Friday, February 08, 2013

FCC tackling problems in rural long-distance calls

The Federal Communications Commission says it wants to do something about telephone companies' failure to complete long-distance calls in rural areas. In a notice seeking comment on its proposed rulemaking, the FCC said rural long-distance callers get false busy signals, can't hear each other or simply have long periods of "dead air."

"This causes rural businesses to lose customers, cuts families off from their relatives in rural areas, and creates potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications in rural areas," the commission said. The proposed rulemaking is open for comment until March 9.

UPDATE, Feb. 9: The chair of the Oregon Public Utility Commission writes in the Statesman Journal of Salem, "Many rural Oregon landline telephone customers no longer take the ability to make and receive telephone calls for granted. . . . These problems are generally caused by the route a rural call takes when transported by the network of either the caller’s long distance company or wireless telephone company." (Read more)

Direct payments, other farm subsidies could be targets in bill to head off broader budget cuts

Cuts in farm subsidies could be part of a stopgap deal to head off a set of huge budget cuts known as "the sequester" and scheduled for March 1, David Rogers reports for Politico. President Obama has asked Congress for a three-month delay.

"Senate Democrats said Thursday they want to go longer, but each added month means coming up with about $12 billion in new revenues or savings to achieve the same level of deficit reduction," Rogers reports. "Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) confirmed that the prime target for spending cuts is an outdated system of direct cash payments to producers that still costs taxpayers close to $5 billion a year and has long been a target for reformers."

Stabenow told Rogers, “I would prefer obviously to do it in the context of the Farm Bill, but I cannot defend direct payments.” She said if those other cuts were made in a sequester-stalling bill, that would count as "agriculture's contribution to deficit reduction" as it drafts a new Farm Bill.

"Given high farm incomes," Rogers writes, "the large subsidies become harder and harder to defend. And both the House and Senate farm bills last year proposed to do away with the payments and plow a portion of the savings back into more modern safety-net programs and expanded crop insurance." (Read more)

Reid blasts USPS's early move for 5-day delivery; rural officials complain to their congressman

Reid (Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg)
The leader of the U.S. Senate says Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe stepped in it, so to speak, when he announced that the Postal Service would stop most Saturday mail delivery, an announcement made seven weeks before scheduled expiration of a law requiring maintenance of six-day delivery.

“The postmaster general’s actions have damaged his reputation with congressional leaders and further complicates congressional efforts to pass comprehensive postal reform legislation in the future,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. “Given the importance of the post office to communities in Nevada and across our nation, such a drastic policy change cannot be enacted without approval from Congress. Instead, the postmaster general relied on flawed legal guidance to claim that he can circumvent Congress’ s authority on the matter.”

"With all of the help the U.S. Postal Service requires to close a $20 billion gap, Donahoe doesn’t need to anger Reid," Joe Davidson of The Washington Post writes in his Federal Diary column. "Donahoe’s surprise move, announced Wednesday, to shore up Postal Service finances by cutting Saturday mail delivery was bold, aggressive, perhaps even audacious. Those can be admirable characteristics in an executive when his actions work. If they don’t work, those same actions look foolish, panicky and self-defeating. Time will tell whether Donahoe gets away with his end run around Congress, but it is already apparent that he has alienated some forces whose help he desperately can use."

Some in Congress said the postmaster general did the right thing, but Davidson writes, "Donahoe may have gotten tired of waiting for Congress to act. He has begged and begged for relief, while Congress has argued with itself and slow-danced to the funeral music that seems to surround the Postal Service. . . . He clearly underestimated the congressional instinct to protect its turf." (Read more)

But John Tierney writes on Salon that Congress needed a wake-up call: "You know that feeling of pleasure you get when you see someone stand up to a bullying, incompetent boss? It’s viscerally satisfying, isn’t it? That’s the way I felt this morning when I heard" Donahue's announcement. "Our elected representatives have steered the agency into a ditch." (Read more)

Congress is hearing grass-roots opposition to the move. In Fort Edward, N.Y., yesterday, Washington County supervisors complained to Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, that the change "could be a major problem, especially on holiday weekends when delivery could be down for three or four days," reports Mark Mulholland of WNYT-TV in Albany. Hebron Town Supervisor Brian Campbell said, "Here we are in the rural area and they say now we're going to cut your postal service but we're still yet to get cell service and we're still yet to get the good Internet service." (Read more)


Emu oil puts the big birds back in play as livestock

A mob of Montana emus (NYT photo by Tony Demin)
Emu ranching, which never became widely popular because Americans couldn't enticed to eat the meat, is coming back because they are increasingly using the fat found under the skin of the huge, flightless birds.

"Processed and rubbed into a person’s skin, the oil is hailed as a treatment for wrinkles, burns, acne, arthritis, psoriasis and eczema, among other things," Jim Robbins writes for The New York Times from Hamilton, Mont. "It is used in shampoo and cosmetics. Taken orally, it is used to treat cholesterol, symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and allergies. A single bird produces 250 ounces of oil, and the Quinns sell it for $10 an ounce, subtracting the refining costs."

“It’s been an enormous factor” in profitability, Clover Quinn, operator of the Wild Rose Emu Ranch, told Robbins. He reports, "The leading emu oil processor, LB Processors, has seen production grow in the last few years to 7,000 gallons a year from 3,000 gallons." (Read more)

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Farms and forests will suffer generally from climate change, USDA says in new reports

Climate change will have a generally detrimental effect on American farms and forests, especially after 2050, the Department of Agriculture said in two reports this week.

"Over the next 25 years, the effects of climate change on agricultural production and economic outcomes for both producers and consumers in the United States are expected to be mixed, depending on regional conditions," USDA said in a press release. "Beyond 2050, changes are expected to include shifts in crop production areas, increases in pest control expenses, and greater disease prevalence." To download a 193-page PDF of the report, click here.

Climate change will make farmers "alter where they grow crops and costing them millions of dollars in additional costs to tackle weeds, pests and diseases that threaten their operations," Christopher Doering reports from Washington for USA Today and other Gannett Co. newspapers. Jerry Hatfield, lead author of the study, told Doering, "We're going to end up in a situation where we have a multitude of things happening that are going to negatively impact crop production. In fact, we saw this in 2012 with the drought." (Read more)

Forests will face increased threats from fire, insects, invasive species, "and combinations of
multiple stressors," the release said. "Wildfire is expected to increase throughout the United States, causing at least a doubling of area burned" by 2050. For a PDF of the 282-page USDA report on forests and climate change, go here.

EPA adds oil and gas production to greenhouse list; ranks a distant second to power plants

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency included oil and natural gas production as stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in its annual report on the subject, and said it ranked second, behind power plants, which emitted about 10 times as much, Mark Drajem reported for Bloomberg Businessweek. However, EPA looked only at major oil and gas production areas.

The second annual report said the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants decreased 4.5 percent from 2010 to 2011 because plants used more gas, and that more solar and wind energy is being used. "This report confirms that major carbon reduction from power plants wouldn't be possible without a reliable and affordable supply of domestically produced natural gas," Simon Lomax, research director at Energy in Depth, a group launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told Bloomberg.

Methane, the greenhouse gas that is emitted during drilling, hydraulic fracturing and transportation of oil and gas, remains in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, but is "more efficient at trapping radiation, making its short-term impact 20 times greater than carbon dioxide," Drajem notes.

The EPA has proposed regulations for coal-powered plants, and may extend them to existing plants, but it is unclear if it has similar plans for the oil and gas industry. Environmental groups want the EPA to establish standards to prevent methane leakages the activities associated with oil and gas production, Drajem notes. "Reducing fugitive methane emissions is a top priority because they are so powerful," Mark Brownstein, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund, told Bloomberg. (Read more)

More coal companies could enter bankruptcy, credit rating agency says

More coal companies are shutting down or entering bankruptcy because of competition from cheap natural gas for power generation and rising costs from increased environmental regulation. New data from the Fitch Ratings credit agency predicted increased financial hardships and bankruptcies for coal companies, Moran Zhang reported for International Business Times.

"Since 1994, there have been 11 mining company defaults among producers with at least $25 million in assets as of their bankruptcy filing date," Zhang reported (table below)America West Resources Inc., headquartered in Salt Lake City, was the most recent coal company to file for bankruptcy, on Feb. 1.

U.S. coal production is down 7 percent, with Central Appalachia declining the most, 16 percent. Zhang noted that more coal plants are scheduled to shut down by 2014 in order to comply with new rules of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Read more)


Departing EPA boss: Big regret is rural relations

Jackson on a farm tour in Iowa
Outgoing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson's "deepest regret, she said, is that she failed to reach out to rural, often conservative regions of the United States," Reuters reports. "As a result, she said, opponents were able to generate politically damaging rumors of looming regulatory crackdowns, such as a fictitious EPA plan to treat bovine excretions as dangerous pollutants."

Jackson told the international news service, "If I were starting again, I would from day one make a much stronger effort to do personal outreach in rural America. Had I known that these myths about everything from cow flatulence to spilled milk could be seen as 'The EPA is coming to get you,' I would have spent more time trying to inoculate against that." (Read more)

Zack Colman of The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication, reports, "Clashes with rural GOP lawmakers characterized much of Jackson’s time in Obama administration, but Jackson has lamented what she says are inaccurate claims about the scope of EPA’s agenda."

Bill would make mountaintop-removal permits wait on comprehensive study of health effects

Two House Democrats introduced a bill today that would put a moratorium on new mountaintop-removal mining permits. The sponsors are Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, the only Democrat in Kentucky's congressional delegation, and Rep. Louise Slaughter of Rochester, N.Y., a native of southeastern Kentucky's Harlan County and a biologist by trade. Their Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 526) would block new permits until federal officials conducted the first comprehensive federal study on the effect of mountaintop removal on the health of residents in the mining areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Here is a copy of the legislation.

Though the bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled House, Slaughter cited "the growing field of evidence that people living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites are at an elevated risk for a range of major health problems," including a study conducted in part by Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University health researcher. It found that communities near mountaintop-removal mining sites had higher levels of birth defects. Another study found that communities near mountaintop removal coal mining sites had more problems with blood pressure, lung cancer, pulmonary disorders, and and lung, heart, and kidney diseases. For more on Hendryx and his research, click here.

Outdoorswoman and Recreational Equipment Inc. CEO nominated for interior secretary

President Obama yesterday named outdoor retail executive Sally Jewell as his pick for secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees federal lands, offshore oil and gas leasing, and surface coal mining. Jewell, CEO at Recreational Equipment Inc.,  is an outdoor enthusiast who has little government experience. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post described the choice as an "unconventional pick" who "represents an effort by the administration to defuse the partisan fight over conservation and energy."

Eilperin characterized the reaction of environmentalists as "cautious optimism," saying many hoped "she could reconnect Americans to their outdoors heritage without stifling drilling and mining operations on land and offshore." Their caution was echoed by some Republicans, Eilperin said, noting "that Jewell's limited political resume made it difficult to pass judgement."

Introducing Jewell, Obama talked about her success at REI while also including some anecdotes about her outdoor enthusiasm, including the month she spent climbing mountains in Antarctica. She worked for Mobil Oil in the late 1970s and participated in brainstorming sessions with then-secretary Dirk Kempthorne under President George W. Bush, Eilperin reports.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Did rurality and remoteness of the Alabama hostage crisis limit its coverage?

Did the remote location of the Alabama town where a child with autism was held hostage diminish coverage of the crisis? The answer, some say, is yes. Others say that competing news, not regional or rural bias or remoteness, was the reason the hostage crisis in Midland City, Ala., failed to get more coverage. The resulting discussion presents interesting questions about the national coverage of rural events.

 Sperling's Best Places map
Chicago Sun-Times Digital Editor and Alabama native Marcus Gilme expressed his opinion that the reason the dramatic story that unfolded in the last week -- when a child was kidnapped from a school bus and held in an underground bunker for six days -- had to do with geography.

"Had it happened in a large city --  New York, Dallas, even, God forbid, Chicago -- the coverage would be constant, a 24-hour surveillance with every media outlet descending on the city," Gilme said, pointing out that the story involved the major hot topics of "gun control, safety of school children, and mental health" that would typically command national attention in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.

Midland City officials asked that coverage be limited, since the kidnapper had a television in his bunker, but Gilme said that wasn't the whole reason the story wasn't bigger: He argues that since it unfolded in a small town of 2,500 people, it was more easily dismissed as "a typical redneck incident" by those in more urban communities. "This is larger than any regional bias," he wrote. "This is a national issue and we have to be willing to look past stereotypes, to be willing to accept both the smaller hyperlocal context as well as the larger, national one."

Andrew Beaujon of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies responded to Gilme's piece with his own, noting that the hostage situation "competed for media oxygen" with the Super Bowl, immigration reform and, in Chicago, gun violence. Furthermore, those who did offer coverage had few updates for readers on a situation that changed little day-to-day.

Addressing Gilme's argument about wider importance, Beaujon said plenty of stories since Newtown have spurred related debate. "The Alabama story, though, bizarre, sadly has plenty of competition for a national conversation-starter on guns," Beaujon said, citing a Slate compilation of gun deaths in the U.S. since the Newtown shooting. "At the time I write this, it records 23 kids as having been killed by gun violence after that incident."

Superweeds surging, survey of farmers finds

Cutting pigweed in Arkansas. Photo from
The Commercial Appeal by Brad Luttrell
The problem of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" continues to grow, with almost half of farmers in a 31-state survey saying their land has weeds resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, agriculture's main weed killer.

The survey was done by Stratus, an agri-marketing research consultancy. It found that glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading in just about every way: New regions, more farms and more weed species are involved, Stratus's Kent Fraser reported. Farmers might need to use new crop seeds that are resistant to more powerful herbicides that can kill superweeds, but that will take time for government approval.

Stratus said it surveyed thousands of farmers in 31 states over three years. Its finding that almost half reported glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farms in 2012 was a 34 percent increase from 2011. The South has the biggest problem, with 92 percent of Georgia farmers surveyed reporting glyphosate resistance on their farms. Uther regions are "catching up," Fraser wrote. In Nebraska and Indiana, the number of estimated acres with resistant weeds nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012.

Plants commonly known as horseweed and pigweed were the most commonly reported as resistant, but Fraser said "the problem is getting more complicated" since more farms are reporting having two or more resistant species. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones speculated that companies like Monsanto, which created Roundup and makes "Roundup ready" seeds that allow fields to be sprayed with the herbicide without killing the crops, might encourage farmers to "try out 'next generation' herbicide-resistant seeds—that is, crops engineered to resist not just Roundup, but also other, more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D and Dicamba," but new seeds would probably not be approved by the Department of Agriculture until at least next year. In the meantime, farmers will likely use more herbicide to curb weeds, Philpott wrote, though another crop to their yearly rotations could decrease superweed growth. (Read more)

USPS says it will end Sat. home delivery of letters and newspapers in Aug.; ball in Congress's court

UPDATE, Feb. 7: The service's "bold, risky move" is stirring support and "fury," The Washington Post reports.

The U.S. Postal Service announced today that it would no longer deliver first-class mail, newspapers and magazines starting in early August, in an effort to stanch multi-billion-dollar deficits, but would continue regular parcel deliveries. The move, which could still be blocked by Congress or court action, is likely to affect rural Americans more than others. Their post offices could also be open less often.

Post offices will remain open for item drop-off, stamp purchase and box access, "but hours likely would be reduced at thousands of smaller locations," Ed O'Keefe reports for The Washington Post. Rural post offices especially have felt the sting of a closures and reduced hours in recent years as USPS losses have mounted. "Opposition to significant changes rests mostly with lawmakers from far-flung rural communities, who fear that a change in schedules could jeopardize low-cost delivery of medicines and medical supplies to  elderly customers," O'Keefe writes. The continuation of parcel delivery could blunt that argument.

Newspaper groups have fought efforts to stop Saturday delivery; some small daily newspapers, many of which publish on Saturdays, have moved to mail delivery to eliminate carrier costs. Max Heath, postal consultant to the National Newspaper Association, said the move was a bad business decision: "This move will only speed up the loss of business mail volume due to lack of delivery for Saturday newspapers and shoppers, and slower overall delivery of Periodicals and Standard Mail used by newspapers, with resultant loss of subscribers and advertisers. USPS fails to properly calculate or consider the lost revenue that will accompany the overly-rosy cost-saving projections."

Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to guarantee six-day delivery, but Heath (right) said the service's legal position is that because the latest measure, the continuing resolution to fund the government, expires March 27, it can plan to stop six-day delivery after that "Postmaster General Donahoe explicity challenged the Congress by saying they could makes changes in the law to give relief," Heath told the Kentucky Press News Service. "That begs the question as to whether legislation requiring six-day, if passed or renewed, could not stop this unfortunate decision." (Read more)

"Some in Congress say the Postal Service has exceeded its authority," NPR reports. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, "The Postal Service’s decision to eliminate Saturday delivery is inconsistent with current law and threatens to further jeopardize its customer base."

Last year the Senate passed a broad postal-reform bill that would have helped USPS financially and guaranteed six-day delivery for two more years, but the House did not act on it. "With postal legislation at an impasse, it’s certainly not a given that Congress would even approve a move to five-day delivery," says Save the Post Office. "The Obama administration has expressed its approval, and the House bill under consideration last year would have permitted the Postal Service to cut Saturdays as soon as six months after passage of new legislation."

Officials predict the Saturday cutbacks will save $2 billion a year, an amount that Save the Post Office doubts. Last year the Postal Service ran a deficit of almost $16 billion, Although new communication technology has decreased the amount of mail delivered, employee benefits are the primary source of its woes. The benefits Congress has required it to pay since 2006 accounted for nearly 70 percent of last year's deficit.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ohio's Kasich 5th GOP governor to OK Medicaid expansion; he, others cite rural hospitals' need

Several Republican governors have decided to expand Medicaid under federal health-care reform, saying their conservative principles were outweighed by a need to protect their state's rural hospitals and low-income people. Yesterday, the governor of one of the biggest states got on the bandwagon.

John Kasich of Ohio joined Jan Brewer of Arizona, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota in saying they will take heavy federal subsidies to expand the program to households with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty threshold.

UPDATE, Feb. 8: "Each of those seemed special cases: North Dakota is flush from its oil and gas boom, and Nevada and New Mexico are increasingly blue-leaning states with Democratic-controlled legislatures. Arizona is different," Ron Brownstein writes in the National Journal. He notes that Brewer said taking the federal money will “protect rural and safety-net hospitals” from excessive costs for uncompensated care; create “thousands of jobs” and cover many people now uninsured.

While Kasich is not an "Obamacare" supporter, he said expanding Medicaid “makes great sense for Ohio” because it would save $235 million over the next two years and free about $100 million in local funds for mental-health and addiction services, reports The Columbus Dispatch.

Kasich said the decision could extend health coverage to as many as 578,000 uninsured Ohio residents, and could keep everyone else’s health insurance premiums down because there won’t be so many uninsured people going to emergency rooms for their medical care, reports David Nather of Politico.

Kasich emphasized that he would like to see the 2010 law repealed, but the federal money it would pump into the state — about $13 billion over the next seven years — was too much to pass up, reports Stateline. The federal government will pay the full cost of expansion through 2016; then  states will have to pitch in, rising to a limit of 10 percent by 2020.

Brewer likewise said it doesn't make sense for Arizona to pass up federal dollars, reports Howard Fischer of the Arizona Daily Sun. "We will protect rural and safety-net hospitals from being pushed to the brink by growing their cost in caring for the uninsured," Brewer said. She also said the expansion will create enormous economic benefit, inject $2 billion into the Arizona economy, save and create thousands of jobs and provide health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals, reports Fischer.

Brewer said going along with expansion will save Arizona money because the costs of providing care to the uninsured are not simply absorbed by hospitals but passed along through increased insurance premiums. Supporters of the expansion hope the five Republicans' decisions will prompt more GOP governors to follow suit. Twenty governors from both political parties are still undecided. (Read more)

Every 65½ minutes, a veteran commits suicide

UPDATE, Feb. 8: ProPublica has aggregated what it says is the best reporting on mental trauma and the military, here.

Almost every hour in this country, on average, a veteran commits suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 22 veterans per day took their own lives in 2010, up four a day from the 2007 rate. Perhaps contrary to public perception, the report said most suicides occurred among veterans over 50. It recognized Vietnam-era veterans as a risk group, as well as female veterans.

Military service members come disproportionately from rural areas, which usually lack the types of mental-health services available in urban areas.

(Among active service members in 2012, more died from suicide than in combat, we reported here. The Army said Friday that 325 soldiers committed suicides last year; if the tentative number is confirmed, it would be a historical high. "If that bleak total remains at 325, the toll in 2012 would have risen by 15 percent over 2011 when the Army sustained 283 suicides," NBC News reported.)

Reactions to the report about veterans' suicides ranged from encouragement to outrage. The VA pointed out that the daily veteran suicide rate has "remained relatively stable over the past 12 years," but the percentage of the overall national suicide rate accounted for by veteran suicide has actually decreased.  Veteran suicides accounted for about one-fifth of American suicides in 2010, down from one-fourth of suicides in 1999.

The VA said that showed its programs are working, but promised to take "immediate actions." NBC reported that "the top strategy" on the VA's agenda was an already-established task force that could help suicide screening identify warning signs earlier.

Some groups were dismayed by the VA report and demanded more action. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called for more research and collaboration. "The country should be outraged that we are allowing this tragedy to continue," IAVA found and CEO Paul Rieckhoff told NBC.

On Feb. 13, the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will hold a hearing on veterans and mental health care. The Veterans Crisis Line -- 800-273-TALK -- is available for veterans who are concerned about their mental health. (Read more)

S. Calif. paper's investment inspires rural journalist to wave the flag of print journalism

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The Orange County Register's recent recommitment to print journalism, under a new owner who might even buy the neighboring Los Angeles Times, is encouraging news to rural journalists like Rita Dukes Smith, who recently returned to the reporting staff of The Messenger in Madisonville, Ky., Hopkins County's daily newspaper, after 10 years editing The Leader-News in adjoining Muhlenberg County.

Community newspapers have been the healthiest part of the industry for several years, but are beginning to encounter online competition. Madisonville is also the home of SurfKy.com, an online-only news operation aimed at several counties, mostly in Western Kentucky. It came to mind as I read Rita's editorial in today's Messenger, titled "Print journalists are backbone of news industry." (Amen.)

Rita notes that the Register has "hired dozens of reporters to cover high school sporting events and meetings," as well as investigative reporters (and, as luck would have it, feature writer Amy Wilson, who is returning to the paper after stints at our Institute and the Lexington Herald-Leader). "Investment is being made in good, old-fashioned reporting," she writes. "The paper is bolstering its print quality while not abandoning its digital presence, according to a story by the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard." (That story, by Ken Doctor, is here.)

"Reading about the Register’s strategies is encouraging for those of us who make our living in the newspaper industry," Rita writes. "Print media has a higher standard to get the news right the first time. With clear, black print on white paper, a newspaper story becomes historical record. If we get it wrong, we can’t pretend we didn’t by striking the delete key on a web template like an online-only news source."

Rita says print reporters provide "an experienced ear and desire to find and report the truth. We go to meetings that you cannot always attend, unraveling the information you need to know and putting it in your morning paper in black and white, easy to understand language. It is then placed on our website for your convenience. The content is an extension or enhancement of our journalists’ hard work, experience and ethics. It is not a dot/dash, copy/paste replacement for real news." (Read more)

Rita's column has an epigram from the PressThink blog of Jay Rosen of New York University: “It’s absurd to claim that ‘anyone’ can be a journalist if we mean by that someone who knows how to find the right sources and ask the right questions, dig for information, counter the spin, produce a fair, accurate and unflinching account without libeling anybody — and do it all on deadline.” (Read more)

The Messenger, a Paxton Media paper, recently won the small-daily category of the Kentucky Press Association contest. And one thing about the Register: In a sense, it may be the largest community newspaper in America. Orange County has 4 million people, but is only a fourth of the L.A. metropolitan area and gets little coverage from the L.A. television stations that dominate the area. Like good community newspapers, it still owns the local news franchise, and it has several weeklies that help maintain it.

Smaller congregations mean collaboration, even across denominations, in eastern Dakotas

Rev. Tim Koch has two churches.
Shrinking congregations in some rural communities are looking more like pioneer days, when circuit-riding preachers traveled from one church to another. A series of stories from Dakotafire, a cooperative of rural newspapers in the eastern Dakotas, described how some churches are sharing pastors. In a package of three articles, area reporters examined how congregations and their leadership are adapting to changing times.

As small congregations increasingly struggle to support a full-time pastor's salary and benefits, sharing is become more common. The increasing costs of seminary debt and health benefits have had a grim impact on small congregations. According to one of the Dakotafire articles, it takes roughly 90 to 100 people to support the estimated expense of $70,000 for a seminary-trained pastor. For many churches, that's is too much.

Collaboration -- sometimes across denominations -- has helped some churches survive. Another article told the story of  Rev. Tim Blackman, a Baptist minister who became licensed by the United Church of Christ so he could pastor two small churches in Gackle: Grace Baptist and the Gackle United Church of Christ. In another case, three United Methodist churches about 22 miles apart share the services of Rev. Nancy Manning, and all three have had to alter their service times. This intercity and interdenominational cooperation could be a trend in areas with declining population.

“It’s really good to put our heads together with our full ecumenical partners, those that we have a relationship with where we can share pastors back and forth,” Rev. Keith Zeh, a regional mission director for in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, told Dakotafire. “Sometimes when we take a look outside our own denomination, and vice versa, that’s also very helpful.” (Read more)

Federal oil and gas leasing draws ire, support in rural Colorado

President Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, which calls for oil and gas drilling on thousands of acres of public land, is meeting opposition from concerned organic farmers and residents in the rural North Fork Valley of western Colorado.

In March, leases for 114,932 acres of Colorado land will be auctioned, "a tiny piece of what Mr. Obama lauded during last year’s campaign as a historic effort to increase domestic natural-gas production," Jack Healy reports for The New York Times, adding that the reactions of Colorado's citizens are mixed.

Many Paonia residents oppose the leasing, fearing its impact on organic farming and tourism, while many residents of more Republican communities support it because of the jobs and and tax revenues they hope it will bring. Some have also voiced concern about oil spills. The opponents apparently include the weekly Delta County Independent, which described a heated meeting of Bureau of Land Management officials and about 200 Paonia residents in a recent article by asking,"Does anyone in the BLM care about the people and land in the North Fork Valley for anything other than making money from oil and gas leasing?"

Paonia Mayor Neal Schieterman argued that officials were using an outdated resource plan that did not take into consideration the valley's  tourism and organic farming, and said the lease sale should be postponed until a better plan could be developed, Healy reports.

Bruce Bertram, who monitors oil and gas for the county commissioners, as having a different perspective. Since only one of the 27 wells drilled in the county in the last 10 years was on federal land, Bertram argued that that "drilling was already at the doorstep to the valley," as Healy put it.

“Some of the folks aren’t making a good judgment about what’s good and bad,” Bertram told Healy. “There’s a built-in distrust of government and business. And that permeates through the whole area.” (Read more)

Smallest cattle herd in 61 years will affect farmers, meatpackers and consumers

The U.S. has fewer cattle than at any time in the last six decades, says the Department of Agriculture, which reports that a 2 percent decrease in 2012 made for the smallest herd in 61 years. The small herd size could mean lower profits for farmers and higher prices for consumers.

The causes? Severe drought in 2011 drove up the price of corn and hay feed for farmers in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. Ethanol production in other states, providing distillers' grains for feed, may have helped them weather the drought. Iowa is one of those. "Iowa’s cattle industry is gaining on other states,”  Gov. Terry Branstad told a biofuels conference, reports the Des Moines Register. “Iowa and Nebraska are becoming more attractive to cattle feeders than Texas and Oklahoma."

Losses in the industry are expected to impact consumers. Beef prices rose about 10 percent in 2012, according to the Register. The nation's largest meat processor, Tyson Foods, projected hardships but remained optimistic. "Tyson Chief Executive Officer Donnie Smith noted higher prices for feed grain and livestock production, but said continued strong demand for red meat has enabled Tyson to recover most of the costs at retail," the Register reported.

The financial impact on slaughterhouses remains to be seen. Cargill recently announced its plans to close a Texas plant and Tyson has considered closing one of its Iowa plants, the Register reports.


Monday, February 04, 2013

State incentives lure people to rural Kansas, but counties struggle to keep their end of the bargain

A Kansas program designed to encourage more people to move to rural parts of the state is experiencing both participant success and financial concerns.

Amy Bickel of The Hutchinson News reports that the Rural Opportunity Zones program rewards people who move to decreasing-population counties, with income-tax breaks and student-loan assistance. The program pays up to $15,000 of a successful applicant's student loans. Since the program began in 2011, 628 people have applied for the student-loan benefit. More than half of those applications have been approved, and 151 more are pending, according to the article.

However, the expectation that counties match the money put forward for loan payments up to $15,000 is placing a financial burden on the counties the program aims to benefit. Bickel writes, "The program's success is presenting the biggest challenge."

Big story on N.D. oil boom has lesson for reporters

"It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad," Chip Brown writes in The New York Times Magazine. "It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime." (NYT photo by Alec Soth, Magnum)

Brown's long story is a broad, deep look at what happens to a rural area where the economy was based on production agriculture but is now based on energy production. He starts with a look back at a glimpse of the boom's harbingers, the geologists and leasing agents "whose job was to dig through courthouse books for the often-tangled history of mineral title and surface rights. . . . Because the courthouse didn’t open until 7:30, the landmen would leave their briefcases outside the entrance, on the steps, in the order they arrived." (Read more)

The lesson of this story for journalists is to be alert for harbingers. When it comes to oil and natural gas, too many landowners have signed up for a poor deal because they didn't know how much demand there was for their mineral rights. Their news media should be telling them.

Report says veteran suicide rate is up from 2007

Almost every hour in this country, on average, a veteran commits suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 22 veterans per day took their own lives in 2010, up four a day from the 2007 rate.  Perhaps contrary to public perception, the report said most suicides occurred among veterans over 50. It recognized Vietnam-era veterans as a risk group, as well as female veterans.

Military service members come disproportionately from rural areas, which usually lack the depth and breadth of mental-health services found in urban areas.

(Among active service members in 2012, more died from suicide than in combat, we reported here. The Army said Friday that 325 soldiers committed suicides last year; if the tentative number is confirmed, it would be a historical high. "If that bleak total remains at 325, the toll in 2012 would have risen by 15 percent over 2011 when the Army sustained 283 suicides," NBC News reported.)

Reactions to the VA report ranged from encouragement to outrage. The VA pointed out that the daily veteran suicide rate has "remained relatively stable over the past 12 years," but the percentage of the overall national suicide rate accounted for by veteran suicide has actually decreased.  Veteran suicides accounted for about one-fifth of American suicides in 2010, down from one-fourth of suicides in 1999.

The VA said that showed its programs are working, but promised to take "immediate actions." NBC reported that "the top strategy" on the VA's agenda was an already-established task force that could help suicide screening identify warning signs earlier.

Some groups were dismayed by the VA report and demanded more action. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called for more research and collaboration. "The country should be outraged that we are allowing this tragedy to continue," IAVA found and CEO Paul Rieckhoff told NBC.

On Feb. 13, the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will hold a hearing on veterans and mental health care. The Veterans Crisis Line -- 800-273-TALK -- is available for veterans who are concerned about their mental health. (Read more)

At least one U.S. newspaper still does it the old way, the really old way: hot type

In an age where newspapers are increasingly read without the benefit of ink, there is at least one U.S. paper that still prints not only with ink, but solely with the metal type and hot lead that began disappearing in the 1960s. It's the weekly Saguache Crescent of southern Colorado's San Luis Valley, published by Dean Coombs, reports Jonathan Thompson of High Country News.

"The Crescent, now in its 134th year, perseveres, unsullied by the digital world: The office has no computer, no Internet. Coombs bangs out each edition on the keyboard of a 90-year-old Linotype (below; Thompson photo), which forges each line of text, or slug, from molten lead. He arranges the slugs, along with ads and graphics -- engraved into wood or metal -- in the chase, a rectangular metal frame. After they're secured into the press, the chase and type are inked, and the newsprint rolls over them," in "an ancient printing press that emanates a rhythmic whir-swoosh." (Read more)