."

For decades, a now-closed textile factory persuaded farmers to use the sludge as fertilizer. In 2019, the government found those chemicals in the drinking water of those farmers and their neighbors, and "All of them lived and worked in areas where farmers had used sludge from the Galey and Lord textile plant. And many of the wells they drank from were polluted with the same chemicals being found in sludge at the factory several miles away. . . . The chemicals are showing up in almost every river tested in the Palmetto State, often at levels above the proposed federal drinking water standard."

Founder of huge indoor-agriculture startup replaced as CEO

Jonathan Webb, then CEO of AppHarvest, at its Morehead facility in 2022 (Photo: Silas Walker, Lexington Herald-Leader)

The indoor-agriculture startup AppHarvest, with four farms along the edge of the Appalachian Plateau in Kentucky, will no longer be run by the Kentucky native who foudned it in 2018. Jonathan Webb will become chief strategy officer and remain a company director.

"Tony Martin, a veteran of the controlled-environment agriculture industry, will be the new CEO. Martin first joined the company’s board in October and has been the chief operating officer since January," reports Rick Childress of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The CEO change comes as the company faces a foreclosure complaint on its farm in Richmond and a dispute over the lease of its Berea farm. Last fall, AppHarvest — which grows large quantities of fruits and vegetables in massive, climate-controlled greenhouses and employs hundreds of people — said in public filings that it was running low on cash and disclosed “substantial doubt” about its future. The company also has farms in Morehead and Somerset."

Grain-related entrapments most numerous in over a decade, and other accidents have increased, Purdue summary says

Grain bins can be death traps. (Purdue University photo)
Farms are full of confined or partially confined spaces that put farmworkers at risk, and 2022 was a hazardous year with "roughly a 40 percent increase in the number of reported cases involving agricultural confined spaces," according to the 2022 "Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities" from Purdue University. "The annual, widely used summary documents the previous year's frequency and causes of confined space and grain entrapment incidents in the agricultural industry and provides a historical analysis of agricultural confined space hazards," a university press release says.

"In 2022, the summary reported no fewer than 83 cases – 24 fatal and 59 nonfatal cases – involving agricultural confined spaces. This represents a 40.7% increase over the 59 cases in 2021. The authors explain that there are limitations in data collection as not every case may be reported. As a result, these numbers are approximate," the university reports. "In addition, of the total number of confinement cases, 42 grain-related entrapments represented a 44.8% increase over 2021. This was the highest number of reported grain entrapments in over a decade. According to the authors, grain entrapments are the most common type of agricultural confined space incident."

Edward Sheldon, one of the summary's authors, said they pointed out "the role of out-of-condition grain in grain entrapments. Many entrapments result from someone entering a bin or structure to break loose, clumped, spoiled grain. Keep the grain in good condition to eliminate the need to enter the bin. We strongly encourage farmers and agribusiness employers to recognize the hazards presented by confined spaces such as grain bins, silos and manure storage facilities, and use best management practices and effective training programs to keep their families and employees safe."

"Iowa reported the most agricultural confinement cases, at 24, and grain entrapment cases at nine. One female case was documented, which occurred inside a cotton module builder," Purdue reports. "Of 41 non-grain-related cases, incidents involved livestock waste handling facilities, entanglements inside confined spaces, falls from confined space structures and grain dust explosions or fires. . . . Sheldon urges farmers and agribusiness employers to utilize the educational resources outlined in the summary pointing them to other programs like Gearing Up for Safety. . . . This program offers a youth-oriented curriculum, also related to the hazards associated with agricultural confined spaces."

Flora and fauna: Golden milk; pickin' up pawpaws; the fearsome grizzly returns; meet a big island's only elk . . .

Guernseys graze in East Earl, Pa. (Photo by Art Petrosemolo)
Not your average glass of milk. This one is golden. "Decades ago, the Guernsey breed was the gold standard of the dairy world thanks to its uniquely colored milk," Art Petrosemolo reports for Lancaster Farming. "As the focus shifted toward production . . . Guernsey cattle took a backseat. But several breeders are optimistic the Guernsey can rise again, banking on the benefits of its distinctive milk. . . . People love the rich taste and the nutritional components that include beta carotene."

The grizzly bear has returned to the contiguous U.S., stirring awe and fear in "one of America's unlikeliest comeback stories," reports Gloria Dickie for High Country News. "The bears are among the slowest-reproducing mammals in North America; they require vast tracts of habitat (an adult male grizzly can have a home range of 600 square miles); and they kill people. Bringing back the grizzly required humans to overcome their fear of predators and champion the return of a known man-eater. . . . And as grizzlies expand into places they haven't inhabited in more than a century, they are crossing not only geographical and political boundaries but thresholds of tolerance."

Pawpaws look odd, but they are delicious.
(Photo by Wendell Smith, Flickr/Creative Commons)
To nab a sweet fruit with an equally sweet theme song, go "Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" and plop some pawpaws in your pockets. (They're not at stores; they don't keep well.) "Some folks swear pawpaws taste like bananas; the highly nutritious, creamy fruits, rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids, can be eaten raw or used in any recipe calling for bananas," Jessica Damiano reports for The Associated Press. "Pawpaws are easy to grow and exotically delicious."

What matters to bees? Flowers. But bee survival is much more complicated than making sure blossoms are plentiful. "Some of the most important sources of the global food supply — pollinators — are in decline, but work is underway in Wisconsin that could reverse that trend," reports Gaby Vinick of Wisconsin Public Radio. Conservation biologists and researchers are using state funds "toward increasing pollinator habitat at seven state parks, as part of the 'Pollinator in the Parks' program. . . . [At] Governor Dodge State Park, there was a documented sighting of the rusty patched bumblebee, a federally endangered listed species."

Photo by Ralph Downes via The Seattle Times
This elk decided to go for a swim, and he just kept swimming until he landed on 169-square-mile Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. "Meet Bruiser, the only elk on the island, with no other bulls or predators to deal with," reports Geoff Ziezulewicz for The Seattle Times. "He also was alone, the only elk on Whidbey. Life is choices. And today, ensconced in the island's bounty, Bruiser just might be America's loneliest elk. Does he even care?"

Designer bags, clothes, sunglasses and now, seeds. "In the future, the food you eat could be grown from seeds developed with gene editing tools," reports Mike Moen of Public News Service. "Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, thinks the products will be on the scene soon, adding they could bring stronger yields for farmers, along with healthier crops to sell. . . . Watne argued there should also be strong 'truth-in-labeling' policies so consumers know exactly what they are getting. He added a robust approach could help meet future demand for food."

Youngmeyer Field Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas offers rural magnificence as an off-the-grid research facility

The roof has a clean line with a sculpted edge. (Photos by Brad Feinknopf, DeZeen)

Off the grid and set into the land of the Flint Hills of southeast Kansas, the Youngmeyer Field Station of Wichita State University stands out with its curved stone and stretching windows gracing a bluff. The station, built by Kansas studio Hutton, was designed "to integrate with the landscape and to withstand heavy winds and other natural forces, reports Jenna McKnight for DeZeen. "The building sits within the 4,700-acre Youngmeyer Ranch, an active cattle ranch and research site." Hutton explained the design: "Like the dugouts of the Midwestern frontier days, the field station is partially embedded in the earth to protect the facility from northern winds and to further the contextual camouflage."

The station houses "a laboratory, meeting space, and a garage, along with living quarters to accommodate up to six researchers. . . . The facility is not tied to public utilities. Rooftop solar panels generate electricity, and water is collected on-site." McKnight writes. "The area's plants, animals, soils and waterways are of interest to researchers, particularly given the ranch's location within Flint Hills, a region known for its important tall-grass prairie ecosystem. Once vast, this type of ecosystem has declined since the 1800s due to farming."

The building's design offers a peculiar integration into the surrounding land, as if the structure had come up from the ground. "Façades consist of four varieties of local limestone, arranged in bands that emulate the layers of sediment in the surrounding hills. One of the stone varieties, Prairie Shell, contains fossilized shells that hint at the story of the prehistoric era," McKnight writes. "To maintain a discrete profile, the team created a 'clean roof line' with a sculpted edge. . . . For added protection from both wind and wildfire, the facility is made of concrete and clad in durable and noncombustible exterior materials such as limestone and glass."

The building's meticulously designed interior brings forth a layer of delight. Station team members told McKnight, "Visitors can take a scavenger hunt around the building for fossils preserved and on display in the walls, including a perfect nautilus right by the front door." McKnight adds: "One finds earthy finishes such as wood and stone and a color palette evoking natural elements such as sediment, heads of grain and the sky. . . . The communal room, which looks to the south and east, is afforded sweeping views of the landscape through large stretches of glass. . . . The team noted that the closest neighboring property is a few miles down the road."

Thursday, July 13, 2023

New to the trade, Jeremy Gulban has more former Gannett papers than anyone; he says success is up to communities

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The owner of dozens of "ghost newspapers" bought from Gannett Co. says he is trying to revive them by returning editorial decision-making to local people while still taking advantage of the economies of scale that have led to consolidation of newspaper ownership. But he says his new chain's fate is not in its own hands.

"The success or failure of these rural newspapers is on the local people," CherryRoad Media CEO Jeremy Gulban said Friday at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. His remark fit the Summit's research question: "How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports democracy?"

One example of a community sustaining rural journalism was the first paper Gulban started, the Rainy Lake Gazette in International Falls, where the paper had closed, and he reached out to the local Chamber of Commerce because he had recently bought his first paper in Grand Marais, also in northern Minnesota. "They got a whole bunch of different stakeholders in town, and we all met, and it was really kind of an amazing meeting for me, because I had never seen that kind of enthusiasm, that kind of spirit, to solve a problem," Gulban said. Three weeks later, they had a paper. "People really embraced it," he said. "We quickly got to more subscribers than, you know, the old paper had."

CherryRoad Media map, adapted by The Rural Blog
That brought the information-technology entrepreneur to the attention of the nation's biggest newspaper company, which is trying to unload small papers that add little, if anything, to its bottom line. "Gannett was looking for an organization that was strong enough technically to be able to do these migrations that would have to happen, and probably blissfully ignorant enough to take on this challenge of selling their worst papers, basically. So we took the leap." Now his company, less than three years old, has 77 papers in 17 states, more than 50 of them former Gannett papers, and many of them "ghost newspapers," he said.

Making the papers substantial and sustainable began with returning control to local people. "When we took over, the editors would say, ‘We send in a few articles, and we don't see the paper until it winds up coming to the office after it's printed.’ . . . I think the biggest thing that that happened is they eliminated all the local publishers, so there is no one ... you can call to talk about the paper. There's literally no one. Everything flows up in these vertical silos, which leads to a lack of integration, a lack of working together. And, as you all know, you can't have your salespeople off doing one thing and editorial people doing another. There's got to be that collaboration which, you know, really doesn't exist. . . . If people want to place an ad. They'll call an 800 number, and they'll go online and do it. And we all know in small towns that won't happen."

The downward spiral of news, ads and circulation has left ghost papers with two kinds of subscribers and regular single-copy buyers, Gulban said: "People who just like the ritual of getting the paper and really don't care what's in it ... and people who hold a position in town where they feel like they need to get the paper. . . . People who were truly looking for news had just given up and kind of moved on."

That caused most retail advertising to vanish, and "dependence on legal [ads] and obituaries," Gulban said. "When we looked at at these financials, the revenue from obits, legal and classified, was nearly double the display advertising in a lot of cases, you know, which is totally upside down. . . . So really, what you have is you got a ghost newspaper, right? It really has no relevance in the community. And you know that's a vicious cycle, right? The the less relevant it is. So. This is kind of the cycle that we found most of these papers to be in."

In addition to returning editorial control, "We tried to take out all of the regional or national content that was being put in there primarily as filler," Gulban said. "We still have some national content in some of the more-than-once-a-week frequencies. But anything weekly really has nothing but local content in it. We invested more in editorial positions. . . . We've actually been able to find someone in every one of those markets which has not been easy."

Jeremy Gulban
On the business side, "We've really tried to make sure we have a local ad rep in every market, with some success," he said. "That's not an easy position to hire for, particularly if you've got a tough product that you're trying to sell into. So we've had a hard time getting people. . . . Our biggest source of talent, believe it or not, is just people who used to work at the paper, and see that it's improved and want to come back." As staffs are rebuilt, Gulban said, "some people are going to step up and be leaders in this. And some people aren't. And so there's a direct correlation between the leadership ability of the local usually editor, sometimes the salesperson."

But local has its limits. Local ad and page designers are "a luxury that we can't afford," Gulban said. "And we've built our own circulation platform. That's entirely web-based so that we can have people in different locations serve circulation needs across markets." All printing is outsourced, but he said the company might build a plant because so many are closing: "We do believe that a printed product has to be part of the long-term solution" to the problems of local papers.

One way to define a ghost newspaper is that it has no local office open to the public, or is open only a few hours a week: "That just leads to no community goodwill efforts, no sponsoring events, no joining the Rotary Club, none of that," Gulban said. "That's so essential in a small-town newspaper." But not so essential that he has offices in some small markets. In Stephenville, Texas, rent was too high, so "We're trying to pioneer like a shared office, you know, with a Chamber of Commerce, maybe even a local restaurant, you know, we're open for lunch. Three days a week we go in there, the editor's there, the circulation person's there, you can go meet with them. We're trying to be as creative as possible just to keep that physical real estate cost down." The Google listing for the Stephenville Empire-Tribune says it's "temporarily closed."

Sites of two of the Texas papers discussed (Google map)
Just east of Stephenville on US 67 south of Fort Worth, the Glen Rose Reporter serves a town of 900 people with 320 print subscribers, "which was under 200 when we took over, and 108 digital subscribers, which was zero because there was no paywall," Gulban said. "This paper was absolutely horrible. It had literally nothing in it. When we took over, two really dedicated freelancers stepped up and said, 'We will make this paper be successful, and so they produce all the content between the two of them. They take it upon themselves to go around town, try to get people to advertise, try to drive additional subscribers. . . . This is so much better of a paper than it was a year ago, and the results show. And while those numbers are small, in percentage-increase terms, they're really huge. . . . Truthfully, if we didn't take this paper over, it wouldn't be there anymore, because the markets, too small for anybody to really be interested in doing anything here."

Gulban's other example was the Hamburg Reporter, in Iowa's southeast corner. Fremont County "had a catastrophic flood in 2019 and basically half the town's population left, so the population is now 890. We have 132 print subscribers and two digital, but we just put the paywall up two weeks ago," Gulban said. But its ad revenue averages $9,200 a month, and "this is the best revenue per population of anything in our whole organization." The paper's mothership is the Nebraska City News-Press, across the Missouri River; the one person "who was basically doing everything" died last month, "so we have to figure out how to handle that. But the model here still holds. . . . We have one person who is about town, knows everybody, is able to do a lot of different things," Gulban said. Our vision, which is a little bit out there, is: If you want to advertise in Hamburg, Iowa, we're the place you should be doing it through, not through Facebook, not through any other technical solution. Because we know Hamburg, Iowa. . . . We want to leverage our local staffs and their credibility to drive revenue in this new digital world."

And America's newest newspaper-chain owner had one broad thing to say about consolidation of newspaper ownership: "I believe strongly in distributed ownership of the news, because I don't think the country is founded on the idea that three or four groups or people would control all the information. The vision was thousands of individual people controlling the flow of information."

Gulban was the concluding speaker at the Summit's morning session. The video is here.

This story has been edited to give the correct genesis of Gulban's paper in International Falls.

Some states offer cash incentives for energy-efficient buildings; reducing emissions is their goal

Photo by Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash
Buildings use up energy resources, and in states focused on reducing their greenhouse emissions, shrinking building-energy consumption has become a goal. "Commercial and residential buildings account for 13% of greenhouse-gas emissions and 28% of energy consumption, according to federal energy estimates," reports Erika Bolstad of Stateline. Some states are "beginning to require that the owners of large buildings track how much energy they use and improve their efficiency," but the push for emission reductions ranges "from office buildings, big-box stores, hotels, apartments and other large commercial structures. . . . In some states, building owners who meet their energy targets early may be eligible for incentive payments."

Colorado and Oregon are two states with approved building performance standards that aim to make larger structures more climate-friendly, but changes to any sized building can help. Bolstad writes, "Ashley Haight of the ZERO Coalition, an organization working in Oregon to decarbonize buildings, said smaller buildings can voluntarily monitor their efficiency and emissions to be eligible for some of the state incentives. The exact amount of the incentives in Oregon has not yet been determined. But in Washington state, for example, building owners that demonstrate early compliance with the state's program are eligible for a one-time incentive payment of $0.85 per square foot of floor area."

Efficient buildings can create instant rewards because "they are cheaper to run because they have lower utility bills. And they often have better indoor air quality, a critical measure since most people spend 90% of their time inside a building," Bolstad reports. Cliff Majersik, a senior adviser for policy and programs at the Institute for Market Transformation, told Bolstad, "It makes them more attractive to tenants for a variety of reasons--the buildings become more comfortable, more productive places to work, better places to live, [with] lower vacancy rates."

Colorado state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat who helped write the state's 2021 building performance law, told Bulstad, "[Buildings] sit there. . . . You don't think of them as giving off energy or consuming energy. . . . Just changing the light bulbs out in a large building can have significant savings. . . . Companies that do the investment in making these changes, and then get their payback in their energy savings down the road. So there are ways for this to happen that are less expensive, and I think a lot of times it's just inertia and people not wanting to change."

"Oregon's proposed building performance standards don't cover agricultural or industrial structures, hospitals or residential buildings, including dorms and some historic buildings. However, many of those building types may still be required to measure and benchmark their energy efficiency as the law goes into effect," Bulstad explains. "And many of the state's buildings that range in size from 20,000 to 35,000 square feet must measure their efficiency and emissions based on how much electricity, gas, and other fuels a building consumes."

One town's impressive fundraising built its community center; they have a podcast to help others learn how

Photo from Cedar River Complex website
Like many rural towns, Osage, Iowa, had a wish list: getting the pool repaired, plans for community theater and fair space for the agriculture society. "There were many needs for new facilities," Andrew McCrea of Farm Journal reports. Steve Cooper, mayor of Osage, told McCrea: "The groups knew they couldn't all get what they wanted immediately. There were simply too many needs and not enough private funds to go around. Someone suggested they band together and perhaps create a facility with everything they needed. An architect was hired to design a plan. . . . He came up with a cost of around $12.5 million, and when that figure surfaced, I thought, 'Well, it was a good try."

Osage's population was around 3,000, and the community leaders were skeptical that millions could be raised. McCrea writes, "The local Osage Education Foundation heard about the plan and the price tag. Perhaps they should share the story with those at the alumni banquet since it attracts people from near and far. The message resonated, and Cooper was amazed by the giving, which came in at $7.5 million. Cooper told her: "We have a list of people who were donors to this, and some of them gave as little as ten dollars, but it seemed like everyone wanted to be a part of this."

The residents' rally added up to Osage building the Cedar River Complex. "It includes an indoor pool, fitness center, walking track, basketball courts, 600-seat theatre, museum and more," McCrea reports. "About 2,400 people have memberships for the pool and fitness center. The 600-seat theatre, which is part of the same complex, is also quite a draw. . . . The four Broadway-style shows produced each year bring people from across the country. Perhaps the biggest impact is what the CRC has done for the present and future of this community." Cooper told McCrea: "This has not been a burden on anybody's taxes. This facility has not only been able to get built but has been able to maintain sustainability on its own. . . . I hear from people that say they moved back–not just because of the CRC, but just because of the attitude of the community and wanting to be in their hometown."

Osage may seems like a "one-off" to some people, but its residents don't think so. They encourage other communities to band together "to make [their town] a great place to call home," McCrea reports. To that end, they've created a podcast, "Farming the Countryside," which shares insights and how-tos for other rural towns looking for guidance and encouragement.

She read 1,001 books and found the 'real America'

Esri map, from Esri, TomTom, Dept. of Commerce,
Census Bureau data

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their song "America." Simon's lyrics wistfully recount his 5-day cross-country road trip longing for a way to explain America. The song is a pursuit of what it means to be American. But there are many ways to find America. . . .What about reading your way through American books to explain America? Susan Straight recounts her 5-year reading travels, "A map of 1,001 novels to show us where to find the real America," in her opinion for the Los Angeles Times.

"The idea for this 'library of America'  was born in 2016, when the news and the elections told of a country being irrevocably divided by politics, by ideas of red and blue, by arguments over who is American and who is not. . . . For me, those arguments ignored the vast geography of our stories and novels, the ways people search for belonging, leave home or stay, and how every state is really many places. Those arguments also ignored our common dreams, fears, challenges, hopes and everyday experiences, which unite us, regardless of where we live. I wanted to show that the places of American fiction can’t be divided into blue or red states. . . .

I made 1,001 books my goal, just as Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights told many stories to stay alive. Maybe these books can keep us going as we read about the places we or our parents came from, regions we don’t know, homes lived in decades or centuries ago, or homes made last year by someone new. Driftless, the region of Wisconsin in David Rhodes’ work, is a timeless evocation of a remote place that led me west, where two books set hundreds of years apart in Montana — James Welch’s Fools Crow and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians—kept me awake all night. Rereading Willa Cather in Nebraska took me to Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton, a beautiful echo of homelands. In my California, the Central Valley of Helena Maria Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus leads into the L.A. of The Tattooed Soldier by Héctor Tobar and the Pala Reservation of Gordon Lee Johnson’s Bird Songs Don’t Lie.

Even fictional books have a home. "Working with the story maps team at Esri, I drew all over my paper map, seeing regions emerge in the novels for each state. We ended up with 11 regions, chosen for spines of mountain ranges, shared coastlines, and prairie expanses. To find exact locations to map for each novel, I found references in the books themselves; I read interviews with authors throughout decades of their writing, and often — my favorite way — I contacted them by email or through Instagram and asked where they felt the exact heart of their books might be — especially in fictional places."

All in all, Straight distilled America to 11 kingdoms. Here are some of her recommendations:

Pointed Firs, Granite Coves and Revolution

Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island

The stony coasts and harbors of Indigenous and pilgrim, heritage stories both dark and bright in rock-lined fields, cobblestone streets and onyx rivers, this region’s novels are classic, but I love the new voices as well. Every fall, I visit New Brunswick, the land of my stepfather, then drive south, seeing New England through these remarkable books.

Mountain Home and Hollows, Smokies and Ozarks

Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania

With a series of wooded spines, the swath of America dominated by ridges and valleys holds unique stories of resilience, isolation and family, secrets held for centuries and brave travels to save those loved and loyal to this place. This kind of home means deep reverence for tradition and yet great novels of children longing for new visions as well.

Blues and Bayous, Deltas and Coasts

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida

One of the richest legacies of fiction is here in eddies and waves, the desperate fields and dark roads to freedom, the tenacity of centuries and the swirl of change brought by bravery. In the South, the story is life, captured from the air into great literature.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio

I took this title from William Gass, whose rhythm repeats throughout this immense heartland, where I’ve been told secret histories that echo marvelous novels. I walk along cornfields where endless streams of blackbirds flow above, thinking that prairie turned to field, to town, to city, and yet the long-held heartaches and sly humor color this heartland.

High and Lonesome Songs: Prairies and Mountains

Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska

Yearly, I come here to hear stories from my long-gone grandmother’s people, secrets from Fraser mountains to desolate farmhouses in ghost towns like Purcell. These books immerse readers in centuries of beauty, movement and bone-hard work in this extraordinary place.

The essential geography of America in the books of my favorite contemporary writers is peopled by characters who speak Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and more. They are filled with the vernaculars of place, where nothing is merely red or blue, solely political or always divided. This is, of course, true in life: Every neighborhood in America is a blending of stories that can’t be reduced to any single idea.


Rural pharmacies are medical 'cornerstones' in their communities; despite financial stresses, some are growing

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze, Unspash
Rural pharmacies have long served their communities as multi-service medical clinics, and many have faced financial stresses lately, but the future may be brighter. "Pharmacies are often cornerstones of rural communities providing access to medication and medical equipment as well as providing medication counseling, monitoring of blood pressure and glucose, and other services," reports Dr. Whitney Zahnd for The Rural Monitor. "Over the past several years, studies from the Rural Research Alliance of Community Pharmacies have demonstrated notable decreases in pharmacies in rural communities. The now 20-year financial impact of Medicare Part D, coupled with the increasing influence of pharmacy benefit managers, has negatively impacted the financial viability of rural pharmacies. This has led to a 9.8% decline in pharmacies in non-core rural areas and a 4.4% decline in micropolitan rural areas between 2003 and 2021."

Not all the news is bad. Zahnd writes, "Recent findings from Rural Policy Research Institute have identified that, since 2020, the tide may be turning. The rate of closures has slowed since 2020, and new rural pharmacies have opened throughout the country." NuCara Pharmacy, which began as a rural pharmacy in Conrad, Iowa, pop. 1,000 is an example of a smaller pharmacy chain that has managed to innovate and stay open. "CEO Brian Wegmann noted additional changes that have broadened both the modalities of pharmacy services, such as the inclusion of telepharmacy, and the expansion of services provided by NuCara, such as infusion, home health, and respiratory services. Additionally, NuCara has moved into areas where chain pharmacies like ShopKo moved out of rural communities, such as Greenfield, a rural town of just over 2,000 people in southwestern Iowa."

Beyond additional "modalities" of support, some area researchers made rural pharmacies their object study to "understand the unique challenges and strengths they possess, especially as many interventions and initiatives are developed in urban or suburban settings that may not be translatable to rural settings," Zahnd reports. In the Southeast, researchers from several universities formed Rural-CP, which "reviewed how other pharmacy practice-based research networks were structured and started making in-person and virtual site visits to rural pharmacies. . . . They are now engaged with 125 rural community pharmacies across seven states in the Southeast, most of which are independent or small chain pharmacies. . . . Any projects that engage these pharmacies also must provide a financial incentive, which has ensured that pharmacies are supported for their time."

Rural pharmacies are also finding ways to face their recruitment challenges. The University of Illinois-Chicago rural pharmacy education program "is one of a handful of programs at schools of pharmacy that provide a concentration or certificate in rural pharmacy," Zahnd explains. "The Rpharm program, established in 2010, is an interprofessional program that educates students about unique elements of rural pharmacy practice and prepares them for working in an interprofessional environment alongside medical and nursing students who are participating in the University's rural medicine and rural nursing programs. . . . . Wegmann of NuCara Pharmacy noted the mutual benefit of having pharmacy students do rotations in rural NuCara Pharmacy locations. He told Zahnd: "We're an attractive spot for student rotations because of the dynamic and diverse practice settings that we can offer because of our compounding and home infusion services as well as our community sites."

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

National Trust for Local News officer says nonprofits best hope for rural news; reports on survey of rural publishers

State-level nonprofits or "conservancies" are "the most sustainable path forward for rural newsrooms," the chief portfolio officer of the National Trust for Local News said Friday at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America.

Ross McDuffie
Ross McDuffie spoke four days before the Trust announced creation of its second such conservancy by buying most of the newspapersowned by the owner of most newspapers in Maine, the second most rural state by population. Two years ago it bought 24 rural and suburban papers in Colorado, and it says it is working to make similar purchases in other states.

McDuffie said that a nonprofit umbrella organization "creates the scale without trivializing the localness that makes these organizations special and essential to the communities that they serve. . . .You unlock efficiencies of scale while keeping quality local news as its North Star, as opposed to what happens most often at these publicly traded corporate media houses where the North Star is profit or shareholder value."

McDuffie's remarks came with his report on a survey of 39 rural newspaper publishers that found 10 of them did not expect to be in operation five years from now, while only one expressed concern that their newspaper would close in the next 12 months.

The survey was conducted online June 6-23 among a random sample drawn from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues' database of rural newspapers. Institute Director Al Cross noted that the 39 were "people who are willing to respond to a survey," and McDuffie said they "are likely going to be more optimistic and and wanting to share that in a survey."

The survey found that 15% of the publishers' newspapers had no digital presence at all, and "over half had fewer than 500 digital paying subscribers," McDuffie said. "These results point to a lot of work that's needed, but I'm an optimistic guy, and I see a lot of room for optimism here. . . . There's lots of room for growth in revenue diversification right there."

While rural newspapers still survive mainly on display advertising, and increasingly public-notice ads, "We cannot sit idly and push off and kick the can down the road on building our digital future because we have those revenue streams," McDuffie said. "Now we have to take advantage of them and the profit that they do generate, even if it is minimal, and recognize that as runway to help future-proof organizations."

McDuffie said the survey showed that "These publishers are very dedicated to their communities and have spent years and decades cultivating the trust of those communities and the readers in those communities. Their challenge now is finding opportunities to collaborate at scale beyond the sharing of just content, or maybe revenue sharing and agreements on ad sales. Operational efficiencies are very, very hard to come by for this group."

At the same time, he added, "These smaller news organizations are fertile ground for product innovation, because we can experiment with purpose at minimal cost. We can do that at small scale. And we can fail. And that that be okay, right? We an fail forward, I think, is the way to look at it. and we can try different things quickly. And at minimal cost."

McDuffie, a former executive with Lee Enterprises and the McClatchy Co., said there is more potential in existing publications than "ground-up restarts," which most rural communities are unlikely to support. "These communities need reinvestment in the newsgathering teams that have spent decades, and in many cases centuries, building trust and community and and credibility in those communities," he said.

He said their success will depend not only on "the communities they serve," but "also the greater philanthropic community," from which the Trust gets its money to buy newspapers. "We've got to find alternative sources for funding and transformation," he said. "There also has to be access to subject-matter expertise . . . without adding additional burden to the expense line."

And where will rural newspapers, which already find it difficult to find qualified staff, attract talent even if they have philanthropic money to do it? "The combination of lower cost of living can make rural newsrooms great training grounds for new reporters, as long as those reporters see an opportunity to hone their skills and experiment with new tech and with innovation and local news," McDuffie said.

"I don't think that these reporters are are choosing to not work in rural news organizations because they just have some, you know, some adverse relationship with rural America. I think that what they want to see is, they're gonna join an organization where they can learn where they can experiment with new things where they can push the limits, maybe a little bit where they can put together an email newsletter strategy and be a part of that growth. We have a story to tell for young journalistic talent in rural newsrooms, but we have to be really aggressive in telling it and going after top talent."

Vt. flood shows it can happen anywhere; more information, planning and help is needed, especially in rural areas

Main Street in Barre, Vt., remained covered with floodwater
and mud. (Photo by Hilary Swift, The New York Times)
"This week's flooding in Vermont, in which heavy rainfall caused destruction even miles from any river, is evidence of an especially dangerous climate threat: Catastrophic flooding can increasingly happen anywhere, with almost no warning," report Christopher Flavelle and Rick Rojas of The New York Times. "The idea that anywhere it can rain, it can flood, is not new. But rising temperatures make the problem worse: They allow the air to hold more moisture, leading to more intense and sudden rainfall, seemingly out of nowhere. And the implications of that shift are enormous. . . . The United States, experts warn, is nowhere close to ready for that threat."

Federal flood maps, which are often inaccurate, have been used "as a guide to determine where to build housing and infrastructure," the Times reports, but the country lacks "a comprehensive, current, national precipitation database that could help inform homeowners, communities and the government about the rising risks from heavy rains. In Vermont, the true number of homes at risk from flooding is three times as much as what federal flood maps show, according to data from the First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit research group. . . . That so-called 'hidden risk' is staggeringly high in other parts of the country as well. In Utah, the number of properties at risk when accounting for rainfall is eight times as much as what appears on federal flood maps, according to First Street."

Flash flooding "often brings tragedy to places that can least handle it," the Times reports, citing the floods nearly a year ago in southeastern Kentucky, which is still struggling to recover. "The flooding in Vermont highlights the need to spend more on modeling and planning for flood events, said Mathew Sanders, who leads state resilience efforts for the Pew Charitable Trusts." It also shows that "The government can't focus its resilience efforts only on the obvious areas, near coasts or rivers."

Congress has increased funding for climate-resilience projects, but the $50 billion for such projects, in the latest infrastructiure bill, "the largest infusion in American history . . . still falls far below the need," Flavelle and Rojas write. "This spring, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had received $5.6 billion in applications for two of its main disaster-preparedness programs — almost twice as much as was available."

The U.S. faces a steep preparedness climb-time, funding and the constant unpredictability of weather are all challenges. "As seas rise and storms get worse, the most flood-prone parts of the country — places like New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Charleston or even areas of New York City — could easily consume the government's entire budget for climate resilience without solving the problem for any of them," Flavelle and Rojas write. "Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who specializes in flood risks, said the government needs to direct more money to the most economically vulnerable communities — those places that are least able to pay for resilience projects on their own."

Alabama agrees to provide sewage-disposal systems to a county, in first-of-its-kind settlement agreement with feds

Sewage overflow in Lowndes County (Photo: Dennis Pillion,
Do all Americans have a right to sanitation even if they cannot afford the systems needed to do the job? "The federal government now seems to be answering yes to that question, using a civil-rights investigation to press Alabama to solve long-standing sewage infrastructure problems in remote and lightly populated areas," reports Dennis Pillion of

The Justice Department alleged that the Alabama Department of Public Health "engaged in a consistent pattern of inaction and/or neglect concerning the health risks associated with raw sewage" in Lowndes County, a rural, majority-Black county of about 10,000 people. Now Alabama "is the first state to reach an interim settlement agreement with federal authorities on environmental-justice grounds," agreeing to provide the county with adequate sewage treatment. The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

Lowndes County
(Wikipedia map)
Widespread poverty is one reason Lowndes County has been unable to resolve its sanitation challenges. The second obstacle is its very dense Black Belt soil, which "makes many septic systems inoperable," Pillions notes. "Addressing the wastewater needs of each residence in Lowndes County will likely require treatment systems of all different shapes, sizes and technologies [and many millions of dollars, but just how much is still a huge question. . . . Much of the cost will come from federal funds. The agreement stipulates that ADPH should seek funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal grants to conduct its analysis and create an action plan to solve these sewage issues. ADPH will collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies throughout the project."

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Supermarket costs still grating away at pocketbooks; it's unclear if prices in 'the center store' have finally peaked

Illustration by C.J. Burton, WSJ
Once you rejoice over cheaper lettuce and pork chops, going to the grocery store remains joyless. "Some prices [are] closer to normal levels. Prices, though, are stubbornly rising for what retail and food executives call 'the center store'," reports Jesse Newman of The Wall Street Journal. "The middle of the store stocks items that can sit on shelves without going bad quickly, from cereal to cookies, paper towels to dish soap—all essentials that consumers can't really put off buying. Prices for potato chips rose an average of 17% to $3.05 per package for the 52 weeks that ended May 27, compared with the previous year, according to NielsenIQ, a market research firm. Mayonnaise increased 23% to $4.93 per container. Applesauce jumped 22%."

Meme via thedigitalmomblog
While there are hundreds of internet memes poking fun at high prices, there are a lot of frustrated consumers out there canceling "all the fun things" to pay for groceries, reports Carmen Reinicke of CNBC. Newman adds, "The persistent price increases for pantry staples are weighing on consumers and limiting their spending on other goods and services needed to power the American economy as people prioritize buying food and other necessities. Two major industries—retailers and producers of consumer packaged goods—have been locked in a power struggle, with retailers throwing their muscle at suppliers to control prices, and suppliers trying to restore or protect their profit margins."

As retailers and producers wrestle, consumers caught in the balance may wonder why mayo is so expensive, but the price of eggs has leveled out. "Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said that price increases for packaged food tend to outlast those for fresh foods like fruits, vegetables and meat because processed products often have longer and more complex supply chains. Produce, by contrast, can be delivered from fields to stores in just a few days," Newman reports. Big grocers say they're "resisting further price increases from the nation's packaged-food giants or pushing for lower prices—but the process is taking longer than they had hoped."

Families are finding ways to ease the wallet crunch by "increasingly turning to cheaper versions of packaged groceries, while food companies' costs have simultaneously begun to ease. As a result, food-industry analysts say, price increases for packaged food have likely peaked," Newman writes. But higher prices have remained a consistently painful reality. "Since the beginning of 2019, prices for goods sold in the middle of the grocery store have risen by nearly a third, while products on the perimeter have increased roughly 22%, according to Circana Group, a market research firm."

"Lanise Abbott, a postal worker who lives near Chicago, said rising prices for items such as canned fruit and vegetables, bread and cereal have her scouring supermarkets for discounts and switching to cheaper food brands," Newman reports. "She said she would also visit food pantries if it becomes necessary." Target's store-brand sales are growing almost twice as fast as national brands, the chain's chief food executive, Rick Gomez, told Newman: "The number one thing that is on our guests' minds is affordability."