Open-records battles — a good topic for Sunshine Week; will the census count rural America well?

“What happens when the news is gone?” The New Yorker magazine asked in January, in its headline over a long story about the failing local-news ecosystem in Jones County, North Carolina. It is the best case study of the local-journalism crisis I’ve seen, and we did a Rural Blog item about it at https://tinyurl.com/tnqk4au.
It's a story about the lack of accountability that occurs when the local newspaper becomes a “ghost newspaper,” the term that Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina coined to describe papers that no longer fulfill basic First Amendment functions, such as covering government meetings. When a mayor in Jones County spent disaster money on the town hall without board approval, no one in the town “had a professional responsibility to ask annoying questions about the things that matter only to the citizens of that town, and to no one else, and to print the answers,” writer Charles Bethea pointed out.
Another basic First Amendment function of the news media is to fight for open government: reveal and challenge illegal meetings, file records requests and challenge denial of those requests. In most states, such challenges cost money, and newspapers, long the main fighters for open government, are now less able or less willing to pay lawyers to fight those battles. That increases an advantage that states and large local governments have long had staff attorneys who don’t incur hourly legal fees, notes a new report from the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
The paper looks at such “fee shifting” and the varying enforcement mechanisms in state laws with case studies of several states. It recommends fighting fee shifting by allowing any plaintiff who substantially prevails to recover attorney’s fees. Our Rural Blog item has more details and a link to the report; read it at https://tinyurl.com/rcbhmf6.
An examination of the situation in your state or locality would be a good story for Sunshine Week, the annual observation that reminds Americans of their right to know what their governments are doing – and the news media’s role in preserving that right.
Ten days after Sunshine Week ends is April 1, the date for the decennial census of the United States. Many rural officials worry about it because this will be the first census to rely primarily on digital response; that puts many areas with limited high-speed internet access, including rural ones, at a much higher risk of being undercounted. We’ve had a lot about this on The Rural Blog; the latest item, with recommendations for getting everyone counted, is at https://tinyurl.com/sua4x6w.
Rural and poor states and localities depend most on an accurate census count because of their heavy use of federal funds but are more vulnerable to undercounts, according to a Georgetown University study that we noted on The Rural Blog at https://tinyurl.com/rrd7h4f.
But census data can work both ways. Hundreds of rural school districts are receiving significantly less federal funding this year because the U.S. Department of Education is using census data, not the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, to distribute funds for a rural schools program based on poverty. It’s on The Rural Blog at https://tinyurl.com/wjcp5ju.
Another recent federal change could result in less money going to rural America. Reviewers for the Social Security Disability Insurance program classify recipients into one of three groups: Medical Improvement Expected, Possible and Not Expected. The more likely you are to improve, the more frequently you get reviewed. The administration is proposing a fourth category, Medical Improvement Likely, and forecasting that 1 million people now categorized as Possible would probably move to the new category and get more frequent reviews, leading to more benefit terminations and saving about $200 million a year. Disability is more prevalent in rural areas; our Rural Blog item has a link to a story with an interactive map showing the percentage of the population in each county that receives SSDI. It’s at https://tinyurl.com/v99txma.
Rural hospitals have been closing at unprecedented rates over the past decade, and 2019 saw more than ever. A new report lists the percentage of hospitals in each state that are in danger of closing and shares the metrics the researchers used for their predictions. Factors include the average age of the building, percentage of occupancy, affiliation with a larger health-care system and whether it's in a state with expanded Medicaid. Our Rural Blog item on it is at
https://tinyurl.com/uvlbsqr.
On the brighter side, the outfit that issued the report also named the top 100 rural and critical-access hospitals (which by definition must be rural). If there’s a secret sauce to making a rural hospital succeed, they have it. We noted the report at https://tinyurl.com/wsdzoha.
When Catholic priests sexually abuse parishioners, too often the church transfers them to another diocese instead of defrocking them, and their crimes are rarely publicized. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury named a lot of names and prompted at least 178 Catholic community leaders across the nation to publish their own lists, but there was no central standard for who and what should be included. ProPublica spent more than a year cataloguing those lists, resulting in a database with over 6,600 names. The Rural Blog linked to it at https://tinyurl.com/w7bul54.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.