City-published South Burlington Times sparks debate with critique of privately owned competitor

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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. – A bi-weekly online publication launched by South Burlington’s city manager intended to keep the public informed on what’s happening at city meetings sparked debate at Monday’s city council meeting.

The first issue of the South Burlington Times was published last month and included commentary from two residents who criticized the lack of local coverage from The Other Paper, a free publication with a circulation of more than 10,000, according to its publisher, the Vermont Community Newspaper Group

The Times’ inaugural issue featured a commentary by Barb Sirvis, who wrote: “Recently I found myself asking, “What happened to our ‘community newspaper? The articles are less relevant, and some at least likely the result of shared articles from other papers.” 

The first edition of the South Burlington Times contained a progress update on an I-89 corridor study, upcoming meeting schedules, and commentary from residents on a recent lack of local news coverage.

City Manager Kevin Dorn said the Times was started to address concerns that The Other Paper had been neglecting coverage of city meetings. He has since distanced himself from the editorial content of the first issue, but said the Times is an extension of the city updates that are already being published online.

“We take content that would’ve otherwise been put up on the website, and instead of that being a passive thing where people had to come and find it, we’re pushing it out to the public,” Dorn said. “There’s a multitude of things we put in there that wouldn’t have been covered by The Other Paper under any circumstance, past or present.”

Dorn said the Times will primarily serve as a newsletter to get materials from city meetings, such as PowerPoint presentations, directly to residents.

“I’m not going to write a lede to it and say ‘Oh my God, look at how great the city is, and we should all be lauded for what we’re doing,” Dorn said. “We’re going to just simply put the information out to the public and let them draw their own conclusions. That’s what this is about.”

In a Facebook post, City Councilor Thomas Chittenden said the first issue of the Times was published without the council’s consideration. He added that the “parameters, intention and oversight” of the city publication will need to be more thoughtful before he’ll support it.

“I’m not entirely comfortable with a municipal entity exerting influence or direct pressure on a free paper,” Chittenden said. “I don’t want to use the machinery of the city to at all force or try to influence or persuade directly the freedom of a press outlet.”

At Monday’s meeting, councilors were largely in agreement that The Other Paper has been lacking in local content. Chair Helen Riehle cited The Other Paper’s recent discontinuation of a ‘Councilor’s Corner’ column as an example of its dwindling local coverage.

But Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, said suspending columns by elected officials during an election cycle is “typical for just about every newspaper in Vermont.”

Some residents have taken to the editorial section of The Other Paper to criticize the Times. In an editorial published Oct. 15, Joe Randazzo said South Burlington doesn’t need “a city-owned, city-staffed, city-produced newsletter.

“There is an automatic built-in bias that will be present in all the reporting,” he said, “no matter how much our so-called enlightened city fathers pontificate to the contrary.”

Rosanne Greco, a longtime South Burlington resident, said another change could help clear things up. “If the city continues to send out updates on what’s going on, name it after something else,” she said. “Don’t call it the South Burlington Times, because that’s a newspaper.”

Donoghue also pushed back against criticism of The Other Paper’s coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it has strained the resources of local newspapers across the nation.

“There’s just a lot of events that would normally be covered that are just not happening, therefore not getting in the paper,” Donoghue said. “That has been an issue, so many events have been cancelled, postponed that there aren’t as many things to cover.”

Councilor Tim Barritt said The Other Paper has suffered staff cuts during the pandemic and “the last thing we want to do is step on toes of journalists who are supposed to be objective about what’s going on in government and allows the public to comment through letters to the editor.”

Dorn indicated that he plans to continue circulating the publication. Councilors were largely in agreement it should continue, but possibly under a new name.

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