Saturday, July 22, 2023

In 'Children of Poverty' series, Malheur Enterprise shows how a rural weekly can plumb a big issue, with student help

A mother checks stock at a food pantry in Adrian, Oregon, population 177. A food bank
closed in May because it lost its space. (Malheur Enterprise photo by Andie Kalinowski)
With the help of journalism students, a weekly newspaper in rural eastern Oregon has told the story of local children who live in poverty. The Malheur Enterprise got help from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California because "We wanted the community to understand what it means when Malheur County is ranked as having among the worst child poverty rates in Oregon. That ranking has been in place for years," Editor-Publisher Les Zaitz writes.

Two USC professors had worked up a course on rural reporting, and reached out to the Enterprise, which is widely known as a paper that punches above its weight -- thanks to Zaitz, who has been an investigative reporter and editor in Oregon for 50 years. He gave the professors and the five students they selected a detailed memo outling key questions that needed answering. They reported first from Los Angeles, reaching out to state agencies and experts at Oregon universities, then made a two-week reporting trip to Malheur County, Zaitz writes.

"I had identified key sources for them among government agencies, nonprofit agencies and schools across Malheur County. I reached out ahead of time to key leaders to alert them to expect contact and ask their help. Without fail, those leaders cooperated, proving invaluable," with help such as ride-alongs with police. . . . The team conducted more than 70 interviews. Most were recorded. Some were filmed, resulting in powerful videos," which are on the paper's website.

The students are Christina Chkarboul, Andie Kalinowski, Shane Dimapanet, Suejin Lim and Venice Tang. The professors are Rebecca Haggerty, associate director of undergraduate journalism, and Judy Muller, professor emerita of journalism, former ABC correspondent and author of Emus Loose in Egnar, a book about courageous rural journalists. Here are the stories:

Les Zaitz reflects on 50 years in Oregon journalism, much of it doing investigative work at rural newspapers

Editor-Publisher Les Zaitz talked with University of Southern California journalism students working on a child-poverty reporting project for the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon. (Photo by George Lewis for the Malheur Enterprise) 

Les Zaitz is a legend in American journalism, and he's still building his legacy and telling his story. He's had an unusual career, with two stints as a top investigative reporter at The Oregonian, and two stints as the editor and publisher of rural weekly newspapers. He reflects on that past, and the future, in a piece for his current paper, the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon.

At the Oregonian, "I had no ambition for anything other than to develop powerful stories about powerful people and institutions," Zaitz writes. "But along with those skills came a deepening appreciation for fairness, for ethical behavior. When I turned to community journalism with the acquisition of the Keizertimes in 1987, those lessons were potent. I still recall being too zealous to tell about a mayor parking his boat for free at city hall’s secure lot. The story was accurate, but it wasn’t entirely fair. The breathless account turned a minor infraction into a front-page scandal. Temperance in investigative reporting is critical. Good journalists have to question every fact. They have to constantly ask themselves: Is this story fair? Is the wording fair? That doesn’t mean diluting the facts. That means giving the facts and letting readers decide just how foul the offense is."

Zaitz returned to the Portland daily, and quit in 2016, thinking he was going to retire, "But duty to the profession, to Oregon, kept tugging at me," he writes. His family bought the Enterprise, and then he "was recruited to start up the digital news operation, Salem Reporter. And in 2021 I took the lead to found the Oregon Capital Chronicle," a States Newsroom operation.

Why all that? "I became increasingly alarmed at the demise of news organizations, the rise of partisan news sites and the erosion of American trust in the press, in the truth. . . . In every speech I give these days, whether to Rotary or League of Women Voters, I acknowledge that the media share the fault. For too many years, collectively we have exuded an arrogance that readers and viewers sensed – and then rejected. We have been too slow to admit our errors, to be open with how we do our work. We left you in the dark."

Zaitz concludes, "Experiences in Vale and in Salem impressed on me key truths. First, citizens remain hungry for local information they can trust. Journalists must deliver more. Second, citizens are counting on the press to serve as watchdogs. Sitting in a school board meeting, performing stenography, does not illuminate what readers need to see. News organizations need to replace routine reporting with probing coverage. . . . Finally, I have faith in you and other Oregonians. We may seem to be in a rough patch politically and socially at the moment. But the power of the truth, of the facts, has time after time in our country’s history won out over hyperbole and manipulation. In the press, we have work to do to help get us there. My optimism that we can is what keeps me going."

Ky. congressman who wants a prison tries to do a Manchin: Use an appropriations bill to override the other branches

The reclained strip mine and proposed prison site (Photo from NoNewLetcherPrison via Kentucky Lantern)

Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky's 5th District, the longest-serving member of the House, a member of the Appropriations Committee and its former chair, has wanted the federal government to build a maximum-secutity prison in Letcher County since 2006. The county is divided about the idea, and the Bureau of Prisons has soured on it. So Rogers put language in the his latest approproations bill that would require the Justice Department to issue an environmental impact statement and final decision approving the prison within 30 days of the bill becoming law, and says the agencies' decisions “shall not be subject to judicial review.”

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
Rogers is following a tactic employed by another longtime Appalachian politician, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who bargained for and won a provision in the latest major funding bill to clear the administrative and judicial barriers to the Mountain Valley Pipeline in his state and Virginia. But Rogers' gambit faces many more obstacles.

Rogers' bill for spending by the Justice Department and other agencies "will need to clear several hurdles before it could become law," Jamie Lucke reports for the Kentucky Lantern. "The House’s spending bills are likely to change significantly later this year," when its bill and the Senate's must be reconciled. "The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 28-1 earlier this month to approve its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, which does not include any provision mentioning the Letcher prison."

Rogers "touts the prison as a source of employment and economic development in a poor region that has lost thousands of coal-industry jobs. The 16-member Letcher County Planning Commission has long sought a prison," Lucke reports. "A coalition of opponents — local and national — question the potential economic benefits. They say a proliferation of prisons in Central Appalachia in recent decades has done little to improve the economy, while supporting mass incarceration and putting prisoners and their families at great distances from each other."

Letcher County (Wikipedia map)
Two citizens' groups said this week that more public input is needed. “People in Letcher County deserve to have a say in this because we vote, we pay taxes, we live here and we love this place,” said Dr. Artie Anne Bates, a member of Concerned Letcher Countians. “We don’t want Rep. Rogers stuffing something down our throats that we are not in agreement with.” Rogers' office has not replied to the Lantern's or The Rural Blog's requests for comment.

The Bureau of Prisons approved construction of the prison in 2018, but in 2020 "the Trump administration pulled the plug, saying the prison was no longer needed because of a decline in prisoner numbers and that the $505 million set aside for the project would be 'wasteful spending'," Lucke notes. Recently, the Bureau of Prisons changed its plan to a medium-security facility, but "President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal also would cancel funding for the prison."

'Try that in a Small Town' a missed opportunity, small-towner writes; W. Post writer calls it 'a fantasy of violent retribution'

Jason Aldean in 'Try That in a Small Town' (YouTube)
Either from their lyrics, curious catchiness or infectious beat, some songs and accompanying videos can bring people together. Jason Aldean's latest song 'Try That in a Small Town" isn't that sort of tune, writes Skylar Baker-Jordan in an opinion piece for The Daily Yonder.

"Jason Aldean broke onto the country scene in 2005 with his top 10 hit 'Hicktown.' Subsequent songs, such as 'Amarillo Sky' (about the plight of farmers) and 'Flyover States' (an ode to the heartland) cemented his reputation as a preeminent troubadour for rural America," Bakr-Jordan writes. "So how did his latest offering, 'Try That in a Small Town,' get it so wrong?"

The song dropped quietly enough in May. The video followed on July 14. "The backlash was swift and severe, with Country Music Television pulling the video mere days after it debuted. . . . Lyrics like 'cuss out a cop, spit in his face/stomp on the flag and light it up, Yeah, ya think you're tough,' Aldean and the songwriters position big cities as crime-ridden hellholes where people 'Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store.' In a small town, though, you can 'see how far ya make it down the road' because 'round here, we take care of our own.'" (The gun angle is explored here.)

Taking care of neighbors is great, but the lyric implies that rural areas are more kind, Baker-Jordan writes: "By pitting urban versus rural, he is not so much extolling the values he grew up with as he is exacerbating the divide already present in our nation. Rather than acknowledging that crime – which happens in rural communities too – is the problem, he blames cities." (Republican presidential candidates are playing the song at events, NBC News reports.)

The video's major location is "a courthouse where an infamous lynching occurred in 1927," but "the production company behind the video denies this was intentional," Baker-Jordan reports. But it "only adds to the problematic nature of the song," which "excludes people of color. . . . Black people live in small towns. Gay people live in small towns. Progressives live in small towns. They have never been the sole purview of conservative white men like Aldean." UPDATE, July 25: Black Lives Matter images in the video have been removed.

Columnist Paul Waldman of The Washington Post calls the video "a fantasy of violent retribution against outsiders — those who would bring the supposed lawlessness of the city to the small town. . . . Were it not for Aldean’s recent political feuds with other artists and the provocation in the video, the song might have simply been cast on the gigantic pile of country songs about small towns. There might be no theme more ubiquitous in the genre: what makes rural life worthwhile, what people in rural areas enjoy and how they live their lives. Some of this music is earnest — even sentimental — about finding pride and meaning in the place where you come from."

That's the sort of song Baker-Jordan wishes Aldean would write. She calls the song "a missed opportunity. . . . Aldean could have produced an anthem that extolled the values of neighborliness and collectivism, which I would agree our nation needs to return to. . . . [Instead] Aldean recorded an anthem dripping with disdain for half the country and filmed a music video at a site of a racist hate crime. . . . I don’t come away from that song feeling like he cares about me. I come away from it feeling like he’s attacking me. And I’m from a small town, too."

Friday, July 21, 2023

News-media roundup: Local journalism-funding bill filed; source-protection bill moving; another paper goes nonprofit

A new, bipartisan bill with tax credits for local journalism was introduced in the U.S. House Thursday. H.R. 4756 would give payroll tax credits to news media publishers who employ fewer than 750 people and create original content that serves the needs of a regional or local community. The credit could be as much as $25,000 per journalist in the first year and up to $15,000 in the following four years. Local news outlets' small-business advertisers would get credits of up to $5,000 in the first year and up to $2,500 in the subsequent four years if they have fewer than 50 employees.

Rep. Claudia Tenney of upstate
New York, who has been in the
newspaper business, is the main
Republican sponsor of the bill.
The bill is "a conceptual and political breakthrough," Steven Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, writes for Editor & Publisher. "It makes sense because saving local news should not be about saving journalism jobs per se. It should be about strengthening communities. Politically, if we are to succeed, we need to expand our group of friends beyond other journalism trade groups. A similar bill proposed by Republicans in Wisconsin drew endorsements from the associations representing restaurants, taverns, convenience stores, banks and dentists. . . . We know that passing legislation in this Congress will be a long shot. But this creates the foundation for passage and, in the shorter run, can provide a blueprint for bills in state legislatures."

The legislation is called the Community News and Small Business Support Act and has a long list of endorsers, including the National Newspaper Association and seeveral state press associations. The endorsers include Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog), which is on the steering committee of the coalition. He says, "This bill is one answer to the question we continue to ask: How can rural communities sustain journalism that supports democracy?"  UPDATE, July 24: The bill's Democratic sponsor, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington state, discusses it with Brier Dudley, free-press editor of The Seattle Times.

SOURCE PROTECTION:bill to protect journalists from revealing their sources amid pressure from the federal government cleared the House Judiciary Committee in a unanimous vote Wendnesday, "an unusual show of bipartisanship on a committee often at loggerheads," reports Tim Johnson of Deadline. "The Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying Act, or PRESS Act, is a response to instances of law enforcement agencies secretly seeking court orders emails and phone records from reporters in an effort to determine their sources. Lawmakers noted that such instances took place during the Trump and Obama administrations. . . . The bill also restricts efforts to subpoena a journalist’s information from a third party — like phone and internet providers — and gives reporters get an opportunity to challenge such subpoenas in court." There's a companion bill in the Senate.

NONPROFIT AND FREE: The family that owns The Times-Independent of Moab, Utah, is donating the paper to The Salt Lake Tribune, which has been a community-owned nonprofit since 2019. It's one of two weeklies in Moab, with the 10-year-old Moab Sun News, and that's probably why the Trubune is trying a new business model: free circulation to every address in the Zip code and free access online. “That greatly increases the advertising value of the paper,” Publisher Zane Taylor said in an interview. “It’s just a different business model for the future.” In a letter to readers in Thursday's edition, Taylor said the move was “important for The Times-Independent to evolve so it remains essential to all Moabites.” The weekly's local reporters and editors will remain in place, the Tribune said. Sarah Scire has a report for Nieman Lab.

CAPITOL NEWS: Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit newsroom, is adding news veterans Jennifer Fuller as broadcast director, to expand its offerings to stations, and Molly Parker as part of the investigative team. Parker wiorked with CNI’s Beth Hundsdorfer on the award-winning “Culture of Cruelty” series about patient abuse at a state mental-health center in southern Illinois.

A SALE: HD Media of Huntington, W.Va., which owns the newspapers there, in Charleston and other West Virginia communities, has bought its third weekly in Virginia, The Southwest Times in Pulaski. It bought the Virginia Mountaineer in Grundy and the Lebanon News in the last year. 

In new 'Southern Storytellers' series, N.C. author David Joy bemoans changes in his rural county; locals can't afford it

Author David Joy shares thoughts about his changing home. (PBS image)
Tracing a Southern county's history and landscape is one thing, "but drawing a singular image of our people, that's when things get difficult, or rather impossible," reflects David Joy in PBS's new "Southern Storytellers"series, which celebrates Southern identity with contemporary creators of literature, music, film, and TV.

In Western North Carolina, Joy takes viewers into backwoods hemmed with raspberry bushes laden with fruit and a cool spring for trout fishing. He holds up a small trout and says it's genetically different than all other brook trout. An Appalachian native, you might say.

But to Joy, the area's way of life is threatened. "Jackson County, North Carolina, is not the coalfields of Kentucky or West Virginia; coal isn't destroying our mountain tops; ours are threatened by unrestricted land development," he says. "There are millionaires hitting golf balls on Tom Fazio-designed golf courses just over the ridgeline from people surviving on mayonnaise sandwiches."

Against a backdrop of cedared woods, Joy and best friend Raymond head out to hunt deer and mull the the price of change. Raymond tells Joy he is not sure the area can reach beyond its current culture and get back to where it was. Raymond tells Joy, "I don't know if there's gonna be enough young people left to continue on. . . . Young people leave here to have a better lifestyle or to be able to afford a house. . . . All the local people will be displaced by going to fill a job, or get priced out because they can't afford to be able to stay here, and I think it's an inevitability. This culture, this place, will be gone." Joy nods, saying, "It's hard for other people to understand . . . the finality of that, that displacement." 

Sitting on his back steps surrounded by spring blooms, Joy reads a piece from his novel When These Mountains Burn: "When the paper mill shut down and when the old plastic plant at the south end of the county left, the very fabric that once defined the mountains fragmented and was replaced with outsiders who built second and third homes on the ridgeline and drove the property values up so high that what few locals were left couldn't afford to pay the taxes on their land."

Joy credits his Southern upbringing with giving him a place to hang every story. Asked to describe the South, he says, "I think what I want people to recognize about the South is that it's a very, very complex place. . . full of a whole lotta beauty and a whole lot of bad things as well. And I don't want to lose a bit of it."

Finally Friday quick hits: National Ice Cream Month; farm co-ops; Appalachian traditions; farmers' survey; be kind . . .

July is National Ice Cream Month. (Image via AEI)

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream! Well, maybe we don't yell quite as loud now. "U.S. consumers don't eat ice cream like they used to, reports Sarah Hubbart for Agricultural Economic Insights. "Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, consumption of regular-fat ice cream exceeded 17 pounds per capita. Since the mid-1980s, however, per capita consumption has decreased, reaching a low of 12 pounds in 2018 and again in 2021. . . . Luckily for the dairy industry, the per capita decline in consumption isn’t the only demographic trend in play."

A "life of crime" is usually negative, but not in all cases. "To address massive staffing shortages across its prisons, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is building relationships with high school programs that train students for careers in corrections and law enforcement," reports Anya Slepyan of The Daily Yonder. "The agency is exploring the option of establishing a pipeline for high school students to become employees."

ICA logo
Cooperatives give farmers the power of collaboration. "If you've ever sipped Florida's Natural orange juice, buttered a dinner roll with Land O'Lakes, or spread Welch's grape jelly on a peanut butter sandwich, then you've done business with a farm co-op," reports Tim Burrack for The Scoop. "Co-ops are often invisible to consumers, even as they keep grocery prices in check by letting farmers like me stay economically sustainable. Here in rural Iowa, I work with a co-op that helps me buy crop inputs and bring to market what I grow."

Heat, wildfires, hurricanes, floods or other disasters can stress health systems to the breaking point. This tool kit aims to offer help. Tip sheets and response best practices are organized for health care providers, patients and administrators.

In Athens County, Ohio, traditions are celebrated and some are offered with "hands-on" lessons. "A new project seeks to showcase Athens County folkways in their past and present incarnations,"reports Keri Johnson of The Athens County Independent. "Athens County Living Traditions is a five-part event series that celebrates the folkways — art, music, craftsmanship and more — of the people of Athens County. . . . Living Traditions is funded through the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation — specifically through its Central Appalachia Living Traditions program."

Shutterstock photo
If you would like to promote a better world, consider kindness as one of the simplest routes. It begins with a loop. "Begin each day with the resolution that you will treat others in a kindly. . . . Follow this up with a tangible act of kindness as soon as you can," writes Arthur C. Brooks of The Atlantic. While it's true, no matter how kind we are "legitimate disagreements will still divide us. . . . But the disagreements wouldn’t so commonly become insults and threats, and trolls would have less power."

The Mid-West Farm Report is calling all farmers for a "Match Made in Heaven, Livestock + Crops" survey: "The three-year venture aims to bring livestock back into cropping operations. The goal is to boost soil health and the farm's bottom line. Co-director of the project, Laura Paine, says that they're in their second leg of the project. They're surveying farmers about the opportunities and challenges in integrating livestock into crops. Take the survey here.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Excess deaths, those above the expected numbers, grew in pandemic Year 2 despite vaccines; rural vax rate blamed

Scientists generally believe that the number of deaths attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic has been understated, and they point to what they call "excess deaths," the number of deaths above the number that would have been expected if the pandemic hadn't occurred, based on recent trends. A new study shows that excess deaths in the U.S. increased in the second year of the pandemic even though that is when Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, and that they went up largely because of increases in rural counties, where fewer people were vaccinated.

"In rural counties across the United States—where vaccines were harder to obtain, where vaccine skepticism remained higher, and where access to good health care is often more challenging—excess deaths in year two of the pandemic actually increased, despite the presence of vaccines," Boston University says of the study, done mainly by BU faculty and published in Science Advances. "The study provides the first look at monthly estimates of what the researchers call “excess deaths” for every U.S. county in the pandemic’s first two years."

Andrew Stokes, an assistant professor of global health at BU and corresponding author of the study, pointed to a shortage of rural vaccinations as the main cause. The study reports, "In urban areas, 75% of people aged 5 years and older were vaccinated as of January 2022 compared to only 59% of people aged 5 years and older in rural areas. This urban-rural difference in vaccination rates more than doubled since April 2021." Stokes told the BU public-relations staff, "Inequalities in mortality outcomes in the second year of the pandemic were fundamentally shaped by patterns of vaccine uptake at the community level. . . . There was less vaccination happening in rural areas and that gap between urban and rural areas grew as the second year progressed." The difference rural and urban death rates largely disappeared early this year, The Daily Yonder reported in February.

There were other factors, the study says: "The emergence of partisanship and misinformation further disadvantaged small metropolitan and rural areas during the second year of the pandemic. This partisanship even went as far as deteriorating the quality of surveillance data by affecting the certification of Covid-19 deaths, which were systematically undercounted in rural communities."

The study found that nonmetropolitan counties in the South "had the highest cumulative relative excess mortality by July 2021," with just over 25% estimated excess deaths by February 2022. Large metro areas in the West ranked second, followed by small and medium Southern metros, then large Southern metros. 

The study says county-by-county data are important "because counties are the administrative unit for death investigation, excess mortality estimates have the potential to help identify counties where Covid-19 death rates differ from excess mortality rates and who might benefit from additional training and other resources around cause-of-death certification. These estimates may also be valuable for informing local public health workers, community organizations, and residents of the true impact of the pandemic, thus potentially increasing vaccination and uptake of other protective measures."

Here are county-by-county maps from the study, in chronological order; clicking on each map will produce a slightly larger version. The high-resolution originals can be downloaded here. The study says these are estimates, and are uncertain in small counties.



Grasslands fill up Conservation Reserve Program, which shows crop production and soil conservation can co-exist

Grassland in the program (Natural Resources and Conservation Service photo)
The largest federal program to preserve fragile land, the Conservation Reserve Program, has reached its enrollment limit for the first time in 10 years, reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming. "Thanks to surging interest in the Grassland CRP option . . . grasslands will become the largest element in the reserve, with more than 9 million acres enrolled." 

Farm policy expert Carl Zulauf of Ohio State told Abbott: "The new Farm Bill presents a generational opportunity to repurpose CRP." Abbott reports, "Grasslands will be the largest component of CRP, he said." Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of USDA's Farm Service Agency, added: "A carbon-capture CRP initially focused on grasslands may offer more potential to capture carbon than the much-debated, currently unproven carbon markets for the 318 million acres of principal crops in the United States. . . . Grassland CRP clearly demonstrates that conservation priorities and agricultural productivity not only have the capacity to coexist but also complement and enhance one another."

CRP pays landowners "an annual rent in exchange for taking fragile cropland out of production with  'the long-term goal to reestablish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat through contracts that run for 10 to 15 years,' said a USDA summary," Abbott notes. It was re-established in 1985, as a successor to the Soil Bank program of the 1950s and '60s, which was phased out due to concerns that it hurt farm economies in some places. Now, it's the "largest federal land-retirement program. . . . It costs close to $2 billion a year. . . . There were 23 million acres in the reserve at the end of May. The program cap is 27 million acres."

CRP acreage dipped around 2007 "due to factors that included a reduction in rental rates and higher commodity prices that made crop production more attractive," Abbott explains. "[It] was reduced repeatedly over the years by Congress. The 2018 farm law reversed course, starting at 24 million acres in fiscal 2019 and rising to 27 million acres this year. . . Grassland CRP pays an annual rent while allowing producers to graze livestock and harvest hay from the land. Rental payments were set at a minimum of $15 an acre. The USDA says the program helps sequester carbon in vegetation and the soil and increases resilience to drought and wildfire."

"Of the land accepted for Grasslands CRP, 430,899 acres were in Colorado, followed by 417,865 acres in Nebraska and 325,443 acres in South Dakota," Abbott adds. "For the CRP overall, the leading states were Colorado, with 2.45 million acres; Texas, with 2.16 million acres; and South Dakota, with 2.1 million acres."

Some farm groups object to proposed merger of Kroger and Albertsons, saying a bigger grocer will hurt small farmers

The planned merger of grocers Kroger and Albertsons "has farmers and farmworkers worried about its negative impact on farms and rural communities," reports Shelby Vittek of Ambrook Research. The National Family Farm Coalition, the National Farmers Union, Farm Action and an assortment of regional grower associations "sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission expressing their opposition to the merger, which they said would 'create a new mega-grocery buyer with exceptional buyer power to squeeze its suppliers, shrinking farmers' and workers' share of the food dollar.'"

The merger, which could "cause conflicts with overlapping markets — Western Growers, the California Fresh Fruit Association, and Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association — submitted an additional letter to the FTC," Vitteck writes. "In it, the groups pointed to the Albertsons' acquisition of Safeway in 2015 — after which the company awarded contracts only to its largest produce suppliers, leaving smaller farmers to sell elsewhere — as an example of the negative outcomes that can be expected with a merger of this size." Their letter sums up the possible purchase: "The buying power of the newly combined Kroger entity cannot be understated."

Small farmers are already struggling to compete for sales to larger chain groceries. Vittek reports, "Farmers routinely sell their crops for less than what it costs to produce them. The pressure of farming with such small margins has led 'members to farm less acreage, move production to other countries when feasible, or leave farming altogether,' the letter from the Western grower groups read. If the Kroger-Albertsons merger is allowed to continue, competition among buyers will shrink, leaving farmers with fewer customers (in this case, grocery retailers) to work with."

American farmers face large-chain "take it or leave it" bargaining tactics, which can erase their profits, alongside competition from foreign growers. "The trade organizations that oppose the merger emphasize the harm done to American farmers as grocery retailers continue to source more foreign producers, who are ready, willing and able to undercut American producers on operating costs and the price they will accept from the retailer. . . . That is harmful for farmers, farmworkers and rural communities that depend on a robust agriculture industry.'"

The merged grocer would have 710,000 employees in 48 states, a workforce some would say already suffers from corporate greed. "Profiteering stands out at Kroger and Albertsons, with profits far outpacing worker wage growth or the cost of food," wrote Daniel Fleming and Judy Wood in a CalMatters op-ed. "Their outsize price hikes are at least partially responsible for inflation. Even while they were competing with each other, these companies jacked up prices and had record profits."

The Federal Trade Commission "is in no rush to approve the merger" because grocery prices are a big part of inflation, "a hot topic political issue that Republicans have pressed against President Biden," Thomas Lee reports for The Street.

N.Y. Times and Mississippi's forever investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell, spotlight a second sheriff's abusive record

Sheriff Eddie Scott is a popular and powerful public figure in Clay
County, Mississippi. (Photo by Rory Doyle, The New York Times)

A second Mississippi sheriff is under investigation for repeated acts of sexual harassment, coercion, and abuse of power.

In 11 years in office, Eddie Scott, sheriff of Clay County, "has repeatedly been accused of using the power of his position to harass women, coerce them into sex and retaliate against those who criticize him or allege abuse," report Ilyssa Daly of The New York Times and Jerry Mitchell of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which has joined the nonprofit newsroom Mississippi Today

"In rural communities like Clay County — dominated by farmland and economic hardship — some sheriffs rule like kings. They can arrest anyone they choose, smear reputations and hand out reprieves and other favors," Daly and Mitchell write. "They have enormous latitude to hold people in jail as long as they please, and they answer to no one, typically facing little press or prosecutorial scrutiny."

The sheriffs' counties
Scott is not the first sheriff to be investigated by this team, a Times investigative fellow and Mississippi's leading investigative reporter for decades. They note, "Three months ago, the Times and Mississippi Today told the story of another sheriff's office less than 40 miles away. Former Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree rose in the ranks of his Mississippi department and kept his elected office for years despite similar accusations of abuse. He was voted out in 2019 and now faces federal charges of bribery. But in Clay County, Scott remains in power even after repeated allegations of misconduct."

Since 2012, multiple women have submitted court filings alleging Scott's coercion and harassment. No amount of evidence prompted court officials to open a serious investigation. Scott has pursued his victims at will and used his position to punish his accusers, the story reports: "At least five people who accused the sheriff of misconduct, or who were potential witnesses in the cases, said he had retaliated against them, efforts they believe were intended to silence them or discredit their allegations."

The pattern has continued, with a series of complaints in 2017, and in 2021, Caitlyn Wilson, a former Clay County investigative assistant, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint "that said Sheriff Scott had made sexual advances toward her and threatened to fire her after she rebuked him," Mitcell and Daly report. "She made reference to other women whose similar experiences had not yet been made public. . . . 'It appears to be well-known within the County that the Sheriff suffers from a sexual addiction,' her complaint said. The EEOC did not weigh in on the merits of Wilson's complaint, but determined she had the right to sue. Scott has yet to face any criminal charges. "

In 2021, the FBI opened an investigation. "They interviewed nearly a dozen witnesses, including Scott and staff members in his office. No charges have been filed," Daly and Mitchell write. Scott, 58, has professed his innocence. " He said he has had to defend his reputation from 'con artists' and 'drug users' who were inventing accusations to avoid jail time or somehow benefit financially."

Scott is a popular figure in Clay County. "On the 137-acre spread where his family once raised cows, he hosts fish fries and crawfish boils, where he swaps stories and swigs cold beer with fellow law enforcement officers and some of the county's most powerful officials," the story says.

Scott “believes that he will be vindicated and that voters will see through the allegations to re-elect him in the deciding Democratic primary election on Aug. 8. . . . He will leave office on his own terms, regardless of what becomes of the accusations against him. He said he believes the federal investigation is over." Scott told the Times: "I wasn't going to let a bunch of drug heads run me out of office."

Are current heatwaves evidence that climate change is speeding up? The Economist tries to answer the question

Are the current heatwaves evidence that climate change is speeding up? That's the headline over a comprehensive article in The Economist, with a subhead, "All sorts of records are being broken in all sorts of places." Yes, it;'s July, but "the highest temperatures tend to come later in the season. That this year’s should start so early, rise so high and run so long is unprecedented."

The British magazine notes the basic drivers: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is "the highest it has been for over 3 million years. Methane and nitrous oxide, two other long-lived greenhouse gases, have also reached levels never before experienced by humans. The world is now, on average, around 1.2°C warmer than it was before humans started thickening the glass in the greenhouse."

James Hansen of Columbia University, a climate scientist who was one of the first to warn of global warming, "argues that the rate at which the world is warming seems to have gone through a step change in the 2010s, though he has not yet convinced his peers. This summer’s surprises, especially a run of record temperatures in the North Atlantic, might help change that."

An El NiƱo began last month, which has a warming effect, but such ocean oscillations tend to have their greatest impact about a year in, and "Today’s ocean temperatures look like evidence of this one getting off to a flying start." Another likely factor is the huge eruption of a submarine Pacific volcano last year, which  injected a huge amount of water vapor, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the air. "In the lower atmosphere it condenses out into rain or snow fairly quickly. In the stratosphere, though, it lingers for longer," The Economist notes, adding that trhe eruption "is thought to have increased the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere by 13%."

We'v heard more lately about methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, and "Some scientists cite recent increases in methane levels as evidence" that the world is warming in much the same way it did at the end of the last ice age. Some think it's because there are more tropical wetlands, "whose plants produce the gas when they rot. This is one candidate for the mechanism that drives the methane spikes seen at the end of ice ages. If true, it opens up the possibility of a feedback loop starting today similar to the ones that seem to have operated in the past. More methane means more warming, which means more wetlands, and therefore more methane."

Also, government limits on sulfur dioxide to quash acid rain and a more recent change to reduce pollution from ocean shipping may have cause more warming. Sulphate particles that SO2 creates in the lower atmosphere reflect sunlight, and "can help create clouds which reflect away more sunshine still." However, "The indirect effects that aerosol particles have on cloud cover are notoriously hard to capture in climate models."

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Sales of two local news organizations illustrate decline of major newspapers and the hope of nonprofit journalism

By Nick Mathews, Missouri School of Journalism
For the Columbia Missourian

Last week witnessed two significant, contrasting news organization transactions, originating from opposite corners of the United States and forging divergent paths for their respective communities and the future of the local news industry.

In Southern California, Patrick Soon-Shiong sold The San Diego Union-Tribune to an affiliate of the MediaNews Group, which is owned by Alden Global Capital. Shortly after the announcement, the New York-based hedge fund of Alden, the second largest newspaper publisher in the United States, announced buyouts and likely staff reductions at the Union-Tribune. The atmosphere was thick with uncertainty, casting a somber cloud over the news organization, its employees and the local community in San Diego.

Reade Brower
In Maine, Reade Brower sold Masthead Maine, the state’s largest newspaper group with five daily newspapers and 17 weekly newspapers, to the National Trust for Local News. The nonprofit, which started in 2021 with the steadfast goal of safeguarding local ownership for news organizations, collaborated with the Maine Journalism Foundation on the purchase. Shortly after the announcement, Masthead Maine publisher Lisa DeSisto said that her team will continue as custodians of the newspapers, assured that there will be no impending employee losses and provided a sense of stability within the entire organization and state.

We should celebrate the victory for Maine and mourn the loss for San Diego.

In my research, I explore the de-localization of the news industry, wherein the essence of “local” is stripped away from local news organizations. Through ownership transfers, corporate mergers and hedge-fund takeovers, these organizations too often face consolidation, dismantling and closures. In short, when local ownership is replaced by larger absentee corporations solely driven by financial gains, the vital connection between the news organization and the community is severed. Readers feel detached, amplifying the pervasive nature of the deteriorating local news segment, which continues to experience its worst year every passing year.

Many scholars, including myself, advocate for the merits of local ownership, which prevailed for generations until about the 1980s. A local owner brings invaluable benefits to a community. These owners are attuned to the social and informational needs of the community, understanding the pulse of the community firsthand. They perceive their organizations as vital local institutions, not just commercial enterprises. For the best of local owners, their primary mission is to serve and support their communities, with financial profits taking a backseat to a more noble cause.

Today, the local news landscape has dramatically shifted, with less than one-third of the nation’s 5,000 weekly newspapers and a mere 10 of the 100 largest circulation daily newspapers maintaining their independence, according to a team of researchers at Northwestern University. The top six largest newspaper corporations in the U.S. have partial or full ownership by financial firms. This transition away from local ownership not only deprives communities of their stake in newspapers but also places the destiny of surviving publications in the clutches of a limited number of chains. These hedge funds now wield disproportionate power over the local news landscape, shaping its trajectory, essence and even its very existence.

While local newspaper owners in the past prioritized their readers as customers, hedge funds primarily cater to pension funds, mutual funds and commercial banks. Hedge funds exhibit no concern for a newspaper’s history, its employees or its ties to the community. Their focus is purely on cold, calculated financial gains. To hedge funds, a newspaper organization is treated like any other asset. If it fails to generate sufficient returns, it becomes subject to downsizing, sale or closure. Cost-cutting tactics are evident from the moment of acquisition, as the firms swiftly slash expenses, reduce newsroom staff and strive to boost their bottom lines.

The San Diego Union-Tribune stands as the latest example, showcasing once again why Alden Global Capital has earned the moniker of “the grim reaper of American newspapers,” as aptly described by Vanity Fair. As readers, as citizens, as society at large, we should wholeheartedly look to Maine, the land of lighthouses, to serve as the guiding light, illuminating a desired path for the local news scene. The notable example set by Reade Brower, the former owner of Maine Masthead, transcended mere pursuit of profit. With admirable patience, Brower allowed a nonprofit collaboration to emerge, orchestrating the purchase of his newspapers and ensuring that the local news remains securely held with the hands of the communities.

Brower’s actions serve as an inspiring model — a local news organization owner who prioritizes journalism, community and readership, even when the time comes to pass the torch. Owners cannot retain ownership indefinitely, obviously. What truly matters is their enduring commitment to the very communities they serve.

CMT drops Aldean's 'Try That in a Small Town', which suggests gun-control supporters want to confiscate firearms

Jason Aldean in Nashville last month (Photo by
Monica Murray, Variety, via Getty Images and Axios)
Country Music Television has stopped airing Jason Aldean's music video for "Try That in a Small Town," which suggests that gun-control supporters want to confiscate firearms, something very few of them advocate. Almost all the media play about it has been about its alleged racism, with hardly any attention to the misleading lyric about guns.

Aldean signs, "Got a gun that my granddad gave me. They say one day they're gonna round up. Well, that s--t might fly in the city, good luck. Try that in a small town. See how far you make it down the road. Around here, we take care of our own. You cross that line, it won't take long for you to find out. I recommend you don't."

A CMT spokesperson confirmed the decision to Adam Tamburin of Axios Nashville, who reports, "Critics say the song strikes a threatening tone while criticizing gun control and protests against police. The video, which was released Friday, splices videos of fires, crimes and burning flags with protest images. Aldean, one of the biggest stars in country music, defended the song on social media Tuesday, saying he's been unfairly accused of releasing 'a pro-lynching song' that was critical of the Black Lives Matter movement." He did not mention the gun-control aspect of the song.

CNN notes that Aldean, an outspoken conservative, "was performing at the Route 91 Music Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in 2017 when a gunman shot repeatedly into the crowd, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more. The incident is the deadliest mass shooting in American history."

Aldean's wife Brittany is a "right-wing influencer," Emily Nussbaum reports for The New Yorker in a long story about Nashville and the country-music industry being divided by politics. When singer Maren Morris called Brittany Aldean 'Insurrection Barbie,' Jason Aldean "encouraged a concert audience to boo Morris’s name. Both sides had sold merch off the clash. The Aldeans hawked Barbie shirts reading 'don’t tread on our kids.' Morris fans could buy a shirt that read 'lunatic country-music person' — Tucker Carlson’s nickname for her — and another bearing the slogan 'you have a seat at this table.' She donated the proceeds to LGBTQ charities."

UPDATE, July 25: Black Lives Matter images in the video have been removed

Farm Bill will probably need an extension past Sept. 30 deadline, and is unlikely to have more work rules, chair says

Congress probably won't be able to pass a new Farm Bill before the current one expires Sept. 30, and when it does, it's unlikely to contain new work requirements for the nation's main nutrition program, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee told Politico Tuesday.

Congress often misses its Farm Bill deadlines, sometimes by a year or more, despite early vows to move with due speed and complete work on time," notes AgInsider of the Food and Environment Reporting Network. The last two bills have been delayed by Republican efforts to expand work requirements in the Supplemantal Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Rep. Glenn T. Thompson, R-Pa.
House Agriculture Committee Chair G.T. Thompson told Politico that he doesn't expect additional work requirements to be in the new bill, and that the current bill will probably need an extension beyond Sept. 30. Jerry Hagstrom of DTN/The Progressive Farmer reports, "Thompson said he hopes to hold a markup on the Farm Bill in mid-September and will release a draft before the markup." he told Hagstrom, "Sept. 30 is uncomfortably close."

The Senate Agriculture Committee hasn't released a draft, either, and "It is a remarkably late start for broad-spectrum legislation that usually requires a legislative marathon for passage," AgInsider says. The committee chairs and minority-party ranking members "quietly acknowledged the challenge of the calendar after meeting President Biden at the White House on May 11. In the first sentence of a joint statement, they said they discussed with Biden 'the importance of passing a bipartisan Farm Bill this year.'"

UPDATE, July 22: "The director of the Congressional Budget Office on Thursday pushed back against concerns that its analysts are taking too long to deliver Farm Bill cost estimates to the House and Senate ag committees and said it wasn’t practical to add staff," Agri-Pulse reports.

Helping kids disconnect from social media means setting limits collaboratively; parents need to stick to a plan

Shutterstock image via Brookings Institution
When approaching your children about social-media limitations, the best place to plant your parental flag is to begin by asking for their own reduction ideas, advises Catherine Pearson of The New York Times. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a free family media plan tool, which is a good conversation starter. Dr. Nina Vasan, founder of Brainstorm, Stanford University's lab for mental health innovation, "has collaborated on a social media safety plan with her colleagues. . . . The plan emphasizes the importance of making such decisions collaboratively."

Begin with discussing boundaries and ask your child what feels realistic. "Maybe your teen feels OK with paring down the number of platforms they use. Or perhaps your children are more open to the idea of establishing a maximum amount of time they're allowed to spend every day on social media platforms or screens altogether," Pearson writes."Installing apps that allow parents to block certain websites and set time limits on devices can help you enforce these boundaries, according to the Stanford social-media safety plan."

Suggesting a screen or social-media "vacation" can help a chiled deal with fear of missing out, especially if their tech time is starting to look obsessive. Pearson explains, "If your child is showing signs of problematic social media use, you may consider instituting a complete break to recalibrate your child's behavior. For some teens, that recalibration might take a few weeks; for others, it might take a few months, Dr. Vasan said." Taking a major break might mean collaborating with other parents and having a group of teens 'take a break' together. While to succeed, a family media plan needs input from teens; parents need to anticipate roadblocks and stick to their position. Dr. Vasan told Pearson: "Tell [your teen] they need to cut down, but they can choose how they will cut down."

Jean Twenge, a psychologist who has studied the effects of social media on teenagers' mental health, advised that parents "guard" sleeping time. Pearson writes, "Parents should explain to their children why smartphones cannot be in the bedroom, Dr. Twenge said. . . . She recommends sticking with a consistent strategy, like having a charging station where all family members — adults included — keep their phone overnight."

The Times article focuses on teenagers, but a 2021 survey by Common Sense Media found that nearly 40% of U.S. children aged 8 to 12  use social media," note Sophia Espinoza, Charlotte Wright and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek for the Brookings Institution. "Because the average child in the U.S. has a smartphone by age 10, it is not surprising that children in primary school are already experimenting with social media content. A survey carried out by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital reports that even children as young as 7 are themselves in social media apps."

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued an extraordinary public warning about the risks that social media may pose to young people's mental health and well-being. Despite the warning, researchers and teenagers say that social media can be a "lifeline," providing a sense of identity and belonging for LGBTQ youth. The devil is in the data: Parents, scientists and the surgeon general are worried. But there is little research to prove that social media is harmful — or to indicate which apps or features are problematic. More research is needed, especially with pre-teens, the Brookings writers say.

Some in rural N.C. county wanted out of regional library; Pride Month book display apparently prompted debate

The Yancey County Library in Burnsville, N.C. 
(Photo by Sarah Melotte, The Daily Yonder)
In 2013, Tim Mandell of The Rural Blog wrote, "The public library remains one constant that has something for everybody." But in recent years, which books are showcased or shelved in libraries has become contentious. "Commissioners in rural Yancey County, North Carolina, considered withdrawing their library from the regional system amidst public debate about a Pride Month book display," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "The debate about withdrawing from the regional system reveals how political divisions can threaten public services in rural communities that need them the most."

"The high elevation usually keeps things cool in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina," Melotte writes. "But temperatures were sweltering by mountain standards on July 10, when hundreds of people gathered in a hot courtroom to show support for their regional library system" at a Yancey County commission meeting. During the public comment period, "Franklin Oldham told the commissioners, 'I am a white, Christian, heterosexual, American war veteran. I peace-kept in Kosovo in 2002. I fought in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. And I am a proud ally of the LGBTQ community.' Fifteen other residents shared their thoughts during the comment period, and all except four echoed Oldham's sentiment about supporting their queer neighbors and the regional system."

Yancey County's library debate began in June when the commission's chair moved to give the county manager authority to take over the library. The motion was tabled, and "backlash ensued," Melotte writes. "Patrons suspected that the motion to consider withdrawal came because someone complained about a Pride Month book display in the library. . . . Pulling out of the regional system would not only result in decreased access to funds, it would put county commissioners temporarily in control of the library until the commissioners appointed a new library board."

At its core, the debate "revolved around whether LGBTQ displays are political agendas or statements of welcome. . . . Chairman Jeff Whitson finally announced that they would not be pulling out of the regional system," Melotte reports. Yancey County is among a growing number of communities where LGBTQ books have created tensions. "Local libraries faced 1,269 demands to ban books last year, according to the American Library Association. That's more than any other year since they began tracking censorship attempts over 20 years ago."

Rural libraries are not just about books. They are "essential public spaces where people are more likely to have limited access to high-speed internet, an adequate number of healthcare providers and other kinds of infrastructure," Melotte reports. "An American Association of Libraries survey showed that 40% of rural libraries provide subscriptions to health databases that do things like help patrons sign up for health insurance or learn about what benefits they are eligible for. As a part of a regional library system, the Yancey County Library has access to extra grants and state aid resources that libraries run by local governments do not." Yancey County Regional Library Director Amber Westall Briggs told Melotte: "State aid exists to fund regional library systems [to] serve socioeconomic areas that needed more assistance so that they could equalize service to the people across the state."

Pick-your-own produce model offers farmers benefits and risks; it's part of agri-tourism, which has tripled since 2002

Tanner's Orchard near Speer, Ill., has offered U-pick since 1947.
The orchard has 11,000 apple trees. (Photo from Tanner's website)
Strawberries, peaches, berries, apples, pumpkins and a delightful December pine: The list of pick-your-own wonderfulness can start in May and go through year's end. But U-pick origins were born out of desperation, and in a culture of "instant-everything," its success is a curiosity.

"The concept first emerged during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when prices for fruit and vegetable crops reached historically low levels as war-torn countries began to recover and no longer relied on U.S. exports," reports Shelby Vittek of Ambrook Research. "For many growers, it was cheaper to leave their crops in the field to rot than to harvest and sell them for a pittance. That's when a ragtag bunch of cherry growers in Wisconsin decided to offer their fruit directly to the public for pennies a pound. The only catch was they'd have to come out to the farm to pick the cherries themselves. And so the bustling pick-your-own industry was born."

The model offers benefits, "reduces a farm's reliance on labor for harvesting, and eliminates the need for working with distributors, giving farms immediate access to the profits," Vittek writes. "Agritourism has boomed over the last two decades, with revenue more than tripling from 2002 to 2017. According to the USDA, agritourism revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to $950 million in 2017. Pick-your-own farms have played a key role in that growth."

Pick-your-own operations also have unique costs and risks. Megan Bruch Leffew, a value-added agriculture marketing specialist at the University of Tennessee, told Vittek, "Consumers don't often know how to appropriately pick and can damage plants, so there's a loss aspect that needs to be built in when folks are pricing product." Also, "You need some added risk management and insurance," and "People are going to need access to a restroom, handwashing, and other things."

Poor weather "has the potential to wipe out an entire crop for a U-pick farm," Vittek notes. "This year, fruit growers across the country have experienced significant crop loss after erratic weather. Georgia lost more than 90% of its peach crop this year due to an abnormally warm winter."

But pick-your-own seems to have crowd appeal, even when a crop is scarce. "Our culture is starving for connections to nature. It's one more way that people can feel connected — connected to their food, connected to where they live," Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell University Small Farm Program, told Vittek. "U-picks do a huge service for connecting people to our food system, and especially the seasonality of food … and [gives farmers] the opportunity to have important conversations with people who can support agriculture more actively."