The Rural Blog Archive: April 2007

This Web log of rural issues, trends and events is regular reading for hundreds of journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration. Rural journalism is important because 21 percent of Americans, some 62 million people, live in rural areas. Let us know what items are helpful, and send stories, links and suggestions, to al.cross@uky.edu. Use of items from The Rural Blog by news outlets is encouraged and hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Rural areas, key source of troops, are lacking in health care for veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been criticized for providing inadequate access to health care for rural vets though a disproportionate number of soldiers come from rural areas. “Realigned in the 1990s to concentrate specialized care in urban areas, the system now finds itself overwhelmed by the wounded from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- engagements that have, even more than other modern-day conflicts, been fought by soldiers from rural America,” writes Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe.

Research by the National Rural Health Association found that about 44 percent of recruits have come from rural areas, while these areas make up only about 20 percent of the national population. “There is evidence the VA has known for some time about the need to focus more on rural care,” Sennott writes. “A 2004 VA study of 750,000 veterans found that those living in rural areas tended to have more serious and costly health problems than their urban counterparts.”

Jeff Hall, the VA's rural outreach coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Wisconsin and Minnesota, has seen a close in the urban-rural gap in care, but the system is complex, reports Sennott. “There is, Hall said, a disconnect between the military and the VA computer systems that can confound efforts to coordinate treatment, or even to simply identify those veterans living in areas far from the VA hospital centers.” Rural vets may find themselves unenrolled in the VA health care program if they fail to fill out the proper forms. “Another common complaint among veterans is that rural medical care providers, tired of the paperwork and long delays involved in the federal benefit system, often do not accept TRICARE, the military's health insurance for active-duty soldiers and their families.” (Read more)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The map of hate: Old Confederacy, Calif. remain hotbeds; others, too

The number of hate groups in America grew 5 percent last year, marking a 40 percent increase in a six-year period, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which raises money to fight such groups.

The center identified 844 hate groups last year, compared to 602 in 2000. "Much of the expansion has been driven by hate groups' exploitation of the issue of illegal immigration, which most Americans see as a pressing concern," according to the center's Web site. In addition to hate groups, it says, there are anti-immigration groups "that are xenophobic but mostly stop short of the open racial hatred espoused by hate groups."

The center says the Ku Klux Klan comprised 34 named groups with 164 chapters last year, 15 fewer chapters than in 2005. It estimated that the groups have 6,000 to 8,000 members. "The Kentucky-based Imperial Klans of America (IKA), the largest Klan group in 2005, dropped by almost half to 23 chapters last year. It fell behind the Illinois-based Brotherhood of Klans (BOK), which had 30 chapters in 2006."

Investors from outside Iowa own most of the state's ethanol plants

The Des Moines Register reports that investors from outside Iowa own 57 percent of the ethanol plants in the Hawkeye State, “and they’re likely to acquire more, though farmers triggered much of the state’s ethanol boom” and “Studies show local ownership assures more dollars churn through Iowa communities.” The state leads the nation in production of renewable fuels, reporter Paula Lavigne notes.

Lavigne cites a 2006 study by Iowa State University economists, which found that a plant with 75 percent local ownership adds three times as much to household income in the area near the plant as one with 25 percent local ownership. “Instead of the one guy who works at the ethanol plant going to the hardware store or the lumber store, you’ll have a bunch of people who have money to spend at the hardware store, and the car dealership, and for putting up a new house,” said Chris Petersen, president of the Iowa Farmers Union.

“In addition, experts and advocates say local investors who resist the temptation to sell might fare better in the long term,” Lavigne writes. “More young people may be drawn into farming and reap the benefits of their families’ investments over time.” The argument for outside ownership, Lavigne writes, is that “The state will have more plants overall if it draws investors from other states and nations.” She notes, “All plants, regardless of ownership, will put money into the community through payroll, supplies, taxes and buying farmers’ grain. Profits vary, as do payments to investors.” (Read more) For the Register's interactive map of Iowa's ethanol plants, click here.

UPDATE: The executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association says the story left the false impression that an increasing share of plants are owned by individuals or companies from outside the state, when seven years ago all of them were owned by out-of-staters. Monte Shaw told Brownfield Network's Peter Shinn that the story didn't account for minority local ownership of some facilities. (Read more)

South Carolina county makes rural developers pay utility, road costs

Jasper County, at the southern tip of South Carolina, has fewer than 30,000 people but “could become the site of 40,000 or so new homes in the coming years,” Lisa Chamberlain writes in The New York Times. “Rather than allowing development to overwhelm the county, officials have collaborated on a plan that tries to guide growth and preserve the region’s natural beauty,” inland between Savannah and Hilton Head Island.

Development is limited to a five-mile radius around the county seat of Ridgeland and another around the fast-growing town of Hardeeville, where about 30,000 new homes have already been approved. “Any landowners who fall outside of each town’s boundary and want to build have to petition to be annexed and, if they are approved, pay for the installation of sewers, water, and roads. After extensive research, the joint planning committee determined that every new residential unit costs about $6,200 in services,” Chamberlain writes. Land outside of the two boundaries “is regulated by the county, which currently has a moratorium on development until an updated zoning plan is put into effect, which is expected to happen in June.”

“In areas like ours, where people are starved for development, they’re willing to give away the farm,” said Kevin Griffin, Hardeeville's assistant city manager. “But we’ve really tried to get ahead of the growth, rather than being five years behind and having to catch up. . . . People talk about smart growth, but this is more like fiscal growth. We don’t say you can’t develop here; it’s a pay-to-play environment. Suddenly, that cheap land doesn’t seem so cheap anymore. But the good developers, the ones who want to be stewards of the land, they are the ones who can adjust their plans and create a quality product.” (Read more)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tenn. may use higher cigarette tax to boost urban schools' share of budget

Tennessee policymakers are discussing "a plan to give a larger share of state education dollars to Metro Nashville and other big, urban districts, leaving most rural schools, city schools and many in between with a smaller share," reports The Tennessean. The idea "revives decades-old questions about how to fairly spread state education dollars, an issue that led 66 rural school districts to sue the state in 1988 and win." At East Hickman (County) Elementary, Mary Jane Chapman read to a class. The school's poverty rate is 57 percent. (Tennessean photo by Dipti Vadiya)

The new money would come from Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposal to raise the cigarette tax from 20 cents a pack to 60 cents a pack."Officials in large urban districts say they deserve that bigger share because they have more disadvantaged and non-English-speaking students to educate," Sheila Wissner reports. "On the flip side, many people in the small school districts worry that, over the long haul, the change will erode their ability to provide students the same educational opportunities as those in large school districts." That was the issue that drove the successful lawsuit by Tennessee School Systems for Equity. (Read more)

New Pulitzer co-chair wants to encourage entries from smaller papers

Mike Pride is editor of New Hampshire's Concord Monitor, circulation 20,000, which has never won a Pulitzer Prize. But now he is co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, along with former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor Joann Byrd, and he wants "to see more small and medium-sized newspapers involved in the annual prizes," reports Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher.

"The way that a small paper generally wins is if there is some massive disaster in their circulation area and that is not the only way they should be able to win," Pride told E&P. "We are going to look to see how to entice them." He said this year's renaming of the "beat reporting" category to "local reporting" was designed in part to attract entries from smaller papers, but failed to do so. "N
one of the winners or finalists had a circulation below 100,000," Strupp notes.

"Pride cited the fact that many of the winning entries this year, as well as all three local reporting finalists, were honored for investigative work. He said most small papers do not have the staff or resources for such efforts," Strupp writes, quoting Pride: "I don't know how we will deal with that, but I think that is an area we will look at. For many small and medium papers, that is not their strength. Small papers around the country don't have spotlight teams. It is a difference in employees, priorities, and resources."

Strupp adds background: "Pulitzer officials have often stressed that the awards are aimed at honoring the best journalism of the year, and if that is from larger papers, so be it. The awards have purposely avoided creating categories based on circulation. Pride said he is not advocating circulation-level prizes. But he said having only larger papers win is not necessarily a good thing." We agree. (Read more)

Small weeklies win kudos for environmental reporting in Alaska contest

The ennvironmental reporting category in the Alaska Press Club's annual contest had no winners among large newspapers or broadcasters, but a full complement among smaller papers. "Given the astounding challenges on virtually every aspect of the environment in Alaska – and the exemplary efforts extended to cover them by the state’s small-market papers – this dearth of quality reporting from Alaska’s papers of record is inexcusable," wrote the judge for the category, Douglas Fischer of the Oakland Tribune. "Kudos to Alaska’s smallest papers for aggressively and ambitiously tackling the environment in 2006. Had any of these stories appeared under the masthead of the state’s largest papers, I would have been thrilled."

The first-place winner was “Global warming threatens Northwest Arctic coast,” by Susan B. Andrews and John Creed of The Arctic Sounder of Barrow and Kotzebue, a weekly with a circulation of 2,400. Fischer called it "a stellar example of how an amorphous, difficult-to-report issue like climate change can be made extremely relevant for local readers." In second was “Tanker flow long noted as risky,” by Carey James of the Homer Tribune, which Fischer called "a clear-eyed analysis" of a looming issue. Taking third was “Humpback spends six hours caught in gillnet” by Klas Stolpe of the Petersburg Pilot, a weekly with a circulation of only 1,834. "Stolpe did a marvelous job describing the urgency, confusion and anxiety among fishermen and rescuers alike as they struggled to free a humpback tangled in 75 fathoms of gillnet, lead and cork line," Fischer writes. He also handed out some honorable mentions Ben Stuart of the Homer News, circulation 3,300, and Sarah Hurst of Petroleum News, a trade weekly based in Anchorage.

To read the Press Club's full account of its newspaper awards, click here. In the broadcast category, no environmental awards were given by the judge, National Public Radio producer Jessica Goldstein.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tainted pet food hits hog farms; some fear human food supply threatened

After an outbreak of contaminated pet food a little over a month ago, similar problems may face hogs being fed salvaged pet food. Some fear the toxic chemical responsible for the pet death could circulate into the human food supply. Hogs on a farm in North Carolina tested positive for melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and foam. The 1,400 animals are being quarantined, and none have entered the food supply. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has said fewer than 10 hog farms in six states received contaminated feed. The feed came from a Diamond Pet plant in Gaston, S.C., and contained a rice concentrate that has been recalled by its manufacturer in California,” writes Mike Baker of the Associated Press.

At least two Chinese vegetable proteins used in pet foods have been found to contain melamine, reports Baker. (Read more) Chinese officials have invited the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help investigate the cause of the contaminated exports. (Read more) Hogs are being tested in New York, South Carolina, Utah and Ohio that may have also eaten the tainted food. “The FDA also said it planned to begin testing a wide variety of vegetable proteins at firms that imported the ingredients to make various items including pizza dough, infant formula, protein shakes and energy bars. The ingredient list includes wheat gluten, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein and rice bran,” reports the Salt Lake Tribune. (Read more)

One in three Native American women are raped, study concludes

"One in three Native American women will be raped at some point in their lives, a rate that is more than double that for non-Indian women, according to a new report by Amnesty International," report Darryl Fears and Kari Lydersen of The Washington Post.

Among the reasons: "In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Oliphant v. the Suquamish Indian Tribe that tribal governments have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. When a crime is committed, tribal police and their non-Indian counterparts must hash out whether the suspect is Indian or not. Tribal governments lack the funds and staffing to patrol their lands," the Post says, citing the report.

Sparse law enforcement is also a factor. "At the million-acre Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, seven police officers are on duty," the Post reports." In Alaska, where state and native police patrol a vast landscape, officers took four hours to reach the village of Nunam Iqua, during which time a barricaded suspect raped a 13-year-old girl in front of her siblings." (Read more)

Survivors, public school bar non-local journalists from memorial service

"Hoping for solace in tragedy, the family and friends of Emily Jane Hilscher came together on Saturday for a memorial at the Rappahannock High School to recall 'special memories and special moments' of a promising young life that ended too soon. Eighteen-year old Emily Jane Hilscher was one of the victims of the April 16 tragedy at Virginia Tech," writes Richard Lykes of the Rappahannock News. "Although emotions overflowed at times, there still seemed to be recognition that life must return to normalcy and remembering the life and dreams of this exceptional young lady would help in the healing process."

Lykes' 1,232-word story and accompanying photographs gave details of the service, from the opening prayer to tributes from family members to the closing prayer. (To read it, click here.) But only local journalists were welcome at the event, from which the family barred all others, with the zealous enforcement of local school officials. That brought objections from noted journalist James Gannon, who retired to the county of 7,100 and publishes an online newspaper called The Rappahannock Voice.

"An event ceases to be a private event when it is held at a public place, in a public building or on public grounds, such as a public school, a court house, or a public park," Gannon wrote. "Further, all meaningful traces of 'privacy' are removed when the public school serves as host for the event, and when a public servant, paid for by the taxpayers – such as a county superintendent of schools – becomes the person in charge of the event, the one who announces it to the public and who issues rules and regulations regarding the event. . . . A public official does not have authority to temporarily suspend rights because they happen to be inconvenient in a certain set of circumstances."

Gannon continued, "I am fully aware of the dim view that much of the public takes of the media. The press pack can be an ugly thing, and the behavior of the media horde covering high-profile events can be disturbing. But disturbing behavior can be controlled, and reasonable limits can be placed on press access at public events, and the conditions of the coverage. The press can be confined to a certain area, limits can be placed on numbers involved, or on use of cameras or electronic equipment. The horde can be tamed, if necessary. But an outright ban on the presence of journalists is so over-reaching that it boggles the mind."

Hilschler's father, Eric Hilscher, replied online, "We never meant to exclude our local media. When we were asked about excluding all media by our clergyman, we indicated that our local community news media were welcome because, as locals, we felt they could be sensitive to the needs of our community, and would he please get that word to the right people. ... I am sorry you seem to think you were called for some other reason." Gannon wrote that after he raised objections, he received calls welcoming him to the event, "but I noted that there were no exceptions stated to the announced press ban, and that there was a principle involved here that was important – not simply a matter of personal consideration." (Read more)

Gannon was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, editor of The Des Moines Register, Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News and a national affairs columnist for Gannett Co. newspapers.

Rural West Virginia faces an influx of out-of-state drugs from big cities

Out-of-state drug dealers have become a problem across rural West Virginia. Officers say that dealers are trying to access a new rural market where they have less competition and can charge more for drugs. Dealers from as far south as the Carolinas and as far north as Detroit have been arrested in the state. The most prevalent drugs have included cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and prescription pills, reports Kelly Holleran of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Rural Braxton County was one of the leaders in the state for meth lab busts in 2004, reports Holleran. While the meth problem has gone down, dealers have come into the county to sell prescription pills. Officers say that out-of-town drug dealers may have ties to people in the local community. These dealers have easy access to the county because Interstate 79 runs through it. Also, a high unemployment rate is making residents of the county vulnerable to drug abuse, Sheriff Howard Carpenter told the Daily Mail: “We're looking at fourth and fifth generations of people on welfare and food stamps."

The shortage of law officers in rural counties can make it difficult for them to keep up with drug investigations and all their other duties. Braxton County has eight members in its department. “We can conceivably have anywhere from two to four people tied up in court. It's like a dog chasing his tail. Plus working cases and 911 calls,” Carpenter said. (Read more)

Clot-busting drug treatment, guided by phone, saves rural stroke patients

"Stroke patients in rural hospitals can get safe, effective treatment with the use of a clot-busting drug when a doctor from a larger hospital is on the telephone guiding the treatment," reports Newswise, a research-reporting service." These new findings have important implications for overcoming barriers to optimal stroke care in rural settings," using a clot-buster that must be administered within three hours of the stroke.

“Expert guidance of this treatment over the telephone appears to be safe, practical, and effective,” said the author of the study, Dr. Anand Vaishnav of the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

The study evaluated 121 stroke patients who were treated with the drug tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) at a rural community hospital by a stroke neurologist who was on the telephone guiding the treatment. It found that 2.5 percent of rural patients treated by telephone had symptomatic bleeding in the brain, and 7.5 percent died, compared to 6.4 percent and 17 percent, respectively, in an urban study several years ago.

Vaishnav will present his research May 2 at the meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Boston. (Read more) For more information about the academy, visit http://www.aan.com.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

USDA Rural Development responds to story about not-so-rural projects

The Washington Post's April 6 story about the U.S. Department of Agriculture spending more than half its Rural Development money in "metropolitan regions or communities within easy commuting distance of a midsize city" illustrates the need for more standard definitions if what "rural" is when it comes to federal programs, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Thomas Dorr said today.

"We agree that some standardization would be useful.  In fact, the Administration is proposing the consolidation and retargeting of a number of rural development programs in our budget and in our 2007 farm bill proposals. Consolidation would lead to simplification and greater clarity," Dorr said in a guest editorial e-mailed to news outlets.

The Post's object examples of not-so-rural development were the coastal resort of Provincetown and the island resorts of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, in Massachusetts. "All of the projects highlighted by the Post's story met the statutory definition of rural as defined by Congress and all were successful projects," Dorr wrote. "In addition, many of these investments involve loans or loan guarantees in which the USDA Rural Development commitment leveraged additional private funds and will over time be repaid."

The post story, by Gilbert Gaul and Sarah Cohen, reported that "In some programs, awards are limited to towns with populations of less than 2,500. In others, it's 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000. In still other cases, the USDA bases its decisions on individual streets or blocks, using census data." That can mean witde variations " from one community to another," Dorr wrote.

"USDA Rural Development does indeed support economic and community development in small New England towns where tourism and recreation may be the primary economic drivers. It also works aggressively in the colonias, on Indian reservations, in the Mississippi Delta, across the northern plains and throughout the farm belt. Some rural communities are quite affluent. Others are economically distressed. Most are middle-American and middle-income in character. 

"This diversity unquestionably gives rise to definitional challenges.  In many places, the urban-rural boundaries are blurred by modern communications and transportation, the increasing regionalization and diversification of the rural economy, and its closer integration with urban hubs.  Individuals in these areas, however, still live in rural communities as defined by law and as understood by the residents themselves."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

National Summit examines the future of rural America and its journalism

"The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Ky. was the ideal setting for a gathering to discuss rural journalism," writes Mary Jo Shafer, a Knight Community Journalism Fellow at the University of Alabama. "With lambs frisking in the fields nestled among buildings of the historic site, donkeys peering over the fence rails and ducks swimming in a pond, attendees at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America were greeted by an environment that mirrors many of their hometowns — the rural counties where they practice their craft."

Journalists, academics, policy experts and others with an interest in rural journalism were invited to the Summit. "They heard from a wide range of panelists and engaged in a robust discussion about the present state and future of journalism in rural America," Shafer writes. "They talked about the challenges facing rural newspapers, policy and politics that touch their corners of this country, ownership trends, how to adopt digital culture and how to cover rural issues."

Topics included training backgrounds and needs at rural newspapers, the challenges faced by rural news media and rural Amercia, academic centers for rural and community journalism, newspaper chains that provide good journalism on rural issues, and a group strategy session on the future of rural journalism.

The Summit, hosted by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, was made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and Farm Foundation. To read Shafer's report, click here.

Following are links to Friday's presentations. Saturday's will be posted later. Research: A Survey of Training Backgrounds and Needs at Rural Newspapers in the United States and Threats Faced by Rural Newspapers (click here for video of both presentations) Issues Facing Rural America: Policy with Brian Dabson and politics with Brian Mann (video)

How three newspaper chains meet the bottom line and provide good journalism on rural issues (video) Covering rural issues and exploring alternative ownership forms with an independent publisher who sold to, and works for, a new kind of chain; and three independent editors and publishers (video). Also: "Thriving in a world of box stores and chain papers," by John Wylie, who was scheduled but couldn't attend.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Survey shows many rural papers lack training, but have a desire for it

A survey of rural newspapers in the United States found that almost half offered no training opportunities to their employees in the last year, and that the most common form of specific training mentioned was in layout and design, not journalism. The survey found that most such newspapers are willing to support mid-career training in journalism, and are more likely to do so if it deals with issues of concern in their coverage areas.

The survey was the opening presentation at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and Lexington, Ky., last weekend. The survey and the summit were projects of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The summit received additional support from Farm Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

The survey found that state newspaper associations are the most common and important source of training for rural newspapers, followed by on-site training by vendors, company staff or hired presenters. At papers where training was offered, either directly or by allowing employees to attend off-site training sessions, the most common form of specific training mentioned was layout and design. When some unspecified responses were added, journalism training as a whole was a more common response than layout and design. But design “unfortunately, is a news staff issue these days,” one respondent said, because stories are entered into systems such as InDesign, a popular software program mentioned by several newspapers.

“If design is at one end of the newsroom training spectrum, it could be said that training on specific issues is at the other end. If so, the spectrum is skewed,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute and the chief author of the survey report. Only seven of 137 papers responding to the survey reported training for coverage of specific issues or subject areas.

Asked to name three issues in which they would like their news staff to have more background, training, and expertise, most replied with broad topical areas (government, courts, sunshine laws and business were the top four) rather than specific issues. Among specific issues, the leaders were education and agriculture, the latter suggesting that rural papers may not have kept up with changes in agribusiness. Also receiving several mentions were environment, development and land-use planning. To read the survey, click here.

Women rural editors share their experiences and advice at Summit

Two women editors, one who is fiercely independent and another who has kept her spunk after selling to a chain, shared their personal observations about the challenges and joys of doing journalism in a small community at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America on Friday.

"For both, it is a story that is closely intertwined with family, roots, and tradition. Passion and public service play a role, too. A deep understanding of the important role journalism can play in a community also plays a part -- with equal helpings of commitment and stubbornness, kindness and courage," writes Mary Jo Shafer, one of the Knight Community Journalism Fellows at the University of Alabama.

The editors are Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian ( Tex.) Record and Jenay Tate of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va. Brown and her mother, Nan Ezzell, in photo at left, were honored Friday night with the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, recognizing the crusading attitude established by her late father, Ben Ezzell. Nevertheless, Brown had caution for would-be crusaders. To read Shafer's story, click here.

Veterans in rural South Texas travel hours for care, want local hospital

Veterans in rural South Texas as pushing for their own Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, after enduring long waits and traveling far to receive care. Veterans may end up taking five-hour trips in government vans to receive treatment in San Antonio. The number of patients in the area’s VA facilities has grown 31 percent since 2001. South Texas has several local clinics, but for more complicated procedures vets must go to the big city, writes David McLemore of the Dallas Morning News.“Nationally, VA’s medical system has experienced unprecedented growth, ballooning 22 percent since 2001 when it had 4.1 million veterans registered,” writes McLemore. “It now has 5.3 million, including 1.7 million in Texas. And while the largest single group is Vietnam-era vets, the number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets is growing. The Texas Veterans Commission reports it has received about 2,000 discharge documents a month since 2001.”Vietnam veteran Homer Gallegos told the Morning News that the VA system was not prepared to handle the load of vets from his war and that Iraqi vets may encounter the same problem, reports McLemore. Young vets are also facing an increasing number of head and brain injuries and amputations as well as emotional problems and strain from time spent in war zones, he said. Of the 320 Texans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan about 10 percent were from South Texas. (Read more)

Rural Georgia high school has its first racially integrated prom

In Georgia, a small-town high school has had a prom that included both black and white students for the first time. Turner County High School in Ashburn, Ga., has no segregation policy, but students created their own divide. “Each year, in spite of integration, the school's white students had raised money for their own unofficial prom and black students did the same to throw their own separate party, an annual ritual that divided the southern Georgia peanut-farming county anew each spring,” reports Greg Bluestein of The Associated Press. This year, students decided to have an official, school-wide prom. (Photo by Carmen K. Sisson, Christian Science Monitor)

“The rural county seat of 4,000 people has been in need of uplifting news,” AP reports. “Although a candy packaging plant employs hundreds, as does the up-and-down peanut industry, many of the better-paying jobs are in larger towns in the region. The high school is one of the few things that give Ashburn a sense of community. ‘The school is making changes, and they're long overdue,’ said Aniesha Gipson, who became the county's first solo homecoming queen last fall as it abandoned the practice of crowning separate white and black queens.” The county's paper is the weekly Wiregrass Farmer, which is not available online.

In spite of a significant step forward, segregation issues linger. About two-thirds of the school’s 160 upper-class students purchased prom tickets, but there were significantly more black attendees than white attendees and many students went to a private white party a week earlier. (Read more) Ashburn is on Interstate 75, halfway between Cordele and Tifton. For the Christian Science Monitor story by Sisson, click here.

W.Va. weeklies consolidated by native who worked at Washington Post

A former Washington Post executive is expanding the online paper he created for his hometown in West Virginia, as well as acquiring three other weeklies. Dan Butcher, publisher of the online Lincoln Standard, started printing the publication on paper earlier this month, reports West Virginia Media. The Standard, which calls itself "A Citizen's Newspaper," is based in Alum Creek, a town of about 1,800 along the Coal River. Butcher has acquired the nearby papers, the Putnam Post, the Putnam Democrat and the Cabell Record, consolidating them under P.C. Publishing.

Last week, Butcher raised questions about pollution from a big strip mine in the county. "The Lincoln Standard has adopted an editorial stance that will support efforts to keep the county clean and green," the editorial said. "It bothers us when Lincoln County residents tell us stories of businesses conducting business in a way that damages our appearance." (Read more)

Butcher, who developed a group of community papers for the Post in suburban Maryland, told West Virginia Media that he wants his papers to provide news at a very local level. “A community paper is about the community and the people in the community,” he said. “It’s about what’s going on in the churches, it’s what’s going on in the schools and down to the elementary school level.” Butcher is a native of Lincoln County, and president and founder of Lincoln County Friends of the Arts, a nonprofit organization started last year. He runs a landscaping business in Florida but travels to the county monthly to tend to his ventures.

Friday, April 20, 2007

National Summit on Journalism in Rural America opens in Kentucky

The National Summit on Journalism in Rural America began last night at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Ky., and continues through midday tomorrow. From left: Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies; John Rosenberg, former director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund; Brian Mann of North Country Radio, Bill Bishop of The Daily Yonder and Courtney Lowery of New West.

In opening remarks, Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said the Summit is aimed at creating a national community of rural journalists and helping them serve their communities. For a copy of the program, click here. Following are links to Friday's presentations.

Research: A Survey of Training Backgrounds and Needs at Rural Newspapers in the United States and Threats Faced by Rural Newspapers (video of both presentations)

Issues Facing Rural America: Policy and politics (video)

How three newspaper chains meet the bottom line and provide good journalism on rural issues (video)

Covering rural issues and exploring alternative ownership forms with an independent publisher who sold to, and works for, a new kind of chain; and three independent editors and publishers (video) Also: "Thriving in a world of box stores and chain papers," by John Wylie, who was scheduled but couldn't attend.

Following are most of Cross's remarks:

As far as we can tell, this is the first event of its kind, and it comes at a critical time for both journalism and rural America. Why are we calling it a summit? You were invited to this gathering because we thought each you had something to contribute to a critical deliberation – on how to address the needs of rural America through journalism.

Most of you are in journalism, including the academic side, but many of you labor in the field of research and public policy for rural areas. We think this interesting mix of people -- from 20 states and organizations that touch all 50 states -- will help us all learn some things in the next day or so, and collectively come up with ideas about helping journalism address rural issues.

The summit is needed because the communities of rural America face many challenges, and are often not well served by journalism. Chain ownership is increasing, and that’s not always bad, as some speakers this afternoon will show, but it’s not always good, either. Metropolitan newspapers are cutting back on their circulation and coverage in rural areas, most recently in Georgia and Texas, and rural news outlets often have difficulty helping their communities deal with issues that come at them from state capitals, Washington, other cities, and sometimes halfway around the world, in our increasingly globalized economy.

Globalization has made rural economic development more difficult; lack of broadband has kept the promise of the Internet unfulfilled in many places; the No Child Left Behind Act has presented new challenges for rural schools; increased activity by extractive industries has heightened concerns about the environment; and rural health still suffers from issues of accessibility and affordability.

I’ll leave the policy details to Brian Dabson of the Rural Policy Research Institute, and the politics to Brian Mann and Bill Bishop, who will moderate their panel. Before we proceed, though, a few words about rural journalism.

When we brought this brainchild into the world three years ago, “rural journalism” was an unfamiliar term. Is it the same as community journalism? No, because there is community journalism, and lots of it, in the cities and suburbs – and metropolitan papers are becoming more community-oriented as they scramble to maintain readership and turn the Internet into their friend.

Is rural journalism what you might think of first, the country weeklies? Yes, but not solely. By our count, there are 740 daily newspapers published outside metropolitan areas of the United States, ranging from the Bisbee Daily Review in Arizona, circulation 738, all the way up to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, circulation 35,000, and represented at the Summit by Joe Rutherford, the Journal’s editorial-page editor, from whom you will hear later today.

And is rural journalism just in newspapers? No, because despite the recent concentration of ownership in radio, many rural stations still have news departments – and some of them are even getting putting that news into print, as well as online. And increasingly, public radio is providing much of the broadcast journalism for rural areas.

So, that is rural journalism. But what is rural journalism about? Overwhelmingly, it’s purely local. My friend Larry Timbs, who teaches journalism at Winthrop University, wrote a good book on rural and community journalism, called The World Ends at The County Line.

Because that reminds editors to maintain their local focus, which is their franchise, it’s a snappy title. But the world never really ended at the county line – and especially does not now, when American workers compete in a globalized economy and American youth are sent to all parts of the world to risk and lose their lives defending the nation's interests, real or perceived.

So, one thing we try to do at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is help rural reporters and editors grasp those economic, environmental, educational and health-care issues that some at them from afar. We also try to point out examples of good rural journalism, in our Rural Blog and the Good Works section of our Web site, RuralJournalism.org. And that’s why we established the Tom and Pat Gish Award to honor folks who demonstrate the courage, tenacity and integrity that is so often needed in rural journalism in order to render necessary public service through. You will hear from a winner of that award later today.

Most of us in this room know that it is more difficult to be a forthright, diligent, independent and ethical journalist in a rural community than an urban one, because, as my compadre Chris Waddle likes to say, community journalism is relationship journalism. Those of us who have worked in rural radio and newspapers know that our readers and listeners often don’t separate the personal from the professional when it comes to relationships.

And in much of rural America, there are threats to the economic underpinning of its journalism. Liz Hansen and Deborah Givens of Eastern Kentucky University will talk about that in a few minutes.

Folks in rural communities are accustomed to obstacles, but it’s a trade-off for natural beauty and laid-back lifestyle. That’s one reason we’re meeting at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. It’s not the easiest place to get to or to navigate, but it evokes the beauty and spirit of rural America.

Those who are able to overcome the obstacles in rural journalism, and provide good public service to their communities, don’t really have a community of their own. There’s an International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, but that leaves out the dailies, and the main editors’ groups don’t admit the weeklies. Maybe there needs to be a Society of Community Newspaper Editors, because I know lots of weekly and small daily editors – and some of them are in this room – who could hold their own with metro counterparts.

I often say that there are plenty of good journalists in rural America, and many who could be better, but they suffer from the isolation that defines rurality. They don’t get enough opportunities to rub elbows and share experiences. Technology now makes that more possible, but there’s no replacement for personal contact. We hope this Summit will be a catalyst to help create a national community of rural journalists, and help them help each other to serve their communities and rural America as a whole.

Finally, we must say thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which made the Summit and the Institute possible; to the University of Kentucky, which gives the Institute a home; and to Farm Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which are providing additional support for the Summit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Edwards, other Democrats go rural; are there 'taters where they dig?

"Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards may come across as more Southern preppy than down-home, but this week he's playing up his small-town roots in a major pitch to capture rural votes," reports Rob Christensen of the News & Observer in Raleigh. The former North Carolina senator is making several rural-oriented stops and proposing new spending for for rural small businesses, education and health care. "Rural America has been ignored for too long," Edwards said in Nashville, where he turned a planned political rally into a remembrance for Virginia Tech victims. "Across America, too many small towns have turned into ghost towns." (Photo by John Partipilo, The Tennessean)

Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has many rural constituents in upstate New York, is stumping in rural Iowa, as pictured in The Rural Blog recently. Edwards trailed Clinton in a Tennessee poll 18 days ago, but his message resonated with small farmers in the Nashville area, reports Jared Allen of the Nashville City Paper, an alternative daily. (Read more)

"Bolstered by polls and midterm election results, Democrats think for the first time in a decade they can be more competitive in the countryside, long a President Bush stronghold," Christensen writes. "Starting in 1994, rural voters began voting Republican in ever-increasing numbers. Republicans say it is because their platform is in keeping with the conservative values of rural America." But the trend was nearly reversed in 2006, when the rural vote was 51 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic. The GOP's 3-point margin was far less than the 19-point edge it had in 2004, so rural areas may have gained leverage, said Dee Davis, president of the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.

Davis told Christensen that Democrats have written off rural America because they didn't think they could win, and Republicans have taken it for granted. Thus, rural America has been largely ignored in national politics, though "Rural areas lag behind most of the country on a broad array of statistics -- poverty rates, education, income, growth and health. Of the 250 poorest U.S. counties, 244 are rural," Christensen notes. He adds that "Edwards has long emphasized his small-town rural roots," but says his strategy also makes political sense because "Rural voters make up 40 percent of the voters in the key caucuses in Iowa and the first 2008 primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina." (Read more)

Ethanol may increase ozone, but also help reduce global warming

Ethanol is all the rage, but it may create more ground-level ozone than gasoline, creating negative health effects, according to a Stanford University study. Ozone, a major ingredient of smog, harms lungs and weakens immune systems even at low levels. Increased ozone from ethanol would create more deaths, particularly in areas that already have heavy air pollution. The study looked at E85 ethanol, 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, which emits less greenhouses gas than other types, some researchers say.

About 5,000 premature deaths occur each year because of ozone exposure, Mark Z. Jacobson, author of the study, told the Los Angeles Times. “Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution. But our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage.” His study predicts a 4 percent increase in ozone-related deaths nationwide.

Jennifer Wood of the Environmental Protection Agency told the Times that the agency's experience contradicts the study. “The increased use of renewable fuels, like E85, will significantly reduce greenhouse gas, benzene and carbon monoxide emissions while strengthening our nation's energy security and supporting American farming communities,” she said. “The pollutants that contribute to ozone, which may slightly increase as a result of additional ethanol use, can be managed by the suite of effective tools available under the Clean Air Act.” (Read more)

A separate report by the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that biofuels can do more good than harm. “On average a gallon of ethanol produced by the corn-based industry in the U.S. today reduces global warming pollution by 18 percent for every gallon of gasoline displaced. And newer technologies will allow for ethanol production that cuts emissions by more than 80 percent. On the other end of the spectrum are inefficient, environmentally unfriendly production practices such as cutting down rainforests for biomass or burning coal to power ethanol plants that could potentially increase global warming pollution,” the report says, calling for the creation of a “green index ” to measure environmental impact of each fuel. (Read more)

Columbia professor apologizes for 'Appalachian inbreeding' remark

"A well-regarded Columbia University linguist" has apologized for saying "Appalachian inbreeding" in The New Yorker magazine, writes Lee Mueller, the Lexington Herald-Leader's Eastern Kentucky reporter.

"Interviewed by writer John Colapinto for an article titled The Interpreter, Columbia assistant professor Peter Gordon defended the intelligence of an Amazonian tribe he had been studying: 'Besides ... if there is some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you'd see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds all over. They [the Piraha] don't show any of that.' The quote splattered against academic computer screens in Appalachia this week like a large cud of chewing tobacco."

Jack Wright of Ohio University wrote, ""Appalachia has long been fair game as the nation's whipping boy. . . . In Appalachia, we call this cultural strip-mining." Penny Messinger, a history teacher at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y, wrote Gordon,"I eagerly await your 'evidence' documenting the tradition of Appalachian inbreeding/incest." She told others that the episode was ironic, because "These stories continue unabated, even as Don Imus is finally shown the door for his well-documented bigotry."

Gordon told Mueller he did not mean to offend anyone. "It was just a reference," he said. "I'm really sorry. I really was just talking about a tribe in Brazil." But that and other apologies didn't stop the objections.

Rodger Cunningham, a history teacher at Alice Lloyd College in southeastern Kentucky, wrote a letter to The New Yorker asking, "How can a professor at Columbia in the 21st century use such a stereotypical ethnic reference so casually it doesn't even register consciously, and how did the remark then pass unchallenged both by Mr. Colapinto and by the editorial staff of The New Yorker?" (Read more)

Mueller, a native of the region, reports that "Skins were thicker in Pike County, where the 31st Hillbilly Days festival begins Thursday. The festival, a spoof of the region's backwoods heritage, shares half of its proceeds with Shriners children's hospitals." He quotes Chamber of Commerce President Brad Hall: "No one wants to be called a hillbilly by an outsider. But people who grow up and live here call ourselves that, warmly."

Groups file suit to put gray wolf back on endangered species list

Three groups are fighting to put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list after it was delisted in the western Great Lakes states in March. The Humane Society, Animal Protection Institute and Help Our Wolves Live claim the gray wolf is still endangered in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, where last month management of the species was turned over to state natural resource agencies and tribal governments, reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network. (Read more)

“The lawsuit alleges that federal officials have misinterpreted environmental laws and crafted a flawed recovery plan.” With gray wolves off the endangered species list, their population could be decimated by hunters and farmers shooting the animals to protect their livestock, the groups said. The gray wolf was put on the endangered species list in 1974 because it was “persecuted to the brink of extinction,” they said, reports Bob Von Sternberg of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“Removing a plant or animal from the federal endangered species list has been an exceptionally rare event,” writes Von Sternberg. “Before gray wolf (also known as the timber wolf) was removed, in the 33-year history of the list, only 16 species had recovered enough to be removed, most notably the peregrine falcon and the American alligator.” (Read more)

Libertarian group calls for an end to government farm spending

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has called for an end to all farm programs though a single government buy-out. In spite of the massive cost, savings would offset it long-term, Cato argues. It also says an end to subsidies would create better domestic farm productivity and be more economical though use of cheaper imports, reports Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network. “What we are suggesting in terms of the buy-out is purely a political solution. We do not see on a moral standpoint that we should provide money for farmers -- this is a bribe, pure and simple,” Sallie James, co-author of the proposal, told Brownfield.

American Farm Bureau Federation Chief Economist Bob Young told Brownfield that the kind of buyout suggested by Cato would be too expensive -- plus, current farm programs don’t cost as much money as critics think. “‘We're going to talk about spending less than $25 per capita per year for a safety net for what I would view as being a critically important feature of our nation's economy,’ said Young, adding that the Cato Institute's farm program buy-out recommendation is another example of how agriculture has become ‘a favorite punching bag’ of those looking to cut federal spending.” (Read more)

Farm Service Agency offers farm loans to socially disadvantaged in Ind.

The federal Farm Service Agency in Indiana is encouraging socially disadvantaged groups get into farming though its farm-ownership loans. It is seeking ethnic minorities and women who want to buy or lease land in the agency’s inventory or get a loan to buy land in the open market. The FSA is also offering other sorts of loans and technical assistance to help these individuals get started. All Indiana counties are eligible for the service, reports the Rensselaer (Ind.) Republican. (Read more)

“FSA programs are available to all producers but we would like to increase participation by traditionally underrepresented groups in all program areas,” Kenny Culp, the state’s executive director, told Brownfield Network. “These loans help to encourage and assist them in owning and operating their own farms and ranches, participate in agricultural programs, and become integral parts of the agricultural community,” Culp said. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Weekly serving Blacksburg finds awful, international story at its door

Journalists descended upon Blacksburg, Va., yesterday to cover the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The closest thing to a local, traditional, non-campus newspaper in Blacksburg is The News-Messenger of nearby Christiansburg, which normally publishes on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The News-Messenger's Web site has a story by Editor Amanda Bolen, Heather Bell and Don Cash that begins, "Joining Monday's howling winds were the piercing sirens from emergency vehicles rushing to and from the Virginia Tech campus. Booming over both these sounds were the words, 'This is an emergency. This is an emergency. Seek shelter indoors,' repeating every few minutes over loudspeakers on the VT campus. By the end of the day Monday, there were 33 confirmed fatalities." (Read more)

The story made more than most of the possibility that the mass killings were not related to a double killing in a dormitory about two hours earlier: "As of Monday evening, police would not say definitively if the deceased gunman was also responsible for the shooting deaths of a male and a female victim in Virginia Tech's West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory approximately two hours before the shootings in Norris Hall." Officials announced this morning that one of the guns found on the mass killer was used in the dorm shooting.

Blacksburg has a population of 40,000, but is only 30 miles from Roanoke, and its daily paper is The Roanoke Times, circulation 100,000. The News-Messenger has a circulation of 7,000, in combination with the Radford News Journal, an edition for the other college town (home of Radford University, a small, liberal-arts state school) in Montgomery County. The papers are part of Main Street Newspapers, which publishes weeklies in the area around Roanoke. For more about the company, click here. For a rundown of larger papers' coverage, from Editor & Publisher, click here.

Banks oppose wider financial-services authority for Farm Credit System

The two main lobbying organizations for bankers are fighting the Farm Credit System's request to Congress for more lending authority, reports Sara Wyant of Agri-Pulse Communications.

"The American Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers Association made it perfectly clear during the House Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research hearing Tuesday that they do not want any additional lending power granted to the Farm Credit System," Wyant writes. Bankers dislike FCS's “Horizon project” to expand ways Farm Credit Banks can make loans.

The Farm Credit System's lobbying arm, the Farm Credit Council, says it is hamstrung by "decades-old law" and "pointed out that community banks have earned record profits in recent years at the same time the Farm Credit System has grown," Wyant writes. "In fact, Farm Credit often works with commercial banks to finance large projects. As of Feb. 15, there were $14 billion worth of loans in which the banks collaborated with Farm Credit institutions. As Farm Credit has financed many ethanol plants in rural areas, community banks have benefited from the growth that’s developed in small towns, FCC noted."

Wyant opines, "With all of the new growth opportunities that could develop in rural America, you would think there would be plenty of borrowers to go around for both bankers and farm credit institutions. And in many cases, local banks already cooperate with Farm Credit to launch or expand rural businesses. But you’d never know that from listening to some of the rhetoric." (Read more)

Weekly editor in Calif. thinks his reporting may have put him in danger

Early in the morning of March 7, Sanger (Calif.) Herald Editor Dick Sheppard "was nearly hit by a car. The editor believes the incident could be retaliation for reporting on city officials' ties with local developers," and the police chief says it appears to have been intentional, says The Fresno Bee.

"Sanger authorities asked the Fresno County Sheriff's Department to look into the . . . incident," saying an outside agency should do the investigation, Tim Eberly reports. "Sheppard, 70, said he believes the incident was not an accident. Since he took the job two years ago, he said, he has been threatened in other ways. He says he has fielded two threatening phone calls, and his office was broken into and ransacked, although nothing was taken. He reported one of the calls and the break-in to police." (Bee photo by Kurt Hegre)

Sheppard said in a March 22 story, headlined "A drive by message to the editor of the Sanger Herald," that the incident "might have been an intentional act of intimidation in response to aggressive reporting in the Herald . . . investigating city officials' involvement and relationships with developers." He told Eberly that some stories have bene publushed and some are still being reported.

Sanger is a town of 19,000 on the border of the urbanized area east of Fresno and the farmland that borders the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in eastern Fresno County. Sheppard, a former broadcast reporter, said he is the only full-time journalist at his newspaper, circulation 17,000, but employs some Fresno State University journalism students. (Read more)

Environmental group issues annual list of Ten Rivers at Risk

American Rivers, which says it exists to "protect and promote our rivers as valuable assets that are vital to our health, safety and quality of life," each year names a list of 10 endangered rivers. The list varies widely from year to year, and its empirical basis seems rather limited, but the list serves as a reminder to the nation and the areas involved, most of them rural, of the varied threats to streams and the wider environment.

The streams on this year's list are the Santa Fe River in New Mexico, San Mateo Creek in California, the   Iowa River and a main tributary, the Cedar River; the Upper Delaware River in New York, the White Salmon River in Washington state, the Neches River in Texas, the Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin, the Neuse River in North Carolina,  Lee Creek in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and the Chuitna River in Alaska. For the press release, click here.

We got the release through Government Policy Newslinks, which offers a daily digest of press releases, statements, reports and other information from Congress, the White House and federal agencies. GPN offers a free, 60-day trial subscription to readers of The Rural Blog; to sign up, click here.

Birmingham News wins Pulitzer for community-college corruption series

Brett Blackledge's series of stories on corruption in Alabama's community colleges, many of them in rural areas, won The Birmingham News the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting yesterday.

The 14-month series began with reports by Blackledge on the resignation of the head of the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa. The paper quickly revealed that the chief "helped set up tens of thousands of dollars in contracts and scholarships for his children and those of administrators who run the state's two-year college system," and that led to other reports on the system and its colleges, and to the firing of its chancellor.

"Blackledge's entry had been a finalist for the Pulitzer prize for public service. The Pulitzer board, which administers the award, moved the entry into the investigative reporting category, where it was awarded the prize." Jeff Hansen of the News reports. Publisher Victor Hanson III "announced that The News would match Blackledge's Pulitzer Prize award of $10,000." (Read more)

Blackledge, 43, a graduate of Louisiana State University and a native of Baton Rouge, told his celebrating colleagues, ""What's remarkable about this award is it basically affirms what we do every day. There's nothing magical about this," he said. "It's 98 percent of the stuff we do every day. It's extraordinary, yet very ordinary." He gave credit to the sources who tipped him off to corruption in the system.

"An hour after the news of the Pulitzer, Blackledge got another call -- one of the kind that had led to his remarkable Monday afternoon," Hansen writes. "It was from a new source in the two-year college systems. The source hadn't heard of the Pulitzer. He was calling to tell Blackledge about a questionable land deal he had heard about at one of Alabama's community colleges." Here are excerpts from Blackledge's stories:

May 21: The chancellor "and his immediate family received more than $560,000 for jobs and contracts they held last year with the state's two-year colleges." ... June 14: "Half of the eight elected state school board members who are reviewing jobs held by relatives of the chancellor . . . also have relatives paid by the system." ... July 14, with Kim Chandler: "At least 14 college presidents, deans or other administrators have relatives employed within the two-year college system." ... July 23: "Contractors who received work from two-year colleges helped former Postsecondary Chancellor Roy Johnson build a $1 million home."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kentucky's unique fine-arts extension program places second local agent

"When most people think of an extension agent, they think of someone who can offer advice about the right kind of soil to grow corn in, or the best way to can green beans. Cora Hughes is a different kind of agent. She knows a lot about opera and theater but not much about tractors and crops," writes Mike James of The Independent in Ashland, Ky., reporting on the new fine-arts extension agent in adjoining Greenup County.

Hughes is the second fine-arts extension agent placed in a county office by the University of Kentucky, in a two-year-old, cooperative effort between the land-grant school's College of Agriculture and College of Fine Arts. There is no other program quite like it; some other states have fine-arts extension programs, but Kentucky's is the only one that locates agents in county offices. The first was in Pike County, at the state's eastern tip; Greenup County is at the state's northeastern extremity.

The agents are liaisons and coordinators for arts with schools, artisans and arts councils. Hughes "has been here for a month and has done more than I've seen done (for the arts) in the past five years," David Deborde, a Greenup County High School language arts teacher, told Josey Montana McCoy of The Kentucky Kernel, the student-run campus daily. (Read more)

James reports for the Ashland daily that Hughes is discussing with the Ashland-based Jesse Stuart Foundation a possible play about Stuart, who was a beloved Kentucky author from Greenup County. "The goal is to have it ready for production at the Greenbo Lake [State Park] amphitheater next fall," James writes. "Countywide choruses for children and adults are in the planning stages, too." (Read more)

Clean Coal Opportunities for Appalachia conference is next week

The Appalachian Regional Commission will hold a "Clean Coal Opportunities for Appalachia" conference April 24 and 25 in Lexington, Ky. Hosted by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, ARC says the event will explore "the potential of clean-coal technologies to stimulate business development and job creation in Appalachia, "and "review the latest research and thinking associated with the clean-coal industry."

Conference speakers will include Mike Eastman of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, who will address global and national trends in clean coal; David Conover of the National Commission on Energy Policy, who will discuss the congressional landscape regarding national energy policy in a carbon-constrained world; Richard Bajura, director of West Virginia University’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy, who will speak on generating electricity with clean coal technologies; John Rich, president of Waste Management and Processors Inc., who will provide strategic perspectives on coal project financing; and John Novak of the Electric Power Research Institute, who will speak on Appalachian clean coal technologies and carbon sequestration.

Other session topics will include coal-mine safety, mine modernization and environmental management; the coal-industry supply chain in Appalachia; and "Emerging Climate Change Policy." The conference will be held at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Lexington. Complete agenda, registration, and lodging information is available by clicking here. The registration fee is $150. For more information, contact ARC at cleancoal@arc.gov or 202-884-7754.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Free-land schemes in Kansas attract newcomers, but also some 'locals'

More than a dozen communities in Kansas are giving away land to people who will build a house on the property and live in the community. The programs are aimed at stemming population loss by attracting newcomers, but in many cases they attarct people from the local area, reports Rural Policy Matters, the monthly newsletter of the Rural School and Community Trust.

"Housing stock is tight around here, so the program has helped people who were already here or nearby build a new house. That in turn has freed up existing housing. We've seen some of our growth in people who have moved in and bought existing housing that became available because of this program," said Roger Hrabe of the Rooks County Economic Development Office in Plainville. "It doesn't cost that much less to build a house here than most other places, so the free lot is incentive to local people. But our existing housing is much less expensive than comparable homes in high growth places, so that's appealing to people who want to get out of the rat race" and move from more populated areas.

Requirements vary among communities. "Most want applicants to make a physical inspection of the lot or meet with the town council," the newsletter reports. "That requirement helps screen out people who are not all that interested, but whose application might keep a lot tied up for several months," said Brian Garrels, city administrator of Eureka. "However, for people who want to participate, the city is willing to join with them to make it work," the newsletter reports, quoting Garrels: "We want to increase our population, so we'll be creative in helping people make the move." (Read more)

Virginia towns seek to be new home of the Museum of the Confederacy

The city council of Lexington, Va., voted 4-2 late Thursday night "to ask the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond to consider moving to Lexington . . . despite unified opposition from the black community" in Lexington, reports Rex Bowman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Lexington was "among a dozen Virginia localities to formally invite the museum to consider moving from its cramped quarters in downtown Richmond," reports Jay Conley of The Roanoke Times. Bowman, however, reports only that more than a dozen, including some outside Virginia, have "expressed an interest." Sunday is the deadline for proposals.

Marilyn Alexander (left) and other opponents at "a spirited public hearing" in Lexington said putting the museum there "would open racial wounds in the city's small black community. About 10 percent of Lexington's 7,000 residents are black," Bowman reports. "Others, though, argued that it would be a major economic boon to the city's downtown."

"In the end, economic realities triumphed over emotions," writes Roberta Anderson on the Web site of The News-Gazette, Lexington's weekly paper, circulation 8,600. She focuses on history teacher and senior Councilman Jim Gianniny, whose motion "was accompanied by an emotional statement stating he had spent many sleepless nights considering the positions of those both for and against the MOC. . . . Gianniny said he has always tried to educate his students about the failures and injustices committed by the country, the state and Rockbridge County when it came to granting equal rights to African Americans. But the harsh economic realities of the future financial obligations of the city, including millions that must be spent on a new school, new courthouse, upgrades to the sewage treatment plant, additions to the jail and upgrades to the water system, as well as a downtown currently with many empty storefronts, swayed him." (Photo by Geoff Dudley, The News-Gazette)

Anderson's story conveys the tension at the hearing, centering on the Confederate battle flags that are sold at the museum and for many people are a badge of racism and slavery. One man "wondered if the MOC has been honest about its verbalized intention to drop its image as the museum of the Lost Cause and take on a broader historical perspective," Anderson writes of George Pryde, without revealing his race.

“They seem to be telling us one thing and their members another,” Pryde said. “This flag has become the divisive point. It has become the lightning rod. If you bring the museum to Lexington, don’t bring this flag with it.” Anderson reports, "Somehow, that flag ended up on the floor and was retrieved by Michael Pursley, who identified himself as the commander of the local unit of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. 'I am graciously going to pick this sacred flag off the floor,' Pursley said, a comment that caused an African American man sitting in the front row to declare 'I gotta go,' and abruptly left."

The Times story and graphics describe the museum's collection of Civil War items, the world's largest; and its current location, surrounded by the medical center of Virginia Commonwealth University. "Richmond officials say the city has no money or alternative location for the museum," Conley reports.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Southern attorneys general discuss meth, including Mexican imports

Southern attorneys general met in Richmond, Va., yesterday to discuss the problem of methamphetamine coming from Mexico. AGs from Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi and Tennessee attended a National Association of Attorneys General meeting to discuss a plan for fighting creation, distribution and abuse of the drug, reports Pamela Stallsmith of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Many states -- including Virginia -- have enacted laws to restrict over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth, to crack down on home labs where people cook the illegal concoction,” writes Stallsmith. “However, that has resulted in an increased amount of the substance being smuggled across the border from Mexico -- as much as 90 percent coming from outside the country.”

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell described meth as “a poor man's crack” and said, “This is probably the ugliest drug to come down the pike in 40 years.” He told reporters how meth creates brain damage, harms internal organs, damages skin and causes teeth to fall out, reports Stallsmith. While the nation’s efforts are largely focused on drug enforcement, one lawyer said that treatment of those with drug abuse problems is also essential. (Read more)

Pa. trying to track, pay dairy farmers to control runoff into Chesapeake

The state of Pennsylvania is trying to get dairy farmers to reduce manure runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed "by letting them apply for pollution credits that can be sold to developers needing to build sewage treatment plants," reports Felicity Barringer of The New York Times.

Virginia has a similar program. Pennsylvania's has started slowly because "It has been difficult to track agricultural runoff from specific farms," Barringer writes. "The state wants farmers to do things like build barriers to contain runoff and plant crops year-round so their roots will prevent the soil from washing away in big storms. The state will then estimate how much pollution is eliminated through the changes."

The bay "has been in biological decline for three decades, in large part because of manure and other agricultural pollutants," Barringer notes. "In March, the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state partnership, reported a 25 percent decline from 2005 to 2006 in the underwater grasses that are the anchor of the bay’s ecosystem. Algae thrives on the nitrogen in manure and other waste products and the phosphorus in fertilizer, becoming so abundant that it blocks sunlight and, by consuming oxygen as it decays, threatens to suffocate the grasses and other underwater life."

Runoff in the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed "is largely from urban and suburban sources rather than from farms," Barringer reports. "It is much easier to track reductions from those sources — for example, filtering out the harmful nutrients at sewage treatment plants — than it is to measure the benefits of a farmer’s planting his crops or grazing his cattle farther from streams." (Read more)

Small dairy farmers struggling in the Northeast bank on new protection act

In the last year, farmers have spent $16 to $18 producing each hundredweight of milk, while being paid an average of $12 for the product. The price to feed their cows has also risen because of a spike in grain prices, due to ethanol demand. Freshman representative Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is pushing for her first piece of legislation, the American Dairy Farmer Protection Act, to be attached to the Farm Bill. Although not well known for it, her state produces 7.2 percent of the nation’s milk, third behind California and Wisconsin. The Northeast also consumes more milk than any other area of the country, reports Sarah Sutton of the Post Star in Glens Falls, N.Y.

“While her long-term goal for the dairy industry is to facilitate a complete overhaul of the dairy pricing system, the congresswoman's initial attempt to improve conditions for dairy farmers includes increasing the floor on the price of milk, extending the federal Milk Income Loss Credit program and doubling the base amount of milk farmers can produce to be eligible for subsidies,” writes Sutton.

Gillibrand also plans to support sources of biofuel that do not use animal feedstock. She says her bill would support small dairy farms, and that she expects it to be resisted by large agribusinesses in the Midwest and West. She said small farms are essential in case of a bioterrorist attack, because large amounts of food could easily be compromised by hitting large farms. (Read more)

Nebraska must move fast to stem rural areas' decline, expert advises

"Nebraska towns that want to buck the rural decline must make sure they remain or become great, affordable places to live and have great places to visit nearby. And their community leaders must act now lest the statistical tide of depopulation overwhelm their efforts," reports The Associated Press, rewriting a Lincoln Journal Star story on a presentation by Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, at the Grassland Foundation's annual talks about conservation and sustainability.

Swanson "said Nebraska cities with fewer than 10,000 residents have the best chance of reversing trends -- if they move with great dispatch," AP reports. "He also said growth potential exists for a few smaller communities that are near such truly unique natural amenities as the Sandhills," the Journal Star reported.

"Swanson blitzed his listeners with a series of slides showing population, aging, income and other trends in the central Great Plains," wrote the Journal Star's Joe Duggan. "Forty-two of Nebraska’s most rural, isolated counties have lost population since the 2000 Census, he said. Such counties are not only seeing people leave, they’re experiencing death rates that are higher than birth rates. That means that by 2015, many of those counties will see growth in just one age group: 65 and older." (Read more)

Flyover of mountaintop-removal strip mines postponed, group says

A series of flights over mountaintop-removal strip mines, scheduled for April 21 from an Eastern Kentucky airport, has been postponed because of disagreement about new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, says Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes the mining.

"Because of a complicated set of circumstances that involves new FAA regulations that may or may not govern events of this type and pilot certification, a difference in interpretation of those regulations by the FAA and pilots, the unwillingness of pilots we had contracted with to meet these guidelines and some unclear reporting requirements, the Flyover Festival has been postponed until we can get these details worked out and new pilots lined up," KFTC said today. "We are committed to having this event and are seeking clarity about the regulations and working with qualified pilots on their available dates. We are working to have the event soon and hope that we might have a rescheduled date within a week or so."

The flights were to have been from the Big Sandy Regional Airport, on a reclaimed mountaintop-removal mine site between Prestonsburg, Paintsville and Inez, Ky. More information can be found on the KFTC web site, www.kftc.org.

Gannett sells four dailies to GateHouse for $410 million; both clustering

Gannett Co. Inc. is selling the Rockford Register Star (circulation 65,000) in Illinois, the Norwich Bulletin (26,000) in Connecticut, the Observer-Dispatch (43,000) in Utica, N.Y., and The Herald-Dispatch (30,000) in Huntington, W.Va., to GateHouse Media for $410 million.

GateHouse, based in Fairport, N.Y., owns 84 daily papers in 19 states. "The company went public in 2006 and is winning praise from Wall Street even as other newspaper companies see their share prices fall because of declining circulation and weak advertising sales.," reports the Reuters news service. "Analysts see GateHouse, with papers located mostly in smaller communities, as being safe from those problems."

Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, said it is selling the papers as part of a plan to emphasize regional clusters that save money. The clusters typically include both daily and weekly newspapers. Jim Ross, community conversation editor of The Herald-Dispatch, writes that GateHouse "has operated under the radar, collecting small-town newspapers that focus on 'hyperlocal' news," and that Fortress Investment Group, a private equity firm that owns 56 percent of the company, "discovered that newspaper readers in small towns and suburbs are loyal and plentiful. It goes after publications with little or no competition and consolidates them into regional clusters." (Read more)

"The Register Star is Gannett's only paper in Illinois. Not counting the pending purchase of the Connecticut papers, the Norwich paper is Gannett's sole property in that state," reports Reuters. GateHouse said current executives will remain in place. (Read more)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cartoonist at 18,500-circ. paper in Georgia wins Sigma Delta Chi Award

Mike Lester of the Rome News-Tribune in Georgia, circulation 18,500, won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial cartooning for 2006, the Society of Professional Journalists announced today.

Few papers with circulation under 20,000 have editorial cartoonists, a point noted by the judges. "We felt Mike Lester's editorial cartoons for the Rome News-Tribune showed a unique, breezy and consistent style," they wrote. "Each panel was strong and wry while commenting on important social issues. There is humor but it is not disrespectful. The cartoons have broad appeal. We applaud the Rome News-Tribune, a small newspaper, for having a full-time editorial cartoonist on staff."

The News-Tribune is part of News Publishing Co., owned by the Mooney family of Rome. It also publishes seven editorially independent weeklies in northwest Georgia and Cherokee County, Alabama. It hired Lester as its first cartoonist in 2002, and he tackles local, state, national and international topics.

"Being able to do cartoon commentary on purely local matters adds a dimension otherwise missing from syndicated offerings," the paper's editorial-page editor, Pierre-Rene Noth, said in an e-mail interview. "Promoting and sparking reader participation in the day's topics is very much a function of a newspaper editorial page and cartoons are great way to get something going quickly, at a glance. Besides, word editorials poking fun at life's foibles are far more difficult to do than a sketch … and harder to plow through. Cartoons are a tool born in newspapers and still largely unique to them."

Lester is generally conservative, but has an independent streak. The newspaper "tends to be what is considered conservative on economic matters and liberal on social issues," Noth says.

The Sigma Delta Chi Awards were established in 1932 by the organization now known as SPJ. The current program began in 1939, when Sigma Delta Chi presented its first Distinguished Service Awards. When Sigma Delta Chi changed its name to SPJ in the 1980s, the original name was retained for the awards and SPJ's foundation. The awards will be presented July 20 during the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards banquet at the National Press Club in Washington. Here's a cartoon from Lester's entry:

Poverty doesn’t make bad parents, say critics of child-welfare services

Statistics show a strong correlation between poverty and child neglect, but those who have come out of poverty and those who live in it say being poor doesn’t necessarily make a person a bad parent. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children living below the poverty level are 20 times more likely to be maltreated. “The work raised a fundamental question: At what point, if any, does poverty itself become a form of neglect?” asks the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Donna Beegle grew up in a family of migrant workers, picking fruit and bark for a living, but now has a Ph.D. She told reporter Benjamin Shors that stereotypical views of the poor as unintelligent, lazy, and criminal can threaten families. “The isolation of poverty perpetuates it,” Beegle said. “There is a huge fear of people in poverty. But just because someone doesn't do things the way you do, it doesn't mean they don't care about their child.” Critics of the child-welfare system say it spends money taking children away from their parents that could have been better spent reducing the poverty that is causing the problems. Only one in four children that were not found to be victims of maltreatment received help from child welfare, according to a study reported by federal officials four years ago.

Child-welfare services are seen as a threat by many poor families, rather than an institution that can help them, reports Shors. The Bonagofski family of Rapid Lightning, Idaho, live in a small trailer without running water. Nine people live there, including six children. State law says that their children can't be taken away from them because of poverty alone, but they are constantly under investigation from social workers, whom they have come to resent. “I'm tired of fighting with the government,” the father, Jerry Bonagofski said. “Instead of helping you, they want to hassle you.” (Read more)

Rural institutions should cooperate regionally for economic success

A new report outlines recommendations of what rural areas must do to survive in today’s global economy. “Unlocking Rural Competitiveness: The Role of Regional Clusters,” a federally funded study conducted by Purdue University, Indiana University and the Strategic Development Group Inc., says that rural decision makers should take advantage of nearby urban areas, cooperate within regions to group local industries into clusters and realize that more than agriculture drives their economies.

Rural business succeeds through creating industry clusters, “broad networks of companies, suppliers, service firms, academic institutions, and organizations in related industries that, together, bring new products or services to market,” according to the report. Through this system, educational institutions create knowledge, businesses use that knowledge to create services and products, suppliers provide necessary equipment to create them and marketing distribution brings the product to the consumer. The authors advise that contrary to how some think about rural areas, few are dependent on agriculture. Of 2,000 non-metropolitan counties, only 420 get 15 percent or more of their earnings or employment from farming.

“The researchers created a database, analytical tools and processes to help rural regions throughout the United States assess their economic competitiveness and create developmental strategies. The study also created the Index of Relative Rurality, a numerical value calculated for each of the nation's 3,108 counties. This value shows where each county falls on a rural-urban continuum and helps to identify locations where rural and metro areas connect,” said a press release. For the 227-page report, click here.

Corps finally releases maps of areas that would flood if Ky. dam breaks

After first refusing to release maps that predict flood damage on the Cumberland River if Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky failed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has posted the maps online.

The maps were previously displayed at public meetings and in public libraries in communities along the river, but the Corps had resisted posting them online or releasing them to newspapers, citing security concerns," notes The Associated Press. Last month, the Corps said it would post the maps online because "The public's need for knowledge and understanding of the situation partly outweighs the need for security," according to the Corps' Web site.

The dam creates Lake Cumberland, by volume the largest impoundment in the Eastern U.S. The leaky dam is being repaired in a project that will take several years, and the lake level has been lowered. "The maps predict different ranges of inundation, based on variations in how badly the dam would fail and drain the reservoir and how quickly water levels would rise downstream," AP reports. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Internet helps journalists, including rural ones, compare notes worldwide

What does a speech arguing that journalism must develop a global perspective have to do with rural journalism? They're both about making connections through the Internet -- connections that are creating a global perspective among millions of people around the world and can help rural journalists and their communities find approaches and solutions to their common problems.

"If you have issues in your community, it's not the only community that has those problems," freelance photojournalist Molly Bingham told a crowd last night at the University of Kentucky, where she delivered the 30th annual Joe Creason Lecture -- named for a journalist who connected the disparate parts of Kentucky through his writing in The Courier-Journal when Bingham's family owned the newspaper.

"To present a global perspective, we need to realize that our own global identity is often more important than our national identity," Bingham said. "We have to be aware of our individual narrative and put that aside during reporting. Step out of your narrative and give voice to others' narratives."

Bingham said she supports the new emphasis on local coverage in major media, because it underscores good journalistic values and encourages "good old basic reporting skills. However, I think something beyond that kind of journalism is required. If you get your nose too close to the grindstone, too local, you can miss the big picture. I think this is the time for grappling with the big picture. This is the time for a supra-national journalism that recognizes our identity as global citizens as much – or more - than our national identity."

To read Bingham's speech, click here. For a tribute to Joe Creason, rural journalist, click here.

Ken Ward Jr. explains how he reports and writes about coal-mine safety

If coal-mine safety is an issue in your area, perhaps the best reporter to learn from is Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, circulation 48,000. His series on safety, focusing on individual fatalities rather than disasters, won a medal in the annual contest of Investigative Reporters and Editors. In an interview with Leann Frola of The Poynter Institute, Ward told how he did the series and offered many tips, including several that apply to media outlets of all sizes, even weekly newspapers and small radio stations.

Reporting: The Mine Safety and Health Administration posts the fatality reports on every death in every mine on its Web site, and Ward examined every report for 10 years -- 1996 to 2005. "I read through all of those three times. One to get a feel, two to look for common trends to investigate further and three to build my own database," which he did by filing Freedom of Information Act requests for "data that was behind the online look-up system. Then I put it on Microsoft Access and played with it for a while. I looked at cases where miners were killed and how often those produced citations -- and if the mine had violated some rule that led to the deaths, what kind of fines were paid. No one had done that before in terms of fatality cases. . . . It's not really heavy lifting computer-assisted reporting. I just used Access and Excel."

Ward also examined lawsuits stemming from fatalities and used West Virginia's interlibrary loan system to get specialized information on a host of coal-mine safety issues. "I've always thought one of the first things editors should do when a new reporter walks into a newsroom is say, "Do you have a library card?"

Interviewing: "We really felt that our paper did not intrude on privacy and felt for what they were going through. My personal policy is I didn't call [families]. They knew how to get in touch with the media, and if they wanted to talk, they knew people would listen. I didn't go out of my way to try to bother them. I let the lawyers of the families know we were interested. Some folks wanted to talk and some didn't. It's kind of a difference between the national media folks who parachute in to West Virginia. It doesn't matter if people trust them, because they're doing one story and moving on. But we live here and work here. ... It's just a matter of listening to what they have to say. Usually the folks that want to talk have something to say, and just listening rather than trying to get them to say something that helps your story really works better."

Writing: "The Gazette's writing coach, Kate Long; my editor, Rob Byers; and I made a deliberate decision to smack people in the teeth with the way these guys die. It's often very gruesome. But we just thought it was important to see how brutal it was. We had pictures of miners and their families so that people would have to see them. I think that that's really, really important." (Read more)

Monday, April 9, 2007

It's local budget time, and that means policy decisions; paying attention?

All over the United States, local governments are drafting their budgets for the coming fiscal year. The budget is the basic policy document for a government, but in many cases the budget decisions are made with little or no local news coverage, even though state laws typically require public hearings on local budgets.

We did a survey of newspapers in the East Kentucky Coalfield and found that the majority of them published only one or two articles about their county’s budget during the budget-adoption period in 2005, and some published no stories at all on the subject. The survey found not one comprehensive story about a county budget and how the policy decisions being made might impact citizens of the county. While the quality of news coverage is not necessarily a function of quantity, and budget situations differ widely, as a whole the survey shows the need for closer news-media attention to budgets. To read about the survey, click here.

Sometimes, that attention needs to be extraordinary, such as when the budget requires major cuts or a tax increase. In Eastern Kentucky's Morgan County, where a payroll tax has been proposed, The Licking Valley Courier took the unusual step of publishing a front-page commentary about the issue, which included an explanation of the payroll tax and an analysis of county services. To read it, click here.

Rural areas may be prime for gangs; activity on the rise in rural Florida

Gang activity in rural Florida is on the rise, and experts say that rural areas of the United States may serve as strategic outposts for urban gangs. Small, local “wannabe” gangs have been in these areas for years, but residents fear escalating violence from the groups because of their contact with larger gangs. Areas such as Gadsden County, on the northern panhandle of the state, have begun to see tags from violent national gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Sur 13 and Mara Salvatrucha, reports John Lantigua of the Palm Beach Post.

Rusty Keeble, of the Orange County Corrections Department and president of the Florida Gang Investigators Association, told Lantigua that rural areas are a prime target for gang recruiters. “They show up in Sleepy Hollow and start talking to kids about the kinds of gangs they see on TV or hear about in rap music,” Keeble told the Post. “Those kids have little or nothing to do, and they get interested real fast.” Rural areas present gangs a new market where they have little or no competition. These places have less sophisticated police forces less able to identify and deal with gang activity. Also, interstate highways are often an important part of drug running and the surrounding areas are largely rural.

The incidents of drug dealing and beatings reported in small towns thus far may seem like minor issues compared the murders and shootings of notorious urban gangs, reports Lantigua. “But gang investigators insist that ‘small potatoes’ can become big trouble rapidly in the world of gangs, teenage testosterone and easily available guns.” (Read more)

Biofuel boom looks likely to raise food prices, and not just corn and meat

The ethanol boom has driven up corn prices, raising the prospect of higher costs for meat and other foods for which corn is a feedstock, but less attention has been focused on a spike in prices for soybean oil, a key ingredient in many foods, including replacements for trans fat, and the source of a major alternative to diesel fuel. Also, "Economists say the diversion of acreage from soybeans to corn is shorting supply and raising prices," reports Alicia Karapetian of MeatingPlace.com, a news service for the red-meat industry.

"The price of soybean oil has shot up more than 50 percent since last fall. That, coupled with a dramatic doubling of corn prices during the same period, has left companies throughout the food chain feeling the pinch," Karapetian writes. "Prices for soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice will go up as we plant more and more acres out of those crops and into corn," Ron Plain, an agricultural-economics professor at the University of Missouri, told Delta Farm Press.

"Soybean oil is used in many cooking oils, including trans-fat-free oils now being used by some of the nation's largest restaurant chains, such as Louisville, Ky.-based KFC," Karapetian writes. Bob Evans Farms Restaurants Purchasing and Commodities Director Sam Cox told Karapetian that the company, which uses soybean oil for cooking and salad dressings, will have to charge customers more:"We won't be able to pass 100 percent of the price on, but we will have to pass some on soon." (Read more)

Biobutanol could be a more efficient, pipeline-friendly ethanol alternative

As criticisms of ethanol increase, two companies plan to start production of biobutanol, a similar fuel with a some advantages. BP and DuPont will aim to commercialize the fuel, but the challenge will be making it profitable. “All of a sudden, everybody hates ethanol. Among the criticisms: Ethanol takes more energy to produce than it yields ... It can't be easily shipped ... It's driving up the price of food ... It's perverse to put food in fuel tanks while people starve,” reports Steve Hargreaves of CNNMoney.com.

Biobutanol can produce more power than corn-based ethanol, reports Hargreaves. Biobutanol is nearly as efficient as gasoline while corn ethanol is only about 70 percent as efficient, according to Reese Tisdale, a project consultant at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Emerging Energy Research. Biobutanol does not absorb water like ethanol does, so rather than being shipped separately, it could be blended with gasoline at the refiner and sent through a pipeline.

“The production of biobutanol is nearly identical to ethanol,” writes Hargreaves. “They both ferment a food crop to yield a fuel. The only difference is the enzyme. And like cellulosic ethanol, which can be made using any plant matter, not just food crops -- finding the right enzyme at the right price is the trick.” The current outlook for biobutanol would not solve the problem of using food for fuel. However, if an inexpensive enzyme can be found for making cellulosic ethanol, it may be possible a similar enzyme could be used to make biobutanol with wood chips or switchgrass. (Read more)

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Virginia closes its gun-permit records; controversy began with a column

"An editorial writer's botched attempt to highlight an open record -- the list of Virginians licensed to carry a concealed handgun -- resulted Friday in the record being closed," reports Laurance Hammack of The Roanoke Times. "Acting on the advice of Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the Virginia State Police said they will no longer release the information under the state's open-records law."

The issue was raised last month when Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal, in a column tied to the national Sunshine Week promotion for open government, encouraged his readers to check a state database of 135,000 concealed-carry permits the newspaper had put on its Web site.

"Gun owners and their supporters were outraged, and the newspaper quickly pulled the database after receiving hundreds of complaints. But the controversy continued," Hammack writes. "With some lawmakers pledging to introduce bills next year to make the list of concealed handgun permit holders private, state Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, decided to ask for guidance from the attorney general," who said state law "limits the use of concealed carry permit information to law enforcement personnel for investigative purposes" but state police have "discretionary authority" to release the list.

Legislation is still possible, Hammack notes. "Nutter said he could envision a solution in which citizens could still look up information on individual gun owners at their local courthouse, while the statewide list compiled by the state could be off-limits to everyone except law enforcement." (Read more)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Most USDA Rural Development money goes to areas not really rural

More than half the $70 billion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "sprawling but little-known Rural Development program" has loaned or granted since 2001 "has gone to metropolitan regions or communities within easy commuting distance of a midsize city, including beach resorts and suburban developments," Gilbert Gaul and Sarah Cohen of The Washington Post report today.

Their object examples are the coastal resort of Provincetown and the island resorts of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, in Massachusetts -- all of which meet the department's definition of "rural." Provincetown (in Chamber of Commerce photo above) got grants and loans to refurbish a city dock and a historic home, and add space to a gallery. A business in the Vineyard got a loan to refinance and expand, and families in Nantucket who are priced out of the rental market by the island's strong tourist trade get housing subsidies.

Such aid was "originally intended for farmland and backwoods areas that were isolated and poor, struggling to keep their heads above water," the Post notes. Its investigation found that "More than three times as much money went to metropolitan areas with populations of 50,000 or more ($30.3 billion) as to poor or shrinking rural counties ($8.6 billion). Recreational or retirement communities alone got $8.8 billion. . . . An Internet provider in Houston got $23 million in loans to wire affluent subdivisions, including one that boasts million-dollar houses and an equestrian center."

Rural Development has more than 40 programs, with varying rules. "In some programs, awards are limited to towns with populations of less than 2,500. In others, it's 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000. In still other cases, the USDA bases its decisions on individual streets or blocks, using census data." J. Gregory Greco, a business specialist in the Rural Development office in Harrisburg, Pa., told the Post, "Nobody understands it. I don't understand it." It's a long story, but worth reading. Click here. For a USDA release on Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns discussing proposed changes in the program, in the Farm Bill, click here.

As Ky. tobacco-settlement fund wins award, N.C. approach questioned

When cigarette firms agreed to pay states $246 billion over 25 years to compensate tobacco-related health costs, the top two tobacco-producing states dedicated half their settlement money to helping their rural and agricultural economies make transitions from tobacco. This week, Kentucky's program won a national award, while North Carolina's faced possible changes from unhappy legislators -- and perhaps the governor.

"More than half the state Senate has endorsed legislation that would abolish the Golden LEAF Foundation, which distributes millions of dollars from the state's settlement with tobacco companies," reported Jerry Allegood of The News & Observer in Raleigh. The bill would create a stronger conduit to get the settlement money into rural areas, somewhat like Kentucky's more farm-oriented program does.

Sen. Clark Jenkins, a Democrat from Edgecombe in the flue-cured tobacco country of eastern North Carolina, "said the legislation was prompted by complaints that Golden LEAF was not doing enough to help counties hurt by the loss of tobacco production," Allegood wrote. "He said many projects were approved in areas, including western counties, that did not rely on tobacco." Burley tobacco is raised in the state's west.

Golden LEAF President Valeria Lee "said the foundation was established to help economically distressed counties, not just those that were tobacco-dependent," Allegood wrote. "Gov. Mike Easley has called on Golden LEAF to be more aggressive in helping rural areas." (Read more) To read a News & Observer editorial opposing the change, click here.

North Carolina spends only the earnings on investment of its settlement money. Kentucky, which ranks second in tobacco production but had many more tobacco farmers, responded to political imperatives and gave the money to a new Agricultural Development Board, which hands out the money as it comes in. This week, the program was named one of the top 50 Innovations in American Government, an awards program of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. For a release by Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, click here.

For a report comparing the Kentucky and North Carolina programs, click here. The Ash Institute chose five programs in North Carolina (more than any other state except the megastate of California), including those that use managed care in Medicaid, protect streams and wetlands, offer two years of college to high-school students and use a self-directed employer tax in a rural county near Raleigh to enhance employees' skills.

Corn boom calls for caution when it comes to land in conservation

With corn planting skyrocketing, on the good prospect of high prices driven by increased ethanol production, The New York Times published a cautionary, "conservative" editorial yesterday.

"If it were just a matter of shifting the balance in already planted acreage — more corn, less wheat — a point of economic equilibrium might be found soon enough," opines the paper, which studies rural issues. "The real trouble comes at the edges," with the possibility that land now in the Conservation Reserve Program will be put back into corn. "Much of it is unsuitable for crops — too hilly, too wet, too valuable as wildlife habitat — but when corn prices are this high, the idea of suitable changes swiftly."

The Agriculture Department has resisted calls from farm groups "to release some of this land from the reserve," but "the pressure to do so will only increase," the editorial says. (Ducks Unlimited liked the USDA decision; for its press release on the subject, via Government Policy Newslinks, click here.)

"Much as we like the idea of ethanol production — and especially the potential of cellulosic ethanol, from sources other than corn — it would be a tragic mistake to jettison two decades of farm-based conservation for short-term profit," the Times opines. "Corn ethanol will replace only a small fraction of the petroleum we use, and if it does so at the cost of a new agricultural land rush, then we will have lost much more in conservation than we gained in energy independence." (Read more)

Lack of rural transport can pose health risks, by delaying treatment

Lack of transportation can pose a health risk for rural residents, who may be delayed in seeking help for their conditions, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the Connecticut Office of Rural Health. At least three local organizations offer low-cost transportation, “but advance scheduling is required and services are not always available when needed,” writes Jim Moore of the Republican-American in Waterbury, Conn. A senior center's rides are limited to seniors and the disabled.

Health care isn’t the only transportation concern for rural residents, reports Moore. Ellen Schroeder, director of the Blanche McCarthy Winsted Senior Center, said medical appointments get priority and someone who needs groceries may have to work around the schedule of the van. A follow-up study is being conducted to address non-emergency transportation needs nationwide. The study should be complete by the end of May and results will help to identify ways transportation services could be combined to be more efficient. It will also help to make the case for more funds for these providers, if needed. (Read more)

Study says rural Iowa hospitals may be unfairly rated low in quality of care

A new study calls into question research that found rural hospitals in Iowa had higher-than-average death rates because they offer a lower quality of care. University of Iowa researchers found that the sickest heart-attack victims stay at rural hospitals because of their immediate need, while healthier victims are transported to larger hospitals. Families also want to keep sicker patients close to home and their social support networks, as well as the elderly and those with complicated health conditions.

“Our study took into consideration that the traditional techniques to measure hospital heart attack care were not properly sensitive to the type of patients admitted to the rural hospitals and did not take into account the important role that physicians play in directing patients from a rural hospital to a more advanced, urban hospital,” said Paul James, M.D., professor at the UI College of Medicine.

James said rating hospitals for quality of care for specific diseases has become more common, partly because of Medicare and Medicaid’s tendency to pay hospitals for performance. “Some agencies judge the quality of a hospital based on mortality rates without understanding the factors that contribute to those rates. Quality indicator ratings are not the be-all and end-all, especially if the analysis does not appropriately measure all factors,” James said. “One needs to take into account many factors such as surrounding community, location and purpose of the hospital.” This study was conducted only in Iowa, but researchers hope to conduct similar studies in other states and nationwide. (Read more)

Topix Web site changes name, opens door to citizen journalists

Topix.net, a major news-search Web site, now allows registered users to contribute news stories, and is looking for "local news, which is usually not covered, or not covered enough," reports Adotas.com.

Reuters reports that Topix CEO Rich Skrenta’s idea was inspired by his wife’s efforts to build support for a mayoral candidate in their hometown of San Carlos, Calif., between San Francisco and San Jose.

Topix will also be changing its web suffix to .com, in preparation for the new feature and due to spam concerns," reports Adotas, an interactive-advertising newsletter. The site is owned by Gannett Co. Inc., McClatchy Newspapers and Tribune Co. (Read more)

J-Lab awards $12,000 grants for projects in Vermont, Pacific Northwest

Two rural projects are among 10 that will get $12,000 each in the third round of New Voices grants from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. The two projects are:

  • Vermont Climate Witness. To create a map-based interactive experience to track how residents see climate change affecting the state's economy, from fall foliage and maple syrup to skiing. Tamarack Productions, a nonprofit environmental awareness organization, will work with the Vermont Natural Resources Council to develop user content and create Google Map mash-ups to help users visualize weather data and real-time weather indicators.
  • Northwest Community Radio Network Collaborative Newscast. To launch an hour-long, weekly newscast culled from the best public affairs programming produced by more than 40, often-isolated community, college and independent radio stations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Seattle-based Reclaim the Media will use the newscast to anchor a new content-sharing network that will expand the pool of regional news and programming for local audiences.

The winners will be eligible for $5,000 follow-up grants next year if they successfully launch and supply matching funding. J-Lab, part of the University of Maryland, has now made New Voices grants to 30 community news start-ups from among 533 applicants since 2005. This year it received 105 proposals. The program is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Read more)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Cut in Medicaid generic drug refund could hurt small, rural pharmacies

Independent pharmacies could be hurt by a federal proposal to cut the reimbursements they receive for providing generic prescription drugs to people on Medicaid. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ new rule would pay pharmacists an average of 36 percent less than what it would cost them to provide the drug, according to a Government Accountability Office study. The new rule would go into effect July 1 and would apply to all pharmacies, but small pharmacies would be hurt most because they don’t have the same sales volume as chain stores and serve more Medicaid patients. Small pharmacies might be forced to stop serving Medicaid patients. About 75 percent of the independent pharmacies in the United States are located in rural areas. The proposal could leave many rural Medicaid patients with fewer places to get prescriptions filled, says a staff-and-wire report in the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y.

Pharmacies now make only 1 to 5 percent profit on drugs under Medicaid, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. Steve Feinstein, co-owner of the Prescription Center of Ossining, said that as an independent pharmacist he feels “there's a concerted effort by our government to really put us out of business… We're seeing reimbursement rates, for example, from (Health Insurance Plan of New York), of 87 cents for a co-pay.” Most pharmacists don't determine the drug prices, which are set by third parties such as pharmacy-benefits managers, said Bob Giaquinto, owner of Rye Beach Pharmacy.

“CMS disputes the GAO's findings that pharmacists would be underpaid,” the story says. “In its response to the report, CMS said its results are unreliable because they are based on confidential data the GAO received from IMS Health, a private company that tracks drug prices, and cannot be verified. Congress mandated the change in reimbursement rates in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act because under the current formula pharmacists are overpaid, the agency said. The change is supposed to save taxpayers $8 billion over the next five years.” (Read more)

Laws drive meth labs from rural America to Mexico, which ships to U.S.

Tighter state regulation of chemicals needed to make methamphetamine has driven meth labs from rural America to Mexico. To meet U.S. demand, Mexican “superlabs” have begun to appear, churning out a more potent and dangerous product than have been made in “mom and pop” labs, reports Howard Berkes of National Public Radio, part of a NPR series on the Mexican meth problem. (Listen to the story)

Starting in 2004, restrictions on chemicals needed for meth, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, common components of cold medicine, have reduced the number of meth-lab busts. They are down 88 percent in Nebraska, 73 percent in Iowa and Kansas, and 55 percent in Missouri. But seizures of meth on the California-Mexico border has risen 40 percent in the last year, and border seizures at El Paso, Tex., have increased an exponential 479 percent since 2002.

Superlabs put out “Ice” or “crystal,” a purer, more addictive form of the drug. One of these labs can make 10 pounds of meth in one batch, enough for 150,000 hits, reports NPR's Carrie Kahn. “Treatment counselors at Ozark Center in Missouri say their meth patients become addicted sooner and longer. The center's flow of meth patients didn't ease up one bit when small local labs began to decline,” reports Berkes. The estimated number of meth users has doubled in the past five years and more of those users have become addicted, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (Listen to the story)

Chemicals needed for meth, such as the decongestant pseudoephedrine, are easy to get in Mexico. “According to the U.S. State Department, Mexico is now the world’s second largest importer of pseudo,” Kahn reports. As recently as 2004, Mexico’s legal pseudoephedrine imports topped 200 tons, nearly three times the amount Mexicans need to control their colds each year. Add to that the pseudoephedrine smuggled into the country, like last year’s seizure of 5.1 million tablets hidden in the shipment of ceiling fans from China, and the country is awash in chemicals.” (Listen to the story)

Clinton, Edwards seek rural vote; he enters meatpacker-union battle

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York "introduced her campaign to rural Iowa Monday, campaigning for the first time with former Gov. Tom Vilsack and promoting her agenda as the same as small-town America's," reported the Des Moines Register. Meanwhile, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is about to start "a campaign swing in which Edwards emphasizes rural issues," reports The Roanoke Times, announcing that the 2004 vice presidential nominee will be in the southwest Virginia city April 19. (Photo from Daily Gate City, Keokuk)

Clinton, speaking at Fort Madison in Iowa's southeast corner, said "We need a new goal of revitalizing the rural economies of America." The trip was the first in a series Clinton plans to make soon "to the four corners of Iowa," Thomas Beaumont wrote, adding that when Vilsack pulled out of the race recently, he "implored his better-known rivals to move beyond the blockbuster campaign rallies that marked the early days of the Iowa campaign and reach into rural Iowa." The state's caucuses are the first vote in the race. (Read more) Robin Delaney, managing editor of The Daily Democrat in Fort Madison, passed on the rural angle and focused on broader issues in her story.

Edwards' Roanoke stop will include a free concert by regional Bluegrass music icon Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Edwards said he would talk about "my ideas on how to build the vitality of regional trade centers by aggressively attacking the problems of rural America," Michael Sluss wrote. (Read more)

Yesterday, Edwards "sent a letter to Smithfield Foods President CEO Larry Pope calling on the company to protect the rights of workers at its Smithfield Packing Co. plant in Tar Heel, N.C., and to stay out of their efforts to form a union," reports Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace.com. (Read more) Smithfield has asked the United Food and Commercial Workers to hold the usual secret-ballot vote for employees on union representation, but the union favors a "card-check" system, in which the company would agree to representation if a majority of employees signed union cards. The union acknowledges that it is trying to promote passage of a card-check law in Congress. (Read more)

Advertising campaign promotes pride in coal, recruits new miners

Consol Energy has launched a $3 million campaign to improve the image of the coal industry, promote its importance and recruit a new generation of miners for the company, formerly known as Consolidation Coal. The ads are running on television stations in Appalachia. One ad “shows miners below providing electricity for everything from trains to street lamps above. It concludes with an American flag made of coal,” reports Frank Langfitt of National Public Radio.

The campaign is also designed to draw workers in by stressing pride in coal mining, because the industry is having difficulty recruiting miners to replace those leaving the work. “We have a Baby Boom demographic problem,” Consol executive Thomas Hoffman told Langfitt. "Over the next five to seven years, about 4,000 of our 7,200 employees are going to elect to to retire."

Coal mining can pay around $60,000 to $100,000 a year with overtime, a good salary, especially in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, but Langfitt points out that young people worry about the danger of mining, and remember fathers being laid off when coal prices fell. Most young people are likely to elect to move out of Appalachia rather than take a job in a mine, Kentucky mine-safety expert Wes Addington told Langfitt, who concluded, “Coal mining is actually much safer today than it was decades ago but is still one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.” (Click here to listen to the report)

Activists question proposed coal-fired power plant in southwest Va.

Environmentalists want a Virginia utility to boycott strip-mined coal or to stop burning fossil fuel altogether. Dominion Virginia Power representatives met with people concerned about plans for a new coal-fired power plant in Virginia City, Va., halfway between Abingdon and the Kentucky border, reports Jeff Lester of the Coalfield Progress in Norton

Activists with Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices argued that coal is an outdated source of power and there is no such thing as clean coal technology, reports Lester. They said the new plant would do nothing to capture carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. One participant called for use of wind power, in which Dominion recently invested, but officials said wind cannot satisfy the state's demand for electricity. Sierra Club field representative Bill McCabe and others urged Dominion to use only coal that is mined underground. Officials said the company had no specific fuel strategy yet, but would pass along the suggestion to their superiors. (Read more)

In another story, Lester reports that Dominion has applied to use circulating fluidized bed technology, a process that uses limestone, low-heat combustion and filtering systems to remove most toxins from emissions into the air. A participant at the meeting questioned whether the plant could meet emission standards are tightened in the future. Dominion representatives said system is flexible, but some regulations might require new equipment. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Lancaster, Pa., paper wins fairness award for coverage of Amish shooting

This year's Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers goes to the Lancaster New Era for a series of stories about the shooting of 10 girls in an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania. For the series, click here.

"The judges praised the staff of the New Era for its sensitivity in respecting the cultural and religious traditions of the Amish community as it wove a compelling narrative about the girls’ lives, police heroism, the personal anguish of the killer and the forgiveness offered by the families of the five girls who died," said a release from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, which administers the award for the Taylor family, former publishers of The Boston Globe. The award includes a $10,000 prize. "The newspaper demonstrated an impressive ability to gain the trust of the people who are part of this tragic story," the judges said. "The stories shed light on worlds usually hidden from public view."

The New Era, circulation 46,000, was the smallest and most rural-oriented newspaper to be a finalist in the competition since the first award was made in 2002. It beat big-time competition: The New York Times and reporter Tim Golden for his stories exposing secrecy about treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, and The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and reporter John Mangels for his account of how new homeland-security rules led to the imprisonment of a respected expert on plagues. Click here to read the release. For the paper's story today on reopening of the Amish school at Nickel Mines, by Brett Lovelace, click here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Weeklies in two small towns cover same issue: centers for troubled people

One reason a rural area can be a nice place to live is a low crime rate. For some, who is and who is not your neighbor can make all the difference, prompting resistance to facilities like prisons and rehabilitation facilities. Two rural communities in western Kentucky and Tennessee, about 125 miles apart, are having similar debates over two Christian-based facilities, one “a rehabilitation center for men with life-controlling problems,” the other a retreat for “aimless and apathetic young men.” Each local weekly newspaper is taking in-depth looks at the issues, amid debates of zoning and preservation of community.

Kentucky's McLean County News, circulation 2,500, is running a three-part series on Harvest House and examining other residential treatment facilities. Part one presented the issue from the side of those proposing the facility. Part two looked at a similar facility in Paducah, hometown of Paxton Media Group LLC, the paper's owner. The proposed home for men recovering from drug and alcohol abuse and other problems has petitioned twice to rezone the former Charles Chips potato-chip factory in the county seat of Calhoun, population 836, last spring and last month. A program called Celebrate Recovery aids recovering individuals by offering free and reduced rent at an apartment building in town. Residents are required to attend two or three meetings a week and go to the church of their choice every Sunday. However, problems have arisen from not being able to control outside influences. The proposed center would not be importing a problem to the small town, since the facility would serve only men from the area, said Eric Girvin, director of Celebrate Recovery. (Read Part 1)

Editor Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., circulation 5,700, reports a louder outcry against Narrow Gate, a retreat designed to turn young men lacking direction in life into disciples of Christ. This paper ran a full-page spread on the topic, presenting the opposition to the facility and the history behind it. The young men of Narrow Gate do not necessarily have any criminal history or drugs problems, founders Bill and Tracy Spencer say, but local residents have become outraged after reading testimonials on the group’s web site from those who faced such problems before entering the program. The Times reports on a series of protest signs that have appeared in the town as well as a suit filed by a resident. The property that the center is situated on is zoned A-1, which does not usually permit full-time religious retreats, but Narrow Gate was grandfathered because it took over Leatherwood Forge, a former retreat center, and their usages were deemed similar. (Read front page) (Continuation, top half of page) (Bottom half of page)

Zoning is pressed as a major point by those who wish to keep these facilities out of their communities, the underlying issue appears to be whom residents don’t want living next door. The chain-owned McLean County News and the independent Hickman County Times (neither of which are online) present readers an opportunity to understand what these centers are and what they aren’t and to consider the full ramifications of their presence in their communities.

Junior Miss pageants still survive, but mainly in smaller, rural towns

Bridget Wos, left, was one of six contestants in the Junior Miss pageant in Colton, Wash., where Jessica Kowal traveled to tell readers of The New York Times how the pageants have reverted to rurality. (Photo by Kirk Mastin for NYT)

"As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Junior Miss has been all but abandoned by city and suburban girls who favor bustier, lustier, Trump-owned contests like Miss USA and Miss Teen USA," Kowal writes. "Once broadcast by NBC and CBS and sponsored by Coca-Cola, Junior Miss counts Diane Sawyer and Debra Messing among its national and state winners, respectively. Yet big sponsors have evaporated, and officials announced that Junior Miss would end in 2005, before state and local volunteers demanded its resurrection."

Fewer than 6,000 high-school juniors are expected to be in the pageants this year, less than half the 12,000 in the 1990s. “Life in general is more shallow, and we’ve been pressured to do the swimsuits and to be the glitz and glamour, We’re not going to do that,” said Becky Jo Peterson, the executive director of America’s Junior Miss, which is based in Mobile, Ala., and requires contestants to take part in a talent competition and a group fitness routine and interpret a famous person's quotation.

In Colton, population 415, "where everyone knows everyone and most students do not put locks on their lockers," contestant Celia Jeanette Becker told Kowal, “We’re more focused on getting along with each other and acting like ourselves, rather than having to glamour up to impress people.” (Read more) The Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported on some of the other Junior Miss pageants along the border of southeastern Washington and northwest Idaho, but not the one for Colton-Uniontown.

Leaking dam one factor in emergency rate hike for Kentucky generator

The leaky dam that impounds the largest man-made lake in the Eastern U.S. ia a factors in an emergency rate increase granted yesterday to East Kentucky Power Cooperative, a power generator whose 16 distribution co-ops serve half a million people in most of the state's counties, reports The Courier-Journal.

"The water level was lowered to relieve stress on the dam, and that is forcing the utility to extend its water-intake pipes for a coal-fired power plant next to the lake. And the plant can no longer rely on relatively inexpensive power during periods of peak demand from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydropower plant at the dam," explains James Bruggers, the Louisville newspaper's environmental writer.

"But those projected costs were just one of several factors cited by the Kentucky Public Service Commission in granting the utility interim rate relief while it weighs an even bigger rate request -- for $43 million in additional revenues," Bruggers writes. "Typical residential customers whose power comes from the Winchester-based nonprofit wholesaler could see their monthly bills increase by about 2 percent, or $1.50, according to figures from East Kentucky. If the larger increase is granted later this year, the bill at a typical home could go up 4 percent to 7 percent, or $3 to $5, the utility said." (Read more)

Ky. council vote for stockyards key turn in farming-vs.-preservation battle

Kentucky is the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River, and its largest stockyard needs to move from its old, decrepit and crowded location in Lexington. It wants to move to an industrial park on the edge of the bucolic village of Midway, halfway to the state capital of Frankfort. The wish has sparked a fight between traditional agricultural interests and those who say a stockyard would be incompatible with the town "better known for antique stores, bistros and nearby horse farms," reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Last night, the Midway City Council voted 4-2 for a change in county zoning law that would allow Bluegrass Stockyards Co., largest east of the Mississippi and third-largest in the nation, to relocate to a site along Interstate 64 after another public hearing. "Common sense prevailed tonight," cattle farmer Donald Mitchell told the Herald-Leader's Greg Kocher. "This was a strong signal of support to maintain Midway as a rural community." The stockyards says it will bring 200 jobs and a $1.3 million annual payroll to Midway, but members of the Midway Preservation Association promised a lawsuit.

"Downtown Midway merchants and nearby residents said the stockyards would bring odor, noise, more truck traffic through town and the threat of additional pollution into the Elkhorn Creek watershed," Kocher reports. The stockyard company says the manure will be contained. (Read more)

Ban on corporate-owned farms in Nebraska is cold, dead and buried

A ban on corporate ownership of farms in Nebraska, which voters added to the state constitution several years ago, is dead. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court today said it would not hear the state’s appeal of a court decision that struck down the ban, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution.

"We are mourning the end of an era today," Nebraska Attorney General John Bruning said in a statement. "We can’t forget – the family farm built this state and made it what it is today." He said family farmers and ranchers in Nebraska remain strong, reports Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network.

"The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation has called for studying possible changes" in the legislation in case it was struck down, but no action has been taken to start a study. "We still believe that the basis of agriculture in Nebraska should be the family operation," Farm Bureau president Keith Olsten told Shinn. "But they should have the ability to be organized in such a way that they can compete against anybody." (Read more)

New Hampshire home owners riled at being taxed for scenic views

In New Hampshire having a home with a nice view will increase your property taxes. This has always been the case, tax assessors say, but due to a new form the additional tax value added to homes because of their scenery has become more obvious. In an attempt to be more transparent about what makes up a property’s tax value, a specific monetary number was listed for view and some are outraged. Homeowners have taken this as a “view tax” and have moved to have it eliminated, with initiatives such as “Axe the View Tax,” signed by 6,000 residents, reports Amy Quinton of National Public Radio.

Critics say there is no set standard on how the determine the value of a view, and assessments can be varied and unexpected because of subjective decisions, reports Quinton. Example: Two homes sit side by side; one’s view value was assessed at $50,000, and the other’s was $0. The view from another home overlooking a community baseball field and its portable toilets, was valued at $50,000. The view tax may not be as much of a problem for homeowners as the fact that property values have skyrocketed in recent years. Property taxes bear most of the revenue burden in the state and New Hampshire legislators do not seem open to eliminating the view assessment. (Listen to the story)

Monday, April 2, 2007

Court ruling ends, at least for now, horse slaughter in the United States

A federal appeals court has blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to charge for horse-meat inspections to circumvent congressional de-funding of such inspections. "Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found the agency did not follow federal procedures for setting up the inspection fee program," Ann Bagel Storck of MeatingPlace, a magazine for the red-meat industry, reported Friday.

The ruling stopped horse slaughter at "the only U.S. plant that had still been slaughtering horses for human consumption overseas," Belgian-owned Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill., Storck reports. "We could produce dog food," General Manager Jim Tucker told her. "But I don't really think there's a market for that."
The ruling means that "200 horses will likely be slaughtered at Canadian facilities," as Cavel "returned six trailers of animals to suppliers in Colorado, Tennessee, Iowa and South Dakota," Storck reports today. "Horse enthusiasts had hoped the animals might be sent to area barns, but that is not likely a viable scenario."

"Animal-rights groups lauded the ruling as another step toward a full-fledged horse slaughter ban in the United States. But Tucker and Cavel International aren't giving up the fight just yet," Storck reported Friday. "I would think there's reason for appeal," Tucker said. "We're talking to lawyers about it." (Read more) For a release from the Humane Society of the United States, click here. Lobbying on the issue is continuing because the congressional funding ban expires in September.

The lack of slaughterhouses may be leading to increased abandonment of horses, The Associated Press reports in a story from Kentucky. "Some animal-rights groups contend that few horses are truly abandoned, and they deny such instances are due to restrictions on slaughter," Jeffrey McMurray writes. "Some auction managers in Kentucky say there is a surplus of horses and a shortage of buyers - causing prices to drop - and some suspect the closing of the slaughterhouses is a factor. But proponents of a national slaughter ban, such as Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., blame over-breeding for any surplus." (Read more)

Oil and gas drilling and service crews face safety problems, death

We hear much about coal-mine deaths, but in the West oil and gas drilling has its own share of safety problems. Between 2000 and 2006 at least 89 people in the industry died on the job in the Interior West, reports Ray Ring of High Country News. Ring reports, by state, a list of known incidents and the circumstances behind them, including fire, explosions, collapses and falls. They estimate the list of deaths is most likely incomplete due to loopholes in requirements to report fatalities.

Among those who died on the job were Kory Dawson of Green Oil & Field Service Inc., who was “struck, pinned to the ground and crushed by crank arm of oil-pumping rig while his crew tried to repair a part on the rig. Victim died at the scene, but the company reported it to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration a week later.” Jose Ramon Hidalgo Gomez at Triple P Oilfield Services died when he was “struck as he opened a valve on a capped well. The well’s pressure — 300 pounds per square inch — vented too quickly, spinning the pipe into his head, breaking his hard hat. OSHA found unsafe company practices and inadequate training.” (Read more)

Thirsty corn makes ethanol an unwelcome neighbor in drier regions

With ethanol demand driving demand and prices for corn, some rural people fear they will find themselves with cash-filled pockets and empty water wells. Corn requires more water to grow than most crops, requiring irrigation in much of the Great Plains. The Kansas Geological Survey says some areas of the state have as little as 25 years of irrigation water left in underground aquifers. Kansas has eight ethanol plants, and 22 more have been proposed, reports Maria Sudekum Fisher of The Associated Press.

Although ethanol can bring jobs and money into rural towns of the Corn Belt, not all welcome it, reports Fisher. A group of residents in the tiny town of Wright, Kan., population 400, filed a lawsuit over a new ethanol plant and lost. Lawmakers have considered paying farmers not to irrigate their crops. “Kansas Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky, a fan of ethanol plants, says the state has to use its water for something, and ethanol is a rare opportunity, especially for rural Kansas,” Fisher writes. “The marketplace, Polansky said, would determine ‘where the most economic value can be derived from water.’”

“In Kansas, where the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is more than a memory, the Ogallala Aquifer has shown signs of overuse in some sections for years, and corn doesn’t grow much without irrigation, water — and who gets to use it — is a big deal,” writes Fisher. “Some rivers, streams and reservoirs across the state have been at record lows for years. Since 1975, the Arkansas River at Dodge City, just west of Wright, has had more days of no stream flow than days of measurable flow, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.” Half the ethanol made in Kansas comes from sorghum, which requires less water. (Read more)

Virginia publication to explain farm noise and smells to new residents

In Virginia a new publication this fall will seek to inform new rural residents what living in the country is really like and dispel any "Green Acres" illusions. The booklet from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service and the Virginia Farm Bureau will educate newcomers about the sounds, sights and smells that they will encounter living near farms, and explain what goes to support a working farm and some of the laws and regulation behind it, reports Christina Rogers of The Roanoke Times.

The project was prompted partly by complaints to farm extension agents, reports Rogers. “For home buyers seeking to escape the commotion of city life, the countryside may offer up some surprises of its own -- try tractors on rural roads, farm machinery churning in the wee hours of the morning and the stench of manure wafting from newly fertilized fields. In fact, for those expecting wide open spaces and a quieter lifestyle, the reality of rural life can be somewhat jarring.” In Virginia the suburbs are increasingly expanding into agricultural areas, but the state's Right to Farm Act protects farmers against nuisance complaints.

Two eastern Virginia counties and some other rural areas already have such publications, reports Rogers. “One rural county in Michigan even included a scratch-and-sniff panel in its 2003 brochure that gave readers a whiff of a manure-like odor.” 50,000 copies of the new publication will be distributed to local governments, farm groups and real estate agents. However, some wonder if real estate agents will actually want to pass out a publication that could be a deterrent to buyers. (Read more)

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Timber thefts increasing in Appalachia and the Mid-Atlantic states

This month in Letcher County, Kentucky, on the Virginia border, "one of the rare criminal cases against a logger in Eastern Kentucky" will test whether "timber theft be successfully prosecuted," reports Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The case was brought by Nina and Dean Cornett, left, on their tract that was illegally cut. (Herald-Leader photo by Mark Cornelison)

Timber theft is booming "in the poor but hardwood-rich Appalachian states" and the Mid-Atlantic states, Musgrave reports. A 2003 study by Virginia Tech "showed that landowners lose more than $4 million to dodgy loggers" in Appalachia, but it could be much more, based on estimates from South Carolina, which is considered a model for enforcement. "South Carolina forestry experts estimate that about $10 million is lost in that state alone. Regional experts estimate the amount lost nationally is more than $160 million," Musgrave reports. "But because timber theft is rarely reported, those numbers are likely low."

Musgrave writes that timber theft is growing because it's hard to catch and prosecute, and police have higher priorities. "Without the threat of possible jail time or a big money judgment against them, timber thieves operate unchecked, police and experts say. A single hardwood tree can be worth up to $1,000. That's too tempting for some loggers." For a sidebar story giving tips to forest landowners, click here.

The Cornetts returned to Letcher County from Alaska four years ago to find that "100 trees worth several thousand dollars had been stolen from a family tract," the Lexington paper reports. The county attorney said it was a civil matter, but the sheriff made a case, to be tried April 16. "The Cornetts have spent more than $50,000 pursing criminal and civil cases against the loggers," Musgrave reports. "They may never get that money back or see a conviction. But it's still a good investment, they say." Nina Cornett told her, "For many people here, the only real wealth they have is their land. The mining companies own the mineral rights, and the only thing people own is what's on the surface -- the timber." (Read more)

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the University of Kentucky and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Last revised April 14, 2007, 12:30 p.m. EST