Saturday, December 22, 2007

FCC should couple deregulation with requirements for local reporting, journalism deans say

As it continues to deregulate broadcasting and allows new cross-ownership with newspapers, journalists should press the Federal Communications Commission to require a "commitment of resources to original local reporting on public affairs," and seven journalism-school deans and the director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy write in The New York Times today.

Their op-ed piece was prompted by the FCC's 3-2 vote to exempt large markets from the 41-year-old rule against one company owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. The writers note that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin "offered a journalistic justification for this move: broadcast profits would help pay for the substantial news-gathering staffs at newspapers. But local television and radio stations should be doing their own news gathering, rather than merely serving as support systems for news gathering by newspapers. Besides, if Mr. Martin were really so passionate about news gathering, he wouldn’t have restricted the F.C.C.’s action to media properties in big cities. Don’t small-town news organizations need help, too?" (Yes, they do, and we're glad to see the mention.)

The writers say broadcast deregulation "seems to have had the effect of reducing the resources available for original broadcast reporting, especially about public affairs. . . . Stations generally have smaller news staffs today than they did in the era before deregulation. That represents a real loss for American democracy. . . . We do not believe that the market can be absolutely trusted to provide the local news gathering that the American system needs to function at its best. . . . Our profession needs to cast its reluctance to discuss broadcast regulation aside, and to let its voice be heard, loud and clear — on behalf of local reporting." Amen.

The writers are Roderick P. Hart of the University of Texas, Thomas Kunkel of the University of Maryland, Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University, John Levine of Northwestern University, Dean Mills of the University of Missouri, David Rubin of Syracuse University, Ernest Wilson of the University of Southern California and Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. (Jones, a native of Greeneville, Tenn., is a member of the national Advisory Board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.)

Huckabee's legacy as Arkansas governor included closing scores of small, rural school districts

"Mike Huckabee produced a legacy like few other Republican governors in the South, surprising even liberal Democrats with his willingness to upend some of Arkansas' more parochial traditions," including small, rural school districts, two reporters for The New York Times write from Little Rock, apparently having been dispatched after the surge in Huckabee's presidential campaign.

"He drove through a series of changes that transformed education and health insurance in Arkansas, achievements that were never tried by most of his predecessors, including Bill Clinton," write Adam Nossiter and David Barstow. "But he is also remembered in the state for a style of governing that tended to freeze out anyone of any party who disagreed with his plans."

They add: "Mr. Huckabee is a son of small-town Arkansas, yet he deeply angered many in his rural constituency, touching the third rail of the state’s politics by shutting down money-draining, redundant school districts in the hinterlands. Protesters rallied at the state Capitol, fearful of losing schools, football teams, and age-old identities, but the governor insisted his way was the best and the schools were closed."

The reform was prompted by a state Supreme Court decision that found the Arkansas school system to be inequitable. Closing dozens of small districts, which Clinton had avoided, was "the path of greatest resistance," Nossiter and Barstow write. "The fight went on for over a year, and Mr. Huckabee’s staunchest allies proved to be the most liberal Democrats in the Legislature." He had proposed cutting the 310 districts "by well over half," and refused to sign or veto the resulting law, which cut his plan by almost two-thirds. (Read more)

The tougher type of journalistic integrity: Giving newsrooms enough money for public service

Tim Rutten wrote this week about a big-city media company, the one that employs him, but he said some things that ring true about journalism at any level, so we're sharing them with you. Rutten works for the Los Angeles Times, the parent firm of which was bought in 2000 by Tribune Co. -- which as of Thursday is now privately owned, by an entrepreneur named Sam Zell. His closing words to company employees were "We will compete fiercely but with integrity. We will work hard and have fun."

Rutten writes: "Journalistic integrity is a two-sided coin. One, more commonly acknowledged side simply enjoins reporters, editors and media executives to be honest and fair in the journalism they deliver to readers, viewers and listeners. As hard as that often is, it turns out to be the easy part. The other side of the integrity coin is the demanding one, because upholding it requires media executives and proprietors, which is what Zell has become, to keep faith with their readers and their communities.

"That can mean restraining a desire for ever-increasing -- or arbitrarily set -- profits in the interest of maintaining a sufficient level of journalistic service to readers, viewers and listeners and the communities in which they live. This is the test of integrity, which every publicly traded newspaper company and local television and radio company has failed miserably at over the last two decades. The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities' common good. Nearly every American newspaper and local television station sucked into one of the chains -- from the largest to the smallest -- during that period is today a lesser journalistic entity of less real service to its audience than when it was acquired.

"That's what makes Sam Zell's daring purchase of Tribune not only a great financial opportunity but also a historic opportunity for American journalism -- a chance to demonstrate that private ownership can reestablish the link between good business and good journalism that initially was forged by familial proprietors. Zell already has indicated that one of the keys to devolving control of Tribune's newspapers to local managers is accountability. He plans, he says, to hold his publishers strictly accountable for their newspapers' performance. That's a great standard because it cuts two ways: Since he has assumed personal control of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the people of those cities can -- and should -- hold Sam Zell strictly accountable for the integrity and quality of their newspapers." (Read more)

Friday, December 21, 2007

State approves Virginia's first wind farm, with protections for wildlife; appeal possible

"Virginia approved its first commercial wind farm Thursday along with a mandate that the operator pay to protect bats and raptors from a series of spinning turbine blades now pegged for a Highland County ridgetop," reports Jeff Sturgeon of The Roanoke Times.

"The site picked for the wind towers, which will stand up to 400 feet tall, is visible from U.S. 250 west of Monterey," Sturgeon writes. "Critics, including area residents, tried to block the project based on aesthetic considerations, the risk the turbines posed to wildlife and other issues. They can appeal Thursday's decision to the state Supreme Court."

Under the order by the State Corporation Commission, Highland New Wind Development LLC must allow state game wardens "to search daily under at least 10 turbines for dead or injured creatures for at least three years," and "strategically curtail turbine operations and employ other available technology to minimize animal deaths," Sturgeon reports. "In addition, the company will owe the state a penalty for any raptor killed, the highest being $1,500 in the event a bald eagle or peregrine falcon dies. The minimum penalty is $500 for a great horned owl, red-tailed hawk, osprey or American kestrel." (Read more)

Virginia sheriff said to be first official to be fined for violating state Freedom of Information Act

A Northern Virginia sheriff "must pay a $250 fine and the plaintiff’s court fees for willfully violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a judge ruled Tuesday in Madison County General District Court," reports Rob Humphreys of the Star-Exponent in Culpeper.

"Experts are calling it a potentially precedent-setting case regarding how public officials are punished for failing to comply with open-records requests," writes Humphreys, managing editor of the 7,300-circulation daily owned by Media General Inc. Notably, this case was not brought by a journalist or news organization.

Leigh Purdum, a former employee of Sheriff Erik J. Weaver, sued when Weaver refused to say whom he had appointed to a new citizens advisory board. "Purdum also sought other information about the board, including its meeting dates, the criteria for choosing members, topics of discussion, goals and objectives, and copies of previous minutes," Humphreys writes. After she won, the sheriff "produced the names of the 13 board members."

Jennifer Perkins, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the Star-Exponent that the case is “a huge step in the right direction” because no official had been fined in a similar cases. Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, told the newspaper that she believed this is the first time a district judge has ruled that an elected official willfully violated a state FOI law. (Read more)

Army National Guard, a disproportionately rural force, is sending more soldiers to Iraq

"While the military as a whole is ramping down its presence in Iraq, its most politically sensitive component — the citizen-soldiers of the Army National Guard — is ramping up from 46,000 to 55,000 troops," reports the National Journal. And a graphic with the story illustrates that the Guard comes mainly from rural areas.

"Since its origins in the colonial militias of the 1600s, the Army National Guard has drawn most of its soldiers from small towns," the magazine says. "People living in highly urbanized states are generally less likely to enlist; those in rural areas, more likely."

Reporter Sydney Freedberg Jr. writes, "An Army National Guard unit recruits from its local community and may keep the same soldiers together for decades. That those communities keep producing volunteers six years into a global war speaks to the depth of their military traditions. ... Such ties are strongest in small towns -- not in more-rural areas, where people live too far apart to converge easily at a local armory, and not in large cities, with their abundance of social and economic alternatives."

"In some communities, the local Guard unit is one of the major sources of social cohesion," David Segal, University of Maryland sociology professor and the director of the school's Center for Research on Military Organization, told National Journal. "Being in the Guard is how one earns one's bona fides as a member of the community."

"But precisely because those bonds are so tight, the Guard does not provide the same social mobility that the regular military does," Freedberg writes. "All of these factors mean that the Army Guard has about half the percentage of African-Americans as the regular Army, significantly fewer Hispanics, and a lower ratio of women to men. As a rule of thumb, the lower a state's population density and the lower its percentage of minorities, the higher the percentage of its population likely to be serving in the Army National Guard. As a rule of thumb, the lower a state's population density and the lower its percentage of minorities, the higher the percentage of its population likely to be serving in the Army National Guard." (Read more)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Edwards video casts him as the rural candidate, but may be too hokey for Iowa, and he trails in rural $

John Edwards' presidential campaign is mailing a 12-minute DVD to voters in rural Iowa, where the first votes for president will be cast Feb. 3. With a background of banjos, fiddles and high-lonesome bluegrass music, "For the Country" casts the former senator from North Carolina as the candidate of rural America in general and rural Iowa in particular.

"I feel like presidential candidates don't talk about what's going on in rural America," Edwards says in one of several film clips. Much of the DVD is biographical, with repeated appearances by his parents. His father, Wallace Edwards, recalls how he told his son to punch in the nose anyone trying to pick a fight with him and says that as president, "He'll fight and he'll fight and he'll win."

Edwards' chief rural adviser, David "Mudcat" Sanders, talks about Edwards' rural platform and says farm policy has left Iowa with 9,000 family-owned hog farms, far below the 60,000 it had in 1978. He also touts his candidate's electability. Edwards was running third in the latest Iowa poll, but isn't counted out because he has an organization from his 2004 campaign and the Democratic caucuses give disproportionate weight to rural precincts, which tend to be smaller.

Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent writes, "Edwards should be commended for his commitment to the issues facing the people who live out here in the country. . . . But the video, with bluegrass music playing over the entirety of its 12 minutes, is about as hokey as a possum wearin' bib overalls. It's the kind of stuff that makes some of us in rural Iowa grumble. Sometimes we get the feeling that a rural rube stereotype is being unfairly perpetuated, and some of us don't like that." (Read more)

Though Edwards is campaigning as the rural candidate, he was far behind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in contributions from rural ZIP codes in the third quarter of this year, the most recent reporting period, according to an analysis for the Daily Yonder by Tim Murphy Bill Bishop. To read that story, click here.

One in four Great Plains farm families say health-care costs cause them financial problems

The high cost of health insurance is contributing to farm families' money woes and failing to protect them from additional financial risk, says The Access Project, a Boston-based research group that tries to improve health and access to health care, especially in underserved areas. Its latest study looked at seven states lying partly or completely in the Great Plains: Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

The survey of farm and ranch families in those states found that "While the vast majority of farm and ranch operators had insurance coverage, one in four said that health-care costs contributed to financial problems for their families," said a news release. The Access Project conducted the study with the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota.

Farmers generally depend on the individual insurance market and often "pay high premiums for policies that also include significant deductibles, thus resulting in high overall costs for those who experience illness," the release says. "Controlling for age and health status, families purchasing insurance from an agent in the individual market spent $4,359 more than those able to secure insurance coverage through off-farm employment. . . . Four in five families overall had insurance plans with high deductibles, suggesting that more comprehensive coverage with low deductibles is not readily available."

“Many people are being forced to make the choice between getting jobs off the farm or ranch to get more affordable insurance, or else they need to use money to pay for medical bills that could otherwise be invested in farm or ranch operations,” said Dr. Alana Knudson, associate director for research at the Center for Rural Health and a co-author of the study.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Energy bill may offer more to farmers and agribusiness than the Farm Bill, by pushing ethanol

Today, President Bush signed an energy bill that "presents a huge opportunity for the nation's fledgling biofuels industry -- and uncertainty for energy markets," reports The Washington Post. (Associated Press photo by Dirk Lammers shows combine with a Cob Caddy gathering corn and cobs while blowing stover back into the field on a farm near Hurley, S.D., on Oct. 30, 2007. Ethanol maker Poet was testing the equipment because it wants to make cellulosic ethanol, an advanced biofuel, from cobs.)

Post reporter Steven Mufson writes that for farmers and agribusiness, the legislation provides "more support than perhaps even the Farm Bill. It doubles the use of corn-based ethanol -- despite criticism that corn-based ethanol is driving up food prices, draining aquifers and exacerbating fertilizer runoff that is creating dead zones in many of the nation's rivers. The law will also require the massive use of biofuels using other feedstocks, creating an industry from technologies still in laboratories or pilot stages whose economic viability is unproven. The law says that at least 36 billion gallons of motor fuel a year should be biofuels by 2022, most of it in 'advanced biofuels,' not a drop of which are commercially produced today" but which are likely to get federal subsidies in order to meet the goal.

The bill, noted most for requiring higher fuel efficiency, disappointed promoters of wind and solar energy. To overcome largely Republican opposition to tax increases, "Congressional leaders dropped a tax package that would have reduced breaks for the biggest oil and gas companies and extended breaks for wind and solar projects," Mufson notes. Still, Sierra Club Director Carl Pope told him that the bill "is a clean break with the failed energy policies of the past and puts us on the path toward a cleaner, greener energy future." (Read more)

World food cost up; good for farmers, not for poor

"It's finally dawned on Americans — on the world, really — that there's no more cheap lunch. Or dinner or breakfast," and that has implications for rural areas, Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder, rounding up recent reports from The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News.

"Food prices in the U.S. have risen more in 2007 than in any year since 1990," and that is part of a worldwide increase, Bishop notes. "These trends are likely to continue. . . . Using grain crops for biofuels is being blamed for much of the run-up in prices, especially by industries that compete for corn and soybeans. Even as the Senate voted 86 to 8 for a new energy bill last week that expands mandates for ethanol use, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association described the competition for land between food and fuel to be a 'runaway freight train. It's great news for corn farmers, but terrible news for consumers.'"

And for the world's poor. "The UN's index of food prices has risen more than 40 percent this year, and Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said there is now "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food.'"

Meanwhile, New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill notes in her Weekly Market Bulletin, "Higher prices will be good for farmers and rural economies. But they can also contribute to political instability. Some countries have already put price controls on food."

Obama's surge in N.H. coming from rural areas

Sen. Barack Obama is closing the gap on Sen. Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary largely on the strength of rural voters, according to political analyst Al Giordano, writing in The Field, a rural-oriented blog about the early presidential contests, hosted by

The Dec. 10-11 poll by Suffolk University showed Clinton leading Obama 33 percent to 26 percent statewide, but Obama leading in rural western, northern and central New Hampshire. "The two populous regions that favor Clinton are seacoast Rockingham and southern Hillsborough [counties], which have many suburban bedroom communities to Boston and other Massachusetts cities, with Democrats and Independents that typically tune in to Boston TV and media, and represent 52 percent of the survey sample," Giordano writes. "The two regions where Obama leads are more rural and represent 48 percent of the sample."

Giordano suggests Obama's momentum will continue. He notes that Clinton's base includes many readers of The Boston Globe, which endorsed Obama on Sunday, and that the Illinois senator is also backed by U.S. Rep. Carol Shea Porter, whose 1st District includes key urban areas such as Derry, Manchester, Portsmouth and the state's Atlantic coast. The state's other House member Rep. Paul Hodes, has also endorsed Obama, and Giordano says that "may already be working its magic" in the rural areas. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Community newspapers still strong, especially if they have interactive Web sites, Calif. editor says

"The death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated," and that's especially true when it comes to community papers, writes Jeff Pelline, right, editor of The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., population 11,000. That's in Nevada County, pop. 92,000, where Interstate 80 enters the state and cuts through the Sierra Nevada.

"At profitable community papers such as The Union, circulation is strong and Web traffic is growing sharply, because we provide unique local information that is now the "sweet spot" of journalism. Bigger papers are following suit in some cases, focusing on so-called hyperlocal journalism
," writes Pelline, a former editor at CNET, a technology news outlet. "Though paid print circulation has been sliding (for decades, in fact), readership -- as measured by combined print and online audiences - in most cases is growing. In this sense, the Web has been a boon for newspapers (at least ones with interactive Web sites). . . . Newspapers have to work harder to make their Web sites more profitable. But a growing, interactive readership is a big plus, compared with most radio and TV stations. "

The Union is owned by Reno-based Swift Communications, which publishes newspapers in California, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado, and farmer-rancher publications in Nebraska and South Dakota. Pelline is among a group of California editors and journalism professors who recently made recommendations for changes in journalism education to match "the changing media landscape," as he put it. "
As a group, we conceded that too many journalists and journalism professors resist change, even though they teach and write about change almost daily." To read the recommendations and the rest of his column, click here.

FOIA reform bill wins final passage; ombudsman could help speed rural media records requests

The U.S. House today passed by voice vote a measure to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, sending it to President Bush for his signature or veto. The legislation, House Resolution 1309, could prove especially helpful to rural news outlets.

The measure "creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes, helps agencies strengthen FOIA, creates a tracking system for the public to easily track the status of requests and allows requesters to more effectively recover legal costs incurred when agencies improperly deny requests," says a release from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also would improve the ability of information requesters to be reimbursed for legal fees when they have to sue, sets up tracking numbers for requests, limits fees agencies can charge when time limits for a response are not met, requires agencies to explain which exemptions to disclosure are being used to justify deletions from records, and requires reports to Congress that will help oversight committees judge the effectiveness of executive branch performance.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of 10 media groups, said in a release, "Community newspapers particularly sought an independent office to resolve disputes." It quotes Steve Haynes, president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Oberlin (Kan.) News: "Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act will pay dividends in public information for a long time to come. This newlaw has many virtues. But as community newspaper journalists, we particularly celebrate the development of an ombudsman office under the Office of Government Information Services." (Read more)

San Antonio newspaper stops daily delivery in 30 rural counties, says coverage will continue

About 30 rural counties in southern and central Texas will no longer get daily delivery of the San Antonio Express-News, which proclaims itself "The voice of South Texas since 1865," reports Bob Richter, the Hearst Corp. newspaper's public editor.

"The Express-News is the last of the state's major newspapers to pull back, but it's a trend. The area from which the Express-News is withdrawing — effective Dec. 31 — is roughly the size of Maine, with a circulation of about 12,000 papers daily and nearly 13,000 on Sunday," Richter writes. "It's a lot of trucks and carriers driving long distances, burning lots of fuel to deliver relatively few newspapers. But it's devastating news for people who have made reading a newspaper a daily ritual most of their lives." He quotes several, then his bosses.

Express-News President and Publisher Tom Stephenson said the decision was "difficult but necessary" because the paper's circulation and revenue are declining as production and newsprint costs were increasing. "We were delivering newspapers in the state at a significant loss," he said. The paper is offering readers in the area a $2-a-week subscription (the first 30 days free) to an electronic edition with traditional newspaper formatting. Some places, such as Pearsall, only 55 minutes from downtown San Antonio, will be Sunday-only.

When a paper's circulation area shrinks, its coverage area usually does, too. Not so with the Express-News, Executive Editor Robert Rivard said: "The State Desk mission remains the same because we cover South Texas primarily for the benefit of our readers in San Antonio and the surrounding counties." (Read more)

Coal and electric industries pick Mattoon, Ill., for zero-emissions coal plant; Energy Dept. demurs

A coal-fired power plant with zero emissions -- even of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming -- will be built near the east-central Illinois town of Mattoon, it was announced today -- in many ways, including this marquee in Mattoon, as pictured by the Journal Gazette and Times Courier of Charleston.

The FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc., a non-profit industrial consortium representing the coal and power industries, is supposed to build the plant over the next 10 years with support from the U.S. Department of Energy. However, a DOE official "said Tuesday that the federal government wants a reassessment of the FutureGen design due to escalating costs," reports Herb Meeker of the JG-TC. "DOE officials said last week that the FutureGen Alliance decided on its own to move ahead with its Tuesday announcement of Mattoon as the plant’s site, apparently before cost overrun issues were settled, according to one informed source. Meeker adds, "U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., believes renewed negotiations between DOE and FutureGen Alliance officials early next year can hammer out agreement on curtailing costs." (Read more)

The other finalists were sites near Tuscola, Ill., 25 miles north of Mattoon, and two in Texas: Odessa in the west and Jewett in the east. Robert J. Finley, director of the Energy and Earth Resources Center of the Illinois State Geological Survey, told Nathaniel West of the Charleston newspaper that the underground rock formations at the site were better suited to storing carbon dioxide than those in Texas, where the formations have been punctured by oil and gas drilling. Finley once worked for the Geological Survey of Texas, West notes. (Read more) (Encarta map) For DOE's Web site about the project, click here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arkansas trooper who arrested journalist covering fire is taken off law-enforcement duty

An Arkansas state trooper who arrested a weekly newspaper reporter-photographer at a fire has been taken off law-enforcement duty and assigned to office work, and the charge he filed against the journalist has been dismissed. (See Rural Blog item from Dec. 14.)

Trooper Thomas Weindruch arrested and handcuffed Bill Lawson of the Maumelle Monitor, a suburban Little Rock weekly with a circulation of 3,200. His charge of misdemeanor obstruction of governmental operations was dismissed at the request of Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, The Associated Press reports.

"After we reviewed the incident report and the videotape (from a camera in Weindruch's vehicle) and looked at the relevant statute, we didn't feel as though the charge was appropriate, given what we read and saw," Jegley told Stephens Media, owner of the Monitor. (Read more, from the First Amendment Center) For Lawson's account of the arrest, which indicates the trooper was angered by flash photography, click here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Edwards banking on rural voters in Iowa; Obama trying hard for them, too, and itineraries overlap

Former Sen. John Edwards is on the cover of Newsweek, labeled "The Sleeper" in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses. (Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik for Newsweek) Inside, the story by Arian Campo-Flores and Suzanne Smalley says he could overcome Sens. Barack Obama and and Hillary Clinton on the strength of voters who resonate with his rural roots, and the nature of the caucuses themselves.

"For months, Edwards has been rounding up support in the state's rural precincts where the front runners have paid less attention," the reporters write. "While Obama and Clinton have drawn crowds in the thousands in places like Des Moines and Ames, Edwards has been winning over people in tiny towns like Sac City (population: 2,189). That's important, the strategists say, because under Iowa's arcane caucus rules, a precinct where 25 people show up to vote gets the same number of delegates as a place that packs in 2,500. In other words, even if he loses to Obama and Clinton in the state's bigger cities, he can still win by wrapping up smaller, far-flung precincts that other candidates have ignored."

"The bulk of our support is in small and medium counties," Jennifer O'Malley, Edwards's Iowa state director, told Newsweek. Edwards has visited all 99 Iowa counties, and O'Malley said the campaign had trained captains in 90 percent of the 1,781 precincts. "Rural voters are sometimes reluctant to caucus, so the campaign has been enlisting respected community leaders to encourage first-timers to get past their apathy or fear," Campo-Flores and Smalley write. "This could be wishful thinking from an ailing campaign. But it's worth keeping in mind just how wrong the media echo chamber can be when it comes to predicting winners and losers." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Iowa expert Jeff Zeleny reports in The New York Times that Obama, shown below in Independence, population 6,000, has a challenge in rural precincts. "His organization faces its greatest test yet: turning enthusiasm among many grass-roots Democrats into widespread support at the caucuses on Jan. 3 in precincts that will decide the outcome, particularly rural areas where his support still remains uneven after 10 months of campaigning," Zeleny writes, adding that intineraries of Obama and Edwards are "practically mirroring each other." (Read more) (Photo by Joshua Lott for the Times)

E. Ky. author asks state legislators to pass tighter controls on mountaintop-removal coal mining

When Kentucky legislators visited mountaintop-removal coal mines in Eastern Kentucky this month, they heard from regional author Silas House, right (in KET photo), who made one of the more cogent and eloquent arguments yet heard for tighter control of the practice in Central Appalachia. His testimony -- and in this case the word has more than the legal meaning -- appears in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal today.

"Mountaintop removal is a case study in greed, in taking from the community without giving back, in instant gratification," House says, while acknowledging deeply divided opinions in the region. "I can't tell you how many people have written to me to thank me for standing up and saying that mountaintop removal is wrong, for speaking out for what I believe in. I also can't tell you how many people have written me nasty letters, or have cussed me out, or have refused to speak to me at family gatherings."

House says coal companies "brainwashed us to believe . . . Eastern Kentucky couldn't make it without coal," but once he saw mountaintop mining from the air, "I have never been the same since. I couldn't believe that such disrespect could be done to the land, to the people, to my heritage. My convictions only thickened when I heard stories from the people."

House told the legislators, "I'm not asking you to ban coal mining. All I'm asking is for you to see the problems that mountaintop removal is causing, to see how it's a sacrilege to the land, to stand up and say, 'Now listen, we can mine coal, but we've got to do it with some integrity, with some respect, with some compassion for the land and our people.' To vote for more regulations and then to make sure that those restrictions are enforced." (Read more)

House is author of Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo. He is co-editing a new nonfiction book about mountaintop removal, scheduled for publication in fall 2008. The tentative title is Something’s Rising. His Web site is

Des Moines Register backs McCain and Clinton, says Democratic candidates much alike on rural issues

The presidential campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain got a much-needed boost today as The Des Moines Register endorsed them for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. (Photo by Register's Christopher Gannon shows Clinton in Emmetsburg) McCain has opposed federal subsidies for ethanol, which has become one of the state's most important products. The state's largest paper found less difference on issues among the Democrats.

"Beyond their personal appeal, the candidates have outlined ambitious policy proposals on health care, education and rural policy," the Democratic editorial said. "Yet these proposals do little to help separate the field. Their plans are similar, reflecting a growing consensus in the party about how to approach priority issues. The choice, then, comes down to preparedness: Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces, from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America's middle class to confronting global climate change? The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done."

Clinton once led in Iowa polls, but is now in a statistical dead heat with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- and in a sparring match with Obama, who has had the most momentum of late and a marginal lead in polls. The Register's news story about the endorsements noted that McCain ran fifth in the paper's poll of likely Republican caucus-goers last month.

But the editorial said, "Time after time, McCain has stuck to his beliefs in the face of opposition from other elected leaders and the public. He has criticized crop and ethanol subsidies during two presidential campaigns in Iowa. He bucked his party and president by opposing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. A year ago, in the face of growing criticism, he staunchly supported President Bush's decision to increase troop strength in Iraq. McCain would enter the White House with deep knowledge of national-security and foreign-policy issues. He knows war, something we believe would make him reluctant to start one. He's also a fierce defender of civil liberties. As a survivor of torture, he has stood resolutely against it. He pledges to start rebuilding America's image abroad."

John Deeth of the Iowa Independent writes that Register endorsements usually help. Meanwhile, Dien Judge of the Independent reports on endorsements by smaller papers.

The Daily Yonder reports on the Democratic candidates' discussion of agriculture, energy and trade at Thursday's Register debate, here.