Saturday, March 02, 2013

Federal prisons, overcrowded and increasingly unsafe, could become more so with budget cuts

Attorney General Eric Holder says the federal budget sequester and employee furloughs could worsen safety problems in federal prisons, most of which are in rural areas. Brian Mann of North Country Radio in Saranac Lake, N.Y., notes, "Two different congressional reports released in the last year found that inmate overcrowding at federal prisons . . . has already made it difficult for guards to maintain safety behind bars."

The Congressional Research Service said there has been a "historically unprecedented" increase in inmates, and the Government Accountability Office said the overcrowding has caused higher inmate-to-staff ratios, leading to more inmate behavior problems and threats to safety. It said some prisons are holding half again as many inmates as they are designed for, and a Bureau of prisons study  said it needs 3,200 more guards, Mann reports.

AP issues style advisory on papacy, church

If you're referring to the sede vacante (look it up!) or related matters, you might want to refer to a helpful style guide from The Associated Press, here.

Education secretary sticks by sequestration view; key senators ask him for information about it

Friday, March 01, 2013

CBO: Farm Bill savings over next 10 years would be about $10 billion less than first projected

The Farm Bill the Senate passed last year would save $10 billion less than projected, and a House version that never got to the floor would save $9.5 billion less, the Congressional Budget Office said today. It said the Senate plan would save $13.1 billion over 10 years, the House plan $26.6 billion.

"Long-term Farm Bill estimates are notoriously fickle given the number of moving pieces in any calculation," writes David Rogers of Politico, "but the percentage change, especially for the Senate, is striking and virtually erases any meaningful savings from the food-stamp program." (Read more)

Postal Service says newspapers would be only mailing group hurt if it cuts Saturday mail delivery

Several lobbying interests are trying to get Congress to keep the U.S. Postal Service from ending non-package Saturday delivery, but the postmaster general says the service "has identified only one group of commercial mailers that could lose by the elimination of Saturday first-class mail delivery - small newspapers that do not have their own Saturday deliverers," Elvina Nawaguna of Reuters reports.

Joining newspaper organizations in lobbying the issue are those representing greeting card makers, paper manufacturers and letter carriers. Reuters reports Rafe Morrissey, postal-affairs vice president at the card group, "said eliminating Saturday delivery could dampen people's willingness to send greeting cards while also driving away revenue for the Postal Service."

The National Newspaper Association, which argues that eliminating Saturday delivery will hurt rural areas as well as commercial mailers, has scheduled an informational and lobbying day for its members in Washington March 14. Max Heath, chairman of the group's Postal Committee, told Reuters, "It's not over until it's over." (Read more)

In the largest state, the postal crisis looms larger

Utah town's law encourages citizens to own guns

Inmate labor, subject to abuse, helps rural places

Program that allow local governments use inmate labor in exchange for food, lodging and medical care can be abused, but for small places like Chester County, South Carolina, it provides a hard-to-replace labor pool, the Charlotte Observer reports.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rural Republicans see no need to stop sequester

"House Republicans — many of whom represent rural and outer suburban districts — feel little urgency to strike a deal with [President] Obama and avert the sequester" of federal funds that must come tomorrow unless a last-minute deal is reached, Philip Rucker reports for The Washington Post.

"Interviews with more than a dozen state and municipal leaders coast to coast show that the sequester would afflict big cities and military communities — because of cuts to social programs and defense — far more than middle-class suburbs or rural areas," Rucker writes. "The disparity in some ways mirrors the nation’s electoral divide between Democrats and Republicans." (Read more)

Iowan says he's high on the hog with new breed

An Iowa farmer who says he can build a motorcycle, throw someone out of a bar, wrestle a pig and program a computer, "believes he has bred the best tasting pork ever," John Eligon of The New York Times reports from Ionia, Iowa. (Photo by Sean Patrick Farrell)

Carl Edgar Blake II's new breed, the Iowa Swabian Hall, are "not universally admired," Eligon writes, but won a heritage pork contest in San Francisco and gets good reviews from the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern In New York. Monday he was on the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," and "Blake said he has been inundated with calls from people across the country wanting pigs and bacon." (Read more)

First local health agencies, many rural, win national accreditation; is yours seeking it?

Local health departments often operate under the radar, quietly helping keep their communities healthy and safe, and they are especially important in rural areas. Until now there have been no national standards for these essential agencies, but today a national accrediting board gave its seal of approval to nine of them, several serving rural counties.

The Public Health Accreditation Board gave five-year accreditations to the Comanche County Health Department, Lawton, Okla.; the Franklin County Health Department, Frankfort, Ky.; the Livingston County Department of Health, Mt. Morris, N.Y.; the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, the Spokane Regional Health District in Washington, the Public Health Authority of Cabarrus County and its Cabarrus Health Alliance, Kannapolis, N.C.; the Three Rivers District Health Department, Owenton, Ky.; and the West Allis Health Department in Wisconsin. The state health departments in Oklahoma and Washington received the same accreditation.

“This is a truly historic moment in public health,” said Kaye Bender, president of the board, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (Read more)

The accreditation process includes an assessment of the community's health status, which is news in any place in America. More than 125 public health departments across the country have applied for accreditation. Is yours one of them? If not, why not?

'When it comes to guns, subtle distinctions go out the window,' editor says after de-posting gun list

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My view: There's more to tell in Cherokee County

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The Cherokee Scout of Murphy, N.C., is getting a lot of journalistic grief for its abject apology to readers for seeking records of local permits to carry concealed deadly weapons. The paper and its owner, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga., aren't saying anything about the matter beyond what is or will be in the weekly paper, perhaps hoping that their general reputation for good journalism will eventually tamp down the criticism.

Taking issue with the apology is like shooting fish in a barrel, but those outsiders who are quick to criticize the Scout and Publisher David Brown need to know that the episode was the latest in a long-running battle with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department, which has had legal problems and created a community uproar by posting on its Facebook page its correspondence with the paper about the matter. That prompted the apology.

We don't know what the paper wanted with the records, or what it intended to publish, and until we do, it shouldn't be faulted for asking. The paper said it wasn't going to publish the names but "We thought it would be revealing to share, for example, how many residents in a specific area had gun permits." And though it has withdrawn its perfectly legal request, that shouldn't mean that the sheriff has won. Some other publication, journalist or other citizen who's willing and able to go to court should file the same request and sue the sheriff when he denies it. And this enterprise wouldn't be just about making a point; it seems there's a good story in the paper's battle with the sheriff, a story about the difficulty of doing journalism that keeps powerful local officials accountable when they think, and maybe know, that no one else will.

How the Newtown Bee covered the mass killing: one story that doesn't need to be behind a paywall

It has no grand theorizing about community journalism, but Rachel Aviv's story in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine about how the Newtown Bee covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings is a testament to the craft and those who practice it.

When reporter/photographer and volunteer firefighter Shannon Hicks arrived on the scene, "She saw a young officer, William Chapman, come out of the school yelling, 'Get the bus!' He had a limp girl in his arms," Aviv writes. "Hicks began calling for an ambulance, but then she saw one already approaching. Through the lens of her camera, she watched as Chapman, only a few strides from the ambulance, fell to the ground, apparently losing strength. She saw that the child's face had lost color, and knew then that she would never publish the photographs she was taking."

The photo by Shannon Hicks that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize
When another reporter arrived, Hicks donned firefighter's gear and took on her other big community role. "The Bee recently submitted Hicks’s photograph of the children being led to safety for the Pulitzer Prize," Aviv writes, "but Hicks still felt conflicted about her work that day. One set of parents thanked her for the picture -- they'd seen their daughter's face online before arriving at the firehouse," where parents waited. "But Hicks also heard from two residents who said that it was exploitative, a criticism she understood." The girl in the light-blue top "appears to be crying or screaming," but "in an earlier frame, the girl had looked calm," Aviv writes, quoting Hicks: "I want to find her and tell her, 'I'm so sorry. You were just scared. I'm sorry you will remember that moment because of me.'"

Two-third of Newtown residents get the Bee, Aviv writes, "and after the shooting the editor, Curtiss Clark, found himself thinking about its purpose. He wanted the paper to draw the community together, to reclaim its routine—a task made nearly impossible by all the outsiders streaming into town. The Bee reporters talked about the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School as if the children had been in some sort of natural disaster. They referred to 'the incident' and avoided the name Adam Lanza, which had become a kind of obscenity."

Aviv's story is behind a paywall that will charge you $5.99 to read it.

Gun-control debate is an urban vs. rural one

Pediatrician Christine Fox prepares
to shoot at a West Virginia range.
(USA Today photo by Denny Gainer)
America's debate over guns is in many ways a rural-urban debate, writes Chuck Raasch of USA Today, who cut his journalistic teeth as a rural reporter in his native South Dakota.

"The gun debate rages in two Americas," Raasch writes. "One of the biggest factors in where you stand on gun ownership and gun violence depends, literally, on where you lay your head at night.
A compilation of December Gallup polls showed that rural Americans — roughly one-sixth of the population — are more than twice as likely to have a gun in the home than those living in large cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are six times more likely to hunt. Rural residents are also most likely to say the best way to reduce gun violence is to better enforce current gun laws rather than pass new ones, an argument echoed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups."

Raasch, who is based in Washington, went to West Virginia to talk to gun owners. His story seems designed for urbanites, but it's still a good read, here.

Take care with cold-weather killer: space heater

Warm weather isn't far away, but winter remains, and precautions should be taken to steer clear of a big cold-weather killer -- the space heater -- for the season's remaining cold days.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that each year, space heaters cause more than 25,000 residential fires and more than 300 deaths, and more than 6,000 Americans get emergency-room care for burn injuries associated with room heaters.

An Eastern Kentucky fire started by a space heater claimed the lives of one adult and four children last month. This blaze destroyed a rural house and family and was considered by authorites to be the worst the region has seen in a long time.

Using a space heater makes sense, and many people, particularly those in rural areas, use them to stay warm; but they must be used with caution. The Burn Center at Loyola University Medical Center is warning the public about the dangers of space heaters because many of the injuries they cause are preventable if the appropriate measures are taken. Here are some general safety tips from Loyola:

• Keep space heaters at least three feet away from furniture or other combustible material.
• Don't place heaters on carpets or rugs.
• Locate heaters on a hard, level surface where a child or family pet can't brush against them.
• Never leave a heater on when an adult is not present in the room.
• Never keep flammable liquids near a heater.
• Mobile homes should use only electric heaters or vented, fuel-fired heaters.

Loyola also advises to use combustion space heaters only outside your home because they release carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. If the heater is not properly vented, high levels of these gases are deadly. Also, when using electric space heaters, be sure to plug the heater directly into a wall outlet and use a heavy duty cord. Click here for more tips.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is there 'a farmer in all of us'? Recent episodes suggest agriculture is off the radar in D.C.

David Rogers, who has been covering the politics of agriculture for many years, sees "a real disconnect in American politics over farm policy," exemplified by Chrysler Corp.'s Super Bowl ad for Dodge Ram trucks ("For the farmer in all of us") appearing a few weeks after Congress's failure to pass a Farm Bill and days before a State of the Union speech in which President Obama made no mention of agriculture.

Writing for Politico, Rogers says Obama, after "talking a good game on the Farm Bill . . . when Iowa was in play in the presidential election," washed his hands of it at year's end, allowing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell "to pen a nine-month extension that infuriated many dairy farmers and left the two Ag committees out in the cold. . . . More than past administrations, this White House has taken a remarkably hands-off approach to farm issues."

House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., sees that as political calculation, but he "feels the same frustration with his own party leadership," Rogers writes, noting that Speaker John Boehner "blocked him from bringing the farm bill to the House floor." The problem was a battle between Lucas and tea-party Republicans who wanted bigger cuts in food stamps.

The larger problem is that fewer than 1 percent of Americans, about 2.3 million, farm, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "has estimated that about three-quarters of the U.S. production comes from a subset of about 200,000 to 300,000 farmers," Rogers reports. "The decline of regional newspapers — which were the heart of the old farm press — contributes to this isolation. Major publications largely ignored the farm bill debate last year, while many of the most experienced ag reporters have migrated to more niche, subscriber-funded newsletters."

The narrowing of farm interests could be risky, an unnamed "Republican aide who tracks farm issues" told Rogers: “No one is thinking about the promotion of agriculture in a big and bold way. There are numerous newsletters, coalitions, websites but they’re all serving the same audience. They’re essentially all singing to the choir, but no one is bringing any new folks to the church service.” (Read more)

Drought makes USDA aggressive on climate issue

Stimulus programs for rural broadband leave some places with no access, others with too much

Loss of Saturday mail would hurt most in rural places, and at some of their newspapers

Final webinar on rural dropout prevention Thursday

The last webinar in a three-session series on rural dropout prevention and recovery will be online Thursday, March 28. It will feature a center in Berrien County, Georgia, and Youthbuild of Southeast Ohio. Presenters and colleagues will discuss effective use of curriculum, building partnerships, and helping students transition to post-secondary opportunities and careers. Participants will have an opportunity to share their own strategies. While the event is designed for schoolofficials and key staff it also welcomes "community partners," according to a U.S. Department of Education and press release. For more information and registration, go here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Latest poll of community newspaper readers finds papers tightly hold their local-news franchises

Weekly publisher apologizes to readers for editor's request for records on concealed-carry permits

The publisher of the weekly Cherokee Scout, in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, apologized today for the editor's request to the sheriff for a list of Cherokee County citizens who have applied for or received permits to carry concealed deadly weapons.

"We had no idea the reaction it would cause," Publisher David Brown wrote. His letter said some people had made threats against Editor Robert Horne, and he filled readers in on where Horne was from ("a small town in South Georgia") and how long he had been at the paper (since 2005) -- and his own background: local high-school graduate, and "I was married and baptized here."

Media blogger Jim Romenesko notes that the Bangor Daily News in Maine got much the same reaction, but made no apology, saying its request was related to an investigative project on drug abuse and domestic violence, and it would not make the information public, as the Journal News of suburban New York City did. In his headline, Romenesko calls Brown's letter to readers "The most incredible newspaper apology ever." What do you think?

UPDATE, Feb. 26: Editor Horne, right, has resigned, telling Romenesko that Community Newspapers Inc. didn't push him out but is leaving so the paper "can move forward." The paper's story, in Romenesko's item, notes the many awards it won in the seven-plus years he was editor, and the fact that Horne is a Marine veteran.

100+ arrests made in Appalachian poaching sting

Changes in Pell Grant eligibility requirements may be limiting rural students' access to higher education

Lawsuits claim Native Americans in North Dakota were cheated out of $1 billion in oil deals

Alternatives to road salt and its runoff: molasses, beet juice, cheese brine

American Electric Power to shut 3 coal-fired plants in Ind., Ky., Ohio as part of lawsuit settlement

The Washington Post calls it "the latest sign of how the nation’s electricity supply is shifting away from coal.

Rural businesses lobbying Missouri officials to expand Medicaid

USDA report suggests solid definition of 'rural' as any place under 50K, which could be problematic

UPDATE, Feb. 28: The Daily Yonder has posted links to "critical attachments" to the report that it says may suggest how USDA would redefine "rural" for its development programs. March 1: The Yonder publishes what it says will be the first in a series of commentaries on the issue.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly issued a report Friday that recommends a standard definition for "rural" as applied to eligibility for its Rural Development programs: a population in the jurisdiction of less than 50,000. That could have the effect of making more communities eligible for the programs, and decreasing the chance that any single community would receive assistance. That could have a disproportionate impact on the most rural areas.

Peterson (left) and Lucas
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee voiced such concerns in a statement this afternoon. Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said they were glad to see that the agency "has finally fulfilled its statutory obligation" to make the report, "but we are disappointed in USDA’s proposals to shift funding away from the most rural areas by inflating the definition across the board. This will result in smaller communities competing with larger and more urban areas for funding."

They added, "In an increasingly tight fiscal environment, careful targeting of scarce funding is critical to ensuring the communities who should benefit from these programs are given priority. Congress placed a clear emphasis on targeting the most rural areas, with eligibility criteria that emphasizes the need to carefully allocate scarce resources." (Read more)

State lists of budget cuts released; call set at 2:30

In an effort that increasingly seems futile, President Obama is trying to head off Friday's "sequester" budget cuts by focusing on areas that would be affected. Today the White House issued a state-by-sate list, and at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, "senior administration officials will hold an on-the-record conference call for regional reporters to discuss the devastating impact that the sequester will have on jobs and middle-class families across the country," as a White House release put it. For a story from The Washington Post on the move, click here.

The release didn't say if reporters will be allowed to ask questions (yes, sometimes "teleconference" briefings don't allow that), or if so, how much time will be allowed (usually not much), but if you want a chance to pose a question to Jason Furman Deputy, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council, this is it. Press Secretary for the Economy Amy Brundage will also be on the call.

The call-in number is 800-230-1074; ask to join the “White House call.” No passcode is necessary. Here are links to the state releases: Alabama Alaska Arizona Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut Delaware District of Columbia Florida Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Vermont Virginia Washington West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Politics complicates governors' decisions on health reform, with big ramifications for rural America

Farm and Food File syndicated columnist Alan Guebert sums up why governors' decisions about expansion of Medicaid and establishment of state health-insurance exchanges are important to rural America: "We’re older, poorer and more dependent on government-supported health care than our urban counterparts. We’re also understaffed. Although nearly 25 percent of all Americans live in census-defined 'rural' areas, only 10 percent of the nation’s physicians are our neighbors."

Politics has complicated things, Guebert writes: "Early on, both choices became overtly political. Republican-led red states lined up against building 'bureaucratic' insurance exchanges and fought any expansion of Medicaid in their home pastures. Later, however, when state legislatures and governors began to examine the programs, a less political picture began to come into focus."

Guebert cites a Harvard University School of Public Health study concluding that for every 176 adults added to Medicaid, one life was saved, and the estimate by Dr. Wayne Myers, former director of the federal Office of Rural Health Policy, that expansion of Medicaid in all states would save 80,000 lives a year at a price of about $10,000 each.

"Ten grand is chicken feed if you or a family member becomes sick. Yet, the political leaders in 30 mostly rural states either stand undecided or decidedly against expanding Medicaid to their citizens," Guebert writes. "Why? It can’t be money, because the ACA is the law and Medicaid is almost certain to be expanded with or without these states taking the -- duh -- 93 percent federal cost-sharing offer on the table. That leaves politics or religion as the reason, so ask your local politicians which it is. And while you’re at it, ask those political leaders what kind of taxpayer-supported health care insurance they have." (Read more)