Friday, September 29, 2023

To combat drug makers' increases in the price of insulin, states look at making it themselves; California will be first

Illustration by Sarah Grillo, Axios
As the price of some diabetes medicines continues to rise, states have looked at solving the problem on their own terms, with California the "first to enter the ring," reports Kaitlyn Levinson of Route Fifty. "As insulin prices have skyrocketed, states have intervened to lower them with price caps. California's decision to manufacture its own is leading other states to consider similar steps to ensure essential medicines are affordable to the public."

To claim that insulin prices are outrageous isn't an overstatement, reports Bob Herman of Axios. "These are the per-vial list prices for common insulin brands, according to Elsevier's Gold Standard Drug Database: Novo Nordisk's Novolog: $289 -- Eli Lilly's Humalog: $275 -- Sanofi's Lantus: $270."

When individuals don't have insurance, purchasing it isn't affordable, which has led to deadly outcomes. Levinson reports: "In 2017, a 26-year-old Minnesota man died after rationing his insulin. He did so because he was no longer covered by his mother's plan, and his job didn't offer insurance. Without coverage, he faced paying up to $1,300 for the drug, CBS News reported. His mother thought he could budget his remaining supply and pay for a new prescription when he could."

In 2019, Colorado capped a 30-day supply of insulin with a $100 co-pay. "California is the latest to adopt insulin co-pay price caps. . . .  (that) if signed into law, would limit insulin costs at $35 for a monthly supply," Levinson adds. But there is fear that the cap is not enough. "California is going beyond price caps to tackle insulin prices with an ambitious plan to produce the drug itself. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state is partnering with drug manufacturer Civica to produce $30 insulin vials and $55 packs of prefilled insulin injection pens."

In the past, other states have manufactured their own drugs, "From 1970 to the late 1990s, the Michigan Department of Public Health manufactured an anthrax vaccine," Levinson reports. "More than 20 years later, state lawmakers are revisiting public production, this time for insulin. If passed, a bill introduced in July would make $150 million available for Michigan to partner with private organizations to establish an insulin manufacturing facility. . . . Illinois and New York have also considered legislation to encourage affordable drug manufacturing. The bills aim to 'increase competition, lower prices and address shortages in the market for generic prescription drugs.'" 

FCC tug-of-war over 'net neutrality' is back; having only 'one game in town' is harder on rural areas

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel commenting on internet services.
(Photo by Matt McClain, The Washington Post)
After a six-year stalemate, the swinging vine of net neutrality is back as the Federal Communications Commission looks to improve internet provider services for consumers. "The push comes amid widespread grievance with internet service providers — a reflection, some regulators say, of monopoly power wielded by a short list of providers," reports Eva Dou of The Washington Post. In rural areas, the pain of only one internet company is deep because customers can complain about service or connection but have nowhere else to go, and their providers can afford to ignore their historically low customer service ratings.

The debate over internet providers is underscored in its history. In 2014, when the FCC "asked the public to comment on how to regulate internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, it received more than a million responses. Aggrieved customers crashed the commission's website," Dou writes. In 2015, the FCC moved to take control with "the landmark 2015 decision — known as 'net neutrality' — to regulate internet service as a public utility, akin to water or electricity. . . . [It gave] the FCC broad oversight over internet service providers, including ensuring they did not discriminate or charge unreasonable rates." In 2017, the Trump administration repealed the rule.

Now, the FCC is set "to reinstate net neutrality as the law of the land. The agency argues that restoring the rule will improve consumers' experience with internet providers — including by enabling it to better track broadband service outages and network reliability," Dou reports. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a speech Tuesday that due to high costs of entry into the market, there is often only one high-speed broadband provider in some parts of the country. 'That provider might be the only game in town,' she said. 'You need a referee on the field looking out for the public interest.'"

The reinstatement process will take months. "If the FCC gives the green light at its Oct. 19 monthly meeting, the agency will embark on a new rulemaking process with public comment," Dou adds. Tim Wu, a Columbia University Law School antitrust expert "who coined the phrase' net neutrality' in the early 2000s, said one new consideration this time around is the rise of 'Big Tech' — a term 'that didn't exist 20 years ago.'. . . While the early debate had been just about the power of internet providers, the makers of internet applications such as Google and Amazon are now vastly powerful, making it important that internet providers don't tip the scales toward one of them unfairly." Wu told Dou: "Among other things, [internet service providers'] neutrality is important to prevent making Google and Amazon unassailable."

Commercial honey bees may not need saving, but other bee species do; the busy insects need wise-tending

Honey bees are busy and need year-round food supplies.
(Photo by Ciril Jazbecm, The New York Times)
A lack of understanding has kept the "Save the Bees" mantra alive while bee species that need human help remain ignored. "Researchers have found that many species of wild bees are, in fact, declining. So trying to save them makes eminent sense," reports David Segal of The New York Times. "But hobbyists and corporations, not to mention luminaries like Beyoncé and Queen Camilla, are drawn only to the seven or so species of honey bees — the one group supported by a multibillion-dollar agribusiness and that doesn't need the help."

Most people know that honey bees are vital to human food production, and the thought of their disappearance is alarming. But the notion that "all the bees are dying" doesn't stand up to scrutiny. "Honey bees, it turns out, are a commercially managed animal. . . and large beekeeping operations are remarkably adept at replacing colonies that die," Segal explains. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "The number of beehives around the world has risen by nearly 26 percent in the last decade, to 102 million from 81 million." Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore., told Segal: "There are now more honey bees on the planet than there have ever been in human history."

In urban areas, beekeeping on restaurant rooftops or as "art" has been hard to discourage, but factually, there are only so many flowers to pollinate. Andrew Coté, president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, was "asked to install hives at the Museum of Modern Art; Segal reports, he declined and said, 'The population is already overwhelming the finite floral resources. We don't need more honey bees here.'"

That is not to say that beekeepers don't have challenges, but restaurants and trendy bee hives are not an overall solution. Steven Savage for Forbes magazine reports, "Randy Oliver, who runs the ScientificBeekeeping.com website, publishes extensively in scientific and industry bee journals and is a sought-after speaker internationally on bee-related topics. From Oliver's perspective, the key challenges fall into three main categories:
  • Giving beekeepers the tools they need to deal with the parasites and diseases that affect bee health
  • Having adequate 'forage resources' or other feeding options to meet the full-season nutritional needs of the large hive numbers required for the pollination market
  • Anticipating the future impact of climate change and the management of agricultural lands on pollinators and the business of beekeeping."

Don't know much about hunting season? Here's your primer.

Bright orange gear is a safety must in the woods.
(Photo by Donna Kallner, The Daily Yonder)
In many rural areas, hunters anxiously await the start of each new season. But for people unfamiliar with tree stands, deer tacos and harvest tags, the entire operation can be bewildering. Below is a condensed primer from Donna Kallner of The Daily Yonder on all things hunting.

It's tradition. If you're a soon-to-be spouse or in-law, don't even think of planning the wedding during the 9-day season in late November called Gun Deer. Many of your guests, as well as the wedding party and possibly the parson, will have standing plans to go to Deer Camp. Deer Camp may be off in the woods, based on an actual structure like a cabin or camper. Or it can be centered at the same kitchen table we use the rest of the year. . . . It's less a place than a state of mind. . . . In many families, this 9-day period is sacrosanct.

There's more. There are seasons for hunting migratory waterfowl, wild turkeys and other game birds, small game like rabbits, large game like bears, and more.

Dress accordingly. When and where it's firearm deer season, it's prudent to have at least 50% percent of your outer clothing above the waist be solid blaze orange or fluorescent pink (or camo-blaze, which is legal but not as visible). You definitely want your hat or other head covering to be at least 50 percent blaze orange or fluorescent pink.

Hunting for food.
It may be hard for some to imagine how much rural families rely on hunting for food. That might be easier if they imagine living where incomes are generally lower, and a family's food budget also has to cover fuel to travel more miles to and from a grocery store.

There's a plan.
Some hunters will field-dress a deer and take it to a processor to make the transformation from carcass to neatly wrapped and labeled frozen meat. But for people hunting to feed a family, that gets pricey. Instead, many hunters do their own butchering. Often, that's a family affair. One friend's deer camp includes not only hunters but also a team that butchers, preps, and pressure cans the meat, which is then divided among the group. 

Community. Hunters – even solitary, curmudgeonly ones – cherish community. Before it became possible to register harvests online, Deer/Turkey Registration Stations were the place to meet and greet other hunters. . . . Sure, everyone wanted to see the trophy bucks. But the pictures they took also documented many kids' first hunts and their hunts over the years.

Hunter's Ed. Many of the kids pictured in those albums knew our neighbor not just from the gas station but also as their Hunter Safety instructor. . . . A few times, I helped serve lunch on the last day of the course and got to watch as kids tested at some of the stations. Those kids were expected to know everything from the correct type of ammunition for different firearms to the maximum projectile range for different calibers of rifles and shotguns.

Memories. I did not grow up in a hunting household. So when I moved to rural northern Wisconsin, I had much to learn (and still do). But it became clear early on that hunting was about much more than shooting. . . . .I appreciate how hunting connects us to the land we share with this wildlife and with the community of hunters.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

News-media roundup: Anniston Star shutters combo weekly; writer in CJR assesses case of the Marion County Record

Wikipedia map adapted by The Rural Blog
In recent years, publishers have consolidated weekly newspapers across county lines to keep the operations profitable, but that hasn't worked for The Anniston Star in three nearby communities in northeast Alabama. The daily Star's parent company announced Wednesday that the News Journal, the five-year-old weekly serving Cleburne County and the towns of Jacksonville and Piedmont, in its home Calhoun County, would publish its last edition Oct. 25.

“The decision to discontinue the News Journal was not an easy one,” Star Managing Editor Timothy Cash wrote. “We know that small newspapers are deeply rooted in their communities, with each supporting the other across the decades. We know readers hate to lose that voice. But the ever-changing newspaper industry — which includes many readers’ preference for getting their news online — along with increased printing and distribution costs made Consolidated Publishing rethink its product lineup.” He said the Star would have “events of unique interest to Jacksonville, Piedmont and Cleburne County readers.”

The News Journal is a consolidation of the Cleburne Journal and the Piedmont Journal, founded in 1906 and 1907, and the Jacksonville News, first published in 1936. Jacksonville is home to about 13,000 people and Jacksonville State University; Piedmont has 4,400 people and Cleburne County has about 15,000. Anniston has about 21,500 and Calhoun County has about 115,000.

"The police raid of Kansas’s Marion County Record looks increasingly like a clear case of official retaliation against a local newspaper," Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, writes for Columbia Journalism Review. "Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody was allegedly upset that the Record had investigated him. When a local restaurateur accused its journalists of breaking the law, he found a judge willing to approve a search warrant based on a false affidavit, and that was that. But another narrative emerged in the raid’s aftermath: that the Record was asking for trouble through its “aggressive” approach to small-town journalism."

Stein cites stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the latter saying the raid had “uncorked a debate” over the question of “What is a newspaper’s role, anyway?” and whether a local paper has a “duty…to be a booster for the places it covers.” He writes, "If that debate is actually happening, it’s not because newspapers like the Record are crossing the line by agitating small-town officials. It’s because those officials have grown unaccustomed to healthy scrutiny. And perhaps some of their constituents have forgotten the benefits of a robust Fourth Estate."

Embracing vaccines sooner rather than later can mean healthier months ahead

The timing of vaccines matters.
(Wall Street Journal illustration, from IStock images)
Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) -- the vaccine season is upon us. To get the maximum protection from having to face a needle, start with a game plan. "Doctors generally suggest getting your flu and Covid shots before the end of October and say it's OK to get both those shots at the same time," reports Sumathi Reddy of The Wall Street Journal. "The most important thing, doctors say, is to get vaccinated. If you're in a doctor's office or a drugstore and can get your shots, it usually makes sense to do it."

Over the summer, there was a "bump" in Covid cases, and if you've been recently infected, putting off getting a booster for three to six months is wise. John Wherry, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania, told Reddy, "If your level of antibodies is quite high, the booster does very little good. You're kind of wasting your shot."

For Covid shots, "Sooner rather than later is good. . . especially if you are a senior or immunocompromised," Reddy reports. "The newly approved booster targets the dominant strains now circulating. Covid-19 test positivity rates have hovered around 14% for the past month, according to CDC data, up from 4% in June. Covid boosters from Pfizer and Moderna have already rolled out. The Novavax booster is expected later this fall."

Recommendations for the flu vaccine include getting it in September or October. Reddy adds, "Flu cases usually start ticking up in November and peak in January before trailing off at the end of March, says Wherry. . . . If you get sick with the flu before you've been vaccinated, you should still get the vaccine about a month later, he says. That's because the flu vaccine typically protects against four types or strains of influenza."

RSV vaccines are approved for seniors and some pregnant women; doctors say opting to have the vaccines sooner is best, Reddy reports, "because activity is picking up, and RSV tends to peak earlier than the other respiratory viruses, says Wherry. There is also a new RSV drug approved to protect infants. Cases are already starting to increase in the Southeast, according to the CDC."

Rural doctors have to do it all, from snake bites to meat-stuck-in-throat; video looks at challenges of rural medicine

Amid a national physician shortage, getting a doctor to practice in a rural place has never been more challenging, and as rural hospitals close, the lack of providers is predicted to worsen, reports Hyacinth Empinado of STAT. "In 2023, 65% of rural areas had a shortage of primary care physicians, according to a report published by the Health Resources and Services Administration. More than 15% of Americans — about 46 million — live in rural areas, but only 10% of doctors practice in these communities, many of whom are primary care and family physicians."

Meeting the medical needs of 46 million Americans is a big undertaking. And because there are so few doctors, each has to work harder to tackle vastly different medical illnesses and accidents with limited resources. In this short documentary, STAT explores why the shortage exists and "shows what life is like for a doctor in Kansas who wears many hats and a physician in Illinois pondering retirement."

A housing-strapped county is creating a first-of-its-kind development on U.S. Forest Service land

Stunning views where new affordable housing units will be built.
(Photo by Hart Van Denburg, CPR News)
In the bustling hilltop town of Dillon in Summit County, Colorado, businesses face a steep labor shortage, but affordable housing must be available for potential hires. The area is about 86% forest, the Forest Service has its own land and an equipped post, but it doesn't have cash or build houses. When the two entities put their heads together, they forged a first-of-its-kind agreement.

"The agency is about to sign a lease to allow a developer to transform the hilltop property. The fire engine bay, the offices and the storage areas will all be rebuilt to modern standards. And just downslope will come the biggest change of all — an entire residential neighborhood of more than 150 units," reports Andrew Kenney of Colorado Public Radio. Anna Bengtson, land conveyance program manager for the national forest, described the plan to Kenney: "Multi-story buildings with housing units of one-, two- and three-bedroom configurations mixed in with some green space and a community center and public transit and a rec path coming through."

How was this made possible? An act of Congress. "The 2018 Farm Bill, to be precise," Kenney explains. "Federal lawmakers included a provision that authorized the Forest Service to lease out a strictly limited selection of its land for housing and other purposes. . . . Five years later, Dillon is set to be the first place it happens. . . . The project has millions of dollars of backing from the state and local governments, and it will be built by the private developer Servitas. Summit County will lease the land from the Forest Service for 50 years but will provide housing for USFS staffers instead of paying rent to the agency."

Garrett Scharton, an executive with Servitas, told Kenney, "Frankly, it's going to be beautiful, because the site is epic. Any other developer would absolutely put $5 million condos on this site. . . . Summit County and the Forest Service and Dillon have decided to give back to the local community for essentially locals-only housing." Kinney adds, "In some ways, the project is simpler than other developments. There's no need for a zoning hearing where local opponents might slow the project, since the U.S. Forest Service controls the land. And the agency does have experience building its own housing.

"The project is drawing national attention, a sign of how many other rural and resort communities are desperate for land for housing," Kinney reports. "So far, the Dillon project has been uncontroversial — perhaps because the site has already been developed to an extent. But some officials would like the Forest Service to open up a broader range of sites for housing. . . . Marcus Selig, chief conservation officer at the National Forest Foundation, said that the Forest Service should be — and will be — careful in choosing future properties."

Tips for reporting on 'forever chemical' can make a tricky job easier

PFAS are present in 45% of U.S. tap water.
(Photo by Jacet Dylag, Unsplash)
Given the enduring presence of "forever chemicals," or PFAS, in the nation's soil and water, journalists will be covering and uncovering them for years to come. Because reporting on PFAS can be tricky, Rachel Layne of Editor & Publisher interviewed a panel of experts and condensed tips to make reporting on the topic more doable.

Here are her experts: Kelly Smalling, a research chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey; Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program; E.A. Crunden, a chemicals and waste reporter for Politico's E&E News who covers PFAS and its regulation closely; Barbara Moran, a climate and environment correspondent at WBUR in Boston who has reported extensively on PFAS; Rebecca Fuoco, the director of science communications at Green Science Policy Institute; and Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University who follows PFAS closely.

Start with the basics. Journalists also should know and note why PFAS are nicknamed "forever chemicals." Manmade PFAS compounds don't degrade under typical conditions in the environment or the body. . . In recent decades, certain kinds of PFAS chemicals have been linked to serious health issues, including potentially higher risk for some cancers, autoimmune diseases, thyroid issues, liver disease, fetal complications, vaccine resistance and high cholesterol, among other concerns."

Note PFAS regulation on a national and local level. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency took a major step by proposing limits on six kinds of PFAS in drinking water under the national Safe Water Drinking Act. If enacted, the rule would cover the first new contaminant be the first new national standards under the act since the 1990s.

Study up, learn the terminology and how to use it. "Reporters should not buy into saying 12,000+ chemicals 'cause cancer'; that simply has not been proven yet, and research is limited," Crunden explains. "But good PFAS journalism should see you comfortably empowered to say at least two chemicals are strongly linked to cancer, and that there are concerns about the broader family, which also pose a number of other health issues." Note that toxins are the correct term for naturally occurring poisonous substances, Crunden explained. PFAS are manmade, which makes them toxicants, not toxins. "Toxic chemicals" would also be an accurate way to describe PFAS.

Keep your accuracy radar on high and double-check what sources say. You can find tips on how to characterize research findings accurately in this tip sheet from "The Journalist's Resource." Even scientists can make mistakes, especially those not steeped in PFAS research, says Jamie DeWitt.

Befriend a toxicologist. Find a public health, public works or university toxicologist familiar with PFAS and ask to sit down with them, DeWitt, Crunden and Moran recommend — especially one who specializes in drinking water.

Monitor academic research, keeping in mind that much of it never makes it into the news media. A good practice is to create alerts on services like PubMed and Eureka Alert! Many scientific studies are published behind a firewall. But journalists often can get access to scientific papers for free – if they know how to ask. This piece from The Journalist's Resource outlines how to set up free accounts with several top academic journal publishers.

Go to a public water board or local government meeting where PFAS is being discussed, or attend state hearings. As with any topic, some of the best story ideas come from meeting people you wouldn't normally encounter just working the phones or doing online research, Moran says. The National Conference of State Legislatures has state-by-state information on PFAS and drinking water. The map and key issue page from the advocacy group Environmental Working Group are also good places to start.

A solution for increasingly arid lands? Taking advantage of the water cycle process alongside soil regeneration.

Water cycle restoration is key to creating water on parched land. (Photo by Daniel Sinoca, Unsplash)

When scientists talk about solutions for depleted water supplies or drought, they're talking about a lot more than high temperatures or insufficient rainfall. Some scientists are using water cycle actions to reverse desertified land and help communities find water solutions in their dirt.

For decades, journalist Judith D. Schwartz has watched "the climate crisis conversation follow a steady, linear path, the message being that climate change puts added stress on water sources," reports Caroline Tremblay of The Daily Yonder. Schwartz told her: "But if we understand how the earth manages heat, it's mostly through water phase changes. . . . By working with the water cycle, we can enhance climate regulation." Tremblay adds, "That's when she decided her book, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, would focus on water as a verb, not a noun."

As Schwartz completed research hours at conferences and listened to expert opinions, "She realized so much information about how we can do better is already on the table," Tremblay writes. "But getting people to act — together — remains the biggest challenge. For instance, we've all heard stories of rural and urban communities within proximity vying for water resources while both (had) different needs and obstacles."

Schwartz highlights a workshop she attended in rural New Mexico led by Jeff Goebel, an expert in community consensus building for sustainable solutions. "In a setting she described as 'really the Wild West,' she observed townspeople, ranchers, and the Bureau of Land Management, who had been in a legal tangle over water access," Trembley explains. Schwartz told her: "[The community] went from suspicion, sabotage, and gunfire to committing to work together to restore long-held community relationships and the land. . . . [In places] where people are saying: 'We have no water; there is no hope.' He helped them see where they have agency."

"Schwartz and many others engaged in the climate conversation have become invested in a global movement being led by Savory, an organization facilitating the regeneration of grasslands that are key to this puzzle," Trembley reports. "Schwartz detailed the astounding outcomes of Savory's approach on the ground in ecologically devastated parts of the world, like Zimbabwe. Over 15 years, land there has been revived, wildlife has returned, and erosion has been halted."

Trembley adds, "Schwartz has found similarly noteworthy examples of environmental wins within the United States, from water cycle restoration training to condensation catchment systems." Schwartz told her: "It's time to get real about appreciating that water is at once a force that drives ecological processes and a product of them."

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

A group of 10 states wants to create a compact to protect the Mississippi River

Aerial view of the Mississippi River near Guttenberg, Iowa.
(Photo by Drake White-Bergey, Wisconsin Watch via WWNO)

The Mississippi River, one of the biggest jewels in America's geography crown, has provided many of the country's commerce and water needs for centuries. Now, the river is stressed by weather extremes and is being considered by drought-stricken Western states as a possible solution for their water shortages.

Historically, the Mississippi has lacked a governance, but given its vital importance to trade and dams, some states are working to create a new framework. "A coalition of Mississippi River mayors wants a 10-state compact that would establish collective management of the waterway," reports Keely Brewer, WWNO, which serves New Orleans. "At the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative's annual meeting, about 30 mayors unanimously voted in favor of pursuing a compact that would span more than 2,300 miles of river. It's the first step of what could be a lengthy process."

The group would provide an "overall management structure." MRCTI's executive director, Colin Wellenkamp, said, "A compact among the core states bordering the river would be a way to think about river management at the watershed scale, from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and coordinate during events affecting the whole river, like drought and flooding," Brewer writes. "A compact could provide legal protections for Mississippi River resources, such as the vast amount of water the river drains from 31 states and two Canadian provinces."

Mark Davis is the director of Tulane University's Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy in New Orleans, which studies Mississippi River management issues. Brewer reports, "Davis likened the water in the Mississippi River to a baton in a relay race; management changes with each of the 10 states it flows past, not including the other 21 states that feed into the river. . . . As parched states in the West grapple with drought and water scarcity, there have been renewed efforts to pump Mississippi River water west. But Wellenkamp said their concern lies with 'anyone that wants to put a straw in the Mississippi,' not just western states."

"The mayors are looking to the Great Lakes Compact as a model. In that region, eight states and two Canadian provinces established principles for water management and a requirement to notify and consult other members before diverting large amounts of water.” Getting the Great Lakes states to agree to a "shared vision" has presented a challenge, but Davis said "They agreed on something fundamental: they didn't want their water sent to just anyone with a checkbook," Brewer adds. 

"Wellenkamp said a Mississippi River compact would be similar to the Great Lakes agreement in terms of geographic scope, and he likes that it isn't overly prescriptive. But he said there's a key difference: they're trying to develop a Mississippi River compact in the face of severe climate threats." Davis told Brewer: "We are highly motivated by recent disasters and highly motivated by recent climate impacts that the Great Lakes did not have."

As many rural schools adopt virtual teaching options, the teachers can be thousands of miles from classrooms

In rural places, filling teacher vacancies can be impossible.
(Photo by Ash Ponders, The Wall Street Journal)
School is back in session, and in some places, students and teachers are thousands of miles apart as virtual learning becomes more common, particularly in rural areas, reports Sara Randazzo of The Wall Street Journal. "Virtual teachers are beaming into thousands of classrooms this school year in states from Nevada to Alaska to New Jersey, in subjects such as world languages, special education, science and math. . . . In rural places, the challenges of filling vacancies are felt even more acutely. The pay is lower than in urban districts, affordable housing options are limited, and recent college graduates might not want to move to a more remote, unfamiliar location."

"Even with students back in classrooms post-pandemic, more rural districts are making the concept of the remote teacher permanent," Randazzo writes. In Prescott Valley, Arizona, Humboldt Unified School District opted to pay virtual teachers to fill instruction gaps. Melissa Sanford, a Humbolt/Bradshaw Mountain High School's administrative secretary, said, "Bradshaw this year is offering Spanish 1, Spanish 2 and American Sign Language through a $142,000 contract with Elevate K-12, a Chicago-based company that provides the technology and instructors for remotely taught, live classes."

Not everyone agrees that virtual teaching should be the norm instead of the last resort. "The idea of continuing to rely on a virtual teacher is unwelcome, conjuring up images of unruly classrooms and little instruction being absorbed," Randazzo writes. "Bradshaw parent Jeromy Rye was surprised to learn after the school year started about the virtual teacher in his daughter Emma’s Spanish class. Even knowing there is a classroom coach in the room to assist, he is skeptical." He told Randazzo: “It may open up opportunities for people to misbehave, for one, or to not get the quality instruction compared with having a teacher in the classroom. I need to see the proof that it’s working.”

Virtual teaching may offer some rural schools the best path toward more equal education. "In Alabama, Birmingham-based nonprofit Ed Farm is teaming with the architecture firm of Danish Kurani to create what they call the Connected Rural Classroom, a high-tech room designed to virtually beam in STEM teachers to some of Alabama’s poorest regions," Randazzo reports. "Waymond Jackson, president of Ed Farm, said he is motivated by data from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center showing 11% of students are proficient in math in Alabama’s historically agricultural region, known as the Black Belt, compared with 23% elsewhere in the state."

Farming stress isn't limited to the farmer, a new study looks at the demands of farming on adolescents and their parents

Most farming mental health resources are for adults, not children.
(Photo by Katie Humphreys, Farm Journal)
Numerous studies have proven that farmers are no strangers to stress. The number of unexpected triggers, from weather to tariffs to fertilizer prices, can prove mentally exhausting. But what hasn't been researched as much is the role stress plays on farmers' families.

A new study from the University of Illinois sets out to address that knowledge gap by exploring "how economic stressors affect the mental health of U.S. farmers and their adolescent children," reports Jennifer Shike of Farm Journal. "With many young people growing up on a farm and participating in agricultural work, it's time to look at how stress affects kids, too, says Josie Rudolphi, assistant professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering."

"We've long acknowledged the inherent hazards of this work environment, and now we're also recognizing its impact on mental health," Rudolphi told Shike. "Most of the work on farm stress and mental health primarily focuses on adult farmers. However, it is important to recognize that children are fully aware of what's happening on the farm, and they are not immune to the stressors that exist."

Rudolphi and co-author Richard Berg used the Farm Stress Model to "examine the correlation between economic stressors and mental health in farmers," Shike explains. "Rudolphi and Berg discovered about 60% of both adults and adolescents met the criteria for at least mild depression, while 55% of the adults and 45% of the adolescents met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder." Rudolphi told her: "Prevalence of depression in the general population is typically around 17% to 18%, so these numbers are quite high."

When everyone works at home, it's harder for families to detach from farming business and relax together. Rudolphi told Shike: "It's not unexpected for children to be affected by the experiences of adults. In many other settings, adults can leave work, return home, and transition into their roles as parents. But in a farm environment, the boardroom table is the kitchen table, and there is talk about farm activity in the household. There's a blur between work and family, or business and residence, so it becomes rather complicated."

"One of the most important findings in the current study is the strong correlation between adult depression and adolescent depression, Rudolphi points out. This [finding] underscores the need to develop resources and services for the entire farm family," Shike reports. "Although there is a growing library of mental health resources available for farmers, they mostly target the owner-operators. Not kids. 'We must also consider the well-being of spouses and children on the farm,' Rudolphi says. 'The agricultural environment prides itself on looking out for one another. We should harness that shared responsibility to foster a sense of community and support for young people. This involves engaging with rural schools, teachers, coaches, and agricultural youth leaders in mental health awareness initiatives.'"

National Newspaper Week begins Oct. 1; Americans depend on newspapers to stay informed

Benjy Hamm
Note: This column was written in recognition of National Newspaper Week, which is Oct. 1-7

By Benjy Hamm
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky

Nearly 220 million American adults regularly turn to their local newspapers for news and information they need to stay informed, feel more connected to their neighbors and improve their lives and communities.

That readership number is based on a recent national study by independent research firm Coda Ventures for the America’s Newspapers organization.

Most likely, the number of readers could be higher. Many people who say they receive news on their phone or from social media instead of newspapers fail to understand that the sources for those stories are often journalists at U.S. newspapers.

We sometimes take the work of journalists for granted, but those who work at newspapers are filling an important role in the health of our communities and country.

Everyone, even nonreaders, benefits from the work of journalists. News coverage has led to improvements in food safety, decreases in traffic and plane fatalities, better care for veterans and nursing home patients, support for victims of natural disasters, and exposure to all sorts of wrongdoing.

I have long loved this quotation by Frank Batten Sr., a media visionary and former chairman of Landmark Communications, who said about journalists and newspapers: “Our calling was never more important. We have the capacity to inform, to enlighten, to awaken and to inspire. We have the opportunity to enrich the lives of thousands of people every day.”

Across the United States, journalists and other newspaper employees are serving their communities and democracy every day by informing, enlightening, awakening and inspiring millions of readers.

The news they provide is accessed in many forms. Many people still use the word newspaper as the all-encompassing term for those various forms, but now news is delivered news through websites, social media, electronic editions, email alerts and newsletters, in addition to the traditional printed paper.

Those delivery methods have changed significantly in recent years. But one thing remains constant: Americans depend on the trusted news coverage provided by newspapers.

The study by Coda Ventures, based on surveys of 5,000 people, revealed that respondents ranked local newspapers and their websites as the most accurate sources of original news reporting. The results also listed the top five reasons Americans seek out local news – to stay informed, feel connected in the community, decide where they stand on local issues, find places and things to do, and talk to other people about community news.

Survey respondents consistently said they prefer newspapers in print and digital formats over other media as their main source for news and information important to them.

They like the fact that newspapers use different ways to deliver their news stories to various audiences. The survey showed that people who are 39 and younger listed social media as the No. 1 way they prefer to access news, though they also like news websites and email alerts. People in the 40 to 74 age group ranked news websites as their top choice, followed by email alerts and the printed newspaper. Those 75 and older prefer the print edition but also like news websites and email alerts.

Based on the frequent reports of struggles within the news business, many people might be surprised to learn that newspapers and their digital offerings reach so many readers. Those struggles, primarily financial, are real and affect many media companies, not just newspapers. But the new ways of delivering news allow newspapers to reach even larger audiences.

Frank Batten might not have anticipated the widespread use of the internet and social media when he first made his comments in the 1980s, but his words remain true today.

Newspapers and their dedicated employees continue to inform, enlighten, awaken and inspire – enriching their communities and the lives of millions of people who benefit from their work every day.

Op-Ed: Improving news coverage -- a news site publishes an indictment of the losses caused by cutbacks

The Ithaca Voice is a nonprofit digital newsroom in Ithaca, N.Y., pop. 32, 000, in Tompkins County. The op-ed below was written by the Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board and shared on the newspaper's front page.

When was the last time you read, heard or watched a local news report on one of these issues in the community?
-- What's the status of the 20+ years of repeated efforts to clean up the lead and arsenic contamination at the popular hiking and pet walking trail at Ithaca Falls? How does that contamination impact visitors?
-- Why does Tompkins County's polio vaccination rate lag the state's vaccination rate and several other counties in the region?
-- Who are your school district, municipal, county, state or federal representatives? Do you know what actions they took on a public issue in the last 6 months?

Tompkins County, New York
(Wikipedia map)
If you're uncertain of any answer, you're not alone. News coverage on significant local issues has been shrinking, making it more difficult for Tompkins County residents to be well-informed about their communities while eroding community cohesion and deepening polarization. The local pattern is the same in both New York and the nation.

The rapid growth in free or inexpensive digital advertising made available by tech giants eroded the ability of local news providers to generate revenue to pay their journalists, ad salespersons, marketing staff and administrative employees. In 2004, New York had 62 daily papers and 439 weekly papers. By 2019, these numbers declined to 54 dailies and 249 weeklies. With those closings, newspaper newsroom employment shrunk 25 percent. The loss was not offset by more jobs appearing in local and regional TV, radio and digital news operations.

Locally, The Ithaca Journal's newsroom staff reductions illustrate the sobering metrics. Twenty years ago, the Journal had two dozen full-time reporters, sports writers, editors, photographers and clerks. Another six freelance writers produced weekly "town talk" columns on every town in Tompkins County. The Journal's last full-time staff reporter resigned in the spring and was replaced in August when the Journal contracted with a freelance reporter to handle the news coverage that nearly 30 full-time staffers and freelancers once produced.

Meanwhile, The Ithaca Times and The Ithaca Voice face a daunting task of covering local news with their small and dedicated staffs of young journalists. The Voice launched in 2014, as a web-based nonprofit, local news provider. Its website lists one editor and three full-time reporters on its staff, while a handful of freelance contributors supplement its coverage. The Ithaca Times weekly newspaper, its website ithaca.com, and its Finger Lakes Community Newspapers of nine small weeklies lists two managing editors and a sports reporter. Tompkins Weekly, WHCU, WRFI and a few other news outlets have small local operations and some regional media like WSKG cover news across many counties. All face challenges in providing community news.

The impact of fewer journalists working in Ithaca has been a sharp decrease in the regular coverage of local government, school boards and issues as important as health, economic development and public safety. There's less access to information that brings communities together, like sports coverage, highlighting student achievements, and recognizing when someone passes away. Getting key public information to residents has become more difficult for local governments as leaner local media budgets reduce their supply of community news. In the absence of media coverage, newsmakers such as politicians and local governments try to fill in the information gap, often with limited resources.

The Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board has been discussing this trend, and we are increasingly alarmed to see important stories not being told. Less access to local news leaves community members lacking the information they need to participate in the political process, hold government and powerful private actors accountable and engage in civic activities from voting to volunteering.

Legislation in both Albany and Washington has proposed ways to improve community news coverage. Among those:
  • A tax deduction for personal subscriptions to eligible local news organizations might incentivize more individuals to pay for local journalism and boost the revenues of local outlets.
  • Tax offsets for eligible production expenditures incurred by newsrooms could help defray the costs associated with original reporting.
Elected leaders should consider resolutions supporting such legislation, as well as ways to bolster resources available to support local news coverage — but governments aren't the only ones with skin in the game.

Local businesses and organizations should also consider increasing advertising efforts in local publications, and residents who have the means can consider donating to local nonprofit news outlets such as The Ithaca Voice, WSKG, or WRFI. Local philanthropies should consider inviting news providers to apply for funds to increase and sustain their coverage. Also, our community's media should explore collaborations to improve local news coverage.

In the coming months, PIAB will examine ways our community can foster better coverage of major public issues and their impact on residents as well as improve basic news about public safety, governmental actions and local events. We're inviting community ideas to increase and improve public information efforts. If you have ideas, please share them with us at tcgov.co/piabideas or email pubinfo@tompkins-co.org.

The Tompkins County Public Information Advisory Board includes Chair Larry Roberts, Secretary Patty Poist, Bruce Estes, Elizabeth Graeper-Thomas, and Kate Supron. Legislature Liaison Amanda Champion and Tompkins County Communications Director Dominick Recckio assist the board.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Election official turnover is nearly 40% in some states, new report shows. Workers quit to avoid 2024 conflicts.

Election official have left their jobs to avoid 2024
conspiracies. (Photo by Elliott Stallion, Unsplash)
Underpaid, overworked, and sometimes threatened or harassed, many election officials have left their jobs rather than face the 2024 election cycle. Some states face a dramatic shift of experienced workers leaving and taking their expertise with them. "In some battleground states, more than half of the local election administrators will be new since the last presidential race, according to a new report from the democracy-focused advocacy group Issue One," reports Miles Parks of NPR

Overall election official turnover is "notoriously hard to come by — but experts have been saying for years that they worried about a mass exodus driven by the polarized environment," Parks reports. The Issue One report focused on 11 western states and "found that the problem of voting official turnover is particularly acute in the region's swing states, where conspiracies have flourished. . . . More than 160 chief local election officials — nearly 40% of the region's officials — have left their positions. Experts say they expect to see a similar trend in other states as well, as recent polling and NPR's own reporting have indicated many people in these roles fear for their or their colleagues' safety."

Marine veteran Josh Daniels, a Republican who became an election official in Utah County, Utah, in 2019, "grew to love the complex minutiae that went into running an election. . . . But when the time came to decide whether to run for reelection in 2022, Daniels decided against it. Voting conspiracies had become too much to take." Daniels told Parks: "It was just exhausting. It really was like "The Twilight Zone" of government service. "Groundhog Day". . . every day you wake up, and it's the same thing over and over again. It doesn't matter how much information and data you share; it doesn't matter how many concerns you answer. There will just be a new group of critics to again dish out the new conspiracy of the day."

With so much knowledge walking out the door and inexperienced officials filling the gap, a new problem surfaces -- the number of human errors new employees make while learning their roles. "Issue One found that the officials who left took with them more than 1,800 years of experience. . . . New voting officials make more mistakes than seasoned ones. So the exodus brought on by election conspiracies may beget more conspiracies, as first-time honest mistakes are treated like evidence of malfeasance."

Much of America's prosperity depends on aquifers, which are failing from overuse, according to NYT report

Climate change contributes to aquifer failure.
(The New York Times illustration)
Part of America's beauty and bounty builds on the riches of its aquifers, which are now damaged and depleted, "revealing a crisis that threatens American prosperity," report Mira Rojanasakul, Christopher Flavelle, Blacki Migliozzi and Eli Murray of The New York Times. Their report is the first of a series on the country's disappearing water. "The Times analyzed water levels reported at tens of thousands of sites and found nearly half the sites have declined significantly over the past 40 years as more water has been pumped out than nature can replenish. . . . In the past decade, four of every 10 sites hit all-time lows. And last year was the worst yet."

Groundwater depletion is so extreme some sources may never return to their previous levels. "Many of the aquifers that supply 90% of the nation's water systems, and which have transformed vast stretches of America into some of the world's most bountiful farmland, are being severely depleted," the Times reports. The investigative team "conducted a months-long examination of groundwater depletion, interviewing more than 100 experts, traveling the country and creating a comprehensive database using millions of readings from monitoring sites. . . . . Huge industrial farms and sprawling cities are draining aquifers that could take centuries or millenniums to replenish themselves if they recover at all."

The crisis is broad and deep -- crisscrossing the nation in varying levels of water loss with no solution in sight. "Groundwater loss is hurting breadbasket states like Kansas, where the major aquifer beneath 2.6 million acres of land can no longer support industrial-scale agriculture. Corn yields have plummeted. If that decline were to spread, it could threaten America's status as a food superpower," the Times reports. "Fifteen hundred miles to the east, in New York State, overpumping is threatening drinking-water wells on Long Island, the birthplace of the modern American suburb and home to working-class towns as well as the Hamptons and their beachfront mansions."

"One of the biggest obstacles is that the depletion of this unseen yet essential natural resource is barely regulated," according to the report. To get at real groundwater data, investigators included "Readings from sophisticated satellites that can estimate groundwater changes from space by measuring subtle shifts in gravity. . . Recent data from those satellites, which are operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and funded by NASA, also show aquifers in decline. . . . Two major California and Arizona aquifers recently matched or exceeded their lowest levels since NASA began collecting data two decades ago."

Sandwiched between hotter temperatures caused by climate change and the crops needing more water to contend with the heat, "farmers and towns have an incentive to pump more groundwater to make up the difference," the Times reports. Warigia Bowman, a law professor and water expert at the University of Tulsa, told the Times: "From an objective standpoint, this is a crisis. . . .There will be parts of the U.S. that run out of drinking water."

Upset over unexpected wage cuts, some rural postal carriers want to decertify their union

Many rural carrier took an unexpected cut in pay.
(Photo by Victória Kubiaki, Unsplash)
Vexed with substantial pay decreases since May, many rural mail carriers are frustrated with their union, with some carriers pushing for de-unionization from the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, reports Jarod Facundo of The American Prospect. "The U.S. Postal Service adopted a new payment system known as the Rural Route Evaluated Compensation System, reducing base pay for almost two-thirds of rural letter carriers. . . . Angered by what they view as the NRLCA's inability to protect their interests, a growing number of rural letter carriers inside the union are running a signature collection campaign to decertify the NRLCA's status. . . . They call themselves 'Decertify NRLCA.'"

Part of the frustration is what carriers were told the new system would mean versus what actually happened. Jamie King, a rural letter carrier from Florida, told Facundo, "I took a $15,000 pay cut overnight. King described how the NRLCA made initial predictions of. . . .route changes that downplayed the true total number of hours that would be cut for most rural letter carriers. . . ." and that "the implementation was worse than what they were led to believe."

The new pay system was negotiated through binding arbitration, which means decertification "faces legal challenges and unclear hopes about what would come next," Facundo reports. "But it is an expression of discontent with the union leadership's handling of the pay cuts, which has led some to question the value of the organization."

The NRLCA's leadership has "seized upon the legal ambiguity of whether decertification is feasible. In a late-August Facebook post, the NRLCA told its membership: … We take any and all attacks against this union seriously, and we will not sit idly by to see what happens,'" Facundo reports. "The NRLCA's countereffort has appeared to quell the Decertify movement's momentum. According to King, the most frustrating aspect has been how the NRLCA has responded to decertification threats." He told Facundo: "Instead of addressing our concerns and offering empathy and a solution, [the NRLCA is] only telling members what they will lose if they decertify the union. They have offered no solutions and instead lie and downplay the matter."

A first-of-its-kind energy storage system is coming to Wisconsin; it could serve as a model for others

This is a demonstration facility in Italy. Wisconsin's dome will
be a larger version. (Alliant Energy courtesy photo via WPR)

Storing carbon dioxide to use later as energy is environmentally responsible, but can it be done on a larger scale? It can. Columbia County, Wisconsin, will house a first-of-its-kind energy storage system that "could serve as a blueprint for wide-scale deployment across the country," reports Joe Schulz of Wisconsin Public Radio. "Alliant Energy announced it received a $30 million federal grant for a 200-megawatt-hour storage system. . . . According to the Department of Energy, the project would be the first to demonstrate the carbon dioxide-based energy storage system at a commercial scale."

Schultz explains, "The Columbia Energy Storage Project will offer 10 hours of energy storage capacity by compressing carbon dioxide, or CO2, gas into a liquid, Alliant said. When energy is needed, the system converts the liquid into gas to power a turbine that generates electricity. The gas will be stored in what utility officials call an 'energy dome.'"

Columbia County, Wisconsin
(Wikipedia map)
The energy dome does not rely on wind or sun to provide power. Mark Anderson, director of the Thermal-Hydraulics Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, "Energy storage systems will continue to be needed as clean energy sources become more widely used," Schultz reports. 

The project is expected to be fully operational by 2026, when the current coal-fired Alliant Columbia Energy plant is scheduled for retirement. "Mike Bremel, director of engineering and customer solutions for Alliant, said the retirement of the coal facility is one of the reasons the utility chose Columbia County to host the storage facility." Bremel told Schultz: "[We are] optimizing the use of that location and the access to the transmission grid for storage of the renewable energy, so it's consistent with our transition from coal to renewable energy."

The return of gray wolves to national forests requires strategies that can benefit humans and animals

Gray wolves are tracked with radio collars to help understand
 their habits. (California Fish and Wildlife photo via AP)
More than a century has passed since gray wolves have hunted and howled in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, but a pack recently returned, and a plan for humans and grays to live together means research and understanding. "Yet the sudden appearance of the so-called Tulare Pack is already generating friction among Central Valley livestock owners and the managers of ambitious fuel reduction projects underway in and around areas of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument scorched by recent wildfires," reports Louis Sahagun of the Los Angels Times. "In a recent letter, a group of environmentalists urged the Forest Service to suspend post-fire logging operations in the region until it can 'determine whether any activities associated with those and other projects could adversely affect the wolves.'"

Environmentalists emphasize that the return of wolves will help the forest's ecosystem. "Their presence is vital to restoring the rhythms of life among countless other animal and plant species that evolved with them," Sahagun writes. "The trouble is, wolves also kill livestock, raising concerns among ranchers." Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen's Association, told Sahagun: "We believe it will be important for state wildlife officials to put a radio collar on one or more wolves in that pack to better understand how they are behaving. . . . We fully realize how risky and difficult that will be, but we need wolf data to help protect livestock and wolves." Sahagun adds, "So far, there have been no confirmed livestock kills in the region."

The return of the gray wolf to Giant Sequoia brings to mind a larger discussion of predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions coexisting with humans for the betterment of both. "For conservation scientists like me, it also underscored that Americans have a fraught relationship with large carnivores," writes Neil Carter for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. "My colleagues and I have proposed a federal policy that, when combined with other initiatives, could allow for sustainable coexistence between people and carnivores."

"Major state and federal government efforts are underway to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Northern Cascades and gray wolves to Colorado. These are places where stable populations of these animals have not roamed for many decades," Carter explains. "To manage these risks, people too often default to the widespread killing of carnivores. In 2021 alone, the Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services euthanized nearly 70,000 bears, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and foxes.

Foxes eat disease-spreading rodents.
(Photo by Tim Dalling, Unsplash)
Coexistence with carnivores is possible and "can benefit both carnivores and people," Carter adds. "For example, the presence of wolves and mountain lions lowers the frequency of vehicle collisions with deer, saving money and human lives. Foxes, likewise, reduce an abundance of small mammals that carry ticks, likely reducing cases of Lyme disease in humans. Sea otters maintain healthy kelp forests that support tourism and fisheries and capture carbon."

"A federal policy like the one my colleagues and I propose that sets goals for sharing spaces with carnivores could allow for coexistence between people and carnivores while also recognizing local priorities," Carter reports. "A federal policy could allow states and communities to try out high-risk, high-reward initiatives, like Pay for Presence programs. . . . A federal coexistence policy could also support community outreach and education programs. Teaching communities about carnivore behavior can help them to avoid potentially risky situations, like jogging with a dog or leaving children unattended in mountain lion territory. . . . By reducing negative encounters, these programs can enhance the adoption of nonlethal coexistence strategies, foster more positive attitudes toward carnivores and share the benefits carnivores offer humans."