Saturday, March 29, 2008

Clinton, in a coal field, on coal: 'It's gotta be cleaned up and we gotta be at the forefront'

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said at the major Democratic Party dinner in the Western Kentucky Coal Field tonight that the coal industry's future depends on commercialization of "clean coal" technology.

"I want to keep coal as a major part of our energy creation, but its gotta be cleaned up and we gotta be at the forefront," Clinton said at the annual Ruby Laffoon Dinner in Madisonville. "If we take a new approach with this technology, we can export it across the globe.” Trey Pollard of also reports, "Clinton also generally called for higher safety standards for miners." Western Kentucky, much of which lies in the Illinois Basin coal field, has both surface and underground mines.

Madisonville and the region have been hurt by loss of manufacturing jobs, many of which have been moved overseas, and Clinton referred to an Obama aide's reassuring the Canadian government about the North American Free Trade Agreement. "We will re-negotiate NAFTA," she said. "When I tell the people of Kentucky I am going to fix NAFTA, I mean it. I am not going to tell you people one thing and tell a foreign government something else.” (Read more)

The dinner is named for the first Hopkins County native to be governor, in 1931-35. The second is the current governor, Steve Beshear, who has lived all his adult life outside the county. He spoke at the dinner and said he remained undecided about a candidate for president. Pollard reports:

"For the first time in a long, long time, the Kentucky primary for President of the United States is going to mean something. Perhaps some of you are where I am right now. I haven’t quite made up my mind where I’m going," said Beshear.

Following this statement, shouts from the audience of "Hillary" and "Obama" competed for the Governor's ear, but he continued to acknowledge the candidacy of each contender.

"We have two extremely exciting, qualified candidates for President of the United States, either of whom will be a lot better than that fellow [the Republicans] picked to be in the White House for eight years," Beshear continued. "Senator Hillary Clinton was not only a good first lady, but a great senator from New York. She has run a great campaign, and it is going to be an exciting finish -- kind of like the Kentucky Derby."

The Derby is May 3. Kentucky's primary is May 20. (Read more)

N.Y. Republicans want Center for Rural Schools

The New York Senate's version of the state budget includes $500,000 for what would be the nation's first legislatively established center for rural schools, reports the Star-Gazette of Elmira. If the Democratic House agrees with the Republican plan, the center would be created at the state's major land-grant institution, Cornell University in Ithaca.

The idea of a Center for Rural Schools is pushed by Sen. George Winner, R-Elmira,
who chairs the Legislature's Commission on Rural Resources. "If we're serious about remaking and strengthening upstate New York, we need to aggressively recognize that a rural school district can be a driving force for revitalization," he said. (Read more)

In the 2000 census, New York's rural population was almost 2.4 million, or about 12.5 percent of its total.

Friday, March 28, 2008

USDA makes huge loan for wireless broadband to a firm that won't talk and plans a novel approach

The Department of Agriculture is making a $267 million loan to bring wireless broadband service to 518 rural communities in 17 states, many of which have no broadband service. The states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The money will go to Open Range Communications, which has $100 million in private investment.

A department news release said the project is designed to cover more than 6 million people in 447,000 households within five years. "The commitment by USDA and Open Range represents one of the largest public-private investments for broadband service by the federal government," the release said, quoting Tom Dorr, undersecretary for rural development: "Broadband is as important today as providing rural telephone service was 75 years ago."

The department has been criticized for not putting more money into rural broadband, but questions are already being raised about this loan. Not much is known about Open Range, which is based in Centennial, Colo. Company officials wouldn't comment to Kimberly Johnson of The Denver Post, who reported some possible problems with the company's approach, based on comments from Frank Ohrtman, president of a Denver-based WiMax consulting company.

"They intend to do a land-based broadband service using spectrum that was allocated as a satellite spectrum," Ohrtman told the Post. "They have to sublease the spectrum from others. That can be a real showstopper." Johnson added, "Open Range is not using industry standards that would make the cost of equipment lower for customers, Ohrtman said. If a vendor has to custom-build receivers or other equipment specifically for Open Range, costs could be higher." (Read more)

Founder of Museum of Appalachia wonders what will happen to it when he is gone

John Rice Irwin created the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., largely with his own money and decades of effort. Now, recently made a widower at 77, he wonders what will happen to it when he is gone, Mike Gibson writes in a 3,800-word feature for Metro Pulse, a weekly in nearby Knoxville. (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

"He has just laid to eternal rest Elizabeth Irwin, his wife of 53 years, who had been suffering with congestive heart failure after an enervating bout with breast cancer," Gibson reports. "And the fate of his museum, a staggeringly well-appointed cultural preserve fashioned from hard work, dreams, and the detritus of a dying way of life, is also in doubt. Rice recently told his board of directors that he can no longer continue to shore up funding with substantial regular contributions from his own pocket, as he has done for so many years."

The museum "perennially runs five figures into the red," but Irwin told Gibson that if its finances worsened, it would not close, but stop acquiring items (it has bought 250,000), sell some animals and cut back on groundskeeping and activities. But he added, "There would be no more press releases about new things, and that’s what keeps people coming back. Lots of big museums have gone this route, and then they’ve lost 30 to 40 percent of their attendance." The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

The 65-acre museum has 35 structures, a free-roaming meangerie and thousands of exhibits. "It is perhaps fruitless to even attempt a right summation of MOA’s many thousands of artifacts within the space of a single paragraph, from once-common household objects such as 19th century craftsman’s tools to lost or secreted treasures, some of which may stretch even the 21st century imagination," Gibson writes. Irwin, a former teacher and school superintendent, knows not just the artifacts, but how they were used, thanks in part to knowledge passed on by his grandfather, who was born in 1860.

“The ingenuity of the southern Appalachian people is such that they could do almost anything they set their minds to,” Irwin said, inspiring Gibson to write: "The same could be said of Irwin and this museum, his life’s work, a fabulous achievement that lies closer to his heart than perhaps anyone could understand." Roderick Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute in Virginia, told Gibson, “John saw that the objects of everyday man were important. He has a museum of artifacts from people who were below the level of historical scrutiny, during a time when every other museum wanted the biggest and the best.”

Irwin is a legend, but also an example of Jesus' observation about a prophet lacking honor in his home country. "Among some locals, Rice is regarded as a heartless profiteer who has made his fortune by exploiting the Southern poor," Gibson reports. "That perception is largely based on misinformation, and it’s a perception rankles Irwin to no end. [He] points out that he has never received a salary for his work with the museum, and that he recently wrote off a quarter million dollars of his own money that the museum has 'borrowed' from him over the years. What’s more, Irwin received the prestigious MacArthur [Foundation] 'genius' award in 1989, the full $350,000 of which he donated to the museum." (Read more)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kentucky governor gives up on casino proposal

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who ran last year on a platform of casinos at racetracks, including those in rural areas, said today that he has abandoned the idea at least until 2010, the next opportunity to put constitutional amendments on the state ballot. The idea was hampered by early disagreements over details, never got the 60 votes needed to pass the 100-member state House, and had poor prospects in the Senate.

"Beshear said he hasn’t thought about another, likely controversial option to expand gambling by executive order to allow slots at racetracks," The Courier-Journal reports. "That option hasn’t been seriously discussed in recent years but was mentioned previously as a possible way to expand gambling through the Kentucky Lottery."

Tracks want casinos to compete with those in adjoining states, and the state's budget crisis prompted various interest groups to support the idea, but their involvement also came too late to have much effect. (Read more)

Prospects for Farm Bill reform look dead to Wall Street Journal, but Grassley says he's still trying

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is making a last-ditch effort to put stricter limits on commodity subsidies in the new Farm Bill, reports Dan Looker of Agriculture Online: "Grassley likes a four-point plan put forth by the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Neb.," and is pushing Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner to consider it.

"The Center's plan drops any effort to put a hard cap of $250,000 on payment limits but it could potentially save about $1 billion over 10 years, the nonprofit advocacy group's executive director, Chuck Hassebrook, told Agriculture Online Wednesday. And it also considers regional differences in agriculture, accounting for potentially higher production costs and values for such Southern crops as cotton, rice and peanuts," Looker writes.

The plan also includes "tougher requirements that people must be actively engaged in farming in order to receive commodity payments," an income limit for subsidy recipients, and lower limits on direct payments when prices are high, Looker reports. (Read more) UPDATE, March 28: The plan is "an effort to keep wealthy urban landlords from cashing in on federal farm programs," writes Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent, with a link to a statement from Grassley and Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

This morning, Lauren Etter and Greg Hitt of the Wall Street Journal delivered a long but clear explanation of how lobbying and politics, "at least so far," have quashed prospects for major reforms in farm programs, prospects that looked good a year ago. "Influential interest groups, which had toyed with supporting changes, cut deals to get their own piece of the action," write. "Lawmakers who supported an overhaul peeled off as the debate moved into the election year. Historical alliances between rural and urban lawmakers proved difficult to untie. The agribusiness industry plowed more than $80 million into lobbying last year, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending on lobbying. Much of that was focused on the Farm Bill." Lobbyists and farmers say the bill provides "a safety net through cycles of boom and bust." (Read more)

The article is accompanied by several interesting graphics, such as this one, showing how farm households' income has outpaced that of non-farm households since 1996. The last two red lines are forecasts of farm household income for 2007 (which has not been compiled yet) and 2008. Other graphics show the states and congressional districts that get the most money from farm subsidies, and the share of their gross domestic product that comes from agriculture. Most of the data come from the Environmental Working Group, which maintains a searchable database of subsidy recipients.

Art lovers and conservationists come together to protest oil drilling near Great Salt Lake artwork

On the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake is a piece of art not many people have seen, but those who have are fighting to preserve it, reports Kirk Johnson of The New York Times. Called “Spiral Jetty,” it's a "1,500-foot curved construction of rock and earth by the artist Robert Smithson that juts into the lake," and it has become a rallying point for art lovers and conservations who oppose plans to drill for oil nearby, Johnson writes. (Times photo by Tom Smart.)

"A fierce debate, with equal parts art, environmentalism and economics, has erupted over a plan by the state to allow oil drilling about five miles across the lake," he continues. "The owner of 'Spiral Jetty,' the Dia Art Foundation in New York, in an alliance with a conservation group called Friends of Great Salt Lake, says the oil rigs would harm the work’s aesthetic experience."

Those two groups have sparked a flood of e-mails — more than 3,000 — sent to the state during the public comment period. The state is expected to make a decision on the drilling plans in April. Drilling for oil is nothing new for the area. Pioneers harvested from a natural seep of oil sludge not far from "Spiral Jetty," and drilling was taking place in 1970 when Smithson sculpted the formation. (Read more)

WiFi system helps bring better test scores and new businesses in tobacco-dependent N.C. county

The importance of broadband access for rural communities is clear, and the example of Greene County, N.C., demonstrates once again the possible benefits of such access. The tobacco-dependent county of 19,000 people about an hour east of Raleigh has seen improved test scores and a better economic outlook thanks to its investment in a community wireless Internet system and laptop computers for local students, reports Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder. (At right, Greene County students use their laptops in a photo from Apple.)

"The community showed high rates of poverty, low educational attainment, and outmigration through the 1990s, as declines in the domestic tobacco industry dragged this, 'the second most tobacco dependent county in the U.S.,' into economic decline," Ardery writes. "But community leaders made a major investment -- in local citizens and technology. Since providing all students grades 6 through 12 with laptop computers, beginning in 2003, and installing an affordable countywide wireless internet system so that those computers are easy to use, there have been remarkable changes."

Since then, the county has seen:
  • SAT composite scores go up 41 points.
  • High school proficiency scores increase from 53 percent to 78.4 percent.
  • In 2006, 80 percent of high school seniors applied for college, up from 28 percent in 2004.
  • 12 new business in 2006.
Ardery points out that the technology alone is not the reason for this turnaround. Rather, it's been the way community groups — from churches to city government — have worked together to provide free hot spots and technology training. The community also started "its own online Beehive -- a social networking site with many features for local citizens: candidates' forums, business news, plus information on careers, small business development and agricultural alternatives to tobacco," Ardery writes.

Ardery also notes the cost of connecting rural communities may be going down. Intel announced a rural connectivity platform last week, and Google has been working to use "buffer frequencies" between TV channels to transmit wireless service. (Read more)

Despite rising food prices, farmers' share of food dollar still falling

Food prices are on the rise in supermarkets across the country, and while that seems like good news for farmers and ranchers, they actually are seeing even less of the profits, according to an informal survey. The retail price of food has increased about 8 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008, according to American Farm Bureau Federation Marketbasket Survey.

"The informal survey shows the total cost of 16 basic grocery items in the first quarter of 2008 was $45.03, up about 8 percent or $3.42 from the fourth quarter of 2007," according to a news release. "Of the 16 items surveyed, 11 increased, four decreased and one stayed the same in average price compared to the 2007 fourth-quarter survey. Compared to one year ago, the overall cost for the market basket items showed an increase of about 9 percent."

The products with rising prices were a 5-pound bag of flour, cheddar cheese, corn oil, a dozen large eggs, vegetable oil, mayonnaise, Russet potatoes, a 20-oz. loaf of white bread, apples, whole fryer chickens, and ground chuck. The products with falling prices were whole milk, pork chops, a 9-oz. box of toasted oat cereal, and sirloin tip roast. The price of bacon remained the same.

Despite the rise in grocery prices, farmers and ranchers are seeing less and less of the cut.“In the mid-1970s, farmers received about one-third of consumer retail food expenditures on average. That figure has decreased steadily over time and is now just 22 percent, according to Agriculture Department statistics,” Jim Sartwelle, an AFBF economist, said. The AFBF estimates that the farmer's share of the $45.03 grocery bill would be be $9.90. (Read more)

Big papers abandon presidential campaign trail

Smaller newspapers and broadcast stations are bearing more of the responsibility of covering presidential candidates because major media are finding the cost of traveling with them, up to $2,000 a day, "too steep in an era in which newspapers in particular are slashing costs and paring staff, and with no end in sight to a primary campaign that began more than a year ago," writes Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times.

"Among the newspapers that have chosen not to dispatch reporters to cover the two leading Democratic candidates on a regular basis are USA Today, the nation’s largest paper, as well as The Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, the Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer (at least until the Pennsylvania primary, on April 22, began to loom large)."

The value of traveling with a candidate is that you are able to "track the evolution and growth (or lack thereof) of candidates; spot pandering and inconsistencies or dishonesty; and get a measure of the candidate that could be useful should he or she become president," Steinberg notes. He acknowledges that good work is being done off the campaign trail, but "Readers are being exposed to fewer perspectives drawn from shoe-leather reporting." (Read more)

Bill Clinton stays on rural route, and stays mum on an introduction that mentions Obama's ex-pastor

Former President Bill Clinton, who last week called himself the "designated rural hit man" for his wife's presidential campaign, has followed a mostly rural schedule this week, even to the extent of making an "unscheduled" stop Tuesday at the Dairy Queen in Flemingsburg, Ky., and getting himself some ice cream, as owner John Sims Sr. helped. The photo was taken by Brian Hitch of the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette, which was tipped off to Clinton's plans and got The Ledger Indepedent in Maysville to delay printing the Gazette until Tuesday night so it could get a brief story in this week's paper. Writer Danetta Barker promises a full story and more photos next week.

After five stops in Kentucky, Clinton moved on yesterday to even more rural West Virginia, where Mike Memoli of NBC News and National Journal "reports that hours after Bill Clinton said surrogates should not resign simply for attacking the opposing campaign, a local official who has endorsed Hillary Clinton singled out the Jeremiah Wright controversy during his introduction of the former president," write Chuck Todd and Domenico Montanaro for NBC's First Read blog:
“I am not Jeremiah Wright, but I am an ordained minister and a pastor,” said Damron Bradshaw, mayor of the small town of Chesapeake. “What I have to say instead of what he said is God bless America!”After taking the stage moments later, Clinton simply thanked Bradshaw for his introduction without noting the comment. Instead, the former president focused his remarks on issues of particular interest to seniors. “West Virginia has one of the older populations in America, but the fastest growing group of Americans are people over 65,” he said at Chesapeake’s senior center. “We know that presents a significant challenge for us.”
Cheasapeake, a few miles up the Kanawha River from Charleston, is 10 percent African American. In Raleigh, N.C., "Obama said he hoped people would not be distracted from the important issues by a few 'stupid' comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright," reports Rob Christensen of the News & Observer. Obama said, "This is somebody that was preaching three sermons -- at least -- a week for 30 years, and it got boiled down to a half-minute sound clip and just played over and over and over again, partly because it spoke to some of the racial divisions we have in this country." (Read more)

Todd and Montanaro make special note of North Carolina (which, we remind you again, has more rural people than any other state): "With her foray into NC and Bill’s all-out campaigning in a bunch of other post-PA states, all signs are pointing to this going on at least through the last contests in June. But keep a particular eye on Clinton in Carolina. This is becoming more and more of a must-win state; A combination of a 15-20 point win in Pennsylvania and an upset in the Tar Heel state would shake up this race in the same way Obama's 11-contest win streak in February did."

UPDATE, March 29: In Parkersburg, W.Va., Clinton said of Obama, "He gives a great speech, he's generated enormous support among young people, he's had by and large the sort of the culturally upscale part of the party and the media with him, he's raised an unprecedented amount of money, and she's still around, for some reason. Why? Why? Because of people who know they need a president as opposed to the feeling of change, the change they can rely on, are supporting her for president." For a report by Keri Brown of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Former gubernatorial press secretary bemoans cuts in state-capital reporters in California

In 2004, the press office of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued 440 press credentials. Part of that was attributable to the novelty of the former actor's governorship, but in the last year, the number has dropped from 240 to fewer than 100, as California newspapers cut back on their coverage of state government, writes Margita Thompson, the governor's former press secretary.

That's not in the public interest, Thompson wrote in The Sacramento Bee: "I saw directly how the press corps' collective institutional knowledge and perspective added value to the public discourse. The stress of making sure I was prepared to answer their questions made me query officials internally, resulting in deliberations that often drove policy action. But with the advent of corporate financial concerns blurring the line with the newsroom, the seasoned Capitol bureau reporter is becoming extinct. . . . Fewer reporters will mean more work for those who are left, and larger beats to cover will translate into degraded expertise."

Thompson added, "There will be more standardization of stories, as wire services and media families diminish the local angles that provided a community connection. . . . Reporters will rely less on sources and more on routine professional pundits because there is less turnover there than in elective office. The few minutes provided by TV news or radio is no substitute for the in-depth coverage that served a broader public purpose. . . . Print reporters have a unique ability to make an impact on elected officials because their stories are so tangible and portable. They easily induce politicians to obsess over their clips."

Not only are there fewer reporters, Thompson writes, they "are increasingly put in the awkward position of being motivated not solely by objective analysis but rather by the need to generate readers – much like TV is driven by ratings. So we can expect more salacious gossip by hard news reporters, but less about boring stories such as the policy implications of the budget or health care. I received more calls about the governor's motorcycle accident and his fat lip than I ever did about California's water crisis. News consumers can expect more of the same. So, as the Capitol press corps dwindles, we may all end up hostage to a sensationalized media, where we choose to read about and listen to what we agree with, watch what entertains us and leave what might educate us in the dustbin with the newspaper." (Read more)

Kentucky horse owners seek remedies for crisis; N.H. sees rise in concern for animal welfare

We've often mentioned how the end of commercial horse slaughter in the United States, coupled with a continuing hay shortage and rising feed costs, has led to what some call a "horse crisis" — an abundance of unwanted or malnourished horses. At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington this week, horse-rescue groups came together for a brainstorming session because many "have been swamped with horses that owners can no longer feed," reports Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The session was sponsored by the Kentucky Horse Council.

"One suggestion was for a Web site where rescues could exchange lists of the horses they have available for adoption and help one another find potential new owners for them," Warren writes. "That led to suggestions of holding regular adoption days -- possibly at the Horse Park -- where members of the public could come to adopt rescued horses. Officials noted that each horse adopted makes room for rescuers to take in another animal." The biggest problem, however, is the hay shortage caused by last summer's drought, and there appears to be no easy fix for that. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 27: The Herald-Leader's Greg Kocher reports that about 70 malnourished Tennessee walking horses (two in photo by Kocher) are being removed from a farm near Lexington, and a woman has been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. One of her friends "said the atmosphere was tense," Kocher reports. "This is not a thoroughbred farm. We don't have millions of dollars," the friend, Jeff Maness quoted Sharon Clagett as telling animal control officers. Instead of seizing animals and bringing charges, the government should help people by finding and providing hay, Maness said." (Read more)

In writing for her Weekly Market Bulletin, New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine S. Merrill explains how such rescue efforts fit into the evolving debate over animals in our society:
The number of bills in the legislature and the number of complaints coming in to the Department’s Division of Animal Industry about animal neglect, abuse and cruelty reflect the increasing — and conflicting — concerns about the care and use of animals in our society. Fewer people have connections to agriculture, or knowledge of livestock care, health or behavior, or the roles of livestock in our culture and society. Small animals come in for plenty of attention, too. Dr. Stephen Crawford, state veterinarian and director of the Division of Animal Industry, says much of this growing interest has political, social or emotional roots — often all three factors together.
The commissioner's column, headliend "Animal Passions," touches on an increase in legislative proposals in New Hampshire related to animal welfare and the jump in reports of animal neglect (often false or sometimes motivated by factors beyond an animal's well-being, Merrill notes). To read the Weekly Market Bulletin, go here.

West Virginia study finds higher rates of lung and kidney disease in coal-mining communities

A researcher from West Virginia University found the state's coal-producing counties had higher rates of kidney and lung disease and high blood pressure than the state's non-coal counties, reports Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Researcher Michael Hendryx believes exposure to coal dust and mining runoff might be the cause.

"Hendryx . . . controlled for lifestyle differences, such smoking rates, and other factors like income," Finn reports. "He found that people in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as emphysema, and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure."

Hendryx visited the counties he studied, and what he observed leads him to blame coal pollution. “I went to one town where I witnessed an explosion from the mountaintop removal site and watched the dust settles over the neighborhood," he told Finn. "When you see things like that, you know you’re dealing with something real.” Hendryx estimates that coal pollution kills 313 West Virginians each year. He plans to test air and water samples from coalfields to determine the level of pollutants. His current study will be published in next month's issue of American Journal of Public Health. (Read more)

The study also led Hendryx to conclude that people in coal-producing counties are more likely to die earlier, reports Tim Huber of The Associated Press. While the findings "target coal mining pollution, Hendryx blames smoking, poverty and poor education for much of the region's poor health," Huber writes. "I think the environmental impact from coal mining is less than those three, but still significant by itself," Hendryx told Huber. "When I controlled for smoking rates, I found that there was still elevated lung cancer in coal mining areas." (Read more)

Fears of a labor shortage prompt a leading tomato grower to plant other crops this year

Without a federal guest-worker program in place, the leading tomato grower in the northeastern United States says he "simply can’t risk planting a crop that could end up rotting in the fields," reports Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network.

Without a dependable source of labor to harvest tomatoes, Keith Eckle said he will shift to pumpkins and sweet corn this year. "But because produce is of such greater value, even with high commodity prices, Eckle said he’ll probably only make a third of the profit he enjoys in a typical year," Shinn writes. "And according to Eckle, there's much more at stake than his operation. Unless Congress takes action to put a useable guest worker program in place, Eckle said, American consumers can look forward to increasing dependence on foreign sources of produce." Eckle said the existing H2A visa program requires too much work and effort for the number of workers he needs. (Read more)

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security renewed its effort to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. The DHS proposed a similar effort last fall, and farmers worried that such an effort coupled with the lack of a guest-worker program would disrupt the harvest.

Local TV stations collaborate to give documentary on meth concurrent prime-time airing

In an example of cooperative community journalism, television stations in several markets are showing a documentary on methamphetamine (seen in powder form in the Global Studio photo at left) at the same time — known as a "roadblock" in TV parlance, coined in the days before cable TV was prevalent.

Sacramento was the fifth market to give such treatment to "Crystal Darkness," reports Sam McManis of the Sacramento Bee. "Originally produced for Reno TV stations in January 2007, 'Crystal Darkness' used interviews with addicts from all walks of life, graphic images of the damage done and sobering violent-crime statistics. It also provided a toll-free number for people to get help."

The program was so successful in Reno that other markets sought their own localized versions. "In May in Las Vegas, 50 percent of the households tuned in to the documentary, according Nielsen ratings," McManis writes. "In August, 25 stations in five Oregon cities broadcast the documentary, and newspaper reports say the toll-free number was flooded with calls. And in December, San Diego stations blanketed the airwaves."

There is a Spanish version of the documentary, which will air at 11:30 a.m. Saturday on Sacramento's Spanish-language station. (Read more)

A tip of the hat to Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute for spotlighting this documentary, and for digging up some other links related to the story:
  • Clips from the documentary on YouTube.
  • The Web site for the documentary,, which features information on the campaign that accompanies the airing of the program.
  • Story from KPTV in Oregon about a phone bank set up to handle the flood of calls after the airing on the show.
  • Story from KVBC-TV in Las Vegas about rehabilitation centers receiving referrals and taking in patients after the program aired.

Clinton, Obama using silencers on firearms issues

In their epic contest, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have had plenty of chances to speak out on just about every issue, but have been notably silent on one that is important to many Americans, especially those in rural areas: gun control. They are following a recent trend among Democratic candidates, reports Dan Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers.

"For years, the national party has downplayed its historic sympathy for gun control for fear that emphasizing it would be politically costly," Lightman writes. "Democrats have been skittish about gun control since 1994," when a Democratic Congress passed an assault-weapons ban and was transformed into a Republican Congress. Many Democrats again saw gun control as a key reason Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election.

Republican Sen. John McCain joined 54 other senators in a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the handgun ban in Washington, D.C., but Clinton and Obama declined to join the rival brief supporting the ban. To Lightman's questions about that, the Democratic campaigns asserted the candidates' belief in the Second Amendment -- the meaning and extent of which are at issue in the case that was argued before the Supreme Court Last week. Both have a history of support for gun control, and so the softened stances likely reflect the importance of gun-owning voters — many of whom live in rural areas of the upcoming primary states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon. (Read more)

The McClatchy report also offers a links to a clip of Clinton's and Obama's responses to a gun control question during a January debate, as well as a clip of Clinton talking about duck hunting in Arkansas.

Philly mayor seeks Democratic presidential forum on urban issues; how about one on rural issues?

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called yesterday for a presidential forum on urban issues, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom he is supporting in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary, immediately agreed.

A spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama said, "We welcome a conversation about urban issues. We'll see what develops with his schedule."

Speaking for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, we would welcome a conversation about rural issues -- which, as far as we can tell, have not been spotlighted in the presidential race since late October, when we and several other groups sponsored a forum at the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life in Ames, Iowa. Obama and Sen. John Edwards spoke at that forum, and Clinton participated by video link. (Associated Press photo above shows the two remaining candidates at a happier time, Jan. 31.)

Now that the Democratic field has narrowed to two candidates, and most of the primaries after Pennsylvania are in some of the more rural states, we think it's time for another forum on issues that are important to the one in five Americans who live in rural areas. Here are just a few: Access to broadband and other technology for competitive economic development; how to adjust the Farm Bill to better support sustainable rural development; how to change the No Child Left Behind Act to ease its impact on rural schools while maintaining its goal of better and equal education; how to answer questions about emphasis and balance among food, agriculture and energy; and how to address the chronic problems of rural health care, including that for injured Iraq war veterans, who are disproportionately rural.

Some of those issues overlap with topics Nutter cited yesteday, according to Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News, who quoted his mayor as saying, "What are you going to do about public education . . . jobs and economic development, re-entry programs? How do we finally start to lift people out of poverty? That's what candidates should be talking about. I'd like to have that discussion right here in Philadelphia." (Read more)

And because our institute is based in Kentucky, a state that votes May 20 and is more than twice as rural as Pennsylvania (44 percent to 21 percent), we'd like to see it here. But the location is far less important than the need to have such a forum. Let us know what you think, via comments or e-mail.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The 'Marlboro Marine' is still at war, with himself

The Marlboro Marine is back in the news. Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, 23, was honorably discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder exactly a year after Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco took an iconic picture of him (left) during a firefight in Fallujah, Iraq. Sinco wrote about his continuing relationship with Miller in November; in the latest Rolling Stone, Jenny Eliscu focuses on Miller and gives new details of his life deep in far Eastern Kentucky. The story is harrowing.

Eliscu reports, "As cigarette butts overflow in the ashtray and empty beer bottles collect around him, he silently cycles through procedures the Marine Corps drilled into his head: defend, reinforce, attack, withdraw, delay. He knows it's only seven steps to the front door, but he worries whether his truck has enough gas to make an escape. He wishes someone had told him that 'There may come a time when all that shit you learned, you might not be able to turn it off.' Since returning home from Iraq three years ago, Miller rarely sleeps more than once every few days. When he can get some sleep, he makes sure he's got a gun under his pillow. His entire life has been thrown into a strange and purposeless blend of chaos and inertia; though he doesn't do much these days besides smoke, drink beer and ride his Harley, he seems to teeter perpetually on the brink of a meltdown. Occasionally, and without provocation, Miller becomes so overwhelmed by blind rage that he imagines shooting a stranger in the kneecaps or beating a fellow bar patron to a bloody pulp."

Miller told Eliscu he was driven to enlist by the 9/11 attacks and a desire to leave Kentucky. "It was the only way I knew to travel and see the world," he said. "I just happened to pick a weird time to go. I got to travel, and it was a life-altering experience, that's for sure." Eliscu writes, "The town of Jonancy, nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains, is the kind of place that inspires thoughts of escape. Unemployment in the area is 35 percent higher than the national average, the median household income is less than $24,000 and only 10 percent of county residents earn college diplomas."

Here's the really rural angle: "Miller hasn't been to a doctor in over a year, and, like so many vets, he seems to have fallen off the government's radar. He tried the abundance of medications — antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, mostly — that the Veterans Administration has sent him, but they only exacerbated his nightmares, jitters and apathy. And therapy is hard to get in places like Jonancy: For a while, he tried living in West Virginia to be near a PTSD specialist, but he missed his familiar surroundings and moved back home." Sinco told Eliscu, "It's hard to hang out with him sometimes. You end up driving 1,500 miles at the drop of a hat because he's in the mood to go somewhere."

Eliscu writes, "There is a heavy institutional stigma about mental-health issues in the armed forces, and since the military doesn't conduct mandatory post-deployment psych evaluations in person, vets like Miller are left to make their own health-care decisions. . . . Miller receives a monthly benefit of $2,500 in disability payments — compensation not only for his mental injuries but for an array of physical impairments including hearing loss in his right ear, shrapnel scarring and a bacterial infection in his tear ducts. He has no cartilage left in either knee, and the muscles in his feet have calcified from carrying a 200-pound pack on his back in Iraq."

He still carries burdens not measured in pounds. When he wakes up each morning, Miller told Eliscu, he asks himself, "What did I do to make me deserve another day? What have I done in my life that my buddies didn't do to make me deserve so many days?" (Read more)

Weekly newspaper in Western Kentucky shows blogs don't have to be just for big-city dailies

The Crittenden Press in Marion, Ky., prints its 4,000 copies in black and white each Wednesday on one of the older presses in the state. Online, however, the newspaper and its editor, Chris Evans (left), are trying to stay ahead of the technological curve. The newspaper set a bold goal of tripling its online ad revenue this year, and as part of that effort, Evans started a blog in late 2007. In addition, the newspaper has started posting video clips to YouTube — and linking them to the paper's Web site. Evans said both the blog and videos have helped drive traffic to the site, with a minimal investment of time and technology that other small papers can afford.

Evans began blogging back in late 2007 because he wanted to update the paper's site when news broke between editions. The site's content was tied to one computer that stayed in the newsroom, but a friend in the publishing industry suggested that Evans use a blogging service that would allow updates from any computer at any time. He uses Blogger, which The Rural Blog began using last summer.

The new blog's birth in January coincided with a severe ice storm in Western Kentucky, so the newspaper's blog quickly became a key way for the newspaper to share information. With power issues interfering with the paper's printing, and leaving many residents without electricity, Evans set up outside the local library and used its WiFi to post updates on repairs to downed power lines and other information. He learned that people from outside Crittenden County were reading the blog and calling relatives there to tell them about the updates.

"It was educational for me because I learned how good a tool it good be," Evans said. He posts about twice a day, often highlighting breaking news or upcoming projects the paper has in the works.

"I use it to kind of supplement what we do in our print product," he said. "I do have people that pick up a paper and say 'I saw where you doing a story on this.' I know it's working. People stop me in the grocery store and say something about it. It's especially good to know people are going online in this rural community and getting satisfaction where they used to get it only on Wednesdays."

Because Evans keeps his laptop with him constantly — "might as well be a watch on my arm," he said — he is able to post quickly from home or the office or wherever. Because the blog is Web-based, no space in the newspaper or in its servers is sacrificed. The blog helped pave the way for making YouTube videos to accompany newspaper reports. At the same time, he said the technology can't just be for technology's sake. "You get really excited about your new technology, but you don't want to forget your bread and butter," he said.

The lesson here is that blogs and Web videos aren't just for big dailies — small weeklies can get in the game thanks to free, Web-based software. Small newspapers can add such features without sacrificing lots of time or money, and this new technology can be help deliver the "bread and butter" of community journalism.

Arkansas town's scholarship program sends 81 percent of high school graduates to college

Only 18.2 percent of Arkansans had a bachelor's degree in 2000, the the lowest among the states except West Virginia (16.5 percent). In the town of El Dorado, Ark., a local oil company's scholarship program is trying to improve that by offering to send all local high school graduates — regardless of grades or income — to college, Steve Brawner reports for The Christian Science Monitor. (Brawner also took the photo of an El Dorado High School classroom above.)

The program has helped spark growth in the town of 22,000 near the Louisiana border. Brawner explains the renaissance:
The percentage of graduating seniors attending college has risen from about 60 percent to 81 percent. Families are moving into the school district to take advantage of the program after decades of population decline. The student body has risen by at least 140 students to more than 4,500, and this year's kindergarten class is 12 percent larger than the last. In 2007, the town passed a property-tax increase to replace its 45-year-old high school and created a local sales tax to fund economic development.
The program, called El Dorado Promise and sponsored by Murphy Oil Corp., is the latest in a line of similar community programs that are springing up around the country. (We recently mentioned one sponsored the Rotary Club in Hopkinsville, Ky.) The El Dorado program was inspired by Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan, but it has some differences, Brawner writes. In the El Dorado program, students must enroll in the fall after high school graduation, and they can attend any college anywhere, while receiving tuition and fees equivalent to Arkansas' most expensive state school. Students who have been enrolled in the El Dorado district longer receive more money, with ninth grade being the final time to enroll to be eligible for participation in the program. (Read more)

Forest Service could move from USDA to Interior

For 103 years, the U.S. Forest Service has been part of the Department of Agriculture, while the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been part of the Interior Department. Because the agencies have overlapping interests, "there is a belief that the U.S. Forest Service is out of place," and a move is being considered, reports Christopher Lee of The Washington Post.

"At the request of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, the Government Accountability Office this month began examining whether it would make sense to move the Forest Service to Interior's purview," Lee writes. "The subcommittee has jurisdiction over both agencies."

Supporters of the move say the Forest Service's mission has changed from a focus on production to preservation, a shift that puts it more in line with the activities of the Interior Department. Lee points out that such a move has been discussed before, such as in 1983 when a commission appointed by President Ronald Regan suggested combining the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management or in 1991 when then-Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) proposed creating a new Department of Natural Resources to gather similar agencies. "But transforming bureaucracies is easier said than done, and one reason is that the mere talk of it often generates anxiety among entrenched interests with something to lose, said Don Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania." (Read more)

Indiana looking more pivotal in primaries, perhaps latest signal of increasing rural influence

We reported last week that Hillary and Bill Clinton were turning Indiana into a presidential battleground with Barack Obama, and today Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post takes note. We think that is the latest signal that the role of rural voters in deciding the Democratic nominee will increase. But one major commentator thinks it's all but over.

"Wedged between Illinois, which is Sen. Barack Obama's home state, and Ohio, which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dominated on March 4, Indiana may be the one state remaining on the primary calendar where both candidates begin with a roughly equal chance of coming out ahead," Kornblut writes. "Obama has a home-field advantage, while Clinton has the backing of the popular Sen. Evan Bayh and may have an edge on the kind of economic issues that are likely to dominate the discussion before the state's Democrats vote on May 6."

Here's evidence that Indiana may be a pivotal state: "While both campaigns grudgingly admit that the race here is competitive, each is seeking to portray the other as starting with a lead in pursuit of Indiana's 72 pledged delegates," Kornblut writes. Then she make a tentative call: "But demographics and some of the state's similarities to Ohio, where Clinton won big on March 4, suggest that the senator from New York has a leg up. ... Clinton's alliance with Bayh, son of Indiana legend Birch Bayh, is already paying off." See our item from last week.

Indiana is "uniquely important," Kornblut writes, because it votes the same day as North Carolina, "where Obama is widely considered to have the advantage. If Clinton wins Pennsylvania, as expected, she hopes to ride that momentum into the remaining contests, including those in Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Losses in Indiana and North Carolina would quickly blunt any claim to momentum for her." Kornblut quotes chief Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking Friday: "Pennsylvania is an uphill battle for us. West Virginia is an uphill battle for us. Kentucky is an uphill battle for us." But he added: "Indiana is going to be a real fight." (Read more) West Virginia votes May 13, Kentucky May 20.

Rural voters are becoming more important. Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, is about as rural as the nation -- 21 percent in the 2000 census. The states that follow are more rural: North Carolina, 40 percent (and the most rural residents of any state, 3.2 million); Indana, 29 percent (1.78 million); West Virginia, 54 percent (975,000); and Kentucky, 44 percent (1.79 million). Oregon, which also votes May 20, had 727,000 ruralites, 21 percent of its total.

It's logical to think the controversy over Obama's former pastor will make it harder for him to connect with rural voters (though we've seen no polling to show that), but David Books notes in The New York Times today that Obama has rebounded to the same slim lead he had over Clinton in national polls before the controversy exploded 10 days ago. Playing on the title of Obama's book, he says Clinton "possesses the audacity of hopelessness," has only a 5 percent chance of winning and should "cruise along at a lower register until North Carolina, then use that as an occasion to withdraw." (Read more) Brooks presumes Obama will maintain his lead in North Carolina; there have been no public polls in that state since his March 18 speech on race; one taken March 17 showed his lead down to 1 percentage point, statistically insignificant.

UPDATE, March 26: Conservative columnist Robert Novak sees hope for Clinton in the remaining schedule. He says Indiana is "leaning Clinton," and "The media presentation of this as a fair-fight, 50-50 state helps Clinton spin this." (Read more)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Senators hold hearing on rural crime, drug issues

Vermonters gave two U.S. senators "an earful today on what rural communities need to combat increasingly violent drug-related crime," reports Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio. The senators were Democrat Patrick Leahy (right) of Vermont, the most rural state by population, and Republican Arlen Specter (left) of Pennsylvania, which has the second largest number of rural residents.

"The myth is still alive that drug abuse and drug-related crimes are only big city problems. We need a fresh look at drug crime through the lens and the experience of smaller cities and rural communities," Leahy told nearly 200 people at the hearing in Rutland.

Specter asked Rutland City School Superintendent Mary Moran when schools start teaching students to avoid drugs. Not specifically until the fifth grade, Keck's story says with a sound bite of the dialogue. Moran said cuts in federal law enforcement funding would hurt anti-drug efforts. Leahy said, "Among other things we've been told that we need the money for the Iraqi police forces. Frankly, this senator feels we ought to worry a little bit more about our own police forces in the United States.''

Keck reports, "During a break in the hearing, some in the audience wondered how much the event could really accomplish, besides providing a photo op for those attending. But panelist Hal Colston, founder of NeighborKeepers, a non profit, anti poverty organization in Burlington, was more optimistic." For his comments, and the rest of the story, click here.

Ban on caffeinated drinks has some W.Va. schools worrying more about money than student health

In an effort to combat West Virginia's high rate of poor oral health and obesity among children, the state's Board of Education agreed to ban the sale of caffeinated drinks in high schools. The ban never received the legislative backing board members hoped for, and now some school officials question whether the ban is legal and whether it is worth a possible loss of revenue, reports Davin White of The Charleston Gazette.

"The caffeine ban came as part of a larger nutrition policy that also limits total calories, sodium, fat and sugar in school meals and vending machine products," White writes. "It applies to foods available during the school day and does not affect after-school fundraisers."

While board members want to improve health, many are torn since a ban on soft drink sales would mean a loss of revenue. Capital High School Principal Clinton Giles told White, "I'm clearly a bit torn, in a bit of a quandary" since soft drink sales (from vending machines such as those in above Gazette photo by Chris Dorst) helps pay for printing fees, stipends for Advanced Placement and college-entrance exams, after-school credit recovery classes, travel costs and more.

"Revenue translates directly into increased delivery of curriculum to students," Giles said. "I like the idea of students at Capital High School not having to pay lab fees." In most if not all other states that have limited or banned sales of sugary and fatty snacks and drinks, revenue from sales of healthier products has eventually replaced lost revenue.

The ban goes into effect July 1, and does not bar students from bringing in soft drinks purchased outside of school. Giles said he would comply with the ban and offer 100 percent healthy food. (Read more)

Homeland Security offers new proposal to force employers to fire illegal immigrants

In October, a San Francisco federal judge blocked the Department of Homeland Security's use of "no-match letters" to threaten businesses with prosecution if they do not fire employees whose Social Security numbers are not found in government databases. Still attempting to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants, the DHS has revised the no-match rule by "offering a new explanation but virtually no change in content," reports Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The DHS posted the new rule on its Web site last week. It plans to ask U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer to lift his injunction while also asking a federal appeals court to overturn his decision. The new rule first was proposed last August "to toughen a little-enforced provision of a 1986 immigration law prohibiting businesses from knowingly employing illegal immigrants," Egelko writes. He explains the difference between the 1986 law and this new proposal this way:
In the past, employers have been able to comply with the law by obtaining identification documents from new workers. After that, the government notifies employers if the Social Security number on an employee's W-2 tax form doesn't match the number in the Social Security database. That worker may not have earnings credited for Social Security benefits, but no action is taken against the employer.
Under the new rule, employers who get no-match letters would have 90 days to resolve the discrepancy and an additional three days for an employee to submit a new, valid Social Security number. After that, an employer who failed to fire the worker would be subject to civil fines or criminal prosecution.
Unions and major business groups filed suit last year, arguing that many no-match letters are sent in error and that a toughened rule would lead to firings of many legal workers. Judge Breyer agreed that such a scenario seemed plausible, adding that DHS offered no explanation for its reverse in its non-enforcement policy. (Read more)

Global demand for maple syrup is rising, but production is struggling to keep pace

A few weeks ago, we noted that the popularity of maple syrup has expanded globally, but producers have not been able to ramp up output to keep up with the demand. In an e-mail to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Steven Taylor, the former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner and a journalist by trade, explained the reasons why there will be a shortfall of 25 percent this year in maple syrup production. He writes:
1. Rising petroleum costs--it takes a lot of BTUs to evaporate 40 gallons of sap down to one gallon of syrup, and the plastic tubing that most everybody uses to gather the sap is skyrocketing, along with stainless steel for the processing gear.
2. Lack of people with the knowledge and skills needed to get bank loans and start new enterprises--"sugaring" is a body of knowledge passed down generation to generation, no colleges offer courses.
3. Limitations on land available for development of larger maple operations ...
4. The Federation--the Quebec cartel that controls the 75 percent of global maple production--what will it do? Will it use its quota system to limit expansion to shore up prices longterm? After years of mismanaging the market will it suddenly mend its ways? It's the 800-pound gorilla.
In explaining the limitations on land, he points to the Adirondack region of New York, much of whose trees are off limits to sugaring due to public ownership or private owners who don't want their trees tapped. He also explains that in Maine, areas with maple trees "have been in turmoil recently as longtime pulp and timber company ownership has been liquidated at Wall Street's demand, and new investor owners seem to be unwilling to commit to longterm leases to maple operators."

Recently Jack Shultz of BoomtownUSA noted the potential for maple syrup production as a niche agricultural activity in places beyond New England, as long as they're not too far south, where sugar maples don't grow or do well. He points to the example of a farmer in Illinois who has diversified his farm business by producing 300 gallons a year. (Read more)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the top 10 states in order of maple syrup production value (in dollars) for 2006 were:
  1. Vermont ($13.9 million)
  2. New York ($8 million)
  3. Maine ($7.3 million)
  4. Wisconsin ($3.1 million)
  5. Michigan ($2.9 million)
  6. New Hampshire ($2.8 million)
  7. Ohio ($2.7 million)
  8. Pennsylvania ($2.1 million)
  9. Massachusetts ($1.9 million)
  10. Connecticut ($600,000)
The NASS does not produce any records for other states.

Education writers' forum tackles issues, solutions

We're trying something new today: A live blog, describing an event as it goes along. Our test case is a forum on education issues at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. While the forum is for editorial writers and editorial-page editors, we expect there will be useful information for reporters and assigning editors -- and not just in the South (which SREB defines broadly as 16 states, from Delaware to Texas).

Topics at the forum include challenges facing schools, such as high dropout rates; a review of current legislative issues; raising the percentage of college graduates; and how these issues are presented to readers, viewers and listeners. We'll keep adding to this same item, rather than adding new items, so bookmark The Rural Blog and check back from time to time.

Graduation rates and student achievement: a conflict

High dropout rates are a big problem, and the No Child Left Behind Act and other high-stakes testing systems do nothing to address it -- and may even provide disincentives, SREB President Dave Spence said in the opening session. With more emphasis on student achievement, there is no incentive for high-school principals to keep in school students who will flunk achievement tests, Spence said. And No Child Left Behind allows states and school districts to set miniscule goals, as low as 0.1 percent a year, for improving graduation rates. "It's an absolute shame."

Spence said states have never been asked to improve graduation rates and student achievement at the same time. He said states need systems to evaluate seventh- and eighth-graders' readiness for high school, because many freshmen don't become sophomores on time. He also said there needs to be more emphasis on reading after the fourth grade, to prepare students for achievement in science and math. He noted that national test results show eighth-grade reading scores are flat or declining.

"Somehow we have to find a way to make this a priority for all teachers," Spence said. "The number one problem in terms of graduation and achievement is reading. Our schools treat writing as something once you're decoding by grade four, you're reading."

Higher-education graduation rates lag, may sag

Bet you didn't know this: The U.S. ranks behind at least 15 other developed nations in college-graduation rates of people under 35. That fact is obscured because we have a higher share of non-traditional students, Spence said. Overall, only 54 percent of students who entered college seeking a bachelor's degree in 1999; in the South, it was 52 percent; Southern states ranking lower were Alabama (49%), Georgia (48), Mississippi (48), Tennessee (46), Kentucky (46), Oklahoma (46), West Virginia (45), Arkansas (39) and Louisiana (36).

Because the growth in Southern college enrollment in the next 12 years is expected to come from Hispanics, who have a low graduation rate, "It's going to be hard to do as well as we have been doing," said Joe Marks, director of education data services for SREB. Marks is a a good person to call when you have a question about education data, not just in the South.

Here's a problem of particular interest to rural areas: "In many of our states you cannot get from a community or technical college to a university without having to retake courses," Spence said, adding that state laws are probably the only way to integrate curricula and graduation requirements because "I just don't believe higher education can get its act together."

Overcoming obstacles to a college degree

There was much discussion about the obstacles faced by former college students who want to resume their academic career and get a degree. Bruce Chaloux, SREB's director of student access programs and services, talked about several online avenues for courses and degrees, such as News outlets should make sure readers, viewers and listeners know about such opportunities. "Most of these adults," he said, "have deferred a dream."

One of those is at the forum. Ellen Myatt, publisher of northeast Tennessee's Rogersville Review, talked about her 30-year quest for a degree, finally accomplished through a professional studies program at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn. "I didn't really know how to research my options," she said. (UPDATE, Sept. 2008: Myatt has left the Review to pursue a master's degree in business administration. The interim publisher is Duane Uhls. Myatt was publisher of the Review from 1990-1997 and 2006-2008.)

The future of journalism, especially opinion journalism

Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page and winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was the luncheon speaker. Amid all the bad news about newspapers, she said, "Opinion is thriving across media platforms. ... That gives me hope for what we do, because newspapers offer the best opinion sites," with "thoughtful and rational discussion" with online adjuncts that are usually, or should be, "considered and fact-based and polite."

Your correspondent asked Tucker, left, to react to something I have said for years: Because news outlets, especially TV, find it cheaper to pay fees to talking heads that trade opinions than salaries to reporters who dig up facts, the market for opinion in this country is increasing and the market for fact is decreasing -- and that's bad for democracy. She agreed, calling that "the single issue that makes me the most pessimistic" about journalism and democracy.

Tucker and others at the forum said cutbacks in news departments have made editorial writing harder because there are fewer news stories with facts on which to base an opinion, and editorial writers have to gather more facts than before. "I have to do more reporting now," she said. Tonyaa Weathersbee, an opinion writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, said her news department asked her to write a column about a topic because it couldn't get to a story.

K-12: Focus needed on quality principals, boards

SREB has organized lots of state-by-state education data on its new Scoreboard page. Many of the specific data in the PDF file are hot-linked to more detailed information.

Online courses can offer much greater opportunities to high-school students, especially in rural areas, said Bill Thomas, director of the SREB Educational Technology Cooperative.

Gene Bottoms, SREB's senior vice president for school improvement, presented a study of what worked in high schools in the South from 2004 to 2006. In the most improved schools, more students completed a "solid academic core" instead of staying on a lower-expectation track of courses; teachers had clearer expectations and students had clearer knowledge of requirements for grades; there was more or better work-related learning (reading technical manuals improves reading as much as reading Shakespeare, Bottoms said); reading and writing were emphasized in most or all courses; and students received timely guidance -- setting goals early and seeing high school connected with their goals.

In schools that declined, Bottoms said, the declines were mostly attributable to leadership, from principals to school boards. If you could make only one change in a school, "Get a great principal." he said. Also, "You've got to have a school board who is willing to back the principal who makes a decision," such as putting more emphasis on teaching ninth-graders, something many teachers don't like to do, especially after they have taught for some time.

Joe Rutherford of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo (America's largest rural newspaper) asked what works best to improve failing schools. Bottoms said New York City is having success with an academy for principals, something that could work in rural areas. He said a recent Mississippi proposal to oust the superintendents of failing districts probably wouldn't work unless attention is also paid to principals and school boards. He said a recent survey of Kentucky and Tennessee principals found that 40 percent of them thought their school board "was not interested in improving student achievement."

Patience is needed, too. "Most of the state takeover efforts have not worked very well," partly because they tend to expect results in three years, Bottoms said.

Editorial leadership for education

Rutherford discussed a series of news stories and editorial campaign that the Daily Journal, which is owned by a local foundation, mounted to attack Mississippi's low high-school graduation rate. "Nobody in Mississippi knew exactly what the dropout rate was," because of conflicting data and varying interpretations, he said.

Turns out that the rate is 25.7 percent. The Daily Journal and other media, with help from a Tupelo advertising agency, have mounted to cut the rate to 12 percent in seven years. At the end of this academic year, they will know if it has made a difference. Meanwhile, the campaign got the attention of Gov. Haley Barbour, who has taken some steps to address the problem. It's a great example of a regional newspaper exercising statewide leadership.

All told, this was a gathering of fine journalists who make education a top priority and make their newspapers leaders in doing something to address its problems in their states and communities. Bob Davis wrote in his closing blog post that the discussion "might be best summed up as 'misery loves company.' And there's plenty of misery to go around, including declining funding, misplaced priorities and backward-looking methods. The good news is that solutions were presented. If Southern states possess the will to make positive changes is an open question." Sometimes states and communities can find the will if journalists show them the way.

For a more detailed report on the forum, by SREB Communications Director Alan Richard, click here. For more on SREB, see For another perspective on the forum, see this blog by our friend Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston Star.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Maysville, Ky., and its paper hit a trifecta: Bill Clinton, a Clooney premiere and a state title

Folks in the newsroom of The Ledger Independent, the daily newspaper in the Ohio River town of Maysville, Ky., pop, 9,000, thought they had a lot on their hands when George Clooney, who grew up just down the river in Augusta, announced that his new movie, "Leatherheads," would premiere in Maysville tomorrow night and that he would attend with co-star Renee Zellweger.

Then things got really interesting. First, Bill Clinton scheduled a campaign stop for his wife on Tuesday, seeking votes in Kentucky's May 20 primary. And last night, the Mason County Royals won the state's high-school basketball championship -- really big news than in most states, because Kentucky doesn't divide its schools into enrollment classes for basketball.

So, in three consecutive days, the 9,000-circulation Lee Enterprises paper gets to report on a countywide celebration and the visits of America's top cinematic idol and a former president who wants to move back into the White House. Sports Editor Dan Hopwood began his story this way: "George Clooney and Renee Zellweger are due in town tonight, and Bill Clinton is coming to Maysville on Tuesday. But on Sunday, the center of attention was a group of tall, gangly teenagers who proved themselves the best in Kentucky on the basketball court Saturday night."

"Are things a little hectic around here?" Editor Mary Ann Kearns asked in an e-mail reply to our inquiry. "Absolutely. In fact, crazy might be a better way to describe the newsroom over the past week. But these are the stories we live for, the kind of events that make this the greatest job in the world and, wow, we have hit the trifecta. Everyone in the newsroom -- reporters, editors, photographers, paginators, videographers -- has been pushed beyond what they thought they could comfortably handle but they have responded with a level of professionalism and dedication that makes me extremely proud to be a part of this team."

Publisher Bob Hendrickson wrote us, "It really is amazing that we could experience such a windfall of great news events all within a week." He said the paper knew the local team had a shot at the state title, but "When we heard George Clooney was coming home to premiere his new movie the way his Aunt Rosemary did in the early 1950s with 'The Stars Are Singing,' we kicked things into a higher gear both at the newspaper and in the community. Then, when Maysville native Jerry Lundergan announced plans to bring the former president to Maysville, we thought, Why not?" Lundergan, a former state Democratic chairman, is a major fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton. Here's Barbara Goldman's advance on the premiere and Debra Perry's backgrounder on the Clinton visit.

Hendrickson, a Maysville native, added that U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was in town last week to recognize the school system for its improvements and "MTV announced plans last week to choose a local student for its 'Made' TV program. ... And all of this happens during Easter Week which is a very special time of year in rural America. All in all a great week to be in Maysville and a great week to be in the news business. We're pulling out all the stops and focusing on our Web site (videos, photos, slide shows, multi-media) to deliver immediate coverage of all these events." (Encarta map)

Records in the paper: Like Mom in the driveway

Sunshine Week ended yesterday, but here are excerpts from a timeless column from Don McNay of Kentucky's Richmond Register that you can save for next year:
I am for all freedom of information, except when it applies to me. It is the same sentiment that many public officials have.

I learned about public disclosure at a young age.

When I was 16, I got a speeding ticket. I did not fear the justice system. I feared my mother.

The Kentucky Post had a section called the Town Crier. It listed people’s secrets and dirty laundry. If you went to court for any reason, it wound up in the Town Crier.

Like my neighbors, my family denounced the Town Crier as a horrible invasion of privacy. Like my neighbors, my family read it every day.

I knew my mom would see my Town Crier debut.

I tried a cover-up. For two weeks, I watched for the news carrier and rushed to catch the paper. I stood in the yard, read the Town Crier and brought the paper in after vetting.

I eventually found my name and proceeded to “lose” that section of the paper. The next day, mom was waiting in the driveway.

She had read the missing section at work.

She grounded me for the rest of my life, but I eventually got probation.

The Town Crier was a better security measure than the police. I prayed I would never be in it again.

Joe Hackett, one of my high school teachers, took the Town Crier to a new level. He would read the list of offenders to the study halls and embarrass the student in front of everyone else.

Public humiliation worked. Few of my classmates made multiple appearances.

The Kentucky Post shut down last year. As papers decline in circulation, the Town Crier sections are the first to go. Few papers print minor traffic violations. If they do, few people read them.

... There was a comfort level when my neighbors were doing the watching. They had standards I wanted to meet.

Peer pressure and social acceptance shape a person’s character.

Almost every president, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, came from a small town. A reason has to be that they grew up with a formal or informal version of the Town Crier.

They learned, like I did, that it was difficult to get away with doing something wrong. They learned it was even more difficult to cover it up.

... Sunshine laws work like my mother waiting in the driveway. They ensure that people who screw up will be exposed and they keep public officials in line so they think before they make a poor decision.

Hillbilly: 'The last acceptable slur in the country'

Five years ago, when CBS started looking in Appalachia to cast for a reality-show version of "The Beverly Hillbillies," it ran into a storm of protest from many quarters, spurred first by Rudy Abramson, the recently deceased co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and mainly by our friends at the Center for Rural Strategies. Last month, a movie casting company "looked to West Virginia hollows for extras to play inbred degenerates" in the horror film "Shelter," but lost its contract "after West Virginia political and labor leaders protested the casting call," write Tom Breen and Shaya Tayefe Mohajer of The Associated Press, in an examination of the term "hillbilly" that will be read by millions of Americans.

Writing from Charleston, W.Va., capital of a state where they say the hillbilly image may be "most potent," the reporters say the word "has been a persistent national slander, one which has seen its targets gradually adopt the slur as a badge of pride." They don't mention a good example of that: Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Ky., which is close to West Virginia, and has photos on its Web site like the one here, from 2004.

The story's seminal sources are Anthony Harkins, a history professor at Western Kentucky University and author of Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, and Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, a book that points out many major achievers from the region. "Where outsiders might conjure [from the word] images of inbreeding and backwardness, Harkins said Appalachian natives stress positives like close-knit families and a sense of community," Breen and Mohajer report.

"Biggers believes the negative stereotypes that date back to the 19th century get continually recycled in a self-referential loop, so that one generation's 'Deliverance' becomes another's 'Wrong Turn.' The popular image of poor rural whites seems to fluctuate between the monsters of those films and the clueless yokels of comedy bits like the 'Appalachian Emergency Room"' skits on the television show 'Saturday Night Live.' The problem, Biggers said, is that these depictions have very little to do with daily life in Appalachia."

The first time we saw "Appalachian Emergency Room," we were offended. But then we realized that "Saturday Night Live" makes fun of many stereotypes. Beyond satire and comedy, though, Biggers is right when he says, "The hillbilly is the last acceptable slur in the country." (Read more)

The prejudice behind the slur goes beyond the hills of Appalachia. As political commentator Mark Shields, left, said at Abramson's memorial service last month, "Rudy understood that the one demographic group that could be caricatured could be ridiculed and could be condescended to with total impunity, are the white working-class Americans that did not go to college, and who often live in the rural United States." (Read more) For a recording of Shields' remarks, click here.