Friday, November 12, 2010



One of the things I love about being a journalist is the randomness. One day, you’re working in rural Missouri, talking to a rancher about the time his bison went AWOL and tied up traffic on Highway 47. Another day, you’re wading through smoke of an illegal origin in a college student commune in Austin, Texas, getting your tympanic membranes abused by South by Southwest bands.

It’s not all amusing and weird, though. Sometimes you’re in a newsroom when a well-respected member of the community cuts his battle with cancer short by going into his back yard, kneeling on a tarp, and pulling the trigger on a shotgun aimed at his chest. Or when a state trooper, who is texting, talking on a cell phone, and using a laptop computer while clipping along at 120 mph, crosses the interstate median and kills two young sisters on their way to have family photos taken for Thanksgiving. (The trooper later plead guilty to reckless homicide and was given 30 days probation)

Lately, randomness means being a graduate student of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and instructing young, aspiring journalists on the craft (or perhaps some students who just need the English credits, but it’s all good, as they say).

Graduate school also entails doing some work for the community news and social networking site It’s a project funded in part by the John S. Knight and James L. Knight Foundation, and we collaborate with the local paper, the News-Gazette, to publish content.

I came to with the goal of understanding the poverty situation in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, and reporting on the success or lack thereof of programs that aim to uproot people from that poverty (a.k.a., “upward mobility”). According to the 2000 census, the poverty level in Champaign has a poverty rate of 22.1 percent, and Urbana has a poverty rate of 27.3 percent. For comparison, Chicago has a poverty rate of 19.6 percent.

Originally, I conceived this blog as a straight-news site. No commentary. Just the facts. But as my role as a journalist, and now educator, have changed, so too has my vision for this outlet.

What I envision this site becoming is a digital reporter’s notebook. I hope to repost clippings here, so you can get background information. But I hope to add extra content (or “value-added,” if you’re hip to web 2.0 pitch-speak), including commentary and notes that go beyond what I’ve done in the field, hoping to give people more perspective on the issues I write about.

And that’s partly because digital journalism and convergence journalism are changing the way we do our work. Journalists are coming to the realization that we, too, are human, and we can’t keep hiding behind the false promise of objectivity. We need to bleed a little for our cause, and show that blood to the public, if only to regain their trust. We’re not the Neutral People. That’s not why we’re here.

Be seeing you.

Read on...

Monday, February 22, 2010


[A computer render of the potential Meridian Wind Farm in western Sangamon County, Illinois, courtesy of American Wind Energy Management]

Green energy is marketed by politicians as a solution to an economy in shambles. But when it comes to making those jobs a reality, this national initiative takes a back seat to local politics.

On February 4, the Illinois Times published a story I wrote about a feud between those who want to bring wind energy to Sangamon County, Illinois, and those who don’t want to live next to wind mills. The locals claimed many worries:

Concerned that a potential wind farm would reduce property values, create noise pollution or present a fire hazard, homeowners showed up to three informational meetings held in January.

“We’re not opposed to wind energy, but we’re concerned about the proximity to homes as it relates to property values, health issues and everything else,” said Cindy Bomke at a Jan. 25 meeting in New Berlin. Bomke, cousin of state Sen. Larry Bomke, collected about 450 signatures last year in a petition for more setbacks.

Steve Frank, New Berlin village president, witnessed growth spurts in the towns of Chatham, Rochester and Sherman, and worries that a wind farm could restrict New Berlin’s own progress. “We’re in the growing mode here, and I don’t want to be landlocked if a wind farm comes in within half a mile,” Frank said at the meeting.

Wind farm proponents also had concerns. The contingency of citizens opposed to wind farms were petitioning the Sangamon County Public Health, Safety and Zoning board to increase the setback requirements for turbines. This, green energy advocates feared, could squeeze green energy out of Sangamon County.

Will Reynolds, who is on the board of the local Sierra club and is part of Sierra’s coal campaign, said in an interview in early February, “These are going to be built somewhere, so it’s a matter of whether we want some of those turbines and the jobs to go with it in our county or whether we’re going to watch them go to other counties and other states.”

Reynolds had sharp criticism for the members of the zoning board, writing in his blog that the county gave International Coal Group nearly $1 million in tax abatements to expand a mine in Sangamon county, but offered no such incentives to wind developers.

“Going back to coal mine, had they done any hearings around the county, about the health and safety violations of the coal mine? Did they talk about that, when they consider giving hundreds of thousands of dollars of subsidies to promote a very small number of new jobs,” Reynolds said in the interview.

When Tim Moore, the chairman of the Health, Safety and Zoning Board was asked about this in late January, his answer was that ICG requested a subsidy, and the wind developer, American Wind Energy Management, made no such request.

“I don’t recall what the incentive was for the coal company, other than it was a very competitive coal environment. We probably want [ICG] to stay here in the county… You don’t have to give someone a subsidy who is coming in and saying ‘we want to give this much money to that property owner for that project and we’re going to pay all of these taxes.’ And they’re not asking, and we’re not offering,” he said.

After approving the ICG’s abatements in January, the county zoning board told the State Journal-Register the mine expansion would yield 12 to 18 new jobs. AWEG’s Meridian wind farm could potentially create 20 permanent, full-time jobs, with many additional jobs supported in the initial construction phase (calculated from the company’s plans to install 200 turbines and job estimates from Matt Aldeman, a technical assistant at the Center for Renewable Energy).

Reynolds also noted in his blog that the ICG Sangamon county mine, the Viper mine, had numerous safety violations. He referred to a statement from Illinois senator Dick Durbin, who mentioned the Viper mine had 124 safety violations from 2005-2006.

Regarding the stock photo of a wind farm used for the IT story, American Wind Energy Management sent me a graphic of how the Meridian wind farm might look. AWEM wrote that because of the current ordinances, wind farms “would average one machine per 100-200 acres.” (Click AWEM's image at the top of the post to see it at full-resolution)

The zoning board has not yet convened to discuss the ordinance amendment that could extend wind farm setbacks to 1 mile from non-participating homeowners (the current setback being 1,200 feet). The board was due to discuss the amendment in February, but scheduling conflicts killed the meeting before it took place. The amendment may be discussed in the board’s March 18 meeting.
Read on...