Thursday, January 01, 2015

Postal plant closures to resume, further slowing mail; rural newspapers worry about impact

Mail delivery is likely to get even slower soon as the U.S. Postal Service goes through with its plans to close dozens of regional mail-sorting centers, and that worried publishers of rural weekly newspapers that rely on the USPS not just for delivering papers, but also bills to subscribers and advertisers.

"The Postal Service plans to close 82 mail processing centers nationwide next year, starting on Jan. 10," Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post. "USPS officials have said the consolidation plan will help the financially struggling agency save money and adjust to dwindling demand for first-class mail, one of its core services. But critics say the program will slow down delivery times and harm the agency’s brand. In October, the USPS inspector general released a report saying the Postal Service was leaving communities in the dark about the impacts of the changes. Auditors found incomplete impact studies for all of the 95 mail-processing facilities that are due to absorb operations from other centers. The Postal Service said it could not complete the statutorily required analyses because it had not yet finalized its new processing guidelines."

USPS has consolidated 350 processing plants since 2006 and has closed 143 in the last three years, Hicks reports, citing the service's annual report to Congress. "The next phase of consolidation will increase delivery times and eliminate overnight delivery for 'a large portion of First-Class Mail and periodicals,' according to the inspector general’s report."

Newspaper interests reached strongly to the news. The postmaster general "is mailing everyone in rural America a lump of coal this holiday season," wrote Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association., said in an email to members of the National Newspaper Association's Postal Committee.

"It appears we will be on our own in rural America in figuring out how to provide timely delivery of our newspapers – but then we have been dealing with that problem for some time. It will now get even worse," wrote Reed Anfinson, publisher of Minnesota's Swift County Monitor News and recent past president of the NNA.

In NNA's monthly newspaper, PubAux, a story headlined "Rural service declines as USPS builds urban strategy," Postal Committee Chairman Max Heath writes, "A second major problem is the “brain drain” within the U.S. Postal Service, as veterans with knowledge of mail acceptance and rules, especially Periodicals, a complex class, retire and people move up with much less knowledge and experience. Thirdly, there is a decline in customer service as postmasters and clerks with whom mailers, especially newspapers, have had a long-standing relationship, retire or move on. All too often, people are afraid to make a customer-friendly decision that they lack the experience to make, and their supervisors higher up are often equally untrained." Heath's column offers examples.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reliable trend data on police shootings doesn't exist, but rural areas are part of the phenomenon

A recent rash of reports about shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, including some in rural areas, "feels like a national tidal wave," Allen Breed reports for The Associated Press. "And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media."

The FBI keeps data on police homicides, but relies on reporting by local law-enforcement agencies, and doesn't require information about race, age and circumstances, Breed notes in a story that focuses on the 2011 shooting by the only police officer in Eutawville, S.C., population 300 (Wikipedia map). Richard Combs had been charged with official misconduct for shooting Bernard Bailey, "who had come to the town hall to argue about a ticket his daughter had received," Breed reports.

Combs’ attorney, John O'Leary said prosecutor David Pascoe was taking advantage of national concerns to escalate the case, but the indictment was handed up the same day that a New York City grand jury declined to indict white officers in the videotaped choking death of African American Eric Garner, and "A letter dated Nov. 26, 2013, indicates O’Leary was informed of the prosecution’s intent to seek an indictment for murder," reported Richard Walker of the Orangeburg Times and Democrat.

Two other white police officers in South Carolina have been indicted in the last four months for killing unarmed black men, AP's Jeffrey Collins and Bruce Smith report.

Jenny Jarvie of the Los Angeles Times took a close look at the Eutawville case in a story published this week. "Nearly everyone knew Bailey, a 54-year-old father of five. He was the deacon of a Baptist church, his wife the elementary school librarian," she wrote in her second paragraph. "Throughout Eutawville, which is 36 percent black, there was shared relief at the former police chief's indictment. Yet . . . locals differed on whether race or bad policing was to blame."

The day after the indictment, Martha Rose Brown of the Orangeburg newspaper went to Eutawville and found likewise, but also wrote about a feeling that officials had said too little about the case. In an editorial, the paper said, "Based on the long history of the case and the questions surrounding just what happened that day, the state may have quite the task in convicting Combs of murder. Nonetheless, we do not believe that the solicitor is going forward with prosecution for political reasons any more than we believe Combs will have difficulty getting justice in a county with a majority-African-American population. . . . We believe the system will produce justice."

Agriculture, forestry and fishing is the industrial sector with the highest rate of workplace fatalities

The highest rate of fatal injuries in any U.S. industry sector is in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. More than 100 children die on farms each year, but only about one in five of them are working. Those are some of the statistics on a fact sheet issued by the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America. ASHCA says the annual cost of occupational injuries in agriculture is $8.3 billion in medical costs and lost productivity. Tractors are the leading cause of death and the typical cost of one overturned tractor is $1 million.

This is one part of the fact sheet. For a larger version, click on it. For the entire document, click here.
Effective safety programs can save $4 to $6 for every $1 invested, according to ASHCA, which says it is "a not-for-profit coalition of agribusinesses, producer organizations and safety professionals." Other facts on the sheet include: Although 87 percent of farms are operated by individuals or families, hired workers perform 60 percent of the work on U.S. farms, and 80 percent of those employees are foreign-born; and the world will need 70 percent more food by 2050 for the predicted 9.5 billion people. "Productive, efficient agriculture includes the preservation and well-being of agricultural workers at every level," ASHCA says.

Wages declined in 1/3 of counties in last decade; what happened in your county? This map shows

Even before the Great Recession, there was concern about wage stagnation, which has left millions of households with effectively less income than they had a decade ago. "One-third of all U.S. counties have seen their pay decline, when the figures are adjusted for inflation," Brian McGill and Dante Chinni report for The Wall Street Journal, with a handy map, emendated example below. (Click here for the interactive version.)
Overall, "Wages haven't budged in a decade," the reporters write. "The biggest winners for wage increases are the counties running down the center of the country, many of which have economies based on energy and agriculture." Other patterns are harder to discern; the phenomenon cuts across rural and urban, blue and red. State policies may have made a difference, judging from the clear differences between Illinois and Indiana, and between Alabama and Georgia.

"And even with all that in mind, the numbers on wage stagnation don’t tell the whole story," the reporters note. "Average annual pay still tends to be higher on the coasts and in the big cities than they are in rural Middle America." The data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Do you like The Rural Blog? Now is a good time to support its publisher with a donation

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

As you choose the tax-deductible contributions to make before the year ends, we urge you to consider The Rural Blog and its publisher, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

For more than 10 years, The Rural Blog has been a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, designed for rural journalists but also serving everyone in rural America. This is a unique service, made possible by the endowment of the institute at the University of Kentucky.

At last report our endowment was still under water, meaning that its market value was less than its contributed value. That's because most of the endowment's money was raised at a time the stock market was high. We are trying to get it above water to avoid possible reductions in earnings that support the work of the institute, which you can read about at

We don't expect to get big donations from a blog post, but we are certainly interested in discussing our work with people who might be interested in supporting it. Our offices are closed for the holidays, but you can reach me at 502-682-2848. Our office number is 859-257-3744.

If your gift is small but you want it to make an immediate impact, you can give to our operating fund, from which we pay some current expenses. Donate to that fund or to the endowment by clicking here. Go to the gift-designation box and select "Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Endowed Fund for Excellence" to give to the endowment; for the operating account, choose "Other" and type in "IRJCI operating."

Thanks for your support, and happy new year!

Montana, West Virginia among states considering laws to fight methamphetamine production

State lawmakers in Montana will consider a bill to create a database for purchases of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine—ingredients used to make methamphetamine—while a task force in West Virginia is recommending for the second time that state lawmakers require a doctor's prescription to purchase cold medicines used to make meth.

Montana has already enacted rules limiting purchases of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine to nine grams over a 30-day period, but without a database, officials say it's impossible to stop smurfing—when people frequent multiple pharmacies to purchase large quantities, Scott Zoltan reports for KECI in Missoula. Senate Bill 48, which has the support of the Montana Department of Justice, would connect the state to NPLEx, a system already used in 25 states to track purchases of cold medicine.

Meth has been a rampant problem in West Virginia, with officials seizing 290 labs this year, the third highest total in state history, Eric Eyre reports for The Charleston Gazette. Despite the number of busts being down from a record 531 last year, the Kanawha County Commission Substance Abuse Task Force said meth remains a problem in the state and the agency recommended that lawmakers require a doctor's prescription to purchase cold medicine with meth-making ingredients.

The task force criticized using NPLEx as a solution, saying drug manufacturers can get around the system by hiring large numbers of people to purchase their monthly limits, Eyre writes. Instead, the task force said the only way to rid the problem is by requiring a doctor's prescription. (Read more)

With help from Walmart, new devices and stagnant wages, U.S. sock makers ramp up production

The American sock industry, once all but dead, has been revived by "changes in technology, attitudes and costs," James R. Hagerty reports for The Wall Street Journal from rural Hildebran, N.C., just west of Hickory, where a Canadian designer-marketer who had given up manufacturing has reactivated an old plant to make socks for Walmart.

The new technology is in Italian machines that knit and seam socks in the same process, requiring about half the number of workers. The attitude change is at Walmart, "which is trying to reduce its heavy reliance on imports" and is giving more shelf space to U.S.-made products, Hagerty writes. Costs? American manufacturing has become more competitive with China because "average manufacturing wages in the U.S. have risen less than 2 percent annually over the past five years, while those in China have about doubled since 2008."

"For similar reasons, other sock makers are investing in the U.S.," Hagerty reports, but adds, "Some producers are still heading overseas. . . . Employment in U.S. hosiery and sock mills totals about 8,600, one quarter of the tally for 2001. The U.S. sock-making industry has shrunk so drastically that its trade group, the Hosiery Association, disbanded in 2013." (Read more)

English researcher says putting digital collars on livestock could increase rural broadband access

Sheep could help bring broadband to rural areas. English researchers are studying how digital sheep collars, sensors on riverbanks and rainfall monitors could advance technology in rural areas, while providing high-speed Internet service to residents, Victoria Woolaston reports for the Daily Mail. (Sony photo: Cameras on sheep covering the Tour de France)

Gordon Blair, a computer scientist at Lancaster University, is using a grant to conduct research in Wales on outfitting sheep with digital collars that can be used to allow farmers to better monitor livestock, while also doubling up as wireless Internet hotspots, Woolaston writes. "Earlier this year, sheep in Yorkshire were fitted with cameras to give a unique view of the Tour De France" bicycle race.

Officials at Lancaster University have proposed fitting sensors to riverbanks to monitor river levels and warn of floods, Woolaston writes. "This system uses sensors on the bank, and throughout neighboring towns to track rising water levels and weather conditions. Some sensor locations are designated as ‘government office nodes' and have an office with a laptop computer where data is collected and stored. An algorithm is then used to predict flood risks before alert notifications are displayed." (Read more)