Friday, July 12, 2024

National program wants to help newsrooms add more than 50 positions; news organizations can apply for help now

Report for America
, a national service program, wants to help newsrooms across the United States -- and particularly in rural areas -- add more than 50 positions next summer. Applications are open for newsrooms interested in hosting journalists for up to three years, with part of the salary paid by the Report for America program.

According to Sam Kille, vice president of communications for Report for America, the program is designed to help newsrooms report on under-covered issues and communities.

Kille writes, "Through the program, host newsrooms receive:
-- Diverse, talented slate of candidates to choose from
-- Subsidized salary support for up to three years
-- Local fundraising coaching and resources, including the opportunity for no-cost fiscal sponsorship to accept donations
-- Extra training and mentoring for journalists

“We recognize the difficulties modern newsrooms encounter, from recruiting skilled journalists to offering the necessary mentorship and support,” said Earl Johnson, vice president of recruitment and alumni engagement at Report for America. “Partnering with Report for America enables local newsrooms to address critical news gaps, diversify their staff, and foster sustainable local backing within their communities.”

The application deadline is Sept. 13. More information about how the program works can be found here.

Report for America wants to expand its reach into rural areas where news gaps are prominent, and newsrooms owned or led by journalists of color. 

Kille specifies that newsrooms must demonstrate the following to Report for America:

Need — "Explain why the beat you’re proposing is vital to your audience and the community. We’re particularly interested in important beats that no other newsroom in your area is covering, or covering well. Also, why do you need our help to support this position?"
Support — "We look for newsrooms where corps members will receive good editing and mentoring, so they can do their best work."
A commitment to inclusion — "Newsrooms demonstrating a commitment to inclusion and supporting a diverse staff are important in our selection process."
A commitment to fundraising — "Where applicable, we ask our host newsrooms to try to raise money from local funders to pay for part of their corps member’s salary. Our development team can help you do this. We believe local philanthropy is key to strong local newsrooms and want to work with partners that believe this, too."

Report for America will help to provide up to half of the journalist’s salary and offer newsrooms tools to raise funds to support their share. Nearly $30 million has been raised by local newsrooms with Report for America’s assistance.

Report for America has matched more than 650 corps members with hundreds of local newspapers, public radio stations, digital platforms and television outlets since its launch in 2017.

Report for America will hold online information sessions with newsrooms and partner organizations throughout the application period. For more information, visit www.reportforamerica.org or send an email to: recruitment@reportforamerica.org.

Dairy farmers and livestock veterinarians face the stresses of bird flu virus' surprising transmission to cattle

Dairy farming is already a stressful profession. Bird
flu in cattle has increased tensions. (Adobe Stock photo)
Razor-thin profit margins and see-saw market prices already make the life of U.S. dairy farmers tough. Farmers must now contend with the unknowns of an evolving bird flu virus, which could infect herds and farm workers. "Avian influenza has hit dairy farms in at least 12 states after being confirmed in March to have jumped to cattle, reports Victor Stefanescu of The Wall Street Journal. "The malady, which can curb cows’ milk production and upend dairy farms’ operations, is the latest curveball for an industry that has grappled with low-profit margins, drought and shifting consumer tastes."

This version of bird flu, or H5N1, has been reported in 136 herds nationwide. The highly contagious virus is a stressful wildcard for dairy farmers because it slows milk production and some cows will not survive the infection. Stefanescu explains, "The virus has reached at least 26 herds in Idaho, where affected farms are losing up to a fifth of their milk production for three to four weeks. It is costing the average producer in the state $10,000 a day in lost revenue, said Idaho Dairymen’s Association Chief Executive Rick Naerebout."

One way dairy farmers are working to fight the introduction or spread of H5N1 is through biosecurity measures. "In Michigan, third-generation dairy farmer Ashley Kennedy is trying to boost biosecurity by limiting visitors’ access to her cows and logging the people who enter and exit the farm, as the state requires," Stefanescu writes. Some farmers in Wisconsin are deploying drones to chase away wild birds that may carry the virus.

Farmers aren't alone in facing additional stress brought on by bird flu's surprising transmission to cattle. Livestock veterinarians are also affected. In April when "the federal government began requiring some cows to be tested for a strain of avian flu before their herds could be moved across state lines, it seemed like an obvious step to try to track and slow the virus that had started spreading among U.S. dairy cattle," reports Andrew Joseph for STAT. "But Joe Armstrong, a veterinarian at the University of Minnesota extension school, feared the Department of Agriculture rule could lead to potential problems for his colleagues."

In practice, the USDA's rule puts veterinarians in the crosshairs between what the government demands and what the livestock owners are willing to do. Armstrong told Joseph: "There will be clients lost over this situation. That amount of stress and pressure from two directions — USDA from the top, clients from the other side — puts practicing veterinarians in a very stressful day-to-day.”

It's not an easy position for veterinarians, but their role in tempering the spread of H5N1 is vitally important. Joseph adds, "Since the outbreak in cattle was discovered earlier this year — by veterinarians themselves, — dairy veterinarians have been on the frontlines of the response. They’re testing cows. They’re teaming with farmers and dairy workers to prevent additional infections, both bovine and human. They’re using their on-the-ground experience to trace how the virus is transmitting."

Dairy farmers have been slow to allow -- or have even refused -- H5N1 testing on their farms. Keith Poulsen, a veterinarian who now spends most of his time running the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told Joseph, "It makes it really challenging to be that veterinarian and say, I know there’s flu on this farm, but the owner won’t approve testing. That makes a pretty big ethical dilemma for veterinarians.”

Opinion: Virginia county resists growth to maintain its rural character and countryside

Civil War monuments at Culpeper National Cemetery
(National Cemetery Administration photo)
As urban sprawl and industrial developments eat up Virginia countryside, Rappahannock County turns against the tide to remain a quiet, rural area with a protected "view shed," writes Dana Milbank in his opinion piece for The Washington Post.

Culpeper National Cemetery sits on a corner of land in Culpepper, Virginia, and there you will find "the final resting place for about 1,300 Union soldiers killed in the Civil War. Stone monuments honor regiments from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania that fought the battles of Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station and others nearby," Milbank explains. "But these hallowed grounds are about to become a monument to something else: the destruction of the American countryside.

"Look east from the cemetery, to an adjacent field where cattle graze, birds sing and a brook babbles: This will become a 116-acre data center housing 2.2 million square feet of massive structures with concrete walls up to 70 feet high. Look to the south from the cemetery at another green field: Here will rise the electrical substation powering the 600-megawatt monster."
Rappahannock County, Va.
(Wikipedia map)

While other Virginia counties take the "easy dollars" developers are waving, Rappahannock County has a different goal: To remain a part of the state's "dead zone," Milbank writes. "Its board of supervisors has for years rejected almost all development, and its population hasn’t grown at all. With 7,348 residents in the 2020 census, Rappahannock has roughly the same population it had in 2000 — and in 1920, for that matter. Rappahannock fends off development with its 25-acre minimum zoning requirement."

Keir Whitson, vice chairman of the board of supervisors, told Milbank, "I don’t even want to talk about growth. It’s not a word that should be in our active vocabulary." Milbank adds, "Whitson even torpedoed a local philanthropist’s plan to build three dozen affordable housing units in the town of Washington, Va., the county seat. He forced the already modest development to reduce its size to 18 apartments and townhouses. . . . It was a tough decision to reject what was, for the county, a gift of free affordable housing. It followed an easier decision to reject a 53-unit rental property on the approach to Shenandoah National Park."

Rappahannock's refusal of development dollars keeps the county on a meager budget, but residents are willing to bear that burden instead of managing the demands of growth. "While Culpeper and other nearby counties surrender to development, tiny Rappahannock has built a firewall to preserve its rural way of life," Millbank writes. "Similar tensions between development and rural character are playing out across the country. . . . Rappahannock has a plan: no development."

Rappahannock residents seem "content to live in a place with few amenities, few services and few jobs if it means preserving their unhurried rural life, their tightknit community, their panoramic views and their abundant wildlife."

Whitson told Milbank, “People say to me, pretty consistently, ‘Come on, buddy, get over it. You know Rappahannock County’s got to change. I’m like, ‘No, it doesn’t.’ I understand change is inevitable, but in Rappahannock County, change can be tiny, tiny change.” Milbank writes, "To save our countryside, we’re going to need a lot more such leaders with the courage to think small."

The UN pledged to reduce global production of plastic; companies prefer better recycling efforts

Adobe Stock photo
Is it possible to create a planet where plastic production and waste aren't a constant problem? Maybe. In March 2022, the United Nations "pledged to negotiate a treaty to 'end plastic pollution,' with the goal of delivering a final draft by 2025," reports Joseph Winters of Grist. One proposed solution was to negotiate with plastic makers to produce less, which hasn't happened. But, what Grist found out by motoring through petrochemical trade and industry group public statements and policies were various levels of the "industry’s desired pathway to a 'world without waste.'"

Among the various players that Grist contacted, "only two agreed to answer questions about the policies they support," Winters writes. "What we found is that, although they fall far short. . . . the industry groups’ proposals to bolster recycling and waste collection could cause a significant reduction in mismanaged plastic waste — even in the absence of a cap on plastic production."

When their proposals were entered into a policy analysis tool developed at the University of California, "the elements of the treaty that industry groups support, cobbled together, could cut global plastic pollution by 43 million metric tons annually by 2050 — a 36% reduction below business-as-usual estimates," Winters adds. "Meanwhile, a realistic production cap could cut annual pollution by 48 million metric tons all by itself."

When it comes to global garbage, the plastics industry is economically influential. Unsurprisingly, the industry does not think that the solution to plastic waste reduction is making less plastic. Instead, industry groups support a concept called "plastics circularity," which "seeks to keep the material in use for as long as possible before it’s thrown away. Generally, this means more recycling," Winters reports. 

But that can be challenging. "The world only recycles about 9 percent of all plastic it produces; the rest gets sent to landfills or incinerators, or winds up as litter," Winters explains. Given the problem, the industry is promoting more and better recycling by supporting policies that build recycling infrastructure and placing some of the onus for recycling costs on companies that use it.

Even as the plastic waste reduction agreement takes shape, "it’s clear that self-preservation is at the heart of the petrochemical industry’s agenda for the treaty," Winters reports. "The policies it supports could have a positive impact on plastic pollution."

A prescription for rural isolation: Coffee and community that can build human connections and improve health

Coffee and community can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
(Mercantile photo via RHIH)
Part of rural living's appeal can be its wide open spaces with big skies and swaths of uninhabited land. While people may relish country living, it can be socially isolating and lonely, which isn't a healthy state for most people. In Madison, Minnesota, pop. 1,518, Dr. Hannah Fields, the town's family physician, is experimenting with a new prescription for some of her patients: "Visit the local coffee shop," reports Brendan Stermer for Rural Health Information Hub. Fields told Stermer, “It's as simple as pulling out a piece of scrap paper and writing a prescription for coffee, then texting Kris [the owner of the shop] like, ‘Hey, if someone shows up with this, put it on my tab."

Field's prescription isn't just for coffee -- it's for the community bonds the location offers alongside warm sips. "These interactions, Fields believes, amount to an intangible elixir that is healthier and more invigorating than even the Mercantile's strongest brew: authentic human connection," Stermer explains. "It's a basic — though often unacknowledged — necessity for health."

The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on the Health Effects of Social Connection and Community was published in May 2023, and it listed human connection “as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter." But hanging out together and connecting has become harder for many Americans.

The 2023 advisory described the problem: “Recent surveys have found that approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. These estimates and multiple other studies indicate that loneliness and social isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day, including smoking (12.5% of U.S. adults), diabetes (14.7%), and obesity (41.9%), and with comparable levels of risk to health and premature death.”

With that kind of health risk on the table, a cup of coffee or tea with other humans might be the cheapest and most effective antidote. "Fields hopes the 2023 Surgeon General's Advisory has opened the door for individuals and providers to reckon with the presence of these issues in their own lives, and in their communities," Stermer reports. "Her referrals to the Mercantile are inspired by a practice, more common in Europe, known as social prescribing. While she has heard promising patient feedback, she emphasized that formal program implementation and evaluation would be needed to draw any firm conclusions."

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

One lawsuit over the Marion County newspaper raid settled for $235,000, but more claims are pending

Marion County Record raid, Gruver's desk at bottom right
(Screen capture of surveillance video via Kansas Reflector)
It has been almost a year since the Marion County Record was raided by police supposedly investigating charges of identity theft and illegal use of a computer by the Kansas weekly newspaper. In the process of confiscating newsroom property, the city's chief of police, Gideon Cody, injured Record reporter Deb Gruver's hand while "forcibly obtaining her personal cellphone," reports Emmett Lindner of The New York Times. "Gruver has reached a $235,000 settlement as part of a lawsuit she filed over the search, which set off a national discussion about press freedoms."

Gruver, who resigned from the paper after the raid, "said in a letter to the editor that she 'no longer wanted to work in a town where the majority of leaders clearly don’t respect the Fourth Estate or the U.S. Constitution,” The Record reported.

Another lawsuit, filed by the Record's publisher, Eric Meyer, alleges that the raid, which included "seven law enforcement officials spending more than two hours in Meyer’s residence, where his mother was at the time" contributed to her death the next day, Linder reports. Four other Record employees also have suits pending.

While Gruver's settlement ends one chapter of the raid's fallout, the entire investigation and the later reversal of the authorized searches that allowed it are still more broadly worrisome, particularly for smaller newspapers that investigate local authorities. Linder explains, "Less than a week after the raid, Marion County’s top prosecutor, Joel Ensey, ordered officials to return the seized devices because there was insufficient evidence to justify the searches. . . .The raid also came after The Record had questioned Cody about his departure from the Kansas City Police Department, following accusations that he had made sexist and insulting comments."

The raid didn't just have negative outcomes; there was also a silver lining. Meyer told Linder, "One of the things that we’ve seen out of this is that the people who have responded to us have come from across the political spectrum. There aren’t too many things in this world right now that bring Democrats and Republicans together.”

Opinion: 'Red flag' laws help prevent firearm suicides in the U.S., but they curb gun rights. It's a balancing act of risks.

ERPOs can prevent firearm suicides, but striking a
balance with gun rights is difficult to measure. (A.S. photo)
Access to a firearm can mean a person at the crossroads of ending their own life will succeed. Even though many other means of suicide exist, almost none are more predictably final. Psychiatry researcher Jeffrey W. Swanson looks at how extreme risk protection order laws prevent suicides and how they intersect with gun rights in his opinion for JAMA Network Open. Swanson first sees the topic through the lens of his 18-year-old cousin's suicide.

"The sound of my grandmother’s trembling voice lingers from that winter morning, almost 40 years ago now, when she called with awful news. My beautiful cousin Kristin had come home from college for the holidays and killed herself with a shotgun. . . . I was a new faculty member in a psychiatry department at the time, embarking on a career in which I would spend decades researching ways to prevent death and injury from guns.

"Aunt Helen asked me what could have saved their youngest child. I suggested Kristin had succumbed to a fatal illness; it was no one’s fault. . . .Today I would give a different answer. I would say Kristin died from a preventable injury with a firearm. I would add that a law prohibiting her access to a gun might have kept Kristin alive."

Extreme risk protection order laws, also known as red flag laws, "provide a civil court process designed to prevent firearm injuries by temporarily disarming individuals who pose an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others. An ERPO also prohibits a person from purchasing or possessing a firearm while the order is in effect, typically for up to a year," Swanson explains. "With the clarity of excruciating hindsight, it seems obvious that Kristin’s ability to acquire a firearm was a decisive factor in her death."

ERPOs have gained traction across the country as legislatures search for ways to reduce firearm deaths. At the same time, gun rights matter, so where is the balance? Swanson presents the paradox: "How do we know when someone poses enough danger to justify deploying police authority to remove their firearms? Risk means uncertainty, by definition, and risk assessment will always be an imperfect predictor of rare adverse events such as suicide; the significant risk factors all apply to many more people who will not die from suicide than those who will. Thus, for every hypothetical death averted by an ERPO, there will always be some ERPO respondents who would not actually have harmed themselves, or anyone else, had they been left (literally) to their own devices. We just do not know who they are in advance."

There are statistics to back up ERPO's effectiveness. "A widely cited statistic from our group’s research studies of suicide deaths among ERPO respondents in Connecticut and Indiana is that for every 10 to 20 ERPOs issued, 1 suicide was averted," Swanson adds. "In a nation where private gun ownership is commonplace, culturally entrenched, and constitutionally protected, feasible solutions to gun violence hang in the balance of risk and rights. . . . [Yet] in a country where more than 20, 000 people every year die of suicide with firearms, it is impossible to ignore that what is too late for Kristin could save many today."

Conservation farming practices could help reduce the Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zone' that harms marine life and fishing

Agriculture's use of fertilizers without run-off prevention means chemicals along with nitrogen and phosphorus flow down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. (Adobe Stock photo)

When Midwestern farming states steer around conservation practices and use more synthetic fertilizer and manure, their crops' run-off flows into the Mississippi River and contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zone,' reports Erin Jordan of The Gazette, which serves Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "There are thousands of U.S. farmers not growing cover crops or using other conservation practices shown to reduce runoff. . . thwarting plans to slash nitrogen and phosphorus washing down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients threaten wildlife and fishing industries." Encouraging or requiring farmers to use more conservation practices could change this trend.

What is the dead zone and why should farmers care? The zone is produced by chemicals and element run-offs of nitrogen and phosphorus that flow down the Mississippi and into the gulf. Once in the gulf, "these nutrients are required for plant and crop growth, trigger algae blooms that choke off oxygen in water and make it difficult, if not impossible, for marine life to survive," reports The Nature Conservancy. "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the dead zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. The impact could be devastating to the gulf’s seafood industry."

Originally, the United States pegged 2025 as the year for nitrogen and phosphorus flows into the gulf to be reduced by 20%. But the country is far from reaching this goal. 

Despite government subsidies for conservation projects, "many farmers just don’t want to risk reducing their short-term yields — money they use to feed their families and pay down debt," Jordan reports. "While the Midwest has seen boosts in farming practices that reduce runoff, there’s also been an increase in practices that make the problem worse."

Some states are reconsidering "the strategy of paying farmers to implement voluntary practices to reduce nutrient loss," Jordan writes, including some lawmakers in Minnesota who "pushed for a 40-cent-per-ton fertilizer tax that would raise an estimated $1.2 million a year to be used to help southeast Minnesota residents whose drinking water wells are contaminated with nitrate, which has been linked to some forms of cancer."

Parts of rural Pennsylvania paint a grim picture of dwindling populations and the loss of small-town life

When rural populations shrink, the quality of
small-town life declines. (Adobe Stock photo)
Some rural populations have continued to shrink, leaving towns that were once vibrant places facing an uncertain future. "Across rural Pennsylvania, there is a deepening sense of fear about the future as population loss accelerates. The sharp decline has put the state at the forefront of a national discussion on the viability of the small towns that have long been a pillar of American culture," reports Tim Craig of The Washington Post. Many losses stem from a rural aging population not being replaced by births and younger families moving away in search of better opportunities.

Around 10 years ago, the U.S. rural population flattened and then began to contract. In fact, 81% of rural counties "had more deaths than births between 2019 and 2023," Craig writes. "Experts who study the phenomena say the shrinking baby boomer population and younger residents having smaller families and moving elsewhere for jobs are fueling the trend."

In the 1980s, parts of rural Pennsylvania began losing people because of "job losses in the manufacturing and energy industries that prompted many younger families to relocate to Sun Belt states," Craig reports. "State lawmakers and other leaders now consider the population loss a crisis and are drawing up plans to try to reverse the trend."

When a small town has more people die than are born, and fewer people move in to fill the gaps, daily life changes for the entire community. "Already, the demographic shift is affecting where students attend school, how long residents have to wait for an ambulance and whether they can quickly see a doctor," Craig explains. "In some cases, local governments themselves are on the verge of collapse as they struggle to fill open jobs and leadership positions."

Sheffield, Pennsylvania, is one community facing the reality of "too many old people." The area began to decline about "a decade ago. . . . But it’s been only in the last decade or so that the full weight of the community’s future challenges began," Craig reports. "Sheffield’s only ambulance was taken out of service about two years ago, around the same time the community’s only daycare closed due to low enrollment. . . Residents are peeved that the local bank branch and liquor store have closed."

The community may have to close its high school because there aren't enough students. Jim Decker, chairman of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, wants "local leaders to figure out a way to reinvent the community," Craig adds. "But Decker acknowledged the planning for Warren County’s recovery is 'a daunting task.'"

Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, said, "Barring some outside occurrence, it’s very unusual for counties to recover."

When poverty is measured differently, a new and surprisingly poorer American picture emerges

Many Americans may look to the federal poverty rate as a way to measure how many U.S. citizens are living in need. Unfortunately, that snapshot is "just the tip of the iceberg," writes Jeffrey C. Fuhrer of Brookings in his blog. Fuhrer outlines why the the poverty rate, which doesn't vary from place to place, is a "woefully incomplete measure of economic need. A much more relevant benchmark is the cost of a basket of basic necessities. That benchmark, unlike the poverty threshold, varies dramatically by geography, as housing and other costs vary substantially from county to county. The cost of necessities far exceeds the poverty level for every family category in every county in the country."

When the ability of a family's income to meet basic needs is used to calculate how many American budgets fall short, a much different picture emerges. For a "shockingly high proportion of families, total family resources do not cover the expenses for these necessities. And that proportion rises significantly for families of color," Fuhrer adds. "Forty-three percent of all families in the U.S. fall short of meeting basic needs. And the legacy of institutional racism jumps out of these statistics: Across all family structures, 59% and 66% of Black and Hispanic families, respectively, have resources that fall short of basic family budgets, versus 37% of white families."

How do families manage to make do without? "As the interviewees in my recent book, The Myth That Made Us, attest, they use a variety of tactics to cope with life on or near the edge. To be sure, they scrimp on some necessities. Families can avoid spending on preventative health care, home maintenance (for the minority who own homes), auto maintenance and other necessary expenditures that can be deferred. They go into debt," Fuhrer explains. "All of these decisions bear important longer-term consequences. As a leading example, non-payment of rent often leads to eviction and the endless trauma that accompanies it."

By the numbers, the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, but many Americans are not sharing in that legacy. Fuhrer writes, "The huge numbers of families with low incomes, measured not relative to the poverty line but to quite conservative budgets, is staggering. . . "

To read Fuhrer's complete blog posting including supporting data and graphs, click here.

Friday, July 05, 2024

More than 200 newspapers complain about U.S. Postal Service's poor mail delivery and escalating costs

The following report is from John Galer, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of The Journal-News in Hillsboro, Illinois.

On June 28, the National Newspaper Association delivered letters from more than 200 newspaper titles to the Postal Regulatory Commission, complaining about inadequate mail delivery and escalating postage rates.

The comments were part of a review by the PRC of its postal rate regulations, which it is required by Congress to do periodically. The commission last completed a rate review in 2021 at which time it gave the U.S. Postal Service authority to raise postage rates beyond inflation levels. The result for community newspapers has been an increase by 35-50 percent in postage costs in the past four years.

The PRC announced earlier this year, following widespread complaints by mail users, that it would initiate a new inquiry on its regulations. Its determination will set USPS’s legal authority to increase rates for at least five years.

NNA Chair John Galer, publisher of the Journal-News, Hillsboro, IL, asked NNA members and newspapers in state newspaper organizations to send him their thoughts on the impact of the past few years of postage increases.

Responses registered a state of alarm on the future of the industry, specific complaints about delivery failures, losses of subscribers and unresponsive local postal authorities when delivery was not properly executed. Galer included the letters in NNA’s comments to the commission. NNA is also working with mailing industry partners on more detailed comments on the mechanisms involved in the rate regulation, including one provision that allows USPS to increase rates more when mail volume declines, which many in the industry consider a reward for poor performance.

“NNA has met with the commission recently to explain our situation,” Galer said. “We needed the commissioners to understand that this situation cannot continue. The PRC is inclined to blame the Postmaster General for using every inch of rate authority that the commission extended. But it was the commission that laid the table for this disaster. With proper rate regulation, we would not be in the situation we now find ourselves in. Now, we have to be concerned not only for the future of our own newspapers but for the plummeting of mail volumes that threatens the very basis of universal mail service. It was not unusual this year to see complaints not only about late newspaper delivery but also about checks in the mail arriving slowly or not at all. Even first-class mail has become unreliable in many areas.”

Public comments are being accepted by the PRC until July 9.

Journalists may be wrong about why the American public has less trust in their reporting, new research finds

Profits, not biased storytelling, may be why Americans'
trust in the news is wavering. (Adobe Stock photo)
Many journalists think the American public does not trust the news because of perceived political biases in coverage. A new study suggests that view may be wrong, writes lead researcher Jacob L. Nelson for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. "We found that people’s distrust of journalism does not stem from fears of ideological brainwashing. Instead, it stems from assumptions that the news industry as a whole values profits above truth or public service."

Study researchers conducted 34 Zoom-based interviews with adults representing a cross-section of age, political leaning, socioeconomic status and gender and discovered that money, not slanted information was the source of their distrust. Nelson explains, "The Americans we interviewed believe that news organizations report the news inaccurately not because they want to persuade their audiences to support specific political ideologies, candidates or causes, but rather because they simply want to generate larger audiences — and therefore larger profits."

It's easy to understand how the public might come to their conclusions. "The people we spoke with tended to assume that news organizations made money primarily through advertising instead of also from subscribers," Nelson writes. "Consequently, many of the people interviewed described journalists as being enlisted in an ongoing, never-ending struggle to capture public attention in an incredibly crowded media environment."

Even when interviewees believed that news organizations' support came from their audiences through subscriptions or donations instead of advertisers, "they still described deep distrust toward the news that stemmed from concerns about the news industry’s commercial interests," Nelson explains. "In light of these findings, it appears that journalists’ concerns that they must defend themselves against accusations of ideological bias might be misplaced."

If financial bias is a common root of journalistic distrust, "it might be more beneficial for newsroom managers to shift their energies to pushing back against perceptions of economic bias," Nelson adds. "The people we interviewed also often appeared to conflate television news with other forms of news production, such as print, digital and radio. And there is ample evidence that television news managers do indeed appear to privilege profits over journalistic integrity."

Report: The IRS has gotten better at helping rural and 'underserved' markets but still has room to improve

TIGTA analysis of IRS TAC, VITA, TCI and LITC locations and
SSA shared office space by zip code.

For rural residents, getting help from the Internal Revenue Service might be a bit easier than it was a year ago; however, the agency still needs to  improve its outreach to help "underserved" people, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. Sean Michael Newhouse of Government Executive reports, "A watchdog report published last week offered new insights on how the IRS can better use the nearly $58 billion in funding from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act to improve taxpayer services for underserved, underrepresented and rural individuals."

While the TIGTA report recognized some improvements, it noted that the "IRS does not currently have a definition for what an underserved taxpayer is," Newhouse explains. "While IRS officials told investigators that they use different models to identify such taxpayers, the inspector general argued this practice has resulted in disparate definitions across the agency."

The report also recommended the agency use strategic communication tools to inform underserved residents about available tax assistance programs. Newhouse reports, "For example, investigators did not find any information on the IRS website about outreach events for rural taxpayers or the agency’s virtual assistance program. That being said, since the virtual service started in 2022, a total of 46 employees have helped more than 22,000 taxpayers."

Because reaching underserved populations is a challenge, investigators suggested the IRS piggyback its office locations with or near other government service offices, such as the Social Security Administration office. 

Friday quick hits: Rural top-flick picks; dairy funds; heat can kill; racial voting division; bread debate; hop on a new train

Eita Okuno, Anna Sawai, and Hiromoto Ida in 'Shōgun.' (FX /IMDb image via The Daily Yonder)

On steamy days when the pool is too crowded and you can't handle any more of Mother Nature's energy-sucking heat, it might be time to chill indoors and take in a rural flick. From the "Mad Max Saga" to wrestling's fierce Von Erich family drama to the stunning "craftsmanship and costuming" in "Shōgun," Adam B. Giorgi of The Daily Yonder has some fine movie picks that will make relaxing in the AC much more fun.

In states with the highest number of drug overdose deaths, patients in treatment for mental illness often live with an opioid use disorder that mental health clinics are unable to treat, a study showed. "Despite high rates of opioid use disorder among people with mental health disorders, only a third of community outpatient mental health treatment facilities in 20 high-burden states offered medications for OUD," reports Shannon Firth of MedPage Today. "Among the 450 community outpatient mental health treatment facilities surveyed, weighted estimates showed that 34% offered medications for OUD, reported study co-author Jonathan Cantor, PhD. JAMA Network Open published the study in June.
Jersey Scoops capitalized on the USDA's new small
dairy initiative. (Jersey Scoops photo)

What's better than locally made ice cream or homestead cheeses? More of both. At least that's what the Department of Agriculture seems to think. The USDA is funding a new initiative that "aims to transform and diversify the dairy industry, one small producer at a time," reports Naoki Nitta of Civil Eats. "At 'Jersey Scoops' in Loleta, a small, unincorporated community in Northern California’s Humboldt County, the ice cream is as fresh as it gets. From pasture to parlor, its organic, butterfat-rich milk travels less than 10 miles, produced by a herd of Jerseys pasture-raised on the misty coast. . . . But Jersey Scoops didn’t get here on their own; they leveraged a $60,000 grant from the Pacific Coast Coalition’s Dairy Business Innovation Initiative to secure both the space and equipment." Learn about how local cheese ventures are leveraging this funding here.

As global temperatures continue to spike, awareness of heat-related illnesses is especially vital for outdoor workers and their employers. Heat can make workers sick, but it can also be deadly, reports Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press. "With much of the United States, Mexico, India and the Middle East suffering through blistering heat waves. . . several doctors, physiologists and other experts explained what happens to the human body in such heat." To find out how heat kills, click here.
Handmade bread is much different than mass produced
loaves. (Bluegrass Baking Company photo)

Bread is considered a U.S. family staple for affordable nutrition, but the processing that creates a uniform and stay-fresh loaf has landed "packaged bread in the middle of a fraught debate over 'ultra-processed food,'" reports Jesse Newman for The Wall Street Journal. "Less-processed foods tend to be more expensive and quicker to spoil. . . . For bakers like Jim Betts, owner of Bluegrass Baking Company in Lexington, Ky., most packaged bread is a far cry from the food that has been sustaining humanity for at least 10,000 years." To read why homemade bread is so dramatically different and more pricey than store-bought loaves, click here.

The U.S. rural-urban voter divide primarily exists among whites, a new study published in Politics, Groups, and Identities found. Kate Blackwood for PHYS.org reports, "When it comes to politics, Black and Latino residents of rural America differ far less, if at all, from their urban counterparts than do non-Hispanic white residents, the researchers report." One of the study's authors, Suzanne Mettler, told Blackwood, "Rural and urban Americans began moving apart politically in the late 1990s, and the division has widened and deepened since then. . .We wanted to know whether all Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity, are swept up in this growing cleavage.

A Borealis Amtrak train rounds the corner
surrounded by Midwestern fall colors. (Amtrak photo)
Midwestern states have been busy working to add more train services to their transportation portfolios. The new Amtrak Borealis service between Chicago and St. Paul opened last month after 12 years of planning, reports Daniel C. Volk of Route Fifty. "The new service was also a breakthrough. It is the first new passenger route launched in Minnesota since 1975, and the first in Wisconsin in more than two decades. . . . Officials in both states — like dozens of others across the country — are now planning for even more new passenger routes, because of incentives in President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law." Borealis trains include wide reclining seats, ample legroom, free Wi-Fi and views of the Mississippi River between St. Paul and La Crosse, Wisc., in daylight in both directions across Wisconsin.

Opinion: Why America is still 'an experiment worth pursuing'

Abraham Lincoln wrote that while America's prosperity was dependent upon the union of the states,
'the primary cause' was the principle of 'Liberty to all.' (Adobe Stock photo)

Two hundred years ago, 19th-century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States as "exceptional." Not even 10 years ago, Pew Research Center polls found Americans more upbeat than people in other wealthy nations. While not scientific, should you search "what's great about living in America?" or "what's great about being an American?" you'll discover pages upon pages richly filled with why America -- despite its failings and current political turmoil -- is still one of the best places to live in the world. In 2023, The Washington Post's Editorial Board offered an opinion on why Independence Day is still worth celebrating. Some lightly edited highlights are below.

There is a tide of worry about a lack of civic cohesion, intense partisanship, and, to some, a sense of hopelessness. July Fourth, however, is a day to celebrate, among other national virtues, the United States’ proven capacity for renewal and self-improvement. The staying power of our system comes from its ability to correct and recalibrate. Free elections and open markets create a dynamism that increases political and economic freedom.

The genius of America is that it’s built for give and take, accommodation and compromise, checks and balances, reform and reaction. People in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Cuba aspire to freedom. But their systems don’t tolerate constructive dissent.

Yes, we hear people who should know better say things have never been this bad. Measured by almost every metric, the United States is better off than 200 — or even 20 — years ago. Start with economic well-being: The U.S.-led global order has brought millions out of poverty. America remains the capital of medical, technological and artistic invention.

The framers designed a self-healing system that also allows for moral growth. We carry the scars of the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, Watergate and Vietnam but came out of them a better people. The country that initially counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person twice elected a Black president.

So why are many Americans no longer as proud of their country? Corrosive partisanship is no small part of the answer. . . . Alarmingly, across party lines, just 18% of 18-to-34-year-olds say they’re extremely proud of this country. This generation grew up amid the dislocation of the Great Recession, seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, school shootings and active-shooter drills. . . . .With these frames of reference, fear and hopelessness are unsurprising. A decline in national pride ought not be viewed in isolation from daily events, but these events also provide evidence of this nation’s resiliency. . .
Fourth of July weekend events are good places for Americans
to hang out together and celebrate. (Adobe Stock photo)

Even the chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border. . . is a reminder that this country remains a beacon of opportunity so powerful that people around the world are willing to take enormous risks to move into what they understand to be a promised land.

Between baseball and barbecue, let’s all take a deep breath. . . . Despite the corrosiveness of self-doubt and political tribalism, there is much to celebrate. American values have matured and endured, and while our union is still far from perfect, we continue to believe it’s an experiment worth pursuing."

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Opinion: Indictments aren't enough to account for law enforcement's 'epic' failures at Uvalde school shooting

Teachers and students followed active shooter survival steps.
Law officers did not. (Adobe Stock photo)
On May 24, 2022, Salvador Ramos, 18, entered Robb Elementary School with his AR-15-style rifle and started looking for victims. When shots rang out from his gun, teachers and students implemented their live shooter training. The Uvalde, Texas, police arrived at the scene within five minutes of the first 911 call, but they did not enter the building. In the 77 minutes it took for police to breach classroom 112, 19 children and two teachers were shot dead.

Last week a grand jury indicted former Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo and former school police officer Adrian Gonzales on criminal charges for failing to protect the victims, but many Uvalde residents feel the indictments fail to hold the larger law enforcement community accountable, writes Neil Sturdevant in his commentary for the Uvalde Leader-News. "Perhaps to some, the 29 felony indictments for child endangerment/abandonment feel like justice served, but we think otherwise. Other officers, especially those in leadership positions who failed to intervene. . . should not walk away without consequences."

Arredondo served as the "de facto on-scene commander," as concluded in the 575-page Department of Justice report released last January. "The veteran officer bore direct responsibility to protect life on the Robb campus," Sturdevant explains. But his mistakes multiplied the victims. He treated the shooter as though he was a "barricaded suspect" instead of an active shooter in a school filled with young pupils. 

Gonzales was the "first on the scene and was able to quickly identify the classroom where the carnage was unfolding. . . and yet he did not approach the classroom," Sturdevant writes. "Gonzales had undergone active shooter training and taught the course earlier that year." But Arredondo and Gonzales weren't the only officers who abandoned students and teachers. Four other officers actively delayed intervention, which allowed more children to be shot or bleed to death while they waited for help.

"We wonder how evidence presented to grand jurors failed to illicit similar indictments for [those other] men," Sturdevant asks. "The same can be said for members of the Uvalde Police Department, elite Texas Rangers and state police who milled in the Robb hallway during the rampage killing. . . . Now two men stand alone as the sole source of blame for one of the most incompetent police responses in U.S. history."

"How does Uvalde district attorney Christina Michell look families in the eye and say this is a good deal? Mountains of evidence outlined a failure of epic proportions," Sturdevant writes. "The children and teachers who were carried, limped or dragged from their classrooms. . .were clearly abandoned by police. Now our criminal justice system has failed to right those grievous wrongs."

Supreme Court blocks Purdue Pharma opioid settlement; agreement 'broke a basic tenet of bankruptcy law'

OxyContin's success made the Sacklers billionaires
and sparked the U.S. opioid crisis. (A.S. photo)
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Purdue Pharma opioid bankruptcy agreement that would have safeguarded Sackler family members from civil liability suits related to the opioid crisis.

"In a 5-to-4 decision, the justices found that the deal, carefully negotiated over years with states, tribes, local governments and individuals, had broken a basic tenet of bankruptcy law by shielding members of the Sackler family from lawsuits without the consent of those who might sue," reports Abbie Van Sickle of the New York Times. Purdue Pharma, which was owned by the Sackler family who developed and marketed the prescription painkiller OxyContin, is "largely considered to have ignited the [opioid] crisis."

Meanwhile, there are more than 100,000 opioid victim families waiting for financial restitution from Purdue Pharma. For some, the ruling is considered a setback. Other family members welcomed the decision. Van Sickle writes, "Although most creditors who voted on the proposed plan supported it, Justice Gorsuch wrote, 'fewer than 20 percent of eligible creditors participated' and 'thousands of opioid victims voted against the plan, too, and many pleaded with the bankruptcy court not to wipe out their claims against the Sacklers without their consent.'"

As Van Sickle reports, the court's majority "homed in on the method the Sacklers used to insulate themselves from opioid-related lawsuits, finding that a third party could not use the bankruptcy system to shield themselves from litigation, binding others without their consent. . . . This approach, Justice Gorsuch wrote, allowed them to win relief 'without securing the consent of those affected or placing anything approaching their total assets on the table for their creditors.'"

The proposed deal would have required the Sacklers to pay up to $6 billion over 18 years, but its building blocks demonstrate the tightrope negotiators are trying to walk between getting family members, states and tribes money now, even if the agreement shielded the Sacklers' personal wealth. "In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, "warned of the consequences for the tens of thousands of families seeking compensation," Van Sickle reports. "Justice Kavanaugh wrote that upending the settlement to prevent the Sacklers from escaping future litigation would only add to the pain of opioid victims and their families."

Within the deal's bankruptcy reorganization, Purdue Pharma "would become a 'public benefit' company with a mission focused on opioid education and abatement," Van Sickle reports. "The company, with the help of the Sacklers’ planned contributions, offered individual victims payments from a base amount of $3,500 up to a ceiling of $48,000." Purdue Pharma has committed to working toward a new settlement deal.

Opinion: Will the public be notified of water problems? EPA and states often let the information be obscured.

John Galer
The following is a column by John Galer, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of The Journal-News in Hillsboro, Illinois.

If you are aware of the Marion County (Kansas) Record, it is probably because you winced at the dings and dents inflicted upon the First Amendment when the local police department conducted a raid on the Record’s offices in 2023. Publisher Eric Meyer stood up to the police with a civil liberties lawsuit, put his paper out in spite of the harassment from law enforcement and reminded audiences all over the country about the importance of community newspapers.

What you might not know is that the Record is at it again — this time exposing the damage to the public’s right to know when water quality public notices are entrusted to self-reporting on government websites.

Ironically, the Record is in the same state whose attorney general recently gave Wichita — the state’s largest city — the ability to eliminate its newspaper notices and instead publish on the city’s website.

How well does this self-reporting work? We need only to look to the EPA’s and state agencies’ reporting requirements for water quality.

EPA used to require a newspaper notice. Then it “modernized” its methodology and set up a three-tied communications system for alerting the public to drinking water problems. The new guidance now doesn’t even mention newspapers. For immediate risks to human health, the only requirement for use of news media is a mention to broadcast media (remember them—they are the ones who no longer have local reporters in a majority of their markets.) Presumably, this notification would be through a press release. Translation: free media. Presumably, the broadcast outlet would be free to ignore it or forget to read their email to pick it up in the first place.

The water agency also can post the notice in “conspicuous locations.” We are remembering a recent public health experience when most people didn’t go outside their homes. We wonder which “conspicuous locations” would have served then. Hand delivery of notices to persons served by the water system is also allowed. We are betting that is a rare occurrence.

How well does this new system work?

Not so well, according to EPA’s inspector general. Agencies responsible for issuing public notices failed to meet requirements about 6,000 times per year on average. As a result, citizens were not notified that the Safe Drinking Water Act passed by Congress in 1974 was not being followed. In short, people might have been drinking polluted water, unaware.

After the debacles in Flint, Michigan, where taxpayers had to foot millions of dollars in damages and legal fees for drinking water problems — per the existence of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water near key military bases in North Carolina and Georgia — a person might think water quality would be higher on enforcing agencies’ agendas.

Back to Marion, Kansas.

The notice used by the city water authorities was a copy of a compliance report included in water bills. But one month, the report didn’t show up. Meyer went on the hunt. He was met with defensiveness and accusations, according to his news story. Finally, he found a mention in one water bill of an internet address for a water quality report. And it turned out a link to the report was on the city website. But, lo, when Meyer followed the link, he got a “Forbidden” notice. He reported a series of deflections by city official: they couldn’t get testing supplies from a vendor, tests were not really required because it had stopped using one disinfectant after its injectors failed. On and on.

To Meyer’s credit, he doesn’t let the ire of city administrations stop him. We hope his readers love his temerity and that his readers find out what they need to know about their local water. Meanwhile, we hope the Kansas attorney general gets a wake-up call.

What’s wrong with this picture?

As with all of the wishful thinking that goes into removing newspaper public notices and requiring the public’s business to be posted on some obscure website, the ability of the public to educate itself gets washed away. If Marion County’s 11,000-some residents had at least been given a shot at real public notice, they might have found the water was bad. Or that it was safe. Either way, they could have found out. But EPA let the water authorities off the public notice hook. And now the state has allowed its attorney general to further the error in Wichita.

The problem is that lack of notice removes, in Marion’s case, some 11,000 private attorneys general who might have chosen to hold their government accountable. But none the wiser, they could not.

What will it take? As in all defenses of liberty, eternal vigilance. We can never give up on the right to know.

'Great Wealth Transfer' is coming, and some funders are working to plant philanthropy money in rural communities

Graph by Sarah Melotte, The Daily Yonder,
from Federal Reserve data

Over the next two decades, tremendous amounts of American wealth will transfer from generation to generation. "In the next 20 years, about $84 trillion will change hands. . . . Economists call it the Great Wealth Transfer," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "Small-town philanthropies hope to capture some of that wealth for the benefit of historically underfunded rural communities. . . . Some experts worry the transfer might reinforce economic inequality [but] rural philanthropists are thinking about how people might invest this money to create healthier communities."

Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension, told Melotte, “You can get your cup under this wealth that potentially is going to be transferred, and pour it back into your town and bring that wealth here." 

As part of his research, Winchester recently released a report on the Great Wealth Transfer in rural Minnesota. "The report found that in the coming decade, $5.6 billion will change hands across 10 central Minnesota counties," Melotte explains. "If local foundations could capture even one percent of that transfer, it could funnel $56 million into local infrastructure."

Philanthropic work can build additional supports across a wide range of needs within rural communities that have "often been left out of larger sources of both private and public funding," Melotte writes. “Many rural economies also suffer from long-term lack of investment. As a result, residents of nonmetropolitan counties are more likely to live in communities with persistent poverty."

Executive Director Erin Borla of the Roundhouse Foundation, a rural philanthropy in Oregon, asked Melotte, "If you’re from a farming community, or a logging family or whatever the rural livelihood was, does the next generation [who controls that wealth] live in that same community?” Melotte adds, "Borla said that the local wealth that is generated in a rural community can end up redirected to other economies throughout the country as people move away. Small-town foundations are aware of this trend, according to Borla, which is why they’re focused on directing those funds back into local projects."

Rural Minnesota is receiving wealth-transfer guidance from one of its foundations, CommunityGiving. Steve Joul, president of CommunityGiving, advises rural communities to envision what a healthier future for their town might look like. Joul told Melotte, "You need to have all the players at the table. It’s an open invitation to the community to come to the table to craft an idea and vision for where you want to go.”

According to Joul, everyone means everyone. Melotte adds, "Joul emphasized the importance of avoiding the common trap of only including residents with power and resources. Engaging more stakeholders helps mitigate worsening wealth inequality."

'On the Front Porch' is hosting an expert-led discussion on July 8 about the opioid crisis in rural America


Tony Pipa and Brent Orrell are back "On the Front Porch" hosting rural-focused conversations starting on Monday, July 8, from 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. E.T.

Their July 8 event will include insights from Keith Humphreys, a professor at Stanford University, and Sally Satel, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, both of whom are experts on opioid use disorder and its impact on rural communities. Their discussion will look at the causes of and potential solutions to the nation’s drug epidemic, especially as that challenge presents in nonmetropolitan areas.

Register here. If you have missed previous On the Front Porch conversations, you can find them here.

In other rural news, the second season of Pipa's Reimagine Rural podcast continues with new episodes every three weeks this summer. The most recent episode explores Licking County, OH, the future home of Intel’s two new semiconductor factories, which is the largest private sector investment in Ohio’s history. Pipa speaks with elected leaders of nearby jurisdictions about the inevitable changes they face and the collective planning process they developed to protect the integrity of their towns after being left out of the siting decision. You can listen to that episode here or on your favorite podcast platform.

Past episodes, including all of season 1 and the first three episodes of season 2, can be found here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Large rural cooperative is adding solar projects in Colorado in an effort to expand 'cleaner power' options

Tri-State service territory in blue (Tri-State photo)
Once a stalwart provider of coal-powered energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association will purchase Axial Basin Solar, a 145-megawatt project in Moffat County, Colorado, and Dolores Canyon Solar, a 110-​megawatt project in Dolores County, Colorado, reports Julian Spector of Canary Media. The acquisitions are part of the company's new commitment to providing cleaner energy to its "massive western service territory."

Tri-State is one of the largest rural cooperative utilities in the United States, and it provides power to customers in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska. "The customer base spans 200,000 square miles, more land than the entirety of California," Spector writes. "Just a few years ago, two member cooperatives quit Tri-State to seek cheaper, cleaner power elsewhere. Since then, Tri-State has rolled out a series of clean energy commitments."

Benefit changes within the Inflation Reduction Act have made switching to renewable energy more financially doable for cooperatives. Spector explains, "Chief among them is a ​'direct pay' option that lets nonprofits access the same generous clean energy tax credits as their for-profit peers — even with little to no tax burden. Once Tri-State’s leadership saw clarity on the tax rules, they decided this was the time to strike."

Tri-State is working to provide a balance of energy that will be dependable, affordable and as clean as safely possible. "Now the utility sees ample savings and benefits for its customers in maximizing low-cost renewable generation while ensuring it has enough ​'firm' power — today provided by coal and fossil gas plants — to keep the lights on," Spector reports. "The utility recently hit a new record for instantaneous renewable production on May 24, when wind and solar delivered 87% of its generation for half an hour."