Saturday, August 16, 2008

McCain scores most points in faith-oriented forum, but Obama probably helped himself too

As Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama prepared for their back-to-back interviews by pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd wrote in his "First Read" column: "This is a HUGE opportunity for Obama. Time and again, he has been more open to talking about his relationship with God, while McCain has been more reticent on the topic." And on CNN before the first interview, Tony Perkins of the socially conservative Family Research Council said "Obama has the most to gain," and McCain "needs to shore up his support among evangelicals." (Photo by Monica Almeida, The New York Times)

But the interviews were not so much inquiries about faith as they were conversations on big issues like war, taxes and education. And while Obama was more of a conversationalist with Warren, McCain directed his remarks at the audience, and scored repeatedly with plain, direct statements. Obama was more about nuance. For example, when asked if evil exists and of so how it should be dealt with, McCain chose the option, "Defeat it" and Obama said evil can't be eliminated. "That is God’s task," he said, "but we can be soldiers in the process."

That was one of many times the candidates dropped in religious references. McCain had twice as many applause lines as Obama, and not because the church crowd was out of sync with Obama on social issues; three of his dozen or so applause lines came during his discussion of marriage. (Obama was interviewed first; McCain was in a room where he could not hear the conversation, but they shook hands between interviews, making this their first joint appearance.)

While McCain got better reviews and likely gained the most, by solidifying his conservative evangelical base, Obama also helped himself. For many viewers, this was their best chance yet to take the measure of a man many of them are not quite sure about. And because many evangelicals are moderate, Obama's mix of faith and issue positions probably helped him with such voters.

That is more likely outside the South, where the Southern Baptist Convention (once a doctinare supporter of the separation of church and state) and many of its churches have become powerful messengers of social conservatism and activist politics. (Counties where Southern Baptists dominate are shown in red on map from the Glenmary Center.) CNN's Dana Bash said before the interviews that Obama's main targets are evangelicals in small-town Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those are big, Northern states where he did not do well in primaries, and Pennsylvania was on his mind when he made the famous comment about bitter small-town voters.

Bash displayed her lack of understanding of the candidates' religion when she said McCain "belongs to a Baptist church, but has not been baptized yet." That's a Southern Baptist church in Phoenix she was talking about, and you don't join one of those churches without being baptized -- or transferring your membership from a church that baptized you.

UPDATE, Aug. 18: Obama made misleading claims about ethics and abortion, and McCain exaggerated his tax-cut proposals, says Annenberg Political Fact Check.

New law designed to help rural higher education

The new federal higher-education law, which President Bush signed Thursday, includes "provisions supported by a rural coalition of college presidents," reports the Madison Daily Leader of South Dakota, citing a letter from the state Board of Regents.

The new measures "are intended to support rural education by increasing enrollment and graduation rates at rural-serving institutions," the Leader reports in a non-bylined story. "Rural colleges and universities may use the funds to provide counseling and outreach to students in rural high schools, increase enrollment of non-traditional students from rural areas, and strengthen their academic programs."

"For the first time, the federal government has specifically recognized the unique challenges faced by rural-serving institutions of higher education," South Dakota State University President Douglas Knowlton said. He said nearly 30 percent of all public, four-year colleges are in rural or geographically remote communities, and enrollment rates there are generally lower than in cities and suburbs. (Read more)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Big grant from Kentucky's tobacco-settlement fund was spent with little accountability, auditor says

Kentucky's state auditor "released a highly critical report Friday on nearly $5 million in agriculture marketing grants from Kentucky's tobacco settlement money," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The audit says "oversight of the grants to Louisville-based Allied Food Marketers West was so lax that the results can't be measured. ... Allied was supposed to help Kentucky farmers get their products into more markets." The grant, which expired June 30 and was not renewed, is one of the largest from state tobacco-settlement funds.

"It is deeply troubling that these tobacco settlement funds, intended to help transition our agriculture economy, were spent with such a disregard for accountability," Luallen said in a press release. Patton notes, "The grants were awarded by the Agricultural Development Board in 2005 and 2006, under former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who chaired the board. The vice chairman of the board was, and still is, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer." They are Republicans; Luallen and Gov. Steve Beshear are Democrats. Farmer told Patton that the board probably should have had greater oversight.

The recently appointed head of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, former state Rep. Roger Thomas, said in a release that he asked for the audit because "It became apparent that several financial-control and contract-management issues had been overlooked" by the previous administration. The office serves as staff to the board. The owner of Allied declined to comment until he had read the audit.

"There were multiple conflicts of interest, including a $500,000 earmark for Rebekah Grace Food Supplements to market natural and organic products. The general manager of Rebekah Grace was an employee of Allied, which already had a deal to steer products to Rebekah Grace," Patton reports. "Luallen said the results have not been referred to a law enforcement agency because the contract was so weakly written that it would be difficult to hold Allied to any criminal conduct." (Read more)

For a 2006 report from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues about Kentucky's tobacco-settlement spending, and a comparison with North Carolina's, click here.

Dream of telemedicine often deferred by financial, legal and government policy obstacles

Telemedicine holds great potential for rural health care, and even for economic development, but "there are still major obstacles that have prevented adoption of this technology," Kathryn Mackenzie writes for Health Leaders Media. "Lack of reimbursement, the high cost of purchasing and installing the equipment, and confusion surrounding the legality of providing patient care across state lines are among the most commonly cited reasons."

Dr. Karen Rheuban, president-elect of the American Telemedicine Association, said recently in testimony to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development that the technology needs more taxpayer investment. Also, "Medicare reimbursement policies and uncoordinated agency definitions of rurality" have slowed adoption of telemedicine, she said. However, "The government doesn't seem to be in any rush" to authorize additional forms of telemedicing for reimbursement, Mackenzie writes.

She concludes, "The reports predicting that the practice of telemedicine will save the healthcare industry billions of dollars while vastly improving the quality of patient care may eventually prove to be prophetic. Before that happens, however, most experts agree there is going to have to be broader financial support from payers in both the private and public sectors." (Read more)

Telemedicine has often been cited as a key to reducing damage from strokes in rural patients, but "It's not just stroke patients who are benefiting from telemedicine," Jonathan Gitlin writes for Ars Technica. "Overstretched state and local health authorities are making use of the technology to spread their resources further while avoiding having doctors spending long amounts of time on the road. It's not just for institutions; as we reported recently, Intel is about to enter the market with a home telemedicine device, the Health Guide. If I have any concern over the growing use of telemedicine, it is over matters peripheral to the actual doctor/patient interaction. Instead, the worries are infrastructural: does rural America have the necessary bandwidth to support robodocs? If not, wouldn't it be in the public good to make sure they do?" (Read more)

Here's how ConnectKentucky got broadband for most of the state, especially its rural areas

We've written before about the effectiveness of ConnectKentucky in improving broadband coverage in the state, from 60 percent in 2004 to 95 percent today, and it has received national notice. But when The Wall Street Journal publishes 1,300 words about it, it's worth a few excerpts.

Ann Carrns writes that the nonprofit group, "funded 90 percent by the state and 10 percent by private businesses and foundations, show how public-private partnerships, as well as a willingness by local governments to work with less-established telecommunications providers, can drive increased access to high-speed Internet service and spur economic development."

Here's how it worked: "Its first step was to persuade about 80 broadband providers ... to share information about broadband penetration. ConnectKentucky created interactive maps that showed broadband coverage along with population density, allowing providers to spot gaps in service in areas where there was likely demand. That helped providers identify areas where it made economic sense to expand," Carrns writes. ConnectKentucky "organized committees of volunteers from local governments, schools and businesses in each of the state's 120 counties to identify what benefits broadband service would bring to the community and to explain those benefits to the public. Regional coordinators for ConnectKentucky helped local governments establish their own Web sites and draft requests for proposals from broadband providers."

ConnectKentucky says a survey found that the share of state households using broadband rose to 44 percent in September 2007 from 24 percent three years earlier, and estimated that without its efforts, only 37 percent would have had broadband. "Based on a formula developed at the Brookings Institution to measure the economic benefits of broadband service, ConnectKentucky estimates its efforts have resulted in about 63,000 new or retained jobs. In particular, the group's analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that Kentucky experienced a 3.1 percent increase in information-technology jobs over the two years ending in December 2006, compared with growth of 0.1 percent nationally."

The first word in ConnectKentucky's name has two meanings. Its ultimate goal is universal connection to broadband, but its key is connecting providers with places that need service. When big telephone companies wanted a lot of money to extend service to Pendleton County (Encarta map), in the hills along the Licking and Ohio rivers southeast of Cincinnati, ConnectKentucky found a low-cost alternative: A wireless system using county water towers and private property. The system has made working at home a growing trend. "Every day somebody decides to start working at home," said County Judge-Executive Henry Bertram, estimating that about 100 of the county's 200 broadband subscribers are doing so. (Read more)

Tom Searls, top political reporter in W.Va., dies

Tom Searls, who rose from small-town journalism to become political writer for The Charleston Gazette, was found dead at his home yesterday. He was 54.

"Before starting at the Gazette, Searls worked for several newspapers in West Virginia, including stops in Beckley, Morgantown, Bluefield and Welch, as well as Memphis and Johnson City, Tenn. He was the Morgantown correspondent for United Press International. As a boy, Searls sold papers for the West Virginia Hillbilly," the Gazette reports in a non-bylined story. "He knew more about West Virginia political history than anyone I've ever known," David White, a Charleston lawyer and longtime friend, told the newspaper.

Gazette Publisher Elizabeth Chilton said, "He was an old-fashioned reporter and excellent newsman. He really went after things, and people respected what he wrote." U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd said, "Tom Searls was a reporter's reporter. . . . The Gazette, and most important the people of West Virginia, have lost a talented and valuable voice in the public forum. West Virginia has lost one of its finest." (Read more)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Leaders of community newspapering will gather at Mizzou to discuss the future of their business

Seven leaders of the community newspaper industry in America's heartland will meet at the University of Missouri in Columbia on Sept. 11 for a discussion about the future of such papers. Questions include: What value(s) do community newspapers offer citizens in self-governance of their local democratic institutions? How valuable are community newspapers in serving the local retail economic engines that sustain local communities? What opportunities exist for local community newspapers to continue as the primary source of community information, and how can community newspapers monetize those opportunities?

The panel will discuss reader interaction with newspapers in small communities, the perceived role of local newspapers in serving local democracy and factors that influence reading of local newspapers. It will also evaluate various editorial content and attributes of good journalism in local newspapers, and will use survey data on community papers, collected by the National Newspaper Association and the university's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute in 2005, 2007 and 2008.

The panel will include Michael Abernathy, president of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., a highly regarded Kentucky-based chain with 56 paid-circulation papers in 13 states; outgoing NNA Region 7 Director Dave Berry, vice president of Community Publishers Inc. and publisher of eight southwest Missouri newspapers; Kenneth Fleming, associate director of research for the Reynolds Institute's Center for Advanced Social Research; Ralph Gage, director of special projects for The World Co. in Lawrence, Kan.; NNA President Steve Haynes, publisher and editor of The Oberlin Herald and president of Nor’West Newspapers in northwest Kansas; Wally Lage, chief operating officer of Rust Communications, based in Cape Girardeau, Mo.; and NNA Executive Director Brian Steffens.

The discussion will be held from 9 to 10:15 a.m. Sept. 11 in Fisher Auditorium, 87 Gannett Hall on the Missouri campus. The event is part of the centennial celebration of the university’s School of Journalism.

Gannett to cut staff by 3%; layoff notices begin

Gannett Co. Inc. will eliminate about 1,000 jobs at its newspapers, 600 with layoffs, according to a company memo provided to Gannett Blog, published by Jim Hopkins, a former reporter and editor for USA Today and the company's papers in Arkansas, Idaho and Kentucky.

"The reader provided a copy of a memo that Daily Times Publisher Rick Jensen e-mailed about 4 p.m." Wednesday at the paper in Salisbury, Md. "Across Gannett’s Community Publishing division, about 1,000 positions will be eliminated -- about 3 percent of the workforce,'' the memo says. "Of the 1,000 positions, about 600 employees will be laid off."

Jensen and Gannett executives declined to comment to Hopkins on his report, but The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported on its Web site late this morning that the newspaper "will lay off about 15 employees and leave other positions vacant as part of a broader cost-cutting move" by Gannett. The news came from Arnold Garson, who recently became publisher of the paper.

The C-J cuts would be about 3 percent of workforce, but the memo does not say whether each of the company's 89 dailies and 116 community weeklies "will reduce employment by 3 percent -- or whether the rates might instead vary by business within what's now called the U.S. Community Publishing division," Hopkins notes. "Several GCI papers have already made recent job cuts, but at a higher rate: 5 percent."

Cox Enterprises to sell its newspapers in Texas, Colorado and North Carolina, including weeklies

Cox Enterprises Inc. said yesterday that it will sell its most of its newspapers -- those in Texas, North Carolina and Colorado, most of which are small dailies and community weeklies that serve many rural residents.

Mike Laosa, publisher of the Austin American-Statesman, at 162,000 circulation the largest paper up for bids, "told several hundred employees at a somber, hourlong newsroom meeting Wednesday afternoon [that] the sale of the various properties could occur as a package deal, or in any number of possible permutations," reports the Statesman's Ben Wear. "However, a newspaper industry analyst said the market for newspapers is poor."

"This is a terrible time to be trying to sell a newspaper," John Morton of Silver Spring, Md., told the Austin paper. "The sales value of newspapers has probably dropped in half in the last five years. ... There are a lot of newspapers that are up for sale and there are no takers or no one willing to pay what the sellers want." Morton Research focuses on metro dailies; the market for community papers is probably better, though News Corp. recently decided to keep its Ottaway Newspapers subsidiary, apparently because of poor market conditions.

The other Cox dailies in Texas are the Waco Tribune-Herald, circ. 36,785; the Longview News-Journal, 26,979; The Lufkin Daily News, 12,542; The Daily Sentinel of Nacogdoches, 7,621; and the Marshall News Messenger, 6,687. Those in North Carolina are The Daily Reflector of Greeneville, 21, 254; the Rocky Mount Telegram, 13,894; and The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City, 10,362. Also on the block is The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colo., 30,616.

Cox will keep its papers in Ohio, where the company began and still owns the Dayton Daily News; the Palm Beach area of Florida; and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its headquarters city. In Grand Junction, Publisher Alex Taylor said in a personal notice to readers, "This is a difficult announcement and a dramatic change of course for The Daily Sentinel. ... I love Grand Junction. The chairman and CEO of Cox, Jim Kennedy, who was also a publisher here, loves Grand Junction. It gives neither of us, nor any of the senior executives at Cox, any pleasure to sell this paper. But the world is changing dramatically — more so now than most can recall. The evolution of Cox has produced a company that is increasingly invested in other businesses. This announcement is a part of that evolution." The company said in a news release, "Approximately 80 percent of Cox Enterprises’ revenues now come from sources other than its traditional advertising-supported media companies (newspapers, television and radio)," such as cable TV, Cox Auto Trader and direct mail -- but it is selling its Valpak direct-mail firm.

Several other Cox dailies are are affiliated with weekly papers; the largest one for sale is the Spanish-language ahora si!, circulation 30,307, in Austin. It is one of seven Cox weeklies in the Austin area. In North Carolina, Cox weeklies are The Enterprise of Williamston, circ. 5,100; The Chowan Herald of Edenton, 5,000; the Beaufort Clyde-News of Bellhaven, 4,400; the Bertie Ledger-Advance of Windsor, 4,200; The Standard Laconic of Snow Hill, 3,100; The Farmville Enterprise, 2,500; The Times-Leader of Grifton, 2,100; the Perquimans Weekly of Hertford, 2,000; and The Weekly Herald of Williamston, 931. (Source: Editor & Publisher International Yearbook; for the company's list and links, click here.)

After complaints from atheists, Tenn. county fair says they can get 'God and Country Day' discount

The Wilson County Fair in Tennessee has agreed to extend its "God and Country Day" discount to atheists after they complained, reports J.R. Lind of the Lebanon Democrat.

"God and Country Day, by tradition the first Sunday of the fair, is designed to honor military veterans, while at the same time giving a $2 discount to fairgoers who bring a church bulletin to the James E. Ward Agricultural Center," Lind writes for the daily paper. "Wilson County Promotions, which runs the fair, is non-governmental, though the Ag Center is owned by Wilson County government. The fair catalog entry for God and Country Day does not mention Christianity and specifically notes that the bulletin must be "from the weekend" of God and Country Day, ostensibly allowing anyone who attended a religious service between Friday and Sunday the opportunity to get the discount."

The complaint came from American Atheists Inc., which contended the discount was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Its press release said members of its group and others would bring printouts of their Web sites to qualify for the discount, and Wilson County Promotions said it would honor them, Lind reports. (Read more)

Wilson County, which borders Nashville, has long been in transition from rural to suburban, and its residents are now more the latter than the former. Its estimated population in 2006 was about 104,000, and the average commuting time of its residents was 27.5 minutes; the national average was 25 minutes. Local officials and developers have proposed it as the site for a Bible theme park; here's a story from Clay Carey of The Tennessean. Here is Lind's latest report on the proposal.

UPDATE, Aug. 16: The Democrat really covers the fair and horse show, expected to draw 400,000. Read about vendors. New this year: FairCam (source of photo).

UPDATE, Aug. 20: Lind reports, "Sunday, around 30 atheists and other non-theists came to the James E. Ward Agriculture Center and were admitted, along with churchgoers, at the lower price. Many of the atheists wore t-shirts saying they supported 'Foxhole Atheists,' a project that provides care packages for servicemembers who do not believe in God. Likewise, many churchgoers wore t-shirts proclaiming their beliefs." (Read more)

Coal advocates say carbon capture and storage essential; some experts say it will come by 2020

Advocates of coal must deal with "the 800-pound gorilla -- and that's climate change," Steve Miller, president and CEO of the Virginia-based American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said yesterday at Coal-Gen 08, a gathering expected to draw about 4,000 people to Louisville through tomorrow.

Miller was one of several speakers who said "Coal is indispensable to U.S. electric generation and will remain so for years to come but the power industry must tackle the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions and do a better job of explaining that coal can be a clean fuel," Bill Wolfe reports in The Courier-Journal.

"Half the generation in the United States will continue to be from coal," said Vic Staffieri, chairman and CEO of of Louisville Gas and Electric Co. and Kentucky Utilities Co., subsidiaries of E.On U.S. He said the two utilities generate 97 percent of their electricity from coal, and their parent firm believes "There needs to be a national greenhouse-gas emissions policy, but one that is gradual and rational." Paul Thompson, E.On's senior vice president of energy services, cited some experts who say a commercially viable technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide will be developed by 2020. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ethanol giant Poet says plants fed by cellulose from corn will begin production soon

The world's largest ethanol manufacturer announced today that he is building a pilot plant to manufacture ethanol from corn cellulose, with production set to begin next year, and will complete a commercial-scale plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, by 2011.

Jeff Broin, founder and CEO of Poet, said at the American Coalition for Ethanol conference in Omaha that his firm would begin making cellulosic ethanol at its $4 million pilot plant at Scotland, S.D., by the end of the year. The commercial plant, being retooled form a traditional ethanol distillery, is funded partly by an $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

"Broin says cellulosic ethanol production is no longer a question of 'if,' but 'when'," reports Julie Harker for Brownfield Network. "The main feedstock for the plants will be corncobs and other corn fiber, largely from the hulls of corn kernels, broken down by Poet's patented process, reports Leslie Reed of the Omaha World-Herald.

Dan Looker of Successful Farming quotes Broin: ""In the past few months, our scientists have been able to achieve significant ethanol percentages in fermentation and improve the yield of ethanol from biomass. Additionally, in our work with farmers and agricultural equipment manufacturers, we had a very successful harvest of corn cobs last fall and anticipate further advances during an expanded harvest this fall."

Poet spells its name with all capital letters, but we can't find any evidence that it's an acronym, In fact, Broin explained the change from his family name last year by saying the work his employees do resembles poetry. (Thanks to Chuck Offenburger.) So we will not adopt the company's usage, which might encourage others to engage in such typographic tyranny.

Rural N.C. schools' lawsuit victory may be hollow; rural Georgia schools' suit on funding going to trial

Rural schools in North Carolina may get no new money even though they won a lawsuit four years ago arguing that the state's education system was unconstitutional because it failed to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to students in poor, rural counties, reports the News & Observer of Raleigh.

"Legislative leaders said Tuesday there's not enough extra cash on hand to pay $747.9 million," T. Keung Hui writes. "Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has ordered the state to turn over civil fines that were illegally withheld from the schools for more than nine years. In the order issued Friday, Manning left it to the General Assembly to decide where to come up with the money and over what period." Manning said he didn't have authority to order appropriations. Lawmakers say they will use money from the existing budget for elementary and secondary education.

A lobbyist for one of the plaintiffs, the North Carolina School Boards Association, "said she hopes the school groups can negotiate an infusion of money stretched across several years," Hui reports. "Manning had delayed issuing the order in the hope of a settlement. He noted that the school districts had offered to settle for a smaller amount." (Read more)

The story did not mention the possibility of an appeal. The state Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in 2004. For details on the case, see this page from National Access Network, which monitors such cases and says its mission "is to promote meaningful educational opportunities for all children, especially those low-income and minority children currently being denied this opportunity."

School systems in several states have been revamped as the result of such lawsuits. The next trial is likely to be in Georgia, where a Fulton County judge yesterday denied the state's request to dismiss the suit filed by about 50 mostly rural school districts, organized as the Consortium for Adequate School Funding. The trial is set to begin Oct. 21.

"The rural schools group filed the lawsuit in 2004 arguing that small, poor school districts are treated unfairly because they do not raise enough money from local taxes to make up for cuts in state education spending," notes Laura Diamond of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If the state loses at trial, Georgia could be forced to increase the amount spent on education by more than $1 billion a year and to change the way it distributes money among school districts." (Read more)

Corn crop, threatened early by weather, forecast to be 2nd-largest ever; soybeans still touch and go

"After a worrisome start to the growing season that fanned fears of food shortages and huge economic losses, the nation’s most important crop is now on track for a bountiful harvest," which will also keep prices down, David Streitfeld writes in The New York Times about the Department of Agriculture's latest forecast for the U.S. corn crop: second largest ever.

As heavy rains and flooding forced some farmers to replant in June, "Food industry groups went to battle with ethanol interests, saying there was not enough corn for both food and fuel. Corn futures prices soared to an unheard-of $8 a bushel, triple the price of a few years ago," Streitfeld notes. "Some analysts worried that $9 or even $10 a bushel was possible. That price would probably have been ruinous to livestock producers and ethanol plants alike, although corn farmers would have been in clover. . . . But after the floodwaters receded, nature turned benign. In the Midwest this summer, the weather has been exactly what the tender young corn stalks needed to thrive." The price yesterday was $5.28.

The soybean forecast was down a bit, but "much better than many had expected in June," Streitfeld reports. When July began, soybean futures were over $16 a bushel; Tuesday's price was $12.14. (Read more)

Workshop on broadband in the rural economy set for D.C. Sept. 29-30

The Economic Research Service of USDA will hold a workshop on broadband in the rural economy Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 29 and 30, at the Waugh Auditorium, 1800 M Street NW, Washington, D.C. The workshop will feature a great deal of current research on the value of information technology for the economy, with focus on the agriculture, food, and rural sectors.

Presentations include lessons in e-commerce for rural retailers, "Broadband Deployment and Economic Development in Kentucky and North Carolina," farming and the Internet, "The Role of the Internet in Rural Community Participation," rural education, and telemedicine. For a detailed program, click here. The workshop is free and open to anyone, but space is limited. Register to attend.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Abuse of prescription pain medicine in Appalachia more than twice the rate for the rest of the nation

Abuse of prescription painkillers is more than twice as prevalent in Appalachia than the rest of the nation, especially in the region's coalfield, but the largely rural province has relatively few treatment facilities for such abusers, according to a study for the Appalachian Regional Commission, released yesterday.

"Mental health diagnoses for serious problems independent from substance abuse are proportionately higher in Appalachia than in the rest of the nation," especially in Central Appalachia, in white on map, said a press release from the ARC and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. (Neither agency had the release on its Web site at the time of this posting; click here for the full report.)

ARC Federal Co-Chair Anne Pope said the problems are "a major impediment to economic growth in the Appalachian region," and Beshear said they are particularly bad in his state's Appalachian counties. The two officials announced a $250,000 grant program to help communities improve their anti-drug programs.

"The study wasn't all bad news," notes Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It found relatively lower marijuana and cocaine use in Appalachia and lower treatment admission rates for heroin. It also found that while there might be 'hot spots' of methamphetamine abuse, use of the drug was lower overall in Appalachia than in the United States." (Read more)

SPJ, Assn. of Health Care Journalists urge stations, newspapers to keep health reporting independent

The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists are urging local broadcast stations and newspapers to avoid arrangements with hospitals that improperly influence health coverage, saying unethical partnerships interfere with independent news coverage of health care.

The journalism groups said in a press release that they are "concerned about news media that publish or broadcast stories, reports, news releases and interviews prepared or paid for by hospitals," and say "editorial cutbacks, along with pressure on hospitals to market profitable services, may be eroding standards established by the groups' codes of ethics.

"In several recently reported cases, local hospitals have exerted editorial control by supplying pre-packaged stories and other content to news organizations. In some but not all cases, hospitals paid for this special influence," the release says. "A Maryland newspaper sold its weekly health page to a local hospital and put the hospital in charge of providing content. The arrangement was halted amid community protest after just one published issue." Examples of broadcast public relations masquerading as journalism include "airing of hospital-produced segments with hazy branding or no branding at all, leading viewers to believe the local station reported the story."

Some broadcasters say disclosure of such deals validates them, but the groups said such disclosure must be continuous during a report, and in any event, "Arrangements in which television or radio stations or newspapers hand over editorial decision-making to hospitals violate the principles of ethical journalism and betray public trust. Content produced by hospitals does not fulfill the duty of news organizations to provide the public with independent medical reporting."

The groups said news organizations should fully disclose the source of any editorial information not independently gathered, should not run prepackaged stories produced by hospitals unless they are clearly and continuously labeled as advertisements, should not favor advertisers or sponsors over competing health-care providers when choosing sources or story topics, and should develop guidelines for the public disclosure of sponsors and advertisers, including a ban on appearances by news staffers in sponsored programs or advertising.

The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two." It and AHCJ’s Statement of Principles say journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know, remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility and deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage."

Miniature cattle growing in popularity; more efficient, easier for young and old to handle

"Lots of things are getting downsized in this economy -- even cattle," Jennifer Levits reports for The Wall Street Journal about miniature bovines: "They're half as big as full-size cows, and have even littler appetites: They eat only a third as much." Some researchers say they produce proportionately more beef for the amount of feed they eat. There are dairy breeds, too. (WSJ photo by Christina Jeng)

"Across the country, minicattle are catching on at farms, livestock shows and 4-H clubs, as feed costs drive up the price of keeping cows," Levitz writes. And she notes that the smaller animals are easier for children, and aging farmers, to handle. "They appeal to families who want to raise their own food, but have little farm land or experience tussling with a cow. One mini requires about a half-acre." The number of miniature cattle in the U.S. is increasing 20 percent a year, according to a paper published in April in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Information.

Levitz's story is wide-ranging; it begins with a Louisburg, N.C., dateline, but has information from South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and the University of Nebraska. Read it and watch a four-minute video here; subscription may be required.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Apply by Friday, Aug. 15 for 'Covering Climate Change and our Energy Future in Rural America'

Friday, Aug. 15, is the deadline to apply for fellowships from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues to attend “Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America,” an Oct. 15 workshop that will kick off the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists at the Hotel Roanoke, hosted by Virginia Tech.

The past, present, and future of coal in Appalachia and the southeastern United States — and therefore much of our energy future — will come into sharp focus at this workshop. Internationally recognized experts in coal, energy and climate will discuss changing land-use patterns, with new satellite images; the ins, outs, and maybes of carbon sequestration; the science, economics and emotional aspects of mountaintop-removal strip mining; and more, with sponsorship from SEJ, the Institute, Virginia Tech and the Yale Project on Climate Change\Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media.

Registered reporters will head home with practical insights and expert news sources on issues that play right to the heart of their hometown audiences. Hear from leading regional and local reporters bringing collective decades of newsroom experience in covering and uncovering some of journalism's most compelling stories on energy, coal, and climate change. For a Word-document brochure with the seminar schedule, click here.

All sessions will be at the Hotel Roanoke. Breakfast and lunch are included. Pre-registration and a $60 fee, which includes membership in SEJ, are required. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is offering up to 20 fellowships to cover the fee and, depending on demand, perhaps some travel support. Applications will be accepted until Friday, Aug. 15. Click here for an application form.

Admission to the workshop will include the opening reception of the SEJ conference, which the governors of Virginia and West Virginia are scheduled to attend, and SEJ member rates for the conference, the top gathering of environmental journalists and experts each year.

Thursday will be full of tours, including a trip to a mountaintop-removal coal mine, a visit to a nuclear power plant, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, canoeing on the New and James rivers, and a trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Flights over mountaintop-removal mines will be available to SEJ members Friday and Saturday. The opening plenary session on Friday will be "Old King Coal: What's His Role in America's Energy Future?" One of the beat dinners on Friday night will focus on rural coverage. Sessions on Friday and Saturday will follow tracks for coal, energy, climate, water, environmental health, politics and computer-assisted reporting. The conference will end Sunday with an authors' session featuring Wendell Berry, Penny Loeb and Ann Pancake. For a PDF brochure and registration information on the SEJ Conference, click here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Farmland value in U.S. hits another record high

U.S. farmland values are higher than ever, thanks to "record or near record commodity prices, increased government and private investment, low interest rates and tax incentives offsetting declining commercial and residential development," reports John Perkins of Brownfield Network, citing a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The average acre of farmland was worth $2,350 on Jan. 1, up $190 or 8.8 percent from a year earlier, USDA said. The biggest increase, 15.5 percent, came in the northern Great Plains (Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas). "Cropland averaged a record $2,970 per acre, 10 percent above last year's then record," Brownfield reports. "The region with the biggest increase was the Northern Plains at 18.8 percent." The region also posted the biggest increase in the value of pasture land, 19.7 percent, to $1,230 from $1,160.

In the Southeast (Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina), hit hard by drought, pasture values were down. In the Appalachian states (Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia), average farmland value rose 5.2 percent, to $4,020 an acre.

The most expensive agricultural land was in the Corn Belt (Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio), where cropland averaged $4,260 an acre, up 14.8 percent; and pasture land averaged $2,220, up 10.4 percent. In the region, real estate in general averaged $3,910 per acre, an increase of 13.3 percent. Brownfield has data for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. For its report, click here. For the full USDA report, which covers all states and also includes cash rents, which rose 13 percent for cropland and 8.3 percent for pasture, click here.

Media critic finds clunkers and at least one golden nugget in local coverage of presidential candidates

When the presidential candidates come to town, some local reporters and editors "fawn over McCain and Obama. But their coverage also is less cynical than their national counterparts' and focuses on issues closer to home," says the subhead on James Rainey's "On The Media" column today in the Los Angeles Times.

Rainey starts with an insult, reporting that "campaign pros once called" the tactic of offering "small newspapers and TV stations" a chance for exclusive but brief interviews "dialing for dummies," the expectation being that the reporters weren't smart enough to ask the candidates questions that would do any damage. But Rainey reports that his examination of recent local reports on such encounters produced "a fabulously mixed bag." Not all dealt with interviews.

Rainey says the weekly the Black Hills Pioneer offered "an uncritical account of McCain’s appearance at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally" in South Dakota. We note that reporter Tom Lawrence wrote, "McCain joked that he noticed there was a beauty contest at the campground and he asked his wife if she would enter." Some national journalists and bloggers noted that the winner is often topless or even bottomless, based on this report from Jim Caple of ESPN; Lawrence didn't note that, but did write that national reporters traveling with McCain "were agape as they snapped photos of girls dancing on stripper poles, muscular bikers strolling around and the general air of freewheeling frivolity at the campground."

After citing examples of easygoing local coverage, Rainey shows that local reporters can be tough, by citing the work of Chad Livengood, right, Missouri statehouse reporter for The Springfield News-Leader. Livengood's story began, "On stage, Sen. John McCain pitched a summer-long suspension of the 18.5-cent federal gas tax as a way to give Missourians immediate cost relief at the gas pump. But behind closed doors, the Republican presidential nominee acknowledged it's 'very doubtful' his campaign promise will ever be fulfilled -- much less debated in Congress. 'It would be hard to do, obviously,' McCain told the News-Leader in a one-on-one interview." (Read more) "And his story described how some economists doubted the tax cut would make a significant difference," Rainey reports. "Sometimes campaigns dial for dummies and end up reaching sharpies."

Rural Democrats give party fresh hope in South

"Spurred by the souring economy and a newfound willingness to embrace conservative candidates, the Democratic Party is running its most competitive campaign across the South in 40 years," Greg Hitt reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"The party's rising prospects point toward a once unthinkable goal: a reversal of the 'Great Reversal,' the switch in political loyalties in the 1960s that made the South a Republican stronghold for a generation," Hitt writes. "If the current picture holds, Democrats could use the Southern strength to help craft a workable Senate majority and expand their majority in the House of Representatives. At the very least, it widens the field of competitive seats, forcing Republicans to fight fires in once-reliably solid areas. ... Half a dozen Republican-held House seats across the South, including rural districts in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and South Carolina, are growing more competitive." More may be added to the list.

Hitt's object example is Montgomery Mayor Billy Bright, who "stands a good chance" of winning an open seat in a mostly rural district that has been held by Republicans since 1964. Bright considered running as a Republican, "but he decided that he felt more at home with the Democrats, whom he describes as the party of working people and the party of diversity." Bright says, "The Republican Party has done a wonderful job of making it appear that you don't have a choice, but that's changing. That's changing with me."

Hitt says Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy will drive up black turnout, but he doesn't mention that it might also drive up white Republican turnout, and make some swing white voters less likely to vote Democratic. But the article is a pretty good snapshot of the changing political landscape in the South, especially its rural areas, and is accompanied by good maps.

Poor county promotes reading, raises test scores; it all began with a suggestion from a 7-year-old

If you live in or care about a poor, undereducated community where hope for progress is in short supply, you need to read the story by Amy Wilson in today's Lexington Herald-Leader about how a smart first-grader's suggestion spurred the fourth-poorest county in the U.S. to bring student reading scores from lousy to higher than the national average. It and the audio slide show will move you, and it's not often we say that about a newspaper story.

Ten years ago, Wilson writes, "A lot of the kids coming into the Clay County schools hadn't been read to by their parents. They were behind before they even walked into a classroom. No wonder their state standardized reading scores were dismal. Then a 7-year-old girl suggested that kids ought to get prizes for reading just like athletes get trophies for scoring baskets. ... That suggestion changed everything and helped teach a community of children to read." (Photo of prizewinner James Gentry by Angela Baldridge, H-L)

When Virginia Alley asked her father why good readers weren't as celebrated in Kentucky as good basketball players, Levi Alley suggested to the school librarian that the school have a party for readers. "Virginia piped up again," Wilson recounts, paraphrasing: "This is what the party should be. No one would be left out. Everything would be free. We’d do fun stuff at the party. Like read and eat cotton candy. And we could give away books for presents." And they did, with the help of all the grant money they could find and a spirit that probably surprised some people in the very rural county, where good jobs are in short supply and illegal drugs remain a problem -- though another community effort has made much progress on that front. Read the story.