Friday, July 08, 2011

Rural newspapers are doing fine, at least when compared to their metro cousins, writer discovers

"With newspaper ad sales falling at an unexpectedly abrupt rate, many publishers at mid-year were laying off staff, requiring unpaid furloughs, consolidating plants and taking other measures to buttress their bottom lines," Alan Mutter notes on his newspaper-industry blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur. But he's writing about daily newspapers, mainly those in metropolitan areas.

In contrast, "Rural journalism is surviving, even thriving," Geoff McGhee writes for the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. The writer of this blog item, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, was a major source for Lane's report. He uses our definition of community newspapers, those with circulations of less than 30,000. But his report is not mainly figures; he also writes about community journalists "developing a relationship with the local readers that some people say that mainstream journalism has lost, a relationship with all the complications that intimacy and proximity bring."

McGhee also relies on Judy Muller, a former ABC News reporter who is a professor at the University of Southern California, and her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big News from Small Towns. (We'll have a separate report on the book in a later blog item.) And near the end of his 3,238-word article, he quotes a Mutter blog post from March 15, 2010 about the business side of rural newspapering, perhaps threatened less by the Internet than population loss and other demographic changes. Rural papers may be doing well in relative terms, but they face many of the same challenges as metros. (Read more)

Forest-killing bug attacks increased by threefold from 2003 to 2007, federal report says

A U.S. Forest Service report obtained by The Associated Press describes "a threefold increase in forestland mortality caused by insect attacks between 2003 and 2007," due to milder winters and Western drought, AP's John Flesher reports. (AP photo by David Zalubowski: pine beetle damage in Colorado)

Bugs such as bark beetles, engraver beetles and gypsy moths killed 37 million acres of forest in 2007, up from 12 million in 2003, according to the report. "When defoliated trees are added to those killed outright, the acreage significantly damaged by insects since 2003 totals about 50 million — 8 percent of forest area in the lower 48 states," Flesher writes. "About 13 million acres were scorched by fires during the same period, less than 2 percent of all forest acreage." (Read more)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Egg producers, Humane Society agree on cage standards for hens, call for federal legislation

In a landmark agreement, the United Egg Producers agreed today to "improve the environment of all egg-laying hens through enriched cage systems," and the Humane Society of the United States has dropped its insistence on cage-free egg production, Julie Harker of Brownfield Network reports.

"At a news conference this morning, Bob Krouse, a family farmer in Northern Indiana, said their memorandum of understanding with the HSUS – calling for a national standard through federal legislation – is a natural progression of animal agriculture’s commitment to animal care," Harker writes. "The agreement calls for increasing the size of cages from 67 inches to 124 inches of enriched cage space over the next 15 to 18 years for all egg laying hens in the U.S."

HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said his group will stop lawsuits, end efforts for referendums on the issue in Washington and Oregon and stop undercover videotaping. He said the agreement reflects two facts: “The American public supports animal agriculture and it supports animal welfare.” Krouse said UEP is “committed to working together for the good of the hens,” and “A national standard is far superior than a patchwork of state laws and regulations that would be cumbersome.”

Harker notes that the federal legislation "would supersede state laws that have already been passed – in Arizona, California, Michigan and Ohio – requiring increased space and environmental enrichments for egg laying hens." UEP estimates the changes will cost producers $4 billion. "Krouse says consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay more for non-conventionally produced eggs."

UEP "represents farmers who own about 80 percent of the nation’s laying hens," William Neuman of The New York Times reports: "It is far from clear whether such a law could be passed. One potential obstacle is opposition from other poultry or livestock farmers, who may be worried that similar laws could some day apply to them."
The agreement puts the egg producers at odds with the National Pork Producers Council, which "says a one-size-fits-all national standard that preempts state regulations on animal agriculture would be a dangerous precedent for poultry and livestock producers," Harker reports.

Calif., Minn. and S.D. senators offer bipartisan deal to end ethanol subsidies; House support in doubt

Key senators in both parties agreed today on legislation that would "end ethanol subsidies immediately," The Washington Post reports. The blenders' tax credit for ethanol and the tariff on imported biofuels would go away at the end of the month, but the bill "would extend a tax credit for green biofuels production for three years, expanding it to include fuels made from algae," Rosalind Helderman writes. ( photo)

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said the measure should be part of any bill to raise the national debt ceiling and cut spending. "If Congress fails to enact this proposal before it adjourns for August recess, the substantial levels of deficit reduction and investment achieved by this compromise will no longer be possible, and we cannot commit our support after that point," they said.

"Because the credit was slated to expire by the end of this year anyway, each day Congress delays in ending the credit reduces how much money will be saved," Dan Looker notes on "The remaining tax credits that will be allowed for ethanol are modest in comparison." (Read more)
"The bipartisan proposal may signal new flexibility about including ethanol subsidies in the debt talks," the Post reports. But while the Senate voted to repeal the subsidies last month, that was a vote on an amendment to a bill that wasn't going anywhere, and Environment & Energy News reports the House is unlikely to support repealing both subsidies. (Read more, subscription required)

In other ethanol news, POET has been awarded a $105 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy for development of its cellulosic fuel plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, Jenny Mandel of Greenwire reports. "There is more than 1 billion tons of biomass available each year that could be used to make enough cellulosic ethanol to completely displace oil imports," CEO Jeff Broin told Mandel. "Today's announcement brings us closer to making that promise into a reality." (Read more, subscription required)

EPA gets tougher on coal-fired power plants; GOP looks for Democrats to back countermeasure

Air emissions from coal-fired power plants are again the topic of political unease today, as the Environmental Protection Agency announces tougher regulations. For the EPA release, click here.

The proposed rules will affect "as many as 28 states whose pollution blows in to other states," Elizabeth Weise of USA Today reports. Under the Clean Air Transportation Rule, plants that emit pollution to other states will have to begin reducing emissions in 2012 and the new regulations are expected to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels significantly by 2014. (Read more)

Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Western and Southern Kentucky, the chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, has a bill "to delay and tweak" the rules, Jean Chemnick of Environment & Energy News reports. Whitfield said he is looking for Democratic sponsors and named Democrat Gene Green of Texas as a prospect. (Read more, subscription required)

Paper's records check suggests inspector went easy on firm that failed to warn workers of tornado

Following an April 4 tornado that heavily damaged TGASK, a manufacturer of rubber door and window trim for cars, in Hopkinsville, Ky., Kentucky New Era staff writer Dave Boucher dug into state inspection reports and revealed conflicts between the state inspector's employer-friendly account of the episode and the National Weather Service's account of events leading up to the tornado, including warnings that apparently were not passed along to employees

Boucher's story is an example of how journalists can help protect the public when government fails to hold responsible parties accountable, as illustrated by the inspector’s assertion: “It is not reasonable to conclude that the employer would establish a plan, train employees on the plan, and execute the plan during instances of severe weather, only to disregard the plan in this instance.” Actually, it’s perfectly reasonable, because human beings are involved and they mess up sometimes. The online story may require a subscription; if so, a scan of the print copy is here as a PDF.

Feds extend comment period for possible rules for use of farm equipment on public roads

Following letters from 18 senators and Farm Bureau presidents "in a half-dozen states . . . the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has extended its public comment period" on regulations that could further limit the use of farm equipment on public roads, Eliza Newlin Carney of Roll Call reports. (SafeNY photo)

The letters requested "the window for public comment on the proposed safety guidelines be extended by 90 days," Carney reports. Since the consideration of new guidelines was announced May 31, farm lobbies argued that came at the peak of planting season, it left farmers little time to comment.
The proposed regulations could include requiring farmers to obtain commercial driver's licenses. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Tribal council shuts down newspaper in N. Calif.

An editor of a Native American newspaper in northwestern California said the paper will have to stop publishing until editors can justify their news content and the paper's budget, reports Aaron Mackey of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"The staff of the Two Rivers Tribune met with the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council on Tuesday after the council's chairman issued a memo late last week that abruptly shut down the paper," writes Mackey. "In the memo, Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten said the paper would be closed immediately because it was losing money and because of controversial articles about marijuana." The region is a hotbed of pot production.

Managing Editor Allie Hostler said some members of the council discussed creating a board to review news content before publication, which she called "a potential censorship board." (MapQuest image; click on map for larger version)

Kevin Kemper, a University of Arizona journalism professor who specializes in Native American media issues, told Mackey that the newspaper's closing violated the Hoopa Valley tribe's constitution and the U.S. Constitution. (Read more)

E15 pumps on the way, with EPA rule in place

The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association says gasoline pumps with 15 percent ethanol could be in service as early as August, following the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of a final regulation for the fuel.

"There are other things that the industry has to do," IRFA Executive Director told Ken Anderson olf Brownfield Network. "We have to register the fuel, we have to get retailers to check their systems out and offer it—and that’s going to take some time, probably into August or September."

For Anderson's report or an 8-minute audio report, click here.

Reports spread of rural long-distance calls being lost; Oregon officials say they will investigate

Oregon officials say they will investigate complaints by rural telephone companies, like those in some other states, that customers' long-distance calls are being dropped. The problem "is especially significant with fax machines, which need to establish a stable connection to transmit a document, Mike Rogoway of The Oregonian reports.

"Big phone companies seek to contain expenses for long-distance calls with a practice called 'least-cost routing' -- sending a long-distance call over the cheapest network," Rogoway explains. "Local companies in Oregon complain that some carriers are using Internet technology to cut the cost of carrying the call and dodge local fees -- sometimes at the expense of call quality or connections." That appears to happen more in rural areas because "long-haul carriers seek to avoid the high costs associated with serving remote areas with relatively few people," Rogoway reports.

Canby Telecom told the Oregon Public Utilities Commission last month that 3 percent of its calls are being affected. To see the company's presentation, click here.

4-H gets a foothold in Iraq with U.S. government aid

4-H, a youth organization with a strong presence in many rural communities, is providing opportunities for youth in 81 countries, most recently Iraq, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington-based newsletter.

4-H began in Iraq in 2009 when Mary Kerstetter of the Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service traveled to Anbar province as an farm adviser, Agri-Pulse reports. She taught youth how to tend sheep, Iraq's most common form of livestock, and created two 4-H sheep clubs with the help of $50,000 in State Department grants and leaders like government official Salam Singer (in USDA photo with Kerstetter).

Now Iraq has 42 4-H clubs with more than 1,100 members aged 12 to 14, Agri-Pulse reports. To visit the national Iraqi 4-H website, click here. To obtain a free, four-issue trial subscription to Agri-Pulse, a subscription-only newsletter, click here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Cash-strapped states are advised to turn some rural roads back to local governments

Does your state maintain many rural secondary roads that should arguably be local responsibilities? If so, your local governments might soon be asked to accept responsibility for some of them, because the slow economy is squeeezing state budgets.

In Virginia, which has the highest share of state-maintained rural roads, almost 95 percent, and has gone through more than 20 years of battles on how to fund transportation projects in its part of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, local officials fear the burden will fall back to them, Bob Lewis of The Associated Press reports.

"Because of the neglect of the state since 1986 to fix the transportation funding formula and revenue stream, we're playing catch-up with a lot of these roads and we just don't have the adequate tools to do it in a meaningful way. I can't just raise the revenue I need," Spotsylvania County Supervisor Hap Conners told Lewis.

A comprehensive study released by Virginia's George Mason University offered "devolution," turning rural road responsibilities back to counties, as a option for struggling states. The Virginia Association of Counties wrote in a rebuttal, "Any proposals to shift secondary road construction and maintenance funding responsibilities to localities also shifts political liability for unpopular tax increases to local officials." (Read more)

Other states where at least five of every six miles of rural roads are under state ownership are West Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina, according to the Federal Highway Administration's Highway Statistics 2008. Next are South Carolina (61 percent), Alaska (39), Kentucky (38), Maine (37.9) and Pennsylvania (37.7). Click here to see percentages for all 50 states.

Apply for environmental reporting grant by July 15

The Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism is accepting applications for its next round of grants to help underwrite environmental reporting projects. Awards may be as large as $3,500 and the deadline is July 15.

Any journalist working independently, or on the staff of a for-profit or non-profit news organization, who meets SEJ's qualifications is eligible to apply for the grants. Applicants do not have to be SEJ members, but their work must be journalistic in nature and must not be public relations work on environmental issues or lobbying on environmental issues. To see the full SEJ qualifications, click here.

The application fee is $20 for non-SEJ members and free for SEJ members. To see full details or obtain application materials click here.

Need to adopt electronic health records as part of health-care reform worries rural hospitals

A new federal law requiring hospitals to adopt electronic records may pose a financial burden for many rural hospitals, perhaps forcing them to become part of a larger organization, Bob Moen of The Associated Press reports.

"The fear is that only large health-care groups would be able to create such organizations and small hospitals would only survive if they were taken over by large hospitals," Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a critic of the reform law, told Moen. "A lot of the incentives that are included in the law are really aimed at big cities and big medical systems." All hospitals get extra Medicare and Medicaid payments for early adoption of electronic records.

The law, while costly for many rural hospitals, should provide them some benefits. The law is designed to maintain programs like those that boost reimbursement for areas with many elderly patients and encourage youth in rural areas to enter health professions, Moen reports. "I think we're just going to have to figure out a way to make it work in rural places," Jon Bailey, research and analysis director with the Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs told Moen. (Read more)

N.Y. to lift hydraulic-fracturing moratorium in most areas; Shell unveils principles to follow

A moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process used in natural-gas drilling, may be lifted in parts of New York, Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times report. New York City's upstate watershed and the Syracuse watershed would still remain covered by the moratorium.

The decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not been made public yet, and the reporters were unsure of when the decision will be official. There is some speculation Cuomo may use the release of the State Department of Environmental Conservation's study on fracking "to announce its broader policy plans related to the issue as well," Hakim and Confessore report. (Read more)

Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which recently announced the possible development of a petrochemical plant in the Marcellus Shale region, has devised five "Global Onshore Tight/Shale Oil and Gas Operating Principles," in response to backlash from environmental groups regarding fracking. "The principles include safe well design and completion standards, water protection and reuse goals, air quality and emissions prevention measures, limits on the physical footprint of operations, and community engagement," Brett Clanton reports on Fuelfix, an energy-news site anchored by reporters at the Houston Chronicle and other Hearst newspapers. (Read more)