Friday, February 19, 2016

Rural areas add jobs but jobless rate up in nearly 40% of rural counties as jobs become more urban

Rural areas added 232,000 jobs from December 2014 to December 2015, but the unemployment rate rose in nearly 40 percent of rural counties during that time, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by Bill Bishop for the Daily Yonder: "A total of 789 rural counties had unemployment rates unchanged or higher than a year ago," while metro areas added 1.98 million jobs and "only 26 percent of metro counties reported higher unemployment rates than a year before."

"The federal figures show a gradual shift of jobs from rural America to the cities," Bishop writes. "Nearly nine out of 10 of the jobs added in the last year were in urban counties. As a result, the percentage of jobs in cities is slowly creeping higher. In December 2015, 86.7 percent of all jobs were in urban counties. The unemployment rate in rural America was 5.6 percent in December 2015. In micropolitan counties (those with cities between 10,000 and 50,000 people), the rate was 5.2 percent. In urban counties, the unemployment rate in December was 4.7 percent." (Yonder map)

Likely short counts of homeless counts cost rural areas federal funds, say advocates for homeless

Homeless advocates say inaccurate counts of the number of rural homeless is costing local services federal funding, Miles Bryan reports for NPR. While about 7 percent of homeless Americans live in rural areas, those official numbers come from homeless counts of people living on the street and in shelters, not those staying with friends or in cheap hotels on cold nights in January, the month when yearly counts take place. (Bryan photo: Homeless line up for lunch and hot drinks at Cheyenne's Depot Plaza in Wyoming)

Jennifer Cruz, who volunteered for the homeless count in Cheyenne, Wyo., told Bryan, "They're not out in the open like they are in a larger city, because they find places. I just met a gentleman who's been sleeping on his brother's couch, but he is homeless." Cheyenne, which only has one 90-bed shelter that is typically filled to capacity, tried to get more accurate counts this year "by putting up flyers around town advertising a free meal and hot drinks in Cheyenne's main plaza, where the homeless answer federal homelessness surveys. Even so, volunteers here are still going to miss some people who don't have a home."

"The count is a standard used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development," Bryan writes. "It is performed in January based on the logic that the cold weather will drive people into emergency shelters, where they are easier to find. It is important: The count will in part determine how much federal money state homeless services get. Advocates say when even a few homeless people aren't counted it can make a big difference in the funding." (Read more)

Anti-immigration stance fueling Trump and Cruz in S.C., where voters say immigrants get all the jobs

Fear that immigrants are taking all the good jobs in a struggling economy has led South Carolina voters to favor presidential candidates with anti-immigration stances, Jim Tankersely reports for The Washington Post. That's one of the main reasons that Donald Trump, one of the most outspoken candidates on immigration, is expected to win handily during Saturday's Republican primary. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who also has an anti-immigration stance, is expected to finish second. (Associated Press photo: Trump at a town hall meeting in Columbia on Thursday)

"While academic studies suggest a connection between economic conditions and attitudes toward immigration, nobody can say with certainty whether any given voter in South Carolina is responding to economic anxiety with an anti-immigration sentiment," Tankersely writes. "Still, polling and economic data, along with interviews with experts and voters, suggest a strong overlap between the two."

Scott Huffman, a pollster at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, told Tankersely, “It’s a way to channel anger over a lot of disparate things. It’s the kind of people who feel like they’re losing power, they have been since Obama came in. They’re losing efficacy, the sense that they control things. You have to blame somebody. And immigration, especially immigration from Mexico, has become the target for that.”

Tankersely writes, "Polls show that Trump is running strongest among voters—both in South Carolina and nationwide—without college degrees, a disadvantaged group that has seen their economic prospects slide in recent decades. These voters are significantly more apt to support deporting undocumented immigrants, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling. Trump also draws a larger share of support from Republicans who say they are very worried about their financial future, compared to those who are less worried or not worried at all, according to the Post-ABC poll. Cruz also does well among these groups as well."

The Winthrop poll found that more than 6 in 10 Republican voters in South Carolina, and nearly 75 percent of the Trump supporters there, "believe immigrants—all immigrants, not just those in the country illegally—take jobs away from U.S. citizens," Tankersely writes. "South Carolina offers a microcosm of how working-class stagnation may be driving anti-immigration sentiment. Workers without college degrees have struggled to get ahead as South Carolina has remade its economy from one heavily reliant on textiles and agriculture to higher-end manufacturing. The textile jobs, which involved low-skilled manufacturing, have largely moved overseas, while immigrants have increased their presence in agriculture and in the state’s construction industry." (Read more)

Midwest's Rural Mainstreet Index increases for first time since August, but outlook still pessimistic

After dropping for five straight months the Midwest's Rural Mainstreet Index rose in February from 34.8 to 37 points, Jeff Stein reports for Public News Service. The increase still "shows a distinct lack of optimism about the rural economy." The index in January was 34.8, down from 41.5 in December. The index has now been below 50 for six straight months, which indicates economic decline.

Ernie Goss, an economist at Omaha's Creighton University, which creates the index, "said it appears farmers are more overextended at banks than at this time last year, but it isn't a cause for alarm," Stein writes. Goss told him, "The farmers still remain in reasonably good condition. This is nothing like a return to the 1980s, where the farmers mortgaged their land up significantly, and we are moving into a territory where the farmer is getting more leverage than before."

He "said continued low commodity prices primarily are to blame for the negative outlook," Stein writes. Only 8.7 percent of bankers "said their local economy is expanding, while more than a third— almost 37 percent—called theirs a recession. Goss said he believes market conditions will improve in the second half of 2016, with some cautions."

Goss said, "2016 is going to be somewhat like 2015, a bit challenging for the rural areas. For example, farmland prices still coming down; we're seeing cash rents, cash land rents, for the region coming down a bit... What we need to see going forward is at least international trade improving, also a turnaround in the global economy—and tack on a weaker dollar, that would all push the agricultural economy into positive territory. But right now, it's not in the immediate horizon." (Read more)

College students building low-cost water filter for rural areas that lack modern water infrastructure

Students from the New Jersey Institute of Technology are using a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to build a low-cost water filter that can help people in rural agricultural areas suffering from high rates of diseases from contaminated water, Tracey Regan reports for the NJIT. "The filter, which will sit inside a five-pound bucket, will be made of locally available clay mixed with hematite, a mineral containing iron oxide that binds with heavy metals. Colloidal silver, a suspension containing silver particles that captures biological pathogens such as e-coli and cholera, will be added to the filter." (NJIT photo)

"Nearly 40 students—from biologists to engineers—are working on various aspects of the project, from the design of the clay pot filters individual families would use to purify their water each day, to the development of prototype tests that will simulate local conditions, to research into government policies that encourage the use of fertilizers that contain toxic levels of cadmium and arsenic," Regan writes. "Their goal is to produce a prototype by the end of August."

"While the current prototype is being developed for Sri Lankan farming villages, the technology is designed to be extremely adaptable in order to suit a range of rural areas that lack modern water infrastructure," Regan writes. "Each version of the clay pot would be constructed of locally available materials such as clay, sawdust, bio-char, charcoal and hematite. The manufacturing process is both generic and simple."

Janitha Hewa Batagoda, a doctoral student and Sri Lanka native who is leading the project, told Regan, “We’re developing a filter that will absorb both heavy metals and disease-causing pathogens. The idea is to make it easy and inexpensive to manufacture, using locally available materials, and also ensure it is simple to use. Each system would cost the equivalent of about $5 and enable families to filter 10 gallons of water a day.” (Read more)

Citing rural doctor shortages, U. of Ky. will create satellite medical school, expand program in east

Citing doctor shortages in rural areas, the University of Kentucky is starting a satellite medical school in Bowling Green, expanding its medical-education program in Morehead and adding the Ashland hospital to it. UK will partner with Western Kentucky University and The Medical Center at Bowling Green and continue its collaboration with Morehead State University and St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead, UK President Eli Capilouto announced Thursday.

"The Commonwealth of Kentucky has a shortage of physicians, and especially primary care physicians, throughout the state, but particularly in rural areas," Capilouto said. "This is an acute health-care need and an economic one as well."

For several years, UK and Morehead have had a program in which 32 students have completed their "third and fourth years of medical training with rural-centered clinical experiences primarily at St. Claire," a UK news release noted. That will now expand to King's Daughters Hospital in Ashland. The new programs could start as early as 2018. details are still being worked out, the release said.

Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal notes that according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, Kentucky had "225.1 active physicians per 100,000 people in 2014, ranking the state 36th in the nation. These shortages reflect a national issue. "AAMC expects the nation will face a shortage of 46,000 to 90,000 doctors by 2025 – even as the U.S. population grows by 31 million and the number of Americans over 65 goes up 46 percent. Compounding matters, more than a quarter of active physicians nationally are 60 or older and likely to retire soon. Seeing these trends, the association in 2006 called for expanding the number of medical school graduates by 30 percent. A January report in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences said medical schools have so far increased enrollment by 23 percent."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pressure from FCC could bring high-speed Internet to rural and under-served areas via schools

In November Education Week reported on how rural schools in northern Mississippi are paying big bucks for the state's slowest Internet. Education Week and PBS Newshour teamed up to re-visit the region and see what's being done to fix that, and use it as an example of a national problem. Correspondent John Tulenko visited Calhoun County (World Atlas map), which covers nearly 600 square miles of mostly farmland.

C.J. Weddle, a 17-year-old high school student who said she plans to get a four-year college degree, told Tulenko, "The Internet is very contrary at Vardaman High School. You have good, you have bad days, but at Vardaman, you have more bad than good. History classes are limited to books and worksheets. Well, you don’t do research on significant figures in history or significant figures the government now, and that—I think that’s really going to hurt us later. You know, why be limited to that, when there’s a whole world at your fingertips or potentially could be?"

Tulenko writes, "The Internet here is slow because it comes via old copper wires running for miles underground. Even though high-speed cables have been laid by a phone company on one side of the district, on the other side, a second company has said upgrading its service is too expensive. Without those new cables, there is no high-speed Internet for schools and students."

"But help could come from new changes to the $4 billion federal E-Rate program, which helps schools pay for Internet service," Tulenko reports. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, "led an effort to overhaul the E-Rate program, in part by giving districts like Calhoun County the option to use federal funds to build fiber networks of their own, pressuring local telecoms to offer better deals. Recently, Calhoun County became the test case, one of the first districts to seek federal funds to build a new fiber network that included the option of a build-out of its own."

Wheeler told Tulenko, "School administrators say, I’m not going to put up with it anymore, that I’m being told it’s too expensive, or I’m being told it can’t be built. But you actually can take the situation, and the FCC will help you take that situation in your hand by funding it, that’s a game-changer. ... What we did was, we said, 'OK, schools, if you’re not being provided service or not being provided service at a reasonable rate by your local provider, you can build it yourself.'"

But as often happens when telecommunications companies are threatened with government competition, they agree to provide broadband that the had said wasn't economically viable. "Schools here won’t have to build their own network," Tulenko reports. "By inviting outside companies to bid on the job or come in with their own fiber, the district was able to secure a more attractive contract from its local providers to complete the job. But it will take some time, maybe a year." (PBS video)

Data show growing life-expectancy gap between the poor, who are more rural, and the rich

The life expectancy gap between rich and low-income Americans continues to grow, says a report by the Brookings Institution. That's a concern in rural areas, especially in the South and Appalachia, where poverty rates are some of the highest in the country. Mississippi had the nation's highest poverty rate in 2014 at 21.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, with rates of at least 18 percent in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The Brookings study found that among men born in 1950, the top 10 percent of wage earners live an average of 14 years longer than the bottom 10 percent of earners, much more than the six-year life expectancy difference for men born in 1920, Sabrina Tavernise reports for The New York Times. For women the difference gap increased to 13 years. (NYT graphic; click on it to view a larger version)

"Life expectancy for the bottom 10 percent of wage earners improved by just 3 percent for men born in 1950 compared with those born in 1920," Tavernise writes. "For the top 10 percent, though, it jumped by about 28 percent. (The researchers used a common measure—life expectancy at age 50—and included data from 1984 to 2012.)" The study found that life expectancy for the bottom 10 percent of male wage earners born in 1920 was 72.9, compared to 73.6 for those born in 1950, while among the top 10 percent, life expectancy increased from 79.1 to 87.2.

One big reason, researchers say, is that smoking rates have decreased among more affluent populations, Tavernise writes. Also, public-health researchers say life expectancy among low-income is hurt by less education and higher rates of obesity and prescription drug abuse. (Read more)

Rural areas could tip the balance in Saturday's Democratic caucus in Nevada

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are preparing for Saturday's Nevada caucus by trying to connect with the state's rural areas, Kurtis Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times. Only eight percent of the state's Democrats live in rural areas, but they account for 12 percent of caucus delegates. Rebecca Lambe, a senior strategist to Sen. Harry Reid, the state’s top Democrat, who is neutral in the race, said candidates can't take any part of the state for granted. She told Lee, “In a tight race, the delegates up for grabs in the rural areas will matter." (Map from Nevada Rural and Frontier Health Data Book)

Clinton won the popular vote in Nevada's rural areas in 2008, but lost in delegates to President Obama, "whose support in rural counties gave him the edge," Lee writes. Clinton staffers "went on a 1,200-mile 'listening tour' of rural counties last summer, and Clinton’s team has opened field offices, held meet-and-greets at diners and dispatched top-name supporters including Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who trekked to rural northern Nevada this week. Clinton herself traveled Monday to Elko, a tiny gold-mining community in northeast Nevada with fewer than 5,000 registered Democrats. She addressed, among other things, guns and federal land rights; the U.S. government own 85 percent of Nevada’s land."

"Sanders only recently deployed staff to corners of Nevada—his campaign opened an office in Pahrump last month—but has beefed up its efforts, flying in staffers who worked in Iowa and New Hampshire and dispatching them to rural outposts," Lee writes. "Campaign signs supporting him appear sporadically through town. Lynn Warner, a retired clinical neuropsychologist, traveled from San Diego in mid-January to volunteer for Sanders in Pahrump. She estimates walking more than 10 miles each day along gravel roads, knocking on doors of houses, some of which sit on more than an acre of land." She told Lee, “People need jobs here. They want that gap between rich and poor to close." (Read more)

Rural Walla Walla County, Washington, has reinvented itself as a wine and food mecca

Map from County Maps of Washington
Walla Walla County, Washington, has been reinvented as a wine and food mecca, Mike Seely reports for The New York Times. Walla Walla County, with more than 130 wineries and all manners of restaurants, "can aptly be described as Napa in bluejeans. Thirty years ago, only the denim part of that description would have applied. In the region, an agricultural powerhouse, it hadn’t yet dawned on farmers to grow grapes."

Mike Spring, a former fire chief who owns a brewpub in Dayton, Wash., told Seely, “Back in the ’80s, downtown was dying—truly falling apart. The wine industry has brought Walla Walla back to life.”

Several fine restaurants and "charmingly off-kilter wineries" have made Walla Walla "a destination for gastronomes and oenophiles alike," Seely writes. "But as a local brewer, Court Ruppenthal, puts it, 'People drink wine all day and say, ‘Now what I really need is a beer.’ For that, pulled-pork pizza, hush puppies and an unexpected dollop of top-notch French cuisine, the Touchet Valley towns of Waitsburg and Dayton beckon."

In Waitsburg, "a Rockwellian town of some 1,200 citizens at the eastern edge of Walla Walla County, a beloved Italian restaurant is across the street from a cafe whose hush puppies and upscale-Dixie aesthetic attract "loyalists from an hour in every direction," Seely writes. Local restaurant owner Ross Stevenson told Seely, “I guess we’re pretty lucky. ... These smaller towns are boom and bust. We’ve seen plenty of businesses come and go in Waitsburg since we’ve been here.”

About 10 miles down US 12 "is the Columbia County seat, Dayton (population, 2,500)," Seely writes. "With a main boulevard wide enough to host an Old West gunfight, the municipality’s economic heart stopped in 2005 when the Green Giant cannery moved to Peru. For decades, the company’s cartoonish Hulk-meets-Tarzan icon was carved into a hillside. It has faded considerably now, replaced by the cheese-yielding goatherd of Monteillet Fromagerie, which produces small-batch chèvre and brebis with a Francophile’s flair." (Read more)

Etching program looks to help rural property owners in Calif., Nevada recover stolen equipment

Rural communities in California and parts of Nevada are fighting back against thieves stealing millions of dollars in farm equipment through a program called Owner Applied Number, Julie Johnson reports for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif. As part of the program equipment is etched with unique numerical-and-letter sequences that are entered into a database used by law enforcement to recover stolen equipment. It's an alternative to relying on serial numbers, which have sometimes disappeared or are too old to be on record. (P-D photo by Kent Porter: Engraving a numeric code on a tool)

In Sonoma County, California, more than $3 million in farm equipment was reported stolen in the past four years, Johnson writes. "The numbers illustrate the financial toll on the county’s rural residents when thieves haul away tons of valuable equipment and even live animals, veteran Community Service Officer Pat Moffitt said. Moffitt ticked off examples from her records from 2015: Copper wire valued at $120,000 taken from a north county vineyard; saddles worth about $47,000 missing from an equestrian center; a $35,000 tractor that was later recovered; and even 10 live goats worth about $5,000 that were hauled away." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Conflicts of interest, lack of transparency trouble the California Coastal Commission

In a controversial and unpopular move, the California Coastal Commission last week held a closed-door meeting to fire executive director Charles Lester, Tony Barboza and Dan Weikel report for the Los Angeles Times. While the commission cited leadership issues, Lester's supporters say the commission was driven by a desire to increase coastal development. (Times photo by Allen J. Schaben: Places like Huntington Beach, Calif. could be the site of proposed development projects)

The closed-door meeting wasn't a surprise; the commission's history is steeped in a lack of transparency, columnist Steve Lopez writes for the Times. "Consultants representing developers don't have to register as lobbyists or reveal what they're paid. And critics, including former commissioners, say those consultants are way too cozy with the commissioners, who vote on their projects. For their part, commissioners often do not provide detailed descriptions of their communications with lobbyists and project backers. All of that information should be posted and available to the public."

Lester "knows more about the 40-year-old voter-approved Coastal Act that protects our 1,100-mile shoreline than anyone in the world," Lopez writes in another column. "At times during the meeting, Commissioners Wendy Mitchell and Dayna Bochco gabbed like school kids on the dais, and they cast seventh-grade smirks at press row when colleagues took turns bashing the news media. If California's media deserve a beating, in their diminished state, it's for not keeping a close enough watch on this all-powerful agency and the constant pressure applied by hired guns for billions of dollars' worth of development projects."

On Tuesday state legislators introduced a bill that "would require the hired guns who represent developers to register as lobbyists and play by the rules of full disclosure that apply to every other state agency," Lopez reports in yet another column. He says the basic problem with the commission is that the "commissioners are appointees, but half of them hold elective office, and their fundraisers are populated by lobbyists, developers and other politicians. It's all too cozy and too shady at the same time, and there's little or no cross-checking between local campaign donations and potential conflicts of interest."

State lobbying is on the rise, especially when it comes to drug companies pushing high-cost drugs

Much lobbying has shifted from the federal level to the state level, especially when it comes to laws that make it harder for pharmacists to substitute cheaper generic drugs for high-cost ones, Liz Essley Whyte and Ben Wieder report for the Center for Public Integrity. "The laws in many cases require the pharmacist to take extra steps before dispensing the cheaper drugs, including notifying the doctor, retaining extra records or, in some cases, getting patient consent."

The center's analysis of five years of lobbyist registrations, compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, found that "since 2010, the number of entities with either in-house lobbyists or part-time hired guns working in the states has grown more than 10 percent," Whyte and Wieder write. "That means, on average, every state lawmaker was outnumbered by six companies, trade associations, unions or other groups angling for their attention from 2010 to 2014."

A 1997 study by the University of Iowa found that "not a single entity had lobbyists registered in all 50 states," Whyte and Wieder write. But in 2013, "at least nine companies and interest groups lobbied in every state: AARP, the American Heart Association, AstraZeneca, AT&T, Express Scripts Holding Co., the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Rifle Association of America, Pfizer and PhRMA." (Center for Public Integrity graphic: Growth of state lobbying)
"In general, drugmakers favor laws that allow them to sell drugs widely at the price they set, often asking lawmakers to force insurers or government to pick up the tab," Whyte and Wieder write. "Drug companies ask state lawmakers to make sure Medicaid or other health plans cover their products. They ask for drugs to be distributed widely, such as Mylan Inc. asking states to allow schools to stow EpiPens for any child who has a severe allergic reaction—even without a prescription. Painkiller makers such as Purdue Pharma LP resist efforts to restrict prescriptions, as the opioid epidemic claims lives."

Opponents say these laws make it less likely a pharmacist will substitute a biosimilar—less costly drugs that function in much the same way as more expensive ones—"and more likely to instill doubt in patients about the alternate drugs," Whyte and Wieder write. "That could mean fewer patients get access to cheaper versions of specialty drugs that treat a range of diseases, including cancer, hepatitis C and Crohn’s."(Read more)

Free webcast Friday morning on opioid addiction

Gov. Peter Shumlin
A live webcast on opioid addiction will be held from 11 a.m. to noon EST Friday at The Pew Charitable Trusts building in Washington, D.C. "Confronting America's Opioid and Heroin Addiction Crisis" will be presented by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who "made history—and helped change the national conversation on addiction—when he dedicated his entire 2014 State of the State Address to this topic," Pew says. "He'll discuss his latest proposals to build upon the progress Vermont has made—which includes limiting the availability of opioid pills and promoting the use of naltrexone, a drug that blocks the desired effects individuals seek when using opioids."

Heroin and opioids have become increasingly popular in rural areas, which lack preventive services for addiction, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rural areas are also ill-prepared for hepatitis C outbreaks from intravenous drug use, says CDC.

Allan Coukell, Pew’s senior director for health programs, will introduce Shumlin "and share details about Pew’s prescription drug abuse project, which works to develop and support policies that will help reduce the inappropriate use of prescription drugs while ensuring that patients with legitimate medical needs have access to effective pain management," Pew says. For more information or to register for the webcast click here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Downturns in oil, gas and farming hit Kansas hard

Screenshot of interactive Wichita Eagle graphic
The downturn in the oil and gas industry in rural Kansas has hurt the economies of the central and western parts of the state, forcing many companies to shut down and lay off workers, Dan Voorhis reports for The Wichita Eagle. "According to the Kansas Department of Revenue, the oil and gas plunge has shaved nearly $1 billion off the $32.3 billion worth of assessed valuation statewide, pushing 40 counties into negative territory and cutting growth in most of the rest."

"It certainly cut growth in the value of taxable property in 2015, trimming what might have been a 5 percent increase for the state, had oil stayed the same, to 1.74 percent," Voorhis writes. Nick Jordan, Kansas Secretary of Revenue, told Voorhis, “It’s significant. If we focus on the sales tax receipts, income tax is going up because of the unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, but the sales tax has struggled since March.” In some counties that has led to budget cuts and tax increases.

Another problem is that the oil and gas boom coincided with a agricultural boom, with farmers enjoying six years of high commodity prices, Voorhis writes. "It was a chance to reinvest in the farm, buy more land and, maybe, take a nice vacation. But that ended a year or two ago with plunging global prices, so even in counties with little oil or gas, there has been a drop." The end result is that many people overspent. Jenae Talbott, executive director of the Russell County Economic Development and Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Voorhis, "There’s nothing to do but hunker down and wait. We don’t know any other way than to live through it."

Journalist's Resource offers tips for college reporters on promoting campus transparency

There are plenty of resources to help college journalists fight for freedom of information on campus, John Wihbey and Denise-Marie Ordway report for Journalist's Resource.  "Most colleges and universities are non-profit organizations and, therefore, must file a Form 990 with the IRS," Wihbey and Ordway write. "These records, which are accessible online, offer financial data and insights into such as things as net assets, fundraising expenses and compensation for top employees and officers."

Also, the federal Clery Act, "stipulates that all higher education institutions receiving federal funding must report and publicly disclose certain kinds of data," Wihbey and Ordway write. "Campus crime is the category that gets the most focus. If you are interested in investigating issues of sexual assault, you should brief yourself on the wider context and research on this area. The Clery Center for Security on Campus is a useful resource on campus crime and the Clery Act more broadly. Another key federal law you should read and understand is FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which regulates the types of student information that a government agency can disclose to the public."

"Bear in mind that the laws for public colleges and universities often are quite different than those for private institutions, which have much more of a right to keep reporters out and shield documents and data from the public’s view," Whibey and Ordway caution. "Public schools rely on public funding and, as such, are subject to a variety of federal and state transparency laws, including public records laws. The laws and policies governing public colleges and universities also vary by state. Whatever the situation may be, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with your rights and privileges as they pertain to the higher education institutions you’re covering."

"The College Media Association provides a variety of resources for members of the student media," Wihbey and Ordway write. "The professional organization Investigative Reporters and Editors highlights campus-related issues and furnishes content and tips for student journalists. Another important resource is the national Education Writers Association, which offers tips, tutorials, webinars and seminars on covering a range of higher education topics."

Eating organic food can lower children's vulnerability to pesticides, study says

Eating organic food can lower vulnerabilty to pesticides in Latino children in low-income agricultural regions, says a peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Alison F. Takemura reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The study, which consisted of 40 low-income children in Northern California—20 rural children in agricultural areas in Salinas Valley and 20 urban children—"analyzed pesticides and their breakdown products in the children's urine for four days on their normal diet, seven days on an organic one and five more days after reverting to a conventional diet."

Researchers "found that traces of pesticides dropped substantially during the organic phase of the study," declining "up to 49 percent for a class of pesticides called organophosphates," Takemura writes. "But traces of pesticides were higher than in previous studies involving middle-income, suburban children, suggesting that kids from cities and farming communities may be getting exposed via their environments as well as their diets."

Researchers also found a disparity in how different demographic groups are exposed to pesticides, Takemura writes. Researchers said previous studies "have shown that organic food can slash pesticide levels to undetectable amounts in middle-income, largely white kids in suburban neighborhoods. But in the new study of poorer Latino children, levels of the chemicals lingered. The additional exposure could be coming from their environment—for example, drifting from fields nearby or sprayed to fight insect infestations in substandard housing." (Read more)

Maryland, Virginia county fight release of 215 million gallons of coal-ash water into Va. creek

The state of Maryland and a Northern Virginia county are fighting a plan by Dominion Virginia Power to release about 215 million gallons of treated coal-ash water into Quantico Creek, a tributary that connects the states' shared Potomac River. (Tide-forecast map)

Last week the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and the James River Association joined the Potomac Riverkeeper Network in challenging the decision to discharge the water from the company’s coal-burning power plants, Whitney Pipkin reports for The Chesapeake Bay Journal. "The announcements came on the heels of news that even before the Virginia State Water Control Board approved those discharges last month, Dominion had drained nearly 34 million gallons of water last year from one of its impoundments into Quantico Creek."

On Monday "Maryland’s Department of the Environment joined its Department of Natural Resources in an appeal that makes official the concerns staff first raised in an eight-page letter to their counterparts at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in mid-January," Pipkin writes in a separate story. "Maryland formally notified Virginia of its intent to ask the Richmond Circuit Court to review the draining decision."

Antonio Olivo of The Washington Post reports that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in an email to the Post: “I am deeply concerned that untreated or improperly treated coal ash could be deposited in the Potomac River. Residents in the Washington region look to leaders in Virginia and Maryland to safeguard their natural resources, and the Potomac is a treasure that must be protected. Any plan to dump waste in the river needs heightened scrutiny and rigorous analysis.”

Dominion spokesman David Botkins dismissed Frosh's claims, responding in a statement: “I’m not sure what there is to appeal. We are cleaning up coal ash ponds and improving the environment, that’s what is important.”

Sunshine Week will celebrate open government and freedom of the press March 13-19

It's a good time to begin preparing for Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. Now in its 11th year, this year's event will be from March 13-19. National Freedom of Information Day is March 16, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are working with major news organizations, such as The Associated Press, The McClatchy Co. and Tribune News Service to put together a package of enterprise stories, sidebars, an analysis, photos, videos and informational graphics, which will be available on the ASNE, Reporters Committee, AP and Sunshine Week websites.

The Sunshine Week site will also provide other tools, including op-eds, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and the newly created list of open-government questions that journalists can ask federal candidates. The website also features freedom of information story ideas and past work from Sunshine Week, as well as a list of participants and a calendar of events.

Sunshine Week 2016 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by generous donations from Bloomberg and the Gridiron Club and Foundation. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit Follow Sunshine Week on Twitter and Facebook, and use the hashtag #SunshineWeek.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Supreme Court order blocking power-plant rules is bad for rural areas, policy analyst argues

The Supreme Court's order blocking the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan while a lower appellate court rules on it "is a short-term gain for the fossil-fuel industry and a long-term loss for rural communities," Tara Ritter of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argues in the Daily Yonder. She writes:
Tara Ritter
"Rural communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, and as such, will suffer the most while decisive action on climate change is delayed. Rural communities are more likely to have natural resource-based economies than urban communities. Those will become less stable as climate change worsens. In addition, poverty rates are higher and housing stock is older on average in rural communities, which means that many rural residents spend a larger percentage of their income on energy costs. This will be exacerbated as heating and cooling needs increase in the face of more extreme temperatures and weather events. . . .

"It’s often assumed that rural communities oppose action on climate change, but that narrative oversimplifies the diverse range of perspectives held in rural America. Many rural communities, such as the cities of Morris and Grand Rapids in Minnesota, are already focused on building local resilience by addressing climate change. In addition, a group of rural leaders and organizations released a policy document last year outlining priorities for addressing climate change in rural communities. The document emphasizes clean energy and community-based energy projects, as well as energy efficiency initiatives and assistance for rural communities to transition away from extraction-based economies. The Clean Power Plan is an opportunity to fulfill these recommendations, and the Supreme Court’s decision stands in the way of what many rural residents want."

Drop in number of students pursuing education degrees could hurt rural areas' teacher recruitment

Rural areas that are already struggling to recruit teachers could be facing an even bleaker future if more college students don't pursue teaching careers, Tim Lockette reports for The Anniston Star. Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of education at the University of Alabama estimates that enrollment is down 10 to 15 percent in the past three years, numbers that he says are typical across the nation. Alabama is currently short 86 high school teachers and expects a shortage of 93 teachers next year. (Best Places map: Anniston, Ala.)

Money and security are the main reasons fewer students are going into education, Lockette writes. "The money isn’t good, compared to what college graduates could make in other fields. The relative security of teaching doesn’t hold as much appeal in an improving job market. And with years of budget tightness—with few raises and teachers paying more for benefits—the job doesn’t seem as secure as it used to." Another problem is working conditions, such as large classes or a lack of equipment.

Also, an Alabama law that recently went into effect eliminates the rule allowing teachers to retire after 25 years, Lockette writes. Bryant Ginn, who teaches at Ohatchee High School, told Lockette, “In the future, it’s going to be tough. When those young teachers realize they’re going to have to work 40 years for their retirement, they’re going to think twice.”

Thomas Spencer, an analyst for the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a Birmingham think tank that studied teacher shortages last year, said "Keeping teachers beyond the first few years could be a key to solving the problem long-term," Lockette writes. Spencer told him, “Teachers in their early years go where they can get a job. The most ambitious of them tend to move on to some place with better conditions. There tends to be a churn in the underperforming systems.” (Read more)

Teaching Central Appalachian coal miners how to write computer code could help revitalize region

In Central Appalachia, where communities have been hit hard by the loss of coal jobs, the move to teach former coal miners computer coding could be the start of a trend that could help revitalize the region, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg News. Rusty Justice, who co-founded a coding business in Pikeville, Ky. (Best Places map), told Loh, “We’ve got a lot of high-skilled hillbillies here. We want to prove we can run a tech business from the hills of Eastern Kentucky.”

In 1996 local producers in Pike County "dug up 35.6 million tons, a state record," Loh writes. "The coal market began to collapse in 2011 as a global glut of the fuel swelled. Prices are down 75 percent since then, and nowhere has that hit harder than in Appalachia. Central Appalachia coal has dropped 70 percent from a record $143.25 in July 2008 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Pike County’s output dropped to 6.9 million tons in 2015, and its mining jobs fell to 1,285, about a third as many as four years earlier."

During coal's downturn, Justice, a fourth-generation Pikeville native, saw his excavation and engineering company lose 70 percent of its customer base, "including big miners like James River Coal Co., Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Arch Coal Inc. that all filed for bankruptcy protection," Loh writes. That led to the idea to switch to coding, Loh writes. Justice told him, “We didn’t think that was that big of a jump. Daggone, these are high-tech workers that just get dirty.” (Bloomberg graphic)
Loh writes, "Of course, there’s a big difference between Big Sandy Valley and Silicon Valley. For one, Kentucky has the country’s slowest peak Internet connection speeds, according to a survey by Akamai Technologies Inc. And in Appalachia, where coal has long dominated and communities are separated by miles of mountains, few governments ever banded together to attract the likes of Apple and Google. And few people grew up dreaming of working for either."

"That’s slowly changing," Loh writes. The region is seeking ways to create entrepreneurial opportunities. One of those ways is with coding. Last year 10 former coal mine workers spent five months learning to code and mastering languages including HTML, JavaScript and PHP. A U.S. Department of Labor grant "covered the coders’ wages during training and similar funding will cover a share of their salaries through winter... Justice said he expects to achieve profitability in 2016. They’ve already finished nine projects, including the website for Eastern Kentucky’s career center network." Justice told Loh, “The coal industry is dying here. But we could be the grassroots of something truly special.”

How creating trusted sources helped one regional newspaper break a major national story

Screenshot of Express-News home page Feb. 13
Creating trust among readers and sources is still the cornerstone of excellent journalism. It's also the main reason the San Antonio Express-News broke one of the biggest national stories in months when it was the first to report that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died in rural Texas. Even though the story was national, it sets a good example for all journalists that creating trusted sources is a very important part of journalism.

It all started when an Express-News reporter received a tip from a trusted source in the federal government, followed by confirmation from a second source, Benajmin Mullin reports for The Poynter Institute: Express-News Editor Mike Leary "said the Express-News' coverage of Scalia's death shows the rewards that come with cultivating experienced, well-sourced journalists. In the days of dwindling ranks in the newspaper industry, there's no replacement for having reporters on the ground whom people trust. . . . We had local sources. I'm not surprised we broke the story."

App to detect quakes can give seconds or minutes of warning if enough phones are app-enabled

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley on Friday unveiled a smartphone application that detects earthquakes when they start and sends vital information to scientists that can be used to warn residents in the affected areas, Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II report for the Los Angeles Times. "They hope that by turning mobile phones into vast data collection points, they can quickly glean information about the quakes and warn those farther away from the epicenter that shaking is on the way."

The free app, MyShake, "uses smartphone sensors to detect movement caused by an earthquake," then reporters write. "Users who download the app will be sending data to scientists when an earthquake as small as a magnitude 5 hits. By harvesting information from hundreds of phones closest to the earthquake, scientists will be able to test a computer system that could, in the future, dispatch early warnings that shaking is seconds or minutes away to people farther away from the earthquake’s origin."

Richard Allen, director of Berkeley's seismological lab, said if "at least 300 phones [are] sending warnings in the same 60-mile-by-60-mile zone, simulation tests show that’s good enough to tell the system that the shaking was an earthquake," reports the Times. "The warnings will eventually give trains time to slow down, decreasing a risk of derailment before shaking arrives, sound an alert in hospitals to warn surgeons to halt surgery, and have elevators open their doors at the nearest floor, preventing people from becoming trapped."

Allen told the Times, “This is an app that provides information, education, motivation—to the people who’ve downloaded it—to get ready for earthquakes. Those same people are contributing to our further understanding of earthquakes, because they’re collecting data that will help us better understand the earthquake process.”