Saturday, April 25, 2015

Martha Bode Mullenix, owner of Texan Express, dies after 32 years at helm of rural paper

Mullenix didn't like pictures of herself, and
asked that the graphic display at her funeral
be the first edition of her newspaper.
Martha Bode Mullenix, owner of The Texan Express in Goliad since 1983, died on April 16 at the age of 75. "In almost three decades of running the news operation, she became a revered community figure for her ethics, involvement in the community and later in local politics," Jonathan Silver reports for the Victoria Advocate.

Mullenix's daughter and co-worker, Sandra Mullenix Ross, said her mother's attitude was "If it wasn't good for Goliad, it wasn't good for her," Silver writes. Goliad has about 2,000 people, and Mullenix kept the newspaper a family business that reported on what mattered most to the community. Ross told Silver, "When it came to business, if someone couldn't pay for a service, she would give them time or just say OK. Politicians, on the other hand, weren't so lucky. Politicians did not get a break."

Steve Paulsgrove, an attorney and former Goliad County judge, said "their interactions weren't always rosy, but they were respectful," Silver writes. He told Silver, "She was always professional in times when she had a difference of opinion with me. She was able to do fair reporting." (Read more)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Rural Iowa students taking AP classes online; N.D. students push lawmakers for more AP access

A study released earlier this year by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire found that 47.2 percent of rural districts have no students in Advanced Placement classes, compared to 5.4 percent in suburban areas and 2.6 percent in rural ones. The problem is that many rural areas lack access to the courses or enough students or teachers to create classes. But some states are offering rural students the opportunity to take AP classes online, while in other states students are voicing the need for more AP classes.

In Iowa, some students travel to larger nearby schools to take AP classes, Gene Lucht reports for Iowa Farmer Today. "Others are taking advantage of the online program offered by the Iowa Online AP Academy" through the University of Iowa.

Through the program "schools work through the University of Iowa and a private company called Apex Learning to cover the cost of 12 AP courses," Lucht writes. "Participating schools must put a staff member in charge of logistics, and participating students must have a mentor at the school. The school must also schedule time during the school day for the student to work on the online class."

In North Dakota, 20 students in fourth through 12th grade spent this week at the Capitol for the inaugural meeting of the Student Cabinet, a select group that "will advise lawmakers and the Department of Public Instruction on bills and policy issues," Max Grossfeld reports for KFYR 5 in Bismark. Students will spend 15 months on the cabinet.

With an opportunity to affect state politics, "several students from rural districts said they wanted to join the cabinet because they felt their schools lacked adequate opportunities to take Advanced Placement classes or enroll in dual-credit courses," Amy Sisk reports for The Bismark Tribune.

Oregon rural-urban exchange program teaches students about natural resources in both areas

An Oregon exchange program allows rural and urban middle school students to see how the other half lives, while gaining an understanding of natural resource management issues from both an urban and rural Oregon perspective. The 4-H Urban-Rural Natural Resources Exchange, which began in 2006, serves about 100 students each year. Rural 7th and 8th grade students live in a urban home for four days, and urban youth spend five days at a rural home.

Students are expected to help with chores—including working on a farm or ranch— and participate in classes on urban-rural connectedness and dependencies. Urban students learn about the history of the area, "the economics of ranching and agriculture, logging issues, water rights issues and other natural resources management issues from a rural Oregon perspective," while rural students learn about "the history of the area, urban Oregon lifestyle, and the economic, social and environmental issues in Portland which impact sustainability." (Family Search map: Wallowa County, Oregon)

The current program included students from Wallowa County schools and Multnomah County’s Sunnyside Environmental School, Steve Tool reports for the Wallowa County Chieftain. Wallowa County Extension Agent John Williams told Tool, “What we’re doing here is putting kids and families together and letting it happen. We think it’s an effective process. Really, this is all about the kids."

Rural Indiana community helps change state law and reduce speed limits in school zones

A rural Indiana community has made it safer for the state's children to walk to and from school. Local officials in Whitestown (Best Places map) went before the General Assembly to argue against a law that said local governments were not allowed "to reduce the speed limit in rural school zones to less than 30 mph," Katie Heinz and Sarah Swiss report for RTV 6 in Indianapolis. State leaders listened and last week passed a law allowing local governments to lower speed limits around schools to 20 mph.

The concern was that Boone Meadow Elementary School is located in a fast-growing area, which sees considerable amounts of traffic, Heinz and Swiss write. Zionsville Community Schools board member Bob Bostwick told RTV 6, "We really buy into the neighborhood-school philosophy, and part of that is being able to walk and bike to school."

The Whitestown Town Council plans next month to discuss lowering the speed limit in school zones, possibly to 25 mph, Heinz and Swiss write.

USA Today lists best festivals in the U.S.; many promote tourism in rural areas

Now that the weather is heating up throughout most of the U.S., festival season is on the horizon. USA Today "teamed up with a panel of festival experts to find the best music, food, culture, art and film festivals in the U.S," Lydia Schrandt reports for USA Today. Readers were then allowed to vote for their favorites, and some of the winners include festivals in rural areas or with rural resonance.

Among the best music festivals, No. 2 was the Electric Forest Festival, a four-day music fest in Rothbury, Mich., a village with a population of 424. An estimated 50,000 people attend the festival every year. No. 7 on the list is Bonnaroo, a four-day festival held on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn. The festival had more than 90,000 attendees last year.
For poetry enthusiasts, the Best Cultural Festival list includes the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. The six-day event is "an annual celebration of the ranching and rural West," says the organization's website. Also on the list are the Texas Renaissance Festival, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Frozen Dead Guy Days, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.

No. 2 on the list of Best General Food Festival is the Bounty of Yamhill County, located in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The Bounty of Yamhill County "is a three-day annual event that celebrates this vibrant community of famous wineries, celebrated chefs and sustainable family farms. No other locally sourced food and wine event can boast such nationally recognized participants," says the organization's website. No. 9 on the list is the Beaver Creek Food & Wine Weekend, a four-day event in Beaver Creek, Colo.

For a complete list of best festivals, click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Scranton daily, Georgia weekly win awards for use of public-notice advertisements in news reporting

Jim Lockwood, staff writer for The Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa., is the winner of the 2015 Public Notice Journalism award presented by the Public Notice Resource Center, which works to preserve laws requiring the paid publication of government notices in newspapers and encouraged them as sources for news reporting.

"Lockwood is recognized for his deft incorporation of public notice information into his coverage of local government," a PNRC release said. Lockwood also received the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association's 2014 Public Notice award for “persistent use of public notices in his reporting.”

PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and chief executive officer of Detroit Legal News, said Lockwood's “coverage of a proposed new commuter tax was a terrific example. The city ran the notices, but citizens sued because they believed the action was taken too quickly and without sufficient information to the taxpayers. Lockwood’s story referred readers to the dates of the notices so they could check for themselves.”

A second-place award for went to the weekly Monroe County Reporter of Forsyth, Ga., for reporting on a school district’s attempts to acquire property by condemnation over the landowner’s opposition. The district wanted to build an arts center on the site, but abandoned the project in the face of public opposition that began after the school board advertised its condemnation plans.

2 of last 5 years have been worst for combined pipeline-related deaths and injuries since 2000

Not much has happened in the past 15 years to improve the safety of gas pipelines, Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia report for Politico. "Oil and gas companies like to assure the public that pipelines are a safer way to ship their products than railroads or trucks. But government data makes clear there is hardly reason to celebrate. Last year, more than 700 pipeline failures killed 19 people, injured 97 and caused more than $300 million in damage. Two of the past five years have been the worst for combined pipeline-related deaths and injuries since 2000."

"Politico talked to more than 15 former and current federal pipeline officials and advisers, as well as dozens of safety experts, engineers and state regulators. We reviewed more than a decade of government data on fatalities, injuries, property damage, incident locations, inspections, damages and penalties," Schor and Restuccia write. "The picture that emerges is of an agency that lacks the manpower to inspect the nation’s 2.6 million miles of oil and gas lines, that grants the industry it regulates significant power to influence the rule-making process and that has stubbornly failed to take a more aggressive regulatory role, even when ordered by Congress to do so."
The Politico story doesn't go far enough to uncover the real problems with pipelines, Charles Pierce of Esquire writes for the liberal Reader Supported News. The story "has a serious 'both sides do it' element running through it," Pierce writes. "It engages one critic from each party—Fred Upton is the Republican and Peter DeFazio is the Democrat—and it is tough on the current administration for neglecting the PHMSA. (There hasn't even been a permanent director since October. Stop me if you've heard that one before.)" (Read more)

Federal officials announce voluntary programs to reduce carbon emissions from agricultural sources

Today federal agricultural officials presented voluntary programs for farmers, ranchers and foresters to reduce agricultural carbon emissions as part of President Barack Obama's efforts to fight global warming, Jeff Karoub reports for The Associated Press.

Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack revealed the plans at Michigan State University, where Obama signed the Farm Bill last year. "The efforts, many of which have their roots in that law, aim to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, boost carbon capture and storage and come with various enticements, including grants, low-interest loans and technical assistance," Karoub writes.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, and President Obama toured the biomass
conversion area at Michigan State University last year. (Associated Press photo)
The agriculture industry is responsible for approximately 9 percent of U.S. emissions, and while that compares favorably with the rest of the world, it could still improve, Vilsack said. "American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations," he said. He also noted that officials want to both help the environment and improve agricultural productivity.

Some of the actions outlined in the plan include "reducing the unnecessary use of fertilizer and methane emissions from cattle and swine, reforesting areas damaged by wildfire and disease and encouraging tree planting in urban areas," Karoub reports.

Following the plans would reduce emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by about 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, Vilsack's department estimated. That would be like taking 25 million cars off the road per year. (Read more)

Local Mohawk governing authority in Canada bans weekly newspaper editor from its council meetings

To download a PDF of the editorial, click here.
A rural newspaper that serves the 8,000 residents in the Mohawk community in Kahnawake, Que., is showing that size doesn't matter when it comes to reporting the stories that matter most to readers. Five years ago The Eastern Door "exposed a controversial plan by the local Mohawk council to evict non-native people—work that earned the paper the prestigious Michener Award and international praise," Rosemary Westwood reports for Canada's Metro News. Eastern Door editor Steve Bonspiel told Westwood, “You don’t get into this job to make money, that’s for sure. It is my dream job; it is what I love to do."

The plan to issue 26 eviction notices was dropped, but tensions between the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and The Eastern Door have remain high, with the Mohawk Council last month sending a letter to Bonspiel saying his attendance at community meetings had been revoked for not following reporting guidelines created by the tribe.

In the letter, the Mohawk Council wrote: "We became aware that you posted the entire March 10, 2015, Winter Community Meeting via 'Twitter.' You have many followers on your Twitter feed, including numerous external contacts. While the Kahnawake Community Meeting is for the purposes of updating the community of Kahnawake, you have failed to respect the guidelines for media coverage regarding the consultations. For this reason, your attendance at Kahnawake Community Meetings is no longer permitted." The Mohawk Council did say the newspaper could send another community member to cover meetings.

USGS releases maps of earthquakes thought to be triggered by human activity

"For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey has unveiled a map of earthquakes thought to be triggered by human activity in the eastern and central U.S.," Rong-Gong Lin II, Jon Schleuss and Thomas Suh Lauder report for the Los Angeles Times.

Seismic activity has increased dramatically in recent years in Oklahoma, in Texas near Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio, all in areas with deep injection wells from increased oil and gas activity or other industrial activities, the Times writes.

Earlier this week The Oklahoma Geological Survey, the state agency in charge of determining the cause of Oklahoma's rise in earthquakes, said it is "very likely" that the shaking has been caused by oil and gas activity. Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater last year and is on pace to have more than 800 this year.

Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS' National Seismic Hazard Project, "said the pattern of increased quakes is troubling," reports the Times. He said, “These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk and threat to people living nearby." (USGS map)

Texas moves one step closer to banning cities from banning fracking; Denton passed ban in November

When residents in Denton, Texas, voted to ban fracking during the November 2014 election, becoming the first town in the state to do so, it inspired other Texas towns to step forward and express interest in also banning fracking. But in Texas, where oil and gas are king, lawmakers seem to be caving to industry pressure, with the state House last week passing a bill by a 122-18 to "ban any ordinance that prohibits an oil and gas operation," H. Sterling Burnett reports for The Heartland Institute. A similar bill awaits action in the Senate.

"In a concession to the Texas Municipal League, which agreed not to oppose the bill, cities would retain limited authority over oil and gas production through their power to set reasonable limits on noise, night lighting, traffic and setbacks from buildings, although restrictions on the distance of wells to homes, schools and churches would have to be 'commercially reasonable,' according to the bill," Burnett writes.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association "praised the bill, saying it would prevent cities from adopting a patchwork of local regulations that could slow down the state's drilling boom and threaten its energy-reliant economy," Mike Lee reports for EnergyWire. Texas is the nation's largest oil and gas producing state.

Other bills also will be heard that could benefit the oil and gas industry, Lee writes. That includes "bills that would make it harder for residents to request a public hearing to contest permits for industrial plants, rolling back the state's renewable energy standard and limiting local governments' ability to collect civil damages in pollution cases." (Read more)

West Virginia VA clinic accused of swapping new mental health medications for older, cheaper ones

A Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Beckley, W. Va., "swapped out new mental health drugs for older, cheaper medications to save money, federal officials alleged Wednesday," Rusty Marks reports for the Charleston Gazette. According to a letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the VA’s Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee restricted health-care providers from administering newer drugs, a violation of VA policy. The practice was exposed by a whistleblower. (Veterans Affairs Medical Center-Beckley)

The VA reportedly restricted health-care providers from administering aripiprazole, used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, and ziprasidone, used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Marks writes. The Beckley VA Medical Center provides services to more than 38,000 veterans in 11 West Virginia counties. (Read more)

Rural Georgia city council votes in favor of flying Christian flag in front of public buildings

Bleckley County Court House
Despite a warning from the city attorney that it is a violation of separation of church and state, the city council in rural Cochran, Ga., has chosen to fly Christian flags in front of public buildings, Tony Ortega reports for Raw Story.

The city council voted on April 14 to fly the flag at City Hall, the Bleckley County Court House and in other public places, said City Manager Richard Newbern, Ortega writes. Newbern said he has not received any complaints about the flags from the town's 5,100 residents. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Despite a rise in the number of insured residents, Obamacare getting mixed reviews in Eastern Ky.

When federal health reform was introduced last year in Eastern Kentucky—a largely Republican area that has for years relied on the coal industry—Central Appalachia residents were skeptical of President Obama's health care system.

The jury is still out whether or not locals are calling the plan a success, Laura Ungar and Chris Kenning report for USA Today. Obamacare "has given many of the poor and sick a key to long-neglected health care. It's also brought skepticism and fear, and some business owners argue it's stunting their growth in a region that can't afford another economic blow."

On the plus side, "scores of newly insured residents, mostly covered by Medicaid, have sought care in hospitals, mental health centers and drug treatment facilities," Ungar and Kenning write. In places like Floyd County—which ranks second to last in the state's health rankings because of high rates of smoking, cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease—the uninsured rate of residents under 65 dropped from 19 percent to 10 percent by the end of 2014. (Family Search map: Floyd County)

"Overall, 5,403 Floyd County residents have enrolled in Medicaid under the ACA, while only 620 have bought private health plans on the state's 'kynect' exchange," Ungar and Kenning write. "Data from a recent state examination of the Medicaid expansion found it had brought $15.5 million in Medicaid payments to Floyd County in 2014, including $5.9 million to hospitals."

But many Floyd County residents echo the same complaints as in other parts of the state, "such as the tax penalty people must pay if they don't have insurance and the upcoming requirement that businesses with more than 50 full-time employees provide affordable insurance or face a penalty," Ungar and Kenning write. "Hospitals report being squeezed financially. One insurance agent says the system remains difficult to navigate. Many who don't qualify for Medicaid or a sizable subsidy—and have been largely left out of the health care system—say their insurance has gotten more difficult to afford."

One insurance agent said "some residents who purchased private plans on the state exchange in 2014 found the monthly premiums rose sharply in 2015, causing some to drop out or reduce coverage," Ungar and Kenning write. Other residents who are waiting for their employers to provide health insurance could be waiting a long time.

"Archie Everage, who owns a chain of fast-food sandwich shops in Floyd and nearby counties that employ more than 80 full- and part-time workers, said he plans to pay a fine of $2,000 per full-time employee rather than provide insurance as the ACA requires," Ungar and Kenning write. "Paul Reffett, owner of ValueMed pharmacy, said the ACA has meant more work but less profits," with more customers getting prescriptions but paying with Medicaid instead of cash, "meaning low reimbursements instead of full payments."

Hospitals also say that with Medicaid handled by managed-care companies, reimbursements are slow in coming, Ungar and Kenning write. And more Medicaid patients means more slow payments. (Read more)

Interactive map details migration patterns of each state

More than 70 percent of residents living in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio in 2012 were born in that state, while only 25 percent of Nevada residents were born in the state, according to a treemap created by The New York Times. The map shows the percentage of residents born in each state, the percentage born in other states and the percentage born outside the U.S.

A large percentage of Nevada's population comes from California, with 19 percent of Nevada residents born in The Golden State. Only 36 percent of Florida residents were born in the Sunshine State, with 8 percent born in New York. California has the highest percent of residents born outside the U.S., at 28 percent, followed by New York (25 percent), Florida (23 percent), Nevada (21 percent) and Texas (17 percent). (For an interactive version, click here)

2015 Pulitzer Prize winners include South Carolina newspaper's series on domestic violence

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winners included a handful of stories with rural resonance, including stories by The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and stories by The Seattle Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The Post and Courier won the Public Service award for a series on domestic violence by Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Natalie Caula Hauff. The seres, titled "Til Death Do Us Part," detailed how "more than 300 women have been shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death by men in South Carolina over the past decade, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse." It is the first Pulitzer won by the newspaper since 1925.

The Seattle Times won for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the deadly Oso landslide that claimed 43 lives. "The coverage, which included stories, photos, video and graphics, revealed that, contrary to public officials’ insistence, there were warnings for decades about the unstable nature of the earth in the region," reports the Times. The award, which is shared by the staff, is the 10th Pulitzer for the newspaper.

Two Pulitzer awards were given for Investigative Reporting. One went to The Wall Street Journal for its story "Medicare Unmaked: Behind the Numbers," which included a database on "payments to more than 880,000 medical providers in 2012 and how doctors and other providers compare with their peers in their region, state or nationwide," the Journal writes.

The other Investigative Reporting award went to Eric Lipton of The New York Times for his story, "Courting Favor," which "examines the explosion in lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests and the millions in campaign donations they now provide," the Times writes.

For a complete list of winners, click here.

Rural America can lead the charge to benefit from climate change, climate expert says

"One of the nation's most dynamic and high-profile speakers on climate change, Katharine Hayhoe, will speak [tonight] in Iowa about the ways agriculture and rural America can lead on climate change," Chris Clayton writes for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Hayhoe's talk echoes one over the weekend by President Obama, in which he said climate change can create opportunities.

Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, said "she's looking forward to coming to Iowa because close collaborators at Iowa State University are focusing heavily on the contributions agriculture can make adapting to climate change and helping suck carbon emissions out of the air," Clayton writes. She told him, "Agriculture and forestry are really the only two sectors that really have the potential to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative."

"Longer term, ten or 15 years out, we’re going to see a price on carbon because carbon has already been ruled to be a pollutant by the Supreme Court," Hayhoe told Clayton. "Every single other pollutant that people emit—they have to pay for the pollution and the cleanup costs. Carbon is the only one where the polluters don't have to pay for the cleanup costs."

Putting "a price on carbon benefits Iowa farmers because of cropping practices that can sequester carbon," Clayton writes. "No-till planting and cover crops certainly has been highlighted as ways to build carbon in the soil rather than releasing it. Hayhoe told him, "This whole range of things that can be done in agriculture actually reduce carbon as well as take carbon out of the atmosphere. If there is a price on carbon, then there is a benefit to storing that carbon."

While science tells us it's getting warmer, "far too many people believe the negatives of shifting away from fossil fuels outweigh the positives," Clayton writes. "Moreover, they argue that acting on climate would put the U.S. at a disadvantage internationally, though China reported just last month that the country reduced its carbon emissions 2 percent in 2014 while growing the GDP 7 percent."

Hayhoe said "the people who stand to benefit are those who get on board with a greener economy, Hayhoe said, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains," Clayton writes. She told him, "All of the resources for this new economy are in middle America. So we have been letting our politics inform our economic choices instead of letting our economic choices inform our politics. That is a really strange place to be in." (Read more)

Oklahoma Geological Survey says it is 'very likely' that oil and gas industry causing rise in earthquakes

The Oklahoma Geological Survey, the state agency in charge of determining the cause of Oklahoma's rise in earthquakes, announced on Tuesday "that it is 'very likely' that the shaking has been caused by oil and gas activity," Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire.

The statement, which contradicts earlier statements by OGS scientists, said, "The OGS considers it very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells," Soraghan writes. "In response, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association conceded a 'possible relationship' between earthquakes and the industry."

Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater last year and is on pace to have more than 800 this year, Soraghan writes. The state, which only averaged one to three earthquakes per year before 2009—when the oil and gas boom took off—is now averaging 2.5 earthquakes each day. (The Nation graphic)
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency in charge of regulating oil and gas in the state, said it is considering all options and considers resolving the issue a priority, Soraghan writes. But officials "have said some aspects of the situation are beyond their control and in the hands of the state Legislature."

"Legislators, though, have not acted," Soraghan writes. "No legislation related to man-made earthquakes or disposal wells was introduced this year, though it has moved to protect industry from municipal ordinances." Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has said she believed most of the earthquakes are natural. (Read more)

USDA awards $72 million to six renewable energy projects in rural communities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday announced $72 million in funding for six rural electric infrastructure projects in North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas and Vermont. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "These solar projects represent an ongoing commitment from rural electric cooperatives to increase the diversity of their fuel sources with a focus on renewable energy."

Funds include: $20 million to Montgomery Solar Owner in Cornelius, N.C., to build a 20 megawatt solar farm; $5 million to Chocowinity Solar and Cirrus Solar in Cornelius to build 5 megawatt solar farms; $17 million to Rolling Hills Electric Cooperative in Kansas to build or improve 197 miles of transmission and distribution line and make other system improvements; $18 million to Broad River Electric Cooperative in North and South Carolina, to build or improve 138 miles of line and make other system improvements; and $7 million to Washington Electric Cooperative in Vermont to build or improve 46 miles of line and make other system improvements. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cluster boxes not the answer to Postal Service's financial woes, watchdog report says

One of the proposals by the U.S. Postal Service to save money—the agency lost $5.5 billion in 2014—is to exchange home deliveries for neighborhood cluster boxes that would allow mail carriers to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently, Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post. "But a new report from the USPS inspector general’s office casts doubt on how much the change would benefit the agency financially."

Mail advertising accounted for 22 percent of the Postal Service's $28 billion in product revenue two years ago, Hicks writes. The watchdog report says that about 10.6 percent of people who receive home mail service read and respond to credit card solicitations, compared to only 3.1 percent of customers with cluster boxes. "With other types of mail advertisements, the findings were 'qualitatively similar to the credit card solicitation results, albeit with less dramatic differences by mode,' according to the report."

"Republican and Democratic lawmakers have pushed for greater use of curbside and cluster mail boxes, but opponents say the Postal Service should focus on new products and services rather than cuts," Hicks writes. "It is unclear whether the Postal Service would truly lose advertising revenue by moving away from the door-delivery model or whether it could make up for the potential loss with cost savings."

Program sends rural Nebraska students to medical school, increases rural health care providers

A partnership formed in 1990 between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and three state colleges—Wayne State College in the northeast, Chadron State College in the west and Peru State College in the southeast—has been working to reduce the state's shortage of rural health care providers by "guaranteeing chosen high school students from rural Nebraska entrance into medical school," Nick Hytrek reports for the Sioux City Journal. (Journal photo by Jim Lee: Program participant Dr. Natalie Reader owns a dental practice in Ponca, Neb.)

Students are under no obligation to practice in rural areas, but of the program's 420 graduates, 65 percent are practicing in Nebraska, and 73 percent of those graduates are in rural areas, Hytrek writes. "Nebraska students who grow up in rural areas—basically anywhere outside Lincoln, Omaha and its suburbs—are eligible. Once accepted, they're given full-tuition scholarships at Wayne, Chadron or Peru. The bigger bonus: they're guaranteed a spot in medical school once they complete their undergraduate requirements."

Todd Young, a physics and astronomy professor and the program coordinator at Wayne State, told Hytrek, "That's really the main prize is that they have a seat waiting for them at UNMC." (Read more)

Bird flu expected to cause death of 5.3 million chickens in Iowa; epidemic also in Minn. and Wis.

The biggest bird flu epidemic to hit the U.S. will necessitate that 5.3 million chickens in Iowa be euthanized, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mike Hughlett reports for the Star Tribune. The Osceolo County farm represents about 9 percent of the state's hen population. Iowa has about 30 large egg operations with 58 million hens. (Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke)

Also on Monday, USDA said "that two more Minnesota farms, with a total of 31,000 birds, have been stung by the bird flu," Hughlett writes. "The two outbreaks were the sixth and seventh in Kandiyohi, Minnesota’s biggest turkey-producing county."

"Of the 28 Minnesota farms stricken by the flu, 18 have been suppliers to Hormel’s Jennie-O turkey division," Hughlett writes. "Some of those are run by contract farmers or independent farmers; others are directly owned by Hormel. Also, a Hormel-owned farm in western Wisconsin with 126,700 turkeys was hit by bird flu last week." That prompted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday to declare a state of emergency, "authorizing the Wisconsin National Guard to assist authorities responding to the bird flu in Jefferson, Juneau and Barron counties."

Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger said in a statement: “We are experiencing significant challenges in our turkey supply chain due to the recent [highly pathogenic avian flu] outbreaks in Minnesota and Wisconsin. While Jennie-O Turkey Store has delivered strong financial performance so far in the first half (of Hormel’s fiscal year), tight meat supplies and operational challenges will pressure earnings in the back half of our fiscal year."

Bird flu is not considered a food safety hazard, Hughlett writes. It poses a low risk to humans, and there have been no reports of workers becoming sick from working with infected birds.

Community service gives journalism students a better understanding of their surroundings

Journalism education programs should require students to serve in the community to gain a better understanding of their surroundings, writes Indiana University professor Emily Metzgar for PBS Media Shift. Metzgar requires all her student to perform 20 hours of service work in the community for their final grade.

Emily Metzgar
"For my class, titled Media & Society, students choose to work at one of several local non-profits focused on addressing social issues in the community—including domestic violence, food scarcity, mentoring for at-risk young women, interacting with prisoners, caring for the elderly and serving families in financial crisis," Metzgar writes. "To tie this experience to the rest of the course, students conduct research into media coverage of these issues across media outlets, comparing the messages contained in the coverage with their personal experiences derived from working with those issues up close. In the resulting content analyses, students often find the media coverage to be formulaic, superficial and devoid of input from anyone other than the usual suspects."

"For contemporary journalism education programs, the difficulty lies in ensuring that students acquire necessary professional skills and an appreciation for the democratic norms long associated with the practice of journalism in the United States," Metgar writes. "It is often said that 'information is the currency of democracy.' Surely there’s a place for journalism education in helping to ensure the continued circulation of that currency. Service-learning is one way to combine all these threads."

"Second is the matter of framing, a ubiquitous term employed to describe the lens through which media stories are told," Metzgar writes. "Framing assigns blame for problems, thus signaling whose responsibility it is to address them. Politics may be the 'art of the possible,' but media framing delimits the range of public policy possibilities that are even open for political debate. For journalism students, service-learning can promote awareness of key social issues and give students a chance to judge for themselves how these issues are covered in the media. The hope, of course, is that time spent with service-learning as a journalism student may result in more discerning reporting produced in the future as a working professional."

"Third is the issue of practical experience," Metzgar writes. "Service-learning provides students with tangible insights into how the media function in American society, particularly when it comes to difficult social issues. Service-learning is often students’ first unmediated exposure to issues such as homelessness, incarceration, domestic abuse and food scarcity. Ideally, after exposure to these issues and to people who live with them every day, students will develop a more compassionate attitude toward covering vulnerable populations. This exposure has the potential to compel students to become more involved in their communities beyond the time when it is required for course credit. And that is a public good no matter how one frames it." (Read more)

Metzgar is an academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Journalist's Resource offers new tools to inform local coverage; compare hospital outcomes and check federal databases

Every week organizations from federal, state and local agencies release data that could be useful for local stories, and Journalist's Resource has updated its list of databases to help with these calculations. The map to the right shows alternative fuel stations in the United States. To see the interactive map, click here. Want to compare hospital outcomes in your area or search federal and state criminal databases? Check the site to find a list of updated databases that also include storm injuries and damages, hazardous-material incidents, campus crime reports, bus and large truck crashes and much more.

Decline of jobs and decrease of coal tax revenue leading to public employee layoffs in West Virginia

West Virginia's decline in coal jobs is resulting in mass layoffs for public employees in rural counties, David Gutman reports for the Charleston Gazette. Boone County laid off 11 part-time public employees in December 2014. Nicholas County announced in March it was laying off 24 employees, and another 30 were asked to take pay cuts. And last week, Mingo County laid off 12 employees, cut hours for four more and increased the share of health premiums employees must pay.

The one area these and other counties point to is a loss of coal severance taxes, Gutman writes. "In 2012, coal severance taxes brought in more than $530 million, about double the take of a decade ago, the result of higher coal prices. But 2012 turned out to be the zenith. Last year brought in about $407 million in coal severance tax money, and this fiscal year, which ends in June, overall severance tax collection (which includes oil and gas) is nearly $50 million below expectations."

Eleven of the state's 28 coal producing counties saw severance tax revenue from 2010 to 2014, but most of those counties are located in the northern part of the state, Gutman writes. Gas revenue is expected to decline in the next few years because wells are producing more gas than they can sell, and "coal production in Southern West Virginia isn’t likely to rebound anytime soon either, the result of a natural gas glut, depleted seams and environmental regulations."

Boone County lost $3 million in coal severance tax from 2010 to 2015, Gutman writes. Mingo County has dropped from $1.7 million five years ago to an expected $800,000 this year. Webster County’s coal severance revenue fell 57 percent from fiscal year 2010 to 2014. Fayette County’s coal severance revenue is down 20 percent since 2010, and nearly 50 percent since it peaked in 2012. Wyoming County’s coal severance is up since 2010 but down $200,000 since peaking in 2012. Raleigh County has lost 25 percent of the coal severance money it had in 2010. (Read more)

Rural Ky. funeral home owner says he was targeted for proposing crematory in 'black part of town'

Todd County (Wikipedia map)
A rural southwestern Kentucky county is in the midst of accusations of racial bias over the proposed site of a crematory. Todd County Funeral Home owner Shane Hessey went before the Elkton City Council on Monday accusing a councilman of using "his position to improperly 'draw a line in the sand between blacks and whites' when it came to the location of the crematory," Publisher Ryan Craig reports for the weekly Todd County Standard.

The councilman said he objected to Hessey's proposed site of a former jeans-washing facility because it was in a low-income area, Craig writes. The councilman said many local residents he had talked to—African Americans and Caucasians—said they were against using the site for the crematory.

But Hessey said he was accused of purposely targeting the area because of its large African American population, Craig reports. Hessey last week withdrew the proposal after going to a planning commission meeting mostly attended by African Americans who were against the crematory. Hessey said, "I never knew [the area near the jeans washing facility] was considered the black part of town."

Hessey went on to claim that "another business publicly said 'I am the n—— funeral home of Todd County'," Craig writes, making the epithet apparent but not explicit. "Hessey said he felt he had a good record on race relations with his business and the community, and he withdrew his plans for the crematory because of 'the people in the chairs' at last week's planning commission."

City Attorney Jeff Traughber said that even if the commission had passed the plan for the crematory, the city council would still need to approve an ordinance change allowing crematories, Craig reports. The Standard is subscription-only, but the pages with th story are posted here.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dropped calls continue to plague rural areas

Dropped calls remain a problem in rural areas, Jim Spencer reports for the Star Tribune. From late September through early December of 2014, around 20 calls "about transfers of patients so sick or injured that they had to move from Madelia Community Hospital and Clinic in rural Minnesota to a more comprehensive care facility about 25 miles away in Mankato" didn't go through.

The same problem has affected high school weather reports that didn't get to parents and students, clients of insurance companies who couldn't get through to their agents and business owners who said prospective customers switched to another company when they were unable to get the businesses on the phone, Spencer writes.

Last year Communications Data Group, a telephone billing company based in Champaign, Ill., said that as many as one-in-five calls to rural areas don't go through, mostly because long-distance and wireless carriers are contracting out to cheap third-party services in an attempt to offset higher-than-average fees to local phone companies to complete calls.

The Federal Communications Commission conducted a national test of 2,150 rural calls in 2011, finding that 344 never reached their destination and another 172 were "unacceptably delayed or of poor quality," Spencer writes. In January of this year, FCC "fined Verizon $2 million for failing to investigate dropped rural calls in 22 counties in 2013. Regulators also required Verizon to invest $3 million in a program to keep better track of rural connection problems. Verizon at the time said its long-distance networks were 'highly reliable' and that it had worked proactively with industry partners to 'confirm proper delivery of calls to rural destinations.'"

Andy Innis of Christensen Communications in Madelia, Minn., said dumping rural phone calls is against the law but told Spencer “There are so many intermediate routers that the FCC can’t get a handle on following these things. It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole.” (Read more)

States continue raising rural interstate speed limits; critics, advocates argue over safety issues

This year 10 states have taken up legislation to raise interstate speed limits—predominately in rural areas—and as of Friday, bills were pending in Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. Five states—Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming—have speed limits 80 mph or higher, and Nevada's bill would increase speeds to 80 mph in some areas.

While advocates say drivers want to go faster and cars and roads are better equipped to handle higher speeds, critics disagree, saying increased speeds create more dangerous situations and lead to a higher rate of fatalities, Bergal writes.

One problem is conflicting reports on highway safety, Bergal writes. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that in 2013, there were 9,613 speed-related fatalities, and a 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health found a 3.2 percent increase in fatal crashes between 1995 and 2005 attributable to higher speed limits.

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told Bergal, "As speed limits and speeds go up, a driver’s reaction time is limited. The crash is more likely to be severe. Those laws of physics haven’t changed. You’re not able to react to what that guy or gal next to you is doing. They might be on their cellphone or be impaired. They might pull right in front of you, and you have to be able to react to that.”

Advocates point to a 2008 Purdue University study, which found that raising the speed limit on an interstate highway in Indiana had not increased the probability of fatalities or serious injuries, Bergal writes. Also a report by the Michigan State Police’s Office of Highway Safety Planning found that lower speed limits don’t necessarily improve safety. (Pew Charitable Funds graphic)

Journalism professor offers tips for recording and selling news stories from a cell phone

Now that many Americans own cell phones equipped with video cameras, private citizens who happen to be in the right place at the right time are shooting more news stories. But how should the video be shot, what should be done with it afterwards and what rights does the owner of the video have? These are all questions tackled by Richard Labunski, a professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky in a column for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Richard Labunski
"Get an 'establishing' or wide shot first that shows the entire scene," Labunski writes. "Unless something is happening quickly, do not begin with a tight shot of people or the event. Get at least a 10-second shot from enough distance to show all the key elements. . . Protect yourself. Try not to let those involved know you are recording them. If someone committing a crime sees you doing so, you could be in danger. Also, police have confiscated cameras and arrested those shooting video even when the person was on public property and out of the way. And don't ever go onto private property."

When it comes to the financial value of the video, copyright the work and don't post it online, where anyone can download it and where many social media sites can claim ownership of anything on their sites, Labunski writes. "If you record a crime being committed, share it with law enforcement. But if a news organization wants your video, negotiate and be willing to walk away if the deal is bad."

"If a news outlet is willing to purchase a license for the video, it will want access right away," Labunski writes. "If you don't have time to consult a lawyer, make sure the agreement has an ending date and states that no one else can use the video without your permission. Request in the license agreement that the copyright symbol and your name be included on the screen. This is not required by copyright law, but it improves your chances of showing willful infringement if someone else uses the video." (Read more)

Montana paper wins open-records request and exposes city money scheme

In January, the city sued The Billings Gazette for filing a public records request about the "potential mishandling of public money at a Montana landfill," Corey Hutchins reports for the Columbia Journalism Review.

The city's support for the decision rested on a constitutional provision in Montana that gives citizens a right to privacy and the claim that giving the records to The Gazette could compromise the privacy rights of employees. The judge did not think it was a valid argument. Yellowstone County District Judge Mike Moses ruled that the city had improperly sued the newspaper and required the city to reveal more than 1,000 pages of documents.

Almost six months after making the records request, The Gazette could let readers know what happened at the city landfill. The story, called "Missing money scheme avoided detected by city of Billings for years," made the front page. "Nearly 1,200 pages of documents . . . shed light on a system of taking cash from the city's recycling program and channeling the money into coffee, food, kitchen supplies and personal use," Mike Ferguson and Darrell Ehrlick write for The Gazette.

The story probably would have gone unreported if it hadn't been for The Gazette's persistence. Editor Darrell Ehrlick told Hutchins, "It takes a lot of money to fight these cases, and there's nothing that would necessarily preclude the city or any other government entity from going down this road again." (Read more)

Rural counties with the most immigrants have the best economies, Daily Yonder study finds

Rural counties with a higher rate of immigration have better economies than other rural counties, says a study commissioned by the Daily Yonder. The study found that poverty and unemployment rates were lower in rural counties with larger immigrant populations, while the average income was higher, Tim Marema reports for the Yonder.
The study, which used data from the 2012 five-year American Community Survey along with data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, looked at each county's percentage of residents born outside the U.S., Marema writes. Counties were then split into five categories, ranging from counties where the average foreign-born population was 8.9 percent to counties where less than 1 percent of residents were born outside the U.S.
Counties with the highest percentage of immigrants had a per capital income of $29,538, compared to $23,326 for counties with the lowest percentage of immigrants, Marema writes. The poverty rate in counties with the most immigrants was 17.6 percent, compared to 20.9 percent in counties with the smallest immigrant population. Also, the unemployment rate in counties with the most immigrants was 7.9 percent, compared to 8.7 percent in counties with the least immigrants.
Study author Roberto Gallardo "said the study does not prove immigrants are directly causing better economic performance," Marema writes. "But there is an obvious connection, he said." Gallardo told Marema, “It’s important to mention that this relationship could be backwards. In other words, immigrants may be attracted to already prosperous communities. Whichever it is, though, the results are very interesting.” (Read more)

Navajo Nation raises taxes on unhealthy foods in an attempt to fight obesity epidemic

The Navajo Nation has added a 2-cent sales tax to an existing 5-cent sales tax on junk food and sodas in an attempt to promote healthier eating among the 250,000 tribe members in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, Eliza Barclay reports for NPR. It's the first tax in the U.S. "to tax both sugary beverages and snacks, sweets and baked and fried goods of 'minimal-to-no nutritional value.'" (Diné Community Advocacy Alliance photo by Denisa Livingston: Food price comparison in a Navajo grocery store)

While less healthy foods are more expensive, the Navajo Nation in October 2014 declared all fruits and vegetables tax free, Barclay writes. The move is in response to an obesity and diabetes epidemic across the Navajo Nation. Obesity rates within the reservation range from 23 to 60 percent, while 10 percent of residents have diabetes and another 30 percent are pre-diabetic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized the Navajo Nation as a food desert, with as high as 90 percent of grocery store products labeled unhealthy, Barclay writes. There are only 10 full-service grocery stores on the entire 27,000-square mile reservation. More than 50 percent of resident said in a 2012 survey that they travel off reservation to buy groceries, with some saying they travel as far as 240 miles for meat and vegetables.

Even if residents are willing to shell out higher prices to buy unhealthy foods, advocates said they hope the extra money goes back into the community to promote education and investments in healthier school lunches, Barclay writes.

Iowa farmers ask water utility for more time to improve voluntary methods of reducing pollution

The urban vs. rural battle in Iowa over who is to blame for nitrates that have polluted the water for 500,000 residents led the Des Moines Water Works last month to file a lawsuit against northwestern counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards that apply to factories and commercial users.

The main point of contention is that Des Moines Water Works wants to hold farmers to strict federal water quality standards, while farmers and agricultural groups favor a voluntary system, Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times. (Mother Jones graphic)

"Last year, months before the lawsuit was filed, the state associations for corn, soybean and pork producers formed the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, which bills itself as a farmer-led effort to improve water quality," Smith writes. "The group’s executive director, Sean McMahon, said that many farmers were eager to employ conservation practices but that education and time were needed to see more results. Money, he said, would be better spent on outreach and cost-sharing programs than on lawyers for the lawsuit."

Farmers like Brent Johnson said he and his neighbors have already begun taking voluntary measures to improve the situation, Smith writes. "He said he feared that the lawsuit, if successful, would add a regulatory burden just as many farmers were making voluntary changes." Johnson told Smith, “That’s not healthy for agriculture, I don’t think, to take the voluntary out."

But Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works, "said years of encouraging changes through voluntary programs had simply not brought about significant results," Smith writes. "Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River remain stubbornly high, which required the utility to run its nitrate removal facilities for three months last winter, a rarity. In 2013, he said, Des Moines was barely able to remove nitrates quickly enough to keep up with demand and nearly violated federal regulations. Just last Thursday, the utility turned its nitrate removal tanks back on, citing high levels of runoff upstream." (Read more)