The Rural Blog Archive: October 2006

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

Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006

Papers' accelerating circulation decline partly due to rural abandonment; smallest dailies, many of them rural, show best circulation performance

Some of what Editor & Publisher's Jennifer Saba calls "bloodcurdling circulation drops" at metropolitan newspapers are voluntary, writes Alan Mutter of Tapit Partners in his Confessions of a Newsosaur blog, which is subtitled "Musings and (occasional urgent warnings) of a veteran media executive, who fears our news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction." (The chart below comes from his site.)

"Publishers increasingly are deciding to stop schlepping papers to thinly penetrated locations far from their core markets," Mutter writes." Beyond being an expensive indulgence, vanity circulation is little prized by most advertisers. It makes perfect sense to say bye-bye to the boonies."

Saba writes, "Newspaper companies are also refocusing their efforts on tighter geographic targets. Many big metros, like The Dallas Morning News, cut circulation outside their core area." E&P said daily circulation declined 2.8 percent in the last six months and Sunday circulation dropped 3.4 percent.

Generally, the larger the papers, the larger the declines. The best performance was in dailies of less than 25,000 circulation, many of them rural. Among the 419 papers in that category, the overall decline was 2.1 percent and one-fourth of them (105) reported higher circulation.

Newspapers are increasingly pointing to their total audience, including Web site visitors. The Newspaper Association of America, the dailies' trade group, reported that a record 58 million people, "more than one in three active Internet users, visited a newspaper Web site" during the period, Saba writes. "There’s no question that newspapers are making great strides in driving online readership, especially as online revenue is growing like gangbusters. What remains to be seen is if they get the credit."

CNHI buys six papers from Dow Jones, names Bill Ketter VP of news

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., one of the largest owners of rural newspapers in the U.S., is buying six papers from Dow Jones & Co., which says it is trying to diversify from print. The papers are: the News-Times of Danbury, Conn., circulation 29,336; the Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle, 28,235; the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel, 25,305; The Daily Item of Sunbury, Pa., 24,226;the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, N.Y., 20,386; and The Daily Star of Oneonta, N.Y., 17,114.

"Dow Jones' Local Media Group will continue to publish eight daily and 15 weekly newspapers and their community Internet sites in seven U.S. states with combined daily print circulation of 282,000, Sunday print circulation of 316,000 and online average daily unique visitors of 119,000," the company release said.

CNHI posted no release on the sale, but the purchase appears to continue the Birmingham-based firm's strategy of buying larger community dailies. Four of the new purchases will be among CNHI's top 10 in circulation, and the others will rank 14th and 21st among a total of 83 dailies. It has 73 weeklies.

Meanwhile, veteran journalist Bill Ketter is CNHI's new vice president of news, leaving his post as editor and vice president of news for CNHI's Eagle-Tribune Publishing Group of four dailies and four weeklies, based in North Andover, Mass. The Eagle-Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2003, and Ketter served on the Pulitzer board a few years earlier.

"Ketter's experience includes that of reporter, editor and vice president with UPI. He is a former Boston Globe vice president [and] former chairman of the Boston University Journalism School," reports the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in its latest eBulletin. "Ketter, who will remain in North Andover, is replacing Brad Dennison, who has accepted a position in the Chicago area. (Read more)

Ketter is "chairman of the New England Academy of Journalists, and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. . . . He has spoken on the value of a free press and American journalism in more than 25 countries," according to his profile on Boston University's Web site. He is also a director of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Rural areas take innovative approaches to overcoming education hurdles

"Students from remote, rural regions confront many obstacles in their pursuit of higher education — including difficulties just getting to classes and a lack of preparation for college-level work. Those challenges, while often similar for rural students throughout America, can play out in different ways depending on the region in which the students live," reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Rural students in Appalachia, for instance, generally come from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and can have different problems and needs, from those of rural students in Montana. The economic conditions that influence students in rural Alaska are not the same as those in the Southwest." The publication's latest forum examines the conditions for rural students in those regions and states, as well as Arizona, through the words of education leaders.

"Poor students who live in remote areas face many disadvantages," writes Gordon Davies, director of the National Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy and former head of the postsecondary education councils in Kentucky and Virginia. "For starters, many jobs in rural areas have disappeared, sometimes overseas and sometimes because a natural resource has been depleted. The tobacco, timber, and textile industries, for example, no longer support the population of many counties in southern Virginia. Thus, the family earnings of poor rural students have fallen or stagnated while tuition at most colleges has continued to climb. Such students simply can't afford college, and financial-aid programs don't fill the gap."

Obstacles include transportation costs, teacher shortages, and a lack of communication, computation, and other academic skills necessary for college success. However, all of these regions are using innovative steps to overcome hurdles, and one example is Blackfeet Community College in Montana. "For example, we are working to provide new student housing within walking distance from the campus to ameliorate transportation needs," writes college President John E. Salois. "We have obtained several federal grants to purchase land and create the infrastructure for construction. We are exploring options like tax credits to help pay to build the housing and like wind energy to make it more affordable for tenants." (Read more)

As rural lands change hands, development threatens Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail provides escape for hikers and homeowners from Maine to Georgia, but some locals worry about the effects of housing developments and highway expansions on their scenery and the trail.

"From New England to the Deep South, the AT is threatened by subdivisions, road-building, power lines and other development under construction or consideration along the 2,175-mile footpath, according to the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages the AT," writes John Cramer of The Roanoke Times. in the paper's latest example of offering readers a regional story of national importance.

The National Association of Home Builders and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., advocate of a free-market approach to environmental policy, counter that people should have the ability to live anywhere without loads of government rules that only complicate the issues of urban sprawl, pollution, traffic, home prices and energy costs, reports Cramer.

Some Virginians are signing conservation easements to get federal and state tax breaks in trade for limiting or prohibiting development on their land. The Appalachian Trail is an example of how landowners hold the future of rural property in their hands. (Read more)

Oops: For us, the most intriguing part of Cramer's story was this line: "Nationwide, 70 percent of rural lands are expected to change ownership in the next decade as aging family farmers face tougher markets, rising costs, their children leaving for the city and developers looking for retirement and vacation home sites for millions of baby boomers." Cramer did not give a source for that figure, but we looked around and found a story in the Oct. 23 issue of The News and Advance of nearby Lynchburg, which quotes Roger Holnback, executive director of the nonprofit Western Virginia Land Trust, saying “In the next decade, 70 percent of the rural lands in Virginia will change hands.” (Emphasis added.) Holnback told us that the estimate came from a 2001 Virginia Department of Agriculture report. (Read more)

Bush folks add endangered species at less than one-sixth Clinton's rate

A Bush appointee at the Department of the Interior is prone to rejecting staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, according to documents revealed by The Washington Post.

There is a federal inquiry underway into the role of Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks, and her decisions to reject reports with proposals to identify species as either threatened or endangered. "Overall, President Bush's appointees have added far fewer species to the protected list than did the administrations of either Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush, according to the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity," writes the Post's Juliet Eilperin.

The Bush administration has listed 56 species, compared to 512 species during Clinton's two terms and 234 during George H.W. Bush's one term. Government officials and outside scientists have accused the Bush administration of overriding or disregarding findings that go against its plans for global warming. Bush officials counter that the reason for fewer species is being listed is that there are several lawsuits over existing listings, and that the focus is on ensuring their recovery not adding new ones, reports Eilperin.

"Since the act's inception in 1973, the government has identified 1,337 domestic species as threatened or endangered, of which 1,311 remain on the list. At any given time the government is evaluating hundreds of candidate species: Officials and scientists review all the available scientific literature on a plant or animal before awarding it protection. The process can take several years, even though under law it should take no more than two years and three months," writes Eilperin. (Read more)

Program to cut global warming pays farmers for keeping land green

Farmers may profit by planting crops and letting them flourish as part of the Chicago Climate Exchange, the country's first and only legally binding greenhouse-gas reduction and trading system.

"Landowners who agree to maintain tracts of woodlands and grasslands are assigned 'carbon credits' by the exchange based on plants' ability through photosynthesis to pull carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their tissue. Those credits earn farmers income once exchange member corporations purchase them to offset their carbon dioxide emissions to meet voluntary reduction targets," reports Rick Callahan of The Associated Press.

The system's enrollment totals about 1,700 farms, many of which go through groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Farmers Union that pool carbon credits for sale. The National Farmers Union, which which represents about 250,000 family farms and ranches, started an effort earlier this month to encourage farmers to enroll in the exchange, notes AP.

"The Chicago exchange was set up for American companies that want to voluntarily curb their greenhouse gas releases. Separately, several Northeastern states have formed an initiative to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and California is moving in the same direction. A coalition of 19 environmental groups eager for the federal government to set greenhouse gas caps - which the Bush administration opposes - issued an open letter in August urging states and municipalities not to join the Chicago exchange's trading system," reports Callahan. (Read more)

Iowa farmers get work done by using their hands instead of fossil fuels

Farming free of fossil fuels is creating a buzz in Iowa with people picking corn the old way -- by hand -- and with farmers using horses to perform work typically reserved for gas-guzzling machines.

Farmers are not ditching tractors altogether, but many are using combinations of small motorized equipment and horses -- some of which eat the corn while picking. This style of farming comes with drawbacks because "hauling manure with horses in the winter doesn't provide the same creature comforts of a modern cab tractor with heat and an air-ride seat," writes Matthew Wilde of The Waterloo Cedar-Falls Courier.

However, what some seasoned farmers hope to do is show aspiring farmers that 1,000 acres and expensive equipment are not needed to survive in agriculture. The nation's agriculture industry is saddled with an aging population and many cite today's high cost of farming as one reason for the shortage of rookies. However, fossil fuel-free farmers accomplish two things -- "They're helping the environment by not using man made chemicals, saving energy and providing wholesome food for the community. And, they're making money doing it," reports Wilde. (Read more)

Monday, Oct. 30, 2006

'Wildlands-urban interface' home to most new homes, now big fires

A fire in the San Jacinto Mountains burned 63 structures and 63 square miles last week in California, in an example of how housing developments in rural America pose new concerns for firefighters.

As more people flock from the city to the country, the problem of fires caused by arson or other means continues to increase. The new rural homeowners are moving to "a zone known to experts and firefighters as the wildlands-urban interface -- the space where houses intermingle with wilderness, a space where millions of Americans long to live," writes John Pomfret of The Washington Post. "In the 1990s, . . . of the 13 million homes built in the United States, 9 million, or 69 percent, were constructed in these zones."

California's big fire is just the latest in its string of 7,757 wildfires this year, and that state contains the most homes in wildlands-urban interface zones and the most homes lost to wildfires. "The development boom in forests and chaparral and along riverbeds has led some experts to question whether society can afford to have firefighters risk their lives to protect this lifestyle and whether federal, state and local governments should not limit development," writes Pomfret.

That idea enrages some Americans who live by the philosophy that all land should be open for their taking. In California alone, thousands of homeowners have picked land in the woods, along earthquake lines and in flood plains. Up for debate is the role firefighters play in the frequency and intensity of wildfires.(Read more)

Rural residents fight suburb-like housing developments in Washington

In western Washington state, cluster housing, the practice of placing large houses close together on a small area of land, has drawn opposition from residents who want to keep the rural character of their community.

People Opposed to Rural Cluster Housing say they want to preserve the wildlife, natural beauty and rural lifestyle of Snohomish County, a mostly forested region which has begun to experience high growth. "We don't want to live in subdivisions, so please don't bring the subdivisions out to us," Deborah Biebel-Tinius of Snohomish told the Daily Herald in Everett, Wash.

“County policies require officials to monitor rural developments to make sure patterns of urban development don't emerge, with reports due annually. Snohomish County was sued in 1995 over its growth plans. The county later changed its policies to restrict rural housing to one house per five acres except when cluster developments are built,” writes Jeff Switzer of the Herald.

Since 1993 more houses have been allowed to be built on smaller tracts as long as a portion of the land is left undeveloped. Proponents say it preserves trees and creates more open space. However, there is now about one house per 2.8 acres in the county. Maxine Tuerk, co-sponsor of People Opposed to Rural Cluster Housing, said that it’s like an urban sprawl. The county expects about 51,000 people to move into its rural areas in the next 20 years. (Read more)

End of daylight saving time increases chances of deer-vehicle collisions

When daylight saving time concluded Sunday morning, the chances of deer-vehicle collisions increased.

Prior to Sunday morning, when people got off work, the sun still shined and deer stayed hidden away. Now, “as soon as the sun goes down, deer come out and that’s going to put them on the same roads as the people going home from work and that’s a collision waiting to happen. Our deer-related accidents really go up after October.” Lee County, Mississippi Sheriff Jim Johnson told reporter Danza Johnson of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo

Understanding deer patterns may prevent collisions, according to a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Deer move about two hours before sunrise and two hours after sunset,” Scott Edwards told Johnson. “During those four hours you’ll see more deer activity than any other time. Now sunset falls at 7 o’clock when most people are already home from work and settled in. When the sun starts setting at 5:30 p.m. after daylight-saving time, people will still be on their way home from work, and this puts them on the same roads with the deer." (Read more)

Thanks to Al's Morining Meeting from the Poynter Institute for leading us to this story.

More Christian groups in Appalachia oppose mountaintop removal

In Appalachia, some Christian groups are taking a stand against mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal, and are giving mountain tours to raise awareness among the public. "They are part of an awakening among religious people to environmental issues, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an interreligious alliance. Increasingly, religious people across denominations are organizing around local issues, like preventing a landfill, preserving wetlands and changing mining," writes Neela Banerjee of The New York Times.

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia has lead hiking tours across southeastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia since 1994 and the Mennonite Central Committee Appalachia has begun this month, reports Banerjee. A new group, Christians for the Mountains, encourages religious people to take mountaintop removal as a spiritual issue and has distributed a DVD throughout churches. However, Appalachian residents may hesitate to oppose mountaintop removal because many work in the coal industry and are afraid of pressure from their employers. Recently, the Kentucky Council of Churches came out against mountaintop removal.

Coal-industry leaders say mountaintop removal is safer for miners and creates jobs. Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told The Times that opponents of the practice face a dilemma, “because they’re expressing support for those who purport to protect nature, and, at the same time, that activism carries implications for the human side of the natural equation. Human welfare depends on the rational exploitation of nature.” (Read more)

Health insurer commits $5 million to economic program in rural Iowa

Rural economic development is getting a $5 million boost in Iowa thanks to a commitment from health insurer Wellmark Inc. to the state Farm Bureau's program called Renew Rural Iowa.

"Wellmark is the first outside investor in Renew Rural Iowa since Iowa Farm Bureau launched the program last month. Iowa Farm Bureau, a West Des Moines-based farm advocacy group, already has pledged $5 million of its own and is seeking an additional $10 million to $20 million in venture capital by year end," reports The Des Moines Register. (Read more)

The program supplies entrepreneurs with training, mentoring, and business guidance, and entrepreneurs must go through the program in order to gain some of the venture capital. Renew Rural Iowa is scheduling seminars across the state, and anyone seeking information should visit this Web site.

Bobbie Ann Mason sees the poison industry on the rise in Kentucky

When The New York Times.asked four writers around the country to write about developments in their local economies, rural, Kentucky-born writer Bobbie Ann Mason reported that her state is shifting from agriculture to weapons of mass destruction.

"In rural Kentucky, where the health of the land once meant plowing manure under the soil each spring, the future is not in cows and corn. We’re now poised to take on the burden of the world’s poisons," Mason writes, noting two hazardous-material sites and a proposal for a lab to fight bioterrorism.

The Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, a city of about 30,000 in Central Kentucky, has held a stockpile of about 523 tons of chemical weapons since World War II. The weapons contain materials such as sarin and mustard gas and there are possibilities of leaks. Kentucky will be getting a $2 billion test plant to attempt to dispose of the weapons, but it is a pilot project with uncertain results. A ceremony to mark start of constuction was held Saturday, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. (Read more)

Paducah (pop. 26,000) in Western Kentucky has a uranium-enrichment plant that has been disposing of its own radioactive materials but may decide to open a recycling plant for nuclear waste shipped in from worldwide, said Mason. The proposed plant would create up to 6,000 jobs for the areas but it poses health and safety concerns. Kentucky politicians have also proposed a $451 million lab to study possible biological weapons such as anthrax and the ebola virus. Mason colcludes, "Y’all come!" (Read more)

Halloween spending on the rise, big business in small Kentucky town

Halloween Express, based in Owenton, Ky., population 1,387, is the No. 2 Halloween store in the nation. It started in South Carolina but moved to Kentucky to collaborate with a factory producing Halloween goods. Curtis Sigretto's business is franchised to 135 stores in more than 30 states, generating between $40 million and $50 million a year. A typical store, although only open from early September to early November, might generate $350,000 in that span of time, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Consumer spending on Halloween is expected to rise significantly this year. In a report issued last month, the National Retail Federation estimated consumers will spend close to $5 billion, up from $3.3 billion last year, according to a survey it commissioned," writes Scott Sloan. "The big increase is attributed to more consumers expecting to celebrate the event, up to 63.8 percent from 52.5 percent last year. Still, the federation ranked Halloween as only the sixth-largest spending holiday behind the winter holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa), Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Easter and Father's Day, largely because gifts are not exchanged at Halloween." (Read more)

Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

Poll in key districts, states shows rural voters moving to Democrats

Democratic candidates in closely contested House races now have a clear overall advantage among rural voters in the latest version of a bipartisan poll, after being tied with Republicans last month.

"Fifty-two per cent of the respondents indicate they'll vote for Democratic congressional candidates; 39 percent say they'll support Republicans," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. Seven percent were undecided, 2 percent refused to answer and 1 percent said they would vote for a canddiate of another party. The error margin was plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.

The poll found Democrats more enthusiastic about supporting their candidates, and "rural voters more strongly committed to Republican ideals are unenthusiastic about voting Republican now." It also found a shift toward Democrats in Senate races in states with signiifcant rural populations, from +4 Republican to +4 Democratic, but those results remained within the error margin of 5.5 points for the Senate sample.

The poll was conducted for the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based group that tries to focus public attention on rural issues. "In past elections, we’ve seen the numbers in rural areas break toward the Republicans at the end and now it’s breaking toward the Democrats,” CRS President Dee Davis told David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. "He said a similar pattern was seen in the elections of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton," Yepsen added.

The poll was supervised and analyzed by Republican consultant Bill Greener and conducted by Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "Rural voters tend to be a core electorate for Republicans and they need their base voters to turn out and turn out big," Greenberg told Berkes. But Davis told Yepsen, “The rural vote is not a permanent fixture of the GOP. Events matter, and policies matter, and right now there’s a dissatisfaction with Congress.” (Read more)

A month of bad news from Iraq may have made much of the difference. "Sixty percent of the respondents supported a statement calling for return of American troops next year," Berkes reports. "Thirty-eight percent named the Iraq war as one of their top issues, an increase of 10 per cent in the last month." He offered one hope for Republicans: "Half of those surveyed didn't blame the nation's problems on their incumbent member of congress. And most of the districts surveyed have Republican incumbents." (Read more)

Districts surveyed included AZ-08, CA-11, CO-03, CO-04, CT-02, CT-05, FL-13, FL-16, IL-17, IN-09, IN-08, IN-02, IA-08, KY-02, KY-04, LA-03, MN-01, NV-02, NH-02, NH-01, NY-19, NY-20, NY-24, NY-25, NY-29, NC-11, OH-02, OH-06, OH-18, PA-06, MN-06, PA-10, SC-05, TX-17, TX-23, WV-01, WI-08, WA-02, WA-08, and the entire-state House districts of Vermont and Wyoming. States surveyed for Senate races included Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Dailies growing online revenue, but still not as fast as online readership

Daily newspapers reported 24 percent more online visits in the thrid quarter than a year ago, and their owners' quarterly earnings reports show that their online revenue is also growing fast. "The bad news is that online revenue doesn't seem to be keeping pace with online readership," writes Wendy Davis in the Just an Online Minute blog from MediaPost Communications.

David notes that online revenue accounts for 6 to 7 percent of total daily newspaper revenue, according to estimates by Merrill Lynch. "Even if the rapid growth continues for the next few years, we don't see online representing over 50 percent of newspaper ad revenues for at least a couple of decades, suggesting that industry profit could stay flat for the foreseeable future," Merrill Lynch said in a report cited by Davis. "Many newspaper stocks are pricing in flat to negative perpetual growth in free cash flow."

Davis also cites a report from the research company Outsell, which estimated that the top 10 news companies get only 5 percent of revenue from their online services. "Growth is heavily dependent on narrowing that gap between the percentage of audience online and how much company revenue is derived from online," the Outsell report said.

The key, Davis argues, is "newspapers' willingness to experiment. . . . But any experiments likely will have to occur at Internet speed -- much faster than newspapers are accustomed to. Consider the $1.65 billion deal between Google and YouTube reportedly came together in just one week." (Read more)

Dave Morgan of MediaPost's OnlineSpin blog writes that newspapers "know that their chance to dominate local online advertising as they have dominated local offline advertising is looking slimmer and slimmer. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are all lining up to take a piece of the $100+ billion local ad market as much of it shifts online."

Morgan has four recommendations for papers: Separate their online and print divisions to attract and keep online talent, reinvent their pages for the Web, embrace user-generated content, and create local ad networks "to aggregate every site and every page and every blog with any local connection ... to create the kind of massive scale that advertisers want. This is already done on the national level." (Read more)

Friday, Oct. 27, 2006

Gay marriage, a big issue in rural areas, resurfaces as elections loom

The hot-button issue of gay marriage, so helpful to Republican candidates in 2004, especially in rural areas, is back. Yesterday, "President Bush and Republicans across the country tried to use a court ruling in New Jersey to rally dispirited conservatives to the polls," reports Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times. "This will play among those rural, social-conservative voters, Rich Lowry of National Review said tonight on PBS's NewsHour.

The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling that legislators should give gays "the same legal rights and financial benefits as heterosexual couples had immediate ripple effects, especially in Senate races in some of the eight states where voters are considering constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage," Stolberg reports -- especially Tennessee and Virginia, where Democratic wins could give the party control of the Senate.

Virginia Sen. George Allen showed up yesterday at a Roanoke rally for the amendment, and used it as he campaigned elsewhere, reports Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times. (Read more) Also along the Interstate 81 corridor, Democratic challenger James Webb, rebutted an Allen radio ad "that suggests he supports gay marriage," the Times reports. Webb opposes the amendment, "agreeing with other prominent Democrats that the proposal reaches beyond marriage to affect other legal relationships between unmarried individuals," specifically civil unions, reports the Roanoke paper's Michael Sluss. (Read more)

Republican strategist Charles Black told the New York Times, “You’ve got about 20 House races and probably half a dozen Senate races that are either dead even or very, very close. So if it motivates voters in one or two to go vote, it could make a difference.” Democrats said that the debate would not, as reporter Stolberg put it, "dramatically alter the national conversation in an election that has been dominated by the war in Iraq and corruption and scandal in Washington. But across the country, Republicans quickly embraced the New Jersey ruling as a reason for voters to send them to Capitol Hill." (Read more)

Rural Danish paper tries to build bridges between natives, refugees

In rural Denmark, the newspaper Nordjyske Stiftstidende is trying to integrate Muslim refugees with native Danes with a series called “Kontakt.” Reporter Lars Hofmeister came up with the idea after another Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, raised international controversy last September by publishing editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Inger Lise Kobber-Jønsson, assistant managing editor of Nordjyske Stiftstidende, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the series is designed partly to help dispel negative images of Denmark and Danes that the cartoons may have created.

To foster understanding between “new Danes” and “old Danes,” the paper ran a story last month inviting a native family to have dinner with a family of Afghan immigrants. The Afghans were refugees from the country's civil war before getting permanent-residence permits in Denmark. Hofmeister's story describes their dinner with a family in the town of Sæby (population 18,000), the food they ate, their conversations and how the children played. It occupied a two-page spread with six color photographs. The story talked little of politics, and focused on the interactions between the families and their new friendship.

Nordjyske Stiftstidende is a daily with a circulation of about 70,000, with six local editions. We think this series is an excellent example of how rural newspapers anywhere can become engaged in their communities, to interact with the public and build bridges across cultures. To read the article, click here. (Article in Danish, and for subscribers only; for a translation, contact the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, address below.) To visit Nordjyske Stiftstidende’s home page, click here.

Health-insurance database compares access, affordability by state

Access to affordable health insurance is an issue in many rural areas, partly because of differences in state regulation. How does your state match up with those near it and like it? You can find out with the State Health Insurance Index, compiled by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance.

"The index considers six important measures of state health insurance viability, including the regulatory environment, the number of health-insurance mandates, the uninsured, access to a high-risk pool and the average premiums in the individual and small group markets," CAHI said in a news release.

CAHI defines itself as "a research and advocacy association of insurance carriers active in the individual, small group, HSA and senior markets" that lobbies for "market-oriented solutions to the problems in America's health care system. It includes insurance companies, small businesses, providers, nonprofit associations, actuaries, insurance brokers and individuals." (Read more)

New law requires New York public records to be available via e-mail

“All state and local government agencies with Internet capabilities in New York are now required to accept public records requests and transmit responsive documents by e-mail, due to a change in the state's Freedom of Information Law that became effective Tuesday,” writes Loren Cochran of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

New York is the only state that requires public agencies to make fulfill open-records requests by e-mail, reports Cochran. To us, this sounds like an example that other states should follow.

Robert Freeman, executive director of New York's Committee on Open Government, believes the law will benefit both the government and people seeking information. He said e-mail will save agencies time and money through sending fewer paper copies and requesters won’t have to pay to get records. “Freeman said the new law also streamlines the process by providing requesters with a standardized public records request form and requiring uniform agency responses, moves he anticipates will improve responses from government,” writes Cochran. (Read more)

Underwriters Laboratories safety sticker still not available for E85 pumps

The spread of 85 percent ethanol fuel, E85, could be slowed because the leading product-safety testing group has "no timetable for approving E85 systems for filling stations," reports the Detroit Free Press.

"The lack of the UL seal for fuel pumps carrying E85 means most of the roughly 1,000 stations that carry ethanol likely violate fire codes, and stations that want to install E85 systems in most states would need waivers from local or state fire marshals," writes Justin Hyde of the paper's Washington Bureau.

Two E85 stations near Columbus, Ohio were closed because of a lack of a UL listing, "no safety problems with E85 stations ever have been reported," Hyde reports. "UL seals show up on thousands of products from toasters to turbines, and a UL listing is a requirement for filling stations under most fire codes. But on Oct. 5, UL announced it was suspending its listings for any fuel system that handled E85."

UL told Hyde it had certified some parts of a fueling system for alternative fuels, but had not focused on E85 "until May, when a supplier applied for a UL listing for an entire dispenser -- the pump and nozzle," Hyde explains. "As UL began to examine the system, it realized it needed more information about how ethanol reacted over long periods of time with parts made from certain metals." (Read more)

Watchdog group launching tool to monitor hiring of political spouses

The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group for open government, is launching a project that will provide information on U.S. House members whose spouses are paid by their campaigns. A searchable database will show which members have spouses on the payroll, what they are paid, and what work they do.

"Some members of Congress, by hiring their spouses, in effect use their campaign treasury to supplement their own bank accounts," writes Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. "The practice is legal, disclosed in obscure corners of campaign finance reports, and rarely mentioned by those who cover campaigns. And now citizen journalists can investigate it!"

The Sunlight Foundation plans to add a Senate spouse project, another for children of politicians working for political campaigns, as well as a project to disclose relatives in political action committees and those registered to lobby Congress. To read the Sunlight Foundation’s release, click here.

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

Expert says community trumps technology for rural business opportunity

Collaboration of communities is more important to rural economic growth than access to technology, a leading rural sociologist said this week at the national rural telecommunications conference.

“It’s not about the technology. It’s about people, the social nature of the community and whether its organizations are prepared to do what needs to be done,” Kenneth E. Pigg of the University of Missouri at Columbia said Monday at the 10th annual RuralTeleCon in Little Rock, Ark.

Pigg said rural areas must come together as a whole to identify and develop their economic strengths. He added that until rural America learns to promote its distinct features and qualities, economic development opportunities will be few and far between, reports Bill W. Hornaday of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Hornaday writes, "In a reversal of recent trends that sent millions of American jobs abroad, unstable economies and political unrest have many companies looking to rural America for new manufacturing plants and satellite facilities, said Greg Smith, chairman of the Rural Telecommunication Congress, which sponsors the annual conference. Some high-tech businesses already are making the move, citing lower cost of living, a 'reduced hassle' lifestyle, improved labor force, recreation opportunities, and lower taxes and business costs, he said." (Read more)

Rural industries' water consumption may threaten ethanol's expansion

Excessive water consumption could limit the spreading use of ethanol as a fuel, according to a paper by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Water is evaporated and expelled as waste in a cooling process used to make ethanol, and the typical plant needs about 500 gallons of water per minute.

"Most ethanol plants in the U.S. are based in the Midwest because of their proximity to corn, their primary feedstock," said an IATP release. "Parts of the Midwest are experiencing significant water supply concerns, particularly in the western portion of the region. Rural industries, mainly livestock production, consume considerable water. Crop irrigation, while not widespread east of the Missouri River, is necessary in Great Plains states." (Read the release)

Dennis Keeney and Mark Muller, the authors of the paper, recommended strengthening regulation of ethanol plant sites, cooperative water recycling with wastewater and livestock facilities, placing more value on water and making water consumption records available to the public. (Read more)

Gangs set up shop in rural towns, straining small police departments

Gunslingers once roamed the streets in Dodge City, Kan., and now gangsters cause the violence. It's just one example of how guns and methamphetamine are becoming a growing problem in rural America, creating concerns for residents and straining the abilities of smaller police and sheriff's departments.

A 2004 Youth Gang Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 14 percent of rural counties dealt with active youth gangs. The gangs were more transitory when they first emerged in the 1980s, and now many are planting permanent seeds of violence in rural areas, reports The Associated Press. Many rural gangs are becoming more locally grown than urban gangs, said Arlen Egley Jr., senior research associate at the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla. (Read more)

Dodge City Police Chief John Ball estimates the town of 25,000 houses 300-plus gang members, most of whom are Hispanic. "Dodge City is one of the few western Kansas towns that has been growing, largely due to the influx of Latinos drawn to the meatpacking industry in southwest Kansas," reports AP.

Health, schools, immigration covered in new U.S. Census fact book

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 State and Metropolitan Area Data Book features more than 1,500 data items for metropolitan areas, counties, states and the nation. Topics include agriculture, health, finance, natural resources, immigration and education. Information comes from federal agencies, health, trade and educational associations, philanthropic foundations and private sources.

The book can be accessed for free online at this Web site. Printed copies cost $47.00. To see more information about the book, click here.

Texas population forecast shows many drops in rural, big jump in urban

Rural-to-urban migration occurred throughout the U.S. during the 20th century, but the number of people moving from small towns to big cities might grow substantially in Texas, according to estimates released this week by the Texas State Data Center.

"What it probably calls attention to in a broad sense is that there's really some rural development issues that are pretty clear for West Texas, or they'll have some severe population loss in some areas," said State Demographer Steve Murdock of the University of Texas at San Antonio. "Where rural Texas would decline, the Houston area would burst at the seams. Steady growth at the pace set from 2000 to 2004 would put Harris County at 6.6 million residents by 2040, nearly doubling since the 2000 census," writes Mark Babineck of The Houston Chronicle.

However, if current population trends hold true, 116 of Texas' 254 counties stand to keep losing people. "The 2000-2004 projections thus show an increased concentration of growth in suburban areas and an increasing number of counties in West Texas and the Panhandle that are showing declines," according to a Murdock's report. The state's population is projected to double to 43.6 million by 2040, with the majority becoming Hispanic in the mid-2020s, notes Babineck. (Read more)

Smoke-free ordinance produces better indoor air for E. Kentucky county

Indoor air quality significantly improved in the first three months after Letcher County in Eastern Kentucky implemented a smoke-free ordinance, according to a University of Kentucky study released last week.

Air samples taken from nine public places in Letcher County revealed a 75 percent drop in indoor air pollution during the past three months, reports Sally Barto of The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg. "Prior to the law, there were 67 micrograms per cubic meter, the particles that are measured in the air. It was 67 prior to the law and it got down to 17," said Ellen Napier, community liaison for University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health and staff associate of the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy.

The center conducted the study with UK's colleges of nursing and public health. "Overall, the findings from the study demonstrate that this smoke-free ordinance is working," Napier told Barto. "The consumers and the workers in the compliant venues have better air quality. Letcher County has made a stride towards becoming 100 percent smoke free." Eagle is not online; click here to read a scanned copy of the article.

Clear Channel family considers selling nation's largest radio empire

"The Mays Family, which built Clear Channel Communications into the country’s largest network of radio stations through decades of acquisitions, is in negotiations to be taken private by a consortium of investors for more than $18.5 billion, people involved in the talks said yesterday," report Ken Belson and Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times.

The investors include Providence Equity Partners, the Blackstone Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company. Clear Channel issued a statement yesterday saying that it was “evaluating various strategic alternatives to enhance shareholder value.” The company is seeking more potential buyers, which could include any number of big media companies, the Times reports.

Clear Channel’s shares have declined in the last five years, as many radio listeners have turned to iPods, Web sites, e-mail messages and satellite radio. "More than nine out of 10 Americans still listen to traditional radio stations, but the amount of time people tune in has slid 14 percent over the last decade, according to Arbitron ratings," write Belson and Sorkin.

The company's rise to empirehood hit high gear after the Federal Communications Commission loosened rules on radio-station ownership in 1992. The company owns about 1,150 radio stations and has a big outdoor-advertising portfolio. "As Clear Channel has grown, it has come under attack for homogenizing radio entertainment by standardizing playlists, playing too many commercials and not running enough local news. This in part spurred the growth of satellite-based subscription services like XM Radio," the Times notes. (Read more)

Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006

Rural schools’ spending on transportation leaves less for instruction

Rural school districts again encountered higher transportation costs than urban ones in 2003-2004, which meant less money went toward instruction, according to an analysis of data on 7,856 rural districts from the National Center for Education Statistics.

"For every dollar rural districts spend on transportation, they are able to spend just $11.71 on instruction. By contrast, non-rural districts are able to spend $15.43 on instruction for every dollar they spend on transportation," reports The Rural School and Community Trust in its latest edition of Rural Policy Matters. "The disparity reflects (1) the higher cost of transportation in rural school districts due to larger geographic enrollment areas and more challenging travel conditions than non-rural districts; and (2) the generally lower level of revenue available to rural school districts."

Since such a disparity exists, rural districts are struggling with fewer resources overall and constantly diverting funds away from the classroom. Several states are sponsoring policies to consolidate smaller schools and districts, which The Trust says will make the problem worse. (Read more)

Added wind power to boost nation's electricity supply, provide security

A record addition of 2,750 megawatts of wind-power capacity by year's end will boost the nation's amount of available electricity and provide added security for the future, according to an American Wind Energy Association press release.

One megawatt of wind power produces enough electricity on a typical day to serve 250 to 300 homes, and industry officials hail wind energy as a safe, domestic form of unlimited power. AWEA Executive Director Randall Swisher is calling for the extension of a tax credit for wind-energy production that expires in December 2007, arguing that the credit is key to the ongoing wind energy push.

The AWEA is also pushing the U.S. Department of Energy to take steps to unlock more of the wind resources across rural America. “Every megawatt-hour of domestic, inexhaustible wind energy from our heartland is a megawatt-hour that doesn’t burn fuel and that strengthens our energy security, protects our environment, and creates good jobs," said Swisher. (Read the release)

Most states have wind-energy projects. The major exception is the Southeast, though the Tennessee Valley Authority has an installation on Buffalo Mountain, part of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. For a state-by-state listing of active and proposed projects, click here.

Democrat takeover of House or Senate might boost net-neutrality efforts

Proponents of network neutrality see the prospect of Democrats reclaiming the U.S. Senate or House as a potential boost in the fight to keep telecommunications companies from playing favorites with how much they charge Internet content creators.

"The issue pits those companies -- including AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. -- against a well-organized grass roots campaign that is joined by some of the nation's biggest Internet success stories, such as Google and eBay. Net neutrality advocates say the 'Internet's First Amendment' is at stake. They argue that if those who run the network are allowed to discriminate against Web traffic based on which sites pay them the most, it will strangle the Internet's freewheeling, democratic nature," reports The Associated Press.

Democrats have traditionally voiced more support for net neutrality than Republicans, which is cause for advocates to hope for a takeover in the House. "On the Senate side, while a Democratic takeover is less likely, a Democratic pickup of one or two seats may still be significant," notes AP. "Regardless of the election's outcome, network neutrality legislation would still have to be signed by President Bush -- something that both sides acknowledge is unlikely to happen." (Read more)

Rural district could tip the balance in Tennessee and control of Senate

Most analysts agree that control of the U.S. Senate could be decided by two or three races, including the one in Tennessee between Republican Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who would be the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction. And the pivot point in Tennessee -- the place that has made Ford competitive and could bring him victory -- is the rural 4th Congressional District that runs through the hilly middle of the state and is only 4.5 percent black.

"Ford has tethered himself to Rep. Lincoln Davis, a popular two-term Democrat from a rural, white central Tennessee district and the chairman of Ford's campaign," reports Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post. "Davis said he polled his district in July and found Ford trailing 49 percent to 35 percent. . . . New numbers came back a few weeks ago showing Ford ahead 49 percent to 39 percent." Davis, of Pall Mall, told the Post, "If he wins my district, he's the next senator from Tennessee."

Murray's dateline is Coalmont, "a struggling mountain town," actually on the rugged Cumberland Plateau, which covers most of Davis's district. (Click here for a map.) She reports that Corker "often appears to be tiptoeing through a rhetorical minefield, eager to discredit his Democratic opponent with the sharpest weapons he can find but wary about accusations of playing racial politics." Corker said in an interview, "Our life experiences could not be more different. For him, politics is a way of life." Does the race factor influence his campaign decisions? "I understand the point of your question," Corker replied, "then he shook his head and looked away," Murray writes. (Read more)

California attorney general restricts release of criminal information

Reporters covering crime in California will have more difficulty getting information about criminal defendants, such as records on prior offenses and parole or probation status.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer issued an opinion Sept. 20 that says giving out that information violates defendents' privacy rights, and he advised prosecutors not to release lists of cases where witnesses have testified or names of defendents charged with a specific kind of crime over several years, The Associated Press reports today. The opinion follows a California Supreme Court ruling that restricted disclosure of police disciplinary records.

Thomas W. Nexton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, argued that the public's interest outweighs the privacy issue. "A typical situation is you've got a person who is arrested and accused of a violent crime," he said. "The public wants to know who is this person. Part of who that person is, is what that person has or has not done in the past. The public wants and needs to know just who they're dealing with." (Read more)

Virginia tobacco farmers attempt to tap burley market for income boost

Some tobacco farmers in southern Virginia are switching from flue-cured leaf to burley to combat rising fuel costs and boost income, now that their federal quotas have been bought out and price supports abolished.

"Burley tobacco is a slightly different plant variety that is harvested once a year and hung out to dry in large, drafty barns for up to four months. Under the federal quota program, burley tobacco was grown only in certain geographic areas, such as in far southwest Virginia, but those boundaries were lifted during the 2004 buyout, leaving behind an untapped market for tobacco growers in other parts of Virginia. Seeing a new opportunity emerge for competitive tobacco markets, a handful of Southside tobacco farmers are now are sinking thousands of dollars into building barns for curing burley tobacco and reshuffling the regional boundaries of Virginia's tobacco industry," writes Christina Rogers of The Roanoke Times.

The 2004 abolition of quotas and price supports was coupled with a $10 billion buyout for growers, but the change forced growers to adapt to a freer market, controlled by cigarette companies that contract with farmers for most production. "Because most burley tobacco farms were small, family-owned operations, the elimination of this federal program was an excuse for some tobacco growers to either retire or quit the business, said Danny Peek, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent and regional burley tobacco specialist for Southwest Virginia," writes Rogers. (Read more)

Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

Rural states failed to boost test scores for poor, minorities, study says

Only six states can claim moderate success at boosting reading, math or science scores for poor or minority students during the last 15 years and many rural states are lagging in efforts, according to a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education, research and advocacy organization.

The six states with moderate success include California, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. "Many state officials have claimed credit for gains in student achievement," said Chester E. Finn, Jr., the Foundation's president, in a press release. "But this study casts doubt on many such claims. In reality, no state has made the kind of progress that's required to close America's vexing achievement gaps and help all children prepare for life in the 21st Century." (Read the release)

Iowa is called the "land of corn and complacency" in the report. "Iowa officials argue that the report only looks at certain factors, such as charter schools and statewide standards, instead of a more complete picture. Other indicators of improvement, they say, include strides in preschool, teacher quality and cultural competency training for educators so they can better reach students in need. The Fordham report is based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has higher standards than the locally based Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in identifying whether students are proficient in subject matter," writes Megan Hawkins of The Des Moines Register. (Read more)

Another predominantly rural state showing little improvement is West Virginia. “West Virginia clearly has huge challenges, and obviously the challenge of rural poverty is considerable,” said Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy, in an Associated Press story. “But the state could be doing much, much more including things that don’t cost a lot of money. Setting clear and rigorous academic standards is the first and most important step." (Read more)

AP reports on Alabama's part in the study, which was titled "Rumbling, Bumbling and Stumbling Toward the Goal Line." The study includes references to legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and suggests the state needs a leader like him. (Read more)

The report, titled "How Well Are States Educating Our Neediest Children?" scored states in three categories: student achievement for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students; achievement trends for those groups during the last 10-15 years; and track records in implementing education reforms. For the entire report, including a map with links to each state, click here.

High-stakes tests in schools come under fire from candidates, parents

Here's a national story that could lead to a local story almost anywhere: What do local parents and others who care about schools think about the high-stakes testing systems mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and some states?

In a story from Lauderhill, Fla., The Washington Post reports that the backlash against state and federal tests is growing and becoming a political force. "The role of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, has become central to the race to succeed Gov. Jeb Bush (R), with polls showing a growing discontent over the exams, which he has championed and which are used to determine many aspects of the school system, including teacher pay, budgets and who flunks third grade," writes Peter Whoriskey.

Republican candidate Charlie Crist wants to continue the testing regime, but Democrat candidate Jim Davis condemns the exams for turning schools into pressure cookers. "This election season may be the first in which the growing use of high-stakes school testing, embodied in the No Child Left Behind legislation, has reached this level of political prominence. A similar exam revolt has become a key issue in the race for governor in Texas, another state in the vanguard of the testing movement, and the issue has roiled the Ohio gubernatorial contest as well," reports Whoriskey.

Testing advocates claim that pressure produces significant improvements in student performance, and states such as Florida and Texas are showing positive results. However, teachers unions and some parents groups argue that the tests transform education into routine drills, place more stress on elementary students, and that reported performance improvements are often short-lived, notes Whoriskey. (Read more)

Two weeks to go: It's time to check on voter guides, similar material

"Election Day is near, and religious organizations are busy distributing voter guides to inform the faithful about issues and candidates," notes ReligionLink.org, produced weekly by the educational arm of the Religion Newswriters Association.

"The Internal Revenue Service is closely monitoring politicking by churches and when high-profile public policy issues are entwined with religious values. This year, religious groups with more liberal political orientations are producing guides, which have long been used by conservative Christians. And all groups are benefiting from the Internet, where guides are posted for downloading by groups and individuals."

Some voter guides are evenhanded, but others advance a political agenda. The latter event may violate a federal law that prohibits tax-exempt group from supporting a particular candidate or party. "Experts say most groups seem to have learned from past mistakes, however, and now produce carefully crafted guides that communicate their message without crossing legal boundaries," ReligionLink.org reports. However, that does not mean such guides are not biased, and if you're a journalist who knows of biased guides or similar material being widely distributed in your area, we think you have an obligation to set the facts straight.

For a ReligionLink reporter's guide to voter guides, click here.

Montana Senate race illustrates Democrats' growing appeal in rural West

Democrat Jon Tester, the favorite in the Senate race in Montana, has a lot going for him. His Republican opponent, Sen. Conrad Burns, "is one of the least popular U.S. senators," reports The Weekly Standard. "Burns has been unable to label Tester, a farmer, as an out-of-touch liberal. Instead, Tester, like fellow Senate challengers Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Jim Webb in Virginia, is an antiwar populist who talks about economic inequality and the damage done to America by the president's foreign policy."

Tester's candidacy may be something more, writes the conservative Standard's Matthew Continetti. "The strength of his candidacy is one more sign that the Democratic Party is growing in the West. The Interior West -- which includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming -- is slowly embracing Democratic politicians and Democratic policies. And the roster of Western Democratic pols is impressive. In Arizona, there is Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is cruising to reelection. In Colorado, there is Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar and his brother John, who represents the state's 3rd Congressional District. In Montana, in addition to Tester, there is Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In New Mexico, there is Gov. Bill Richardson, a potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate and the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. And in Wyoming, there is Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who is also likely to be reelected. . . . In Colorado, Democrat Bill Ritter is leading Republican congressman Bob Beauprez in the race to succeed Republican Gov. Bill Owens."

And in Idaho, there is a competitive race for an open House seat, "perhaps, the political equivalent of hell freezing over in the interior West," writes Blaine Harden of The Washington Post. For that story, click here. Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports, "Of the seven states with the fastest-growing proportion of independent or third-party voters from 2000 to 2004, four are clustered in the Southwest — Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, according to Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting company that tracks election information." (Arizona, Johnson's focus, ranked first, followed by New Hampshire, Florida and Maryland.) For the Times story, click here.

Democratic blogger Markos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos "believes Tester and other Western Democrats represent the beginning of a new political animal -- what he calls the Libertarian Democrat," Continetti writes. "Traditional libertarians err in seeing the government as the greatest threat to individual freedom. Corporations also threaten personal liberty. ... A Libertarian Democrat uses government power to limit the freedom-inhibiting tendencies of global capitalism while also guarding against abuses of government power."

Tester illustrates how successful politicians combine big ideas with a confident self-image and a gift of gab. During a discussion with doctors about malpractice lawsuits, "Someone asked Tester what should be done. He clearly had no idea what to say, so he opened the floor to suggestions," Continetti reports. "After a little more discussion he asked, 'So what's the solution?'" When a doctor replied, "You tell us," Tester said, "You guys are in the field. I know how to grease a combine, okay?" "Everyone laughed and smiled," Continetti writes, "but Tester's smile was the widest of them all." (Read more)

Former FCC chief wants broadband revolution, especially in rural U.S.

As Congress and lobbying interests continue to spend time debating net neutrality -- the issue of equal pricing for content creators -- a former Federal Communications Commission chairman says the more important Internet issue is broadband access for rural America.

"Any serious discussion of the future of the Internet should start with a basic fact: broadband is transforming every facet of communications, from entertainment and telephone services to delivery of vital services like health care. But this also means that the digital divide, once defined as the chasm separating those who had access to narrowband dial-up Internet and those who didn’t, has become a broadband digital divide," opines William E. Kennard of The New York Times.

"The nation should have a full-scale policy debate about the direction of the broadband Internet, especially about how to make sure that all Americans get access to broadband connections. Unfortunately, the current debate in Washington is over 'net neutrality' — that is, should network providers be able to charge some companies special fees for faster bandwidth," continues Kennard.

"As chairman of the FCC, I put into place many policies to bridge the narrowband digital divide. The broadband revolution poses similar challenges for policymakers," writes Kennard. "Studies by the federal government conclude that our rural and low-income areas trail urban and high-income areas in the rate of broadband use. Indeed, this year the Government Accountability Office found that 42 percent of households have either no computer or a computer with no Internet connection."

Kennard concludes, "To ensure that broadband reaches into rural, low income and other underserved communities, Congress should reform the Universal Service Fund, the federal subsidy paid to companies that provide telephone service to rural areas. For decades, the fund has been financed by a federal fee or surcharge that consumers pay on interstate phone calls. But the fund in its current form is not an effective way to support expanded broadband access. It is not fair to expect telephone consumers to bear the sole burden of the subsidy, and the decline in revenue from traditional long-distance calling is shrinking the base for contributions to the fund. We must find a new source of revenue for the fund that does not exclusively tax users of the phone network." (Read more)

Wal-Mart to slow U.S. store expansion, focus primarily on urban areas

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has about half its stores in rural areas, announced plans Monday to slow its U.S. expansion in an effort to boost returns on investments, which means delays in opening new stores close to existing ones and plans to build smaller and cheaper locations.

Retail analyst Richard Hastings said the move is a sign that Wal-Mart wants to focus more on major urban areas. "They've run out of the kinds of rural and suburban inexpensive lease locations that they enjoyed for so many years," Hastings said. Out of the more than 600 news stores slated for next year, about half are destined for spots outside the U.S., reports the Reuters news service.

"Despite tighter cost controls, the retailer said it was pressing on with efforts to remodel some 1,800 stores, or about half the U.S. chain, but acknowledged that the store disruption was hurting sales in the short term," notes Reuters. (Read more)

Monday, Oct. 23, 2006

PBS series tackles broadband, digital-divide issues that affect rural U.S.

The latest episode of the "Moyers on America" series on PBS, Friday night, covered several media issues that affect rural residents, including the digital divide, net neutrality, big media and communities working together for broadband Internet. The episode was titled "The Net At Risk" but its content was much broader, and it remains available online.

On net neutrality, Bill Moyers' show reported about the Federal Communications Commission allowing differential pricing for Internet content creators, which critics say would make the Internet a "toll road." The segment on digital divide talked about the lack of rural access to broadband as just one part of America's declining status in the global arena of Internet access. The big-media segment was about the decline in the number of companies owning a controlling interest in America's media, from 50 in 1984 to six today.

The segment on community connections covers one of the most contentious technology issues in rural America -- whether communities should take a lead role in providing broadband Internet access. "There are hundreds of community internet and municipal broadband projects underway or in the planning stages in the U.S. But there are also 14 states that either prohibit cities and towns from building their own networks or have passed laws that make it more difficult," according to the "Moyers on America" Web site.

With the series, the program began "Citizens Class," which its Web site calls "an extensive, interactive curriculum designed to encourage and facilitate public discourse on the issues raised in the series. The workshop features multimedia discussions, reference materials on the key perspectives presented in the program, and questions for further reflection-all designed to stimulate deep and thoughtful community dialogue," according to the show's Web site, which includes information about each of the four segments.

Dailies keep cutting rural circulation; Grit, still alive, seeks ex-urbanites

Metropolitan daily newspapers continue to reduce their coverage and circulation in rural areas, and the trend may be accelerating because of financial pressures. Several are expected to post declining circulation figures for the last three months, and at least one company blames the loss on cutbacks in serving rural areas.

"In a press release for 3Q results, Belo Corp. reported The Dallas Morning News showed steep declines for the six-month period ending September 2006. Daily circulation dropped 13 percent while Sunday slipped 12%. The company attributes the losses to a cut in statewide circulation and in third-party advertiser sponsored copies," writes Jennifer Saba of Editor & Publisher. In some areas of rural Texas, the newspaper abruptly dropped service to the residents. (Read more)

Meanwhile, the Reuters news service reports that Grit, a 124-year-old based newspaper called with big rural readership, is changing to a magazine format to attract residents in exurbs, or communities just beyond the suburbs of major U.S. cities. "The change comes after years of losses at Grit and a decades-long exodus out of the rural areas where the newspaper was once devoured by news-starved readers," writes James B. Kelleher. "Founded in 1882 as a Saturday supplement for a Pennsylvania newspaper, Grit became an independent Sunday paper two years later and quickly expanded outside the state."

"But during the 1970s and 1980s, as farming communities lost people and jobs, Grit's circulation plummeted by 95 percent and the newspaper churned through several owners. . . . Now, it's become a magazine, sent by mail every two months to Grit's remaining 80,000 subscribers and targeting the wealthy ex-urbanites who are moving to rural areas in search of a slower pace of life and cheaper housing." (Read more) Grit, once based in Williamsport, Pa., is now based in Topeka, Kan.

Coal executive vows to help Republicans take majority in West Virginia

Don L. Blankenship, chief executive of West Virginia's largest coal producer, Massey Energy, is a powerful financial contributor to the Republican Party and a figure of controversy in coal-miner deunionization, mountaintop-removal strip mining and other sources of pollution.

Blankenship earned about $34 million last year, and is investing much of that in political causes, reports Ian Urbina of The New York Times. "In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years. Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in his current effort to oust Democrats, and the state is awash with lawn signs, highway billboards, radio advertisements and field organizers paid for by him." Blankenship said he would spend “whatever it takes” to get a Republican majority in the legislature.

"Union leaders say Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state’s coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago," writes Urbina. "And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal," which fills in the heads of hollows -- sometimes with dams for coal waste. By a wide margin, Massey has the worst record for waste spills in the state, with 4,268 citations; the next closest has fewer than 800.

The West Virginia Democratic Party has given out bumper stickers saying, “Don, WV is not for sale,” created a Web site with Blankenship's controversial comments and urged Republican candidates to return Blankenship’s contributions. "Last year, in response to Blankenship’s impact on the Supreme Court race in 2004, lawmakers passed a campaign-finance law capping at $1,000 how much an individual can give to so-called 527 groups like the one Blankenship used to influence that race," writes Urbina. "However, individuals still can spend unlimited sums of their own money on campaign advertisements, and that is just what Blankenship has said he plans to do." (Read more)

Arkansas group gets rural residents involved in education policies

Arkansas is providing a model for rural residents wishing to get involved in education policy making and school improvement through Advocates for Community and Rural Education, which bridges racial and regional divides to promote citizen responsibility for high quality schools.

ACRE's tries to show rural residents that they possess the abilities to affect change and that they have opportunities to make their voices heard, according to Rural Policy Matters, a newsletter of the The Rural School and Community Trust. The organization has chapters across the state and it organizes meetings that foster democracy and ideas for sustainable school improvements.

"This year, ACRE created the Quality Education Initiative, a tool that helps communities assess and improve their schools. ACRE also provides education materials that explain how bills are passed and how citizens can become involved in the legislative process. It offers its rural constituency regular legislative updates, research on education issues, and information on how state policies are being implemented in rural schools," reports The Trust. (Read more)

Black, white churches aim to bridge divide with unity revival in Kentucky

The most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m. Sunday when blacks and whites attend separate churches, and that appears to be especially true in rural areas.

In Boyle County, Kentucky, "Unity in the Community," a week-long revival series designed to integrate black and white churches, will take place next month. "The series will feature pastors of predominantly black churches delivering sermons in the pulpits of the predominantly white churches, and vice versa, during evening services on Nov. 12-16," writes Herb Brock of the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky. A culminating service will be held on Nov. 19 at a local high school.

"The church should be a leader in bringing different races together because 'in Christ' there is no racism. We love our brothers and sisters of different races equally," said Rev. M. Tom Lane, pastor of Cornerstone Assembly of God. Participants hope the revival builds new friendships among churches, reports Brock. The group would like to increase participation as well as make the revival a regular event. (Read more)

Economic geologist: We won't run out of oil, we'll just pay more for it

The world will never run out of oil, says Eric Cheney, a University of Washington economic geologist. "It might be a heck of a lot more expensive than it is now, but there will always be some oil available at a price, perhaps $10 to $100 a gallon." He notes that after considering inflation, current gas prices are about the same as they were in the early 20th century. This, he says, today's prices are not high, but the prices of eight years ago were low, reports Newswise, a research-reporting service.

"Changing economics, technological advances and efforts such as recycling and substitution make the world's mineral resources virtually infinite, said Cheney, a UW professor emeritus of earth and space sciences. For instance, oil deposits unreachable 40 years ago can be tapped today using improved technology, and oil once too costly to extract from tar sands, organic matter or coal is now worth manufacturing," writes Newswise. Most oil production occurs in rural areas.

Cheney, who spoke yesterday in Spokane, Wash., says he wants to dispel myths such as the idea that oil production is always damaging to the environment and oil companies make excessive profits, reports Newswise. However he says that the use of fossil fuel is still a serious issue, particularly in regard to pollution. He said that we will not run out of fossil fuels but they need to be managed better. (Read more)

Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006

Kentucky churches call for end to mountaintop removal, factory farms

Mountaintop-removal strip mining, "inhumane" factory farms and other practices that cause environmental danage are jeopardizing the character of Kentucky’s rural areas and should be abolished, the Kentucky Council of Churches said yesterday at its meeting in Bardstown..

The council of 11 generally moderate to liberal denominations also called yesterday for “broad-based legalization” of illegal immigrants, “a higher cigarette tax, stricter regulations on environmental waste and a curb in the use of gases linked to global warming,” reports Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal.

One of three resolutions approved by the council “focused on environmental concerns and voiced alarm at rural trends,” Smith writes. “The council said changes in rural areas affect not only smaller communities but urban ones as well, which become the destination of people displaced from traditional rural communities.”

The council said, “Our country has been built on a strong belief in a Creator-God and on the moral and ethical values inherent in a system of family farms, such as honesty, self-sufficiency yet interdependence, mutual trust, hard work, and neighborliness. The destruction of this system also jeopardizes the base on which our urban centers are built.”

The council called for buying locally produced food, stronger anti-pollution regulations and opposing “the raising of domestic animals where the animals are not provided humane living conditions, including sufficient space to move, and to nurture their young and with access to clean air and water.”

The council is the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.

Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

Bush goes against Senate to make industry veteran head of mine safety

Yesterday President Bush dodged the Senate to re-nominate Richard Stickler for assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Bush waited until the Senate had recessed for next month's election to make the appointment. Stickler's nomination failed twice this year because of opposition from mine-safety advocates and an increase in coal-mining deaths. Stickler will likely be able to keep his post until the end of 2007; Bush made the appointment under an archaic provision that lets presidential appointees named during congressional recesses -- which used to be much longer -- stay in office until the end of the next session of Congress.

Stickler takes the place of David G. Dye, who had been a controversial figure because he had spent his entire career in the coal industry, notes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Stickler worked in the industry for 30 years, mostly at Bethlehem Steel's coal arm as a mine manager. Data from MSHA showed that injuries on his watch were twice the national average. He became chief of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in spite of opposition by the United Mine Workers.

"So far this year, 40 coal miners have died in workplace accidents nationwide — including 12 at the Sago Mine disaster — the most in any single year since 2001, Bush’s first year in office," writes Ward. "Stickler told reporters that his first priorities are to complete investigations of the Sago and Kentucky Darby Mine disasters and the Aracoma Mine fire, implement new safety legislation signed by Bush earlier this year, and hire new inspectors to fill jobs sliced because of previous Bush budget cuts." (Read more)

In rural Idaho, wind power bringing green energy, money to farmers

Wind power is growing in rural Idaho, producing greener energy and helping local economies. "Idaho's wind power potential is significant. A Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development study estimates it at 1,800 megawatts. The state ranks 13th among states in potential wind power, according to the American Wind Energy Association," writes Tim Woodward of the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming. Forty-three wind turbines exist in southeastern Idaho and with more than 40 others planned.

"Wind farms are built primarily in rural areas, bringing jobs and tax revenues with them," writes Woodward. "Wind can also be a source of income for local ranchers and farmers on whose land wind turbines are erected. Depending on the amount of power produced, they typically receive $4,000 to $7,000 per year per turbine. The turbines' effect on crops and livestock is minimal."

Wind power is renewable, does not create pollution and has no fuel costs, notes Woodward. A study at Boise State University found that 59 percent of respondents thought wind power was the most desirable source of energy. However, opponents say it is inefficient and clutters the landscape. The wind is not always blowing, so utilities need backup sources of power in case turbines do not meet demands. Also, the transfer of power to utility grids can be expensive, creating a relatively low profit margin. (Read more)

Wal-Mart expands $4 drug plan; PR stunt, community pharmacists say

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced yesterday that it is expanding its discount-drug program three months earlier than planned. Started in Florida last month, the program sells 30-day supplies of 314 different generic prescriptions for $4 each. It will spread to 1,264 stores in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Vermont, a company release said.

"Since we began the program in September, we've been committed to bringing it to other states as soon as possible," said Wal-Mart President and CEO Lee Scott. "Customers have told us again and again how valuable the $4 generic prescription program is. So we're thrilled that we can respond in a way that cuts costs out of the system and brings more affordable medicines to our customers." For the release click here.

The National Community Pharmacists Association called Wal-Mart’s expansion a "PR stunt," saying it will not have as much benefit to consumers as it seems. NCPA Executive Vice President and CEO Bruce Roberts said that only about one percent of drugs would be included in the $4 plan. “The question people should be asking Wal-Mart is, ‘What will you be charging for the other 99 percent of the medications that people need?’” The NPCA said Wal-Mart's list includes older medications and those with side effects that other drugs don't have. It also expressed concern that patients would not get adequate counseling from Wal-Mart pharmacists and that Wal-Mart may drive community pharmacists out of business through aggressive pricing. To read the press release click here.

American Hometown Publishing buys Albrecht Newspapers in Tenn.

Albrecht Newspapers, a small group known for quality journalism and leadership in the industry, has sold to American Hometown Publishing, a firm that says it wants to stress quality rather than quantity in community newspapers. The Albrecht papers are The Covington Leader, the Brownsville States-Graphic and the Chester County Independent of Henderson, all weeklies in West Tennessee.

President Joe Albrecht is retiring after 50 years in community journalism. Following American Hometown's approach, his son Jay will continue as publisher of the Leader, circulation 7,300, and group manager of the other papers, about 5,000 each. Corporate bookeeping will remain in Cookeville, in Middle Tennessee, under the direction of Connie Albrecht, wife and mother to Joe and Jay.

“For me, selling to and being a part of American Hometown Publishing is about the future,” Jay Albrecht said in American Hometown's release. “It’s been my family’s dream for years to establish a quality group of community newspapers in Tennessee. While we had a great start in Brownsville, Covington and Henderson, joining American Hometown Publishing makes realizing my overall dreams even more likely. It was a very difficult decision to sell our newspapers, but the American Hometown Publishing philosophy made deciding who to sell to very easy. I’m delighted and excited to be part of the American Hometown Publishing team and look forward to what the future will bring.” To read the full release, click here.

American Hometown's CEO is L. Daniel Hammond, who started Publishing Group of America and American Profile, a weekly magazine that began in 2000 and is targeted to small dailies and large weeklies. American Hometown, started late last year, says it “acquires and manages community newspapers of 25,000 circulation or less by forming partnerships with local publishers and growing their newspapers through proven revenue and market expansion efforts.” The company's operations vice president is Ron Fryar, who recently managed the Morris Newspapers in Tennessee.

The company, based in Nashville, says it is "funded by a group of investors led by The Solidus Co. (Townes Duncan, president); including Petra Capital Partners (Michael W. Blackburn, partner); the Burch Investment group and others. The company's Web site doesn't say how many papers it owns, but its press releases refer only to the purchases of the Blackwell Journal-Tribune (circulation 2,690) and the Guthrie News Leader (2,750) in Oklahoma and The Coalfield Progress (7,180), The Dickenson Star and The Post (4,500) of Big Stone Gap, all in southwest Virgina.

Community Newspaper Holdings sells papers to Heartland Publications

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. is selling the daily Logan Banner (circulation 9,579) and the weekly (Madison) Coal Valley News (circulation 5,600) to Heartland Publications LLC. Both are West Virginia publications.

CNHI owns 89 dailies, 49 non-dailies and several specialty publications in 21 states. In 2004 the company sold six of its Kentucky newspapers to Heartland, which currently operates 31 paid daily and weekly papers in seven states, reports The Inlander, a publication of the Inlander Press Association.

Media groups clash over FCC rules of consolidation and cross-ownership

Yesterday the Media Institute urged the Federal Communications Commission to ease restrictions to allow more consolidation of local radio ownership, and to lift the cross-ownership ban between newspapers and broadcast. The Institute said current rules are outdated and place traditional media at a disadvantage with new media and technology. To read the press release from the institute, which is supported by large media companies interested in cross-ownership, click here.

The Media and Democracy Coalition countered that there is already too much consolidation in the news media and dominant groups have too much influence on public opinion. It said that many cities already exceed the standards for "excessive concentration" set by the Justice Department, reports Ira Teinowitz of TV Week. (Read more)

"The perspectives are part of the battle surrounding the rewriting of key ownership restrictions by the FCC, which is not expected to reach any conclusions until next year. A federal court rejected the agency’s earlier bid to ease rules," writes Todd Shields of Media Week. (Read more)

Community newspaper did not break campaign laws with coverage

A California judge ruled last week that the Mission City News did not break campaign laws when its 2002 mayoral election issue contained an article and an advertisement targeting Santa Clara mayoral candidate John McLemore and included another ad paid for by his opponent, Mayor Patricia Mahan.

Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Neal Cabrinha said there was no proof that publisher Chris Stampolis rejected ads from candidates with whom he disagreed. "Last year, the district attorney's office charged Stampolis with disguising a political mailer as a newspaper and failing to report the expense on campaign disclosure forms," writes Julie Patel of the San Jose Mercury News. Stampolis called the ruling a victory for community newspapers, who he said should be allowed to publish such ads as long as every candidate is offered the same opportunity.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Julius Finkelstein said distinguishing between a mailer or a newspaper is key since readers assume newspapers try to balance election coverage and a mailer clearly supports someone. "After the Watergate scandal, California -- like most states and the federal government -- learned that one of the ways to prevent abuses in political campaigns is to shed light on who's supporting who financially in campaigns," he told Patel.

As Mahan, who won the 2002 election, and McLemore square off again this year, Stampolis is not endorsing a candidate, reports Patel. (Read more) To read the newspaper's 2002 election issue, click here.

Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006

Commission on Religion in Appalachia goes silent after 41 years

A group started 41 years ago as a voice for justice in the mountains is no more, as the Commission on Religion in Appalachia officially gave its last will and testament Oct. 13 in Ripley, W. Va.

"Their slogan came from Amos 5:23-24, 'Let justice roll down like waters,' and their mission was 'to express God's love through the empowerment of the people of Appalachia by working for justice.' As progressives today try to 'find religion,' they would do well to study the history of groups like CORA, who acted on the natural connection they saw between their progressive values and their beliefs of faith. They rooted and nurtured the connection between their faith and political beliefs not through abstract 'values debates,' but in the day-to-day work of addressing the concerns of ordinary people, from failing schools to mountaintop removal and dangerous working conditions," opines Chris Kromm on The Institute for Southern Studies' blog, Facing South.

"The realities of a lack of funding from partners necessitated this action by the Commissioners," according to a press release. "In recent years United Methodist [Church] funding decreased, and for the past couple of years no grant-making funds were provided. Administrative funding ... from the General Board of Global Ministries Town and Country Office was cut when GBGM reorganized and then faced financial problems. Some [regional Methodist] Annual Conferences continued to provide administrative support to CORA. Recent changes in other major denominational partners' structures and financial positions have resulted in lack of support for grant-making and limited administrative support. CORA's archives will be housed at the University of Kentucky."

CORA wrote a Last Will and Testament during its final meeting that almost reads as a mission statement for rural America. Kromm excerpts most of that statement on Facing South. (Read more)

Site ranks lobbying-interest contributions to congressional campaigns

Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, released a report yesterday showing how much money each member of Congress received in campaign contributions from lobbying interests. The report, titled "Under the Influence: Special Interest Money and Members of Congress," listed the amounts of contributions from lobbyists, political action committees and other donors to all 435 House members and 100 senators.

"Lawmakers are ranked in each category, from who takes the most amount of each kind of money to who takes the least, as well as who takes the most special interest money in all categories combined Public Citizen also tallied which states – through their lawmakers – are most and least reliant on special interest funding," said Public Citizen. Using interactive charts, you can see how individual lawmakers in each state rank in receipt of money from lobbying interests. Click here to reach the site.

“This information should be in the public domain and easily accessible to every citizen, which is why we created the Web site,” Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, said. “Our campaign system is drowning in special interest dollars. The public has a right to know whether members of Congress will answer first to them or to the wealthy benefactors of campaigns.” (Read the news release)

Kansas Republicans go Democrat, newspaper swings left as election looms

Republican officials are switching political parties in Kansas, and one newspaper that reaches 100,000 readers is endorsing almost the entire Democratic ticket for the first time in its history. As Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changin', and not just in Kansas.

Kansans voted nearly 2-1 for President Bush in 2004, but in the Sunflower State "nine former Republicans will be on the November ballot as Democrats," writes Peter Slevin of The Washington Post. "The Kansas developments coincide with efforts by Democrats across the country to capture moderate Republican and independent voters dismayed with partisan bickering from both parties, particularly from the Republican right. The spirit of the attempted Democratic comeback in Kansas . . . is a search for the workable political center." (Read more)

Even The Johnson County Sun of Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb, plans to endorse virtually the entire Democratic ticket, after endorsing fewer than a dozen Democrats since it started publishing in 1950. In a recent column, Publisher Steve Rose wrote, "So what in the world has happened? The Republican Party has changed, and it has changed monumentally. You almost cannot be a victorious traditional Republican candidate with mainstream values in Johnson County or in Kansas anymore." (Read more)

The Sun is a free weekly publication with 10 editions. The paper is owned by American Community Newspapers, and is providing thorough coverage of state House races. Click here to read those stories.

FCC investigation into video news releases prompts top offender to stop

A television station named as the biggest offender of airing video news releases without disclosing the source is swearing off the practice, as a Federal Communications Commission investigation continues

The Center for Media and Democracy published a study in April titled “Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed,” which reported that 77 stations aired video news releases without properly disclosing the source. The study identified KOKH in Oklahoma City as the nation’s “top repeat offender," and now John Rossi, the station’s general manager, said KOKH will avoid using the videos “as much as possible, if not altogether," reports Brent Battle of The Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University.

The station head said public relations firms should identify videos better to prevent stations from unknowingly airing VNRs. “The reality is it was a mechanical error,” Rossi told Battle. “There was nothing implicit about what we did. I knew that’s what you guys were trying to find, but that’s not what happened.”

Battle's story is a comprehensive follow-up to recent reports about the Radio-Television News Directors Association urging the FCC to drop its investigation. The Rural Blog reported on the RTNDA's petition Oct. 9. Click here for that archived item. To read the center's study and see video footage, click here.

Bees and bats are in decline, threatening crops that need pollination

"Birds, bees, bats and other species that pollinate North American plant life are losing population, according to a study released yesterday by the National Research Council. This 'demonstrably downward' trend could damage dozens of commercially important crops, scientists warned, since three-quarters of all flowering plants depend on pollinators for fertilization," writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

In the last 20 years the population of American honeybees has dropped by 30 percent due to introduced parasites and pesticides, reports Eilperin. Bees are important to crops such as California almonds, which require 1.4 million to pollinate them all. North American farmers have imported bees from Europe and elsewhere to make up for the shortage but it carries the risk of introducing new parasites and diseases in addition to those already affecting the bee problem.

National Research Council called upon scientists and the government to devote more study to pollinator populations, reports Eilperin. The U.S. Postal Service created four new stamps to help raise awareness. Gene E. Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, said that most people don't really understand how important pollinators are to food production. (Read more)

Anti-mining activists spread concerns, seek help in rural Virginia county

Wise County, Virginia, is a hotbed for mining and area residents are letting their environmental concerns be known even when public meetings include nothing on the agenda, such as the case at the Wise County Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 12 meeting.

"About 15 activists filled the audience of the meeting. Some who spoke warned of the perils of 'mountaintop removal' and other surface mining, and faulty reclamation being performed in the area. Others called for a county-wide noise ordinance, while still others questioned tax breaks for a proposed coal-fired power plant in the Virginia City area near St. Paul. But all wanted the same thing from supervisors — some kind of action, including consideration of a noise ordinance, stiffer reclamation laws, reconsideration of tax breaks for the proposed power plant or tougher regulations on surface mining operations in the county," writes Jodi Deal of The Coalfield Progress in Norton.

“You are our only chance for help,” said Pete Ramey, of Big Stone Gap, who spoke about mountaintop removal operations and the risks of coal-fired power plants. “We do not have to hide behind federal legislation to help the people. Please help. You are our chance to protect Wise County from what is really happening out there. We do not have to sacrifice our health and safety for our economy.”

Kathy Selvage, a Stephens resident seeking a noise ordinance, spoke to the board about the effects of strip mining: “When we do this, we change the Appalachian culture. As a byproduct of that, some people just give up and leave. It also affects the others who refuse to just give up.” Supervisors did not respond to the comments other than promising that they are doing their best, reports Deal. (Read more)

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006

Clone Wars: FDA may OK meat, milk sales; consumer groups opposed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is closer to approving the sale of food from cloned animals and their offspring, a move pleasing companies that supply farmers with livestock made with superior traits.

Consumer advocates oppose such sales, and food producers are worried about shoppers' reactions, reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. However, a draft risk assessment from the FDA shows that "meat and milk from cattle clones and their offspring are as safe as that from conventionally bred animals," Stephen Sundlof, chief of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in a statement.

The FDA does not prohibit the sale of food from clones, but it did ask companies to voluntarily refrain from sales during this safety evaluation period. The administration is expected to release a plan for meat and milk sales by the end of the year. "The Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group critical of the use of biotechnology in farming, recently petitioned the FDA to regulate cloned products as animal drugs, which require extensive review before being allowed on the market," writes Brasher. (Read more)

Aspen sheriff's race features writer, sculptor arguing over pot heads

Aspen, Colo., houses wealthy residents and attracts celebrities year-round, but now two men vying for sheriff of all of Pitkin County, 975 square miles, are making national headlines. The incumbent is writing a book on his friend Hunter S. Thompson and the challenger is an artist. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

"On Nov. 7, voters in this posh mountain town will choose between five-time incumbent Sheriff Bob Braudis, 61, and Rick Magnuson, a police officer who is 20 years his junior and whose main issue is that the sheriff is too easy on drug users. Braudis, who stands 6-foot-6 and looks like a Hollywood version of a Western sheriff, might be vulnerable on this. Though he promises to enforce drug laws, he is eager to tell anyone that tough penalties for drug use are not helping anyone and that addiction is a matter for health-care professionals, not jailers," writes Judith Crosson of The Washington Post. Magnuson is on the left and Braudis on the right in a photo by Zach Ornitz of the Aspen Daily News.

"Braudis, who has been sheriff of Pitkin County for 20 years, said he follows a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to teenagers using drugs or alcohol, though he is dead set against using undercover police to investigate illegal drugs," reports Crosson. Magnuson favors undercover officers, but also says Aspen is a bit unique. "This is a party town," Magnuson, who has done sculpture and performance art, told Crosson. "We do not want a heavy-handed police force. We don't want to look into someone's window to see if he is smoking a joint." (Read more)

The Aspen Daily News is taking a less narrative approach with its coverage, reporting that the latest development to rile up Braudis came when Magnuson cited criminal statistics to argue that Pitkin County "badly lags" neighboring counties in solving crimes. Magnuson's information came from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, but even that Web site "cautions against making correlations between the number of crimes reported and the number of arrests -- as Magnuson did -- because they're not always directly related," writes Christine Benedetti. (Read more)

Local TV election coverage averages 36 seconds per broadcast in five states

Wisconsin broadcasters are fired up over a study that suggested that Midwest television stations are neglecting their responsibilities to serve viewers by shortchanging voters on election coverage.

"The study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's NewsLab, in conjunction with the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, found that television stations in nine media markets averaged 36 seconds per broadcast in the amount of airtime devoted to election coverage. The findings brought sharp criticism from Joyce Foundation vice president Lawrence Hansen, who said broadcasters are failing 'by any standard of measurement' to deliver what voters need to make informed decisions," writes Karen Lincoln Michel of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

"Local television news, in particular, has a special responsibility due to its reach, influence and statutory obligations to inform viewers at election time about the background, experiences, qualifications and policy views of candidates for public office," said Hansen, referring to regulations mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. "The failure of local television news to foster and encourage informed citizen participation in the political process is near scandalous."

Journal Broadcast Group owns an NBC affiliate in Green Bay and Appleton, and issued a statement arguing that "By limiting the scope, the authors of the study have made a choice to exclude potential election coverage included in more than 30 hours of news programming each week in Wisconsin's two largest television markets." The study examined early and late-evening news broadcasts from Sept. 7 through Oct. 5 and captured local news on the ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in five states: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, reports Michel. (Read more) For the study's initial findings, click here.

Media Tracker provides details into who owns local media outlets

"Who controls what you read in the newspaper, what you see or hear on television or radio, and the bits of data that flow over cable and telecommunications wires? You can find out simply by typing your ZIP code into the Media Tracker," writes Drew Clark of the Center for Public Integrity.

As part of the center's "Well Connected" project, the Media Tracker is a free, searchable online database relaunched Tuesday that provides details about U.S. media and telecommunications companies. Users submit a zip code or city and state to retrieve a file of information about the television stations, radio stations, cable systems and newspapers serving that area, reports Clark.

"The Media Tracker database scans more than 5 million pieces of information from governmental sources, corporate disclosure documents and original research. The raw data on broadcast licensees and cable television systems comes from the Federal Communication Commission," writes Clark. "With the FCC just beginning a process of re-examining the rules governing media ownership, the Media Tracker is a resource that can provide policy-makers, journalists, academics and average citizens with the information they need to evaluate how ownership decisions have affected their neighborhood."

The Center for Public Integrity also sought to display information about broadband providers by ZIP code, but the FCC denied a Freedom of Information Act request for access to its database of broadband providers, reports Clark. (Read more)

Daily newspapers charge readers too much for too little, journalist opines

A former newspaper editor and publisher just canceled her newspaper subscription, after 37 years of faithful reading, and among the reasons cited for her "divorce" are the higher subscription costs, the lack of local news and the emergence of online updates.

"But one reason I let my subscription lapse is the fee, which seems out of proportion these days to how much of the paper I actually look at," opines Mariane Matera for The Hook, a weekly in Charlottesville, Va. "Newspaper publishers claim they are dealing with the change in lifestyles and the competing information sources, but they're not dealing with them fast enough. They promise more local news, but they don't deliver any more than they used to. The newspaper sections are still predetermined by advertising inches. On the other hand, the free weeklies are usually nothing but local news, and they're free. . . . Dailies have to cater to too many demographics and end up giving too little to any of them."

"After college, I desperately wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but the editors wanted experience, master degrees, credentials, connections... it was always something keeping me out and my voice silent. Now that has changed. Anyone can get a blog, and just about every freelance writer in town who used to compete with me for jobs is now self-publishing. Some have become award-winning investigative journalists all on their own, with no advertising departments or timid executive editors to tie their hands. And I can read their work for free," continues Matera, a former editor of the Mechanicsville Local and editor-publisher of the Richmond Music Journal, who lives in Richmond.

"Other than that, my long romance with newspapers is creaking to a 21st-century conclusion. . . . Newspapers were my passion for so long, that like the lovers in Brokeback Mountain, I didn't know how to quit them. But the romance is over now. It's time for a divorce," concludes Matera. (Read more) Just in the last month, some industry watchers have argued in support of a price increase, citing daily newspapers where the amount of content, local and otherwise, is expanding for readers.

Texas weekly publisher elected president of National Newspaper Assn.

Jerry Tidwell, publisher of the twice-weekly Hood County News in Granbury, Tex., became president of the National Newspaper Association at the group’s convention in Oklahoma City last week.

The Messenger of the Texas Press Association reports, "Tidwell majored in management and graduated from Texas Christian University in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. After graduation, he worked for four years as an industrial engineer in Fort Worth. He began his newspaper career in 1970 as advertising manager of the Andrews County News. He transferred to the Seminole Sentinel where he was advertising manager for three years. In 1976 he was named publisher of the Lamb County News in Littlefield, and in 1979 became publisher of the Hood County News." (Read more)

NNA was founded in 1885 and has 2,700 member newspapers, mainly weeklies. Its membership, and membership among dailies, has risen in the last three years. For more information, go to www.nna.org.

Election-coverage workshop sessions are now posted on Web site

Sessions from "Covering the Big Ballot and Beyond," a one-day workshop on covering this fall's elections in Kentucky, are now posted in digital video on the World Wide Web. Though the event was for Kentucky reporters and editors, presenters discussed various election-coverage principles and ideas that could be useful to political reporters in any state.

The workshop was presented at Kentucky Educational Television by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, part of the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications, and the Citizen Kentucky Project of the school's First Amendment Center. Here's the directory of the Web files, with starting times to indicate the length of each session:

9:00am Welcome (Al Cross and Buck Ryan, UK)

9:15am Overview of the November 2006 Ballot (Ryan Alessi, Lexington Herald-Leader; Bill Bryant, WKYT-TV, Lexington)

10:00am Judicial elections (Cross; also at start of the next file)

10:30am Issues in the 2006 elections (Ronnie Ellis, Community Newspaper Holdings capital bureau; Jamie Lucke, Herald-Leader; Tom Loftus, The Courier-Journal)

11:15am Sources for information on issues (all panelists)

12:15pm Campaign finance (Cross, Loftus)

2:45pm Editorials and commentary (Cross, Lucke)

3:30pm The 2007 governor's race (Cross, Bryant, Alessi, Ellis)

Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006

Proposed mine-safety overhaul draws sharp criticism from industry

A Bush administration effort to raise fines for mine safety and health violations is drawing criticism from mine operators, company safety officers, and a slew of industry lawyers and lobbyists.

“Increased regulation is not the answer to increased miner safety,” Mark A. Wilson, vice president of safety for Greer Industries, the West Virginia limestone company owned by Republican U.S. Senate nominee John Raese, wrote the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. MSHA officials are holding the second to last in a series of public hearings over a proposed safety overhaul today in Charleston, W. Va., with the final one slated for Thursday in Pittsburgh.

"In early September, MSHA proposed the changes to increase fines and to implement enforcement changes mandated by Congress in the wake of this year’s increase in mining deaths," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The proposal contains language "ordered by Congress to set a maximum penalty of $220,000 — up from $60,000 — for flagrant safety violations. It also includes a minimum penalty of $2,000 for violations cited by inspectors as 'unwarrantable failures' to comply with safety standards."

“This updated civil penalty structure provides increased incentive to mine operators to comply with federal safety laws to protect the safety of America’s miners,” said David Dye, acting assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA. “We anticipate that these stronger penalties will induce mine operators to improve their safety and health programs, which prevent hazards from endangering the safety of America’s miners in the first place.” (Read more)

Effort to protect nation's food supply from terrorists gets Tennessee home

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security picked the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine as the lead force in an effort to increase the ability of farmers and communities to protect the nation's food supply from terrorists.

"Funded with a $2 million grant announced Monday, the program, through UT's new Center for Agriculture and Food Security and Preparedness, will reach across the agricultural spectrum, from crops to dairies to meat processors," reports Duncan Mansfield of The Associated Press. "The first classes will be tried out this year in sessions in Tennessee, New Mexico and California. The program will roll out nationally next year. Some 34 sessions will be offered around the country, free to participants."

"We will be training industry folks, in particular, to assess their own facilities for vulnerability to someone coming in and intentionally contaminating their product," said Dr. Sharon Thompson, center director. "Then we take it to the next step - what they can do to harden those targets and actually move into a prevention perspective." (Read more)

Newspaper publishers predict end to rising print prices; good sign for all

Several newspaper publishers are predicting an end to the rising prices for newsprint, which have jumped more than 50 percent in the last four years, and say those prices may even roll back.

"As spiraling newsprint costs have eaten into newspapers' already thinning margins, any savings are welcome news to newspapers and their beleaguered investors," writes Shira Ovide of Dow Jones Newswires, adding that publishers are gaining more power. "One sign of the downward pressure is paper companies' difficulty in pushing through a recent price increase -- the 10th since 2002."

Many newspapers are forced into staff cuts by increased operating expenses, which jump when advertising revenue stalls and newsprint prices rise. If newsprint prices stop rising and even decrease a bit, both community and urban newspapers may find some relief.

"Paper producers planned in August to hike newsprint by $40 to above $650 a metric ton, or 2,200 pounds, of newsprint. . . . But under pressure from publishers, market leader Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. cut the price hike in half, and others abandoned it completely. As in airline fees, price hikes don't stick if all companies don't go along," reports Ovide. (Read more)

Many of Massachusetts' rural areas lack even one dentist, study says

One-fifth of Massachusetts cities and towns lack even one dentist, and the poor and the rural disproportionately bear the burden of the state's dental care imbalance, according to a first-of-its-kind report for the area.

The report from the Oral Health Collaborative of Massachusetts, a consortium of dental educators, medical associations, and health advocates, identified several consequences of the absence of rural dentists. People unnecessarily loss teeth, and the bacteria responsible for tooth disease can also affect the heart and pregnant women, reports Stephen Smith of The Boston Globe.

Multiple reasons exist for the lack of or absence of dentists in 69 Massachusetts towns, said the deans of the dental schools at Harvard and Tufts universities, notes Smith. "High tuitions and resulting indebtedness are factors that drive people to practice in areas where payment is good," said Dr. Bruce Donoff, dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Many dentists "stay away from the rural areas, where the economic conditions may not be as good." (Read more)

Indiana town becomes host for effort to turn manure into electricity

Nick Carey of Reuters writes from Reynolds, Ind.: "Like many rural communities across the Midwest, Reynolds – surrounded by hog farms and corn and soy fields – has seen its fortunes decline in the past few decades, as residents drifted to cities in search of jobs. Now local officials see hope in a project aimed at providing power using renewable resources – primarily millions of gallons of pig manure."

The state of Indiana picked Reynolds, population 547, last year as the site of a project called BioTown, and the initial phase involved promoting E85 – 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline. The town's lone gas station installed such a pump last month, and the next phase involves taking the town off the conventional power grid, notes Reuters.

A pig can produce seven gallons of waste a day, notes Jody Snodgrass of Rose Energy Discovery Inc., and law requires farmers keep 520 days' worth of waste storage since the weather is rarely good for spreading it on fields. The stink might be accepted, though. “These buildings sit on colossal tanks full of manure,” Snodgrass said. “If we can turn it into power, these farmers won't need so much storage space.”

"Rose Energy, based in Advance, Ind., is investing $7 million on three types of technology to turn pig manure into power in Reynolds. The main one is anaerobic digestion, where pig manure is mixed with waste like leftover food and straw. As it decomposes it produces methane, which is burned to generate electricity. Rose Energy will begin construction work on the digester in 2007 and it will go into operation in mid-2008," reports Reuters. (Read more) The Rural Blog wrote on BioTown June 5. Click here for that archived item.

Spoken-word opera tells how the uninsured deal with serious illnesses

In observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, readings of “The Way Home,” a spoken opera by playwright Constance Alexander, are being presented across the nation. This week's will include a performance by the Artists Collaborative Theatre Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 19-22 in Pikeville, Ky.

The 45-minute production examines the plight of cancer and related issues, including how uninsured people deal with serious illnesses, according to director Stephanie Richards, the fine arts extension agent for the Pike County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. (Richards was the first fine-arts extension agent in the country and may still be the only one. Kentucky extemnsion officials are looking to fill a second such position.)

“The Way Home,” inspired by an award-winning civic journalism project that Alexander undertook with WKMS-FM, a National Public Radio member station in Murray from 2000 to 2003, is being presented in Kentucky and throughout the U.S. during October, writes Terri McLean of UK's College of Agriculture. The showtimes are 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 19, 20 and 21, and 3 p.m. on Oct. 22. Tickets are $10 per person and Pikeville College’s Booth Auditorium will host the play. (Read more)

Alexander is on the national Advisory Board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Monday, Oct. 16, 2006

Man convicted of vote fraud provides example of problem in Appalachia

A vote-fraud trial in Appalachia, Va., ended last Thursday with a guilty verdict for a man charged with stealing mail so others could steal votes. This case is one example of a practice that remains prevalent in many low-income areas, especially Central Appalachia -- the region, not its namesake town. And it should prompt journalists in such areas to probe the issue, asking such questions as: How many votes are cast by absentee? How does that compare with the statewide figure? Which voters repeatedly vote by absentee?

Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times writes, "A former letter carrier in the town of Appalachia, [Don Houston] Estridge diverted blank absentee ballots intended for voters on his mail route to corrupt candidates and their supporters, who forged the documents to vote themselves onto the town council, according to testimony. Estridge was the first of 14 people indicted in March to be convicted in a small-town scam that has been called the state's biggest case of election fraud in recent history. All but one of the remaining defendants have agreed to cooperate with authorities."

Cases such as this one illustrate the number of ways votes are bought. "Ballot theft was just part of the Election Day graft in Appalachia two years ago. Testimony also showed that some voters were offered beer, cigarettes and snacks in exchange for their votes, then rounded up and taken to the polls by the vanload," reports Hammack. (Read more) To read an earlier story from Hammack with background on the fraud schemes, click here.

Bonnie Shortt of The Coalfield Progress in Wise County, where the town of Appalachia is located, also provided thorough reporting. In a case where no one actually saw the defendant steal any mail, prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence to convince jurors that fraud occurred. To read the prosecution's side, click here. To read the defense arguments, click here.

This Virginia trial is not the first such vote-fraud case in the Appalachian region and it certainly won't be the last. Former Kentucky state Sen. John Hays was convicted on mail fraud and acquitted on vote-fraud charges in 2004 in relation to a 2002 judicial race. A federal appeals court recently dropped the mail-fraud conviction. For more on the case, click here for a story by Lee Mueller of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Same-sex marriage issue in 2004 may not have directly impacted turnout

Ohio's re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 may not have been driven by votes from evangelicals and conservatives in response to Issue 1 — a same-sex marriage ban — as much as initially believed. In Ohio, the measure passed 62 percent to 38 percent but it might not have been a major factor in turnout. "Rather, the ballot measure worked in a much more indirect way, influencing smaller — and, apparently, non-evangelical — segments of Ohio’s electorate to think about the issues in ways that drove them into the Bush camp," writes Louis Jacobson of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Ohio counties were divided on candidates, with Bush receiving more support from rural areas, reports Jacobson. According to a study by Daniel Smith, a political scientist of the University of Florida, Bush's county-by-county support in Ohio was essentially the same in 2004 as it was in 2000. These findings are consistent with studies in 11 other states.

"Nationally, 32 percent of voters said that gay marriage was a very important factor in making their presidential decision," writes Jacobson. "But non-evangelical Christians in the initiative states were 9 points more likely than their demographically similar peers in non-initiative states to place the same level of importance on gay marriage." Their attitudes "sent a signal to non evangelicals — not to evangelicals — that gay marriage was an important issue," Smith told Roll Call.

“In Appalachia[n Ohio], the voting goes back and forth between the parties because their economic lot never improves. Between 1996 and 2000, 16 of those counties went from Clinton to Bush. Bush kept those counties in 2004 and increased his vote there, even though unemployment rates were higher in 2004 than they were in 2000. Those are culturally conservative areas, and I can’t figure out why they stayed with President Bush. I think one thing may have been guns, and the other thing was gay marriage,” Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatch told Roll Call. (Read more)

Journalism class at Indiana U. covering local elections in several counties

Students in Carol Polsgrove's Public Affairs Reporting at Indiana University in Bloomington are getting out of the classroom to cover this fall's elections and news in largely rural southern Indiana. The stories have been sent to local newspapers, and at least one has been published.

The first package of stories, on the elections, is available on the class blog, Southern Indiana News. Students talked to candidates and officials in several counties, including Dubois, Jackson, Owen, Greene and Lawrence, to cover election issues and races. Click here to read the stories.

Student Benjamin Weller wrote, "Dubois County, with towns like Jasper and Huntingburg, is by all accounts a deeply conservative community. A large German Catholic population, rural industries like farming and furniture manufacture, and scores of churches make up the backbone of the county. Pro-life billboards dot the countryside, and the county consistently votes for Republican presidential candidates. Most of the local elected officials, however, are Democrats, with several running in uncontested races. This contradiction reveals a more dynamic electorate than partisans on either side would care to admit."

Students also just returned from one of what will be several visits to Orange County in preparation for the semester's centerpiece project -- reports on the changes in West Baden and French Lick as those towns prepare for the opening of a new casino and renovated hotels.

Polsgrove is the newest academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Before starting the course, she consulted Director Al Cross, who gave her copies of stories his students at the University of Kentucky did on judicial elections in a Special Topics course last spring. Next semester, Cross's students will cover the primary elections for governor of Kentucky.

Knight Foundation has money to build communities with digital media

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is offering $5 million in the "Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge" contest, the first part of a planned $25 million investment over the next five years in "community news projects."

The contest wants ideas that combine new media with news values to help connect and build communities: "Newspapers have long defined the communities we live in. They shape how we think about community and how we understand what’s happening on our block or around the world. But as digital media increasingly becomes the way we receive and share news, who will perform this community function? Who will do in the 21st century what our founders, the Knight brothers, did with their newspapers in the last century?"

The Challenge's Web site, with an online application form, is at www.newschallenge.org. The competition will accept applications through Dec. 31, and expects to begin announcing winners in the spring of 2007. "Anybody, anywhere around the world can enter. Just as long as you’ve got an innovative idea that uses the digital world to connect people in the real world. That’s the only rule," according to a Knight press release.

The Rural Blog reported on the foundation's $25 million plan on Sept. 19. Click here for that archived item.

Billions spent on farmers double-paid by disaster aid and crop insurance

"After a searing drought in the Plains, farm-state legislators are pushing for billions more in aid," but because Congress has doubled up on farm-disaster programs, "farmers often get paid twice by the government for the same disaster, once in subsidized insurance and then again in disaster assistance, a legal but controversial form of double-dipping," The Washington Post reported yesterday.

In 2000, Congress passed the Agricultural Risk Protection Act to use $8 billion to help farmers buy crop insurance and end the cost of giving them disaster payments, reports the Post. However, lawmakers continued to pass farm disaster bills which have totaled almost $24 billion since that year.

"Congressional sponsors of disaster legislation offer a variety of reasons for their bills," write Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen. "They say federally subsidized insurance doesn't cover all of a farmer's losses, and disaster aid fills the gaps. It helps to stabilize rural economies, which don't have many other options. And it offsets rising fuel and production costs while securing cheap food for Americans."

"The money is blown all over the country, from New York to Nebraska to California, usually at election time, fanned by farm-state legislators," reports the Post. "A major share of the money goes to parched and flood-prone areas where farming is tenuous at best and 'disasters' seem to happen every year, a review of thousands of records and interviews with dozens of farmers, economists, insurers and government regulators have found." (Read more) The series continues today with "Crop Insurers Piling Up Record Profits."

In rural India, cell phones economically empower farmers and laborers

In India, cell phones are giving connectivity and economic power to farmers and poor, rural laborers. The nation is the fastest-growing cell-phone market in the world, with 125 million users, a number expected to reach nearly half its 1.1 billion people within four years. Cell-phone coverage is growing most quickly in rural areas and is driven by young people and rural residents who had been neglected, the director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, T. V. Ramachandran, told The Washington Post.

"For less than a penny a minute -- the world's cheapest cell-phone call rates -- farmers in remote areas can check prices for their produce," writes the Post's Kevin Sullivan. "They call around to local markets to find the best deal. They also track global trends using cellphone-based Internet services that show the price of pumpkins or bananas in London or Chicago.

"Indian farmers use camera-phones to snap pictures of crop pests, then send the photos by cell phone to biologists who can identify the bug and suggest ways to combat it. In cities, painters, carpenters and plumbers who once begged for work door-to-door say they now have all the work they can handle because customers can reach them instantly by cell phone." (Read more)

Proposed school funding changes in Tennessee worry rural, urban districts

Possible changes to Tennessee's education funding formula are leaving both rural and urban educators fearing a substantial loss of state dollars and possibly critical budget cuts.

"Under the current model, school districts' state funding is based on the ability of the county where they are located to raise money for schools. The new model would distribute state funds based on individual school systems' ability to raise money," writes Beverly A. Carroll of the The Chattanooga Times-Free Press. "For example, the Oak Ridge school district, which is considered relatively wealthy, is located in Anderson County, which is considered a relatively poor county. Under a system-level model, Anderson County's state funding would increase by $2.4 million, and Oak Ridge Schools' would drop by $1.4 million."

Urban schools are arguing that such a system does not take into account the costs of educating at-risk students that are more prevalent in their areas. Rural school districts are fighting to make sure they do not lose money just because urban districts need more, reports Carroll. Story not available online.

Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Population mark of 300 million signals changes in much of rural U.S.

As one new person arrives every 11 seconds, the U.S. population will surpass 300 million on Tuesday, says the Census Bureau. About 40 percent of current growth comes from immigrants and their children. They are also responsible for increasing or stabilizing population in many rural areas, and growth in general raises questions about the future of rural America.

“Three hundred million is also a discomfiting reminder of a nation that, on its east and west coasts, at least, is running noticeably low on elbow room. More humanity is stirring up more traffic, more sprawl, more rules against growth, more protests against anti-growth rules, and more of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming,” writes Blaine Harden of The Washington Post. “The relative presence of immigrants, about 12 percent of the total population, is more than double what it was when the population topped 200 million. Immigrants are also more visible than ever, having fanned out from gateway cities such as New York and Los Angeles to parts of the rural South and Midwest where they had not been seen in substantial numbers before.” (Read more)

“This kind of continuing development tied to U.S. population growth worries many environmentalists, as well as those concerned about the loss of farmland,” writes Brad Knickerbocker of The Christian Science Monitor. “Concern about a growing populace and decreasing resources is likely to push governments toward conservation and more sustainable development, experts say. (Read more) Nearly 3,000 acres of farmland is erased by development daily, and developers used farmland at a rate 30 percent faster than other rural land in the past two decades, according to a study from the Center for Environment and Population. Click here for that study.

The ongoing increase is population means development's effect on rural America will continue. Numbers USA, a public policy group cited by Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, says “The rate of rural land lost to development in the 1990s was about 2.2 million acres per year. If this rate continues to the year 2050 -- when today's toddlers are middle-aged -- the United States will have lost an additional 110 million acres of rural countryside. That's about equal to the combined areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Virginia.”

Iowa starts adding calcium nitrate to anhydrous ammonia to fight meth

Gov. Tom Vilsack and other Iowa officials unveiled this week a new additive to anhydrous ammonia that renders the fertilizer useless to methamphetamine makers.

"Retailers expect the practice of injecting calcium nitrate into anhydrous ammonia tanks will gain wide acceptance," wrote Deborah Eby of the Quad-City Times. "Vilsack said the discovery will reduce the theft of the fertilizer and cut the amount of meth produced in the state. Iowa State University researchers George Kraus and John Verkade, both chemistry professors, tried dozens of combinations before finding that calcium nitrate was effective."

The program is voluntary. Retailers who participate will get a supply of calcium nitrate and “Stop Meth” signs for anhydrous-ammonia tanks. (Read more)

Commodity theft driving a crime wave among U.S. farms, Monitor says

Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor writes about "a growing problem for America's farm belt: rural commodity theft, or 'plaid-collar crime.' From lush Hawaii to the Carolina plains, artichoke absconders, nut nappers, tree thieves, and even cattle rustlers are plucking, picking, hauling, and siphoning commodities from diesel to mangosteens at impressive rates. Loss is a familiar concept to a farmer. But such audacious heists have prompted many to go on the offensive to police America's wide-open spaces."

"The vulnerability of farms is legendary," Bill Yoshimoto, attorney for a rural-crime task force in California, told Jonsson. "They're just wide- open places for crooks to come. And crooks are going to go where the pickings are easy and where the prices are favorable."

Jonsson reports, "Several commodities are particularly in demand because their prices are increasing. Almond prices jumped 70 cents a pound this summer, and beef prices remain high. Prices for high-grade lumber continue to climb. And rural backwoods areas have been hit by the copper theft epidemic across the country after prices peaked at $2.80 a pound this summer.

He continues, "These days it's relatively easy to steal commodities without getting caught, Mr. Yoshimoto says. For one, farms are bumping up against suburbs, shortening the time it takes potential crooks to get their hands on freestanding tanks of diesel, barrels of expensive fungicides, and rolls of copper wire. Oftentimes, thieves can operate in plain view since the heavy equipment and tractor-trailers they use to carry out their crimes are common in these parts. Internet trading has also cut down on paperwork, making scofflaws tougher to track down." (Read more)

Archer Daniels Midland sees ethanol coming from more than corn

The chief executive of the largest U.S. ethanol producer, Archer Daniels Midland Co., said this week that while corn and soybeans will remain staples for biofuel manufacturing, "corn husks and other cellulosic material will help meet the world's growing appetite for both food and fuel," Reuters reports.

"We believe that corn ethanol and vegetable oil biodiesel will continue to account for a significant percentage of biofuels for years to come," ADM CEO Patricia Woertz said on Wednesday in St. Louis, at the Advancing Renewable Energy conference.

"For that reason, ADM is venturing into making cellulosic ethanol from corn husks," Reuters reports. "Cellulosic ethanol is also made from grasses, wood chips or other fermentable material."

"We believe this process will boost our production of ethanol by 15 percent without adding an additional ear of corn," Woertz said. (Read more)

Washington-state papers dig deep to pass repeal of state estate tax

Owners of several family newspaper companies in Washington state -- The Wenatchee World, Pioneer Newspapers, The (Vancouver) Columbian and The Seattle Times -- have contributed financially to a campaign to repeal the state's tax on estates, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

"The papers' involvement in the campaign has raised eyebrows, with critics saying the publications can't be objective in their coverage if owners and publishers get involved in political campaigns," Amy Rolph writes. "Others complain that the papers aren't doing enough to let readers know of their contributions."

Voters will decide Nov. 7 whether to keep or repeal a law "which makes it possible for the government to tax large estates, though the first $2 million in value is exempt," Rolph explains. "David Lord, the president of Pioneer Newspapers, said he doesn't believe his company's donation affects its newsrooms. ... Pioneer owns the Skagit Valley Herald and the Ellensburg Daily Record, as well as other papers in Washington and throughout the Northwest." It gave $25,000, as did The Wenatchee World.

World Publisher Rufus Woods "said this is the first time he has written a large check to a political campaign, but abolishing the estate tax is a personal passion of his family's," Rolph wrote. "But it's the basic principle of objectivity that worries Kaushik, who canceled a meeting with the editorial board at The Wenatchee World because he didn't see the point of going. He said he also decided to forgo a meeting with The Seattle Times for the same reason." A Times vice president is consulting the repeal campaign.

"Though some newspapers have addressed the issue of their donations through blogs and columns, Kaushik thinks they should do more to disclose their 'hidden interests,' right down to accompanying editorials with a note," Rolph reports. "But those who are on the receiving end of the donations don't see a problem. "The bottom line is, these are family-owned businesses, and they have a stake in the matter," Amber Carter, a spokeswoman for the repeal campaign, told the Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst paper. (Read more)

Gannett reports lower ad revenue; may reflect a trend for daily papers

Gannett Co., the largest media company in the nation -- and the publisher of more weekly newspapers than any other U.S. firm -- experienced a 12 percent drop in earnings in the third quarter of 2006, attributed to a weaker market for advertising. “Overall, Gannett's newspaper ad revenue rose 1.2 percent, driven largely by new acquisitions--but the company said that without the purchases, national ad revenue fell 3.4 percent and classified revenue fell 2.3 percent,” writes Erik Sass of Media Post Publications.

“The dip in Gannett's classified-ad revenue is another piece of bad news for newspapers overall, which derive a large part of their revenue from it,” writes Sass. “Although real-estate revenue continued to climb with an 8.2 percent jump, employment classifieds fell 6.2 percent and automotive tumbled 9.5 percent. The latter development is in keeping with auto advertisers' long-term flight from print.”

Paul Ginocchio, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, predicted that real-estate and help-wanted classified would decline because of the slowing economy, reports Sass. Lauren Rich Fine of Merrill Lynch estimates a drop in earnings-per-share of 11.5 points for the entire newspaper industry. In addition to Gannett, top newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have reported decreases in ad revenue. (Read more)

Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

Federal-spending watchdog group launches budget-tracking Web site

On Tuesday, the watchdog group OMB Watch launched FedSpending.org, an online tool that allows the public to see how its tax dollars are distributed.

The Web site opened shortly after President Bush signed the Federal Accountability and Transparency Act into law. The law requires the Office of Management and Budget to disclose its spending on its own Web site and it will provide much of the information for FedSpending.org. To read the bill, click here.

"For the first time, itemized information on the more than $12 trillion that the federal government has disbursed between 2000 and 2005 will be available to the public in a useful format. Users can search contract and grant information by agency, congressional district, and recipient, for example," said an OMB Watch press release. "FedSpending.org will function not only as a tool for the public and journalists to find out about government spending, but also as a prototype against which to measure the success of OMB's endeavor." (Read more)

FactCheck.org: Republican ads mislead on Democrats' immigration votes

From one end of the country and many places in rural America, voters are seeing political commercials that accuse Democratic candidates of voting to "give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants." That charge is "a mischaracterization," reports FactCheck.org, a non-partisan group run by former CNN political reporter Brooks Jackson, who has been picking TV ads apart for more than a decade and calls them fairly. He says FactCheck.org, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the Universiy of Pennsylvania, has counted 29 Republican ads "attacking Democrats with various versions if this misleading claim."

"The charge is a mischaracterization of an amendment offered during debate of the immigration bill that passed the Senate last May with a healthy bi-partisan majority, 62-36," says FactCheck.org. "The amendment would change current law to prevent immigrants from getting credit toward future Social Security benefits from taxes paid before they have legal permission to work."

Other mischaracterizations include a claim that a Senate bill "pays foreign workers more than Americans," reports FactCheck.org. The provision would require guest workers to be paid the same as citizens, not more, and they could only be hired if no American accepted the job. Another ad said that $50 billion would be spent to "give illegal aliens amnesty" but did not mention that the sum would be spent over 10 years. Further, the Congressional Budget Office said the figure was due to a mistake and would be more like $4 billion. (Read more)

Ag, Energy depts. give $17.5 million for research of renewable bio-energy

Nearly $17.5 million will fund 17 biomass research and development projects in an attempt to reduce the nation's dependence on oil, as part of the Advanced Energy Initiative. The announcement was made yesterday by Secretary Mike Johanns of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary Samuel Bodman of the U.S. Department of Energy at the conference, "Advancing Renewable Energy: An American Rural Renaissance."

"Grants announced [yesterday] are intended to develop technologies necessary to help make bio-based fuels cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the commercial market. The projects selected will carry out research, development and demonstrations on biobased products, bioenergy, biofuels, and biopower," said a joint press release from the USDA and the DOE. Click here to read the full release.

Johanns said that in the last six years, the U.S. has gone from 10 biodiesel plants to 86 plants. A cost-sharing program will provide $160 million to build as many as three more in the next three years. Ethanol is expected to be another practical alternative. "Johanns said ethanol will still be competitive when gas is $2.00/gallon and will continue to be so as long as oil remains above $30 a barrel and the DOE said that prices will level out in the long run at a per barrel price of over $50," writes Karl Heilman of Resource Investor. (Read more)

Timbering cypress forests endangers Gulf Coast areas, critic writes

"It’s been estimated that every 2.7 square miles of wetlands reduces storm surge by a foot, and yet over the last century Louisiana has stripped away 1,900 square miles of swamp, an area the size of Delaware. Evidence shows that such improper land management, reducing the cypress-tupelo swamps to a small fraction of their original grandeur, worsened flooding in New Orleans during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Steve Fleischli, the executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, writes in The New York Times.

"Yet at a time when the nation should be investing billions to restore the Gulf Coast’s wetlands for protection against future storms, these cypress swamps continue to face many challenges, including development, saltwater flowing in and rising water levels. The most dangerous threat of all, however, may be garden mulch — the stuff that gardeners usually use to protect their plants. As they exhaust the cypress forests along Florida’s coast, mulch companies are moving into Louisiana with shady operators among them grinding up entire cypress forests, 70 percent to 80 percent of which will never grow back. This is hurricane protection lost forever."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring permits for logging in southern Louisiana, but the clear-cutting of cypress forests continues. A potential problem for preservation efforts is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer ordering government agencies and lower courts to analyze waterways, giving federal protection to only those with special significance, writes Fleischli,

"Already, several Florida municipalities, after witnessing the destruction of their wetlands, have banned the use of cypress mulches. In Louisiana, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is exploring her authority to carry out a broader moratorium. Consumers need to remember that their mulch purchases may be leaving New Orleans and other coastal communities vulnerable. Every bag of cypress mulch for you could mean another sandbag for someone else," concludes Fleischli. (Read more)

Residential boom poses risks for farmers on tractors in rural Va., N.C.

Residential development in some rural Virginia counties is making it hard for farmers to navigate roads on their tractors and some are opting to abandon their fields.

"Life in the slow lane can sometimes feel like an obstacle course for strawberry farmer J.D. Scott as he bobs and weaves his way around fast-moving traffic on a dusty red-and-white tractor," writes Christina Rogers of The Roanoke Times. "As he discusses the perils lurking on these narrow back roads, a maroon Corvette zips toward him in the opposite lane. Without slowing down, the sports car's driver drops its right tires onto the gravel shoulder, swerves around and whips past Scott's tractor -- loudly punctuating the farmer's point."

Farmers in Botetourt, Bedford and Franklin counties need to haul heavy machinery to and from fields, but newcomers that do not wish to wait in traffic, reports Rogers. "If you look at the pure demographics of the issue, approximately 1.8 percent of the population is associated with agriculture nationally," said Bruce Stone, a safety manager with the Virginia Farm Bureau. "If you simply do the math, 98.2 percent don't understand agriculture and don't have to. So when people get behind a tractor running 25 mph, they get impatient and then they take a chance to pass."

The Virginia Farm Bureau records the number of tractor-vehicle collisions from news clippings and insurance claims, which includes five fatalities and 21 injuries since 2002. North Carolina labor officials conducted a 2003 survey of farmers where only 22 percent of respondents in their state said they felt safe on rural roads, notes Rogers. (Read more)

Small farmers looking to improve operations should visit new Web site

A new Web site is aiming to create a collaborative effort among small farmers looking to improve their yields and efficiency, and the site hopes to accomplish that by bringing farmers together to plan, track, analyze, and improve operations.

RichAsDirt.com is encouraging farmers to jump online, log into the site, and then share their different strategies and experiences. The site provides displays of different farming data, and then helps farmers see how their methods compare to others in their area and across the country. The site relies primarily on the data submitted by farmers, so its services depend on the amount of Web traffic.

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

Rural homelessness a growing national problem with small sense of hope

"As the Bush administration promotes a widely praised multibillion-dollar effort to end chronic homelessness in cities like Washington and San Francisco, a growing outcry is rising from rural areas that worsening problems far away from urban centers are being overlooked," reports The New York Times.

Many studies have previously estimated that homeless people in small towns account for 9 percent of the nation's 600,000 homeless, but many rural communities claim the percentage is higher because of closing plants, failing farms, rising housing costs and other circumstances. Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told Times reporter Randal Archibold the problem is hard to assess because rural communities usually lack the data-heavy planning documents the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies need.

"This year, the federal government has increased direct spending on homeless programs to about $4 billion, up from $2.9 billion and double the spending of five years ago," writes Archibold. However, rural homeless advocates continue to lack hope because they do not possess the same grant-writing experience and knowledge of federal regulations typically found in metro areas. Small towns also struggle without the network of nonprofit organizations and corporations that typically underwrite efforts. (Read more)

A story in today's Columbus Dispatch mentions rural homelessness in the state's central and southeastern counties. State leaders are reviewing what assistance efforts are currently underway in those counties to come up with a Rural Homeless Initiative plan, report Encarnacion Pyle and Tom Sheehan. (Read more)

Rural areas get mental health care via video; what about the quality?

Rural areas often lack psychiatrists, but now some residents are getting help via video in a move that represents the latest step in telemedicine -- and that may raise questions about quality.

"Video medical treatment increasingly is filling the gap in regions of the country where specialists are in short supply. And mental health appointments work especially well over video, enabling therapists to reach many patients who otherwise might not get help, experts say," reports Jamie Stengle of The Associated Press. States using the technology for mental health include Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Doubts about the service include whether patients can get help in emergencies and what happens when the personal touch of face-to-face interaction is lost. Dr. Myron Weiner, who works at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told AP that assessing someone's mood from a video screen is troublesome because facial expressions and gestures get lost in the mix. (Read more)

Small-time farmers missed out on millions given by USDA, study says

Only 5 percent of $500 million spent on four agriculture research and grant programs went to farmers with small- to medium-sized operations or beginning farmers in 2001 and 2002, says a study released Tuesday by the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs.

Many projects that received funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture "were essentially research and development initiatives for large food companies," the report concluded. The USDA counters that two of the programs did not deal specifically with small farmers. "And in one program, $1.5 million was set aside for smaller producers this year, the department said. The agency also created a $1.47 million grant program for small minority producers," reports Libby Quaid of The Associated Press.

What is undisputable is the decline of mid-sized farms in some states and the rising age of farmers nationwide. For instance, in Iowa the number of farms classified as mid-sized, or those boasting sales between $100,000 and $499,999, slid 19 percent from 1997 to 2002, according to the report. "Given the demographics of agriculture in America ... the inability of major USDA research and grant programs to address the topic of beginning farmers and ranchers is disappointing," said the center's Kim Leval, an author of the report.

The report asks the government to target family farmers and rural communities when awarding such money in the future. The four programs studies included the Rural Business Enterprise Grant program, the National Research Initiative, the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, notes AP. (Read more) For the full report, click here.

Democrats eye rural areas as the key to taking back control of Senate

Many Democratic candidates who once ignored rural areas are now campaigning hard for votes that helped build the Republican stronghold running Congress, and some see small-town U.S.A. as holding the key to the nation's political future.

Democrats are fighting to get control of the Senate. "To gain the majority, Democrats must win at least four, and maybe more, GOP-held seats in red states such as Missouri. Recent polls have buoyed their hopes. Democrats are running about even with or slightly ahead of Republicans in each of the hotly contested red-state Senate races except Arizona's," writes Ronald Brownstein of The Los Angeles Times.

"In all but one of the key red-state Senate races, rural voters constitute a larger share of the population than they do nationally (Arizona is the exception). And that means that to gain Senate seats, Democrats need to minimize the GOP edge among culturally conservative exurban and rural voters," Brownstein writes from Missouri, where state Auditor Claire McCaskill is challenging Republican Sen. Jim Talent and admits she didn't spend enough time in rural areas when she lost the governor's race in 2004.

Besides Arizona and Missouri, the other races in red states (those carried by President Bush in both his elections) are Ohio, Montana, Virgina and Tennessee. (Read more)

Prescription dope main cause of drug deaths in N.E. Calif., rural Nevada

Prescription drug deaths are more common in rural northeastern California and rural Nevada than in those states' urban areas, says an alcohol-and-drug counselor with experience in both the city and the country.

"Alcohol and drug counselor Lyle Dornon said while working in treatment programs in the Los Angeles area, the typical client deaths were related to heroin addiction. However, in his experience working in northeastern California and Nevada rural communities, client related deaths are prescription drugs addicts," writes Ruth Ellis of the Lassen News in northeastern California.

Dornon said heroin is less available to rural residents, so oxycontin and methadone are the drugs of choice, and parents are being strongly urged to keep medications locked up. "The largest portion of clients the Lassen County Alcohol and Drug Department serves are alcohol and marijuana users and approximately 20 percent are prescription drug addicts," reports Ellis. (Read more)

Nebraska county confronted bleak future with new spirit, business coach

Valley County is in many ways the heart of Nebraska and the heart of America because it tells a story all too common in rural areas. Business closings and a declining population left the county with little hope five years ago. "In the last five years, though, something utterly unexpected has happened," writes David Leonhardt of The New York Times.

"The decline has stopped. More people are moving to Ord, the county seat, than leaving, and the county’s population is likely to show its first increase this decade since the 1920’s. The economics of rural America have not really changed. If anything, the advantages that Chicago, Dallas, New York and other big cities have over Nebraska have only continued to grow. But Ord has finally figured out how to fight back."

Leonhardt says Ord "has hired a 'business coach' to help teach local stores how to sell their goods over the Internet and to match up retiring shop owners with aspiring ones. Schoolchildren learn how to start their own little businesses — like the sixth-grade girl who made a video of the town’s history and sells it at school reunions — so they will not grow up to think the only job opportunities are at big companies in Omaha or St. Louis. Graduates of Ord High School who have moved elsewhere receive mailings telling them about job opportunities back in town."

More rural stories like Ord's may start to appear, though, because a culture of philanthropy is emerging among Midwestern states. Such philanthropy is not taking place along the coasts and in the Southwest, but maybe those areas could take a lesson from rural America. "New York could become a little more like Ord and, in the process, blunt some of the rough edges of inequality that have come with prosperity," writes Leonhardt. (Read more)

Copper thieves remove plumbing from homes, topple utility poles in Iowa

"Thieves planning to make a quick buck selling stolen copper wires and pipes for scrap are becoming more brazen. No longer content with swiping used metals from construction scrap bins, thieves are now taking copper plumbing out of homes," including those in rural areas, writes Jeff Reinitz of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in Iowa.

As copper prices have increased during the last year, several reports have circulated about the metal being stolen from farms. Now residents are coming home to find no hot water, and the culprits are burglars grabbing pipes. In some cases, the resulting increased water pressure from the closed line builds up, bursts fittings on the cold water line, and leaves residents with no water, reports Reinitz.

"Last month, bandits in Waterloo risked their lives to topple a utility pole and break open a transformer in a plan to steal the copper wiring inside. The newer transformer, which had a light current running through it, had only aluminum wires," writes Reinitz, adding that the copper thieves are taking more chances like this across the country. (Read more)

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006

State legislators' financial disclosures from 43 states now available online

Journalists covering elections know that candidates have to disclose their campaign finances, but they often don't realize that most states require candidates to make certain disclosures of their personal finances, so that possible conflicts of interest can be exposed. However, about half the states don't post the reports online. The Center for Public Integrity has filled much of the gap by posting legislators' reports on its site.

The center does not have reports filed by legislative non-incumbents, which typically are required in all but four states that require legislative incumbents to disclose their personal finances. Those reports are typically not available from state agency Web sites, but are available on request from the agency.

Legislators in 47 states are required to make such disclosures, which list information such as private employment, major investments, major debts and board positions. The Center for Public Integrity is posting reports of legislators from all but four of the 47 states -- Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Delaware, which are still collecting current information. Personal financial disclosures are not required in Idaho, Michigan and Vermont. Click here to read the center's release.

To check on your legislators, select from the list at this Web site. The center says it started collecting the records in 2000, and has kept up with more than six thousand filings each year.

Wall Street squeezes local TV, democracy pays price, TV journalist says

"Wall Street is undermining democracy in America. It is doing this by demanding ever higher profit margins from local television stations that have little more to give. The result is that more Americans are getting less news," writes Valerie Hyman, program director for the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Television Journalism and former television reporter, for the weekly CBS News feature Outside Voices.

"In the process, Wall Street also diminishes the democratic vision of journalism. Now, in addition to gathering and presenting news, stations must be on the lookout for ways to get more advertising money out of their newscasts. The Ford Foundation and the Radio Television News Directors Foundation just released a study that shows that two-thirds of Americans choose local television as their top source of news compared to any other traditional or new media. No matter how dismissive you may be of local TV news, most of your neighbors rely on it. Like it or not, this is a story that concerns us all."

Stations prosper during election years from advertising dollars brought in via candidates. However, in following years, Wall Street demands more money than it got during election year, writes Hyman.

"This desperate game of catch-up is unfolding as the Internet gnaws at television's revenue base. It's a small nibble now. It will get bigger. Meanwhile, TV stations get a smaller piece of that advertising pie with each passing year," concludes Hyman. "When local television stations are squeezed, so are citizens who rely on them for the information they need to make decisions in a democracy. We need to tell Wall Street, and the CEOs of the media companies that are slaves to stock prices, to look for something else to squeeze. Democracy demands it." (Read more)

Frist files bill to cut health care disparities; problem plagues rural U.S.

On his way out of the Senate for a presidential campaign, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., recently introduced legislation aimed at reducing health care disparities, which are a major issue in rural America. The bill received support from two very prominent Democrats.

"The bill authorizes roughly $500 million to reduce disease rates among racial and ethnic minorities and some poor rural whites. The other sponsors are Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Barack Obama of Illinois and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico," reports Nancy Zuckerbrod of The Associated Press. She suggests that the bill cold be considered when Congress reconvenes for a "lame duck" session after the Nov. 7 elections.

"The legislation calls for research into why some groups have higher rates of disease than others and attempts to eliminate such disparities," AP reports. It would restore funding to some programs, such as those for minority enrollment in medical schools; establishing new programs, including one for hospitals to conduct research on health disparities; create a Food and Drug Administration panel to make recommendations related to racial and ethnic minorities; and require hospitals to collect more data on patients' race, ethnicity, geographic location and income. (Read more) For more information on health-care disparities, rural and otherwise, check with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Oklahoma newspapers trashing what candidates bill as 'press releases'

Newspapers often get flooded with press releases from candidates, and Oklahoma newspapers are an example of how papers should approach running such material, writes Roger Bailey, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, in Publishers' Quarterly.

Bailey cites David Stringer, publisher of The Norman Transcript and president of the Oklahoma Press Association, who wrote the following in his column The Oklahoma Publisher: "I'm glad to see and hear newspapers are becoming a little more 'evangelistic' related to politics and trashing what candidates would like us to believe are press releases. We've created the monster ourselves, running a lot of that garbage in the past, but I've had more than a few publishers and editors tell me how offensive they find it to get a 'press release' about a candidate's new schedule of TV commercials, or about the $50 'donation' fundraisers they're having.

"They hope we'll run this garbage, spend all of their money on TV and direct mail, then tell you how important you are to them, asking for your editorial endorsement. I'm glad to see newspapers are catching on to the scam. What they're really saying is 'You're important if it's free. But you're not worth our money.' Fine. Newspapers are still the best defense of democracy and the only media that hasn't become more entertainment then information.

"Folks still rely on us more than anyone for a fair reporting of the facts. I'm glad to see us getting a little more militant about that part of our business. In most cases, they know newspaper readers are more intelligent and more likely to vote than the general public. And the truth is a lot of those campaign handlers are afraid of that," concluded Stringer in his column, not available online.

Bailey writes, "North Dakotans, it has been generally agreed upon, are usually 'followers.' We hope that Oklahoma attitude someday prevails here. But for now, it's readily apparent that most newspaper people in North Dakota would rather be friends with the politicians by giving them all the space they want -- in exchange for the golden dollar which the politicians will 'fight for' and bring to their state. Newspapers which prostitute themselves in this manner aren't any better than the politicians, are they?" (Read more)

Rural Utah counties lag in national effort to reduce chronic homelessness

"Three years into a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, housing officials are struggling to get rural Utah to catch the vision. Fewer than half of the 10 regional homeless committees have launched pilot projects," writes Kirsten Stewart of The Salt Lake Tribune.

The effort is part of a Bush administration initiative aimed at getting the chronically homeless into permanent housing accompanied by medical and financial supports. However, in some rural Utah counties, that fact that some teachers and police cannot afford homes makes it hard to sell such a program. Also, in areas experiencing growing pains due to oil and has exploration, city and county leaders are slow to make this program a priority, reports Stewart.

"Metropolitan areas have long complained of shouldering the state's homeless burden. The chronically homeless cluster there, because that's where they can find shelter, food and transportation," writes Stewart, adding that the chronically homeless are people without a home for more than a year, or who go homeless four times during a three-year period. (Read more)

West Virginia school board agrees to hang no more religious portraits

A portrait of Jesus Christ will never hang again at Bridgeport High School in West Virginia, after the Harrison County Board of Education decided Friday to settle a lawsuit filed by Americans United For Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The portrait, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, had been hanging at Bridgeport High for at least 35 years. In June, the two groups sued the school board, county superintendent and the school’s principal, claiming the art infringed on students’ constitutional rights to religious freedom," writes Anna L. Mallory of The Charleston Gazette. No images, items or objects with religious content can be displayed at the school near Clarksburg. (Read more)

"The dispute triggered local controversy and attracted national attention. The ACLU and Americans United sued on behalf of two Bridgeport residents, charging that the portrait's presence in a public school was unconstitutional, offensive and an endorsement of Christianity over other faiths in an increasingly diverse community," writes Cindi Lash of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Read more)

“This is a victory for the children of Bridgeport,” said Americans United Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee in a press release. “We have avoided a lengthy and expensive lawsuit that would have been detrimental to the community and school system. This means that school funds can be put toward education, not litigation.” Click here to read the full release.

Southwest Virginia weekly closely covering plan for coal-fired power plant

Plans for a coal-fired power plant are progressing in St. Paul, Va., and The Coalfield Progress in Norton is doing a good job covering all the details, including the company's guarantees about air pollution in the scenic valleys of the upper Clinch and Powell rivers.

In the first of two stories in the latest edition, Jodi Deal writes, "Dominion Virginia Power officials say construction of an electric power plant near St. Paul will likely go forward regardless of whether the State Corporation Commission provides Dominion with the preliminary investment assurances it has asked for. The nagging question for officials is how long it will take to build the plant if Dominion doesn’t learn more about the return on equity for cost of building the plant." (Read more)

In the second story, Deal reports, "Of course residents near a coal-fired power plant proposed for the St. Paul area will notice some air emissions if the plant is built, a Dominion Virginia Power representative said Thursday. But, according to Jim Browder, an environmental consultant with Dominion, the key to meeting state and federal regulations is to choose technologies that will insure that the emissions won’t 'significantly deteriorate air quality.'" (Read more)

Monday, Oct. 9, 2006

Elections provide community papers with new life, new set of challenges

Election Day is a month from tomorrow, and election coverage can provide community newspapers with challenges in terms of how of coverage and with new life from an influx of new content, writes Jim Pumarlo in Publishers' Quarterly of the North Dakota Newspaper Association..

One source of new life comes from letters to the editor, which spur an exchange of ideas on pages typically reserved for staff-written copy or syndicated columns. "Election letters demand extra attention due to the preponderance of orchestrated campaigns. Editors will navigate the election season best by establishing guidelines early and publicizing them often. In a nutshell, newspapers should emphasize letters by local residents on local issues," opines Pumarlo, author of Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.

Most smaller newspapers do not endorse candidates, especially in local races, but Pumarlo says papers "have a responsibility, even an obligation, to weigh in on who they believe will best advance the interests of their communities. Editorials are most balanced, and more readily accepted by readers, when they identify the strengths and weaknesses of all candidates, and then recommend someone on the basis of the information presented."

While a voter guide often serves as a newspaper's one-stop shop for readers, "these special editions are one slice – albeit an important one – of overall coverage. It’s unrealistic to believe that months-long campaigns can be whittled down and presented in a single package. At minimum, voter guides should provide a glossary of all races and questions that will be on the ballot," concludes Pumarlo. (Read more)

Subsidies may be abused; farmers want to break loopholes for large farms

Last year $23 billion was spent on farm subsidies, and there is debate over whether the government is overspending and whether the money goes to those who need it.

Critics say that subsidies encourage farmers to milk the system rather than concentrate on production and profit, and are also prone to fraud. Subsidies may be benefitting those who don't need assistance, including large farms and institutions. Last year $10.5 billion in subsidies went to just 5 percent of those eligible. Universities and large companies who own farmland recieve subsidies, although they may not farm the land themselves, report Dan Chapman, Ken Foskett and Megan Clarke of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Supporters say that subsidies are a safety net for the farm industry to protect against bad years and natural disasters. They say funds aid rural economies and help prevent rural diaspora. "Subsidy proponents also argue that payments are crucial in maintaining a safe and affordable supply of food and fiber. Without them, they say, the United States wouldn't grow enough cotton or staple foods, and the country would be at the whim of foreign growers," write Chapman, Foskett and Clarke. (Read more)

A poll sponsored by the Farm Foundation found that farmers are strongly in favor of abolishing the three entity rule. "The three entity rule is used by mega farms to subdivide into several corporations and thereby avoid farm program payment limitations," says the Center for Rural Affairs. The farmers polled said they wanted funds to be allocated to small and beginning farmers and to create jobs in rural areas. (Read more)

Some subsidized rural airports are under-used; critics say money wasted

More than 100 airports get a total of $110 million in federal subsidies to facilitate rural air travel, but some locales have only three to five passengers a day. The Essential Air Service program has been criticized as expensive and unecessary, and some see it as a relic of the past, reports The New York Times.

After Sept. 11, 2001, many airlines withdrew from less profitable ventures and cut their fleets by about 20 percent. Because of the Essential Air Service program, in place since 1978, the near-empty rural flights continue. "The idea was to help travelers in smaller cities adjust to the new competitive era of air travel," writes Jeff Bailey. "The intention was for the service to go away after 10 years, but it was renewed for a second decade — and then made permanent."

"To qualify for Essential Air Service, towns must have had scheduled commercial air service in October 1978 when deregulation occurred; be at least 70 miles from a large or medium hub airport; and be able to attract service from a regional airline with a one-way per passenger subsidy of no more than $200," writes Bailey. "For towns more than 210 miles from a large or medium hub, however, there is no cap on the subsidy per passenger."

"The Bush administration now wants to cut funding to $50 million," writes Bailey. "So, the Transportation Department is proposing changes to reduce the program costs. Towns more than 100 miles away from a large or medium hub would have to chip in on the subsidy. Towns closer than 100 miles would get a partial subsidy — for bus service to a hub." (Read more)

Horse slaughter increases as proposed ban languishes in Senate

A House-passed bill to stop horse slaughter is expected to die in the Senate, but the Humane Society of the United States says the bill is causing the foreign-owned industry to increase slaughter rates.

"In a rush to kill as many horses as possible before a ban is imposed, the foreign-owned horse slaughter industry in the United States has reached new decade-highs for the number of horses butchered in a single week – 2,463 during the week ending Sept. 16, the latest week available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and just a week after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to outlaw horse slaughter for human consumption," the organization said in a press release.

The USDA reported 9,163 horses were slaughtered in the four weeks ending mid-September, ranking as the highest four-week total in the U.S. since November 1994. Click here to read the full release. The Rural Blog last reported on horse slaughter on Sept. 8. Click here for that archived item.

Churches get government breaks on development in rural, other areas

Churches are gaining a leg up on development by getting friendly government exemptions from land-use rules, but some rural communities are starting to fight back.

The first part of a four-part New York Times series called "In God's Name" explores a trend in which religion outweighs regulation. "Laws passed since 1989 show ... more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use," writes Diana Henriques. "Law gives religious congregations unique tools to challenge government restrictions on the way they use their land."

Land-use restrictions put in place to conserve open space or preserve historic sites are being threatened in some areas by churches' development plans. In Boulder County, Colo., the growing Rocky Mountain Christian Church "sits on 55 acres in an agricultural buffer zone around the small town of Niwot. It is holding multiple services to handle the overflow congregation, but its Sunday school space is full, with some classes spilling out into hallways and temporary buildings set up in a parking lot. The church wants to almost double the size of its facilities so it can accommodate up to 4,500 people," writes Henriques.

The county’s land-use plan and zoning rules for the agricultural buffer zone limit construction on the site to a single residential building. The church sought special approval to build from the Boulder County commission, which turned down the request in February. "The church has sued the county under a federal land-use law enacted by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 2000 to protect religious organizations from capricious or discriminatory zoning restrictions by local governments," reports Henriques. (Read more)

Part two of this series examines how employees of religious groups have few labor rights. (Read more)

Study shows partisan shift for evangelicals; could be same for values voters

Evangelical Christians' support of the Republican Party is in decline, according to polls -- possibly an indicator of a political shift for "values voters." This may be due partially to congressional scandals, but has also been attributed to voters taking a moral stance on issues besides those traditionally contested by conservatives, reports Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post.

"Some influential ministers, such as the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the bestselling The Purpose-Driven Life, are urging evangelicals to fight poverty, safeguard the environment and oppose torture on Biblical grounds," writes Cooperman. "To the extent that evangelicals now view these issues as 'matters of conscience' alongside abortion and same-sex marriage, they could shift some votes into the Democratic column, said Ron Sider, head of the group Evangelicals for Social Action."

"In 2004, white evangelical or born-again Christians made up a quarter of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted Republican, according to exit polls," writes Cooperman. "But some pollsters believe that evangelical support for the GOP peaked two years ago and that what has been called the "God gap" in politics is shrinking." In a study released last Thursday by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote Republican in the midterm elections, a 21-point drop. (Read more)

PBS series documents division among evangelicals over global warming

Wednesday's episode of the PBS series "Moyers on America" will explore a growing fight between conservative evangelicals pushing for a stop to global warming and traditionalists downplaying the threat.

On "Is God Green?," host Bill Moyers will shine light on the transition some evangelicals are making from considering protecting the environment a moral commitment to now considering it a biblical imperative. "The political stakes are high: Three out of every four white evangelical voters chose George W. Bush in 2004. 'Is God Green?' explores how a serious split among conservative evangelicals over the environment and global warming could reshape American politics," according to the PBS Web site. (Read more)

The national broadcast is scheduled for 9 p.m. Wednesday, but local stations' schedules vary. In Kentucky, air times include 9 p.m. Wednesday and at 2 and 5 a.m. Friday on KET2, and at 10 p.m. Friday on KET1. Click here for more information on broadcast times in your area.

Radio-TV group demands FCC stop 'intrusion' into video news releases

The Radio-Television News Directors Association is asking the Federal Communications Commission to end its investigation into local TV stations' use of video news releases, calling the probe "an unprecedented intrusion into newsroom operations."

In a statement released Friday, demanded that the FCC rescind letters of inquiry mailed to 77 stations in August. "In a statement, the RTNDA questioned the accuracy and objectivity of a study conducted by the Center for Media and Democracy of VNR use, and noted that even the FCC said sponsor identification is not an issue when there is no pay-for-play or other consideration," writes Michele Greppi of tvweek.com.

Video news releases are distributed by companies to local TV and radio stations, which have been criticized for broadcasting the releases without identifying their origin. The RTNDA argues that the First Amendment prohibits governmental constraints on the policing of newsroom practices, reports Greppi. (Read more) The Rural Blog last reported on the FCC investigation in its May 26 edition. Click here for that archived item.

Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006

Eleven rural congressional districts are in play, New York Times says

U.S. House seats in 11 rural districts are up for grabs in the Nov. 7 election, according to the latest survey by The New York Times. Six are rated as leaning Democratic and three as leaning Republican; 20 are called safe Democratic and 26 safe Republican. Only two of the districts, those represented by Reps. Don Sherwood of northeastern Pennsylvania and retiring Bob Ney of Ohio, are rated as toss-ups.

“I would think the Ney seat is more of a problem [than some other toss-ups in urban and suburban disticts] because of another round of ethics problems,” Stu Rothenberg, an independent analyst of congressional races, told reporter Adam Nagourney. Click here to read the overall, national story.

Ney dropped out of the race in eastern and southeastern Ohio's 18th District when he was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal. The GOP nominee is state Sen. Joy Padgett; the Democrat is Dover city Law Director Zack Space. "Ms. Padgett has front-runner status, but has come under fire for personal and professional financial troubles. Ms. Padgett filed for bankruptcy with her husband on June 15 and defaulted on a Small Business Administration loan," Kristen Lee writes in the Times' online summary of the race.

In Pennsylvania's 10th District, Sherwood is vulnerable because he settled a lawsuit with a woman who said he assaulted her. He denied the allegation but admitted they had an affair. "The possibility that Mr. Sherwood’s Republican base, particularly social conservatives, might turn against him was highlighted when a little-known challenger, Kathy Scott, captured 44 percent of the vote in the primary contest after spending just $5,000 on the race," Lee writes in the paper's online summary.

Democratic challenger Christopher Carney "has strong military and homeland security credentials, which could work to his favor," Lee writes. "Carney, an associate professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University and a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, served as an adviser to the Pentagon on intelligence and counterterrorism issues after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

The three districts rated leaning Republican are Kentucky's 2nd District, Minnesota's 1st and New Hampshire's 2nd. The six rated as leaning Democratic are Colorado's 3rd, North Carolina's 11th, South Carolina's 5th, West Virginia's 1st and the statewide seats in South Dakota and Vermont.

Many other districts in play, such as the 2nd, 8th and 9th in Indiana, have large rural populations. Overall, 57 of the 435 districts are rated in play -- 23 leaning Republican, 17 toss-up and 17 leaning Democratic.

The Rural Blog was not updated on Friday, Oct. 6.

Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006

Media should ask candidates about open government in fall campaigns

Journalists should not forget the issues of secrecy of records and meetings as they cover candidates in the next month. The issues aren't just the federal questions that make national headlines; they are state and local. This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Iowa Newspaper Association gave examples of ways journalists can go about shining some light on how candidates view open government.

"Secrecy as a state issue: You won't hear Republican state legislative candidates talk about it, but if the GOP retains control of the House and Senate in November, look for a renewed effort to gut Georgia's sunshine laws in the name of economic development," warns Mike King of the Journal-Constitution, noting a recent legislative battle. "The measure, among other things, would have allowed unelected boards to provide incentives for companies to build incinerators, waste disposal sites or other job-creating businesses without having to disclose them publicly until after the deal had been negotiated."

When it comes to secrecy as a local issue in Georgia, King writes about a school board in Gwinnett County that carries the unspoken belief of "If voters don't like what they do they can say so in the next election." However, voters will encounter two candidates running unopposed in next month's election for two board seats. King describes a kind of secrecy that might occur in other growing school districts: "Gwinnett's school board, for instance, envelops the whole land-buying process in total secrecy — no word of a school's location or land price is disclosed until the deal is closed." (Read more)

The latest Iowa Newspaper Association Bulletin urges reporters to ask candidates about the state and local Freedom of Information Acts: "In the coming weeks, candidates for governor and for other state and local offices will be visiting with citizens and media outlets, seeking support. These visits are the perfect opportunity to prod candidates to publicly acknowledge the importance of open government." Examples of secrecy mentioned in this article including the Des Moines School Board holding much of the hiring process for a new superintendent in secrecy, and people having to pay $15 an hour to have the governor's records screened first before they could gain access to them. (Article not available online.)

Foley scandal causing a big stir, but may not sway rural 'values voters'

The scandal over former Rep. Mark Foley will have little impact on rural 'values voters' in congressional elections, predicts National Public Radio's Howard Berkes: "The Republicans and independents we contacted don't connect this Washington scandal with the congressional candidates back home."

Tom Clark, a 46-year-old construction manager in Muddy Pond, Tenn., told NPR, "Every congressman in this country is crooked, no good and sucks. Except for mine. Mine's a good guy. That's the mentality in this country and it's always been that way."

Heather Brownewell of Owatohnna, Minn., told NPR she is "very much pro-life and very much conservative and that's two of the main things that the party stands for. And so that's why even though it's sad that he wrote those e-mails and did something that I consider y'know morally wrong, I'm still a Republican and I would still vote that way." To listen to the story, click here.

Audit attacks mine-safety agency for not investigating complaints sooner

American coal miners may have faced "prolonged hazardous conditions" since the nation's coal mine-safety agency delayed investigating complaints of life-threatening conditions, according to the inspector general of the Department of Labor, parent agency of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"Between Jan. 1, 2005, and March 30, 2006, the inspector general found, in 56 of the 410 hazardous condition complaints, it took at least two days before the district office was notified. The complaints could cover such unsafe conditions as significant levels of methane or unstable roof supports," writes Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The majority of the delays occurred because the complaint was received on a weekend or holiday. But for 12 of the complaints, it took longer than three days -- and as many as 11 days -- as the mines continued operating. The report also says it sometimes took an additional three days or more for an inspection to start, although the majority began within a day of notification."

"The inspector general launched its probe of the complaint process in part because of this year’s increase in mining deaths," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "So far, 38 coal miners have died in on the job nationwide, including the 12 who were killed in the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster." (Read more)

A statement from MSHA said it "responds immediately to any report of hazards that pose imminent danger to miners." "But MSHA officials, who may fine mine operators up to $60,000 if they don't notify them within 15 minutes of a life-threatening incident, told investigators they did not want a specific time limit for evaluating complaints," reports Twedt. (Read more)

To read the audit, click here. For a report on this by The Associated Press, click here.

Communities around national forests call for renewal of funding plan

The National Forest School and County Coalition, including 200 local politicians from 23 states, has petitioned Congress for a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act of 2000, which expired last week. The act mandated that 25 percent of revenue brought in by national forests go to the counties where the money originated.

"In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Determination Act to provide a safety net for these communities. Over the past six years, this Act has provided billions of critical dollars to support rural education, search and rescue organizations, road maintenance and the development of community fire plans for 800 rural counties and 4,400 rural school districts," reports The Clark Fork Chronicle in Western Montana.

Bob Douglas, President of the National Forest School and County Coalition, told the Clark Fork Chronicle, “We are edging closer to a solution for a one-year extension as well as laying the foundation for a multi-year reauthorization." Commissioner Judy Stang of Mineral County, Montana, said she thought resuming logging in the national forests would be the best long-term solution. (Read more)

University of Washington trains docs to send them home to rural areas

The University of Washington's regional medical-school program trains primary-care doctors from the Northwest to send them to rural areas and small towns in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, which the program gives the acronym WWAMI. "Since it began in 1972, the program has graduated more than 6,500 doctors. About 750 to 775 WWAMI medical students are enrolled in the four-year program at any one time," writes Donna Gordon Blankinship of The Associated Press.

Students are given incentives to join the program including in-state tuition but may be required to go back to their home states, reports Blankinship. Forty to 42 percent of medical school graduates nationwide return, but 50 percent return to Alaska and 83 percent return to Wyoming because of WWAMI requirements.

"But the students who go off to Seattle and never return fuel efforts in Idaho, Montana and Eastern Washington to advocate for their own medical schools — even though the cost of opening a new medical school is many times the cost of paying out-of-state tuition at the UW," writes Blankinship.

Ronald McCune, Idaho State University's vice president of medical education, told AP, "We have the issue of access to doctors, but we also have 160 students vying for 26 seats. This state really needs to address these shortages at both ends of the spectrum." (Read more)

New Hampshire farm-to-restaurant program serves homegrown food

Restaurants in New Hampshire are starting to provide patrons with menu titles such as "Growers' Breakfast," and all the meals contain food grown right in the state as part of a farm-to-restaurant program.

During the past three years, that initiative built "connections between producers and chefs to boost markets for high quality locally grown foods," writes Commissioner Stephen H. Taylor in the Weekly Market Bulletin, a publication of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. "Grower dinners have been a key initiative of the Farm to Restaurant program, with the number increasing each of the past three years. Venues have ranged from popular family restaurants to grand hotels."

"This year the program achieved a breakthrough in dealing with a chronic problem for growers trying to supply restaurants. A deal was negotiated with UPS for favorable rates on overnight delivery of farm products to New Hampshire restaurant kitchens. Next steps include publication of an expanded directory of growers seeking restaurant business and a survey of chefs to identify new sales opportunities for local farms," concludes Taylor. (Article not available online.)

Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006

School shootings fly in the face of low risk for violence in rural America

Three school shootings occurred in rural areas in the last week, putting the spotlight on school safety in those areas -- despite statistics showing that rural people are four times less likely to suffer violent crime.

Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University said big crimes occur in small places, and that most school shootings in the 1990s occurred in such areas. Typically, white kids copy the behavior of other white kids with whom they can identify, Fox says, but cautions that school shootings are rare and that the odds of dying at school are one in two million, reports Howard Berkes of National Public Radio.

In his book about school shooters, author Jared Lewis concluded that rural children also "suffer more when they don’t fit in at school," reports Berkes. Also, Lewis writes that urban schools usually have tighter security and more experience dealing with violent crime than rural schools. Lewis is the director of Know Gangs, a training program that aims to help schools reduce violence and cut the risk of school shootings. Click here to listen to Berkes' report.

The Christian Science Monitor highlights the prevalence of girls as targets in school shootings. "The predominant pattern in school shootings of the past three decades is that girls are the victims," said Katherine Newman, a Princeton University sociologist, who wrote a book exploring shootings in rural schools. Newman has researched 21 shootings since the 1970s and she said it's impossible to conclude whether the girls were randomly chosen, report Gail Russell Chaddock and Mark Clayton. (Read more)

For a complete directory of school-violence resources, click here for the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center.

Higher-cost loans hurt minorities, poor residents in rural U.S., says report

Predatory mortgage loans are hurting rural homeowners and their communities, and minorities and low-income people are more likely to fall victim to higher-cost loans, according to a report from the Carsey Institute, a rural-policy center at the University of New Hampshire.

"Predatory lending, which encompasses a range of financial practices that are often targeted at low-income individuals and threaten their income and assets, is becoming increasingly prevalent in rural communities," says the report, adding that examples include check-cashing outlets for payday loans, car title loans, refund anticipation loans and rent-a-center loans.

"Using targeted marketing and promises of 'easy credit' and 'quick cash,' predatory lenders can trap borrowers in a cycle of high interest payments, abusive fees and terms that can lead to home foreclosures, and ultimately devastate borrowers’ financial futures," Carsey reports. "The use of these products appears to be growing in rural areas, where there are fewer commercial financial banking firms serving rural borrowers than in urban counties."

The report examines high annual-percentage-rate loans or “HALs” and data showing that HALs comprised 17 percent of 555,941 rural mortgage loans in 2004. "This was slightly higher than the national and metro rates. Further analysis of these data also shows that HALs are concentrated in rural areas with chronic poverty, and, often, a high proportion of minorities. . . . Concentrations of HALs can be found across the Mississippi Delta region, in counties with Native American reservations and poor Hispanic-American communities, and in some Appalachian communities." (Read more)

Alcohol-related traffic deaths rose after N.M. began Sunday liquor sales

The issue of alcohol sales on Sunday tends to be an issue in small towns and rural areas, and now we have what appears to be the first study examining what can happen on the highways after a Sunday ban is lifted.

A five-year period after repeal of a ban on Sunday sales of packaged alcoholic beverages in New Mexico showed a 29 percent jump in alcohol-related crashes and a 42 percent rise in alcohol-related crash fatalities on Sundays, or 543 alcohol-related crashes and 42 alcohol-related crash deaths, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Since 1998, statewide bans have been lifted in Delaware, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia, and many localities in other states. Many of the 15 states with bans are considering lifting them to relieve pressure from the alcohol industry and to boost state tax revenues, according to the study.

Opponents of the bans argue that lifting them would reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities by diverting alcohol consumption from bars to homes. Opponents counter that increasing the alcohol's availability presents more opportunities for drinking and driving -- Sunday driving, especially, it seems.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Substance Abuse Policy Research Program. To read the study, "Legalized Sunday packaged alcohol sales and alcohol-related traffic crashes and crash fatalities in New Mexico," click here.

Visitors to national parks decline; shorter vacations, video games blamed

National Park Service officials report there are 20 percent fewer campers than 10 years ago, and scientists studying the drop say more people are opting for long weekends instead of two-week vacations.

"The Park Service reported that overnight stays in national parks fell by 13.8 million, or 20 percent, between 1995 and 2005 and have fallen an additional 4.3 percent in the first eight months of this year. The Park Service said tent camping dropped 23 percent, backcountry camping 24 percent and RV camping 31 percent in the 10-year period. Visits to 'gem parks' in the intermountain region, which include Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain, dipped between 2 percent and 15 percent during that time," reports The Associated Press. (Read more)

"Federal officials are seeing a 5 percent decline in national park visitors nationwide since 1998," reports The Courier-Journal. "A University of Illinois researcher recently found that per capita visitation to national parks has been falling for nearly 20 years. The study blames competition from electronic media, such as video games and computers. National Park Service officials also point to fewer international visitors since the 2001 terrorist attacks, difficulties that dual-income parents have coordinating vacations, higher travel costs, shortened summer vacations for children and increased extracurricular activities."

"The kids have day-planners now," Mike Adams, who oversees visitor services at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, told James Bruggers of the Louisville newspaper. Adams is concerned about a possible future where the public possesses a "theoretical appreciation for nature and not the love, respect and knowledge that comes through personal experiences," Bruggers writes. (Read more)

National labor board exempts nurses from unions with 'supervisor' rule

"In a decision condemned by unions but praised by business, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling yesterday that will exempt registered nurses — and many other workers — from union membership if they have certain kinds of supervisory duties. Some labor experts predicted that the ruling could affect more than eight million workers who might also be deemed supervisors, including teachers who oversee aides," writes Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times.

In rural areas, much labor organizing involves health-care workers, and one case from Eastern Kentucky led to yesterday's ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2001 decision in NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care opened the door for a redefinition of who is a supervisor. The Court ruled that registered nurses used independent judgment through oversight of co-workers' labor, which should give them the occupational status of supervisors under federal labor law. The NLRB provided a broad definition of that role with yesterday's decision, reports Greenhouse.

The new definition includes "workers who assigned others to a location, shift or significant tasks, like a nurse overseeing a shift who might assign another nurse to a particular patient. The majority ruled that workers should generally be deemed supervisors, exempt from union membership, if they oversaw another employee and could be held accountable if that subordinate performed poorly. The majority also ruled that workers could be deemed supervisors if they were assigned supervisory duties just 10 percent to 15 percent of their total work time," writes Greenhouse. (Read more)

To read a press release from the AFL-CIO, click here. To read one from the Service Employees International Union, click here. For opposing views, from the National Right to Work Committee, click here. The Oakwood decision can be found at this Web site.

Weeklies should take to airwaves when radio stations sold, says writer

When a local radio station is sold, new owners sometimes see a lack of crime news and opt to cut staff. What if the community's newspaper seized an opportunity and took the news to the airwaves?

"The question is the state of news in the small town," writes Ray Laakaniemi, a retired journalism professor at Tiffin University in northern Ohio, in the latest issue of Publishers' Auxiliary from the National Newspaper Association. "With weeklies providing the best coverage they can, is that enough in a fast-paced world, especially with small staffs on the weekly? What happens in emergencies when the community needs to be notified and there is no newsman?"

"But what happens when the five people left on the station do try to cover the news? They can turn to the local paper, rip and read. In this sense, news is a value-added commodity, requiring hours of preparation and costly production, and papers have successfully sued stations for breaking laws while ripping and reading," continues Laakaniemi.

Laakaniemi concludes with a serious of questions: "If this is happening, is there another answer? Can the local paper sell (there is that word again) news to the radio station? Could the paper and the station, although owned by different entities (perhaps), work together? In an emergency, could the reporter get on the radio and give warnings, which would at best be late news when the paper comes out in several days?" (Article not available online.)

Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006

Deadly shootings highlight rural schools' vulnerability; are guards down?

"Are rural schools more vulnerable" than urban and subirban ones to shootings like yesterday's? That's the question Katie Couric asked school-safety expert Dennis McCarthy on the CBS Evening News last night, and his answer was, in a word, yes -- mainly because shootings aren't expected at rural schools.

"Monday's rampage at an Amish school in Pennsylvania was another in a series of attacks in which four non-urban schools were targeted in the past several weeks by intruders committing murder, mayhem and sexual assaults," reports The Seattle Times, from news services. The story provides a list of deadly shootings at U.S. schools during the past several years. The story points out that rural schools rarely have metal detectors or other security measures typically found in urban schools. (Read more)

Today's Baltimore Sun includes a great first-person account of covering the Columbine shootings and how people wondered how such crime could occur in a rural school. "The answer, of course, is that evil can erupt anywhere - even, as we learned yesterday, in Amish country. The difference may be that, in a small town, a school looms as a particularly attractive target for someone seeking to truly hurt an entire community, says Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist at Princeton who has researched school shootings," writes Jean Marbella. (Read more)

One issue journalists should explore is what security measures already exist at schools. A Columbus Dispatch story explores the effectiveness of lockdown drills and a new Ohio law requiring them. "If schools weren’t doing lockdown drills before, they will now. Even if the recent shootings didn’t change school officials’ minds, a state law that went into effect last week requires at least one drill during the school year," write Charlie Roduta and Jennifer Smith Richards. William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., told them that school violence seems more likely to occur in in rural and suburban schools, because "we let our guards down." (Read more)

Growing Hispanic populations present new fears, challenges for blacks

A story in The New York Times today uses Atkinson County in South Georgia as an example of a community where a growing Hispanic population now outnumbers a large African-American population, but it really tells a national story of two minorities in conflict and struggling to find common ground.

The article shows two Pentecostal ministers, one black and one Hispanic, praying together as "men of faith who say they believe that blacks and Hispanics should be allies in the struggle to overcome discrimination and economic adversity, even though they acknowledge that interethnic unity is often hard to come by."

Rachel L. Swarns writes from Willacoochee, Ga., "In this immigrant boomtown . . . about 45 miles north of the Florida border, the ministers have forged a rare friendship that transcends the deep divide between blacks and Hispanics here. For centuries, the South has been defined by the color line and the struggle for accommodation between blacks and whites. But the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hispanic immigrants over the past decade is quietly changing the dynamics of race relations in many Southern towns."

Blacks and Hispanics often live and work in close proximity to each other, but problems arise when there is competition for working-class jobs and government resources. Labor statistics show the jobless rate for black men in Georgia nearly triples that of Hispanic men, and many of the latter argue that blacks are now mistreating them out of jealousy, reports Swarns. Blacks counter that employers favor immigrants since they are willing to work for lower wages.

Heads up: If you're a journalist in a place where the racial or ethnic makeup of the population has changed greatly, you need to be reporting on it and writing about it. That can help your community face the issues that the changes raise, and help reduce the fear that comes from ignorance of "the others." (Read more)

Proposed eminent-domain limits might hurt land-use planning in 4 states

Four states voting this fall on whether to limit local governments' use of eminent domain could threaten the whole idea of land-use planning, primarily zoning. Worried parties include environmental organizations, smart-growth advocates and budget-watchdog groups who fear tax increases.

Those groups argue that voters in Idaho, Arizona, California and Washington are being lured into voting for a measure to derail land-use regulation, masked as an effort to prevent local governments from taking eminent domain too far, report Blaine Harden and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Voters in those four states will decide Nov. 7 on whether to compel state and local governments to pay cash to land owners when regulations reduce property values. (Read more)

"The backlash against eminent domain stems from the Supreme Court’s July 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed a local government to seize homes to make way for a development and the increased tax revenue it would generate," writes Pauline Vu of Stateling.org.

"Arizona, California and Idaho would go a step beyond rolling back Kelo, limiting eminent domain and regulatory takings on the same measure, while Washington state’s initiative is a takings measure only," reports Vu. "Should the new takings measures pass, it could mean in the future that a county interested in protecting wetlands could not ban a farmer from draining his land unless it were willing to pay him the difference of what his land would be worth if drained. If a new city zoning regulation limited a developer to building two houses on a plot where he planned to build four, he would be able to sue the government for the money the two additional houses would have generated."

Louisiana voters decided Saturday to prohibit expanding eminent domain, and residents in 12 other states will vote Nov. 7 on whether local governments can seize private property for redevelopment. The states are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington. (Read more)

Summer drought, high fuel prices linger for farmers; federal aid demanded

Now that the second warmest summer since 1895 is over, American farmers are hoping federal drought relief might come soon for help in combating the financial and psychological effects of a rough period.

Charlie Griffin, director of the Kansas Rural Family Help Line, is fielding many calls from farmers who do not know where to turn for help. The NOAA National Climatic Data Center confirmed this summer ranks as the second warmest in documented history, and about 40 percent of the country continues to battle drought conditions, reports The Associated Press. What that means for farmers is less crops, less money and more problems staying afloat.

"Farm lobbyists continue to ask Congress for drought disaster assistance. They recently told members of the Senate and House agriculture committees that farmers are facing a two-prong disaster: the drought and high fuel and fertilizer prices," notes AP. (Read more)

'Governator' nixes open-records appeals to California attorney general

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill last week that would have allowed appeals to the state attorney general in open-records cases, a provision that already exists in various forms in many states.

The bill also proposed allowing courts to fine agencies that do not comply with open-records laws, and it aimed to improve Internet access to state agencies, reports the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Schwarzenegger said in his veto message that the attorney general's office would have a conflict of interest because it represents state agencies. Noting the public “voted overwhelmingly to make access to public records a fundamental right," the "Governator" noted he had issued an executive order requiring state agencies to post public-records procedures and train staff accordingly. "These efforts address the problem this bill is attempting to fix," he wrote. Click here to read more about this in the latest CNPA Bulletin.

Smoking ban threatens English rural pubs; some are community centers

A village official in Telford, England, told the Shropshire Star yesterday that many rural pubs that have been used as community meeting halls are likely to close when a national ban on smoking in pubs, clubs and restaurants, agreed on by Labour Party ministers last week, takes effect in four years. The Star reports that "landlords of three village drinking holes [including The Tally Ho at Bouldon, shown here in a photo from the Star] have put forward plans this summer to convert the pubs into houses." Pubs not cooking food would be exempt from the ban.

“When the smoking ban comes along, a lot of those rural licensees, if they had been borderline before, are going to have to go for development,” Village President Eddie Main told Star reporter Alys Cummings.“This is national, it is not just a problem for Shropshire, it is a sad reflection of the industry today. Rural pubs will be the first to go and most pubs that I know were community pubs. They were like community centres, and when those go it is very sad.”

A village official in Shrewsbury, who also owns a pub, told the Star that weekday pub traffic has declined. “Unless they’ve got darts and dominoes teams or real locals to keep them going during the week, there isn’t really anyone, he said, “People just haven’t got the money with interest rising and mortgages going up.” He said Fridays right after paydays are busy, but “At other times it is quieter and you know it is because people don’t have the money.” (Read more) For a BBC story on the smoking legislation, click here.

Monday, Oct. 2, 2006

Louisiana says 'no' to expanded eminent domain; 12 more states to vote

Louisiana voters decided Saturday to prohibit expanding eminent domain, and residents in 12 other states will vote Nov. 7 on whether local governments can seize private property for redevelopment.

The 12 states are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington."The backlash against eminent domain stems from the Supreme Court’s July 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed a local government to seize homes to make way for a development and the increased tax revenue it would generate," writes Pauline Vu of Stateline.org. "Since the Kelo decision, 46 states have considered legislation to rein in local governments’ eminent domain powers and 30 passed bills to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures." (Read more)

For an Associated Press story on Louisiana voters approving a measure prohibiting governments from expanding eminent domain for economic development purposes, click here.

Stateline.org’s Elections Guide breaks down the ballot questions up for a vote in each state this year, which includes 36 states looking to certify 200-plus measures. To read more about the guide and how property rights' popularity stacks up next to same-sex marriage bans and minimum-wage increases, click here.

Farm Aid concert helps farming by replacing hot dogs with organic food

Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and others conceived Farm Aid in 1985 as a way to help struggling family farmers. "the mission now includes promoting the kind of wholesome products they produce," writes Jay Lustig of the Newark Star-Ledger, reporting on Saturday's concert in Camden, N.J.

"Normal concert food offerings such as cheeseburgers and french fries were sold at the venue's food stands. But patrons could also sample organic mozzarella sticks, for free, or buy organic yogurt parfaits (with strawberry compote and granola), organic carrots with organic ranch dressing, or portobello hoagies (with balsamic roasted onions and heirloom tomatoes)," Lustig reports. (Read more)

The concert had $1.1 million in ticket sales, adding to the more than $28 million brought in over the years by the series. "Organizers say 85 percent of that money has been spent on programs for family farms, such as credit counseling, disaster assistance, and advocacy for fair pricing," writes Daniel Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer. (Read more)

Roger Allison of Patchwork Family Farms came to the concert to sell pork chops. "What most Americans don't know -- those who live in towns -- is that the problem is one of policies," he told Rubin. "This country could have any kind of agricultural system that it wants. But now policies benefit the biggest of the big, and have driven family farmers off their land. We need policies that will ensure that our kids and grandkids will have access to good, wholesome food. And that they'll be able to afford to eat it."

Independent farmer resists corporate takeover, wonders about his son

Randall Warner is not about to stop growing wheat and cattle in Kansas, where he looks like a dying breed to The New York Times' Charlie LeDuff: "Large corporate farmers are taking over. Warner doesn’t understand the ins and outs of the international trade policies and government subsidies that are changing the landscape, only that to make it nowadays," he tells LeDuff, "You work harder -- sunup past sundown."

Warner wants politicians to stop the corporate takeover of farm country, and maybe give his college-bound son Travis a reason to return to Lebanon. "The nearest pretty girl is 20 miles away," writes LeDuff, without attributing that fact to anyone. If his son doesn't return, Warner tells LeDuff, he will hire an old farm hand from down the road. But if it doesn't work out he will have to start selling pieces of his farm to a larger operation. “I told my dad he could retire and cash-rent the land to the big farmer, but then what’s he going to do with his time? This is all he knows. Come out here and work daylight to dark," Travis told LeDuff.

“My whole life is wrapped up in this,” the elder Warner told LeDuff. “To tell you the truth, it can get a little monotonous. I’ve had four vacations my whole life.” But he adds that it's a good life,“The best kind of life there is.” (Read more)

Texas school district suspends teacher after fifth-graders see nude art

In Frisco, Tex., fifth-grade art teacher Sydney McGee can no longer teach after a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art ended with a parent complaining about nudes. McGee came under fire, though four other teachers and 12 parents attended the principal-approved trip, reports The New York Times.

"McGee has stated that she received her first negative performance review right after the field trip, and that the school attempted to place her on a 'growth plan,' which she believed would lead to her eventual dismissal," writes Kevin Bowen of The Frisco Enterprise, a newspaper that honored McGee with one of its monthly teacher awards in 2004. (Read more)

Students often visit the museum and there have been no prior problems, the Times reports. "A representative of the Texas State Teachers Association, which has sprung to McGee’s defense, calls it 'the first "nudity-in-a-museum case" we have seen,'" writes Ralph Blumenthal. McGee said she didn't find anything offensive about the art and several parents have agreed.

The district refused to transfer McGee to another school, said her contract will not be renewed and the school is seeking her replacement. Officials say she was not suspended because of the nude art but for performance reasons. In a memorandum to McGee, Principal Nancy Lawson criticized her for not displaying enough student art, for wearing flip-flops to work and for not using time wisely during the trip, writes Blumenthal. (Read more)

Drama uses oral histories to tell story of drugs in southeast Kentucky

A theatrical production is providing a unique take on the prescription-drug abuse afflicting Eastern Kentucky, with stories taken from more than 200 oral histories in Harlan County.

The drama "Higher Ground" incorporates song and dance into its message that communities must work cooperatively to combat drugs' effects. Playwright Jo Carson used the oral histories mainly collected by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College students to produce a script that shows drug abuse transcending race, class, gender and age. Funding then came from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission, reports Candace Chaney for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The collected tales of 'Higher Ground' range from inspirational to tragic to comical. A father teaches his son a valuable lesson by buying him a car that doesn't work, and the father and son work on rebuilding it together. A wife must wrestle with her husband's escalating addiction to OxyContin, which ends in tragic violence. An elderly man is faced with the moral and economic dilemma of selling his pain medicine for a high profit -- which does he need more, the pain relief or the money?" writes Chaney.

The play opened yesterday. Other performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 and 7, and 3 p.m. Oct. 8 at the community college's Godbey Appalachian Center in Cumberland, Ky. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and children. For more information, call 606-589-3136 or 606-589-3132. (Read more)

House panel OKs a better FOIA, but it's unlikely to pass this year

A House panel approved a Freedom of Information Act bill last week that said agencies should not withhold information that might threaten national security, but the measure looks unlikely to pass this year.

"H.R. 867, approved unanimously by a House Government Reform subcommittee, would penalize federal agencies that fail to respond to FOIA requests in a reasonable period of time," reports The Associated Press. The House version contained the amendment pertaining to national security, which is not found in the version still awaiting action from the full Senate. The House version needs action by the full committee, but legislators are starting recess and may not consider the bill during a week-long session before Thanksgiving.

The House amendment added by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would represent a significant departure from the Bush administration's post-9/11 stance of emphasizing “institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests” when dealing with FOIA requests. The administration told agencies to safeguard national security information, and removed thousands of documents from public access, according to government watchdog groups and federal agencies. (Read more)

Sunday special, Oct. 1, 2006

Editor says new road ending rural life, so she lets someone else cover it

The long-planned and long-delayed construction of the last, lagging leg of the Appalachian Development Highway System has spurred a real-estate boom in eastern West Virginia, and a story on it in the real-estate section of today's New York Times. But Diane Hypes, news editor of the weekly Moorefield Examiner, is "opposed to the four-lane, $2 billion Corridor H project and has recused herself from writing any articles about it in the newspaper, instead hiring a correspondent to cover the topic," Elsa Brenner reports.

“This is a really, really pretty area, one of the few untouched areas we have left, and it’s going to be ruined just like the rest of the country,” Hypes told the Times. She "lives on 80 mountaintop acres in Hardy County that she bought 18 years ago for $46,000," Brenner writes. "She said she was recently offered $250,000 for the property, but refused to sell it." Lawsuits have failed to stop the road. For photos, click here.

As the map below indicates, the road will not connect to Interstates 81 and 66 in Virginia, because that state has not supported traversing Allegheny Mountain, which is the Eastern Continental Divide and the border of the two states in that region. Opponents call it "a road to nowhere" and a threat to the area's environment. But the local House of Delegates member, Harold Michael, told Brenner the road is taking dangerous truck traffic off winding roads in Hardy, Grant and Tucker counties. (Read 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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