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 or send an email to:

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.