Friday, March 08, 2024

Report for America will no longer work with newspapers owned by hedge funds; it's 'not a model we support'

Report for America journalists report on under-covered
places and issues. (RFA photo)
Report for America supports local newsrooms struggling to cover their community's issues by recruiting and matching hardworking journalists with papers in need and then subsidizing reporters' salaries. 

But the initiative, which is part of the nonprofit media organization The GroundTruth Project, has taken a stand on which organizations it wants to support. "It has decided to stop working with one growing category of newspapers — those backed by hedge funds or private-equity firms," reports Jeremy Barr of The Washington Post. Kim Kleman, Report for America's Executive Director, told Barr, "Hedge fund ownership of local newsrooms is not a business model we support. America has seen the results: an axing of staff and also local news coverage."

Report for America's choice means "some major chains — including Gannett and Tribune Publishing — will no longer receive new reporters from the Report for America corps, though those currently placed in newsrooms will be able to finish their service," Barr explains. "Some journalists and industry-observers cheered the decision. American University journalism professor Margot Susca said 'it was a long time coming.'"

Still, the decision sparked controversy because some journalists felt the removal of Report for America reporters would further damage the profession and the quality of news coverage. Barr reports, "[They] expressed concern that journalists working at hedge fund-associated newspapers would be hurt by the disappearance of corps members, who fill staffing gaps and report on under-covered issues and communities."

As news outlets wrangle with shrinking profits and staff, Report for America journalists are in high demand. "To date, Report for America has placed 607 journalists in some 339 newsrooms, including nonprofit organizations, locally owned businesses and public media outlets," Barr reports. "Some 15 percent of those corps members have worked at news organizations owned by or associated with hedge funds, including 21 current journalists."

Join Solutions Journalism Network's second Rural Cohort; deadline to apply is March 19

When it comes to societal problems, journalists are some of the most strategically placed professionals to expose what's gone wrong. At the same time, they are uniquely positioned to find answers to those problems. If you're a community journalist who wants to add solution-seeking depth to your reporting tools, consider signing up for the Solutions Journalism Network's next Rural Cohort. The deadline to apply is March 19. 

The Rural Cohort is a six-month program designed especially for the challenges of rural-serving newsrooms. Its goal is to support and train newsrooms seeking to learn solutions journalism and put it into regular practice. 

This isn't a program designed to add work to a newsroom's already full plate. Instead, cohort members will learn how to convert some of the vital and valuable coverage they're already doing into a solutions framework. Examples: county commission agendas, school board meetings, press releases and regular beat coverage.

Adrianna Adame
Last year, SJN trained its first cohort of rural journalists who learned how to incorporate a solutions lens into their reporting. With that new view, these reporters developed stories with added depth and meaning for their audiences. One example is Adrianna Adame, the education reporter for Buffalo's Fire, an Indigenous digital outlet based in North Dakota. She covered graduation rates this year, digging into how a local Native high school has become an example for other schools.

The non-profit Solutions Journalism Network defines its focus as "'rigorous, evidence-based reporting on the responses to social problems, the mission of which is 'to transform journalism so that all people have access to news that helps them envision and build a more equitable world,'" writes Lauren Kessler for Nieman Storyboard.  

The growth of smaller banks and credit unions is outpacing the rest of the industry

Small banks often offer more personal service.
(Photo by Stoica Ionela, Unsplash)
As bigger banks consolidate into mega-banks, an opposing trend is emerging -- smaller banks are attracting new customers and deposits. "While the biggest banks are getting bigger, the smallest are growing too. Community banks, which typically have less than $10 billion in assets and a concentrated footprint, grew deposits by about 1% in the third quarter from a year earlier," reports Imani Moise of The Wall Street Journal. "Credit unions grew deposits by a similar amount. Their loan books grew by 10% and 9%, respectively. Both far outpaced the broader banking industry, according to federal data."

Bank customers opting for smaller banks or credit unions find that "making a switch not only gets them more face time with bankers, but they are also earning more and paying less," Moise explains. "People wanting a smaller bank have an ever-smaller number to choose from. Bank mergers are expected to accelerate this year as lenders seek safety in size after a series of regional bank failures in 2023."

The current market has been tough on mid-sized banks, but smaller banks offer local convenience and more personal customer service for consumers and small-business owners. "Even the biggest banks acknowledge that people like to do some banking in person," Moise reports. "PNC plans to add new branches this year after closing more than 200 last year."

Particularly if problems arise, smaller banks have staff available to solve problems in-person. "Laurie Matta, the chief financial officer for the city of Clarksville, Tenn., decided to move the city’s bank accounts from the U.S.’s fifth largest lender, U.S. Bank, after a mix-up during the pandemic," Moise adds. "It took six months and many unsuccessful attempts to get the bank to correct the error, even though it shared an office building with city hall. . . . She moved the accounts in 2022 to Legends Bank, which is down the street."

Hot dog! After 140 years, a new, meatless hot dog will be on the shelves later this year.

Hot dogs are part of American culture.
(Kraft Heinz photo via Scripps News)
Hot dogs. Poor people created them. Rich people found a way to charge $15 for them. They're high culture, they're low culture, they're sports food, they're kids' food. . . . You can love them, you can hate them, but you can't avoid the great American hot dog. ~ Raw Dog by Jamie Loftus

Even though Loftus traveled America snarfing down hot dogs from coast to coast, she didn't get to try Oscar Mayer's newest weiner. "For the first time in 140 years, Oscar Meyer will be making meatless dogs," reports Justin Boggs of Scripps News. "The hot dog maker's parent company, Kraft Heinz, announced a new line of plant-based hot dogs and sausages soon hitting store shelves. The company says it projects plant-based meat alternatives will go from an $8.3 billion market in 2023 to $19 billion by 2030."

While some plant-based "meat" companies have struggled to make a profit, "Kraft Heinz says the Oscar Mayer NotHotDogs and NotSausages will have a 'smoky, savory taste, meaty color, and thick, juicy bite,'" Boggs writes. Lucho Lopez-May, CEO of the Kraft Heinz Not Company, told Boggs: "We know people are hungry for plant-based meat options from brands they know and trust."

Oscar Mayer will showcase their new dogs at the Expo West event in Anaheim, California this month. "The company said major retailers will receive product shipments later this year," Boggs reports. "According to a 2022 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group6% of the U.S. adult population considers themselves vegan or vegetarian. In 2015, a similar poll found that 3.4% of Americans said they never eat meat, indicating that there is a growing number of Americans opting not to eat meat."

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Rural Texas legislators who opposed governor's push for school vouchers fall to big-spending campaign against them

Texas House roll call board (Texas Tribune/Eddie Gasper)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his Republican allies succeeded in purging at least seven members from the state House in Tuesday's primary elections. Their main targets were rural Republicans who helped defeat Abbott's legislation that would have provided taxpayer support for private education. Now the House will "become more receptive to school vouchers," report Zach Despart and Renzo Downey of the Texas Tribune. But "It was not clear on Tuesday if that effort had paid off," writes David Goodman, Texas bureau chief of The New York Times. Some race are in runoffs.

Abbott's campaign was funded by huge contributions from right-wing interests inside Texas and out of it. Former president Donald Trump and Lt. Gov, Dan Patrick "endorsed challengers in dozens of races citing the incumbents’ disloyalty to the party," the Tribune reports.

The anti-voucher incumbents were targets of heavy advertising that put them in "Wanted" posters and called them "liberals" but rarely if ever mentioned the school issue. One of them, Rep. Glenn Rogers, said in a column in The Community News of Aledo that "Abbott has defiled the Office of Governor by creating and repeating blatant lies about me and my House colleagues, those who took a stand for our public schools. I stood by the governor on all his legislative priorities but just one, school vouchers. For just one disagreement, and for a $6 million check from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvanian TikTok investor, and voucher vendor, Abbott went scorched earth against rural Texas and the representatives who did their jobs -- representing their districts."

Before the election, The Community News published an interview with Rogers, and said it had twice given opponent Michael Olcott the same opportunity but received no response. The weekly didn't endorse in the race, but in a Feb. 21 column, Editor-Publisher Randy Keck said anti-Rogers mailers lied about his voting record. "You may be reading this thinking I am advocating to vote for Rogers, but I’m not," he wrote. "You should vote based on who you think would best represent you in the Texas House of Representatives. But you should not vote based on the character assassination of a good man."

Geologic naming body rejects Anthropocene proposal

Sediment history from Crawford Lake, Ontario, is part of 
the Anrthropocene epoch proposal. (Wikipedia photo)
"Monday night, the group of scholars responsible for delineating the past 2.6 million years of geologic history rejected a proposal that would mark the start of the Anthropocene epoch in the mid-20th century, when global trade, nuclear weapons tests and rampant fossil-fuel consumption radically altered the Earth," reports Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post.

"But Anthropocene advocates — including two leading members of the panel that just voted — say the decision by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy violated the rules for naming new geologic time spans. Subcommission chair Jan Zalasiewicz and vice-chair Martin Head on Wednesday called for an investigation into the voting process that could lead to the decision being overturned.

"The contested vote, which was first reported by The New York Times, has exposed a deepening rift in the hidebound world of stratigraphy — the science of measuring geologic time. Researchers overwhelmingly agree that people have transformed the climate and put ecosystems in peril. But most members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy felt this 'Age of Humans' should not be rigidly defined as an epoch — a stretch of geologic time that typically spans thousands or even millions of years."

The International Commission on Stratigraphy could overturn the decision, sending it to the International Geological Congress. But they could also define the Anthropocene "as a geologic event — a looser term that can describe phenomena that unfold in multiple places at different times," Kaplan notes.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Short on volunteer firefighters, smaller communities look to farmers to assist with handling fires and rescues

The shortage of volunteer firefighters is a national
problem. (Graphic by Adam Dixon, Ambrook Research)
When fires start in rural places, emergency service volunteers may not respond immediately, so many areas rely on farmers to help handle fires. "The extra support is essential in (Chief Chris) Rohwer's small rural community of Pitsburg, Ohio, where field fires are the 'bread and butter' of his department — and where all-volunteer staffing is extremely low," reports Nora Neus of Ambrook Research. Rohwer told him: "We've got a lot of local farmers that have gone out on their own and started putting some type of water storage tank, either in their pickup or on a trailer. So they can at least try and get that knocked down while we're being dispatched."

Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters is at an all-time low. Small fire departments also face limited budgets for updated equipment and response systems. Neus writes, "Firefighters around the country say farmers can — and should — set themselves up for success, knowing that when they call 911, help may be a ways away. . . . Rural fire departments also may not have expensive equipment specific to farm operations, for example, grain bin rescues."

Dan Neenan is director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety and has been a volunteer firefighter since 1991. He gave Neus his recommendations for ag rescues: "So talk with your local folks and see as far as ag rescue equipment, what do they have? What might they need? Not looking for you to fund it for 'em, but if you got together with some other folks in the farming community, maybe [you] can do a fundraiser to get that grain rescue tube." Neus adds, "Neenan also recommends farmers or firefighters enter a contest his organization is running to give away dozens of rescue tubes."

Fire prevention is one of the best ways rural communities can help their fire departments -- keeping fires from starting in the first place. "Neenan recommends keeping an eye on wet hay that can overheat and start a fire," Neus reports. "Neenan has one other bit of advice: Farmers should get to know their local fire departments before an incident takes place, even if they aren't able to volunteer themselves. . . . At the end of the day, it is crucial for farmers and rural firefighters to rely on each other."

Texas Panhandle wildfires leave scorched homes and animals in their wake. The land is now 'like a moonscape.'

Fire perimeters last updated March 1 at 9:50 a.m. C.T. Historical fire perimeters, 1960 to March 2023.
(Map by Renée Rigdon, CNN, from National Interagency Fire Center data)

Last week's cluster of Texas Panhandle wildfires left a swath of scorched earth, animals and homes across what would become a land mass bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Known as the Smokehouse Creek Fire, its "flames moved with alarming speed and blackened the landscape across a vast stretch of small towns and cattle ranches," report Sean Murphy and Jim Vertuno of The Associated Press.

Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall "described the charred terrain as being 'like a moonscape. ... It's just all gone,'" Murphy and Vertuno write. "Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimeter of the town of Canadian, but no buildings were lost inside the community. Kendall also said he saw 'hundreds of cattle just dead, laying in the fields.'"

The fire has claimed 50 lives and "has now torched more than 1 million acres in Texas alone, making it the largest fire on record in the state," report Joe Sutton, Steve Almasy, Holly Yan, Robert Shackelford and David Williams of CNN. "The blaze had also charred more than 31,500 acres in Oklahoma. . . . Altogether, the fire is among the largest in the Lower 48 since reliable record-keeping began in the 1980s."

While the fire's origins remain unclear, "strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes," the Post reports. Texas A&M Forest Service spokesperson Adam Turner told CNN, "Wind was coming straight out of the north and made just this massive wall of fire moving across the landscape." A lawsuit filed by a woman whose home was destroyed by the fire claims that "an improperly maintained power pole fell and started the fire," CNN reports, "The Texas A&M Forest Service is investigating the fire and has not announced a cause."

Many Panhandle fires continue to burn. "The Texas A&M Forest Service said that the Roughneck Fire's forward progression had been halted, and it was 50% contained as of yesterday afternoon," CNN reports. Containment in Oklahoma showed good progress; Oklahoma Forestry Services spokesperson Keith Merckx told CNN, "The Smokehouse Creek Fire perimeter looks good and will be turned back over to local departments on Tuesday."

Lead-tainted applesauce entered the U.S. food system and poisoned children -- here's what parents should know

Cinnamon believed to be deliberately tainted with lead
poisoned more than 400 kids. (Photo by rens d, Unsplash)

Even with multiple safeguards, lead-tainted applesauce entered the U.S. food supply in pouches and poisoned more than 400 children, Christina Jewett of The New York Times reports. "Their median blood lead levels were six times higher than the average seen during the height of the Flint water crisis, the Centers for Disease Control said. . . .The cinnamon in the applesauce was believed to have been intentionally contaminated, possibly to add to its value as a commodity sold by weight."

Jewell points out that while this type of poisoning is rare, parents need to know how children can be exposed and what lead poisoning symptoms look like.

Lead exposure can happen from drinking water flowing through old lead pipes or lead-based paint often ingested as chips. Fruits and vegetables that grow in lead-tainted soil can also be a cause. Jewett writes, "A study about baby foods found that sweet potatoes had some of the highest levels of lead among the products tested."

The 2023 lead applesauce outbreak was caused by cinnamon added to the sauce in Ecuador. An in-depth investigation by the Times and the nonprofit health newsroom The Examination show "the tainted applesauce sailed through a series of checkpoints in a food-safety system meant to protect American consumers," Jewett writes. "Food importers, which are required to vet foreign food, let the applesauce enter the country."

While lead occurs as an element in nature, it is a neurotoxin that can have devastating effects on brain development. A challenge for parents and caregivers is recognizing lead exposure. "High levels of lead can result in stomach pain, vomiting, fatigue, learning difficulties, developmental delays and even seizures," Jewett reports.

Hanging on to the local grocery store is important to rural residents and economies

Brian Horak at Post 60 Market in Nebraska.
(Photo by Kevin Hardy, Stateline)

What knits small towns together? Schools and the local newspaper may come to mind, as does the local grocery store, which many smaller communities are working to save. "Preserving grocery stores has been a perennial challenge for rural communities. Small, often declining populations make it tough to turn a profit in an industry known for its razor-thin margins," reports Kevin Hardy of Stateline. "Increased competition from online retailers. . . have only made things tougher."

Community involvement and investment, however, are working to give some local grocery stores a fighting chance. In Emerson, Nebraska, pop. 824, Post 60 Market "opened four years after the closure of the town’s only grocery store," Hardy writes. "Some 110 community members bought shares, which funded the transformation of a shuttered American Legion post into a brightly lit store packed with fresh and packaged foods."

Proposed legislation in Nebraska aims to "provide some relief for stores like Post 60 Market," Hardy reports. "If passed, the new law would provide grants and loans for small grocers. In neighboring Kansas and Iowa, lawmakers have introduced bills with similar goals, following the lead of states — including Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota and Oklahoma — that have enacted laws setting up special funds to boost rural grocery stores."

Jillian Linster, interim policy director at the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs, told Hardy, "After the pandemic, we have seen a lot of these local grocery stores just struggling to keep the doors open with all the economic and workforce challenges we face in the current economy and the competition from the big-box retailers."

Kathryn Draeger "says rural communities need more than just dollar stores and gas stations," Hardy adds. "As the director of regional sustainable development partnerships at the University of Minnesota, Draeger works with grocery stores across the state. Aside from the health benefits of fresh food, she said rural stores are key to building more resilient supply chains since they can procure products from a variety of small vendors."

Next week is Sunshine Week. Get ready to showcase how journalism works to preserve open government.

Sunshine Week begins this Sunday, March 10, with multiple ways to highlight how journalists support open government as watchdogs and First Amendment advocates. As Americans face another election cycle, it's an impactful time to remind all citizens that good reporting dynamically supports our democratic process.

Among Sunshine Week's tools, are a social media kit, logos, and timely promotions. If you are writing a news story, editorial or column about freedom of information, tips from the Society of Professional Journalists are also available.

The week's offerings include in-person and online events and activities, including a Sunshine kick-off by the Department of Justice and a panel discussion to raise awareness of Sunshine Laws sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kansas City/Jackson-Clay-Platte Counties.

Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now the News Leaders Association. This year's events are supported by a growing list of partners, including Brechner Freedom of Information Project, Muckrock, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association.