Thursday, August 30, 2007

Coal industry as a whole should share blame for mine-safety shortcomings, Ky. weekly says

Utah mine owner Robert E. Murray's "recklessness" and the Mine Safety and Health Administration's "failure to rein him in" are to blame for the recent tragedy, but others should face congressional inquiry next week: "Murray's co-conspirators in the coal industry," opines The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.

In the latest in a series of detailed, hard-hitting editorials on the safety issues raised by the disaster, the Eagle declares, "We continue to be haunted by the still largely unexamined story of how the industry fought -- successfully -- to keep MSHA from requiring modern mine communications technology in underground coal mines," the Eagle writes. MSHA's excuse, from the Federal Register: "Since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than [current technology] may be developed."

"We've never seen a worse excuse for fatal inaction or a better example of what's wrong with the coal industry and mine safety enforcement," the Eagle editorial concludes. (Read more)

The Cullman Times, a small Alabama daily, makes Web video part of the routine

While many smaller newspapers only have just begun to use the Web, The Cullman (Ala.) Times has started posting daily video updates on its site. The 10,000-circulation daily drew praise for its innovation from Editor & Publisher's Pauline Millard, who said the paper showed the new technology could be used on a budget. (At right: An image from one of the recent Web videos available daily on the paper's site.)
In her column, Millard writes that the staff uses "simple equipment, such as cheap work lights from Wal-Mart, a light diffuser made from PVC and clearance-rack fabric, and an ancient Macintosh computer that serves as a TelePrompTer" for a studio, while the images and sound are captured with "a $300 consumer video camera and a $100 shotgun microphone."

Above all, the newscasts are "hyperlocal," Millard says, and thus give readers and viewers want they want. Called "The Update," the video follows the format of a TV news program, complete with an opening tease of the day's top stories followed by a montage of the newspaper's staff in action and a nod to The Update's sponsor. After the top stories, The Update divides the remaining time among feature and sports stories. In all, it is concise 11-minute video that does far more than the "talking head" format of some newspaper Web video.

To view a recent Web video update from The Cullman Times, go here.

Following legal victory, Florida papers post database of FEMA's hurricane aid

Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers and television stations in Florida had sought Federal Emergency Management Agency records on the distribution of hurricane relief money since filing a lawsuit in 2005. The records were made public in June and are now published in a searchable database.

The Web site of The News-Press in Fort Myers has posted the database, which includes information from the four hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004 (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne). The database is searchable by the addresses of those who registered for aid and includes the date of application and approval, any amount approved and ownership status of the applicant. The database appears alongside a collection of analysis of the FEMA aid and stories of the legal battle over the information.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

National poverty rate is down, but not in rural areas, where it has increased among children

The Census Bureau's annual poverty report says 15.2 percent of rural Americans lived in poverty in 2006, a rate "statistically unchanged" from 2005, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, the national poverty rate declined for the first time this decade, down to 12.3 percent from 12.6 percent in 2005, the census report says.

At the same time, the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire reports that "in 37 states, a higher percentage of rural children live in poverty today than in 2000." The South has the highest rate, 27.2 percent, while the national rural child poverty rate is 22.2 percent, the study says. States with the highest rates are Mississippi (34.7 percent), Louisiana (34.4 percent) and New Mexico (30.1 percent). The Southwest trails only the South in terms of rural child poverty. Connecticut (9.1 percent) has the lowest rate.

The stagnant overall rural poverty rate stands in contrast to economic growth, especially in agriculture. "According to the Agriculture Department, net farm income, a gauge of the financial health, was a strong $60 billion in 2006, buoyed by rising grain and soybean prices and the boom in fuel ethanol production," Reuters reports. To explain the disparity between the rural and national rates, the Reuters story cites economists who say "rural residents tend to be older, a lower-earning age group, than the national average."

According to the Carsey Institute, there was a "significant decline" in poverty for people over 65 but no significant decline in poverty for children or adults aged 18 to 64. "Research has shown that good policy and programs can alleviate that poverty – programs that provide early childhood education, making work pay for parents, decent schools, and access to health care," said Cynthia "Mil" Duncan, director of the Carsey Institute. "We shouldn't be going backwards on addressing child poverty in the 21st Century."

Casino measure passes after recount in county that includes Charleston, W.Va.

More than two weeks after a slim majority in Kanawha County, W.Va., voted to allow table games at the Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, a greyhound track, the special election's results have been certified following a recount today, reports WSAZ-TV in Charleston and Huntington, W.Va. (Continuing coverage available here.)

The Aug. 11 referendum went through a ballot canvas on Aug. 24, and the measure was determined to have passed by a margin of 343 votes (of more than 46,000 cast), reports Rusty Marks of The Charleston Gazette. Gaming opponents, who don't want to see table games added to the slots and dog racing at the track, then began raising funds for a recount, Marks writes. Officials counted ballots in just 44 of the county's 175 precincts today, because "that's all we could afford," gaming opponent Mia Moran Cooper told Marks. Tri-State officials had the option of continuing the recount if they chose. (Read more)

The recount found 14 additional uncounted votes, bringing the margin of the measure's passage to 339 votes, WSAZ-TV reports. An official breakdown of the pre-recount results is available here. The county was the last of four to hold referenda on casinos at racetracks -- which already had slot machines -- under a law passed to compete with Pennsylvania's approval of slots statewide. Two tracks in the Northern Panhandle will get casinos, but voters in a more prosperous Eastern Panhandle county voted not to allow a casino there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Computer mag looks at rural broadband; contest asks how it changes life

The problem of broadband access in rural America takes center stage at, as the site devotes a large article and a smaller sidebar to a discussion of this important facet of the digital divide.

In the main story, Robert L. Mitchell highlights two key statistics: only 17 percent of rural households use broadband (source: the Government Accountability Office), and that the U.S. ranks 15th in broadband penetration (source: a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Mitchell stresses that broadband is key to keeping rural Americans involved in the “New Economy” — without that access, he says, they will be left out. “Rural areas need broadband,” he writes. “But deregulation has freed carriers from any real obligation to offer it. The market will never provide universal broadband access without regulation or subsidies, but the U.S. lacks both a coherent policy and the political will to address the issue.” (Read more)

In an accompanying piece, Mitchell reports that the absence of high-speed connections hampers the operations of larger retailers who have stores in rural areas. He points to Trans World Entertainment, which uses DSL to communicate among its 1,000 Coconuts and f.y.e. music stores. Mitchell quotes a TWE executive as saying access is unavailable in 17 percent of store locations, and even where it was available it was often painfully slow. (Read more)

In an effort to promote the spread of broadband access to rural areas, the Alliance for Public Technology is encouraging people to tell their stories about what high-speed Internet has meant to them. The campaign is called “Broadband Changed My Life,” and the best stories will earn prizes of “up to $1,000.” The deadline for submission is Oct. 1, 2007. To submit a story, go here.

Congress needs to define legal strip mining, New York Times editorial says

Following Friday’s proposal from the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining to create new regulations allowing mountaintop removal for the surface mining of coal , The New York Times called for Congress to step in and have its say.

The Times says this is the latest example of the Bush administration to protect the practice "from legal challenge. But since the net result is likely to be more confusion and more courtroom wrestling, the situation cries out for Congressional intervention to define once and for all what mining companies can and cannot do."

The editorial also points to legislation from Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Rep. Christopher Shays, D-Conn., as a possible means to address the issue of mountaintop removal and its wastes. (Read more) The Times says the bill has more than 60 co-sponsors; the advocacy group I Love Mountains lists 93.

Earlier this month, Mary Jo Shafer reported in The Mountain Eagle and other newspapers that foes of mountaintop removal were focusing on Washington after being rebuffed at the local and state levels. Shafer, now an assistant city editor at The Anniston (Ala.) Star, did the story during an internship with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues as part of earning a master's degree in community journalism from the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program of the University of Alabama.

Demand for water brings search, and then conflict, to rural areas

As San Antonio and its workforce have grown, so have their need for more water, so water company officials have been forced reached farther out into rural Atascosa County, where communities often have opposed any use of "their" water, reports Jerry Needam for the San Antonio Express-News. His story is a good case study of the history of a local problem that is occurring on the rural fringes of many metropolitan areas.

The San Antonio Water System met opposition again recently when it proposed to build a desalination plant in Atascosa County, and Needam says it is not the first time SAWS has battled with rural residents to bring more water into San Antonio. "Water creates conflicts, there's no doubt about that," William Mullican, deputy executive administrator for the Texas Water Development Board, told Needam. "The history of San Antonio is a very good example of that. Anywhere they start to look, local entities will do whatever they can to try to put in place barriers to that exportation occurring."

Needam says rural residents worry that if the water is used elsewhere, it might not be available if their community's demand grows. On the flip side, one SAWS official argues that sprawl and the spike in commuters mean thousands aren't "paying their water bill to SAWS, but they're using a whole lot of SAWS water" at work. Clearly, it is a difficult balancing act, with the needs of a growing regional hub one side and the concerns of a rural community on the other. Or as another SAWS representative put it, "I don't know that there's any source of water that can be tapped without irritating someone." (Read more)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Edwards focuses on rural voters; one adviser says they will be pivotal in Nov. 2008

In an effort to gain ground in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, John Edwards has styled himself as the candidate most in touch with rural America, reports Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post.

She reports that the former North Carolina senator has peppered his speeches with quips such as, "You don't make a hog fatter by weighing it," an attack on the notion that more testing is all that is needed to improve education. The agricultural analogy highlights his campaign's subtext,"that he is the sole Southern Democrat and cultural conservative in the Democratic presidential field, making him the only top-tier candidate in his party who can appeal easily to white men," Kornblut writes.

Kornblut explains the goal of the rural recasting is to contrast Edwards with Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and make the case that Edwards can "attract culturally conservative voters in states such as Virginia, voters who consider gun ownership an important right and aren't thrown by his drawl."

Virginian David "Mudcat" Saunders, an Edwards adviser, told Kornblut that rural voters will help decide the election. "Rural America is pivotal," he said. "Rural America is saying, 'To hell with the Republicans.' But you've got to have the right candidate, one who can get through to the culture." (Read more)

Wealth-transfer studies, environmental concerns among ideas for rural philanthropic development

Continuing to heed the call of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., attendees at a recent Council of Foundations conference in Montana spent time in small groups creating "working drafts" to shape the "philanthropic agenda for rural America," reports Suzanne Perry of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The ideas included more than "30 items in areas including the arts, economic development, education, the environment, health, housing, technology, and efforts to increase the financial assets of individuals and families."

Perry reports that members recommended that "transfer of wealth" studies be conducted, by state and by county, to show "how much money will be passed on to heirs over the next 50 years." Conference members also said these reports should coupled with guides as to how communities might "tap into that money," she writes. This is of key concern for rural communities, as much of that of wealth is in rural land and assets. If that wealth can be reinvested in those communities, there is great potential for economic development.

According to Perry, the small groups also recommend encouraging "grant making that marries environmental protection to economic development," as well as those grants that take interest in the issues of locally-grown food and the expansion of rural access to technology. By "marrying" large issues, these grants can tap into a deeper pool of resources and gain more attention than narrow examples.

In another suggestion, the conference members emphasized "research on ways foundations can support arts and culture in rural areas and distribute the findings broadly," Perry writes. This recommendation seeks the help of newspapers and other local media, as those would be the natural sources for the public distribution of such findings. Click here to read more; subscription or one-day pass required.

The latest report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy looks to discover ways to bridge that divide in giving between rural and urban nonprofit groups. It suggests that rural nonprofits must combat “grantmakers' perceptions of rural life, geographical isolation and capacity-building needs” to attract more philanthropic investment to rural America.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pennsylvania's plan to put tolls on mainly rural Interstate 80 could be wave of future

If a current controversy in Pennsylvania is any indication, rural residents may have to start paying tolls to travel interstate highways in order to fund transportation improvements in urban areas.

Gov. Ed Rendell proposed, and legislators agreed, that tolls be imposed on Interstate 80, which runs from east to west through the middle of the state and is used mainly by people from other states, mostly truckers. The congressmen from mainly rural northwestern Pennsylvania are trying to block the apparently unprecedented move, but they are unlikely to be successful because the state's two senators don't agree with them, The New York Times reports today.

Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, which has studied the impact of toll roads, told Times reporter Sean Hamill, “I think most states will eventually have to move to the user principle. Tolls are going to be the wave of the future.” (Read more)

"This kind of regional populism seemed to be out of style," researchers Terry Madonna and Michael Young wrote last Sunday. In recent years, "Country-city clashes have been more about values and ideology than about money and economics. . . . The I-80 proposal has violated the tacit modus vivendi between urban and rural Pennsylvania. Rural residents around I-80 don't expect to pay road taxes to subsidize urban Pennsylvania. But that's how they perceive it. As such, it threatens to unsettle the crucial economic questions once thought to be decided -- who gets what, when, and how." Madonna is a professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and Young runs Michael Young Strategic Research in Harrisburg.

Julie Ardery of The Daily Yonder, beating the Times to the story, wrote that the controversy illustrates the increasing responsibility of state and local governments for infrastructure. She concluded, "We hear a lot about the cultural divisions between rural and urban Americans, but culture doesn't explain Pennsylvania's toll road 'slugfest.' This battle isn't over "values" but money – the money needed to pay for federal highways that the feds can’t or won’t provide." (Read more)