Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rural, Pentecostal minister writes in his column about Pope Francis: 'Amen, brother. Preach it.'

Associated Press photo
Pope Francis's call for inclusiveness and less attention to "small-minded rules" in the Roman Catholic Church has struck a chord with a Pentecostal minister in rural Kentucky who writes a religion column for the Lexington Herald-Leader, for which he was once the religion reporter.

"It appears he wants to help shift the church's focus — away from rules and judgment, toward mercy and love," Paul Prather writes today, quoting the pope's "nicely worded analogy" to the Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."

Paul Prather
"Amen, brother. Preach it. Then preach it again. Then preach it some more," Prather writes. "As a minister and a newspaper columnist, I've been trying to hammer home the same lesson for years, with no discernable effect. Fortunately, Francis is in a mightier position to get the job done. He's at least a million times more influential than I am, thank God."

Prather concludes, "He appears to notice we live on a planet where people are spiritually damaged, physically hungry and dying of incurable diseases. He seems to say, let's reach out instead of running them off. Let's love people as they are, not for who we might prefer them to be. Let's feed them if they're starving and bind their wounds if they're bleeding. If we disagree with some of their beliefs or actions, we'll fret about that later — after we've first become true friends to them.

"Thank you, Pope Francis. It's not just Catholics who need to heed your message. It's Christians everywhere." Prather has more to say; you can read his columns here.

Read more here:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rural hospital in southwest Va., caught in vise of reimbursement cuts and static Medicaid, is closing

Lee Regional Medical Center in Pennington Gap, Va., a town of 1,800, is closing Tuesday "because of reimbursement cuts associated with Obamacare, extremely low community use of the hospital and a lack of consistent physician coverage," Hank Hayes reported for the Kingsport Times-News in East Tennessee. The 70-bed hospital receives more than 60 percent of its payments from federal and state programs. Virginia, which has a Republican governor who is leaving office at year's end, is leaning towards not expanding Medicaid under federal health reform. (Read more)

Beth O'Connor, executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association, writes in the Daily Yonder that had Medicaid been expanded, the hospital could have stayed open. "Unlike a business, a hospital has to accept anyone and everyone who walks through the emergency room door, regardless of whether or not they are able to pay for the services they receive. If you are hungry and go to a grocery, but are unable to pay – you will not get food. If you are homeless and go to an apartment complex, but are unable to pay – you will not get a unit. But if you show up in a hospital emergency department and are unable to pay, that facility is required by federal law to see you anyway. And in small, rural hospitals the percentage of people who are unable to pay is much higher than in urban areas. For Lee Regional Medical Center that number is 12 percent; uninsured rates at other rural facilities range from 10 percent to 20 percent. Do you know of a business that could stay open if 20 percent of their customers did not pay the bill?"

Hospitals like Lee that have a disproportionate share of Medicare and Medicaid patients have been getting a 1 percent bonus on their reimbursements, but the reform law repeals that at the end of the year. The logic was that as Medicaid expanded and more people were treated, such hospitals would make up the loss on volume, but the U.S. Supreme Court said states could refuse to expand Medicaid without risking their overall Medicaid funding. Wellmont Health System, which owns the hospital, cited the problem as well as "the additional two percent cut in Medicare reimbursements enacted because of the federal sequester," Hayes reported.

"Medicaid expansion was written into the Affordable Care Act to decrease the number of uninsured people hospitals have to treat. Yet Virginia hasn’t kept up its end of the deal," O'Connor writes. "In its grave will lay jobs. Lee Regional Medical Center supports 190 full-time equivalent positions.  These are not low-paying, entry level jobs. These are doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, therapists. In its grave will lay the local economy. The hospital, which is the fourth largest employer in the county, pumped $11.5 million in labor costs into the local economy every year. At almost 24 percent, Lee County already has the highest poverty rate of any county in the state. Where will that go from here?"

Lee County is at the far western tip of Virginia. Its residents will have to travel more than 20 miles to the nearest hospital, and more than 40 miles to the nearest advanced hospital, in Kingsport. "People who have to travel out of their community for service will undoubtedly take their money with them. Dollars spent on gas, food, entertainment and lodging will be stripped out of Pennington Gap, crippling their already fragile tax base." (Read more)

Some school officials fret about N.C. law allowing concealed handguns in vehicles on school property

Next week it will be legal for people to keep guns in their vehicles in school parking lots throughout North Carolina. A state law allowing anyone with a concealed-handgun permit to have a handgun in a locked compartment in a vehicle on educational property goes into effect on Oct. 1. State House Bill 937 was signed into law in late July by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Almost 40 percent of the state's population is rural, well above the national figure of 16 percent.

Photo illustration by the Daily Record
The new law has some law enforcement and school officials concerned, reports the Daily Record in Hickory, in the Appalachian foothills about 45 miles northwest of Charlotte. Walter Hart, superintendent of Hickory Public Schools, told the Record, "The potential for quick access to firearms on school campuses by anyone other than trained law enforcement officials raises concerns." And there's nothing schools can do to prevent licensed gun owners from leaving a firearm in their vehicle.

Crystal Davis, board attorney for Catawba County Schools, told the Record, “The school districts do not have the legal power to counteract the bill through personnel policies. Local school boards do not have the authority to adopt policies or maintain current policies prohibiting a person (employee or not) from bringing a firearm onto campus if the person is in compliance with House Bill 937." (Read more)

Slow-moving-vehicle emblem is 50 years old

Fifty years ago Ohio State University Extension designed a logo that has become synonymous with safety on rural American roads. The slow-moving-vehicle emblem, that now-familiar orange triangle warning drivers to the rear, was created in 1963 after a 10-year study by OSU's Department of Agricultural Engineering  and the Ohio State Highway Patrol to understand the nature and causes of highway tractor collisions, according to information from the college. Research found that a number of fatalities were related to highway travel of slow moving vehicles, and 65 percent involved slow-moving vehicles being rear-ended. (Read more) (University of Missouri Extension photo by Emily Kaiser)

The original design was created by engineers and students, Dave Russell reports for Brownfield. Dee Jepsen, state safety lead for OSU Extension, told Russell, "They had circles and squares and triangles and hexagons, but it turns out, as we all know, the answer it’s now a triangle," which was determined by putting various shapes on campus and measuring the recognition levels and distances of walking students.

"The big changes that have occurred to that symbol over the years is the technology in the reflective material and the fluorescent," Jepsen said. "Because we know fluorescent is good by daytime driving, that’s really all you need to catch your eye and the red reflective border then is what you see at night, which makes that hollow symbol standout when the headlights hit it." For the story and a 3:40 audio clip, click here. For tips on proper use of the symbol, go here.

High levels of arsenic found in wells near Barnett Shale fracking sites; more research said needed

"A study by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater near natural gas fracking sites in Texas' Barnett Shale," Theodoric Meyer reports for ProPublica. Brian Fontenot, the paper’s lead author, told Meyer, "We found that there were actually quite a few examples of elevated constituents, such as heavy metals, the main players being arsenic, selenium and strontium. And we found each of those metals at levels that are above EPA's maximum contaminate limit for drinking water." Map: The Barnett Shale region covers 13 counties in Texas, including Dallas and Tarrant (Fort Worth).

While the heavy metals can occur naturally in groundwater in the region, Fontenot told Meyer that the levels they found were unusual and not natural. "These really high levels differ from what the groundwater used to be like before fracking came in. And when you look at the location of the natural gas wells, you find that any time you have water wells that exceed the maximum contaminate limit for any of these heavy metals, they are within about three kilometers of a natural gas well," Fontenot said. "We also found a few samples that had measurable levels of methanol and ethanol. So for us to be able to actually randomly take a grab sample and detect detectable methanol and ethanol -- that implies that there may be a continuous source of this."

Despite the findings, Fontenot said the research was inconclusive. He told Meyer, "We noticed that when you're closer to a well, you're more likely to have a problem, and that today's samples have problems, while yesterday's samples before the fracking showed up did not. So we think that the strongest argument we can say is that this needs more research." (Read more)

Here's stuff for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 6-12

Community newspapers are the lifeline to the heart of a community, reporting about everything from local news and sports to announcements to every small thing in the community that matters most to the people who live and work there. If you grew up in a small community, there's a good chance your name, and sometimes your photo, made it onto the pages of the paper, and you cut it out for safekeeping. To celebrate the importance of newspapers, especially those that serve small communities, Oct. 6-12 is National Newspaper Week. (Cartoon by Charlie Daniel, Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Now in its 73rd year, the event observes the importance of newspapers to communities large and small, according to the National Newspaper Association. This year's theme is “Your Community, Your Newspaper, Your Life." The site has a series of editorial columns about the importance of newspapers, along with editorial cartoons, crossword puzzles, and ads, which newspapers are encouraged to run in celebration of the week. To read more or to view the materials, click here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Editor, former publisher of rural newspapers wins Ky. award for service through community journalism

John Nelson, who started out in rural weekly newspapers, now edits two dailies and two weeklies and has always been an advocate for good journalism and open government, is the winner of the 2013 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

John Nelson
Nelson, 61, is executive editor of Danville-based Advocate Communications, a subsidiary of Schurz Communications of South Bend, Ind., which publishes The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, The Winchester Sun, The Jessamine Journal and The Interior Journal of Stanford. Before joining the Danville newspaper as an editor, Nelson was editor and co-publisher of Pulaski Week, which was an award-winning weekly paper in Somerset. He began his career at the Citizen Voice and Times in Estill County.

The Al Smith Award is presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, part of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications and publisher of The Rural Blog. It is named for its  first recipient, a national SPJ Fellow who co-founded the Institute and is chairman emeritus of its national advisory board.

As president of the Kentucky Press Association in 2004, Nelson oversaw the state’s first open-records audit and spearheaded a lawsuit to open juvenile courts. “John has always been about public service through community journalism,” KPA Executive Director David Thompson said.

Smith said, “John Nelson has ‘done it all’ in the newspaper business – country editor, daily editor, exemplary crusader for ethics and transparency in government and business, including journalism, passionately committed to his community, and inspiration to his family and friends. He is one of the few editors who ever made a speech so moving that I wrote for a printed copy,” when Nelson joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame this year.

“In an era of troubling transition for the news business and vexing conflicts in government, business and education, the strength of this country is in the character of its citizens who do the next right thing in the everyday challenges of life at the grass roots. John Nelson has been an enduring voice for Americans who do honest work, teach their kids to treat others as they want to be treated, respect education, and try to make the world a better place. He is a hero of community journalism.”

The Smith Award will be presented at a dinner in Frankfort Nov. 16. For more on it and Nelson, click here.

Has your local jail become a mental asylum?

"America's lockups are its new asylums," Gary Fields and Erica Phillips report for The Wall Street Journal. "After scores of state mental institutions were closed beginning in the 1970s, few alternatives materialized. Many of the afflicted wound up on the streets, where, untreated, they became more vulnerable to joblessness, drug abuse and crime."

The reporters quote Esteban Gonzalez, president of the American Jail Association, a lobby for jail employees: "In every city and state I have visited, the jails have become the de facto mental institutions." Of the 22 states that responded in detail to the reporters' survey, which as a whole have most of the nation's prisoners, "their mental-health patient ratios ranged from one in 10 inmates to one in two," the ratio reported in Oregon and Iowa.

"Some facilities have attempted to cope by hiring psychiatric staff and retraining prison officers," the Journal reports. "Few, however, claim to be adequately equipped to handle some of the nation's most mentally frail. A seeming revolving door compounds the problem: Upon their release, the mentally ill tend to find scant resources and often quickly fall back into the system, says Mr. Gonzalez." And that phenomenon is probably more prevalent in rural areas, which typically are short of mental-health resources.

The situation is a return to the times of a century or more ago, when knowledge of mental illness was rudimentary at best and the mentally ill often would up behind bars. State-run mental institutions were developed, but gave way to community-based treatment. "The weaknesses of that concept—a lack of facilities, barriers created by privacy laws and tightened local and state funding—has brought the picture full circle," the Journal reports.

Retired Marine from Montana walks 3,000 miles across the country to honor fallen soldiers

In a great example of capturing rural life, Vince Devlin has a story in the Missoulian about a Montana man who spent more than five months walking from Washington state to Washington D.C. to honor a high school friend who died in Vietnam in 1968. Chuck Lewis, a 62-year-old retired Marine from Ronan, walked "through blizzards, lightning storms, howling winds, pounding rain and sweltering heat...pushing a baby stroller in front of him filled with gear and supplies, and decorated with American and military flags," to get to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to see the name of his friend, and others who died in the conflict.

While making the journey across the country, Lewis found that American pride still exists, especially in rural areas, where dozens of people offered him a place to stay for the night, or gave him donations for a fund called, which tracked his progress throughout his journey. Many people also gave him items to leave at the wall for their fallen friends and family members. (Missoulian photo by Michael Gallacher)

Lewis told Devlin, "there are parts of Montana as well as North Dakota and Washington, where there are long stretches that you can look down the road for 10 miles, and see where you’ll be in three hours." The pinnacle of his trip, he said, came in Indiana, Devlin writes. Lewis told him, “A gentleman who’d seen a newspaper article about me came out to greet me, and told me, ‘I want you to know, you’re a true American,’ That really resonated with me, in the way I view myself. My mom was born in Spain. Technically, I’m 50 percent Hispanic, but I never check those boxes when I fill out forms that ask. I don’t believe in hyphenations. There’s a time for cultural diversity, but not at the expense of dividing our country. I’ve always felt if everyone saw themselves as American first, our country would be stronger.” (Read more)

Watch out for specious claims and defenses of Obamacare in highly politicized debate

The biggest story in the country is about to be Tuesday's opening of online health-insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, under the federal health reform law. "Obamacare" has been politicized from the start, and the current debate has featured several specious claims that journalists should be on the lookout for as they report, edit, present and choose commentary (including letters to the editor and person-on-the-street interviews) on the subject.

"There’s plenty of fodder for fact-checkers in Sen. Ted Cruz’s looong attack on Obamacare, and in President Obama’s defense of it," says, the oldest of the nonpartisan political fact-checking services. It says the Texas Republican falsely claimed that spouses of United Parcel Service employees will be “left without health insurance” and forced into “an exchange with no employer subsidy.” UPS is dropping coverage only for who can get insurance with their own employer.

Conversely, "Obama greatly exaggerated when he credited the health care law for bending the cost curve on health care spending," FactCheck says. "Experts say the down economy is the overwhelming reason that national health care spending has been growing at historically slow rates in recent years."

FactCheck also took on Cruz ally Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for saying “everybody is going to pay more” for health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "The fact is, some will pay more and some will pay less," the service says. "Some currently uninsured Americans will pay little or nothing because of the law’s expansion of Medicaid."

As usual, FactCheck has a detailed accounting for its analyses, with plenty of references, here.

Partisan divide opens in Kentucky on legality of industrial hemp crops; Republicans favor them

Last week Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said he expects farmers to be able to grow legal hemp crops next year, but state Attorney General Jack Conway said Wednesday "that the crop is still illegal, and farmers who grow it could be prosecuted," Gregory Hall reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. Conway issued a written statement saying anyone who intentionally grows the crop “will expose themselves to potential criminal liability and the possible seizure of property."

James Comer
Comer’s office responded by "suggesting that neither the federal or state government would charge growers," Hall writes. A Comer spokeswoman told him, "The law is that industrial hemp is legal in Kentucky. If the feds aren’t going to prosecute industrial hemp, surely the attorney general of Kentucky isn’t going to move forward with prosecuting hemp farmers." But Gov. Steve Beshear said through a spokeswoman that he agreed with Conway, a fellow Democrat. Comer is a Republican, and he and Conway are aiming for the 2015 governor's race, when Beshear can't run again.

"Comer, an advocate for hemp, and the Kentucky [Industrial] Hemp Commission, which Comer revived last year to suggest hemp policy, contend the U.S. Justice Department’s recent stance easing enforcement of marijuana laws along with the state’s new hemp law, means the plant can be grown legally in the state," Hall writes. "But Kentucky State Police officials don’t agree, and asked for an opinion from Conway, who sided with the state police. Conway says proponents need a waiver from the federal government or a change in federal law to produce hemp. A spokeswoman for Comer said Wednesday that hemp proponents will proceed to develop regulations on growing the plant despite the opinion, which is advisory and does not have the force of law."

Jack Conway
In April, Beshear allowed to become law without his signature a bill to allow limited farming of industrial hemp if the federal government grants the state a waiver.  "The Justice Department issued its new marijuana guidelines in August, pulling back from decades of federal drug enforcement efforts to eradicate the plant," Hall writes. "The new guidelines allow states to permit the growing, selling and using of marijuana so long as states protect children and prevent it from entering the black market." Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul have supported the hemp law. (Read more)

UPDATE, Sept. 27: Conway clarified his position, telling The Sentinel-News of Shelbyville that he is for legalized industrial hemp, and “All I’m trying to say is be careful. I’m not sure why all the hype from the Ag office is going to Defcom 5.” (Presumably, he meant Defcon, or "defense condition," in which war is 1, not 5.) Reporter Todd Martin writes, “Conway said it was too hypothetical to know if he would prosecute in a case like this but added, 'I think I’d have higher priorities than that.'” (Read more)

Nevada sets up college funds for rural kindergarteners

Fifty dollars is all it will take to get 3,000 kindergarten students in 13 rural Nevada communities on the right path to a college education. The state has initiated the Nevada College Kick Start Program, which will deposit $50 into a student's account through grants, private donations and management fees that banks and other financial institutions pay the state, rather than from taxpayers, Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post.

Only 22.1 percent of Nevada residents have a bachelor's degree, well below the national average of 28.1 percent, and in some rural counties the number is at low as 13 percent, Wilson writes. State Treasurer Kate Marshall told Wilson, “If you give a child a college savings account, even 10 bucks, it doesn’t matter, the child tends to have a view that they have a future. The whole idea is, how do we facilitate a college-bound culture?”

The George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis "found that children who have college savings accounts are almost seven times more likely to attend college than children without an account. Having a savings account, the study found, was a better predictor of whether a child would attend college than race or parents’ net worth," Wilson writes. "Marshall’s plan would provide up to $300 in matching funds for families that make less than $75,000 a year and put money into a college savings account. She said several of the firms that offer savings accounts to students have agreed to drop their enrollment fees to as low as $15. And those accounts will generate quarterly statements that allow Marshall to continue to communicate with parents on the importance of saving for college." (Read more)

The program has parents, teachers, and even students excited about the future, Bonnie Matton writes for the Mason Valley News, located in Yerington, a town with 3,000 residents in the eastern part of the state. Dayton Elementary School kindergarten teacher Bridget Thompson told Matton “It is so great to see parents thinking about their child’s education past high school in the first weeks of kindergarten. It seems like kids are 5 one day, and the next day they are looking at colleges. My kindergarteners were very excited to tell me, ‘I’m going to college!’” (Read more)

Fewer than half of college students who took SAT are academically prepared for higher education

Are students in your area prepared for the challenges of a higher education? According to the College Board, the answer is probably no. Only 43 percent of students who took the SATs in 2013 received a total score of 1550 or higher out of 2400, Adrienne Lu reports for Stateline. "According to the College Board, students who score at least 1550 are likely to earn a grade point average of B- or above in the first year of college." Still, the low number is consistent with numbers over the past five years. State-by-state data for 2013 SAT scores are available by clicking here.

"Bob Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which is critical of standardized tests including the SATs, said that average SAT scores have dropped by 20 points since 2006, when the exam began to include a writing section," Lu writes. "He also said gaps between racial groups have widened since that time." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

FCC chair says agency will act to help AM radio

Mignon Clyburn
Federal Communications Commission acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn told attendees at the opening of the Radio Show in Orlando last week that the commission will open a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about AM radio, Leslie Stimson reports for Radio World. If the rule is adopted the FCC would be "opening a one-time application window for AM owners to file for an FM translator to fill in their service area, and relaxing AM daytime rules and modifying rules for antennas and directional antennas as well as relaxing nighttime community coverage standards."

The FCC also proposed to eliminate the so-called "ratchet" rule, which Clyburn said was supposed to reduce nighttime interference but really has had the opposite effect, and the agency would allow wider implementation of modulation-dependent carrier level, an energy saving method, Stimson reports. Ajit Pai, the lone Republican on the FCC, who has been crusading to save AM for some time, thanked Clyburn for taking the first step in responding to the voices AM broadcasters and listeners from across the country who have asked the FCC to take action. (Read more) A full transcript of Clyburn's speech can be viewed by clicking here.

Regardless of what Congress decides, some states are already cutting food stamp program

While Congress struggles to come up with a new Farm bBill, with the House and Senate proposing drastically different cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, "Some states are already embracing deep cuts to the food stamp program similar to those passed by House Republicans in Washington, ending the food subsidy for tens of thousands of low-income Americans regardless of what Congress does," Jake Grovum reports for Stateline. The House voted last week to cut $39 billion over 10 years from the program, while the Senate bill would cut less than $4 billion over 10 years.

States with large rural and minority populations lead the way in having the greatest share of residents on food stamps, with Mississippi at 22.5 percent (Washington, D.C., leads overall at 24 percent). New Mexico is at 21.6 percent, followed by Tennessee and Oregon at 21.3 percent, Kentucky and Louisiana at 20.2, Georgia at 20.1, Alabama at 19.1 and Florida at 19 percent.

Six states — Delaware, Kansas, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming — have already reduced SNAP funding, or soon will, Grovum writes. Kansas "is the latest to embrace the cuts, ending a federal waiver on Oct. 1 that allows unemployed, non-elderly and able-bodied adults without children to remain on food stamps despite failing to meet certain work requirements. The change is expected to affect 20,000 Kansans" out of the 304,000 in the program, Wisconsin, which has 835,312 people on food stamps, will let a similar waiver expire in July 2014, and Oklahoma, which has 614,947, will also let its waiver end at the end of this month; in those states, "71,000 and 47,000 people, respectively, received benefits through the waiver in 2011, the latest year for which data is available," Grovum notes.

"The waivers, part of the 1996 welfare reform, were designed to give states flexibility in times of high unemployment," Grovum writes. "It suspends a requirement that limits benefits to three months unless recipients work 20 hours a week or spend a certain amount of time on work-related activities, such as job training. Until this year, 45 states took advantage of the waiver during the recession, and two that did not – Vermont and New Hampshire – weren’t eligible for statewide coverage, which is based on unemployment and job market data. Delaware and Utah chose not to request a waiver, while Wyoming wasn’t eligible." (Read more)

North Carolina returning federal grants to study impact of fracking on streams and wetlands

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is returning a pair of federal grants totaling more than $581,000 to study streams and wetlands that could be harmed by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and wetlands monitoring, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. Under new leadership appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who took office in January along with a newly GOP-controlled legislature, the department now says it doesn’t want the grants.

"Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder said the fracking study will be done, but not now and not by the unit that applied for the grant," Henderson writes. "The Program Development Unit, which housed experts in aquatic ecosystems, is being disbanded in a reorganization of the division." Reeder told Henderson that without this data, the state won't be in compliance with its own law on fracking. He said management efficiencies, including eliminating about 70 jobs, will save the division $4 million a year and cover the cost of a fracking study.

Read more here:

"The unit is being dismantled as the former Division of Water Quality is absorbed by the Division of Water Resources, a move mandated by state legislators who complained that environmental regulations kill jobs," Henderson writes. "The environment department under the McCrory administration declares it will no longer be a 'bureaucratic obstacle of resistance.' The Program Development Unit was funded mostly by EPA grants totaling about $10 million over the past two decades. The money has been used to plug updated science into regulatory programs, train local regulators and monitor stream and wetland health. Among its controversial roles was in confirming that so-called intermittent streams, which flow in winter but dry up in summer, harbor aquatic life. That resulted in requirements that damage to those streams had to be compensated." (Read more)

Read more here:

Postal Service board files for emergency rate hike; not good news for rural, weekly newspapers

The Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service has voted to seek an emergency rate increase, blaming Congress for failure to act on postal reform that would cut the service's red ink. If approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission, the cost of a first-class stamp would go to 49 cents on Jan. 26, from the current 46 cents. The additional-ounce charge would be 21 cents, up from 20. Postcards would go up a penny, to 34 cents. Newspapers' rates would go up 5.9 percent.

In a letter addressed to postal customers, Board Chairman Mickey Barnett said, “If these financial challenges were alleviated by the timely enactment of laws that close a $20 billion budget gap, the Postal Service would reconsider its pricing strategy. We are encouraged by the recent introduction of comprehensive postal reform legislation in Congress, and despite an uncertain legislative process, we are hopeful that legislation can be enacted this year.” While Congress sets the rules for USPS, no tax money supports the service.

Postal-rate increases are normally limited to the rate of inflation, but the Postal Service is allowed to seek larger increased in special circumstances that have made it lose money. "The service recorded a $15.9 billion net loss last fiscal year and expects to record a loss of roughly $6 billion in the current fiscal year, and has an intolerably low level of available liquidity even after defaulting on its obligation to make prefunding payments for retiree health benefits," it said in a news release.

The increase in newspaper mailing rates will hurt rural, weekly newspapers, which circulate primarily by mail. National Newspaper Association President Robert Williams said his lobbying group understands the service’s problems with Congress, but said a rate hike would actually worsens its problems. “We are doing our best to get Congress to understand that the Postal Service desperately needs help from Congress to address its cost structure, particularly in wrestling with the high cost of health care, as we all must,” Williams said. “Congress must make it possible for the Postmaster General to seek a more affordable path for retirees by realistically using the Medicare benefits that USPS is already paying for. We would hope Congress will see that this rate increase is going to simply make it tougher for all businesses and consumers to stay in the mail.” (Read more)

Webinar will focus on HIV/AIDS in rural America

The Rural Assistance Center and the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Federal Office of Rural Health Policy are hosting a webinar Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. (EDT) on "HIV in Rural America." Featured speakers will focus on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Ryan White Program, including  opportunities for people living with HIV/AIDS, research findings on HIV/AIDS in rural America, and HIV/AIDS prevention. A limited number of seats are available. For more information, or to register, click here.

Course at MIT will focus on how to cover energy and climate issues; apply by Oct. 11

The Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering a three-day boot camp on helping journalists cover energy and climate issues. During the camp, "first-rank thinkers on energy and climate will talk about how we got where we are, what the essential issues are, and how they might be addressed in a difficult political climate," according to a release from the program. Ten to 12 journalists will be selected to participate in the course on campus in Cambridge from Dec. 16 to 18. The deadline to apply is Oct. 11.

"We’ll explore topics from the latest solar power research such as the artificial leaf and wearable solar panels, to understanding the mechanics of climate models," the program says on its website. "We’ll explore the facts and fictions of climate change. We’ll explore the intersection of science and politics, and discuss the question of whether leaders have begun to turn their backs on science and progress in challenging political times." Participants will be reimbursed up to $750 for travel expenses. Most meals will be provided. For more information and an application click here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cash-strapped USPS paying futurist $1.6 million to consult on the future of the business

The cash-strapped United States Postal Service has been pushing to limit Saturday mail to parcels, which would eliminate the jobs of many rural carriers and arguably hurt rural areas. And today it is asking its Board of Governors to approve an emergency rate increase. But at the same time, USPS is paying futurist Faith Popcorn $1.6 million to see what the future holds for the business, Sean Reilly reports for the Federal Times.

Faith Popcorn
The service is paying Popcorn's BrainReserve $566,000 "to devise strategies both to slow the 'predictable decline' in stamp use and to 'reinvent and re-imagine' stamp relevance to promote growth," Reilly reports. "While sales of the adhesive-backed paper squares and rectangles have been steadily waning as Americans turn to the Internet to pay bills and stay in touch, they still garner $8 billion annually for the Postal Service, the company says."

USPS spokeswoman Toni DeLancey told Reilly that the stamp project is one of five "task orders" that BrainReserve has so far received. Another project "is an almost $1.1 million endeavor to explore the possibility of using letter carriers to provide paid home visitation services to the elderly and ill," Reilly writes. "Those services could include a daily personal visit and regular checks to make sure that customers are using medical devices or taking prescribed medications, according to the company statement of work for that task order." Popcorn is billing the Postal Service at an hourly rate of $836. Labor fees for other staff involved in the project range from $91 to $334 per hour. (Read more) To view the task orders click here.

Clothing factories are coming back in U.S., but jobs are still hard to come by due to mechanization

Textile plants, which migrated overseas in the 1990s to save money, have begun returning to the U.S., and their output in this country has been steadily climbing, Stephanie Clifford reports for The New York Times. "In 2012, textile and apparel exports were $22.7 billion, up 37 percent from just three years earlier. While the size of operations remain behind those of overseas powers like China, the fact that these industries are thriving again after almost being left for dead is indicative of a broader reassessment by American companies about manufacturing in the United States." And about 15 percent of American companies that manufacture overseas have already decided to move some production to the U.S., and 33 percent are considering the move.

Americans love buying products made in America. A Times survey conducted in January "found that 68 percent of respondents preferred products made in the United States, even if they cost more, and 63 percent believed they were of higher quality," Clifford writes. "Retailers from Walmart to Abercrombie & Fitch are starting to respond to those sentiments, creating sections for American-made items and sourcing goods domestically. But as manufacturers find that American-made products are not only appealing but affordable, they are also finding the business landscape has changed. Two decades of overseas production has decimated factories here. Between 2000 and 2011, on average, 17 manufacturers closed up shop every day across the country, according to research from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation."

"Now, companies that want to make things here often have trouble finding qualified workers for specialized jobs and American-made components for their products," Clifford writes. "And politicians’ promises that American manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated — yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process." (Read more)

Publisher of Ga. weeklies takes helm of National Newspaper Assn., gives a good journalism pep talk

Robert Williams
Community newspapers are the only true mass medium in thousands of markets nationwide, newly elected National Newspaper Association president Robert Williams Jr. said as he took office at the end of the group's 127th convention Sept. 15 in Phoenix. "Be an advocate for community newspapers. Be an advocate for NNA," Williams said. "Newspapers are notorious for being slow to publicize ourselves. Now is the time, however, for us to pull together, to unite for the good of our industry. . . . We are a mirror of our communities, but you can't see a reflection in the dark. Newspapers have to provide the light. It is hard for a community to rise above the quality and commitment of its local newspaper. Good newspapers build strong communities."

Williams is publisher of SouthFire Newspaper Group, which owns six weekly newspapers in Georgia, including The Blackshear Times, whose motto is “Liked by many, cussed by some, read by them all.” He reflected that sentiment during his speech, saying "Thank you for being veterans in the war against secrecy and lies and greed. It takes little courage to write about a stranger among thousands or millions in a metropolitan city, but it takes tremendous dignity, daring and fortitude to write about the woman who sits in the next pew with you at church … or the man who sits across from you at Rotary. You do it week after week with sensitivity and caring and fairness and accuracy. Thank you for that."

He also spoke about changes in the newspaper business, many of them brought on by advances in technology. "Community newspapers are embracing the use of digital media as one more tool in an effective arsenal for information that reaches more people in the markets we serve than anyone else," Williams said. "And social media?? We were 'social media' before social media was cool," publishing social notes from far-flung and isolated rural communities.

"Newspapers are successful because of journalism!" Williams declared. "Every newspaper depends on good business management and great ad sales, but none of it would ever happen without good journalism." He said readers are smart enough to know when a paper only cares about its financial needs. "I cannot tell you an exact date, but I can tell you a benchmark when the public’s view of newspapers’ began to change. ... It was when newspapering quit being a profession and became an investment. Newspapers have become profitable businesses and have lasted to become the oldest business in most communities, not because we are such great business minds ... not because we make so many friends — we don’t." For the text of Williams's speech, click here.

New federal rule could prevent companies like Sinclair from gaining hegemony over TV stations

UPDATE, Sept. 27: The Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1, along party lines, to start changing the rule. The Republican congressman who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the FCC, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, objected, saying "This amounts to regulatory purgatory for broadcasters between now and whenever the FCC produces a rule" at the end of the process. "Though the rule as currently proposed would not affect current pending TV deals, it would stop any further consolidation dead in its tracks," Katy Bachman of AdWeek reports.

Sinclair Broadcast Group has been buying up mostly small-market television stations at a rapid rate in the last 30 months, more than doubling its station count from 58 to 108, and it could own 149 stations when pending deals are complete, Roger Yu reports for USA Today. "But Sinclair's singularly torrid pace of growth has fueled debate about enduring questions on concentration of media ownership and fresh attempts by federal regulators to scale back broadcasters' ambitions." It's not the first time Sinclair has made news. The company has been criticized in the past for airing biased election specials targeting Democratic presidential candidates, and there is fear that if one company owns all the stations in a market, they will control the news content of every show. (Associated Press photo by Steve Ruark)

"Under current FCC rules, the reach of a broadcaster's TV stations may not exceed 39 percent of U.S. households," Yu writes. "But broadcasters have been allowed to count UHF stations as having only 50 percent of the reach of VHF stations. UHF signals didn't cover as much ground when stations were still broadcasting in analog signals. The prevalence of digital signals now makes the UHF-VHF distinction largely moot, and the FCC has plans to eliminate the UHF discount. If the discount is eliminated, Sinclair's total U.S. household reach — if counting all 149 stations — will jump overnight to about 38.2 perecnt, bringing it awfully close to that 39 percent limit. With the discount, Sinclair's reach would be about 22 percent."

If the UHF discount goes away, as is widely expected, Sinclair may turn to an old industry maneuver to find other ways to continue to mushroom, Yu writes. "The FCC prohibits the owner of a station that is among the top four in local viewership to buy another top-four station in the same market. Broadcasters have relied on 'shared services agreements' or 'local marketing agreements' to get around the restrictions. In such arrangements, a broadcaster buying a station can recruit or create a separate corporate entity to own the station. In return for a fee, the broadcaster then provides a range of services for the station owner, ranging from merely selling ads and negotiating retransmission fees to assuming editorial operations. Cable companies and media critics say the practice has been abused by broadcasters in pursuit of industry consolidation. They argue that shared service agreements erode stations' independence and programming quality because one company controls multiple voices." (Read more)

Monday, September 23, 2013

More workers on disability, especially in rural areas

The growing number of people going from full-time work to disability pay continues to grow, especially in rural areas, where the closing of factories and mills has left many unemployed and with no other option but to take government benefits, partly because they lack the education needed for jobs that don't involve physical labor. Michael Fletcher reports for The Washington Post that the number of former workers in the U.S. receiving benefits has soared "from just over 5 million to 8.8 million between 2000 and 2012. An additional 2.1 million dependent children and spouses also receive benefits. Federal officials project that the program will exhaust its trust fund by 2016 — 20 years before the trust fund that supports Social Security’s old-age benefits is projected to run dry." (Post graphic from federal data)

Maine, which has the largest percentage of rural population of any state, has been hit hard by the loss of jobs, especially in Penobscot County, an area with 153,000 residents, where well-paying jobs once provided an economic foothold for generations of blue-collar workers. It has "become a place where an unusually large share of the unemployed are seeking economic shelter on federal disability rolls," Fletcher writes. The number of people receiving Social Security disability in the county rose from 2000-2012 "from 4,475 to 7,955 — or nearly one in 12 of the county’s adults between the ages of 18 and 64, according to Social Security statistics."

"In 2004, nearly one in five male high school dropouts between ages 55 and 64 were in the disability program, according to a paper by economists David Autor and Mark Duggan," Fletcher writes "That rate was more than double that of high school graduates of the same age in the program and more than five times higher than the 3.7 percent of college graduates of that age who collect disability." John Dorrer, an economist and former acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, told Fletcher, “The Social Security disability program has become an economic option for many people. As a result of the economic downturn, a whole lot of unskilled males 50 and over were bounced out of the labor force.” (Read more)

In Dec., 2011 it was reported that disability benefit rates were 80 percent higher in rural areas, especially in Appalachia, the deep South and the Ozarks. The national average of adults receiving benefits was 4.6 percent, but in rural areas, that rate was 7.6 percent. There has also been reports of disability judges being too generous with funds, specifically one judge who served in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia that approved payments in all 729 of his decisions in the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year.

Studies find shale-gas wells leak less methane than expected, but wells aren't the whole story

A study by the University of Texas "found that leaks from shale-gas fracking appear to be quite low — which implies that swapping out coal for shale gas is indeed beneficial from a climate perspective," as long as gas producers are careful, Brad Plumer writes for The Washington Post. "As natural gas gets extracted from the ground and processed and transported, some of it can leak out into the atmosphere as methane. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, trapping more than 20 times as much heat as carbon-dioxide over a 100-year period,"  (World Resources Institute graphic)

"On the one hand, burning natural gas for electricity emits just half the carbon dioxide that you get from burning coal. But if the methane 'leakage rate' from all that natural-gas infrastructure gets above 3.2 percent, one recent study found, then natural gas starts to lose its climate advantage," Plumer writes. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated the leakage rate at around 1.5 percent in 2013, but other studies have estimated the rates to be higher. (EPA graph of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.)

But now, a peer-reviewed study by the University of Texas, which took direct measurements of 489 shale-gas wells recently drilled in the U.S., found that "the methane leakage rates from these wells were fairly low — lower, in fact, than the EPA's estimates," Plumer writes. "The EPA had estimated that about 1.2 million tons of methane were probably seeping out of these wells. But the researchers found that only around 957,000 tons of methane were coming out." While that seems like good news for natural gas, the study only looked at natural gas production, which accounts for about half the methane leaks from natural gas in 2011. The study was financed by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine oil and gas firms. (EPA chart: Sources of greenhouse gas emissions in U.S.)

"There's also a lot of methane that seeps out when that natural gas gets processed and moved across the country in pipelines. That's why the Environmental Defense Fund is financing 16 different studies to get a complete look at America's natural-gas infrastructure. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel in its own right. It may lead to fewer global-warming emissions than coal, but it still produces emissions." (Read more)

Rural Ohio school districts look to cash in on Chinese students seeking American education

As many as 200 Chinese students could attend classes in southeastern Ohio high schools in the next school year under a plan that would pay local districts $10,000 in tuition per school year per student by the students’ families in China, and Ohio families hosting the students would be paid $400 to $500 a month, Mary Beth Lane reports for the The Columbus Dispatch. "The plan would distribute the 11th and 12th graders from China among public high schools in districts across Pike, Scioto, Jackson and Ross counties" in the southern part of the state, where the districts are generally among the poorest in the state.

Neil Leist, superintendent of one school district that has 900 students and receives about $7,300 per student per year in combined state and local aid, told Lane, “That would be a pretty good shot in the arm” for the southeastern Ohio economy, long troubled and recently hurt by layoffs in coal and manufacturing.

"William Brustein, vice provost for global strategies and international affairs, said the phenomenal growth in China’s professional middle and upper classes, plus the limit of one child per family, have led parents to send their children to the United States for college undergraduate and advanced degrees, especially in engineering and business," Lane writes. "The parents believe that sending their children to high school in the United States, where they can perfect their English and learn the culture while also polishing creative and critical-thinking skills, gives them a competitive edge for U.S. college admission over Chinese students who attended high school in China." (Read more)

Smallest town with a gay-rights ordinance getting big donations to revitalize struggling economy

Vicco, Ky., an Appalachian village of 334 people in the southeastern part of the state, is reaping the rewards of being in the national spotlight for becoming the nation's smallest town to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was featured in August on the popular Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report," with an appearance bu openly gay mayor Johnny Cummings. Now, the cash-strapped fading coal town is receiving even more unexpected good news, in the form of cash donations, with pledges and grant applications amounting to more than $200,000, Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. The town's annual budget is $300,000. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Pablo Alcala: Cummings at a Kentucky Fairness Alliance rally)

"A mother and son in California pledged to buy all the new playground equipment for a city park, a project that could reach $90,000, Cummings said," Schreiner writes. "The town is applying for an $80,000 grant from a private, out-of-state company that encouraged the application, he said. A company representative reached out to town leaders after hearing about the ordinance, Cummings said. The money would be used to rehab buildings and the sidewalks in the downtown area."

Other projects include "cleaning up the weed- and trash-infested banks along the North Fork of the Kentucky River, which flows through town," Schreiner writes. "The mayor wants to build a walking path and fishing piers along the river. Now, people have to fish off a bridge as traffic goes by. He hopes to renovate downtown storefronts and put in new sidewalks. A more modest update will be a new downtown bench, paid for with a $1,000 donation from another Californian. The town may even become the setting for a reality-based television show. Cummings said he expects to review a contract proposal soon from a production company, but doesn't know which network might be interested." (Read more)

Read more here:

Iowa 'Outhouse lady' gives lessons in rural history, including the bygone times of the shack out back

Teresa Minard, a retired elementary schoolteacher from Clarinda, Iowa, a 5,600 population town in the southwestern corner of the state, has spent the past decade giving lectures on a growing array of everyday rural history, including the somewhat forgotten realm of outhouses, Kyle Munson reports for the Des Moines Register. "She said that Iowans under age 50 typically 'have no clue' about outhouse culture before indoor plumbing finally reached nearly every corner of rural America in the 1950s." (Register photo by Bill Neibergall: Outhouse races at the Iowa State Fair)

Minard told Munson, “If you lived in rural Iowa or rural anywhere else, that was the only way of life in the early part of the (20th) century and before that. That’s all there was, the little house out back.” She said audiences "like to reminisce, but they don’t want to go back to that era.” But she' so much more than the Outhouse Lady, Munson writes. "Her true specialty seems to be taking stock of the artifacts of everyday rural life to create a community forum for the rich (and often forgotten) social history that they represent." Her other programs include “Aprons on a Clothesline,” “Grandma’s Old Chicken House, Papa’s Produce,” dairy farm history, feed sacks as fabric, vintage pillow cases, and many other subjects. (Read more)

Ky. conference to focus on beginning farmers

A new conference is aimed at helping beginning farmers. The Kentucky Beginning Farmer Conference, scheduled for Oct. 5 in Frankfort, will offer information on topics like land access, legal issues, grants and loans, retail versus wholesale, proper record keeping and a "meet the buyers" panel, Aimee Nelson writes for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

UK agricultural economist Lee Meyer, told Nelson, “The conference will be a great opportunity for beginning farmers to network with experienced farmers and others just getting started. Presenters will be farmers, legal professionals, grant and loan experts and business owners who buy from Kentucky farmers. The farmers who attend will be able to gather a lot of new information and ideas that will help them expand their business.”

Registration will begin at 7 a.m., with the conference running from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Registration is $15 and includes a light breakfast and lunch. For more information or to register for the conference, click here.