Friday, November 03, 2023

'Too many babies are dying in the United States'; infant mortality rates rise for the first time in 20 years

The U.S. infant mortality rate is twice that of other
developed countries. (Photo by Jill Sauve, Unsplash)
Over the past two decades, American medicine has made dramatic advances in cardiac care, obesity medicines and organ transplant success rates, but in a sad marker, "the death rate for babies rose for the first time in 20 years," reports Liz Essley Whyte of The Wall Street Journal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The rate of babies dying in the U.S. increased 3% from 2021 to 2022. . . . The rate increased from 5.44 infant deaths for every 1,000 births to 5.6 in 2022, a statistically significant uptick."

U.S. infant mortality rate is strikingly high at "double that of many developed countries," Whyte notes. "Globally, baby death rates have fallen for decades, though five countries that have reported their rates this year recorded increases for last year. . . . The death rate for women who give birth has also been rising in the U.S. Researchers who study the issues said the pair of trends indicate more women giving birth are facing challenges getting proper care."

Arjumand Siddiqi, a University of Toronto professor who studies population health, told Whyte, "The U.S. is falling behind on a basic indicator of how well societies treat people. In a country as well-resourced as the U.S., with as much medical technology and so on, we shouldn't have babies dying in the first year of life. That should be super rare, and it's not."

American medicine needs to do the basics
better. (Photo by Filip Mroz, Unspash)
The maternal-infant relationship has complex layers, but it begins with how healthy the mother is. "Complications during pregnancy was one of the fastest-rising causes of infant death, the CDC said, along with dangerous bacterial infections called sepsis," Whyte explains. Researchers cited premature births as one likely contributor to the increase, along with poor nutrition throughout pregnancy.

The CDC reports infant-mortality rates every three months. "Its latest report compared birth and death certificate data from 2021 to provisional data from 2022," Whyte adds. "The report didn't give reasons why the rate was increasing, and researchers said they would have to do more studies to determine the root causes." Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, chief executive of the infant and maternal health nonprofit March of Dimes, told Whyte: "We, as a developed country, should be doing some of the basics better. Too many babies are dying in the United States."

More than 100 species of birds will have their names changed -- no longer to be named for humans

The new bird names will help birders identify species.
(Photo by Eric Wengert, Alamy)
In the late 1600s, Shakespeare's starry-eyed Juliet pondered, "What's in a name?" It's a shame that a more reasonable person (instead of Romeo) didn't respond with, "A whole heck of a lot."

Unless one is dazed or tased by love, names matter, even for birds. "The American Ornithological Society has committed to replacing all bird names derived from people to redress the recognition of historical figures with racist or colonial pasts," reports Katrina Miller of The New York Times. These names, the society said in a statement, "can be harmful, exclusive and detract from 'the focus, appreciation or consideration of the birds themselves.'"

In all, the change will rename "more than 100 avian species across the Americas," including "birds such as Audubon's shearwater, a bird found off the coast of the southeastern United States, will no longer have a name acknowledging John James Audubon, a famous bird illustrator and a slave owner who adamantly opposed abolition . . . . The Scott's oriole, a black-and-yellow bird inhabiting the Southwest and Mexico, will also receive a new moniker, which will sever ties to the U.S. Civil War general Winfield Scott, who oversaw the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples in 1838 that eventually became the Trail of Tears."

"'We're really doing this to address some historic wrongs,'" said Judith Scarl, the executive director of the American Ornithological Society. Scarl added that the change would help "engage even more people in enjoying and protecting and studying birds." Miller reports. "Advocates of this change believe that many English common names for birds are 'isolating and demeaning reminders of oppression, slavery and genocide,' according to a petition in 2020 that was addressed to the American Ornithological Society. The petition was written by Bird Names For Birds, an initiative founded by two ornithologists."

Some birders were uncertain about the changes. Jeff Marks, an ornithologist at the Montana Bird Advocacy, told Miller, "I'm not super enthusiastic about it, but neither am I super disappointed about it. . . . We'll lose a little bit of knowledge about some key people in the history of ornithology, and that saddens me. But maybe in the scheme of things, that's just not that big of a deal."

Jordan Rutter, one of the founders of Bird Names For Birds, "said the petition was inspired by what became a momentous encounter in Central Park in 2020, when a white woman falsely reported to police that Christian Cooper, a Black birder, was threatening her," Miller reports. "The Central Park encounter. . . spurred an avalanche of similar initiatives in the sciences against the backdrop of a nationwide racial reckoning." Cooper's fame has led him to host a National Geographic birding show. He told Miller: "There's no reason to have a person's name attached to a bird, because it doesn't tell you anything about the bird."

This newspaper's front page was left blank to show readers how much they would miss local news reports

No news isn't always good news. (The Associated Press photo)
Sometimes, less is more, and other times, saying nothing says a lot. A local paper in Marblehead, Massachusetts, took the latter to heart. "The non-profit published and delivered its weekly free broadsheet . . . with a surprise twist: under the newspaper's masthead, the front page was completely blank," reports the Connecting newsletter, which reports on activities involving The Associated Press and its current and former employees. "The 11/1 edition of the Marblehead Current ran with a blank front page, demonstrating the importance of supporting local non-profit news."

Current founder and co-chairman Ed Bell, who retired as chief of the Boston bureau of the Associated Press after 50 years in print and broadcast news, said, "As a guy who has ink running through my blood, publishing a blank page of newsprint wasn't easy. But it's time to make the point of how urgent it is that we support local journalism."

The blank front page marks the beginning of the newspaper's fundraising effort, which runs through Dec. 31.

This photo is part of the Current's "Cuzner in Nature"
feature. Rick Cuzner is a local photographer.
Should readers zip over to the Current's website, they don't find a blank page. Instead, they find a robust local paper with civic news, vibrant local happenings, and even a local photo of a rare short-eared owl, an endangered species in the state, at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Virginia Buckingham, president of the board of the Marblehead News Group, which publishes the Current, supported the blank-page surprise. She said: "Two newspapers close every week in this country on average. It's a tough time for community news, but there's hope. The non-profit model can reverse the negative trend, but only if people support us with donations, much like they do non-profit TV and radio stations."

Once a farmer, always a farmer -- even at 95 years old

Pflughaupt's favorite saying is 'One more year.'
Pflughaupt family photo via Farm Progress

At 95 years old, Bob Pflughaupt is still farming, and although he lets someone else do a lot of the work, he's still growing corn and teaching others about agriculture, reports Jennifer Carrico of Farm Progress. Pflughaupt was born and raised in Linn County, Iowa, where his parents and four siblings worked to raise corn, soybeans, oats, hay, chickens, hogs, dairy cattle and beef cattle."

Commenting on how different farming life was compared to present times, Pflughaupt told Carrico: "Back then we had a little bit of everything to take care of the farm. We also had a garden and orchard. The only thing we went to town for was sugar and salt. . . . And that's the way it was for most people. We had fresh eggs and milk, and butchered pigs or cattle for our meat. We were very self-sufficient."

Even though Pflughaupt has moved into an assisted living facility in Marion County, Iowa, he's living proof that "you can't take the farm out of the farmer." He told Carrico, "I’m too young to retire. I have one more year of farming in me." His family has helped him continue doing what he loves. He still gets picked up by a family member regularly to go to the fields and check on the crops. His daughter Jan also told Carrico, "We planted eight corn seeds outside of his window and cared for it while it grew. The other residents were very interested in what was happening. Many didn’t know there was a difference between sweet corn that they eat and field corn. We used it as an educational opportunity.”

The family's DeKalb dealer even provided "a seed-corn sign to add to the test plot. The seed was the same hybrid planted on his farm," Carrico writes. Pflughaupt told her: "I had hoped the corn plants here would do as good as the ones at the farm. I think everything looks good. Corn is certainly a lot more productive now than it was when I planted my last crop out there several years ago. Back then, a bumper crop was 50 bushels per acre. We planted half the number of seeds they are [planting] now. Farming keeps changing. I never thought I’d see 200 bushels per acre.”

Finally Friday quick hits: Top rural restaurants, the 70-ingredient sandwich; farmer side hustles, Snoopy therapy

Amano’s in Caldwell, Idaho. L.A. Birria Tacos, left,
(braised beef & quesillo); right: Chef Salvador Alamilla
What's for dinner tonight? Consider one of these gems, or take a peek at their menus for inspiration. Here's the 13 Best Restaurants in Rural America 2023.

To help fill in money gaps, many farmers find creative ways to bring in additional income. "Many turn to the online resale market to buy items for cheaper prices or a place to sell quality items for extra money when economic times are uncertain," reports Marion Kirkpatrick of RFD-TV News, which covers rural America. "While it takes hard work and dedication to pick up this 'side hustle,' it can be a great outlet for farmers and rural Americans to help make ends meet." Here are six things farmers can sell online.

While research into beef consumption isn't always encouraging for meat eaters, it can be good to stay informed on what science is telling us now. Even if we're still going to have steak tonight.
Illustration by TCD, Prod.DB, Alamy via The Atlantic

If you're overwhelmed by extreme weather, war, corruption, elections and life in general, reading Snoopy can help, advises Elise Hannum of The Atlantic. "Snoopy can’t help but feel overwhelmed in a tumultuous world. Sound familiar?"

As the world’s beaches and oceans have become one giant ashtray, research has accelerated on what many are calling a global crisis: cigarette butts, reports Jude Isabella of Hakai magazine. "Researchers have published a number of studies in 2023 on the problem of cigarette butt littering, from a review of studies on environmental contamination to a global analysis of the crisis. In fact, the number of studies is on the rise, with researchers publishing twice as many in 2022 compared with 2021."

Yes, it’s back. It always comes back. (McDonald's photo)
The strange and surprising journey of McDonald's McRib begins in a Nebraska lab and ends with a 70-ingredient sandwich. "Roger Mandigo is an emeritus University of Nebraska animal science professor credited with the technology that made the McRib possible," reports Peggy Lowe of NPR. "And here's its story, straight from the meat scientist's mouth." For fans, the McRib is coming back to select restaurants in November 2023, reports Mary Walrath-Holdridge of USA Today.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Food waste accounts for 8 to 10% of global greenhouse gases. Prevention starts with a few steps.

Make perishable goods visible.
(Photo by G. Travato, Unsplash)
At-home food waste is a hidden contributor to climate change, and while some waste is a part of life, most adults can take simple steps to tackle the problem beginning today, writes Alexandra Frost of The Atlantic. "Every step of the modern food-production process generates greenhouse gases. . . . As food rots in landfills and open dumps, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations, food loss and waste account for about 8 to 10% of global greenhouse-gas emissions."

Step one, before shopping, take a quick inventory, and if you're short on time, take a photo of your refrigerator and pantry. Once you're at the store, keep in mind what is realistic. Frost writes, "Sustainability consultant Ashlee Piper recommends shopping not for your 'aspirational life' but for the one you are actually living: If, realistically, you're never going to make your own pasta or pack gourmet lunches for your kids, don't shop for those meals."

Step two, once home from the market, put highly perishable, fresh food in the most visible places. Julia Rockwell, a San Francisco mom and sustainability expert, "recommends an 'Eat Me' station, whether it's a basket, a bowl, a tray, or a section of the refrigerator, which she says is especially helpful for teenagers, inclined as they are to 'go full claws into the fridge.'" Frost adds. "And whatever you're feeding your kids, experts repeatedly told me, you should probably be feeding them less. How many blueberries does your pickiest kid really eat at the breakfast table?"

Step three, cleaning and organizing your refrigerator can help your sanity and the planet. "If you're cleaning out your fridge and pantry strictly according to expiration dates, stop: If a food is past its expiration date but looks and smells fine, it probably is; most of the time, expiration dates are an indicator of quality, not safety," Frost explains. "Deli meats and unpasteurized cheeses are notable exceptions. . . . Brush up on the language of food packaging — 'best by' is just a suggestion, while 'expiration' is the date the manufacturer has decided when quality will begin to decline."

Step four, give your family some grace -- don't give up because, once again, you face black bananas at the back of the refrigerator. It's a process. Frost adds, "I want my kids to understand that our food comes from somewhere and that not eating it has consequences. That doesn’t mean guilting them for not liking dragon fruit, or demanding that they clean their plate at every meal, or scaring them about climate change. It’s more like bringing them along, helping them participate in a family project with planetary implications."

Campaigning with rural policy messages could 'move the needle' in swing states, a new poll suggests

First page of poll results via The Daily Yonder
For campaigns looking to attract swing voters, rural Americans offer a surprising opportunity to "move the needle" in battleground states, a new poll by the Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners suggests. "The findings provide a potential new and more effective roadmap for candidates vying for seats in state legislatures, Congress, and the White House ahead of the 2024 elections," reports Will Wright of The Daily Yonder. "The survey suggests as many as 37% of rural voters are swing, blue-collar voters who could be swayed by the right policy proposals and messaging."

Pollsters for The Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners, a Democratic research firm, "interviewed a weighted sample of 500 likely voters in rural zip codes in 12 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, and Georgia," Wright explains. "They asked rural Americans how they feel about their place in the economy and how their feelings intersect with modern politics. . . . While partisanship remains strong among the rural electorate, voters were aligned on many of their chief concerns: affordable housing, the high cost of food, and corporate greed."

Overall, the poll indicated three primary points of concern: "Lowering prices; bringing good-paying jobs to local communities; and a populist message focused on corporate greed — received such broad support that they rivaled voters’ agreement on core values like family and freedom," Wright reports. 

Among those polled, "(Joe) Biden was viewed unfavorably by 66% of respondents, while (Donald) Trump was viewed unfavorably by 48%. And while the rising cost of living was the top issue for people aligned with both parties and for independents, Republicans were also more likely to put that as their top issue." Wright reports. "Pollster Celinda Lake said the poll revealed the potential for Democrats to perform much better in rural areas than they might otherwise believe. . . . Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, said the effectiveness of policy messages shows a path forward. . . . While many candidates focus heavily on suburban areas where voters are viewed as more persuadable, the polling suggests rural areas may be well worth the time and money."

Read complete poll results here.

When to get which vaccine and how to get insurance to pay for it has some Americans ditching vaccines

Illustration by Molly Ferguson, Stat
If it's too hard to understand or to get done, many people will opt out -- as is the case with adults attempting to get vaccines.

"Alison Buttenheim was floored by a sign she saw in her doctor’s office when she went to get the first jab of the two-dose shingles vaccine to protect her against painful flare-ups of varicella zoster," reports Helen Braswell of Stat. "The notice read: 'Medicare patients cannot receive Tdap or zoster vaccines here. They need to obtain [them] at their pharmacy. If they receive it here, they need to pay out of pocket.' In this instance, patients could receive vaccines covered by Medicare as treatment, but not as a preventative measure. For instance, if a person stepped on a nail, Medicare would pay for their tetanus shot; however, if a patient is getting a tetanus booster to maintain protection, Medicare would not cover it.

Buttenheim, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania who studies vaccine acceptance and hesitancy, "knows that any amount of difficulty in the immunization process can deter people from getting vaccinated. She couldn’t believe her eyes," Branswell explains. "To stay abreast of what to get and when and where to get it almost requires would-be vaccine recipients to have advanced degrees. Buttenheim recently found herself shelling out $160 for her latest Covid booster. She told Branswell, "We’re absolutely making it too hard."

Branswell reports, "Some of that may be due to vaccine hesitancy but more of it is likely due to the sheer difficulty of knowing what to get, when to get it, and how to get insurance coverage for the various shots, said Saad Omer, a vaccine expert who is dean of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health at the University of Texas Southwestern." Omer told Branswell: “Beyond the cacophony of pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine arguments on X (formerly know as Twitter), most of the country doesn’t actively think about vaccines, period."

For centuries, the Cherokee Indians have cultivated these lands, and now they're sharing that knowledge

Walker, in red, talks at a workshop on traditional Cherokee food
in South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Belleme, The New York Times)
Cherokee Indians have worked the land that borders the Great Smoky Mountains for centuries. From generation to generation they passed down knowledge and tradition, which they now are sharing with a broader community of learners," reports Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, many call this mountainous corner of North Carolina home. . . . Mx. Sampson and Ms. Walker live in the town of Cherokee, N.C., within the Qualla Boundary, a 57,000-acre piece of land owned by their tribe. And they often host visitors: In recent years, non-Native people have shown a growing interest in Cherokee knowledge, culture and food."
Kituwah is considered sacred by all three Cherokee tribes, including
those based in Oklahoma. (Photo by Mike Belleme, The New York Times) 

Natalie Bogwalker, who runs an earth skills and carpentry school outside of Asheville, N.C, told Fortin, "There’s so many young people, and people of all ages, who really want to connect with a more earth-centered life." Fortin adds, "Walker [gives] workshops on traditional Cherokee food in South Carolina. Earth skills gatherings like these have been happening in the Southeast for a number of years but have only recently made a bigger effort to include Cherokee people and knowledge."

"The true heart of the community is called Kituwah, it was once a town and cultural center," Fortin writes, "Today, many Cherokee people farm at Kituwah, including Walker. The crops on her five-acre plot include corn, peppers, beans and sweet basil. . . .  surrounding terrain has lured hikers and hippies for decades, fostering a counterculture that still thrives in Asheville, about 50 miles east. . . . Asheville has also become a center of the Land Back movement, which prioritizes Native American knowledge and property claims."

The Cherokee have had to create ways to survive beyond farming. Tourism dollars made from roadside shops help pay the bills, "along with revenues from a casino that generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually," Fortin reports. Mary Crowe, 60, an activist who is campaigning to bestow a Cherokee name, Kuwohi, on the tallest peak of the Smoky Mountains, told Fortin: “Money talks. We learn that. But we also know that, no matter what, this land right here is priceless.”

As access to public records erodes, more records are deliberately concealed from the public

Successful efforts to obtain public records are
down 18%. (Photo by Wesley Tingey, Unsplash)
While Florida's change in public records access may be more dramatic than some, it marks "a steady erosion of public records laws in a number of states," report Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Route Fifty. "North Carolina’s budget bill, for example, recently included language that changes previous open records laws to exempt current and former legislators from any requirements to share documents they create while in office and to give lawmakers the power to decide whether a record should be made public, archived, destroyed or sold."

"The ability of people to get records that are supposed to be made publicly available has been 'deteriorating terribly,' according to David Cuillier, director of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida," Route Fifty reports. "In fact, a nonprofit organization called MuckRock, which consults with people and organizations in their efforts to get public records, has found that about 10 years ago such efforts were successful about half the time. Today, that’s down to about 18%." Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told Route Fifty: "There has been a consistent move to conceal more and more records from the public. Some states have done so at a different rate than others, but we see this in many of them.”

The lack of access isn't limited to journalists "who have historically been able to serve as watchdogs over government by making Freedom of Information Act requests to get the documents necessary to fully report an article," Barrett and Greene write. “Though journalists often use FOIA, the majority of requesters are not reporters." Michael Morisy, co-founder and chief executive officer of MuckRock, told Route Fifty: “In many places, they are commercial requesters, like businesses that need information in order to make informed proposals for procurement. Then there are think tanks and universities."

Often referred to as "sunshine laws," most states have open records laws, but they can be weakened through exemptions. Barrett and Greene explain: "This has been the case in Florida, which long had a reputation as one of the most open states in the country. Its first sunshine laws were enacted in 1909, one of the first such pieces of legislation in the country. That law has been chipped away with increasing speed since the mid-1990s, and today it has about 1,200 exemptions and at least a dozen more are added almost every year. Of course, some of the exemptions, like access to individuals’ Social Security numbers, make good sense, but many are far more troublesome, like those protecting the governor’s past travel records."

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Alabama newspaper reporter, publisher arrested and charged with revealing grand jury secrets

A publisher and reporter at an Alabama newspaper have been arrested and accused of illegally disclosing grand jury information about the local school district.

Atmore News Publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher were arrested on Oct. 27 by deputies from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. A Facebook post by the newspaper said that they were released on bonds of $10,000.

According to the post: “The charges against Digmon, also the District 6 representative on the Escambia County Board of Education, and Fletcher stem from an article published in the October 25 edition of Atmore News” about an investigation into “the possible misallocation or misappropriation of federal Covid money paid to seven former school system employees.

“That edition also contained a sidebar article reporting that Digmon’s phone and the phone of District 4 school board member Cindy Jackson had been seized by sheriff’s deputies, who served search warrants against the two, each of whom voted against a new contract for Superintendent of Education Michele McClung.”

Atmore News photo
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on local authorities to drop the charges immediately and investigate why the two were arrested. “They should not be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs and covering a matter of local interest, such as the allocation of school board funds,” said Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator. “Journalists play a crucial role in their local communities. Arresting them creates a chilling effect and is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Atmore News also reported that Veronica “Ashley” Fore, the county school system’s payroll and insurance bookkeeper, was arrested on similar charges, though the report stated “the reasons behind Fore’s arrest were not known.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “The charge of revealing grand jury secrets is a felony under Alabama Criminal Code Section 12-16-215, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ, and carries a penalty of between one to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000.”

In August, police officers raided the offices of the Marion County Record in Kansas and seized computers and other materials such as cell phones, accusing the newspaper of identity theft and unlawful use of a computer. The raid attracted national and international attention and was condemned by many journalists and free press advocates. 

The local county attorney later concluded that there was not enough evidence to warrant the raid, and a judge ordered the materials to be returned to the newspaper. The Record had been investigating the police chief’s employment history at the time of the raid, though police said that reporting was unrelated to their search. The police chief has since resigned his position.

National Trust for Local News is taking nonprofit newspaper journalism rural; more acquisitions are in the works

This is the author's latest Sustaining Rural Journalism column for Publishers' Auxiliary, the monthly newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

By Al Cross

Director emeritus, Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky

Nonprofit newspaper journalism, until now largely a feature of urban areas, is going rural – especially if the National Trust for Local News keeps up what it’s doing and plans to do.

“By December, we will be the fifth largest independent newspaper operator in the country,” among those that are not publicly traded or owned by hedge funds, the trust’s chief portfolio officer, Ross McDuffie, told the New England Newspaper and Press Association conference Oct. 19.

The trust recently bought 22 newspapers in Maine, most of them rural weeklies, and two years ago bought 24 papers along Colorado’s Front Range. McDuffie said in an interview that the trust plans to announce acquisitions in Georgia next month. The Knight Foundation recently gave the trust $5 million to create a newsroom in Macon, where McDuffie was publisher of the Macon Telegraph.

The trust says it is exploring opportunities in Kentucky, Montana and New Mexico, and wants to create 10 independent, state-level conservancies serving 475 counties and 20 million people in the next five years, with a goal of having one in every state. It says its fundamental purpose is to “keep local news in local hands.”

Ross McDuffie
At the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America in July, McDuffie said state-level nonprofits are “the most sustainable path forward for rural newsrooms.”

He told NENPA’s online meeting, “Our vision is to build and operate a federation of nonprofit subsidiaries that can sustain high-quality community journalism in small communities across the nation,” and to see that “established trusted news organizations thrive and remain grounded in the communities they serve.”

The trust gets its money to buy newspapers from donors, ranging from local individuals to major foundations. Those listed on its website include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations; in August the publication Semafor reported that OSF and Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, who is not listed on the trust’s website, “played a central role” in the Maine purchase. The trust denied that OSF committed money for the purchase, and OSF said its grants to the trust “have not included money for specific projects.”

The trust wouldn’t comment on Wyss (who earlier tried to buy Tribune Co.) and said it would tell more about the funders when its Maine advisory board was constituted in September. Asked Oct. 24 when that was going to happen, McDuffie said the board will make that decision and its membership still hasn’t been finalized, but “There is a real desire to have that constituted by the end of the year.”

The trust is still raising startup money in Maine. McDuffie told NENPA that the trust has raised $18.1 million for a two-year, $22 million “transformation” plan that includes unifying three operating businesses and expanding commercial printing, because “We believe in print and its longevity and its ability to serve an audience.”

He said the trust wants to “rejuvenate” its community newspapers, most of which are weeklies; “significantly boost” household penetration; and raise funds from “a very large and curious audience” in Maine. But one of his PowerPoint slides said the goal is to operate “as a sustainable news enterprise that does not require ongoing general support from philanthropy.”

As with for-profit enterprises, bigger is better, McDuffie said: “As we scale rapidly, we are uncovering more opportunities to leverage efficiencies of scale . . . that were only previously available to large media conglomerates or corporations,” such as buying power for paper, employee benefits, digital transformation and attracting talent.

He said the trust has raised $30 million across geographical, ideological, generational and programmatic lines that usually separate philanthropies, and “Funders are having a consistent and palpable reaction to our narrative within the first few minutes of hearing our story.”

Much of the philanthropy for local journalism has gone to startups, mostly online, but they are almost entirely based in urban areas, and McDuffie and others believe philanthropists need to look at funding the purchase of legacy newspapers to prevent the creation of news deserts in rural areas.

“With sufficient capital and expertise, conserving and transforming existing news sources IS an efficient way to strengthen democracy and support that civic and social fabric of small towns and rural communities,” he told NENPA, emphasizing the verb.

“These communities need reinvestment in the newsgathering teams that have spent decades of building trust and credibility,” he continued. “The creation of these state-level conservancies amalgamate legacy ownership into one operating model and unlock efficiencies of scale while keeping quality local news as the North Star of decision-making, as opposed to what’s happening at other larger, conglomerate, corporate media, where profits or shareholder value are typically the nexus of decision-making. It’s a difference of motivation.”

He said the need is greatest in the Southeast, where the trust estimates that 23 million people are at risk of losing their only local news provider. That’s more than half its estimate of 45 million in 1,424 counties – 45 percent of the nation’s counties. The estimates are based on counties with median household income below the national average.

The trust figures that in every state in the Southeast (including both Virginias), more than half of counties are at risk of becoming permanent news deserts. It estimates that is also the case in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada.

To the NENPA attendees, McDuffie rattled off the impact of news deserts, as established by research: higher taxes and borrowing costs, more government employees, decreased visibility of government decision-making, and more corruption and misuse of public funds.

And there’s a more fundamental threat. “There’s no democracy that can function without a shared understanding of what’s true and what’s not,” McDuffie said, in one of the pithier versions of that warning I have heard.

In an era of misinformation, including disinformation by political interests who want to control narratives to serve their own interests, news consumers will be skeptical of out-of-state outfits that use billionaires’ money to buy their local newspapers. So the trust will need a broad range of in-state funders, and boards that will help insulate the funders from the newsrooms.

McDuffie says its news outlets follow the transparency guidelines of the Institute for Nonprofit News, requiring website publication of donors of $5,000 or more, and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. He said funders know the trust’s editorial-independence and non-interference polices, and “Our local newsroom staff are the only people who will decide what stories to pursue, the timing of those stories, and their content.”

In a distrustful information environment, the trust’s newsrooms may have to prove that every day. But if they do, the nonprofit option is a promising long-term path for sustaining rural journalism.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma State University collaborate to increase number of Indigenous physicians

Charlee Dawson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is an OSU at
Cherokee Nation medical student. (Photo by Arielle Zionts, KFF Health)
Native American health care has been marked by glaring disparities in access and affordability for tribes when compared to other U.S. populations. In one dramatic solution, the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma State University worked together to build the only physician training program on a Native American reservation and affiliated with a tribal government: Oklahoma State University's College of Osteopathic Medicinereports Arielle Zionts of KFF Health News. Its first class will graduate in May 2024.

Located in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the program "aims to increase the number of Cherokee and other Indigenous physicians. It's also focused on expanding the number of doctors from all backgrounds who serve rural or tribal communities," Zionts reports. "Natasha Bray, an osteopathic physician and dean of the program, said most medical schools teach about barriers that can make it difficult for rural or Indigenous patients to get care and improve their health. But she said students in Tahlequah get to see these barriers firsthand by studying on the Cherokee Reservation and doing rotations in tiny communities and within facilities run by the federal Indian Health Service."

Overall, rural America doesn't have enough doctors now and not enough medical students seeking to enter rural medicine for future needs. For Native Americans, recruitment and retention numbers are abysmal. Zionts adds, "Rural residents make up about 14% of the U.S. population but fewer than 5% of incoming medical students, according to a study of 2017 data. Native Americans are 3% of the population but represented only 0.2% of those accepted to medical school for the 2018-19 school year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges."

In a refreshing contrast, the new medical school has been successful at recruiting rural and Native American students. "Half the 2020 medical students in Tahlequah are from rural areas, and nearly a quarter are Native American," Zionts reports. "Most of the Indigenous students are from Oklahoma tribes. Others come from tribes outside the state, including from Alaska and New Mexico. . . . Students said studying at the Tahlequah campus prepares them to work in tribal and rural areas in ways that might not be possible at other medical schools."

Zionts reports, "Native Americans have long received inadequate, discriminatory, and unethical health care. The Indian Health Service sterilized thousands of women in the 1960s and '70s. Today, the agency remains chronically underfunded. . . . This [history] has led some Indigenous people to mistrust the health care system. But several of the Tahlequah students said they've bonded with patients who share similar backgrounds."

Medical student Caitlin Cosby, a member of the Choctaw Nation, told Zionts, "It really comforts patients to know that someone like them is taking care of them." Zionts adds, "Cosby, 24, said she once had a patient who asked, 'Are you Native?' And I said, 'I am!'. . . The patient told Cosby he was proud of her."

Seeking more affordable housing, some rural families live with 'water scarcity' -- even hauling water to their homes

Pagosa Springs, Colorado; Aspen Springs
is 10 miles west. (Wikipedia map, adapted)
Even as U.S. water supplies are decreasing, demand is increasing, and for residents in more arid regions that means working to solve problems in places where housing and land prices are cheaper, but water is scarce. "Some of the most affordable land and housing in Archuleta County can be found in Aspen Springs, Colorado," reports Christi Bode of Rocky Mountain Community Radio. "By definition, Aspen Springs is considered one of the largest subdivisions in the United States. It is also one of the most rural. There is no central water system in this nine-square-mile area, located 10 miles west of downtown Pagosa Springs. . . . Functional roads, utilities, running water, and sewer services were never considered in the original development plans."

Aspen Springs was developed in the 1970s, but 50 years later, the area "still lacks the infrastructure to provide domestic water utilities," Bode explains. "To make living here feasible, a few households have sunk wells to tap into groundwater despite poor water quality and costly drilling fees. While it's hard to pinpoint the number of lots occupied due to the sparse, unregulated nature of the community, it is presumed most households haul water and manually fill a cistern. These large containers hold thousands of gallons of water and are typically stored underground and then pumped through the home's plumbing system."

Many Aspen Springs' families fetch their own water.
(Photo by Christi Bode, KSUT)
Bode reports on one family, Jordan and Kalie Caler, who purchased a home in Aspen Springs, knowing they would have to fetch their water. Kalie told her: "At first, we didn't have a truck to haul water, so that was one thing we definitely had to change quickly when we first moved here. We are pretty fortunate for how close we are to the water-filling stations. Some families do it every day just to stay on top of it so that they don't ever have to worry about running out, especially if you have a bigger family. For us, being a smaller family, we can get by just fine hauling it every week and a half, two weeks."

The water filling stations, as well as all the residential hook-ups in Archuleta County, rely "solely on surface water, or annual precipitation, in the form of snow from the Upper San Juan watershed," Bote adds. Their reliance on the watershed leaves water resources limited. "Growing population demands and a finite water supply, paired with aging infrastructure and new regulations, make it challenging to maintain the water system."

For now, the Calers always keep water conservation in mind. Kalie told Bode: "It just sits in the back of your mind, no matter what you're doing. It affects how you think about your surroundings around the house. We may never get a big lush garden here because of our land, but it definitely makes you think about the seasons, how the water's being used, and where it's going."

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

New speaker has worn his evangelical beliefs on his sleeve, but tries to assure moderates that they are part of his team

Rep. Mike Johnson at an American Legion event in his district
in 2021. (Photo by Henrietta Wildsmith, Shreveport Times)
New House Speaker Mike Johnson, who represents a 41-percent rural district in northwest Louisiana, "is known for placing his evangelical Christianity at the center of his political life and policy positions" and "has expressed skepticism about some definitions of the separation of church and state, placing himself in a newer cohort of conservative Christianity that aligns more closely with former President Donald J. Trump and that some describe as Christian nationalism," write Annie KarniRuth Graham and Steve Eder of The New York Times. "Now, as the most powerful Republican in Washington, he is in a position to inject it squarely into the national political discourse, where he has argued for years that it belongs."

But Johnson might not have been elected speaker without assurances he gave to Republican moderates from closely divided districts, suggest Marianna SotomayorJacqueline AlemanyLeigh Ann Caldwell and Theodoric Meyer of The Washington Post. They report that Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro of New York, a freshman from a swing district, "spoke with Johnson about his track record of remarks, op-eds and bills criticizing the LGBTQ+ community," and "Johnson reassured Molinaro that he would no longer represent just his conservative Louisiana district, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Instead, Johnson continued, he would represent the entire Republican conference and protect vulnerable swing-district incumbents like Molinaro. Molinaro went on to support Johnson on the House floor, and was chosen to escort Johnson into the chamber once he was elected, which vulnerable Republicans considered a sign that the ultra-conservative new speaker viewed them as part of the team."

Johnson's election may have also been a result of political practicality and expedience. Looking at the Nov. 17 deadline when government funding runs out, Republican moderates "made the calculation that a government shutdown would be worse for their reelections than a conservative speaker, especially in an election year when Trump is likely to be on the top of the Republican ticket and Democrats’ main focus — not Johnson," the Post reports. "The speed of Johnson’s election, which prevented spending much time poring over his record, have left some Republicans alarmed at what reporters and researchers have already unearthed."

But moderates and other "governing-focused Republicans" say Johnson's relative anyonymity is a good thing. One told the Post, “It’s a great opportunity. Think about it. He’s a blank canvas to everyone else. He has the capacity to now build up his reputation and I think he’s suited to kind of build it by holding us together, not forcing us into things we don’t want to do.” Such members "consider Johnson more malleable than McCarthy," the Post reports. "Johnson — who told Republicans he met with that he has an 'open heart, open mind' — knows he must decide how to spend his political currency and whether to use it to fulfill promises he’s made to lawmakers."

"Moderate House Republicans say they have no qualms about his voting record.," Ken Tran reports for USA Today. "They say Republicans still control the House with just a four-seat majority, which means each member can leverage an outsized amount of power with their vote. Just as ultraconservatives wielded power during Speaker Kevin McCarthy's era, moderates can use their votes as loud voices."

Rural Nebraskans look to the state for help with ailing emergency services

Rural Nebraskans often wait 25 minutes for an
ambulance. (Photo by Jonnica Hill, Unsplash)
Rural ambulance services have been short on volunteers for years, but in states like Nebraska, the situation has become so extreme with slowed response times and long drives to get medical care, residents are asking their state government to help, reports Adam Sanderford of the Nebraska Examiner. "Rural Nebraskans who wait longer than their urban peers for ambulances to arrive and then deliver a patient to a hospital told state lawmakers that many of their local emergency medical service providers need state help to stay afloat. . . . The interim study hearing sought by State Sen. Myron Dorn drew testimony from first responders and hospital groups. Many shared steps Nebraska could take to help smaller communities recruit, train and retain more emergency medical responders."

Volunteer fire and rescue squads are common in Nebraskan communities, but "many struggle to replace older helpers. Additionally, as the rural population ages, calls for service are up, adding pressure to the volunteers who remain," Sanderford writes. "Dorn said this means farmers and rural employees leave their jobs more often, making it harder to persuade a generation of young people to help. It's also harder to recruit volunteers from among younger adults who have children at home, busy with activities."

Nebraska is one of three states with the highest rates of rural residents living more than a 25-minute drive from where an ambulance is stationed, according to a national study by the Maine Rural Health Research Center. "More than 76% of the state's counties had some residents living at least that far from a station," Sanderford writes. "Dwyer told State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair that no state has all the answers for providing rural EMS service. However, he said, many states spend more on addressing the issues than Nebraska. . . . In 2022, South Dakota earmarked up to $20 million for emergency medical services. This money appears poised to boost rural EMS service, from EMT training to helping smaller communities replace old equipment and access telemedicine."

At the hearing, rural first responders "called on the state to pay upfront for training new potential emergency medical responders and medical technicians instead of making them or their volunteer departments seek reimbursement," Sanderford reports. "Angela Ling of the Nebraska Hospital Association stressed the importance of the state seriously discussing the impact on rural rescue squads of inadequate Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that leave EMS agencies fighting to make up the differences."

"One testifier, Wahoo EMS director Grant Anderson, called on the state to address in state law which levels of government should shoulder what costs of emergency medical services," Saderford writes. "Wahoo, pop. 4, 800, and Ashland, pop. 3,100, provide EMS services beyond the city limits, but only city taxpayers pay the costs beyond what fees cover. . . . Nebraska state law requires EMS service as an essential service, but it does not specify which level of government should fund the service." Commenting on the state's plans, Ling told Sanderford: “I do not have the solution but hope this is the beginning of a conversation.”

From shimmying up and down poles to deft rescues without 'gigs,' the International Lineman's Rodeo has it all

Spectators in Kansas watch the action.
(Photo by Elise Kirk, The Wall Street Journal)

These folks aren't your horse and pony cowboys -- they're "electric cowboys" who scramble up poles in search of glory at the International Lineman's Rodeo, "the Super Bowl of the electric-utility profession," reports Erin Ailworth of The Wall Street Journal. The Kansas event "drew hundreds to test their chops at timed events such as climbing a 40-foot wooden pole and rescuing a 6-foot-1-inch, 165-pound mannequin named Rodeo Joe."

Amid natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, a lineworker's job is defined by responding with skill and speed to restore power in times of extreme stress. The competition gives utility workers and their families a place to celebrate the profession and let off some steam. Ailworth writes, "Relatives flock to watch since rodeos are often the only time to see their loved ones practicing a job that can demand long hours in disaster conditions." Brock Baker, who works for Xcel Energy in Amarillo, Texas, told her, "My family doesn't get to see it, but now I have the opportunity to do it and showcase my abilities. I mean, that's pretty cool to me."

Baker was among 1,316 journeymen and apprentice lineworkers "who'd come to pursue glory at the International Lineman's Rodeo. They made up 732 teams from the U.S., Canada and Brazil, many of whom had qualified at smaller rodeos," Ailworth reports. 

One event requires lineworkers to carry "an egg in a bag during a timed pole-climb, then descend with the delicate cargo in their mouths to demonstrate they are smooth and in control," Ailworth explains. Dennis Kerr, co-chairman of the rodeo's board, told her: "The egg is inspected by a judge at the end. If there's a tooth mark in it, it's a two-point deduction, and if there's a crack in it, that's a 10-point deduction."

There are timed team events that "teams learn about just before the competition," Ailworth writes. "This year's surprises: For Mystery Event #1, they would need to change out the crossarm at the top of the utility pole, and for Mystery Event #2, replace the jumpers on the pole that had been de-energized and short-circuited to protect the lineworkers. . . . Around them, wide-eyed children goggled at all the hard-hat-wearing competitors." Steve Harmon, chief executive of Community Electric Cooperative in Virginia, told Ailworth, "In the eyes of children, these participants are somewhat heroic."

Double, double toil and trouble; haunting Kentucky tales and tourist dollars bubble

Part of Kentucky's After Dark campaign highlights rural areas with
chilling legends and haunts to share. (KY After Dark photo via DY)
If you're hankering for good scare, look no more; Kentucky is investing in dark tourism that'll deliver chills and thrills. "Thought to be the first of its kind in the country, the Kentucky After Dark campaign provides visitors with passports and encourages them to visit the small towns and big cities in Kentucky that are home to tales of the supernatural and unexplained," reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. "Tourism directors hope that the campaign will not just bring people to cities like Louisville and Richmond but to smaller towns like Cadiz, Kelly, and Simpson."

Robbie Morgan, director of the Lawrenceburg/Anderson County Tourism Commission, told Carey, "Rural communities don't have the money to advertise like larger cities do. This is one-in-a-lifetime money. . . . We're really small. We're hoping that [Kentucky After Dark visitors] would come early enough to maybe dine with us and that they may even spend the night with us. Any of those dollars that are left here in our community is something that has a positive impact."

"Promoting scary events during Halloween makes sense – and cents," Carey reports. "According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent a record $10.6 billion on Halloween last year. A 2022 study of 937 tourists by Passport-Photo Online found that 82% of tourists have been to a dark tourist site in their lifetime, and of the 18% that haven't, nearly two-thirds (63%) said they had a dark site they wished to visit."

Chilling rumors of unexplainable or paranormal happenings often live on "in small towns that dot the landscape across the country," Carey reports. "In Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the community sees an influx of tourists during the fall who come to the Anderson Hotel – a haunted hotel in the middle of town, Morgan said. In the spring, visitors come for the Wildman Festival – celebrating the area's many bigfoot sightings."

Dark tourism has worked in other areas of the country. For instance, in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, "the Mothman Festival and the legend of Mothman draw in nearly 50,000 tourists a year to the town of just over 4,000 people," Carey writes. "Officials with the West Virginia Tourism Department said the Mothman legend and other paranormal sites, like the TransAllegheny Lunatic Asylum, the Moundsville Penitentiary, and the Flatwoods Monster Museum, draw in tourists all year round."

The campaign, Morgan said, "will help more than just the 12 communities the passport leads visitors to," Carey adds. "In Lawrenceburg, it's not uncommon for visitors to the city's haunted hotel to book hotel rooms months in advance, Morgan said. And when those rooms fill up, neighboring rural counties benefit."

Clocks swing back an hour this Sunday. A plan to counter daylight saving time's aftereffects can help.

Exercising later in the day can sometimes help with the
post-DST slumps. (Illustration by Dana Davis, Wirecutter)
This Sunday includes a glorious hour of extra sleep as daylight saving time winds to an end on Nov. 5 at 2 a.m. However, that single hour comes with a cost. When the sun sets by 4 p.m. in some places, many of us start feeling droopy and consider using toothpicks to prop our eyelids open. "Falling back feels unnatural because we're returning from an unnatural state," reports Caira Blackwell of Wirecutter. "You may be gaining an hour of sleep, but it's only because you moved the clocks forward artificially in the first place. Without DST, you would experience a gradual shift of lost daylight as autumn progresses into winter, the sun setting a little later each day."

While DST has been blamed for "increases in car accidents, heart attacks, and even overall mortality," Blackwell writes, "Unless laws change and golf club manufacturers, gas companies, and the leisure industry stop lobbying in support of DST, people will continue to face these jarring transitions twice a year. . . .Thankfully, studies have shown that the human circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that's governed by your body's internal clock, adjusts more easily to the fall transition than the one in the spring." Here are five tips to help ease the shift.

Stay up later. "According to Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, the transition in the fall is like 'a trip west to Vegas, rather than the more painful return to the east,'" Blackwell explains. "If you don't want to fall asleep an hour earlier post-DST, staying up a bit later a day or two before the time shift can help. If that's difficult, he recommends exercise later in the day to help rejuvenate you; studies show that working out between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. delays the body clock."

Take advantage of the sun. Joseph Takahashi, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said "that the best fall-back advice he can give for the chronically sleepy is to get as much light exposure as possible to help push through the darkness," Blackwell adds. 

Stick to regular meal times and other routines. "As the days get darker faster, you might feel hungrier earlier," Blackwell writes. "It's important to fight the urge to eat your last meal of the day super early, which may make you get sleepy sooner than you'd like or cause you to snack later, which can inhibit sleep."

Block early morning sunlight. "If the earlier sunrise post-DST causes you to wake up before you want to, now might be a good time to invest in blackout curtains or shades," Blackwell reports. "Consider smart shades, which can raise or lower on a schedule. Even a sleep mask can help."

If all else fails, embrace hibernation. "Fighting sleepiness, exercising on a consistent schedule, eating at the same time every night, and getting the right amount of sun is a lot to fit into a day that feels done before it begins," Blackwell adds. "Whether you like it or not, winter is coming. If all else fails. . . give yourself permission to take back some of what you've missed over the past year — and to fall back to yourself."

Monday, October 30, 2023

Rural journalists 'knit communities together', have answers for problems in journalism, says USA Today's Susan Page

Susan Page listens to a question as moderator Benjy Hamm, director
of the Institute for Rural Journalism, listens. (Photo by Patti Cross)
"Rural journalism has some of the answers for all sorts of journalism, lessons on covering the news, and earning trust from our readers and viewers," Susan Page of USA Today told 175 people gathered Thursday night for the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington, Ky.

"Local news is more trusted than national news," Page noted, citing the latest Gallup poll that found only 7 percent of Americans "have a great deal of trust in what we report and write? . . . Why? You are connected to your communities. You cover the news that matters most to your readers. If you get something wrong, you’re going to hear about it from your next-door neighbor. That really increases the pressure to get things right, and to correct them when you don’t. Those are qualities that every news organization ought to aspire to as well. That’s the lesson of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues."

The institute, which publishes The Rural Blog, holds the dinner with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to present student scholarships and the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians, named for the late publisher who co-founded the institute at the University of Kentucky.

"I’m honored to share the stage with the scholarship winners and with Ben Gish and Sam Adams of The Mountain Eagle" in Whitesburg, Ky., said Page, USA Today's Washington Bureau chief. "Congratulations for your coverage, so crucial to your community, of last year’s historic flood in southeastern Kentucky, which cost 45 people their lives."

The dinner also heard video remarks from Craig Garnett, editor-publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News in Texas, winner of the 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. He couldn't attend but will receive the award at an event in Texas this winter. Page praised him for "holding to account officials in the aftermath of that terrible school shooting -- well, it takes your breath away. He stood up for those 19 kids and two teachers" who died in May 2022.

Page cited other recent examples of courage in rural journalism: "This summer in Marion, Kansas, my home state, the police chief was so worried about a story that the Marion County Record was working on -- a story about him -- that he got a subpoena and raided their offices. They seized computers and phones in what was a violation of federal law, not to mention the First Amendment. In the aftermath, the police chief has been suspended, and the Marion County Record has gotten its equipment back. And this spring in Idabel, Oklahoma, the McCurtain Gazette-News recorded top county officials discussing wanting to kill one of the newspaper’s reporters while remembering fondly the days when a sheriff could, quote, take a 'black guy, throw him in a cell and beat him.' The sheriff was suspended; the jail administrator was put on leave; one of the county commissioners resigned, and the state attorney general opened an investigation.

"This is what journalists do. This is what journalism does. We also do more. We help readers understand how to file for federal disaster aid after their town is flooded. We track high-school sports. (Does anything attract more readers?) We warn readers when a local bridge has been condemned. We tell them where to go to get the best pizza in town. We knit communities together."