Friday, January 30, 2009

Stimulus plan to help rural areas and industries

The $819 billion stimulus plan passed by the U.S. House last week gives rural residents something to look forward to, reports Farmgate, putting the likely amount for food and agriculture at $27 million, 3.3 percent of the package.

Rural facilities would receive $200 million for public safety, day care, libraries, education and rural medical clinics, while another $500 million would ensure rural housing loan guarantees to boost home ownership and rural relocation. "$100 million will be appropriated to spur $2 billion in loans and grants to rural businesses which have been hampered with tight credit," Farmgare reports. "The stimulus bill will provide $2.8 billion for loans and grants to expand broadband Internet service to rural areas." Read more here.

Grant will map nation's health, county by county

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute has received funding for a project to determine and rank the health of every county in the nation. Mobilize Action Toward Community Health, or MATCH, is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The overarching goal of this project is to close the gap between 'what we know' and 'what we do' to improve health and reduce disparities,” said Patrick Remington, director of the institute.

The concept for the project came from the institute’s six years of experience in the annual publication of Wisconsin County Health Rankings, a system that is employed by several states. "These rankings draw considerable attention around the state to the fact that a community’s health is determined by more than just its health care system. The rankings show that, in addition to health care, people’s health behaviors and the socioeconomic and physical environment all contribute to a community’s health." Read more here.

New law against employment discrimination has rural root, and local paper does right by the story

President Obama's signing yesterday of a stronger law against employment discrimination was a local story for The Anniston Star, circulation 25,000, because one of its readers, Alabama tire-factory worker Lilly Ledbetter, filed the lawsuit that led to the law named for her. (Ledbetter is directly behind Obama in Associated Press photo)

"The last 10 years have been a sometimes rough and rocky road for Jacksonville's Lilly Ledbetter, but she had vowed to keep on traveling it until what she saw as an injustice was corrected," Mary Jo Shafer, the star's assistant metro editor, wrote in a story done partly by telephone interview with Ledbetter, who was in Washington for the White House signing. It noted that Ledbetter had spoken about the issue at at the Democratic National Convention and was one of several "everyday Americans" Obama invited to ride with him to his inauguration.

Shafer explained the bill: "The act effectively nullifies a 2007 Supreme Court decision that denied Ledbetter an opportunity for redress. Ledbetter did not learn about the sizable discrepancy in pay between her and her male co-workers until near the end of her 19-year career at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden. She sued in 1998, but the high court said in a 2007 5-4 decision that she waited too long to bring the action, overturning a jury decision she had won. The court said a person must file a discrimination claim within 180 days of a company's initial act" of discrimination. (The Gadsden Times, a New York Times Co. daily, ran an AP story.)

The decision "led courts throughout the country to deny discrimination claims in hundreds of cases involving everything from access for people with disabilities to housing to college athletics," Shafer wrote for the family-owned Star. "Under the new law, each new discriminatory paycheck would extend the statute of limitations for an additional 180 days," the usual interpretation before the high court's decison. "The bill cleared the House last year but was blocked by Senate Republicans. Former President Bush had threatened to veto it if passed. Opponents contended the bill would gut the statute of limitations and benefit trial lawyers by encouraging lawsuits." (Read more; the Star is subscription-only but offers a one-day free trial.)

Obama spokesman says digital TV delay expected

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that the White House expects a bill delaying the transition to digital television to pass the House, which failed to pass it this week under an expedited procedure that required a two-thirds vote. The House is expected to vote Tuesday under normal procedures.

“We anticipate that the House will pass a delay on DTV to June 12,” Gibbs said at today's White House press briefing. “If that gets to the president's desk, and when that happens, the president will sign that delay into law so that we might undergo a little bit better planning process to ensure no interruption for people with televisions.”

Ira Teinowitz of TV Week notes, "As president-elect, Mr. Obama and his transition team had urged Congress to delay the DTV changeover from Feb. 17." (Read more) The Senate passed a delay without dissent, but Republicans blocked passage of the bill in the House.

Gallup Poll measures religiosity, state by state

Mississippi is the most religious state and Vermont the least religious, based on a Gallup Poll that asked more than 355,000 American adults, "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" In Mississippi, 85 percent answered yes; in Vermont, 42 percent. In case you're wondering, Mississippi would have been No. 1 even without African Americans. The overall number was 65 percent.

"Joining Mississippi in the top 'most religious' states are other notches in the Bible Belt: Alabama (82%), South Carolina (80%), Tennessee (79%), Louisiana (78%), and Arkansas (78%)," reports Religion News Service's Adelle Banks. The next six states were also in the South, broadly defined: Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Texas and West Virginia. "New England predominates in the top 'least religious' states: Following Vermont are New Hampshire (46%), Maine (48%), Massachusetts (48%), Alaska (51%) and Washington (52%)," Banks writes.

The poll's overall error margin is plus or minus 1 percent; the margin for individual states could be as much as 4 points for smaller states. For Banks's story and the full list, from USA Today, click here.

Rural paper tackles health and lifestyle issues

After her husband's death from cancer in 1999, Linda Bell Warren of Big Stone Gap, Va., has preached the word about smoking and the health problems that accompany it. A story about her crusade begins a weekly series in The Post, the local weekly newspaper, about health and personal lifestyle decisions.

Editor Ida Holyfield said in a note atop the Warren story, "When it comes to our health, how much of our situation can be linked to lifestyle choices, and what should we be doing to help ourselves and our loved ones? This week, a widow shares her story of the toll cigarette smoking took on her husband. Next week’s story deals with suicide prevention and how loved ones of those who have committed suicide cope."

Tal Warren "said that without question, cigarettes took his life. He smoked two packs a day for 30 years,” Holyfield writes. Although Warren went several years without any major health problems and even quit smoking cold turkey in 1987, his history with cigarettes took a turn in 1998. Only eighteen months later, he passed away in the night, another victim of smoking.

“I’m a retired chemical engineer by training, and I’ve got a very analytical mind," Linda Warren told Holyfield. "Cigarettes cost you a whole lot more than the price of the pack you buy. They can cost you your life.” (Read more; subscription required)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Weekly newspaper editorial contest deadline Mon.

Entries for the annual Golden Quill editorial writing competition of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors must be postmarked by Monday, Feb. 2. Any paper published fewer than five days per week can enter editorials published in 2008. There is no entry fee, and non-members may enter. The group is offering free memberships to rural newspapers (see below).

Contest entries should reflect ISWNE's purpose, encouraging the publication of editorials that identify issues that are or should be of concern to the community, offer an opinion, and support a course of action, with an emphasis on local topics. Up to four editorials or signed opinion pieces may be entered, but no more than two from any individual. Send an original and one copy of each entry. The copy must be on white letter-size paper and should eliminate identifying information, such as a byline or mug shot. On the back of both the original and the copy, put the newspaper's name, full mailing address, date of publication, full name and title of the writer, and the writer's e-mail address and phone number. Mail to Chad Stebbins, Missouri Southern State University, 3950 E. Newman Road, Joplin MO 64801-1595.

ISWNE is offering free one-year memberships to rural publishers and editors. Members receive the group's monthly newsletter and its quarterly journal, Grassroots Editor. ISWNE has more than 250 members in seven countries, mostly owners of papers in the U.S. and Canada (its annual meeting will be on Prince Edward Island this summer). It offers a hotline for members to get advice from others on editorial policy, journalism ethics and other topics. "It is not uncommon for a question to bring as many as 50 responses within 24 hours," says Stebbins, the group's executive director. To learn more about the free membership, contact him at

Rural unemployment is catching up to urban

We reported here that job loss in the period from December 2007 to November 2008 was a predominantly urban phenomenon. That trend appears to be changing. "Reports from around the country over the past several days show that rural communities are catching up in this race that nobody wants to win," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. "Rural communities that already have had rates of unemployment in the Yonder's November study appear to be getting worse. And regions that had minimal job loss are beginning to experience layoffs."

While North Dakota is a bright spot, with 3.1 percent unemployment, other rural areas are faring far worse. In eastern Oregon, the national decline in new home construction has hurt the timber industry resulting in unemployment as high as 16 percent in some counties. Rural Huron County, Ohio, now has that state's highest rate, 13 percent. "In North Carolina, half the state's unemployed in December lived in rural counties," writes Bishop. "More than 75 percent of the manufacturing jobs lost in the state last year were in the state's 85 rural counties." (Read more)

When rural Kansas daily cut to thrice weekly, staffers started their own daily paper

With newspapers scaling back operations, employees of one rural Kansas paper fought back, starting their own competing daily in a town of 20,000. After the Alabama-based owners of the Southwest Times in Liberal cut its publication schedule to three days a week, raised fees, cut staff and features, the paper's publisher and 15 other employees quit last May to form their own paper, the High Plains Daily Leader. "We may be in front of a trend: communities taking their newspaper back," publisher Earl Watt told Roxana Hegeman of The Associated Press. "Just as communities don't want to lose their schools and grocery store ... they don't want to see their newspaper gone either." (Encarta map)

Hegeman writes, "While the advent of the Internet has spurred a flurry of online news ventures, the birth of a traditional daily newspaper remains a rare event, particularly when dailies are cutting back print editions and bolstering their Web presence." Watt told her starting the paper was made easier by falling prices for presses, a symptom of newspapers' troubles, and the need for smaller profit margins than papers or chains with larger debts. However, the startup has many challenges. The Times recently sued Watt, his wife and four other Ledger employees last month, alleging computer fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation, and breach of fiduciary duty. They say their contracts has no non-competition provisions and their work is protected by the First Amendment.

The Times has restored and added some features, and says it has become a better paper because of the competition. Its managing editor, James Gutzmer, told Hegeman,
"That is the thing we learned more than anything: This community needs a community newspaper." The Times is owned by Lancaster Management Inc. of Gadsden, Ala., a low-profile company with 18 small newspapers in nine states. (Read more)

Rules limit medical-device sales by pharmacies, often the only source for such items in rural areas

"New regulations that make it costly for pharmacists to sell durable medical equipment may be thwarted if a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., becomes law," reports Frank Wallis of the Baxter Bulletin of Mountain Home.

The regulations Berry opposes require pharmacists to become accredited in order to sell durable medical equipment to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. In many rural communities, pharmacists are the only health professionals who can supply such items as therapeutic shoes, prosthetic devices and home dialysis supplies and equipment.

Berry's bill "would add pharmacists to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services list of pre-qualified medical professionals," writes Wallis. That would let them provide rural residents with medical equipment without completing the costly and time-consuming accreditation process. (Read more)

After first escape, N.J. farm drops inmate labor

Last October, we noted a prison labor program that had New Jersey inmates vying to work on one of six state-owned farms. But last week, one farm was closed after a high-profile inmate escape. Skillman Farms, a dairy farm in Montgomery Township, was a coveted worksite for minimum-security inmates, but after 22-year-old Marc Harris escaped from his detail three weeks ago, the state Department of Corrections announced that only civilian staff work there. "It only takes one guy to screw it up," Frank Papa, administrator for AgriIndustries, the state-owned farm system, told Nyier Abdou of The Star-Ledger of Newark.

While the farm prison-labor system has been touted as both providing transition for prisoners at the end of their sentences and saving the state about $1 million each year on food costs, neighbors of prisons voice concern for public safety. One noted that the dairy farm is close to several schools. "The question is, why are these prisoners working near our children?" Valerie Smith asked Abdou. But others note that this is the first escape in the decade-long history of the program. (Read more; to read the original story, click here.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Calif. town gives 'mini-bailout' to ailing car dealers

The declining auto industry has meant dire times for many car dealerships, especially those in smaller cities with less sales volume. The lack of big-ticket sales has had a big impact on towns that depend on sales taxes. In Victorville, Calif., which has no property tax, motor-vehicle sales accounted for half the sales tax revenue, reports Rico Gagliano of Marketplace.

Victorville's response was to loan $200,000 to local dealerships that could no longer get loans. "Call it a mini-bailout," Gagliano says. "Automotive News says towns everywhere may have similar decisions to make." Many had assumed that the big three American automakers would "extend credit to struggling dealerships, using money they got from their federal bailout," adds Gagliano. Thus far that has not been the case. Hat tip to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for this item. (Read more)

Rural-urban split among Senate Democrats spells trouble for Obama as stimulus plan passes House

The House version of President Obama's economic stimulus package passed tonight with none of the Republican votes he had hoped for. "But the White House’s bigger worry could the final negotiations between the House and Senate, where a growing urban-rural split among Democrats threatens to delay a settlement," reports David Rogers of Politico.

"This was seen most sharply Tuesday night when rural Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee wrecked havoc with a delicately negotiated compromise between House and Senate leaders over the distribution of $87 billion in Medicaid funds in the Obama plan," Rogers writes. "The same split is infecting disputes over a $1 billion crop disaster aid program favored by the Senate and how big a role the Commerce and Agriculture Departments should play in allocating billions of new dollars sought by Obama to expand access to broadband." (Read more)

Also on the broadband front, "High-tech companies struck out with the House when they sought tax credits for spending on bringing broadband infrastructure to rural and so-called underserved areas," report Greg Hitt and Elizabeth Williamson of The Wall Street Journal. "But the firms struck pay dirt" in the Finance Committee, getting a 10 percent tax credit for investments in current broadband technology and a 20 percent investment tax credit for "next-generation" broadband, "not only in rural and underserved areas but any residential area."

The Journal reports another rural battle: "Dairy and beef cattle producers butted heads over talk that the government might buy up dairy cattle for slaughter to drive up depressed milk prices." (Read more)

In the House, there was division among Democrats, with some (mostly liberals) telling Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post that "the plan may fall short in its broader goal of transforming the American economy over the long term," and fiscal conservatives like Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., complaining to at least one network (sorry, we failed to note which) that at the beginning of the most exciting presudency in half a century, "the old bulls are doing business as usual."

Here's a selection of rural-related items in the Senate Finance Committee plan, generally in declining order of amounts:

• $40 billion to the Department of Energy for "development of clean, efficient, American energy." Also, $400 million for rural businesses initiatives including development of renewable energy.
• $39 billion to school districts and public colleges and universities distributed through existing formulas, plus $15 billion to states as incentive grants as a reward for meeting key performance measures. The Title I program for poor students would get $13 billion "to help close the achievement gap and enable disadvantaged students to reach their potential." Another $13 billion would increase the federal share of special-education services, and $13.9 billion would increase the maximum Pell Grant for college students and pay for increases in program costs resulting from increased grant eligibility. The bill has $16 billion to repair, renovate and construct public schools "in ways that will raise energy efficiency and provide greater access to information technology," and $3.5 billion to improve higher-education facilities.
• $25 billion to states for other high-priority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education.
• $27 billion for highways according to a formula, and $5.5 billion for competitive grants to state and local governments for "surface transportation investments." Also, $830 million for repair and restoration of road on park, forest, tribal, and other public lands.
• $9 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to improve access to broadband.
• $4.6 billion to build, repair or rehabilitate water-resource infrastructure for navigation, hydroelectric power, flood control, environmental restoration, shore protection and other purposes.
• $3.4 billion for repair, restoration and improvement of public facilities at parks, forests, refuges and on other public and tribal lands.

For a PDF of the Senate list, via the Journal, click here.

Ethanol industry hopeful despite recent setbacks

"The executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said Tuesday that more biofuels plants might close because of tight profit margins, but that demand for ethanol should be maintained," reports Dan Pillar of The Des Moines Register. "In Iowa, about one-tenth of the 3 billion gallons of ethanol capacity in the state now is idled through the bankruptcy of plants or production slowdowns," writes Pillar.

There are favorable signs for a turnaround in the industry. Federally mandated use of ethanol is scheduled to increase from 9 billion gallons last year to 10.5 billion gallons this year and the price of corn has dropped from $8 per bushel last summer to less than $4 per bushel in recent weeks. There has been a corresponding drop in the price of ethanol, but many remain optimistic. Favorable sentiment in Congress and the White House is seen as crucial. (Read more)

War economy fuels rural growth, Fed report says

A report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City shows that increasingly rural American economies are becoming dependent on defense spending for growth. Kris Kromm of Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute of Southern Studies, asks if this is a good thing:

"The two biggest gains have come from (1) military personnel stationed at bases, and (2) defense contracts," Kromm notes. "The impact? 'These two aspects of defense spending have accounted for more than 4 percent of total rural U.S. economic growth.'" The report looks at eight Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) that have seen big influxes of military money.

There are drawbacks to becoming reliant on the war economy for growth, such as fatalities of local soldiers, and taxes diverted to pay for war and not domestic programs. (Read more)

Whitt, 'redneck journalist' who won Pulitzer, dies

Private funeral services will be held Friday evening in Marietta, Ga., for retired investigative reporter Richard Whitt, who died of an apparent heart attack at his home Monday. Whitt retired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006; from 1977 to 1989 he was a reporter for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting on a Kentucky fire that killed 165 people and prompted changes in safety laws. Earlier, he worked at papers in Middlesboro, Ky.; Waterloo, Iowa; and Kingsport, Tenn.

Whitt liked to say that he practiced "redneck journalism." His typical explanation for that was, "It’s the kind of journalism that when you read the paper in the morning you say, ‘Damn, that makes me mad,’ and it makes your neck red. That motivates people to do things.” But it also reflected his poor, rural upbringing, to which he remained connected. And it had another double meaning, that journalism was also for rednecks -- for those who wanted to practice it, and those who can be served by it. He was driven by a sense of social justice for the working class from whence he came, but never saw himself as a crusader and always wanted to enjoy his work. He was a reporter’s reporter, our friend, and a great example to rural journalists who aspire to the top of the craft.

An open house will be held at Whitt's home, 1000 Waverly Court in Marietta, from 2 to 8 p.m. Saturday. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Richard Whitt Memorial Fund for Rural Journalists at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. For more on that and Rich Whitt, click here.

UPDATE: Whitt's family held a private memorial service Sept. 19 to bury his ashes at the family homeplace, reports Mike James of The Independent in Ashland.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Landmark papers to furlough staffers for five days

Newspapers of Landmark Communications, including the dozens operated by Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., will put staffers on furlough for five days this year to protect jobs and profitability, the company said yesterday. Landmark's metropolitan papers, in Norfolk and Roanoke, Va., Greensboro, N.C., and Annapolis, Md., will also freeze wages.

"All Landmark newspaper offices will be closed during the furloughed days, though the papers will publish, employees were told," Editor & Publisher said in a staff report. "Vacation days cannot be used for these days since our intent is to reduce payroll expense," Greensboro News & Record Publisher Robin Saul said in a memo quoted by Ed Cone, a Ziff-Davis managing editor who writes a column for the paper. (Read more)

Environmental journalism conference to be held in Knoxville March 27

The East Tennessee Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will hold a "Writing Green," a conference about environmental journalism, in Knoxville Friday, March 27, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The seminar is co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program and the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment at the University of Tennessee. It promises to address many difficulties journalists face on the environmental beat.

Panel topics include environmental law and policy, coverage of the recent coal-ash spill in nearby Roane County, "The Energy Beat: Coal in Appalachia" and "Introduction to Environmental Issues in Southern Appalachia." Jim Detjen, Director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, will deliver the keynote speech. Fees: $15 for SPJ members, $20 for non-members, $30 at the door, all including lunch. For more programming details and online registration, click here.

Democrats show a "brown state-green state" divide over environmental, industrial policy

President Obama is discovering that a Democratic majority in Congress does not always mean smooth sailing for his policy agenda. Energy issues divide the party, and the split often comes down to geography: those who represent areas driven by coal and manufacturing, and those who don't.

"This brown state-green state clash is likely to encumber any effort to set a mandatory ceiling on the carbon dioxide emissions blamed as the biggest contributor to global warming, something Mr. Obama has declared to be one of his highest priorities," John Broder reports for The New York Times. He points out that "brown states" are typically battleground states, and their congressional races are often won by smaller margins. Support for green policies can often mean the difference between a win or loss.

“My message over all is that for us to support what needs to be done in addressing global warming we need to demonstrate that, in fact, jobs are created,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat. “It’s not a theoretical argument. We have to come up with a policy that makes sense, that is manageable on the cost end, that creates new technology — and that treats states equitably and addresses regional differences.”

Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said these concerns are heard by green-staters, noting that the president spoke last week at an Ohio factory that produces wind turbine parts. "Every single wind turbine takes 26 tons of steel to construct,” said Markey. “A lot of new jobs will be created if we craft a piece of global warming legislation correctly, and that is our intention.” (Read more)

Here's the Times' map showing which states are most dependent on coal for energy, based on information from the Energy Information Administration.

Lee Enterprises freezes top executives' pay, but U.S. community papers still healthier than metros

Lee Enterprises, publisher of many rural and small-town newspapers as well as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "is learning the public- relations benefits of making its executives do without," Robert MacMillan of Reuters writes on the wire service's Media Files blog.

Lee said in its annual proxy filing yesterday that it was freezing the pay of its top five executives and would give them no performance bonuses, which could have been as much as two and a half times their salaries; or make any contributions to their long-term incentive plans, contributions that are usually made with company stock, which is currently trading at penny-stock prices.

"These decisions are unlikely to make anyone happy, but they do avoid building up a restive employee base," MacMillan writes. As reported Dec. 31, "Lee is in trouble if it can’t negotiate new terms with its lenders — debt could overwhelm the company and potentially break it up." (Read more) Lee has large debt from its acquistion four years ago of the Post-Dispatch and other Pulitzer Inc. newspapers. Lee's proxy statements and other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission are on its investors' page.

David Kaplan of looks at the proxy statement and Lee's plan for a reverse stock split: "The company argues that this move will 'help improve the perception of our Common Stock and Class B Common Stock' and will appeal to a 'broader range of investors.' As the company said last week, the hope is that the maneuver would raise the share price, since it would convert as many as 10 shares. If its board approves the split, the share price could rise between $1.85 and $3.70, depending on what ratio directors choose." (Read more)

Despite Lee's troubles, caused by the conjunction of big debt and a big downturn, community newspapers are generally healthier than their metropolitan cousins, Suburban Newspapers of America and the National Newspaper Association, dominated by weeklies, said in a report last week. Community papers' advertising revenue "fell only 1.7 percent to $394 million, compared to the same period a year ago," while ad revenue of larger papers monitored by the Newspaper Association of America "dropped 18 percent to $8.9 billion in the same quarter," notes Jennifer Saba of Editor & Publisher. "Moreover, the decline of ad revenue for this group has slowed," from a 2.7 percent drop in the first quarter and a decline of 2.4 percent in the second quarter. (Read more)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Appalled, an editor pleads with readers: Shape up!

Linda Ireland went to the grocery and was appalled by a child, about 9, sitting in a shopping cart, "opening packages and eating the food as fast as momma put it in the cart." That made Ireland, editor of The LaRue County Herald News in Hodgenville, Ky., recall a press release she had received a few weeks earlier from the state health department. And it made her write about both things:

"Our fair state is consistently ranked among the top 10 for obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease. About 70 percent of Kentuckians are overweight or obese. The report says we sit – way too much. Almost a third of Kentucky adults reported they did not participate in any physical activities or exercise such as running, golf, gardening or walking, other than their regular jobs. And, of course, we eat too much," like the cart kid.

Ireland concluded her Jan. 7 column with a plea: "I sympathize with anyone who is battling the bulge. I know exactly how hard it is to get rid of those first five pounds when you have 20 or more in front of you. But at least try to help yourself, by changing eating and exercise habits. It’s a great time to make that your New Year’s resolution. Get out of the cart, or the next thing you know, you’ll be stuck in it. And you’ll be no different than the young man I saw, getting bigger and sicklier by the minute." (Read more)

Senate votes to delay digital TV switch 4 months UPDATE: Bill fails to get required 2/3 House vote

UPDATE, Jan. 28: The bill to delay the digital transition failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote in the House today, forcing supporters to redouble their efforts and perhaps drop the expedited route that required them to get a supermajority. Here's the AP story.

The Senate voted without dissent today to delay the scheduled Feb. 17 transition to digital television to June 12. "The vote is a big victory for the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, who have been pushing for a delay amid growing concerns that too many Americans won't be ready" for the switch, writes Joelle Tessler of The Associated Press.

The vote was quite a change from last week, when Senate Republicans blocked the measure. Some of them then crafted a compromise, which "would allow television stations to switch to digital signals before the June 12 deadline if they are ready, for the vacated spectrum to be allocated to public safety services," reports Stephanie Condon of CNet. "The coupon program to subsidize digital converter boxes is also extended under the legislation, allowing consumers with expired coupons to apply for new ones." (Read more)

Pollan, journalism prof who knows food and farms, makes Forbes' list of top 25 liberals in news media

A journalism professor who writes about the process and politics of food just did make Forbes magazine's list of the 25 most influential liberals in the U.S. news media. No. 25 is Michael Pollan, right, of the University of California, Berkeley, and here's what the magazine said about him:

"The author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan has had more influence than any other contemporary writer on mainstream American thinking about what we eat. His manifesto--"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants"--should now be in political vogue. (Obama likes arugula.)"

Forbes explains its effort: "Barack Obama's inauguration was the formal point at which the reigning ideology in Washington changed from "conservative" to "liberal." We use those terms without apology, as they are used in American political discourse." For its definition of "liberal," and the list, click here.

Entrepreneurs' magazine looks at wind power

Wind power may be just what is needed to give some struggling rural economies a boost, creating benefits like land lease revenue and additional employment opportunities. In an article for Fast Company, a magazine for entrepreneurs, Melanie Warner points to the town of Sweetwater, Tex., as an example of what wind farms can offer small towns across windy parts of the U.S.

Warner notes that construction of wind turbines requires local labor and service, creating jobs for blue-collar workers whose jobs are often outsourced. The tax revenue created by these jobs and rent paid to landowners helped put an additional $23.7 million into Sweetwater's school districts from 2002 to 2007.

However, the growing industry needs more power lines to connect wind farms to larger cities. "Construction estimates for this modern clean-energy superhighway? About $60 billion," writes Warner. "If it means new jobs and middle-class affluence, as well as carbon-free energy independence, it may be one of the best investments that we can make." (Read more)

Here's a U.S. Department of Energy map showing the potential for wind power, based on wind speeds at 50 meters (164 feet) above the surface. Yellow areas have a "fair" resource potential; those in magenta are rated good, purple excellent, red outstanding and blue superb. For a larger version, click on the map.

Fuel costs didn't drop in rural Alaska, now in crisis

"Life in rural Alaska always has been treacherous," reports Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times. "But last year's dramatic escalation in fuel prices, combined with a disastrous fishing season, plunged the ramshackle villages of America's frontier into one of the worst crises in decades, prompting calls for humanitarian aid and demands for pricing reform."

Rural Alaskans are forced to lock in fuel contracts for fall delivery, meaning that while other Americans have seen fuel prices fall, Alaskans were saddled with contracts signed while prices were at peak. "Worse, some villages weren't able to get their bulk deliveries of winter fuel by barge because the early onset of winter froze the river," writes Murphy. "Much of the fuel now must be flown in, which makes it even more expensive." Food prices are also a growing concern. "A pound of hot dogs in the village store costs $7.39, and a two-pound loaf of domestic cheese runs $17.49. A loaf of Wonder Bread is $5.85." (Read more)

Alaska officials are trying to remedy the problem. Some envision "a voucher program that provides fuel based on need -- for seniors living on a fixed income, for example -- rather than giving free fuel to everyone in a community," reports Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. On top of the fuel problem, food shortages have been reported, and many fishermen claim they lost money last year. (Read more)

Cowboy churches expanding, and not just in West

The cowboy image has been finely tuned over the years, evoking ideas of hard work, stoicism and isolation. But one organization is hoping to add another facet to that image: churchgoer. Cowbody churches are popping up because they are "culturally sensitive to the cowboy," says Russ Weaver, pastor of the non-denominational Shepherd's Valley Cowboy Church in Egan, Tex.

Texas has 130 such specialized congregations that are part of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, and perhaps more that are affiliated with other groups or no group, reports Lindsey Bever for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Not all are in the West; here's one in North Carolina. For a directory of cowboy churches, click here.

"When I meet cowboys on the trail and ask them to come to church, they kind of throw up their hands," said Jeff Smith, a Southern Baptist missionary with the Cowboy Church Network of North America. "So I ask them to come to cowboy church and then they come." While many of the features of cowboy church are similar to those seen in many rural congregations across America, Smith notes at least one feature unique to his work in cowboy churches: "We baptize them in a horse trough." (Read more)

Georgia governor gets $21 million loan from farm credit bank with relatively little collateral

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is facing questions over his personal finances and his political relations with a lender, after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a multi-million-dollar loan he got from a farm credit bank. On less than 20 percent collateral, the governor received a $21 million loan for himself and his two agribusinesses last September. Standard collateral for such a big loan is at least 50 percent, the AJC's Alan Judd reported.

"The bank, AgGeorgia Farm Credit, focuses on real estate lending and carries just $55 million in business loans on its books, according to its latest quarterly report," Judd wrote. "Now a large proportion of that portfolio is devoted to the governor, who is a familiar figure to AgGeorgia’s leaders: Eight of the bank’s 23 directors contributed to Perdue’s re-election campaign in 2006." The loan, due March 1, is more than three times the net worth of $6.1 Perdue reported in 2006 financial disclosure papers.

Perdue's finances do not have the transparency normally required of governors, since he cannot run for a third term. He is also unusual in his approach to business throughout his gubernatorial career. While previous governors have put their holdings into a blind trust during their term of office, Perdue has retained control of his businesses, Houston Fertilizer & Grain Co. and AGrowStar LLC.

The governor has remained silent on the subject, except in a statement from his spokesman, Bert Brantley, who said: “He’s a small businessman. As small businesses and small business owners around the state know, sometimes you have to personally sign for loans for your business.” But others say the size of the loan coupled with the small amount of collateral calls for explanation. “I don’t care if you’re Citibank,” said Wendell Brock, a banking consultant who has worked with banks in the state, “$21 million is a big loan.” (Read more)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Appointment of gun-friendly senator re-exposes the rural-urban divide in New York state

New York Gov. David Paterson's appointment of U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, right, as senator to replace Hillary Clinton has provoked a "fierce ... reaction to her red-state tendencies" and laid bare "the stark divide between America's urban and rural cultures," particularly in New York, Upstate radio reporter and author Brian Mann writes on North Country Public Radio's blog, The In Box.

"The liberal blogs have issued a collective shriek of rage," Mann writes, because of Upstater Gillibrand's opposition to gun-control measures favored in "the Five Boroughs" of New York City. But he says she is "deeply connected" to the city (and urbanity in general): "She was a securities lawyer; special counsel to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development; and her husband comes from England. But Gillibrand also has Upstate roots: she's loyal to some of the cultural traditions of New York's small-town world. Hunting is only one marker of her 'bi-cultural' background." (Read more)

Mann is the author of Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution.