Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert: A role model for journalism's fundamental function, making democracy work

“This is a blow to America,” Peggy Noonan said today about the devastating death of Tim Russert. How many journalists, having died suddenly in the prime of life, would prompt a former speechwriter for a Republican president to say something like that? Very few, if any. I am sure many Americans feel they have lost, if not a friend, an ally – someone who served their interests – because they knew Tim was interested in getting the facts they needed to participate effectively in self-government, perhaps most prominently as an interviewer who asked those who seek our votes the right questions, and in the right way. “He always asked the question we hoped he wouldn’t,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said. (Associated Press photo)

The end of anyone’s life should teach lessons. Tim Russert taught men how to be sons and fathers, and he was a father figure to his younger NBC colleagues, as they have testified today. For journalists, he was a role model for the fundamental function of our business: making democracy work. May we all try to remember that example, and follow it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ark.-based newspaper chain wants its classified ads taken off Wal-Mart's Web site

The biggest newspaper company in Arkansas, WEHCO Media, owned by the Walter E. Hussman family, has asked Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. not to put classified advertising from the company's 11 daily newspapers on Wal-Mart's Web site. The nation's largest retail chain has complied.

Wal-Mart put a "classifieds" link on the site in the last week of May "in what has been described by the Bentonville-based retailer as a test program," Stacey Roberts of WEHCO's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. "It takes visitors to lists of advertisements that can be searched according to location, product or service offered." The newspaper said its management was surprised. (Read more) For Roberts' latest update, via the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Bulletin, click here.

"Wal-Mart noted that WEHCO's ads would be exposed to a larger audience, and it was possible to direct a inquiry back to the newspaper's Web site," the Bulletin reported earlier. "WEHCO noted that users could review the content of these ads on the Wal-Mart site without being directed back to the newspaper's Web site. It also noted that, unlike some classified sites which concentrate on bigger cities, or certain categories of classifieds, the ads on the site are listed for virtually all towns in the U.S., regardless of size, and all categories, from employment, real estate and autos to merchandise for sale."

Classified sites such as Craigslist and Career Builder, which is owned by major newspaper companies, have concentrated on larger markets. WEHCO is concerned that the move by Wal-Mart, which has most of its stores in rural areas, "could be a significant threat to smaller market newspapers and their classified ads," the Bulletin reports. "While WEHCO realizes it must compete for classified ads and audience, the company says it does not see the advantage in helping classified competitors, especially since classified content is a major reason for reading a newspaper or its Web site, and classified revenues are a major source of funding news gathering, reporting and journalism." (Read more)

Rural Misses: Not as healthy as Mizzes, they say

Unmarried women living in rural areas rate their health status lower their married counterparts, and also report more instances of depression, according to a Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. "They suggest that primary care physicians should take a proactive role in addressing health concerns of single women," says Newswise, a research-reporting service.

“Being single may be associated with a greater degree of separation from usual health care, as many women gain insurance through a spouse or a former spouse. Lack of social support also may contribute to poor health among some single women,” said James Rohrer, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Family Medicine and lead author of the study.

Rohrer said current economic difficulties may cause additional stress that can affect health. “Statistically, rural, unmarried women are more often economically depressed than their married counterparts,” he said. “If the economy worsens, we will see a significant impact on visits to primary care physicians and nurses. Medical providers are trained to focus on the biological and psychological. But economic causes of poor health? I don’t think that receives a lot of air time in medical school.” (Read more)

TV viewers say they can't find digital converter boxes before federal vouchers expire

Here's a story that every rural news outlet in the United States should be covering. To ease the nation's transition to digital television, only 250 days away, Congress authorized $40 vouchers for people without cable or satellite TV to buy converter boxes. But the boxes are in short supply and the vouchers are expiring before people can find the boxes, House members said at a hearing this week.

"If you can't get a box within the 90 days, what good is this?" Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said as he held up one of the vouchers, which "resemble plastic gift cards," The Associated Press reported. Each household is entitled to two coupons; a converter box is needed for each TV set.

About 8.5 million households have requested 16 million coupons since the program started earlier this year, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the coupon program. Nearly 3 million coupons have been redeemed so far," AP reports. " Of the roughly 840,000 coupons that recently expired, 42 percent were redeemed, the agency said. Under current government rules, consumers with expired coupons cannot reapply for new ones." NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak said the agency is considering changing the rules to allow reapplication. The agency's Web site has detailed information.

Flooding threatens economy of the Midwest

"Drenching rain and widespread floods in the Midwest are taking momentum out of a regional economy that has been among the brightest spots in the U.S. economy recently," Ilan Brat and Lauren Etter report in The Wall Street Journal. They say the floods are already being compared to those in the region in 1993, which caused $20 billion in losses. (Wisconsin State Journal photo by Steve Apps shows Viola, a town of 667 on the Kickapoo River.)

"Meat processor Tyson Foods Inc. is temporarily suspending work at two Iowa hog-slaughtering plants, while farm-equipment maker Deere & Co. was forced by rising rivers to evacuate a foundry in that state. A St. Louis-based riverboat casino on the Mississippi River closed, and a lake at a popular resort in Wisconsin emptied after an embankment burst. Towns across the region are confronting collapsed bridges and overflowing sewers. Further heavy rain may burst or overtop already stressed dams and levees in Wisconsin and Iowa." Southwest Indiana is also hard-hit, after 10 inches of rain.

Development of rural areas could be worsening the floods. "Large swaths of farm and forest land that had been soaking up excess water are now covered with concrete and asphalt for neighborhoods, shopping centers and parking lots, increasing water runoff into waterways," the Journal reports. "And local governments hungry for property-tax revenue have continued to allow construction in floodplains, according to a federally sponsored evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program published in 2006." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gas prices pinching rural community colleges

Rising gas prices are hurting community colleges in rural America. "Sensitive to their enrollment numbers and the plight of their fuel-cost-fatigued students, administrators at rural community colleges are looking for ways to help students stay on track with their studies even as their monthly transportation bills rise, in some cases approaching the several-hundred-dollar range," Libby Sander writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"In large swaths of rural America, where a journey of 50 to 100 miles to reach a destination is the norm, some community-college officials say students are being forced to make tough decisions about what they can afford, given the added expense of fuel," Sander reports. "Some are dropping out. Others are turning to online classes for relief from the pump."

A growing number of community colleges are helping students by altering schedules and dropping one day of classes, which saves students a trip to campus each week, Mary Beth Marklein writes for USA Today. "The push to drop a day, usually Fridays, is rippling primarily through two-year colleges serving rural areas, where many students drive long distances and public transportation is harder to come by." Such policies have recently been announced at Eastern Kentucky University and LeTourneat University. Also, "Some universities are switching to a four-day work week this summer to allow employees to save gas costs, , reports.

More and more students are are opting for online classes, which eliminates commutes to and from community colleges while reducing fuel costs. State colleges and universities in Tennessee have experienced a 29 percent increase in online registration this summer compared to last summer and face a 20 percent increase for the fall, Colby Sledge reports for The Tennessean of Nashville. Robbie Melton, associate vice chancellor for the state Board of Regents, identified a consistency among students signing up for online classes. "When they call, they keep saying, 'The gas prices, it's just unbelievable,'" he said. (Read more)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Corn crop forecast down; bad news for economy

An abundance of rain is plaguing American corn farmers, which is increasing concern over lower than predicted corn production. As of Sunday, June 8, 89 percent of the U.S. corn crop had emerged, which is nine percent less than a year ago and six percent less than the five year average, the Department of Agriculture reported. Corn is in 60 percent good to excellent condition, compared to 63 percent a week ago and 77 percent a year ago. (Graph from The New York Times)

"At a moment when the country’s corn should be flourishing, one plant in 10 has not even emerged from the ground, the Agriculture Department said Monday," David Streitfeld and Keith Bradsher write for the Times. "Because corn planted late is more sensitive to heat damage in high summer, every day’s delay practically guarantees a lower yield at harvest. . . American farmers are planing 324 million acres (of corn) this year, up 4 million acres from 2007. Too much of the best land is waterlogged, however. Indiana and Illinois have been the worst hit, although Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota were inundated last weekend."

Jon Perkins writes for Brownfield, "The crop in most of the major U.S. growing states continues to develop at a slower than normal pace due to heavier than average rainfall, flooding and other conditions harmful to development." Katie Allen writes for Brownfield that "potential crop flamage on late-planted corn down to an early or even normal fall freeze is now a concern among farmers, especially in the northern Corn belt. Roger Elmore, extension corn agronomist for Iowa State University, says a normal freeze this fall shouldn't affect the already planted corn, but time is running short for corn that still needs to be planted."

USDA released its monthly World Agriculture Supply and Demand report Tuesday, estimating a harvest of 673 million bushels of corn, down 93 million from last month's forecast and 760 million below the 2007 forecast. If these predictions hold, stocks would plummet to their lowest mark since the 1995-1996 season. Read the full report here. "University of Illinois Extension Economist Darrel Good told the latest report seems to support the market consensus that there is no chance of having a big corn crop this year," writes Tom Johnston. "The combination of unplanted or unharvested acres and reduced yield potential indicates a reduction of production expectations, (Good) said."

A lackluster corn crop would affect several facets of the economy. Glen Grimes, agricultural economist emeritus with the University of Missouri at Columbia and a consultant to the National Pork Board, told Peter Shinn of Brownfield, "If U.S. corn production comes in far below expectations this year, less than 10 billion bushels, for example, the resulting corn price spike would shutter most U.S. ethanol plants." Shinn writes, "Grimes pointed out livestock producers must feed their animals regardless of price, while ethanol producers have the option of shutting down when margins are poor. And even if this year's corn production weer to somehow close to last year's record level, Grimes suggested the impact of higher feed costs on food price inflation haven't yet actually worked their way through the food production system to the retail level."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Appalachians more honest about race and votes?

Journalists from around the world continue to write about Barack Obama's "Appalachian problem," based on his single-digit percentages in some Central Appalachian counties and exit polls showing that more than a fifth of white Democratic voters in Kentucky and West Virginia said race was important to their vote and more than four-fifths of those voters supported Clinton.

Paul Harris, writing in "The Observer" column in The Guardian, a major British newspaper, reports from Williamson, W. Va., on the Kentucky border, and nearby Pikeville, Ky. He quotes Johnny Telvor of Williamson as saying Obama would make slaves of white people, and Stanley Little of Pikeville as saying he will vote Republican because "'McCain is one of us. Obama ain't."

Such stories imply that race was the main reason Obama lost the two main states of Central Appalachia. They ignore the fact that he made only one campaign stop in each of them, that Hillary Clinton's lunch-bucket speeches spoke more to local needs than Obama's high-flown rhetoric, and that the Clintons had strong followings in both states while Obama was not well known. As I said in my fortnightly column in The Courier-Journal yesterday, if Obama asked one of the black mayors of overwhelmingly white towns in Kentucky, "They might tell him that when folks know you, they're willing to vote for you. When you're a silhouette or a cartoon, they're not even listening."

Still, Harris and Emory University's Andra Gillespie, whom he calls "an expert on racial politics," make an interesting argument, that Appalachians are just being more honest about race than most other Americans. "The difficult truth is that Appalachia is unusual mostly because many people here are willing to openly talk about what some of their fellow citizens are secretly thinking," Harris writes, citing the exit polls of Edison Mitofsky Research. "West Virginia and Kentucky were just more honest than other parts of the country," Gillespie tells him. "A lot of other people know it's not socially acceptable to mention that sort of thing."

Harris calls Appalachia "Another America," and paints with the usual broad brush: "This is the America where outrageous rumours that Obama is a Muslim are readily believed. It is the America where Telvor is able to voice a sentiment that 'Obama might actually be the Antichrist' without apparent irony or fear of contradiction. It is a slice of America trapped in the dreadful history of race relations and the legacy of slavery and segregation. On the streets of towns such as Pikeville and Williamson, and in the minds of people like Little and Telvor, that past lives on. It is kept in the present by poverty, joblessness and a fear of the different. It is also a powerful force that should not be underestimated. It could even decide who will be the next President." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 20: Judy J. Owens, who spent a lot of time in Appalachia interviewing people for newspapers, thinks Telvor took Harris hunting for snipe, or for wampus cats. What's that? Read her piece in the Daily Yonder.

Rural America is where gasoline prices hit hardest

As a percentage of income, high gasoline prices are having the hardest impact in rural areas of the South, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, reports Clifford Krauss of The New York Times, reporting on a survey by Oil Price Information Service. "People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel," Krauss writes. "Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money."

Americans spend about 4 percent of their take-home income on motor fuels, but "in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent," Krauss reports. "The survey showed that of the 13 counties where people spent 13 percent or more of their family income on gasoline, 5 were located in Mississippi, 4 were in Alabama, 3 were in Kentucky and 1 was in West Virginia. (Click on Times map above for county-by-county comparisons of gas prices, median income and their intersection.)

Reporting from Holmes County, Miss., Krauss contrasts the Times' home base with the rest of the country: "With the exception of rural Maine, the Northeast appears least affected by gasoline prices because people there make more money and drive shorter distances, or they take a bus or train to work," Krauss writes. "But across Mississippi and the rural South, little public transit is available and people have no choice but to drive to work. Since jobs are scarce, commutes are frequently 20 miles or more. Many of the vehicles on the roads here are old rundown trucks, some getting 10 or fewer miles to the gallon."

The long-term picture is not good. "Sociologists and economists who study rural poverty say the gasoline crisis in the rural South, if it persists, could accelerate population loss and decrease the tax base in some areas as more people move closer to urban manufacturing jobs," Krauss reports. "They warn that the high cost of driving makes low-wage labor even less attractive to workers, especially those who also have to pay for child care and can live off welfare and food stamps." (Read more)

The data make localizing this story easy. Here's an example from the Lexington Herald-Leader.