Friday, February 19, 2010

Alabama electronic bingo facilities spark debate about what kind of jobs rural areas need

An attempt by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley to rid the state of electronic bingo has put rural county officials on the defensive for one of the few industries they say has created jobs in their jurisdictions. "This fight might have its roots in the legality of electronic bingo, but the tussle also has taken on an economic development angle in areas that see gaming establishments ... in the same light as the state's Mercedes-Benz and Honda factories," Michael Tomberlin of The Birmingham News reports.

"It comes down to the fact that desperate people do desperate things," Larry Lee, a former economic developer in Covington County and other parts of the state, told Tomberlin. "Whatever it is we have called 'rural development' for years in Alabama has failed miserably. We've just not taken a meaningful approach to it, and those chickens are coming home to roost." Neal Wade, the executive director of the Alabama Development Office, disagrees telling Tomberlin the "state's economic development efforts must be attached to safer bets."

Proponents of the facilities say they account for nearly 5,000 jobs, while the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations reports the figure is fewer than 2,200. Local officials tell Tomberlin "by either measure, those are jobs those counties can't afford to lose." But one of the governor's spokespersons told Tomberlin the casinos have been no economic cure for those counties. Federal data shows the unemployment rate in December was 15.6 percent in Lowndes County, 15 percent in Greene County and 12 percent in Macon County. Houston County's 9 percent rate made it the only county with a large bingo facility and an unemployment rate less than the state's 11 percent average. (Read more)

Sign up tonight for News Entrepreneur Boot Camp

Midnight tonight is the deadline to apply for the News Entrepreneur Boot Camp to be held May 16-21 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. This intense, expenses-paid boot camp is designed for 20 competitively selected digital entrepreneurs with great ideas for community news and information initiatives in the public interest. It is sponsored by The Knight Digital Media Center in partnership with the USC Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the Center for Communication Leadership and Public Policy, and the Online Journalism Review.

Topics to be covered include:
* Identifying the best business model for sustained success.
* Developing a feasibility plan.
* Audience development and customer acquisition.
* Developing and implementing revenue and advertising strategies.
* Successful social networking models.
* Understanding and using analytics.

Traditional news organizations are floundering as business models collapse and audiences are increasingly turning to alternative news and information sources. This special boot camp is designed for digital journalists and others who are passionate about new ideas for serving the information and news needs of their communities but who lack the grounding in business and startup skills. Expert faculty from both academia and the private sector will provide intense instruction, coaching and mentoring on developing marketable business plans for providing news and information in the public interest. Successful applicants will provide a concise and clear proposal for a digital initiative that services specific community news and information needs and will meet the following expertise criteria:
* Digital fluency. Must be able to independently create and manage digital content in an online environment. Most important, must understand technology as tool and online as a community.
* Business/math aptitude. Must be comfortable and competent in math and business environment. * Topic Expertise. Must demonstrate experience/expertise in targeted topic/service area.
* Collaborative. Must demonstrate previous experience in working productively with others on projects requiring innovation.
* Value-driven. Must be committed to values of accuracy, balance, fairness, credibility, inclusion, transparency and public service.
* Committed to Community Leadership. Must be able to identify and understand the dynamics of community information needs and be committed to servicing those needs.

Fellowships include lodging and meals during the boot camp and cost of instruction. A partial travel subsidy will be provided. Applications must be submitted online by midnight tonight, Friday, Feb. 19, by clicking here. For more information contact Vikki Porter, director, Knight Digital Media Center, at or 213-821-0071.

Stories raise questions about just how important the coal industry really is to Southwest Virginia

Monday we excerpted a Politico story about Republicans using fears about jobs in coal country against incumbent Democrats in the region. Now a Washington Post story focusing on Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Southwest Virginia has raised some new issues. "Voters in Virginia's 9th Congressional District are mad that the government has spent hundreds of billions to fix an economy that seems only to deteriorate around them," Amy Gardner writes for the Post. "They're fearful of a federal takeover of health care. They're petrified that proposed emissions limits would destroy the coal industry that provides most of the region's jobs."

Whoa, say Bill Bishop and Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder, who point out Bureau of Economic Analysis data showing that coal mining employs many in Wise County, focal point of the Post story, but the industry hires fewer people than retail trade (14. 1 percent) or government (21.7 percent). "Instead of the complex reality, however, we get the rural stereotype," Bishop and Marema write. "Appalachians are coal miners, right? After all, aren’t most Kansans farmers? (No.) Aren’t most folks in Maine lobstermen (No again). Most Texans cowboys? (See previous parenthetical statements.)" (Read more)

Then there is this story from Debra McCown of The Bristol Herald-Courier asserting that a six-county region in southwest Virginia is doing better economically than the surrounding region and nation as a whole, thanks mainly to coal. McCown's source is the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, which credits "the relative prosperity to a combination of coal and natural gas, with a growing high-technology industry and the construction of a coal-fired power plant." Even VCEDA's profile of Wise County, part of the coalition, reports natural resources and mining employ 1,858 while trade transportation and utilities employ 2,748 and education and health service employ 4,097 in the county. VCEDA reported the region's relative economic prosperity was because the "coal industry has been strong, professional business services are growing and construction is showing growth as well," in a news release McCown provided to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. (Read more)

White House approves additional money for black farmers in long-simmering discrimination lawsuit

The Obama administration Thursday announced a $1.25 billion settlement with African American farmers alleging that the Department of Agriculture discriminated against them for decades. "The government paid $1 billion to settle a related case with 16,000 black farmers in 1999, but notification and communication errors led to some farmers being omitted from that settlement," Carrie Johnson of The Washington Post reports.

Congress must still approve the deal. "I'm going to focus all my time and resources on making that happen," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. "The president is prepared to indicate that it's a priority not just for his administration but for the country." The new agreement would "provide cash payments and debt relief to farmers who applied too late to participate in the earlier settlement," Johnson reports. The settlement also stipulates farmers can walk away from the agreement if Congress does not act by March 31.

"Since black farmers first filed the lawsuit, known as the Pigford case, in 1997, Hispanic farmers, women and Native Americans have also sued the government, based on alleged widespread discrimination in awarding agriculture loans and subsidies," Johnson writes. Advocates of those groups are expected to lobby Congress to be included in the new settlement. Administration officials said outlines of the settlement had met with bipartisan support, Johnson reports, but House appropriators said they "needed more time to review the settlement before offering solid predictions as to its fate." (Read more)

House committee looking at natural-gas 'fracking'

The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced Thursday it is investigating the impacts of hydraulic fracturing in gas drilling, due to concerns about potential contamination pf drinking water with brine and chemicals. The committee will examine both potential impacts on the environment and human health, Ayesha Rascoe and Tom Doggett of Reuters report. "As we use this technology in more parts of the country on a much larger scale, we must ensure that we are not creating new environmental and public health problems," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee chairman, told the reporters. "This investigation will help us better understand the potential risks this technology poses to drinking water supplies and the environment, and whether Congress needs to act to minimize those risks."

Some members of Congress are pushing for legislation that would give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate fracking, a drilling process that injects a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations at high pressure to force out oil and natural gas, Rascoe and Doggett report. The committee asked for information from eight companies: Halliburton, BJ Services, Schlumberger, Frac Tech Services, Superior Well Services, Universal Well Services, Sanjel Corporation and Calfrac Well Services, that use the technique. (Read more)

The committee is particularly interested in the use of diesel fuel after documents from BJ Services and Halliburton showed they continued to use diesel even after reaching a voluntary agreement with the EPA to stop using it, Ben Casselman of The Wall Street Journal reports. BJ Chief Financial Officer Jeff Smith told Casselman the company had "inadvertently used diesel on a couple of jobs" but had since fixed the error. "You wonder what the real purpose is here when the track record on natural-gas operations has been stellar," Erik Milito, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, told Casselman. (Read more)

Postal Service drops plan to raise thin papers' rate

Earlier this month we reported that weekly newspapers were rallying against a proposed U. S. Postal Service rule that would have increased their mailing costs 54 to 78 percent. Now the USPS has decided thin newspapers, or so-called "flimsy flats," will retain the basic carrier-route prices even if they fail the new "droop test," Max Heath, postal chair of the National Newspaper Association, reported in an e-mail. NNA was the only organization "publicly cited during a presentation on the final rule at the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee in Washington Feb. 17 for the reasonableness and quality of arguments." The rule was proposed to ensure new automated USPS sorting equipment could better handle thin papers. For a story from the NNA, click here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Guns allowed in some national parks starting Mon.

Beginning Monday visitors to some U.S. national parks will be able to carry loaded weapons for the first time in 94 years. In June we reported Congress had passed the new law requiring parks to abide by their state's gun laws. "The law will not give park visitors blanket permission to possess firearms, it will allow visitors to carry guns into any park, provided they follow all federal, state and local laws," Erich Hiner of the Scripps Howard News Service reports.

Hunting will still be banned in the parks, and firearms will still not be permitted in federally owned buildings such as ranger stations and visitor centers. "We will take the 'firearms prohibited' signs off at the front gate," parks spokesman David Barna told Hiner. "A lot of the burden is on the public to know the laws of your state." Regulations will also vary within some parks like Yellowstone which covers land in three states, and the Appalachian Trail, which runs through nine states. (Read more)

"The move concerns current and former employees of the National Park Service who are convinced that the move will damage the spirit of the nation's park system," reports Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. "Congress lifted the gun ban last spring, after years of efforts by a bipartisan coalition that said differences in state and federal firearms laws made it difficult for gun owners to travel between state and federal laws." (Read more)

Vilsack: Biodiesel credit essential for rural growth

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called Tuesday for an extension of the expired biodiesel tax-credit, which he termed vital for rural economic growth. "The plea was part of a larger platform of rural development initiatives that Vilsack unveiled today at the Agriculture Department's annual outlook conference," Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

"I want to express concern about the future of 2.2 million farmers and ranchers and the 50 million-plus people who live in rural America," Vilsack said. "We need to understand the value of rural America and begin paying more attention to it than we have in the past." The secretary called for the federal government to "get serious" about rural America by improving support for farmers, local food systems, conservation and renewable energy. Vilsack told Winter extending the tax credit was essential to promote the biofuels industry still in its infancy that could be spurred by renewable energy development. (Read more)

Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stripped the tax credit from a jobs bill that had been proposed by the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports. Vilsack didn't insist that the credit be re-added to the jobs bill. "The key is getting it (the biodiesel credit) into a bill that’s a must-do," Vilsack told reporters. "I doesn’t necessarily have to be the jobs bill, but it has to be a must-do bill." (Read more)

Group organizes to get broadband for rural area

Broadband development has been one of the most talked-about rural issues, even before passage of the economic stimulus package and its $7.2 billion broadband budget. One grassroots organization has made bringing broadband to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky its goal. Pine Mountain Residents for Broadband was created after residents realized high-speed Internet wasn't available in their area despite the multitude of advertisements and mailings from phone company Windstream advertising DSL access, Rend Smith writes for the Daily Yonder.

Windstream offers high-speed access to much of the rural area surrounding Pine Mountain and advertises heavily there. One resident, Samantha Sparkman, says she's gotten as far as having a Windstream representative schedule an appointment for her house to be outfit for a connection only to see the technician never show up, Smith writes. They don't feel like they need to bring the Internet to us because there aren't enough houses," Sparkman said at a recent PMRB meeting.

Windstream spokesperson David Avery told Smith the company "has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy broadband service to roughly 89 percent of our voice customers. We constantly explore ways to make broadband available to the remaining areas of our network, but the costs are often prohibitive to earn back the investment at affordable rates for customers." To help accomplish its goal PMRB has teamed up with other community organizations through the Web site The group's Web site includes an online pledge to bring equal Internet access to all, and this music video for "The Dial-Up Blues" from Randy and Gabe Wilson.

Deadly bat disease reaches Tennessee, raising prospect of more insects, disease and pesticides

UPDATE, Feb. 22: Reporter Morgan Simmons and photographer Adam Brimer of the Knoxville News-Sentinel took a trip with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency field biologist Sterling Daniels, left, and Nature Conservancy cave specialist Cory Holliday to a cave near the Kentucky border to look for white noses. They didn't find any, but came back with a story, photos and video. The crew had to decontaminate all their clothing and equipment to avoid bringing into the cave whatever causes the disease. That's a cautionary note that should be included in stories on the subject, because stories about caves can encourage amateurs to go spelunking without taking proper precautions.

In November we reported the mysterious white-nose syndrome affecting bats in the Northeast might be moving south. Now those fears have been confirmed. Two bats that died during hibernation in Worley's Cave in Sullivan County in northeast Tennessee have tested positive for the highly contagious disease, Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports. The cave is near Virginia, the southernmost state where the disease had been recorded.

Tennessee officials fear bat losses in their state from the disease could match the entire losses in the Northeast because the state has more than 9,600 caves, some of which host colonies of up to 100,000 bats during the winter, Paine reports. "If we lose these guys, we're going to end up with a lot more insects flying around destroying agricultural crops and forest trees and defoliating them," Thomas Kunz, professor of biology and director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, told Paine. The 1 million bats killed by the disease in the northeast since 2006 "would have eaten an estimated 694 tons of insects over the warm months," Paine writes.

Increased pesticide use is one option for combating the increased insect population. "That has adverse consequences on human health and other things," Kunz told Paine. "Keystone species keep things in balance — the balance of nature. They hold up the arch that is the ecosystem. When you remove a keystone species, the ecosystem collapses." Many think the disease is spread by human cavers on their equipment. State-owned caves in Tennessee have been closed to try and combat the spread, but the white-nose cases occurred in a privately owned cave. Most caves are privately owned. (Read more)

Reclaimed strip mines still have environmental impact, report for Congress says

Reclaimed surface mines in Central Appalachia have continuing environmental impact after their reclamation bonds are released but are not commonly monitored by state and federal regulators, says a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The non-partisan investigative arm of Congress cited poor reforestation efforts, contaminated streams that harm aquatic organisms, water-flow issues and failure to restore approximate original contour to sites that may be called “mountaintop removal” but are actually permitted as area mines.

State officials, who enforce strip-mine laws with oversight by federal officials, called the report overbroad, but its sponsor endorsed it. The report, coupled with one in December on mountaintop removal, could help inform the debate about surface mining in Central Appalachia, a debate that has intensified from both sides but one that is often dominated by opinion rather than fact. Download the report here. For our story on it, go here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How does your county rank in health? Here it is

How healthy is your community? A new service from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the country's largest health care philanthropy, has health snapshots of each county in the country, ranked against the other counties in their state.

Rural counties rank particularly low. Some of the poor rural scores can be attributed to higher disease and death rates in those areas, the authors said during the live Twittercast to release the data. In our home state of Kentucky, rural Wolfe County in Eastern Kentucky ranked last among the 120 counties while Boone County in the greater Cincinnati area ranked first. More important than rankings, which can reflect very small differences, are changes in a county's health status over time. In Kentucky, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky maintains a Web site,, that updates information as it becomes available.

Health rankings include a number of factors, including life expectancy, smoking, obesity, binge drinking, access to primary care providers, rates of high school graduation, rates of violent crime, air pollution levels, liquor store density, unemployment rates and number of children living in poverty. "These rankings demonstrate that health happens where we live, learn, work and play. And much of what influences how healthy we are and how long we live happens outside the doctor’s office," Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the RWJF, said in a news release. "People, no matter where they live, should have the best possible opportunity to be healthy." (See the rankings)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Count inmates where they're from or where they are housed? Debate pits rural GOP areas v. urban

Last week reported the new choice for states to have the Census Bureau stop counting inmates in jurisdictions where prisons are located. In New York state, that debate is one of prisoner rights versus local risk. The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative has launched a campaign to count the prisoners, whom they call "phantom constituents," in their home communities, which would benefit from the added population, David Sommerstein of National Public Radio reports. But officials in the localities with the prisons say the added population should be part of their consideration for the security risk.

The division mostly follows party lines, with rural Republican districts benefiting from the added population. Prison advocates say the added rural legislative representation usually votes directly against the inner-city interests of the inmates. Prisoners can't vote in the rural communities, and are "more interested in drug, crime and housing laws than, say, farms," Sommerstein writes. "The system of one person, one vote entirely breaks down when we take people from one community of interest — and then credit them to a completely different community for districting purposes," Peter Wagner of PPI told Sommerstein.

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want them [prisons]," Chuck Kelly, publisher of The Ogdensburg Journal in upstate New York, told Sommerstein. "We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs." State Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg, says the prisons use water and sewer and other infrastructure and those services are paid for in part by the inmates being counted as part of the population. (Read more)

N.D. town's effort to attract residents flounders from small-town cliquishness, extreme isolation

We've often followed the attempts of rural communities to attract young families and cancel out the so-called rural brain drain, but not all families have enjoyed "going rural." One family, transplanted from Miami to small-town Hazelton, N.D., hoped to gain a much-needed rest from big-city stress but instead found a tight-knit community wary of outsiders, James MacPherson of The Associated Press reports. "It's been quite an experience, 50-50 at best," Michael Tristani, whose family is now looking to leave Hazelton, told MacPherson. "It hasn't been easy. No one really wants new people here."

"Rural communities across the Great Plains, fighting a decades-long population decline, are trying a variety of ways to attract outsiders," MacPherson writes. "But the Tristanis show how the efforts can fail even at a time when many people are desperate." The Hazelton Development Corp. began its campaign in 2005 by offering families up to two free lots and $20,000 toward home purchases and businesses free lots and up to $50,000 for coming to town. "Besides cash and free land, Hazelton had little else to offer except elbow room," MacPherson writes.

The community received inquiries from around the country, but only the Tristanis made the move. Their experience was complicated by threats of vandalism from owners of a competing local coffee shop. The loss of the Tirstanis' two children would hurt the local high school, which currently has 72 students, but the superintendent expects that number to fall to 31 in four years. Hazelton's extreme remoteness may be one factor in the failure of the program. A spokeswoman for the rural advocacy group Center for Rural Affairs told MacPherson rural land-incentives usually only work in communities within 30 minutes of a larger town. (Read more)

USDA to repay student loan debt of veterinarians who set up practices in areas short of vets

Last week we updated you on the shortage of veterinarians in rural America. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new program to combat that trend. Friday, Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the department would begin repaying student loan debt for qualified veterinarians that offer their services is an area suffering from a vet shortage.

"USDA can help ensure there is a first line of defense against animal diseases across the United States by placing qualified veterinarians in areas where there is a critical need," Vilsack said in a news release. "This program will help reduce veterinary shortages, especially in the area of food animal medicine, which will reduce stress on producers and improve the health of the livestock industry." The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program will be administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program began in January when NIFA began compiling a register of shortage areas.

The program expects to begin accepting applications from interested vets by the end of April, and will repay up to $25,000 in student-loan debt in exchange for three years of service in a shortage area. NIFA has set a tentative application due date for June 30 and expects to issue offers by September 30. (Read more)

Some big media firms push investigations and legal action, but smaller outlets are demurring

Some large media companies have ratcheted up their investigative reporting and open records request despite plummeting newspaper revenue, Tim Arango of The New York Times reports. But while companies like Hearst Newspapers and The Associated Press continue to file dozens of open-records requests and appeal denials, smaller newspapers may be abandoning some investigative reporting as their budgets shrink.

"Many regional newspapers are choosing not to spend money on lawyers or are asking them to work pro bono," Arango writes. "The efforts of Hearst and the AP contrast with the state of affairs at a smaller level, where regional and local papers have largely shied away from aggressive litigation — and, in many cases, aggressive investigative reporting."

The University of Missouri's Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, added, "I’ve got to say, there’s a heck of a gap between the Hearsts of the world and all these community newspapers scattered across the country." Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Arango a group of media lawyers at a recent meeting in Florida told her access litigation was really struggling as newspapers more frequently ask for pro-bono work: "Newspapers say, when push comes to shove, we’ll get lawyers to do it for free." (Read more)

Dodge City reporter found in contempt agrees to testify after her source reveals himself

A Kansas reporter has agreed to appear in court after her confidential source revealed himself following a judge's contempt ruling against the reporter. Dodge City Daily Globe reporter Clair O'Brien was subpoenaed by Ford County Attorney Terry Malone to reveal a confidential source, but O'Brien refused to appear in court Friday, leading District Judge Daniel Love to issue a contempt ruling and her newspaper to forsake her. After her source revealed himself to Malone this weekend, O'Brien showed up for court Monday and apologized for her decision to ignore the subpoena. (See previous report on the subpoena)

"He was moved by his own moral convictions — the only thing that could have evoked those was me demonstrating my moral convictions to that extent ... when he saw I was willing to pay the whole price," O'Brien told The Associated Press. "Hopefully it will show the Legislature how hopelessly tangled this situation can become without a clear statute showing the way." Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told AP some state legislators have approached his group for help making Kansas the 36th state with a shield law. (Read more)

The Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, in Canadian, Texas, win the 2007 Tom and Pat Gish Award

The Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Texas, are this year’s winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

Laurie Brown Ezzell, and her mother, Nancy Ezzell
The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues established the award to honor the couple who this winter celebrated their 50th anniversary of publishing the Eagle. The Gishes were the first recipients of the award. Their son, Eagle Editor Ben Gish, was among the judges who unanimously voted to give the award to the Ezzell family.

“The Ezzells clearly demonstrate the tenacity, courage and integrity I've been privileged to witness in growing up around and working with my parents,” Gish said. Other judges agreed.

Author and former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent Rudy Abramson, chairman of the Institute’s advisory board and a longtime friend of the Gishes, said “One cannot but notice a number of similarities between the Ezzell family and the Gish family, not the least of which is the continuity their newspaper represents in their community.”

Tom and Pat Gish, owners of The
Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.
Retired publisher Al Smith, an Institute founder and its steering-committee chair, said: “The story of this gutsy Texas family is as comparable to the Gishes of Kentucky as anyone could imagine.” The Canadian Record has held local, state and national politicians accountable, fought political extremism, opposed unwise military adventures and helped protect the environment, often against organized and violent opposition. All are “great examples of courage, tenacity and integrity,” Smith said.

Nan Ezzell and Laurie Ezzell Brown received the award Friday, April 20, at a dinner for which the guest speaker will be John Seigenthaler Sr., founder of the First Amendment Center. The dinner was part of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. Carl West, editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., attended and wrote a column about the Gishes and the Ezzells. Here's an excerpt::

"The Gishes are practically legends in Eastern Kentucky where their Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg took on the powers that be on hot-button issues such as strip mining, government secrecy and corrupt politicians in the face of death threats and arson, to mention a couple. No one’s surprised there’s a national award in light of they’ve done with the Mountain Eagle ("It Screams") and survived doing it.

"The Canadian Record stands tall in the Gishes’ shadow. . . . Ben, a co-publisher with his wife, died in 1993. He made his mark for fearlessness and character early. A mayoral candidate, upset with an Ezzell editorial, beat him up. Ezzell was hospitalized with a concussion, among other injuries. The publisher took it all with humor, though, contending at the time the aspiring but hot-headed politician was trying to express "a legitimate editorial opinion the best way he knew how" with his fists.

"The test of integrity stemmed from news The Canadian was fixing to run of a dispute between the school board and a banker to whom Ezzell was indebted and who tried to kill the story. Ezzell faced a crossroad: "Either I would run the paper or the bank would," Ezzell wrote long after the incident. "… I owed money to the bank ... but not my soul." Ezzell published the story. The banker later joined him in an effort to salvage the town’s economy after a major employer left."

Texas editor: ‘Courage comes in many flavors’

In her remarks at the Gish Award Dinner, Laurie Ezzell Brown spoke of her father's courage and that of other people in Canadian and Hemphill County, Texas, including an Air Force reservist and friend who was called back to active duty in Iraq last month.

"We communicate via e-mail on occasion," she said. "A former Canadian school trustee, David expressed great relief in a recent e-mail that he was no longer on the board — as he has frequently, since retiring from that office last year. At issue this week is a $3 million indoor athletic facility, part of a $5 million capital improvement project using voter-approved bonds. Trouble is, the voters didn’t know, nor were they told, that well over half of that would go toward an athletic facility.

"Following a detailed report of the project in last week’s Record, and an editorial critical of it, board members were inundated with calls opposing such extravagance. Many of those callers attended Tuesday’s board meeting to speak and to stand witness. Their protests were effective. The facility was voted down by a somewhat reluctant 6-1 majority. But the irony of my friend David’s relief at being in the volatile Iraq war zone working as a flight navigator, rather than sitting through another heated school board debate, was not lost on me. Courage comes in all flavors.

"Many of the citizens who called their board members, and who also called me, had much to fear. Their children are their greatest point of vulnerability, and where are children more defenseless than in our public schools, where angry administrators or teachers, or worse—coaches—can exact their retribution. In doing so, they demonstrated courage — and gave their children a priceless lesson."

Publishers of Mountain Eagle get award named for them

Tom and Pat Gish receive their
namesake award.

Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., accepted on Feb. 28, 2005 the first Gish Award, which the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will give to rural journalists who demonstrate courage, tenacity and integrity often needed to render public service through journalism. The award was presented at the Institute's first conference for journalists, on covering health care and health in Central Appalachia, at the University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health in Hazard, Ky. The following article is adapted from the tribute to the Gishes at the presentation of the award.

By Rudy Abramson, Advisory Board Chair, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

On November 22, 1956, The Mountain Eagle carried a front page story reporting that W. P. Nolan and his wife Martha had sold the newspaper they had published since 1938 to Tom and Pat Gish.

Tom was a Whitesburg boy who had made good. Ever since graduating from journalism school at the University of Kentucky he had worked for the old United Press, mostly covering the state capital of Frankfort. Pat, a Paris, Ky., girl, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UK and a former editor of the Kentucky Kernel, had been a reporter for the old Lexington Leader, covering a variety of beats for eight years.

The Mountain Eagle purchased by the Gishes was an unremarkable, fairly typical weekly paper. Its masthead accurately proclaimed it “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday.” To give you its flavor, I will read you the lead from its story at the top of Page 1 not long before Tom and Pat bought it:

“On Thursday, March 4, the Kiwanis Club of Jenkins has the pleasure of presenting Mr. P.L. McElroy, vice president of Consolidation Coal Company, Pittsburgh, Pa., who will deliver a lecture entitled, ‘The Future of Coal.’ . . . Mr. McElroy is well versed on all phases of the coal industry and is thoroughly qualified to speak on all aspects of our most abundant natural resource.”

There was no reason for folks in Whitesburg to expect that new ownership at the Eagle portended great change. But that’s exactly what was in store.

The Gishes had put out just two issues of their paper when Whitesburg, Hazard, and other communities were devastated by the worst flooding in a generation. Their coverage was fantastic. It equaled that of the Lexington and Louisville papers and it followed up on the story long after the city papers had forgotten it.

But notwithstanding the natural disaster, there was not a lot of obvious breaking news in Whitesburg and Letcher County in the late 1950s, and the so the Gishes turned to seriously covering the business of public agencies. They had not bought the Eagle with a strategy of launching crusades, but they quickly found themselves in an inevitable role of crusaders.

In those days in Whitesburg, as in many iPublishers of Mountain Eagle get award named for them if not most small towns of Appalachia and elsewhere, public business was conducted with little public knowledge. Tom and Pat surprised city and county officials by showing up for their meetings. They surprised them even more when they began to report what was said and done, and this went against the grain of a lot of them.

The county school board, for instance, was the biggest public employer in the county. It had its meetings in a little room with seating space only for its members. Citizens who had business with the board were called in one at a time. Often they were dismissed with their issue left to be addressed by the board in private. No doubt to the astonishment of board members, Pat Gish began standing in a corner through these meetings and reporting the proceedings in the Eagle.

It didn’t take long for the board to adopt a resolution saying press coverage of its meeting was not permitted, and it didn’t take long for other public agencies to follow suit.

But this outrage was only the beginning. There followed, as most of you know, efforts to drive the Gishes out of business with advertising boycotts, competition, and eventually even arson.

The doctor who delivered Tom Gish into the world was the school board chairman and the political boss of Letcher County, and he put out word that school board employees were not to buy the Mountain Eagle. Along Main Street in Whitesburg, word was spread that Tom was a Communist. The Eagle lost for all time its major advertiser, an automobile dealer, which had been largely responsible for keeping the paper’s books in the black.

All of this took place at an extraordinary time. Appalachia’s wartime and post-war coal boom had collapsed. Throughout the fifties, families left Whitesburg and Letcher County in droves. The population had fallen by half, and thriving communities, such as Seco where Tom Gish grew up, withered away.

Mechanization of the mines not only threw tens of thousands of miners out of work, it brought environmental havoc to the mountains.

The Gishes’ Mountain Eagle, having replaced its “Friendly Bipartisan Newspaper” label with the defiant slogan, “It Screams,” became perhaps the country’s most defiant, most consistent, and most compelling voice against strip and auger mining in Appalachia.

The Eagle pulled no punches.

In 1960, its editorial leveled scathing criticism at Bert Combs, a mountain neighbor who would long be regarded as one of Kentucky’s most progressive governors, for failing to take a stronger stand against strip mining and for doing too little to address the economic distress of the mountains.

There were times when anarchy and insurrection loomed. The National Guard had to be sent in to prevent violence in the coal fields; The Eagle reported meetings in which citizens seriously suggested withdrawing from the state.

One Mountain Eagle editorial opined, “If five or ten thousand Letcher county residents went to Frankfort and pitched tents on the governor’s lawn and stayed until he put in an appearance, Combs might pay some attention to us.” Perhaps anyone who presumes to teach journalism in Appalachia ought to require a reading of editorials in The Mountain Eagle during the bad old days of the Sixties.

It quickly became one of the first news organizations to charge the federal government itself — specifically, the Tennessee Valley Authority — with being one of the major causes of strip mining.

Wikipedia photo
With the publication of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands in 1963, the ravages of strip mining, mountain poverty, and the condition of schools became national news stories, and Whitesburg became a frequent destination for magazine and newspaper reporters and television crews.

Readers of the Mountain Eagle were already familiar with places such as Beefhide Creek, which Caudill made famous. They already knew about TVA coal contracts that accelerated the spread of strip mining across Appalachia. They already knew about the deplorable condition of schools. Letcher County had nearly 70 one and two room schools when the Gishes began writing about the system, and The Eagle called most of them unfit for human habitation. Tom bitingly observed that Albert Einstein would have lacked qualification to teach algebra at Whitesburg High School.

In November 1963, shortly after the publication of Caudill’s book, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Homer Bigart traveled the hollows and mountain roads of Eastern Kentucky and wrote that Christmas would find many citizens facing serious hunger. His article brought an outpouring of food and clothing from across the country and became a landmark as the federal government considered an economic aid program for Appalachia. Interestingly, four years before Bigart’s article, a piece in the Mountain Eagle had begun with almost the same sentence: “ Many Letcher County homes will miss a visit from Santa Claus this year unless some of Santa’s helpers get to work immediately. Some may even do without a Christmas Day.”

The Gishes faced good times and bad together as Pat Gish
types away and daughter Kitty helps.
As the national press, the White House, and Congress discovered Appalachian poverty, Tom Gish and Harry Caudill became the most prominent spokesmen for the region. Caudill’s law office and the Gishes’ newspaper office became the places outside reporters went first for tips, for information, and for quotes.

Bill Bishop, a 1970s Mountain Eagle reporter who now writes for the Austin American-Statesman, remembers the day after the 1976 Scotia mine disaster when a New York Times reporter arrived in Whitesburg on deadline. The pages for the next day’s Mountain Eagle were already made up and were about to be loaded into Tom’s car and taken to the press. The Timesman grabbed and phone and dictated a story directly from the article written for the next day’s Eagle.

Not surprisingly, a great many local people deeply resented the national spotlight, and some blamed Gish and Caudill for negative portrayals. One local official threatened a BBC film crew filming citizens lined up to receive government food handouts. Later, a producer for a Canadian television crew was shot to death.

Through it all the Gishes remained stubbornly undaunted. Jim Branscome, who was the point man in pressuring TVA to open its board meetings when he was a young stringer in Knoxville for the Eagle, still recalls arriving in Whitesburg the day after an arsonist hired by a Whitesburg policeman had torched the newspaper’s offices. He went to the Gishes’ house and there sat Tom on the porch hunched over a typewriter, composing a story for the next issue. The issue appeared on schedule, with a famously altered motto on its masthead: "It still screams."

“Here he was not far away from his heart attack, having quit a five pack a day habit,” Branscome recalled recently. “And here he was determined to get out a few pages, just to let all the bastards know the Eagle was still screaming. Was it an incredible act of courage, commitment, or just plain mountain stubbornness? I still haven’t figured out the proportions of these three things, but I am leaning toward the last one as explaining a lot.”

It should also be said that The Mountain Eagle has done much more than fight for open access, expose strip mining, and expose corruption.

Every reporter and editor who came to work at the paper was instructed that the community columns by Siller Brown, Mabel Kiser and the other columnists who reported the illnesses, doings, and deaths from Millstone, Neon, and elsewhere around the county were not to be touched. Community columns continue to be an Eagle mainstay even though Mabel and others who first worked for the Gishes have gone to their rewards.

It’s very hard to sum up Tom and Pat. I have not even touched upon the things they’ve done outside the Eagle, the fine family they have reared, or their contributions such as Tom’s work on behalf of education in Kentucky, including a term on the state school board.

Others who presented awards to them have talked of many of the same things I have mentioned here. But the most cogent statement I have seen was sent to me last week by Tom Bethell, another fine editor and journalist who worked at the Eagle during the turbulent sixties, and I would like to quote him:

“They have produced week after week, nearly 3,000 times so far, a living, breathing, working definition of what good rural journalism is all about. They have always paid close attention to what could be described, wrongly, as the small stuff. In the pages of the Eagle you can count on knowing when the redbuds are blossoming and how the mist looks on Pine Mountain, who has come home for the holidays, who owes back taxes, and who has died.”

Recalling how the Eagle covered TVA, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate caper, Bethell went on: “One of the many reasons why Tom and Pat are great journalists is that they have always understood that there is almost no such thing as a strictly local story, and they have been willing to follow the story wherever it takes them. That, surely, should be a model and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.”

Over the past several years, the Gish team has received awards from professional associations, universities, civic organizations, and other publications, and national honors named for people from Helen Thomas to Elijah Lovejoy. Now, the fledgling Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues institutes an award — maybe we should call it a Prize — named for the Gishes.

From time to time, it will be bestowed upon a person or persons considered to have demonstrated the courage and tenacity that have made Tom and Pat icons of community journalism, and that are often necessary to render public service through journalism in rural America.

Frankly, I think this overlooks an even more important Gish trait — integrity. It has been their personal integrity that has made their courage, commitment, and tenacity so meaningful.

And so, I am honored to present the first Tom and Pat Gish Award to its namesakes — two great journalists, two fine people, and two sterling citizens of Appalachia and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Tom and Pat Gish in 2005, when the award named for
them was started and they became the first recipients.

Monday, February 15, 2010

GOP using coal country fears against incumbents

Anxieties about jobs and possible environmental legislation have become a focal point for Republican campaigns aimed at incumbent Democrats in the coalfields. "With Democrats holding total control of the federal government and a cap-and-trade bill still looming, the GOP is fanning widespread coal country fears that the national Democratic Party is hostile to the coal mining industry, if not outright committed to its demise," Jonathan Martin of Politco reports. Democrats in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio are among the targets.

In West Virginia, 17-term Rep. Nick Rahall and 14-term Rep. Alan Mollahan have come under attack for what Republicans view as a weak defense of coal interests. Former state Supreme Court judge Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who switched parties to challenge Rahall, told Martin, "Our part of the world and way of life is threatened by liberal Democrats in Washington." Rahall and Mollahan both voted against the House energy bill, but Republicans say that was only because the Democrats already had enough votes for the bill to pass.

In Kentucky, Bluegrass-area Rep. Ben Chandler voted for cap-and-trade, which Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross told Martin was the reason Republican Mike Templeman, a recently retired coal company CEO, entered an already busy primary race. In Southwest Virginia, Rep. Rick Boucher is likely facing his toughest race since his first re-election in 1974, Martin writes. In eastern Ohio, freshman Rep. John Boccieri and second-term Rep. Zack Space are facing similar fights because of their support for cap-and-trade. (Read more)

Census can't find takers in Northern Michigan

Michigan is having trouble finding rural census workers. How is your community doing? In Muskegon County, where a U.S. Census Bureau office is housed, plenty of workers have applied, but not in other areas covered by the office. "Our biggest problem areas are the great white north, in the very isolated tracts," Greg Debniak, manager of the Muskegon office, told John S. Hausman of the Muskegon Chronicle. "A lot of those areas are woefully short. So we’re redoubling our (recruitment) efforts up there."

In a region with some of the highest unemployment in the nation, Debniak was surprised to be short on applicants, Hausman reports. Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola, Lake, Newaygo and Mecosta counties are covered by the office, and most of the jobs are for "so-called 'enumerators' who will knock on doors of people who don’t return mailed questionnaires, among other duties," Hausman writes. Some enumerators also do counts in at institutions, such as prisons, hospitals, dormitories, group homes and assisted-living centers. (Read more)

Census pay in Michigan ranges from $11.25 per hour in northern Michigan to $16 per hour in Detroit, Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Public Radio reports. Debniak told Dwyer the problem isn't just isolated to his office, but also affects many other rural northern counties. (Read more)

How does your county rank in fast food outlets?

As First Lady Michelle Obama launches her "Let's Move" campaign targeted at childhood obesity, the number of fast food restaurants per capita is one area worth looking at. New data from the Food Environment Atlas show 22 rural U.S. counties have more than 1½ fast food restaurants per 1,000 people, the Daily Yonder reports. The atlas, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, is a "tool for providing a spatial overview of a community’s ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so."

San Juan County, Colo. (Wikipedia map), leads the country by a wide margin with 7.117 fast food restaurants per 1,000 people (four restaurants and a population of 558), the Yonder reports in a Top 50 list. A quick glance at the Yonder map below suggests that tourism and highways have a lot to do with a high rate.

The Yonder also has county-level maps for pounds of meat and poultry eaten per person, gallons of soft drinks consumed per person, pounds of fruits and vegetables eaten per person and the percentage of obese adults. A great source for some local reporting on a national problem that in many cases is a local problem.

Residents of 13 states average spending more than $500 each per year on fast food. The data often relate to diabetes, obesity and lack of phyisical activity, as measured by continuing national surveys. Five states report less than 60 percent of their residents are defined as physically active (150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, or some combination of the two). Kentucky is the only state in both categories. (Read more)

Asian carp threaten small Illinois town's economy

We've been following the progress of Asian carp toward the Great Lakes, most recently here. The carp are coming from the Mississippi River system, where maky streams have long been under assault from the invasive fish. Some in Illinois already fear Peoria has lost the battle, making Spring Valley the front line of the Asian carp war on the Illinois River. "In Spring Valley, an old coal-mining town 100 miles southwest of Chicago, signs proclaim the city the sauger fishing capital of the world," Joel Hood of The Chicago Tribune reports. "The Illinois River is so critical to the local economy and tourism that area residents say the town might cease to exist without it."

Spring Valley residents say since the Asian carp showed up a few years ago sauger fishing hasn't been the same. The Masters Walleye Circuit event each March is Spring Valley's biggest fishing tournament of the year and used to bring in 225 teams with another 30 on a waiting list, Hood reports. Last year only 100 teams registered and fewer than 40 have registered for 2010 so far. The event brought $1 million to $2 million in revenue to the community in its heyday, Hood writes.

"We need this spring tournament in our town," Spring Valley Mayor Cliff Banks told Hood. "We have one hotel that struggles here. At the gas stations and the grocery stores, we need these people in our town." Banks favors a proposal, suggested by Tim Leeds of Heartland Processing, to build a mobile fish processing plant for Asian carp in Spring Valley. Advocates say the plant could grind up as much as "4,000 pounds of carp an hour to produce marketable products from fertilizers and livestock feed to bulk protein and fish oils," Hood reports. Said Leeds: "If (the government) gets on board, it'll be a win-win for everybody. Except the carp." (Read more)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mexicans bring black-tar heroin to rural America

"Farm boys" from an isolated Mexican county have brought cheap black-tar heroin to "vast stretches of America's heartland . . . cities and small towns across the United States, often creating demand for heroin where there was little or none," Sam Quinones reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"The dealers have been especially successful in parts of Appalachia and the Rust Belt with high rates of addiction to OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. They market their heroin as a cheap, potent alternative to pills," Quinones writes. They "drove black tar's eastward expansion, moving into Columbus and from there to parts of rural Ohio and Pennsylvania," where powdered heroin, usually from Colombia, is relatively rare. "Their product began to appear in communities where users weren't prepared for its potency," and competitionamong the dealer groups cut prices to $12.50 a dose.

The groups "have no all-powerful leader and rarely use guns, according to narcotics investigators and imprisoned former dealers," Quinones relays. "Their acumen and energy are a major reason why Mexican heroin has become more pervasive in this country." His report will be in three parts; as a teaser for tomorrow's he wries that one of the places plagued is "a small town in West Virginia, 160 miles south of Columbus, where before the fall of 2007, few people had ever heard of black-tar heroin." (Read more)