The city of South Burlington has gotten into the news business, launching its own newsletter in response to city officials’ displeasure with local media coverage.
On the afternoon of Sept. 29, an email introduced the “South Burlington Times,” a newsletter published by the city of South Burlington on its website.
This comes in response to increasingly aggressive pushes for public records related to policing by The Other Paper, as previously reported. The newsletter includes direct, published attacks on the paper. According to the city’s website, the South Burlington Times will be presented online “at no cost to the taxpayer.”
Calling itself a newspaper, the city-run publication claimed in its first edition it was created “to keep you informed regarding the actions of your local government, to ensure transparency and to enable you to fully participate on matters of interest to you,” according to a note from City Manager Kevin Dorn.
The Other Paper has long been South Burlington’s paper of record.
“Despite cries of transparency, the city of South Burlington has actively fought public records requests from The Other Paper,” managing editor Jessie Forand said. “We wholeheartedly disagree with this venture being called a newspaper and we stand by our journalistic ethics and reporting.”
Lisa Loomis, president of the Vermont Press Association, said while she has seen many times towns threatening to create their own news outlet, she couldn’t recall it actually happening.
“It happens all the time, towns don’t like our coverage and they threaten us and they say, well, we’re going to create our own newsletter and send it to the townspeople, but they don’t have the credibility that the newspapers do,” she said.
Loomis also wondered about funding.
“No matter how much they say that it’s not going to cost anything, can you tell me no taxpayer money is going in to pay for this, which is basically the town’s perspective and viewpoint?” she said, “Is there any guarantee of non-biased reporting?”
Before the launch, Barb Sirvis, of South Burlington — who was one of two contributors featured in the South Burlington Times — complained to the city council about what she felt was a change in reporting, which she attributed to COVID-19 cutbacks.
However, the paper’s reporting strategy has not changed because of COVID, Forand said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, that a government-sanctioned, taxpayer-funded ‘newspaper’ is going to offer the public transparency — of itself. It’s Trumpian,” publisher Greg Popa said.
“To allege that The Other Paper in the last two-and-a-half years hasn’t provided timely information or original reporting to city residents on what’s happened at the city council or library or planning departments is downright false.” Popa said.
Of one recent issue, Sirvis said, after noting three examples of local news in addition to a weekly police blotter, “Much of the rest was iffy at best in terms of its relevance to our community, much less its interest.”
In her piece on the South Burlington Times website, Sirvis, who is described as a “retired adventure seeker” wrote, “I’m guessing more copies are now in recycling having not been opened because information about our city is no longer there. That means local advertisers are getting less visibility for their investment.”
In response, Forand said, “The community paper — The Other Paper — has been, is and always will be community centric.”
Loomis said she had many concerns about what she called an undermining by the city of one of its businesses.
Popa echoed that, saying, “I don’t think it’s unusual for a city or a town to have a newsletter that they send out to residents.
“But for some reason they decided to try to take us down at the same time. I can’t imagine what the reaction would be if the city waged that type of attack on any other type of business in South Burlington. Jessie and her team has my full support.”
The second contributor to the South Burlington Times, Jennifer Kochman, has long been a public opponent of The Other Paper, even falsely claiming in April that the paper had ceased publication after a little-used feature on its website was discontinued.
Recently, Kochman contacted editorial staff to ask about coverage of municipal meetings, which continues in The Other Paper whenever appropriate.
See The Other Paper’s editorial for an official statement.