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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Sorry, this letter is closed due to the federal shutdown

By Tom Warhover
October 4, 2013 | 1:40 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

It’s been more than 20 years since the last big plan for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was pronounced. The National Park Service said it would release a draft of a new road map for managing the Jacks Fork and Current River this month.

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Missourian reporter Jack Suntrup wanted to visit park officials this week to learn about the new directions for some of the most popular floating streams in the state.

Instead, he reported on empty rivers and closed canoe companies.

He interviewed canoe outfitters and hotel owners and a chamber of commerce president. He couldn’t talk to park service types: “Because nearly all of Ozark National Scenic Riverways' staff is currently furloughed,” his article said, “calls to their Van Buren office went unanswered Wednesday.”

Reporter Meghan Boggess is working on an article about voice over Internet Protocol phone service, commonly known as VOIP. It’s an increasingly popular alternative — but not necessarily in rural areas, where broadband Internet service is scarcer.

She went to the FCC website to research the issue. The site, like most federal agency websites, was down.

Tuesday night, editor Liz Scheltens wrote on social media: “How am I supposed to create information graphics for the Columbia Missourian when Census.gov is down?! #GrrrShutdown.”

It’s an inconvenience, this government shutdown, for journalists reporting on anything from agriculture to economics. A frustration.

Still, those shuttered offices and websites have shown some of the many ways we’re affected by our federal government. Tell me the shutdown doesn’t touch you, and I’ll suggest you aren’t looking hard enough.

More than 100 nutrition educators with MU Extension weren’t teaching as of Friday morning, and their last paycheck is just two weeks away. Missouri National Guardsmen weren’t drilling this weekend, and they weren’t getting paid. It’s all money that won’t be circulating in cash registers around town.

The food program for poor mothers and their children in Boone County runs out of money in four weeks. Funds for veterans attending college are day to day, depending on the branch of service. (I was astounded by the number served by Columbia College: between 7,500 and 7,750 people.)

For journalists, the website shutdowns feel like a poke in the eye. Most sites don’t require constant care and feeding. A note simply saying that items aren’t being updated would suffice. Instead, the home page of the US Department of Agriculture says: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.”

Hartford Courant reporter Matt Kauffman noted in an article on Poynter.org that he was “pretty sure the websites still operate, say, nights, weekend and holidays when the staff’s away. This is the equivalent of not merely locking the Smithsonian museums, but going the extra step to paper the windows so no one can peer inside while they’re closed.”

So be it. A reporter faces unreturned phone calls on good days. The federal government’s dimming of the lights will hardly shut down the free press as we know it. Unfortunately for all the people affected, there are stories still to be found as long as the insanity in the halls of the House of Representatives continues.