Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bible Park USA to be built in Tennessee town

Lebanon, Tenn., just east of Nashville on Interstate 40, will be the site of Bible Park USA, a $175 million theme park, local officials and Entertainment Design Group of North Hollywood, Calif., announced Thursday. The park "is expected to employ 250 full-time workers and 1,000 seasonal workers," writes J.R. Lind of The Lebanon Democrat.

If the city council and the Wilson County Commission agree, "The park will be financed using tax-incremental financing (TIF) and by implementing a tourism development zone (TDZ)," Lind reports. "Under a TIF plan, the increase in property taxes that come as the result of new construction and improvements help pay for the cost of construction. TDZ designation allows a 5 percent privilege tax to be implemented within the bounds of the park, with those tax dollars paying bonds, as well."

The developers say the park will be a non-denominational, Bible-based themed attraction depicting well loved Bible stories and providing an authentic historical representation of life in ancient times in the Holy Land. It was originally slated for Rutherford County, just to the south on Interstate 24, but "The Rutherford County Commission rejected zoning changes to allow the park to be built in the Blackman community," Lind writes. "The land in Lebanon has already been rezoned." Lebanon has about 25,000 people, Wilson County about 100,000. The announcement generated many comments on Lind's story; one reader said "Praise the Lord" but another said "This is complete blashphemy and a waste of good land!" (Read more)

Biden says rumors still hurt Obama in rural areas; we say it's time for rural media to deliver the facts

Persistent false rumors about Barack Obama, especially in small towns and rural areas, are hamstringing his efforts to win over undecided voters in key states, his running mate said yesterday.

U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a native of Scranton, Pa., told Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post about one Pennsylvania woman who said she wanted to vote for the Democratic ticket but couldn't because she had received an e-mail on her cell phone saying that Obama, a Christian, is a Muslim. "She said, 'Everybody tells me that.' And I said, 'I promise you that's not true,' and she said, 'What do I do?' And I said, 'Well, vote for me.' And she looked at me and said, 'Does that mean I have to vote for him, too?' "

"More campaigning by both Obama and his supporters, particularly in small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, would be crucial to turning that around, Biden suggested, because 'It's about people getting comfortable. He's new to them, they're just getting introduced to him.' Biden said 'forms of validation' would also be important for Obama -- for example, the vouching for him by former president Bill Clinton." (Read more)

UPDATES, Sept. 22: John Harwood of The New York Times and CNBC asked Obama in an interview if race is a big barrier between him and swing voters. Obama replied, "Are there some who might vote for me because of my race? You bet. I think ultimately, though, the question's going to be decided by a guy or a woman who is working hard every day trying to save enough to send their kid to college, trying to pay the bills. And the real question they're going to have is, you know, can this guy help me in my life?" For more of his reply, click here. For video of the interview, click here. Asked by Meredith Viera on NBC's "Today" why Obama has such a narrow lead in a state Democrats have carried the last four times, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell did not repeat his primary-season comment about Obama's race, but blamed Republicans: "They have a lot of Pennsylvanians convinced that Sen. Obama's gonna raise their taxes." Asked about his primary-season comment that Obama "talks down" to voters and the candidate's comment about bitter Pennsylvania voters who cling to guns and religion, Rendell said, "When he lets people see who he is, not the big great speeches ... to 35,000 people ... but when he gets in a group of 500 people and answers questions, they get him." On The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, Rush Limbaugh says Obama "employs the tactics of the old segregationists" by stirring ethnic hatred with a Spanish-language TV commercial that mischaracterizes Limbaugh's comments about Mexicans. says the ad is misleading. Chuck Raasch of Gannett News Service quotes Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, as saying that McCain's age, 72, may be a larger factor in Ohio than Obama's race. (Read more)

UPDATES, Sept. 21: The Obama camp thinks the time to talk about race is after their candidate is elected, "But the national conversation appears to have arrived," Ben Smith and Avi Zenilman write in the morning's top story on Politico. "Racial considerations that have long been palpable in southern Ohio and other crucial regions are again in the foreground. A new poll that accompanied a much buzzed-about Associated Press article [by Ron Fournier] on Saturday appears to starkly quantify the cost of racism to Obama: 6 percentage points in the polls. . . . Many Democrats see the explicit discussion of race and politics as almost unambiguously negative for Obama." Some even think economic troubles will harden racial resentment. David Paul Kuhn of Politico analyzes polls on race and the race.

"Almost one-third of voters 'know' that Barack Obama is a Muslim or believe that he could be," writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, noting a recent Pew Research Center poll. "When I’ve traveled around the country, particularly to my childhood home in rural Oregon, I’ve been struck by the number of people who ask something like: That Obama — is he really a Christian? Isn’t he a Muslim or something? Didn’t he take his oath of office on the Koran? In conservative Christian circles and on Christian radio stations, there are even widespread theories that Mr. Obama just may be the Antichrist. Seriously. John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that about 10 percent of Americans believe we may be in the Book of Revelation’s “end times” and are on the lookout for the Antichrist." There's even a T-shirt that calls Obama such.

We've heard the same rumors, and given their virulence and persistence, think it's time for rural news media that don't normally deal with presidential campaigns to run columns like Kristof's, or write columns of their own, based on easily available facts -- from sites like FactCheck and PolitiFact, which separate truth from falsehood and misleading information in candidate statements and advertising -- and decline to print letters to the editor that report false rumors as fact, whether they are about Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin or Joe Biden.

For now, Obama is the chief victim of misinformation, partly because, as Kristof writes, "Religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian." He concludes, "Journalists need to do more than call the play-by-play this election cycle. We also need to blow the whistle on such egregious fouls calculated to undermine the political process and magnify the ugliest prejudices that our nation has done so much to overcome." (Read more)

States block or limit access to concealed-weapons permit records after newspapers put them online

"A growing number of state governments are tightening the reins on databases involving concealed weapon permits, making it nearly impossible for reporters to uncover information potentially vital to the public’s interest," Breanne Coates reports for Quill magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"Experts say the media is partially to blame for the closing of these records," Coates writes. "While some journalists have used the information in the records to produce investigative work, others have chosen to publish complete databases online, which can include what many consider to be private information of law-abiding citizens. The public’s outrage at having this information revealed for no apparent reason has resulted in public support for many states’ legislation aimed at closing these records." She cites the example of The Roanoke Times and Virginia, reported here previously.

Aimee Edmondson, a doctoral student in journalism at the University of Missouri, studied the issue in all 50 states in 2007. At the time, "28 states explicitly stated that concealed carry permit databases were closed, and only five explicitly stated that they were open," Coates reports. "Edmondson said she found that the courts 'were all over the place' on this topic, but the legislatures have been the driving force behind these changes."

In Florida, the St. Petersburg Times used the state database to reveal problems with administration of the cocealed-weapon law, including issuance of permits to criminals, but didn't post the database on its Web site. John Maines, the paper's computer-assisted reporting editor and co-author of the series, told Coates, “The latest craze is just posting databases online. If there is no journalistic element to it, you have to wonder if you are doing your job.” (Read more)

Pat Stith, legend of N.C. journalism, is retiring

Pat Stith, a legendary reporter in North Carolina for decades and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on the state's hog industry in 1996, will take a voluntary buyout and retire next month from the News & Observer in Raleigh.

"Stith's work sprang a man from prison and put five others behind bars. His revelations prompted rewrites of the state's workers' compensation laws, pointed out the environmental dangers caused by the pork industry and, most recently, revealed more than $400 million wasted by the state's mental health reforms," Mandy Locke writes for the N&O.

Locke's story is so full of great nuggets about Stith, 66, we don't have room for them all, but here are a few: He saves gum for another chew; he eats apple cores; says he hasn't made a material error in a story since he was 18; has "a fact-checking regimen that involves crossing through every word that's been checked against a source," including the spelling of his own name; places follow-up calls to the subjects his stories damage most, and "His even-handedness has turned the rebuked into his most trusted sources," Locke writes.
In retirement, Stith plans to learn how to fish and bake a cake, and to hike the Appalachian Trail. "There are so many things I haven't done because I'm a newspaperman," he told Locke. "It's time. I am completely at peace with this decision." (Read more)

Wal-Marts hurt certain local businesses but not the overall small-business sector, researchers say

The coming of a Wal-Mart or one of the company's Supercenters may spell doom for some local businesses, but the company has had no overall impact on the small-business sector of the U.S. economy, researchers at West Virginia University have concluded after what they say is the first study of its kind.

“Contrary to popular belief, our results suggest that the process of creative destruction unleashed by Wal-Mart has had no statistically significant long-run impact on the overall size and profitability of the small-business sector in the United States,” write economists Russell S. Sobel and Andrea M. Dean. “There is no question that certain specific small businesses fail because of the entry of a Wal-Mart store, and that Wal-Mart has negative impacts on other major retailers like Kmart.”

Sobel and Dean say previous studies, based on county-by-county comparisons of retail businesses, failed to capture the full breadth of the small-business sector. “If a new Wal-Mart store opens, for example, and it causes a local hardware store to fail, and subsequently a new art gallery opens in its place, only the failure of the hardware store is counted by previous studies,” they write. “One business was substituted for another, but this effect would not be reflected in the data because expansions in sectors that do not directly compete with Wal-Mart are, by definition, excluded.”

Friday, September 19, 2008

Committee votes to lift new Farm Bill rule barring subsidies to farm plots smaller than 10 acres

The House Agriculture Committee has voted to suspend, for the 2008 and 2009 crop years, the new Farm Bill rule that keeps farms of less than 10 acres from receiving most forms of commodity payments. At issue is the Department of Agriculture's ruling that farmers cannot aggregate such farms to meet the 10-acre threshold. "Chairman Collin Peterson said the Ag Department’s interpretation of the minimum acreage requirement ... was not the intent of Congress," reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network. "No one knows for sure just where the bill goes from here but something would have to happen quickly as the Senate plans to adjourn for the year on Friday, Sept. 26."

The 10-acre rule, or its suspension, would have a major impact in some Appalachian and Midwestern states, according to Farm Service Agency data reported by Agri-Pulse. In Kentucky and Virginia, 44 percent of farms have a direct commodity payment base of 10 acres or less; the figure in North Carolina and Pennsylvania is 38 percent. Wisconsin has the largest number of such farms, 37,329 (32 percent of its total number of farms), followed by North Carolina with 30,571 farms, Ohio with 30,276 (24 percent), Kentucky with 28,657, Illinois with 26,738 (14 percent) and Michigan with 25,344 (30 percent).

Small-town America looks different from a bicycle

University of Kentucky law professor Bill Fortune, left, gained "a new appreciation for small-town America and its people" by riding a bicycle 4,100 miles with a small group from coast to coast this summer, Tom Eblen reports in the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Photo of Fortune at the Atlantic Ocean near Portland, Maine, by Bill Rund)

"What impressed Fortune most were the places he never would have stopped to see, and the people he never would have met, had he been driving through in a car," Eblen writes. "There was the couple in Waterville, Wash., who bought and renovated the abandoned Lutheran church where they had been married years before. Now it’s beautiful again, and the couple rents it as a wedding chapel. . . . Fortune now knows that Buffalo, Wyo., claims to have the world’s largest swimming pool, and Huron, S.D., the world’s largest statue of a pheasant." Fortune says, "You see the country in a different way when you’re on a bicycle. If you made the trip in a car, you couldn’t see it as slowly and intensely as we saw it."

"Fortune marveled at the vast openness of the West as he passed abandoned houses and towns depopulated by a changing economy," Eblen writes. "Many people had lived in their small towns all their lives, but their children had left in search of jobs and a more exciting lifestyle. He saw human despair on Indian reservations, and noted there was at least one bar in every Western town, no matter how small, and gambling machines in every bar and gas station."

Explorers often like to draw boundaries, and we tend to agree with our friend Bill on this one: "The cyclists agreed that the West ended and the Midwest began when they crossed the Missouri River in eastern South Dakota near the Minnesota line," Eblen writes. "Gradually, the empty country gave way to tidy farms and farmhouses and well-kept small towns." (Read more) For the blog version of Eblen's story, with a very nice, three-minute audio slide show from Fortune, click here.

Rural development specialist praises Ky. initiative

One expert on economic development in rural areas is praising a Kentucky initiative he says models a structure that will spread "as regionalism continues to make more sense to more people." Jack Schultz, author and CEO of Agracel Inc., a firm specializing in rural industrial development, writes on his BoomtownUSA blog that Northwest KY Forward is doing a great deal toward promoting industrial growth in the Kentucky counties around the city of Henderson, Ky. (Encarta map)

Schultz writes, "What most impressed me with this organization was their simple structure and also their straightforward strategy. The organization is lean with only four employees but the focus is on three areas: 1. Recruitment; 2. Retention and 3. Entrepreneurism." The company focuses on five areas of industry: aluminum, logistics, auto manufacturing parts, prepared foods and energy. Each area is selected carefully. For example, the area within a 60-mile radius of Henderson produces one-third of the aluminum in the U.S., employing over 8,000 workers.

The foundations of the organization were laid in the mid-1990s, when some of the counties jointly developed an industrial park. Since its official inception in July 2005, Northwest KY Forward has "landed new companies, helped start some new businesses, expanded employment and has a number of future projects on the drawing boards." Kevin Sheilley, president of the organization, tells Schultz: "We've got four companies looking at doing new projects here that have over 500 acres optioned." (Read more)

Coal mining and cemeteries don't mix, writer says

Arguments about coal mining typically draw lines along environmental or economic grounds, but a West Virginia woman wants to publicize an unexpected consequence: the restriction of access to cemeteries. In an open letter to Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, published by the Daily Yonder, Betty Dotson-Lewis entreats "Mr. Future President" to take into consideration the way that coal mining is affecting Appalachian traditions, including the way mountaineers honor their dead.

Massey Energy owns the only access road to the Underwood family cemetery in Nicholas County, W.Va., and has strict policies that create numerous obstacles for those who want to visit the cemetery, and visitors must be accompanied by Massey guards, who are not always available, Dotson-Lewis reports. Even when they are, the sititation sometimes doesn't sit well, she writes, telling the story of a graveside service for a coal-mining family. "After crossing the hurdles, the sister was laid to rest but grieving family members were uncomfortable being watched over by guards during the burial ceremony," she writes. A cousin of the deceased told her that when her father died, "Everyone had to stay until the undertakers were finished burying her father so the guards would only have to make one trip out of the cemetery, escorting the entire burial party. The family felt this was an unusually harsh sight for the small children along."

Dotson-Lewis ends her open letter: "At least two Purple Heart recipients lie there. Soldiers who fought and gave their lives in World War II were both on the verge of being rooted out of the ground by machinery or blown to bits by mining explosives some 70 years after falling on a distant battlefield and enduring the long ride home to rest in the family cemetery in Jones Branch Hollow on top of Lone Star Mountain. ... Mr. Future President, do you know what coal miners and their families are encountering? Strip-mining coal in Appalachia is destroying our way of life and our way of death." (Read more) reports rural opposition to ethanol

While farming communities have long been the biggest supporters of ethanol production, recent concerns about the fuel's effects on the environment and global food supply stir resistance even in rural areas. A recent article on, a non-profit journalistic venture focusing on Minnesota, highlights examples local opposition to proposed ethanol plants.

Ron Way writes, "For the first time since corn ethanol's dazzling growth sprinkled billions of dollars and jobs – and fattened farmers' bank accounts – across rural Minnesota, a proposed facility near Eyota, Minn., has drawn opposition from local elected officials rather than the open-arms welcome that's greeted nearly all of the state's 18 plants." Increased legislative analysis of the environmental impact of plants, and the cancellation of two ethanol-plant projects in Minnesota are other signs of ethanol's waning appeal.

Opposition to ethanol comes from many sectors. Many global organizations say the production of biofuels is a primary cause of the global food shortage. Ethanol production uses much water, and can prompt farmers to take marginal land out of the Conservation Reserve Program to grow more corn. Others say that the the plants are just not worth it. High corn prices are "causing some [ethanol] producers to see less return on their investment, especially for facilities still paying down debt," and those who live near proposed plants worry about "air emissions, odor, noise, nighttime lights and water-consumption issues," Way writes. (Read more)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rural impact of the credit crisis: Time for a look

The credit crisis has dominated the headlines over the past week, but very little of the focus in national media has been on what it means for rural America. However, many regional and specialized news sources are trying to address this worrisome question. We offer a few examples as encouragement for other rural journalists to probe the question.

Douglas Burns of the Iowa Independent asked Tom Gronstal, the state's banking superintendent, how the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the federal bailout of AIG will affect Iowans. Gronstal said the rural environment will alleviate some of the housing pressures: "Most of the community banks develop a relatively long-term relationship with their customers." For that reason, Burns writes, banks "aren’t looking to finance homes people can’t afford." But Gronstal does admit that "it will make it harder to borrow money for business and agriculture," and that if we are not already in a recession, one is inevitable. (Read more)

One Vermont newspaper focused on the effects that local businesspeople and economists anticipated would experience in their community. "Life is like a food chain and we're all affected," James McNeil, the town's state representative, told Cristina Kumka of the Rutland Herald. Don Keelan, a local accountant and investor, said "The average man will get affected through taxes," and the crisis would result in a continued weakening of the dollar and a loss of capital for start-up companies. (Read more)

Mike McGinnis and Jeff Caldwell of Agriculture Online examined the effects on farmers. "AIG especially is a large player in the ag sector," says Jason Ward of Northstar Commodity Investment Co., and "banks are tightening credit with everyone, which directly tightens credit at ag banks." At the same time, an overall weakened market will affect market prices for agricultural commodities, although Matt Pierce ... floor trader for Futures International LLC, says, "When the financial collapse is over, all agricultural commodites will rally significantly."

The article also addresses reactions to the crisis from farmers, many of whom expressed frustration at government intervention. "I'm still confused -- or maybe upset is the better word for it -- that it appears the government will bail out all of these investment banks that made their bed and are now begging for someone else to sleep in it," writes one member on the website's Marketing Talk forum, identified as GoredHusker. "All we've really learned from all of this is in order to survive get as big as you can. Get so big that the government can't allow you to fail." (Read more)

BusinessWeek looks at rural broadband issues

It has been widely assumed that extending high-speed Internet access to rural communities would improve their economic opportunities. Shane Greenstein, an economist who specializes in telecommunications at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, supports such efforts but says broadband advocates are overselling the possible economic impact. "Broadband wouldn't have the same proportional effect in a rural area as in a suburb or city," Greenstein told Arik Hesseldahl of BusinessWeek. "This is what an economist would call an upwardly biased estimate."

Some observers criticize Connected Nation, a leading advocate for rural broadand, for using tax dollars money to spread broadband and make money for Internet providers. "Public Knowledge, a Washington-based consumer rights group specializing in technology, alleges that Connected Nation's eCommunity teams are little more than sales forces for broadband providers," writes Hesseldahl. Bryan Mefford, the 35-year-old Kentucky native who runs Connected Nation, said all grants it gets are competitively sought, Public Knowledge generated its own data, and its estimates are below others who claim greater potential economic gains from broadband. "We're not just pulling this data out of the air," Mefford told Busienss Week. "We've done surveys of people in these states with large sample sizes of more than 10,000 people. Our assumptions are informed by these detailed surveys."

Connected Nation emerged from Connect Kentucky, which successfully expanded broadband service to 95 percent of the state by 2007 from 60 percent in 2004. As mentioned in a previous post, Connect Kentucky's role was to demonstrate demand for high-speed Internet in rural communities to providers of that service. Connected Nation is looking to accomplish the same feat on a national scale.

"The lack of fast Web access is helping create a country of broadband haves and have-nots," Hesseldahl writes. That "not only makes it harder for businesses to get work done, but also impedes workers' efforts to find jobs, puts students at a disadvantage, and generally leaves a wide swath of the country less connected to the growing storehouse of information on the Web — from health sites to news magazines to up-to-date information on presidential candidates." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Timber industry struggles as lumber demand drops

The timber industry is facing problems on three fronts: rising fuel prices, a struggling housing market and the decreasing value of lumber. Companies have been forced to lay off crews and put others on quotas. Wayne Sheets of The Inter-Mountain in Elkins, W.V., writes "Most officials in the business seemed to agree that the industry might 'bottom-out' and begin a slow recovery in late 2009 and 2010." (Sheets photo shows tree cutter David Mace at work for Gibson Logging)

The timber industry is facing a downturn because there is less demand for its products, and those products are costing more to transport. "The fuel situation is really hurting us," Donnie Nottingham, a mill manager at Inter-State Hardwoods, told Sheets. "The cost of getting logs to the mill has more than doubled at a time when demand is down and the price of lumber has gone down because of a lack of demand. Our shipping costs have also nearly doubled over the past six months."

There are other consequences to the downturn. Many in the industry are also having problems making loan payments on the equipment required for operation. "While I don't know the exact numbers, I suspect at today's costs, one can easily tie up over a half million dollars or more in equipment for a small logging operation," an official at Frank E. Wilson Lumber Co., who wished to remain anonymous, told Sheets. "Most people don't have that kind of money so they go out and borrow money from the banks. Then the economy hits a slump like we're in now and the first thing you know he can't make the payments on his equipment and, even though banks are notorious for working with people to help them save their business, eventually they have to foreclose and there goes the logger."

Some in the industry are remaining afloat by using their equipment in other industries. By using their logging trucks in other capacities and diversifying other aspects of their operations they hope to remain afloat through this difficult period. (Read more)

House passes Democratic bill for offshore drilling

"In a stunning political turnabout, the House voted Tuesday to end a long-standing ban on new offshore oil drilling as part of an energy bill aimed at rebutting Republican election-year attacks that the Democratic majority wasn't doing enough to try to ease the public's pain at the pump," writes Richard Simon of the Los Angles Times. Adds Simon, "The measure would let states decide whether to permit energy exploration 50 to 100 miles off their coasts." There has been a concern that new drilling sites could impact rural communities on the coasts, but at such distances there appears to be little chance for a significant impact.

"The bill includes a number of Democratic priorities, including repealing $18 billion in oil industry tax breaks and using the money to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency," adds Simon. "It would require utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity by 2020 from cleaner sources, such as the sun and wind. And it would force oil companies to pay additional royalties for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," which already has many oil drilling platforms -- though not in Florida, where opposition to offshore drilling is stout.

The bill has drawn criticism from President Bush and members of the Republican minority in Congress, who say it does not do enough to increase domestic oil production. Writes Simon, "With Congress set to adjourn before the end of the month -- and partisan tensions growing as election day nears -- there may not be enough time for the House and the Senate to reconcile any differences."

Many people living in rural communities have expressed support for offshore drilling as a means of controlling rising energy costs. Rural communities have been harder hit by the recent spike in energy costs because they typically have longer commutes and no public transportation. (Read more)

Major coal companies' credit ratings improve

Despite proposed greenhouse-gas legislation and an increased interest in alternative, clean fuels, Wall Street is projecting that the coal industry is going to do well for at least the next two years. After a review of the industry in general, Standard & Poor's Rating Service increased the credit ratings of five major U.S. coal companies, bringing them one step closer to investment-grade status.

"S&P noted coal is likely to remain the dominant fuel for the foreseeable future and long-term industry fundamentals remain positive as North American coal prices have increased substantially over the past several quarters." Lauren Pollack writes for Dow Jones Newswires. "The agency added that a number of companies have contracted for improved prices for a high percentage of their 2009 and 2010 planned production. If that production falls in line, S&P expects the companies to see improved cash flow and reduced leverage."

However, the industry's susceptibility to changes in pricing and operational problems are so far keeping the credit ratings from reaching investment-grade status. Companies are wary at locking in multi-year contracts, leading to shorter contract periods and increased price renegotiation. (Read more; subscription may be required)

Congressional Democrats voice concern about supply of consumer coupons for digital TV switch

The cost of equipment needed to make the transition from analog to digital television. a major concern in rural areas, has been eased by government coupons which cover most of the price. However, senior House Democrats say they are worried some people who need the coupons won't get them because the program has unexpected adminstrative costs.

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which runs the coupon program, asked for permission to use $7 million of the money set aside to subsidize digital converter boxes for administrative activities if needed. Democrats worry that the request could result in fewer coupons being available.

Fawn Johnson of Dow Jones Newswires writes, "In a letter sent Monday to the NTIA, Energy and Commerce [Committee] Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., asked how many converter box coupons that $7 million would fund." The representatives "also asked why the NTIA officials hadn't come forward earlier to tell Congress that the agency might need more money to run the coupon program."

NTIA said that the request does not necessarily mean the money will be used for administration, only that it has the flexibility to divert funds if needed. "We are being prudent and forward thinking," said NTIA spokesmans Todd Sedmak about the draft bill. "Congress goes out soon and won't return for a while, maybe not until 2009, so we want to have flexibility if needed." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Newspaper Week, Oct. 5-11: never more relevant

For most newspapers, National Newspaper Week has been a ho-hum activity, often if not usually ignored. Now, with the future of newspapers in doubt, the annual observance has never been more relevant. The theme this year is somewhat narrow, but still important: the need for paid publication of legal notices in print, as opposed to free and online.

Materials such as house ads, logos, editorial columns and cartoons, as well as a crossword puzzle, are available to all newspapers here on the Kentucky Press Association Web site. Here's an excerpt from an editorial by Donnis Baggett, editor-in-chief of The Bryan College Station Eagle, titled “Public Notice: Taxpayers have a right to know”:

"Most newspaper Web sites are the stars of the online market in their respective communities. Almost without exception, newspaper Web sites have more traffic than any other local or regional sites. Any “notice” that is posted independently online by a governmental entity or a vendor is likely to be read only by those who have a vested interest and are searching for notices of that sort. A published newspaper notice, on the other hand, is right there in black and white for anyone who reads the classified ads ... and, in most cases, online as well."

The other editorial also comes from Texas, and Bob Buckel of The Azle News, an excellent weekly. He writes: Public notice should be out there for everyone to browse, notice and read. It should be available to all. Anything that takes away control from the people — anything that pulls an item off the smorgasbord of information — is something we should resist.

We encourage newspapers to fly the flag for public notice, but also to remind readers of the societal value of a local newspaper, something the writers of the Bill of Rights had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.

Expert calls Agriprocessors abbatoirs 'sloppy'

On behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, slaughterhouse expert Dr. Temple Grandin toured the Agriprocessors plants in Postville, Iowa, and Gordon, Neb., and deemed the facilities "sloppy" in an article written by Lynda Waddington for The Iowa Independent. Waddington did not say if PETA paid Grandin.

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, is well-known for her extensive research of animal behavior, particularly in slaughterhouses. She claims her experience has taught her about three categories of facilities. "About 20 percent do things right nearly all the time. There is a large percentage that do things right most of the time, and there's also about 20 percent that tend to do things wrong, but will clean up their act when they are being audited," she said. "Within that bottom 20 percent, however, there is a very bottom 10 percent that has the most blatant problems and violations. That's where Agriprocessors is -- in that bottom 10 percent." The plant was the site of a huge immigration raid this year and is the largest kosher meat plant in the nation.

As a result of her findings, Grandin thinks all Agriprocessors facilities should be equipped with cameras to hold plant administration and personnel accountable for their treatment of animals. "We have management at Agriprocessors that has been reapeat offenders and have given us proof that they will not only behave when they know they are being watched," she said. Read the rest of the story here; for PETA's report, click here.

Only half of eligible high-school freshmen in W.Ky. county sign up for two years of free college tuition

Only half the eligible students in a southwestern Kentucky high school have signed up for a pilot program offering two years of free college tuition. Freshmen at Christian County High are the first students eligible for a program which would allow them to attend Hopkinsville Community and Technical College at no charge for the first two years after graduation.

To enroll in the Rotary Scholars program, sponsored by HCC and the Hopkinsville Rotary Club to increase the percentage of college graduates in Christian County (2000 population 72,000) students must attend an orientation meeting with their parents during their freshman year. There are only two sessions left, and only 250 of 492 have attended, Laura Coleman Noeth writes in the Kentucky New Era.

Michelle Fioretti has triplets -- two sons and a daughter -- who are freshmen at the school. In four years, they will be in college along with two older sisters. She says the program "will offer my family a little breathing room. ... It will give us a little more time to get the money together to let them go to the school of their choice when they're done with Hopkinsville Community College, and it will allow the triplets time to adjust to the workload and college atmosphere." (Read more)

As we've noted here before, the program is unusual in that most students are eligible. The required grade point average is a minimum of 2.5, the equivalent of a C average.

Coal-plant protesters arrested in southwest Va.

Protesters were arrested yesterday at the construction site of controversial power plant previously covered on The Rural Blog, the Virgina Hybrid Energy Center, a $1.8 billion coal-fired plant in the Appalachian town of St. Paul, Va. Opponents say the plant will harm air quality in the Shenandoah National Forest and want the state to instead focus on renewable clean energies.

Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress in Norton writes that 11 of the 36 protesters "entered the construction site and chained themselves to steel drums at two gates at the plant, according to the Virginia State Police. Two of those drums featured solar panels that powered a sign reading 'renewable jobs to renew Appalachia.'" They were "charged with unlawful assembly and criminal trespassing, both misdemeanors, ... participating in an unlawful assembly and obstructing justice." Two face additional charges of instigating trespassing.

Construction workers shouted opposition to the protesters, calling them "out-of state treehuggers," and many protesters took umbrage. “It’s not only treehuggers, it’s local people," Jane Branham, a protestor who was not charged, told Strange. "These are the people who live here and we have continually spoken out at Board of Supervisors meetings about the plant." (Read more)

Wind power, like ethanol, faces pitfalls as it grows

Is wind power the new ethanol? Both experienced periods of exponential growth, aided by hype as the next clean energy and promoted through federal subsidies. An article in the October issue of The Atlantic asks whether wind power will experience the same fall from grace. Matthew Quirk says ethanol is "now viewed almost universally as a disaster," contributing to the global food crisis. While wind power is unlikely to have an effect on that scale, other problems associated with the energy source may result in a similar "blowback."

The two primary problems Quirk cites are transmission and variability. Most of the wind power comes from Western states with low population, while most of it is used in larger population centers on the East Coast. The cost of building new transmission lines could cost between $3 billion and $6 billion. At the same time, "wind farms tend to produce the most energy when it’s not needed—at night and in the spring and fall, when demand is low." Similarly, unexpected weather changes could leave power plants without backup energy sources, causing energy shortages at random. (Read more)

Lisa Linowes, executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group, told Mark Svengold for his story in The New York Times Magazine that there is no effective utility-scale mechanism for storing off-peak wind power. "Eric Rosenbloom, president of National Wind Watch, a Massachusetts-based group, adds that wind power’s inherent unreliability requires that backup natural-gas power plants be built alongside wind plants, and that this 'increases, rather than decreases, both the overall expense of wind power and its carbon footprint'," Svengold writes. (Read more)

As luck would have it, the greatest concentrations of wind plants are in the Upper Midwest, also the area when ethanol plants are most concentrated. The map below, from The Atlantic, shows average wind speed, wind plants and proposed plants. (Click here or on map to view larger version)

Conservative writers disagree on qualifications of Palin; story says she tried to help dairy farmers

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin "is the ultimate small-town renegade rising from the frontier to do battle with the corrupt establishment," David Brooks writes in The New York Times. "Her followers take pride in the way she has aroused fear, hatred and panic in the minds of the liberal elite. The feminists declare that she’s not a real woman because she doesn’t hew to their rigid categories. People who’ve never been in a Wal-Mart think she is parochial because she has never summered in Tuscany. Look at the condescension and snobbery oozing from elite quarters, her backers say."

Those views support a serious argument that "regular people need to take control," Brooks says, but he takes issue with the populist streak that drives modern conservastism. "For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected," he writes. "The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools." And he joins some other conservative commentators, whom he names, in suggesting that the former council member and mayor from a town of fewer than 10,000 is not qualified for national office because she lacks the prudence born of experience.

"Sarah Palin has many virtues," Brooks writes. "If you wanted someone to destroy a corrupt establishment, she’d be your woman. But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness. The idea that “the people” will take on and destroy “the establishment” is a utopian fantasy that corrupted the left before it corrupted the right. Surely the response to the current crisis of authority is not to throw away standards of experience and prudence, but to select leaders who have those qualities but not the smug condescension that has so marked the reaction to the Palin nomination in the first place." (Read more)

A different view is expressed in the editorial section of The Wall Street Journal, in Bret Stephens' "Global View" column and by Cathy Young, contributing editor at Reason magazine, who writes about why feminists hate Palin: "There are legitimate questions about Mrs. Palin's qualifications. And yet, like millions of American women -- and men -- I find her can-do feminism infinitely more liberated than the what-can-the-government-do-for-me brand espoused by the sisterhood." (Read more)

In the Journal's news pages this morning is a story by Jim Carlton about how Palin took the side of dairy farmers in their battle to keep open the state-operated, money-losing Matanuska Maid creamery in her home borough. She replaced the state board that ordered the creamery closed, but the new board had to close it again after the losses continued. "The candidate's handling of the matter has been fodder for some critics challenging her credentials as a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative," Carlton writes. "Supporters of Gov. Palin say she was motivated primarily by a desire to save the creamery's 70 jobs and help the handful of local farmers reliant on it. They say she helped keep the small dairy industry from collapsing by giving the farmers time to find new places to sell their products." (Read more)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Good investments: Small, local media companies with digital components, banker and publisher say

Jeanne Straus, right, the president of Monroe, N.Y.-based Straus Newspapers, had a question for her fellow publishers in the New York Press Association when she took over as president on Friday: "What do Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., Roger Ailes of Fox News and Strauss Zelnick, the investment banker, all have in common?"

I said, "They're all rural publishers," thinking that Zelnick might be one. Two out of three wasn't bad. As Straus noted and we reported, Ailes recently bought the Putnam County News and Recorder in Cold Spring, N.Y. And she noted that News Corp. recently bought weeklies in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. She could have also noted that Murdoch decided not to sell Ottaway Newspapers, a former Dow Jones subsidiary that has a large rural clientele.

Answering her own question, Straus said the three men "are all headed our way – to the local community newspaper business. Strauss Zelnick said in January of this year that he wanted to invest more in 'smaller businesses … that have digital components.' And apparently he believes in old line media companies because he thinks although we don’t currently have the answer yet on the digital business – we will eventually," Straus said. "So my talk to you today is really a pep talk. Some pretty savvy media watchers think you – and I – are perfectly positioned for the future – small, local media companies with a digital component." For her full remarks, click here.

The digital component was my topic the next day, at a presentation arguing that weekly newspapers need to enter the 24/7 world: "For decades now, Americans have grown more accustomed to getting their news for free: First from radio, then TV, then from the Internet. (I say people get news free from the Internet, because while they pay for Internet access, there are plenty of free news sites.) Now, on top of the phenomenon of news for free, is the phenomenon that is already changing weekly newspapering: Americans are increasingly expecting to get their news immediately. Increasingly, your readers simply will not understand why they have to wait several days to read in your newspaper the local news that they heard about at the grocery, the post office, the bar or the coffee shop. There will be a demand for immediate local news, in the form of text, and someone will fill it." (Read more)

Also at the conference, the publishers voted to add this to the NYPA by-laws: "NYPA members are urged to conduct business with high ethical standards and practice good journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics."

Ky. coal mine to pay big fine for May 2006 blast

After initially challenging the citations, the Kentucky Darby LLC coal company will pay $342,000 for safety violations and fines two years after an explosion that killed five men, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The company is under court order to pay by Oct. 19," MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told reporters.

The explosion occurred in May 2006 "as two miners used an acetylene torch to cut a metal roof strap above a seal blocking off an unused part of the mine ... which ignited methane gas leaking from the seal," writes Bill Estep for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Those two men died instantly, while three others died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation as they tried to escape. The only survivor, miner Paul Ledford, suffered serious lung damage.

Representing four of the five widows and Ledford, attorney Tony Oppegard said MSHA should give the money to the families of the victims. Some survivors scoff at the amount of the fines to be paid by Kentucky Darby, which closed in April 2007. "It's a joke," said Melissa Lee, widow of 33 year-old Jimmy Lee, told James Carroll for the The Courier-Journal. "Five men died - c'mon. That's a little bitty bit to pay for the men that are gone."

The surviving victim and the families of the deceased are in the process of a wrongful-death suit against Jericol Mining Inc., which provided management and other services for the mine, writes Estep. Read the Herald-Leader's story here and The Courier-Journal's story here.

Army fights to keep Asian carp from Great Lakes

In an attempt to stop the spread of the Asian carp, an invasive species, into the waters of Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expanding an underwater electric barrier north of Joliet, Ill. "The system, whose projected total cost is $36.5 million, emits electrical currents to dissuade the carp — and all other fish — from making their way to the lake," writes Dan Barry of The New York Times. "The project’s name conveys its gravity: the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Aquatic Nuisance Species Dispersal Barrier." Or CSSCANSDB, huh? Times photo by Angel Franco shows carp jumping from the water, as they often do; fishermen are sometimes injured.

An 80-mile stretch of the Illinois River may now have the world's largest population of Asian carp. "In 2006, the researchers caught around 500 silver carp," writes Barry. "In 2007, around 10,000. So far this year, with only two-thirds of the sampling complete, they have caught nearly 80,000 silver carp that now compete in an eating contest with native fish for the river’s algae and zooplankton. The carp often win."

The Asian carp was introduced in the U.S. in the early 70's to eat algae in southern fish farms. Floods allowed the fish to escape from their controlled environment. Kevin Irons, a researcher who studies the Asian carp population in the Illinois, adds "Someday, perhaps, someone will develop a lemonade-from-lemons plan for these fish — a commercially viable way to use them as fertilizer, or to export them to China and other countries, where they are a common food source."(Read more)

Solar power will help treat rural town's sewage

As energy prices keep climbing, the Texas Office of Rural Community Affairs is looking to renewable energy. The office recently gave $488,714 to Lometa, a town of about 800 people, "to install solar panels to help power the plant that treats its sewage," writes Asher Price of the Austin American-Statesman. While many have been skeptical about the high prices often associated with renewable energy, the Lometa example may lessen that skepticism.

"The renewable energy project comes as rising energy costs have hit rural communities especially hard; residents often have lower incomes and longer drives to community services and work," Price writes. The solar panels in Lometa are supposed to generate roughly half the power required to run the sewer plant, save the town around $6,000 annually and avoid increases in sewer bills. The town can use the help; its median household income is little more than half the national average. Its population is about one-third Hispanic.

Other Texas communities are becoming interested in similar projects but state funding is limited; Lometa's grant is only the second from the rural office. "The state of Texas just doesn't have a lot of money for these projects," adds Travis Brown, the office's renewable-energy program manager. (Read more)

NBC reports on programs to get more rural doctors by placing medical students at rural hospitals

As the lack of rural doctors becomes an increasingly serious concern, programs allowing medical students to spend their third year in rural hospitals provides hope that they will practice in such areas. "The goal is to hook them on rural health care helping them develop their sense of self sufficiency to meet the challenges of working outside a large city," reports NBC News, using as an example the Albany Medical College program that places students at rural Bassett Hospital in upstate New York.

There are 45 such programs in the U.S., with the same goal of showing students the benefits of becoming doctors in rural communities. The students are taught to become well versed in different areas of medicine and to take a greater interest in their patients' long-term needs. "The traditional way of medical school is you do a few months of everything, a few months of surgery, a few months of medicine," adds Bruna Babic, a third year medical student enrolled in the program. "Here we do it in a few weeks and then for seven months consecutively we have clinics or we’re doing different things in the morning or different things in the afternoon and the whole point of it is really to follow the patients we’ve met along the way.”

The program is competitive, having to turn down interested students each year. These programs give hope to rural communities that have struggled to attract doctors. While the students have just started the program while "a career outside a big city is already on their radar," NBC adds. (Read more)

Almond growers fight USDA pasteurization rule

Almond growers in California are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a ruling they say has unnecessarily cost them a place in the raw-foods market. Last year, USDA ruled that U.S.-grown almonds must be pasteurized, following a salmonella outbreak was traced to the nuts.

The suit "contends that handlers who paid a premium for raw almonds have been paying as much as 40 percent less for the pasteurized variety, or rejecting them altogether," says Erica Werner of The Associated Press. "They argue that the rule was imposed without the proper rule-making process, didn't take key issues into account and should be thrown out."

According to the lawsuit, the Almond Board of California found that the quality of almonds were not affected by pasteurization, but almond producers have lost customers who are interested in untreated food and have received complaints from consumers. (Read more)

New conservation programs, unlike many current ones, lack set-asides for women farmers

The new Farm Bill provides many benefits for "socially disadvantaged" farmers, but some critics say the bill doesn't go far enough in saying who exactly meets this criteria. While female farmers are considered "socially disadvantaged" in getting rural development assistance and farm loans, they are not eligible for new benefits in major conservation programs.

"Five percent of the money in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and 5 percent of the acreage in the Conservation Stewardship Program is reserved for socially disadvantaged farmers," writes Philip Brasher in The Des Moines Register. "Both are complementary programs that help farmers offset the cost of preventing pollution and improving soil, water and energy conservation." Why were women eligible for the loan and rural development assistance, but not conservation benefits? Kate Cyrul, spokeswoman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that "limited funding required that farm bill writers restrict this definition."

April Hennes, a farmer since the 1980s, tells Brasher, "Anything that encourages the young farmers and the women or the socially disadvantaged to get into farming is a good thing." While she says she no longer has to worry about the economic challenges added in being a female in a male-dominated career, other women do: "There's still some stigma out there." (Read more)

Palin pick solidifies McCain base in rural areas

Sen. John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has solidified his support in battleground states and "especially in rural areas, where she has made a very positive first impression," Dan Balz and Peter Slevin of The Washington Post report this morning, quoting an unnamed McCain adviser. "If that holds, it could complicate Obama's hopes of picking off Ohio or Missouri. He won the latter in the primaries, but it voted for Bush in the past two elections." So did Ohio, which is probably once again the top battleground. (Map from

Obama strategist David Axelrod said McCain's firming up has largely been limited to states that voted for President Bush, and deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said Obama would still try to take away some of those states, such as Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota. But Democratic strategist Tad Devine told the Post that the Electoral College map "is going to look a lot like 2000 and 2004."

Balz and Slevin report, "Five states that went for President Bush in 2004 are now high on the list of potential Obama states: Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Two states that went for Sen. John F. Kerry are top targets of McCain's campaign: Wisconsin and New Hampshire. ... Kerry won 252 electoral votes in 2004, so Obama needs to pick off some Bush states to win the election. The two likeliest are Iowa and New Mexico, although that would still leave him six short of 270." Palin "makes an authentic rural connection," former Iowa U.S. Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot told Douglas Burns of The Iowa Independent.

The Post says "McCain has fewer opportunities for switching states, but his first priority is to hold onto the two big battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio. His campaign has growing confidence that Florida will remain in their column. One Obama adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly, expressed pessimism about Florida but said the longer the Democrats can keep the state competitive, the more McCain may be forced to spend to defend it. Ohio remains competitive because of the economy, but there are signs that Palin could help boost the vote in rural areas, where Obama was very weak in the primaries." (Read more)

For an interactive battleground map, with state-by-state polls, from The New York Times, click here.

Iowa town more diverse after big immigration raid

An unexpected result of the immigration raid on a Postville, Iowa, processing plant in May is that the town has become more diverse, Lynda Waddington reports for The Iowa Independent. After more than 300 workers, mostly from Guatemala, were arrested for working with false documentation, the town saw an influx of immigrants from a variety of countries seeking to fill the vacated jobs.

Waddington describes this new Postville, with new residents from countries from Russia to Somalia: "The once thriving Hispanic grocery store ... has downsized and reduced its hours of operation." She interviewed a few young men from Palau, who asked not to be named though the country's status as a former U.S. territory eases immigration. "The men are quick to point out that they are legal employees, that they have gone through proper channels to come and work here," Waddington writes. "They’ve heard news reports about the immigration raid and how those employees have described their treatment at Agriprocessors. 'When you don’t have the right papers, employers think they can do whatever they want,” said a 20-something man.'" (Read more)

Burning coal in the ground to create gas looks promising to India, China; several pitfalls remain

Underground coal gasification, or burning coal in the ground to produce natural gas, "has the potential to tap enormous and otherwise inaccessible coal reserves -- and to slow the speed of climate change," David Winning reports in The Wall Street Journal. India and China "are investigating large-scale commercial projects ... building on pilot projects in the U.S. and elsewhere," writes Winn, the Beijing editor of Dow Jones Newswires. "The two countries are also looking at the possibility of capturing and permanently storing underground the gases produced, like carbon dioxide, which scientists believe cause global warming."
The Soviet Union pioneered the technology in the 1930s, and a power plant in Uzbekistan still uses it. "Now, thanks to higher oil and gas prices, underground coal gasification has again become cost-competitive," Winning reports. "Advances in the technology also make the practice more attractive. ... Underground gasification also presents an attractive alternative because it produces no sulfur oxide or nitrogen oxide, there are lower levels of mercury and particulates, and the ash stays underground. Experts say the technology is especially suitable for low-rank coals like lignites and sub-bituminous coal, which produce less heat when burned due to their high ash content, and are highly polluting."

There are, of course, major concerns about water pollution or land subsidence caused by "cavities created when the coal seams are drilled and burned out," Winning writes. Advocates say water can be protected by managing pressures in the coal seam, and subsidence can be avoided by choosing a site with strong rock layers. And what about the main concern about coal projects? "A large-scale project that includes carbon capture and sequestration ... is still years away," Winning reports. "The big hope is that carbon dioxide produced in the process can be pumped back into the void left by the combustion of the coal underground, and permanently sequestered from the atmosphere, helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. But ... carbon capture would likely make underground gasification more expensive." (Read more)