By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Broadcasting out of Burlington, Hearst-Argyle-owned WPTZ-TV is the NBC affiliate for the Burlington, Vt.-Plattsburgh, N.Y., market, reaching most of Vermont and parts of northern New York state and southern Quebec and Ontario provinces in Canada. Its sister station WNNE-TV is the NBC affiliate in White River Junction, Vt., serving the Connecticut River Valley and the southern third of WPTZ’s Vermont market.
According to Paul Sands, who serves as president and general manager of both stations, WPTZ’s news is carried on WNNE, and environmental issues are covered consistently. “The environment is hard news,” said Mr. Sands, who arrived at WPTZ in 1998. “We were looking for something critically important in our area that no one else owned.” That became a focus on the environment, Mr. Sands said, when the Lake Champlain Basin Program approached WPTZ to produce some public service announcements.
The LCBP, which describes itself on its Web site as “a federal, state, provincial, and local initiative to restore and protect Lake Champlain and its surrounding watershed for future generations,” works in New York, Vermont and Quebec, the same area reached by WPTZ/WNNE’s on-air signal. The LCBP monitors the health of Lake Champlain, helping community efforts and awarding grants to private organizations, local communities and individuals for programs that benefit the Lake Champlain Basin’s water quality, fisheries, wetlands, wildlife, recreation and cultural resources. Mr. Sands saw an opportunity for WPTZ. “The Lake Champlain Basin Program is the prime environmental mover in the area,” he said. “They only wanted us to do some PSAs, but we thought we should do something more than that.”
In March 1999, WPTZ launched its first “Champlain 2000” report. “It’s the mission of the program to work on protecting and advancing knowledge of the watershed,” said Mr. Sands. “When we launched `Champlain 2000,’ it consisted of weekly in-depth reports on the environmental impact of everything that took place in the Lake Champlain Basin, which is much bigger than the lake since the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks form the watershed.”
“Champlain 2000” (a name since changed to “Champlain Connection”) also offered three or four half-hour documentaries a year and vignettes sponsored by advertisers. Since the 1999 launch, the focus of the “Champlain Connection” has changed. “We still do weekly news reports,” said Mr. Sands. “But we don’t do as many documentaries-in fact, we haven’t done one yet this year.”
Most important, “Champlain Connection,” which airs every Monday night at 6, has an anchor. “Thom Hallock has been the mover and shaker behind the `Champlain Connection,”‘ Mr. Sands said. Mr. Hallock is WPTZ’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news anchor-a job he has had since 1996-as well as anchor of the weekly “Champlain Connection” report.
A graduate of nearby Plattsburgh State University, Mr. Hallock has had a 20-year career reporting and anchoring at TV stations in the Northeast, from Lancaster, Pa., to Bangor and Portland, Maine. He was no stranger to environmental reporting, having previously covered the Three Mile Island disaster. “Champlain Connection” coverage has been honored with two Edward R. Murrow Awards and a News & Documentary Emmy nomination.
Community reaction to the “Champlain Connection” reports has been strong. “Both Vermont and upstate New York have a lot of people you could call environmentalists,” Mr. Sands said. “A bigger part of the population cares deeply about the quality of life, although they don’t call themselves environmentalists.”
Mr. Sands pointed out that environmental issues are complex because so many different groups have a stake in the outcome. “You can’t solve a problem of farm runoff without the farmers,” he said. “You can’t dictate it from Montpelier or Washington, D.C. You have to get the farmers, the boaters, everyone into it.”
Although Mr. Hallock is not a dedicated full-time environmental reporter, Mr. Sands said the station ensures coverage is complete. Mr. Hallock personally reports on one out of three or four of the weekly stories he anchors, with other reporters covering the lion’s share of the stories.
“We have people scattered in [the Burlington area], New York and White River Junction in Vermont, which serves the upper valley,” he said. “We find the issue is well understood and the management of the station is fully versed in this.
“If there’s an environmental issue in the western Adirondacks, someone from our New York operation can do it. If it’s in the Connecticut River Valley, the White River Junction reporter can do it. We have the flexibility to target and spread out that story.”
Being knowledgeable about environmental issues is crucial for all news staff, Mr. Sands said. “I think all our news people do have a grounding in the environment,” he said. “If they’re new, they get it. It’s an essential issue in our market, whether it’s groundwater, farm runoff, building and growth or development. Most stories that have an economic or consumer base can in some way or another be environmentally linked-and we make that link. We look for that link whenever possible.”
Weather is also big, and WPTZ has a team of four meteorologists-Tom Messner, Gib Brown, Erik Heden and Jim Moore-who lead the Weather Plus coverage. The station is on track to expand its weather center in November.
“We are going with our digital weather channel late in the year,” Mr. Sands said. “We’re fishing to get more equipment, update the radar capabilities, update our computer systems, so we’ll get more weather on, faster and better.”
“Our weather is one of the top things we pay attention to,” Mr. Sands said. “During Hurricane Katrina, we paid more attention to it.” Though Katrina may have emphasized weather reporting for a brief time, Vermont always has plenty of harsh weather to cover. (A Vermonter’s description of the state’s weather is “10 months of snow and two months of bad sledding.”)
Similar to other stations in the area, WPTZ and its sister station WNNE are forced to use a small staff to cover a large area with a dispersed population.
“Sometimes you have to go a long way in a short time for a story,” Mr. Sands said. “There’s a lot of distance to cover because we serve the whole region.”