Saturday, March 09, 2013

Speak out for open government and freedom of information during Sunshine Week, March 10-17

Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, begins tomorrow, March 10, and runs through next Sunday, March 17. It's always the week of March 16, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. He wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sunshine Week is driven by journalists, but it seeks to enlighten and empower all Americans to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. Participants include news media, government officials, schools and universities, libraries and archives, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and individuals with an interest in open government.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, chief sponsors of the event, have laid nationwide plans for events, special stories and release of freedom-of-information studies. With a continuing endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a 2013 donation from Bloomberg LP, the groups produce useful materials for participants and keep the Sunshine Week website and social media sites engaged.

"Our ongoing mission is to ensure that government at all levels remains transparent for the public and for reporters in all platforms,"  said Reporters Committee Chair Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal. "This is a great opportunity to engage many different partners in open government education and discussions."

The National Newspaper Association is one of several co-sponsors. “The importance of open government cannot be understated,” said Deb McCaslin, chair of NNA’s Government Relations Committee. “Community newspapers are on the front lines in their towns, covering their chambers of commerce and school board meetings and keeping their readers informed about what is going on at the local level. These publications make a very real difference in the lives of the people in their communities. Without these newspapers keeping their local governments accountable, democracy would falter.”

Other particpants include the American Library Association, The Associated Press, The Cato Institute; the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch); the Center for Responsive Politics; the Inland Press Association; the New England First Amendment Coalition; the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. (Read more)

Democratic senators in Alaska, Ark., La., Mont., N.C., S.D. with elections in 2014 wary of gun votes

Six Democratic senators up for election next year in largely rural states "where the Second Amendment is cherished and where Republicans routinely win in presidential elections" are wary of more gun control, The Associated Press reports:  Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The National Rifle Association “last month launched an advertising campaign aimed squarely at this group, sending a strong message,” AP reports. “It is a very delicate dance for rural state Democrats,” Democratic consultant Barrett Kaiser told AP, which noted, “Both sides are aware that gun owners’ rights are taking shape as a campaign issue that could shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. . . . If Republicans pick off these seats they could take the chamber.”

The story focuses on Baucus, noting that he "nearly lost his seat" after voting in the 1990s for background checks for gun buyers and an assault-weapons ban, and though he "would appear to be a shoo-in for re-election . . . one wrong gun vote could energize his opposition." (Read more)

Friday, March 08, 2013

Rural writer has trouble keeping connected, finds Windstream may be canceling some rural upgrades

Are rural residents experiencing a downgrade in their Internet capabilities? Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University in Athens, says he has seen a decline in the quality of his Internet connection at his rural home.

Reader, a Windstream Communications customer, is paying for 3 megabits per second, but writes that he has run tests that show he gets service as slow as 0.33 Mbps. Through repeated communication with Windstream he has been left frustrated and unsatisfied with the end result: slow, unreliable Internet service in a rural area.

Company says its rural Internet service is likely 'to get worse before it gets better'

By Bill Reader

Windstream Communications, which hails itself as “the largest communications company focused on rural America,” announced last month in its fourth-quarter earnings report that it vowed to maintain its $1/share dividend rate to stockholders in 2013 (which an analyst writing for SeekingAlpha called "a blockbuster yield"). It also announced it would be reducing capital expenditures in 2013. Based on my recent calls to Windstream customer service, those cuts may include canceling previously scheduled upgrades to its Internet service in some rural areas that have been plagued with congestion and latency problems.

As a Windstream customer living in a rural community with no other landline options for Internet, I have experienced those congestion problems myself over the years, but especially in recent weeks. The worsening problem surprised me, given that last fall, when Windstream sent a technician out to my remote property to resolve a line-noise problem, I was told that my neighborhood’s congested LAN was scheduled for upgrade by Jan. 31 of this year.

I choose to live at the corner of No and Where, so of course I have limited expectations of getting anywhere near the level of service Windstream claims is possible in its marketing materials. I pay for 3 Mbps service, but really only expect service in the 1.5 Mbps area, on average. I expect some dropped packets and latency in unusual circumstances, such as during severe weather, when the pole lines are under considerable stress and line noise is likely. I of course have no hope of ever being able to count on watching a movie on Netflix during prime hours without at least two or three latency interruptions. That’s just something folks living in rural communities have to accept with our inadequate, better-than-nothing Internet infrastructure.

But on March 6, at about 10 a.m., the latency and congestion seemed worse than ever. I ran three tests. Download speed averaged 0.33 Mbps, a far cry from the 3.0 I pay for and even the 1.5 I can live with. Even more worrying was the ping speed, which averaged 433 milliseconds — well above the threshold of 180 ms I was told, in 2009, was the threshold for Windstream to issue a service ticket for latency problems.

When I called Windstream to report the service problems, I was told that Windstream is aware of the problem in my area. The problem was originally scheduled to be addressed by Jan. 31, but it had been removed from the 2013 schedule. Windstream has no plans to fix it this year, I was told. That’s just about a direct quote; the known problems in my area are not even on a schedule for being addressed.

I asked one of the three customer-service people I talked with if a technician could be sent out to at least make sure a squirrel hadn't eaten a wire or something. "We aren't doing that anymore," she said, because they know what the problem is, and that it was not scheduled for repair in 2013. She acknowledged that “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” and that I shouldn’t expect any improvement through 2013. I was in "irate customer" mode, rather than "calm journalist mode," and I will say that all three people I talked to were polite and professional. They clearly WANT to resolve the problems. But their employer, apparently, is less willing.

That afternoon, I emailed and placed a call to Scott Morris, media contact at Windstream headquarters, to ask him whether (and, if so, why) the company has removed scheduled, long-overdue upgrades, and how many rural communities are likely to be affected. Morris returned my call Thursday but was on the road and unable to answer my specific questions at that time; he said he would look into it and get back to me. I did not hear from him as of 7 p.m. Saturday; this post will be updated if Morris responds.

Here are the questions I emailed to Morris on Wednesday:

"-- How many previously scheduled LAN upgrades have been unscheduled in Windstream's service areas (total)?
"-- What criteria were considered when unscheduling those upgrades (I understand that only certain communities will not get the previously scheduled upgrades)?
"-- When, and how, were customers (including me) who had been previously told of the impending upgrades notified that the upgrades were no longer scheduled for 2013?
"-- How much is Windstream expecting to save in 2013 by postponing those previously scheduled upgrades?"

Postal Service trying to sell more historic offices

Post offices have moved from thousands of historic buildings in towns large and small in recent years, and most the buildings probably have been converted to other uses. But some have been demolished, and the Postal Service's financial problems could mean many other historic post-office buildings could be put up for sale.

The Derby, Conn., office. (Photo: Autumn Driscoll/
"The agency acknowledges that in recent years the sale of post office buildings has accelerated," and 11 historic post offices are already on the market, writes Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times. "When these post offices close, preservationists say, important public buildings become private preserves as they are refurbished into commercial spaces like high-end retail stores. Though many of the buildings’ exteriors are protected by local landmark laws, many of the interiors are not and developers tend to make changes like renovating lobbies." (Read more)

On Monday, the Postal Service announced that it is considering plans to sell the post office in Derby, Conn., reports Save the Post Office: "The Derby post office was built in 1932 and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Before selling an historic property, the Postal Service is required to go through a review-and-consultation process, as described in the National Historic Preservation Act. The process involves a fairly complicated legal procedure before a final decision is made. That’s why it comes as something of a surprise to see the Derby post office already listed." (Read more)

The Postal Service has been selling post-office buildings as a way to save money and "downsize its retail network," Save the Post Office reported last June.

Official argues for broad, larger definition of 'rural'

The Department of Agriculture needs a simpler, consistent definition of "rural" for Rural Development programs, writes Doug O'Brien, deputy undersecretary for those programs, writes in the Daily Yonder.

O'Brien, right, notes that Congress suggested in the 2008 Farm Bill that USDA's definitions "deserved a second look," and that a recent article by the University of Kentucky's Aleta Botts in the Yonder and The Rural Blog said one definition might not work best for various Rural Development programs. "such as business development, infrastructure improvements, and community facilities. . . . We take this point, and also recognize that there is a trade-off between tailoring the definition to each program and having over-all consistent definition that is easier for people to understand."

Skeptics of a single definition fear that it will make more communities eligible for Rural Development help, making it harder for smaller communities to compete. Botts said expanding USDA's current system of adding "priority points" to make sure small places aren't shortchanged would actually help larger ones, which could more easily respond to the newly defined priorities.

O'Brien says the evidence shows that the current system of priority points "works well to ensure the largest areas within this category do not dominate," and cites examples. He argues that a new, overall population limit of 50,000 would spur collaboration among rural communities, and says USDA is not seeing a reluctance by larger towns to work with small ones.

"The different definitions cause confusion for our stakeholders and sometimes cause communities to walk away from possible deals because either the definitions cause roadblocks or they are not interested in contorting the different projects in such a way that may meet the letter of the rural definition," O'Brien writes. He says the existence of 12 different definitions "is not necessarily an indication of fine-tailoring but rather reflects over half a century of legislation on rural programs and the different interests in front of Congress at the time the definition was created for a particular program." (Read more)

Illinois oil and gas industry, environmentalists agree on rules for fracking in the state

Environmentalists and the oil industry have come to an agreement on oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing methods in President Obama's home state. "The Illinois model might also offer a template to other states seeking to carve out a middle ground between energy companies that would like free rein and environmental groups that want to ban the practice entirely," Tammy Webber reports for The Associated Press.

Attempts at a statewide fracking moratorium failed last year, and legislators were ready to allow it in Southern Illinois, the state's poorest region, so the Natural Resources Defense Council "wanted to ensure there were significant safeguards, including making drillers liable for water pollution, requiring them to disclose the chemicals used and enabling residents to sue for damages," Webber writes.

Some other environmental groups still oppose the deal because they don't want any fracking at all, and the compromise is "very precarious,"  Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, told Webber. It still needs legislative approval.

Webber writes, "Although Illinois' proposed regulations might not work for every state, the unusual model of cooperation might, depending on the relationship between industry and environmentalists, Denzler said." (Read more)

2 Republican governors struggling to sell Medicaid expansion to party members in their legislatures

Republican governors in Florida and Arizona are having a hard time convincing legislators to accept their proposed expansions of Medicaid under President Obama's health-care law, reports Tom Howell Jr. of the Washington Times.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer
Howell writes that a legislative committee in Florida rejected Gov. Rick Scott's decision, while Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer held a rally with doctors and nurses on Tuesday to try to build support ahead of a showdown with her Republican-dominated Legislature.

"But in embracing an expansion of the federal-state health program for the poor and disabled, Mr. Scott is in the awkward position of taking a more liberal stance than some Republican legislators on health reforms he once lambasted," Howell writes. "Those who have accepted an expansion say the federal funds are too important to pass up, while those who have rejected the money say they fear the strings attached and the long-term costs."

There is no deadline to accept or decline Medicaid expansion, which would give benefits to those in households with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Howell notes, "The federal government will pay for 100 percent of the expansion in 2014-2016 before scaling back its contribution to 90 percent" by 2020.

Teen pregnancy rates are higher in rural areas, but abortion rates are lower

Rural teenagers get pregnant at a much higher rate than those in urban areas, and are more likely to keep the babies to full term, according to recently published studies.

Teen pregnancy rates are nearly one-third higher in rural areas, reports Michelle Healey of USA Today. Julia De Clerque,​​ a research fellow and investigator at the University of North Carolina Sheps Center for Health Services Research, told Healey that availability for birth control in rural areas "lags far behind availability for teens living in urban and metro areas."

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy conducted a study which found that in 2012, 43 out of every 1,000 girls in rural areas became pregnant, while the number was 33 in urban and suburban areas. "For many rural families, teen pregnancy and parenting are cultural norms, repeated generation after generation," Josie Weiss, at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, told Healey.

While rural areas' teen pregnancy rates are higher, their abortion rates are lower, reports the Guttmacher Institute. Using what it says is the most current available data, from 2008, the pro-abortion-rights institute says more than half of teenage pregnancies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut ended in abortion, while in more rural states, such as Kentucky, South Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia, the abortion rate for teenagers was 14 percent or lower. For a PDF of the study, click here.

Wisconsin Assembly passes sweeping mining bill

Bad River Watershed Assn. map: Bad River Indian
Reservation, along lake, is bounded by a brown line.
Ore body is in red; proposed mine site is circled.
Wisconsin is one step closer to allowing the opening of its first open-pit iron mine in a very rural area near Lake Superior, despite environmentalists' objections. The measure passed the state Assembly on Thursday by a party-line vote of 58-39, and Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign it into law early next week, reports Todd Richmond of the LaCrosse Tribune.

"Conservation groups and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa contend the bill eviscerates environmental protections and are considering lawsuits." reports Richmond. "Under the plan, state environmental officials would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Currently, they face no hard deadline. The public couldn't challenge a permit decision until after it has been made."

Richmond writes that Republicans, who recently gained complete control of state government, have "played up the mine as a huge economic engine, saying it would create hundreds of jobs for the impoverished region and thousands more across the state's heavy equipment manufacturing sector. But company officials have refused to move forward until lawmakers eased the regulatory path for them."

UPDATE, March 9: Esquire magazine political writer Charles Pierce says the bill will "defang the state's Department of Natural Resources, provide what is essentially a liability shield for the company [and] overturn over a century of environmental protection laws for the benefit of a single company," Gogebic Taconite, named for the geologic region and the type of iron ore to be mined. (Read more)

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Move for stronger background checks on gun sales snags on question of what to do with the records

"An effort by Democratic senators to get significant Republican support for expanding background checks of gun purchasers has hit snags, in another sign that firearm-control legislation is likely to focus on a handful of narrower measures that enjoy bipartisan support," Kristina Peterson reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"Even background checks for private firearm sales such as those at gun shows, an area thought to be ripe for consensus, are proving slippery," Peterson writes. "Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Charles Schumer of New York, both Democrats, and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois have spent weeks trying to reach a deal with GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, but they couldn't do so in time" for today's meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The impasse is over what to do with records of the checks, Peterson reports: "A Democratic aide said the lawmakers couldn't resolve whether to keep paper records of private gun sales. Democrats say the records would help law enforcement if a gun were used in a crime, while Republicans fear the records could be used to track law-abiding gun owners." Gun-rights advocates have voiced concern that the records could be the beginning of a national gun registry.

A January Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that nearly nine in 10 Americans support requiring background checks for sales at gun shows. Seven in 10 endorsed a federal database to track all firearm sales, 54 percent “strongly.” Among people in gun-owning households, more than half supported each measure. Ed O'Keefe and Sari Horwitz of the Post report that a poll done for Mayors Against Illegal Guns "found similar results in some of the nation’s most conservative states and congressional districts."

The Associated Press reports today that states with the most gun-control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using data from 2007 to 2010. It founds that states with the most laws had a 42 percent lower gun-death rate than states with the least number of laws.

Saturday mail delivery likely to continue through Sept. 30, maybe later

Saturday mail delivery appears likely to continue through Sept. 30, because it is included in a House-passed resolution to keep the government going until then. The House has been less supportive of continuing the requirement for six-day delivery, which the Senate included in a postal reform bill last year.

The bill passed 267-151, with a majority of Republicans supporting it and most Democrats voting against it. Some Democrats opposed the bill because of other spending measures, Tonda Rush, CEO and chief lobbyist for the National Newspaper Association, said in an email to NNA's Postal Committee.

"It is now much more likely, but not certain, that the six-day mail requirement will remain the law through 9/30 and part of the USPS delivery plan through end of the calendar year," Rush wrote. "Two things could happen to change that: enactment of sweeping postal reform legislation that allows USPS to move forward with its plans, or a decision by USPS to flout the law and move forward anyway, which is certain to prompt a lawsuit."

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe wants to save $2 billion a year by limiting Saturday mail delivery to packages, a move he says would save $2 billion a year. USPS lost nearly $16 billion last year.

Foreign-born population increasing in rural areas

More foreign-born people are moving to rural America, reports the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nine states (Alaska, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Kansas, Georgia and Washington) have counties where more than 25 percent of the population is foreign-born, and in some cases more than 50 percent are foreign-born. (Click on images for larger versions)
From 1970 to 2011, an estimated 40 million foreign-born persons lived in the United States, with 2.1 million, or 4.1 percent, settling in rural areas. That boosted many of those areas' low or even negative population growth rate.

More than half of the foreign-born people are from Mexico. Between 1980 and 2010, the Hispanic population in the U.S. (including both foreign- and U.S.-born) increased from 14.6 million to 50.5 million, an increase of 246 percent, compared to 22 percent for the non-Hispanic population.

Since 1990 the growth in the Hispanic population has been especially rapid in non-metro communities, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest, many of which had not previously had large numbers of Spanish-speaking residents. Hispanics accounted for over 25 percent of non-metro population growth during the 1990s.

ERS estimates that well over half of hired crop workers in the U.S. are foreign-born. This graphic from the agency shows states with more than 2,000 certified H-2A visa positions for temporary, immigrant farm workers in fiscal 2011 and the primary crop associated with the positions.

Farmers reaping rewards with online technology

Being tech-savvy is making farming a more efficient and profitable business, reports Chris Doering of the Gannett Co. Washington Bureau.

He cites a report from Float Mobile Learning, a consulting firm that develops mobile strategies and apps for major agricultural organizations and Fortune 500 companies, that last year nearly half of American farmers were using a smartphone.

In addition to surfing the Web to conduct basic searches, such as looking at commodity prices, the Internet has been flooded with new applications to benefit farmers, Doering writes. One program allows farmers to use an iPad to turn on fans from a remote location. Another helps determine how much fertilizer or pesticide should be applied at a specific point in a larger field, preventing farmers from using too little of the application or adding too much and wasting money. (Read more)

Farmer Apps, a Lubbock, Tex., company, was created by a grain merchandiser, who said he felt farmers needed handheld tools to help them make informed decisions when not in the office. The company offers six apps, including a cotton yield calculator, freight estimator, grain bin estimator, live to cut meat estimator, manure pit calculator and a silage comparison tool, it says on its site.

Concealed: Most states keep handgun ownership and permit records confidential

Few states make public the names and addresses of people who hold permits to own handguns or carry concealed deadly weapons, and the number keeps dwindling as legislators face more pressure from the public.

Once new state laws go into effect, only five states — Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — will provide public access to information about concealed carry permits, reports. And North Carolina is expected to pass a bill limiting access to its records. Ohio allows journalists to look at records, but they can not copy or remove the information, Stateline's Jim Malewitz reports.

Some states are citing safety concerns in their pursuit of confidentiality. “Guns, pharmaceuticals and electronics are the primary things burglars are looking for when they rob a house,” William Lamberth, a Republican state representative and former prosecutor who is pushing a bill in Tennessee that would seal personal information about those permitted to carry handguns, told Malewitz. “Once the list is out there, there’s no way to get it back in the bottle.”

Two months ago The Journal News drew national attention and much public criticism for publishing an online map of permit holders in suburban New York City's Westchester and Rockland counties. Since publication of the story, four states have blocked public access to gun records. (Read more)

Mississippi legislators form bipartisan rural caucus

Following the lead of legislators in several other states, lawmakers in the Mississippi legislature have formed a rural caucus. "Some feel they are being left out of the discussion on what passes for more mundane legislation but that actually has a lot more impact on the local level than fights over Medicaid expansion and gun permits," reports Sam Hall of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.

For example, Hall writes, rural legislators failed to dissuade the state Department of Public Safety from closing several of rural driver’s license stations across the state, "replacing many of them with kiosks. . . . This year, a Senate bill would have required one driver’s license station in each county to be manned at least one day per week. The bill died in a House committee, but a separate bill was amended in the House to include similar language. That bill is still set for floor debate.

"But the real issue is likely more than just driver’s license stations and road funds," Hall writes. "As legislative power continues to coalesce in just a few geographic areas, rural lawmakers are seeing their clout diminish." The first meeting of the caucus had 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans, "a fairly good bipartisan mix and a solid number participating," he writes. "But the question is whether or not the growing partisan rancor in the House will trump local political concerns. When the horse trading starts on key issues, you never know what will end up on the table. But 30 lawmakers sticking together for the interest of rural Mississippi? That could bode well for the state." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Some gun lobbies break with NRA to favor stricter background checks

The Washington Post is reporting that a large group of gun makers, dealers and proponents of the Second Amendment are meeting with congressional staff members to voice their support of stricter background checks for private sales, contrary to the stand of the National Rifle Association.

Those in favor of stricter background checks say they have long supported them. Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told the Post, "From the commercial side, we’re already there, and we’ve been there, and we were the ones that have been the strongest proponents of an effective, complete background check."

The Senate Judiciary Committee has schedule a hearing Thursday on Democrats’ gun-control legislation, which includes universal background checks, an assault-weapons ban, new restrictions on gun trafficking, and school-safety measures.

Keeping it real: Fishers fight to stop federal approval of genetically engineered salmon

Fishers in Alaska fear that the introduction of genetically engineered salmon into the marketplace could damage their businesses and have a drastic effect on the quality of the product available to consumers.

AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company with a lab on Prince Edward Island in Canada and growing facilities in Panama, is awaiting a decision from the Food and Drug Administration
on whether it can sell genetically engineered salmon to U.S. consumers.

An FDA study concluded that eating the genetically engineered salmon is as safe as eating conventional Atlantic salmon and found no environmental harm in farming the fish. AquaBounty wants its fish to be labeled as Atlantic salmon. They say the nutritional and biological composition is identical to Atlantic salmon, and therefore doesn’t require additional labeling based on its method of production.

Fishers in Alaska fear that the genetically engineered fish would threaten their livelihood. "The threat may not be immediate, but I think down the line there could be some repercussions," fisherman Kim Hubert told McClatchy Newspapers. "We’ve had a lot of issues with labeling, and the ability (of consumers) to choose and know where the fish come from: what kind of stocks, whether they’re farmed or wild fish."

Lawmakers and lobbies in Western states are fighting the proposal for genetically engineered fish, and at the very least, are asking that labels be required. “We just think it’s really deficient on the food front,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. “What do we really know about allergies? What do we know about nutrition profile? That stuff’s really sketchy in that application that they put in. And we’d like to see a lot more of that, considering you’re going to eat the whole thing.” (McClatchy-Tribune graphic)


Ky. House panel OKs industrial-hemp bill

UPDATE, March 27: The legislature passed a compromise bill that calls for the state to seek a federal waiver for hemp demonstration projects to be conducted public universities. "It is unclear whether the governor might veto the bill," Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

The Republican-pushed bill to regulate industrial hemp in Kentucky, if federal officials allow it to be grown legally, came an important step closer to passage yesterday but appears likely to fall short because of opposition from the legislature's top Democrat -- in an alliance with the senior Republican in the state's congressional delegation.

The House Agriculture Committee approved Senate Bill 50 with only one dissenting vote, but "Speaker Greg Stumbo said it is unlikely to reach the House floor for a vote," Greg Hall reports for The Courier-Journal. Stumbo said a fee provision in the bill, as a revenue measure, must originate in the House.

Stumbo has other reasons to oppose the bill. He is from Eastern Kentucky, and a federally funded anti-drug agency in the region stands to lose funding if a hemp industry drove marijuana production indoors, a largely urban phenomenon that is closer to most of the drug's consumers. The agency, Operation UNITE, was founded by the region's congressman, Republican Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The main proponent of the bill is Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, the only Republican in statewide constitutional office and a possible candidate for governor in 2015. Before Stumbo thre cold water on the bill, Comer said, “It’s going to be very difficult for the House not to let this bill be voted on now, because we’re three-quarters of the way there and the support is overwhelming.” A recent poll showed about two-thirds of Kentuckians favor the legislation. (Read more)

Leading maker of 'pink slime' is all in with libel lawsuit against ABC News

The "pink slime" lawsuit by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News, "which many observers initially wrote off as a public relations ploy by a desperate company, is shaping up as one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history," P.J. Huffstutter and Martha Graybow write in a special report for the Reuters wire service. "The court fight could put modern television journalism on trial and highlight the power of language in the Internet age."

"Pink slime," an expert's nickname for what the industry calls "lean finely textured beef," or LFTB, was popularized by the network, and BPI blames it for a steep decline in company fortunes. "The South Dakota company's revenues have plummeted from more than $650 million to about $130 million a year, and three of its plants are shuttered," Reuters notes.

BPI was the leading manufacturer of the product,which is "exposed to tiny bursts of ammonium hydroxide to kill E. coli and other dangerous contaminants," Reuters reports. "Few Americans realized the product was a mainstay of fast-food burgers, school lunch tacos and homemade meatloaf."

Libel cases are hard to win, but BPI has some arguments: "ABC's lead reporter on the story mischaracterized BPI's product on Twitter; the network failed to clearly describe on-air how the company's beef wound up in the nation's food supply; and ABC did not reveal in an interview with a former BPI employee that he had lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company," Reuters reports. "ABC denies the allegations in the lawsuit and is seeking to have it thrown out."

Huffstutter and Graybow write, "For BPI to prove the defamation piece of its case, it would need to show that the network negligently reported a false statement of fact that injured its reputation. If BPI is deemed by the court to be a public rather than a private figure in the legal sense, it would have a higher bar to cross: The company would need to prove ABC knew the facts it was reporting were false or it recklessly disregarded the truth. . . . ABC never said BPI's product is dangerous, and courts have repeatedly offered broad protections for journalists in the course of their work. But by calling a food product 'slime' 137 times over the span of nearly four weeks on its newscasts, its website and on Twitter, according to BPI's tally, did ABC make the public think LFTB was unsafe?" (Read more)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Data and personal stories bring home the problem and heartbreak of low seat-belt use in rural Va.

Without a seat belt, head hits windshield. (Roanoke Times photo)
Rural areas have long been the most resistant to the use of seat belts, but the story is rarely told completely with a mix of detailed data and personal stories. Jeff Sturgeon, a reporter for The Roanoke Times, used skills he learned at a conference on computer-assisted reporting to detail in a series of stories how nearly half the deaths of unbuckled drivers in Virginia, especially those in rural areas, could have been avoided.

Through research and the use of data and graphs, Sturgeon made a compelling case for seat-belt use. Using personal stories and statistics, he provided readers with a personal glimpse into how failure to use a seat belt has impacted people's lives.

Sturgeon found one of the greatest disparities among drivers of pickup trucks, only 60 percent of whom use seat belts in rural areas. The statewide rate for all drivers is 82 percent. Extrapolating the data, he concluded that of the 1,700 unbuckled drivers who died in Virginia from July 2007 to June 2012, at least 600 could have been lived.

The Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting conference he attended was held by Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, with funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Another was held last year at the University of Kentucky, where the institute is based.

To read a report from Sturgeon on how he wrote the "Make It Click" series, click here.

Measure to keep government running includes retention of six-day mail delivery

UPDATE, March 7: The House passed the bill.

Legislation drafted to keep the federal government running after March 27 includes language requiring the U.S. Postal Service to maintain full Saturday delivery of mail. The House may vote on it Thursday. If passed by Congress, the measure could thwart USPS's effort to end delivery of letters and periodicals in early August. The law requiring six-day delivery is in the continuing budget resolution that expires March 27.

The new continuing resolution was introduced by Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky (photo by David Perry, Lexington Herald-Leader), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose Appalachian district is one of the nation's most rural. The requirement for six-day mail is "is written in such a way that it will be hard to strike by amendment, if amendments are permitted," said Tonda Rush, CEO and chief lobbyist for the National Newspaper Association. "This is a very good sign." The six-day requirement is not explicit in the legislation, but would accomplish it by referring to previously enacted legislation.

A month ago, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced a plan to deliver only packages on Saturdays, a move he said would save the deficit-ridden service $2 billion. Critics have disputed that estimate. "Postal officials have said that they believe they could move forward with their plan even if congressional appropriators did not remove the six-day delivery language," Bernie Becker of The Hill reports, noting that other key Republicans, such as Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, support Donahoe's plan.

"Chairman Issa has said to some in the postal community that he believes USPS can still abide by the six-day delivery mandate by delivering some mail," Rush told The Rural Blog in an email. "The six-day mail mandate requires service at 1982 levels. Many think providing the truncated and much more expensive service is hardly complying with 1982 levels. Besides that, many on Capitol Hill are uncomfortable with the notion that USPS can decide not to follow legislative mandates. The question will be whether Congress can act definitively either way on six-day mail — either to keep it or abolish it. If USPS decides to strike out on its own, failing Congressional action, the question of its authority is likely to be decided not in Congress but in court."

The Saturday-mail issue is tied up in efforts to pass a postal reform bill to put the service closer to the black. The Senate passed a bill last year that guaranteed two more years of Saturday delivery but the House did not act on it. For more from The Hill, click here.

Meat-inspection furloughs won't come for several months, Vilsack tells Congress

After warning that the federal budget sequester would force furloughs of meat inspectors and closure of plants as early as April 1, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee today that all inspectors will keep working for several months because of required notice to the inspectors and their union, Shan Li of the Los Angeles Times reports.

Vilsack said USDA could try to concentrate the furloughs into the final quarter of the fiscal year, July, August and September, by which time the budget impasse could be resolved. "The Obama administration says all 8,400 inspectors might be furloughed for a total of 15 days, Abbott writes. "Vilsack said the total was more likely to be 11 or 12 days. . . . Meat inspectors are guaranteed 30 days' notice of a furlough, said the union that represents them. Inspectors could face a furlough of one day a week but not always the same day."

Bahamas rural journalism: in touch with culture

The Bahamas may only be a warm vacation destination to most Americans, but readers of The Rural Blog not familiar with the islands may be surprised that the country is also thriving with community journalism outlets, particularly on the mostly rural family islands (populated islands other than New Providence, where the capital city Nassau is located).

The Rev. Silbert Mills, a self-taught
weatherman who launched his own
radio station in the 1990s, sits at the
control center/studio/editing room
of the Bahamas Christian Network
television station. The BCN also
broadcasts a religious talk show hosted
by Mills, and he is adamant that its
news segments are straight news.
Mills does the local weather reports.
I just returned from a research trip that included visits with 10 news outlets in the country, half of them on the family islands encircling Nassau to the north — Abaco, Eleuthera, and Grand Bahama.

You can read an overview of my full trip at my blog, Re-Attached Journalism, but I thought Rural Blog readers might be interested in some additional details about community journalism on the family islands.

Many of the family-island newspapers are so small that they do not have their own presses, so they have their newspapers printed in Florida and flown in at great expense. Although getting online is relatively easy even in the less-populated areas, the monthly Eleutheran and the twice-monthly Abaconian remain most popular in print, and despite the high printing costs, both newspapers disappear quickly from the various drop points across both islands.

Newspapers that charge a cover price rely mostly on single-copy sales; it's not unusual to see a newspaper seller walking amid traffic to sell papers directly to motorists. Home-delivery and subscriptions are uncommon.

Starting a media house is relatively simple. The Eleutheran, for example, is a home-based business started in 2008 by V.J. and Elizabeth Bryan; the couple's company, Spice Media Group, also publishes a twice-annual glossy magazine aimed at tourists.

To the west, on Abaco, Silbert Mills is another extraordinary example of a natural community journalist. Frustrated with the lack of weather news for sailors around the Bahamas in the 1990s, he taught himself how to report the weather and built a radio station from scratch to do it -- and Radio Abaco was born. Along the way, he also became a pastor and a few years ago decided to branch out his operation to religious television -- so Mills and his small company built a one-studio radio station next door, and the Bahamas Christian Network was born. Mills uses high-end handheld cameras on tripods, a NewTek Tricaster control system, and a makeshift studio to put together high-quality talk shows, lively religious services, and -- of course -- the weather. (Note: If there is another pilot/harbormaster/weatherman/news-producer/pastor somewhere in the world, please contact the Rural Blog.)

I know that when many journalism scholars and journalism trainers go to The Bahamas, they may see the media system as a mish-mash of small- and mid-sized media operations that are lacking the so-called "high standards" of the dominant news media in developed nations. So what? The rural journalism in The Bahamas is right in tune with the cultures they serve, and they are excited about improving on what, to this one-time visitor, seems like an impressive job already.

Bill Reader, the Institute for Rural Journalism's academic partner at Ohio University, recently completed a fact-finding trip to study the community media in The Bahamas. The rip was made possible with cooperation and financial support from The College of the Bahamas journalism department, the U.S. embassy in Nassau, and the Institute of International Journalism at Ohio's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

Monday, March 04, 2013

A tale of the vanishing, independent country doctor

After years of training to become a doctor, a select and dwindling amount of physicians who are driven by passion and not money settle in rural towns to selflessly care for their neighbors, family and friends as primary care doctors. Jennifer Kahn of Parade magazine profiled Howard McMahan, M.D., practicing in Ocilla, Ga., where he is at the center of fighting host of health challenges: obesity, drug abuse, depression — and he is the only doctor for miles around.

Wydene Tomberlin,79, gets a hug from McMahan after
giving him
an apple. (Parade photo by Melissa Golden)
A country doctor is on call every night, and needs a range of skills that no city doctor would dream of having: Your patients depend on you for everything from putting a cast on a broken bone to performing surgery, reports Kahn. Still, you like the idea of knowing your patients, knowing their families and serving your community.

McMahan's job has gotten harder over the past two decades in the midst of unemployment and economic hardship. Insurance companies have been chipping away at his earnings, and a growing number of his patients are now battling chronic diseases, reports Kahn. Colleagues have chosen an easier route and gone to work for larger medical centers and hospitals. But he likes knowing his patients by name, despite the financial struggles and pressures created by a changing health-care delivery system.

Over the past 15 years, the number of new general practitioners like McMahan has been significantly declining, as medical students drift away from the field in favor of more lucrative and less demanding specialties. By 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges projects, the U.S. will have 45,000 fewer primary-care doctors than it needs, with demand expected to rise as more people gain health coverage from federal health reform.

The scarcity is really felt in rural America, home to nearly 20 percent of the nation's population but just 9 percent of its doctors. Doctors who want time with each patient, to listen intently and compassionately, must make an effort, McMahan acknowledges — especially now that computerized medical records have become so complicated, with dozens of menus that a physician must click through during each visit. Many physicians like McMahan begin their day early and often see their last patient at 7 p.m., reports Kahn. Then, it's time for them finish all of their notes and enter them into the electronic system; the challenges and demands of this type of practice take more of a toll with age.

Vacation is often not an option because as Kahn reports, McMahan is always on call; he last took a vacation seven years ago. "I remember running into one of my former med-school professors, and he asked me, 'Why are you not a surgeon?' " he laughs. "It's tough. For the first five or six years, I kept thinking that maybe I should go back and train to do otolaryngology or some other specialty."

Since starting out, he adds, cutbacks by insurance companies have eaten away at the modest profit margin he once relied on, reports Kahn. "For many family doctors, it's nearly impossible to make a living now," he says. "You have to make enough to pay the light bill, and to pay your employees — while still trying to be compassionate and not overcharge patients," Kahn writes. "That's why so many physicians these days are selling their practices." (Read more)

Touchy records: 'People feel threatened when other people find out if they have guns or not'

Gaston Gazette photo illustration
In 10 of the 12 states that make public the records of permits to carry concealed deadly weapons, legislation has been filed to close them, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In North Carolina, such a bill is expected to pass, but some sheriffs are already refusing to release the records, Bruce Henderson and Cameron Steele of the Charlotte Observer report.

The reporters note the well-publicized case of Cherokee County, which they report has "the state’s highest rate of concealed-handgun permits," almost 7 percent of the population, and report that Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger responded March 1 to the Gaston Gazette's request for gun-permit records by withholding names and addresses of permit holders."

Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin refused the Cherokee Scout's request for permit records and posted his correspondence with the paper on his Facebook page, creating public pressure that made the weekly paper first withdraw its request and then apologize. "Records request elsewhere have drawn similar reactions," the Observer reports.

“People feel threatened when other people find out if they have guns or not,” The Poynter Institute's Andrew Beaujon, who has tracked the controversies, told the Observer. The newspaper got a database of Mecklenburg County premittees from the sheriff, who "reluctantly provided" the records, it reports, adding, "The Observer sought the information to better understand a surge in gun ownership."

The bill to close the records in North Carolina began in Gaston County, where county commissioners called for it and the Gazette asked for the local permit list. The records the sheriff provided Friday "didn’t include the names or addresses of permit holders – only their ages, genders and zip codes," the Observer reports.

FAA prepares to close air-traffic control towers, many serving rural areas

The Federal Aviation Administration has said it might close 100 air-traffic control towers April 1 because of the across-the-board budget cuts required by the "sequester" law that took effect March 1. Most would be at small airports serving rural areas; some are at general-aviation airports.

Airports and their allies say the towers are needed for safety, or even to maintain their scant airline service, but Stephanie McCrrummen of The Washington Post took a flight to Garden City, Kan., and found travelers unconcerned. But a traffic-control manager warned her that pilots, who have more responsibility when there is no tower, can mess up. (Read more)

Obama wants EPA's air chief to head agency, MIT professor who favors fracking to oversee energy

President Obama's nominees for energy secretary and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, being annouin "would play critical roles in Obama's push to address climate change" if confirmed by the Senate, Environment & Energy News reports.

Energy nominee Ernest Moniz, a former undersecretary, is opposed by some environmental groups because he supports the use of fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing for get oil and gas. He runs an energy program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "which draws funding from industry oil and gas heavyweights like BP, Saudi Aramco and Shell," notes Darren Goode of Politico. "Those ties have drawn opposition to Moniz's nomination from some environmental groups, but probably not enough to threaten his confirmation."

Gina McCarthy, head of EPA's air programs, is Obama's pick to head the agency. "While McCarthy has often sparred with Republican lawmakers at hearings, she also brings a bipartisan background, including stints working for past GOP governors like Mitt Romney," Goode notes. However, E & E notes she "oversaw the development of the agency's highest-profile regulations in Obama's first term," aimed at greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants, and opposed by the coal industry. (Read more)

Latest signs of coal getting gassed are in E. Ohio

The growing role of natural gas in American energy, and the declining role of coal, is perhaps exemplified by what is happening in the coal counties of eastern Ohio.

"Stoked by technological advances, the gas boom is transforming the United States and creating winners and losers on a national level and in far-flung small towns," Neela Banerjee writes for the Los Angeles Times. "For more than 200 years, coal has been king in Ohio, occupying a privileged position in state politics and as the fuel of choice for local power plants. Now its supremacy is being challenged. . . . Entire villages in eastern Ohio are leasing their land for gas drilling, and huge energy companies that relied on coal to generate electricity are turning to natural gas." (Times charts)

 "As gas elbows its way into coal country, disputes have started to emerge," Banerjee reports. "Here in some parts of Belmont County, drillers have to bore through shallower coal seams first to get to the gas thousands of feet below ground. Coal companies can derail the drilling if they assert that it impinges on a mine, even one that hasn't been established yet. The Smith-Goshen Landowners Group has leased 35,000 acres for gas drilling, and nearly all of it sits above seams belonging to Murray Energy, the country's largest privately owned coal company.  (Read more)

30% of community-college graduates, mainly men, earn more than average bachelor's-degree holder

Community colleges have loog been a rural route to higher education, but an assosiate's degree can often bring more money than a bachelor's degree. Almost 30 percent of Americans who hold the two-year degrees earn more than the average for those wiith bachelor's degrees, Jon Marcus notes in The Hechinger Report, an education news service published by the Teachers College at Columbia University.

The main reason, Marcus writes, "is high demand for people with so-called 'middle-skills' that often require no more than an associate’s degree, such as lab technicians, teachers in early-childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists."

Marcus reports community-college grads in Virginia and Tennessee make more on average than the states' bacehlor'sdegree holders, but the Georgetown University report that Marcus cites as his source for the national figure figure notes a big difference between men and women: "Men with occupational associate's degrees earn $49,000 annually, while women earn $35,000, compared with $41,000 for men with a high-school diploma and $28,000 for women with a high-school diploma." (Read more)