BRATTLEBORO — Representatives from every media outlet serving the Brattleboro area gathered with other concerned citizens this week to brainstorm ideas on how to protect what they all said is a vital community service — objective, independent news coverage for southeastern Vermont.
"We love our local media," panelist Olga Peters said after Thursday night's Community Media Forum. "We can't take it for granted."
Peters, senior writer for The Commons and former host of WKVT's Green Mountain Mornings, teamed up with BCTV board member Leah McGrath Goodman to spearhead the forum.
"I wanted to make sure Vermonters knew all about the serious threats by Comcast and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to funding for our public access television stations across the country, that we could lose it in just months," Goodman said.
She was referring to a recent FCC proposal that would change the way subscriber fees are collected to fund programming and broadcasting services. The proposal could allow cable operators to reclassify certain in-kind services and subtract their monetary value from the 5 percent that cable companies are
required to pay to fund public access stations.
This concern was further amplified by the abrupt cancellation of Green Mountain Mornings over the holidays. Goodman said she wrote to Ed Christian, CEO of WKVT owner Saga Communications, to ask why the "local favorite for news and commentary in southern Vermont" was canceled. She said he wrote back: "In media, shows come and go all the time."
"That seemed extremely cavalier to me," Goodman said. "So I looked up Saga, a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, and found that it had just issued a fat dividend to its shareholders at the same time it was crying poor and laying off many of its senior staff in Brattleboro.
"That did not seem to show much care or support for members of the media or the wider community," Goodman continued. "So, Olga and I thought it was time to get people together to talk about a better way forward for this region, maybe one where Vermonters have a lot more say over how they stay connected through TV, radio, newspapers or online."
According to MarketWatch, Saga Communications announced in
November that it would pay a quarterly cash dividends of 25-30 cents per share, totaling about $3.3 million. Peters said she was the only one at WKVT who was laid off when Green Mountain Mornings was canceled, but she said there were other layoffs earlier in the year.
The two contacted Cor Trowbridge, executive director of BCTV, who helped with the logistics of organizing the event and recruiting local media professionals to sit on the panel. That panel included Peters and Trowbridge, as well as Randy Holhut, staff writer for The Commons, state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington District, Reformer News Editor Melanie Winters, and local attorney and radio personality Jim Maxwell.
"The forum was an opportunity for local media representatives and supporters to come together and talk about the importance of local media to the Windham County community and the many challenges to its sustainability," Trowbridge said in a follow-up statement. "It was inspiring for me to see so many supporters in the room, encouraging us to find solutions so that BCTV and its local media partners can continue to serve the community."
Discussion by the panelists and the 20 or so people in the audience covered such issues as the changing landscape of gathering and delivering news, the financial challenges of for-profit and non-profit media outlets alike, and the valuable service that local media provides to keep people informed and act as a check on local government.
"In my opinion, Windham County, specifically, and Vermont in general, support multiple local news organizations," Peters said in a follow-up statement. "Not surprising, given Vermonters' level of community engagement. BCTV's funding threat and the cancellation of GMM, however, represent the types of pressures local reporters and organizations face."
Goodman and Peters both said they were pleased with how the forum went.
"We were really glad to have packed the room with just 48 hours of planning over the New Year's holiday," said Goodman. "We also had hundreds of viewers watching and commenting on BCTV's livestream.
In terms of next steps, Goodman said the takeaway seemed to be that this area would love to see more collaboration among local media outlets.
"And we'd definitely like to preserve both local access television, newspapers and radio programs," she added. "If we're lucky enough to do more of these forums, we would definitely want to explore all of that."
Peters said she found the suggestion of greater collaboration to be an "intriguing" one. "I see a lot of collaboration between Vermont journalists. More so than in other markets. It would be useful to hear from community members: What would collaboration look like to you? What would the outcome of that collaboration be? How would collaboration better serve how you accessed information?
Trowbridge said 'Ex parte' letters can still be submitted opposing the proposed FCC Rulemaking that threatens funding for public access TV stations nationwide. Go to https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings for Docket 05-311.
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