Friday, May 31, 2013

Local newspaper attacks outside TV station for sourced story on corruption probe, then does its own

UPDATE, Aug. 22: After indictments are issued against the power ful county judge and a county commissioner, the TV station feels vindicated, Corey Hutchins reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

The Mingo County Courthouse
(Photo by Kyle Lovern, Williamson Daily News)
The newspaper in a West Virginia county with a record of corruption has called out a television station for airing a news story about the latest investigation, saying the story was based purely on rumors. Since its editorial aimed at WCHS-TV, the Williamson Daily News has since run its own story on the alleged corruption.

Citing unnamed sources, the Charleston station ran a story May 22 detailing how federal investigators had traveled to Mingo County to investigate local elected officials, including the county's only judge and a county commissioner. Sources said the investigation centered around election violations and other federal crimes.

The newspaper immediately responded with an editorial entitled "Real journalists don't hide behind anonymous sources." While admitting there were rumors of corruption, it said that was all there was, and that no hard facts existed yet. "The job of a journalist is to find out what really happened," the editorial said. "If there is a story to be told about legitimate allegations against any of our county officials, you can be sure you’ll be able to read the facts in our news pages."

The editorial did not name the station, but it gave a glimpse of how the newspaper practices community journalism: "We understand why it’s easy for television media to jump the gun on a potential big story. They don’t live in our community. They won’t see those that they’ve unjustly attacked at the grocery store or at a youth baseball game. It’s easy to hide behind anonymous sources when you are not invested in the community. But we are the local newspaper and we know we have a responsibility. We would never compromise our integrity just to be able to say we 'broke a story.' We want what’s best for our community and right now, what’s best, is not to perpetuate rumors."

On Thursday the Daily News published its own story about the investigation. Kyle Lovern wrote that the paper "has confirmed that federal investigators and members of the West Virginia State Police have recently been to the Mingo County Courthouse." Though, in a strange twist, the paper couldn't get any officials to go on record to confirm the investigation; its prime source was a local citizen who frequents the courthouse and said he had met a supervisory FBI agent there. (Read more)

The Columbia Journalism Review took note of the controversy here.

Rural residents who rely on low-power television could be left in the dark by FCC changes

Agriculture and conservation organizations are asking the Federal Communications Commission to hold a public meeting about a planned incentive auction and subsequent channel re-pack that could leave many rural residents without access to local television programming, reports Andrew Dodson for TV News Check.

Low-power TV stations, which mostly serve small, isolated towns, aren't eligible to participate in the auction, and won't be included in the FCC's database when the re-pack takes place, Dodson reported in an earlier story. Stations would be put in the lower end of the UHF band and given new channel assignments, cutting off television for many rural Americans whose only source of television news and entertainment comes from low-power TV.

The organizations told the FCC, “In rural and mountainous areas, local broadcast television is often the only communications infrastructure that connects our communities. Over-the-air broadcast television often serves as our lifeline — connecting farmers, ranchers and growers to more populated areas. Our members rely heavily on broadcast television for local public affairs programming, news, weather and emergency information." (Read more)

Chinese company opens $2.5 million processing plant for Asian carp at center of their U.S. range

UPDATE, Aug. 30: The plant makes its first shipment to China, The Advance Yeoman, a local weekly, reports.
We've often reported, most recently here, about the massive number of Asian carp wreaking havoc in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers by damaging sports fisheries and endangering boaters and skiers. Federal agencies have spent more than $200 million to stop the carp from getting into the Great Lakes, while states like Kentucky have been considering options such as commercializing the fish for animal feed and human consumption.

Kentucky seems to have found a solution, by way of China. One day after a Chinese company agreed to buy Smithfield Foods in the biggest Chinese takeover of an American firm, a Chinese company is investing $2.5 million in Kentucky by opening the first American processing plant for Asian carp.

The plant is in Wickliffe, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, and at the center of the Asian carp population. (U.S. Geological Survey map) It is expected to create 50 jobs and process up to 10,000 pounds of fish per day, which will be shipped to Southeast Asia, reports Robert Bradfield for WPSD-TV in Paducah.

The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority has given the company preliminary approval for up to $1 million in tax incentives through the Kentucky Business Investment program, reports Bradfield. The Delta Regional Authority also authorized $307,000 for the company. (Read more)

UPDATE, July 27: "Asian carp are popular in China and the Far East, but have not caught on in the U.S.," writes Mary Potter of the West Kentucky Journal. "Part of the problem is confusion with the carp’s cousins, North American carp, that are bottom feeders and not worth eating. Asian carp are vegetarians and are considerably tastier." Some have suggested that the carp be sold as "silverfin."

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau delays redefinition of 'rural'

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is delaying for at least two years its redefinition of "rural counties" that make it easier for banks to write balloon mortgages to farmers and other rural customers, reports Stephen Koff for the The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. In Ohio, 44 counties are typically considered rural, but the CFPB only designated 20 as such. Our item on Koff's original story is here.

During the two-year transition period, the bureau said it "intends to study whether the definitions of 'rural' or 'underserved' should be adjusted and to work with small creditors to transition to other types of products, such as adjustable-rate mortgages,” Koff reports. A state-by-state list of the county designations can be found here.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Warren Buffett buys Roanoke Times from Landmark

Billionaire Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha," continues to invest in newspapers. His BH Media Group is buying The Roanoke Times from Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises, further expanding Buffett's holdings in Virginia. The purchase was the second from Landmark this year; the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary bought the Greensboro News & Record in January.

“Of the people who are buying newspapers now, I think Berkshire is the best home for The Roanoke Times,” Landmark Chairman and CEO Frank Batten Jr. said. “They are a reputable company, and they have good ethical standards. . . . They’re hard-nosed business people like everybody else, but I think they understand the value and the role of newspapers.” For the Times story, by Laurence Hammack, click here.

Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald notes that the Times "will be the 29th daily newspaper owned by BH Media, which also owns 40 newspapers published once, twice or three times a week, plus shoppers, monthly publications and regional magazines and related online publications. . . . Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire, has been assembling a network of small and medium-sized newspapers since he bought The World-Herald in December 2011." Most were bought from Media General Corp. of Richmond, with heavy interests in Virginia and North Carolina. Here's a list.

The deal leaves Landmark, which made billions selling The Weather Channel to NBC Universal, with The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and about 56 community newspapers, overseen from Shelbyville, Ky. It also owns KLAS-TV in Las Vegas.

Tornado-hit town's energy-efficient rebuilding plan catches the eyes of the Clinton Global Initiative

After a tornado last year devastated West Liberty, Ky., the Appalachian town of 3,500 began an initiative called Rebuilding West Liberty, which was designed to not only help re-build the town but to make it more energy-efficient and serve as a model for other towns looking to create sustainability and entrepreneurship.

The initiative has caught the eye of national leaders, and Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley has been invited to attend the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in June as a member of the Residential Energy Efficiency Working Group, reports former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller on his site, The Recovering Politician. (Miller is a Democrat and Conley is a Republican.)

After the tornado killed seven people and destroyed 400 homes, businesses, and government structures, the community began rebuilding with energy-efficient and cost-effective techniques. At the conference Conley will provide insight on "rebuilding roughly half of the 300 residential homes that were lost to the storm," Miller writes. 

The solution West Liberty came up with was to construct "150 affordable, highly energy-efficient factory-built and site-built homes," Miller reports. "The three-year project includes a $27 million investment of equity, grants, debt and operating grants to complete the project in West Liberty and scale innovations piloted for other disaster response efforts and affordable housing projects for factory-built homes across the nation." To visit the Clinton Global Initiative site, click here.

Evangelical group pushes immigration reform

An Christian evangelical group has started a national campaign in support of immigration reform, saying it would respect the God-given rights of every person, protect families, build respect for the law, secure national borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers, and establish a path toward legal citizenship.

In a conference call Thursday, the Evangelical Immigration Table introduced its $250,000 radio ad campaign that will run in 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The group said it has also bought billboards, and will hold 60 events in 20 states. Many of the events will be prayer meetings, calling on people to pray for immigrants and Congress.

"Our broken system is a moral issue," said Russell Moore, President-elect of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "It's been a stain on our country for tool long. Now is the time to come together. We stand with our brothers in Christ for just and fair immigration reform."

Eleven million undocumented workers will be affected by the immigration bill currently being considered in Congress. Lynn Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., said her church saw a need for services for the Spanish speaking community in the area, some of whom are in the country illegally. The experience brought her closer to the reality of the issue, she said.

They talked about "economic hopelessness and despair that drew them to this country," she said. While talking about how hard they worked to make ends meet, she said they described a constant fear of being deported and separated from families, and that many said they wanted to do whatever it took to become "full contributing members of this society."

Dan Krause, lead pastor of Chugach Covenant Church in Anchorage, Alaska, said, "God reminds his people to treat immigrants with justice and compassion, because the Hebrew people were immigrants too. Our job as Christians and Christian leaders is to love those who are here in Jesus's name." A recording of the conference call is here. The ads are here.

Tennessee-walking-horse groups divided over soring issue response; some leaders back new restrictions

The president of what has been the leading Tennessee walking horse group says the industry needs to clean up its image and win back public support in the wake of allegations of soring, the use of chemicals and physical abuse to induce the high step for which the breed is known, reports Duane Gang for The Tennessean. But a competing group disagrees. (Tennessean photo: The 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship)

Tracy Boyd, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, said in a statement, “I believe our modern-day padded show horses are cleaner than they’ve ever been. The problem is that nobody outside our industry believes it. And when you’ve lost the public you have lost it all ... and we have clearly lost the public.”

It is illegal under federal law to transport or show a sored horse. Last year the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video of a well-known West Tennessee trainer beating and overseeing the soring of horses, and he was sentenced to jail.

Boyd posted the statement on the group's website after its board declined to adopt a recommendation from the association’s executive committee to support a ban the use of “action” devices such as weights and chains and strengthen the federal Horse Protection Act.

“It is clear to me that our past has finally caught up with us, and the image currently conveyed by our performance horse is no longer accepted in 2013,” Boyd wrote. “TWHBEA has lost members in droves, and the brutal emails I have received tell me why. It is our reputation. It is soring. It is our image.”

"Terry Dotson, interim chairman of the Performance Show Horse Association, said the testing of horses was thorough and that soring was isolated," Gang reports, quoting him: “While we understand Mr. Boyd’s frustration, the elimination of the weighted shoe, performance package and action devices won’t do anything to eliminate soring as even Mr. Boyd points out, the pads and action devices do not harm the horse. But his endorsement is unfortunate, as the legislation would punish the vast majority of those who are doing the right thing.” (Read more)

Veterans in remote areas get care via telemedicine

Many veterans who have limited mobility and live in rural areas far from a doctor or hospital are getting the medical attention they need through telemedicine, in which medical information is exchanged electronically, allowing patients and doctors to interact, sometimes thousands of miles apart, reports Quil Lawrence for NPR. (NPR photo by David Gilkey: Octavia Wilson does telemedicine in Wales, Alaska.)

The program saves time, money and need for travel, Lawrence reports. For example, a doctor in Anchorage was able to show a patient's skin lesion to a dermatologist in Seattle, who ordered an immediate biopsy. The patient turned out to have melanoma, and within three weeks had surgery and it was fully excised. Without telemedicine, the procedure would have taken much longer, would have cost much more, and would have probably resulted in a plane trip.

"The VA estimates it has saved more than 800,000 miles of travel that patients didn't have to make since the program was set up," reports Lawrence. And it makes it easier for patients, such as one in a remote area of Alaska, who has a machine at home that takes his blood pressure every day and can beam the information directly to the VA. (Read more)

Judge sides with Patriot Coal, says bankrupt company can cut benefits of workers and retirees

Photo from WDTV, Clarksburg, West Vriginia
More than 23,000 coal miners and their families will lose all their health care benefits under a Wednesday ruling by a U.S. bankruptcy judge in the case of Patriot Coal. The company had asked the court to void its contract with the United Mine Workers of America, allowing Patriot to cut employee and retiree health care benefits, a move the company said would help it reorganize its finances.

The ruling allows Patriot to void collective bargaining agreements with the union, terminate benefits for certain retirees and implement terms of its most recent proposals to the union, reports Greta Weiderman for the St. Louis Business Journal: "Patriot’s most recent offer to the UMWA includes a 35 percent equity stake in the reorganized coal company, profit sharing contributions up to a maximum of $300 million, and future proceeds from litigation and royalty payments going to a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association Trust."

The UMWA plans to appeal the decision, reports Paul Nyden for The Charleston Gazette. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said, "As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful."

Bennett Hatfield, president and chief executive officer of Patriot, said the company will continue operating under current UMWA contracts in the immediate future, reports Nyden. Patriot could stop paying retiree health care benefits as early as July 1, but Hatfield said, "We continue to believe that a consensual resolution is the best possible outcome for all parties." (Read more)

Changes in health care affecting remote areas in Alaska; some seek medical care in other states

Health care reform could have the biggest impact in places like western Alaska, where limited medical personnel cover large areas, and many towns are only accessible by plane or boat. Cutbacks are causing headaches for medical professionals, as well as citizens, in a state where health care costs are often higher than anywhere else. Providing proper care has become a major issue, and is forcing medical personnel to make tough decisions, and forcing some residents to seek health care in other states.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is struggling with proposed changes that might seem routine in other areas, but are less than routine in the vast areas of western Alaska, reports Kirk Johnson for The New York Times. The corporation covers a population of 28,000, mostly Native Americans, but the region is spread out over an area the size of Oregon.

Doing something as simple as installing electronic medical records, which is part of the federal health care overhaul, is a difficult task, because computers in the facilities are run by generators, and the area often has brownouts and fuel shortages, reports Johnson.

A patient arrives at Bethel airport. (Jim Wilson/NYT)
Another problem is trying to find ways to cut costs in issues such as whether or not a situation justifies air transport, when reaching the person by plane is the only option, reports Johnson. None of the areas covered by the corporation has a doctor in residence, so decisions such as air travel are made based on information given over the phone from someone with no medical experience. Even if a flight is approved, flight paramedics have to deal with whiteouts and sub-freezing temperatures. (Read more)

One way Alaska is trying to combat the rising costs of health care is by proposing travel incentives for state employees who undergo medical treatments in cheaper markets outside Alaska, reports Pat Fogey for Alaska Dispatch. Becky Hutberg, commissioner for the state Department of Administration, said that because costs are often cheaper outside the state, "paying for a travel benefit the state can reduce costs for some procedures by sending those for whom it provides care outside for the operations." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chinese meatpacker in line to buy Smithfield

"Chinese meat producer Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. agreed to acquire Smithfield Foods Inc. for about $4.7 billion, striking what would be the largest takeover of a U.S. company by a Chinese buyer — should it get past what is likely to be heavy regulatory scrutiny," Dana Cimilluca reports for The Wall Street Journal.

There may be other bidders than the Chinese firm, which is also known as Shineway. Smithfield Chairman Joseph Luter told Cimilluca, "Lots of people love us. I'll leave it at that."

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 16,000 of Smithfield's 46,000 workers, many of them rural, said it favored the deal because it would leave current management and collective-bargaining agreements in place.

Cimilluca notes, "There is no guarantee that political concerns, fears surrounding Chinese food safety or other factors won't scuttle the deal before it is consummated. The companies said they would submit the deal voluntarily for review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States." (Read more)

The deal comes after a large Smithfield shareholder, Continental Grain Co., had urged the company to split itself up, notes Meghan Grebner of Brownfield.

Election in far northwestern county could have a big impact on coal, as port decision looms

A county council election in Washington state could hold a big piece of the future of U.S. coal in its hands, reports Coral Davenport for the National Journal. Officials of Whatcom County, at the northwestern tip of the 48 contiguous states, are in position to decide whether to allow a proposed $600 million port in Bellingham, left, which if constructed, would ship 48 million tons of coal per year from Wyoming and Montana to Asia -- enough to power between 15 to 20 coal-fired power plants. (City of Bellingham photo: Boulevard Park and harbor)

The move could give the coal industry a huge economic boost, but the proposal, which has been heavily criticized by residents and Native American tribes. When the publisher of The Rural Blog visited Bellingham last summer, no fewer than three different types of yard signs, apparently from different groups, opposed the port for a variety of community and environmental reasons.

The Whatcom County Council will vote on two permits that need to be passed for the port to begin construction, reports Davenport. What makes it even more difficult for voters is that the council is designated as a "semi-judicial" body, meaning members can't disclose publicly how they will vote on the issue.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 57 Native American groups in the region, say they don't want the coal transported through their homes, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, said  “We view the energy export issue facing the Pacific Northwest not as a question of ‘jobs versus the environment,’ as it is popularly described, but as a clear choice about our Northwest quality of life and the health of our salmon, upon which our lives and so many of our local jobs depend.”

There is also fear about tourism and the quality of life for local residents, opines Shannon Wright for the Bellingham Herald. Currently 10 to 12 trains travel by the waterfront at Boulevard Park each day, but the proposal would add another 18 trains per day. Additional trains would lead to closing the only vehicle entrance, as well as closing a trail for bicycles, runners, and pedestrians, she writes. Also, a second train track will be built to be used for trains to idle which would also affect the quality of the area. (Read more)

Read more here:

Missouri senator takes issue with President Obama's request for money to make electric co-ops greener

President Obama's $4 billion fiscal 2014 request for rural electric cooperatives is designed to push the co-ops, which get about three-fourths of their electricity from the burning of coal, into using cleaner energy. It calls for $1 billion for upgrading fossil-fuel plants with environmentally friendly equipment and $3 billion for green energy projects. That's a big mistake that will hurt the poorest rural Americans the most, says Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Blunt, left, said he hopes the allocation is a “one-time mistake and [the co-ops] will survive and try to provide energy at the level they can provide it and people can afford,” reports reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.  Blunt said there isn't a high enough demand for bio-energy, especially in rural areas where "the last people to get the energy-efficient refrigerator, the last person to get insulation in the ceiling – they’re the ones affected the most." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available here.

Foundation in rural Michigan county goes beyond making grants, to community leadership

As federal support continues to decline for programs that nourish young people in rural areas, one community in Michigan has created its own way for residents, especially youth, to flourish by raising millions of dollars to be put back into the community. The Barry Community Foundation provides resources for the rural county located smack dab between Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Lansing, the cities where most Barry County residents work, reports Max Rose for the Daily Yonder.

The foundation "has about 200 funds that made up more than $18 million in assets in 2011," reports Rose. And some of the funds come from grants written by high-school students on the foundation's Youth Advisory Council. Those students, in turn, teach elementary students how to write grants. The group's office is in an converted church, and makes some money by renting space to non-profit groups.

The foundation helps to better the community in such ways as proposing a better location for the new library, left, and raising money to build it, Rose reports, and is involved in community awareness. When few people ran for local office, they worked to create job descriptions for each of the elected positions to generate more interest.

Community foundations can be most useful in rural areas, which are less likely to have businesses and individuals that engage in philanthropy, and can be a trusted vehicle for residents or expatriates to leave bequests. In Barry's foundation is "an example of how a foundation’s role extends beyond grantmaking to becoming a community convener, capacity builder and policy advocate," Rose writes. Perhaps ironically, Barry County includes one of approximately 10 U.S. communities named Podunk, a name that entertainer George M. Cohan popularized as a monicker for a rural town.

Wisconsin program gives first responders hazard information from farms; continued funding in doubt

Wisconsin farmers have teamed up with researchers and firefighters to create an online pilot program that maps farm hazards, a move that will provide first responders immediate information of any stored chemicals and other hazards at the scene, reports M.L. Johnson for The Associated Press. Maps will also show where to disconnect power, and provide areas for potential sources of water.

Firefighters look at a tablet with a digital map
showing hazards on a farm near Pittsvile, Wis.

National Farm Medicine Center photo
Pittsville Fire Chief Jerry Minor told Johnson, "We don't have a lot of incidents on farms. But when we do, they pose a real high threat to rescue personnel because of unfamiliarity with farms and all the hazards that are present."

Although similar programs exist in states such as Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the project's future is up in the air, after President Obama's proposed budget eliminated money for the National Farm Medicine Center, which runs the program for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lack of bank account could keep 1 in 4 qualified Americans from getting subsidized health insurance

UPDATE, October 2013: The federal government is allowing premiums to be paid with prepaid debit cards.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. graphic
(Click on image for larger version)
A new study says that if corrective action isn't taken, health-insurance companies could exclude 27 percent of qualifying Americans now eligible for premium-assistance tax credits under the health-reform law because they plan to require customers to pay premiums automatically through a bank account.

Denying coverage to the more than 8 million "unbanked" Americans will undermine efforts to expand health coverage and equalize access to health care, says the report from tax service firm Jackson Hewitt.

Another 20 percent are "underbanked," meaning they have accounts but prefer to use payday loans and other non-bank financial services. One in five households use check-cashing stores and money lenders instead of a traditional bank, says the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Most health plans accept a credit card for the first month’s premium payment and thereafter require monthly payment from a checking account. Federal officials are wary of taking action that might discourage insurance companies from participating in the state insurance exchanges, Varnet heard from current and former state health officers who have pressed the Department of Health and Human Services for a ruling.

“I think there is a dawning awareness that this is a large problem,” Brian Haile told Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News. Haile is senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt and has called on federal official to set a uniform standard requiring all insurers to accept all forms of payment. Alternative forms include credit cards or pre-paid debit cards that people without bank accounts often use.

While health insurance companies are evaluating these options, no law requires them to accept all forms of payment, notes Varney. “I’ve not seen any specific guidance that says you have to be able to accept these types of payments,” Ray Smithberger, Cigna’s general manager of individual and family plans, told Sarah Kliff of The Washington Post.

Insurance carriers take a risk by accepting credit cards and pre-paid debit cards because transaction fees can run as high as 4 percent and pre-paid cards are popular among low-wage workers, Haile told Varney. “If you accept re-loadable debit cards, are you in fact getting folks with lower health status?” he said. “That’s a real risk when you’re in the insurance business. So you can’t be the only one picking up those risks.”

The Jackson Hewitt report calls for immediate action by federal policy makers to ensure insurers cannot discriminate against the 'unbanked' through their payment acceptance policies by creating a system-wide rule requiring all forms of payment must be accepted. "Given the dilemma presented to insurance companies by the strong financial incentives to discourage non-bank payment mechanisms, insurers are unlikely to resolve this issue without federal action," the report says.

Journalism groups ask members to tell their senators they favor a federal shield law

The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio-Television-Digital News Association and probably other journalism groups are mounting an effort to get Congress to pass a federal shield law, creating a limited reporter's privilege to keep sources confidential, as most states have. They are asking their members to contact senators, because the legislation has passed the House but stalled in the Senate. President Obama revived the issue in reaction to outrage from journalists about the Justice Department's search of telephone records of staffers of The Associated Press.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, does not lobby, but we encourage journalists to make their views known to their elected representatives if they feel comfortable doing so. That's not lobbying, it's looking our for our professional interests, which should have a substantial overlap with the public interest. If you are uncomfortable with direct contact, perhaps you should write an editorial or column. The sites above have plenty of useful information on the issue.

The story at the drive-in isn't only in the movie

Summer is pretty much here in most of the nation, and the drive-in theaters have opened. But only 357 of them are left in the U.S., according to, which has state-by-state data and a searchable database. That all adds up to a good feature story if you're a journalist with a drive-in nearby. And you might enjoy the movie more than you expect; at many theaters, the old squawk-box speakers have been replaced with high-quality audio via your FM radio.

We tip our hat to, which has a nice slide show of 12 drive-ins, including the Corral (Getty Images photo) in Guymon, Okla., which has been one of the few to reopen in recent years. Others include a theater that claims to be the largest in the world, one with six screens, the one with the largest screen in the U.S., and the oldest one in the country, in Orefield, Pa.

Groundwater is being depleted in most areas of the U.S., not just in the High Plains

Aquifers consisting of underground drinking water in the High Plains states have continued to decline in recent years, with some areas in Texas and Kansas suffering significantly. But a U.S. Geological Survey study released Thursday says the problem is nationwide, and that 40 aquifers have been seriously depleted, reports the Environmental News Service.

From 1900 to 2008, the average rate of depletion per year was 9.2 cubic kilometers, but from 2000 to 2008, the study period, the average rate was 25 cubic kilometers per year. Total groundwater depletion during the 20th Century was 800 cubic kilometers. From 2001 to 2008, the total increased 25 percent, to 1,000 km3. To read the full report click here. (USGS map)

Millions of rural poor could lose out on health insurance benefits if states don't expand Medicaid

Poor people in the U.S., many of them rural, will be hit hardest in states that refuse to expand Medicaid, leaving millions of people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance, reports Robert Pear of The New York Times. More than half of the country's uninsured people live in states that are not expected to expand Medicaid, including Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, where "many people below the poverty line will be unable to get tax credits, Medicaid or other help with health insurance."

About 25 million people will get insurance under the new law, according to the Congressional Budget Office, reports Pear. But the Urban Institute estimates "that 5.7 million uninsured adults with incomes below the poverty level could also gain coverage except that they live in states that are not expanding Medicaid."

Regardless of what a state does on Medicaid expansion, people who "are currently eligible but not enrolled may sign up for Medicaid, even in states that do not expand the program," reports Pear. Most Americans will be required to have health insurance by January, or be subject to tax penalties. (Read more) As of Friday, 26 governors have said they will expand Medicaid:

As floods loom larger, flood-map money gets smaller

The frequency and severity of floods appear to be increasing, and so is demand for updated flood maps, but funds for such mapping have been cut severely, from $222 million in 2009 to $100 million in 2013, and President Obama has proposed only $84 million for 2014, reports Theodoric Meyer for Pro Publica. (Photo from Federal Emergency Management Agency: FEMA Public Assistance Coordinator Jim Russell, left, and Day County,  South Dakota, Highway Supervisor Chuck Fromelt flood damage in 2011.)

FEMA said budget cuts will leave more homeowners relying on maps that are not current. Maps in areas such as Vermont, which was hit hard by a hurricane in 2011, are decades out of date, reports Meyer. Suzanne Jiwani, a floodplain mapping engineer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told Meyer, "It is disconcerting to have counties and areas where people still have maps from the 1970s."

Maps were in the process of being updated in New York and New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit, reports Meyer. "Congress authorized the government to spend $400 million a year for the next five years to update flood maps," but after appropriations wrangles and the sequester, only $95 million was left. Larry Larson, of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, Wis., said it would require about $400 million a year for 10 years to get all the mapping done. (Read more)

Rural health journalism workshop June 14 is not only free, it offers financial assistance for travel

Here's a good deal for rural journalists interested in health coverage (and if you're not interested, you probably should be): A free, one-day workshop, with the possibility of financial assistance for your travel. The offer is being made by the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the workshop will be in Birmingham on Friday, June 14.

The program includes sessions on how health-care reform will affect rural health-care providers and patients, other challenges facing rural hospitals, the future of rural seniors, and the scourge of obesity and diabetes in rural areas.

To register, simply join AHCJ. Breakfast and lunch will be provided at the event. Travel assistance, including lodging, is available for those who need it. More information on registration and travel assistance can be found here.

Undercover animal-rights activists spur, and mostly successfully resist, efforts to pass 'ag-gag' laws

Lawmakers in several states have already passed or shot down "ag-gag" laws, and the issue is on the upcoming agenda in a handful of other states. The main area of concern is undercover videotaping of livestock. Critics say the bills make it more difficult to expose animal abuse. Advocates say the bills protect the rights of livestock owners and meat processors.

An abused pig was photographed at Country View Family
in Fannettsburg, Pa. (Photo by Mercy for Animals)
One thing the bills have done is spotlight a new breed of investigative citizen journalists who are being credited with bringing to light abuses by farmers and meatpackers. These undercover animal-rights activists gets jobs at factory-style farms or processing plants, secretly videotape incidents of abuse, then releasing video to news organizations, advocacy groups or straight to the Internet.

"Since the Internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, [animal-rights] groups have waged guerrilla war via undercover video," Pete Kotz reports for Westworld, a weekly newspaper in Denver. "Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes. Today, the guerrillas are winning."

As a result, major corporations like Costco, McDonald's, Kroger, and Safeway have stopped purchasing from businesses exposed of cruelty, Kotz reports. And livestock owners have responded by pushing lawmakers to pass "ag-gag" laws. (Read more)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam recently vetoed an "ag-gag" bill, and a similar bill was pulled from consideration in California. A Utah woman was arrested earlier this year for filming a slaughterhouse from a public street, but charges were later dropped. For state-by-state coverage of passed, or proposed "ag-gag" bills visit here.