Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rural vote decisive in last four presidential elections, expert says

The rural vote "has been decisive in the last four presidential elections," according to Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, who "has studied the rural vote in presidential elections more than any other academic," reports the Daily Yonder.

In an article titled "Rural Voters and the Polarization of American Presidential Elections," McKee uses data since 1952 to show that "the split between rural and urban voters has widened even as the older divide between Northern and Southern rural voters has narrowed," reports Bill Bishop, co-editor (with wife Julie Ardery) of the Daily Yonder, a new rural-news site with a political bent. Bishop is a former weekly newspaper reporter, editor and publisher who most recently worked for the Austin American-Statesman.

"Bill Clinton was able to win the presidency in part because he neutralized the rural vote, winning 47 percent and 43 percent, respectively, in these contests," Bishop writes. "By contrast, in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Republican George W. Bush would not have won the presidency if not for the support he received among rural voters—53 percent and 64 percent, respectively, for these contests. Despite the decline in the rural percentage of the American electorate, the rural vote has become more important because it is so decidedly Republican. Never before has the gap in the presidential vote choice of rural and urban voters been so wide."

West Virginia regulators reject controversial wind-energy project; others pending

The Public Service Commission of West Virginia yesterday rejected a controversial proposal for a wind-power plant atop Jack Mountain, a ridge in the southwestwern part of the scenic Eastern Panhandle.

"The panel said the application by Liberty Gap Wind Force LLC to locate turbines on a seven-mile stretch near Franklin failed to provide enough information," reports Joe Morris of The Charleston Gazette. "The application’s map was especially lacking, the commission’s final order says. In violation of PSC siting rules, it neglected to designate existing land uses, recreational areas or historic and archaeological sites, the commission said." It also said the application didn't examine enough angles of the "viewshed," the area where the huge windmill turbines would be visible, and "didn’t resolve concerns about the turbines’ noise and the possibility of their killing bats." The plant would be near Harper in southwest Pendleton County. For the company's initial case filing, which includes a map, click here.

West Virginia has one operating wind-power project, in Tucker County, where the northern part of the Eastern Panhandle joins the rest of the state. Morris reports: "Three other projects are planned in the state, including another by U.S. WindForce" for Grant County, which lies mostly east of Tucker County. "So far, those plans haven’t drawn any legal challenges." Another Grant County project, planned by Dutch-owned Shell Windenergy and London-based NedPower, has been approved by the PSC but faces a lawsuit. The same is true for a plant Chicago-based Invenergy wants to build in Greenbrier County. That's southwest of Pendleton County. "A nearby landowner and an advocacy group, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, sued over the PSC approval," the Gazette reports. (Read more)

Friday, June 22, 2007

House subcommittee rejects Farm Bill reform ideas, but much work and debate remain

Prospects for a different kind of Farm Bill got nowhere in the commodity subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee this week. The panel rejected proposals “that gave cotton and rice growers an almost allergic reaction: new restrictions that would have tracked farm program payments to individuals,” reports Agri-Pulse, a farm-policy newsletter. “Also eliminated: reductions in the percentage of base acres used to calculate direct payments and upward adjustments in support prices. Both provisions had been included in a chairman’s discussion draft that was circulated last Thursday but attracted so much opposition that provisions were changed several times before being dropped prior to Tuesday’s session.”

Only one member of the subcommittee voted for a Bush administration plan that “would have emphasized guaranteed payments to farmers, as opposed to those contingent on market prices," wrote Andrew Martin in The New York Times. “By opening such a wide chasm between themselves and the advocates of change, the members of the panel appear to have increased the chances that the Farm Bill will stir a fierce debate.”

Despite the 18-0 vote, the bill does not seem to be on a fast track. “What happened today was a placeholder,” ranking Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said soon after the committee adjourned. “We’re going to have to revisit all of these issues again in full committee.”

Sara Wyant of Agri-Pulse reports, “Reform-minded interest groups were none too pleased with the outcome. For example, Bread for the World said the panel "ignored calls from thousands of constituents and a broad coalition of groups saying that it is time for broad reform." American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi said, “The committee shouldn't try to design the future of U.S. agriculture policy by looking in the rearview mirror. Agriculture has changed and it’s time for forward looking policies.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin told Wyant likewise in an interview. “We need to get agriculture looking ahead, not looking back,” he said, but Wyant reported, “Many veteran farm policy observers believe that he’ll have a tough time getting any major changes out of his own committee.”

The House committee's Farm Bill web site provides a section-by-section summary of the legislation. For more background and commentary on the bill, see the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Poor counties get a lot more in farm subsidies than development grants

A new study shows that the contrast of heavy farm subsidies and relatively few rural-development grants to poor counties is a national pattern, not just in the Delta of northwest Mississippi, where The Washington Post reported a story this week. The pattern has been established by the Southern Rural Development Initiative, a nonprofit that says it "provides practical tools for rural community leaders, organizations, and related national sectors to create just and economically sustainable communities across the rural South."

In 2001-03, "For every rural development grant dollar sent to the 364 poorest rural counties in America, $15.65 went in agricultural commodity direct payment subsidies – most of it to a small number of very large farm operations," the study report says. "Over this three-year period, these 364 poor rural counties received $5 billion through nutrition programs, primarily to children and their families. This is a per capita allocation of $730, compared to the national nutrition program per capita allocation of $305 and $366 for nonmetro counties. This reflects the extreme poverty conditions found in these counties."

The reports says the Department of Agriculture "perpetuates the legacy of the Deep South’s anachronistic, inequitable economy through its agricultural subsidy programs. The commodity crops grown in this region that account for the bulk of the subsidy payments (rice, cotton, and sugar) are crops that anchored the old plantation system. Sharecropping and Jim Crow are gone, but those communities and states that have not invested in building broad-based community assets through education, civic capacity, and basic economic infrastructure remain dependent on an anachronistic economy via supports from the federal government."

The release of the study and the Post story were more than coincidental. SRDI Policy and Research Director Jason Gray told The Rural Blog that he told one of the Post reporters that the study was in the works.

FCC chairman supports subsidizing rural broadband

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said this week that high-speed Internet service for rural areas needs to be subsidized, as part of the "universal service" that is an established federal policy for telecommunications.

Martin said at a conference in Chicago that broadband policies should be changed so rural consumers could receive urban-level services, "but there's a limited amount of funding to do this." He called for "a policy that is technologically neutral," and said the FCC should move away from "subsidizing multiple voice carriers in rural areas" to subsidizing broadband, Gene J. Koprowski reported for Technology Daily. (Read more)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Montana Journalism Review: The Challenges of Rural Journalism

Much of the latest issue of the Montana Journalism Review is devoted to rural journalism, and we're happy to highlight it here because the state has innovators in the field, three of whom attended our National Summit on Journalism in Rural America this spring -- Keith Graham of the University of Montana, Courtney Lowery of the online news source New West and John Q. Murray of the Clark Fork Chronicle, in photo. They and their ideas are featured.

Graham and Lowery started Rural News Network in 2006 when they saw a need for a rural news connection and got it funded by the New Voices program of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism. The network began in Lowery's hometown of Dutton, which lost its newspaper years ago. "Lowery and Graham hope the RNN Web site will allow people in Dutton to publish their own news," Eleena Fikhman writes. For her interview with Graham and Lowery, click here.

In Murray's piece, which we recommend you read, he analyzes the challenges facing newspapers in rural areas that have seen "traditional natural resource industries decline and families move away in search of work." He is assembling a Corporation for Public Community Newspapers, "an independent non-profit organization with a dues-paying membership. Members attend regular meetings to: (1) review the progress of the local community newspaper toward its agreed-upon goals; (2) identify special reporting projects that the newspaper should undertake; and (3) vote to provide funding for specific special projects. . . .The supplemental funding provided by the nonprofit means the newspaper can increase its news hole to provide that coverage, regardless of the amount of advertising sold that week. The nonprofit is its own distinct organization, completely separate from the for-profit newspaper, but the two enter into a binding contract that gives the nonprofit full budget authority over the special projects. The members of the nonprofit vote on the special projects and provide the funding. The newspaper is free to turn down the project and the funding. In that case, the nonprofit can seek to contract with freelancers or other citizen journalists to produce the special projects. Conversely, the newspaper can choose to implement all special projects recommended by the non-profit, even if they are not fully funded." (Read more)

Gwen Florio, who came to Montana to cover the West for The Philadelphia Inquirer and is now state-capital reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, writes of her introduction to new territory: "Rural reporting was going to require a whole new set of skills. It would also prove to be the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, before or since." Some of her tips: "Wear good shoes. By which I mean sturdy. Lest you think this is frivolous advice, try walking through gumbo in loafers. Or savor the nice warm feeling of a cowflop squishing into open-toed sandals. And on your way to change your footgear, go fill your gas tank." (Read more)

KCGM (that stands for Kids, Cattle, Grain, Minerals), is "the voice of the prairies, your good-neighbor station" in Scobey, Mont. Mike Stebleton writes that the FM station "can attribute its 35 of continued survival to just one thing: unconditional support from the Daniels County community and surrounding area." In an unusual twist, the effort to establish the station was led by Larry Bowler, editor-publisher of the weekly Daniels County Leader. "We were being considered colonies of neighboring, larger populated areas, and I wanted us to develop a certain amount of political clout so that some of our feelings could get to higher levels," Bowler explained in a 1995 interview. (Read more)

The Review also has a story about rural news coverage in Kyrgyzstan, by Kubanychbek Taabaldiev, who has run the former Soviet Central Asian republic's national news agency since 1998. "He is a 2007 Fulbright Scholar researching rural Montana's press to learn how Kyrgyzstan might transition to independent media from state-controlled news," the Review reports. "Kyrgyzstan is the only country of the five Central Asian states with comparatively free media." Click here to read his report.

Finally, just for fun is "I've Read Every Sheet," a song about rural newspapers by Dennis Swibold, sung to the tune of "I've Been Everywhere," a tune penned by Geoff Mack and made familiar by Lucky Starr, Hank Snow and Johnny Cash. Mack's version is dominated by place names, Swibold's by newspaper names.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Washington Post sees contrast in largess for big farms, little for small towns in Delta

Gilbert Gaul and Dan Morgan of The Washington Post plow a new furrow in a familiar field today, taking their examination of farm subsidies to 10 counties in the Delta region of northwest Mississippi, where the Department of Agriculture spent $1.18 billion on such subsidies from 2001 to 2005, and only $54.8 million on rural development projects.

"Most residents (Post photo) are black, but less than 5 percent of the money went to black farmers. They own relatively little land, and so they generally do not qualify for the payments," the writers report, calling that "one of the contradictions of federal farm policy, which favors big agriculture over small farms and poor rural towns. In the Delta, it has helped to preserve a two-tiered economy and a widening economic chasm between the races, according to local residents, government officials and researchers." For a Post graphic illustrating the gaps, click here.

"The policy choice that Congress has made is so stark," Charles Fluharty, director emeritus of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told the Post. "You see the effects in lots of poor rural communities. But the tragedy is exacerbated in the minority communities." (Read more)

Judge questions why drug-firm executives in OxyContin case aren't going to jail

"A federal judge is raising questions about a plea agreement that calls for $634.5 million in fines -- but no jail time -- for the illegal marketing of OxyContin," a painkiller that became a street drug and a scourge in Central Appalachia, reports Laurance Hammack of The Roanoke Times. "Before sentencing three Purdue Pharma executives next month, U.S. District Judge James Jones will consider responses to 16 questions he recently submitted to federal prosecutors and company officials. One of the questions: Why should the executives not be sent to jail?"

Prosecutors replied, "While it certainly is appropriate for the corporate officials to be held accountable for the actions of the company, a sentence of incarceration ... would be unusual." The case itself is unusual, and "It's unusual for a judge to have so many questions about a plea agreement," Hammack notes. If Jones rejects the plea agreements, the three executives could withdraw their pleas.

"The misdemeanor charges to which the executives pleaded guilty carry up to one year in jail; the company pleaded guilty to a felony charge," Hammack reports. "Such charges are rarely used in the misbranding of pharmaceuticals, the government stated, and the negotiated plea agreements will "serve as a strong warning" to other drug companies."

Prosecutors said the fine "accounts for about 90 percent of the company's profits from the time the drug went on the market in 1996 until 2001," Hammack writes. "The fine is the country's third largest to be assessed against a pharmaceutical company." (Read more)

TV station in eastern North Carolina presses open-court case on principle and wins

When the judge in a school-funding lawsuit between the school board and commissioners of Pitt County, N.C., slapped a gag order on the elected officials and refused to hear a TV station's appeal, he probably thought he had given the station the old stiff-arm. But even after the trial, WNCT-TV News Director Melissa Preas, right, pressed the case in an effort to make sure it didn't happen again. Yesterday, the state Court of Appeals said the judge was wrong.

We learned about this from Al's Morning Meeting, the daily online column by Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute. He writes, "Over the last several years, many journalism executives, print and broadcast, have told me how difficult it is these days to get corporate backing to take on a legal fight like this, especially when the decision has more to do with principle and precedent than anything else. I wish journalism organizations would pick more legal fights on behalf of the public." This case set a statewide precedent.

Tompkins interviewed Preas by e-mail. "We really felt this was wrong on every level. particularly when dealing with two public entities fighting over public money," she said. "If we didn't pursue this appeal, then in our opinion that just left the door wide open for it to continue to happen." She said Media General, the station's owner, was very supportive. To read the interview, click here.

Schurz exec creates internships in Bloomington, Ind., to replace those axed by Gannett paper

When the Montgomery Advertiser "was forced to make quick and drastic budget cuts last week," three interns were suddenly left without summer jobs" at the paper in Alabama's capital, reports Richard Prince in his online Journal-isms column. "Similar cuts could be coming at other Gannett properties." The students " were instantly picked up by Schurz Communications, a South Bend, Ind., media company that owns 15 dailies and five weeklies," Prince reports. Charles Pittman, above, Schurz's senior vice president for newspapers, learned of the situation after speaking to the interns at the Freedom Forum's Diversity Institute, and told Prince he couldn't let "these young people have their internship pulled out from under them." They will go to the Herald Times [circulation 28,000] in Bloomington, Ind. "Schurz is taking a total of 13 interns, all [from] a joint multimedia program of Black College Wire and the Diversity Institute."

Advertiser Publisher Scott Brown referred questions about the move to Wanda Lloyd, the paper's editor, who said she might have had to cut a full-time staff member to keep the intern slots. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell told Prince that the company's publishers have been told to control spending "when there's pressure on revenue," and Prince noted that the company's revenue dropped 6 percent last month. (Read more)

Heartland Publications cuts staff at North Carolina papers it bought; two publishers quit

The publishers of The Mount Airy News and The Tribune of Elkin, N.C., resigned Monday in the wake of job cuts made by the papers' new owner, Heartland Publications LLC of Old Saybrook, Conn. The papers were among 16 Heartland bought this month from family-owned Mid-South Management Co. of Spartanburg, S.C.

“The managing editors of the Elkin and Mount Airy publications were part of about a dozen positions eliminated in a bid to consolidate operations,” reports Andy Matthews, editor of the Yadkin Valley Times News, an online publication in East Bend, N.C. It said “roughly a dozen” jobs at the newspapers were eliminated.

"There were deep cultural differences between the way The Tribune had been operated in my 37 years there and the way that Heartland chooses to operate its newspapers,” Good told Richard Craver of the Winston-Salem Journal (from which the photograph above is taken). Good indicated that he might start his own newspaper. “The situation is very fluid at the moment, and we are keeping all our options open.”

Good had been publisher of the 6,000-circulation weekly for 29 years. He also was publisher of The Yadkin Ripple, a weekly in Yadkinville, and On The Vine, "the only publication dedicated to covering the North Carolina wine industry," Craver reports. Mount Airy Publisher Michael Milligan had held that job at the 9,200-circulation daily for eight years. He also was publisher of The Weekly Independent in Rural Hall, The Stokes News in King, The Pilot in Pilot Mountain and The Carroll News in adjoining Virginia.

Heartland CEO Michael Bush told Craver, “We plan on identifying the best publishers we can and getting them in there as soon as possible.” (Read more) The Times News paraphrased him as saying “the company remains committed to community journalism.” (Read more) Heartland's purchase of the Mid-South papers, noted in The Rural Blog on June 7 , made it the largest chain in North Carolina, with 18 papers, including five dailies.

UPDATE: The Mount Airy News reported Wednesday that nine other employees, from the news, advertising and composing departments, joined Milligan in resigning.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Southern Baptist Convention rejects call for restraint in political matters

Is there a Baptist church in your community? Probably, because Baptists are the largest segment of Protestantism in the United States. Is that church a part of the Southern Baptist Convention? Probably; the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination, and Baptists dominate most counties in states that had a star in the Confederate battle flag (see Glenmary Research Center map below). But the church you're thinking about might be a former member of the SBC, or an alienated one, because quite a few Baptists dislike the denomination's relatively new activism in politics.

So reports Eric Gorski of The Associated Press in a story that provides a starting point for background to inform local stories about local churches. Gorski was in San Antonio for the SBC's annual meeting, at which messengers (delegates) rejected a resolution urging their leaders "to exercise great restraint when speaking on behalf of Southern Baptists so as not to intermingle their personal political persuasions with their chief responsibility to represent Jesus Christ and this convention." The issue was not mentioned in the Baptist Press wrap-up of proceedings, which included a President Bush speech, via video. (Baptist Press photo)

The resolution was pushed by "A small but vocal number of pastors [who] believe the denomination is too cozy with Republicans and too political in general," AP reports. "By flirting with the line separating good citizenship and a grab for power, they say, a denomination already experiencing flat membership risks alienating more people. [See next paragraph.] Others contend such talk might inspire Southern Baptists to retreat from the public square and cede ground on urgent social issues such as abortion. If anything, the debate is likely to become even more magnified in coming months because no one Republican candidate has captured the conservative evangelical imagination — and all of them are trying." (Read more)

For centuries, Baptists led efforts to separate church and state, but the SBC reversed that after court decisions on school prayer and abortion, and has become a leading element of the Religious Right during debates on same-sex marriage and gay rights. Hundreds of churches have left the group and joined the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which says, "We believe in freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. We support the separation of church and state."