Friday, August 17, 2007

Kentucky county on edge of Cumberland Plateau rejects idea of allowing ATVs on public roads

An ordinance to allow all-terrain vehicles on public roads, which got national attention when introduced in Wayne County, Kentucky, last month, died at this week's meeting of the county Fiscal Court when even the member who introduced it declined to vote for it on second reading. ATVs are highly popular in the county, where the rugged western edge of the Cumberland Plateau meets the Tennessee border.

"District Two Magistrate Darrell Dishman, who originally brought the petition to the court asking that ATV's be allowed to travel on county roads in order to reach off-road trails, said he was opposed to the ordinance because he did not want to burden riders with purchasing liability insurance," Melodie Jewell Phelps reports in this week's Wayne County Outlook. "District Three Magistrate Dale Vaughn said he was opposed to this ordinance from the first day he learned about it. But he said he wanted to keep and open mind and listen to those who voiced an opinion [at a recent public hearing]. With Kentucky leading the nation in ATV deaths right now, Vaughn said he was afraid the numbers would skyrocket." (Read more)

About those names: As non-Kentuckians may have guessed, a fiscal court is the state's version of a county commission. The name goes back to the days when magistrates (still "justices of the peace" in the state constitution) had both budgetary and judicial powers. But it's more accurate nomenclature than in Louisiana, where the county legislative body is the Police Court. Still, when it comes to such names, we like a little color and thus don't care for a recent change in Tennessee, where the official name is Legislative Body. Ugh. And a persnal note on newspaper nomenclature: I've always liked the name of the Outlook, against which I competed briefly 32 years ago. A newspaper ought to give readers an idea, at least implicit, of the outlook for their community. The name is most popular among papers in Kentucky, site of three of the 13 weekly Outlooks in the United States. Washington and Ohio each have two. Only one U.S. daily bears the name, the Alexander City (La.) Outlook. --Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

From the faraway Appalachian coalfield, a weekly newspaper's editorial rebuke for Utah mine owner

As The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., went to press yesterday, the weekly newspaper looked far west to another coalfield, where rescue efforts continued at the Crandall Canyon Mine of Murray Energy Corp. in Utah. "We join with mining communities throughout the coalfields in praying for their rescue, even as time grinds away at the odds of achieving that outcome," the Eagle's editorial said. "Meanwhile, everyone anxious about the fate of the miners has had to endure a week of watching the mine’s owner, Robert Murray, demonstrating why he doesn’t deserve to be trusted with the facts, let alone the lives of thousands of people who depend on him for their livelihoods." (Photo of Murray by Ramin Rahimian of Reuters, via the Daily Yonder)

The editorial accused Murray of several misstatements. "Particularly galling to us were his off-the-wall rants about former federal mine safety officials Davitt McAteer and Tony Oppegard, both of whom we know well," who worked for the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton era and "have been among the most effective advocates miners have ever had – a distinction Bob Murray would no doubt claim for himself, but one that wouldn’t seem likely to withstand a moment’s scrutiny."

After reports that cast Murray as "bumptious but benevolent . . . his Berlin Wall of bluster began crumbling," the Eagle notes. "The first blows came from seismologists who reported that the 'seismic event' at Crandall Canyon was the violent cave-in itself, not an earthquake triggering it. Then MSHA contradicted him, confirming that Crandall Canyon was indeed doing retreat mining in the area of the cave-in. Then . . . came reports that miners who had been working in the area had been fearful about their safety."

The Eagle explained to its readers the differences in the mines they know and the one in Utah, and questioned MSHA's approval of retreat mining in an environment where high pressure and seismic activity can cause "'bumps' or 'bounces' in which the mine ribs or floor can suddenly give way with explosive force, firing chunks of coal like bullets and reducing solid coal pillars to rubble." It said the investigation of the accident should not be left to MSHA, but also include a group of outside experts. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rural rollout of broadband running out of gas because profits shrink far from cities, expert says

“Are rural Americans doomed to second-rate broadband services?” asks Robert Mitchell, a national correspondent for Computerworld. The magazine says the answer is yes -- because it's too expensive for publicly held communications firms that maximize profit to please Wall Street. Sound familiar, newspapers?

Less than a third of rural American homes have high-speed Internet, while half in metropolitan areas do, according to the latest survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Only 31 percent of rural homes have broadband, while 52 percent in urban areas and 49 percent in suburbs do. Rural households are gaining on their metro counterparts, but slowly. "Between 2006 and 2007, high-speed Internet usage among rural adults grew by 24 percent, versus 18 percent for urban residents and just 7 percent for suburbanites," Pew's report said. "Broadband penetration among rural residents in early 2007 is now roughly equal to broadband penetration among urban/suburban residents in early 2005." (Read the report)

Pew focuses on demographics, Mitchell reports, “because accurate estimates of broadband deployment are simply not available from the cable and telecommunications companies -- and because the center's studies are too small to paint a complete picture with regard to availability. . . . Most of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ has already been picked in terms of providing access to the most profitable, easy-to-reach customers. While demographics may play a role in the slowdown in broadband penetration, the situation may be that many people in the country simply can't get broadband, whether they want it or not." (Read more)

In an earlier piece, Mitchell said Verizon's sale of rural lines in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to “tiny” FairPoint Communications “is part of a broad strategy to shed less profitable business in rural areas while retaining business in higher density metropolitan areas, where the return per mile of fiber-optic cable is highest. . . . Today, most rural New England customers can't even get basic DSL. But even if FairPoint does offer broadband to more rural customers . . . will it be yesterday's technology, while the rest of the world moves to multi-megabit speeds capable of supporting multimedia video and audio streams?”

Again, Mitchell says yes. “The telephone network is slowly disappearing into the Internet,” he writes. “While universal access for telephone service is still a reality, there is no such entitlement for rural Americans when it comes to broadband. Unless an investment is made, most of them will remain in maintenance mode on the outdated . . . infrastructure.” Governments' role in providing broadband is limited by lack of money, and state laws -- passed after heavy lobbying by telecom firms -- to limit or block publicly provided broadband.

Illinois Press Assn. starts small-donor fund for journalism training, First Amendment advocacy

Most of the charitable programs for journalism training and advocacy are designed to attract donations from foundations and large companies, so the Illinois Press Association's foundation has started one designed to get smaller contributions from individual journalists -- the Fourth Estate Society.

"Newspaper people tend to share a really strong bond with their industry," IPA's PressLines reports. "They don't have newspaper jobs; they are newspaper people. And many of them want to share their successes with future generations of journalists and pass along the passion that they have for newspapers."

The society has five levels of annual memberships, ranging from $50 to $1,000, and a $2,500 lifetime membership. Members get public recognition, reports from the Illinois Press Foundation and invitations to events sponsored by the foundation. The contributions fund efforts to protest the First Amendment, promote literacy efforts and provide journalism scholarships for students and working journalists. (Read more)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Paper gets back computer police took after chief's reporter wife told him of colleague's recording

"A judge ordered authorities to return a newspaper's computer, but only after its hard drive was copied for possible search to determine whether a reporter broke the law by recording sources without their permission," The Associated Press reports, updating the embarrassing saga of the New Castle (Pa.) News.

Local police seized the computer after a reporter who is married to the police chief told her husband that another reporter had recorded interviews with him and a county supervisor. Recording of phone conversations in Pennsylvania requires consent of both parties, and violation of the law is punishable by up to seven years in prison. The newspaper says it is protected by case law, and won a court order preventing police from getting data from the computer. It struck an agreement with the local district attorney agreed that the computer's hard drive could be copied for possible search if courts rule that the case can go forward.

The News reported that the case "has been resolved" by the agreement, and its story does not mention the copying of the hard drive. It says the agreement "required The News to remove from the computer and other recording devices any audio recordings obtained without the consent of the party whose communication was being recorded. The computer and audio recording devices then were to be returned to The News."

Also, reporter John Manna writes, the News must require its reporters "to obtain the consent of a party prior to recording any conversation involving the party." However, the agreed order says that does not apply "to any recordings of public proceedings where consent is implied or other recording permitted by law." In exchange, the district attorney agreed not to prosecute the reporter for wiretapping. (Read more)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Most community journalism about Congress is favorable, often superficial, experts find

Most community newspapers' coverage of their U.S. representative is not critical, and is often superficial, Brian Schaffner of American University said during a panel discussion at the convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, which ended today in Washington, D.C.

Schaffner cited a 1998 Freedom Forum study that found 49 percent of stories about members of Congress originated with a member's office, and another study which found that only 6 percent of stories about members mentioned someone critical of the member. However, "Some community journalists do produce coverage that can be used to hold incumbents accountable," he said. He offered a "counter-hypothesis," that most coverage is favorable because members do a good job of representing their districts, and the threat of negative stories keeps them in line. Our experience with papers and members says that is unlikely.

Newspaper ownership plays a role in how local papers cover local members of Congress, Schaffner said. He said his research has found that chain-owned newspapers have less coverage of congressional activities, but more coverage of campaigns for Congress. "A lot of times the House races are a kind of black hole" in coverage, he said, adding that is probably even more true of state legislative races.

It's important to distinguish between campaign and other coverage, said Bernard Stein of The Riverdale Press, a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly at the far edge of the Bronx in New York City. "Every news outlet has an obligation to interview all the candidates" who will be on the ballot in its circulation area, he said, but he was less supportive of heavy coverage of congressional activities, because the Internet has made that more available to people who want to read it. He said the Press seldom does a story focused on Riverdale's member, but often mentions him in stories about local issues with a federal aspect.

Garrette Silverman, press secretary for Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, defended her office's production of a weekly column that carries the senator's byline and appears regularly in 69 Ohio papers with a total circulation of 4 million. She said she writes it on the basis of a taped conversation with Voinovich, and he approves the final copy. We observed that is likely not the case with state legislators, most of whom in our experience put their bylines on canned columns produced by the staff of their party caucus. --Al Cross

Utah mines are especially vulnerable to ‘bumps’ caused by pulling pillars; Murray mine had one

As the effort to rescue six miners in Utah goes on, stories published today suggest more strongly than ever that the mining method used at the mine -- pulling the pillars of coal that support the mine roof -- is the most likely explanation for the massive release of rock known as a "bump," which is usually a roof collapse but can come up from the floor. "Federal studies have found that pulling pillars, especially in the bump-prone mines of Utah, is always particularly dangerous," Ken Ward writes in The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette.

"A bump occurs because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down," Ward explains. "Very deep mines in the hard sandstone areas of Utah are especially prone to bumps. The hard rock roof and floor of mines adds to the pressure that can cause bumps. At least 80 percent of bumps have been found to occur while operators are performing retreat mining or pulling pillars, according to another Bureau of Mines study published in 1991." (Read more)

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a memo, and did the map above, showing that operators of Murray Energy Corp.'s Crandall Canyon Mine were trying to work around 'poor roof conditions' before halting mining of the northern tunnels in early March after a "large bump occurred . . . resulting in heavy damage' in those tunnels. The memo indicates that mine operators knew the tremendous pressures of a mountain bearing down on the mine were creating problems with the roof, and they were searching for a way to safely keep the mine from falling in as they cut away the coal pillars supporting the structure."

Robert Ferriter, director of the safety program at the Colorado School of Mines and a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, questioned the role of the agency, which approved "retreat mining," or pillar-pulling, in May. "It's dangerous. Damn dangerous I would say," Ferriter told Robert Gehrke of the Trbune. "What is MSHA doing in all this? They're the ones who are supposed to catch this sort of thing." (Read more)

Indians use federal laws and casino revenue to block developments far from reservations

“Developers are increasingly running up against newly powerful but tradition-minded American Indian leaders” in the West, such as Mike Jackson of the Quechan Indians, right, Nelson Schwartz of The New York Times reports today from the Quechan base of Yuma, Ariz. The tribe blocked creation of a gold mine and a low-level nuclear waste dump, and now is fighting construction of an oil refinery. (For a map of those sites, click here.)

Thanks to federal environmental and historic-preservation laws, Indians have impact far beyond their reservations. “In northern Arizona, Navajos, Hopis and other Indians have effectively stopped plans to expand a ski resort roughly 50 miles from the nearest reservation, after convincing a federal appellate panel in March that using wastewater to make artificial snow would desecrate peaks long held sacred,” Schwartz writes. (Photo by Jeff Topping for the Times)

In Montana, Northern Cheyenne make similar arguments “to block drilling for coal-bed methane near their reservation,” Schwartz reports. "Pumping water out of underground aquifers to extract natural gas will harm the spirits that inhabit the springs and streams where the Northern Cheyenne worship, says Gail Small, a Northern Cheyenne tribe member who heads Native Action, an environmental group she founded after graduating from law school. Adding weight to her argument is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, ... which acknowledges the link between native American religion and land both on and off the reservation.”

“You’re seeing a real renaissance of tribes becoming aware of their cultural resources and heritage, and reclaiming that heritage even when it’s off the reservation,” University of Arizona law professor Robert Williams Jr. told the Times. He has advised tribes on the legal issues surrounding off-reservation sacred sites. Schwartz reports, “Thanks to the rise of casino gambling on Indian reservations, many tribes now have the money to challenge natural resource companies, real estate interests and other wealthy players who have long held sway in the West.” (Read more)