Friday, December 18, 2015

Alabama's Boone Newspapers to buy four Schurz Communications newspapers in Central Kentucky

UPDATE, Jan. 5: The sale was finalized Dec. 31, and the purchaser is not Boone Newspapers, but a subsidiary of Carpenter Newsmedia, which is identified as an affiliate of Boone. However, the subsidiary will be managed by Boone, according to The Advocate-Messenger.

Alabama-based Boone Newspapers is putting a major stake into Central Kentucky with the purchase of two small dailies and two weeklies owned by Schurz Communications of Mishawaka, Ind.

Boone first entered Kentucky only in September, buying The State Journal in the state capital of Frankfort. Now it has three dailies and two weeklies, all within an hour of The Winchester Sun's printing plant, the only one the group operates. The other, larger daily is The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, at right. The weeklies are The Jessamine Journal in Nicholasville, nearest Lexington, and the rural Interior Journal in Stanford.

The group has been headquartered in Danville and known as Advocate Communications. Its publisher, Larry Hensley, will remain as head of a new Carpenter Boone subsidiary, Bluegrass Newsmedia LLC. Boone CEO Todd Carpenter told the company’s new employees, “We have much in common with Larry and with your organization. We are publishers by practice and background, not financial investors. Our company is built on sound community publishing principles and led by people who have practiced and are practicing those principles as newspaper publishers now.”

Boone, based in Tuscaloosa, has been one of the more acquisitive publishers in recent years, and now has 70 papers. Besides Alabama and Kentucky, it also has papers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.

Family-owned Schurz reportedly decided against buying the Frankfort paper and more recently has been in a divestment mode. In September, it agreed to sell all its TV and radio stations to Atlanta-based Gray Television.

Rural Midwest economy worst since 2010; 6-month outlook remains pessimistic

The rural Midwestern economy has fallen into its worst slump in five years, according to the Rural Mainstreet Index, which gave the region a score of less than 50—out of 100—for the fourth consecutive month, Steve Jordan reports for the Omaha World-Herald. "From a survey of 164 bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, the index was 41.5, down from 43.7 in November and 50 in December 2014."

Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University, which publishes the index, said "the low commodity prices worsened the 10-state region’s 'economic malaise,' including a record low rating for farm equipment sales: 8.8, down from 14.2 in November and 23.7 in December 2014," Jordan writes. "He said the stronger U.S. dollar and economic weakness in other countries have pushed down farm prices by 8 percent over the past year. Farmers bought equipment steadily in 2012-13, but sales slowed sharply last year and continue to slump, Goss said. Lagging equipment sales hurt manufacturers in the region who make the equipment."

"The bankers retained their pessimistic outlook for the coming six months, registering a Confidence Index of 39.8, up slightly from 38.9 in November," Jordan writes. "Average farmland prices declined for the 25th straight month, leading to an index of 28.8, although Goss said price trends vary by location and some prices have increased. The bankers, on average, said they expect land prices to decline an additional 5.9 percent over the coming year. But the index showed that rural home sales, hiring and retail sales are increasing, with hiring mostly by businesses less affected by farm and energy prices. Holiday retail sales may be 1 percent higher than last year, the bankers said." (Read more)

Feds pledge stronger enforcement of worker-safety and environmental laws for agriculture and mining

The Department of Justice and the Department of Labor say they will more vigorously enforce environmental and worker safety laws next year, Stephen Davies reports for Agri-Pulse.

On an average day in the U.S., 13 workers die on the job, thousands are injured and 150 contract diseases from exposure to carcinogens and other toxic and hazardous substances, according to a statement from the Justice Department. "Under the new plan, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the U.S. attorneys’ offices will work with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration , Mine Safety and Health Administration and Wage and Hour Division to investigate and prosecute worker endangerment violations."

In a memo sent to all 93 U.S. attorneys, "Deputy Attorney General Yates urged federal prosecutors to work with the Environmental Crimes Section in pursuing worker-endangerment violations," the statement says. "The worker safety statutes generally provide for only misdemeanor penalties. However, prosecutors have now been encouraged to consider utilizing Title 18 and environmental offenses, which often occur in conjunction with worker safety crimes, to enhance penalties and increase deterrence."

"In addition to prosecuting environmental crimes, the Environment and Natural Resources Division has also been strengthening its efforts to pursue civil cases that involve worker safety violations under statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act," the statement says. "Violations of a number of provisions under these statutes can have a direct impact on workers tasked with handling dangerous chemicals and other materials, cleaning up spills and responding to hazardous releases."

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute offering fellowships for 2016-17; deadline to apply Feb. 15

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is accepting applications for its 2016-2017 RJI Fellows. Residential fellows spend eight months on the University of Missouri campus. Nonresidential fellows explore their ideas from their home or office, with an occasional visit to campus. The institutional fellowship allows an individual to remain at their post at a news organization or other institution while developing an idea. Areas of particular interest include: projects focused on inclusivity and engaging communities; applied research that helps RJI better understand the business and practice of journalism; new techniques, tools and technologies; prototypes that need further development and market testing; and ideas for new revenue streams or business models that many news organizations could adopt.

Residential fellows receive an $80,000 stipend and a $10,000 one-time housing or relocation allowance. Nonresidential fellows receive a $20,000 stipend, plus research and travel support. The institutional fellowship stipend—$20,000—is paid to the company or institution and can be used for salary relief or for another purpose to best ensure the success of the fellowship project. RJI Fellowships are open to U.S. citizens and foreign journalists. The deadline to apply is Feb. 15. For more information or to apply, click here.

Utah has the most Google searches for Star Wars; where does your state rank?

People in Utah are crazy about "Star Wars." The seventh installment in the series—and first in 10 years—opened last night and is expected to break every box office record that exists. According to Google Trends, no state has done more Google searches for "Star Wars" than Utah, where people are 25 percent more likely to see the movie than the No. 2 state on the list—California—and Utahn are twice as likely to see the movie as people in the two states that have drawn the fewest interest on Google—Oregon and Mississippi, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

Following Utah and California the states with the next most "Star Wars" searches are Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Indiana, Minnesota, Virginia, Idaho and Nevada. (Post map: To see an interactive Google Trends map, click here)

Rural Georgia editor publishes book of his favorite columns: 'Please, No More Stupid Articles!'

Mike Buffington, editor of The Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., and a former president of the National Newspaper Association, has compiled some of his favorite columns from the past four decades into one collection, "Please, No More Stupid Articles!" Buffington, who began working at the Herald in 1980 and has been writing columns ever since, wrote in the author's note: "The title of the book comes from one of the many unfriendly letters I've received over the years from readers who didn't particularly like what I had to say, Expressing an opinion every week in print in a small town is not a good way to cultivate friends. Still, it's been a privilege to have the opportunity to sit in the editor's chair at a small town weekly newspaper and write about the parade of life in my community and beyond."

Here is a sample from one of Buffington's columns, "An anthem for rural Georgia," written in 1991:
Mike Buffington
"One of the spin-off issues from the debate over building a second Atlanta airport in Jackson County has been a deepening rift between Metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. Of course the rift is not new. For years, political leaders in Atlanta have resented the influence of rural Georgia in state politics. In particular, the legislature has long been dominated by men from outside the metro area, much to the dismay of Atlanta's leaders.

"On the other hand, rural leaders have likewise resented the growth and affluence of Metro Atlanta. While some areas of Georgia have lost population and jobs, Metro Atlanta has prospered. The contrast between the poor rural counties and the rich metro counties has led to the theory of 'two Georgia.'

"So it is not surprising that a political split exists between the rural areas and the metro area. Both politically and economically, two very different Georgias exist indeed.

"Rural Georgia gives a lot of natural and human resources to Atlanta. Atlanta consumes those resources and creates economic prosperity which it shares with the rest of Georgia. It has been a good relationship of mutual needs and mutual benefits.

"It is a relationship that is in danger of getting out of balance. Myopic demands by Atlanta's leaders on the resources of rural Georgia threatens the long-term potential of those rural communities. Destroy rural Georgia, and you will destroy the very resources that enabled Atlanta to prosper in the first place.

"It's time Atlanta's leaders wake up and begin to recognize that Atlanta cannot, and indeed should not, breathe all the air in Georgia."
Buffington won this year's Eugene Cervi Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

County-level map shows more than 82% of rural counties at or below national income average

Only 17.5 percent of rural counties had average personal incomes above the 2014 national average, with most of the counties located in the Great Plains states and Alaska, according to a county-level map, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder. The map was created using data from the Bureau of Economic Affairs, which counts income as wages, rents, royalties from oil and gas production, transfer payments from Social Security or welfare, interest and capital gains.

The average income in 2014 in rural counties with no towns with more than 10,000 residents was $36,151, Bishop writes. By comparison, the average income in urban areas was $47,566, while counties with towns between 10,000 to 50,000 people averaged $37,270. The rural county with the highest average income was Teton County, Wyoming, at $194,485, while the lowest average income was in Wheeler County, Georgia, at $15,787 in 2014. Seven of the top 10 lowest rural incomes were in Florida and Georgia, while 14 of the top 20 biggest drops in income from 2012 to 2014 were in North Dakota, where the oil boom has begun to drop off. (For an interactive version, click here)

USPS governing board has just one member; Bernie Sanders reportedly stalling voting on nominees

The U.S. Postal Service, which is supposed to have nine governors on its decision-making board, currently only has one, Eric Katz reports for Government Executive. Congress has rejected every nominee by President Obama, and the Senate has not confirmed a new member to the board since 2010, largely because Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) "is reportedly holding up the current nominees over concerns that they plan to further degrade postal services." The board is supposed to be bipartisan, with no more than five members from any one party.

"Last year, the board lost its ability to field a quorum when it dropped to just three confirmed members," Katz writes. "It has been operating under a 'temporary emergency committee,' which the board created to avoid being left completely powerless when it lost its quorum." With two governors’ terms expiring on Dec. 8, the "committee is now made up of just one confirmed member—Chairman James Bilbray—as well as the postmaster general and her deputy."

"Several of the nominees are not actually new but have instead been re-nominated after already serving in the positions," Katz writes. Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman, told Katz, "The role of the governors in ensuring the Postal Service’s ability to effectively achieve its statutory responsibilities is simply too important for there to be only a single governor in office.” (Read more)

Ending 15-bed requirement in Alabama could increase state's rural hospitals, health official says

Changing a state requirement in Alabama that hospitals need to have at last 15 beds could increase the number of rural hospitals in the state, Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, told the Alabama Health Care Improvement Task Force on Wednesday, Mary Sell reports for the Times Daily in northwest Alabama. Currently, eight rural counties in Alabama do not have a hospital.

Using Perry County in West Alabama as an example, Quinney told the task force, “They don’t need 15 beds; they only need three or four . . . The two- or three-bed concept—those hospitals will either treat patients in their related rural health clinic or in their emergency room and send them home. Or they have a transfer agreement with a larger medical center; they stabilize and send you elsewhere for more comprehensive care."

The task force, created by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, "is looking at a variety of possible recommendations for improving health care in the state," Sell writes. "It will finalize some of those recommendations next month, in time for them to be turned into legislation for the 2016 session that starts in February. Last month, the group recommended expanding Medicaid to serve more low-income Alabamians. Next month, it will further discuss—and likely vote on—a recommendation calling for lawmakers to increase the state’s per-pack cigarette tax by 75 cents in order to fund expansion." (Read more)

White guards at rural California prison are racist and abusive, says state's inspector general

The mostly white guards at a rural prison in California taunt black and Hispanic inmates with racial slurs and give preferential treatment to white inmates, according to a report by state inspector general Robert A. Barton, Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. Guards at High Desert State Prison, in Susanville (Best places map) also "use other prisoners’ possessions to reward inmates who assault each other . . . and routinely engage in unnecessary force."

The prison's staff is more than 75 percent white, while the inmates, most of them serving sentences for felonies, are more than three-quarters black or Hispanic, Williams writes. "The 3,482-inmate prison—which is at 149 percent of its capacity—has had six wardens or acting wardens during the past eight years. Prison officials, the report said, appear to be 'oblivious' to many of the prisons problems."

"The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which operates the facility, said in a statement Wednesday that it had already made changes, including hiring a new warden this month," Williams writes.

Similar to Central Appalachia, rural northeastern China struggling with the loss of coal jobs

Coal country in Hegang, China, in Heilongjiang Province—one of the nation's poorest regions—could easily be mistaken for Central Appalachia. Much like areas in West Virginia and Kentucky that are struggling with the loss of coal jobs, rural China is experiencing a similar fate. In September, the Longmay Group, the biggest coal company in northeastern China, announced plans to lay off 100,000 workers, Jane Perlez and Yufan Huang report for The New York Times. "The elimination of about 40 percent of the work force at 42 mines in four cities is the biggest reduction in jobs that anyone could recall in this steadily declining rust belt near the Russian border." Nationally, coal prices have fallen 60 percent since 2011.

"China has managed mass layoffs at creaky, state-owned businesses like Longmay before, averting the threat of strikes and unrest by suppressing protests and offering payouts and job training," reports the Times. "But that was when the economy was booming and could readily absorb displaced workers. The test the government now faces in this depressed coal town and in other hard-hit areas across the country is whether it can head off labor discontent in a slowing economy." (NYT map: Hegang is in Northeastern China)
"Longmay has delayed the bulk of the layoffs, cutting only several hundred older workers who held nonessential jobs," reports the Times. "Last month, the government of Heilongjiang Province, which owns Longmay, announced a $600 million bailout that would help the company repay its bonds. But analysts see the infusion as short-term relief that will not prevent a reckoning."

The downturn in the coal economy is leading to civil unrest, with workers protesting and management responding by locking workers in the mines, reports the Times. Also, "Internet regulators exposed a group of workers discussing a demonstration on an online bulletin board. They were hauled to a police station, fingerprinted and warned that jail sentences would follow if they dared do it again." The number of worker strikes and labor protests in China was 2,354 through November, compared to 1,207 in 2014.

A former coal worker, who quit to find a better paying job, told the Times, “In the 90s, everyone was poor. Now the rich are too rich, and the poor are too poor. Because of the layoffs, everyone is worried. No one has a way to live outside the mines. With the New Year holidays coming, there will be chaos in Hegang.” (Read more)

Longtime journalist says she was fired for writing editorial about gun control

Jan Larson McLaughlin
The editor of the Sentinel-Tribune, a daily family-owned newspaper in Bowling Green, Ohio, was reportedly fired for writing an editorial about gun control that the publisher ultimately refused to publish, Jennifer Feehan reports for the Toledo Blade. Jan Larson McLaughlin, who had been with the Tribune for 29 years and editor since 2013, "said she was handed a letter of termination accusing her of insubordination for allowing news staff members at the Sentinel-Tribune to read an editorial about the NRA that she had written, as was her normal practice."

"McLaughlin said the rejected opinion piece called on responsible gun owners to reclaim control of the NRA in the wake of recent mass shootings across the country," Feehan writes. "Sentinel publisher and vice president Karmen Concannon killed the editorial and subsequently declined to discuss the matter with staff members who asked her to reconsider publishing it." Concannon's parents own the newspaper.

McLaughlin said she believes she was fired less for writing the editorial and more for trying to discuss with the publisher why it wasn't published, Feehan writes. McLaughlin told Feehan, “I knew that particular editorial was dead, but I needed to know how to proceed from there. I needed some direction. She refused to talk to me . . . The newsroom standing behind me was just the last straw of me constantly pushing to be a better newspaper, to be who we are supposed to be in the community.” (Best Places map: Bowling Green, Ohio)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Spending bill has $90 million in funding for Appalachian coalfield, guts country-labeling law

"Congressional leaders unveiled a $1.15 trillion fiscal 2016 spending bill overnight" that includes $90 million in abandoned-coal-mine funding for Appalachian states hit hard by the mining downturn,  Manuel QuiƱones, Geof Koss and Phil Taylor report for Environment & Energy News. "House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers' (R-Ky.) original proposal was $30 million. The provision is meant to be a rolled-back version of a White House proposal to speed up the release of $1 billion from the abandoned-coal-mine reclamation fund. Another section of the omnibus includes $19 million in aid for dislocated coal-mine and power-plant workers."

The Abandoned Mine Land Fund has nearly $2.5 billion, accumulated over the years in fees paid by coal companies but not spent because most abandoned mines have been reclaimed. President Obama had proposed spending $1 billion over five years to keep his promise to help areas that are economically distressed because of his anti-coal policies. When the plan stalled in Congress, local communities in the Central Appalachian coalfield began asking for its passage.

"Negotiators kept an existing provision prohibiting the administration from changing the definition of 'fill material' under the Clean Water Act, a move that could restrict mining," reports E&E News. "The omnibus spending bill also includes a provision rolling back the Obama administration's moves to limit financing for overseas coal-fired power plants. The deal directs $160 million to boost demonstration projects aimed at commercializing technology to capture and reuse carbon emissions from power plants."

Also in the bill "payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), a program that compensates rural counties with large blocks of tax-exempt federal lands, would receive $452 million, marking the second straight year the program has been funded through the appropriations process," reports E&E News. "While PILT is a relief for Western counties, its inclusion in the omnibus bill comes at the expense of other Interior, Forest Service and EPA investments. It used to be funded through mandatory dollars."

Also included is a three-year re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, funding the program for $450 million in fiscal 2016, a significant increase over the current level of just over $300 million, reports E&E News. Legislation also "includes increases for fossil fuel and nuclear research and development, including $632 million for coal, oil and natural gas."

The bill’s country-of-origin labeling (COOL) "provision would gut a law that was first enacted as part of the 2002 farm bill," reports Agri-Pulse. "In a small victory for supporters of the COOL law, the spending bill would leave in place the labeling requirements for chicken, while eliminating the rules for beef and pork. Those were the two commodities at the center of the WTO case in which Canada and Mexico recently won approval to impose more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs against U.S. exports."

"The bill also won’t stop the Obama administration from enforcing its new 'waters of the United States' (WOTUS) rule if a court stay is lifted," reports Agri-Pulse. "The WOTUS rider was a top priority for many farm groups and developers, who said the rider was needed as insurance should the courts allow the administration to start enforcing the rule, which re-defines the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. However, the White House strongly resisted including it, lawmakers said." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "said the final sticking point Tuesday was Republicans' demand to lift a 40-year ban on the export of U.S. crude oil," Erin Kelly reports for USA Today. "Democrats agreed to lift the ban but only after they apparently won a five-year extension of tax credits for wind and solar energy. They also beat back Republican efforts to derail President Obama's clean air and climate change regulations."

The bill also includes "provisions to ensure reimbursement policies don't change for mammograms and to exempt some rural long-term care hospitals from a billing change related to treating severe wounds," Erin Mershon reports for Politico. The House is expected to vote on the spending bill on Friday.

House Republicans call USDA mandatory farmer surveys 'invasive' and 'irrelevant'

House Republicans say the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual mandatory surveys to farmers are too long and the questions are intrusive, reports Agri-Pulse. The survey, mailed to 2.1 landowners last year, was 24 pages and 326 questions for operator landlords—who farm the land they own—and 12 pages for non-operator landlords. Members of the House biotechnology, horticulture and research subcommittee, led by Chairman Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) called the survey “invasive” and “irrelevant.”

The 2014 survey "was administered by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and used to generate data on farmland owners and the economic health of the farm sector,” reports Agri-Pulse. “Questions for operator landlords dealt with farm-related income and expenses, investments and insurance policies. But there were also questions that some committee members considered unusual—dealing with healthcare expenses and household entertainment expenditures, along with vacations and charitable donations.”

Davis said "questions about donations were inappropriate for a mandatory agricultural survey, and other Republicans on the panel agreed,” reports Agri-Pulse. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) "called the survey questions ‘offensive.’" Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) "told the hearing’s sole witness, NASS Administrator Joseph Reilly, ‘it’s none of your business how much money (landowners) are giving to charity.’” Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) expressed concern that the length of the survey would cause some farmers to refuse to answer.

Reilly said the survey’s "list of questions helped NASS 'gather a full economic profile' for American family farms," reports Agri-Pulse. "He also said the agency does 'everything possible to secure the information' gleaned via surveys from being made public." Producers who refused to complete the survey, or ignored it, could face a $100 penalty. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Telepresence allowing rural students to take classes through interactive video technology

A new program is allowing students in rural Wisconsin to use technology to take classes they wouldn't normally be able to take, Pamela Cotant reports for the Wisconsin State Journal. Students are using telepresence, "a high-definition, real-time interactive video technology system that allows students to take classes from teachers who aren’t physically in their school." Students learn from an instructor via a television screen that enables both parties to interact with each other. (Journal photo by Andy Manis: Mineral Point High School sophomore Haakon Schriefer takes a precalculus class offered through another school district)

Luke Francois, superintendent of the Mineral Point School District, told Cotant, "The crux of the effort is to level the playing field [so] students going to rural schools have every opportunity afforded to them as do suburban and urban schools. We are in our infancy and just getting started with what’s possible.” (Best Places map: Mineral Point, Wisc.)

Spanish students are able to communicate with a class in Mexico, while other students took a virtual trip to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Cotant writes. Other endeavors planned for Mineral Point schools include the chance for students to earn college credits through literature and music appreciation courses. (Read more)

Report: Environment impacts health of rural children more than it does urban ones

Rural children are more likely than their urban peers to experience health problems based on "their environment, their socioeconomic status, their own and their families’ health behaviors, and their access to quality clinical care," says a report by the Department of Health and Human Services. The research, which included samplings of journal publications, found that rural children are more likely to be obese and live with someone who smokes.

Almost one in four rural children ages 4 to 17 has the potential for a mental health problem, but as many as 80 percent of those children live in areas that lack services, states the report. Another problem is access to dental care, with about 75 percent of areas with inadequate dental care located in rural areas. Rural women also lack access to prenatal and postnatal care. Rural counties average 2 obstetricians per every 1,000 women, compared to 35 obstetricians per every 1,000 women in urban areas. Some rural areas also lack hospitals with obstetric services. The report also looked at the effects of asthma on children in rural and urban areas.

The report offers suggestions to break down barriers for healthy living for rural children. It suggests that communities, schools and child care facilities can encourage healthier eating and increased physical activity through education and supportive environments. Telehealth and school-based health centers can provide greater access to behavioral health services. Oral health in rural children can be improved by increasing access to preventive treatments, such as by changing Medicaid reimbursement policies to increase the number of providers. Greater access to prenatal and postnatal can be increased through home visiting programs and telemedicine. Also, school and home-based programs can help address asthma.

Appalachian coal county celebrates native son being crowned winner of NBC's The Voice

Appalachian coal country has been on center stage this season on NBC's "The Voice," and last night, Eastern Kentucky native Jordan Smith walked away with the grand prize, which includes $100,000 and a recording contract. Smith, who hails from Harlan County, is currently a senior at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. (NBC photo: Jordan Smith performs Tuesday night)

"The epicenter of happiness for Smith has been in his home county, where watch parties for 'The Voice' episodes have grown to hundreds of people the past few episodes and [Judge-Executive Dan] Mosley declared November Jordan Smith Month," Rich Copley reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Mosley said support for Smith can be seen all over the county, in signs, billboards, T-shirts, even a Christmas tree at Appalachian Regional Healthcare Hospital decked out in Jordan Smith ornaments."

Mosley said Smith's win, and his story that dreams do come true, is especially important in Harlan County, an area hit hard by poverty and decline of its coal industry. The homeless rate in Harlan County is 26.21 percent, and only 27 of the 87 licensed mines are active, producing 4.6 million tons of coal last year, the lowest total since 1920.

Even before winning, Smith was named Harlan countian of the year, "which usually earns the recipient a spot as grand marshal of the annual Christmas parade," Copley writes. While Smith couldn't attend the parade because of the television show—his family rode the float in his stead—"Mosley said he hopes to be able to announce a parade and program for Smith once they know his schedule." Mosely told Copley, "Jordan Smith is going to be a musical icon for years to come. That brings a new spotlight to Harlan." (Family Search map: Harlan County, Kentucky)

In the blind auditions, Smith "stunned the judges with his rendition of Sia’s "Chandelier," sparking a fierce competition between judges Gwen Stefani and Adam Levine to be on their teams," Copley writes. "Smith chose Levine, who told Smith, 'I think you’re the most important person that’s ever been on this show' and has enthusiastically been in the singer’s corner throughout the competition."

"In subsequent rounds, Smith beat out competitors who had already had professional singing careers to enter the show’s live competition where he took on a variety of genres, from rock to pop to hymns to showtunes, and mastered them all," Copley writes. "Throughout the competition, the show’s judges showered him with praise. Smith also made unprecedented runs for The Voice competitors on the iTunes Top 100 Songs chart. On the show, iTunes sales count as votes, and making the Top 10 multiplies votes."

Smith's hometown paper, the Harlan Daily Enterprise, has been following his progress since he first appeared on the show. To read the stories, click here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

County-level map shows high rates of inmates in rural jails; rural females jailed up 9% since 1970

The number of inmates being incarcerated in rural jails is on the rise, surpassing totals from urban ones, Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. The Vera Institute of Justice says that since 1970, "the jail population has expanded sevenfold in small counties, more than twice as fast as it has in large counties. On a typical day in 2014, those large counties had an average of 271 inmates in jails per 100,000 people between the ages of 15 and 64. In small counties, the figure was 446 inmates." Also, in 1978, the average stay in jail was nine days. Now it is more than three weeks.

The report, which used data from California and New York, "focused on locally administered jails rather than prisons," Ehrenfreund writes. "While policymakers and the press discuss prisons more frequently, local jails are where the vast majority of Americans who are locked up go. Jails accounted for a little more than 11 million admissions annually, while state and federal prisons recorded just 627,000 admissions last year." The institute's preliminary analysis "indicates that the pattern of increasing rates of incarceration in suburban and rural counties holds when prisons are included, too."

One startling figure was the increased rate of incarcerated women, with numbers increasing from 5 percent in 1970 to 14 percent today, Ehrenfreund writes. Some of the highest rates were in counties in
Appalachian Tennessee and Kentucky. While the institute did not give a specific reason for the overall rise of inmates in rural areas, Ehrenfreund suggested that rural poverty could be one reason. (Vera map: Shows how many people lived in each county in 2014 and the share of them who were in a local jail. For an interactive version, click here)

Wisconsin 12th state to join interstate pact to increase healthcare in rural and underserved areas

Wisconsin has become the 12th state to join the Interstate Physician Licensure Compact, a move proponents say will expand health care in rural areas, Mike Tighe reports for the LaCrosse Tribune. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the law on Monday allowing Wisconsin to join the pact, which "eliminates much of the red tape and costs required for doctors licensed in one state to gain credentials in the 11 other member states."

Dr. Tim Johnson, CEO of LaCrosse's Mayo-Franciscan, part of the Mayo Clinic, told Tighe, “It will provide a significant decrease in the time, effort and expense of having every physician who physically crosses a state line or does medicine virtually go through the licensing process in each state. As we do more and more virtual medicine, the number of doctors able to do telemedicine will expand exponentially. Mayo Clinic doctors see patients in all 50 states. That becomes a big deal. It is good for patients and good for health care.”

In states that have not joined the pact, "doctors have had to follow the time-consuming process of submitting full applications and paying a substantial fee in each state where they want licenses," Tighe writes. States in the pact "will be able to licensed in what they designate as their home state and use that paperwork to gain credentials in other states."

Eric Tempelis, government relations director at Gundersen Health System, said "the next step is for the Interstate Medical Licensure Commission to determine criteria under which states will accept other members’ licenses" in an attempt to whittle a process that takes months to be completed in a few days, Tighe writes. Tempelis told Tighe, “Once started, it will make it easier for doctors to be licensed, and it will be easier for hospitals to hire doctors and get consultations from other states. In rural and underserved areas, that is where this could be a huge change." (Interstate Physician Licensure Compact map: Blue states have joined the pact. Orange states have introduced legislation to join the pact)

Appeals Court upholds EPA's mercury pollution rule

"An appeals court has upheld the Obama administration’s sweeping mercury pollution rule for power plants, despite a Supreme Court decision against the regulation," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. "The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is allowed to enforce the air pollution regulation while it works to fix the flaw identified by the high court."

In June the Supreme Court ruled "that in developing the mercury and air toxics standards, EPA violated the Clean Air Act by not considering the compliance costs to electric utilities," Cama writes. "The agency did consider costs in writing the rule, but the justices decided that a unique provision in the law requires a cost-benefit analysis before even starting to write it. The Supreme Court did not overturn the rule and left it to the Circuit Court to decide its fate." EPA has promised to fix the problem by April 16, 2016.

A group of states, including two of the nation's largest coal-producing states—Kentucky and West Virginia—" had asked the Circuit Court to vacate the rule, arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision identified a fatal issue that prevents the rule’s enforcement," Cama writes. "EPA said that argument ignores the court’s 'tradition of remanding deficient rules without vacatur when vacatur would have significant adverse consequences for public health and the environment, or offers evidence of any significant disruptive consequences for industry of maintaining the status quo under the Rule through remand without vacatur.'" (Read more)

Study: Fracking decreases values for homes that use wells, increases values for homes that use piped water

Hydraulic fracturing causes values to decline for homes in neighborhoods that use well water, while it causes values to rise for homes in areas that rely on tap water, says a study by Duke University published in American Economic Review, Alison Jones reports for Duke Today. "The study, conducted in Pennsylvania, found that in areas using well water, home prices dropped by an average of $30,1676 when shale drilling occurred within a distance of 1.5 kilometers. Meanwhile, homes using piped water gained an average of $4,800 in value after shale wells opened nearby." (Duke graphic)
Researchers examined home sales in 36 Pennsylvania counties between 1995 and 2012, Jones writes. The study found that "among homes that rely on well water, a shale well located within one kilometer was associated with a 13.9 percent average decrease in home values. But if the nearest shale gas drilling site was at least two kilometers away, property values remained constant. In neighborhoods with a piped water supply, meanwhile, home values rose slightly after shale wells opened, perhaps due to royalty payments by shale gas companies."

Lead author Christopher Timmins, a Duke economics professor, said: "Our results show clearly that housing markets are responding to homeowners’ concerns about groundwater contamination from shale gas development. We may not know for many years whether these concerns are valid or not. However, they are creating a real cost to property owners today.” (Read more)

Watchdog: EPA broke law in using social media to lobby for support of Waters of the U.S. rules

The Environmental Protection Agency's social media campaign to promote its Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules "violated legal provisions barring federal agencies from engaging in congressional and grassroots lobbying," said the Government Accountability Office, Annie Snider reports for Politico. "In particular, auditors concluded that the agency's use of a 'Thunderclap' campaign constituted 'covert propaganda.' The campaign encouraged users to redistribute messages in support of the rule without identifying the EPA as the source of those messages."

EPA disagreed with the watchdog's assessment, Snider writes. Spokeswoman Monica Lee said in a statement: “We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission. We have an obligation to inform all stakeholders about environmental issues and encourage participation in the rulemaking process. We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities.”

"The rule, also called the Clean Water Rule, is aimed at clearing up years’ worth of confusion about which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act," Snider writes. "The Obama administration says it is just a clarification, but opponents say it would vastly expand federal regulators’ reach across the country’s landscape." (Read more)

Deadline Friday for journalism fellowships for John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim conference in NYC

Friday is the deadline to apply for up to 15 fellowships available to working journalists to attend the 11th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim "Making Room for Justice: Crime, Public Safety and the Choices Ahead for Americans" two-day conference on Feb. 25-26, 2016 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice is also sponsoring "up to four fellowships for qualified and experienced journalists who are interested in developing projects (or have projects underway) in the area of reforms of court procedures," states John Jay.

"The H.F. Guggenheim conferences are designed to bring together journalists, policymakers and practitioners for candid briefings and dialogue on emerging criminal justice issues," states John Jay. "Applicants’ projects should be related to work in progress or proposed work slated for publication. The project should be supported by a senior editor, with a letter attesting to their commitment to publish the final work. Freelancers are encouraged to apply. Their work will be also be published on The Crime Report, a national criminal justice news service published by Center on Media, Crime and Justice and Criminal Justice Journalists."

Fellows are required to attend both days of the conference, states John Jay. Those from outside the New York area "will be awarded an all-expense-paid trip to NYC, including travel and transportation. New York-region journalists will be awarded a $300 stipend to be used toward their proposed news project in lieu of travel expenses." Applications should include a 150-word biography, a 300-word project pitch and a supporting letter from editor. For more information or to apply for one of the fellowships, click here.

USDA rule will require ground beef producers to keep records of where meat came from

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday finalized a rule requiring producers of raw ground beef to keep records of where the meat came from, Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. The rule was designed to help the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) "improve its ability to determine the source of foodborne illnesses linked to ground beef and to stop the outbreak from spreading." FSIS said investigations have been hurt by retail stores mixing product from various sources and failing "to keep clear records that would allow investigators to determine which supplier produced the unsafe product."

"Under the rule, all establishments and retail stores that grind raw beef products will be required to keep record of the establishment numbers of establishments supplying material used to prepare each lot of raw ground beef product; all supplier lot numbers and production dates; the names of the supplied materials, including beef components and any materials carried over from one production lot to the next; the date and time each lot of raw ground beef product is produced; and the date and time when grinding equipment and other related food-contact surfaces are cleaned and sanitized," Wheeler writes.

Investigators say Ky. farmers, insurance agents tried to defraud federal crop insurance program

Federal investigators say a conspiracy existed in Kentucky "to defraud thousands and possibly millions of dollars" from the federal crop insurance program, Greg Kocher reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The alleged conspiracy involved Central Kentucky tobacco farmers, crop insurance agents, crop insurance adjustors, tobacco warehouse owners/employees and others" in a scheme to profit from false insurance claims for losses of tobacco.

The investigation began in 2012 when the Risk Management Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "received a tip that a Kentucky farmer had been committing crop insurance fraud with the help of an insurance agent and an insurance adjustor," Kocher writes. "The allegation was that the farmer received $68,000 on a corn crop that was not even planted" and that he had 400 acres insured in other farmers’ names.

In 2013, another anonymous complaint alleged that an insurance agent "approached a farmer and offered to 'give them a good insurance claim,'" Kocher writes. "The agent allegedly offered to do an appraisal for a small amount, and then the farmer could 'sell his tobacco for cash or destroy it.' The farmer was to pay the agent 25 percent of the proceeds. The investigation also determined that certain producers consistently under reported their tobacco production in order to cause an insurable loss payment. There was also evidence that certain producers funneled money through different accounts to conceal their source and nature."

USDA "pays private insurers to sell and manage policies, but taxpayers are on the hook for most of the losses," Kocher writes. "USDA requires tobacco growers to take out crop insurance ahead of the growing season, but payment on those policies is not due until after the harvest. If the crop is damaged by bad weather, the farmer is paid the difference between the value of his diminished harvest and the amount of the policy." (Read more)

Monday, December 14, 2015

University of Nevada study looks at the national county-level impact of legalized gambling

Revenue increased in non-Indian counties that opened casinos from 1987 to 2007—a period in which the number of states to legalize gambling went from 2 to 33—says a study by the University of Nevada published in SAGE Journals, Vyasan Radhakrishnan reports for Journalist's Resource. For all counties—many of them rural—"when a commercial casino is opened, the county showed an increase of 7.8 percent in per-capita revenues and 8.1 percent increase in per-capita expenditures. However, for all counties with Indian casinos, the opening of Indian casinos led to a decrease in per-capita county revenue by 3.6 percent and a decrease of 4.6 percent in per-capita county expenditure."

"Casino counties had significantly lower per capita sales tax revenues irrespective of the presence of casinos," Radhakrishnan writes. "Casino openings in those same counties had no significant association with county sales tax revenues. Casino counties showed a decrease in per-capita education expenditures by 6 percent when Indian casinos were opened in these counties. There is, however, no statistically significant impact on education expenditures when commercial casinos are opened in casino counties."

"Researchers did not find that opening casinos improved the fiscal condition of the counties," Radhakrishnan writes. "However, when a positive effect of commercial casinos was found, it was primarily through revenue sharing legislation. In these cases, local laws mandated states to share revenues from casino taxes with counties. For these states, the opening of casinos increased the sales tax revenues by more than 75 percent and increased revenues and expenditures by more than 11 percent and 12 percent respectively." (University of Nevada graphic)

Rural areas lack prevention services for opiate addiction, HIV infections, says CDC study

While rates of opiate addiction and HIV infections are on the rise in rural areas, those areas have a severe lack of prevention services, says a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In March 2014, the U.S. had 204 syringe service programs (SSPs). Of the 153 that participated in the CDC survey, only 20 percent—30 of 153—were located in rural areas, and just one was in the South. Of the rest, 18 were in the West, six in the Midwest, four in the Northeast and one in Puerto Rico.

The report found that 2,654,551 syringes were exchanged in rural areas, compared to more than 31 million in urban areas. Rural programs had an average budget of around $26,000, compared to $184,000 for urban ones, with urban areas accounting for 83 percent of all budgeted money for programs.

Most SSPs offered HIV counseling and testing (87 percent rural, 90 percent urban) and hepatitis C (HCV) testing (67 percent rural, 78 percent urban). Few SSPs reported having referral tracking systems for HCV-related care and treatment (33 percent rural, 44 percent urban). Rural SSPs were less likely to provide naloxone for reversing opioid overdoses, with 37 percent offering the service, compared to 61 percent of urban programs.

Don Des Jarlais, Professor of Psychiatry and Preventive Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lead author of the study, wrote: "Syringe service programs have been very effective in reducing HIV transmission in the U.S. and throughout the world. Our data show that rural and suburban SSPs face some special challenges in recruiting clients, funding and staffing but that these programs can provide the needed services when they are implemented. The biggest problem is simply that we do not have enough of them in rural and suburban areas. State and local governments can save lives by extending these programs."

As flu season heats up it's a good time to inform readers that antibiotics have little effect on viruses

Winter means an increase in reports of flu and colds and other ailments that send people scurrying to the doctor or the pharmacist in search of remedies. But it's also a good time to remind—or educate— readers that antibiotics do little to combat viruses.

"While antibiotics have their uses, as much as half the time they are inappropriately prescribed, said Dr. Glenn Ridenour, an infectious diseases physician at Charleston Area Medical Center," Lori Kersey reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "Antibiotics have no effect on viruses like colds, flus and bronchitis, but often, Ridenour said, people will ask physicians to prescribe them when they have sore throats, sneezing and other symptoms. Patients who take the antibiotics feel better within a week, but they would actually feel better in that amount of time even if they had no medication, Ridenour said." (Gazette-Mail graphic)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says antibiotics should be used to treat bacterial infections, like whooping cough, strep throat and urinary tract infections, Kersey writes. "There are very few antibiotics that work on viruses, Ridenour said. Instead of antibiotics, people should treat their symptoms by staying hydrated, taking cough suppressants and decongestants, and waiting, he said." He said physicians often prescribe antibiotics for viruses because it's easier than trying to explain to them that they don't need it. He said antibiotics won’t hurt a person in the short term but over time can make germs resistant to the antibiotics.

Rural Upstate New York town votes to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020

Officials in the rural town of Nassau, New York, (Best Places map) voted last week to ditch the electrical grid and switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020, Scott Waldman reports for POLITICO New York. "If all goes as planned, within the next four years, all six of the town buildings will be disconnected from the grid, Nassau supervisor Dave Fleming said. The town is now formulating a plan for how to get all its power from renewables within the next four years."

"Using the rooftops of town buildings and a nearby landfill that has been capped to house solar panels will give the town all the energy it needs, which in turn will provide greater public safety and lower tax bills, Fleming said," Waldman writes. "The town can also use methane from the landfill and is in a wind corridor that will provide productive turbines, he said."

Department of Public Services spokesman Jon Sorensen said Nassau's plan can serve as a model for the rest of the state, as part of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Reforming Energy Vision initiative, which "is actively working to help municipalities—especially towns and schools—move toward getting a significant portion of their power from renewable resources," writes Waldman. Sorensen said "REV is designed to make the energy grid more efficient and increase its reliance on renewables, and it is intended to give consumers more choices than they have now." He told Waldman, “This is exactly the kind of thing REV is hoping to encourage. Smaller, cleaner power systems are less costly and cleaner alternatives to the bigger power stations that have made up the power grid."

University of Oklahoma daily to drop to two days per week, focus more on digital news

Citing a lack of need for a daily newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, the student paper at the University of Oklahoma, announced on Friday that it will decrease publication from five days per week to two days per week. Beginning in January, print editions will only be available on Mondays and Thursdays.

"It’s no secret that print newspapers have lost their essential value," states the editorial board. "We all know this. Hundreds of copies remain in the racks at the end of each night on this campus. The need for information can no longer wait until the next morning because it’s never more than a tap away on your phone. We’ve embraced this 'news now' mentality, and our online platform reflects that. A less frequent print product doesn’t mean a less frequent Daily. Our already established digital first mindset will only become more precise and efficient."

"We want our work to serve you in the best way possible," states the board. "That way used to be through the print product, but now it’s through our digital platforms. If fewer people are picking up the paper and more are reading online, it only makes sense for us to adapt." (Read more)