Rural America, Community Issues

Knight Center fellows and staff (far left, Laura Abramson; standing from far right, Asst.Dir. Peggy DeBona, Joan Countee, Director Carol Horner; Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues)--Photo by Lisa Helfert

Items published each day in The Rural Blog from the conference programmed by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland, June 12-17, 2005

Monday, June 13, 2005

National rural conference for journalists opens with call for a rural policy

"We need a rural policy. We need a thoughtful rural policy," Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, said last night in the keynote speech for "Rural America, Community Issues," a five-day conference on rural issues for journalists at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Rather than a rural policy, Davis said, the United States has a farm policy that fails to sustain and develop rural communities -- where fewer than 2 percent of the people earn their primary living by farming. He suggested that the billions in subsidies to farmers could be phased out and the money redirected to rural-development programs, contending that some of Amercia's poorest counties get heavy agricultural subsidies.

Davis gave a litany of statistics that define the problems of rural America, such as: 195 of the nation's 200 poorest counties are rural; rural children are 50 percent more likely than others to lack health insurance; and rates of certain drug use are much higher in rural areas than the rest of America. Yet, he said, the federal government's community-development programs invest more than twice as much in urban areas as in rural, and only $100 million of the $30 billion in U.S. charitable contributions last year were targeted to rural areas.

Davis also offered a definition for "rural" and a reason for the conference: "Rural is where the market ends," because rural people are harder to reach and have less purchasing power, but "they still need real journalists looking into things that matter to them." He said surveys for his group have shown rural Americans are "feeling alone out there," and "Mostly, they felt that when the media got to them, they got it wrong." He challenged the journalists to "Come into the countryside and get some shit on your shoes." For the whole speech, click here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Rural voters, key to Bush, could turn on GOP in 2006, bipartisan panel says

Rural voters were key to President Bush's election and re-election, but some "buyer's remorse" is showing up in recent polling, and that could pose problems for Republicans in next year's election, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg and Republican consultant Bill Greener said yesterday at "Rural America, Community Issues," a five-day conference at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Greener said his fellow Republicans should not get "smug" about where they stand with rural voters, because "All it takes is somebody who is able to connect at a very human level," such as former President Clinton. But Greenberg said she blames Clinton for her party's "terrible job of iterating an economic narrative that would be popular in rural areas." She said he abandoned the party's populist streak after the 1994 GOP landslide.

While polls show rural voters being driven by social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay marriage, "something they think they know about and understand," Greener said, they also are concerned about education, health care, job retraining for displaced workers, and access to technology.

"We need a national strategy for rural America. This is not something that can be attacked in piecemeal fashion," Greener said, echoing the remarks of the conference's keynoter, Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies, which sponsored polls by Greenberg in rural areas of battleground states in the 2004 presidential election.

Both speakers said organization through churches was very important for Republcians last year. For the first time, Greener said, his party, which once expressed activism "only with a checkbook," matched the grass-roots intensity of Democrats. Greenberg said the GOP's use of local volunteers talking to neighbors was more effective than the Democrats' importation of groups of volunteers into key areas.

Thematic rural coverage can connect people, places and issues, drive policy

Journalists interested in rural issues discussed better ways to tell the stories of rural America with Ali Webb, communications manager for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, yesterdat at the Knight Center conference, which is being programmed by the the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Kellogg, the largest private funder of rural enterprises, has sponsored research into coverage of rural America by major national media in 2002 and 2004. Webb said it shows the coverage is disproportionately episodic -- single stories relying entirely on ordinary individuals -- rather than thematic, an approach that ties together issues and larger trends, with the addition of authorities and advocates who help make the connection. "What we all need are these bridges," said Kathyrn Stearns, editor of The Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H.

Webb noted that Kellogg has a list of rural resources, some of them nontraditional, on its Web site. “This isn’t an either/or, but instead it's both,” she said. News managers and news consumers want to see ordinary citizens in stories, she said, but limiting stories to that approach makes the stories seem less important to policymakers, and thus makes it more difficult for them to tackle rural problems ranging from health care, education, land use to development and the decline of family farming.

The leading example during the discussion was a story last October by National Public Radio rural-affairs correspondent Howard Berkes, one of the 31 Knight Center fellows at the conference. The story was a 7-minute piece from rural Louisiana on proposed relaxation of rules requiring banks to make loans to low- and moderate-income lenders in their communities. Berkes enlivened the topic by talking with individuals who would be affected, and an articulate advocate for rural residents who was able to help make the connection to the larger picture.

What's rural? It depends on your interests and conceptions, expert says

The first question a journalist asked at the "Rural America, Community Issues" journalism conference this week was "What is rural?" There is no definite answer, partly because the face of rural America is changing, but some valid options were offered at the conference's first daytime session: Calvin Beale, senior demographer for the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and a USDA employee for more than 51 years.

"It depends so much on what your interest is, and what your perceptions are," Beale told the journalists. Various laws establish as many as 75 definitions of "rural" for different federal programs, which often include more than the 59 million people classified as rural by the 2000 census. For example, 102 million that are eligible for rural-development assistance from the federal government.

One of the broadest definitions of "rural" is any place outside one of the nation's metropolitan areas, which have citires of 50,000 or more. However, some metro areas include rural census tracts or block groups. For example, the U.S. county with the most rural population is Worcester County, Massachusetts, with 144,000 residents around a metropolitan center. Beale noted that the Census Bureau does not identify whole counties as urban or rural, but the Office of Management and Budget defines the counties that make up metropolitan areas.

A much narrower definition, perhaps borrowed from Europe before Wolrd War I, says any incorporated place or densely settled area of 2,500 or more is urban. Before that definition was adopted, the threshhold was 8,000. Beale's personal dividing line is a populated place of 10,000 or more, but he acknowledged, "In terms of the upper limits of 'rural,' that is a subjective thing."

Beale also offered observations on rural population trends, in the nation as a whole and several individual counties in various parts of the country. He said the growth rate in rural areas has been rising since 2000 while that in metropolitan areas has been falling, but the rural rate is still half the metro rate. Sources of growth include retirement communities; immigration of Hispanics; movement of white-collar tasks to small towns, often via technology; and prison construction, which not only adds employment but put prisoners into local census counts. In the 1990s, he said, a prison opened in a non-metro county every 15 days.

The states with the largest rural rate increases from 2000 to 2004 were North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Texas. The largest declines were recorded in Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and North Dakota, reflecting a regional decline. "You could drive from the Canadian border to the Mexican border and never go through a county that was growing in population," Beale said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Rural areas need broadband to compete economically, researcher explains

High-speed internet access is no longer a luxury for rural communities because they need it to compete economically, an expert on rural broadband said at “Rural America, Community Issues” at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland yesterday.

"If you don't have broadband, certain things don't fall into place as easily," said Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas. Not only do businesses use the Internet to buy, sell, distribute and control inventory, but health care increasingly uses Web-based forms to deliver information, and governments are interested in providing services online because it is cheaper, she said.

“What we’ve also heard from rural communities is that telecommunications was important to them because they are losing population," Strover said. Broadband access can entice young people to "stick around a little longer" and explore career options closer to home. She said terms like “the knowledge economy” can “create a lot of fear in rural areas because they feel like they’re gonna fall behind; they’re not there yet and the rest of the world is.”

When some local governments got into the broadband business, telephone companies began lobbying legislatures to pass laws making municipal broadband more difficult or impossible. The companies say "Get rid of government and we’ll compete," Strover said. “In fact, competition doesn’t just occur after government is no longer there. ... Everybody talks a good line about competition, but in fact, companies hate it." For more of this view, click here.

Strover said the national extent of broadband monopolies is difficult to determine, partly because the Federal Communications Commission signed confidentiality agreements with providers. Journalists may know who their local broadband providers are, but Strover said they face other obstacles writing about the issue: It is "filled with jargon," the technology changes constantly, and the business is regulated at all three levels of government.

Recent data from the census and the Pew Internet and American Life Project show that Internet use by rural Americans is about 10 percent less than for the nation as a whole, but rural broadband use is 50 percent less.

Rural vets' health needs growing, says National Rural Health Assn. president

Amid all the special needs of rural health care is a growing need for services for rural veterans -- a need that is increasing with the conjunction of aging Vietnam Veterans and returning military from Afghanistan and Iraq, the president of the National Rural Health Association told the national rural journalism seminar yesterday.

Hilda Heady, associate vice president for rural health at the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center, said that while the federal government has several ways of getting health care to veterans, "Most health care for veterans comes from primary care physicians," a resource that is scarce in America’s rural areas.

“The baby-boomer Vietnam veteran’s average age is 58, and the coping mechanisms they had 20 to 30 years ago to help them deal with their experiences are collapsing,” said Heady. “Many are only now beginning to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms,” which Heady said is partly responsible for the increase they are seeing in the need for mental health care services.

Heady said traumatic brain injury, in which the brain is bruised by sudden shock, is the “signature injury” for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “We have advanced so far with armoring vehicles and body armor that soldiers are surviving blasts that previously would have killed them,” she said. “The injuries range from temporary memory loss, to a persistent vegetative state.

She said funding for rural veterans’ services is hampered by competition between service networks that favor areas with higher population density. She also noted that the National Guard and Reserve troops generally do not qualify for veterans' health benefits, though legislation has been introduced to make them eligible.

Heady suggested that reporters interested in telling the rural veterans' story start with the state office of rural health policy, which can provide access to experts and information on each state’s needs.

Journalists told to chronicle rural schools' struggle with No Child Left Behind

Rural schools are having trouble coping with the No Child Left Behind law, and journalists need to write about the issue, the only reporter who covers rural education full-time told a national rural journalism conference yesterday.

Alan Richard of Education Week said the challenges include school choice, the ability of students to transfer to another school in the same district if their school is failing; the requirement that failing schools offer tutoring, which he said all rural schools need; and recruiting and retaining teachers who have college majors in the subjects they teach and are certified at the grade level they teach, long an obstacle to quality education in rural schools.

"It's important to ask rural school leaders how they're spending their money," Richard said. "Do they really need that third assistant superintendent? Maybe they ought to pay their teachers more." Richard told journalists at the seminar, programmed by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. On the larger scale of the No Child Left Behind law, he said, "We need to help our country determine whether this is going to help states and schools do better by students."

Richard said many rural schools will not meet the goals the law sets for 2014, but he said the law has forced schools to focus on minority groups that lag in student achievement. He said that may be the best part of the law. "No Child Left Behind is a gold mine for stories," he said. Other issues in rural education, he said, include finance, with lawsuits over funding in several states; questions about school size, with misgivings in West Virginia about the closing and consolidation of more than 200 public schools; and segregation and demographic shifts.

Richard offered several sources for journalists, including his own publication, which he said will soon start charging for access to its archives at www.edweek.org; the National Rural Education Association; the National Dropout Prevention Center; the Institute for Education Leadership, which has an education-policy fellows program in about 16 states; the Alliance for Excellent Education, which aims to transform high schools; and the Rural School and Community Trust, which he said is a liberal group that advocates for small schools and publishes annual state-by-state rankings of rural education.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Globalization demands changes in the way rural America develops economy

Rural America must change the way it seeks jobs in a globalized economy, and journalists should help public and private policymakers at all levels realize the challenges and choices they face, a leading student of the rural economy said yesterday at the "Rural America, Community Issues" seminar at the University of Maryland.

The journalists heard from Mark Drabenstott, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and director of its Center for the Study of Rural America. He said globalization means that rural America can no longer use cheap labor, low taxes and cheap land to compete, because "there are legions of places around the world" with those advantages.

"We are going to move away from a model of recruiting businesses to rural America to growing businesses in rural America . . . gardening vs. hunting, if you will," Drabenstott said. But he added that he sees "very little discussion" of the challenge. "There is a tremendous opportunity for you to improve the economic literacy of our nation on some of these issues," he told the journalists.

Drabenstott said one key to being competitive is thinking regionally, from town to town and even across state lines. He said people in a self-defined region should ask themselves: What are our distinct economic assets? What market opportunity can we tap that no one else can? How do we exploit our assets to seize that opportunity? To answer such questions successfully, he said, a region needs the fuel of innovation and the engine of entrepreneurs.

To function regionally, Drabenstott said, there must be public-private partnerships; regional assets must be understood and measured, competitive advantages must be identified, and entrepreneurs must be developed.. A big question, he said, is whether the tools of measurement and analysis will be private or public: "Do we leave it to the consultants, or is it a job for the [Cooperative] Extension Service?" he asked.

One effort at entreprenurship was mentioned by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is programming the conference for the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He mentioned the Kentuucky extension service's creation, with tobacco-settlement funds, of an institute to train not just entrepreneurs but coaches to train entrepreneurs in the state's most tobacco-dependent region.

Drabenstott had a charge for journalists: "There’s a tremendous opportunity for the press. How you build bridges across your region as a public voice seems to me to be terribly important. … Do you want to simply trumpet your home town and bash all the other towns around you?" He challenged rural journalists to "foster a climate for partnership by public and private leaders" and focus coverage on long-term successes, not short-term ones.

Drabenstott said such processes call for patience, but he quoted an unnamed Texan on the urgency of the challenge facing rural America: “Time is short, the stakes are high, and the alternative is a Third World economy.” A longer report on Drabenstott's presentation will be posted in the Reports section of this Web site next week.

Expert: Agriculture still matters, partly because it provides rural leadership

Though agriculture accounts for less than 1 percent of America's gross domestic product, it remains important because of its relationship to the environment and, more intriguingly, to the culture and politics of America. So said David Freshwater, director of graduate studies in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, at the national conference for journalists on rural issues yesterday.

Farmers are still "a key part of the social elite" in rural areas, as leaders in civic, school and political groups, and at the national level they exploit the agricultural roots of the United States and do not align themselves closely with either political party, giving them more leverage on both parties, Freshwater said. "They have an effective voice that greatly outweighs their numbers," he said, attributing that partly to leadership training rural youth get in the Future Farmers of America and 4-H Clubs.

Asked about the effect of the tobacco buyout on Kentucky, the state with more tobacco growers than any other, Drabenstott said it is"incredibly important" because "the tobacco program froze the structure of agriculture in Kentucky in the 1930s," preserving it as a state of small farms and small towns. Without the program, he said, Kentucky will produce as much tobacco, but for less money, and "We'll see a lot of small-town dry-up."

Big-box stores draining, reshaping economies, character of small towns

When Wal-Mart Supercenters come to towns across America, they drain about 70 percent of their trade from local merchants and reshape the character of the communities, retired Iowa State University economist Kenneth Stone told the national rural journalism conference yesterday. Stone's research also shows that the Supercenters have helped some local businesses that don't compete with Wal-Mart, by generating traffic from a wider area.

Stone, who has become known in some circles as “the Wal-Mart Man” because of his studies, conducted some of the first and most extensive research on the economic impacts of malls, discount stores and big-box building materials stores and various forms of Wal-Marts. A study in Iowa showed Supercenters hurt grocery, specialty and apparel stores but helped restaurants and service businesses because of the “spillover” effect of extra traffic.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer with about 4,000 stores nationwide, had sales of more than $288 billion last year, and is forecasting more than $416 billion by 2008. But Stone said there are some signs that its growth is beginning to taper off, as Wal-Marts become located more closely together and drain traffic from each other.

When one journalist at the conference said some localities are offering incentives to attract Wal-Mart supercenters, Stone said he strongly opposes such deals.“It takes money from taxpayers to give to big companies who then take it from the local merchants,” he said.

Stone said Wal-Mart, under fire for its business practices, is becoming more media-savvy in its public relations, providing information that it once told journalists was proprietary, and has started to buy run-of-paper advertsing in newspapers. A top Wal-Mart official is scheduled to address this year's National Newspaper Association convention in Milwaukee on Sept. 30. For more on the convention, which runs Sept. 28-Oct. 1, click here.

For reports by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues on two TV documentaries about Wal-Mart last November, one of which featured Stone and his research, click here.


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, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. 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 Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.




Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

School of Journalism and Telecommunications,
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone 859-257-3744, fax 859-323-3168

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu