By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
One of the smallest of the 50 states, Vermont, host to this year’s conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, is abundant with natural beauty, from the Green Mountains to Lake Champlain, and Vermont residents are fierce in their determination to protect the beauty and ecosystems of their state. Weather is big news in Vermont, and the environment is leading news.
Served by WCAX-TV and WPTZ-TV (with its sister station WNNE-TV) on-air, and by New England Cable News, Vermont audiences take the environment seriously and news organizations broadcast accordingly. “We don’t have car chases and we don’t have gang shootings,” said WCAX owner and General Manager Peter Martin. “We treat environmental stories as hard news.”
Family owned and operated, WCAX is a CBS affiliate in the No. 92 market. “Every market is odd in its own way,” Mr. Martin said. “This market is odder than most.” Mr. Martin referred to the fact that WCAX’s airwaves reach three states and two countries: nearly all of Vermont (with a total state population of 650,000), a few counties in New Hampshire and New York state, and a swath of Quebec Province in Canada. Vermont’s population, however, is highly dispersed across dozens of small, sometimes very small, towns throughout the state. WCAX broadcasts out of Burlington, with its city population of 48,000 and county population of about 125,000 people.
WCAX’s peculiar broadcast range is the core of the station’s biggest challenge. “On a typical day we deal with news from three states and we have people in three states,” Mr. Martin said. “We have a pretty fair-sized weather department. And, as to the environment, certainly that is an issue of almost paramount importance to people who live in the state.”
Though Vermont is known as home to numerous family farms, it’s also home to IBM, the state’s largest employer. “Vermonters aren’t outspoken, they can be reticent, but once you scratch the surface they have strongly held beliefs,” said WCAX News Director Marselis Parsons. “And the level of education is high.” Whether they’re lifelong Vermonters or recent exiles from urban or suburban life, the state’s population is nearly unanimous in its desire to protect the beauty of the state it loves. “There’s an ethos about Vermont,” said Mr. Martin. “People are very protective of it.”
At the same time, Vermont’s industries include logging and pulp mills, and the constant clash between industry and environment-minded residents is always hot news, for example, a recent brouhaha over an International Paper mill just over the border in Ticonderoga, N.Y. International Paper determined it could save millions of dollars in energy costs by burning shredded tires and got a permit to experiment with the alternative energy source. Vermont opponents argued that the smoke generated from the tire burn would cause extensive pollution and health risk to residents of nearby Addison County, Vt.
According to Mr. Martin, Vermont environmentalists allege insufficient filtering of the residue, and the state of Vermont is now suing the Environmental Protection Agency, which approved the experimental burn. “Here’s where you get into some really interesting environmental issues,” said Mr. Martin. “If you make the assumption, not yet proven, that you can burn tires and deal with the emissions in an acceptable way, that’s a re-use of a lot of tires we don’t know what to do with. What’s the right thing to do?”
Another controversy is brewing about logging in the Green Mountain Forest: logging interests versus hunters versus snowmobilers. “Until recently, tens of thousands of acres were used for logging,” Mr. Martin said. “These great tracts of land are being sold because the economy is changing. Who is going to acquire those lands and how they will be utilized is a big issue.”
Mr. Parsons noted that WCAX covered the environmental beat off and on during the 1980s and 1990s and created a permanent position five years ago, when general assignment reporter Kristin Carlson lobbied for the beat. “Vermont is known as an environmental state,” said Ms. Carlson. “It was a niche that needed to be filled.” Mr. Parsons, who has been news director for the past 22 of his 39 years with the station, whole-heartedly agreed. “We’re the first state to have a bottle deposit law, a billboard ban and some of the strictest environmental controls in the country,” he said. He also pointed out that WCAX is strongly focused on local news. “We don’t cover what goes on in Boston or Bangladesh,” he said. “Our news is limited to communities within the range of our antennas.”
But competition for viewers has become more fierce. “When I came here, the cable TV system had six channels,” Mr. Parsons said. “Now digital cable has 100 channels. You can watch TBS, A&E or German or French TV. There are more claims on the viewer’s attention, and that’s tough to compete with.” The result has been shorter stories, now down to a little more than 2 minutes on average, from a once-uniform three to five minutes. “The audience has an increasingly short attention span,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been helpful in ensuring that satellite companies carry the local stations; about 21 percent of WCAX’s viewers are on satellite, with another 60 percent on cable. “In the old days, I competed strictly with WPTZ,” Mr. Parsons said. “Now I’m competing against BBC America, PBS and A&E.”
That’s all the more reason to stress local environmental issues dear to the hearts of WCAX’s viewers. Ms. Carlson recently completed a four-part series on wind power, taking its jumping-off point from news that out-of-state companies want to put wind turbines on hillsides. “It’s very emotional, fraught with political and environmental issues,” Mr. Parsons said. “We looked at the aesthetic arguments, the energy arguments, which political candidates were supporting it.”
“It’s the quintessential debate,” Ms. Carlson said. “We’re known for promoting green industry, but people who support green don’t want to see the ridgeline ruined. It’s a big dilemma that is pitting people against each other.”
Other recent environmental stories have focused on three birds-loon, osprey and peregrine falcon-that just came off the endangered species list as a result of decades of work by dedicated environmentalists. Ms. Carlson has also followed the story of attempts to introduce a breeding pair of bald eagles to the state.
Because she has the environment beat, viewers know to call her with news and tips, said Ms. Carlson, who said a high school student recently e-mailed her with the story of his class refitting a car to run on vegetable oil. “We just don’t miss environmental stories,” she said. “People call us if they’ve got something.
Ms. Carlson will lead SEJ attendees on a steep, rocky two-hour hike up Camel’s Hump to learn in-depth about Vermont’s issue with acid rain that drifts in from the Midwest. “That’s what I love about my job,” she said. “There’s nothing better than getting out in the field doing research. If you tell a good story and personalize it, an environmental story can stand up to a good story in any other beat.”