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Newspaper For Sale: The Growing Threat of News Deserts in Western Pennsylvania

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For the better half of the last decade, newspapers have been treated as novelties. An under-appreciated resource whose disappearance is problematic, but for reasons that are seemingly pragmatic. To make matters worse, there doesn’t appear to be a solution in sight.

“No one is quite sure how to stop that process from happening,” University of Iowa professor David Ryfe said of the dying local paper. “There are lots of people who are worried about it, but no one has found a solution in the 15 years [since] the digital world has erupted and called attention to the issue. No one has found a solution at the regional or local level.”

Ryfe is the director at University of Iowa’s School for Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also one of the most prominent scholars on local and modern journalism, authoring 2016’s “Journalism and the Public” and 2012’s “Can Journalism Survive: A Look Inside American Newsrooms.”

“All the local newspapers have left is the local advertising,” Ryfe said. “There’s not going to be any salvation for newspapers in multimedia, in digital media, or online.”

According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, weekday newspaper circulation in 1990 was around 62 million nationwide. That number dropped to 55.7 million in 2000 and in 2017 the estimated circulation suffered another decline, topping out at just 30.9 million.

As circulation has declined, local newspapers have had to adjust for the loss in revenue, sometimes by shrinking the size of their staffs, sometimes by selling out or closing up shop all together. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Area is witnessing this potentially dangerous trend firsthand. The area has lost 5 daily newspapers since 2015, with a host of others changing ownership. These changes pose a great risk in both the quality and quantity of local content.

The Downsizing of Pittsburgh’s Local News

Although changes in southwestern Pennsylvania’s newspaper industry have been happening for years, they came to a head in August when the area’s largest newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, announced the 232-year-old institution would stop printing on Tuesdays and Saturdays, bestowing Pittsburgh with the rather misfortunate honor of becoming the largest city in America without a daily print newspaper, although the publication offers a daily online edition.

Over the last three years, a number of daily and weekly newspapers in the surrounding area have also undergone changes.

In 2015, the Daily News in McKeesport and the Valley Independent in Monessen were among the first local papers in the region to cease operations. Both daily newspapers were owned by Trib Total Media, however, it was unable to find a buyer for either publication amidst a fire sale of local newspapers that year.

The company sold 8 publications in 2015, including the Leader Times in Kittanning and the Daily Courier in Connellsville, to West Penn Media, an affiliate of Sample Media Group which has an already established footprint in the area, publishing the Latrobe Bulletin in Westmoreland County.

Within less than a year from the start of its sell-off, Trib Total Media’s largest daily, the Pittsburgh-based Tribune-Review, would cease daily print operations and move to a solely digital platform in December 2016. The Pittsburgh City Paper, an alt-weekly, would also be purchased by the Butler, Pennsylvania, based Eagle Media Corporation that same year.  

The exterior of the Beaver County Times. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

In 2017, Calkins Media, headquartered in Pennsylvania, followed in Trib Total Media’s footsteps selling off its local publications. The Ellwood City Ledger and Beaver County Times became properties of GateHouse Media, a division of New Media Investment Group — the largest publisher in the nation today.

Calkins would also sell the Uniontown Herald-Standard to Ogden Newspapers Inc., a West Virginia-based company with more than 3,500 employees at its more than 40 daily papers. Recently Ogden, announced the purchase of the Washington Observer-Reporter from the Observer Publishing Company. With this purchase Ogden now controls the two largest daily newspapers within Washington, Fayette and Greene counties.

But the selling of small town and regional papers to national media companies isn’t specific to southwestern Pennsylvania. According to a 2016 study by the University of North Carolina, the 3 largest investment groups at the time — New Media, Digital First, and Gannett —  own a combined 900 newspapers in the U.S. with a circulation of 12.7 million.

 

So, Why Does Newspaper Ownership Matter?

As these local papers are gobbled up by out-of-town companies, things start to change, according to Ryfe.

“The first thing that happens is there is correspondingly less local news that is published in the newspaper,” he said, which he explained is largely the result of downsizing in newsrooms.

UNC’s 2016 report attempts to explain why that’s happening. Researchers found many of these investment groups purchase newspapers that are in debt. In acquiring these debts, the investors usually employ a formulaic approach to management, which is focused on cutting spending and trimming budgets through “laid off staff, frozen wages, reduced benefits and consolidated sales and editorial functions.”

Rebecca Devereaux, 25, experienced the cost cutting measures brought on by a newspaper’s sale firsthand when she worked for Uniontown’s Herald-Standard.

Two employees at the Herald-Standard hug the day the paper’s entire visual media department was laid off in 2017. Photo: Rebecca Devereaux

A multimedia editor, Devereaux was hired by the paper, which was then owned by Calkin Media, to help increase its video and digital storytelling capabilities, but in 2017, the Herald-Standard was abruptly sold to Ogden. Devereaux was notified of the sale via email while she was on vacation.

“We didn’t know the paper was for sale, at least at my level we didn’t know,” Devereaux said. “It was very sudden.”

Under Ogden, the paper’s entire visual media department was let go, leaving one of Devereaux’s colleagues to ask: “Who is going to hire a 60-year-old photographer?” she recalled.

Since 2004, employment in the newspaper industry has dipped by 45 percent. In 2017, 39,210 individuals worked in the industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Reductions in staffing and consolidations of departments, or the outsourcing of certain newspaper functions, are meant to help the papers climb out of debt and start generating a profit, even if short-term, but the UNC study says those “profits derived from the cost-cutting have not been reinvested to improve their newspapers’ journalism, but [are] used instead to pay loans, management fees and shareholder dividends.”

Ryfe acknowledged this profit-driven approach can create a dangerous problem not just for those working in the industry, but also their readers. As more newspapers are absorbed into larger corporations, the coverage turns away from local issues and instead becomes nationalized.

“There used to be a mediating layer of political conversation that was local that had to do with potholes in the street and where to put the waste management facility, very basic problems,” Ryfe said. “The loss of that level of news has contributed to polarization and partisanship at the national level. All politics have become national, strangely enough, as this has happened.”

Ryfe warns the reduction of local reporters covering local government, keeping an eye on the inner workings of a community, can prevent the misuse of power– even if covering a city council meeting may seem trivial to the average person.

“The fact of a journalist being on the beat tends to reduce the amount of political corruption,” he said. Fewer local  journalists could lead to more substandard or negligent decision making from government officials, Ryfe added.

The Creation of News Deserts in Rural Markets

As newspapers downsize or dissolve altogether, an information gap is created, especially in rural communities where access to information doesn’t come as easy as in the nation’s more urban areas.

Metro markets usually have a surplus of news outlets, but also have something many rural communities do not — access to reliable, high speed internet that makes gathering news and information quick and accessible.

According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, 68.6 percent of residents in rural areas are without broadband capabilities that meet federal guidelines for minimum upload and download speeds. This includes counties in western Pennsylvania where local news is declining, like Washington, Butler and Fayette. Approximately 14.9 million Americans are without access to high speed internet today.*

 

The 2016 UNC study highlights an earlier FCC report that found only 10 percent of evening television news shows are committed to local or regional news. In addition, “fewer than 40 percent of residents live in an area where they can receive all-news radio,” leaving newspapers, as sometimes, the only source of local news in rural areas.  

This creates the risk of “news deserts,” or, “places that have such a small market they can support relatively little news at all. And don’t have much news provided for them,” according to Ryfe.

Ryfe acknowledged the internet isn’t the main cause of the daily newspaper’s death and the rise of these coalescing media companies, however, it “exacerbated and accelerated it.”

*In 2015 the FCC Broadband Progress Report raised the minimum download speeds from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps. At the time it tripled the number of American households without internet access.

In a Digital World, Local Papers Are Doubling Down on Print

With strained internet access in some rural communities, it may make sense for local newsrooms to focus on the traditional print medium. After all, a 2018 Pew Research study found newspapers still make significantly more revenue from the print advertisements on their pages than on digital platforms — 56 percent of their revenue, according to the study.

But for Mike Palm, the executive editor of Uniontown’s Herald-Standard, his paper is choosing print for a different reason: competition.

“When you’re trying to compete in a digital world, you’re competing with more [media outlets]. The Tribune, the Post-Gazette, all the TV stations, the Observer-Reporter — in the digital realm all those become competitors,” Palm said, speaking before his paper’s owner, Ogden, purchased the Washington Observer-Reporter last week.

“In the newspaper realm — in hard copy– we have competitors, but in this area, there’s not much,” he said.  

Palm’s publisher, Michael Scott, has been with Ogden for 19 years and believes Ogden made the right decision, albeit through a series of difficult choices, when they changed their priorities from online back to print after buying the paper in 2017. That’s when Rebecca Devereaux and her colleagues in the visual media department were let go.

Uniontown’s Herald-Standard publisher Michael Scott. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

“Calkins [Media] was focused on digital,” Scott said, referring to the paper’s previous owner, “and we’re focused on print. Having a good, solid print product, it comes with a good, solid business model where digital does not, and in order to keep the content the level we firmly believe we should be at for a local newspaper, we need to be [in] print.”

Scott estimated the Herald-Standard’s current circulation to be approximately 50,000 and said they have 115 distribution racks throughout their coverage area. Calkins Media had previously removed all of the racks.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Scott believes newspapers made a mistake when “they offered their product for free” online. Yet, paywalls have not proven to be the answer for rural markets either.

“Newspapers have not made money online. Their revenues have been flat as a whole and that includes the larger regional newspapers like the Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News,” Ryfe said.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the Media Report, weekday print circulation in 2015 still made up 78 percent of a newspaper’s distribution. Fifty-one percent of adults who choose to read a newspaper do so in a print-only format, compared to 5 percent who prefer digital-only.

But those findings aren’t conclusive for the industry as a whole. In the same report, Pew found audiences are still gathering a large portion of their news from online sources when compared to the print newspaper. Regardless of whether a consumer first saw an article on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn, only 20 percent of the original content came from a daily newspaper, while 25 percent came from radio and 28 percent came from digital publications and apps.

While the Herald-Standard is doubling down on print, its neighbors to the north like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are betting on digital, but author and New York University journalism professor Samuel Freedman said those publications will have to find a way to make readers want to pay.

“You need to make the content strong enough that people want to pay for it,” Freedman said of the success of online paywalls. “What can you provide to your [readers and advertisers] that they can’t get anywhere else?”

The Counter Argument

With all of the external pressures on the industry, whether a newspaper is family-owned or held by an investment firm can be irrelevant. Statistics may indicate a reduction in the size of local newsrooms and, in turn, a reduction in local news coverage when they’re gobbled up by larger corporations, but that isn’t always the case.

“There’s nothing magical about local ownership,” Freedman said. “It is about who owns the paper. [The] problem isn’t that they’re outsiders, it is if there’s no commitment towards journalism.”

A former New York Times columnist and reporter, Freedman pointed to billionaire Glen Taylor who bought Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune as an owner who has aggressively worked to grow the audience of his paper, vowing to make it a “statewide” publication.  

Freedman agreed that there should be concern over media conglomerates buying up all of the publications in one geographic area, since history has shown they often have the “short-term” goal of debt cutting rather than growth. But as a former writer for New Jersey’s Courier News, owned by Gannett and part of the USA Today Network, Freedman said his own experience wasn’t that of drastic cuts.

“Everyone hated Gannett [at the time], but we were never removed [from a job] and were never strained for resources,” Freedman said.

Some local newsrooms today are finding benefits to being owned by the same large media company. Ellwood City Ledger managing editor Patrick O’Shea noted he utilizes a type of “network journalism” with the Beaver County Times.

Patrick O’Shea, managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

As a former employee of the nearby paper, O’Shea said he has previously established relationships at the Times and he will often use local and regional stories from their reporters to fill his pages at the Ledger rather than national news. He said this type of resource sharing has been valuable for him.  

According to Ryfe, this is common practice when chains buy local newspapers. “These companies buy up papers in a geographic area so they can ring different kinds of efficiencies out of the chain. That means they share content across the newspapers.”

If There’s Still Hope Despite Ownership Then What’s the Big Deal?

When newspapers are bought by a larger conglomerate, the regional approach they sometimes implement with their coverage can lead to resentment from local residents.

Joyce Blaho, a former marketing and advertising employee of the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, believes the paper has quashed its local content with their extended Mon Valley coverage.

“The paper isn’t the same since being bought out by the Nuttings,” she said, referring to the owners of Ogden Newspaper Inc. Blaho isn’t alone in her newfound discontent.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Sara Meyer, who works at the Free Carnegie Library in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, doesn’t read the local Daily Courier because she believe it is “too depressing.” For her, the coverage is unappealing, too many stories about car crashes and arrests.

“Every patron that comes in tells me a story,” Meyer said, who prefers to see more human interest stories in her daily newspaper. “Something like that would help balance all the depressing news.”

Meyer, who has a brother-in-law that works at the Herald-Standard, is empathic, though. She said she understands that local newsrooms don’t have enough manpower to successfully cover the area. Yet, she still can’t bring herself to purchase either paper regularly.

“I can’t justify buying it when I can get everything online,” she said.

Residents’ complaints throughout the Greater Pittsburgh Area echoed Meyer and Blaho’s. ‘The content is poor.’ ‘The paper isn’t representative of the neighborhood.’ ‘A subscription expired and the product wasn’t worth renewal.’ One elderly Aliquippa woman did admit she still reads The Beaver County Times, but “only for the obituaries.”  

If residents are not buying their local newspapers, local publishers can’t afford to stay in business. Even more ironic is a number of people in these communities interviewed for this story admitted while they don’t read their local newspaper, they’d be more upset if the paper closed its doors entirely.

And that is the paradoxical problem local newspapers are facing today: people want them, but they don’t want to pay for them.

“[Readers are] expressing a kind of ambivalence. They value journalism and yet, relatively few of them are willing to pay enough money to sustain this journalism in their community,” Ryfe said.

O’Shea has been the managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger since the GateHouse Media merger in June 2017.

He said there were 5 staffers in the Ledger’s newsroom at the time. Now, it is operated by O’Shea along with one other full-time reporter, a part-timer and an 80-year-old contributing writer. The paper itself is laid out in Austin, Texas, at New Media’s Center for News and Design– a design hub that serves 90 daily newspapers and 203 weekly papers, according to their website.

 

 

O’Shea said he’s not sure if any of the Ledger’s 2,500 readers are aware of the staffing reductions that have taken place under GateHouse’s ownership, but said the lack of empathy between readers and newsrooms “plays a role” in some of the hardships facing the newspaper industry. Residents are “almost always understanding” once the situation is discussed, O’Shea said, but those conversations can be few and far between.

Ideally, O’Shea would like to utilize additional staff to help allocate time to tackle more in-depth stories, but said he isn’t holding out hope for the increased resources.

“If it were up to a local administration, I think there might be more chance of that happening,” he said, “but unfortunately, when you are part of a larger organization, the attention isn’t really there.”

“This is a service the [residents] rely on. This is a business they rely on,” he said. O’Shea believes if the paper were to shut down, “it would leave a serious hole in the community.”

The only problem is someone still has to pay for the news.

This story was supported by The Pittsburgh Pitch, a project of 100 Days in Appalachia and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

Rural America

Couple Traveled 100,000 Miles Exploring Rural America, Here’s What They Found

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Allentown, Pennsylvania. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

Deborah and James Fallows wrote a book called “Our Towns A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.”

The husband and wife duo bought a small low-altitude plane and spent just over four years traveling 100,000 miles throughout small towns across America.

Before embarking on this journey, they traveled the world, looking at changing economies in China and elsewhere. James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for several years.

In their new book, the Fallows quote Mountain Stage Host Larry Groce speaking about why he’s optimistic about the future of Charleston, West Virginia. Groce says in the last 10 years he’s seen a “Renaissance” in Charleston. That sense of hope for smaller, rural communities is shared throughout their book. 

Mural in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

James Fallows said they saw a handful of cities, like Greenville, South Carolina, where the community was able to adapt to economic challenges and rebuild their local economy.

“Greenville 40 years ago was almost all textile economy. Now it’s almost no textile economy, but they have a lot of advanced manufactures there,” Fallows said. “That was a way they were sort of able to leapfrog.”

He said another example of a city that found a way to reinvent itself after a major economic collapse is Allentown, Pennsylvania, which used to rely heavily on its steel economy.

“More often what happens is that when a great big employer goes away, like has been the case in West Virginia with coal, there usually is not one big thing that takes that place,” Fallows said.

Workers at JQ Dickinson Saltworks, a business outside Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

“What we saw when we were in West Virginia in the summertime is that the hope for Appalachia, and for rural America, from what we’ve seen, is a diversity of smaller things, some of which will succeed. You don’t know which bet is gonna make it, so you make a lot of bets,” he added.

Thanks to Jan Pytalski, Author at 100 Days in Appalachia, for his help with this interview.  

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Rural America

Where is Rural in the Green New Deal?

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Jeremy Ornstein of Watertown, Mass., center, cheers on fellow environmental activists as they occupy the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the incoming majority leader, as they try to pressure Democratic support for a sweeping agenda to fight climate change, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Among the packed agenda of the 2019 Democrat-held House, one particular project went from barely noticed to hotly debated almost overnight: The Green New Deal (GND).

The deal is an ambitious social, economic and industrial reform program being proposed as a potential catch-all solution to current climate change regulations and rising social inequities. But those solutions are mainly addressed through an extremely broad set of reforms, investments and infrastructure projects.

Ranging from “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition,” investments in infrastructure and industries of the future, to promoting “justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future and repairing historic oppression,” the list of aspirational goals appears to critics as directionless in its mission.

The ideas addressed in this bold vision for a complete federal policy overhaul are not all entirely new concepts, but only with the new class of fresh Congressmen and Congresswomen sworn in after the 2018 midterms has this particular package begun to garner mainstream attention.

The measures have become a lightning rod for Republican criticism of Democrats, as well as a litmus test for Democratic Presidential hopefuls, who need to walk a fine line in order to satisfy a younger, more radical electorate without scaring away moderate voters.

Apart from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a leading voice promoting the issue, over 40 Representatives have voiced their support.

You can’t spell the GND without rural

Here in Appalachia, economic identity is based around extractive economies, putting these concerns right in the crosshairs of the Green New Deal. But the vague promises of the GND proposal and lack of direct involvement with the rural communities presents a problem to many rural organizers.

“As I was thinking and reading about the GND, a couple things stuck out to me and, of course, one of them is that rural does not appear to be mentioned at all,” Whitney Kimball-Coe, Director at Tennessee-based Center for Rural Strategies, told 100 Days in a phone conversation.

Kimball-Coe urges policymakers to remember the work that’s already being done on the ground.

“Rural communities are already starting to address issues of climate change, and there’s local efforts that are honoring the local talent, the local knowledge and local culture of those places […] so don’t disregard the work that has already been done at the local level by putting a federal plan on top of it,” said Kimball-Coe.

(We reached out to Democratic community leaders and Representatives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams and Rep. Kathy Castor, the Chair of Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, asking about the inclusion of Appalachian and rural communities into the GND debate, but all have declined to comment.)

100 Days talked to Greg Carlock of Data for Progress, lead author of the policy report outlining the GND vision. When asked about protections for rural communities, he proposed an “umbrella bill where workers from these traditional energy sectors are eligible for benefits, so regardless of your location, or maybe it is location specific, or regardless of industry […] you can apply for certain benefits if you can show that this transition has reached a hardship. You’ve been laid off and because of the industry that laid you off it opens up way more benefits than traditional unemployment.”

He likened it to the benefits provided for the 9/11 first responders, who suffered from work conditions at the sites of terrorist attacks in New York City.

“[…] we also need things that address the positive side of the transition that’s pulling them into new growth areas. Whether it’s targeting certain subsidies or programs in these communities, a positive injection of resources,” he added.

“GND will be a 10-year plan […] with a special eye for communities that have historically relied on fossil fuels, because we know we need to ensure economic security and healthy communities for those who have been on the frontlines of extraction for so long,” Erin Bridges, fundraising director for the Sunrise Movement, told 100 Days in a phone interview. The Sunrise Movement, along with the Justice Democrats and the New Consensus, is one of the major think tanks responsible for organizing and crafting the policy behind the GND vision.

“We are very much looking to have communities who are on the frontlines of extraction and climate disaster be playing crucial roles in crafting the policy itself […] we really want them involved in crafting policy,” she added.

But, according to Kimball-Coe, “It’s crickets out here.”

“We’re all trying to figure out how to translate it [the GND] for rural audiences, if it’s even going anywhere, does it even have legs and should we be spending all our time, capital and energy to track it and follow it and make sure we’re part of it,” she said.

For Peter Hille, President of Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and one of the majority witnesses at the recent hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, the fact that he was able to have his case stated in front of the representatives, some of whom openly supported the GND resolution, is a necessary and a welcome step forward.

“Nobody called me up six months ago and said ‘hey, we’re thinking about this thing we’re gonna call ‘The Green New Deal,’ what you think should be in it?,’” Hille said.

But, “submitting oral and written testimony into the Congressional record is a little bit more direct input that the Representatives has asked us for over the last several years,” he added.

Although officially MACED doesn’t have a position on the GND, Hille recognizes that some of its proposals are aligned with his organization’s work and could do a lot of good for the community it serves.

The policy

There are very few, if any, actual policy proposals in the Green New Deal.

But Carlock’s report doesn’t present any actual policies, only policy goals, and more importantly, it fails to acknowledge rural America as frontlines of the climate change.

Carlock mentioned many ideas and potential solutions, with the same larger-than-life ambition that the proponents of the GND say is necessary to face the advancing climate change.

He began our conversation by saying that outreach and communication with the rural communities is not his focus right now and pointed to local, state and federal governments as administrative bodies that would be responsible for providing incentives, like new infrastructure or tax breaks.

“I wouldn’t say the Green New Deal has enumerated any specific policies on that question,” Carlock admitted when asked how, specifically, any of that were to happen, but the consensus is it will have to be all hands on deck.

Carlock sees the need for more research. When asked about the ambitious timeline, he doesn’t really have an answer: “I fully acknowledge the difficulties in exploring those questions and how you implement that at a scale that’s being proposed.”

Weaponizing the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal has become another talking point in a hyper-partisan debate.

Kimball-Coe shared the sense of immediate politicization as well. “I live in a rural area and a conversation about the GND is already politicized before it’s even unpacked. I even question how we’re going to get beyond that piece of it to even talk about the content,” she told 100 Days.

Back in February, we reported on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing on ways to transition from coal economies. Despite the majority witnesses having no direct connection to the GND, the bulk of Republican members focused their energy on attacking the proposal and coercing its defense from witnesses.

Recently, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement, which read in part: “Democrats are harassing the President to distract from their radical agenda of making America a socialist country, killing babies after they’re born and pushing a ‘green new deal’ that would destroy jobs and bankrupt America.”

Even within the Democratic camp, there are fissures and arguments. Media latches on to moments like this, where veteran California Senator, Diane Feinstein, was confronted by activists over the proposal.

“We were really really angry at the Democratic leadership for watering down our demands […] our demands were that we get the select committee on a GND and that every single person who was on that committee would have taken “no fossil fuel money pledge” and wouldn’t be beholden to the interest of the fossil fuel billionaires,” Bridges of the Sunrise Movement told 100 Days.

Instead, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida runs the committee on climate crisis. The Sunrise Movements doesn’t intend to back down from its demand for a pledge.

That attitude could be seen as an indication of deeper divide growing within the Democratic ranks that seems to be splitting along the line of the radical left and more moderate liberals.

So far, it seems that the climate issues have been claimed by the more radical camp that represents mostly younger, progressive voters from coastal, urban areas. The GND, apart from being an aspirational program, is being actively treated as a tool for galvanizing those voters ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

“We’re really looking to build support for the GND in every corner of the country and truly cement it as a witness test for every single politician in this country, especially those who are seeking the presidency,” Bridges said.

“We’re taking our timeline very seriously […] In 2019 we’re going to build the public and political power behind this policy, in 2020 we’re going to take on the Presidency so that in 2021 we can pass this legislation,” she added.

According to Carlock, we could start seeing individual bills slowly roll out of the House later this month and into the summer. He also suggested that some of the presidential hopefuls might be presenting complete GND programs down the line.

And it could be that the biggest success so far is putting climate change issues front and center of the political debate in America. It is still early and the question remains if the predominantly rural parts of the country, like Appalachia, will have a seat at the drafting table.

Transparency note: Center for Rural Strategies is the publisher of our partner publication The Daily Yonder.

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Appalachia

Rural Drivers Can Save the Most From Clean Vehicles

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Photo: Shutterstock/Standret

This post was written in collaboration with Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura

The transition to clean vehicle technologies such as electric vehicles will benefit consumers everywhere, promising lower operating and maintenance costs, along with less pollution and a cleaner environment.

But the drivers with the greatest economic potential to gain by purchasing an electric vehicle are the residents of small towns and rural counties. Drivers living outside of urban areas often have farther to travel to work, shop, and visit a doctor. They have to repair their vehicles more frequently, they produce more carbon emissions per capita, and they spend more money on gasoline. As a result, rural drivers have the greatest potential to save money by making the switch to an electric vehicle.

Overall, rural residents have the potential to save up to twice as much as urban residents by making the switch from a conventional sedan to an electric vehicle. In addition, rural residents who drive pickup trucks and SUVs have the potential to dramatically cut their fuel costs and emissions through programs to encourage efficiency and electrification.

Rural drivers’ potential to save money and cut emissions

Using data from the 2017 National Highway Traffic Survey, we created a model that approximates what vehicles are being driven, and for how many miles, in every county in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. This data allows us to approximate the average cost and emission savings from an electric vehicle in each county. We also mapped out some of the differences in vehicle miles traveled that form the basis of these calculations (see below, our full methodology is here).

Annual average fuel savings, miles driven and emissions reduction for a typical driver in 12 states and the District of Columbia

Overall, we find that in our most rural counties, the average driver will save $870 per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3 metric tons per year by choosing an electric vehicle over a conventional sedan. That is almost twice the average emissions reduction from an EV in our most urban counties.

Bringing clean vehicle technologies to rural areas will not only benefit rural drivers, but it will also improve whole rural economies. Nearly all the money that we spend on gasoline and diesel fuel ultimately leaves our towns and our region, for other parts of the world. As electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine on our roads, there will be more money in consumers’ pockets – which means more jobs, and more local development for our small towns.

Obstacles to rural electrification

Unfortunately, although rural residents have the greatest potential to save from purchasing an electric vehicle, currently EV sales are concentrated in urban areas and inner suburbs. As of 2017, people in urban areas and inner suburbs report that they are about three times more likely to own a plug-in vehicle compared to people in rural areas.

Rural drivers share many of the same challenges in selecting an electric vehicle as urban and suburban drivers: not many consumers are aware of how easy it is to make the switch to an electric vehicle, and the charging infrastructure is inadequate. These concerns are particularly acute for rural drivers, who on average need to travel greater distances between charging stations and destinations. Rural drivers do have one major advantage over urban drivers: they are much more likely to have access to offstreet parking, which should make installation of a home charging station easier.

In addition, rural drivers may have additional concerns about electric vehicle technology, such as the ability of electric vehicles to provide adequate performance in cold weather climates (hint: EVs are great in cold or inclement weather) or to provide enough range to deal with rural driving distances. Some of these concerns are being addressed through improvements in technology: at 200+ miles, cars like the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 can serve the daily driving needs of residents of all areas. But even as the technology improves, cultural assumptions about what kind of vehicle is appropriate in what kind of area may remain.

As more electric vehicle models come to market, and vehicle costs continue to drop, rural drivers will have increasing choices in vehicle types from SUVs to pick-up trucks. But an EV may not work for every rural household today. Fortunately, automakers compelled by vehicle efficiency standards have been bringing more efficiency gasoline and diesel cars and trucks to market. Upgrading to a newer, more fuel efficient vehicle is another strategy available for every household today.

The Northeast needs a rural electrification strategy

Increasing growth of EV sales in rural areas will require states of the Northeast region to take a more proactive approach towards electrification in rural areas. We need a targeted strategy to reduce the barriers to adopt electric vehicles in our outer suburbs and rural areas. Such a strategy should include:

  • Increased incentives for rural & low- and moderate-income drivers. Overcoming the high purchase price of the vehicles is critical to achieving mainstream penetration of electric vehicles. Northeast states should consider adding additional incentives to make electric vehicles affordable for rural drivers. These incentives should include not only additional upfront rebates to reduce the purchase price of the car, but also financing assistance to help people with insufficient credit to purchase a new car. By targeting rural drivers, we can use incentive money most effectively to achieve our goals for emission reduction and cost savings.
  • Vehicle retirement programs to take the most inefficient trucks off the road. Many rural drivers are stuck driving some of the dirtiest, most inefficient vehicles on the road. A 10 year old Ford F-150 gets as little as 14 mpg, for example. A rural driver who trades an old F-150 to a new model can save up to $1,000 per year. Programs such as California’s Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program have helped retire some of these low-emission vehicles and in the process saved money for drivers of all kinds of vehicles.
  • Build rural charging infrastructure. Addressing rural range anxiety will require increased investment in rural charging stations. Utilities should target rural areas for support, both for public charging and for support in constructing home charging stations.
  • Support grassroots education outreach and marketing efforts. Bulk purchasing programs such as the Drive Green program run by Green Energy Consumers Alliance can reduce costs and help consumers address the complex decisions necessary to purchase an electric vehicle. Utility programs such as Green Mountain Power’s electric vehicle program can negotiate good deals from the auto industry and help their customers make the switch to electric vehicles. These programs should be encouraged to target rural communities and drivers.

As states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic consider new regional strategies to address transportation emissions, it will be critical for states to identify new strategies to help rural residents cut emissions and save money on transportation. One piece of a rural transportation strategy should be to enhance infrastructure that provides an alternative to driving an automobile, through expanded regional public transportation that give them easy access to urban centers, pedestrian and biking infrastructure that create vibrant communities in small towns. We should also consider how to best use innovative new transportation models facilitated by technology, such as vanpools, flexible bus routes, and ride hailing and sharing services to expand clean mobility to rural residents.

At the same time, we know that realistically driving a personal vehicle will remain an important part of the transportation system for rural communities. We need to provide rural residents with the cleanest vehicles that fit their needs. We encourage states to meet the challenges facing rural drivers with bold investments that can save money for consumers and reduce pollution for everybody.

This article was originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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