Monday, March 19, 2018

Community newspapers, fearing newsprint tariffs will put some of them out of business, seek help from Congress

Wisconsin newspaper representatives were among those from the community newspaper industry who met with lawmakers in Washington to discuss newsprint tariffs and other issues March 14-15. From left are U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and senior economic policy adviser Brian Conlan; Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett; Publisher Kris O'Leary of The Tribune-Phonograph in Abbotsford, and Laura Johnson. (Photo by WNA member Andrew Johnson)
Rural newspaper publishers from all over the country came to Washington last week to plead their case against new tariffs that will increase the cost of newsprint -- still a key cost for newspapers, which depend on print advertising even as they try to increase their digital revenue.

"My fear is for the community newspapers that don’t see this coming. This is a tidal wave that could wipe out a lot of community newspapers," Tony Smithson, vice president of printing for Bliss Communications in Janesville, Wis., told the publishers as they headed for Capitol Hill. As a publisher and printer in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown, Smithson is a point man for the newsprint efforts of the National Newspaper Association, which organizes a lobbying blitz by community newspaper publishers every March.

This year's gathering began the day after the Department of Commerce announced preliminary "anti-dumping" duties as high as 22.16 percent on Canadian imports of untreated groundwood paper, such as newsprint. The new tariffs are in addition to a first round announced Jan. 9, ranging from 4.4 to 9.9 percent. “Newspapers could see an 8 to 10 percent increase in production costs in the short term,” Smithson told the publishers.

The tariffs were prompted by a petition from newsprint mill in Washington state, recently bought by a hedge fund. The International Trade Commission is expected to make a recommendation for final action by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in September. Newspapers can't offer testimony to the ITC, "but members of Congress can," said Tonda Rush, NNA's chief lobbyist. The News Media Alliance, comprising mainly daily newspapers, has created a lobbying coalition on the issue, but Rush said the case to Congress is “focused more on small papers because it’s hard to get sympathy for the larger ones.”

NNA is also seeking reform of the U.S. Postal Service. For a report on the issues from Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, click here.

Ex-con coal baron vying for U.S. Senate seat in W.Va. appeals to rural voters, gains ground in GOP primary

Former coal CEO and felon Don Blankenship is still duking it out in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia, but he's aiming his blows at Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, the former governor he considers responsible for his year in federal prison.
"In 2016, the former hard-charging chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. went to federal prison for conspiring to evade safety laws in the lead-up to the worst coal mine disaster in a generation—a 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners. Manchin, the governor at the time, commissioned an independent probe that reached blistering conclusions about Blankenship’s tight grip over Massey and did a lot to seal public opinion about his role in the disaster," Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. "Years later, as federal prosecutors zeroed in on Blankenship, Manchin, by then a senator, said on national TV that the ex-coal boss had 'blood on his hands.'"

Blankenship, who maintained his innocence during his year in prison, "entered this race because he has an axe to grind with Joe Manchin," Democratic Minority Whip of the W.Va. House of Delegates told Loh. "It's more personal than politics."

But Blankenship has to get through the May 8 Republican primary to face Manchin. The other two candidates are more experienced politicians, but Blankenship has blown past state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in polling and is only two points behind Evan Jenkins, the congressman who represents the state's southern coalfields.

Many West Virginians seem to have accepted Blankenship's claim that he's a victim, and some miners associate him with better times when the state's coal production was three times higher than today. Through his anti-union, anti-illegal immigration stances, "Blankenship has tapped into the anger of working people in West Virginia and their deep frustration over the state’s stagnant economy," Loh reports. "To understand Blankenship’s appeal is to understand the current conservative movement in rural America, and how, in the span of several years, West Virginia became one of the reddest states in the country after decades as a Democratic enclave."

Steel tariff loophole triggers layoffs at last U.S. keg maker

American Keg Co. photo
The last U.S. manufacturer of steel beer kegs, located in Pottstown, Penn. (pop. 22,377), has laid off a third of its workers because of President Trump's new tariffs on steel and aluminum, Lizzie O'Leary reports for Marketplace.

The main problem, according to American Keg Co. CEO Paul Czachor, is that the tariffs only cover raw materials and not finished products. That means imported kegs cost about $95 and domestic kegs about $115. The company has a loyal customer base that wants to buy American-made products, even if they're more expensive, but "they're only going to go so far as that price difference continues to rise," he told O'Leary. That will likely happen as domestic steel companies raise prices, secure in the knowledge that they're undercutting the artificially inflated costs of foreign steel. The tariffs will not take effect until March 23, but the price of domestic steel jumped 4 percent on March 8, the day Trump signed the orders, and continues to rise as American steel makers anticipate the effects of the tariffs.

"I think when the tariffs came out, it was probably a good idea. I'm sure the steel industry needs some protection but there are some unintended consequences for companies such as us that have competition that make imports," Czachor told O'Leary. If he could talk to Trump, he says he would encourage steel tariffs that include finished products.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Soybean farmers worry tariffs will spark a trade war

American soybean growers are worried that President Trump's new tariffs on steel and aluminum could spark a trade war with China that would hurt the agriculture industry, Sarah McCammon reports for NPR.

John Heisdorffer
American Soybean Association President John Heisdorffer, an Iowa farmer, sent a letter to Trump this week urging him to change his mind about the tariffs, which will take effect next week.

"Sixty percent of U.S. soybeans are exported. China is our biggest customer," Heisdorffer told McCammon. "They take one out of every three rows, $14 billion worth of soybeans and soy products. You know, that's huge. You take all the other countries that we export to and they still don't lead up to as much as what China takes from us. So we would be actually giving that market away to a different country. South America has many more acres that can go into production, and they'd be glad to furnish what they are now plus take whatever we'd be willing to give up in a retaliation type of situation."

Not only would a trade war hurt the agriculture industry, he said, but it would have a ripple effect on the industries that depend on it, such as farming equipment manufacturers. They are on the front lines of the trade war already because they are big users of steel. Heisdorffer said he met with officials in the Commerce and Treasury departments as well as other White House staff last summer, but says he believes they don't understand how much damage the tariffs could do.

Mass. town kept out Walmart, now struggles with Amazon

Greenfield, Mass., kept out Walmart to help local businesses stay solvent, but now struggles with a foe much harder to fight: Amazon.

Al Norman headed up the fight in his hometown of Greenfield and other towns like it for the past 25 years, and runs a website called Sprawl Busters, an "International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information."

"But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce," Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. "Many customers who kept shopping in Greenfield’s downtown because Walmart was too far away are now turning to Amazon and other websites that offer free and fast shipping for basic needs, sapping business away from local stores that had survived for so long. Facing competition from a company as enormous as Amazon, some local stores are having trouble staying open." It's a long story, but worth the time. Read it here.

Sociologist who spent eight years asking rural people why they’re mad at government publishes a book about it

Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who grew up in rural America, spent eight years interviewing rural people to find out why they're so angry with government. In the resulting book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, "He argues that rural Americans are less concerned about economic issues and more concerned about Washington threatening the social fabric of small towns and causing a 'moral decline' in the country as a whole," Sean Illing reports for Vox. "The problem, though, is that it’s never quite clear what that means, or how Washington is responsible for it."

Wuthnow did the research between 2006 and 2014, speaking to people in every state, but only those living in towns with a population under 25,000 and far from suburbs or cities. In an interview with Illing, he noted that though rural America's racial makeup is mostly white, the number of Hispanics and other immigrants is growing. Rural whites, he found, believe that the government has a great deal of power over their lives, and feel threatened when they perceive that government wants to help urban areas or minority populations more.

Rural Americans "value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small," Wuthnow told Illing. In interviews, "I kept hearing from people is a general fear that traditional moral rules were being wiped out by a government and a culture that doesn’t understand the people who still believe in these things.

The book, and the project it was based on, come across somewhat as Wuthnow processing his feelings about growing up in -- and away from -- rural America. And impatient as he is about socially conservative attitudes, he recognizes also the very real problems facing rural areas, such as the opioid epidemic. And he notes also that America's divisions (and commonalities) aren't always predictable: "It’s worth remembering that not all divisions run along the rural-urban divide. The conservative-liberal divide or the Republican-Democrat is just as pronounced in many cases. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in this country, and it goes beyond this one fault line.

Senate passes bill easing restrictions on smaller banks, which make most loans to agriculture

The Senate passed a bill this week to ease restrictions on small- and mid-sized banks that provide half of all small business loans and 80 percent of agricultural loans. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo's bill went to the House on a 67-31 vote; all 51 Republicans supported it, as well as 16 Democratic senators and one independent, mostly from rural states, who worked out bipartisan compromises with the Idahoan.

"The bill makes a five-fold increase, to $250 billion, in the level of assets at which banks are deemed to pose a potential threat if they failed. The change would ease regulations and oversight on more than two dozen financial companies, including BB&T Corp., SunTrust Banks, Fifth Third Bancorp and American Express," Kevin Freking and Marcy Gordon report for The Associated Press. "Crapo, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, emphasized that the Federal Reserve would still have the authority to apply tougher standards for banks with between $100 billion and $250 billion in assets."

The restrictions were first passed as part of the Dodd-Frank law after the 2008 financial crisis. Under it, banks that are "too big to fail" must be assessed by the Federal Reserve each year to make sure they have enough capital to survive an economic shock, and must also submit a plan called a "living will" that detail how they would liquidate assets if they fail so as not to hurt the financial system.

The bill would also exempt some banks and credit unions from having to report some mortgage loan data such as the applicant's age, credit score, total loan costs and interest rate. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who opposed the bill, argued it would make it easier for banks to discriminate against minority applicants without anyone noticing. The bill would also require free credit freezes for consumers affected by data breaches such as the one from Equifax.

Microsoft to host rural broadband presentation

A senior Microsoft official will lead a presentation on how broadband technology can help rural America with economic development, health care access, education and more. Shelley McKinley, general manager of Microsoft's Technology and Corporate Responsibility Group, will "deep dive into the use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, to create environmental sustainability, connect 1 billion people around the world with disabilities and prepare the workforce of the future."

Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative is aimed at bringing more broadband connectivity to rural America, partly through the use of white-space technology. Critics say it's self-serving and not properly focused on rural areas.

The free presentation will take place at 3 p.m. CT March 28 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and will be live streamed for those who can't attend. Learn more here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ky. State Police try to keep local news media from reporting on investigations until KSP gives them green (blue?) light

Here's another timely story for Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and the role of the news media in keeping the government honest:

A Kentucky State Police spokesperson recently caused a stir when he told two rural news outlets that they need to wait until the KSP issues press releases before publishing anything about ongoing investigations, Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The officer wrote in an email to the Barbourville Mountain Advocate and Pineville radio station WRIL:"From this point forward when KSP is working an investigation, you are to wait until OUR (KSP) press release is sent out before putting anything out on social media, radio, and newspaper. No more posting inaccurate information from Sheriffs or anyone else. I don't care to confirm something and then get a release out later. [On] authority of my supervisors, if this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list."

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, told the Herald-Leader the order violates the First Amendment, and that state agencies cannot withhold information "just because they don’t like what the media outlet is writing," Wright reports.

KSP Capt. Ryan Catron said the police do not plan to withhold information from the Advocate or WRIL, and that the email was meant to encourage news organizations to wait for accurate information before publishing stories.

Mountain Advocate Editor Charles Myrick wrote that that the weekly has a strong relationship with KSP and that while he appreciates the sacrifices law-enforcement officers make to keep people safe, "Part of keeping the public safe is an open forum of communication, and that’s what we do. An attempt to silence the media is not only a breach of the First Amendment, but a slap in the face of any effort to keep our public safe."

Medicaid, integral to rural health care, faces uncertain future

Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income Americans, is "part of the financial bedrock for rural hospitals" across America, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News as part of "Medicaid Nation", a KHN series examining the program's reach and role.

Medicaid began as a medical program for the poorest Americans, but millions now rely on it. The program covers nearly 24 percent of rural Americans who aren't senior citizens, and pays for almost 45 percent of all U.S. births — 51 percent of rural births.

Some don't even know Medicaid is helping them: Medicaid reduces the amount of uncompensated care hospitals must provide, insulating them from worse financial problems and enabling some to stay open and keep services such as obstetrics. About half of rural counties don't have a hospital with an obstetric unit, since Medicaid compensation rates are lower for the expensive service, so it's often one of the first to be cut by cash-strapped hospitals.

When a hospital can stay afloat, not only is more medical care available in rural areas, but it provides hundreds, sometimes thousands of local jobs that are often critical to the local economy. The data backs this up: rural hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid are six times less likely to close than in states that didn't.

The benefit of Medicaid to rural communities has been a conundrum for rural residents, who tend to vote Republican even as GOP lawmakers consistently vote to reduce Medicaid costs and the number of people who have access to it. "In Ohio, many state lawmakers are pushing a cap on the state’s expanded Medicaid program — a controversial move that would almost certainly squeeze hospital revenue. Nationally, Republican leaders are weighing cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other safety-net programs," Luthra reports. Still, a Republican-flavored Medicaid that includes work requirements for able-bodied recipients may make Medicaid expansion more palatable to conservatives.

Interactive map with local data rates U.S. counties on economic distress; shows some unexpected outliers

Dark red counties are the most economically stressed, and dark blue the least.
(EIG map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive map.)
The Economic Innovation Group has created a interactive map that identifies the economic distress level of every zip code in the United States. Maps are also available that measure by zip code, congressional district or city.

The Distressed Communities Index is comprised of seven metrics that measure economic well-being: percentage of the population with high school diplomas, housing vacancy rate, unemployment rate, poverty rate, median income (expressed as a percentage of the state's median income), percentage change in the number of jobs available from 2011 to 2015, and the percentage change in the number of business establishments from 2011 to 2015.

Putnam County, W.Va., is near the middle.
Some of the map is predictable, with large swaths of dark red (the most economically distressed) across Appalachia, the Black Belt, the Mississippi Delta, the Rio Grande and many rural areas. But the map reveals some unexpected outliers too, like Putnam County, West Virginia, a dark blue dot in a sea of dark red.

It's a fascinating portrait of America. At a large scale, it’s almost an Impressionist painting; at small scale a colorful mosaic. How did your county fare?

Trump administration sets new record for censoring or withholding government files, AP finds

An Associated Press data analysis shows that over the past eight months under President Trump, "the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade," Ted Bridis reports for AP. "People who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests, a record over the past decade."

In 63,749 of the requests, the government said it would be illegal to release the requested information, which is double the number of such claims from the previous year. And the government said it couldn't find any records related to a request 180,924 times, an increase of 18 percent over the year before. The AP couldn't determine whether journalists were asking for records that didn't exist in those cases, or whether federal employees weren't looking hard enough.

The federal government turned over everything requested about 20 percent of the time, the analysis found. And in two-thirds of the cases where it turned over anything at all, the documents were censored. Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation-funded litigation attorney at the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Bridis "Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of modern technology to store, locate and produce records in response to FOIA requests, and the public is losing out as a result."

When challenged, more than one-third of the time the government backed down and said it had improperly tried to withhold pages. But people filed only 14,713 appeals, or in 4.3 percent of cases in which the government said it had found records but wouldn't hand them over. Not fulfilling FOIA requests has been expensive for the government: it spent a record $40.6 million in legal fees last year defending decisions to withhold files. That number includes paying the winner's attorney's fees sometimes, if the government loses its case. The Trump administration said last week that it had received a record number of FOIA requests last year and that many agencies had reduced their backlogs of overdue requests.

This story is one in a series produced by the AP as part of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and freedom of the news media in the service of democracy.

Dentistry program trains students to serve in rural areas

Dr. Art DiMarco with RIDE students (RIDE photo)
It's hard to find medical professionals to practice in rural areas, and dentistry is no exception. So the University of Washington School of Dentistry has created a program to train future dentists to serve in rural areas, Kay Miller Temple reports for the Rural Health Information Hub. Other universities near rural areas could copy its model.

The Regional Initiatives in Dental Education program has an impressive success rate: over 70 percent of its graduates have been placed in rural or underserved areas of Washington, Oregon, California and Texas. The 4-year program is modeled on--and designed to integrate with--the university's WWAMI program (so named for the states Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho), which trains medical students to serve as primary care physicians throughout the Pacific Northwest, especially in rural areas. RIDE dental students and WWAMI medical students both spend their first year at Spokane's Eastern Washington University campus. Second- and third-year RIDE students train in Seattle, and fourth-year students spend four months working with community health center dentists. The training is meant to create a "super-generalist" who can capably serve in rural areas.

Dr. Art DiMarco, the program's director at Eastern Washington University, said the program was different from other rural placement programs from the start. Other programs relied on loan forgiveness to lure students, which DiMarco said helped, but didn't attract as many students as they needed. The RIDE program's founding director, Dr. Wendy Mouradian, looked instead to the WWAMI program. She says the four keys to both programs that ensure its success rate are:
  1. Have faith in the students' desire to provide care to rural/underserved populations and reward this interest early.
  2. Ensure comprehensive training for rural practice.
  3. Provide mentoring and post-graduation support.
  4. Structure education for a "cohort effect". i.e., the students support each other so that everyone shows up every day and does their best work.
Read more about the RIDE program here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

2018 county health rankings show rural America still behind

The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, released its annual County Health Rankings report today. The report found that meaningful health gaps persist in the U.S. in different geographic areas and among racial and ethnic minorities. These health gaps are mostly the result of differences in opportunities in the places people live, the report says.

Of rural interest:

Child poverty rates overall are still higher than they were before the Great Recession, and have been especially slow to rebound in rural counties. Rural counties have the highest child poverty rates, at 23.2 percent, followed by large urban metro counties with 21.2 percent, smaller metro with 20.5 percent and suburban counties with 14.5 percent. The areas with the highest child poverty rates tend to be in the Southwest, Southeast, and in parts of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the Plains.

Teen birth rates have been declining steadily for more than a decade, but teens in rural counties have seen the least improvement and continue to have the highest teen birth rates (35.9 births per 1,000), nearly twice that of suburban counties (18.5 births per 1,000).

Low birthweights are most common across the Black Belt in the South, Appalachian coal country, and rural Colorado and New Mexico.

Unemployment is high in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachian coal country, Alaska, and other pockets across the country, especially along the Rio Grande.

The more opioids doctors prescribe, the more money they make from pharmaceutical companies, analysis says

"As tens of thousands of Americans die from prescription opioid overdoses each year, an exclusive analysis by CNN and researchers at Harvard University found that opioid manufacturers are paying physicians huge sums of money -- and the more opioids a doctor prescribes, the more money he or she makes," Aaron Kessler, Elizabeth Cohen and Katherine Grise report for CNN.

In 2014 and 2015 opioid manufacturers paid hundreds of doctors fees for speaking, consulting or other services. Hundreds of doctors were paid six-figure sums, and thousands were paid more than $25,000. The doctors who prescribed particularly large amounts of opioids were the most likely to be paid consulting fees. It wasn't clear whether the payments encouraged the doctors to prescribe a company's opioid, or whether the pharmaceutical companies are finding and rewarding doctors who already prescribe large amounts of their opioids.

"It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that's very disturbing," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at Brandeis University, where he co-directs the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative.

The analysis was done primarily by comparing two federal government databases: one that tracks payments drug companies give to doctors, and one that tracks prescriptions doctors write to Medicare recipients. During the period studied, more than 811,000 doctors wrote prescriptions to Medicare patients, and almost half of those doctors wrote at least one opioid prescription. Of the doctors who wrote at least one prescription for opioids, 54 percent received a payment from pharmaceutical companies that make opioids.

CNN graph; click the image to enlarge it.
"Doctors were more likely to get paid by drug companies if they prescribed a lot of opioids -- and they were more likely to get paid a lot of money," CNN reports. "Among doctors in the top 25th percentile of opioid prescribers by volume, 72 percent received payments. Among those in the top fifth percentile, 84 percent received payments. Among the very biggest prescribers -- those in the top 10th of 1 percent -- 95 percent received payments." The more opioids doctors prescribed, the more money they received. The top 10th of 1 percent received, on average, nine times more money than the typical doctor.

Paying doctors for speaking and consulting is legal, but controversial--and common. "Pharmaceutical company payments to doctors are not unique to opioids. Drug companies pay doctors billions of dollars for various services. In 2015, 48% of physicians received some pharmaceutical payment," CNN reports. Giving doctors kickback payments in exchange for prescribing certain drugs is illegal, though. Purdue Pharma, which has been under increasing scrutiny for its aggressive marketing practices for opioids OxyContin, Butrans and Hysingla, stopped paying doctors for promotional activities in 2016.

Study: 'Deaths of despair' on the rise across the country

"Death due to alcohol, drugs, suicide, and interpersonal violence – sometimes characterized as 'deaths of despair' are on the rise in the U.S., particularly among white males, reversing a centuries-long improvement in life expectancy," F. Perry Wilson reports for MedPage Today.

In the most detailed study yet on the topic, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the University of Washington found that these deaths aren't distributed evenly around the country. Though overdose deaths are not disproportionately rural overall, a trio of maps in the article shows that Appalachian coal country is in particularly bad shape, with more OD deaths per capita than almost anywhere else in the country. The mortality rate has increased fifty-fold there and in a few other hotspots across the country. And the amount of opioids prescribed per person is extremely high.

Self-harm is much more prevalent in Western states, but has increased greatly since 1980 in not just Western states, but in other Midwestern rural areas and the Dakotas. Deaths due to interpersonal violence are concentrated in the South, especially in the Mississippi Delta region, the Black Belt, rural Alaska, and around Indian reservations in the Dakotas and the Southwest. The greatest increase in interpersonal violence deaths has been in the Mississippi Delta, but also in Fremont County, Wyoming, on which sits most of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The reservation has been noted in the past for having a high suicide and crime rate.

In general the high rate of variation in deaths of despair suggests that different factors are at play in different areas, which means that a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing it would be unwise, Perry writes.
Overdose deaths per 100,000 people (Washington University map; click on the image to enlarge it)

USDA kills animal welfare rules for organic meat

"New rules, decades in the making, that would have required organic meat and egg producers to abide by stricter animal welfare standards were withdrawn by the federal government on Monday, frustrating organic farmers and animal welfare groups but leaving some traditional egg and livestock farm groups rejoicing," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press.

The rules would have ensured improved living conditions for animals whose meat would be labeled organic. Livestock would have to have enough space to lie down and move around a little, chickens could not have their beaks removed and cattle could not have their tails cut off. All organically raised animals would be required to have proper ventilation and access to fresh air and direct sunlight.

The rules were published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture two days before President Obama left office in January 2017; the Trump administration repeatedly delayed implementing the rule before this week's announcement. USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program Undersecretary Greg Ibach said the rules would exceed the department's statutory authority, and that the organic industry's continued growth shows that consumers are fine with current rules.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that the rule would have increased the paperwork burden and driven up the cost of production for farmers and ranchers.

Organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke blamed industry lobbyists for the decision, and told Pitt some organic farmers are working on creating their own label, the Real Organic Project, which they hope to pilot on farms this summer and eventually roll out nationwide. The label would guarantee improved living standards for organically raised animals.

Rural voters largely stayed put in tight Pa. race, but Democrat cut into rural margins to win narrow victory

New York Times map; click on it to enlarge, or here for interactive version.
There's no official winner yet in yesterday's special Congressional election in Pennsylvania, though Democrat Conor Lamb has a small lead over Republican Rick Saccone and has declared victory. Whether Lamb wins or not, the closeness of the race could be interpreted as a sign that blue-collar Americans are losing faith in Republican policies, James Hohmann writes for The Washington Post. After all, President Trump won this district by 20 points in 2016, but it took millions of dollars from national political action committees and heavy support from Trump and other GOP luminaries to bring this race even.

"The bigger reason that the savviest GOP operatives in town are freaking out right now, though, is that the results underscore the degree to which the party has been unable to hone in on a message that can reliably win races in this environment," Hohmann writes.

The most-current precinct-level map (above) shows that rural townships went for Saccone, but in those areas, "dozens of precincts went more Democratic than in the 2016 presidential election for Trump," Domenico Montanaro reports for NPR. In rural areas, "Lamb was able to cut into the Republican margins, and when every vote counts, as in a race like this, it can make all the difference." Lamb ran as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dave Ramsey says more people worry about finances, perhaps thinking that politicians will improve their fortunes

Financial guru Dave Ramsey advises millions of Americans to gain wealth by paying off debt, via his weekly radio show, a book, and classes. He says he's worried about what he's hearing these days from people who are in debt, Tim Alberta writes for Politico. Ramsey's radio show is the third-most popular on the airwaves, right behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and has an obvious appeal to rural Red-Staters with his Tennessee accent, homespun sayings and bootstrappy approach to financial discipline. Perhaps coincidentally, high personal debt tends to cluster in rural and disproportionately rural areas such as the Central Appalachian coalfields, the Mississippi Delta, the Black Belt in the South, and rural Texas. (Politico map from Urban Institute data)

Map colors show each county's percentage of population that is the target of at least one debt collector.
Ramsey told Alberta that he hears from a lot more people, both Democrats and Republicans, who are terrified about their finances than when he started his radio show 25 years ago, and said part of it is because people seem to have lost hope in their ability to dig themselves out of financial problems, instead looking to the government to fix things. He believes the elections of both Trump and Obama were driven by voters' beliefs that their candidate would increase their financial security, a notion Ramsey scoffs at, but believes is a direct consequence of the Great Recession.

"I now have to spend more time talking someone into believing they control their own destiny than I used to,” Ramsey told Alberta. "I don’t know if I blame that all on 'hope and change' from Obama, or 'Make America Great Again.' They’re both hope slogans. Different ideologies, different politics, but both hope slogans: I’m going to deliver something for you that you can’t do for yourself."

IBM Watson Health lists top hospitals; did yours make list?

IBM Watson Health has released its annual list of the top 100 hospitals in the nation, a list that has been compiled for the past 25 years using "independent public data, risk-adjusted and peer-reviewed methodologies, and key performance metrics" to rate hospitals on patient satisfaction, efficiency, and financial stability. Hospitals are compared only against other hospitals that are similar in terms of size and teaching status.

Rural and small-town hospitals that made the list included Cedar City Hospital in Utah which topped the "Small Community Hospitals" category and made the list overall for the seventh time. It's in a town of 28,000.

Did your local hospital make the cut? Download the list free here through March 16; it will cost $75 after that.

Special congressional election in Pennsylvania is a possible litmus test for blue-collar union voters' allegiance

Today's special election for a congressional seat in southwestern Pennsylvania is an "acid test for the allegiance of working-class voters," Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times. Union leadership is backing Democrat Conor Lamb, but it's unclear if the rank-and-file union members in the district, who care more about social issues and voted heavily for Trump in 2016, will follow their lead.

Conor Lamb, state Rep. Rick Saccone
Because of this possible symbolism, months before the midterm elections, both Republican political committees and small-donor Democrats from all over the country have poured millions of dollars into the race. Democrats want to shore up the narrative of a "blue wave" of rising anti-Trump and anti-Republican sentiment, and Republicans want to prove that Trump's connection with blue-collar workers is solid.

President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have appeared at recent rallies for Saccone, and this morning the president tweeted: "The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going," the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., reports. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and a member of the AFL-CIO's executive council, pitched Lamb to union workers as a "God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending Democrat" in a recent speech, Brent Scher reports for the Washington Free Beacon.

Monmouth University poll found that 51 percent of voters polled said they support Lamb, compared to 45 percent for Saccone; that's nearly a 10-percentage point swing over last month's poll, in which Saccone had a small edge. Poll director Patrick Murray said, "This district has voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent elections, but a large number of these voters have blue-collar Democratic roots. Lamb seems to have connected with them."

The poll was unclear about whether Trump's steel tariffs, which could help Saccone, had much effect on the race. Click here for updates on the race throughout the day from the Observer-Reporter.

Record 21 states see decline in well-being in 2017

For for the first time in the nine years The Gallup Organization and Sharecare have been tracking changes in Americans' well-being, no state saw any statistically significant improvement over the past year. People in 21 states, mostly in the South and West, saw their well-being scores drop by a statistically significant margin from 2017. That broke the previous record set in 2009 during the Great Recession, when well-being in 15 states declined.

Nevertheless, Americans said they were more confident about the economy and believed the job market was better in 2017 than they did in 2009, Dan Witters reports for Gallup.

The data is based on more than 160,000 interviews with U.S. adults in all 12 months of 2017. The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index is a mean score comprised of metrics that measure five elements of well-being:
  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Many states showed declines in metrics concerning purpose, social well-being, and mental health, such as increased worrying, little interest or pleasure in doing things, not liking what they do each day, more clinical depression diagnoses, more daily physical pain, less "positive energy" received from friends and family, less encouragement from others to be healthy, fewer people who have a leader in their life who makes them "enthusiastic about the future," fewer people reaching their goals, and less satisfaction with their standard of living, Witters reports.

The states that saw declines in well-being in 2017 and mostly in the South and West, including states that have had historically high well-being scores. West Virginia had the lowest well-being score in the nation, a spot it has held for nine consecutive years. South Dakota and Vermont, which have both been high-ranked in years past, tied for the best well-being scores.

Employers should care about this because workers with higher well-being scores are much better performers, are likely to have fewer unplanned absences, and use less health care than workers with lower well-being scores. They're also more likely to stay at the same job, file fewer worker compensation claims, and are more resilient in the face of challenges like lay-offs or natural disasters.

Community leaders should care because drops in well-being "increase the liability in each of these areas for the states that suffer them and should command the attention of their leaders, as weakening well-being can result in slowing the pace of an otherwise improving economy," Witter reports.

Energy Department wants to develop smaller coal plants

"The Trump administration is set to ask companies to help the government develop small-scale coal-fired power plants," according to a top Energy Department official, Amy Harder reports for Axios. Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy in the department, told Harder at a major energy conference in Houston that the "smaller coal plants would be able to better complement an electricity grid that has growing amounts of intermittent wind and solar power and be able to include other technology that captures carbon emissions."

The funding would be competitive and would require coal companies to share the costs, another department official told Harder. Coal has been declining for years, mostly because of cheap natural gas, but Winberg said he hopes coal can survive if these smaller power plants do well.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Federal government focuses on school safety bills instead of gun restrictions

While state legislatures have mostly focused on gun-control legislation in response to recent school shootings, the federal government is leaning more toward school-safety initiatives. President Trump walked back his recent support for raising the minimum age for gun purchases after pushback from the National Rifle Association, and called on Congress today to pass legislation aimed at violence prevention and intervention in schools.

The Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act has been introduced in the Senate and the House. Both versions have bipartisan support, would authorize Department of Justice school safety programs, and would authorize grant money for school safety initiatives, but there are some differences in the House and Senate versions, Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week.

The House bill, introduced by Republican John Rutherford of Florida, would provide $50 million annually from fiscal years 2019 through 2028. The Senate bill, introduced by Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, would provide $75 million for the Secure Our Schools grant program through the end of fiscal year 2018, which ends on Sept. 30, then $100 million annually for fiscal years 2019 through 2028.

The bills differ on how the grant money could be spent. The Senate bill specifies that the grants can be used for technology such as panic buttons or surveillance systems, while the House bill doesn't mention technology as a possible use for funding. Hatch's bill also puts a greater emphasis on seeking evidence-based solutions to award grant money. Both bills would require school districts to put up 25 percent in matching funds to be eligible for grants, but the Senate bill allows the fund-matching requirement to be waived. And finally, "Rutherford's bill would move the Secure Our Schools grant program out of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office at the Justice Department, and into the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which provides technical assistance to state and local officials. Hatch's bill keeps the program in the COPS office," Ujifusa reports.

In addition to urging Congress to pass the STOP legislation, Trump is also calling on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to form and chair a school safety task force to look at successful safety measures already in place in schools and districts around the country. "The administration will also review federal privacy laws to determine if there are ways to improve coordination between education, healthcare, and law enforcement sectors. And it will support a so-called 'Fix NICS' bill that would seek to ensure more thorough records in the existing background check system for gun purchases," Evie Blad reports for Education Week.

Florida governor signs bill imposing limits on gun purchases; other states could follow

Three weeks after the deadly Parkland school shooting, Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill imposing new limits on firearms purchases. It was a surprising move for a governor who has ardently supported gun rights in the past. Hours after Scott signed the law, the National Rifle Association filed suit in federal court to block the part of the law that raises the minimum age for purchasing long guns to 21, saying it violates the constitutional rights of 18-20-year-olds.

The law also imposes a three-day waiting period for most long gun purchases, bans the possession of bump stocks, establishes a program to arm some school personnel, allocates hundreds of millions of dollars on school security and mental health treatment, and makes it easier for law enforcement and judges to take guns from people considered dangerous to themselves or others.

Before signing the bill, Scott repeated his opposition to the new waiting periods as well as arming teachers. "After Scott came out against arming teachers in schools, state Republican leaders amended the bill to exclude school employees who work exclusively as classroom teachers from being part of the 'school marshal' program," Michael Scherer reports for The Washington Post. "The program is voluntary for school districts, and any school employees who carry a weapon will have to undergo 132 hours of law enforcement training with the county sheriff’s office, pass a background check and take additional diversity training."

Scott's willingness to allow limits on gun purchases tracks with public opinion in Florida, which has seen three mass shootings in the past two years: at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A recent poll found that 78 percent of Florida residents support raising the age for all gun purchases to 21, 87 percent support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases, and 56 percent support allowing school personnel to carry guns on school grounds, Scherer reports. Florida Democrats accused Scott of signing the new law for political reasons. Scott has taken steps toward challenging Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for a Senate seat, but has not yet formally declared his candidacy.

The Parkland shooting may prove to be a catalyst for other gun-related legislation. At least 38 states have introduced or passed gun-related legislation since the Parkland shooting. The Chicago Tribune did a great job of rounding up pending gun legislation in other states, along with data about each state's political landscape and how each state rates on gun owners' rights and preventing gun violence.

Politicians at all levels take up 'fake news' smear; Ohio editor who backed Trump tells journos to look in mirror

Huffington Post graphic
President Trump's repeated attempts to discredit the news media with the term "fake news" have inspired conservative politicians all over the country to copy him.

"An Idaho state lawmaker urges her constituents to submit entries for her 'fake news awards.' The Kentucky governor tweets #FAKENEWS to dismiss questions about his purchase of a home from a supporter. An aide to the Texas land commissioner uses the phrase to downplay the significance of his boss receiving donations from employees of a company that landed a multimillion-dollar contract," Ryan J. Foley of The Associated Press reports.

Denouncing news stories as fake news helps politicians dodge uncomfortable questions in the short term, but experts on press and democracy say the tactic could cause long-term damage by undermining the news media's role as a governmental and political watchdog. The hostility toward the press has already turned violent on several occasions. "In the last year, at least three political figures have been implicated in physical assaults on reporters asking questions, while journalists have been attacked in dozens of other incidents by protesters, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker," Foley reports.

The confusion sown by Trump and other conservative politicians is exacerbated by the proliferation of actual fake news on the internet. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, especially among conservatives, and even small town newspapers are bearing the brunt of conservative outrage. Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, recommends that journalists respond to claims of "fake news" by increasing transparency as much as possible: sharing audio, video and documents that back up their stories.

This story is the first in a series produced by the AP as part of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and freedom of the news media in the service of democracy.

UPDATE: Editor-Publisher Gary Abernathy of The Times Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio, finds fault: "It is telling that the story notes that the claim of bias comes from conservatives, which raises the question: Why don’t liberals complain as much about media bias? The obvious liberal slant to the media is typically ignored in favor of journalists adopting the mantle of victimhood. . . . I share the concern over the shaky position of newspapers today, but not for the same reason as many of my colleagues. The attacks by the president and others cannot hurt us. They are merely firing ammunition handed them by media outlets that have too often abandoned their “impartial and steady course” — as Carothers put it 200 years ago — in favor of point-of-view journalism and obvious agendas reflected in tabloid-style, click-bait headlines and sensationalized reporting."

Friday, March 09, 2018

Va. daily has best small newsroom in Gannett for 5 years

Sperling's Best Places map
For the fifth straight year, The News Leader of Staunton (pronounced "Stanton"), Va., has been named the best small newsroom in Gannett Co. Inc., the nation's leading newspaper publisher in terms of circulation.

"A panel of outside judges made the determination based on the Staunton newsroom's community journalism and special projects in 2017, compared to more than 50 sites across the United States," the 10,000-circulation daily told its readers. "Transformation of the News Leader's sports coverage and an outreach project and series on suicide led the way, according to judges for the annual contest. Narrative writing about Mackenzie Gray of Staunton and about a trio of transgender residents was also honored."

News Leader President Roger Watson said Executive Editor Dave Fritz and News Director William Ramsey "maximize the potential of our reporting staff, using new tools and innovative methods to deliver information to our audience while not compromising on our ethical standards and values as an organization. I hope the people of Staunton recognize what we have been able to do during these turbulent times for media as a whole as our company has recognized us as a great small newspaper for the past five years."

The story also noted individual Gannett awards to staff members, including Laura Peters for community engagement with a story about suicide, and Ramsey for narrative writing: his story about Gray, a young mother killed as she tried to prevent the murder of her friend. The announcement said The News Leader was the best small paper in the "USA Today Network," using the brand Gannett has adopted. (The company puts "Today" in all caps, which we consider to be typographic tyranny.)

Minnesota governor has plan to protect water from pollution by nitrate fertilizers; apparently first in Mississippi watershed

Star Tribune map; click on the image for a larger version.
"In an effort to stem the rise of nitrate pollution in rural Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday laid out a plan to balance farmers’ use of fertilizer with the protection of groundwater and drinking water supplies," Josephine Marcotty reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

The plan follows a year of debate among farmers, environmentalists and other interested parties on how to best address the problem of nitrate contamination in drinking water. High nitrates levels have been found in dozens of municipal water systems and one-tenth of private wells, especially in southeastern and central parts of the state.

 Nitrate run-off in the Mississippi River, which originates in Minnesota, feeds a yearly algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that sucks oxygen out of a lengthy swath of water along the coast, killing some aquatic life. In Minnesota, nitrates in drinking water can cause the potentially fatal "blue baby syndrome" and other health conditions.

"Yet curbing farm chemicals is not easy in a state where agriculture contributes $19 billion annually to the economy — much of it tied to the 800,000 tons of fertilizer farmers use on some 16 million acres," Marcotty reports. Dayton's proposal is apparently the first by the governor of a state in the Mississippi River watershed. This will be the first time the state has attempted to regulate farmers' use of fertilizer. The state already restricts the use of phosphorus on lawns.

In the newest version of the plan, released by Dayton and Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredrickson, farmers' use of nitrogen fertilizers would be limited by both voluntary and mandatory means, especially in the fall and winter when nitrates are most likely to leach into groundwater because there are no crops to soak them up. Exceptions to the rule would be made for crops that require fall nitrogen, and for areas where there are few crops or the soil isn't prone to nitrate leaching.

Republican legislators panned the new version, calling it a "reactionary re-branding of a vastly unpopular rule" in a statement. The public will be encouraged to give opinions about the plan at public meetings to be scheduled this summer.

Survey shows Americans divided on protecting environment, but many more rate it a priority than they did in 2010

Pew chart; for larger, clearer version, click on the image.
A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center showed deep fractures in Americans' views on protecting the environment, but an increasing concern about it.

Partisan sentiment was a big indicator of differing opinions: "Although 81 percent of Democrats said protecting the environment should be a top priority, only 37 percent of Republicans agreed," Dave Rosenthal reports for Great Lakes Today. "And though 68 percent of Democrats said dealing with climate change should be a top priority, just 18 percent of Republicans agreed."

Among the 19 issues listed in the survey, Americans' top priorities were defending the country against terrorism, improving schools and strengthening the economy. But protecting the environment has become more important to Americans, especially Democrats, in recent years: the share of respondents who said protecting the environment was a top priority jumped from 44 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in the recent survey, "and seven points in the last year alone," Pew reports.

Addressing climate change is more important to younger people. In the Pew survey, 56 percent of people under age 30 said climate change was a top priority, compared to 37 percent of respondents age 65 and over, Rosenthal reports.

Rosenthal notes that there has been "significant" bipartisan support in the Great Lakes region for environmental protections. Last year Republicans and Democrats from Great Lakes states united to restore $300 million in federal funding that President Trump proposed eliminating. The funds pay for pollution cleanups, wetlands restoration, and other initiatives. The same bipartisan crew is vowing to fully fund those programs after President Trump's 2019 budget proposes eliminating $30 million for Great Lakes environmental programs.

West Virginia bill to allow oil or gas drilling with consent from 75 percent of owners heads to skeptical Gov. Justice

After a tumultuous week, the "co-tenancy" oil and gas drilling bill passed the West Virginia Senate and is headed to Gov. Jim Justice's desk.

"The bill, considered the oil and gas industry’s biggest priority of the session, would allow natural gas and oil companies to drill on land with the consent of at least 75 percent of the owners. It includes an amendment, introduced in the House, to give 50 percent of unknown owners’ interest on the minerals to a Public Employees Insurance Agency stability fund," Kate Mishkin reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. That is related to issues that resulted in a statewide teachers' strike.

It's unclear if Justice, who has many coal interests, will sign the bill. Last week he encouraged state Senators to kill the bill and pass a more controversial joint-development bill, which would allow drillers with old leases to drill wells across some individual property lines without signing a new lease. Justice also proposed a special session to vote on natural gas issues and resolve the teachers' strike. He later "moved back" on that proposal, Mishkin reports.

As Trump imposes tariffs, concern about trade war rises; Perdue acknowledges 'legitimate anxiety' among farmers

Some in the agriculture industry panned President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum, which he enacted yesterday. He exempted Canada and Mexico, but said that may change depending on negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Concern about the tariffs sparking a trade war are widespread among farmers, especially since China is pointedly investigating U.S. sorghum imports and will likely target soybeans next. American Soybean Association President John Heisdorffer, an Iowa farmer, said the tariffs were a "disastrous course of action," and "We have heard directly from the Chinese that U.S. soybeans are prime targets for retaliation." China is the top customer for U.S. soybean exports, buying $5 billion in 2017, which accounts for more than 60 percent of last year's sales, Ben Potter reports for Ag Web.

Farm-equipment manufacturers are also worried. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers said in a statement that the industry is "profoundly disappointed" in the tariffs because they put "manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage, risk undoing the strides our economy has made due to tax reform, and ultimately pose a threat to American workers' jobs." The statement also noted that steel accounts for about 10 percent of equipment manufacturers' direct costs.

At a recent meeting at Department of Agriculture headquarters, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the ag industry is "rightfully concerned" and that "there is probably some legitimate anxiety over the trade issues," Natalina Sents reports for Successful Farming.

Almost 100,000 public comments supporting sage grouse conservation appear to be missing from federal report

Two sage grouse roosters challenge each other for hens in Idaho. (Associated Press photo by Bill Schaefer)
Public comments are an important way for the federal government to assess citizens' feelings about agency proposals, but a Bureau of Land Management report summarizing public sentiment on sage grouse conservation released Friday appears to be missing about 100,000 comments.

"Sage grouse neared an endangered-species listing two and a half years ago, but federal and state plans to protect sage-grouse habitat staved off a listing," Heather Richards reports for the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming. "The decision was hailed as a successful collaboration between states, federal agencies and private citizens, particularly in places like Wyoming, where a listing would have had dire impacts on the economy."

But last fall the administration ordered a review of the sage grouse habitat management plans to see if they were hampering energy development. The public was invited to comment on the issue by submitting comments electronically or by mail.

"Altogether, roughly 267,000 individuals submitted comments . . . at the behest of about 20 environmental groups, they say," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post. "But the BLM tallied far fewer comments received for its 'scoping' report: About 170,000 individuals submitted comments, according to a memorandum by David Bernhardt, the No. 2 top official at the department, sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke."

Phil Hanceford, conservation director of the Wilderness Society, told Grandoni the missing comments were "a glaring reminder that BLM has some pretty serious transparency issues." BLM spokesperson Don Smurthwaite told the Casper paper, "We're aware of the concern and are checking to ensure that all comments and issues are represented in the final scoping report."

Thursday, March 08, 2018

HD Media high bidder on Charleston Gazette-Mail as auction begins; Ogden Media says it won't counterbid

UPDATE, March 9: The auction ended with no other bidders and the judge has approved the sale. Robert Nutting said in a letter, "We believe that we bid a full and fair price . . . We are very pleased that another company has indicated a willingness to take on this challenge." An HD Media representative said "not everybody, but most people" would keep their jobs, Lacie Pierson reports.

"Among the investors in HD Media’s purchase of the Gazette-Mail are Brian Jarvis, president of NCWV Media, which publishes The State Journal and The Exponent-Telegram [of Clarksburg] and W. Marston 'Marty' Becker of Australia-based QBE Insurance Group." Pierson reports. "Becker partnered with Bray Cary in the early 2000s to create West Virginia Media, which operated The State Journal and several West Virginia television stations. The TV stations were sold in 2015, and NCWV Media assumed control of The State Journal in 2016, with Cary remaining a minority partner. It was unclear Thursday what kind of operational relationship those media entities would have with the purchase of the Gazette-Mail." The State Journal is focused on business and government.

The owners of Ogden Newspapers have decided not to continue bidding on the purchase of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which leaves HD Media the highest bidder in the auction to buy West Virginia's largest newspaper. The auction began at noon today.

Ogden bid $10.91 million on the paper, which declared bankruptcy on Jan. 30. HD Media countered with an $11.4 million bid on Monday, Lacie Pierson reports for the Gazette-Mail. An attorney for Charleston Newspapers, Brian Audette, told Pierson that Ogden officials do not intend to place another bid.

"If HD Media is the successful bidder after the auction, the only legal step it will have before owning the Gazette-Mail will be a hearing Friday, when U.S. District Judge Frank Volk will make his final ruling on the sale of West Virginia's largest newspaper," Pierson reports. "After Volk hands down his order on the sale Friday, the sale should be closed on or before March 31, according to an order he handed down in February."

HD Media is the Huntington-based parent company of the Herald-Dispatch. It also owns the Wayne County News, the Logan Banner, Williamson Daily News, the Coal Valley News and the Pineville Independent Herald. "Doug Reynolds, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who was the Democratic candidate for West Virginia attorney general in 2016, is the managing partner of HD Media," Pierson reports. The company's papers are printed at the Gazette-Mail.

Start planning for Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday

This Sunday the American Society of News Editors kicks off the 12th annual Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government and the free press. At a time when public trust in the news media is at an all-time low, Sunshine Week is an important reminder to readers that journalism serves democracy.

Click here for a reporting package produced by The Associated Press. Columns, cartoons, public-records data, Sunshine Week logos, sample proclamations for adoption by government officials and a page for educators are available in the Sunshine Week toolkit.

Sunshine Week is scheduled each year to include national Freedom of Information Day, March 16. That is the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. Sunshine Week is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and this year by a donation from The Gridiron Club and Foundation of Washington, D.C.

West Virginia teacher strike highlights underpaid rural teacher crisis in other states

W.Va. teachers and supporters celebrate the end of the
strike. (Beckley Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)
The teacher strike in West Virginia ended this week with a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees, but many rural teachers in other states are still underpaid. "If those issues are not resolved, we could see rural teachers in other states follow the example of the striking teachers in West Virginia, where over half of all schools are considered rural," Erin McHenry-Sorber reports for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

The issue of rural teacher pay is complex: in W.Va. the state legislature sets a statewide pay scale. Wealthier areas like those near Washington, D.C., can add more to the baseline salary to make their districts more attractive to teachers. But places like McDowell County, the poorest in the state, struggle to find teachers, especially in math and special education. North Carolina has the same problem: the rural teacher shortage is exacerbated by wealthy districts that poach more experienced teachers.

In Pennsylvania, where teacher salary scales are set at the local level instead of the county level, the pay disparity between rural and urban teachers is more dramatic. In the Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District in rural southwestern Penn., the average teacher salary is $36,709, but Lower Merion School District in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb has an average teacher salary of $97,480.

"Highly dependent on local tax revenue, rural school systems in Pennsylvania find themselves unable to compete with urban and suburban districts in terms of teacher pay – not just across the state, but within their own counties," McHenry-Sorber reports. "Unlike countywide systems, poor, rural community school districts in Pennsylvania see no benefits from economic growth in neighboring districts within their county borders."

Rural school districts face three disadvantages in attracting teachers, according to a 2003 study by the Rural School and Community Trust: rural teachers are paid less than other rural professionals like registered nurses or computer programmers, largely rural states pay less than largely urban states, and rural areas pay teachers less than urban areas within the same state, McHenry-Sorber reports.

The study is still relevant today, with the rural teacher shortage reaching "crisis levels" in states like Oklahoma and Arizona. "Numerous states, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, have attempted to deal with the lack of certified teachers through emergency certifications, alternative certification programs and diminished standards for teacher certification," McHenry-Sorber reports.

Government to increase drone use to fight wildfires

A federal drone (U.S. Bureau of Land Management photo)
Last year's wildfire season cost more than $2 billion to fight, straining the budgets of many Western states. When the next wildfire season starts, the federal government wants to fight it with increased use of unmanned drones, which it says allows missions to be done in one-seventh the time and at one-tenth the cost of a manned mission.

An incident last summer showed how useful drones can be. A Bureau of Land Management drone was flying over a blaze in the Umpqua National Forest in southwest Oregon in August when its infrared camera spied a nearby "spot fire" which was unconnected to the main fire and likely started by a windblown ember. A human pilot doing a flyover could not have seen the fire because smoke limited visibility to 100 feet. But because the drone caught it, firefighters were able to contain it before it became a big problem. "The BLM, a division within Interior, later estimated the early detection of the fire by the drone saved $50 million in land and infrastructure value that could have otherwise been lost," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

The Interior Department increasingly relied on drones to help firefighters last summer, sending them on 707 fire detection and monitoring missions over 71 wildfires. It plans to ramp up their use this year and is working on developing drones that can help extinguish fires. "The goal: To deploy retardant-dumping helicopters capable of being flown either manned and unmanned, so firefighting efforts can continue around the clock. At night and in the early morning, darkness and low-lying smoke, respectively, obscure the views of firefighters above, often making missions too dangerous to do," Grandoni reports. The University of Nebraska is also testing drones that can help fight fires by starting prescribed burns.

Though the Interior uses only its own drones right now, the department recently solicited bids from private companies to fly drones over forest fires for data collection.