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This is a collection of journalism that has won, should win, and should have won awards -- taken from The Rural Blog, a digest of rural events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural places, to help journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration.

A weekly newspaper in western North Carolina that is barely a year old has won the "Distinguished Service to the First Amendment" prize in the Scripps Howard Awards.

Jonathan and Susan Austin, who founded the Yancey County News in Burnsville in January 2011, will receive $10,000 and the Edward Willis Scripps Award for “Unlawful Law Enforcement,” which exposed absentee-ballot fraud, ethics violations, abuse of arrest powers, and the theft and illegal sale of county-owned guns – "all during the newspaper’s first year of operation and despite risks both financial and physical,"the Scripps Howard Foundation said in announcing the award today. "In winning, the Yancey County News bested entries by finalists Bloomberg News and OpenSecrets.org," the paper says in its online story about the award.

Jonathan Austin "documented cases from the weeks leading up to the election in which individuals were arrested, voted, then saw the charges against them later dismissed or drastically reduced," the paper says. “People say we are doing something special here, but we’re only doing what any good journalist learns in Journalism 101 class,” Austin said. “What makes this honor so unique is that we did this work in the newspaper’s very first year, that we did it with no staff, and that other local media had the chance to point out these serious issues as they occurred, but they chose to keep their eyes shut.” (Read more)

The award for community journalism went to reporter Sara Ganim and the staff of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg and Mechanicsburg, Pa., for “Jerry Sandusky and Penn State,” a two-year investigation that led to nationwide coverage of the child sex abuse scandal and its impact on the university. They will receive receive $10,000 and a trophy. The finalists in the category were Brandon Stahl and Mark Stodghill of the Duluth News Tribune, for “The Case of Dr. Konasiewicz,” a story about a neurosurgeon with a record of malpractice; and the Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., for “Tropical Storm Irene: The Aftermath.”

The award for editorial writing had a rural flavor. It went to Jamie Lucke of the Lexington Herald-Leader for "editorials that took on Kentucky’s powerful coal industry while speaking for the voiceless and powerless in Appalachia," the foundation said. Lucke will receive $10,000 and the Walker Stone Award.

In environmental reporting, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won  $10,000 and the Edward J. Meeman Award for “Pipeline,” a website "dedicated to explaining the economic, environmental and political effects of the natural gas industry's Marcellus Shale drilling," the foundation said.

The Local Media Association, formerly Suburban Newspapers of America, has announced the winners of its contest for 2011.

Carol Stark, editor of the Joplin Globe, was named daily editor of the year for the Missouri paper's "detailed and comprehensive coverage of last May's tornado that killed 162 people and destroyed one-third of the community," writes William Ketter, chief news executive of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns the paper.

Judges at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism said the paper provided "phenomenal" coverage in "the most trying of conditions -- one of the dead was a Globe staffer, half of the staff's homes were destroyed or severely damaged. . . . "It is hard to conceive of a newspaper of any size serving its community better in such a tragic situation."

Ketter also notes that Keith Eddings, a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass., which Ketter once edited, was selected as daily journalist of the year "for a series of investigative stories about local government corruption and fraud. . . . Among other stories, he disclosed that the head of an anti-poverty agency was spending more time at the local Elks Club than at his office."

In the Newspaper of the Year competition, the Lake Country Reporter of Hartland, Wis., won among non-dailies with circulations up to 10,000. The other circulation categories were won by suburban papers of the Washington Post Co. in Maryland: the Enterprise of Lexington Park, the Frederick Gazette, and The Gazette of Gaithersburg. Among dailies under 30,000, the winner was the Galveston Daily News of Texas.

For other awards in the contest, click here. The awards will be presented at the association's annual conference in Atlanta Sept. 11-14.

Yesterday we wrote about the newspaper in a tornado-devastated Kentucky town struggling to publish after its office and the home of its publisher were destroyed. Today, at a press conference timed to start exactly a week after the storm hit, Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley held up a copy of West Liberty's Licking Valley Courier and said it was a sign the community will return, independent journalist John Flavell reports. Standing next to Conley is West Liberty Mayor Jim Rupe. The headline reads, "Thank God for sparing so many." (Flavell photo)

The weekly newspaper established its first online presence in the wake of the tornado, as reporter Miranda Cantrell (at right in photo with co-worker Ricky Adkins) started a Facebook page that includes news updates and the paper's story about the disaster. She told us, "It was one of the proudest moments of my life when I saw that press rolling our papers" at the Mount Sterling Advocate, the paper's normal printing location.

The Morehead News, a twice-a-week newspaper in northeastern Kentucky, is publishing an eight-part series on mental illness, written by Noelle Hunter.

With Part 1 largely an introduction to the project, running on Tuesdays, Part 2 gets into the facts and figures of the disorders that fall under the mental-illness umbrella. Part 3 profiles a woman living with bipolar disorder; Part 4 will report on the views of clinicians and therapists; Part 5 will profile a man living with bipolar disorder; Part 6 will profile a person living with schizophrenia; Part 7 will focus on the effects on families; and Part 8 will look at treatment options and recovery.

Mental illness is a worthy topic for any news outlet. According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 45.9 million American adults — one in five — experienced some mental illness in the past year. In Kentucky, 180,000 people live with a serious mental illness, which includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though there have been advancements in treatments these disorders, most in the way of medication and therapy, there is still much that is unknown, Hunter reports.

That comes with larger cultural ramifications. In 2008, about 5,100 adults who have a mental illness were incarcerated in Kentucky prisons and almost 700 adults committed suicide, "almost always a result of untreated mental illness," Hunter reports. Follow the series on the website of the newspaper, part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., here.

Almost 80 percent of the 3,830 post offices that the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing "are in sparsely populated rural areas where poverty rates are higher than the national average," and almost 85 percent are in ZIP codes where United Parcel Service and Federal Express charge more to deliver packages, Cezary Podkul and Emily Stephenson of Reuters report in the most comprehensive package yet on the impact the closings would have on rural America.

"Moreover, about one-third of the offices slated for closure fall in areas with limited or no wired broadband Internet," a factor the USPS did not consider in drawing up the closure list. "Nearly 90 percent of the 24 million Americans without wired broadband access live in rural areas," Reuters reports, quoting Ed Luttrell, president of the National Grange: "There's still a real digital divide between rural and urban America.vYou look at rural folks, they tend to rely much more heavily on the Postal Service for delivery of a wide variety of necessities than urban people."

The USPS has refused to reveal the revenue for individual post offices, but "did provide Reuters expense data for all post offices," the wire service reports. "The statistics show that closing all of the post offices under consideration would save about $295 million a year – about four-tenths of 1 percent of the Postal Service's annual expenses of $70 billion." William Henderson, postmaster general in 1998-2001, told Reuters, "That's not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won't ripple."

Reuters' package includes a video report (above) from Lohrville, Iowa, which fears that it would lose its identity if it lost its post office, and a nice interactive map that shows the offices on the list, those in rural areas, those without wired broadband and those with package-delivery surcharges. Clicking on a circle gives you the data for that office. Here's an image of the version showing the rural offices on the list:

A mysterious illness resembling Tourette's Syndrome has swept through the high school in LeRoy, N.Y. (Wikipedia map), about 20 miles southwest of Rochester. Fifteen cases of a neurological disorder have been reported, and environmentalists, led by activists Lois Gibbs of nearby Love Canal and Erin Brockovich of movie fame, say the illness could have been caused by chemicals spilled in a 1970 train derailment or by hydraulic fracturing of five natural gas wells circling the school that are owned by LeRoy Central School District. The district has tested for environmental contamination, and ruled it out as cause of the symptoms, but Brockovich's team says testing wasn't thorough enough. Local reporters from the Batavia Daily News and The Batavian, an online publication, have followed this story long before it gained national attention.

Howard Owens of The Batavian reports Brockovich sent environmental Robert Bowcock, investigator with California-based Integrated Resource Management, to conduct tests. Bowcock told Owens the report released by the district "wasn't even close to science" and he came to LeRoy at the request of affected students' parents, who said government officials hadn't been transparent with them at a Jan. 11 meeting. Bowcock's team wanted to collect water and soil samples from various sites suggested to them by residents. One site was of the 1970 train wreck, which the Environmental Protection Agency is charge of cleaning up. Bowcock said he was "shocked" by the site's condition, which included leaking barrels of contaminated water and soil. (Batavian photo)

Bowcock and others tried to walk onto school property last weekend, but were stopped by local police and told they didn't have proper permits to gather soil samples. Superintendent Kim Cox said the district has worked "very closely" with professionals to keep the community "involved and up-to-date," but she should have been notified ahead of time about the team's arrival. She said any samples collected by Bowcock would be invalid because "they would have been collected in an unprofessional manner." District lawyer Bill Albert labeled the presence of Bowcock and reporters at the school as "criminal activity." (Read more) The Batavia Daily News has dedicated an entire page on its website to the LeRoy mystery illnesses here.

Virtual education can connect isolated rural students to students in other places and provide them with resources they may not have otherwise, but as Emma Brown of The Washington Post wrote recently, some are "leery of cyber schools," and that has drawn national journalism attention to virtual schools and the companies that operate them. But she says local news media were first to "raise questions about virtual schools' cost and effectiveness," and should be recognized for this.

She wrote that a public radio station in Greeley, Colo., reported about lax oversight and poor student performance at virtual schools, resulting in the president of the state senate calling for an emergency audit of virtual schools. Local stories in Tennessee, both in newspapers and on television, raised similar questions about its first virtual school, drawing statewide attention to the issue. Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey investigated political and financial connections between virtual-school company K12 and the state's top education official. In Arizona, blogger David Safier reported K12 was outsourcing grading of papers to workers in India.

Brown said she could continue listing top-notch local stories about the failings of virtual schools from local, often rural reporters, but summed up: "Local reporters in farflung places were paying attention to virtual schools long before folks in big cities took notice. And for that, they deserve a heap of credit." (Read more)

With a Russian tanker's delivery of desperately needed fuel yesterday to Nome, Alaska (here is a good video report from The Nome Nugget, "Alaska's oldest newspaper"), the publisher of a regional newspaper, The Arctic Sounder, wrote an editorial drawing on his dual role as chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the village corporation for Nome and operator of a fuel company.

Jason Evans (above, with child) wrote that in interviews with media at lower latitudes, he was surprised that he had to explain what a native corporation was (they handle money allocated to Alaska natives from the state's oil revenues), and that some reporters "asked if doing all this effort for such a small community is really worth it. I tried to explain the Coast Guard has a 220-year history of assisting commerce throughout our country. The Coast Guard routinely assists commerce in the Great Lakes, along the Hudson River, across the eastern United States. Shouldn't the citizens of Alaska have the same opportunity?" (Read more)

Kentucky is one of the more rural states and has no major-league pro sports teams, but it's a pretty big sports state, with several strong college basketball teams, the Kentucky Derby, many Thoroughbred breeding farms, and much interest in high-school sports. So it attracts some excellent sports journalists, and that makes it all the more remarkable that the sports editor of a 12,000-circulation newspaper has been recognized for six years in a row as the best sports writer in the state.

Larry Vaught of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville and VaughtsViews.com was named Kentucky's 2011 National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. He has won it in seven of the last nine years. “It never ceases to amaze me that my peers deem me worthy of this prestigious award,” Vaught told Gary Moyers of their newspaper. “It's a tremendous honor once again to receive this award, and I'm not sure exactly what I have done to deserve it.”

Well, I read Larry Vaught from time to time, and I am always impressed with his ability to churn out incisive columns, solid game stories and athlete features, often all in the same day, ranging from the University of Kentucky to the smallest high schools. I don't know who else was nominated for this award, but I have no doubt that he deserves national recognition. He will receive it at the association’s banquet in June in Salisbury, N.C.

In our experience, most weekly newspapers don't have editorial pages, much less editorials, so when one puts an editorial on the front page and also runs an editorial about the decision, and the work is well-written and well-argued, it's worth noting.

The Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., noted county government's bailout of the "collapsing" county-owned hospital; elected officials' request that they have "a say in any final decision to sell the hospital" and that "the hospital administration will try just as hard to keep the hospital independent as they will to sell it;" and some appointed board members' dislike of the requests.

"It seems like little to ask of someone who is $13 million in debt and asking you for $1.7 million," the editorial said, noting that one member said the board had been "a rubber stamp" for agents who secured the bonded debt. That admission "saves us the trouble of trying to prove that board members acted irresponsibly in overseeing the hospital’s business," the editorial said. "Now the question has to be, 'Why are they still on the board?'" It said the board not only "ran the hospital into the ground" but is "in control of a document that will show if any criminal activity took place," a forensic audit that gives board members "a personal stake in any damaging evidence that may come out."

In her explanatory editorial, Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton said she put the editorial out front because "We believe this is a critical time for our community, and we believe bad decisions will continue if the board is left as it is. We believe it’s our job to bring the issue to the forefront, and there is no better place to do that than on the front page of the Community Voice." The explanatory editorial also included useful background and perspective, including: "At small newspapers we don’t have the luxury of separating the people who cover the news from the people who write opinion pieces. Instead, we work hard to provide fair and unbiased coverage of local news. Then, we look at how that news impacts the people in our community and take a stand as needed on our editorial page."

Burton told us in an email that the editorial generated responses by phone, emails, Facebook messages "and of course being stopped at church and the grocery store," all of them positive except a letter from the daughter of a board member, which is running this week. The Community Voice doesn't put editorials or most news on its website, but PDFs of the pages with the editorials are available on the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues website. The front page, with color, is 3.5 MB; the inside page is 682 KB.

Eugene Weekly readers are used to seeing news about Eugene nightlife and the University of Oregon in the alternative newspaper, but it also covers the surrounding rural area, unlike most alt-weeklies. Reporter Camilla Mortensen went 20 miles southeast of the city to rural Dexter for a three-part series about the town's struggle against an illegal gravel-mining operation. For over a year, Lost Creek Rock Products has logged and mined Parvin Butte, a natural Dexter landmark, without proper permits. Mortensen says in an e-mail that the paper is filling a hole left in rural environmental coverage after budget cuts at traditional papers forced those stories to the back burner. (Mortensen photo)

Mortensen said Eugene Weekly's owners, Art and Anita Johnson and Fred Taylor, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, "have always had a strong environmental focus and with cutbacks at other papers, both The Register Guard (Eugene's daily newspaper) and around the state, there's a lot of rural and environmental issues that aren't getting attention, like this mine." She also reported on a proposed uranium mine about 200 miles from Eugene, saying "It's in a very rural area where it just wasn't going to get newspaper coverage so we decided I should go ahead and write about it so it didn't fall through the cracks and was a done-deal before people knew about it."

Parvin Butte was slated to become a gravel mine, though residents who live within yards of it didn't know this until mining had already begun. Mortensen reports in the first part of the series that Lost Creek Rock Products obtained a logging permit from the Oregon Department of Forestry and a mining permit from the Oregon Department of Geology and Minerals but failed to go through the Lane County site review process that allows the public to comment on the proposal.

The second part of the series focused on efforts to protect Lost Creek, which "is unobstructed by dams and offers some of the last remaining habitat for spring Chinook in the Middle Fork basin," and runs through the property being mined. Finally, Mortensen wrote about the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries permit for the site and reported that Lane County officials issued a notice of violation to mine operators, though production continues. She also reports the fines levied against the mining company. Most recently, county officials asked the state to revoke the permit.

After Mortensen's first story was published, The Register Guard reported on the mine. That article can be found here.

Stanley Nelson at The Concordia SentinelStanley Nelson and the weekly newspaper he edits, the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La., are the winners of the 2011 Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. The Institute presents the award in honor of Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the award's first recipients.

Nelson and the Sentinel showed courage and unusual tenacity in investigating an unsolved murder from the era of conflict over civil rights, and in January 2011 named a living suspect in the 1964 killing of African American businessman Frank Morris. A grand jury was convened and continues to investigate. A prosecutor on the case, David Oppeman, told James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, “I told Stanley the other day he is the hub in this and everybody else is just a spoke. He did the work that needed to be done.”

The newspaper showed integrity and courage in the face of reader resistance to its dogged, detailed reporting in more than 150 stories. “The owners of the Concordia Sentinel never hesitated in following the story,” Nelson wrote in the fall edition of Nieman Reports, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. "While most readers read the stories with interest and outrage over what happened so many years ago, many of the most vocal were those who detested the coverage and who questioned our motives," Nelson told the Institute for Rural Journalism. “We knew some would be angered to read about the parish's ugly racial past,” he wrote for Nieman Reports. “Some canceled subscriptions. We were threatened. Our office was burglarized. One irate reader called to find out my ultimate goal. ‘To solve a murder,’ I said. ‘You can't do that,’ she snapped. ‘You're just a reporter!’ She hung up. We pressed on.”

Here's a good, localized look at the challenges facing rural hospitals all over the U.S., by John Stucke of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane: "Many of Eastern Washington’s small hospitals are bracing for cutbacks as federal and state governments look to save money.

"Consider Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Chewelah [pin on MapQuest image]: On any given day perhaps nine of its 25 patient beds are occupied. Two of those patients might have private insurance. One might not pay the medical bill. The rest will be covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

"And yet the hospital has made money in four of the past five years, in part because rural hospitals receive richer payments from government than larger urban hospitals to care for proportionally higher numbers of the poor, elderly and uninsured who populate rural America.

"It’s a bottom-line boost that has kept 38 hospitals in rural Washington afloat. But that extra money from Medicare and Medicaid is drawing the attention of budget cutters. If proposals to retool and scale back the payments are adopted, up to half of these hospitals could be closed within a matter of years, say administrators and policy analysts." (Read more)

In Hickman County, Tenn., one in five calls to the sheriff's office involves domestic assault. This led Editor Bradley Martin of the Hickman County Times to begin searching for a domestic violence victim willing to share her story. On Nov. 21, starting a two-part series, Martin ended his 15-year search and provided readers a glimpse into the severity of domestic violence - quite literally.

The paper reported on the 2007 domestic assault of Shannon Beasley, complete with a striking front page photo of her injuries. In the first part of the series, the Times took a closer look at Beasley's relationship with the accused, the events that led up to the abuse and finally her rescue on March 24, 2007. The second part focused on the resulting trial and Beasley's path to recovery.

Martin said Beasley's attorney approached the paper, saying his client wanted to get the word out about what had happened to her. In January, the Times will start publishing a monthly "Survivor Story" with the assistance of a new coalition known as No Excuse. "The coalition believes it has victims who are ready to stand up, by name and photo, and tell their stories," Martin explained in an email.

Uncovering the story of a former Penn State football coach's alleged rapes of boys "was all local journalism," Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim told Howard Kurtz this morning on CNN's "Reliable Sources." (CNN image)

"Its a huge testament to local news," the 24-year-old Penn State journalism graduate told Kurtz, who initially referred to the 71,000-circulation Advance Publications newspaper as "The News-Patriot." Ganim said, "It was all local journalism, going to my sources. ... I spent a lot of time knocking on doors and getting shooed off properties."

Ganim said the newspaper "did have some pushback" to her stories that first reported the investigation, starting March 31, but "I actually expected a lot more than we got. . . . For the most part people were happy that we were bringing this out." The stories didn't get much play beyond Pennsylvania until ex-coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted this month, perhaps because they were based on interviews with people who had testified before a grand jury, reporting that was difficult for non-local media to match, Ganim said.

The story of Sara Ganim "is also the story of a family-owned media company, Advance, of a second-generation newspaper editor, David Newhouse, of a publisher, John Kirkpatrick, who understands what a newspaper means to a community, and of a newsroom that has the deep local connections and also the courage to keep going no matter what the potential cost to its own reputation," Carl Lavin writes on his 07newsroomblog.

For Ganim's original story, click here. For her latest summary, focusing on authority figures and "What did they know and when did they know it?" go here. Her last-Sunday story about why the probe took so long is here.

When a 9-year-old girl was found beaten to death and her adoptive brother was charged with murder, the local newspaper wanted to know what the state child-welfare agency had done, or not done, with the family in the four years Amy Dye, left, had been placed there. The Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children stonewalled the Todd County Standard, but the small, weekly newspaper fought in court and a judge found that the agency had violated the state open-records law -- and prevented further stonewalling on appeal by putting the records in his ruling.

The records paint "deplorable picture of what happens when those who are assigned to protect a child fail," Editor-Publisher Ryan Craig wrote in his Nov. 9 paper. Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd of Frankfort "said that Amy was put in the Dye home despite there being a 'substantiated' incident of child abuse prior to her placement" and the case is an "example of the 'potentially deadly consequences of a child welfare system that has completely insulated itself from meaningful public scrutiny'."

In his Nov. 16 edition, Craig wrote that a closer look at the records showed "that the cabinet made a choice within a few days of Amy Dye’s death and a day after the Standard filed an open records request to declare the scope of the investigation in a way that would keep the files from becoming public," by classifying its probe as a "neglect investigation" instead of a "fatality investigation," which by law must be public. His story noted that "Officials with the Cabinet delayed nearly two weeks — violating open-records laws — before even responding to the Standard’s initial request for records. Then when the Standard received a response, it was told there were no files whatsoever on Amy Dye."

The Standard is not online, but we have posted PDFs of its Nov. 9 front and jump pages here and here and its Nov. 16 pages here and here. The photo of Amy is from The Courier-Journal of Louisville, which reported on the case in detail today. For the story by Deborah Yetter, go here. University of Kentucky journalism professor Mike Farrell wrote about this and related cases for KyForward, giving a good summary of details, concluding, "We know all of this only because the Todd County Standard sued the cabinet for the records, and in ruling for the newspaper, the judge laid out the story." (Read more)

A new report by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity says state and federal regulators are still struggling to enforce a major part of the Clean Air Act, leaving many communities "exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals."

The journalistic collaboration has produced an interactive map that allows users to look up Environmental Protection Agency data on approximately 17,000 facilities that have emitted hazardous chemicals into the air. (Click on map below for interactive version)

The "air toxics" issue has lingered for decades. The reporters found that more than 1,600 facilities are labeled "high priority," justifying urgent action, but nearly 300 of them have been in that category for more than a decade. About 400 of them "are on an internal EPA 'watch list,' which the agency has kept secret until now," they write. For the list, in an Excel spreadsheet, click here.

Enforcement has "been delayed by tension between the EPA and state environment programs, budget cuts and a system that allows companies to estimate their own toxic emissions," NPR and CPI report, noting shrinking state and EPA budgets as additional reasons for the lack of enforcement. (Read more)

This evening on "All Things Considered," NPR rural correspondent Howard Berkes reports on toxic pollution by a carbon-black plant in Ponca City, Okla. Thursday on "Morning Edition," he focuses on another rural community, Chanute, Kan., which has a cement kiln fired by hazardous waste. UPDATE: The Chanute story is here; a sidebar is here and a story about the cement-kiln rules is here.

University of Alaska Fairbanks professors John Creed and Susan Andrews have been nationally recognized again, this time for their cultural journalism project designed to help students at the Chukchi campus of the university get works published in local newspapers and statewide news sites. (Amazon image)

The team received a bronze medal in Foreward Magazine's 2011 Book of the Year competition, a second-place award for nonfiction anthology in the Independent Book Publishers Association's Benjamin Franklin Book Awards and special recognition by the Alaska Professional Communicators for their latest anthology featuring stories from 23 rural Alaska writers, the Juneau Empire reports. The book is a follow-up to their first anthology; both are tied to their cultural journalism project. (Read more)

Rural newspapers often lack the reporting and editing resources needed to give their readers first-class journalism, which is the main raison d'etre of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. But when it comes to giving readers a first-class front page, all it takes is a thoughtful, skilled paginator who is willing to think outside the box, an editor who recognizes his talent, and a publisher who is willing to let him do so: a head paginator like Ian Lawson, an editor like Mary Ann Kearns and a publisher like Bob Hendrickson of The Ledger Independent, circulation 8,000, in Maysville, Ky. Here's the front page Lawson designed for Monday:

Lawson's work was the best front-page treatment of Sunday's Martin Luther King memorial dedication, writes Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society, with credit to Associated Press photographer Cliff Owen. For his interview with Lawson, and more great pages from the Lee Enterprises paper in Rosemary Clooney's hometown, click here.

UPDATE, Oct. 22: Lawson and the Ledger continue to make newspaper news, this time with a horizontal front page, written up by Julie Moos of The Poynter Institute  (Newseumimage):

Oct. 16, 2011

Wyoming paper tops small classes in Inland contest; it and Pittsburgh paper looked at energy issues

The Inland Press Association, which serves mainly smaller daily newspapers, has announced the winners of its annual newsroom contests in Community Leadership, Editorial Excellence, Front Page, Local News Writing and Photography (including Multimedia, new this year). The winners in the two smallest newspaper divisions are listed below, but we also call your attention to reporting projects by larger papers that provide good examples, ideas and sources for rural journalists.

One good example of that is the reporting of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the development of the Marcellus Shale gas play in Appalachia and its environmental and economic impact. It won first for investigative reporting among papers with circulations larger than 75,000. Among papers with circulations of 10,000 to 25,000, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne won second in explanatory reporting for its look at changes in the Niobrara oil field, a topic that helped it win first place in Editorial Excellence.

The Cheyenne paper and the Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, the hometown paper of Rust Communications, both won two first places and two seconds for writing, but Cheyenne did best overall among smaller papers by winning several photography awards. The contests are divided by circulation classes: Under 10,000, 10,000-25,000, 25,000-75,000 and more than 75,000, Each contest is judged by a journalism school. Here are the judges and small-newspaper winners in each contest, with the larger division listed first: Editorial Excellence (University of Kansas) The Wyoming Tribune Eagle won first "for its compelling editorials, especially in support of public-education reform, and open meetings and access to public records." Two neighboring Indiana papers won second and third: The Herald-Times of Bloomington and The Republic of Columbus.

The Daily Star-Journal, Warrensburg, Mo., won the smallest division for an editorial against school vouchers that "translated an inflammatory, complex topic into easily understood terms," the judge(s) said. "The writer was able to seamlessly mix an appeal to reason with an appeal to emotions. Readers could, no doubt, put themselves and their families into the editorial and clearly see a reason for action. The writer clearly knew the line between being a good editorial writer and trying to be a policy decision-maker or “one truth” solution provider." Second place went to the Lahontan Valley News of Fallon, Nev., for an editorial saying a local university had mounted an "assault" on agriculture; third place went to the Martinsville Reporter-Times of Indiana for an editorial about the "broken" local fire and ambulance system.

Community Leadership (University of Missouri) The Daily Journal of Franklin, Ind., won for a campaign for breast cancer awareness that "truly engaged its community," the judges said. "Beyond printing stories that described the impact of cancer and ways to fight it, the newspaper got the community involved in a fun way. Businesses decorated their buildings in pink, a fundraising drive was held and the newspaper was printed in pink. . . . Funds were given to a local institution that provides mammograms to the poor, and the community is now engaged on an important topic. Most important, the effort looks sustainable."

The Sierra Vista Herald won the smallest division by responding strongly to a severe fire and flood that devastated the Arizona town last summer. It used SMS updates to tell readers about bridge and road closings and warn them away from dangerous areas. The paper "was a gathering place for information, comfort and advice," the judges said. "The Herald provided extraordinary coverage, and the leadership that’s needed when tragedy overtakes a community."

Local News Writing (University of Kentucky) Investigative Reporting: The Herald-Times; second, Southeast Missourian; third, Rio Grande Sun, Espanola, N.M. Smallest papers: Havre Daily News, Montana; second, Lahontan Valley News.

Explanatory Reporting: Southeast Missourian; second, Wyoming Tribune Eagle; third, Kane County Chronicle, St. Charles, Ill. Smallest papers: The News Sun, Kendallville, Ind., second, Paulding County Progress, Ohio; third, Lahontan Valley News.

Front Page (Northwestern University) Larger papers: Wyoming Tribune Eagle; the Southeast Missourian; third, the Daily Journal. Small papers: First, Cape Coral Breeze, Florida; second, Andover Townsman, Massachusetts; third, Hi-Desert Star, Yucca Valley, and The Desert Trail, Twentynine Palms, Calif. (sister weekly and daily).

Photography (Indiana University): This contest has nine divisions but is not divided by circulation. For the winners of this competition and all the others, click here.

Oct. 13, 2011

Texas pair win top prize for small-paper commentary from Southern newspaper publishers

The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association named winners of its Carmage Walls Commentary Prize competition this week at SNPA's News Industry Summit. The wards were announced by Lissa Walls Vahldiek, vice president and chief operating officer of Southern Newspapers Inc., Houston, and daughter of the late Benjamin Carmage Walls, for whom the awards are named.

The winners in the small-paper category, for those with circulation of less than 50,000, were Publisher Doug Toney and Managing Editor Autumn Phillips of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, a 7,600-circulation Southern Newspapers daily. Their series of editorials and columns served as the catalyst for change in development standards in the in the Texas Hill Country city of 50,000, founded by German immigrants in 1845. The paper, which dates to 1852, has been gaining circulation. Click to read the five columns and editorials: #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

Second place in the category went to Scott Morris, executive editor of the TimesDaily of Florence, Ala., who wrote about an open-records case that the newspaper eventually won. Read it here. Honorable mentions went to Bob Davis of The Anniston Star in Alabama and Paco Nunez of The Tribune in Nassau, Bahamas. The winner in the large-paper category was Roger Chesley of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, with second going to John Railey of the Winston-Salem Journal and mentions to Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News and Mac Thrower of the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Oct. 7, 2011

Northwest Missouri newspaper spotlights problems in mental health care in rural areas

Lack of resources keep many rural residents from getting mental and emotional health care, With higher rates of depression and suicide among teenagers and older adults in rural America, this is a major concern, reports Debbie Morello of the Maryville Daily Forum in northwest Missouri, noting that this is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. Monday, Oct. 10, is World Mental Health Day.

"There are people without means to get help, they have no money, no transportation and very few resources," Phil Graham, a psychologist with a part-time office in Maryville, told Morello, referring to the disparity between urban and rural availability of mental-health care. Lack of affordable insurance is another problem, as many private insurers have failed to keep up with mental health needs, Graham added.

Depression rates in rural areas tend to exceed rates in urban areas and suicide rates for teens and older adults are higher in rural areas, according to the Office of Rural Health Policy, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Read more)

Sept. 28, 2011

Alabama publisher 1st rural community newspaper person to win award given by Ohio University

H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers, longtime publisher of The Anniston Star in Alabama, was awarded the Carr Van Anda Award by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in a ceremony and public lecture Monday at the campus in rural Ohio.

The school's faculty gives the award to high-profile journalists to recognize decades of professional excellence. Recipients have included Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio. Ayers was the 72nd recipient of the award, which was launched in 1968 and named for the legendary New York Times managing editor who studied at Ohio U. in the late 1800s. It is the first time the award has gone to a journalist for a lifetime of work at a rural community newspaper, although many of the previous winners worked in community-level media earlier in their careers.

In a report journalism student Michelle Doe wrote for The Star, the liberal Ayers commented: "I thought I could hear the choir humming ‘Nearer my God to thee.' ... It’s awfully nice to have somebody say well done, and with my views and my area, you don’t get somebody saying well done very often.”

Ohio U. journalism professor Michael Sweeney said he nominated Ayers to recognize not only Ayers' many achievements but also to promote excellence at the thousands of community newspapers throughout the United States. "I like the way [he] is determined to produce high-quality journalism in a small market," Sweeney told Doe. "I have seen some awful, family-owned, small-town papers. Everyone could take a lesson from The Star." (Read more)

Rural-journalism institute boss wins top internal award from Society of Professional Journalists

Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross received the 2011 Wells Memorial Key, the Society of Professional Journalists’ highest honor, in recognition for his outstanding service to the society. Cross covered elections and state government as a reporter for The Courier-Journal for over 26 years and has served as permanent director of the Institute since 2005. He served as SPJ national president in 2001, served on several SPJ national committees and is a director of SPJ's Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. (The Working Press photo by Kevin Zansler)

“Al Cross rises to the challenges of our profession, and has done so consistently throughout his career,” Sue Porter, a Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board member and vice president of programs for the Scripps Howard Foundation, told Olivia Ingle of The Working Press, the SPJ convention newspaper. “Most recently, as director of the rural journalism institute, his leadership is fulfilling a need that would otherwise go unanswered.”

The award was presented by SPJ’s Immediate Past President Hagit Limor at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet in New Orleans. To see a full list of the 2011 SPJ award recipients, click here.

Sept. 25, 2011

Rural journalists accept Sigma Delta Chi Awards

Journalists covering rural topics were much in evidence last night in New Orleans as the Society of Professional Journalists and its Sigma Delta Chi Foundation presented its annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards.

This photo by Al Malpa of The Chronicle in Willimantic, Conn., won for breaking news photography in small newspapers. David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal won the award for non-deadline reporting by newspapers with circulation of 50,000 to 100,000 for perhaps the greatest series on rural health care ever in an American paper. The series can be a road map for reporting on rural health in any state, and SPJ has put PDFs of the pages here.

Paula Horton of the Tri-City Herald in southern Washington won the award for under-50,000 papers for a two-part series on domestic violence in the Pasco-Kennewick-Richland area. The PDFs are here. Emily Parkhurst of The Forecaster, a weekly newspaper in Maine, won the non-daily investigative reporting award for reporting on use of restraints on children in public schools. The story is available in online segments; links appear after the award's listing on an SPJ web page, here.

The Times of Gainesville, Ga., won the small-daily award for public-service journalism for a series on the Chattahoochee River. Ashley Fielding and Sara Guevara did the series on the Chattahoochee, which can be read here. The award for investigative reporting by daily newspapers of less than 50,000 circulation went to Kirsti Mahron and Britt Johnsen of the St. Cloud Times for a series by "the public cost of Central Minnesota's housing boom and bust." Its pages are here.

Mike Tyree and David Miller of Northern Michigan's Traverse City Record-Eagle were tops in editorial writing at small dailies, for editorials about police misconduct. The PDFs are here. Mike Lester of the Rome News-Tribune in Georgia won a second time for editorial cartooning in small papers, above. (Click image for larger version)

Among broadcasters, the small-market award for public service in television journalism went to Rhonda McBride, Jonathan Hartford and Amy Modig of KTUU-TV in Anchorage for "Pandora's Bottle," about the effects of alcohol on the unborn. Jason Lamb and Dan Carpenter of the same station won the feature-reporting award for a "Jacob's Christmas," about a young boy with many health problems. Boyd Huppert of KARE-TV in Minneapolis won the large-market award for the third year in a row with "Land of 10,000 Stories," which are often rural.

There was another sort of rural winner, in a newspaper that is rarely thought of as rural but probably has the best rural coverage of any American paper, because it devotes staff and space to it. Dan Barry of The New York Times won the big-paper award for column writing, for "This Land," a column that often visits rural places. Only one of the columns he entered was rural, but we note the award in order to recognize the good work that he does. Some other rural coverage earned awards, but the recipients were not on hand to receive their awards. For our earlier item on those and other awards, click here.

Among other award-winning work of use to rural journalists was that of FactCheck.org, which exposed myths and clarified facts about the fedreal health-care reform law; and online investigative reporting on deaths and injuries of military veterans, which are disproportionately rural. The award to an independent source went to ProPublica and National Public Radio, here; the award to an affiliated website went to The Bay Citizen and New America Media, here.

Sept. 12, 2011

Citizens unaware of records they can get, newspaper says in reporting local officials' pay

Most people in rural areas are not aware they can file open-records requests to obtain information they are entitled to see, such as salaries of public employees, reports Dave Boucher of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky.

In a recent weekend issue of the paper (Aug. 27-28), Boucher reported that he filed 20 records requests to acquire information on city and county employee salaries. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Boucher that public officials in rural places "can feel like a request to know their salary is an invasion of privacy," a feeling that stems from rural community culture in which a public office can be regarded as a private possession.

People simply don't understand what types of information they are entitled to see, Cross told Boucher. According to the Kentucky Open Records Act, any agency that receives at least 25 percent of its funding from public sources is subject to a request, Boucher writes. There are some exemptions, including "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and classified information, but salaries are not on that list. (Read more)

Sept. 5, 2011

Agriculture-policy writer gives a clear, succinct picture of debate over changes in crop subsidies

The prospect that farm programs will be significantly changed as part of the deficit-reduction process has been reported here several times, but as usual, Philip Brasher, left, of Gannett Co.'s Washington bureau (which hired him after the Des Moines Register, a Gannett newspaper, laid him off and closed its bureau) best puts the jam on the bottom shelf where the little folks can get to it:

"Farmers and landowners have long counted on getting a government check every year regardless of how profitable they might be or whether they even planted a crop. But those checks may soon be a lot smaller -- or disappear altogether. A congressional super committee that is charged with writing a plan this fall for slashing the federal budget deficit is widely expected to target those payments," known as "direct payments."

Brasher continues, "Farm lobbyists and their allies in Congress are scrambling to come up with a new and cheaper way to subsidize growers, one that would provide payments when crops are poor or market prices collapse. The threat to the payments is so dire that even the cotton industry, which has long resisted cutting them, is now looking at alternatives. The ideas being tossed about include taking money that now goes to the annual payments and using it to sweeten the federal crop insurance program."

There, in the story's initial paragraphs, are the main cards in play. Deeper down is an underlying reason for change, which Brasher dregded up from a hearing last year: "The goal of income parity of farm people versus urban people has been achieved," Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering said at a hearing on farm policy. "Our chief concern now should be volatility." There are 19 more paragraphs, all worth reading if you care about agriculture or have readers, viewers and listeners who do. Go here.

Sept. 2, 2011

Remembrances of, and resources for, 9/11

The Rural Blog is published primarily for rural news media, most of which stick to events and issues in their own communities, especially if they are weekly newspapers. But on rare occasions, a national news event is so significant and touches so many local people that it makes the front pages of such papers. The most recent was the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the next one is likely to be the 10th anniversary of the terror he wrought on Sept. 11, 2001.

This item has 9/11 material that rural media are using or may find useful at this time, such as The Associated Press's September 11 Style and Reference Guide.

Michael Perry of Napa, Calif., has spent the last 10 years collecting newspapers from Sept. 11 or 12, reports Howard Yune of the Napa Valley Register. (Register photo by J.L. Sousa) He has 790 papers, "from nearly every state and more than 20 nations," Yune writes. "Newseum curator Carrie Christoffersen admired Perry’s labors in pulling so many headlines together into one place, but decided his asking price of up to $250,000 was too much for the museum." (Read more)

The Kentucky Press Association collected state political figures' recollections of 9/11 and newspaper front pages, mainly from weeklies, accessible at http://www.kypress.com/911/.

The Mississippi Press Association established a website to share newspapers' 9/11 content.

In a column for Associated Baptist Press,William Leonard of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity wrote about 9/11 at his school, where "Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals and Anglicans" gathered to support each other, and earlier, at a previously scheduled weekly service, "Undergraduates galore came streaming through the doors, packing pews, leaning against the walls and sitting cross-legged on the floor of the sparse Davis Chapel. Staggered by the news, they grasped for sacred space to help them comprehend the moment." There's a lot more, including an amazing passage from the Book of Jeremiah in the Revised English Bible. Read it here.

Perhaps the main aftermath of 9/11 is what Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post calls "the American era of endless war," with far-reaching ramifications. Read about them here.

Television networks and magazines "have followed different paths in covering a solemn occasion that is also a business opportunity," The New York Timesreports.

The U.S. Department of Education published a resources page for teaching about 9/11. USA Todayreports on the topic. "Fewer than half the states explicitly identify the 9/11 attacks in their high-school standards for social studies, according to a forthcoming study," Erik Robelen of Education Weekreports.

Aug. 25, 2011

Weekly newspaper does a special health section and mails it to everyone in its home county

Special sections on health are good for community newspapers and their readers. Health-care providers have money for advertising in such sections, and a section focused on health can have more impact on readers than individual, occasional stories.

Based on a pilot project it oversaw in 2007, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues began recommending to rural newspapers that they schedule health sections as part of editions that are mailed to every postal customer in a paper's home county, a standard circulation-building technique. If a newspaper wants to help improve the health of its community, why not reach everyone in the community?

Last week, one Kentucky newspaper did that. The Adair County Community Voice of Columbia included a 10-page broadsheet section on health in an edition that was mailed to everyone in the county. And though it got no advertising from the local public hospital, with which it has been embroiled in an open-meetings dispute, it did get ads from hospitals in other counties.

Newspapers can mail up to 10 percent of their annual circulation to non-subscribers in their home county at subscriber rates, and can sell "sponsored circulation" to pay the extra cost of printing and postage for the extra copies. The 2007 pilot project with another Kentucky weekly, The Berea Citizen, found that non-subscribers said they were more likely to subscribe if the paper regularly included health information. For a copy of the report on the project, click here. The health section is not online, but PDFs of its pages are posted on the Institute website in a 4.4 MB file, here.

Aug. 8, 2011

Scranton paper's series on fracking wins second for in-depth environmental reporting in SEJ contest

Some rural reporting won national recognition in the annual awards of the Society of Environmental Journalists, announced today.

Laura Legere of the Scranton Times-Tribune won second place in small-market, in-depth reporting for "Deep Impact: Natural Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale." The judges said, "In the much examined field of fracking, Laura Legere went beyond the clichés . . . She also humanized and investigated a story that big media, such as the New York Times, reported on, but Legere’s reporting went further yet and she brought the issues home." Third place went to "Accidental Wilderness" by David Wolman, a freelancer for High Country News. First prize went to reporters for ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for a series on defective Chinese drywall.

In the beat-reporting contest among journalists in small markets, Susan Sharon of Maine Public Broadcasting won third place for "Science Skeptics, Corporate Lobbyists and the Assault on Maine's Environment." For the other winners in that category, and links to individual stories, click here.

Aug. 3, 2011

National Newspaper Association announces winners of its awards for general excellence

Seventeen non-daily and three daily newspapers were recognized today for general excellence as a part of the National Newspaper Association's Better Newspaper Contest. Each daily and non-daily entry was evaluated on quality of writing; headline language; use of photos and art work; evidence of craftsmanship and skill in composition, reproduction and presswork; editorial pages; front page; family life/living pages; sports pages; advertising design and layout, quality and technique of writing copy; handling of classified and/or reader ads and taste; and treatment of public notices.

The Antelope Valley Press of Palmdale, Calif., won the daily division. It finished in the top three (unranked at this point) last year, and we wrote here about Editor Dennis Anderson, right. The Press was followed by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle of Cheyenne and The Union of Grass Valley, Calif. We wrote about Union Editor Jeff Pelline here.

The non-daily division was divided into four divisions based on circulation. The repeat winner in the 10,000+ division was The Taos News of New Mexico, edited by Joan Livingston, left, followed by the Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum and The Ellsworth American of Maine, which also placed last year. The Valencia County News Bulletin of Belen, N.M., received honorable mention.

All three winners in the 6,000-9,999 division were repeats from last year. The N'West Iowa Review of Sheldon was first, followed by The Southampton Press-Eastern Editionof New York and the Jackson Hole News & Guide of Jackson, Wyo. The Sequim Gazetteof Washington state received honorable mention.

There was a repeat winner from earlier years in the 3,000-5,999 division: The Wise County Messenger of Decatur, Tex. It was followed by the Hutchinson Leader of Minnesota and the Mount Desert Islander of Bar Harbor, Me., sister paper of The Ellsworth American. Both won last year. The Litchfield Independent Review of Minnesota won honorable mention.

The winner of the small-newspaper division was the West Point News of Nebraska, followed by The Journal of Crosby, N.D., and the Countywide Sun of Tecumseh, Okla. The Banks County Newsof Jefferson, Ga., and the Delano Herald Journal of Minnesota won honorable mention. All awards will be presented at the Toast to the Winners award reception, Saturday, Sept. 24, at NNA's annual convention in Albuquerque.

July 27, 2011

Rural paper reports a rumor, to protect the object; social media may bring more such cases

Report a rumor? Sometimes it's called for. The Times Tribune of Corbin, Ky., made that decision this week because a rumor made viral by social media was raising the possibility of retribution and discrimination against an innocent person and his business.Michele Baker's story began tightly: "A Corbin business has suffered a downturn due to an apparently false rumor circulated on social media outlets that the owners refused to serve uniformed soldiers." It quoted the owner, an India native who said he is a U.S. citizen, as denying the rumor and noting that his daughter is in the local high school's Reserve Officer Training Corps; and it quoted the local police chief: “We have had a dozen calls this morning and we are trying to verify the allegations. We are trying to stop the rumors.” (Baker photo: The Pak-N-Sak store)

Having established the official concern, the newspaper weighed in on its own authority, reporting, "Attempts to contact the servicemen who were allegedly refused service have been unsuccessful. Allegations of business owners refusing to serve soldiers are rampant on the Internet." And it kept the story short: 325 words. There's just as long a story in how the 6,000-circulation daily decided to report a rumor that exploded on Facebook and Topix, the website with discussion threads for seemingly every community.

Managing Editor Becky Kilian said she first heard the rumor Saturday, and by the time the office opened Monday, "It was pickling up multiple threads on Topix and was spreading to Barbourville, in the next county, and the police chief mentioned it to her in a conversation about another matter. "We were both concerned that if the rumor continued unchecked that it might contribute to an inappropriate action on someone's part," beyond the ethnic slurs and gullibility displayed online.

Baker went to work on the story, and "In every aspect in Michele's reporting, it looked like a myth," Kilian said. "It might as well have been a Bigfoot sighting." When a Google search found similar cases elsewhere, involving ethnic or racial discrimination, Kilian knew the paper needed to publish an unusual story. "With the discrimination against a minority and the inflammatory langauge that was being used," she said, "it needed to be addressed."

"This is the first time I think in my career as a journalist that I've ever been involved in a story that dealt with a rumor like that," said Kilian, a Corbin native who has been a journalist for 10 years and returned to her hometown as a reporter in 2009. She became managing editor of the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper last year.

"I just wish there was some way to educate people" that just because they read something on the Internet that doesn't mean it's true, Kilian said. "I wish we could teach news discernment." Situations like this call for editorial discernment, too, and the prevalence of social media mean that journalists may have to make calls like this more frequently.

"So far today's story seems to have garnered a great deal of attention," Baker said in an email to The Rural Blog. "I received a call from a man who said he was among those who helped spread the rumor and the he now regrets it." To read Baker's story, click here. To read some of the discussion on Topix, click here.

Disability judge's generosity leads to probe, and a story with a data-packed interactive table

The actions of a disability-claim judge who served West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio has led to a federal investigation of the Huntington, W.Va., Social Security Administration office and a congressional review of how the agency grants disability claims. It has also prompted a story in The Wall Street Journal, along with a nice interactive table where all judges' performance can be examined.

Administrative Law Judge David Daugherty approved payments in all 729 of his decisions in the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year, Damian Paletta of the Journal reports. (Herald-Dispatch photo) "The inspector general reportedly is looking into the matter to ensure that the review process is working as it should — from the Social Security commissioner on down. The American people should expect nothing less," U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes Huntington, told Paletta. (Read more)

On average, judges award payments in about 60 percent of cases and spend about an hour on each case, Patella reports. Daugherty tended to favor one particular lawyer and scheduled hearings 15 minutes apart for as many as 20 of this lawyer's clients. (Read more) Amid investigation surrounding his awards, Daugherty retired on July 13, Carrie Cline of WSAZ-TV in Huntington reports.

Social Security disabillity cases appear to be more prevalent in rural areas where men without a high-school diploma are injured and unable, or less able, to perform the sort of manual labor that once sustained them. In Central Appalachia, disabilility lawyers advertise heavily.

To view the Journal's interactive list of all Social Security disability judges and data on their cases and awards, click here. The list can be arranged by state, city, judge or other parameter by clicking on the head of the appropriate column.

July 19, 2011

Access to healthy food: Local angle is available on a national event, and here's an example

The White House says First Lady Michelle Obama will make a major announcement tomorrow afternoon about her Task Force on Childhood Obesity's recommendations to make healthy, affordable food more accessible to all Americans. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture's

1. Introduction

The flow of forest products from harvesting sites to the processing facilities is a combined effort of different stakeholders. The supply chain of the forest products generally starts with foresters laying out harvest plans for forest landowners i.e., small woodlot owners, industrial land owners, and public lands. Logging operators with the direction of foresters and logging contractors take responsibilities of felling trees and piling the wood at the log landings. With guidance from a procurement manager and trucking contractor, the products are hauled from landings to facilities (usually primary forest products industries or bioenergy plants) (Figure 1). The trucking (also referred to as secondary transportation) part in this process is considered important because of its essential function of moving products from one place to another. It is also one of the expensive phases and can be crucial in fixing prices of delivered forest products [1,2,3]. Despite the prevalence of railroad transportation, trucking is the most common way to deliver wood products [4]. Its popularity can be associated with well-developed road networks, limited access to railway lines, and embargos in using water for timber hauling in the US and other parts of the world [5,6]. After the last log drive on the Kennebec River in 1976, the transportation of woody commodities from northern forests in Maine has predominantly been performed by trucks and tractor-trailers [6]. There are separate types of trucking fleets for specific products such as tractor trailers to haul logs, whereas chip vans to haul wood chips and comminuted biomass materials. Even with the inherent need to haul forest products, there are various challenges in this sector that needs to be addressed for its efficient operations. These challenges can be specific to the region and thereby require a local level understanding of constraints and potential mitigation strategies including policy formulation. Hence, strategic suggestions from closely related stakeholders and experts in the field are important. The recent closing of pulp and paper mills has imparted significant impacts on the entire forest products market in the state of Maine. The forest product market is highly scattered in the state; the situation has been further exacerbated by the recent closing. The increased hauling distance resulting from the closing of pulp and paper mills has increased the cost of trucking forest products compared to the situation in the past [7].

Concerns regarding higher costs associated with forest products transportation have led to several studies in forest operations including analysis of wood products hauling costs [8,9,10,11]; increasing efficiency in transportation [12,13,14,15]; and survey analysis of logging and transportation sectors [16,17,18,19,20]. Similarly, there are research studies utilizing qualitative methods, such as semi-structured interviews, to comprehend views and opinions of experts [21,22]. To this end, such a qualitative research approach has not been utilized to get in-depth information on forest products transportation. The purpose of this research was to: (a) gain an in-depth understanding of stakeholders’ perceptions of the problems related to trucking; and (b) identify possible measures to resolve them. Understanding related stakeholders’ attitudes towards the applicability of particular solutions in the state of Maine could help the industry and policymakers implement them.

2. Materials and Methods

A qualitative research approach was selected to allow in-depth understanding of a problem within a concrete setting [23,24] and learn the interpretation of verbal experiences from stakeholders [25].

2.1. Philosophical Foundation

The methodology was based on the constructivist paradigm and used a single case study design to explain related stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences. The epistemological approach of constructivism proclaims that different individuals describe the same problem in multiple ways [26]. Constructivism is based on the fact that truth is dependent on perception. Another important assumption is that problems are solved by the interaction between researcher and respondents, hence, open-ended question formats like interviews and discussions were used [27]. These questions used generally begin with how and why, rather than what and when with the intention of getting comprehensive insights on the subject [28].

2.2. Case Study Design

A case study is a research design that allows researchers to gain an in-depth understanding of a problem, process, situation, or even individual, and a group of people within a bounded system [23,24]. A common way to conduct case study research is to collect comprehensive information on the case by utilizing and triangulating across different data collection techniques such as interviews, document review, direct observations, and archival records [29,30]. The case includes bounded time, context, region, and phenomenon or topic of study [23,24]. The state of Maine was the area of study, while 2015–2016 was the timeframe for this study. The research used an instrumental case study design [23,24] to understand the phenomenon of challenges facing the forest trucking industry subsector, and local level measures adopted in different parts of Maine to mitigate forest trucking related problems. Multiple data collection methods were used, including a stakeholder questionnaire, thorough review of the literature, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders in Maine. Phase 1 of the study included the identification of potential solutions via a stakeholder questionnaire, unstructured interviews with key informants, and review of the scientific literature [2,7]. This phase was followed by the in-depth interviewing phase to further understand the challenges and validate the appropriateness/soundness of solutions identified in phase 1. This paper includes results from phase 2; for detailed results for phase 1 please refer to prior citations [2,7].

2.3. Participant Selection Strategy

The stakeholders were divided into four categories based on their job profile: (a) Foresters; (b) Truck owners/logging contractors (from here on referred to as contractors); (c) Representatives from forestry professional societies; and (d) Procurement managers. The categories were selected for providing appropriate and relevant responses to address the objectives from different perspectives.

The Forest Resource Association (FRA), a group of more than 500 organizations and businesses related to the forest products industry, was consulted first for participant recruitment. A public announcement for interested individuals to participate in the study was made at a FRA forum in Brewer, Maine. The process did not yield sufficient (n = 2) responses; hence the combination of criterion and snowball sampling techniques was used to select participants [31]. Professional contacts were utilized to recruit interviewees and enhance the gaining of entry and rapport building. First, the selection criteria were that the participants should have more than 15 years of experience in forest products handling and transportation, should have a primary workstation within the state, and be willing to participate in the study. Further, the snowball selection strategy allowed for participants and key informants from phase 1 to refer other participants to include in the study [32,33] while ensuring different regions (North, Central, South) to be included.

2.4. Ethics Statement

Approval was obtained from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), University of Maine, Orono for conducting research on human subjects prior to the interviews on 4 January 2017. A written informed consent form was given to the participants prior to the interviews which ensured confidentiality and voluntary participation.

2.5. Data Collection, Analysis, and Quality Assurance

The primary data collection method for this study phase was semi-structured face-to-face interviews with mostly open-ended questions. This method has advantages over other qualitative techniques like focus group discussions because interviews allow more privacy and a safer atmosphere to talk on dedicated issues than the later; participants have more time to express their feelings and discuss the subject matters in detail as well [34]. Interviews were helpful for the triangulation of information gained from supplementary sources from phase 1, which ensured credibility of the study results [24].

The interview protocol consisted of 13 major open-ended questions; each question included four additional probing questions (on average). The interview protocol along with the consent form were emailed to the participants three weeks prior to the interviews in order to facilitate a review of the questions and to allow time to decide a response. Interview questions were developed based on the results of the survey, unstructured interviews, and literature analysis, and were organized into four themes: (a) outlook on forest trucking sector; (b) major challenges faced; (c) potential measures; and (d) applicability of those measures in Maine. To obtain regional based information, the respondents were further categorized based on regions of their primary workplace: Northern, Central, and Southern regions.

Thirteen semi-structured interviews with open-ended questions were conducted from February to May 2017. Interviews were continued until ongoing data analysis suggested data saturation had been reached (i.e., new interviewees did not provide any additional information on the subject) [35,36]. There were no rigid rules on the number of interview participants a priori, but rather the study followed established procedures in qualitative research on data saturation [32,37]. However, the number of interviews in this study (13 interviews) was consistent with other studies that utilized a similar research approach [38].

With an average of 51 min, the total duration of the interviews ranged from 33 to 71 min. Due to the general interests on particular topics, most interviews lasted longer than the slated time frame.

The whole content of the interview was audio recorded, and the recordings were later transcribed verbatim [39] and uploaded into NVivo 11 [40]. The transcripts were meticulously read several times and important phrases/dialogues were subsequently highlighted using open coding [39] as the first coding cycle. These open codes were then abstracted into concepts identified previously through the literature review and listed in the interview protocol; this axial coding was used as the second coding cycle. The codes were generated by an iterative process that involved reviewing data multiple times [41]. This process also helped in determining the point of saturation for each question.

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. Participants’ Description

Among 13 interview participants, four were based in Northern regions, three in Central regions, and three from Southern regions of the state. Based on job profiles, the majority were foresters (Table 1). The average work experience of the participants in their respective profession was 25 years, and respondents ranged from 36 to 74 years of age. The majority of the respondents worked for industrial timberland companies, while some were also small timberland owners (less than 2000 ha). All of them were Caucasian males.

3.2. Responsibilities and Services

The services provided by the companies or organizations that respondents were affiliated with were of diverse nature. Nearly all of them were involved in multiple forestry related tasks. One of the participants stated:

“We have forest operations of every nature. We do harvesting, trucking, chipping, loading, slashing, merchandising, building forest roads, developing forest management plans, managing our own lands, and other people's lands. We have three equipment shops; one for forest harvesting machines and two for trucks and trailers.”

One of the procurement managers described his duties as overseeing entire harvesting operations, dealing with logging/trucking contractors, along with inspecting and regulating dispatch of trucks and chip vans. There was also a procurement manager just to oversee transportation-related works whose duties were, “…to look after road maintenance for the company, and transportation of all raw materials to the mills.”

Primary duties of company foresters interviewed were managing woodlots, preparing management plans, hiring and managing temporary workers, and dealing with contractors and truck drivers. Independent consultant foresters generally worked for various landowners at any provided time.

The participants were from varying company sizes, in terms of number of employees, ranging from small (<5 employees) to large (>50 employees) companies. Basic benefits to the workers (including truck drivers) included health insurance, paid leaves, and subsidies for buying wood products. One procurement manager noted:

“We have health and many benefits like other businesses, but the additional one is the career (sic) we really enjoy and passionate about. I think there are other disciplines with higher pay (sic), but this profession provides flexibility of schedule and time. I'm not in a cubicle daily and I'm doing something different.”

The above statement from the procurement manager could be applied to loggers and log truck drivers as well. There are factors other than money that drive novices to the logging and trucking industries such as the involvement of past generations of family (a family profession), the ability to work locally, and independence in the work.

Participants who hired trucking service from contractors were unaware of the exact benefits package offered to the employees and drivers working under trucking contractors. One forester specified:

“… I’ve not known exact details, but there should be enough to make a person sit on that giant (log trucks) and drive on rough terrain all day.”

3.3. Trucking in Maine

All participants regarded trucking as an essential component, as more than 90% of the wood hauled in the state was done by road. Railway systems were also in use in northern and western parts of the state, however, trucks were still used for a certain portion of that journey. Most of the timberland owners and management companies did not own trucks but hired trucking service. The participants seemed aware of the role of trucking in determining the end price of the delivered forest products. They were also concerned about the losses incurred due to inefficient trucking. One procurement manager stated:

“… as far as the role of trucking, it’s a key to the business. When you look into harvesting and trucking of wood to our mill, it’s probably one of the biggest costs both for distance and other factors like payload. It’s the cost that continues to go up every year because it’s something that you cannot increase productivity like in the harvesting operations. You can only put so much wood on the truck and you can only drive so far, safely and efficiently.”

Several factors affected the cost of trucking, including fuel price, maintenance cost, trucking distance, and payload. Contractors were always trying to make their operations efficient enough to avoid extra expenditures: “…it’s everything for us. We have more trucks than truck drivers. We have to keep an eye on every detail to make profits. All of them operates year around and are maintained timely. We are a service provider, so no compromise at all.” The fewer truck drivers, in this case, was the strategy to reduce expenditures on extra drivers. It also implied that all trucks were not running at the same time.

Both above statements, although addressing different discussion points, allude to the issues faced day to day by forest trucking enterprises. As a different perspective, one participant from the professional society stated:

“…most of the logging contractors, probably 75 percent, have a truck or two. This provides them with more stability in their services. Owning and operating trucks makes them more flexible and competitive.”

There were mixed responses regarding the outlook on trucking business for the region, with participant responses articulated in terms of challenges and opportunities in the field. In general, the participants considered trucking to be a challenging business but expected that prospects will increase with a new horizon of market opportunities for products like biomass, hardwood pulp, biofuels, and others (Table 2).

In a different context, participants (except contractors) mentioned that for forest products companies, it might be better to contract the trucking portion of forest operations than to own and operate entire trucking fleets. One procurement manager mentioned, “We had a fleet of trucks that we managed in the past but it’s to our benefit that we hire contractors. They can run this business better than us. There are certain things that contractors are more efficient than company managed fleet (sic).” Another forester agreed, “This section is difficult to handle if you are dealing with many other things.”

3.4. Challenges to Trucking

All participants agreed that there were numerous challenges to efficient trucking operations. The majority (more than 80%) regarded the lack of skilled drivers as the most prominent challenge at present time (Table 3). Similar to the forest trucking industry’s experiences, driver shortage was also a prominent challenge for other trucking businesses as well; a report prepared by the ATA (American Trucking Association) pointed out that the US trucking sector was short of 35,000 truck drivers in 2015 [37

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