Friday, July 25, 2008

A Pakistani editor fights for freedom of expression in a dangerous land

We read much about Iraq and Afghanistan because U.S. troops are fighting there, but the most dangerous country in the world is probably Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, many Islamic fundamentalists, and borders with Afghanistan, Iran, India and China. We need to read more about Pakistanis who stand up for freedom, including freedom of the press, which can be most difficult to achieve in rural areas, as journalist Najam Sethi is finding out.

"Pakistan's free media and conservative Islam have become powerful forces, untethered from the state that once held both in check and weakening the government's ability to shape public views," Peter Wonacott reports for The Wall Street Journal. Sethi is attempting "to tip the scales of power toward the media." He is editor in chief of the Daily Times and the Friday Times, English-language papers that lampoon the Islamists. His ability to persuade public opinion was limited because relatively few Pakistanis can read English. But he recently launched a newspaper in Urdu, the language spoken by most people in the country, despite death threats that have continued.

The Urdu paper Aaj Kal in early February "sold quickly in the conservative tribal belt, causing trouble," Wonacott reports. Sales there were suspended after two of the paper's distributors were detained by Taliban who told them to stop selling it. Editors of regional editions agreed to tone down photos of women when publication resumed, but Sethi says they are not allowed to alter the paper's editorial pages.

Pakistani journalists are usually safer criticizing the government than the militants who challenge it. "I don't want my throat slit," says an unnamed editor in Peshawar, a conservative region. Sethi told Wonacott that few papers take on Islamic militants "because they're scared. The state doesn't have the ability to protect them." The chart from the Journal shows how much more dangerous it was to be a journalist in Pakistan last year than in 2006. The nation's intelligence agencies have encouraged Sethi, 60, to leave the country for his safety; his children were relocated last week, but he and his wife, the editor of an English-language fashion glossy, remain in their home, which is now guarded by army rangers. Read more here.

Agribusiness giants form ethanol-subsidy coalition

Several U.S. agribusiness companies, including processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., seed makers Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., and equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. are collaborating to promote the idea that technology can ease global supply shortages in the escalating food-versus-fuel debate, Doug Cameron reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy will work to protect government subsidies for ethanol production and "wants to spread its belief that renewable fuels won't cut into food supplies if new technologies, such as genetically modified crops, are used to their fullest," Cameron writes. "The Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy will underscore the role that agriculture can play in supporting our food and energy needs," says Mark Kornblan, the alliance's executive director. "It's critically important that policy leaders start thinking about how we can grow our way to a solution. Innovation is part of the American DNA -- through greater support for agricultural innovation, we can produce enough crops to supply both our food and energy needs worldwide." Read more.

The alliance will face challenges, primarily from U.S. food producers, such as Tyson Foods Inc., that are lobbying to have ethanol subsidies eliminated or reduced. "While improvements in global agriculture are vital, this work must not distract us from the fact that while we wait, millions of people will be pushed deeper into hunger and poverty because we are diverting more and more food and feed supplies to producing ethanol,' argues the Grocery Manufacturers' Association.

A 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy on corn-produced ethanol and a tariff on imports, mostly sugar-based ethanol from Brazil, are included in the current U.S. renewable-fuel policy. "My fear is that if the body politic and the general public turn their back on the first generation [of ethanol], we don't have a second generation," says J.B. Penn, John Deere's chief economist.

Feds fine operator of collapsed Utah mine a record $1.6 million; outside review questions the feds

"Sloppy mining plan reviews, lax inspections and a disorganized rescue effort by the federal Department of Labor contributed to the August 2007 deaths of nine workers at a Utah coal mine, according to an independent review made public Thursday evening," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "Bush administration budget cuts, staffing reductions at labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, and an emphasis on 'compliance assistance' over enforcement played a role at the Crandall Canyon Mine and in an upsurge in coal-mining deaths over the past three years, according to the report" by retired MSHA officials Earnest Teaster and Joseph Pavlovich, commissioned by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

The report was immediately preceded by MSHA's own report, which cited "major engineering deficiencies, overly aggressive mining practices and a disregard for warning signs that led to a catastrophic collapse of roof support pillars in the more than 2,000-foot-deep mine," Ward reports. MSHA fined a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp. $1.6 million, a record, for "high negligence" and "reckless disregard." (Read more)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Federal shield-law bill coming up, needs support

Supporters of a shield law to create a limited reporter's privilege to protect sources in federal investigations have issued another, urgent call for action by journalists because the bill may hit the Senate floor on Monday.

The Society of Professional Journalists said in an e-mail to members in states with undecided senators or those on the Intelligence Committee, "SPJ headquarters learned today that the federal shield law bill will likely hit the Senate floor for a vote Monday, July 28." The states are California, Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

For information on the bill, click here.

UPDATE, July 30: The bill fell nine votes short of the 60 needed for debate to proceed. For a roll call, click here. Lobbying continues.

Federal judge blocks USDA from opening more conservation-reserve land to haying, grazing

A federal judge issued a permanent injunction today preventing the Department of Agriculture from releasing more acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program for haying and grazing, reports Lisa Keefe of MeatingPlace.com. "USDA had opened the acres in an attempt to help ranchers cope with high feed prices and possible grain shortages," she notes.

District Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle "made sweeping exceptions to his prohibition, but then imposed terms that would make actually using USDA's program economically unattractive," Keefe reports, and gives details. But the American Farm Bureau Federation said the decision was a victory because "The judge issued a narrow permanent injunction to allow those producers with approved CRP contracts to continue operations through the program’s original Nov. 10 deadline. Farmers and ranchers who sent applications but have not received approvals will have their applications processed. If approved, those producers may hay until Sept. 30 or graze until Oct. 15."

"Both sides of the battle seem to be happy with the results of the court case," reports Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent. The order was sought by the National Wildlife Federation, which said environmental issues in the matter were not adequately researched. Last week, the judge gave the two sides several days to reach a compromise, and when that didn't happen, he issued the injunction, which said USDA "violated the National Environmental Policy Act . . . arbitrarily, capriciously, and unreasonably" when it decided that opening the conservation-reserve land would have no environmental consequences.

NNA to honor Rhoades, Spaar for rural journalism

Kenneth H. Rhoades of Nebraska and Betty Simpson Spaar of Missouri will be honored during the National Newspaper Association’s 122nd annual convention and trade show, when they will be presented with the Amos and McKinney awards, respectively.

NNA calls the awards "the highest and most dignified tributes in community journalism." They are given to a working or retired man and woman who have provided distinguished service and leadership to the community press and to their communities. The awards will be presented at the business luncheon on Sept. 27 in St. Paul, Minn.

Rhoades is co-publisher of Enterprise Publishing Co., a group of newspapers in Nebraska and Iowa. He will receive the James O. Amos Award, named for a pioneer Ohio journalist. Spaar, publisher of The Odessan, in Odessa, Mo., will receive the Emma C. McKinney Memorial Award, named for the co-publisher and editor of the Hillsboro (Ore.) Argus for 58 years.

For NNA's release on the awards, click here. For more information on the convention, go to http://www.nna.org/.

Christian radio stations oppose FCC localism rule

The Federal Communications Commission has made proposals designed to increase the local orientation of radio stations, and a Christian media group has developed a campaign to defeat them, Matthew Lasar reports for Ars Technica. Save Christian Radio issued a statement warning that "the proposals could force Christian radio programmers to either compromise their messages by including input from those who don't share the same values, or to run the risk or costly, long and potentially ruinous government inquiries."

One proposed rule would require a human presence at each station during all operating hours, even if programming is delivered by software and/or satellite, partly to make stations "capable of relying critical life-saving information to the public" in local emergencies, such as a 2002 train derailment in Minot, N.D., that sent a toxic cloud over the city while local officials struggled to get the word out via automated stations. SCR argues the required physical presence would increase costs.

Other new rules would require stations to provide some locally-oriented programing, keep better public records of public-affairs programming and have advisory boards that include "representatives of underserved community segments." That is "the proposal SCA likes the least," Lasar writes. SCR says stations would be "forced to take programming advice from people whose values are at odds with the Gospel. A well organized group of atheists, abortionists or secular humanists could demand representation -- and have standing to cause trouble at the FCC if they were turned away" from participating. SCR also opposes the recordkeeping rule, saying it would have to make the records available even to "those who do not share Gospel values."

Lasar writes that the localism proposals are debatable, "but whether Save Christian Radio intended it or not, their statement gives the impression of a movement more paranoid about than concerned for the community to which it broadcasts -- intent on protecting a satellite-based, hyper-automated product that talks 24/7, but never has to listen to most of the souls in its local signal area."

The FCC issued the Report on Broadcasting and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Dec. 18 after gathering more than 83,000 written comments and testimony from 500 panelists at six field hearings on localism, which became a concern after widespread corporate consolidation of radio stations.

Rural and small-town voters may be more closely divided in presidential race than four years ago

Rural and small-town voters, a linchpin for President Bush's two elections, may be much more closely divided on the current choice for president, according to the latest poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

Among voters who said they live in a small town or a rural area, two of the four options offered them, Arizona Sen. John McCain had 46 percent and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had 42 percent. The margin of error for this sample of 411 voters was plus or minus 4.8 percentage points, so McCain did not have a clear lead. When other candidates were included, Obama led in the sample 43-42, while independent Ralph Nader got 4 percent and Libertarian Bob Barr got 2 percent. Among all voters, the survey showed Obama leading 47-41, with an error margin of 3.1 points, again making the result marginal.

The poll lumped together rural and small-town voters, who collectively made up 41 percent of the total sample, indicating that most who said they live in "small towns," 63 percent of the combined subsample, are not rural. Of the total sample, 16 percent identified themselves as "rural;" nationally, the population is about 20 percent rural. When these two groups of were asked how they voted in 2004, a combined 47 percent said they voted for Bush, and 31 percent said they voted for John Kerry. The rest said they voted for someone else, didn't vote or weren't sure. While the pollsters did not release separate data for the "rural" and "small town" samples, other data indicated that McCain fares best among rural voters. They accounted for 18 percent of his support and only 13 percent of Obama's.

When asked if each candidate had a background and set of values they can identify with, rural and small-town voters clearly favored McCain, and a plurality said they did not identify with Obama. The yes-no results were McCain 60-33, Obama 42-48. One possible factor: 11 percent of these voters said Obama is Muslim; only 6 percent in cities and suburbs said that. Still, when these voters were asked if a candidate was in the mainstream or out of step with most Americans' thinking, Obama had the edge, 56-32, to McCain's 48-39.

The poll was conducted July 18-21 by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. For the Journal's report on it, click here. (Subscription may be required)

Agricultural economists: Global growth, dollar fall, biofuels and oil price main drivers of food prices

The major factors driving up food prices are "global changes in production and consumption of key commodities, the depreciation of the dollar, and growth in the production of biofuels," and higher oil prices also play a role, lthree agricultural economists at Purdue University said this week in a report commissioned by Farm Foundation. They will dicuss the report in a free Webinar on Wednesday, July 30.

Philip C. Abbott, Christopher Hurt and Wallace E. Tyner said it is impossible to calculate the relative weight of those factors, but after reviewing 25 studies and reports on the subject, "a clearer picture emerges of what has been happening." They say fast growth in the developing world has led to more demand for meat, and that India and China have received too much of the blame for the phenomenon, though China's growth has driven up oil prices, creating "an indirect effect on food prices."

The most direct impact of the oil market on food prices "has been through its effect on the demand for biofuels," the report says. "In the last four years, most of the growing global demand for corn has come from its increased use for ethanol production. The ethanol blender credit, tariff and Renewable Fuel Standard are factors causing increased corn price, but quantitatively most of the increase has been driven by higher oil prices." While oil prices have raised the cost of fertilizer and diesel fuel, the cost of such inputs are lagging indicators and "the long-term impact of these increases has yet to be felt," the authors conclude.

Other factors: Growth in agricultural productivity has slowed, perhaps because of less investment in research. In the last two years, food markets were hit by weather and crop diseases, and the dollar, the main currency used in world food and oil transactions, fell. The exchange-rate factor is "more important than many other studies imply," the authors say. Speculation by investors has been blamed for driving up both oil and food prices, but the reports says there is not enough evidence to support the assertion about food.

Foundation President Niel Conklin says in the preface to the report, today’s food price levels are the result of complex interactions among multiple factors — including crude oil prices, exchange rates, growing demand for food and slowing growth in agricultural productivity — as well as the agricultural, energy and trade policy choices made by nations of the world," "But one simple fact stands out: economic growth and rising human aspirations are putting ever greater pressure on the global resource base."

For the report's executive summary, click here. For the full report, click here. To register for the free Webinar, which will begin at 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 30, go here. For more information, including audio files with discussions of the report, ranging from two hours to a few minutes, go to http://www.farmfoundation.org/.

Wars putting special stress on military families

Add to the list of homefront troubles from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military members are disproportionately rural, some things that really hit home: divorce and domestic disputes.

"The strains and separations of no-end-in-sight wars are taking an ever-growing toll on military families despite the armed services' earnest efforts to help," reports David Crary of The Associated Press. "Divorce lawyers see it in the breakup of youthful marriages as long, multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan fuel alienation and mistrust. Domestic violence experts see it in the scuffles that often precede a soldier's departure or sour a briefly joyous homecoming."

Crary writes, "A Pentagon-funded study last year concluded that children in some Army families were markedly more vulnerable to abuse and neglect by their mothers when their fathers were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the latest survey by Army mental health experts showed that more than 15 percent of married soldiers deployed there were planning a divorce, with the rates for soldiers at the late stages of deployment triple those of recent arrivals." Army wife Jessica Leonard told Crary, "Infidelity is huge on both sides — a wife is lonely, she looks for attention and finds it easier to cheat. It does make even the most sound marriages second-guess."

Crary has several chilling examples of violence brought home. The Army told him that its domestic violence rates are no worse than for civilian families, but Johns Hopkins nursing professor Jackie Campbell, who served on a Defense Department domestic-violence task force, told him, "They have no clue what the rate of domestic violence is — they only know what's reported to the system, and that's always lower than the actual rate." And other critics say there is a lack of comprehensive, updated data that reflects the impact of war-zone deployments and tracks cases involving veterans, reservists and National Guard members," he writes. "The Miles Foundation, which provides domestic-violence assistance to military wives, says its caseload has more than quadrupled during the Iraq and Afghan conflicts."

In some ways, the domestic burdens are greater than in previous wars because of "the deployment pattern — two, three, sometimes four overseas stints of 12 or 15 months," Crary writes. "In the past, that kind of schedule was virtually unheard of." Rene Robichaux, social work programs manager for the U.S. Army Medical Command, told him, "There's nothing that has prepared many of our families for the length of these deployments. It's hard to communicate to a family member how stressful the environment is, not just the risk of injury or death, but the austere circumstances, the climate, the living conditions." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kentucky tourist town is finally adopting zoning

One of the most controversial but (in our opinion) progressive moves that a rural community can make is to adopt land-use planning, so we like to take note when we hear of another one doing it -- especially one that needs it because of development along an interstate highway near a national park. Cave City, Ky., on Interstate 65, is the major gateway to Mammoth Cave National Park. In 2000, it had a population of 1,880. Planning and zoning has been suggested there many times, but "just never did take off," Mayor Bob Hunt told Gina Kinslow of the Glasgow Daily Times, the major paper in Barren County. This time, Hunt said, "We talked to some people and they were in support of it and we thought we would try it."

The city council has yet to vote on a zoning ordinance and map, but the county planning commission approved them after a public hearing Monday night. The ordinance was drafted by a city committee. (Read more)

Report says rural states fall farther behind in assets of, and grants from, foundations

Already far behind cities in philanthropic resources, rural areas are falling even farther behind in terms of raw dollars held by foundations and grants received from them, says a report from the Montana-based Big Sky Institute, which is trying to direct more non-profit support to states with large rural populations.

The institute coined the term "philanthropic divide" to describe the problem. One measure of it is a comparison of the average foundation assets in the top 10 and bottom 10 states. In 1998, the top 10 averaged $26 billion and the bottom 10 averaged $398 million. The new report says that in 2005, the rich states averaged almost $37 billion and the poor ones $766 million. So, while the poor states' average assets are now 20 percent of the rich ones, up from 15 percent, the dollar gap -- the gross measure of philanthropic ability -- has grown from just under $26 billion to more than $36 billion.

An even more discouraging and recent trend is in per-capita grantmaking by foundations. As the chart shows, in 2005, recipients in the bottom 10 states got $35 per person. In 2007, it dropped to $34 per person, while grants to those in the top 10 states rose to $171 from $147 per person and the national per-capita figure rose to $117 from $94.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has put public pressure on foundations to increase their rural giving, to the point that the Council on Foundations had a meeting on the issue in Montana about a year ago. But Bill Bishop notes in the Daily Yonder that Baucus "has continued to jawbone foundations into increasing their giving in rural states, but hasn't taken any concrete action that would require them to change the way grants are awarded." (Read more)

The bottom 10 states, from the bottom, are North and South Dakota, Montana, Vermont, Alaska, Mississippi, West Virginia, Idaho, New Hampshire and New Mexico. The top 10 states, from the top, are New York, California, Washington (hello, Bill Gates), Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida and Ohio.

Is your state in the Flabby Fifteen? CDC knows; obesity growing, as only 5 states show declines

The map makes it clear: The states where adult obesity is the biggest problem are in the East South Central region, and the sveltest state is Colorado, according to the latest annual compliation of self-reported weight and height by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most obese state is Mississippi, with 32 percent of its adult population having a Body Mass Index over 30. The rest of the Flabby Fifteen are Alabama (30.3), Tennessee (30.1) Louisiana (29.8) West Virginia (29.5), Arkansas (28.7), South Carolina (28.4), Georgia (28.2), Oklahoma (28.1), Texas (28.1), North Carolina (28.0), Michigan (27.7), Missouri (27.5), Delaware (27.4) and Kentucky (27.4). Colorado's rate is 18.7 percent. Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia were the only states to see obesity rates decline in 2007.

The findings appear in the July 18 edition of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Many states have county-by-county data, also based on surveys by the Behavorial Risk Factor Surveillance System. One example is the Kentucky Institute of Medicine's The Health of Kentucky: A County Assessment. It also includes data on lack of physical activity, often associated with obesity.

"The epidemic of adult obesity continues to rise in the United States, indication that we need to step up our efforts at the national, state and local levels," says Dr. William Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. "We need to encourage people to ear more fruits and vegetables, engage in more physical activity and reduce the consumption of high-calorie foods and sugar-sweetened beverages in order to maintain a healthy weight." View the report here.

EPA postpones decision on Texas governor's appeal for waiver of ethanol mandate

The Environmental Protection Agency postponed its decision on Texas' request to waive ethanol requirements for gasoline. The agency announced Tuesday that it will delay deciding whether or not to change the current ethanol mandate until early August. The original deadline for the agency's decision had been tomorrow.

The energy bill passed by Congress last December requires 9 billion gallons of ethanol to be blended into gasoline each year. In April, Perry asked the EPA to cut that in half, arguing that corn prices for livestock producers were rising because of the demand for ethanol.

"Perry said a one-year, 50 percent waiver from the grain-based Renewable Fuels Standard 'is an essential step toward decreasing the devastating statewide, national and international impact of skyrocketing feed and food costs,'' writes Clay Robinson for the Houston Chronicle. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said the agency needs time to review more than 15,000 comments on the request, make an informed decision and explain it. "The process remains fair and open, and no arguments have been made with any party in regard to the substance and timing of the decisions," Johnson said. "I am confident that I will be able to make a final determination on the Texas waiver request in early August." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Problems plague coupon program for digital TV

Key members of Congress say the $1.5-billion-dollar program to help familiarize people with the February 2009 transition to digital television "has been mismanaged and is running out of money, prompting concerns that millions of TV viewers could be left in the dark," Kim Hart reports for The Washington Post.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is overseeing a the program to distribute $40 coupons to help consumers pay for converter boxes needed to continue watching digital programming on analog TVs, those that receive signals by traditional antennas, not cable or satellite. The coupons expire 90 days after issue, and some consumers say that does not allow them adequate time to shop for converter boxes and that not all models are available in stores.

NTIA gave IBM a $120 million contract to handle 33.5 million coupons, but the contract does not account for costs associated with recycling unredeemed coupons. Nearly 20 million coupons have been issued but only 5.5 million have been redeemed. Coupon requests are expected to rise as the transition date approaches. "Until March 31, all households may request up to two coupons until the initial $990 million allocated for the program has been exhausted," Hart wrote. "The NTIA may then request an additional $510 million already authorized by Congress. Read more here.

The issue is especially important to Hispanic households, which comprise about a third of those relying on old-fashioned antennas, according to a survey by Knowledge Networks/SRI Home Technology Monitor. About 40 percent of Hispanic viewers use antennas and are among the nation's least prepared for the change, according to a May report by Nielsen. "Local Spanish-language broadcasters are trying to get the word out about the digital switch, but some are worried that their viewers will wait to take the necessary steps to keep watching TV, putting the station's ratings and advertising dollars at risk," Hart writes. Customers who do not speak English rely heavily on such television broadcasts to receive critical information such as news and weather warnings.

Digital technology allows broadcasters to air multiple channels simultaneously, which means Spanish-language stations could provide more free TV content to their audiences. However, some stations could lose their audiences if they operate low-powered stations and their viewers do not purchase a converter box with an analog-pass-through feature. Telemundo viewers who rely on antennas will no longer receive programming. "For minority broadcasters, this is a major issue," says Wendy Thompson, Telemundo's general manager. Read more here.

Fight over Delta Queen future gets national notice

The historic Delta Queen steamboat is "scheduled to be retired despite its exemplary safety record, its undeniable status as a national historic treasure from the great days of Mark Twain, and its constructive economic impact generating tourists dollars in the Mississippi Delta region," says the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus Web site. The effort to save the boat received national attention Friday when it was featured on Fox News "Special Report with Brit Hume," which suggested that the boat's new non-union status has put it in jeopardy.

House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar is leading the effort to end the Delta Queen's overnight lodging operation on grounds that boat's largely wooden structure makes it "an inherent fire hazard," Fox's Steve Brown reported. Captain Paul Thoeny replied, "The vessel is safer now than it has been in its entire history." The Delta Queen it is equipped with an array of fire alarms, sprinklers and fire suppression systems. Legally, vessels constructed with the amount of wood present in the Delta Queen cannot carry passengers overnight, but Congress has granted the vessel exemptions for more than 40 years. The current exemption expires Nov. 1, and according to The Economist, "the effort to renew the exemption ran into a sandbar in the shape of James Oberstar." Oberstar references the General Slocum in his opposition of another exemption, The Economist reports. The Slocum caught fire in New York harbour in 1904 killing more than 1,000, which made it the worst man tragedy in New York until September 11, 2001. No fatalities have occurred aboard the Delta Queen, and the ship's only fire, which was quickly extinguished, was started in 2003 by a chafing dish. Oberstar says he will not consider another exemption despite voting for one two years ago, which was "just before the ship changed ownership and as a result the Delta Queen went from labor union crews to non-union labor crews," Brown said. "Some passengers see the boat being left high and dry because of politics."

The Coast Guard is helping the ship's owners shift to a daytime-only operation, which Brown reports is "no consolation to the Delta Queen's fans." Vicki Webster, Save the Delta Queen organizer, says, "There is only one authentic steamboat, and if she's not traveling, she doesn't mean a thing. I'd just as soon see her burn up." View the Fox story here.

The Delta Queen, designated a national historic landmark in 1989, was built in California in 1926 and is the only steam-powered sternwheeler that operates overnight in the U.S., the Majestic America Line Web site says. It has an 1897 steam calliope and the same ship's bell that rung when Twain traveled down the Mississippi in 1883 and was called into service as a floating barracks and as a ferry in San Francisco Bay during World War II. Eighty people crew the 285-foot long, 60-foot wide boat. (Photo from Majestic America Line)

Really small daily wins Tenn.'s top investigative reporting prize for series on local Somali refugees

Friday, we reported that a weekly newspaper won the overall prize in a Tennessee Press Association contest category that also included dailies. The next night, the Times-Gazette of Shelbyville, circulation 7,385, fifth smallest of the state's 27 daily papers, won Tennessee's top award for investigative journalism.

"Times-Gazette staff writer Brian Mosely received the state's top award for investigative reporting by The Associated Press Saturday night, highlighting a total of 18 awards won by the paper in the state's two major press competitions held this weekend," the Rust Communications paper bragged (with justification) in a non-bylined story yesterday. Mosely received the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting from the Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors "for his five-part series about the influx of Somali refugees in Bedford County," Editor & Publisher reports. "In all, the paper won five awards from TAPME in the category of newspapers with a daily circulation under 10,000." (Read more)

The Christmas-week series was truly investigative because Mosely had to write it without cooperation from the refugees, many of whom work at a local Tyson Foods plant and have had difficulty integrating into the community. In a Jan. 31 speech to the Shelbyville Rotary Club, published in the paper Feb. 2, Mosely said the series "exposed an undercurrent of fear and distrust of the Islamic refugees ... even hate," through comments on the paper's Web site. "I was also called a bigot by Muslims from outside the community. One local critic even accused me of fiendishly manipulating my readers, hoping that that my articles would inspire someone to commit a hate crime against the refugees."

In an opinion piece at the conclusion of the series, Mosely (right) wrote, "Over the past few years, this community has given a helping hand and opened their arms to the new arrivals from Somalia. In return, many of these refugees have given Shelbyville the finger." And he said that some sources he contacted for background "seemed to be so blinded by political correctness that they would excuse any behavior."

Mosely told the Rotarians that the series accomplished at least one thing: "It started a discussion about our new neighbors and what can be done to help them become a part of the community. The Times-Gazette have already been paid a visit from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who want to help out the Somalis. I'm also given to understand that a similar effort is currently underway here in the county as well. But, as I said in a recent op-ed column, where were these offers of help four years ago when the refugees began to move to our community? They didn't come from the charitable organizations who settled them here. After a certain amount of time, the refugees are left basically on their own." To read Mosely's coverage, click here. For his blog, go here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Movie about small-town teens keeps getting buzz

A documentary about five high-school seniors in a small Indiana town, which created a stir at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, is again getting favorable attention. The Web site of Mother Jones magazine has a review of "American Teen," produced in Warsaw, a town of 12,000 in Kosciusko County, pop. 50,000, between Fort Wayne and South Bend.

"Though they fill somewhat stereotypical roles, the teens most likely weren’t exaggerating for the camera—film crews followed about 15 kids for the whole year, and the chosen five didn’t know they were the stars until the night before the premiere," write Kiera Butler, Casey Miner and Gary Moskowitz, who attended a sneak preview last night and "couldn't shut up about it." David Slone of the Times-Union in Warsaw wrote in January that four students were featured, but the final "cut" apparently added one; the movie poster (above) shows five.

Miner writes that director Nanette Burstein appeared to give the students "a lot of personal attention. None of their parents seemed really emotionally supportive. Often their friends were unavailable, and the teachers and counselors at school were horrifying. To have a sympathetic adult who's literally made it her job to care about every tiny event that happens in your life—that has to make a difference." (Read more) The movie is scheduled for release early next month.

Berea College, where students pay no tuition but work, is an example in debate over endowments

Berea College, at the edge of the hilly Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky, says it offers "the best education money can’t buy" because it charges no tuition and accepts only students from low-income households. "Actually, what buys that education is Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation’s wealthiest," writes Tamar Lewin of The New York Times. "But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student." (Encarta map)

Lewin and the Times offer her story as a contribution to "the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea’s no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention." Congress may require large college endowments to spend at least 5 percent of their assets each year, as foundations must.

Berea President Larry Shinn opposes the idea "but wants colleges pushed to do more for needy students," Lewin reports, quoting him: “You see some of these selective liberal arts colleges building new physical-education facilities with these huge sheets of glass and these coffee-and- juice bars, and charging students $40,000 a year, and you have to ask, does this contribute to the public good, or is it just a way for the college to keep up with the Joneses? We are a tax-exempt institution, so I think the public has a right to demand that our educational mission be at the heart of all of our expenditures.”

Our favorite parts of the story are those about Berea: "This year, the college accepted only 22 percent of its applicants. Among those accepted, 85 percent attended Berea, a yield higher than Harvard’s. Berea can be a haven for the lower-income students at high schools where expensive clothes and fancy homes demarcate the social territory," Lewin writes. "With its hilly campus, Georgian president’s mansion and old brick buildings, Berea looks much like any elite New England college. But its operating budget is less than half that of Amherst [College], which has a $1.7 billion endowment and about 100 more students. Faculty pay is much lower, and the student-faculty ratio higher. With no rich parents and no legacy admission slots, fund-raising is far more difficult at Berea." (Read more)

States balk at federal order to check farm workers' papers; labor shortages rising with enforcement

"Some states are balking at a federal effort to require them to screen potential farm hands for immigrant violations before referring them to jobs," Shannon Dininny writes for The Associated Press. Most states dislike a new rule that does not come with money to pay for the verification work, and some say they cannot work with the federal verification system. Some say the requirement illegally targets a particular class of workers. "Everyone's unspoken concern: That weeding out illegal workers could leave crops to rot in the fields," Dininny writes.

Worker shortages are developing nationwide, with rising federal crackdowns on immigration violations. Farmers, fearing hefty fines for employing illegal workers, are seeking more H-2A visas for "guest workers," available if they can prove a shortage of local workers. Washington aspen-nursery owner Mike Stephens calls the program a "bureaucratic nightmare" but says it remains his "best option for getting workers who stay." About 77,000 foreign workers were hired by U.S. farmers through the program last year.

Nearly 70 percent of the farmers and food packers using guest workers are in 12 states. The AP found that only four of these states -- Texas, Montana, Kentucky and Tennessee -- committed to meeting the new requirement by March, four months after the letter, and Kentucky and Tennessee said they disagreed with it. Utah, Virginia and Louisiana have since signed up reluctantly. Virginia and Louisiana did so because the Labor Department threatened to slash money for their offices. North Carolina, New York and Colorado officials haven't decided, and California claims that it meets the requirements by asking workers if they are legal and reviewing documents without confirming their validity. Idaho refuses to comply until the Labor Department agrees to hold the state safe from discrimination lawsuits.

"We support the states not participating in this," says Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest director for the United Farm Workers of America. "It's very frustrating that on one hand, the Labor Department and the Bush administration want to take additional punitive measures against farm workers and growers, while at the same time won't take any steps to remedy the situation with real reform." Agriculture groups, including those who sought the change, say the brunt of the task should not fall on farmers and food packers. "I just wish they could work something out so that we're not caught in the middle," Stephens told Dininny.

Federal officials told state labor agencies in November that workers' documents must be verified before they can return to the fields to work. "Some states immediately recoiled from the proposal, citing their shrinking budgets, burgeoning workloads and the potential for discrimination," Dininny writes. The Labor Department expects states to submit an I-9 form or to confirm immigration status through E-verify, a federal computer system that has faced criticism because it is riddled with errors. Read more here.

Duck hunters become targets for homeowners in suburbs downstream from Washington, D.C.

Tension is mounting between hunters and waterfront landowners in Fairfax County, Va., two months before duck season, Ben Hubbard writes for The Washington Post. Extensive residential growth along the Potomac River downstream from Washington has increased tensions by bringing residents and hunters closer together, says Gerald W. Hyland, a Fairfax County supervisor. "In terms of sheer numbers, I get more complaints about duck hunting in suburban back yards than any other single thing," says state Delegate Kristen J. Amundson. "Suburban swing sets and duck hunters are incompatible neighbors." (Photo by Hubbard)

Hunters claim duck hunting is a Virginia tradition and rally when talk of rule changes arises. More than 100 attended a July 9 hearing at which officials from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries detailed duck-hunting rules. Environmentalists claim hunting disturbs other wildlife, and homeowners say gunshots disturb sleep, increase stress, startle pets and frighten children. "This is a conflict between two types of activity: between the right to have quiet in one's home and the right of others to hunt on the river," Hyland says. The matter is complicated by jurisdictional issues because Maryland controls most of the river, meaning Virginians might hear hunters licensed in Maryland, and Virginia only oversees particular embayments.

Fairfax County must ultimately "strike a balance between its ordinance banning gunfire 'in areas of the county which are so heavily populated as to make such conduct dangerous' and those places where the state allows hunting," Hubbard writes. Hyland says he does not "find it reasonable to have someone ... awakened at 6:15 in the morning to the sound of gunfire in populous Fairfax County," a jurisdiction that is home to more than 1 million people. "You don't hunt around the farmhouse," even in rural areas, he says.

Duck season is Oct. 4 to Jan 26. Virgina waterfront landowners can get licenses for duck blinds in the water that extends from their property in July and August, but if they fail to do so the spots become available to others through September. Blinds can be built without homeowner consultation as long as they are 100 yards from homes. Hubbard writes that this is how neighborhoods "with multimillion-dollar homes scattered in the woods between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the river, ended up with duck blinds so close to their homes. Most residents moved to the area for its serene nature--and paid dearly for it." Residents are also concerned about safety issues that arise from the close proximity of guns to their homes. "Anytime anyone has a weapon of any kind, there's always a chance of an incident," says Katherine Ward of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations. "The whole environment has changed from rural to urban over the years, so how do we accommodate?"

Hunters say the complaints are exaggerated. Robert Bowe, a hunter who built a new blind after finagling rights from an absentee property owner, argues that duck season coincides with the time of year when windows are closed, and that airplanes and motorboats cause greater disturbances to serenity. "Are you hearing shots, or does it bother you that someone is out there hunting?" he asks. As for safety concerns, Bowe says, "I'm not going to pick up my gun and shoot at you. I know the difference between a kayak and a duck. The duck tastes better." Read more here.

Sinkholes proliferating in fast-growing Va. county

Officials in Loudoun County, Va., are calling for new regulations to protect residents living in areas prone to sinkholes and to avoid contamination of local water supplies, writes Sandhya Somashekhar for The Washington Post. Dozens of sinkholes, many of which are less than a foot wide, have opened up between Leesburg to Point of Rocks near the Maryland border, a 28.5-square-mile area, since 2000. A chasm was created in the middle of Route 15 in 2005, and at least two 30-foot-wide and 30-foot-deep sinkholes opened near a proposed housing development.

County officials blame the problem on the rapid development of land resting on soft, porous limestone, also known as karst. Groundwater pollution occurs when pesticides and other contaminants reach the water supply and is another hazard of building in such areas. The county adopted regulations in 2003 that limited development in limestone areas, but the plan was thrown out by the Virginia Supreme Court because of a technicality. Growth was supported and limits on development in limestone areas were rejected by supervisors who took over the board that year, but some regulations governing construction in limestone areas were supported in the waning weeks of the pro-growth supervisors term last year. The current board supports slower growth rates and is scheduled to consider new regulations for limestone areas in Loudoun, one of the nation's fastest-growing counties.

"It is one of our most sensitive geographic areas," says County Supervisor Sarah R. Kurtz, whose district includes most of the limestone area. "We have historically seen an increase in sinkholes as development has gone on in the corridor. It's a matter of preventing property loss--as in your whole ... house goes down a sinkhole." Sinkholes have opened up across the region because of heavy rains in recent months. The county ranges from very rural in the west to heavily suburbanized in the east. Read more here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chain shuts venerable weekly serving 6 N.H. towns

Twin State Valley Media Network is closing one of the oldest weekly newspapers in New Hampshire. The publisher of the Argus Champion, which has covered the Lake Sunapee area since 1823, blamed the Internet and newsprint prices as he announced last week that it would publish its last edition on July 30.

"We see more and more of our readers and advertisers migrating to the Internet," Publisher Harvey Hill said in a notice to readers. "This, coupled with the rapidly rising cost of newsprint is causing us to lose money each and every month. By Jan. 1, 2009, our newsprint will have risen by 49 percent in just 13 months."

Hill didn't reply to inquires from Chelsea Conaboy of The Concord Monitor, who wrote, "The Argus has a circulation of about 4,500. . . . The company also publishes several New Hampshire and Vermont publications, including the Connecticut Valley Spectator, the Eagle Times, the Weekly Flea and the Message for the Week. It sold Hillsboro's weekly, The Villager, last year." (Read more) The daily Eagle Times, based in the chain's hometown of Claremont, shares territory with the paper, which exclusively served six towns: Bradford, Warner, Sutton, Andover, Wilmot and Springfield.

In today's Monitor, columnist and former editor Mike Pride, a summer resident of the lake area, mourned. "When a newspaper dies, a community loses its voice," he writes. "It loses the mirror in which it examined its best features and its worst. It loses the bulletin board for news of a neighbor's death or a schoolgirl's scholarship. It loses its watchdog, the reporters who kept tabs on town hall, the school board, local elections. When a newspaper dies, a community becomes less of a community. It suffers a blow from which it is difficult to recover." Pride recalled the gutsy editor who ran the paper, the late Ed DeCourcy, when it was based in Newport. (Encarta map)

After a tough call, rural editor shares her thoughts

"The greatest part of reporting for a community newspaper is the variety," including the more challenging parts, Sharon Burton, right, writes in the latest edition of her paper, the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., which recently became a paid weekly after starting as a free fortnightly. "A community newspaper is about the people, provided for the people," Burton observes.
"Sometimes, that means writing articles that are fun to write, and sometimes the job is not as pleasant."

We doubt Burton thought it was pleasant to publish a story in last week's paper about County Judge-Executive Ann Melton being named in a lawsuit against her contractor husband for failure to pay home-construction loans. The story says Gary Melton "criticized the Community Voice for reporting the civil case, saying the only reason the county judge-executive is listed in the lawsuit is because she is married to him." But in our view, it's still worth a story.

Burton made no reference to the story in her column, but we're sure some readers made a connection. She wrote, "Whether we are covering events or interviewing people, I try to always keep in mind that after the story is published and gone, the lives of the people we cover continue, and what we write or do not write can impact them forever. I pray that I never make rash decisions about our news coverage and that my heart and motives are right when I make editorial decisions." We wish more editors shared such thoughts with readers. (Read more)

Metro papers' cutbacks hurt coverage of Congress; smaller news outlets need to pick up the slack

As more metropolitan newspapers cut back on regional reporting, including Washington bureau reporters, smaller news outlets must bear more of the burden for holding elected officials accountable -- especially those who work away from home, in state capitals or Washington.

"Washington bureaus are hemorrhaging reporters or closing altogether," Bill Walsh, left, said in accepting the Robin Goldstein Award for Washington Regional Reporting from the National Press Club last week. Walsh is one of the latest examples; he left the New Orleans Times-Picayune in May to become a strategic adviser at AARP. "Given the state of the newspaper industry, I suspect that had I not left voluntarily I wouldn't have had a choice eventually," Walsh said. "The slot I left hasn't been filled."

Walsh's remarks were posted on the Web site of American Journalism Review. All are worth reading; here are some: "The number of bloggers commenting on the news out of Washington has exploded. The number of reporters actually digging up the news has dwindled. Washington bureaus are hemorrhaging reporters or closing altogether. In tight times, papers see their Washington operations as luxuries. That's misguided. The result is that members of Congress, except for the leaders, are getting less scrutiny than ever. Even before I left, I was so busy covering the daily stories that I had little time to do what I was sent here to do: Dig into what local members of Congress were up to, find out who was influencing them and figure out if they were truly representing the folks back home."

That erodes a fundamental element of democracy, Walsh said: "I see us, fundamentally, as explainers cutting through the complexities of Washington and telling our readers what it means to them. Lacking that, the public grows ever more cynical and detached from an increasingly complicated government they seem to understand less and less. At a time when members of Congress have gotten remarkably sophisticated at manipulating their images, there are fewer reporters around cutting through the spin, putting it in context, explaining it. . . . If I don't report that a senator has introduced legislation to curry favor with an influential constituent, or that FEMA has decided not to give hurricane assistance to college students, or that Democrats are using racially tinged comments to demean a rising star in the Republican Party, who happens to be non-white, it's as if those things never happened." (Read more)

Technology and Web sites of nonpartisan, non-profit groups offer opportunities for local reporters to do that kind of reporting. One example is the Sunlight Foundation, which says it was founded in 2006 to harness "the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens." Sunlight does its own research and creates databases and on subjects such as congressional earmarks, member schedules and hiring of spouses. It has begun a "comprehensive, completely indexed and cross-referenced depository of federal documents." For a list of its projects, click here.

Feed costs forcing catfish farmers to drain ponds

Catfish farmers are draining their farms because of increasing corn and soybean feed costs, writes David Streitfeld for The New York Times. "It's a dead business," says John Dillard, who pioneered the industry in the late 1960s. (Photo by James Patterson for The Times.) "Perhaps nowhere has the rise in crop prices caused more convulsions than in the Mississippi Delta, the hub of the nation’s catfish industry," Streitfeld writes. "This is a hard-luck, poverty-plagued region, and raising catfish in artificial ponds was one of the few mainstays."

Feed prices have nearly tripled in the last two years, "creating a bonanza for corn and soybean farmers but ... wrecking havoc on consumers, who are seeing price spikes in the grocery stores and in restaurants," Streitfeld writes. Feed has become more than half the total cost associated with raising catfish. Dillard & Co. raised 11 million fish last year but will raise none next year; President Keith King estimated his company only got back 75 cents for every dollar it spendt raising catfish. Delta Farm Press reported May catfish-feed deliveries in the U.S. were down 23 percent from May 2007.

Some catfish farmers recently moved to gluten-based feed, which is a cheaper derivative of corn, to lessen costs, but transportation costs and prices were negatively effected by the Midwest floods. "The industry is going to implode," says Dick Stevens, president of Consolidated Catfish, whose company is resorting to layoffs including 100 last month and another 200 cuts in the near future. Stevens blames government ethanol mandates for fuel production that compete with food for harvest.

Catfish farming, a $462 million industry in 2005, according to the Agriculture Department, employed 10,000 people at its peak, mostly in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. The domestic market was flooded by Vietnamese and Chinese producers, which resulted in a ceiling on prices and accelerated the industry's decline. "I've been doing this for 23 years," says Craig Morgan, a catfish farm worker. "I don't know what I'll do now. And there are bunch of me's out there." Read more here.