Thursday, December 31, 2015

As S.D. publisher gives up his title, he tells the story of his family and their weekly newspaper

Tim Waltner
An outstanding weekly newspaper publisher is giving up the title, but not his connection with the newspaper, which his son and daughter-in-law will take over. Tim Waltner's column about the changes at the Freeman, S.D., Courier is a biography of himself, his family and the newspaper, and an exemplary piece of rural journalism, to be expected from a leader and award winner in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

After recounting the twists and turns that took him to Freeman, then away, then back again, Waltner writes, "I could not be happier — for myself, for Jeremy and Stacey, for the Courier and the Freeman community. And I’m pleased I’ll be able to be part of that in these transitional years.

Sperlimg's Best Places map 
"I have no illusions about my time at the Courier; I know some people still bristle at my politics, reputation as a rebel and willingness to challenge authority. The role of a community journalist — if you’re doing your job — includes sometimes ruffling some feathers. I’m happy to play that role and am fully aware that some people, as there were 46 years ago, will be happy to see me start to step away.

"But I’ve been humbled and gratified by the support and respect shown me over my 40 years with the Freeman Courier. I’m thrilled to give Jeremy and Stacey the same opportunity Glenn Gering gave me four decades ago. My deepest hope is that community residents and leaders will give them — and the Courier — the support and respect they deserve." (Read more)

Cargill fires Muslim employees who walked out in dispute over prayers at Colorado packing plant

A Somali worker at the Cargill plant (Denver Post photo)
"About 190 workers, most of them immigrants from Somalia, have been fired from a meat packing and distribution plant on Colorado's Eastern Plains for walking off the job to protest a workplace prayer dispute," reports Kieran Nicholson of The Denver Post.

Cargill Inc. had allowed the workers at its Fort Morgan plant to use break time for Muslim prayers (observant Muslims pray five times daily), even providing a prayer room, but recently changed the practice, Nicholson reports.

Workers at the plant are represented by the Teamsters union but Cargill is negotiating the prayer issue with the Council on Islamic-American Relations. "They feel losing their prayer is worse than losing their job," CAIR Executive Director Jaylani Hussein told Nicholson. "It's like losing a blessing from God."

Coal seam that produced 'Sixteen Tons' still has potential, new investment, and fresh focus

Merle Travis, and then Tennessee Ernie Ford and many others, sang about a miner's daily production goal of "sixteen tons of Number 9 coal." That's the name of a coal seam in Travis's native Western Kentucky. It's still producing, and is the target of some new mines in a small county that has been known less for coal than for agriculture and the Green River.

Australia's Paringa Resources plans at least one new mine in McLean County (Wikipedia map), where Lexington-based Rhino Resources opened a mine recently as it shut down others in Appalachia, reports Austin Ramsey of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer: "The Western Kentucky No. 9 Coal Seam, where both county mines operate, could soon become the nation's second largest producer of coal, said Tomasz S. Wiltowski of Southern Illinois University's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center."

Ramsey reports, "Wiltowski said he believes the Illinois Coal Basin (in blue on map) is preparing to play a center-stage role in an international showdown over energy production and environmental policy. The federal moratorium on construction of coal-fired power plants has hurt the industry nationwide, but the potential in western Kentucky makes for an attractive investor shift back toward nonrenewable energy, he said. Only time will tell what the final results will yield."

Many rural areas could benefit from drone boom

Drones are used to check health of strawberry fields in Florida.
(Photo by Jay Conner, Tampa Tribune, via New York Times)
Many rural areas could benefit economically from the boom in drones, not just North Dakota, the focus of a New York Times story and Rural Blog item earlier this week. "It is just one of several rural areas where there is concerted activity in commercial drones," or "unmanned aircraft systems," the name federal officials use, writes Times reporter Quentin Hardy, who did the North Dakota story.

"Far from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are working on drone applications for agriculture, energy, rail and other industries largely in less populated parts of the country," Hardy reports. "It makes sense: There is more need for drones in rural areas, and there are fewer costly things that a drone might crash into. The military operations involved with many of these endeavors are also in rural areas."

Anthony Albanese, president of Gryphon Sensors LLC, which makes drone sensing gear, told Hardy, “We envision building out in rural environments where you can build a safety case” for air-traffic control of unmanned vehicles. “Eventually it will be urban – you can envison delivery centers on top of buildings in cities.” But the proving ground will be rural.

"One thing all the rural experimentation sites share seems to be contacts from the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, all of which have big drone programs," Hardy reports. "Away from the government facilities, there is lots more experimentation in rural areas, from flying firefighting robots in Reno, Nev., to teams of drone pilots for work and play in Iowa, and a British company called BioCarbon Engineering that hopes to plant 1 billion trees a year in deforested areas by using drones."  (Read more)

Flooding disrupts Mississippi River system transportation; barge tows limited, bridges closed

U.S. Geological Survey map via DTN; click it for larger version
"Massive flooding, which usually occurs in spring, is plaguing the entire U.S. river system this winter," especially the Mississippi and its tributaries, Mary Kennedy reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "That heavy precipitation has pushed the nation's main river system above flood stage, creating a mess for shippers. As of Dec. 30, the St. Louis harbor was closed."

Tom Russell of New Orleans-based Russell Marine Group told Kennedy, "Lower Mississippi River from Cairo to New Orleans is open but either at or will soon be at flood levels as water flushes through. Expect continued slow going logistics throughout the system. Fleets in St. Louis and Cairo are at max capacity. Tow sizes will be restricted to equivalent of 280 horsepower-per-barge-to-tow ratio. This is the first time I have seen such hp restriction."

Kennedy's report includes a rundown of most the major tributaries of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. To read it, click here. The flooding has also prompted the closing of bridges, some major, such as US 51 over the Ohio between Cairo, Ill., and Wickliffe, Ky.

"Flooding on the middle and lower portion of the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries may reach levels not seen during the winter months since records began during the middle 1800s," says AccuWeather senior meterologist Alex Sosnowski.

In Iowa, which set an ethanol-making record in 2015, Cruz leads but opposes renewable-fuel law

Cruz speaks from hay bale at Iowa State Fair.
(Associated Press photo by Paul Sancya)
As Iowa reports record production of ethanol for 2015, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, an opponent of federal support for the industry, is leading in polls for the state's first-in-the nation presidential vote in party caucuses on Feb. 1. But an attack by a leading Cruz supporter on the issue could backfire, writes Trip Gabriel of The New York Times.

Gabriel reports that former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, "emailed subscribers to a personal list with an attack on Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, a popular Republican governor, and his son, Eric Branstad," who runs a super PAC that is airing TV and radio ads attacking Cruz for his stand against the Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires a certain amount of ethanol to be blended into gasoline.

"Every Republican caucus winner in the last quarter-century has been a strong ethanol supporter," Gabriel notes in the Times' "First Draft" blog. "But Mr. Cruz’s polling lead suggests the industry’s popular and political clout may be ebbing. Mr. Cruz has never tried to play down his call to end the fuel standard, unlike some rivals. Still, it may not be to his advantage to have supporters like Mr. Cuccinelli waving a red cape at an iconic Iowa industry."

"Iowa produced just over 4 billion gallons of ethanol in 2015, a record for the country’s largest producer of the renewable fuel," Chris Doering reports for The Des Moines Register. "The Iowa Renewable Fuel Association said the increase at the state’s 43 ethanol plants this year was the result of efficiency gains at existing facilities and production from cellulosic feedstocks such as corn stover. Iowa accounts for 27 percent of U.S. ethanol output."

We couldn't resist this one in a look back at 2015: A orphan kangaroo and his teddy bear

Photo by Gillian Abbott
The Huffington Post's collection of 12 feel-good stories during 2015 had a couple of rural-oriented items, including a story from Australia about an orphan kangaroo and his teddy bear.

Gillian Abbot, a licensed wildlife carer and member of the New South Wales rescue organization WIRES, has been caring for the kangaroo named Doodlebug, found abandoned a little over a year ago and too young to take care of himself. Now 15 months old, he is gradually being released to the wild, says Abbott's son, Timothy Beshara, who put on Twitter the photo his mother took of Doodlebug hugging his teddy. ""He lies next to it, practices his kicking against it and cuddles it," Beshara told Huffington Post.

The other item with rural resonance included a British weatherman's skillful pronunciation of the 54-letter name of a Welsh village, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. 

Please consider a gift to The Rural Blog's publisher

Dear readers of The Rural Blog:

We're in our usual low gear for the holidays, but are still trying to take care of business, and asking for your help. As you write those year-end checks to worthy causes, we hope you will consider a donation to our publisher, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. The institute is a national program that helps rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary, especially on broader issues that have local impact but few good local sources.

The university pays the institute's director and some of his expenses. The institute has an endowment that covers other expenses, including a half-time staff assistant. We need full-time help, and that takes money. Donors can give to the endowment, which returns 3.5 percent per year and guarantees the sustainability of the institute, or to the institute's operating account, which is used for current activities. To learn more about the institute, go to

To donate to the institute, click here. To give to the endowment, go to the gift-designation box and select "Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Endowed Fund for Excellence." To give to our operating account, choose "Other" and type in "IRJCI operating." Or, you can write a check to the University of Kentucky with "Rural Journalism endowment" or "IRJCI operating" on the memo line and send it to IRJCI, 122 Grehan Journalism Bldg., UK, Lexington KY 40506-0042. Any type of donation is tax-deductible and will be much appreciated!


Al Cross
Director, IRJCI, and associate extension professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Goodbye to a barn cat: 'It was a strange but very fulfilling relationship'

Donald Gregg with Shadow (undated photo)
Barn cats have long been a staple of rural life, but are less a part of daily life than house cats, because they have their own territory and are usually wary of humans, even those whose property they share. But that doesn't keep them and their human neighbors from forming attachments, perhaps at arm's length but with a certain connection. Such a cat, named Shadow, was the frequent companion of Donald Gregg, the father of John Gregg, news editor of the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt. When Shadow died recently, Donald Gregg emailed his family and friends a remembrance, and his son turned it into a Christmas Eve column for the newspaper. Here are exceprts:
Shadow, our feral cat, passed away earlier this month, very peacefully. She had been shutting down for a couple of weeks, eating less and less, and moving with a bit of stiffness. My wife, Meg, and I found her about noon, when we returned from yoga class, lying very gracefully, as though asleep.
The ground was soft, so I was able to dig her grave easily, near a favorite tree she used to scamper up, close to the old play house. . . . A few hours before Shadow died, for some strange reason I remember what we would say as children when on a swing, and we stopped pumping: “Let the old cat die.”
Well, die she did, and the first time I ever picked her up was to lay her in her shroud to be buried.
Shadow, true to her name, has slipped away. It was a strange but very fulfilling relationship. We shall miss her.
Donald Gregg, 88, lives in Westchester County, New York. He was a CIA official, national security adviser and ambassador to South Korea.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Small, rural hospitals doing more orthopedic work, perhaps putting patients at greater risk

Critical-access hospitals, a linchpin of health care in rural areas, are performing many more orthopedic surgeries. But the Medicare patients who get the five most common orthopedic procedures at such hospitals are one-third more likely to die within 30 days than those who get them at larger, general hospitals.

That's what The Wall Street Journal found by reviewing Medicare billing data from 2008 to 2013, which showed a 43 percent increase in surgeries at critical-access hospitals, "far outpacing the growth of those services at general hospitals" and raising "troubling implications for patient safety," says the Christmas Day story by Christopher Weaver, Anna Wilde Mathews and Tom McGinty. From 2010 to 2013, the death rate at such hospitals was 34 percent higher than at the larger facilities.

“Patients are getting bad outcomes, probably because they are getting procedures at hospitals without the experience to do it well,” Ashish Jha, a Harvard University public-health professor who has studied critical-access hospitals, told the Journal. He and his colleagues reviewed the Journal's data and concluded that "the 30-day mortality rate for inpatient joint replacements was about 9 per 1,000 at critical-access hospitals in 2013, compared with around 5 in 1,000 at general hospitals," the newspaper reports.
"Many studies suggest that patients generally get better results when their procedures are done at hospitals that perform them frequently," the Journal reports. "The average critical-access hospital performing inpatient joint replacements in 2013 did about 26 that year, compared to about 132 at general hospitals. Hospitals doing more than 100 procedures a year have the lowest risks, said Nelson SooHoo, an orthopedic surgeon at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine who has studied the issue."

In general, critical-access hospitals must have no more than 25 beds and keep patients no more than 72 hours. In return, the federal government gives them a small bonus on their Medicare and Medicaid payments, part of a policy Congress enacted to maintain the viability of hospitals in rural areas.

"Financial incentives can make doing more surgeries appealing to critical-access hospitals, thanks to their special status with Medicare, especially as the rural hospitals merge with larger rivals," the newspaper notes. "The Journal’s analysis shows that the fastest-growing procedures at critical-access hospitals are often-elective orthopedic surgeries that could otherwise be scheduled at facilities with more experience. Experts say that as the hospitals’ experience grows, patients’ outcomes should improve. But so far, mortality rates have held fast, according to the analyses by the Journal and Harvard researchers."

Major banks become more skeptical of coal lending

First Energy's Mansfield plant in Shippingport, Pa.
(Photo by Andrew Rush, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Demand for coal "has been dropping as competing fuels become less expensive. And in the past few weeks, coal companies have seen major banks turning their backs on the industry in public," Anya Litvak reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "News that Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America had all released coal-lending policies that pledge to decrease credit availability to the sector met with much fanfare a few week ago around the time of the Paris Climate Conference, where world leaders met to hammer out an agreement on keeping global temperature at manageable levels."

The banks have not completely abandoned the industry. Wells Fargo "was a leading underwriter of $700 million in bonds for Consol Energy Inc. and Cloud Peak Energy this year," Litvak notes. "The unifying theme in all these coal policies is added scrutiny in risk assessment and senior level approval of loans to the industry, although some banks have made specific pledges. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, for example, said they won’t fund mountaintop-removal mining and won’t give money to companies that do a lot of it. They also won’t finance new coal power plants in the U.S. and other developed nations, although those aren’t being built anyway because of tightening environmental regulations and competition from cheap natural gas."

Citigroup, "the leading bank providing financing for Alpha Natural Resources’ bankruptcy reorganization . . . said it would continue to decrease its coal financing activity, but didn’t rule anything out," Litvak reports. "Funding for projects would require senior approval, the bank said, and would be based on 'due diligence' and the coal company’s environmental, safety, and corporate governance performance, as well as human rights."

Monday, December 28, 2015

North Dakota wants to be Silicon Valley of drones

NYT photo by Michael Ciaglo
The drone boom could be a boon to North Dakota, "where there is plenty of open space and — unlike in other sparsely populated states — lots of expertise already in place" to improve the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles, Quentin Hardy reports for The New York Times.

"Private-sector drones are where personal computers were in the 1970s: a hobbyist technology waiting to become mainstream. The technology research firm Gartner says that, barring regulatory hurdles, the United States drone business could be worth $7 billion in a decade," Hardy writes. "North Dakota has spent about $34 million fostering the state’s unmanned aerial vehicle business, most notably with a civilian industrial park for drones near Grand Forks Air Force Base. The base, a former Cold War installation, now flies nothing but robot aircraft for the United States military and Customs and Border Protection . . .  to patrol from Seattle to the Great Lakes" and sometimes along the Rio Grande.

“The potential up here is tremendous,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple told Hardy. “It’s not about supporting a company or two; it’s creating the leading edge of an industry.”

Hardy reports, "Rural states with farming, oil and rail lines see many practical reasons to put robots in the sky. Infrared imaging can judge crop health. Cameras can spot leaks and cracks in pipelines. Smaller copters can inspect windmill blades. Livestock can be located easily. . . . If the occasional experimental craft crashes, it is unlikely to hit much beyond dirt. And with money, expertise and need here, people will keep trying."

For a "Field Guide to Civilian Drones," by Nick Wingfield of the Times, click here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

National Inventory of Dams is the place to go for journalists looking for data on local dams

The National Inventory of Dams (NID) is a great resource for journalists writing about any of the more than 85,000 dams in the U.S., Liz Lucas and Andrew Kreighbaum report for the Society of Environmental Journalists in the Winter 2015/16 edition of SEJournal. "With the 1972 National Dam Inspection Act, Congress required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inspect every dam in the U.S. But because of a lack of funding and other issues, the requirement was never fulfilled. Instead, the act led to creation of the NID, which is based on information from inspections completed by both federal and state regulatory agencies."

NID should contain information on: High hazard classification (loss of human life is likely if the dam fails); significant hazard classification (possible loss of human life and likely significant property or environmental destruction if the dam fails); equal or exceed 25 feet in height and exceed 15 acre-feet in storage; and equal or exceed 50 acre-feet storage and exceed six feet in height. The database has been a resource for many stories, including this report from KVUE-TV in Austin:

"There are about 70 fields in NID, including key pieces of information, such as owner name and owner type (private or state-owned), inspection date, height and storage levels, river or stream on which the dam is built, longitude and latitude and year of construction," Lucas and Kreighbaum write. "A list of detailed field definitions is included in the files provided in the NID database. Because the data includes many technical terms, reporters should probably consult and engineer at some point in their reporting to provide perspective."

Also included are the number of dams in each state and what percent of those dams are high hazard, Lucas and Kreighbaum write. "If you want to zero in on individual dams, the NID is a good starting place, but you'll have to seek additional documentation on individual dam hazards and the results of inspections. But the NID can help you figure out which dams to start investigating." The current issue of SEJ is by subscription only. Past issues can be read by clicking here. (Wikipedia map: U.S. dams)

County-level map shows decline of bees in major ag areas; 39% of croplands rely on pollinators

Researchers at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics have created a county-level map showing that bees are "disappearing in many of the country’s most important farmlands—including California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s Corn Belt and the Mississippi River Valley," Joshua Brown reports for the university.

The map is part of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that bee populations declined by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013, and 39 percent of U.S. croplands that depend on pollinators "face a threatening mismatch between rising demand for pollination and a falling supply of wild bees," Brown writes. The study "indicates that farmers will face increasing costs—and that the problem may even destabilize the nation’s crop production." (University of Vermont map)
While recent studies have indicated that pesticides, climate change, and diseases have been largely responsible for a decline in bee populations, the Vermont study "also shows that their decline may be caused by the conversion of bee habitat into cropland," Brown writes. "In 11 key states where the new study shows bees in decline, the amount of land tilled to grow corn spiked by 200 percent in five years—replacing grasslands and pastures that once supported bee populations." 

The study "identifies 139 counties in key agricultural regions of California, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Great Plains, west Texas, and the southern Mississippi River valley that have the most worrisome mismatch between falling wild bee supply and rising crop pollination demand," Brown writes. "These counties tend to be places that grow specialty crops—like almonds, blueberries and apples—that are highly dependent on pollinators. Or they are counties that grow less dependent crops—like soybeans, canola and cotton—in very large quantities."

Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming petition EPA to reconsider Clean Power Plan rules

Officials from Kentucky, Montana and Wyoming this week filed separate petitions asking the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its Clean Power Plan rules. Under the rules Kentucky would need to reduce carbon emission rates by 18.3 percent by 2030, Montana by 21.1 percent and Wyoming by 19 percent, according to an interactive map by Environment & Energy News.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox wrote in his petition that he took exception with EPA changing the proposed rules after the public comment period, Jay Kohn reports for Q2 News in Billings. Fox told Kohn, "It was disingenuous for the EPA to propose one rule then adopt something far different, especially since the final rule is much more burdensome to the people of Montana. The bottom line is that Montana did not have a fair opportunity to evaluate and comment on the provisions of the final rule. In light of our concerns, the EPA should reconsider its action and put the final rule on hold during the reconsideration process."

Wyoming and Kentucky, the No. 1 and No. 3 coal-producing states, have similar complaints. In Kentucky, Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary Charles Snavely, a former Arch Coal executive who was just appointed by recently elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, said, "EPA changed so much of the Clean Power Plan between its initial proposal and final rules that Kentucky was unable to effectively participate in the federal agency's public comment period," James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

"Specifically, the challenge states, the public was not able to object to provisions included in the final plan that were not part of the initial proposal," Bruggers writes. Snavely wrote: "The EPA should convene a proceeding for reconsideration of the rule ... so that the public has the opportunity to make meaningful comment on these issues."

At the direction of Republican Gov. Matt Mead, Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael also filed a petition, Kohn reports. Mead told Kohn, "This rulemaking process has been flawed from the very beginning. The final rule is the result of an unfair process, it has both procedural and substantive deficiencies."

Millennials are under-represented in legislatures, reflecting their lack of interest in voting

Millennials—people born after 1980—account for 31 percent of the U.S. voting age population, but only hold 5 percent of state legislative seats, Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline. The average age of lawmakers is 56, but is higher in some states, such as New Hampshire (66), Idaho (63), New Mexico (62), Vermont (61), Utah and Indiana (60) and North Carolina, North Dakota and Wyoming (59). Michigan has the lowest average age, 50, which is still higher than the average age of the U.S. voting population, 47. Nebraska has the highest share of millennials in its legislature, 16 percent.

"The problem, some political scientists say, is that when younger legislators are left out, so are their viewpoints," Beitsch writes. "Older legislators—who also tend to be wealthier—may be less likely to focus on issues such as school spending and student loan debt. Too much gray hair in a legislative body also leaves some younger voters feeling disconnected from the political process."

The dearth of millennials in legislatures reflects their low voting rate. Census data show that only 23 percent of millennials went to the polls in 2014, while 59 percent of people 65 and older did, Beitsch writes. Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, told Beitsch, "If state legislators don’t perceive young people to be engaged, they’re not going to be standard-bearers for the issues young people care about."

Millennials tend to be single and "have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their predecessor generations had at the same age," Beitsch writes. "Politically, they expect to get less from government programs such as Social Security. Those with young children are more interested in funding public education than older people whose children are grown, and who may be reluctant to pay higher taxes to support schools. Millennials also are more racially diverse than older generations, and more socially liberal." (Stateline map: To see an interactive version click here)

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner is purchased by foundation created by paper's former owner

The nonprofit Helen E. Snedden Foundation has purchased the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Rod Boyce reports for the newspaper. The foundation was created by the late wife of the paper’s former publisher, Charles W. Snedden, whose family owned the paper from 1950 to 1992. Helen Snedden created and fully endowed the C. W. Snedden Chair in Journalism at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 2003. (Best places map)

While no major changes are planned, non-profit status means the "newspaper cannot endorse candidates for public office and that greater balance must be shown on the editorial pages," said Virginia Farmier, trustee of the foundation. Farmier told Boyce, “The Helen E. Snedden Foundation’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in Alaska. By owning the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the foundation will further that mission, allowing the newspapers to continue to communicate, educate and inform the citizens of these communities with excellent local news coverage.” (Read more)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

States boosting economies by teaching immigrants English; youngest immigrants in Great Plains, South

States are investing millions of dollars to help "new immigrants learn English and acclimate to American culture, hopeful that it will pay off with economic activity," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. The youngest immigrants are in North and South Dakota, and those states have a median immigrant age of 34. Kentucky is next, at 36, followed by Nebraska, Oklahoma and Iowa (37) and Wyoming, Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Indiana (38). The average oldest immigrants are in Hawaii (48) and Florida (47).

"Immigrants fill many of the country’s labor gaps: from low-skilled work in agriculture to high-skilled work in science and technology," Henderson writes. "Having an immigrant population that is younger often means the newcomers are contributing to a state’s workforce, which can increase the tax base. But it also can mean young families that have children. And that can burden public schools, which are obligated to teach students who don’t speak English."

"Having an immigrant population that skews older can mean a state has a greater percentage of immigrants who have aged out of the workforce and may need help with health care, housing and retirement—though not always," Henderson. But the states with the oldest immigrants, Hawaii and Florida, "have settled in enclaves where many speak the same language or share the same culture," while immigrants in Hawaii—mostly from Asia—tend to be more affluent. (Stateline map: For an interactive version, click here)

Be safe: Rural roads get more dangerous on Christmas and during winter months

Christmas is one of the most dangerous times of year to drive, especially as ice and snow accumulate on rural roads. The National Center for Rural Road Safety offers tips for winter driving. To view the tips, click here. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Mike Longaecke: Winter weather caused a multi-vehicle crash in St. Croix County, Wisconsin.)

In Wisconsin in 2013—the most recent year records were available—the state had 18,000 crashes related to snow and slush, leading to 42 deaths and 3.329 injuries, Ricky Campbell reports for the River Falls Journal. "Icy roads were blamed for 6,072 crashes, killing 13 and injuring an estimated 1,282." St. Croix County, with a population of 85,000, has had 66 vehicular deaths in the past five years, with 11 of those fatalities occurring between November to February.

Based on news media reports, there were at least 477 deaths due to icy roads in the U.S. during the 2008-2009 winter season and at least 458 during the 2009-2010 winter season, states Ice Road Safety. Pennsylvania had the most reported fatalities in 2009-10 with 26. That was followed by Nebraska and Missouri (23), Iowa (20), Texas (19), Michigan (18) and Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon (17). The deadliest period in 2009-10 was from Dec. 22-27, when 35 fatalities were reported in 10 states.

The Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign is encouraging towns and cities to have local campaigns from Dec. 18-31. In December 2014 more than 700 drivers were involved in drunk driving crashes, states the campaign. Of all the fatal drunk driving crashes, 30 percent were ages 21 to 24, and 75 percent occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Eight of 10 drunk drivers were male. (Ice Road Safety map)

Scripps Howard Awards entry deadline is Feb. 10, 2016; includes a Community Journalism category

For the last several years, the annual Scripps Howard Awards have included a category called Community Journalism, partly to recognize strong journalistic efforts by smaller media outlets that deserve recognition but might not be competitive with larger ones in national competitions.

The deadline to submit entries to the contest is Feb. 10, 2016. The awards are open to journalists and news organizations whose work was distributed by U.S.-based media outlets. There is a $50 entry fee (with the exception of First Amendment and Administrator/Teacher of the Year). Winners will be announced in March 2016, share $180,000 in cash prizes and be recognized at an April 28 dinner in Phoenix.

Besides Community Journalism, categories include: Top Story of the Year; Opinion; Breaking News; Business/Economics Reporting; Digital Innovation; Environmental Reporting; First Amendment; Human Interest Storytelling; Investigative Reporting; Photojournalism; Public Service Reporting; Radio/Audio In-Depth Reporting; TV/Cable Local Coverage; TV/Cable National/International Coverage; Journalism School Administrator of the Year; and Journalism Teacher of the Year. (Read more)

The first winner of the Community Journalism prize was Daniel Gilbert, then of the Bristol Herald Courier and now of The Seattle Times, whose same work went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He donated his $10,000 cash prize from the Scripps contest to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of the Rural Blog) to create a fellowship program for rural journalists to gain the same sort of computer-assisted reporting skills that enabled him to expose mismanagement of coalfield energy royalties in southwest Virginia. The fellowships send rural journalists to the computer-assisted reporting boot camp of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Rural health clinic in impoverished Tennessee that served all, even if they couldn't pay, to close

A health clinic that serves 1,000 patients in impoverished rural Tennessee will close its doors on Jan. 1, 2016, Ken Steadman reports for the Crossville Chronicle. The clinic's only doctor is retiring because of poor health, and no other doctor has stepped forward to take over the practice. Dr. Harold Lowe, medical director, and his wife Diana, executive director, started the Rural Health Clinic in August 2006 with 43 patients, most of them uninsured or underinsured adults. The clinic provides low-cost office visits, patient education, labs, X-rays, prescription assistance and more, with no one turned away, even if they are unable to pay. Most of the residents are from Crossville, (Best Places map) where 24.6 percent of residents had income below the 2013 poverty level, compared to 13.5 percent statewide, according to City-Data.

Many of the patients suffer from chronic conditions "such as diabetes, high blood pressure and respiratory conditions requiring long-term medications and other medical supplies," Steadman writes. The clinic has been able to stay in business because of state grants and donations from local businesses, community organizations, churches, state grants, corporations and individuals, as well as a finance program from the United Fund of Cumberland County. Also, "the clinic's healthcare providers and patient advocates were able to obtain medications directly from pharmaceutical companies at no cost to the patient." (Read more)

Oregonian reporter details for SEJ how he wrote award-winning expose on oil train safety

Rob Davis
Rob Davis of The Oregonian won first place this year in the small market division of the Society of Environmental Journalists' 14th Annual Awards for Outstanding In-depth Reporting for his series, "Oil Trains in Oregon," which detailed safety flaws of trains carrying crude oil through the Pacific Northwest. Davis was interviewed about the series by SEJ for its Winter 2015/16 issue that came out this week. He explains how he got the idea for the story and the process it took to get the idea on the page.

"When a train hauling crude oil through Quebec exploded and killed 47 people in July 2013, backers of a proposed oil train terminal near Portland characterized it as isolated incident," Davis told SEJ. "Couldn't happen here, they said. Then another train exploded, then a third. That got my attention. Initial reader response was overwhelming—thousands live along rail lines here. I used their curiosity to help my guide my run-and-gun investigation."

When asked what was the hardest part of the story, Davis said: "It was challenging just to find out where oil was moving by rail and in what volume. Railroads and state safety regulators knew but refused to say. I successfully petitioned Oregon's attorney general to force the reports' disclosure. Regulators said they would stop collecting data because I made it public. They reversed themselves as soon as we printed that news."

Davis said one of the keys to successful investigative reporting is reliable sources, states SEJ. Davis said, "I connected with a former state rail safety inspector who was exceedingly generous with his time and counsel. He helped me figure out what to ask for—and let me know I was being lied to when bureaucrats told me it didn't exist."

Davis offers advice to other investigative journalists, saying "One, get beyond 'he said, she said.' If an environmental advocate claims something bad is happening, do the research and get the documents to authoritatively prove it yourself. Two, dive deeper on stories where you're going to be able to prove harm is occurring and there's someone who can be held accountable. Three, when you find harm, humanize it." The current issue of SEJ is by subscription only. The past issue can be read by clicking here.

Links to the train series:
Volatile issue, volatile cargo
ODOT to keep public in dark
ODOT will get oil train info
Oregon has no plans for river spills by oil trains
Railroads skirt the truth

WTO deal to scrap agricultural export subsidies; critics say it benefits India, China

On Saturday in Nairobi the World Trade Organization agreed "to eliminate some $15 billion of subsidies on exported produce from milk to sugar and rice," a decision that "could level the playing field for farmers who don’t currently benefit from much government help, while raising the stakes for producers elsewhere who do," Lucy Craymer reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The agreement requires developed countries to eliminate subsidies starting Jan. 1, with the exception of some dairy, pork and processed products. Developing countries have until the end of 2018." (WSJ graphic)

"Export subsidies include any form of financial aid or support given by a government to a firm involved in exporting agricultural products," Craymer writes. "Opponents of subsidies say farmers in countries without them trade at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. The issue had been on the WTO’s list of unfinished business: An agreement in 2005 to end all agricultural export subsidies by 2013 never came to fruition."

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the House Agriculture Committee Chairman, expressed concern Monday over the decision, "saying it provides a big exception for developing countries like China and India," Jenny Hopkinson reports for Politico. Conaway "said he was worried 'that the agreement allows developing countries to continue to use export subsidies for transportation and marketing for another 8 years even though the U.S. has held the position that the authority of countries to offer these sorts of subsidies expired back in 2004.'"

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said that the WTO deal "will 'strengthen U.S. agriculture’s ability to pursue market opportunities in international trade.'" He said,  “The measures adopted on food aid also will support U.S. programs that continue to provide food assistance around the world."

Monday, December 21, 2015

The old job of plowing snow and treating roads has gone high-tech in some states

Many states are turning to technology this winter to battle blizzards and ice storms, "using tools such as road sensors, tracking gear on snowplows and onboard cameras that upload photos of current conditions," Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. Rich Roman, maintenance and operations director for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, told Bergal, "Technology has changed winter services across the board. Look inside a plow truck—it almost looks like the cockpit of an airplane, with knobs and controls and radio communication.” (Associated Press photo)

Transportation officials say that in states susceptible to cold weather, "clearing snow and removing ice quickly and efficiently is one of their biggest challenges," Bergal writes. An American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials survey of 23 states "found they spent about $1.13 billion between October 2014 and April 2015 treating and plowing roads." New Hampshire spent 55 percent of its road budget treating and plowing roads, Maryland 33 percent and Massachusetts, which was hit hard by storms last year, spent more than $153 million to treat and plow roads.

About half of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s 900 snowplows "are equipped with forward-facing iPhones, which are mounted inside the trucks and take photos of the road every five to 10 minutes," Bergal writes. "The photos are posted on an in-house website so supervisors can see the actual conditions, along with the truck’s GPS coordinates." Residents can also look at Track-A-Plow to view statewide photos taken from the snowplows, "along with icons showing where the plows are located, which direction they’re traveling, and whether they’re applying salt or chemicals."

"In Minnesota, about two-thirds of the state’s 850 plow trucks are equipped to compile data on atmospheric conditions, up-to-the-minute weather information, and air and road surface temperatures," Bergal writes. "The technology takes the data and uses algorithms to come up with recommendations on which chemicals to spread, how much to apply, and how frequently to plow. The driver has that information at his fingertips—on a computer screen, in the cab."

Pilot programs in  Pennsylvania and Michigan are using tracking gear to better access how much salt is being used on roads, Bergal writes. The Pennsylvania program is expected to save $700,000 this year, while the Michigan one will cut 5 to 10 percent per year off salt costs. In an attempt to be more environmentally friendly, in Nevada "remote weather stations give officials a better understanding of actual road temperatures. If it’s warm on the pavement, even if it’s snowing, plow operators don’t put salt down." (Read more)

HUD rural housing program for high-poverty areas has not been funded since 2011

The Health Services Center in Hobson City, Ala., got a Rural
Housing and Economic Development grant (Yonder photo)

The Rural Housing and Economic Development fund, created in 1999 to provide about $25 million in 100 grants to rural nonprofits and tribes, mostly in high-poverty areas, hasn't been funded since 2011, Joe Belden reports for the Daily Yonder. Since being created and funded by Congress—and implemented by the Department of Housing and Urban Development—every president's proposed federal budget for HUD has called for the elimination of the rural program, mostly on incorrect information that it duplicates Department of Agriculture rural housing programs, Belden writes.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Missouri), chairman of the VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, created the RHED program and fought for it every year he was in office, Belden writes. Boyd retired in 2011and "in the very next appropriations cycle the president’s budget request for HUD dropped the Rural Innovation Fund."

"A perhaps equally frustrating tale—at least for rural advocates—is that of the HUD Rural Housing Stability Assistance program," Belden writes. "As part of a larger 2009 bill reauthorizing and revising federal programs for the homeless, Congress created the RHSA program to serve the rural homeless. HUD issued regulations for RHSA in 2013, with nonprofits and local government as eligible applicants. Congress has appropriated funds for RHSA for the last several years, but as part of a larger HUD account to combat homelessness generally."

"HUD has determined each year that there are insufficient funds to keep the bigger program renewed and also fund RHSA," Belden writes. "So HUD has never conducted an RHSA funding competition or released any dollars. Currently the HUD website says the program is 'being implemented.' For funding actually to get out the door, Congress will very likely have to give a direct order to HUD in an appropriations bill. That got part of the way to completion this year. Maybe next year?" (Read more)

Vt. weekly fights subpoenas seeking info gathered for stories on alleged sex abuse by state senator

Three journalists for Seven Days, an alternative weekly in Burlington, Vt., are fighting subpoenas seeking information they gathered for news articles about sexual-assault claims against Republican state Sen. Norm McAllister. Terri Hallenbeck reports for Seven Days, "Reporter Mark Davis, Political Editor Paul Heintz and News Editor Matthew Roy were subpoenaed on Nov. 19" and directed to appear in Franklin County Superior Court Dec. 23 by Franklin County Deputy State’s Attorney Diane Wheeler. Wheeler, who has delayed the appearance at the newspaper's request, said she "issued the subpoenas because Seven Days' staffers spoke directly to McAllister and one of the victims." (Best Places map)

"Davis and Heintz wrote news articles that included material from interviews with the senator, and Heintz interviewed one of his alleged victims," Hallenbeck reports. "Heintz has also written political columns about McAllister. McAllister, who was arrested May 7 at the Statehouse in Montpelier, has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of sexual assault and three misdemeanor counts of prohibited acts."

Paula Routly, the paper’s publisher and co-editor, said in a written statement: "As the Founders recognized, democracy requires a free and vibrant press. That freedom is threatened when lawyers demand to put reporters on the witness stand, peer into their notebooks and otherwise deputize them as agents of law enforcement. Seven Days is serving its readers by reporting this story—and standing up for the First Amendment by challenging these subpoenas."

The newspaper’s lawyer, Robert Hemley, "argued in court papers last week that the Vermont Supreme Court has upheld that lawyers cannot demand reporters reveal information without proving there is no other way to obtain the information and that it’s vital to proving innocence or guilt," Hallenbeck writes.

Arizona's Payson Roundup wins Local Media Association award for top small non-daily paper

The Local Media Association, formerly the Suburban Newspapers Association, has announced its 2015 newspapers of the year. Newspapers must enter the contest to win. Winners were announced in six categories, including Class A, non-dailies up to 10,000 circulation, and Class E, dailies under 30,000.

The winner in Class A was the Payson Roundup, a Rim County, Arizona, paper owned by The World Company(Best Places map: Payson, Ariz.) Second place went to the Chaska Herald in Minnesota, third place to the Jackson Hole News & Guide in Wyoming and honorable mention to The Half Moon Bay Review in Northern California. In Class E the top spot went to The Santa Fe New Mexican, second to the Sioux City Journal, third to the Beaver County Times of Beaver, Pa., and honorable mention to the Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Read more)

Journalist turned advocate is leading Colorado's fight for government transparency

Jeff Roberts
The battle for open government and unrestricted access to public records in Colorado is being led by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, "a nonprofit alliance of news organizations, good-government groups, and others with an interest in transparency," Corey Hutchins reports for Columbia Journalism Review. "CFOIC helps journalists and citizens fight for open access to government records and meetings, tracks legislation and court rulings, and hosts panel discussions."

At the forefront is CFIOC director Jeff Roberts, a former Denver Post reporter who "pens a frequently updated blog about transparency news statewide, fields calls to a hotline, and publishes online guides," Hutchins writes. Roberts also occasionally publishes his own reporting into open records requests. Roberts told Hutchins, “I still see myself as a journalist. I have other roles as well. When I was a writer and an editor at The Denver Post I did not see myself as any kind of advocate. But in this role I have to be an advocate.”

Hutchins writes, "In a state where access to records leaves much to be desired, Roberts has emerged as the go-to guy for journalists and citizens who need help prying information from reluctant government entities." That's especially important to small and rural newspapers, said Bart Smith, publisher of The Greeley Tribune and a member of the CFOIC board. Smith told Hutchins, “He’s a great help to a lot of papers that otherwise would wait in line to try to get to an attorney to get free advice or couldn’t afford when the meter starts running.”

While Colorado "has a reputation for clean government, it doesn’t have a strong record of transparency," Hutchins writes. "In both 2012 and 2015, the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation gave Colorado an F for public access to information. For example, state laws give police discretion over whether to release many types of records, which has been the source of much journalistic ire."

"Initially launched in 1987 as an all-volunteer effort, the CFOIC re-branded and muscled up in 2013, with support from the Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition," Hutchins writes. "At the time, Roberts had been working on a project on the state budget at Denver University. Funding for the project had run out, and he saw the CFOIC was looking to hire its first paid director." Roberts told Hutchins, “It made sense. It was an issue that I cared a lot about. It was a chance to get back into journalism.”

Native American tribe in Oregon will grow marijuana to sell at tribal stores off the reservation

A Native American tribe in central Oregon has approved a plan to grow marijuana on its reservation to sell at tribe-owned stores off the reservation, reports The Associated Press. More than 80 percent of the officials of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (largest red area on Spirit Mountain Community Fund map) voted in favor of the proposal Thursday. "The tribes are among the first in the country to enter the marijuana-growing business, a year after a Department of Justice policy indicated tribes could grow and sell marijuana under the same guidelines as states that opt to legalize," AP reports. Marijuana possession and cultivation became legal in Oregon on Oct. 1.

"Warm Springs’s plan is to build a 36,000-square-foot greenhouse to grow and process the cannabis. Officials expect the project will create more than 80 jobs," reports AP. "Annual net revenue from the three proposed tribe-owned retail shops would top $26 million, the officials estimated. The tribes say they will enter into an agreement with state agencies to ensure that testing and other regulations are consistent with state law. Sales are set to start in winter 2016."

Don Sampson of the tribes’ economic development corporation told AP, “Our main purpose is to create jobs on the reservation and produce revenue for the tribes. We think we will have a model other tribes will look to as they investigate this business and industry.” The proposal does not change tribal law that bans marijuana possession on the reservation. (Read more)

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.