Friday, February 02, 2024

How Facebook has hurt community papers; a new study examines problems beyond finances

Nick Mathews
As many local newspapers struggle to sustain their business and audience, Facebook remains a staunch competitor for revenue and readers. A new study by Nick Mathews, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri's journalism school, "analyzes the impact of Facebook on rural and small-town news organizations' daily operations," reports Austin Fitzgerald. "Mathews zeroes in on the social media platform's increasing dominance of community news that was once the domain of local newspapers — birthday announcements, new jobs, and the sorts of daily life events readers once clipped from newspapers and tacked on their refrigerators."

The analysis by Mathews and Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, is a new way to examine how and why local news outlets are struggling. Mathews told Fitzgerald: "The economic challenges that these social platforms have created are well understood, so in this piece, we took a different tack. We're looking at the actual content of publications that are being impacted. It's not just an economic crisis — it's an existential one."

Benjamin Toff
"'We Were Facebook before Facebook': The Existential (Not Only Economic) Threat to Community Weekly Newspapers in the US" was published in Digital Journalism in December 2023. Fitzgerald reports, "Mathews and Toff interviewed owners and editors of weekly newspapers in Virginia to better understand Facebook's impacts on content and what they mean for local news organizations. . . . According to highly respected research from Penny Abernathy at Northwestern University, Virginia has seven counties without a local news source and 94 counties with only one source."

"One editor had a very poignant concern," Mathews told Fitzgerald. "They were concerned their newspaper is not telling the full story of their community anymore. People might not understand how important that submitted content is for weekly newspapers. These papers still want to highlight the individual successes and stories of their communities, but community members are posting that content elsewhere." Fitzgerald reports, "Mathews said this loss of a critical component of local news has forced weekly newspapers into a difficult position, in which they see themselves in direct competition with a social media giant and are increasingly forced to fill the gap in local coverage with national and other less-relevant news."

Mathews is also one of the authors working on a new book, which looks at how newspapers are "finding creative ways to repair and strengthen connections with their communities," Fitzgerald writes. Mathews told him: "They do things like monthly mingles, just hosting people in their offices with beer, wine and snacks. These meetings are so phenomenal to meet people, and it's hard to have animosity toward people if you have actually met them. You're not going to turn around and call them 'the lying media' if you just talked to them."

Opinion: The closing of Washington news bureaus and cuts in reporting jobs hurt democracy and voters

Cameron Joseph
News bureaus in Washington were once hives of intelligence gathering for regional reporting as well as an important way to cover the actions of individual lawmakers for hometown audiences. Freelance reporter Cameron Joseph shares his perspective on last week's Los Angeles Times layoffs and what the loss of D.C. bureaus means for democracy and local news.

Last week, the Times laid off 115 people, more than 20 percent of its staff. "If those cuts went to the bone, in Washington, D.C., it was more like an amputation: nearly half of the bureau’s journalists were let go," Joseph writes. "I’m not just mourning for them. . . . . As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Shira Stein noted, these latest cuts leave just herself, two people from McClatchy, and the five people at the L.A. Times as the only journalists covering D.C. for California-based newspapers. That’s eight print reporters covering the entire federal government — for a state of thirty-nine million people."

But California still has it better than many other states. "Most states don’t have a single reporter covering Washington on the ground anymore," Joseph adds. "This is corrosive to democracy in many ways. . . .The most glaring problem is that lawmakers aren’t held to account. There’s no one to confront congressmen on a daily basis or make sure they’re not breaking the law. Local issues don’t get scrutinized. And with the exception of camera-hungry congressmen and national figures, most lawmakers barely get covered at all."

Most states no longer have reporters covering
Washington, D.C. (Photo by Noelle, Unsplash)
When only the loudest or most aggressive voices are the only ones heard, polarization intensifies. "Without local coverage, the only times most Americans hear about their representatives are from campaign ads or when they’re on national news talking about partisan issues," Joseph explains. "If the only way to gain attention (and raise money) is to talk about national issues on Fox News or MSNBC, why bother taking a political risk to cross the aisle and try to solve problems that actually matter to your district?"

It didn't used to be this way. "In the late 2000s, the New York Daily News, which then had a robust D.C. bureau, led the drumbeat to get healthcare and financial compensation for the first responders and victims of the 9/11 attacks," Joseph writes. "Members of Congress had to be publicly shamed for months by cancer-ridden and dying firemen, EMTs, and police before they eventually created the program. Most of the bill’s opponents were Republicans, but it got passed partly because members from the New York tri-state area from both parties, who fought hard for bipartisan support, got local recognition — and credit — from the Daily News."

"As I write this column, my former colleagues at the New York Daily News are in the midst of a twenty-four-hour walkout to protest the 'constant cuts and apparent commitment to shrinking the paper' of their current corporate overlords. There are barely 50 staff left," Joseph reports. "Since 2005, two-thirds of newspaper journalism roles have been wiped out. . . . A total of 130 local newspapers closed in 2023, according to a study by Northwestern University’s Medill Journalism School — an average of more than ten a month."

"But if the L.A. Times — the largest, most powerful paper not on the Eastern Seaboard — can’t maintain a serious presence in the nation’s capital, who can?"

Cheap prison labor is used to supply businesses with all sorts of products; but prisoners can be vulnerable to abuse

Prisoners are forced laborers without 13th Amendment
protections. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell, AP)
Less than a decade ago, a New York Times story ran with this headline, "A Small Indiana County Sends More People to Prison Than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., Combined. Why?" The story goes on to explore America's prison belt, which was brimming with rural residents, often sentenced for drug crimes by more conservative courts. But, if sending people away for extensive sentences is a rural answer to crime, residents may want to know what the incarcerated do while serving those sentences.

Angola, Louisiana, is home to the country's largest maximum-security prison, which used to be a Southern slave plantation but is now a vast farming facility with prisoner labor. "Unmarked trucks packed with prison-raised cattle roll out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where men are sentenced to hard labor and forced to work, for pennies an hour or sometimes nothing at all," reports Robin McDowell and Margie Mason of The Associated Press. "The cows are bought by a local rancher and then followed by The Associated Press another 600 miles to a Texas slaughterhouse that feeds into the supply chains of giants like McDonald's, Walmart and Cargill."

Prison workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. "If they refuse to work, some can jeopardize their chances of parole or face punishment like being sent to solitary confinement," McDowell and Mason write. "They also are often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job."

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude "except as punishment for a crime," AP reports. "That clause is currently being challenged on the federal level, and efforts to remove similar language from state constitutions are expected to reach the ballot in about a dozen states this year."

Meanwhile, many U.S. prisons "lease" incarcerated people for labor. "An analysis of data amassed by the AP from correctional facilities nationwide traced nearly $200 million worth of sales of farmed goods and livestock to businesses over the past six years," McDowell and Mason write. That amount does not include sales to state and government entities. 

Corporations who "hire" prisoners not only harness cheap, reliable labor, but they may reap additional benefits such as tax credits and other financial incentives. "Incarcerated workers also typically aren't covered by the most basic protections, including workers' compensation and federal safety standards," AP reports. "In many cases, they cannot file official complaints about poor working conditions."

Linking prison labor to shelved products requires following a complex web, but AP found "Mammoth commodity traders that are essential to feeding the globe like Cargill, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, Archer Daniels Midland and Consolidated Grain and Barge have in recent years scooped up millions of dollars' worth of soy, corn and wheat straight from prisons, which compete with local farmers."

To read how AP reporters crisscrossed the country to uncover agriculture trading practices tied to prison labor, read the full story here.

This town's rural college closed, but its community created a new way to provide educational support

 Chatfield College grounds and chapel 
(Photo by Grace McConnell, Hechringer Report)
Chatfield College closed a year ago, but the farming village of Fayetteville, Ohio, pop. 241, is using the "assets left by the defunct college to help at least some local students continue their educations past high school," reports Jon Marcus for the The Hechringer Report, which covers education. "Advocates are trying to keep the proportion of rural high school graduates who go to college from falling even further than it already has."

When a small-town college closes, one of the more unfortunate things is the acute loss of opportunity. Even though Chatfield, which offered two-year associate degrees, had only 129 students before its closing -- and about half of them took classes online -- Amber Saeidi Asl, who grew up next to the campus, told Marcus, "It was the heart of the area." Marcus adds, "She took courses offered by Chatfield through a dual-enrollment program while she was still in high school, and eventually went there. Just having a college nearby inspired her to go, she said."

Nearly 13 million Americans now live in places, mainly in the Midwest and Great Plains, "where the nearest college or university is beyond a reasonable commute away, the American Council on Education reports. The nearest colleges to the Chatfield campus — a community college and a branch of the University of Cincinnati — are about 45 minutes away," Marcus writes. Anna Robertson, who attended Chatfield until it closed, told Marcus, "For a lot of college students living in rural areas, it's just not feasible to drive to one of the city universities."

When Chatfield closed, its educational community formed the Chatfield College endowment, called Chatfield Edge, Marcus reports. "It has provided volunteer mentors, career counseling, assistance with admission and financial aid applications and other help to 21 students, and scholarships of about $1,500 per semester to 19 of them, said David Hesson, director of programs, who was an associate dean at the college."

The scope of Chatfield Edge includes helping families afford trade school and certificate programs. "The target is low-income high school students who would be the first in their families to go to college and students who are older than the traditional age," Marcus writes. "Robertson, who now is finishing her bachelor's degree at Asbury University in Kentucky, is among the beneficiaries." Robert Elmore, Chatfield's last president, told Marcus: "We said we don't have to necessarily provide the education. But we could support them, and we know what that looks like, and we have the scholarship money to cover the gap."

The Great Backyard Bird Count begins this week; more than 7,500 species were identified in 2023

All ages can participate in GBBC.
(Photo by Lisa Birt via
The Great Backyard Bird Count begins this Friday, and spotters are expected to identify more than 7,000 species of birds as part of the annual count.

The count runs from Friday, Feb. 16 through Monday, Feb. 19 and is back for its 27th year of delightful bird sightings. During last year's count, 150,000 of the striking Baikal Teal were reported in South Korea. The duck is one of the country's most beautiful. A Lewis's Woodpecker was spotted in Canada — the species typically winters in the southwestern United States. An Indigo Bunting was spied in Ontario; the bird usually heads to Mexico for winter.

In 2023, the global community got out their bird goggles and revved their counting engines. The U.S. clocked in with the highest number of checklists. China reported 494 different bird species. Together, the world counted 7,538 species of birds, and an eye-popping 151,479 media uploads were added to the Macaulay Library during the 4-day event.

Thousands of Baikal Teal were seen in South Korea.
(Photo by Sarah Van Ingelgom, Macaulay Library)
This year promises to be as fun-filled and educational as bird watchers flock together with their tallies. Participation is simple. Count birds on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings using Merlin Bird ID or eBird on mobile or computer. Anyone can take part in the count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard or anywhere in the world. Count birds you see or hear for 15 minutes or as long as you want.
  • If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to bird identification, try using the Merlin Bird ID app to tell us what birds you are seeing or hearing.
  • If you have participated in the count before and want to record numbers of birds, try the eBird Mobile app or enter your bird list on the eBird website (desktop/laptop).

Visit the official website for more information and check out the latest educational and promotional resources. On the program website, participants can explore real-time maps that show what others are reporting during and after the count.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The U.S. needs 7 million more houses, but who will build them? The construction industry needs trained laborers.

Photo by Arron Coi, Unsplash
As the construction industry struggles to meet the demand for new housing, it faces big obstacles, including a shortage of trained labor. Robbie Sequeira of Stateline reports, "The U.S. construction industry lost nearly 30% of its workforce during the Great Recession of 2008 and had barely recovered before the Covid-19 pandemic hit it again, as outlined by a study shared last spring by economists at the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin. . . . However, the authors attributed much of the shortage to the federal Secure Communities immigration crackdown of the Obama administration."

An estimated 7 million more homes are needed, so the industry must find more trained workers to meet demand. "Employment isn't growing fast enough, said Erika Walter, director of media relations for Associated Builders and Contractors, a national industry group," Sequiera writes. "An analysis released earlier this month by the group found that at the end of November, there were about 459,000 job openings in the industry. The 5.4% job opening rate was the highest since 2000."

To attract new labor, the industry needs to address its hiring practices. Sequeira reports, "According to a 2022 Department of Labor report, many apprentice programs for construction and trade-based skills often have sponsors who do not recruit or hire individuals from underrepresented groups — and may not even be aware of how to recruit members of those groups."

If recruitment and training shortages aren't managed, the shortage will intensify as aging workers retire. Sequiera notes, "More than 1 in 5 construction workers are 55 and older, and much of the workforce will be retiring in the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics." Karl Eckhart, vice president of intergovernmental affairs for the National Association of Home Builders, told Sequiera, "We need to expedite the [recruitment and training] process so we can at least get shovels under the ground."

Several states are intervening to assist in training a new construction workforce, including Montana, New York, Ohio and Maryland. "Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced that 35 Ohio high school programs would receive almost $200 million in grant money to expand training facilities in areas including the electrical trades, welding and carpentry," Sequiera reports. 

Health advocates use produce 'prescriptions' to treat diet-related problems; funding can be a barrier

Nutritionist Shelby Ballinger teaches cooking classes
for Delta Produce RX participants. (RHIhub photo)
Community health advocates in pockets across the U.S. are helping rural community members access fresh produce with healthy food "prescriptions," which treat diet-related health problems.

In Leland, Mississippi, a program called Delta Produce RX serves more than "100 patients of Leland Medical Clinic who receive a monthly $80 credit reserved for the purchase of fresh produce at the Leland Stop N Shop," reports Brendan Stermer of Rural Health Information Hub. "The program is reserved for low-income individuals who suffer from diet-related chronic health conditions. Participants also attend cooking classes, meet with a nutritionist, and receive a membership to the local wellness center."

Leland's program began in 2020 and is run by Delta Health Alliance, a nonprofit healthcare and social service organization, and administered through grant dollars. Shelby Ballinger, a Delta Produce RX program manager and a nutritionist, told Stermer, "It kind of exploded. Word of mouth has gotten around our community, so I get a lot of calls from patients and community members who are interested in the program."

While some might say giving food to address diet-related problems is common sense, it has not been the norm. But the idea is gaining momentum. "According to a 2021 report commissioned by the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, 108 new 'produce prescription' programs launched in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020," Stermer writes. The Wholesome Wave report also "noted an 'unequal distribution of programs,' with the model experiencing 'strong growth on the coasts and within Midwestern urban cities.' Produce prescription programs are still uncommon in rural areas like the Mississippi Delta, where rates of food insecurity and diet-related disease are the highest."

As more programs have opened, more studies show the health benefits and cost savings they offer. Stermer reports, "New research from Tufts University supports the model's effectiveness at improving food security and various health metrics associated with diet-related disease. According to another recent Tufts University study, widespread implementation could facilitate long-term healthcare cost savings of $39.6 billion over 25 years."

Despite the concept's success, funding remains uncertain. Melissa Akers, manager of the Food Policy, Health, and Hunger Research Program at the University of California San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations, told Stermer, "Sustainable funding is still tricky." Stermer adds, "Akers [has] interviewed over a dozen 'key informants' working with rural produce prescription programs across the country. Funding came up frequently as the most significant barrier to program growth."

For more on starting a produce RX, Akers co-authored the Rural Produce Prescription Toolkit, which offers nuts and bolts for funding, launching and sustaining a rural produce-for-health program in your town.

Opinion: Great Basin Desert residents, advocates and researchers face a 'terrible dilemma' about its future

Wikipedia map
Peaks, valleys, salty dry lakes and rolling stretches of sagebrush have long-defined Great Basin Desert habitats that used to brim with biodiversity. "Sagebrush now covers only half the territory it did before European settlers arrived with their livestock in the 1800s. Exotic annual grasses, including cheatgrass, have increased eight-fold here since 1990, accelerating the fire cycle, outcompeting native plants and decreasing the available forage for grazers, wild and domestic," writes Stephen Tremble in his opinion essay for Writers of the Range.

Great Basin residents and researchers face an impossible choice. "The dilemma is this: Saving sagebrush puts the aromatic shrublands at odds with piñon-juniper woodland — a landscape just as beloved, just as vital," Trimble explains. "Range ecologists believe that growing the sagebrush core means that half of the Great Basin woodlands need 'treatment' —removing younger stands of trees while retaining old growth forest."

Pygmy rabbits thrive in sagebrush.
(Wash. Fish & Wildlife photo)
Before 1860, "two-thirds of Great Basin landscapes in woodland habitat were treeless. Today, less than one-third is treeless, as trees decrease the acreage and vitality of sagebrush," Trimble adds. "But it's unclear if sagebrush animals will soon repopulate cleared habitat. No more than half of tree treatments result in the regrowth of native grasses. Meanwhile, flocks of Pinyon Jays that depend on the trees suffer steep declines."

Trimble asks: "Which matters most? To sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and piñon mice? To backcountry recreationists, to cattlemen? To Indigenous Great Basin Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone people — citizens of what ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan calls 'Piñon Nut Nation?'"
This Pinyon Jay snags a nut from a Pinyon pine.
(Photo by Marie Read via ABC)
As human choices and climate change fundamentally alter the Great Basin, "federal managers need to address causes, not symptoms. Their challenge is huge: to confront invading cheatgrass and junipers and reverse the decline of sagebrush, nut harvests, native grass and birds. All this, while ensuring that mule deer and cows flourish," Trimble adds. "If we want to heal the land and restore the balance between sagebrush and woodland, we need to treat these landscapes as we would with those we love — using every bit of wisdom from both Western and Indigenous traditions for the benefit of our collective future."

A new EPA app helps journalists who are looking for local water quality data that's easy to understand and share

Eighth graders collect samples from the Pigeon River in N.C.
(Photo by G. Peeples, FWS, Flickr Creative Commons via SEJ)
If you're a journalist who wants water quality data that's for "non-geeks. . . The Environmental Protection Agency is offering a 'How's My Waterway?' web app that makes the sophisticated stuff simple," reports Joseph A. Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "If you are, indeed, a geek and want to jump ahead, you can start exploring it here. . . . This app is a portal for people who just want to know whether they can drink from or swim in their local river. It's hyperlocal and practical. It's presented graphically and intuitively."

Where did the data come from? "The good news is that the EPA answers the question. The other good news is that it comes from multiple authoritative datasets," Davis explains. "Much of that data is required by law to be collected by government agencies and is therefore fairly good. Those datasets include ATTAINS, a collection of water quality data posted by the states, and BEACON 2.0, a collection of state data about beach closings. . . . It also includes discharge permit information, as well as permit violations. And drinking water information. And, yes, more. Here's the full list."

Using the app is as easy as downloading it on your smartphone and entering your ZIP code. The app then shows a map. "Like a good pair of binoculars, it allows you to zoom in or out or to ask about water quality at the local, state, or national level. In the process of describing state and national-level water quality, it actually provides some meaningful overview analysis," Davis reports. "The data is not up-to-the-second, but it is pretty current. The time frame differs for each kind of data, which is only the beginning of the story — a launch pad for shoe-leather and phone reporting."

Flora & Fauna: Beagle Brigade searches for contraband; mushroom feeds 'family of four;' a big year for oysters

Graphic by Ali Aas, Ambrook Research
When sleuthing for illegal agricultural goods, sometimes the human nose can't do the job. That's when canines find the contraband. "A group of dogs, nicknamed the Beagle Brigade, spend their shifts stationed at airports, border crossings, and international mail and cargo facilities, searching for packed-away items that could harbor foreign animal diseases and potentially invasive pests — to the detriment of the American agriculture industry," reports Shea Swensen of Ambrook Research. "The program may get a permanent stamp of authorization, meaning reliable funding through Congress, thanks to the Beagle Brigade Act of 2023."

Frontal view of a fruit fly.
(Wikipedia photo)
Besides mosquitos, what's the most relentlessly annoying insect? The answer is Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Becky Krystal of The Washington Post reports, "Fruit flies can get in your house the same way any other insect can, through doors or windows especially, says Zachary DeVries, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Department of Entomology. . . . Fruit flies 'don't need a whole lot' to flourish, according to DeVries. A single potato, for example, can support 500 fruit flies, if not more, he says." Find out how to get rid of these black-bellied, red-eyed pests here.

Pallid bats have expressive faces.
(Photo by M. Andrus via Pinterest)
California is a big state with so much diversity it's hard to celebrate all the good things. But the state has decided to award "statehood" designation to its impeccably cute pallid bat, reports Soumya Karlamangla of The New York Times. "According to the bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, bats, in general, provide $1 billion worth of pest control to California agriculture and reduce wildfire risks by eating bark beetles and wood borers that weaken trees."

California honors also went to the "golden chanterelle as a distinct fungal species that is endemic in the state," Karlamangla adds. "The mushrooms are a mesmerizing gold color, flute-shaped and large enough to 'feed a family of four with leftovers,' according to the Bay Area Mycological Society."
Chanterelles can make a hearty
meal. (Wikipedia photo)

Over the past decade, wildlife has had it tough, but if you're a Chesapeake Bay oyster, you're having an outstanding year. "The annual Fall Oyster Survey showed a 'remarkable number' of juvenile oysters," reports Joe Heim of The Washington Post. "And found them widely distributed through many regions of the Chesapeake, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced Tuesday. It found 86.8 spat, or juvenile oysters, per bushel, nearly four times the 39-year median. That marks the fourth consecutive year the survey showed results exceeding the median number."

A tufted titmouse looks for food.
(Photo by J. Bulmer, Unsplash)
Feel like the world is near collapse, or maybe it's just you? Feed some birds. Cute, delightful, kooky and beautiful, birds lift the human spirit. Corrie Evanoff writes, "Whether you try hanging a hummingbird feeder outside your apartment window or setting out a birdbath in a spot of your yard sheltered from predators, you'll be on the road to securing a better future for your feathered visitors — and yes, reaping the mental health benefits of the meditative hobby."