Friday, December 08, 2023

Can U.S. make EV batteries without China? Not yet.

China may have a 'lock on key parts' needed for
EV production. (Kumpan Electric photo, Unsplash)

When it comes to building electric cars, the industry may have to choose between tax incentives for buyers or minerals and parts from China, reports Jeff St. John of Canary Media. "Last week, the Biden administration released long-awaited proposed guidance for how it plans to enforce one of the most complex and controversial aspects of the electric vehicle incentives created by the Inflation Reduction Act: the requirement that the country's fast-growing EV and battery industries avoid using materials supplied by China, a geopolitical rival that has so far dominated clean energy manufacturing."

The requirement leaves companies that have "spent more than $100 billion establishing U.S.-based EV and battery factories. . . confronting the reality that, under the proposed rules, virtually none of the EVs they are currently manufacturing will still be eligible for the law's $7,500 federal tax credit as of 2025," St. John writes. "Under the proposed guidance from the Treasury Department, electric vehicles containing any battery component ​'manufactured or assembled by a foreign entity of concern' will no longer be eligible for the tax credit starting next year. In 2025, electric vehicles that ​'contain any critical minerals that were extracted, processed, or recycled' by a foreign entity of concern will no longer be eligible for the credit."

The ability of the U.S. to source all the critical minerals for lithium-ion EV batteries without doing business with China seems unlikely. "China has built a commanding lead in every step of the global EV supply chain, from the refining of minerals to the production of cathode and anode materials and the manufacture of battery cells and EVs," St. John reports. "Today, it's very difficult to find a lithium-ion EV battery that doesn't contain some portion of minerals or components processed or made in China or by a Chinese-based company."

Meanwhile, U.S. companies and partners from Europe and Asia are trying to catch up to China by "building domestic EV and battery manufacturing capacity," St. John explains. "They remain largely reliant on mineral and materials supply chains controlled by Chinese firms." 

L.A. bans rodeos, becoming the latest city to limit or prohibit the shows; rodeo supporters call it an attack on their culture

Supporters of rodeos rally outside Los Angeles City Hall.
(Photo by Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)
Despite the role of rodeos in much of California's rural Western culture, certain show practices paired with documented animal injuries led the city of Los Angeles to ban rodeos, report Susanne Rust and Dakota Smith of the L.A. Times. "The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to ban rodeos in the city despite opposition by some in L.A.'s Latino equestrian community, who painted the crackdown as an attack on their culture. . . . Councilmember Bob Blumenfield led the council in passing the ban, describing in graphic detail the broken bones and pain endured by rodeo animals."

The ban carved out exceptions intended to "assuage concerns that the ban would prevent cultural events such as charrería, which is popular in Mexico, as well as the Bill Pickett Rodeo, a national event for Black riders scheduled for February in the City of Industry," Rust and Smith write. "More than 100 people signed up to speak in council chambers before the vote, many wearing cowboy hats and boots."

L.A. is one of many cities that have taken a deeper look at rodeo shows. "Other jurisdictions throughout the state and nation have put limits on or banned rodeos, including San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano and Pasadena, as well as Pittsburgh, Penn.; Baltimore County, Md.; Leesburg, Va.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.," the L.A. Times reports. "In response to concerns that a ban would be akin to an attack on Latino culture, Blumenfield said, 'This is not about culture. This is about animal cruelty. There are Black rodeos. There are Latino rodeos. There are gay rodeos. . . nobody is trying to go after a culture. We're saying that animal cruelty is something that we, in 2023, should not be supporting,' he said."

"Longtime equestrian Geronimo Bugarin said there are nine elements of charrería, including bull riding, mare riding and calf roping, and appeared dismayed at the prospect of not being able to continue those activities," Rust and Smith add. He said: "If we lose one of our key elements of charrería, it's like you don't have a charrería."

Many state lawmakers attempted to curtail public notices in newspapers in 2023, but only one state made the switch

The past year was considered “pretty good” for protecting public notices in newspapers, with one notable exception, according to a report in Public Notice Monthly, a service of the Public Notice Resource Center.

“Twenty-one states saw bills in 2023 that would have significantly curtailed newspaper notice, a number that is at the high end of the normal range for these kinds of bills. The only one to pass was Ohio HB-33,” according to the report. “In total, PNRC tracked about 200 bills that had the potential to affect public notice; 50 were signed into law. Most of these new statutes will have little impact, equally divided between those that will have a marginally positive effect on government transparency and those that will slightly enhance official secrecy.”

Here is the PNRC report for 2023:

"The only consequential new laws enacted last year are briefly summarized below in roughly descending order of their impact. Aside from the bill in Ohio, all were supported by the newspaper industry.

1. Louisiana HB-650 -- This is the first statute requiring notice to be posted on newspaper websites instead of print newspapers, with the transition from hard copy to electronic set to commence in 2027. HB-650 also simplifies and standardizes the state’s fee structure, and requires official newspapers to have a website and post notices on it — free of charge until 2027 — and on the LPA statewide site.

2. Ohio HB-33 -- Inserted into the annual budget bill at the last minute, this new law made Ohio the second state to allow some local governments (i.e., municipalities, but not counties, villages or townships) to post many or most of their notices on their own website and social media feed instead of publishing them in a local newspaper or legal journal. Inexplicably, HB-33 also gave municipalities the option to publish notice on the Ohio News Media Association’s statewide public notice website free of charge. Moreover, the bill eliminated or reduced newspaper publication of several specific types of notices at all levels of government, including those relating to bids, delinquent taxes and the environment.

ONMA and newspaper publishers in the Buckeye State now face the challenge of preventing the new law from spreading to other levels of government. Unfortunately, the potential metastization has already begun with the introduction last month of HB-315, which would allow townships to completely abandon newspaper notice.

3. North Dakota HB-1197 and Oregon HB-3167 -- These are the first statutes allowing public notice ads to be published in the e-editions of official newspapers instead of print. Oregon HB-3167 additionally authorizes otherwise non-qualifying papers to provide local notice for up to 12 months in jurisdictions temporarily lacking an official newspaper. It also adds content standards to the public notice law requiring “consistent, regular coverage of local news” and at least 25 percent of “total news content” to be “locally and originally composed”.

4. Georgia HB-254 -- This one also adds a content standard (i.e., minimum paid circulation of 100) while temporarily expanding eligibility to publish notice to free-circulation newspapers when there are no papers in a county that meet the paid-circulation requirement. Most importantly for papers in Georgia, HB-254 increases publication fees by 50 percent — the state’s first fee increase in about 25 years. The bill also establishes a process by which posting a notice on a newspaper or government website, and Georgia Press Association’s statewide site, cures the failure of a print newspaper to publish timely notice submitted by a county or municipality.

5. Texas SB-943 -- Bills requiring newspapers that publish print notices to also post those notices on their own website and their press association’s statewide public notice site were introduced in four states this year. This is the only one that was approved, making Texas the nineteenth state to enact such a law.

"Every new year now poses major challenges for the future of public notice and 2024 is likely to follow that pattern. Nevertheless, newspaper notice will survive for years to come if newspapers provide effective notice to their communities and adequate customer service to their government clients, and if more publishers learn to advocate on their own behalf directly with public officials."

Opinion: Veterans Administration plan to change some ambulance transport coverage needs to be halted for study

Over a quarter of veterans are rural residents.
(The Daily Yonder photo)
If the Veterans Administration succeeds in changing its transportation coverage, rural towns and counties may not be able to handle the additional ambulance travel costs, write William Enyart and Doug Jameson in their opinion for The Daily Yonder. "The Veterans Administration wants to pass the cost for ambulance transport on to other agencies and local governments." With over 25% of all military veterans residing in rural areas, funding those trips will "hit rural areas hard."

Rural-living veterans often require ambulance travel. "With more than 15 million veterans eligible for VA care, there are many thousands of ground and air ambulance trips each year, and they come at a large financial cost. The VA has quietly decided that the cost is too great for it to bear," Enyart and Jameson explain. "Beginning in early 2024, reimbursements will be significantly reduced for veterans who receive ambulance rides to VA-approved hospitals. Those who receive ambulance rides to non-VA-approved hospitals will see reimbursements cut to near zero."

Why is the VA doing this now? According to many who watch the VA closely, the plan is to "create a funding gap – a crisis – that will compel other government entities to step forward and fill that void," Enyart and Jameson write. "Some combination of state, county and municipal government would see the crisis unfold and then rush forward with a funding solution because to do this to veterans is unthinkable."

The unexpected funding gap will hurt local governments that haven't had time to plan for increasing costs and "can't just find the money," Enyart and Jameson point out. "It is possible more well-off areas would be able to respond, but that doesn't account for other, more numerous. . . rural areas where so many of our fellow veterans live. . . .That leads to an even greater concern of how affected veterans might respond. Knowing costs are out of reach, will they simply forego medical treatment? Or, might they attempt another, less safe way to travel to a medical facility?" Enyart and Jameson add that private ambulance services that rely on VA funding may opt out of servicing unprofitable areas, many of which would be rural.

There is a way to prevent this disaster, Enyart and Jameson write, "First, congressional leaders should publicly call for a study to be done that examines the effect that changes to ambulance reimbursement would have on our veterans' health. Second, congressional working groups should be established and informed by veterans' affairs experts from the local, state and federal levels to determine the possibility of non-VA funding of ambulances for veterans. And, finally, the VA must pause the date that its reimbursement cuts will go into effect until the results of these efforts are fully known and examined publicly."

Finally Friday quick hits: 'Secret Santa' history; few Covid shots this year; hunters and drones; Museum on Main Street

Illustration by James Yang, The Wall Street Journal
Secret Santa exchanges are a long-held tradition, but how did these sneaky exchanges get started, muses Ben Zimmer of The Wall Street Journal. "There's a secret history behind 'Secret Santa.'. . . The phrase 'secret Santa' didn't appear in U.S. newspapers until the early 20th century, and when it did, it could simply refer to an anonymous benefactor . . . . One early breeding ground was Nebraska."

Many midwesterners are choosing to skip this year's Covid-19 booster. "Nearly 60 percent of Americans living in the Midwest and surrounding states say they will not get the new Covid-19 vaccine this year, according to a survey from Emerson College Polling," reports Alejandra O'Connell-Domenech of The Hill. "Americans in Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado and Iowa aligned with national attitudes toward the new shot — with about half of the residents in each state saying they would probably forgo the new vaccine."

It has been just over a year since more than 40,000 customers lost power in Moore County, N.C. At first, the blackout's cause was unknown, but as Duke Energy officials "surveyed the damage to the infrastructure at their local substation, it became evident that an expert shooter had intentionally cut power to the area," reports Danielle Battagliaand of The Herald Sun. U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican representing Moore and nearby counties, "has toured a substation, held congressional meetings and proposed legislation in an attempt to prevent another community from being crippled by an attack." Hudson discussed future attack prevention planning and what he feels the federal government still needs to do.

Drone recovery and drone hunting are different.
(Mike Yoder courtesy photo via Lancaster Farming)
If you're a hunter who needs to find your downed deer, a drone could come in handy, but many states prohibit their use. "The Pennsylvania Game Commission prohibits using drones to locate wounded deer, but the owner of a deer recovery business says the agency is confusing the practice with hunting," reports Tom Venesky of Lancaster Farming. Mike Yoder founded Drone Deer Recovery, which is based in Ohio. Yoder and other trained pilots use thermal drones to locate downed deer, essentially doing the tracking for the hunter. Yoder believes the Game Commission regulation prohibiting drones for deer recovery is too broad. He told Venesky, "They're confusing drone hunting with drone recovery."

Severe farming accidents can be a reminder of the profession's dangers. Whitelaw, Wisconsin farmer Bruce Klemm was run over by a Vermeer 12000 Trencher-Backho and survived, but his story serves as a precautionary tale.

The Smithsonian's traveling exhibit entitled Spark! Places of Innovation, in Sauk County, Wis., above, highlighted the connection between land and people. (Wormfarm courtesy photo, Yonder)

Guess what's coming to town besides Santa's sleigh -- the traveling Smithsonian! "The prestigious institution's Museum on Main Street exhibits travel to rural communities, highlighting local stories and inspiring new homegrown installations," reports Kim Kobersmith of The Daily Yonder. "Museum on Main Street (MoMS) is the Smithsonian’s premier program for small towns. For almost 30 years, MoMS has brought rural communities high-quality museum exhibits in partnership with the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The 14 themed exhibits have toured more than 1,900 communities in all 50 states and the territory of Guam."

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Fixing the rural physician shortage can begin with adding more federal and state funded residency slots

When residency slots increase, the number of
rural physicians can increase. (UICOMP photo)
By any measure, rural America is hurting for physicians, but more broadly, the nation doesn't have enough doctors. While U.S. medical schools have increased their enrollments, hospitals have yet to increase their number of residency slots, reports Brenna Miller of the Lown Institute, a nonpartisan health think tank.

"Medical school enrollment has been consistently growing, but funding for residency slots hasn't caught up. For every medical school graduate looking for a resident position, there have been between 0.8 and 0.85 slots available in recent years. This a problem as states require at least one year of hospital residency as a licensing requirement."

Without intervention, rural physicians will become increasingly scarce. "Rural areas face the brunt of this shortage as urban areas have higher densities of primary care physicians and specialists," Miller writes. "Patients in rural areas tend to be older, poorer, and sicker, especially with chronic conditions. With fewer doctors around, they have to travel further for both preventative and emergency care, putting them at greater risk for poor health outcomes and mortality."

If rural areas want more doctors in the future, there must be fundamental changes to residency funding and slot offerings. Miller explains, "The mismatch between medical school enrollment, residency slots, and the need for physicians in the workforce has resulted in a lose-lose situation where perfectly competent physicians face barriers to working while simultaneously, entire regions of the country are without sufficient access to physicians."

Some changes need to begin at the federal level. Residency slots are primarily funded by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, meaning that "they need action by the federal government for expansion. This also means that no significant action had been taken for over 20 years (Congress had actually capped the number of residents) until the Covid-19 relief bill was passed," Miller reports. "The  bill opened the door for 1,000 new residency slots, 10% of which must be in rural areas. Another similar bill has been introduced in Congress that would allocate funding for an additional 2,000 residency slots every year for seven years starting in 2025."

State funding is an additional option. Miller reports, "The majority of doctors stay in the states where they completed their residency. Both California and Texas – where the shortage is predicted to be the worst – approved multimillion-dollar expansions in funding, resulting in increased retention of physicians in underserved, local areas."

Rural America makes small job gains, but issues with child care and education may be preventing bigger gains

Graph shows a gap in recovery rates of rural and urban counties.
(The Daily Yonder graph, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data)
As rural American makes headway in post-pandemic labor numbers, larger problems still prevent a full recovery in some counties, reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "Rural America added more than 200,000 jobs over the past year but is still below pre-pandemic employment levels, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. The failure to reach full recovery three and a half years after the start of the pandemic is related to larger trends, including an aging population, lack of childcare, and lower levels of formal education, according to an economist."

Overall, rural employment grew a percentage point in September, but still "has 64,000 fewer jobs this year than it did the same time in 2019, before the pandemic," Melotte writes. Elizabeth Davis, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, told Melotte, "Rural areas took a hit." Melotte notes, "Rural counties haven't fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, much less the drop in employment brought on by the pandemic, Davis said."

The Daily Yonder graphic, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data
At the beginning of the pandemic, rural employment was more stable than urban. "Rural counties were actually ahead of urban ones in employment recovery for the first year of the pandemic," Melotte reports. "After that, urban gains eclipsed rural gains in employment. . . . . .  Rural counties made up 95 of the top 100 counties with the most employment loss. . . . Only 43% of rural counties have returned to pre-pandemic or better employment numbers, while about two-thirds of urban counties have."

Rural resources and populations differ and those variances make labor comparisons within rural counties difficult, but the lack of child care could be a common problem. "There are a few demographic factors Davis said might be at play in employment recovery." She told Melotte: "We hear a lot of employers concerned about the lack of childcare because they can't find workers. They hear from their workers and their families that they can't find child care, so they can't work, or can't work full time."

Fewer than half of rural counties have as many jobs now as they did before the pandemic, according to a Yonder analysis, which includes an interactive map. Here's a screenshot:
Map by Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder via Datawrapper, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it to enlarge.

Post office employees say they have been banned from mentioning Amazon deliveries as a cause of mail delays

Around 65 people gathered for the listening session.
(Photo by Annalise Braught, Bemidji Pioneer)
One of the U.S. Postal Service's greatest strengths -- connecting every delivery point in the United States to every other delivery point -- is what made a company like Amazon possible. But now, the massive task of servicing Amazon's contract is pushing some rural post offices to the brink.

Even limited research on Amazon packages and rural post offices shows how hard rural post office employees must work to fulfill the sheer number of Amazon packages and overall "last mile" package deliveries. Articles and petitions addressing the issue include details on how stressed postal employees are, including The Washington Post's recent story with this headline: "Rural post office was told to prioritize Amazon packages. Chaos ensued."

Since the Post article was published, mail carriers in their featured small town, Bemidji, Minnesota, say they have been censored for speaking out. "Mail carriers in a rural Minnesota post office [Bemidji] overwhelmed by Amazon packages say they've been warned not to use the word 'Amazon,' including when customers ask why the mail is delayed," Caroline O'Donovan of The Washington Post reports. "'We are not to mention the word Amazon to anyone,' said a mail carrier. . . . 'If asked, they're to be referred to as Delivery Partners or Distributors,' said a second carrier. 'It's ridiculous.'"

The directive was "passed down Monday morning from U.S. Postal Service management and comes three weeks after mail carriers in the northern Minnesota town staged a symbolic strike outside the post office" to protest "the heavy workloads and long hours caused by the sudden arrival of thousands of Amazon packages, O'Donovan reports. "On Tuesday, staffers from the offices of Democratic Minnesota senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar hosted a 'listening session' with Bemidji residents to "discuss ongoing postal issues related to package and mail delivery."

"In addition to being banned from saying 'Amazon,' postal workers have also been told their jobs could be at risk if they speak publicly about post office issues," O'Donovan adds. "Staffers were told they could attend Tuesday's meeting only on their 30-minute lunch break if they changed out of uniform, mail carriers said. One mail carrier said he'd been warned there could be 'consequences' for those who showed up."

"Tuesday's meeting in Bemidji lasted over an hour. Fifty people attended in person, and more than 180 watched a live stream on the website of the local newspaper, the Bemidji Pioneer," O'Donovan reports. "Multiple postal workers who recently quit or retired due to the ongoing issues attended, including one who identified herself only as Shelly, and received a spontaneous round of applause when she began to speak. . . . 'I worked at the post office for 30 years. . . Never in my life have I been treated so poorly. I go home at night crying. . . I was forced to retire.'"

To read the Bemidji Pioneer's coverage, click here.

Billions of federal dollars were marked for EV charging stations in 2021 legislation, but none have been built

(Photo by Andreas Rasmussen, Unsplash)
Billions of dollars were made available to states for building electric vehicle chargers, but none have been built, reports James Bikales of Politico. In 2021, Congress agreed to "spend $7.5 billion to build tens of thousands of electric vehicle chargers across the country, aiming to appease anxious drivers while tackling climate change. Two years later, the program has yet to install a single charger."

"States and the charger industry blame the delays mostly on the labyrinth of new contracting and performance requirements they have to navigate to receive federal funds," Bikales writes. "While federal officials have authorized more than $2 billion of the funds to be sent to states, fewer than half of states have even started to take bids from contractors to build the chargers — let alone begin construction."

Despite the lack of chargers, electric vehicle sales have increased. "Consumer demand for electric vehicles is rising in the United States, necessitating six times as many chargers on its roads by the end of the decade, according to federal estimates," Bikales reports. But many Americans refuse to purchase electric cars because of the lack of charging stations.

President Joe Biden's EV-focused climate goals will not be met without charging stations and more EV acceptance. Bikales reports, "Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure package into law. . . with an eye toward achieving his goal of building 500,000 chargers in the United States by 2030. . . . But Aatish Patel, president of charger manufacturer XCharge North America, is worried the delays in installing chargers are imperiling efforts to drive up EV adoption." He told Bikales, "As an EV driver, a charger being installed in two years isn't really going to help me out now. We're in dire need of chargers here."

There are chargers available, just not enough. Bikales reports: "The United States has around 180,000 chargers today, according to the Energy Department. That includes 41,000 of the type of fast chargers that can alleviate the dreaded “range anxiety” of a long-distance road trip in an electric vehicle."

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, "whose state broke ground on the nation's first charger funded by the NEVI (National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure) program in October, said in a statement that he is committed to 'truly positioning Ohioans for the electric future," Bikales reports. "Following Ohio, Pennsylvania also broke ground on its first NEVI-funded charger in November. Another six states have awarded contracts for their first round of charging sites, while 15 states plus Puerto Rico are in the process of soliciting bids from the private sector."

When searching for different ways to teach college journalists, one teacher heads to the pool tables

Journalism student Hayden Smith takes a shot at the pool
tables. (Photo by Harrison Rich via The Conversation)
A novel venue with an unconventional instructional tool can be a different way to teach aspiring journalists. "I wanted to break up the monotony of having students sit at their computers and write news stories or listen to me lecture," writes Jamaal Abdul-Alim for the "Uncommon Courses" series from The Conversation, a journalism platform for academics. "So I figured I'd change the venue and try something more kinetic. I had been going to the TerpZone – a recreational area in the basement of the student union where I teach. . . . As I watched students shoot pool, I thought: It would be cool to hold at least one class meeting here."

Abdul-Alim, who teaches at the University of Maryland at College Park, wrote that students found that playing pool "gave them a visual way to understand what journalists do. One student found it helpful for players to 'step back and take a new look at the table before their turn' – a concept that easily applies to reporting a story. . . . 'Finding the right angle for an article requires taking a fresh look at the facts and quotes, the student wrote. . . . Another student said both journalism and shooting pool require patience. A different student touched on the benefits of remaining calm – whether as a journalist on deadline or when it's time to sink the eight ball to win the game."

Part of the pool lesson works to build journalistic integrity. "If pool – or any other game – can teach future journalists to be more thoughtful about how they pursue stories, perhaps it can lead to better coverage and help restore public confidence in what the media report," Abdul-Alim adds. "There are other reasons why an approach like this makes sense at this particular time. Students are under a lot of academic stress, which can affect their overall well-being. As many pool players will tell you, shooting pool can be a positive way to relieve stress. It also can help build self-esteem and improve concentration.

"Also, before we shot pool together, I rarely saw students socialize with one another so effortlessly. When we moved class to the pool hall, students socialized like never before. So it was a good team-building exercise. My only regret was not doing it sooner in the semester."

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Report: Uvalde teachers and students correctly followed their live-shooter training, but officers weren't prepared

The 21 people who died on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary School.
(Courtesy photos, the Families via ABC News, Reuters, AP)

It was May 24, 2022, when Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and began shooting his AR-15-style rifle into classrooms. In the first four minutes, Ramos fired over 100 rounds that echoed throughout the building.

Surviving teachers and students knew they were targets, and instinctively followed their live-shooter training protocols. "They dropped to the floor, crouching under desks and countertops, far from the windows. . . . A few grabbed bloodied phones and dialed 911. . . . And as students across the country have been instructed for years, they remained quiet, impossibly quiet. . . and waited, report Lomi Kriel, Lexi Churchill and Jinitzail Hernández, co-authors from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Responding to 911 calls, "Hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on Robb Elementary School. They, too, waited. They waited for someone, anyone, to tell them what to do."

Once in the school, law enforcement waited for more than an hour to act. "They waited for the right keys and specialized equipment to open doors. They waited out of fear that the lack of ballistic shields and flash-bangs would leave them vulnerable against the power of an AR-15-style rifle. Most astonishingly, they waited for the children's cries to confirm that people were still alive inside the classrooms," according to the report. In total, 376 law enforcement officers responded, according to an investigation from the Texas House of Representatives.

After an exhaustive number of investigative interviews, listening, and watching hundreds of hours of video and body camera footage, the reporters from ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and Frontline came to a conclusion. They write: "The children in Uvalde were prepared, dutifully following what they had learned during active shooter drills, even as their friends and teachers were bleeding to death. Many officers, who had trained at least once during their careers for such a situation, were not."

America has become a country where "mass shootings have become a fact of life, with at least 120 since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting," they write. "Debates often erupt along partisan lines as anguished communities demand change. . . . One thing that seemingly unites all sides is the notion of better training for law enforcement. But, in actuality, few laws exist requiring such instruction. . . . A nationwide analysis by the news organizations shows states require far more training to prepare students and teachers for a mass shooting than they do for the police who are expected to protect them."

Rural Mirages: Shattered newspapers and ‘ghosts’ with little local news, but some communities have spunky startups

This is a condensed version of an article published today in the 2023 State of Local News Report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. For the full version, click here.

By Al Cross
Director emeritus, Institute for Rural Journalism, University of Kentucky  

The mistaken front page
On Sept. 5, The Hutchinson News in central Kansas greeted readers with a front-page feature about the Hutchinson Senior Center, with a photo of seniors kayaking on a lake with a thickly forested shore. But that’s not the landscape in Hutchinson, pop. 40,000, or the name of its senior center. The story was about the center in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and was written by a confused freelancer who got the assignment from a Gannett Co. editor 140 miles away, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, because the News had no news reporters on its staff.

What Gannett’s public-relations office called an “oversight,” in declining an interview about the flub, reflected the shrinkage of American newspapers, which finally hit non-metropolitan America just before the pandemic. The one-two punch led to many closures and mergers, and to continued declines in the quantity and quality of small-town papers. But in some places, print and online start-ups are succeeding, showing that local residents still want local news and will pay for a good product.

In Hutchinson, a 16-year-old high-school debater, Michael Glenn, started The Hutchinson Tribune on Substack on July 4; is publishing about five times as many local-news articles as The Hutchinson News, which prints twice a week; and says he and his partner, a local librarian, are starting to sell advertising for a growing audience.

Legacy newspapers are slowly adapting to the digital era, but many have not fully faced up to their greatest-ever existential challenge.

About two-thirds of weeklies are owned by chains, and the decline of most weeklies is visible in fewer pages, less news coverage and limited or non-existent office hours. In many towns, gone are the days when local residents could drop into their local newspaper office to place a classified ad or news item, and engage in conversation that could give the paper even more information, because the newspaper no longer has an office that is open to the public without appointment.

That’s the case even at some daily papers, such as the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville and The Paducah Sun, headquarters paper of Paxton Media Group, one of the largest owners of non-metropolitan papers. In these towns of 31,000 and 26,000, respectively, an appointment is needed to enter the newspaper office.

Paxton recently bought five more newspapers from Gannett, which has been shedding smaller papers – largely by selling them to CherryRoad Media, a firm created only three years ago by Jeremy Gulban, an information-technology entrepreneur. He now has more than 80 papers, 60 bought from Gannett, which he says ran them so far into the ground that some are proving hard to stand up.

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

Retail advertising largely disappeared, he said, and “revenue from obits, legal and classified, was nearly double the display advertising in a lot of cases . . . so really, what you have is, you got a ghost newspaper, right? It really has no relevance in the community. And you know that's a vicious cycle.”

Gulban said he has invested in editorial and ad staff, most often hiring former employees, and that the fate of the papers will largely depend on their local leadership and the response of their communities. And he says printed newspapers will remain a core element of his business model; to that end, he recently bought the Hutchinson News printing plant from Gannett.

The demand for reliable local news has been demonstrated in Hutchinson and many other places in rural America. In some places with chain-owned dailies that have become ghost newspapers, or in places where chains closed county-seat papers, there are new print and online news outlets. Two examples are The Community News in Macomb, Ill., and the Logan-Hocking Times in Logan, Ohio.

Lynne Campbell, a former regional publisher for GateHouse Media, which bought Gannett and took its name, said at July’s National Summit on Journalism in Rural America that The Community News started on a copy machine, was distributed free three times a week at 40 locations, and “was full of brief bits of local news,” such as events, police logs and death notices, but not full obituaries, Campbell said. Now the paper has two paid editions per week and a midweek free edition, “so that everybody could get a little bit of the local news,” and is billing $40,000 a month, much of it in legal ads, since the Gannett paper, now called the McDonald County Voice, “is down to less than a hundred subscribers” and no longer has a storefront, Campbell said. The county has 27,000 residents, most in Macomb.

In southeast Ohio, Logan is home to 7,200 people, in a county of 46,000, and the Logan Daily News, with an office open just nine hours a week, and the Logan-Hocking Times, owned by Debra Tobin, a former editor at the Times. After she and several other staffers quit the Adams Publishing Group paper, she started the Times online, charging $7.99 a month for access. “Within six months we had 700. We're over a thousand,” she said in July. “That wasn't good enough for me, though, because I wanted to do something else, because a lot of people don't have computers” or good internet access. “So I decided to do a print newspaper,” which is distributed free on Fridays, the day after the digital edition, and is funded by advertisers who sponsor pages.

While the demand for local news in non-metropolitan areas is being met in different ways, publishers are still searching for new business models.

Image from PBS NewsHour
There is longstanding resistance among rural newspapers to raising subscription prices and single-copy charges, but The Recorder in Monterey, Virginia, has charged $5 a copy since 2017, and when the pandemic eliminated most of its ad revenue, Publisher Anne Adams appealed to readers for donations and they helped her stay in business. Recently she has expanded her coverage area to a third county in the Alleghenies. Rural Great Plains publishers told University of Kansas professor Teri Finneman that they recoiled from the idea of asking for donations, saying it would be an admission of failure or personal weakness. But other publishers have put donations into their business model, and more are exploring the option of going nonprofit so they can avoid income taxes, qualify for grants and offer their supporters tax deductions for donations. And as the story of Hutchinson shows, the demand for local news is driving different approaches.

States look to restrict foreign ownership of agricultural land; many of the concerns involve China and Russia

A farm tractor rolls along outside a Silver City, Mississippi
neighborhood. (Photo by Rogelio V. Solis, AP)
Amid national food security and political concerns, many states are restricting or prohibiting some countries from purchasing farmland. Andy Gipson, Mississippi's commissioner of agriculture and commerce, feels "the growing trend of foreign ownership could threaten what he views as the state's most valuable asset: the land that grows its forests, rice and cotton," reports Kevin Hardy of Stateline. "Gipson has spent recent months studying the growing amount of his state's farmland being bought up by foreign interests."

Gipson hopes Mississippi "will join a growing group of states seeking to ban or further restrict foreign ownership of farmland," Hardy writes. "Lawmakers are targeting nations considered hostile to U.S. interests, such as China and Russia, and looking for new enforcement measures. Many see Arkansas as leading the latter push; officials there invoked a new law in October that bans certain foreign owners and ordered a Chinese seed company to divest its land."

The issue of foreign farmland ownership has been around for centuries, Hardy reports, but it was "reinvigorated after Chinese firms purchased land near military installments in North Dakota and Texas, said Micah Brown, an attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas who tracks the issue. . . . Brown said lawmakers in 36 states proposed some sort of legislation on the issue this year, ranging from caps to bans to targets on certain countries, with measures passing in about a dozen of them. More bills are expected in upcoming sessions."

In opening a U.S. Senate hearing in September, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow "acknowledged that the nation's food system is an integral component of national security," Hardy adds. "With more foreign entities buying up land, she said, the issue deserves scrutiny. But she offered a warning: 'We must also be cautious of our history of barring immigrants from owning land in our country and ensure efforts to protect our national and economic security do not encourage discrimination," she said.'"

Overall, foreigners hold a small percentage of U.S. agriculture land, totaling around 40 million acres at the end of 2021, according to the Department of Agriculture. "Canadian investors own the largest share of that acreage, followed by investors from the United Kingdom and Europe. Foreign ownership represents only about 3.1% of all privately held U.S. agricultural land," Hardy notes. "But the number is quickly rising: Foreign ownership has increased more than 50% in the past decade, Brown said. But USDA data shows Chinese ownership is still relatively rare: Chinese interests own less than 1% of the nation's foreign-held agricultural acreage.

"Federal law currently does not regulate foreign ownership land beyond requiring foreign buyers to register with the USDA. But there is bipartisan interest in Congress in tighter restrictions and reporting on foreign ownership."

Rural and urban residents share many views on politics and the economy, a new survey shows

American Communities Project chart, from data

Even though rural and urban residents remain divided on some issues, a new study found they have a lot more political and economic concerns in common, reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. "The American Communities Project survey questioned more than 5,000 people across 15 different community types to show a more complex picture of how rural and urban residents view issues."

The survey yielded several surprising results. "What was interesting," researcher Dante Chinni told Carey "is how much rural residents' opinions were similar to those of urban residents. . . . The study found that residents in rural communities felt that the biggest issue in their lives locally was inflation." Carey reports: "Only in communities in the African American South, a rural subcommunity within ACP's 15 community categories, did anything else come close to inflation as an issue." Guns and crime topped their list.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed "agreed with the statement 'Americans have much more in common with each other than is generally believed,'" Carey writes. Commenting on the shared responses, Chinni told Carey: "I think people really want this to be true. They want there to be more in common, whether or not there actually is."

When asked about abortion, most survey respondents in rural and urban communities "agreed with the statement 'Obtaining an abortion should be a decision made by a woman in consultation with her doctor, without government's involvement,'" Carey reports. Ari Pinkus, one of the project researchers, told Carey: "What's interesting is how abortion was widely accepted by at least 50% of the population, across the community types, even in (more rural conservative areas) where you would think that they would be less okay with abortion. . . . It could be the way we asked the question because people don't like to get in the way of a woman and her doctor, but it's still notable that abortion is a topic of unity in the population."

Survey respondents did voice differing ideas about gun ownership. Carey reports, "When asked if 'the right to own a firearm is central to what it means to be an American,' residents in more rural communities were more likely to agree, whereas those in urban counties were more likely to disagree."

Opinion: As technology replaces the traditional farm auction, there is a sense of loss

Small town farm auctions used to bring the
community together. (Farm Progress photo)
As in-person farm auctions disappear to faceless online bidding, one author reflects on the changing times and wonders how much is lost when technology replaces tradition.

"I fear farm auctions are an element of rural life that’s quickly becoming extinct as auctions embrace the digital age," Betty Haynes writes in an opinion piece for Farm Progress. "Live auctions may not be gone, but in my neck of the woods, they’re getting fewer and farther between. Today, there’s no geographical limit to the reach of an auction, inviting bidders from across the country. But at what cost?"

Farm auctions are uniquely rural and are considered a community event akin to a "Carhartt Convention," Haynes shares. "They’re an element engrained into our culture where neighbors can gather and reconnect — whether it’s to celebrate or to mourn." Gordon Watkins of Petersburg, Ill., has been an associate of Sanert’s Auction Service in Greenview, Ill. for nearly 20 years. He says online auction platforms hurt rural communities." He told Haynes: "We used to bring 400 people to Greenview who would spend money at the grocery store, restaurant and tavern while they were there. One weekend, the Oakford Methodist Church made $1,000 in food sales — that’s big money for our little church. It’s something we’ve lost that we’ll never get back.”

The digital age dangles connection but, on many levels, fails to create the sense of community in-person events have delivered for years. "Like our volunteer organizations and small-town grocers and rural veterinarians, the loss of live farm auctions seems to be the next nail in the rural coffin, from an increasingly 'connected' digital world that lacks true connection," Haynes adds. "The kind of connection where you stand alongside your neighbor and fight back tears as they watch their livelihood sell to the highest bidder. The kind of connection from knowing your legacy will carry on as you pass the torch to a family who will love the land as you once did."

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Investigative reporting reveals a Mississippi 'Goon Squad,' with a 20 year history of brutality

Six Rankin County deputies, above, all pleaded guilty to
federal and state charges. (Photo by R.V. Solis, AP)
For almost 20 years, the Rankin County Sheriff's Department deputies have run amuck, doling out their own version of crime justice from sticking guns into suspects' mouths to torturing impoverished residents with tasers, reports Brian Howey and Nate Rosenfield of Mississippi Today. "Narcotics detectives and patrol officers, some who called themselves the 'Goon Squad,' barged into homes in the middle of the night, accusing people inside of dealing drugs. Then they handcuffed or held them at gunpoint and tortured them into confessing or providing information, according to dozens of people who say they endured or witnessed the assaults."

Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey claimed that "he was stunned to learn of the 'horrendous crimes' committed by his deputies,'" Howey and Rosenfield report. "But a deep investigation by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today "revealed a history of blatant and brutal incidents stretching back to at least 2004." After records and interviews were scrutinized, "What emerged was a pattern of violence that was neither confined to a small group of deputies nor hidden from department leaders."

The Times and Mississippi Today "identified 20 deputies who were present at one or more of the incidents — many assigned to narcotics or the night-shift patrol," Mississippi Today reports. "Taken together, the reporting shows how Rankin deputies were allowed to operate with impunity while racking up arrests for relatively minor drug infractions and leaving entire neighborhoods in fear of violent raids."

The area Rankin County deputies focused on was ravaged by meth in the early 2000s. "Local sheriffs, even in small departments, set up special narcotics units and joined state and federal task forces in the War on Drugs. The Rankin County Sheriff's Department responded by targeting low-income communities and policing them relentlessly," Howey and Rosenfield write. 

"It's unclear when Rankin County deputies adopted their nickname, but last year, they ordered commemorative coins emblazoned with cartoonish gangsters and the words 'Lt. Middleton's Goon Squad.' Lt. Jeffrey Middleton was the squad's supervisor," Mississippi Today reports. "He is among the five deputies who pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from a January raid. . . . A Justice Department investigation this year found that Rankin County deputies chose the name Goon Squad 'because of their willingness to use excessive force and not report it.'"

This article is part of a series by The New York Times' Local Investigations Fellowship examining the power of sheriffs' offices in Mississippi.

Mormon church is Nebraska's 'top single buyer' of agricultural land over the past five years

Flatwater Free Press graphic
Mile after farm mile, Farmland Reserve Inc. has purchased large sections of Nebraska land. It has purchased so much land in Garden County, Nebraska, that the county assessor couldn't "calculate the nonprofit's total acres," reports Destiny Herbers of the Flatwater Free Press. "The organization simply owns too many parcels, through too many sales, for county officials to comb through the records." Garden County Assessor's Office told Herbers: 

Farmland Reserve, a nonprofit "owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has been quietly buying up ranch land in Nebraska’s Sandhills for the past three decades," Herbers adds. "The Garden County shopping spree, coupled with more buys in four neighboring counties, made the church Nebraska’s top single buyer of land in the past five years."

The Mormon church has purchased 370,000 acres of "zoned agricultural land in Nebraska," Herbers reports. "The church sees its land buys as a force for good, an investment in agriculture to generate long-term value to support the church’s religious, charitable, and humanitarian good works,' said a Farmland Reserve spokesman. . . . The Nebraska Farmers Union sees the Church as another out-of-state corporation that arrives, drives up prices and makes buying harder for smaller farmers."

Since religious organizations don't have to "publicly report their income or assets, including real estate. The Church has never given a total accounting of their properties, in Nebraska or globally while amassing a fortune exceeding $100 billion," Herbers writes. "The Nebraska land is just one slice of the 1.7 million acres of American real estate the Mormon church is now estimated to own."

Some of the church's land holdings go back 30 years and are widely accepted as part of the state's active ranches. Rex Ranch, a "sprawling 365,000-acre cow-calf operation, that covers most of northern Garden County . . . has gone largely unnoticed by Nebraskans in the 30-plus years it’s been owned by the church," Herbers reports. Dale Bills, a spokesman for Farmland Reserve, said "the Rex, and its employees, are very much a part of the local community. The Rex’s employees live on the land they work and regularly participate in the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association and Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition."

Why all the land and ranching? Herbers explains, "The church’s focus on ranching comes down to two factors, a good economic investment, and preparedness for upheaval, said Betsy Gaines Quammen, historian, and author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God and Public Lands in the West. Stockpiling food and resources to be prepared for upheaval before a religious event is a central part of Mormon theology, Quammen said."

Kentucky has 15 veterinarians who are at least 85 years old; they're helping to offset the shortage in rural areas

At 85 years old, Dr. Gary Tran continues to practice.
(Photo by Michael Clevenger, Courier Journal)

The national veterinarian shortage could be even worse if it weren't for a number of people who continue practicing long past the traditional retirement age. "There are 15 licensed vets in the Bluegrass State over 85 years old . . . .These are doctors who have stayed with it as the shortage ballooned to plague more than 72% of rural Kentucky," reports Maggie Menderski of The Courier Journal. Three longtime veterinarians answered The Courier Journal's request for their professional insights.

"Being a vet certainly isn't a glamorous profession," Menderski reports. "The payoff never quite matched the hours they spent working or the schooling needed to become a veterinarian." All agreed that the profession's long hours and changes in veterinary educational costs have contributed to the country's rural vet shortage.

Dr. Gary Tran, 93, has kept his Marshall County practice going and adapted it to the needs of his community. "Tran, who immigrated to the United States during the Vietnam War, and his wife lived in a small house and raised five children. She worked in a factory and a restaurant to help make ends meet," Menderski writes. "After watching the hours their father kept at the emergency clinic, none of his children had any interest in studying veterinary medicine. Instead, all five became engineers."

Dr. Luel Overstreet in Henderson County is roughly eight years younger than Tran, and he has kept doing surgeries. "Working as a vet isn't just a career to him at this point. He's been treating animals and helping pet owners in Henderson, in some cases, for four generations," Menderski writes. "Overstreet doesn't recall just how much it cost for him to attend Auburn University in the 1960s, but in between semesters, he was able to make enough money to pay for his schooling by working in tobacco fields, baling hay and raising cattle. . . .The most dedicated veterinary student wouldn't be able to pay tuition off doing those same jobs today."

For Dr. Robert McCrory, who still practices in Benton County, "There were times he'd travel 20 miles to deliver a calf for $6," Menderski writes. "He worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday and then split shifts on Sundays." McCrory told Menderski: "Back then, you didn't think anything of it because farmers work from daylight to dark."

Many new graduates do not want to work those schedules. "The schedule is one of the biggest changes they've seen in the modern generation of veterinarians," Menderski reports. "Vets today often have a mound of debt to pay off while starting their careers. The average student debt for all veterinary medicine graduates was $147,258 in 2022, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Tran, Overstreet and McCrory all graduated and started their careers decades ago debt-free."

Mussels -- 'the unsung heroes of river life' -- are finally making a comeback in the Apalachicola River

The ACF River Basin watershed.
(Wikipedia map)
It's a success story with muscle, or should we say mussels? "Some good news for the Apalachicola River," reports Dan Chapman from U.S. Fish & Wildlife. "After centuries of pollution, drought, sprawl, dredging, straightening, dam-building, and a 'water war' between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the iconic river whose headwaters reach into the Appalachian Mountains has something to brag about. . . . Seems the most vulnerable of its riverine residents, the freshwater mussels, are making a comeback. Scientists say the federally endangered fat threeridge, for example, 'is far more abundant and widely distributed … than previously thought.' The same can be said for the Chipola slabshell, a threatened mollusk that lives along a major Apalachicola tributary with headwaters in Alabama."

Fat threeridge mussels
(USFWS photo)
The fat threeridge has come a long way. "In 1981, a biologist certified the last living fat threeridge in a major Apalachicola tributary," Chapman writes. But the river, which has been in distress for over a decade, needs all the mussels it can muster. "Freshwater mussels are the unsung heroes of river life. They suck up water to feed and, in the process, filter out bacteria, pollutants, and sediment. The 'livers of the river' also serve as keystone species, indicators of a river’s health, and the quality of its water. When they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble."

The return of the fat threeridge and the Chipola slabshell mussel means efforts to restore the river are working. Chris Metcalf, who coordinates the federal-landowner Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program with multiple other services, "has worked on 20 projects on five private properties across the Chipola River watershed," Chapman reports. "They’ve protected 74 acres of stream-side habitat, planted 4,000 trees, installed 16 miles of cattle fencing, and restored 10 miles of stream buffers."  Metcalf told him, "All that work has helped to increase the population of mussels and created more habitat for them to thrive and survive."

Chris Metcalf has worked on 20 projects to help improve
mussel water environments. (Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS)
Not all of the reasons for the mussel's surprising comeback are clear, but the "recovery of the at-risk species is a success story worth celebrating, especially during the 50th anniversary of the landmark Endangered Species Act," Chapman adds. "It is also a much-needed win for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which, for decades, has dealt with hydrologic, economic, and political decisions beyond its control."

Drug overdose deaths don't just happen to adults; dozens of teens die each month, and boys are especially vulnerable

The U.S. continues to see overwhelming numbers of drug overdose deaths, but one of the most jarring statistics is the number of adolescents dying from overdoses every month, reports Ty Schepis for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. "Drug overdoses are killing young Americans in unprecedented numbers: The monthly total rose from 31 in July 2019 to 87 in May 2021, the period with the most recent data. As a scholar of substance use who focuses on patterns that vary between age groups, I’m struck by how adolescents’ overdose deaths differ from adults’ in terms of gender, race and ethnicity and the drugs causing these fatalities."

The Conversation graph, from CDC data
Who is dying?
"When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined data for Americans 10 to 19 years old, it found that, as is the case for adults, most adolescents dying from drug overdoses are male. However, the share of girls among these fatalities is larger than the share of women," Schepis writes. "More than twice as many boys who are tweens or teens are dying of a drug overdose for every girl in that age group."

Which drug is most involved in teen overdose deaths? Fentanyl. "For teens, 84% of fatal overdoses involved fentanyl, and 56% of all overdoses involved only fentanyl," Schepis explains. "Many adolescents accidentally take fentanyl when they ingest counterfeit pills that they believe are prescription opioids or stimulants, or other illicit drugs that are laced with the drug. . . .In 67% of adolescent overdose deaths, a bystander was present who could have intervened. Naloxone was administered in less than half of cases where a bystander was present."

Is there a common thread among adolescent overdose deaths? Schepis reports, "Little or no prior drug use. Only 1 in 10 teens and tweens who died from a drug overdose had a history of treatment for a substance use problem, and only 1 in 7 had ever experienced a prior nonfatal overdose. . . . This pattern underscores the importance that all parents proactively talk with their children about substance use by the time they are 12 years old."

What can parents and extended family do to help change this pattern? "Having naloxone available can also be important. It prevents fentanyl and other opioids from causing an overdose by blocking access to opioid receptors in the brain," Schepis writes. "Think of naloxone like car insurance: You don’t want to use it, but it’s important to have in case something goes wrong. . . . There’s also a strong link between mental health conditions and drug overdoses among adults. . . . I recommend that all adults – whether caregivers or other people in an adolescent’s life – check in on their mental health regularly and recommend or seek treatment for any concerns as early as possible."