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 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.