Friday, October 14, 2011

Did your state gain or lose as feds doled out money for highways?

From 2005 to 2009, all states received more federal highway funds than were contributed to the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. Congress authorized an additional $30 billion from general tax revenues to make up for shrinking fuel-tax revenue and keep state road budgets going, but some question whether the funding was distributed fairly.

The map below (click to enlarge) shows the amount each state received per dollar contributed through fuel taxes paid within the state. The agency compared the percentage of the fund that came from each state with the percentage of fund payments they received; 28 states received relatively lower shares compared to what they collected and 22 states got relatively more than they contributed.

Utah was among those on the short end of the stick. It received "only an 89.2 percent relative share compared with other states, also ranking No. 38 among the states," Lee Davidson of The Salt Lake Tribune writes, despite the agency saying its formulas focus on ensuring states "receive roughly what they contribute." (Read more)

The GAO study was made at the request of Rep. Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, who told Ashley Halsey of The Washington Post that the report confirms the need for a new surface transportation bill. (Read more)

Farm leaders in Congress agree on outlines of new subsidy system, amount of budget cuts

A proposed new system of farm subsidies is to be outlined today by leaders of the agriculture committees in Congress, in a letter to the "super committee" that is looking for ways to cut the federal budget and deficit, Charles Abbott reports for Reuters. The cuts would total $23 billion over the next 10 years, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, top Republican on the Senate panel, told The Associated Press.

As expected, "The proposal would end the $5 billion-a-year direct payment subsidy," Abbott reports. "It would endorse a revenue-assistance program to shield growers from 'shallow losses' from poor yields or low market prices as the new basis for the U.S. farm program." In other words, a new system of crop insurance. (Read more)

DTN Executive Editor Marcia Zarley Taylor writes, “Since the 1980s, farm safety nets have largely focused on protecting farmers from low prices, not necessarily low incomes. Now a revolutionary consensus among farm groups means that a crop insurance program is emerging as the core replacement for decades of cumbersome programs involving price supports, direct payments and target prices." (Read more, subscription required) Thanks and a hat tip to Keith Good of

Another 'Hidden America' about children, this time at a reservation on the Great Plains and Badlands

Two and a half years ago, ABC News aired a "20/20" documentary called "Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," about the troubles of young people in Appalachia. Tonight at 10 p.m. EDT Diane Sawyer returns with a similar program, about Lakota Sioux children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota such as Tashina Iron Horse, left. (ABC photo by Elissa Stohler)

"A Hidden America: Children of the Plains" takes viewers to "the poorest places in America right now," Sawyer said last night on ABC's "Nightline," praising "the true heroism of these kids" after a preview that included part of a segment about a 12-year-old girl whose grandfather got custody of her because "the mother she adores is an alcoholic," Sawyer narrates. "They are dreamers and survivors," she says of the children.

"Alcohol possession is prohibited at Pine Ridge, but just 200 feet from the reservation's border lies White Clay, Neb. (pop. 14), where vendors sold some 4 million cans of beer to Pine Ridge residents in 2010," ABC reports on the series website. In 2007, police detained Duane Martin Sr., right, and two others who helped organize a blockade in an attempt to confiscate beer headed from White Clay to the reservation." (Photo by Carson Walker, The Associated Press)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Texas pair win top prize for small-paper commentary from Southern newspaper publishers

UPDATE, April 22: James W. Rainey, publisher of the Opelika-Auburn News in Alabama, has been named editor and publisher of the Herald-Zeitung, replacing longtime Editor/Publisher Doug Toney. Rainey will begin his new role April 30. The papers are part of the Southern Newspapers chain.

The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association named winners of its Carmage Walls Commentary Prize competition this week at SNPA's News Industry Summit. The wards were announced by Lissa Walls Vahldiek, vice president and chief operating officer of Southern Newspapers Inc., Houston, and daughter of the late Benjamin Carmage Walls, for whom the awards are named.

The winners in the small-paper category, for those with circulation of less than 50,000, were Publisher Doug Toney and Managing Editor Autumn Phillips of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, a 7,600-circulation Southern Newspapers daily. Their series of editorials and columns served as the catalyst for change in development standards in the in the Texas Hill Country city of 50,000, founded by German immigrants in 1845. The paper, which dates to 1852, has been gaining circulation. Click to read the five columns and editorials: #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

Second place in the category went to Scott Morris, executive editor of the TimesDaily of Florence, Ala., who wrote about an open-records case that the newspaper eventually won. Read it here. Honorable mentions went to Bob Davis of The Anniston Star in Alabama and Paco Nunez of The Tribune in Nassau, Bahamas. The winner in the large-paper category was Roger Chesley of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, with second going to John Railey of the Winston-Salem Journal and mentions to Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News and Mac Thrower of the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Rural Utilities Service boss tells Appalachians rural broadband essential for economic development

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

WHITESBURG, Ky. Rural America needs better broadband service so communities can help rebuild local economies and help America compete globally, the head of the federal Rural Utilities Service said during a public hearing about the expansion of rural broadband Wednesday.

RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein, left, was the guest at the "Rural Broadband Summit and Hearing" hosted by the Center for Rural Strategies, Free Press and the Center for Media Justice. The two-day event in Whitesburg, Ky., was organized so issues surrounding lack of broadband Internet access could be aired by major players in Central Appalachia, including representatives of the Appalshop media and arts cooperative, the Central Appalachian Regional Network, local politicians, phone-company employees and other local residents. (Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)

Adlestein, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, was instrumental in implementing a recent expansion of broadband services made possible through $3.5 billion in economic stimulus funds to RUS. Kentucky received $300 million, more than any other state, because Adlestein said RUS “recognizes the challenges” to broadband expansion in the commonwealth.

“These areas are desperately in need of this kind of investment,” he said, adding that 30,000 jobs nationwide would be created to build broadband networks. He said once these networks were built, they would be a solid foundation for job creation and economic growth for decades.

Adelstein said the nation faces “relentless” global competition, noting that China is trying to “out-innovate” America in any way possible, so the U.S. can’t afford to let any of the 50 million people living in rural America fail to have broadband access.

Last year the Pew Internet and American Life Project found there is still a big digital divide between rural and non-rural America. Only 50 percent of adults told Pew pollsters they had broadband service at home; in non-rural areas, 70 percent did. While many rural Americans say they don't want broadband, many do but are unable to get it except by expensive and often unreliable satellite service.

How to achieve universal broadband access has become a “hot debate” in Washington, mainly because of a plan the FCC could implement this month. Adelstein said it would restructure the Universal Service Fund that now subsidizes rural telephone service with a tax on phone bills while keeping phone rates affordable, connecting rural schools, libraries and healthcare facilities with high-speed data service, and supporting low-income consumers.

Rural phone companies argue that cuts in their subsidies would force them to raise prices, and that funds for expansion would shift from local carriers to national carriers, who often don’t extend broadband or cell phone service to many rural areas, saying not enough people live in those places to justify coverage. For a story on the issue by The Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz, click here.

Adelstein said the FCC believes Americans need to communicate and be connected to one another, and for any sort of technology like that to work, the 16 percent of Americans living in rural areas need to have access to modern broadband services. He said that in order for universal broadband access to become a reality, everyone would have to “tighten their belts” because resources are limited. He suggested small carriers would have to scrutinize their costs, make offerings more competitive, find new sources of revenue and create better business models.

“I hope and expect the FCC will make clear that solving lack of rural investment among large carriers need not come at the expense of those rural carriers that have proven forward-looking, long-term investments in their communities,” Adlestein said. He said small, local carriers often have better infrastructure in rural areas than larger, non-rural companies. Some of those large carriers haven’t been investing in rural America, he said, and this has prompted RUS to start “Build Out and Build On,” a program designed to promote broadband expansion to all areas of the country and then to create new businesses on top of those new broadband networks.

“There is a mistake of viewing policies like universal service … as some sort of favor for rural America – some kind of gift for rural America – and that is not what it is,” Adelstein said. “A partially connected America makes about as much sense as building highways which only connect about 35 percent of the time.”

A panel of people from the region added to the discussion by providing examples of the importance of broadband access for those living in southeastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.

Beth O’Connor of Virginia, right, talked about telehealth, an Internet service that, only with broadband, connects health care professionals to people in rural areas that may not have access to such professionals where they live. (Poynter photos)

Josh May, who works for a non-profit organization promoting community development in Magoffin County, Ky., said 2,000 people in the southern end of the county don’t have access to broadband or cell phone service, something the community has been trying to change for years with no success. Many of those in attendance spoke of spotty cell phone service and lack of broadband access as a hindrance to economic development and education, and said that access must be expanded to rural areas to help “level the playing field” with the rest of the country.

The Rev. James Patterson of the Partnership of African-American Churches said everyone pays the price for lack of access to broadband. He spoke of a “digital exclusion” which prevents jobs from being created, establishes a lack of opportunities, as well as a lack of education and participation in democracy in communities where access is sparse.

Mark Kidd of Whitesburg said the local school system was trying to pass a program to telecommute with students on snow days, but 20 percent of high-school students in Letcher County don’t have access to broadband, essential for such a program. April Cadell, right, an intern at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to apply for college and financial aid offline.

Nathan Hall said he was in remote India recently and had better cell phone and broadband service than at his home in Floyd County, Ky. He said broadband was essential to economic development in Eastern Kentucky, where people could operate businesses and sell goods online with broadband. Joe DePriest, the economic development director in Letcher County, said outside businesses wishing to locate to the area ask him first whether or not broadband access is available in the county and won’t locate there unless it is.

Adlestein said he will report the comments to the White House Rural Council, a group of cabinet-level Obama administration appointees, which he said considers expanded broadband access “one of the pillars of revitalizing communities.”For an audio report on the hearing from WMMT-FM of Whitesburg, click here.

Hearing explores difficulties for expanding rural broadband, 'a basic necessity, not a luxury'

G.C. Kincer, left, brought wireless broadband to downtown Whitesburg, Ky., population 2,100, because no one else would. "About the time he hit 50 customers, he said, 'the phone company sort of speeded up their investment,' and provided broadband at lower prices, so he shut down his service. "Then BellSouth slowed its expansion into this part of rural Eastern Kentucky," reports Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies for its Daily Yonder.

“That’s when I figured out that if we were going to solve this problem of broadband access, it’s going to have to be a community solution,” Kincer said at a hearing yesterday in Whitesburg, held by the center, Free Press and the Center for Media Justice "to gather stories about how broadband access and other communications policies affect rural communities," Marema writes.

Kincer and Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the Rural Utilities Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agreed that lack of competition delays provision of broadband in rural areas, and "Citizens who spoke at the hearing described how broadband access has become a basic necessity, not a luxury," Marema reports. (Read more)

Suit blames mining firm for deadly flood

We recently reported Nally and Hamilton Enterprises Inc. may have to pay fines for falsifying water-pollution data from its strip mines in Eastern Kentucky. Now the firm faces more legal trouble as more than 70 residents near a mine have sued, alleging "improper surface mining practices" resulting in flooding that killed a man and destroyed numerous homes, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. (Estep photo)

The suit claims the company "did not properly reclaim its mine and failed to keep drainage ponds cleaned out," Estep reports. With less holding capacity, excess water could have run off-site during heavy rainfall June 20. Homes were washed off their foundations and others coated with mud.

The suit, seeking unspecified compensation, also suggests negligence and reckless conduct by the company led to the death of Donnie Joe Pate, 55, who was swept from his mobile home during the flooding, Estep reports. His mother Wilma Ruth Pate Hamilton, 79, was injured. Jack Spadaro, former federal mining official and consultant on the lawsuit told Estep, this appears to be the first Kentucky claim alleging surface mining flooding led directly to a death. This complaint is one of several suits blaming mining companies for excessive flooding in Eastern Kentucky. (Read more)

Rural tourism opportunities will be focus of conference in Northern Alabama Oct. 24-26

Tourism organizations in Alabama and Mississippi are partnering to present the 2011 Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference in Florence, Ala., Oct. 24-26. The goal of the conference is to explore rural tourism and encourage rural communities to participate.

"Rural areas often underestimate their tourism potential and leave millions of dollars on the table that could provide substantial economic advantages for their communities," Debbie Wilson, executive director of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism, told Russ Corey of the Times Daily in Florence. The three-day event will feature speakers sharing success stories and interactive educational sessions with practical approaches to tourism development.

The event is open to tourism officials and others interested in the rural tourism industry. The event will be at the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Conference Center in Florence. About 120 are registered and registration is still open, Corey reports. Scholarships may still be available. To register for the conference or get more information, click here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Former official: DEA failed to slow prescription drug abuse epidemic by not limiting production

At a time when Oxycontin abuse was rapidly increasing, the Drug Enforcement Agency had the power to slow production of the drug and perhaps stave off what is now a prescription drug abuse epidemic in rural areas across the country, reports Guy Taylor of Salon. However, the agency allowed production of Oxycodone, the non-generic form of Oxycontin, to increase by 1,200 percent over a decade.

After the Food and Drug Administration approves a drug for production and sale, a section of the DEA known as the Office of Diversion Control decides how much of a drug can be manufactured. By law, the makers of Oxycodone and its generic forms have to present a quota approval application to Diversion Control. The office decides whether the amount requested can be manufactured. With the help of statistics provided by a former head of Diversion Control, Gene Haislip, Taylor discovered that in 1997 when Purdue Pharma first introduced Oxycontin, it was allowed to make 8.3 tons. This year, the DEA approved the manufacture of 105 tons.

Haislip tells Taylor DEA approved the increase in production in the face of a growing drug abuse epidemic,  showing a "serious lack of accountability and oversight." Says Haislip: "The DEA is the lone federal agency with the power to decide how much of the drug gets made and put out there; it alone has had all the responsibility to do something about this problem." He told Taylor the agency should have learned from two examples in the 1970s and 1980s, when Diversion Control reduced quota requests for pill-based amphetamines and Methaqualone, the main ingredient in Quaaludes. When the quotas were reduced, illicit use of those drugs significantly decreased.

Asked why the agency allowed the production quota of Oxycodone to increase so much, DEA supervisory special agent Gary Boggs told Taylor the agency is required to set quotas at a level that "ensures an uninterrupted supply for the legitimate medical and scientific research needs of the United States, and that those needs are always changing as the population grows and as medical science finds different needs for products." He said there are patients who need the drug for medical purposes and the agency cannot limit their access because of those who abuse it.

Taylor opines: "The fact is that the U.S. government has adopted a position on prescription painkillers that differs from its policy toward other controlled substances such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana: Unlike those drugs, the DEA says limiting the supply of the prescription painkillers will not reduce abuse." He reports the agency's lack of oversight in the production of Oxycodone is "perplexing" to state and local governments now battling prescription pill abuse crises in their areas. Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services director Orman Hall told Taylor the "the loss of life and the carnage associated" with prescription drug abuse could have been prevented had the DEA limited the production of Oxycodone. (Read more)

States impose drug tests for public assistance

Legislators in 36 states this year proposed drug testing requirements for people receiving assistance through government programs like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing. Drug testing laws passed in three states this year: Arizona, Indiana and Missouri.

These programs are widely used in rural areas where poverty persists. Opponents say the laws reinforce stereotypes about the poor, while proponents say they will prevent misuse of tax dollars, A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times reports.

In Arizona, Teri Walker of the Arizona Journal reports that if applicants applying for assistance answer "yes" to a question about recent drug use, they are tested and risk losing their benefits for a year if they test positive. Sulzherger reports that only 16 out of 64,000 applicants answered "yes," and the estimated savings as a result were $116,000. Walker reports that the bill establishes random drug testing every two weeks for welfare recipients. If recipients refuse to take the test, their benefits are cut off.

The testing program in Missouri will initially cost $600,000 to $900,000, reports Rebecca Berg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Officials will be looking for "reasonable suspicion" of drug abuse as a means to pick who gets tested. Recipients could lose benefits for three years if they test positive, but children can still receive benefits through a third party if a parent loses benefits. In Indiana, drug testing is now part of the application-for-benefits process. If a person tests positive or refuses to take the test, the application will be denied. If they later pass a second drug test, benefits will be restored.

Sulzberger reports that most drug testing bills have failed to receive support because of legal fears stemming from a court ruling in Michigan that drug testing laws violated constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. In Florida, where those receiving benefits have had to pay for their own drug tests since July, the number of applicants for programs has dramatically decreased. There's also dispute that cost of administering drug tests would far outweigh the small amount of savings these laws would create.

Proposals for drug-testing bills increased when Republicans won majorities in numerous state legislatures last year. While advocates for the poor contend these laws "single out and vilify victims of the recession," proponents say drug testing for benefits is no more invasive than drug testing as part of applying for a job. Measures to prevent known drug abusers from receiving benefits are already in place in some states, but because state budgets are currently stretching thinner, an impatience with providing aid to the poor has flourished. (Read more)

Chief of Packers and Stockyards Administration under Clinton questions proposed marketing rules

Jim Baker, left, first administrator of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, in the Clinton administration, tells Agri-Pulse that he disagrees with the Obama administration's proposed rules to eliminate unfairness among livestock and poultry producers by meatpackers. (Photo from Agri-Pulse)

Baker, who was a sale-barn operator and cow-calf producer for more than 40 years, said the proposal would take ranchers back to the days before incentives were paid for better quality cattle. "If you have dang good cattle, you want to take advantage of the grid program. It's just a marketing tool," he told Agri-Pulse, a Washington-based newsletter.

Baker said the Packers and Stockyards Act gives GIPSA the necessary authority to oversee the livestock markets and he blames current GIPSA Administrator Dudley Butler for Eastern Livestock Company's collapse, suggesting he was too preoccupied with the proposed reform. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

Residential use of wood to heat up 34% from 2000

The use of wood for residential heating has risen one-third over the past decade, an analysis of last year's census shows, Tiffany Stecker of ClimateWire reports. At the same time, use of propane gas and heating oil dropped by 16 and 21 percent, respectively.

Higher oil prices, lower incomes and the search for less expensive fuel may all contribute to the increase in wood-based heating, Stecker reports. Michigan and Connecticut showed the largest increases in wood usage at 135 and 122 percent, respectively. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Ohio and Nevada's usage almost doubled, Alliance for Green Heat reports.

John Ackerly, president of the alliance, speculates that less than 10 percent comes from commercially made wood pellets used in cleaner-burning, EPA-approved stoves, Stecker reports.

Calif. telehealth law may improve rural residents' access, lead to similar laws in other states

A new California law may make it easier for rural doctors and hospitals to use telehealth services. The law will eliminate the current in-person visit requirement before telehealth can be used, the required written consent form from patients, and the required independently credentialing doctors must obtain for each hospital where they will perform telehealth services, Jasmine Viel of KION reports.

The law "will be extremely beneficial to people in rural districts like mine, because it will allow health care providers to deliver better care at a lower cost to people that were previously out of reach," Rep. Dan Logue said in a news release. "Telehealth is a valuable tool that helps connect patients in underserved areas of the state to doctors and specialists that are located far from where the patient resides."

The law will become effective Jan. 1. It was supported by the California State Rural Health Association, the Center for Connected Health Policy, the California Telemedicine and eHealth Center, the California Telehealth Network and many other health-care organizations, Molly Merrill of Healthcare IT News reports. Steve Barrow, executive director of the state rural health group, said in a news release that the law will likely become a model for similar legislation across the nation. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bill in committee Thursday would likely require annual increases in newspapers' postal rates

A founding principle of American democracy, that newspapers should pay favorable postal rates so that the maximum number of voters can be informed about public issues, would be eroded by a bill scheduled for action in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday morning.

The committee agenda includes HR 2309, sponsored by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. It would reorganize the U.S. Postal Service, allow it to end Saturday mail delivery (a major rural issue) and require rates for periodicals (newspapers and magazines) to rise at least 5 percent per year "when costs are allegedly under 90 percent of cost coverage," according to the National Newspaper Association, the lobby for weekly and small daily newspapers, which rely on the mail.

NNA says the bill "takes for granted the USPS claim that . . . the class as a whole fails to generate enough revenue to cover costs. The provision could be understandable in a system where all mail is required to cover its costs. But the periodicals mailing industries have long questioned the reliability of mail processing cost figures." NNA says that is especially true of USPS cost estimates for newspapers mailed within the paper's home county, the majority of almost all papers' circulation and the heart of the democratic rationale for favorable rates. "NNA's attacks on the reliability of the system caused the Postal Rate Commission to adjust the costs numerous times over the past 20 years. PRC has issued several reports questioning the data reliability."

NNA says the committee may consider amendments to delay implementation of the 5 percent increase until 2015, after which time the bill's cost-control provisions may have kicked in; or cap the increase at 2 percent. For the full NNA statement, click here.

Washington state Medicaid limits emergency room visits not classified urgent; other states may follow

On Saturday, the state of Washington enacted a rule limiting the number of emergency-room visits it will cover for a Medicaid patient if the visit is not deemed an emergency. The rule, intended to keep costs under control, has many doctors concerned and the Washington Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians is suing the state to block the plan, Julian Pecquet of The Hill reports. Stephen Anderson, president of the Washington Chapter, said 19 other states are working to develop such a policy, and "If this plan goes into effect, other states will certainly follow."

The Washington rule limits Medicaid patients to three "non-emergency" visits per year and categorizes more than 700 diagnoses — including chest pain, abdominal pain, miscarriage and breathing problems — as "non-emergent," Pecquet reports. This puts hospitals that "are mandated by law to accept all emergency patients, regardless of ability to pay" in a tough spot, reports Sheila Hagar of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. "All that does is drive up the cost of health care for paying customers." (Read more) The emergency doctors' suit suggests the state did not meet requirements of the legislature because it failed to seek stakeholder comments before imposing the plan, Pecquet reports.

Two-day seminar on digital future of community newspapers, Oct. 20-21, will be webcast

Rural newspaper editors and publishers have a chance to hear the latest thinking about community newspapers and the digital age in a seminar to be webcast next Thursday and Friday.

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, with the help of the Missouri Press Association, is holding the free conference for community newspaper publishers and editors. "Community Newspapers: Tomorrow has Arrived" boasts an impressive lineup; here are some examples, starting with the first two presentations:

"How Life Changes When High-Speed Broadband Arrives:" Esther Thorson, graduate dean of the journalism school, is a leading researcher in the field. Perhaps she will offer one of the most instructive statistical comparisons we have ever heard: In 2003, the last year that more Americans had dialup than broadband, an Arbitron survey found that the average household with dialup spent 24 minutes a day with a printed newspaper, and those with broadband spent only 6.6 minutes per day. Broadband offers compelling content, such as video, and in the competition for readers' and viewers' time, newspapers must also offer compelling content.

"Mobile is Critical:" Roger Fidler, digital publishing director at the Reynolds Institute, may wake up his listeners with this consensus prediction: By 2013, more than half of all Internet access is expected to be obtained through mobile devices. Newspapers must be mobile, and that is especially true in rural areas, where many residents commute long distances to work and research by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues suggests that the longer the commute, the less likely they are to read their local newspaper.

The first two presentations on Friday's schedule are "Three Things That You Must Own," with Assistant Professor Stephanie Padgett of the J-school, Bill Miller Jr. of the Washington Missourian, Brad Gentry of the Houston Herald and Andy Waters of the Columbia Daily Tribune; and "Believers, Nonbelievers and Fence Straddlers: Community Newspapers and the Web in 2011," from Gary Sosniecki of and Mike McKean, director of the Futures Lab at the Reynolds Institute.

The seminar will be held Thursday, Oct. 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT and Friday, Oct. 21, from 9 a.m, to 2:30 p.m. CDT. The link for the webcast is For the full agenda, speaker biographies and other information, click here.

Agency is pressured to re-post database of doctors' malpractice and disciplinary cases

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley has joined journalists, academic researchers and consumer groups in calling on the Health Resources and Services Administration to put back online the National Practitioner Data Bank, a database of malpractice and disciplinary cases against doctors.

"In a strongly worded letter, the Iowa Republican, who has led investigations of fraud and waste in government health programs, said the now-removed file 'serves as the backbone in providing transparency for bad-acting health care professionals'," Duff Wilson of The New York Times reports. Grassley gave HRSA, part of the the Department of Health and Human Services, until Oct. 21 to hand over documents and answer a series of questions, ending with "What is your timeline for getting the database up and running again?"

For a PDF of Grassley's letter, click here. Under pressure, the agency has scheduled a conference call on the issue for Thursday, Oct. 13, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

The database "was created in 1986 for hospitals, medical boards, insurers and others to share information so that bad doctors do not slip through cracks in reporting," Wilson writes. The law makes doctors' names confidential, but the database has a Public Use File for researchers and journalists, in which doctors are identified only by numbers.

Some journalists have been able to identify doctors using information from other sources, such as lawsuits. "After a complaint by one doctor identified by The Kansas City Star, the agency threatened the newspaper reporter with a fine, pulled the doctor’s file from its Web site on Sept. 1 and began a review of how to hide the identities better," Wilson reports. "Its actions provoked protests" from the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other groups. In a letter, they told HRSA, "Nothing in the Public Use File can be used to identify individuals if reporters or researchers don’t already know for whom they are searching."

Grassley wrote, "It seems disturbing and bizarre that HRSA would attempt to chill a reporter’s First Amendment activity with threats of fines for merely 'republishing' public information from one source and connecting it with public information from another. A journalist’s shoe-leather reporting is no justification for such threats or for HRSA to shut down public access to information that Congress intended to be public."

The Public Use File can be downloaded from the website of Investigative Reporters and Editors, one of the groups, protesting its removal from the HRSA site, but "that file will be more and more out-of-date as the dispute goes on," Wilson notes. She also reports that Robert E. Oshel, associate director for research and disputes in the Division of Practitioner Data Banks, says the agency is misinterpreting the law. (Read more)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rural America as rural Americans saw it, 1940-42

Montana shepherd, horse and dog
We have all seen old issues of Life magazine from the early 1940s, almost always showing America in black, white and shades of gray. There was color photography back then, but it was relatively expensive to print, so it was rarely seen. But many color pictures of rural America were taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information, many showing "the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations," The Denver Post says in displaying the photographs and captions, which belong to the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit, "Bound for Glory: America in Color." For the whole set presented by the Post, click here.
Homesteaders, New Mexico
Corn planting, East Tennessee
Depot and starch factory, Maine
Chopping cotton on rented land, Georgia

Wild horse removal, birth control slated

The Bureau of Land Management "plans to remove more than 6,000 horses from federal land and administer birth control to roughly 2,000 more in an effort to protect rangelands and reduce future herd growth," Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy News reports.

The 16 roundups in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming "will emphasize the use of birth control to reduce the need for future removals, which saddle the agency with the long-term costs of caring for the horses in corrals," Taylor writes. "Techniques will include injecting mares with the fertility vaccine PZP before the spring birthing season, increasing the male-to-female ratios of some herds and gelding some studs to prevent them from impregnating mares."

BLM estimates that bout 33,000 horses and 5,500 burros are on rangelands in 10 states that can support about 26,600 animals. "The plan drew fire from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a coalition of 40 groups that is calling for a halt to roundups and for BLM to allow more horses on the range," Taylor reports. (Subscription required)

Why won't more Americans harvest crops?

The New York Times this week asks the question: What happened to the American work ethic? The question and resulting debate is a follow-up to recent stories about American farmers' inability to find local workers for harvesting jobs usually occupied by migrant workers from Mexico who enter the country legally through the agricultural visa program, H-2A. (Times photo by Matthew Staver: Jose Luis harvests onions in John Harold's onion field near Olathe, Colo.)

In the introduction to the debate, it's reasoned that many unemployed Americans would rather collect unemployment benefits than take a temporary job "that they cannot or will not do, for whatever reason." One debater, Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums, doesn't necessarily think unemployment benefits makes one lazy. He argues that these benefits would provide more money to an unemployed worker while they attempt to "get back on their feet," and that working for cheap on a farm could prevent them from receiving those benefits.

The other debaters discuss different factors that keep Americans out of the fields. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the Institute for American Values writes that Americans' work ethic is as strong as ever, it's just that the work we do now -- sitting behind desks flexing minds rather than muscles -- is making us "softer." Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, says wages and benefits have a direct correlation to effort and enthusiasm. Nicolette Niman, a lawyer and livestock rancher, blames the lack of work ethic on the perception that agriculture is increasingly mechanized: "The farmer’s hands, knowledge and husbandry have been replaced by machines, capital goods, pharmaceuticals and fossil fuels, used directly (to power farm equipment) and indirectly (to manufacture chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides)." Philip Martin, a labor economist, also engages in the "man vs. machine" debate. (Read more)

Editors, current and retired, talk about how to publish good newspapers in a time of stress

The American Society of News Editors is holding a pilot program called "Leadership Live for Executive Editors" at the University of Kentucky today. ASNE is primarily an organization of editors at metropolitan daily papers, but such papers are becoming more like community newspapers in some ways and some of the discussion topics are likely to be relevant to editors and other journalists at papers of any size, including rural ones, so we are live-blogging it.

L-R: Davis, Stewart, Carroll, Manassah
(Jean Pitcock photo)
The separation between the news and business sides has always been less at smaller papers, and is becoming less as larger papers become smaller and more stressed. During a discussion of tension between news and advertising departments, Mizell Stewart III, editor of the Evansville Courier & Press and chair of the ASNE Leadership Development Committee, said, "One of the most important elements of local news is recognition," and the ad department is "a conduit for business news."

Stewart's paper is owned by E.W. Scripps Co., which has perhaps the strongest degree of separation between news and business operations of any major newspaper company, so much that he does not even report to his publisher, who is considered the paper's chief revenue officer.

The first question from moderator Linda Grist Cunningham (vice chair of the ASNE Leadership Development Committee and retired editor of the Rockford Register Star) was "How do you explain to bosses and peers why the First Amendment is important, and understand the cost in time and resources involved in producing strong news reports?"

"One of the keys is investing time and building the relationship," earning credibility, said Ed Manassah, retired publisher of The Courier-Journal and executive director of the Institute for Media, Culture and Ethics at Bellarmine University in Louisville. He said he was lucky as an editor and publisher to have had primarily former editors as his bosses.

However, "The background of people who are making decisions have changed," said John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Lexington Herald-Leader. "You don't have people like that running companies any more." Instead, he said, you have business-school graduates types who say they can only serve one master, the shareholder, as opposed to the reader. He said a "very useful precondition" is a presumption of good faith between the editor and publisher.

Asked how editors should convey the value of First Amendment principles to other departments, Carroll said, "You can't do it in a preachy way. You make friends with these people .. it always helps to show you understand their problem." He said an editor can be a minority of one in a meeting room "where people see newsroom as a cost center," so it is "important to have a relationship with the publisher and an understanding that newsrooms are diferemt, that it's not like any other department."

Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak said editors should "talk about news all the time" among their fellow executives. He said he goes to publisher or another executive team member at least once a day to talk about a story the newsroom is working on "so that all the conversations just aren't about revenue and finances." That can be the best part of a publisher's day, he said.

Retired Herald-Leader editor and publisher Tim Kelly said it's helpful for editors to bring ideas to other departments, something he said Baniak has done successfully. Baniak said, "There's nothing wrong with proposing an idea that will make money. . ..  You've got to fight against that compartmentalization."

There will be times when an editor has to take a n stand and be willing to  fall on his or her sword. Stewart said he has left positions where resources became inadequate. "If  I can't serve the community with the resources I think are needed for the community to be served, then let someone else come in and do it," he said. Earlier, he acknowledged that papers are "under a great deal of stress" because "we are not pulling in the kind of revenue" that will give readers "the level of journalism they've come to expect."

Kakie Urch, professor of new media at the university's School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a former Gannett and Scripps editor, said it's important for editors to keep up with new technological developments that can create new ways to connect with readers: "Watch the tech news and really figure out what it means for you."

The panelists agreed that newspapers are competing for readers' time. "The publisher is not our enemy; time is our enemy," said Michael Davis, executive editor of the Lafayette Journal & Courier, a Gannett Co. Inc. paper in Indiana. In the newsroom, he said, it's important that employees feel "safe and appreciated."

And what about the future? Will newspapers survive? Carroll said, "What concerns me is the shattered economics of journalism, which has left to widespread layoffs and "fewer people turning over the rocks," but "I'm encouraged by the fact newspapers have held on and are still publishing . . . extremely valuable stuff. We're edging toward an equilibrium."

Manassah was even more optimistic, saying readers will continue to invest in the brains that are at newspapers, and the papers will give readers what they want. "We won't see 30-part series anymore," he said. "I don't think that's what held readers."

For ASNE's report on the session, with reactions of viewers, click here.

Natural gas industry talks how to make nice

The natural-gas industry is trying to improve its image in the wake of protests and voiced concerns from officials and other residents in the Eastern U.S. concerned that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been labeled as an environmental hazard. Last week, at a conference titled "Commitment to Excellence in Hydraulic Fracturing," the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups to discussed how best to "court communities" that are new to drilling.

The industry is also burnishing its image through television commercials and magazine advertisements. Companies such as Exxon Mobil tout the industry's "rethinking" of gas drilling, the abundance of the resource and how clean it burns. Chesapeake Energy has partnered with Goodwill Industries to show how they are investing in local communities. Others attempt to show the softer side of gas drilling. And the American Natural Gas Association highlights how the industry could create American energy independence.

Mike Soraghan of Energy & Environment News reports on topics discussed at the conference in Pittsburgh, which included ways to prevent trucks from stopping up rural traffic, recycling wastewater, "basic housekeeping" of well pads and how to best explain to people that drilling occurs more than a mile below drinking water supplies. One API official talked about how companies have to get a "social license to operate" in rural communities now rife with gas drilling prospects.

Soraghan notes few environmental-group representatives attended, and those who were are skeptical that the words spoken by industry representatives will translate into actions. There's also concern the ideas discussed won't translate well to those actually working on the well pads. Soraghan reports that one engineer at the conference said the good practices presented at the conference were about more than "warm feelings and good publicity." The engineer said: "If everyone's comfortable with it, you can get your permits through faster. . . . We don't get pushback from management if (environmental protections) are really protective." (Read more)

Rural telecoms fear FCC plan to pay for broadband expansion could put them out of business

Some rural telecommunications providers worry about a newly proposed Federal Communications Commission initiative to overhaul an $8 billion subsidy program for land-line telephone services to fund expansion of broadband. The Universal Service Fund now supports phone services to schools, libraries, the poor and high-cost areas, and is financed by long-distance phone call charges paid to local carriers. It also subsidizes smaller telecommunications companies that provide services in rural areas.

Todd Shields of Bloomberg Businessweek reports that rural telecoms wonder if the new FCC plan will strengthen or weaken their networks. Jeffrey Silva of Medley Global Advisors in Washington told Shields that rural carriers face the greatest risk from the reforms, so their inclusion in the process is essential to passage. David Mitchell, an economic researcher at Missouri State University, told Shields that big outfits like AT&T and Verizon would be "the winners" under the plan because they would absorb small carriers that would not be able to afford the changes necessary to become broadband providers.

An estimated 14 to 24 million people don't have high-speed Internet access. Shields reports that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to increase access from 65 percent to 90 percent because "broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society." The subsidy program overhaul would decrease fees paid to connect long-distance calls, which Genachowski said would reduce costs for rural phone service. A group of telephone companies led by AT&T asked the FCC in July to reduce these costs; the proposals will be brought before the FCC Oct. 27. (Read more)

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Hospital closings leave millions farther from trauma care, and thus more at risk

Millions of Americans are farther away from trauma care than they were 20 years ago, with some having to travel more than 30 minutes to get treatment. Experts say getting help within the first hour is crucial.

A study published in the journal Health Affairs found the distance to a trauma center "increased for 69 million people between 2001 and 2007," reports the Daily Yonder, the national online rural journal. The average amount of travel time was 10 minutes. But for 16 million people, the amount of time it took to travel to a trauma center increased by 30 minutes or more.

"The greatest impact from diminished access has been on people in rural communities," as well areas with a high percentage of African-American residents, low-income people and those without health insurance, The Associated Press reported.

The reason for the increased travel times is due to facilities closing. In 1990, there were 1,125 trauma centers in the country. By 2005, nearly 340 of them had closed, in most cases because of financial hardship; they were treating too high a percentage of people who do not have insurance, the Yonder reports.

President Obama's recent call to cut Medicare premiums to critical access hospitals, as well as close CAHs that are within 10 miles of each other, would further burden rural areas, said a panel of experts in Lexington, Ky., last week.

Medical experts say a trauma patient has the highest change at survival if treated within the first hour. "We're not saying that we should build a trauma center on every street corner," said Dr. Renee Hsia, lead researcher on the study. "But we do have evidence that access for certain populations is already pretty bad, and it's getting worse." (Read more)