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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A few people have asked me what happened to the old "Northscope" blog that the Herald's editorial board started up a few months ago. The basic answer is, we killed it because it ... well, it just wasn't working the way that we'd hoped.

Early on, we'd thought that the members of the editorial board (that would be me, publisher and editor Mike Jacobs, columnist Dorreen Yellow Bird, chief financial officer Anita Geffre and managing editor Kevin Grinde) would bat issues around on a daily basis, maybe in advance of writing an editorial on the topic. This sort of thing works well at some other newspapers, after all.

But the editorial board members at those other newspapers also tend to be editorial writers, meaning full-time opinion mongers who pen arguments for a living. So, they have the inclination and can make the time to blog ... whereas in our case, I'm the only full-time editorial writer, so I guess it wasn't surprising that I wrote most of the blog entries. (And there even were too few of those, in my view. So, if you see me walking down the street flogging myself with a cat o' nine tails, you'll know I'm either on my way to a "Da Vinci Code" costume party or am motivating myself to stop stalling and make a blog entry!)

In any event, we all thought it would be better if the effort just evolved into my own blog. Hence, "Prairie Pundit."

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Near beer: GF and drinking

In Grand Forks these days, a lot of people are wondering why the recent report of a task force on underage and binge drinking is generating so little enthusiasm. True, the report's recommendations seem to miss the boat: They single out bartenders for special training and licensing, even though few underage drinkers get their liquor in bars.

But here's my take: I think the report's being greeted with a yawn because most people in Grand Forks don't think binge and underage drinking is a big problem. (That also would explain why the task force's public meeting on the subject drew a scant 100 participants.)

What's more, at this point I'm inclined to agree with the skeptics in town. Is binge and underage drinking a problem in Grand Forks? Absolutely, as it is in every community in America, especially college towns. But is it a problem at such a high level here as to warrant task force and similar attention?

Frankly, I don't think it is. Mind you, I could be persuaded otherwise; but that's the point. So far, the evidence I've seen just isn't enough.

In my view, the situation with drinking here is analogous to the situation with guns. My guess is that a survey would reveal a high level of gun ownership in Grand Forks, as in the rest of North Dakota. But who cares? As North Dakotans know in their bones, the issue isn't guns. The issue is what people do with guns -- and in this state, people tend to use their guns in a lawful manner. So, Grand Forks consistently ranks among the safest cities in America on the issue that really counts: crime.

So it is with drinking, I think. If GF really had a problem with excessive drinking, then you'd expect that problem to show up in public-health statistics. Does it? For example, does Grand Forks have an unusually high rate of, say, car accidents, many of which likely would be alcohol-related?

Well, I don't know the accident rate in Grand Forks, although I can attest that my car-insurance premiums were cut in half when I moved here from Pennsylvania.

And I do know that Sioux Falls, S.D., was ranked as recently as yesterday as "the nation's safest driving city." I've checked the Allstate Insurance study that reported the Sioux Falls finding, and can't find Grand Forks (or Fargo, Bismarck or Minot) on the list of metro areas.

But I can find this quote in the Allstate press release linked to above: "Midwestern drivers also appear to heed the safety call. Five out of the 10 top cities are in America's heartland, according to the report."

More importantly, I also found this very interesting item in USA Today. Remember that 2004 study in the American Journal of Public Health, the one that first identified Grand Forks as a top binge-drinking city in America? The above link takes you to USA Today's report on the story; click on it, and look at the chart of "highest binge drinking rates," the one that puts Grand Forks and San Antonio, Texas, right at the top. Which city is No. 5?

Well, whaddya know:

Sioux Falls, S.D.

How can it be that apparently beer-soaked, whiskey-sodden Sioux Falls nevertheless has the lowest car accident rate in America? How can it be, in fact, that "binge drinking is most prevalent in the upper Midwest," as the USA Today story notes, while Midwestern cities also rank low in accident rates, according to Allstate?

There's a huge disconnect there.

My guess is, it's true that Midwesterners on average drink more than, say, Californians. But it's also true -- again, I'm guessing -- that Midwestern drinking has fewer public-health consequences than the raw "drinks consumed on one occasion" statistic would suggest.

Here are some headlines that would make me change my mind: "Altru ER reports nation's highest incidence of acute alcohol poisoning." "Study: GF cirrhosis rates top the charts." "Drunk-driving arrests in GF far exceed national average." "Empty chairs: Absenteeism up as Red River students 'sleep it off,' teachers say."

In other words, if drinking in Grand Forks were a documented public-health problem, I'd agree that it'd be time to take very special notice. But I don't sense that the evidence is there, other than the infamous binge-drinking ranking.

Again, I could be persuaded otherwise. But for now, that lack of evidence, I think, is why people in town aren't paying much attention to the local task force's results.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Here's an incredible resource for anyone who cares about Minnesota, which will include many thousands of the people reading ... um, many hundreds? ... dozens?... OK, many individuals among the six people reading this blog.

Seriously, give it a click. It's the new Atlas of Minnesota Online and is an electronic creation of the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn. The center is a non-profit outfit dedicated to sponsoring and publishing original research about rural Minnesota, which of course includes just about all of the northwestern corner of the state. Their new quarterly publication, Rural Minnesota Journal, also is available online and is well worth your time.

But the atlas is even more useful and impressive. It's a Minnesota map with dozens and dozens of social, cultural and demographic overlays, most of which simply appear as you move your mouse around different corners of the state. Want to know how various school districts fared on the eighth-grade test of basic reading skills, the infant mortality rate in different counties and what percentage of people's income in the counties comes from federal farm support? Then seek no further, fellow policy wonk, because the Atlas is the electronic book for you.

Now, if they'd only include an overlay with the the locations of various Dunkin' Donuts outlets around the state ... ;-)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hello! Welcome to my blog.

I'm Tom Dennis, and I'm excited about joining the blogging world -- a world I admire and every day enjoy.

Here are my thoughts about how this blog will work. As the Herald's opinion editor, I write the newspaper's editorials most days -- but when I do so, I'm always conscious that I'm representing the editorial board. That's the difference between a column and an editorial: A column is a writer's personal thoughts; an editorial is the consensus or majority view of an editorial board -- that is, unless the publisher exercises his or her prerogative and insists on a particular view.

A quick aside about that: I used to work at an editorial page in Pennsylvania, and heard a story there of how the paper came to endorse the first President Bush in 1992. It seems the editorial board members took a poll around the table, and the vote went something like this: "Clinton." "Clinton." "Clinton." "Clinton." "Clinton." Then came the publisher's turn, and he said with a grin, "OK, who's going to write the Bush editorial?"

Anyway, in MOST CASES an editorial is a consensus view of an editorial board. But columns are different -- and blogs are different, too.

Here, I won't have to mentally pass the entries through an editorial board screen. I'd call it "Tom Dennis Unplugged", if I weren't convinced that that would make most readers throw the nearest paperweight through their computer screen.

Actually, I'm afraid "Tom Dennis Unplugged" is likely to be a lot like "Tom Dennis Plugged" ... I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw; it showed a bunch of guys in suits at a poolside cocktail party ... some of them sunbathing, some of them swimming, some of them jumping off the diving board but all of them in suits.

And this one guy is saying to another, "Who says Republicans don't know how to have a good time?"

So expect the semi-unexpected on this blog of notes about the passing scene. As for the Dunkin' Donuts reference in the blogger profile: There'll be more, much more, about that topic in the weeks and months to come.