Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rural papers, especially those with courage, are a beacon to journalism, Judy Muller tells Texans

Good rural newspapers are a beacon to the rest of the business, which needs more people from rural America to tell its stories accurately, journalism professor and broadcast journalist Judy Muller told community-newspaper folks at the 100th annual meeting of the Texas Panhandle Press Association, which ended today in the picturesque town of Canadian, population 2,233.

“You’re a shining beacon at a very hard time in our profession,” said Muller, right, who teaches at the University of Southern California and is the author of a forthcoming book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns, to be published next spring by the University of Nebraska Press.

Muller’s travels for the volume took her to places like Concrete, Wash. (“Cementing the Future for 100 Years”), where Jason Miller started a paper after the isolated town had been without one for 18 years, she said. At a local parade, in which Muller rode on the Concrete Herald’s float, “People were coming up to him and crying, and shaking his hand,” she recalled. “He has brought back such pride. That’s what a community paper is.”

Journalists in major mainstream media centers have little grasp of the realities of life in such places, Muller said. “I argue all the time for more geographic diversity in our newsrooms,” she said, and for “more kids from rural areas” in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication.

Muller said community newspapers are not “some quaint bit of Americana that is just going to fade away,” and will keep attracting investors like M.E. Sprengelmeyer, who bought the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, N.M., after his job at the Rocky Mountain News ended along with that paper. But refugees from dailies shouldn’t expect a laid-back life, Muller said. “It’s just about killing him,” she said of Sprengelmeyer. “He didn’t know he had to work every day.” The audience of mostly weekly newspaper folks laughed knowingly.

“You live next to the people you write about, and that takes tremendous courage, to report the truth,” Muller said. She recounted stories of the courage displayed by the late Tom Gish of The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., and the local editor, Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, who with her family won the 2007 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Muller said those stories, about taking on secretive school officials, abusive police and intimidating coal companies, are inspirational, but “When I hear stories like that . . . I don’t know if I would have had the courage to stay.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Experts explain why most federal models for fixing failed schools won't work in rural areas

Colorado was one of the most aggressive states pursuing round one Race to the Top funding. Two education researchers suggest the state's second application needs better allowances for rural schools. "Leaving rural districts out of the high-stakes money game hurt Colorado in the first funding round," Luke C. Miller and Michael Hanson, researchers with the Urban Institute's Education Policy Center, write in an online editorial published by The Denver Post. Almost half of Colorado's 178 districts serve rural areas exclusively.

The researchers point to the four reform models for under-performing schools outlined by the Obama administration as examples of policies that won't work in rural areas. Rural areas will have too hard a time finding qualified staff to replace fired principals and teachers if they follow the turnaround model, which requires under-performing schools to replace the principal and at least half the teachers.

The restart model, which would re-open low achieving schools as charters, is also impractical for rural areas. Miller and Hansen argue that charter schools are not allowed by law in many states with large rural populations: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Some small towns where charter schools are legal will likely have a reluctance to turn their only school over to new management.

The closure model requires low-achieving schools to shut down and send students to another school in the same district, but many rural areas only have one school per district or would have to send students up to 30 miles away, Miller and Hansen write.

The one policy that the experts might work in rural areas is the transformation model, which "requires the district to replace the failing school's principal plus institute such other new policies as comprehensive instructional reform, extended school days or years, and more teacher planning time," the researchers write. However, they qualify that hope by speculating "effective replacement leaders may be even harder than effective teachers to find in sparsely populated places."

The researchers call for the Education Department to listen to suggestions from rural educators at its recent meeting with them. "With viable Race to the Top options instead of ill-fitting urban hand-me-downs, many rural schools may emerge whole from the economic downturn," Miller and Hansen write. "Better still, improved schools may become the economic engines for struggling rural communities in Colorado and across the country." (Read more)

Shortage of doctors in rural areas could get worse

The rural doctor shortage may be about to get worse, even as health-care reform brings more people into teh system and creates more demand for physicians. Fewer than 4 percent of recent medical school graduates say they plan to practice in rural areas, which have about 20 percent of the population and just 9 percent of doctors, January Payne of U.S. News & World Report writes.

To get more doctors to rural America, medical schools across the country are adopting a variety of rural medicine initiatives. Some send students to small towns to gain experience working with rural doctors hoping to change misconceptions, Payne reports. The University of Minnesota's Rural Physician Associate Program requires third-year students to spend nine months working with a primary-care physician in a small community.

Participation in such programs is no guarantee students eventually end up in rural areas. A 2008 review published in the journal Academic Medicine looked at six schools with rural medical programs and found just 53 to 64 percent of the 1,600 program graduates practiced in rural areas, Payne reports. Howard Rabinowitz, director of Thomas Jefferson University's Physician Shortage Area Program, told Payne on average a rural doctor will spend seven years in one community, which means five doctors are needed to make up for the work one would accomplish in an entire career in the community.

Schools are looking to improve rural doctor retention by targeting would-be students for their programs at a younger age, Payne reports. "For schools, that means having a presence online and identifying and working with feeder colleges and universities that can refer good candidates," Payne writes. Others are targeting students from small towns themselves, hoping they would be more likely to spend their career there. (Read more)

Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal reports on "a program designed to bring more medical professionals to rural and under-served areas of Kentucky" and quotes Dr. Baretta Casey, director of the Hazard-based University of Kentucky Center for Excellence in Rural Health: “It’s going to be a crisis in 10 years.”

FCC: Court ruling won't hang up rural broadband

Last week, we reported a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that the Federal Communications Commission doesn't have the power to require companies adhere to "net neutral" Internet policies. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told a Congressional panel Wednesday the ruling "should not prevent it from carrying out its plan to broadly expand the country’s high-speed Internet service," Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reports. The chairman left the door open for an FCC move to classify the Internet a utility so it would have similar oversight control as it has with phone service.

The commission said it would not appeal the decision, because it thought it could still accomplish its rural broadband goals even after the ruling. Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns disagreed, telling Genachowski that he thought the ruling was "very specific in saying you don’t have the authority" to enforce equal-access standards. A reclassification of the Internet as a utility would reverse the FCC's previous decision to label it as a communications service during the Bush administration. (Read more)

Process converts chicken manure to electricity, offering hope for less pollution from farms

Chicken manure has garnered headlines for contaminating the Chesapeake Bay, but one Southern farmer may have found a way to use it for good. Mississippi chicken farmer John Logan and University of Mississippi researchers have converted chicken manure into energy with the world's first successful chicken poop digester, Phoebe Judge of National Public Radio reports. Digesters have been used to covert cow manure into energy. Chicken manure was mixed with other types of manure to produce fuel, but Logan's digester is the first to use only chicken waste.

Logan, a self-proclaimed conservationist, brainstormed the idea several years ago when he realized "phosphorus content in his groundwater had become too high, because of chicken fecal contamination," Judge writes. Every day, Logan's digester mixes four tons of chicken manure with bacteria to create methane gas, which is then converted to energy. Logan says his electricity bill went from $8,000 per month before he installed the machine to $200 during the first month of operation. Last month he received a small check from the power company for the electricity his unit put into the system.

Digesters have not caught on due to a number of state, local and federal energy policies. You can read our report about those problems in California here. However, Logan is marketing his digester to other chicken farmers and already has four operating in Mississippi, two in the works in Maryland and Delaware and plans for production with three companies in Italy, Australia and India. "The more options that chicken growers have in handling the manure in a proper and environmental manner, the better off they are, and the better off the industry is," Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, told Judge. (Read more)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In wake of disaster, Obama orders crackdown on coal mines with patterns of violations

"President Barack Obama directed federal mine health and safety officials on Thursday to crack down on coal mines with a pattern of serious safety violations and urged Congress to fix safety laws that are "riddled with loopholes'," Halimah Abdullah reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and McClatchy Newspapers.

"Obama said the safety record at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was 'troubling,' and called for a broad review of government enforcement programs to address an industry where he said 'far too many mines aren't doing enough to protect their workers' safety'," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette.

"Obama spoke minutes after a rare Oval Office meeting on mine safety with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joseph Main and MSHA’s administrator for coal-mine safety and health, Kevin Stricklin," reports James R. Carroll, Washington correspondent for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. “Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, applauded Obama’s moves, saying it was 'an unprecedented public stance for an American president to take, and one that is good news for all coal miners in the United States'.” (Read more)

Meth goes mobile, creating roadside hazards

Methamphetamine production is causing a new public safety hazard: roadside trash. In Elkhart, Ind., as snow that covered highway shoulders has melted, police have found at least a dozen "trash labs," the remnants of new car-housed meth laboratories, Susan Saulny of The New York Times reports. Local officials say throwing the trash labs out the car window after use is the new, fashionable way of disposing of meth production evidence. (Kalamazoo County, Mich., officials dispose of a trash lab; Kalamazoo Gazette photo by Jill McLake Baker)

"Each trash lab becomes a crime scene and is proof, officials said, that a new and ever more popular way of making meth does not demand a lot of space or a lot of pseudoephedrine, an essential ingredient," Saulny writes. "The new method is a quick, mobile, one-pot recipe that requires only a few pills, a two-liter bottle and some common household chemicals." Indiana state police report meth lab seizures went up 27 percent between 2008 and 2009 as the new "shake-and-bake" method became more popular. The trend isn't isolated to Indiana, Saulny writes. Tennessee reports 65 percent of seizures are of the shake-and-bake variety, and Oklahoma officials seized 743 meth labs last year, up from 148 four years ago.

Officials in Alabama, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and other states say they are encountering the roadside leftovers with more frequency. "You pick it up, and it could explode," Paul G. Matyas, the undersheriff in Kalamazoo County, Mich., told Saulny. "Acid could spill and burn you. At one of the sites about a week ago, we found a dead deer, and I know exactly what happened." While Drug Enforcement Administration statistics show an increase in the number of meth labs found nationally of nearly 15 percent between 2007 and 2008, Saulny reports the trash labs often don't contain enough illegal product to get federal or state prosecutors involved. (Read more)

Agriculture Department's lending program for rural homes about to run out of money

The housing market in rural communities may be about to take a serious hit. A major federal program that provides housing loans to rural home buyers is about to run out of money. "Since last fall, the loans from the Department of Agriculture have fueled much of the real-estate business in some parts of the country," Steve Karnowski of The Associated Press reports. "Real estate agents are pleading with Congress to find a way to keep the money flowing until more funding becomes available later in the year."

The program's budget was doubled by stimulus money this year, Karnowski reports, but may be undone by its immense popularity. The program, run through USDA's Rural Development office, is intended to keep people from moving out of rural areas. It provides 30-year fixed rate mortgages at market rates, does not require a down payment and has no monthly mortgage insurance premiums. To be eligible, home buyers must live in a community with fewer than 20,000 people.

"As private mortgage markets have dried up, many rural families will be left out in the cold without these guaranteed loans," National Association of Realtors President Vicki Cox Golder wrote to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees. While the program is aimed at low- to moderate-income buyers, its default and foreclosure rates are lower than Federal Housing Administration loans, Karnowski reports. If an alternative funding solution isn't found soon, USDA may be left with no choice but to shelve the program for five months until next year's funding kicks in. (Read more)

Coal and gas square off again on Capitol Hill

The battle between coal and natural-gas interests over which fuel will be the centerpiece of the U.S. energy future took center stage on Capitol Hill Wednesday during two House committee hearings. Top executives from the nation's three largest coal producers warned against a "dash to gas" during the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Joel Kirkland of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Meanwhile, Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and other gas executives testified in favor of government support for the fuel before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Pickens "pushed for passage of pending legislation that would create tax credits for natural gas vehicles," Kirkland reports. The bill would "require half of the federal government's fleet to use compressed or liquefied natural gas and authorize the Energy Department to offer financing to manufacturers of light- and heavy-duty natural gas vehicles." Pickens holds a major stake in Clean Energy Fuels Inc., a company that specializes in converting fueling stations to accommodate natural gas and whose stock has almost tripled in price in the last year.

Conversely, top coal officials warned against a rush to gas, saying coal "remains the cheapest and most abundant fuel for power generation," Kirkland writes. Industry leaders pointed to the uncertainty of shale gas production as one reason the fuel doesn't measure up to coal. "We do not know the eventual cost, sustainability, deliverability, reliability and environmental impact of large-scale shale gas production," Gregory Boyce, president and CEO of Peabody Energy, said. While coal executives were hesitant to commit to an opinion about the science behind climate change, they did argue the government needed to support carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology because greenhouse gas emissions have become a social problem. (Read more)

Maryland becomes first state to have census count prisoners at their last home address

Maryland became the first state to mandate that the census count prisoners in at their most recent home addresses instead of the usually rural areas where they are held. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the No Representation Without Population Act into law Tuesday. Similar changes are being considered in at least seven other states, Carol Morello of The Washington Post reports. The switch is predicted to cut rural population counts used to determine a variety of government funding measures and legislative representation.

"The vast majority will be going back to where they came from, and what this will do is count them where they live," Hilary O. Shelton, head of the Washington office of the NAACP, told Morello. Maryland Democratic Del. Kevin Kelly, whose district has one federal and two state penitentiaries that house 4,300 prisoners, disagreed, saying, "They may be originally from Baltimore, but they're spending the next five, 10 or 30 years here." The Census Bureau announced in May that it would identify the populations of prisons, but made no recommendation as to how states should use the data. New York, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Oregon are also considering proposals that would count prisoners in their hometowns.

"Opponents of the Maryland law were assured it would have no impact on how the state divides its share of federal funding," Morello writes. However, Shelton was clear in what she thought lawmakers should do with the revised count: "The next step is to find a way to assign people based on where we expect them to go when they're released from prison, so we can also calculate the resources the census is used for." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Mountain Eagle still screams, now at MSHA

While the country waits for the results of a Mine Safety and Health Administration investigation into the cause of the explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners last week, and a meeting between MSHA Director Joe Main and Presudent Obama tomorrow, no one close to the industry needs any more information to understand why miners die, writes one Appalachian newspaper.

"They die because of negligence," The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., says in an editorial. "They die because the company they work for cares more about running coal than making mines safe. And they die because the federal agency that is charged with protecting them fails in its mission."

The Eagle writes that the safety record of Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, has been receiving much attention since the explosion for good reason, but MSHA deserves its share of scorn as well. Too often MSHA has relied on easily appealable penalties as its enforcement technique instead of its power to halt production until violations are fixed, the Eagle writes: "When production stops, profit stops. And it’s that power that MSHA has failed to use to the full extent provided by law."

"Coal miners shouldn’t have to accept safety violations to earn a living," Tony Oppegard, a veteran mine-safety advocate and former MSHA enforcement lawyer, told the Eagle, which says: "If that simple message ever sinks in at MSHA – with or without regulatory changes – we’ll be on our way to a new era of responsibility and accountability. Until then, miners will die from negligence." (Read more)

West Virginia native Betty Dotson-Lewis has also written a thorough examination of the ever-present fear West Virginians face in regard to mine safety for the Daily Yonder.

Poor rural schools in Tenn. to receive more Race to Top money than suburban counterparts

In March Tennessee was named one of two winners of the U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" competition, and now it appears that a large portion of its $500 million award will go to the poorest schools. Half of the award will go to local school districts, and the amount each district gets will "be tied to poverty measures, meaning that urban and poor rural districts will get many times more money per pupil from the program than their suburban counterparts," Chas Sisk of The Tennessean reports. About 40 percent of the $250 million allocated to school districts will go to Metro Nashville and Memphis.

Districts have until next month to submit formal proposals for how to spend their allocation of the award, and Tennessee Department of Education says it plans to give them wide latitude to develop unique plans, Sisk reports. Most of the proposals are expected to center on professional development projects for teachers. Julie McCargar, the department's executive director of federal programs, told Sisk how far the training dollars will go varies by district, and that large districts may be able to hire coaches and mentors who can work with teachers. (Read more)

Hellbenders object of first-time research in Ky.

It's a slimy, living, breathing (through its skin) sausage with legs, toes, and a face only a mother could love. Want that creature in your fishing boat?

This thing from the deep is a hellbender, a type of salamander that also goes by the unflattering names of "grampus" or "snot otter" (it secretes mucus when handled). Its scientific name, according to, is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Kevin Kelly reports for The Cincinnati Enquirer on the first-ever survey of these reptiles by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.  "There’s been a lot of interest recently looking at hellbender conservation because where surveys have been done we’ve noticed very large declines," Greg Lipps, a herpetologist from Delta, Ohio, told Kelly. The salamanders may qualify for federal protection as an endangered species.

The eastern hellbenders, which are harmless to humans and are often confused with mudpuppies, are measured and examined for abnormalities and disease. A small microchip also is placed under the skin in an effort to track them. (Read more)

Doctor shortages predicted to increase as health-care reform increases the number of insured

Rural America has been dealing with a chronic shortage of doctors, specifically primary care physicians, for years, but that problem may grow -- and thus make it even more difficult for rural areas to recruit physicians.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says that as health reform expands the number of insured people and they seek medical treatment, the U.S. may face a shortage of 150,000 doctors by 2015, Suzanne Sataline and Shirley S. Wang of The Wall Street Journal report. AAMC reports the shortage will be most noticeable among primary-care physicians, who will take on added importance under the new reforms. You can read our most recent report about primary care physician shortages in rural America here.

Increased enrollment in U.S. medical schools will not solve the problem by itself, the reporters write, because the growing number of medical students face a fixed number of residency positions upon graduation. Would-be doctors are required to complete at least three years of residency at hospitals or clinics upon graduation. "It will probably take 10 years to even make a dent into the number of doctors that we need out there," Atul Grover, the AAMC's chief advocacy officer, told the reporters. The health care reform does include one attempt to solve the residency problem by reallocating funding for unused spots to other institutions that can fill them with primary-care or general-surgery residencies. (Read more) (WSJ map)

Ranking Republican on Senate education panel says Obama plan doesn't work for rural schools

The ranking Republican senator on education policy has added his name to the growing list of people who think the Obama administration's plan to revamp the No Child Left BehindAct won't work for rural schools. Speaking at a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi voiced concern that the "four school turnaround models for schools identified for school improvement will adversely affect rural and frontier schools," Nick Anderson of The Washington Post reports. We most recently reported about the growing rural concerns regarding the administration's Blueprint for Reform last week.

"Let me be clear that I am not proposing to give rural and frontier schools a free pass," Enzi added. "Strategies mandated from Washington will simply not solve the problems facing these schools." Timothy Mitchell, superintendent of schools in Chamberlain, S.D., told the committee the plan needs "more flexibility for educators in remote hard-to-staff areas and less of a 'punitive accountability focus on firing staff and closing schools,'" Anderson writes. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman, who also represents many rural areas, voiced no concerns about the plan during the hearing, Anderson notes. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rural areas still lag in returning census forms

Rural areas and big cities have been slow to return Census questionnaires, but at least two states and hundreds of smaller jurisdictions have already surpassed their 2000 return percentages.  Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said Monday about two of every three households have returned the forms, and North and South Carolina are each already two points ahead of their 2000 return percentage at 68 and 67 percent respectively, Carol Morello of The Washington Post reports. (Kentucky, The Rural Blog's home state, has matched its 2000 rate with 70 percent of forms returned, just above the national average of 66 percent.)

Groves characterized the early proceedings as "going quite well," but many rural areas still remain well below average. The return rate along the Texas-Mexico border is below 60 percent, Morello reports, and the South has been weak so far. Groves pointed to "language barriers among new immigrants and the difficulty of counting rural households that use post office boxes instead of street addresses for their mail" as factors in low return rates, Morello reports. Despite rumors to the contrary, Groves told Morello so far the bureau has found no evidence of "any impact from calls by some conservatives to boycott the census or answer only questions counting the number of people living in a household." (Read more)

Columnist: Decline of union mines underplayed in mainstream reporting on W.Va. disaster

Union organizing in Appalachian coal mines had a long and bloody history, and its most recent (and final?) chapter may be linked to the explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners at a nonunion Massey Energy mine week. "Union-busting's role in enabling such calamities to continue just isn't part of the official discourse in Washington now," Art Levine writes for the liberally leaning Truthout. "No matter that Massey's anti-union campaign in the 1980s helped lead to the weakening of the United Mine Workers, which once was one of the nation's strongest, most effective unions, representing nearly 90 percent of the nation's 400,000 mine workers in the 1960s, but now represents less than a third of the remaining 100,000 or so coal miners."

Levine points to the lack of unionized mines as one reason "unsafe, deadly conditions" continue. "What unions mean, particularly in dangerous profession like mining, is that they give workers protection and the leverage of a working group with management to vocalize and bring forward concerns about safety without fear of retribution," Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, told Levine. "In the absence of a union, in hard economic times, workers feel more vulnerable about losing their jobs and less confident about expressing their concerns about safety."

Despite clear evidence that union mines have better safety records than non-union ones, the national mainstream media hasn't picked up on this element of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster story, Levine complains. Instead, "Political leaders and media outlets that morbidly romanticize the courage of rural mine workers for working in an industry known for its risks are also in some ways promoting the view that mine disasters are as unavoidable as natural disasters," he writes. (Read more)

Genetically modified crops bring farmers boons, but overuse poses long-term threats

A new report from the National Research Council says U.S. Farmers' rapid adoption of genetically engineered crops has saved them money and and increased production, but overuse of the new strains could negate their positive effects. NRC, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, bills the study as "the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of genetically modified crops on American farmers," Andrew Pollack of The New York Times reports.

The study revealed genetically modified crops "offered farmers lower production costs, higher output or extra convenience, benefits that generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds," Pollack writes. Some opponents of the technology were quick to point out the study used data from the years before a recent jump in genetically modified seed prices. "This is a very different future," Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and chief scientist at the Organic Center, which promotes organic food and farming, told Pollack. "The cost is going to be way higher. The environmental impacts are going to go up fairly dramatically."

The study wasn't all good news for genetic-engineering advocates. Researchers found Roundup Ready seeds of Monsanto are so popular that weeds may become resistant to the popular pesticide, Pollack reports. The study concluded the overuse problem deserved national attention because "Farmer practices may be reducing the utility of some G.E. traits as pest-management tools and increasing the likelihood of a return to more environmentally damaging practices." (Read more)

U.S. lacks horse slaughterhouses, but 'kill buyers' can surprise owners who sell

We've been following the call for the reintroduction of horse slaughterhouses in the U.S., most recently here, and the arguments are deeply felt. "Many owners and industry stakeholders, including veterinarians' organizations, say slaughter is a necessity, a way to humanely dispose of unwanted horses that otherwise might face neglect and starvation," Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "Opponents argue that slaughter, at least as it is practiced now, is fundamentally inhumane."

Patton profiles Carol Brown, a small-scale Kentucky thoroughbred horse farmer, who recently discovered two horses she gave to Frankfort-based HorseCampUSA to be retrained as riding ponies were actually bought by a "kill buyer," who intended to sell them for slaughter in Canada. Brown's horses were found by rescuers who traced them for their lip tattoos, Patton reports. After hearing of their fate Brown quickly bought them back from the kill buyer and took in two more thoroughbreds for a total of $2,730.

Slaughter advocates often promote the practice as a humane option for old and lame horses, and a necessary bottom to the horse market. However, horses like Brown's, who were perfectly healthy, can also end up in the slaughter market. "Heavier horses are desirable if they are going to be sold by weight for meat," Patton writes. The experience has turned Brown away from the breeding industry for good. "We're going to keep them," Brown said of the horses she acquired, but added, "I'll never breed another horse." (Read more)

Bookmobile numbers are increasing

Bookmobiles are important to rural communities, and getting more important, they've been given their own day. The first National Bookmobile Day is tomorrow, April 14, part of National Library Week.

A typical bookmobile is Bernice. She is the bookmobile that serves Ward County, North Dakota, according to Andrea Johnson in the Minot Daily News. The vehicle was named Bernice because the librarians got tired of having to write down the initials "B.M." for "BookMobile" when referring to the vehicle. "Bernice is so much better. And she’s an older lady, so we tried to pick an older lady’s name," Michelle Demchuk told Johnson.

In 2009, Bernice logged 12,000 miles and  has carried thousands of books. "The farther out, the more they check out,” bookmobile staffer Phyllis Buechler said of her clients. It is a vital service in areas where there isn’t a library or much access to books, the librarians told Johnson. The American Library Association says the number of bookmobiles continues to increase, to more than 930 in 2008, from 825 nationwide in 2005. As the economy suffers, library usage goes up, including mobile services.

Newspapers move away from anonymous posts

Many weekly and small daily newspapers have been hesitant to embrace the Internet for several reasons, but none may be as common as unease about the publication of anonymous comments on articles. Now a variety of factors are leading newspapers around the country to rethink anonymous commenting policies, Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times reports. The Times and The Washington Post are both in the process of re-evaluating their policies and have already begun requiring readers to register before posting. The registration process provides the newspaper with additional information about the commenter that isn't shown online.

"Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments," said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post, which is revising its policy to include a rankings system that allows readers input on the quality of various comments "I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity." Some industry executives say online anonymity is becoming less important as users become more accustomed to posting their personal opinions attached to their personal identity on social networking sites, Perez-Pena reports.

The controversy surrounding anonymous commenting was thrust into the spotlight recently when The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported that anonymous comments disparaging a local lawyer on one of its stories were left by an account associated with the e-mail address of a judge presiding over some of the lawyers' cases. The judge, who denies posting the comments and whose daughter took responsibility for some of them, is now suing the newspaper for invasion of privacy. Susan Goldberg, The Plain Dealer’s editor, said in a recent interview with her own paper, maybe they should not have investigated the identity of the commenter, but "once we did, I don’t know how you can pretend you don’t know that information." (Read more)

Reports says N.C. coal ash disposal needs more oversight, and state official agrees

A new report from the North Carolina Sierra Club says the state mostly ignores the threat of coal ash to water supplies and needs to adopt new guidelines to address the problem. At least initially, the state agrees, Bruce Henderson of McClatchy Newspapers reports. The report focused on coal ash's popular re-use as so-called structural fill, the fact that sites using ash as fill don't have to be lined to keep toxic material out of groundwater, and the frequent failure to note on property deeds that ash has been dumped, as state law requires.

"Wherever the state has looked, there have been problems for the most part," Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club's state director, told Henderson. "The data is thin because there are no regular inspections or reporting. It's hard to get a full understanding when you don't have a full perspective of potential problems." The report does note state scrutiny has increased in recent months with violations found at 28 of the 48 sites inspected, most of which cited a lack of vegetation or soil to cover the ash, Henderson writes.

Paul Crissman, chief of the state's solid waste section, told Henderson the state has noticed the need for more oversight since it first began finding violations in the mid-1990s. "It led to our being convinced that the Sierra Club is correct and that we need to make new regulations," he said. When asked what regulations he thought were needed, Crissman said the Sierra Club's recommendations that ash be dumped only in lined landfills, groundwater monitoring be required at disposal sites, and developers held accountable for contamination clean-ups, "look pretty good." (Read more)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bristol Herald Courier, circulation 33,000, wins public-service Pulitzer Prize for coal-gas series

A wonderful example of rural journalism is the latest recipient of the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize, the one for public service. The Bristol Herald Courier, circulation 33,000, won the award today for reporting on the mess Virginia and its natural-gas companies have made of a law and program to develop the state's coalbed methane and pay royalties to those who have a claim on it.

The public-service prize is a gold medal, given to an organization rather than an individual, but the Pulitzer jury cited "the work of Daniel Gilbert [left] in illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, spurring remedial action by state lawmakers." Gilbert, 28, had already won the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for papers under 100,000 circulation and the initial prize for community journalism in the National Journalism Awards.

Today's award shows that Gilbert's work, and the support of his editors, was worthy of more than categorical recognition -- and that there is plenty of talent and gumption among rural journalists. "It underscores the importance of public service reporting, especially in rural areas," Gilbert told Steve Szkotak of The Associated Press. Editor J. Todd Foster said, "This is validation that a newspaper with limited resources can do world-class journalism." He said Gilbert's work shows "why newspapers will continue to survive in some form. Nobody else is going to do this sort of reporting." (Read more)

For our original item on the series, with links to individual stories, click here. For items on the NJA and IRE awards, go here and here. For a list of this year's Pulitzer Prizes, from The Washington Post, which led this year's list with four, go here.

States figuring out price tags of health-care reform

As health-care reform is implemented, states are still struggling with basic questions: What does it mean for us, and more importantly our budgets? "With estimates ranging from state savings of $1 billion to $27 billion in additional costs, the one thing clear about health-care reform is that little, if anything, is actually clear," Jake Grovum reports for The political rhetoric of the health-care debate gave way to technical questioning at a recent meeting of state health officials in Washington, Grovum reports, and led Washington state Medicaid Director Doug Porter to conclude, "There’s a lot about this bill that’s yet to be determined."

"It’ll probably be 10 years before it all shakes out," Chris Whatley of the Council of State Governments told Grovum, who writes that Whatley was only half-joking. "This will push the fabric of the state-federal relationship in new directions, and we don’t know how it will all come out." Much of the confusion rests on the law's interaction with 50 different existing state policies. All states will be required to set their Medicaid eligibility level at 133 percent of the federal poverty threshold. States classified as "expansion states" because they already allow Medicaid eligibility above 133 percent will be face with more investment up front but less over time. "For the most part, it’s better to be a non-expansion state," Grovum concludes.

Judy Solomon, a health policy expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told Grovum it's too early to put a price tag on individual states' efforts to meet the new requirements, and too many variables prevent a confident prediction. That warning hasn't stopped Texas from claiming the law will cost it $27 billion between 2014 and 2023, which is $7 billion more than the Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cost to all states combined between 2010 and 2019, Grovum reports. Texas will undoubtedly face one of the largest bills, since it has some of the strictest Medicaid eligibility rules, but many disagree with the state's estimate, saying it ignores the reduction in costs for caring for the uninsured. (Read more)

Mine disaster hearings offer chance for Obama to follow through on transparency promises

The Obama administration may get a chance to follow through on its pledge for increased government transparency when deciding on the format for Mine Safety and Health Administration investigations of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners last week. MSHA has traditionally closed investigative interviews to the public but usually allowed coal-company lawyers in, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes on his Coal Tattoo blog.

"The only good argument for secrecy in these interviews is that allowing openness tips off the company to the direction investigators are headed, allowing them to thwart things like potential criminal prosecution down the road," Ward writes. "But if the company lawyers are in the room, well, what’s the point of the secrecy?" Miners who are being interviewed are allowed to bring attorneys, and companies have been successful in convincing them it's best to use company representation. But when investigators try to get miners to provide information that may not be in the company's interests, the attorneys face a conflict of interest, Ward writes.

MSHA can invoke its federal authority to conduct the investigation through a public hearing, which would also give the agency subpoena power, but it has seldom used that authority. Ward points to the current administration as one reason the policy might change: "President Barack Obama has promised to get answers to what caused this mine disaster, and his administration has made a very big deal about its commitment to transparency," he writes. (Read more)

State and local budget cuts could hamper census

Census response rates from hard-to-reach neighborhoods may fall behind the numbers from 2000, as the recession continues to cut into state and local budgets, decreasing the amount of money available for outreach. "California, for example, dedicated $24.7 million to the 2000 Census campaign," The Associated Press reports. "Although an undercount could cost the state billions in federal funding and a seat in Congress, this year's outreach budget is only $2 million." California's return rate is currently 10 percent below the 2000 level at the same juncture.

"Cities and counties across the country have been forced to shed staff to keep their budgets in the black," AP reports, but Census Bureau spokesman Sonny Le told the wire service that local governments should avoid shortsightedness when cutting outreach funding. In some places, an undercount could mean cuts in funding, fewer opportunities for it, or a slower rate of increase in funding. (Read more)

Some who want to clean up Appalachian creek blame grant cancellation on coal and gas interests

Elkhorn Creek, running through parts of Pike and Letcher counties in far Eastern Kentucky, is among the most polluted streams in the state, so much so that any human contact through swimming, drinking or even fishing is officially discouraged. A local nonprofit group began a cleanup effort, funded by a $600,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, but three years later the effort has been canceled, leaving locals to ask if the nonprofit Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council was in over its head or if more sinister motives undid the project, Russ Cassady reports for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, starting with this front-page graphic.

Some, including a retired Kentucky Division of Water employee who worked on the project, say the project was killed intentionally because of the threat it posed to mining and natural-gas operations, Cassady reports. The project was officially shelved because the nonprofit failed to provide a Quality Assurance Project Plan required by EPA, but the organization says it was assured all necessary documentation had been turned in before it began work. An open-records request from the News-Express revealed the Council was only notified of the missing paperwork after it had commissioned a local business for over $30,000 worth of initial monitoring work. The Division of Water, which enforces EPA regulations, told the nonprofit it was taking over monitoring and any data collected without the quality-assurance plan was unusuable, Cassady reports.

The nonprofit says it submitted seven new quality-assurance plans but each was rejected by the water division with no explanation of what needed to be changed for approval. "The Division of Water did not want this project to happen," Steve Ruth, the nopnprofit's project administrator, told Cassady. "That's why it died." Division spokeswoman Allison Peck disagreed: "Despite DOW's support for the project, the applicants failed to submit an acceptable QAPP in a reasonable time and DOW was compelled to cancel the project."

Both groups agree the pollution on the creek is a result of raw sewage and surface mining operations, but the nonprofit and one former water-division staffer say the latter factor is the reason the project stalled. Ted Withrow, a since-retired division worker on the project, explained to Cassady why he thinks it was canceled: If Elkhorn Creek is "impaired, it doesn’t meet its uses. And once that stream goes on the list [of dangerously polluted waterways], you can no longer impair that stream any further for that particular pollutant."

For an excellent example of rural journalism at work, read Cassady's story here and here (the jump).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Review: The justification for Justified is the greater moral clarity in a rural place

The new FX show Justified plays "fast and loose with some facts" regarding Kentucky geography and Appalachian language and culture (image from show's Web site misplaces Bluegrass horse farms in Harlan County), but "We shouldn’t get too hung up about fictional geographies, and Justified’s rural landscape—however fictional—and brand of moral clarity fills a cultural niche right now," reviewer J.J. Snidow writes for the new Rural Representations and Reviews page of The Rural Blog.

"Ours in an America that has recently loved shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Lost, in which morality (and in one, reality itself) is ambiguous, where villains and heroes alike wear hats not of black and white but of gray," Snidow writes. "And in that kind of America that has no rivals, has no other superpowers against which to fight and in which every semi-urban town looks and feels and acts pretty much like every other semi-urban town, well, perhaps in that kind of America we need a place like Justified’s Harlan County, where urban complexities and ambiguities are stripped away, where the simple morality of the rural landscape rules, and where you know the bad guys by the color of their hats." (Read more)

Congress likely to act on mine safety, and Obama is engaged, Washington correspondent writes

Congress is likely to pass new mine-safety legislation in the wake of last week's disaster that killed 29 miners at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia, reports James R. Carroll, Washington reporter for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. (Photo of Cheryl Judy, American Federation of Teachers, by Rick Barbero, The Register-Herald, Beckley)

Carroll recalls how 12 deaths at the Sago Mine of International Coal Group in West Virginia in January 2006 prompted hearings and legislation, and how five more at the Kentucky Darby mine on May 20 "provided the additional impetus Congress needed to finish up the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006.  The bill passed the House on June 7 of that year, and President George W. Bush signed the bill in front of miners’ families on June 15. ... It appears likely Obama will preside over a similar signing ceremony some months hence."

"The palpable sense of déjà vu is shocking and sad for mine safety advocates," Carroll writes, reporting possible measures: "giving the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration more powers {perhaps to close mines, something it has done only once] and making changes to regulations governing mine seals, miner drug-testing and other issues," including increasing the minimum number of annual inspections to six from four.

"Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA staffer who is now a George Washington University public-health professor, ... said Congress and MSHA also should examine how repeat violators who endanger the lives of miners could be subject to criminal liability, Carroll writes, quoting Monforton: “It is unacceptable for an employer in the United States of America in 2010 to have dozens and dozens of violations in a three-month period,” Monforton said. “It’s sick.”

In a nice nugget, Carroll notes, "Obama has scheduled a White House meeting in the coming week with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joseph Main. Some longtime coal industry observers cannot recall the last time a president met with the head of MSHA other than at a ceremonial event." (Read more)