The Rural Blog Archive: December 2006

Issues, trends, events, ideas and journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006

A year later, Sago Mine families say safety problems still need solving

A year ago Wednesday, 12 West Virginia coal miners died in one of the nation's biggest mine disasters in recent years. Families of the victims told Tara Tuckwiller of the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail that "serious, deep-seated problems with mine safety . . . are being brushed aside by state investigators’ theories about lightning igniting the explosion." The problems include availability of rescue teams, emergency air supplies and what the families say is a code of secrecy in the largely non-union coal industry.

"Nobody alerted rescue crews for more than an hour and a half after the explosion. It took rescuers another two and a half hours to get there. Officials wouldn’t let them into the mine for another six and a half hours," Tuckwiller writes, "saying it was too dangerous. Federal mine safety regulators now say coal companies must report accidents to emergency authorities within 15 minutes. ... But rescue teams still have to travel to a disaster. Congress ordered companies to provide more rescue teams, but federal regulators don’t have to implement that until the end of next year."

"In other countries, underground emergency shelters keep miners alive until rescuers can reach them. But Congress is waiting on a federal study before it will decide whether to force mines to buy them. It, too, isn’t due until the end of next year," Tuckwiller continues. "Rules now require more emergency oxygen, but miners do not have it. Coal companies say they can’t get the additional air packs right now, because two suppliers are backordered. The Sunday Gazette-Mail reported last week that a third supplier has thousands of air packs sitting in a warehouse." The packs are bulkier than those of the top two suppliers.

Families say an underlying problem in making coal mines safe is the industry's code of secrecy. "They said coal miners feel afraid to criticize any company for fear they will be blackballed and never get another mining job anywhere. They said inspector friends have told them they’ve gotten their wrists slapped by their bosses for doing their jobs, citing mines’ safety violations in certain instances. Families said they have tried to explain this to lawmakers, but lawmakers won’t bring it up publicly either." (Read more)

C-J brings more focus to debate over mountaintop-removal coal mining

The debate over mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia often devolves into a shouting contest, and news coverage of the complex subject often focuses on the debate and not the underlying facts. The Courier-Journal's Forum section goes beyond the usual today, with a 1,950-word article by Stan Macdonald, the Louisville newspaper's retired special-projects editor and investigative reporter. Newspapers that want to explain the details of the issue could get The C-J's permission to reprint the article. Photo shows the Rev. John Rausch, a foe of mountaintop removal, at a reclaimed mine.

One linchpin for the story is a federal study that didn't lead to more restrictions on mountaintop removal but pointed out the importance of ephemeral streams -- those than come and go, depending on rainfall and runoff. Coal executives such as Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, call those "dry ditches" that can eventually be replicated by required reclamation, but scientists disagree.

"Denis Newbold of the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania and J. Bruce Wallace at the University of Georgia say headwaters are vital partly because they collect organic matter from their intimate relationship to surrounding forests and transport it downstream, where it serves as food for fish and other aquatic life," Macdonald writes."These streams, which supply over 50 percent of the water in rivers, also help remove pollutants, including excess amounts of nitrogen, that otherwise would reach the rivers downstream, Newbold said." He told Macdonald, ""If you destroy two or three headwater streams, nobody will know the difference," he said. "But when you start destroying large numbers of them, then the impacts will be felt downstream."

Another study, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003, found "worrisome levels of selenium in fish in West Virginia streams below valley fills," which are made of material blasted from strip-mine sites and placed in the heads of hollows. "Coal mining can release selenium, which is naturally occurring, and excessive amounts are toxic to fish and fish-eating birds. Prompted by the discovery in West Virginia, Kentucky is just starting a study of selenium in its eastern streams," Macdonald writes.

Macdonald offers much more data, such as: The Army Corps of Engineers has permitted more than 180 valley fills in southeastern Kentucky in the last five years. "If all these fills are constructed, corps records show that almost 50 miles of streams would be permanently buried by leftover mining debris, and about 30 more miles would be subject to what the corps considers to be temporary disruptions," such as "in-stream sediment ponds that are supposed to be removed during the required reclamation." (Read more)

Mountain Eagle publishers celebrating 50th anniversary of their purchase

On New Year's Day, Tom and Pat Gish will have published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 50 years. They "have survived floods, death threats, arson and theft. They've covered poverty, corruption and mining disasters. And when they weren't hunched over typewriters and printing presses, they fought for the First Amendment," reports Samira Jafari of The Associated Press.

"These people have demonstrated more tenacity than almost any crusading rural newspaper in the country," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Jafari. "Fifty years is a long time to ride a white horse." Photo shows the Gishes at the 2004 announcement that the Institute was establishing the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. They were the first recipients. The next award will be given in April at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America in Lexington, Ky. Click here for an article adapted from a tribute to the Gishes when they got the first award.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the weekly Eagle published "scores of stories that attracted national attention to Appalachia, serving as an impetus for the War on Poverty and the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act. They covered the lack of health care in the hills, the dilapidated schools, jobs lost to the mechanization of the coal industry and dangerous mining conditions," Jafari writes. "And in an unusual move for most rural weeklies, they followed stories that took them beyond the county line. Cross cited The Mountain Eagle's stories that held the Tennessee Valley Authority -- established as a federal natural-resource agency -- responsible for encouraging large-scale strip mining without adequate reclamation."

Jafari notes that the Gishes have won several national journalism awards. Mimi Pickering, an Appalshop filmmaker who is doing a documentary about the Gishes, told the AP reporter, "I think they've set the standard for what high-quality journalism should be, whether it's in a small town or big city." (Read more)

Friday, Dec. 29, 2006

Interstate system is showing its age at 50, and needs money for a fixup

The interstate highway system "is imperiled by crumbling concrete, decaying steel, insufficient lanes and overstuffed traffic – and federal and state gas tax receipts can’t keep up with the cost of the needed improvements," reported Matt Milner, a fellow in the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. News Service Elite Reporting Program.

"Millions of more cars and far heavier freight-hauling trucks are pounding away at the aging system than engineers anticipated," Milner wrote, and the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that "more than one-fourth of the interstate highways, bridges and beltways in America are badly in need of immediate repair, upgrade or expansion." The agency's Federal Highway Administration says commercial trucks cause 40 percent of the damage, but the American Trucking Associations "argue that interstate highways need to be rebuilt and repaved to carry more volume." The Bush administration opposes higher fuel taxes, but supports letting states lease "high-volume roads to private companies that then charge tolls to pay for improvements and also make a profit," as Indiana, Illinois, Virginia and Texas have done.

"Tom Lewis, author of a book on how the interstate system transformed everyday life in America, said too many transportation experts and motorists took the highway network for granted as the nation’s population shifted from rural to urban regions," Milner reported. “Now we’ve got this wonderful legacy that’s going to hell,” Lewis told Milner. “We’re celebrating a skeleton on this 50th anniversary year.” (Read more)

Milner also did a story on how the interstate system shaped the nation, helping towns along the new roads and hurting those that weren't. "Hundreds of small, rural communities that popped up across America in the 19th century when the railroads ran through them but then found themselves far off the interstate path," he wrote. "For a public addicted to motor travel, the socioeconomic consequence has meant urban sprawl, overcrowded highways, road rage, lost productivity and wasted fuel." (Read more)

Database spurs stories on subsidies as debate begins on new Farm Bill

With the new farm-subsidy database from the Environmental Working Group, more detailed information available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and debate over the new Farm Bill ratcheting up, now is the best time ever to do stories about agricultural subsidies in your area -- and how they are viewed by various interests and those who represent you in Congress.

One recent example: NebraskaStatePaper.com did a few keystrokes on the EWG Web site and found that the 3rd Congressional District of Nebraska "was first among the nation’s congressional districts in farm subsidy dollars for 2005 with a staggering $991.5 million." That line was followed by a link to the EWG page giving the individual subsidy recipients in Nebraska in 2005, ranked by amount.

The site gives data going back to 1995, and the State Paper mined that, too, reporting that : "35 percent of all farmers and ranchers do not collect government subsidy payments in Nebraska," that 10 percent of the farmers collected 58 percent of the subsidies in the last 11 years, and "Recipients in the top 10 percent averaged $45,117 in annual payments between 1995 and 2005. The bottom 80 percent of the recipients saw only $2,066 on average per year." (Read more)

The story also added new state-by-state data from USDA on organic farming and picked up a story from the Grand Island Independent about Nebraska leading the nation in red-meat production.

The Washington Post has done the best job we've seen lately at examining farm subsidies and the Farm Bill debate. For the latest Post story, with links to other articles, click here. (Also see Dec. 24 blog item.) For the Society of Environmental Journalists' take on the issue, click here. CattleNetwork.com reports, "The Bush administration says major reform is needed for government farm subsidies, setting the stage for confrontation with those seeking to prolong the status quo . . . There is just too much international pressure to reform, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say, to leave in place subsidies that may violate World Trade Organization rules." (Read more)

Dutch bank, rebuffed in Farm Credit bid two years ago, sets stake in U.S.

Rabobank Group, the Dutch bank that tried to buy part of the government-backed Farm Credit System two years ago, "has quietly built a force of 30 loan officers in Nebraska and Iowa," reports Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald. Its corporate lenders seek out large agribusinesses [and] its California bank is equipping some Midlands farmsteads with electronic banking devices."

The company is also shopping for "an attractive farm-oriented bank ... in the agriculture-rich region that stretches from Texas to the Dakotas," Jordon writes. "Every banker wants to do business with Midwestern farmers," Cor Broekhuyse, the bank's head of U.S. operations, told Jordon. "They're very good operators. They have nice balance sheets. In the long term, we believe in agriculture in the Midwest."

In 2004 Rabobank tried to buy Omaha-based Farm Credit Services of America, which serves Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota and Iowa. The bid "collapsed amid opposition within the Farm Credit System that caused delays and ruined the sale's chances," the World-Herald reports. (Read more)

Md. newspaper war: Establishment vs. the opinionated vs. the Post

There's a newspaper war "in the unlikeliest of places: rural St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland," where the Potomac and Patuxent rivers empty into Chesapeake Bay (see Dec. 27 map below), reports Megan Greenwell of The Washington Post. The County Times, "a softer, kinder paper, has just joined an occasionally salacious local tabloid," St. Mary's Today, and the Enterprise, a biweekly published by the Washington Post Co. The Post also circulates its Southern Maryland Extra in the county of 98,000.

The new paper is owned by James McKay, 87, "the patriarch of one of St. Mary's most prominent political families, [who] got sick of being mercilessly mocked by the tabloid," owned by Kenneth Rossignol. "Rossignol had no experience in journalism when he started the paper in 1989, but he takes accountability and entertainment as equally important tenets of what a newspaper should be," Greenwell writes. "He said he sees no need for a division between news and opinion in the pages of his tabloid, a philosophy that feeds a constant stream of attacks on local political figures . . . " Zach Messitte, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, told Greenwell: "There are things that are said in its pages that don't seem to serve any civic purpose except to be mean. And sometimes that has a chilling effect on civic life."

Rossignol took a jab at the Post Co., telling Greenwell he hopes his competition is successful. "It's independent and locally owned, and we'd love some real competition on the juicy stories," he said. The new paper "mails 10,000 free copies of the newspaper to subscribers every week" and hopes to have "12,000 paying customers for a twice-weekly edition in the next two years," Greenwell reports.

Meanwhile, St. Mary's County is certainly getting covered. "As many as five reporters have been known to attend the same routine county commission meeting," Greenwell writes. "The length of the sheriff's press contact list rivals that of Montgomery County, which is 10 times the county's size." (Read more)

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2006

Medicare drug program is Wal-Marting rural pharmacies, CBS says

"What Wal-Mart once did to rural downtowns, Medicare is doing to the rural drug store." That was how CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrews summed up his report last night on how the new Medicare Part D program for prescription drugs is hurting the small, independent pharmacies prevalent in rural areas -- a story to which The Rural Blog has been calling attention for months.

"My life's earnings have gone right out the window," said Columbus, Miss., pharmacist Don Walden, the focus of Andrews' report. "Walden says the problem is that seniors get Medicare coverage through private insurance companies, which in turn, have lowered the fees and reimbursements they pay him." (Photo of Walden in his Medical Arts Pharmacy from CBSNews.com.)

Walden is resisting chain pharmacies' offers to buy his store, but Andrews lists several that have gone out of business: "Gone this year is the old Taylor Drug Store in tiny Granville, Ohio. There is no more Centennial Merit Drugs in Monte Vista, Colo. When Randy Spainhour closed down Penslow's pharmacy in Holly Ridge, N.C., he mailed his license back blaming, the 'low reimbursement of Medicare'."

The Rural Blog reported Aug. 24 that a survey of more than 500 community pharmacists revealed that nearly nine out of 10 (89 percent) are getting less money and a third are considering shutting down since Part D started last Jan. 1. "The survey found that more than half (55 percent) of respondents said they have had to obtain outside loans or financing to supplement their pharmacy’s cash flow because of slow reimbursement by health care plans," according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.

A May 8 item in The Rural Blog referenced a study that shows rural residents are paying more for drugs than urbanites under Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. The study by the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis of the Rural Policy Research Institute reported that average monthly premiums for Medicare Advantage prescription drug plans vary from $6 in urban New Hampshire to $53 in rural Hawaii. Click here for the archived item and click here for the study.

The Economist takes a look at rural economic development

The Economist, the British magazine that likes to write about solutions as well as problems, tackled the subject of economic vitality in American small towns in its Dec. 19 edition. As many such pieces do, it painted the problems with too broad a brush, but offered a good sample of some new approaches, the obstacles that stand in their way and organizations that try to help rural places implement solutions.

“There's usually a lot of skepticism that another approach can really make a difference,” said Doug Loescher, director of National Trust Main Street Centre, which tries to preserve historic buildings through state and local branches. “Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, says it is expensive to provide small business development services in rural America, even if there is a good return on investment. Rather appealingly, he proposes that the federal government shave 5 percent off its enormous farm-subsidy program — which goes mostly to mega-farms — and give it to small businesses.” Hassebrook told The Economist that his prescription would “quadruple what the federal government spends on entrepreneurial rural development.” Hassebrook also suggests philanthropy. “Rural communities are not going to be rescued by large corporations setting up large factories,” he says, but could get help from “local boys who have made good in Chicago or Omaha.”

The magazine concludes: “Two promising themes for revival emerge. First, art. There is money in painting and plays. . . . The town of Nelsonville, in southern Ohio, has become an 'artists' Mecca' in recent years, according to Will Lambe, a research associate at the University of North Carolina, who is working on a book about small-town economic development.” The article also cites the "Swamp Gravy" storytelling festival in Colquitt, Ga., and the bed-and-breakfast entrepreneurship of Salado, Tex. “A second theme is alternative energy. Across the emptying Great Plains, towns are praying that sun, wind and plant matter will stop them from withering away.” Lambe told The Economist (which doesn't use bylines), “Everybody I talk to is trying to get on this bandwagon of biodiesel and ethanol and wind.” (Read more)

New rural sales pitch: Put your office outside D.C. nuclear blast zone

Some federal agencies are moving their offices into rural Virginia at least in part because of the threat of a nuclear attack on Washington by terrorists. Winchester, Va., 75 miles west of the capital, is advertising itself as just outside the "blast zone" of a nuclear blast but is "still close enough so that employees can get to the District relatively easily when they need to," The Washington Post reports. (Post map by Laris Karklis)

Winchester is on Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley, the favorite spot for relocations. "Federal officials argue that the valley is not only more secure, it's preferable for planning and budget reasons. The cost of land and labor are lower in the valley, and with workers moving into the fringes of Northern Virginia and even West Virginia in search of affordable homes, moving operations to a place such as Winchester could mean shorter commutes for many. That, in turn, could mean lower turnover and a more productive workforce," Alec MacGillis writes. "Leading the shift is the FBI, which chose Winchester over other towns of similar distance from the District as the site for a big centralized archive that by 2009 will employ at least 1,200 people, many of them now working in Washington and Baltimore."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is moving 700 employees to Winchester. "Local officials say this would include positions moved from Mount Weather, the government's hilltop emergency center on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties, so that that facility could be devoted to national security instead of natural disasters. Real estate brokers working in Winchester say that FEMA is looking for additional space for its accounting department and that the Department of Homeland Security is looking for space around Harrisonburg, farther south along I-81. Activity is also picking up north along the corridor. Outside Martinsburg, W.Va., the Coast Guard is building a new National Maritime Center, a 200-person office now in Arlington. (Read more)

Eagle coming off endangered list; polar bear may go on threatened list

"Seven years after the U.S. government moved to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list, the Bush administration intends to complete the step by February, prodded by a frustrated libertarian property owner in Minnesota," writes Peter Slevin of the Chicago bureau of The Washington Post. "By February 16, the bald eagle will be delisted," said Marshall Jones, deputy director of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"The delisting, supported by mainstream environmental groups, would represent a formal declaration that the eagle population has sufficiently rebounded, increasing more than 15-fold since its 1963 nadir to more than 7,000 nesting pairs," Slevin writes. As few as 417 nesting pairs were found in 1963. (Photo by Paul Davis of the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Mo., via The Associated Press)

The government had to act by Feb. 16, or explain why it was not acting, under an order from a federal judge in a lawsuit filed by Minnesota property owner Edmund Contoski, who wanted to develop property near an eagle nest. But the Fish & Wildlife Service is drafting new rules to protect eagles.

"What we're trying to work toward is ensuring, if the bald eagle is taken off the list, people won't see that much of a change," Chris Tollefson, chief spokesman for the service, told the Post, which reported, "Rules are being polished, for example, to define activities permitted near eagle habitats and what can be done near nests that eagles are not using. A debate has been underway over what it means to "disturb" an eagle, a crucial but imprecise word in the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act." (Read more)

Meanwhile, the Post's Juliet Eilperin reports, "The Bush administration has decided to propose listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, putting the U.S. government on record as saying that global warming could drive one of the world's most recognizable animals out of existence."

(Associated Press photo by Jonathan Hayward)

Wisconsin farms and rural life changing; academy and paper take a look

Dairy farms in Wisconsin are getting bigger to complete with those in the West. "Organic farming also continues to grow, carving out an increasingly important niche. Small towns, too, are angling to restore Main Street shopping districts, lure entrepreneurs and create jobs. And alternative energy, such as ethanol and biomass, is beginning to make inroads in the state."

Those lines sum up a four-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about rural life in Wisconsin, which calls itself "America's Dairyland" and is 30 percent rural. "For the past year, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters has pulled together farmers, business executives, academics and politicians to examine the future of farming and rural life in the state. The group is due to issue a report before the middle of next year. Depending on the recommendations and the political reaction, the report could either provide a blueprint to the future or gather dust. But for Wisconsin's farms and rural communities, the future is now," Bill Glauber wrote in the opening installment of the series.

Tracy Porter, a designer of home décor, fashion and jewelry in Princeton, Wis., population 1,500, told the paper, "People ask me, 'How do you run a national company from a small town?' I tell them, 'How do you run a national company from San Francisco? How do you afford the costs?'" The paper added, "And here's the other thing about running a rural business: You can live upstairs. That's what a lot of the entrepreneurs do in Princeton." (Read more)

Schools and health insurance were the two leading concerns voiced by citizens at public forums over six months. For Glauber's story on that, click here. To read his story on the growth of organic farming in Wisconsin, click here. For Raquel Rutledge's story on the ethanol boom in the state, click here. UPDATE: To grasp the competition Wisconsin faces from the West, read this story from the Fresno Bee about Tulare County supervisors approving a dairy with 12,000 cows!

Idaho county produces guidebook to rural living for newcomers

"To help newcomers adjust to the unique nature of rural living, Madison County Commissioners voted last week to pay for a new book, one that will help Utahans, Californians and others adjust to the slow country pace of southeastern Idaho," The Associated Press reports from The Rexburg Standard-Journal.

"Newcomers will receive a copy of the code when they arrive at the County Planning and Zoning Office," AP reports. "It isn't an ordinance, it's a guideline," commission Chairman Roger Muir told the newspaper. "Commissioner Robert Hansen said a similar booklet helped lifelong community members and newcomers adjust to growth in Madison County, Montana," AP reports. (Read more)

"The commissioners said they noticed some frustration from new residents over some of the hardships of rural life familiar to farmers and lifelong rural residents," AP reports. "The code is necessary to inform transplants from metropolitan areas that living in the country requires an acceptance of the lack of amenities like paved roads, quick responses from fire departments and cell phone service. The guide also warns newcomers that there are some necessary nuisances of rural living, such as farmers baling through the night during harvest season and burning their fields. The booklet also provides details on roads, utilities, property issues, emergency services, the impact of nature and weather and agricultural and public land issues."

Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

When ignorance begets fear, rural news media need to shed light

When Rep.-elect Keith Elliston, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, said he would use a Quran for his ceremonial oath, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., wrote constituents, "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America."

Goode has Muslim constituents, and they want an apology. “This is a country of immigrants,” Sarwat Ata, chairman of the Danville Masjid Islamic Center, told Bernard Baker of the Danville Register & Bee. "Ata said he voted for Goode in the November election," Barker reports. "Ata said Goode should sit down with local Muslims and learn more about them if he won’t apologize. Ata said Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding. They want to be free and share many of the values Goode supports, such as the Ten Commandments, he said." Goode not only refused to apologize, but repeated his words for local TV.

Baker quoted a Danville resident calling Goode's letter an embarassment, but Brian Todd of CNN reports that in Goode's home town of Rocky Mount, "Nearly everyone we spoke with stands by Virgil Goode. Does that make them racist? Not neccesarily, but their comments reflect the gray areas of race, religion and demographics in small-town America." Todd followed that with interviews of the misinformed and the uninformed at a Rocky Mount restaurant. "I'm not against the Muslim faith," a man said, "but I'm against him forcing his rules, his opinion, upon us." A woman said everyone who takes the congressional oath should use the King James Version of the Bible. You have to wonder if those folks know that last winter, a Muslim cleric from Roanoke, next to Goode's district, gave the invocation in the state House. (View story)

In Danville, The Register & Bee published an editorial that made more sense. The newspaper called Goode's remarks "mean-spirited . . . because in the 5th District, Muslims are an easy group for him to pick on. Their numbers are small and their influence is nil." Then the paper explained why rural Americans need to learn more about Muslims: "The only way to defeat radical Islam is to recognize that it’s not the same thing as the mainstream branches of that faith. Some of the people Goode would bar from this country are part of the force we need to defeat radical Islam. Insulting Muslims won’t hurt Goode in the 5th District, but it makes it harder for his views on immigration to be taken seriously in a big, complex, diverse and dangerous world. Pandering to hometown fears and unfounded worries by attacking a defenseless local minority is certainly no way to make this country safer." (Read more) For the Bee's news story, click here.

We'd like to see some other papers in Goode's largely rural district follow the 21,000-circulation Bee's lead. They could take some cues from The Washington Post, which verbally horse-whipped Goode for what it called "colossally stupid . . . bigotry," and concluded: "Mr. Goode was evidently napping in class the day they taught the traditional American values of tolerance, diversity and religious freedom. This country's history is rife with instances of uncivil, hateful and violent behavior toward newcomers, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian or plenty of others whose ethnicities did not jibe with some pinched view of what it means to be American. Mr. Goode's dimwitted outburst of nativism is nothing new. No, the real worry for the nation is that the rest of the world might take Mr. Goode seriously, interpreting his biased remarks about Muslims as proof that America really has embarked on a civilizational war against Islam. With 535 members, you'd think that Congress would welcome the presence of a single Muslim representative. Whether it can afford a lawmaker of Mr. Goode's caliber is another question." To read the entire editorial, click here. For a Post story today giving background on Goode, immigration and his district, click here.

Post takes close look at farm subsidies, to which many propose changes

Most American farmers don't get subsidies form the federal government, but most of the big ones do, and with the Farm Bill up for a rewrite by a newly Democratic Congress, Dan Morgan, Sarah Cohen and Gilbert Gaul of The Washington Post have taken a timely and detailed look at the farm-subsidy system.

They point to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's calls for cuts as an example of how the debate has changed. "I didn't get much of a reaction from farmers, because deep down most of them know the system needs to be changed," said Vilsack, who is the only major Democrat who has declared he's running for president.

"Politicians such as Vilsack have joined a host of interest groups from across the political spectrum that are pressing for changes in government assistance to agriculture," the Post reports. "They want the money moved from large farmers to conservation, nutrition, rural development and energy research. Vilsack, for example, favors programs that improve environmental practices on farms."

But proponents of changes -- which include Bread for the World, the free-market Club for Growth, the National Corn Growers Association and fruit and vegetable growers who want their first subsidies -- " will be going up against one of Washington's most effective lobbies as Congress takes up a new farm bill next year," the Post reports. "The farm bloc is an efficient, tightknit club of farmers, rural banks, insurance companies, real-estate operators and tractor dealers," led by such groups as the 5.2-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cotton Council and the USA Rice Federation.

Farm subsidies "are heavily tilted to large commercial farmers growing a few row crops in a handful of states," the Post notes. "But the money also is widely distributed to a middle group of more than 130,000 farms, each receiving $25,000 to $100,000. The federal dollars ripple through local economies, adding to purchasing power at stores and businesses -- and creating a political constituency for the programs."

Large farners "often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out," Gaul writes in a story explaining how subsidies have turned farms into big businesses. The Post found that in the latest year available, 2004, at least 1,900 corporations and other entities "collected $312 million more than they would have if their farms were held to strict limits" on payments, circumvented by "complex legal structures, such as dividing a single farm into many paper corporations." Click here for that story, which explains how efforts to limit and reform subsidies failed. For a story by Gaul on a mid-size Nebraska farmer who says he depends on subsidies, click here.

USDA releases more data on subsidy payments to individual farmers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is revealing for the first time "just who has received billions of dollars in farm subsidy payments," reported Libby Quaid of The Associated Press. "But people will have to wait to look up their neighbors' payments, because the 64 million records are too unwieldy for the department's Web site. Instead, the department is providing the information to several news organizations and the Environmental Working Group, a public-interest group that tracks payments and intends to post the data online for Internet users." (See Dec. 18 blog item on annual update by EWG.)

"It should provide a lot more information than we've been able to get, particularly for farmers who have been receiving money through co-ops," EWG President Ken Cook told AP. "This will be the first chance to see how much they've gotten." He said the records are especially relevant as Congress prepares to pass a new farm bill next year. "I expect it will once again highlight the inequities in the program," Cook said. "The big guys get most of the money. I don't think anything will change with respect to that. We just may be able to quantify it a little bit better."

Farm subsidies are public records, but the government has often limited the information to the names of corporations, cooperatives and other groups. The 2002 farm bill directed USDA's Farm Service Agency to record those entities' ownership and membership interests and their payments. (Read more)

Journalist-turned-entrepreneur: Internet is new farm-to-market road

Roy Bragg of the San Antonio Express-News writes from Snyder, Texas: "Bill Robertson sees a future for this remote West Texas oil-patch town that involves a global conference center, a vibrant tourist economy and a work force of big-city expatriates who'd rather telecommute from cattle ranches than waste time in urban HOV lanes." (For the uninitiated, that acronym means high-occupancy vehicles.)

Robertson, a former television journalist and a native of the town of 11,000, plans to open its first Internet cafe next year. "This is the technology that will take Snyder into the 21st century and beyond, but still have a town where visitors will feel like they've stepped into a small town of the past. And this is where local people will see it," Robertson told the Express-News.

Just as Texas' farm-to-market road system "revolutionized life for thousands of country towns, the Internet is bringing about a fundamental change in small-town Texas, yanking isolated communities out of the sticks and putting them on the grid," Bragg writes. "With the ability to move terabytes of information in seconds, stretches of empty highway become insignificant and small businesses that sit hundreds of miles from customers can compete with larger competitors in larger cities."

Examples in Snyder: A novelist who does research more quickly, and thus produces more books; and a caterer who "makes a living selling seasonings over the Internet. His factory is near Fort Worth [230 miles to the east]. His distribution center is here. And he has customers on three continents." Greg Clary of the Texas Center for Rural Entrepreneurship told Bragg, "It's allowed them to do business in a completely different way. They're not tied to their local economy anymore. . . . You still find rural towns that are dying, but a lot of them aren't willing to do that. They're trying to build on their assets and figure out how to change and grow and be progressive without losing the quality of life that's valuable to them." (Read more)

Self-rescuers and other reforms prompted by mine disasters slow to come

Safety reforms enacted in the wake of last year's major coal-mine disasters "will be months — or years — in actually being enforced," Ken Ward Jr. reports in the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W.Va.

Ward's leading example: "Thousands of West Virginia coal miners are still waiting for the additional emergency breathing devices promised by Gov. Joe Manchin and the coal industry." The two leading makers of the "self-contained self-rescuers" have them on backorder, but Draeger, a German company has thousands of similiar, slightly bulkier devices in a warehouse at the Pittsburgh airport, and "We don't have a backlog at all," the president of the firm's North American operations told Ward last month.

After the Sago Mine diaster killed 12 miners last January, "State and federal lawmakers ordered mining companies to provide additional emergency breathing devices to underground coal miners," Ward notes. "But now, regulators are accepting purchase orders as proof of compliance. No one has set firm dates for mine operators to actually give miners the additional SCSRs."

Ward notes other delays: Plans for better communications systems are not due to West Virginia officials until Aug. 31, and purchase orders will be accepted; a study on rescue shelters is not due until December 2007; and the Mine Safety and Health Administration has until the end of next year to write regulations requiring additional mine rescue teams. (Read more)

Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006

Miss USA's hometown editor reflects on how his weekly did the story

"World media uproar . . . " How many times have you seen those words above a local story in a weekly newspaper? Greg Wells used them in a secondary headline this week in The Times Journal of Russell Springs, Ky. (population 3,000), hometown of Miss USA Tara Conner, who got a reprieve from pageant owner Donald Trump after expecting to be fired for misbehavior in New York City.

Wells told that story, and didn't sugarcoat it, relaying most of the reports about Conner's scandalous behavior, including a local connection: "Since winning the national pageant, Conner has broken off her engagement to Russell County's Adam Mann and has been linked to club owners, disk jockeys and television personalities in the New York club scene." The Times Journal's cutline for the photo above in a local bank read, "Life in Russell County halted momentarily as news networks carried live the news conference at which Donald Trump agreed to keep Tara Conner as Miss USA, following a week of allegations about her New York lifestyle."

In an article written at the request of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Wells offered this advice to rural editors in similar situations: "Tell the story, tell the feelings of the people involved if you can, and let others tell all the not-so-nice details about the allegations. But take those and add them to the story. Remember, at the end of the day, or in our case the end of the week, you’ll have to live in your town. Be fair, honest, up front and nice. That makes life better all around, and it’s good for business."

Wells expressed disdain for many out-of-town journalists who called him: "They all wanted the same thing, my sources. They are more than my sources, though. These are my people. They are the people that look to us for the news, and the community that looks to this paper for support and comfort when troubling things come along. I can categorize these callers in two groups: Those who were amazed that the first words out of my mouth weren’t “Howdy” or “Hey y’all” and those who acted like trained, experienced professionals. It was so easy to hear the contempt in some of the voices at having to call the lowly country folks, and, heaven forbid, a weekly newspaper editor." The paper's circulation is 5,000.

Wells added, "During all of this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say, “Name your price” when talking about a photo. It was a little surreal. I didn’t name a price. I didn’t have to wrestle with that ethical problem, since I don’t think the kind of photos they wanted exist." His story in the newspaper said they wanted photos of "anything of her less than fully clothed or with a beer at a party."

Amid the uproar, Wells had another big story to chase, the quick recovery of a drowning victim in Russell County's signature feature, Lake Cumberland, with special, rarely used sonar equipment from Idaho. "I’d also been trying to chase a story on a murder from last Wednesday," he wrote. "So now there were three major stories working, and there was only one of me, and the calls were still coming in." (Read more)

The sonar story, big news in a county that has many drownings, shared the top of the Times Journal's front page with the headline “Tara: 'I will not let you down'” and the above photo. A secondary photo showed a Lexington, Ky., television reporter doing a stand-up. The story quoted Conner's parents, who had rebuffed national media. The headline above the story's jump read, "TARA: She has a second chance, the praise of her father for facing the music, and media from all over the world buzzing." For a PDF of the newspaper's front page, click here. For the jump page, click here.

Rural schools use retired part-time teachers, resist consolidation

Rural elementary schools in Oklahoma "are able to keep fantastic educators in the classrooms, even if it is just a few days a week," through part-time employment of retired teachers, reports Josh Newton of the Talequah Daily Press. “Little schools like this can benefit from people that are available from retirement,” a Skelly School superintendent told Newton. “Two or three little schools can share.”

Newton puts the topic in context: "Other rural schools around the nation aren’t faring as well as Skelly is. Once part of thousands of smaller schools, many are dipping so low in student numbers, they are being forced to close the doors, sending students and parents to neighboring school districts." Newton cites the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools, the main goal of which is to “oppose legislation mandating consolidation or combining of administrative units based on number of students, number of districts, and/or size (square miles) of a district.”

Newton cites research by Dr. Wenfan Yan of Indiana University of Pennsylvania that argues against consolidation of rural schools: “Rural countywide school districts had much larger total district expenditures than the other types of districts [in Pennsylvania],” Yan wrote. “If ‘economies of scale’ exist, the expenditures per-pupil for rural countywide school districts should be less than those from the other types of non-countywide school districts. The results of this study, however, did not find any statistical differences ... in their per-pupil expenditures. To merge small rural school districts in Pennsylvania on the basis of cost efficiency, therefore, is not supported by this study.” (Read more)

Georgia school district agrees to drop textbook stickers about evolution

A suburban Atlanta school board agreed Tuesday to stop using a disclaimer that calls evolution "a theory, not a fact." To settle a lawsuit from parents, the Cobb County schools "agreed not to take out or edit materials on evolution in textbooks and to pay $166,659 toward attorney fees in the case," report Diane Stepp and Kristina Torres of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (AJC photo)

The stickers were a compromise with parents who opposed the teaching of evolution, but other parents "argued that the sticker promoted religion in classrooms and violated the separation of church and state," notes the AJC.The school board chairwoman, Teresa Plenge, said yesterday that the stickers are constitutional but the board felt "the need to put this divisive issue behind us." A federal judge ordered the stickers removed almost two years ago, and the board complied but appealed. This May, the appeals court said "declined to rule on the constitutionality of the disclaimers because the records of the proceedings sent to it were incomplete," the Journal-Constitution says. The court told the judge to retry the case or add to the evidence with new proceedings. Faced with more legal action, the board capitulated. (Read more)

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which joined in the case when it was sent back to the lower court, praised the decision. “Students should be taught sound science, and the curriculum should not be altered at the behest of aggressive religious groups,” Lynn said in a release.

Texas jury rejects lawsuit against largest wind farm; appeal planned

"A company that built the world's largest wind farm has won a lawsuit filed by neighboring landowners who said the wind turbines were too loud and devalued their property," the Houston Chronicle reports.

The jury ruled for FPL Energy, a subsidiary of Florida Power & Light, after a two-week trial. Trey Cox of Dallas, an attorney for FPL, "said he also believes that jurors considered the benefits and promise of wind energy to the state and nation. The plaintiffs said they will appeal," the Chronicle reports.

The farm is in Taylor County, of which Abilene is the county seat. Similar lawsuits have been filed against wind farms in Jack and Cooke counties in North Texas, northeast of Abilene.

"Plaintiffs attorney Steve Thompson said the verdict was the first of its kind in Texas," reports Jerry Daniel Reed of the Abilene Reporter-News -- one of the few papers that tells not only who wrote the story, but who edited it and who wrote the headline. (Read more)

Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2006

Ask your member of Congress: Will you endorse C-SPAN cameras?

C-SPAN has asked House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi to let the network "bring its own cameras into the chamber, under its own direction," the Los Angeles Times notes in an editorial. "That way, viewers would get more of the flavor of the House and the personality of its members. They would be more likely to see such excitement as members' reactions to provocative remarks, committee chairmen holding court in the back of the chamber and last-minute cajoling to win badly needed votes."

Citing Pelosi's pledge to make the House more open, C-SPAN Chief Executive Brian Lamb "also wants immediate access to voting records. A giant electronic display board inside the chamber provides a real-time view of how individual members vote (and change their votes), but C-SPAN currently can show nothing but the total for each party until long after the tallying has ceased. It's not unusual for the majority party's leadership to extend the voting period while they woo holdouts, but unlike people watching from the gallery, C-SPAN viewers can't tell who those holdouts might be," the Times notes. (Read more)

The Times says the House should "bring some reality to its TV," but says Pelosi is likely to reject Lamb's request. We say: Don't give up so fast. The more pressure Pelosi gets on this issue, the more difficult it will be for her to reject it. The pressure that counts for her is pressure from members; the pressure that counts for members is pressure from constituents. Local news media need to tell those constituents about the issue, and put their local members of Congress on the spot about it -- especially Pelosi's fellow Democrats. Ask them to write Pelosi a letter saying they endorse C-SPAN's request.

We'd like to see some editorials making these points: C-SPAN is a key device for Americans to keep up with and understand what's going on in Congress, but its coverage of House and Senate proceedings is not really journalism because it's not independent. Why should TV coverage of Congress be restricted in a way that coverage of state legislatures and city councils is not? Until those who run the chambers relinquish control of the cameras, C-SPAN viewers will always wonder what they're not seeing. Pelosi should realize that making the cameras independent would not only be consistent with her pledge for a more open House, but build trust with the public -- which would be good for Congress and for our republic. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Marijuana-decriminalization group says pot is nation's top crop by far

Marijuana is now the most valuable cash crop in the United States, exceeding the value of corn and wheat combined, says the Marijuana Policy Project, which wants to eliminate criminal penalties for pot use.

The report by Jon Gettman of Lovettsville, Va., who has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Mason University and is an economic-development consultant, is at www.drugscience.org/bcr/index.html. Based on an estimated average value of $1,606 per pound and estimates that only 8 percent of the outdoor crop and 2 percent of the indoor crop were seized, the report values this year's crop at $35.8 billion. The U.S. corn crop was worth $23.3 billion and wheat was worth $7.45 billion, the report says.

The study concluded that the top marijuana producing states are California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Hawaii, and Washington (which was No. 2 in indoor production, behind California). The top pot-exporting states, in ratio of production to use, were Hawaii, Tennessee and Kentucky.

In Kentucky, the estimated marijuana crop was worth $4.47 billion, more than 10 times the value of the state's hay or tobacco crops, which ranked second and third. Marijuana also ranked first in the top tobacco state, North Carolina, at $672 million compared to $540 million for the legal leaf. Pot was estimated to be the top cash crop in 10 other states: Alaska, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee ($4.79 billion) and West Virginia. In 18 other states, it was estimated to be among the top three cash crops.

Monday, Dec. 18, 2006

Retiring judges have looser tongues, can make news and commentary

On the bench, judges are obliged to suppress their personal beliefs and apply the laws passed by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive. Especially at the trial-court level, judges are supposed to keep mum about the policy decisions made by lawmakers. But when judges leave the bench, they become free to make their views known, so interviewing them can make news or good commentary.

Nick Cenegy, a Knight Fellow of Community Journalism at the University of Alabama’s master’s degree program at The Anniston Star, interviewed retiring Circuit Judge Sam Monk and found that he no longer supported the death penalty, though in 28 years on the bench "He has sentenced six people to death and has sent at least as many to be locked away for a lifetime," Cenegy wrote in a Sunday column.

Cenegy continued: "Monk, in part, is guided by his religion. Any New Testament Christian should have a few fundamental issues with a society murdering one of its own, he says. . . . Still, more than 70 percent of Alabamians strongly support the death penalty. Perhaps they find no conflict with their religion — or choose to ignore it. Through their comments, Monk and others [appellate judges quoted in the column] reveal that they are tired of carrying the cross for an imperfect system of revenge by death. Even if it’s the small cross: the syringe" of lethal injection.

Cenegy makes plainer his own opposition to capital punishment in a riveting piece about the judge's last case, a double murder in which Monk gave a death sentence. Click here to read it. Click here to read the column, and here for a transcript of Cenegy's interview with Monk. Access to the Star's site requires a subscription, but a free, one-day pass is available.

Group updates its database of farm subsidies, which rose 68% in 2005

The Environmental Working Group has completed the annual update of its Farm Subsidy Database, a useful tool for rural journalists. It includes more information than before on individual owners whose identities may have been hidden by complex ownership structures. The database is searchable by name, city and ZIP code of residence, county of the farm, and gives histories of payments.

For example, the available data include the amount of payments to farms in a given county last year, with the top recipients in any of the three most recent years or since 1995; and the same type of data by the mailing addresses of the recipients. Data are also available by congressional district.

EWG, which wants Congress to base crop subsidies on conservation practices rather than prices, said in a release that farm subsidies rose 68 percent last year to a four-year high of $21 billion, from $12.5 billion in 2004. The main causes of the big increase were hurricanes and low commodity prices. The figures do not include payments for land conservation and compensation to tobacco growers for the end of their quotas and price supports. Those payments (itemized in the database only by number of recipients, not amounts) brought the total to $24.3 billion.

Payments are projected to fall sharply next year -- mainly for corn, which reached an all-time high last year but is now being boosted by ethanol demand -- "but also for soybeans and other crops, highlighting the relative importance and advantage of multi-year, contract-based payments to farmers and taxpayers," EWG President Cook wrote. "They are predictable and far less trade-distorting than price-triggered subsidies," and do more for rural communities, he said.

"Subsidies, which encourage lower prices, benefit commodity buyers such as Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Ltd. and ConAgra Foods Inc.," Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg News reports. (Read more) In any given year, 90 percent of the payments in any given year go to growers of five crops -- rice, wheat, corn, cotton and soybeans, EWG says. Ten percent of the recipients collected 73 percent of all subsidies in the last 11 years, totaling $120.5 billion.

Cook noted that some conservation programs use multi-year contracts: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the new Conservation Security Program. "If refined and expanded in the upcoming Farm Bill, these instruments and others like them could provide billions more in support to farmers and ranchers, in effect bridging a significant part of the gap between the current fixed direct payments and costly, unpredictable, price-triggered payments," Cook wrote " A conservation framework has the additional substantive and political advantage of being available to all farmers and ranchers."

New form of agri-tourism: City slickers pay to do farm work!

"For many of today's tourists, getting to do farm chores is a vacation opportunity they'll gladly pay to enjoy," says a story from Lee Agri-Media, part of the Lee Enterprises newspaper chain.

"The sophisticated and city-weary travelers have seen the bright lights and the tinsel and are looking for things that are real," Tom Benson, owner of Benson Communications Inc. of Minneapolis, said at the recent AgriCultural Heritage Tourism Conference in Sioux Falls, S.D.. "Travelers may be drawn to rural locations because they're concerned about safety or want to spend quality time together, Benson said. Many people had grandparents or great-grandparents who farmed and are wide open to the idea of a rural vacation. With today's larger farm operations and fewer people in agriculture, people are losing touch with agriculture. Many kids think their food originates from a fast-food restaurant or a grocery store, he said."

At the Adams Family Farm in Vermont, adults pay $12.95 per day ($10.95 per child) to gather eggs, bottle-feed baby calves and milk a goat. It's not all work; there are bonfires, barn dances, star-gazing, hayrides and outings to see wildlife.

Billie Jo Waara, director of the South Dakota Office of Tourism, told the conference that research and partnerships are key elements for success in agri-tourism. (Read more)

FCC ownership rules have big implications for rural areas, center says

The Federal Communications Commission should prevent common ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations, and further limit the number of stations that a company can own, to protect the interests of the 60 million rural Americans, the vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies told the commission at its hearing on the issue last week.

"Those who suggest that the marketplace will make media accountable in rural areas have a difficult -- and I would say impossible -- burden of proof," said Tim Marema, vice president of the center, based in Whitesburg, Ky. "Media consolidation and relaxation of public service rules have created additional hardships for rural areas that were already hard hit."

Marema cited the well-known example of Minot, N.D., where warnings could not be issued for a chemical spill because all the town's radio stations were automated or remote-controlled because of chain ownership. He said coal-mine safety "has escaped metro-media attention," the major exception being the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia.

"When workers die because of federal safety violations and that isn't news, that in itself is a story," Marema said, noting that The Courier-Journal recently closed its Eastern Kentucky bureau and now covers the industry from Louisville. "In some rural areas, there is no metro-media news coverage to improve. Rural America is falling off the metro-media map. I fear that does not bode well for other commercially marginal markets and issues." For more from the Center for Rural Strategies, click here.

Sinclair settles with fired bureau chief who questioned show on Kerry

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns many stations in rural America, and Jonathan Lieberman, the former chief of its former Washington bureau, "have decided to end a two-year legal battle over his dismissal during the 2004 presidential election campaign," The Baltimore Sun reports.

The Maryland-based company fied Leiberman in October 2004 "after he publicly criticized Sinclair's decision to pre-empt normal programming at 40 of the company's stations to air what he called 'an extremely one-sided and negative' documentary about Democratic nominee John Kerry," writes the Sun's Nick Madigan. "Sinclair later sued Leiberman, saying he divulged confidential information about the company in an interview" with the Sun, and Lieberman counter-sued, saying his dismissal was "retaliation, pure and simple, for his public stand that Sinclair's plans were inconsistent with journalistic ethics."

Both suits have been dropped. "Under the terms of the settlement, no one involved in the case may speak publicly about it," Madigan writes. "Sinclair had prevailed in an earlier case before the Maryland Department of Labor, which found that Leiberman had violated provisions of his contract that prohibited speaking to the press without permission about internal company matters."

Ohio boosts records law, except on gun permits; S.D. paper prints them

"A bill that mandates public-records training for elected officials and stiffens penalties for withholding records has cleared the Ohio Legislature," The Associated Press reports. "The bill also would increase the likelihood that those denied records will get their attorney's fees paid."

The bill, supported by newspapers in Ohio, "does contain one key concession," AP reports. Journalists will no longer be able to copy data about holders of permits to carry concealed deadly weapons. They will still be able to look at the lists.

The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D., recently published the names of local people who had permits to carry concealed deadly weapons. Metro Editor Jeff Martin defended that by quoting his old boss, Mike Gartner of the Ames Daily Tribune in Iowa, who said this when the Tribune printed the names of gun-permit holders: "We print the names of people in the news because that's our business. Our pact with readers is that we'll tell them what is going on in Ames and Story County. That means we'll tell them not only what's happening at the city council and at Iowa State University, but also who is arrested, who is having babies, who is selling his house (and for how much), who has died (and of what cause). People expect that from us. If we leave out just one name, just one fact, we have failed in our mission and damaged our credibility."

"That's why we printed those gun permits in Iowa," Martin wrote. "It's the kind of journalism that goes to the heart of the First Amendment. It was then, and it is now." (Read more)

Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

Western states with much federal land want funds from it for schools

Thirteen Western states that hold 93 percent of the nation’s federally owned land are asking the government to compensate them for the lack of property-tax revenues from the land. “A coalition of those states, led by lawmakers from Utah and Nevada, has been formed to lobby for an annual $4 billion in lost local and state property-tax revenues on the federal land, nearly $1.9 billion of which would have gone to pay for public education,” writes Jessica Tonn of Education Week. According to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, nearly 52 percent of the land in the 13 states is owned by the government, compared to only 4 percent of the land in all other states.

“To compound the problem, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that Western states have higher pupil-teacher ratios and higher enrollment projection through 2013 than do their Eastern counterparts,” writes Tonn. “The result, officials from those states say, is that although the Western states have property-tax rates comparable to those in the East and devote comparable percentages of their budgets to education, they are experiencing lower growth in per-pupil spending” than elsewhere.

School districts can receive funds for public land in their borders, but only from those acquired after 1938, reports Tonn. Most of the land in the West was federal long before then, so California and Colorado are the only states that receive any money from the program that helps school districts. A bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, suggested selling off 5 percent of the federal land in each state and passing control to local governments that could sell or lease it to fund education. No hearings have been held on the bill, but Bishop says he will bring the issue up again. (Read more)

National-forest school district subsidies are not renewed by Congress

Rural schools in 42 states may face budget cuts after Congress did not reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Act, which subsidizes about 4,400 small school districts around national forests. “Congress first approved it in 2000 to make up for declining revenue in timber-producing areas and to guarantee districts a steady income. The law was up for renewal this year, but lawmakers left Washington on Saturday without approving it, leaving many districts scrambling to replace funding that, in a few cases, amounts to more than half of their budgets,” writes Greg Toppo of USA Today.

“School advocates say it would cost about $430 million to extend the law for one year. Unlike many funding bills, the forest schools act is not part of a continuing resolution and would likely have to be approved on its own,” writes Toppo. “Rural superintendents this month are planning a lobbying blitz as members of Congress head home to their districts. It's expected to extend into January and February, when lawmakers return to Washington for the start of the 110th Congress.” (Read more)

Update, Dec. 20: The lack of reauthorization "could mean layoffs of school staff, program reductions and potholes that go unfilled in some areas," writes Alisha Wyman of The Union Democrat in Tuolumne County, Calif. "Historically, national forests have given counties 25 percent of the revenues from timber sales to make up for property tax losses on the tax-exempt federal land. But when logging declined 80 percent in Northern California, Washington and Oregon due to environmental pressures, the funding dropped precipitously" and the act was passed "to make up for the drop." (Read more)

Miners' widows angry at W.Va. governor and aide with industry history

“Frustrated by a cursory briefing and a confusing report, families of the miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster are focusing their anger on Gov. Joe Manchin and his pick to run the state mine safety office, longtime Consol Energy official Ron Wooten,” writes Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette. During a private briefing for the families, Wooten responded to their questions by simply instructing them to read the report. In response to a question about what would happen if there were another lightning storm nearby, he answered, “I wouldn’t want to be in there.”

“During the private meeting, Manchin stepped in and told Wooten he had expected a more detailed briefing, similar to one given a month earlier to the widows of two miners killed in the Aracoma Mine fire. Administration officials promised the families a better briefing, and then canceled an afternoon news conference, but not before copies of the report leaked out and were splashed all over the news.”

“Our governor has to be totally embarrassed for appointing him to this position,” Pam Campbell, the sister-in-law of Sago miner Marty Bennett told the Gazette. “We’ve got miners in coal mines that our director of mine safety and health would not want to be in. They have no plan implemented about what they’re going to do if there is a lightning storm.” (Read more) For more background, see another story on the findings and the families’ reactions, which appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 12 edition of The Rural Blog.

In southeastern Kentucky, dead miners’ families seek medical benefits

In southeastern Kentucky, widows of coal miners picketed yesterday to have their health insurance extended. “The widows of three Harlan County men who have died in separate coal mining accidents in the last two years picketed a Cloverlick mine Thursday that is being operated by the owner of the Holmes Mill mine where five men died in May,” writes Deanna Lee-Sherman of the Harlan Daily Enterprise.

“Melissa Lee and three other Darby families have requested that Ralph Napier, the owner of the Darby mine and Orion Resources Inc., provide an 18-month extension of their medical coverage through COBRA, which requires most employers with group health plans to offer employees the option of continuing their coverage if it would otherwise cease due to a termination, layoff or another change in employment status,” writes Sherman. Their health insurance will expire at the end of this year. (Read more)

"I think this is kind of a first at a coal mine where there's no labor agreement in effect," Johnson, a former safety representative for the United Mine Workers, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “There are no union mines in Eastern Kentucky these days, but this year, especially in contrast with last year, there are plenty of widows. Of 46 coal miners killed nationwide this year, 16 have died in Kentucky, federal statistics show,” writes Lee Mueller of the Herald-Leader. (Read more)

Study finds that wind power can be practical, with reserve planning

A new Minnesota study found that utilities can integrate up to 25 percent wind power into their systems at a cost of less than half a cent per kilowatt-hour of generation. The Midwest Wind Integration Study “is the latest in a series examining how utilities can manage ever-larger amounts of wind power on their systems, and it comes at a time of strong growth for the wind industry. Even though wind provides less than one percent of total U.S. electricity generation today, with 2,700 megawatts expected to be completed in 2006, wind will be the second-largest source of new power generation (in both new capacity installed and new electricity produced) for the second year in a row,” said a news release from the American Wind Energy Association.

The study said that “energy from wind generating facilities must be taken 'as delivered,' which necessitates the use of other controllable resources to keep the demand and supply of electric energy in balance.” It said that utilities must plan ahead to predict what wind conditions will be like and adjust the output from their other resources accordingly. To read the report, click here.

Texas journalists propose Free Flow of Information Act as shield law

Journalists in Texas are pushing for a shield law to protect journalists and their sources. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia already have such a law. All other states except Wyoming have case law that provides a shield, but the strength of the shield varies widely. Texas journalists have "virtually have no protection at all right now, and the general public is being harmed," said media attorney Laura Lee Prather, testifying for statewide newspaper and broadcast associations.

“Under a proposal the news groups call the "Free Flow of Information Act," government agencies generally could not force a journalist to disclose legally obtained information from a confidential or non-confidential source,” reports The Associated Press. “The Texas House Judiciary Committee is studying a possible shield law before the 2007 legislative session convenes in January. News industry groups fell short in previous efforts to pass one in Texas.”

AP added, “Wichita County District Attorney Barry Macha said his opposition to a shield law centers on grand juries, where testimony must be kept secret by law. "It would destroy the grand jury process in our state," said Macha, who with other prosecutors also opposed a shield law in the 2005 Legislature. It is illegal to leak grand jury testimony. However, if someone does and the journalist is shielded from revealing the source, there would be no way to find out who violated the law, Macha said.” (Read more)

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006

Rural editors sometimes need to look well beyond the county line

Decades ago, many rural editors opined on national and international events. Some, like William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas, became nationally known for their editorials. But with the advent of national TV networks and national circulation of major newspapers, rural and other community papers tended to their local-news franchises and observed the maxim "The world ends at the county line." Larry Timbs of Winthrop University even wrote a good book about community journalism with that title.

But the world does not end at the county line -- especially 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 from time to time, we like to see rural editors have their say about bigger events. It brings the events home to their readers -- many of whom don't read a daily newspaper and get little substance from the sound bites of radio and television. But those readers are just as much citizens of the United States as readers of metropolitan papers, and they discuss the same big issues with each other, so the local editor ought to join that conversation and bring knowledge to it. We believe that if you pay money for a newspaper, you deserve to know what the editor thinks.

One rural editor who often goes past the county line is Ben Chandler of The Woodford Sun in Versailles, Ky. This week, in his column (which is not online), he started with the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and took readers to current conflicts, calling the war in Iraq "one of the greatest mistakes ever made by a U.S. president." He said President Bush, "a decent, patriotic man," took a "cowboy approach, and his foreign-policy team either didn't or couldn't give him the correct advice -- or he wouldn't take it."

But Chandler rejected suggestions for talks with Iraq's neighbors-- in vivid, personal terms. "It makes me sick to see pictures of the beanpole from Syria hugging and kissing the little squirt from Iran," he wrote. Suggesting a withdrawal of troops to Kuwait and Kurdistan, he concluded, "I say get our people out of harm's way without the humiliating 'hat in hand' approach to Syria and Iran. When we regain our military strength, spending on our own self-interest rather than throwing billions to the winds trying to fashion a democracy where there has never been one, then we will be able to talk to those skunks as equals."

As you may know, Ben Chandler is the father of the Democratic congressman of the same name, and son of the late A.B. "Happy" Chandler, who was governor twice, senator, and baseball commissioner. But it doesn't take a political pedigree to write about national and international issues and help rural readers think about them. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Innovative small dailies thrive while larger newspapers decline

Constant reports that the daily newspaper is in trouble may largely take into account only the larger metropolitan newspapers, and smaller dailies may be doing better than those reports imply. The Inland Press Association found that the profit margins of smaller newspapers averaged above 20 percent, some above 30 percent, and many have had consecutive years of circulation growth. "While large papers account for a majority of the total circulation in the U.S., they account for a fraction of the newspaper titles serving American readers. Said another way, 99 percent of American newspapers have circulations under 250,000, and 86 percent have circulations less than 50,000," reports Editor and Publisher.

Roger Plothow writes, "The top 10 newspapers in the country account for 20 percent of the total circulation. So, in a way, it's understandable why they get all the attention. But ignoring the other 1,420 daily newspapers means ignoring successful new models for serious journalism that readers are willing to pay for. ... Beyond the metrics, it's easy to find small daily newspapers doing innovative, cutting-edge work in print and online. We're finding new revenue sources and new ways to attract readers, and we're experimenting with different business models with our long-term future in mind. Because many of us are owned by smaller companies, we are often more agile and able to try (and, when necessary, quickly discard) new things. And perhaps because we're staffed by younger folks, we tend not to be overly invested in defending traditions." (Read more)

"Attend a gathering of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association and you'll hear an exchange of ideas rivaling -- dare I say, exceeding -- those I hear at Nexpo," writes Plothow. "Upbeat publishers, editors, and ad directors talking about ways to combat Craigslist and Monster are inspirational. They expect to develop paid online models and to reach young readers. But our industry's trade journals obsess over the metros' devotion to the kind of national and world news readers no longer get from newspapers."

Democratic Congress plans to turn rural America into ethanol cash cow

Rural America is fertile with renewable energy sources and the incoming chairman of a key congressional committee said his party is ready to put that potential into commercial production next year.

"Rural America is rich with potential energy sources of biomass, of wind power, of biogas, ethanol and biodiesel. Nudging those into commercial production will be a top goal of the Democrat-led Congress," writes Tom Webb of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said Wednesday at the Midwest Ag Energy Network conference that he aims to get commercial plants built to make cellulosic ethanol from plant residue.

Peterson wants to see plants opening "all over the U.S., not just in the Midwest," and sees many communities developing their own small cellulosic ethanol plants. "This would revolutionize rural America," Peterson said. "And it will work, if we get this done right." Incoming Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called promoting energy independence her "No. 1 priority," and incoming Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said renewable energy could preserve "the viability of our rural areas," reports Webb.

With the nation's energy demand growing, farmers can cash in by jumping on the ethanol train. "Jackie Gleason, rural business administrator at the Department of Agriculture, noted that the United States will spend $300 billion this year on importing oil — exceeding the entire U.S. farm output for the year. If farmers can successfully capture even 20 percent of that oil revenue, he said, it will yield revenue 'greater than the total of net farm income' for the nation," writes Webb. (Read more)

Immigration agents arrest illegals at processing plants in six states

Federal agents arrested 1,282 meat processing plant workers Tuesday, nearly all with immigration violations, at plants owned by Swift & Co. in Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Iowa.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided a company billed "as an $8 billion business and the world's second-largest meat processing company," reports Kim Nguyen of The Associated Press. The plants raided Tuesday represent "all of Swift's domestic beef processing capacity and 77 percent of its pork processing capacity. . . . Since 1997, Swift has used a government pilot program to check Social Security numbers. Company officials have said one shortcoming may be the program's inability to detect when two people are using the same number." (Read more)

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the raids an example of "striking a blow against illegal immigration," reports Robert Pore of The Grand Island Independent in Grand Island, Neb., where 261 people were arrested. "This investigation has uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration," Chertoff said. ICE's investigation revealed that genuine identity documents traveled across the country to help illegals gain employment. Click here for this story and a list of arrests per plant.

An editorial in today's St. Paul Pioneer Press said the raids are "symbolic of everything that is bad about our wreckage of an immigration system. . . . The U.S. has not developed a uniform, secure identifying document. So we have a brisk trade in fake documents of all sorts. We have a workers' ID system that is riddled with so many loopholes that employers who want to do the right thing have a hard time separating the legal from the illegal. We even have civil rights laws that inhibit employers from checking too closely."

Meanwhile, union representatives for 261 workers arrested in Greeley, Colo., "went to court Wednesday to try to force the federal government to release the identities and whereabouts of more than employees who were arrested Tuesday," writes Maria St. Louis-Sanchez of The Greeley Tribune. Union attorney John Bowen said workers are not allowed to communicate with anyone, including attorneys. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the plant to fill job openings, which come with $1,500 signing bonuses. (Read more)

Abandoned-mine cleanup program renewed, improved, expanded

A coal industry package approved by Congress provides 14 more years of a tax that funds abandoned mine cleanups, protects the fund from raids by deficit-cutting budgeteers, and allows for some of the money to fund health care for retired coal miners.

"In West Virginia, the legislation would double the state’s current mine cleanup funding to about $40 million next year, according to U.S. Office of Surface Mining estimates. Over the next dozen years, the changes promise to give the state average annual mine cleanup budgets of more than $70 million," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, said the extension and expansion of the program will help 52,000 retired miners.

One significant change to the program is taking annual distributions of cleanup money “off budget,” which protects funds from being spent in other ways by budget appropriators. The bill approved Saturday requires annual allocations in specific amounts. "For states like West Virginia, this change will be a huge benefit, providing major increases in annual funding as a $1.1 billion pot of state coal taxes are distributed in equal amounts over seven years," writes Ward.

"The bill eliminates a broad 'general welfare' provision that many states had used to divert AML money to reclamation and water cleanups that did not threaten public health or property. But the bill also allows such lower-priority environmental projects to continue if they are adjacent to public health and property cleanups." (Read more)

Small-town Kentucky mayor ends 32-year run with one last drug round-up

A drug raid Wednesday in Beattyville, Ky., provided the last hurrah for the town's mayor, who had become a regional hero for fighting drugs that have become a scourge in his part of Appalachia.

Charles Beach III was defeated in November after 32 years in the post, apparently for reasons other than his anti-drug mission. "He and others in town went to war against drugs as the misery, crime and death of substance abuse mounted, spreading into Beach's circle of friends and acquaintances," writes Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Ultimately, the city's efforts figured in the creation of Operation UNITE, an anti-drug task force that has arrested more than 1,600 accused drug dealers in 29 Eastern and Southern Kentucky counties since early 2004."

For drug dealers in the rural area, Beach served as the grinch who stole Christmas during his initial drug round-up the week before Christmas in 2001, appropriately code-named Operation Grinch. "The investigation stood out for a number of reasons, including that it was a tall undertaking for a small police department and because the bank owned by Beach's family advanced $18,000 that officers Joe Lucas and Matt Easter needed to make drug buys because it wasn't in the city budget," writes Estep. (Read more)

Rev. Billy Graham troubled by fight among sons about his burial place

Evangelist Billy Graham, 88, is deciding between a final resting place near the North Carolina mountains or in a museum in Charlotte. The Graham family has lived in a log home in Montreat, N.C., population 630, for 60 years. Graham's wife, Ruth Bell Graham, 86, wants she and her husband to be buried together at the Cove, a sylvan retreat off the highway near Asheville, N.C., where the Billy Graham Training Center was constructed, and youngest son Ned Graham agrees. But eldest son Franklin Graham wants his parents to be buried at a memorial library that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin runs, is constructing in Charlotte.

The split was revealed yesterday in The Washington Post by Laura Sessions Stepp, who got an unusually intimate look into a family that she notes "has been called the royal family of American religion." Stepp accompanied author Patricia Cornwell, a family friend, to a session with Billy and Ruth Graham in which Cornwell urged the reverend to be buried where his wife and younger son want. The Charlotte Observer reprinted the Post story today. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006

How about some boar ribs? Farmers just want someone to kill feral pigs

"There is an omnivorous menace spreading across the American farmland and now reaching into suburbia. It is smart, fast and dangerous, and is multiplying at an almost unstoppable pace. It is the feral pig, and its population has been exploding. It is now found in nearly 40 states," Jean Garner of ABC wrote for a "Nightline" program that ran last night.

California health officials say the pigs might be the source of last summer's E. coli bacteria outbreak in spinach. Few predators want to take on the feral pigs, so they rampage through farms and ranches; in Texas last year, their crop damage totaled about $50 million.

Catching the wild things can be profitable, though, since there is a big demand for the meat in Europe and an emerging market in the U.S. "where it sells for about $7 a pound and is known more delicately as wild boar," writes Garner. No matter how much feral meat the hearty American population consumes, though, the agricultural damage is sure to continue since the pigs' growth rate far exceeds the demand for their meat, notes Garner. (Read more) Photo from the National Geographic Society.

Mandatory part of animal-tracking proposal gets squashed by farmers

The Agriculture Department has dropped the idea of a mandatory system for animal identification after it came under fire from many directions, and now hopes financial incentives and market pressure will encourage participation, reports The New York Times.

The plan is "intended to trace a sick animal to the property it came from within 48 hours," writes Theo Emery. "Criticism has centered on the system’s cost, its potential for government invasion of privacy, perceived biblical prohibitions against its technology and the question of who would benefit."

Lawyer Mary-Louise Zanoni, the executive director of Farm for Life, an advocacy group for small farms, calls the proposal a “scam” that aims to eliminate small farmers. “The only reason for an animal identification system,” Zanoni said, “is to serve the economic interests of large meat packers and people who are going to sell the technology that will be indispensable in the system.” Amish farmers, who do not believe in using technology, also oppose the effort, notes Emery.

When additional opposition came from ranchers and livestock farmers, the Agriculture Department took away the mandatory proposal in hopes of keeping the overall idea alive, reports Emery. The agency has yet to offer specifics on incentives that might be offered to participants. (Read more)

New Hampshire legislator wants dairy farmers to get more for milk

With a gallon of milk costing consumers twice as much as what dairy farmers get paid, one New Hampshire legislator wants to narrow that gap to help the state's struggling dairy farmers.

"State Rep. Fred King, R-Colebrook, has filed legislation that would mandate that the retail price of milk in New Hampshire could not be more than twice the price paid to farmers by dairy processors. King, a former state senator and the outgoing chairman of the House Finance Committee, acknowledges that his legislation could drive prices up if processors and stores seek to maintain their profit margins, but it would also translate into more money paid to farmers themselves," writes John P. Gregg of the Valley News.

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor said the bill may be a "long shot" for passage, but it will spotlight the market forces affecting the 140 dairy farms left in New Hampshire, reports Gregg. “It tells consumers, ‘Hey, farmers aren't getting much for your milk, you should be getting your milk cheap,'" Taylor said. "And it says to the retailers, ‘If you guys want to get top dollar for the milk in the case, you ought to give farmers more.’” (Read more)

Taylor wrote in an e-mail to The Rural Blog that an agricultural-economics professor at the University of Connecticut, Robert Cotterell, "has been pitching this approach for several years. . . . Maine, Vermont and Connecticut legislatures have all dipped into state treasuries to help their dairy farmers this year."

Growing population, congested power lines equal higher electric bills

Tens of millions of Americans are facing the prospect of higher electricity bills because of congested lines. Meanwhile, some rural, scenic areas oppose construction of lines that could relieve the problem.

Similar to the problems facing some highways and bridges, the country's network of transmission lines is under strain from years of not being maintained or expanded to meet the nation's growing population, reports David Cay Johnston of The New York Times. That leaves areas that are bulging at the seams with people without enough lines to receive electricity in an efficient manner. That congestion forces utilities to buy electricity from costlier power plants and customers end up paying more.

"Over all, the Energy Department estimates, congestion charges in 2008 will add $8 billion or so — about $40 a person — to electricity costs on the Eastern grid, which serves almost 200 million people east of the Rockies except for Texas," writes Johnston. "The department did not make an estimate for the Western grids. These congestion charges would raise electricity prices by about a nickel on the dollar if they were spread evenly, but in fact some customers pay far more and others pay nothing."

"The Energy Policy Act signed by President Bush last year seeks to speed construction of transmission lines by preventing state and local officials from blocking lines, or even influencing where they are built. A federal proposal to invoke these restrictions for a proposed high-voltage line through the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia has generated hundreds of complaints. Business owners, local officials and refugees from big cities said it would be irresponsible to mar their mountain vistas and small towns with a row of 17-story steel skeletons supporting the lines," writes Johnston. (Read more)

Fla. governor-elect starts open government office to aid Sunshine Law

Florida's Gov.-elect Charlie Crist made the state Sunshine Law one of his top priorities Tuesday, announcing the creation of the state's first Office of Open Government to make sure public officials comply with open-records laws and train their employees.

"Creation of the new unit follows an election campaign in which news executives and editorial writers in Florida voiced frustration with the sometimes slow pace of state agencies in providing public records and urged Crist to make it a higher priority," writes Steve Bousquet of the St. Petersburg Times. "Florida has a long history of ensuring public access to government records, dating to passage of the first open-records law in 1909."

Crist received the First Amendment Foundation's annual Pete Weitzel Friend of the First Amendment Award last year for his ongoing work with promoting open government, notes Bousquet. (Read more)

Former publisher donates $100,000 for seminars in North Dakota

A $100,000 pledge from a former North Dakota newspaper publisher is providing the funds for three summer seminars in the state, which will cover reporting, advertising and newspaper technology.

Former West Fargo Pioneer founder and publisher Donovan Witham designated the money for the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, which in turn announced the Donovan Witham Excellence in Newspapers Symposiums in the latest issue of its newsletter, The Cornerstone. The symposiums will become an annual event and something that should benefit small and large newspapers, announced foundation President Don Gackle.

All three summer seminars will be free and the first on June 14 in Bismarck will feature Jock Lauterer of The Carolina Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. (Read more)

Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006

Journalists, entertainers support FCC restrictions on media ownership

Journalists, singers and songwriters sang the same tune in Music City yesterday, at the second of six public hearings by the Federal Communications Commission on rules limiting media ownership. (Photo of witnesses Naomi Judd and George Jones from The Tennessean, Copyright 2006)

Wendell "Sonny" Rawls, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor and acting director of the Center for Public Integrity, "testified that the basic argument of media owners is about money, not good journalism," writes Kate Howard for The Tennessean. "(Newspapers are) the only business protected by the Constitution," Rawls said. "That protection was not to guarantee a profit for few, but to guarantee access to information for many."

"Consumer groups and some professors disputed any need for easing ownership rules," reports Ira Teinowitz of Television Week, quoting Alex Jones, another Pulitizer-winning reporter who runs the director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Cross-ownership of major media properties is a bad idea," said Jones, a Tennessee native. "The news of politics, public affairs, comes from newspapers and local television. It is talk that is in ready abundance [on the Web], not the news." Jones, who is on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Commuity Issues, "warned that further combinations would give individual owners too much power," TV Week reports. (Read more)

"Those speaking in favor of relaxing media ownership rules, including Tennessean Publisher Ellen Leifeld and Deborah McDermott of WKRN-Channel 2 [owned by Young Broadcasting], argued that more flexibility was necessary to compete in a new-media landscape in which consumers have seemingly limitless choices for getting their news," Howard reports. "Leifeld said she didn't believe cross-ownership would result in a less competitive environment, and that the idea that newspapers and TV stations would speak with one voice was contrary to fundamentals of journalistic autonomy. "Cross-ownership robs the news media of options in confronting changes," said Leifeld, an employee of Gannett Co. (Read more)

Ryan Underwood writes in another Tennessean story, "Jack Dempsey, general manager of WJHL-TV ... in Johnson City, said its newsroom had grown significantly after it was purchased by Richmond, Va.-based Media General, which also owns the nearby Bristol Herald-Courier." (Read more)

Underwood's story focused on entertainers who argued that concentration of ownership had made it more difficult for new singers and songwriters to gain success. Singer Porter Wagoner, who brought Dolly Parton to stardom, said her "music probably would never have made it to the airwaves if today's media ownership rules were in place in 1967," Underwood wrote. Wagoner said, "The days of new acts receiving reasonable airplay are over."

"Newer stars John Rich and Big Kenny Alphin of the group Big & Rich, along with fellow MuzikMafia member "Cowboy Troy" Coleman, were added to Monday's agenda to say their piece," Underwood writes. The Associated Press quoted Bayard Walters, past chairman of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, as saying that many small-town stations are viable today because of consolidation: "Many of those stations provide opportunities for new and local artists, as well as local content like news, weather and traffic, he said. Walters argued that there are 11,000-plus commercial radio stations nationwide. The biggest five companies own 2,000 of those, while the next 20 only own 1,000 stations. There are more different licensees today than there were in 1972, he said."

The FCC started re-examining rules for media ownership in June, and it is addressing how many radio and television stations one owner can have and restrictions on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters. A set of 2003 changes that were eventually tossed out in federal court would have permitted one corporation in a single community to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider, reports AP. (Read more)

Sago Mine families, upset by handling of report, may never get answers

After almost a year of investigation, "State officials concede that they have come nowhere near providing definitive answers about West Virginia’s worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years," the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 men on Jan. 2, 2006, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

“Answers to all questions associated with this tragedy may never be answered,” Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, wrote in a cover letter for the report. Investigators suspect lightning ignited more than 400,000 cubic feet of methane gas in a sealed area," Ward writes. The report does not address the issue of why state officials allowed families to continue believing for several hours that all 12 trapped miners had survived." (Read more)

The report was scheduled to be released yesterday, after a briefing for victims' families, but the press conference was scrapped after complaints from the families. They were "given little time to read it" before the press conference, and "When they asked questions, family members said, state officials suggested they read the report," Tara Tuckwiller writes for the Gazette. Gov. Joe Manchin III "told mine safety officials to put together a presentation for the families to explain the findings, and not to release the report to the public until that happened. Families were told it would take a week. But minutes later, family members discovered that the mine safety office had meanwhile posted the report on its Web site." (Read more)

For a copy of the report, from the Web site of the Gazette, click here.

Mississippi native aims to rid state of backward image via PR campaign

Heritage groups and state marketing committees are the ones usually try to better Southern states' reputations, but now Jackson, Miss., advertising executive Rick Looser is spending $275,000 on a campaign to debunk the myth that Mississippi is the most racist state in the nation.

Looser "is using the tools of his trade to defend Mississippi from the barbs of comedians, cultural critics, and non-Southerners who suspect that the civil rights movement never really came to the Magnolia State. With all the tongue-in-cheek spin of Madison Avenue, he created a poster featuring Mississippi writers ranging from Richard Ford to Richard Wright, with these words: 'Yes, we can read. Some of us can even write.' Then he sent a copy to every school," writes Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor.

His campaign called "Mississippi, Believe It!" includes posters featuring Delta blues singers and the words "No black. No white. Just the blues." "A conversation two years ago with a 12-year-old Connecticut boy, during a plane trip to Atlanta, spurred Looser to try to remake Mississippi's image. The boy, Looser says, asked him if he hated blacks and how often the Ku Klux Klan marched in his hometown," writes Jonsson.

Mississippi and the South are not the only places tagged with a "backward" image. Maine resident Phil Bailey told Jonsson, "I could say people look at Maine and say it's backwards, rural, a bunch of dumb fishermen, and we're really only here to serve Massachusetts and New York as a summer vacation spot -- but the reality is different." Bailey visited Mississippi to take part in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and he is not sold on the idea of Looser's PR effort. "I don't think that we fix problems with a campaign that implies that problems don't exist," he said. (Read more)

Kentucky hopes incentives lure maker of Willie Nelson's biodiesel

Kentucky officials have approved $1 million in tax breaks and $120,000 in income-tax refunds to entice Earth Biofuels, which makes Willie Nelson's brand of biodiesel known as "BioWillie," to the western tip of the state.

If the company ends up building the $11 million refinery, the 30 million-gallon-per-year output would require 50 workers who would earn about $29,000 per year. "Biodiesel blends for sale at truck stops have between 5 percent and 20 percent vegetable oil with the remainder being traditional diesel. BioWillie uses the 20 percent blend," writes Robert Schoenberger of The Courier-Journal.

"Founded in Mississippi in 2004, Earth Biofuels signed an agreement to use music star Willie Nelson's name and image to sell soybean diesel fuel in 2005. Now based in Dallas, the company sells BioWillie in California, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina," Schoenberger writes for the Louisville newspaper. "In sales pitches to gas stations, Earth Biofuels uses the star power of Nelson and others, noting that Nelson's image can help 'differentiate your fueling location from the 187,000 other fueling locations in America.'" (Read more)

Rural Minnesota county sees decline in many areas, except crime, jail costs

One rural Minnesota county is experiencing a decline in farms, schools, population and church attendance, but unfortunately one statistic is not dropping -- crime.

"In 1986, the population of Redwood County was hovering around 20,000 people. Today Redwood County has about 4,000 fewer people. Logically, one would assume that few people would mean fewer police and fewer crimes. Right? Wrong," writes Erik Posz of the Redwood Falls Gazette. Demands for tougher sentencing on DUIs and domestic abuse are also creating a shortage of jail space, and Redwood County spends about $500,000 a year renting space for prisoners in other counties.

"Out of the 87 counties in Minnesota, about one half are in some sort of a jail crisis, whether it is expansion, remodeling or building a new jail. Most of those counties are rural. In addition to increasing numbers in jail populations, the Sheriff's Department and local police departments have been forced more and more to deal with problems related to methamphetamine," writes Posz. (Read more)

Homer Ledford, legendary bluegrass musician, instrument maker, dies

Homer Ledford died Monday at age 79, leaving behind the legacy of a man who rose from the edge of the Cumberland Plateau to make bluegrass music and build instruments that now reside at the Smithsonian Institution. Ledford was born in Ivyton, Tenn., in Overton County, near its conjunction with Pickett and Fentress counties. He spent his latter years in Winchester, Ky., and illness forced him to sit out this year from appearances with the Cabin Creek Band. Long before starting that band in 1976, Ledford began making instruments in Tennessee and at age 18 wom a scholarship to attend the John Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., reports Shawntaye Hopkins of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ledford built 5,776 dulcimers, 475 banjos, 26 mandolins, 26 guitars and 18 ukuleles. Those at the Smithsonian Institution include a fretless banjo and a dulcitar, an instrument he invented, reports Hopkins. (Read more)

Monday, Dec. 11, 2006

Weekly papers hail passage of postal reforms after decade of lobbying

In one if its final acts, early Saturday, the 109th Congress passed a postal-reform bill that included several measures long sought by weekly newspapers, which depend largely on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their product -- and say the quality of service has gone down while rates and regulations have gone up.

The bill was a breakthrough, said Max Heath, vice president of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. and chairman of the postal committee of the National Newspaper Association, mainly weeklies. “We looked for an ironclad guarantee that within-county mail would not see a continuation of the unjustified increases that the Postal Service wants in 2007,” Heath said in an NNA press release.

The Postal Service has asked the Postal Rate Commission for a 27 percent hike in rates for mailing inside a newspaper's home county, which usually has the majority of its circulation. The bill, if signed by President Bush, would also give preferred rates to outside-county mail under 5,000 copies -- a preference that was lost in the mid-1980s, the NNA release said. (Read more)

Sago report withdrawn; fails to explain how lightning entered sealed area

West Virginia investigators say lightning caused the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 coal miners, but a report that was scheduled to be released today does not explain how the strike ignited methane deep inside a sealed area. (Photo from report, via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shows where miners were found.)

The blast "was nearly five times more powerful than the mine's underground seals were able to withstand," reports The Associated Press, who obtained a copy of the report this morning. "Six months after the deadly blast, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered that all seals must now withstand 50 [pounds per square inch]- still less than the force of the Sago blast." The report says, "How the electricity from the lightning entered the sealed area is still under investigation, and in that regard this report is not complete." (Read more)

Gov. Joe Manchin III stopped release of the report after meeting with families of the dead miners, Dennis Roddy and Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report today. (Read more) Investigator Davitt McAteer said in the report, "Our work is not complete until the specific mechanisms which allowed lightning to enter behind the seals at the Sago mine have been identified." He said lightning may have entered the sealed area through a submerged pump or pump cable, or wire roof mesh. He also questioned whether the mine's owner, International Coal Group Inc. took all the required steps to protect the mine against lightning strikes, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. (Read more)

Post-Sago safety reforms in place: MSHA finalized rules Friday that require miners to learn to use emergency air packs. The new rules could cost the industry "about $44 million annually, or about 0.4 percent of yearly revenues for the nation’s underground coal mines. At the same time, MSHA estimated that, had the rules previously been in place, at least 36 and perhaps 41 of the miners killed in four major disasters over the last 22 years would have survived," writes Ward in another story.

"MSHA added the requirement when it finalized a new set of ... rules initially proposed two months after the Sago Mine disaster. The rule forces coal operators to increase the emergency oxygen supplies underground and greatly tightens the requirements for reporting mine accidents to regulators. In requiring better training in the use of self-contained self-rescue devices, or SCSRs, MSHA made a significant change to its initial rule, issued on an emergency basis in early March," writes Ward. (Read more)

Blame this year's mining death total on the calendar, safety chief says

The new U.S. mine-safety head blames the coal industry's deadliest year in more than a decade on the calendar, arguing that if the Jan .2 Sago disaster had occurred two days earlier, this year and last year -- which had the lowest number of fatalities on record -- would have both had average death tolls.

Forty-six coal miners have died this year, making the most since 47 died in 1995, and West Virginia claims 23 of this year's deaths. U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Chief Richard Stickler does not want to make a big deal out of this year's total since it follows last year's record low of 22. “Mine safety doesn’t see a calendar,” Stickler told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. “It doesn’t know what year it is or what day it is.”

Stickler took over MSHA in October, following a 30-year coal career. He spent most of that time as mine manager for Bethlehem Steel’s coal arm, before working briefly for Massey Energy. He told Ward that he came to Massey only because the company bought amine he was running. "Stickler declined to comment for the record on the safety practices he saw at Massey, or on the company’s overall safety record over the years. But he said the state’s report on the January fire at the company’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine — still under investigation by MSHA — was disturbing." Stickler said, “The conditions that existed are not reflective of a mine that is being properly managed in the area of safety." (Read more)

Take U.S. mine-safety agency off death investigations, newspaper says

After a May coal-mining disaster killed five in Kentucky, the Mine Safety and Health Administration acted like it had something to hide, and that is one reason is should not be in charge of such investigations, the Lexington Herald-Leader in an editorial yesterday.

"One of the first things the new Congress should do is shift responsibility for investigating mine deaths and injuries from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to a more impartial body. In the aftermath of the Darby tragedy, MSHA appeared to be more interested in covering its backside than uncovering every facet of the disaster," said the newspaper, the most widespread in Eastern Kentucky.

"An MSHA inspector had spent three days in the mine during the week leading up to the fatal explosion on May 20. But MSHA refused to let Kentucky investigators question him. No one other than another MSHA employee was allowed to directly question inspector Stanley Sturgill -- not state investigators, despite making a formal request to interview him, not the United Mine Workers of America, not the Darby miners' representative," continues the editorial.

"We're not suggesting that Sturgill did anything wrong, or that by shielding him, MSHA was doing anything other than following its lawyers' advice on avoiding lawsuits. But it looks like stonewalling. And that appearance alone damages public trust. How much confidence can there now be in MSHA's investigation when its findings are finally released?" asks the Herald-Leader. (Read more)

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) wrote in a January report that the Bush administration undermines miners' health and safety by putting mine operators' interests ahead of enforcing mine-safety laws. The report criticizes the administration for reducing "the amount of major fines for mine safety and health violations" and says MSHA does not ensure that reserve oxygen chambers are in place. To read that report, click here.

Hundreds of tiny Georgia towns fall off the map; residents not happy

Many small Georgia towns have been removed from the official state road map, prompting some protest from rural residents in the state, where the map has long been overcrowded -- partly because the state has more counties, 159, than any other state except Texas.

"A total of 519 communities have been erased from the newest version of Georgia’s official map, victims of too few people or names too long," reports The Associated Press. "The state Department of Transportation . . . said that the goal was to make it clearer and less cluttered and that many of the dropped communities were mere “placeholders,” generally with fewer than 2,500 people. Some are unincorporated and so small they are not even recognized by the Census Bureau." (Blogger's note: Those of us who grew up in towns of fewer than 2,500 take umbrage at the "placeholder" appellation.)

“This gets back to respect for rural areas,” said Dennis Holt, leader of a community group trying to restore Hickory Level, a town of about 1,000 in western Georgia. "It’s about history and heritage," said State Rep. Tim Bearden, who represents the county that includes Hickory Level and eight other towns that were removed. The victims include Climax, pop. 297, in Decatur County. "Georgia transportation officials said they would take another look at their guidelines for what constituted a community," AP reports.

"Mapmaking criteria vary by state, and it is not unusual to have a little housecleaning over time, often to be rid of place names now considered racially offensive," said the AP. "But state mapmakers elsewhere said it was almost unheard of to see hundreds of communities removed in a single year. In Texas, for instance, few of the 2,076 cities and towns are ever deleted because of strict standards that weigh whether a spot is along a state highway, has a post office or has a population of 50 or more." Texas has 254 counties. (Read more) For a map of Georgia, click here.

Wal-Mart is more overtly Christmasy; Tennessee columnist takes note

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has about half its stores in rural areas, is wishing "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" this year. "The announcement comes a year after religious groups such as the American Family Association and The Catholic League boycotted retailers including Wal-Mart last holiday season for excluding the word "Christmas" from products sold in stores," reports CNN. (Read more) "We, quite frankly, have learned a lesson from last year," a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told USA Today. "We're not afraid to use the term 'Merry Christmas.' We'll use it early, and we'll use it often."

John Fleming, Wal-Mart's executive vice president of marketing, said that Christmas will be advertised almost as much as value to shoppers, with the retailer's holiday ads centering around "Christmas" for the first time. The Christmas decorating shop's name, The Holiday Shop for the past several years, is now The Christmas Shop. "Store signs will count down the days until Christmas, and Christmas carols will be piped throughout the season. About 60 percent more merchandise will be labeled 'Christmas' rather than 'holiday' this year over last," writes Jayne O'Donnell of USA Today. (Read more)

David Spates, a columnist for the Crossville (Tenn.) Chronicle, notes the changes. "Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t there something about separation of church and state? Wal-Mart is larger and more powerful than most industrialized countries. The chain is, in some ways, an Arkansas-based government. How can it endorse one particular religion? . . . "It’s refreshing when people start to buck the political correct nonsense that keeps everyone walking around on eggshells in this country," he said. (Read more)

Utah gas prices go down, but not so much for rural residents, diesel users

After being among the highest in the country, the price of gasoline in Utah has returned to almost average, but rural residents and owners of diesel-powered vehicles may still be paying more. "Late this summer, when the average cost of unleaded in Utah was nearly 40 cents higher than the national average, consumer outrage led to a state investigation. The probe eventually placed most of the blame on gasoline retailers for 'price-gouging,' though a report in the The Salt Lake Tribune showed that high demand driven by a strong economy also played a key role. But that investigation, said Department of Commerce chief Francine Giani, focused on unleaded gasoline, not diesel, and also was not targeted to the state as a whole, where it might have addressed the disparity between urban and rural areas," write Lesley Mitchell and Steven Oberbeck of the The Salt Lake Tribune.

John Hill, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Marketers and Retailers Association, told the Tribune that rural areas have higher prices because they don't have much competition to keep them down. Also, rural gas stations sell less gas and have to charge more to maintain profit margins, he said. One of the reasons for high gas prices in the state overall is its limited access to pipelines. "In addition, Utah's refineries are operating near capacity, and high demand for gasoline is expected to remain that way because of Utah's sizzling economy and the prospects for long-term growth in population," write Mitchell and Oberbeck.

"The average cost of a gallon of diesel fuel in Utah, which peaked at $3.50 on Sept. 1, is still averaging $2.78 per gallon -- or about 9 cents higher than the national average, according to AAA Utah," write Mitchell and Oberbeck. Diesel would usually be cheaper to produce than unleaded, but not this year, Lee Peacock of the Utah Petroleum Association told the Tribune. "Utah refineries were forced to spend millions for capital improvements to meet ultra-low-sulphur diesel-fuel standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. . . . Add high demand, particularly from a national trucking industry responding to a booming economy, and you have a recipe for high prices." (Read more)

Dec. 8-9, 2006

Wildlife poaching up in West; Oregon officers are aided by decoys

"A wave of poaching . . . has alarmed state and federal wildlife officials" in the West, reports The New York Times. "The authorities said they are seeing more organized rings of poachers and unlicensed guides chasing the biggest elk and mule deer with the largest antler array." Randal Archibold reports that wildlife enforcement officers are "sparse." (Photo, of Nevada game warden checking tags after an elk kill, by Brad Horn, NYT)

It’s a busy time of year for poachers and game wardens, with both legal and illegal hunters on the move, reports Paul Daquilante of the News-Register in McMinnville, Ore. "There are a lot of factors that go into ruling a hunter illegal. From tagging violations to taking wrong-sex animals to taking an animal out of season, like taking an elk during deer season," Oregon game officer Greg Oriet told the News-Register.

Oriet found two does shot and simply left to decompose. "That's a major game violation, waste of game animal. It's a Class A misdemeanor,” he said. Poaching is treated as serious business. For the death of the does, “evidence was collected at the scene of the shooting and sent to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab,” writes Daquilante. “He said ballistic tests are run on spent cartridges, and fiber, hair and bodily fluids are tested when it's warranted.”

The Oregon State Police’s “Fish & Wildlife Division also runs the Wildlife Enforcement Decoy Program, launched in 1991,” Daquilante. “It relies on decoys mounted in areas where illegal hunting activity has been noted. The decoys are kept under surveillance. That allows a game officer to catch a violator in the act and make an immediate arrest. The decoy program minimizes loss of actual wildlife. It also minimizes collateral losses to stray arrows or bullets. And contact with the violator then can be controlled, with a focus on the safety of all concerned.” (Read more) For the New York Times story, click here.

Top Wal-Mart ad execs leave, firm kills agency deal; rural papers curious

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has fired two top marketing executives and the company has "dismissed the lead advertising agency the executives had helped pick little more than a month ago," The Wall Street Journal reports this morning. The executives' departures have raised eyebrows among rural newspaper publishers, whose effort to get Wal-Mart to advertise in their papers was rebuffed after an experiment last year.

Gone from Wal-Mart are Julie Roehm, senior vice president of marketing communications, and Sean Womack, vice president of communications architecture, "who served Roehm closely," MediaPost's Marketing Daily reported yesterday. The company's chief spokeswoman, Mona Williams, declined to comment on the departure "or any potential repercussions of it," wrote Tom Siebert and Sarah Mahoney.

Roehm joined Wal-Mart in February, after the company had placed a full-page, four-color ad for electronic items in 336 papers in Missouri and Oklahoma, states near its Arkansas headquarters. The company said the ads increased sales, but its margins are so thin that it didn't "come close to offsetting the cost," Williams said at the time. The cost was later reported to be $73 million. The decision was announced in April.

Many rural newspapers say has Wal-Mart made life hard for them, by rarely advertising and running out of business local stores that do. After complaints from the National Newspaper Association, a group dominated by weeklies, Wal-Mart agreed to the experiment. An NNA survey of members last spring found that 87 percent had a Wal-Mart in their coverage area, and 67 percent said it had a negative effect on them.

About half of Wal-Marts are in rural areas, but the company has been shifting its focus to more affluent cities and suburbs. It has had trouble adapting, and same-store sales are slowing. It hired the new agency, Draft FCB, "as part of an effort to trade its mass-market approach for customized appeals to suburbanites, ethnic groups and city dwellers," Suzanne Vranica and Gary McWilliams report in the Journal.

Quoting unnamed sources close to Wal-Mart's review process, the Journal also reports that Roehm "may have violated Wal-Mart's strict corporate policy of not accepting gifts from vendors" by attending a swank dinner thrown by Draft FCB. Siebert and Mahoney reported for MediaPost that Wal-Mart executives were upset by an ad the company ran in Creativity magazine soon after getting the account, with a picture of two lions mating, captioned, "It's good to be on top." That's rural, but lacking rural sensibility.

Urban-rural compromise on AIDS program funding leaves both satisfied

A battle over funding of federal AIDS programs between the Northeast and the more rural South ended with a compromise Tuesday. The “five-year renewal of the $2.1 billion-annual law had sparked a funding fight between cities where the disease first made its mark and the rural communities where it is now spreading fastest,” writes Devlin Barrett of The Associated Press.

“Northeasterners had held out, claiming the original five-year version of the program's renewal would cut their state's funding by at least $70 million each,” writes Barrett. “Sen. Mike Enzi [Wyo.], the measure's Republican champion, disputed both figures, saying the cuts would be far less. A deal crafted by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., won their support by shortening the renewal to three years so the money disbursements will be revisited sooner, and the large funding cuts expected in the final years are eliminated.”

“Southern-state officials had been frustrated that opposition from the Northeast was holding up a bill that would send them more money,” writes Barrett. “They cheered the compromise. ‘We're thrilled that we finally have gotten the bill,’ said Kathie Hiers, head of AIDS Alabama. ‘I think overall it's going to help the deep south states a great deal,’ she said, estimating Alabama would get $7 million in new money in the first year of the deal.” (Read more)

Community planner urges rural towns to develop skills and education

Dr. Vaughn Grisham, a community development expert, speaks in Southern rural communities, holding workshops on how rural areas prosper economically. “You run the risk of becoming obsolete. You are in a remote part of the world that can easily pass you by,” Grisham said at a visioning session at Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky-Virginia border, reports the Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va.

“‘Soon, all jobs will be mechanized, so what will we have left?’ questioned the facilitator. The answer is what he calls ‘the Knowledge Industry,’ which are jobs that require constant updated training and education to stay abreast among modern developments,” writes Hannah Morgan of the Progress. “Health care is an example, as it requires consistent education to keep up in the rapidly changing industry.”

“Education is also an integral part of community development, says Grisham. He urged participants to encourage parental involvement in the schools, as he says this is the key factor in student success, regardless of socioeconomic setting,” writes Morgan. “Well-educated children are also the future of the county, if we can keep them here, says Grisham.” (Click here to read more; subscription required)

Texas Farm Bureau fights eminent domain to keep land in rural hands

The Texas Farm Bureau wants to change eminent domain law to help rural residents keep their land and spare it from development, or profit more from it. “The Farm Bureau's eminent-domain bill was filed during the 2005 special session in Texas two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments can take land for private development to generate tax money, prompting worries that local entities would grab homes and turn the property over to developers,” reports The Associated Press.

“Under a proposed bill, not as many entities would have the power to take land and homes from residents,” said AP. “Also, if land were to be seized for pipeline or utility lines, residents would receive ongoing royalty payments in addition to the property's fair market value. No matter what the land would be used for, residents would be paid for their attorneys' and appraisal fees and given enough time to move.”

“The Texas Farm Bureau also is proposing a constitutional amendment based on a bill passed during last year's special legislative session,” said AP. “The new law, among other things, prevents governmental entities from seizing private property for economic development projects. Passing the state law and getting it into the constitution would guard against legal challenges.” (Read more)

Urban clean-air initiative is hard to sell in Texas' rural coal-plant towns

In Texas, big-city mayors have met with little success in trying to convince small-town politicians to join a coalition against pollution from coal-fired power plants. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller began visiting rural towns to try to get them on board with the Texas Clean Air Cities Coalition. “She wanted to take part in the state hearings that began last week on permits for the coal plants. But only people who live close to the plants can testify,” writes Elizabeth Souder of the Dallas Morning News.

TXU Corp. wants to build 11 coal-fired power units across the state, including expanding Big Brown, a plant in Freestone County,” writes Souder. “TXU is counting on support from the farming and ranching towns near existing plants. In August, chief executive John Wilder assured investors that opposition came mostly from cities far from the plant sites. Around 80 community groups have told the company they support the coal plan.” (Read more)

Mayor Roy Hill of Fairfield, population 3,094, wants the company to expand to promote growth, reports Souder. He said that the plant supports the town and he didn’t want a coalition to “mess this thing up.” He asked an executive of the company to consider building a nuclear power plant in the town as well. David Weidman, a council member in Mount Vernon (pop. 2,286), abstained from voting. "I asked both parties there: Why are we so important? Why is the mayor of Dallas making two trips out here? It's not the pies," he told the Morning News. "To me, there was a feeling, a little bit, that I was being used by both sides.”

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

Senators to FCC: Study local broadcast before tackling ownership issue

Eight U.S. senators -- six Democrats and two Republicans -- are urging the Federal Communications Commission to settle the question of whether local broadcasters are adequately serving their coverage areas "with sufficient regional news and public interest content" before considering changes to limits on media ownership, reports National Journal's Technology Daily.

The senators told FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in a letter that combining questions about local broadcasting into the larger ownership matter "would cause us grave concern." "A critical component to any changes to the ownership rules is an understanding of the ways in which broadcasters currently are serving their local communities," the senators wrote. "They contended that the agency, which is holding nationwide hearings on revamping the limits, should first ensure that stations are meeting local needs before considering the broader review," writes National Journal's David Hatch.

Senators who signed the letter were Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. (Read more)

Homosexuals struggle for acceptance in rural America churches, towns

A three-part series in the East Oregonian is using real-life stories to talk about the difficulties of living as a homosexual in rural America, which were highlighted in the film Brokeback Mountain.

"According to one local gay man, Frank Roa, last year's film accurately portrays the mental agony many gays go through - especially those in rural America," writes Kathy Aney in part one. "Living gay in a small town, he said, is often a mix of confusion, loneliness, rejection and, sometimes, outright violence. Roa and a friend, Jane Holeman, sat around Roa's kitchen table on a recent evening and shared some thoughts about living gay in northeastern Oregon. . . . Both said they found more acceptance in the city. But, eventually, both came back to the place of their youth."

That place is Irrigon, Ore., and they say it is representative of how many rural towns react to gay residents. "Upon his return to Irrigon, Roa began looking for a church that would accept him," writes Aney. "Roa, a Pentecostal Christian, phoned several ministers, introduced himself as a gay man and asked if he would be accepted at their churches. He received chilly responses. 'One of the ministers hung up on me,' he said. When he finally got brave enough to go to a church in person, he introduced himself to the pastor afterwards. The minister, Roa said, told him he was only welcome if he sought change."

Holeman and her girlfriend once encountered a man outside a Wal-Mart in nearby Hermiston collecting signatures to place an initiative on a state ballot that defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. "I looked over at my girlfriend," Holeman remembered, "and said, 'I don't know, Hon - what do you think?'" Holeman told Aney that the man looked flabbergasted and called the couple "sinful." (Read more)

Unsafe practices make hilly Appalachia at risk for surface mine deaths

Stories about coal-mine safety are almost always about underground mines, surface mines have their own share of dangers, including large vehicles with low visibility, unstable ground and falling debris, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Some accidents could be prevented, but mines have been cutting corners on safety measures, according to Ward's "Beyond Sago" series, based on a six-month investigation. Mine safety problems are especially prevalent in Appalachia, a region producing one-fifth of the nation's surfaced-mined coal, but accounting for 75 percent of surface mine deaths.

"Nationwide, 71 strip miners died on the job between 1996 and 2005, an average of about seven per year," writes Ward. "Like their counterparts at underground mines, most of those miners didn’t have to die. Sixty-two of the U.S. strip mine deaths — 88 percent of the total — could have been avoided if existing safety rules had been followed, the Gazette-Mail’s investigation found."

Ward gives vivid examples: Two miners were killed and one injured at Progress Coal’s Twilight Mountaintop Removal Surface Mine in Boone County, W.Va., when a rock truck ran over a van, reports Ward. It was found that the strobe light on the van, meant to warn larger vehicles, was broken, as well as the rock truck's right camera, meant to cover its blind spot. At Lone Mountain Processing Inc.’s coal-waste dump in Lee County, Va., a haul-truck operator died after his truck rolled and he was buried in mud. He had driven over a safety berm that was too soft to warn drivers that they were too near the edge of the road. A highwall excavator operator was buried in rocks at Massey Energy subsidiary Endurance Mining’s Red Cedar Surface Mine in Boone County. The wall was unstable and had been collapsing, but the company had developed not safety plans. (Read more)

Is Florida's rural land heading for extinction? Probably, studies say

Florida's rural land may disappear during the next 50 years, as the state's population doubles from its current 18 million residents, according to two studies released Wednesday by the 1000 Friends of Florida, an organization formed to "keep the state's communities livable."

The first study, "Florida 2060: A Population Distribution Scenario for the State of Florida," from the University of Florida's GeoPlan Center "projected that another seven million acres of rural land statewide will be urbanized — either paved over as roadways or subdivided into housing lots or otherwise conscripted for development. And, if current development patterns continue, a 'sea of urbanization' will surround what are now protected conservation lands," writes Karen Voyles of The Gainesville Sun.

The second study, "A Time for Leadership: Growth Management and Florida 2060," conducted by Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, recommended the following steps to ensure sustainable and environmentally-friendly development: Expand Florida Forever, the natural-lands acquisition program, to include agriculture and forestry lands; establish a policy that rural land only be used in urban density in return for significant public benefit; and develop a 100-year plan for what land should be preserved and what should be developed, reports Voyles. (Read more)

To learn more about the studies and access the full reports, click here.

Enrollment declines prompt recruiting efforts by rural schools in New York

In northern New York, rural schools facing enrollment declines are planning out creative ways to draw in more students. The upper part of the state has many schools districts with no more than a few hundred students in their entire K-12 population, and that presents several financial issues, reports Rick Karlin of the Times Union in Albany.

"That many of these districts have shrunk despite a real estate boom illustrates one dilemma facing the Adirondacks: Almost all the growth is through second-homeowners or retirees. Rising land costs, combined with a lack of jobs, has made working families with school-age kids as scarce as surfboards," writes Karlin. "The trend is apparent in other parts of rural New York -- even sections of Long Island -- where the dearth of work combined with high taxes has led to a smaller permanent population."

The school district in Keene Valley, a hamlet south of Keene, N.Y., population 1,063, has 173 students. The cost for each is about $20,000 per year, whereas the state average is $13,826. Keene plans to take advantage of growth and tourism. "Among the possibilities: reaching out to businesses and others in Plattsburgh, a small city about an hour to the north," writes Karlin. "That community near the Canadian border is on the verge of a mini-boom thanks to plans to create a large aircraft refurbishing plant at an old Air Force base there, which could generate 1,600 jobs over the next four years. Keene boosters also want to capitalize on their location in the heart of the Adirondacks' High Peaks region, minutes from the Whiteface Ski Center, by appealing to young athletes, including aspiring ski racers and other winter-sports competitors." (Read more)

Pennsylvania township booms; residents want rural character preserved

Once-rural East Coventry, Penn., has seen not-entirely-welcome rapid growth as Pennsylvania spreads outward and housing developments sprout on lands sold off by retiring farmers. The township's population jumped 25 percent from 4,566 in 2000 to 5,698 in 2005. There are nearly 1,000 housing units currently planned or under construction, reports Evan Brandt of The Mercury in Pottstown, Penn., (pop. 21,859).

Once lightly traveled farm roads are now contending with traffic, reports Brandt. "Our roads are rural, 18 to 20 feet wide, and we are going to have to widen them, and that will be an expense," Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert F. Preston told The Mercury. The township is having trouble keeping up the fire department because the volunteers work outside the community. It may soon have to switch to paid firefighters. More police have been added to keep up with the growing population. Because of the demand on its infrastructure, the township's property tax rate rose from .75 mills to 1.5 mills two years ago.

Some East Coventry residents dislike their community becoming a suburb. Zoning was changed for the southern part of the township in September 2005 to make lots larger and only permit single family homes. "That approach is mirrored by other townships participating in the eight-member Pottstown Metropolitan Area Regional Planning Commission, which, with the exception of Pottstown borough, are trying to limit development and maintain as much open space as possible," writes Brandt. The planning effort "tries as much as possible to steer development to areas that want it, like Pottstown, to somewhat reduce the projected density." (Read more)

Dallas Morning News to cut circulation, again, this time to 100-mile radius

Belo Corp. will likely cut The Dallas Morning News' circulation area next year to a 100-mile radius, following a move last April to stop distributing papers to most areas beyond a 200-mile radius.

This announcement comes as much of the newspaper industry is struggling with severe financial losses. Belo chairman, president and chief executive Robert W. Decherd said circulation changes at The News and its other three dailies are saving the company about $8 million annually, reports Terry Maxon of The News.

Decherd did not specify the areas on the circulation chopping block, but he said, "There are still areas more than 100 miles from Dallas that are still very profitable and important for us. So we're going to keep them, but try to probably bring it in." (Read more) Belo's other dailies are the Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., and The Providence Journal in Rhode Island.

Institute hopes to boost community-college coverage via fellowship

The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media has created a $7,500 journalism fellowship to support in-depth coverage of the nation’s 1,157 community colleges, and will award six fellowhsips to journalists based on plans they submit for an ambitious reporting project.

The six journalists will get transportation to New York City, housing for two seminars (one in Sept. 2007, and a short one in Feb. 2008), and a per diem for meals and other expenses. The seminars will cover issues facing community colleges, include visits to community colleges and provide help from a panel of journalists. To be part of the second group, journalists must write an essay that demonstrates an interest in covering community college issues, but they do not have to submit a reporting plan. They will not get a stipend.

The fellowship is aimed at U.S.-based print and broadcast reporters, online writers and editorial writers, and the applications are due April 30, 2007. For more information, contact institute Director Richard Colvin at 212-870-1073 or colvin@tc.edu.

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006

Ga. county targets illegals via landlords; writer asks what Jesus would do

Commissioners in the fast-growing Atlanta suburb of Cherokee County voted yesterday to establish fines for local landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and make English the official language of government. The hot-button issue attracted an overflow crowd to a hearing last month. (Photo of hearing from the Cherokee Ledger-News, Woodstock, Ga.)

"The measures are among the most sweeping actions a local government has taken against illegal immigrants in Georgia," write Chris Quinn and Brian Feagans of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Cherokee commissioners have maintained that illegal immigrants drain local resources. And because the federal government hasn't tackled the issue, commissioners said it was up to them to send a message to those living in the county illegally."

"Across the United States, at least 20 towns, cities and counties have approved or discussed English-language ordinances in the past few months, said Rob Toonkel of U.S. English, a group that advocates making English the official language of the federal government. Advocates say the measures are intended to encourage immigrants to assimilate, preserve English as a national unifying language, and minimize government expenses of printing information and providing services in other tongues." (Read more)

A columnist for the local Ledger-News, Fauve Sanders, said the county "should go after employers who hire illegal aliens," not landlords. "That would address the problem so much quicker and more even-handedly. Policing the construction industry alone would probably cut the illegal population in half, but, the way the developers and construction interests are protected in Cherokee, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon." We call that speaking truth to power, an essential job of an editorial page.

Sanders' column was headlined "WWJD about illegal immigrants?" She wrote, "Making Cherokee landlords evict illegal aliens will only send them into overcrowded houses. It will not make them return to their homelands, and it will do nothing to address the issues of taxation and the burdens on our infrastructure. And, more importantly, scaring people in the winter that they might lose their homes is not, I think, what Jesus would do." (Read more) For the paper's story advancing the meeting, by Gerry Yandel, click here.

Bush may propose cap on state provider taxes; would limit Medicaid

The Bush administration may try again to effectively limit the taxes that states can impose on nursing homes and long-term-care hospitals, which could create a crisis in many rural states' funding of Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor and disabled. It has proposed capping at 3 percent state taxes on health-care providers, which states send back to Washington, where the money is matched by a ratio of as much as 3 to 1 and goes back into Medicaid, which pays the health-care providers.

“West Virginia would take the biggest per-patient hit,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., warned at a news conference “with other opponents of the proposal: Republicans, Democrats and interest groups fighting the idea, including the long-term health-care providers being taxed,” writes Tom Searls of The Charleston Gazette. The change could not take effect until at least May, and Congress could block it. There is much evidence of bipartisan opposition; 82 House Republicans have signed a letter urging President to drop the idea, proposed as one way to reduce the federal budget deficit. (Read more)

Safety commission urges stronger regulation to make coal mines safer

A deadly year in coal mines has spurred an industry-backed panel to call for 75 more safety measures, just a few months after Congress strengthened the federal mine-safety law and days before a report is due on the January 2005 Sago Mine disaster, in which 12 West Virginia miners died.

So far this year, 46 U.S. miners have died in accidents. Yesterday, the Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission called for "a comprehensive approach, founded on the establishment of a culture of prevention." That concept is " likely to be hard to put into the language of law," reports Dennis B. Roddy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but the panel recommends more underground shelters for stranded miners, more research into sealing off sections of mines, and upgraded communications systems.

"The panel's call for standards to be developed for fresh-air safe rooms along mine escape routes and training miners to use barricades only as a last resort was a clear outgrowth of the Sago disaster," Roddy writes. It also builds on this year's reforms, calling for "hardened communications systems -- blastproof and fireproof -- that will allow trapped or stranded miners to communicate with the surface." (Read more)

Meanwhile, West Virginia officials are still working on a Sago Mine report that is scheduled to come out Monday, but little is known about its content. Also, an ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is expected to result in a report on the accident in the first quarter of 2007, reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

Fast-growing Va. county puts new limits on rural housing development

Three counties near Washington, D.C., took steps Tuesday to restrict development in the growing metro area, and one -- Loudoun, in Virginia -- specifically restricted housing in its rural western section.

The other Virginia county, Prince William, put a one-year freeze on most subdivisions, and Montgomery County, Maryland, is considering a moratorium on most large developments to allow leaders to come up with a plan to handle the growing developments. Loudoun and Prince William are "among the fastest-growing counties in the country," writes Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post, and "recent elections have reflected the anti-development tide."

Loudoun's move reduces by about half the number of homes allowed in the rural west. Backers saw it as a way to preserve "the county's rolling piedmont. But smart-growth advocates are much less enthusiastic, saying that the rules, although stricter than the limit of one home per three acres allowed now in the west," will still allow more homes than the ideal number, reports MacGillis. Malcolm Baldwin, a Loudoun sheep farmer and slow-growth advocate, said, "This is considerable density for a rural area." (Read more)

The weekly Leesburg Today of Loudoun County recounts the lengthy political battle required for the county's "rural downzoning plan" to gain approval, and mentions "the concept of promoting commercial uses in western Loudoun as a means of making the land value for uses other than housing development." (Read more) For more background on Loudoun, by the weekly Times-Mirror, also of Leesburg, click here.

In Prince William, supporters of the freeze on rezoning for subdivisions "acknowledge that it is intended mostly as a symbolic action, because, with the housing market slowing, there are few major rezonings on the horizon. New homes that don't require rezonings could still be built," MacGillis writes for the Post. For a report on Prince William from a local daily newspaper, the Potomac News, click here.

Local governments considering broadband should think twice, study says

Telecommunications providers have been slow to deliver high-speed Internet to rural areas. But governments thinking about providing broadband should consider seven key factors before jumping into the high-speed race where finances and technology are the two keys, says a study for a free-market think tank.

Jerry Ellig, former deputy director and acting director of the Federal Trade Commission's Office of Policy Planning, identified the following factors: competition facing municipal cable and Internet offerings; needs to consistently upgrade speeds or drop prices; difficulty keeping up with continuous improvement; whether to subsidize technology and get locked into it; how to cover operating costs and recover initial capital outlay in three to five years; that broadband is a high-risk investment; and holding such projects accountable.

To illustrate such concerns, the study provided Provo, Utah as an example: Its municipal broadband owes more than it's worth and the report says the gap "shows every sign of increasing and will slowly eat away at iProvo's value and prevent the city from ever getting out from under the debt." iProvo says it needs 12,000 to 15,000 subscribers to break even, and there are currently 7,700.

The study also warns cities to be weary of companies like EarthLink and Google that want to provide free Wi-Fi, because many of those deals give the companies rights-of-way and access to public infrastructure like light and telephone poles. Ellig conducted the study for The Reason Foundation, "a nonprofit think tank dedicated to advancing free minds and free markets," according to a release. For the study, click here.

Helping hand: Community papers can boost historic preservation efforts

Newspapers can help preserve their communities' histories not only by reporting on preservation efforts, but by editorializing about the issue and taking more of a direct role in such efforts, opines Ken Blum in the latest Publishers' Auxiliary, the monthly newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

A newspaper should be a sentinel for its community's "historic buildings and structures. Don't dismiss the local historical society as a group of old fogeys. Instead, join the cause. Be a crusading, reporting, vigilant, editorial-writing junkyard dog when it comes to preserving the heritage of your town," writes Blum, the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business that helps community newspapers. (Column not available online.)

Blum cites three towns and their papers: Galena, Ill., and The Galena Gazette; Lexington, Va., and The News-Gazette; and Ouray, Colo., and The Ouray County Plaindealer. The News-Gazette supportes preservation efforts and promotes scenic Rockbridge County's history with a "What to See and Do" feature. The Galena Gazette routinely reports on preservation efforts, and its Web site mentions the town as the "Home of President and Civil War Hero General Ulysses S. Grant." A recent Ouray County Plaindealer editorial supported the preservation of neighborhoods' character.

Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006

Senator kept 'dossier' on rural editor, showed it at endorsement meeting

When the U.S. Senate's current minority leader, Mitch McConnell (photo from his Web site), visited a large Kentucky weekly in the fall of 2002, seeking the newspaper's endorsement, he took aim at its editor -- who recalled the experience in a recent column.

"In the fall of 2002, the county weekly newspaper where I was editor was paid a visit by one of the most important politicians in the country," writes Randy Patrick, now editor of The Winchester Sun, a small daily. McConnell "was in an easy re-election race against a little-known, inexperienced opponent. But he was taking nothing for granted, so he had come to Nicholasville to seek the endorsement of The Jessamine Journal. He had scheduled an interview with our publisher, Dave Eldridge, but Dave thought that, as editor, I, too, should be involved in the conversation.

"When McConnell and his entourage arrived, we greeted them warmly. We weren’t prepared for what happened next. An aide produced a manila folder, opened it and showed Dave a photo taken of the rear of my car 10 years before showing bumper stickers opposing the United States’ illegal proxy war in Nicaragua. 'This is the kind of guy you have working for you,' McConnell said. Dave laughed and brushed it off. There were no secrets between us where our politics were concerned. We argued politics for fun.

"But I couldn’t believe a United States senator had a 10-year-old dossier on me! I was flattered. The intent, I’m sure, was to embarrass. And I was embarrassed — but for him, not myself. How petty for someone of his stature to engage in gutter fighting. But that’s the kind of guy you have working for you," Patrick told readers of his paper and The Courier-Journal, which reprinted it Sunday. (Read more)

Medicare drug plans present problems for rural pharmacies, study finds

Medicare Part D Plans are straining rural pharmacies across the nation, according to a new study.

Based on reports from 12 rural independent pharmacists located at least 10 miles from the next nearest pharmacy, the study found that: Payment per prescription was lower from Medicare drug plans than from either Medicaid or cash amounts paid by individuals who previously lacked drug coverage; the time from service to receipt of payment was longer when such plans were involved; pharmacies had few chances to negotiate payment rates; and pharmacists had difficulty communicating with Medicare drug officials.

The study suggests the creation of a category of safety-net rural pharmacies that would get reimbursements at a level that equals or slightly exceeds their costs and the development of a grant program for small pharmacies that need new information systems. The study, "The Experience of Sole Community Rural Independent Pharmacies with Medicare Part D: Reports from the Field," was done by the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center and the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis of the Rural Policy Research Institute. To read the study, click here.

A press release from the National Rural Health Association calls for action: "We are concerned about the financial effect Medicare prescription drug plans are having on rural pharmacies, We must work to ensure a fair reimbursement system and continued access to these local pharmacies that cater to the needs of more than 20 million rural residents," said NRHA president-elect Paul Moore. (Read the release)

Government subsidies for ethanol getting out of control, study says

Rural communities are benefiting from the country's vibrant ethanol industry, but a sustainability study contends that billions of dollars in government subsidies to the industry need critical evaluation.

"Hundreds of government programs have been created to support virtually every stage of production and consumption relating to ethanol and biodiesel, from the growing of the crops that are used for feedstock to the vehicles that consume the biofuels," notes the report, Biofuels: At What Cost. The author, energy-subsidy analyst Doug Koplow, "questions whether billions of dollars in government support for the ethanol industry is the best way to achieve the goals of reduced dependence on foreign oil, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and rural development," writes Seth Slabaugh of The Star Press in Muncie, Ind.

"Koplow estimates that by the end of this decade, assuming continuation of current policies, government support for ethanol will be as much as $8.7 billion a year. According to him, ethanol subsidies lack transparency and coordination, are growing without constraint, lack coherence in achieving policy aims, create a risk for state and local government, are low in cost-effectiveness, are causing environmental stress, and need to be questioned and researched," writes Slabaugh.

Koplow's report "didn't look at the increased tax revenue to state, federal and local government that ethanol incentives produce," Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, told Slabaugh. "He didn't consider the increased economic activity that local communities, counties and states are realizing. The incentives the federal government put in place have worked as intended. We are seeing the ethanol industry getting its legs underneath it and growing with confidence." (Read more) To read the report, click here.

As automotive industry moves to South, rural areas see economic boost

A changing automotive industry, where success is moving south, tells a tale of two cities located in different regions and moving in opposite directions economically.

"Twenty years ago, Livonia, Mich., was a prosperous Detroit suburb, with upscale neighborhoods and high-end stores in a new mall selling Hermès and Chanel, which some locals wore on special occasions to dine at the romantic Fonte D’Amore restaurant. The local economy was thriving because of the Big Three automakers, which operated humming factories near Livonia and employed thousands of managers who commuted about 20 miles to the auto companies’ headquarters downtown. Three hundred miles to the south, drivers back then on Interstate 75 could zip right by Georgetown, Ky., and barely notice it," write Micheline Maynard and Nick Bunkley of The New York Times.

"Now, two decades later, the two cities have seemingly switched places economically. Livonia is stumbling, as Detroit’s automakers close factories and eliminate blue- and white-collar jobs. Just last week, Ford Motor announced that 30,000 workers had opted for deals worth up to $140,00 to leave. In all, with similar offers at General Motors, about 70,000 auto workers, or one-third of those in American plants, have decided this year to leave. Georgetown, however, is booming because of Toyota, which has invested more than $5 billion in a sprawling manufacturing complex, leading to the construction of new schools, hotels and dozens of smaller factories run by suppliers to Toyota." Its newspaper went daily this year.

The two towns reflect "a broader economic shift of the nation’s auto industry from north to south, as Detroit falters and [American companies'] surging Asian competitors invest in Southern states," the Times reports. "Over the last two decades, for example, the number of automotive-related manufacturing jobs in Michigan has fallen 34 percent, according to Economy.com. By contrast, the number of automotive jobs in Kentucky rose 152 percent over that period. ... The shift carries with it not just thousands of well-paying jobs and billions of investment dollars, but also a sense of prosperity gained or lost." Evidence: Livonia's fancy Italian restaurant is closed, and the city hasn't had a Christmas parade in three years. (Read more)

Ohio struggles to clean up abandoned mines; pollution threatens residents

An ongoing Columbus Dispatch series on the current coal boom and its ramifications, titled "Back In Black," today explores the ongoing push for new laws and more funding to clean abandoned mines and protect residents near those sites.

"Ohio will spend about $7.5 million in federal taxes this year to erase environmental problems created by abandoned mines. But there are more than 36,600 acres of land to clean at a cost that some estimate could exceed $300 million. Ohio relies almost entirely on federal money to clean up abandoned mine lands. The work includes shoring up weakened hillsides, covering acres of crushed rock and waste coal and treating the acid that leaks from mines and contaminates streams," writes Spencer Hunt. (Read more)

On Monday, Hunt explored the thousands of acres of Ohio that are still polluted from mines abandoned long ago, noting the the acreage is "about as much land as Pittsburgh occupies. And it has to clean up more than 1,000 miles of polluted streams. To put that in perspective, the Ohio River stretches 981 miles."

Hunt also wrote, "Mines abandoned years before federal mining laws were enacted in 1978 are among Ohio's oldest environmental problems. They have left crumbling man-made cliffs, poisoned streams, landslides, cave-ins and toxic heaps of waste coal that leak acid and catch fire." (Read more)

This ongoing series carries the following premise: "Our increasing need for power is good news for Ohio coal. But will more mining mean new environmental problems? A Dispatch investigation found that state laws and programs designed to safeguard the land and water are riddled with problems." For photos, graphics and more, click here.

Virginia man, called 'Boss Hogg,' faces prison time for vote fraud

A vote-fraud case in Virginia could end with the town of Appalachia's former mayor and acting town manager spending 21 months in prison for his role in illegal activity during the 2004 town council election.

Ben Cooper pleaded guilty Thursday to 233 counts of vote fraud and no contest to 10 counts of crimes committed in his mayoral re-election bid. The counts "included forgery, making fraudulent entries or stealing or aiding and abetting to steal ballots with Owen Anderson 'Dude' Sharrett and Andy Sharrett, casting ballots for specific voters, making false statements on forms and aiding and abetting voting violations," writes Bonnie Shortt of The Coalfield Progress in Norton.

Cooper’s attorney, Patti Church, "said it was distressful that titles such as 'kingpin,' 'mastermind' and 'Boss Hogg' have been used in reference to Cooper. She went on to say Cooper has a positive reputation of doing community service and has a positive military record," writes Shortt. (Read more)

Monday, Dec. 4, 2006

Conservative support for conservation efforts rises in western U.S.

Conservatives are getting behind environmental initiatives in the West, choosing to preserve the rustic lifestyle over unfettered economic growth, The Washington Post reports. Last month, several states such as Idaho and Washington "rejected ballot measures that could have shredded state and local land-use rules limiting growth, controlling sprawl and ensuring open space," writes Blaine Harden.

"Democratic and Republican politicians from New Mexico to Montana have found common ground with hunters and anglers in opposing widespread energy development on wild public lands, halting drilling in several areas where the public felt that wildlife and scenic values trumped economic consideration. In the past year, bipartisan grass-roots opposition has also killed off a number of proposals to sell federal land and use the revenue to pay for governmental operations."

Harden continues, "While it remains the most rural part of the country in terms of land use, the West has also become the most densely urban in terms of where people live. Compared with new neighborhoods in the East or South, houses in new developments in the West tend to be planted much closer together.". Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a think tank in Bozeman, Mont., said, "The New West is best understood as islands of urban economics in a rural setting." Around a third of personal income in the Rocky Mountain West is made up of retirement and investment money accounts. Although these newcomers tend to be conservative, they want to protect the natural beauty that drew them to the West.

"It used to be that the West was big enough that you could pretty much do anything you wanted. The natural surroundings are now being lost, and we sit in traffic like everyone else. We want to protect what's left. We just don't like Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it," Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League told Harden. (Read more)

Specialty crop growers seek subsidies to combat foreign competition

Fruit and vegetable growers in Florida, California and other states are facing more international competition, especially from China and they have started lobbying for federal subsidies to protect them.

A group of 75 specialty crop growers, representing producers of "everything from broccoli to strawberries to nuts and flowers and wine, submitted a bill in September asking for what most likely would amount to more than $1 billion for programs they say could help their crops compete better in a tougher global marketplace," writes Alexei Barrioneuvo of The New York Times. They are not asking for direct subsidies, but for funds for marketing, conservation and research. "But whatever money the fruit and vegetable farmers might get would probably have to come out of the allocation that already goes to other sorts of farmers." Federal farm subsidies currently pay more than $15 billion a year, mostly to growers of corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybeans.

"Fruit and vegetable growers have the political advantage of being in states like California, Florida and Arizona, which are likely to be critical in the 2008 presidential election," writes Barrioneuvo. "But it is unclear how important the farm vote will be to the Democrats in the next election. Under the proposed bill, an overseas marketing program would rise 75 percent, to $350 million a year. An existing specialty crop block-grant program would leap tenfold to $500 million a year. And the government would buy at least $400 million worth of fruits and vegetables annually for school lunch programs." (Read more)

Wal-Mart to use discounts, meetings to combat worker discontent

Wal-Mart is planning to use seasonal discounts and town-hall meetings where workers can air grievances to deal with the discontent expressed by employees at its stores, about half of which are in rural areas.

"As part of the effort, Wal-Mart managers at 4,000 stores will meet with 10 rank-and-file workers every week and extend an additional 10 percent discount on a single item during the holidays to all its employees, beyond the normal 10 percent employee discount," write Michael Barbaro and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times. "The program, described in an internal company document, was created during a volatile six months period, starting when the company instituted a set of sweeping changes in how it managed its workers."

"Over that time, Wal-Mart has sought to create a cheaper, more flexible labor force by capping wages, using more part-time employees, scheduling more workers at nights and weekends, and cracking down on unexcused days off. The policies angered many long-time employees, who complained that the changes would reduce their pay and disrupt their families’ lives. Workers even staged small rallies in Nitro, W. Va., and Hialeah Gardens, Fla., the only such protests in recent memory."

The effort, dubbed “Associates Out in Front,” will require regional general managers to hold monthly town-hall meetings for all workers. "Not all of these perks are new. During previous holiday seasons, Wal-Mart has paid health care premiums and offered an additional 10 percent discount. But they were sporadic or at store managers’ discretion, rather than offered annually across the chain," reports The Times. (Read more)

Discount retailer Dollar General will not withdraw from rural markets

Concerns cropped up in rural towns served by Dollar General Corp. after the discount chain announced it would close 400 stores. "Similar in concept to old five-and-dimes, Dollar General Stores offer a wide array of what the company calls 'highly consumable' products, with 35 percent of each store's stock selling for $1 or less. Dollar General focuses on opening stores in rural and metro communities the company considers under-served by other retailers," writes Bob Niedt of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Dollar General Stores are primarily located in communities of less than 25,000 people or in selected locations within larger metropolitan areas. Many of the company's customers earn a small paycheck or depend on monthly government assistance. A considerable number are retired," said the company's web site."The good news is this: If there's one Dollar General in your town, don't expect it to close," writes Niedt, adding that the company does not plan to withdraw from any market.

There are more than 8,000 Dollar General Stores in 35 states, which generated more than $8.58 billion in sales last fiscal year. Despite its planned closings, the company added 600 stores this year, with plans for another 300 in 2007, 400 in 2008 and 700 in 2009. It is based in Goodlettsville, Tenn. (population 13,780), and got its start in Scottsville, Ky., (pop. 4,327), where a distribution center remains. (Read more)

Males rarely teach kindergarten; three work in rural Wisconsin district

Male kindergarten teachers are a rarity in the education field and those who do attempt the career encounter questions about whether they are best suited to instruct young children.

David Fiala one of a small group of male kindergarten teachers in Wisconsin, and he encountered a stigma when he started working at Woodside Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids (population 18,435), writes Adam Wise of the local Daily Tribune. "People would wonder if a man should really be working with small children, but over the last few years it seems people are more used to having me here," Fiala said. His school district employs three male kindergarten teachers, making it an oddity in Wisconsin.

Grove Elementary School kindergarten teacher Chris Weinhold works in the same district and is currently mentoring a new male kindergarten teacher. Weinhold told Wise that a teacher's gender is not as important as the person's characteristics. "Teaching kindergarten or primary kids is more personality than (anything else)," he said. "It takes a certain type of person rather than a sex." (Read more)

Al's Morning Meeting has a list of related stories and sources on the lack of male kindergarten teachers.

Turning paper into energy: Virginia company to create energy from timber

A Virginia-based company wants to fuel a trend by turning a paper mill in southeast Mississippi into an alternative energy source, which could pay big profits for the timber industry.

Intrinergy is building a $10.5 million biomass energy generator at the Cellu Tissue Coastal Paper plant in Wiggins, Miss., and it "will create energy using 1,000 tons of unwanted wood byproducts, such as barky scraps discarded at lumber mills or the damaged wood products that sat in useless piles after Hurricane Katrina," writes Reuben Mees of the Hattiesburg American. The renewable energy could then replace natural gas, fuel oil or coal.

"In addition to the Wiggins facility, which is expected to be operational near the end of 2007, Intrinergy is beginning projects in Bessemer and Birmingham, Ala., and completing a project in Coshocton, Ohio, that utilizes plastic and rubber byproducts instead of wood, which is not as easy to come by in the Midwest," reports Mees. (Read more)

Muncie Free Press attracts readers, community support in rural Indiana

An online newspaper is still afloat after launching more than a year ago in Muncie, Ind., and rural media everywhere might learn more about getting the most out of limited resources by visiting its Web site.

Publisher K. Paul Mallasch launched the Muncie Free Press after deciding to leave the city's Muncie Star Press, a Gannett-owned paper that towers over its competition both in newsroom space and staff size. "Mallasch still runs the site out of his apartment, and still does a lot of the reporting and other editorial and business chores, while also juggling freelance balls to pay the bills. But he's finally getting help from the community," writes Tom Grubisich for the University of Southern California's Online Journalism Review.

A retired professor writes columns and a citizen makes recordings of city council meetings. To listen to an example of that audio, click here. "Between January and September, Muncie Free Press more than tripled its monthly visitors (from 2,543 to 8,035) and almost doubled its page views (from 38,867 to 74,651). All this with one person in charge of everything from bandwidth to blogging," writes Grubisich, a California screenwriter who was a reporter and editor for The Washington Post. (Read more)

Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Weekly editor in rural Oklahoma shares tale of grief, blame, and courage

Sharon Johnson came under fire after writing an article about a kidnapping and assault, when two days later the man came back to kill his wife and himself. Johnson is the editor of the weekly Stigler News-Sentinel in Stigler, Okla., population 2,731. In the latest issue of the Oklahoma Publisher, from the Oklahoma Press Association, she summed up the original incident: “The man held his wife hostage in their home, struck her in the stomach and later vandalized the home, taking many of her personal items.” She wrote a story about the incident, and “Everything in it was based solely on the D.A.’s report. I was satisfied that it was beyond legal reproach,” she said. “What it was not beyond, however, was reproach from the public.”

An in-law of the couple, who handles advertising for his family’s car dealership, called the paper immediately, saying angrily about the husband, “We’re afraid this is just going to set him off.” The ads were cut, but Johnson said that was “the least of our concerns.” The murder-suicide occured two days later, and some local residents said the article triggered it. “We have been told that we need to ‘watch our backsides’ and even had some that said they were praying something would happen to us,” said Johnson. She said the paper probably would have been accused of a cover-up if it had not reported the first incident.

Some questioned why the paper did not publish her husband’s suicide six years earlier. She said she didn't understand how people could compare the incidents, because her husband was alone when he killed himself and “It is not our policy to publish stories about suicides. If the man involved had simply shot and killed himself that first night, there would have simply been an obituary.”

Johnson said the National Newspaper Association convention in Oklahoma City in October came at just the right time for her. “It allowed me to share my heartache and fears with those who understand it best – fellow journalists,” she wrote, adding that that “journalists do bleed like everyone else. They also hurt like everyone else. No one but other journalists understand this.” (Read more)

Small daily helps resort town deal with population boom, new industry

The Post Independent, a daily with a circulation of 12,000, is helping its community of Glenwood Springs, Colo., adjust to rapid population growth created by natural-gas drilling. Most residents of the ski-resort town of 8,564 work in tourism. The gas industry has brought new jobs and a newcomers who have filled schools and increased housing demand. The incidence of crime and methamphetamines has also risen, reports Jeremy Weber of The Inlander, the monthly newspaper of the Inland Press Association.

Andrea Porter, publisher of the Independent, told Weber that the paper has learned how to deal with the impact on the community -- “how to report it, and how to take different approaches to it. It’s fun – it makes the day and what you’re reporting on very interesting.” Monday papers have reader-submitted photos, and a section called “Community Faces” features residents nominated by readers. The Independent has begun offering an online edition this year to give extra coverage and provide fast access to breaking stories.

The Independent is one of 16 papers in Swift Newspapers’ Colorado Mountain News Media group. “The 36-page tab highlights local news and entertainment, produces 20 special sections and regularly seeks reader input,” writes Weber. The paper is unusual in that it has both a paid circulation and distribution on free racks, brought on by the merger of a paid daily and a free paper. Porter said that their paid and free circulations are about evenly split. (Read more)

Medicaid rewards healthy behavior in W.Va.; proposed in Ky., Idaho

West Virginia, a state with much rural population and some of the highest rates in the country of smoking, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, is offering incentives for Medicaid recipients to make healthy choices. Kentucky and Idaho are considering carrying similar incentives.

“Under a reorganized schedule of aid, the state, hoping for savings over time, plans to reward ‘responsible’ patients with significant extra benefits or — as critics describe it — punish those who do not join weight-loss or antismoking programs, or who miss too many appointments, by denying important services,” reports Erik Eckholm of The New York Times.

“In a pilot phase starting in three rural counties over the next few months, many West Virginia Medicaid patients will be asked to sign a pledge ‘to do my best to stay healthy,’ to attend ‘health improvement programs as directed,’ to have routine checkups and screenings, to keep appointments, to take medicine as prescribed and to go to emergency rooms only for real emergencies,” writes Eckholm. In return, they will get “mental-health counseling, long-term diabetes management and cardiac rehabilitation, and prescription drugs and home health visits as needed, as well as antismoking and antiobesity classes,” writes Eckholm. “Those who do not sign will get federally required basic services but be limited to four prescriptions a month, for example, and will not receive the other enhanced benefits.”

The effort was approved last summer and is the first of its kind. However, there has been some criticism. “A stinging editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine on Aug. 24 said it could punish patients for factors beyond their control, like lack of transportation; would penalize children for errors of their parents; would hold Medicaid patients to standards of compliance that are often not met by middle-class people; and would put doctors in untenable positions as enforcers,” writes Eckholm. (Read more)

Virtual farmers' market lets Inland Northwest tap into online sales

The Inland Northwest virtual farmers' market offers opportunities for farmers and artisans to sell their wares to people across the country, with just the click of a mouse. The site is a cooperative work created by entrepreneur Malcolm Dell and multiple organizations, including groups from the University of Idaho, Lewis-Clark State College, Rural Roots and others, reports the Capital Press, an agriculture weekly.

"The real purpose of the VFM is to broaden the market potential for people doing things in their kitchens, or maybe doing metal or wood work in their shops. By developing the entrepreneur base and offering some training, we can add to the tax base here and even help people with extra retirement income," Chris Kuykendall of the Clearwater County Economic Development Council, based in Orofino, Idaho, population 3,247, told the Barbara Coyner of Capital Press.

Vendors sell goods ranging from turkey, lamb, cedar fencing and wood products to honey, cashmere, fleece and gourmet soaps, reports Coyner. The moderator, Carmen Syed, from Weippe, Idaho (pop. 416), offers suggestions, helps sellers design ads, and monitors the site. Now the site could use more buyers. It is currently offered free to residents of certain counties in Idaho, Washington and Oregon and members of the Western Huckleberry-Bilberry Association. The site operators hope to make it free for all of Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon if they can get enough funding. (Read more)

Hog farmers concerned that ethanol demand may drive up corn prices

Some hog farmers fear that they may soon have to compete with the ethanol industry for corn and that substitute grains will slim down their pigs. William Holbrook of the ProExporter Network estimates that the tax-subsidized ethanol industry could afford to pay up to $3.50 for a bushel of corn. Hog farmers are not as likely to be able to pay that much for feed and are likely to turn to the processed grains that are a byproduct of ethanol distilling, reports Dan Looker of Agriculture Online.

“Part of the reason for ethanol's ability to survive high corn prices is the 51 cent-per-gallon tax credit that fuel blenders get for using ethanol, as well as the federally mandated renewable fuel standard that requires the U.S. to consume 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel by 2012,” writes Looker.

Hog farmers “will be using more distillers grains from that ethanol industry and will have to know their suppliers well to be assured of getting quality feed,” writes Looker. “And they're likely to feed pigs to lower finishing weights to offset higher feed costs.” Pigs are not able to consume as much of the ethanol bi-products as cattle are. “Iowa State University economist John Lawrence said that pork producers can currently feed up to 10 percent distillers' grains in the ration with no impact on feed performance or returns. And, over time, he expects the industry to reward lower carcass weights.” (Read more)

Cotton's comeback spreads to the far western end of Kentucky

"Few people think of Kentucky when they think about cotton farming. But cotton was grown in the far western part of the state for many years and, recently, it has begun making a comeback of sorts. A handful of farmers have returned to the crop for a second year with nearly 3,000 acres planted in Fulton County in 2006," writes Laura Skillman in a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture news release. The small group of growers have prompted prompted the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation to create a new cotton advisory committee. (Read more)

Cotton was grown in Western Kentucky for more than a century, but disappeared in the 1970s when yields and prices decreased, reports Skillman. Cotton was replaced by corn and soybeans, but the price of nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow those crops has since increased 280 percent. Similar factors have boosted cotton production in Kansas, The Rural Blog reported last month.

Cotton has also been genetically modified to be easier to raise, and new machinery makes it easier to harvest, "although cotton has to be more intensively managed for weeds, worms and boll weevils than other field crops," said Cam Kenimer, the agriculture and natural resources agent for the Cooperative Extension Service in Fulton County, at the far western tip of the state. “We tried some cotton last year and it turned out good so we added acres and bought equipment,” said Joey Parker, a Fulton County farmer. “Prices are not great but you can make some money. You can easily put $300 to $350 per acre into it but you can get back $600 to $700 and, if you have a really good crop, even more.”

Permission to reprint items from The Rural Blog is 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 ket us know by sending an e-mail to al.cross@uky.edu.

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 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, and West Virginia University. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of daily Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.



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