When The Cape Codder—a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts—published a series of articles about Denmark’s wind energy initiatives, most of the congratulatory comments I received ended with these words: “The Cape Cod Times must be livid! This is something the daily should have done.”

Week to week our newspaper goes up against this larger prize-winning daily. We report on the same geographic area, with its news and issues. With four full-time reporters, who cover eight towns on the lower Cape, The Cape Codder is a profitable paper that belongs to a chain of community newspapers owned by the Boston Herald. The Boston Globe is also a major presence among our audience. So for us, the smallest among these papers—each of which is covering a quite combative wind energy story in waters just off our southern shore—to report and publish these stories from Denmark proved that daily papers do not have exclusive rights to big stories.

In fact, with a little bit of forethought and passion, weekly papers can bring readers stories like this that resonate in their communities. Even so, for a newspaper like ours, reporting trips far away from where we live and work won’t usually gain us readers or improve our reader loyalty, no matter how interesting the topic might be. (In this case, we did get new subscribers.) But this isn’t just any story. It is about the first offshore wind farm ever proposed in North America. And the battles over the farm’s proposed siting in Nantucket Sound have national implications for energy policy and ocean zoning.

The Nantucket Sound wind farm story is one that has been picked up also by virtually every major paper in the country. But its local implications were the most significant to our readers, and big media outlets only give them cursory attention. Residents of Cape Cod—and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—are being asked to support 130 wind turbines scattered across 24-square miles of Nantucket Sound, a natural resource beloved for its beauty. And the proposal comes from a developer, Cape Wind, which is planning to make a profit off of this wind farm that, if built, will be located in waters that Cape Codders think of as their own.

There are strong environmental arguments swirling around on all sides of the wind farm debate. Questions posed have no easy answers: Would the large turbines endanger the eco-system—the flight paths of sea birds, for example? Would the wind farms siting in Nantucket Sound hurt the Cape’s economy or would it add to the sound’s environmental allure? Would benefits outweigh the sacrifices? How opponents and supporters of the wind farm answer these questions differ widely.

One of the 20 turbines included in the Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm located just outside the Copenhagen Harbor.  Photo by Mads Eskesen/Courtesy of the Cape Codder Newspaper.

Denmark Offers Guidance

As the debate intensified—and each side began its own advocacy campaign—residents of Cape Cod had a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction. My editor felt that the only place that could offer needed insights was Denmark, which was the world leader in offshore wind energy. Denmark has been discussed mainly by wind farm supporters, but opponents used the country as an example of a place that had zoned its oceans before putting the wind farms up. It had small offshore wind farms, and it also had what was then the largest wind farm in the world—the 80-turbine Horns Rev, located in the North Sea.

Sending me to Denmark meant making budgetary sacrifices for our small weekly. But because our paper is on Cape Cod, it has always dedicated budgetary resources to covering environmental issues. That’s why it has an environmental reporter, and that is why the editors decided to send me to Denmark to break new ground on the wind farm story. The benefits of getting ahead of the day-to-day news coverage and moving past the “he said, she said” dialogue that was hijacking much of the ink outweighed the financial sacrifices.

My reporting trip was done on a shoestring. I traveled in bone-chilling February on an all-night flight on a budget airline. I stayed in cheap hotels, ate cheaper food, and used a disposable camera, except for a Danish photographer whom I hired for a couple of hours. I rode on trains and in cars with sources. I did a lot of my legwork before the trip via e-mail and the Internet. I gathered background information before I went and pored over studies. Because phones in our office were not equipped to call overseas, I had to make special arrangements through our corporate headquarters, and those did not come through until I returned. I didn’t have a lot of time overseas—only about four days—but with careful planning I managed to talk to 10 people involved with everything from research institutes to the government and to the tourism industry.

For three weeks in March 2003, eight articles—close to 600 inches of reporting from and about Denmark’s experience with wind farms—were published in The Cape Codder. They had an instant impact on the debate. Participants in the Cape Cod wind farm debate could no longer throw salvos at each other without respecting the scientific evidence of and real-life experience with these European wind farms. Almost immediately the debate became more focused: People here began to demand more facts, rather than relying on the propaganda they were hearing from each side.

While many decision-makers did not alter their positions because of our coverage, they appeared to become more balanced and open-minded in their discussions. That a relatively small paper invested the time and resources to document Denmark’s costs and benefits with wind energy convinced others interested in these issues to go across the Atlantic to weigh the evidence. In this way, these stories empowered Cape Codders to look beyond their own shores.

Doing this reporting also led to our covering other related energy issues, such as the paucity of natural gas and its effect on electric rates and the energy picture, and the ongoing discussions in Washington, D.C.

Energy Coverage Expands

A focus on renewable energy convinced local towns to begin looking into installing wind turbines on public lands to help power landfill and water department facilities. It also resulted in renewed interest in “green” buildings, and this interest has spurred a number of community forums and residents to begin to incorporate renewable technologies into their homes. As important policy questions about how the oceans are governed also arose, Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, established a committee to look at the possibility of zoning the ocean.

This Cape Wind reporting experience is an example to small newspapers that national and global issues of consequence can be found in local stories. Coverage of this also convinced the paper to follow the wind farms story wherever it goes, and this has meant that I took a cross-country trip to California, Colorado, Texas, Iowa and Nebraska. The view of wind and its relation to energy, especially in Texas, was far different than the perceptions of those who live on the East Coast and who have had little experience with it as an energy source.

Reporting from afar provides an interesting juxtaposition for our readers and gives the issues being debated back here added relevance and adds breadth to my local coverage. For example, the contacts I developed in Texas tipped me off to the fact that the state was looking to charge fees to wind developers to lease the ocean bottom. As it stands now, there are no lease fees required for Cape Wind’s project.

The extensive reporting on this wind farm debate offers a stark reminder to readers that energy is something they need to think about and not just when their lights go out or they get their electric bills. Significant changes in energy production and policy are taking place, and these bear watching and reporting, even in small local papers. Likewise, decisions on wind farms are related to our nation’s foreign policy, its economic growth, and environmental and human health. And they affect each of us as individuals.

The energy beat is a vital one. The Cape Wind project underscores for us on Cape Cod that the energy beat is fraught with many reporting challenges, including side alleys from which many other important stories can be touched on. And good reporting can give people the information they need to make informed decisions about issues that will affect generations to come.

Our newspaper’s coverage of Denmark’s wind farm policies and practices is reminiscent of The Cape Codder’s coverage of the Cape Cod National Seashore in the 1960’s. In those days, Malcolm Hobbs, longtime editor of The Cape Codder, championed the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in editorials, and he covered its lengthy and painful birth on the news pages. History tells us that he did so against fierce local opposition and with the threat of great loss of revenue from advertisers opposed to the idea.

Decades later The Cape Codder’s editor, Glenn Ritt, felt as passionately about the beauty of the Cape and her surrounding  waters,  but  decided against taking an editorial stand until all of the environmental ramifications, good and bad, have been tallied. The Cape Cod Times has come out against the wind farm, but The Cape Codder is taking a wider and longer view: In this case, simply saying no to a possibility for a renewable energy source was not an option.

Doreen Leggett covers the environment for The Cape Codder. Leggett was named weekly journalist of the year in 2003 by the New England Press Association, mostly for her Denmark coverage.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment