The Charlotte News should be…

Two weeks ago, Anna Cyr, our managing editor, and I sent a request to several Charlotte residents asking the question, “What sort of paper should The Charlotte News be?” We’re publishing the responses that we received.

The Charlotte News, Charlotte, VermontWe all know that Charlotters hold a wide range of opinions about many issues that come up during the meetings of our various boards, commissions and committees. We witness the same diversity at town meetings and in casual conversations around town and around our dinner tables.

The Charlotte News is a beneficiary of the thoughtfulness, passion, enthusiasm, expertise, criticism and questions that town residents apply to the content of the paper. We benefit because we learn more about what matters to our readers, and how we can better meet the needs of this community. So, keep it coming.

Bill Schubart is a Hinesburg resident, a passionate advocate for community journalism, and an advisor to The News. In an email exchange from six weeks ago, here’s what he wrote about community newspapers:

“A good paper is not going to make everyone happy. Using facts and citing examples, it should raise issues both warm and chilling, that engender discussion, compromise, and improvement. It should also celebrate community: children and families, the police blotter, culture, history, local institutions, natural resources, recreation, and story. It should also issue corrections when a fact is misreported, but it should not amend its policy because a story makes some members of a community uncomfortable. The catchphrase for the work of journalism as it relates to community, is ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”

On behalf of our staff and board, I want to thank the five Charlotters who sent us their opinions concerning The Charlotte News.

By Bill Regan
Charlotte is fortunate to have its own paper. Not many small towns can boast of such a resource, let alone one that deals in real reporting rather than running a couple of generic articles amid what is essentially an ad circular. I come to the question of what kind of paper The Charlotte News should be as an avid consumer of local, national and international news, and as someone whose first career was devoted to researching and writing about foreign affairs, and then managing staff writers and editing their work. In short, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what stories are told and how writers tell them.

Let me start with what I enjoy about The Charlotte News and thus what the paper should strive to preserve. The paper serves as a document of record about the people and public business of Charlotte. It provides the necessary “first rough draft of history” about our community.

After over three decades of combing through national papers, with their appropriate emphasis on the weighty issues of the day, I love that The Charlotte News covers the people and events that define life in Charlotte. What student is not thrilled to see his or her name in the paper for an academic achievement, charity work or win on the playing field? The paper should always make room for articles on local businesses, nonprofits and community events.

Where The Charlotte News could improve is in its coverage of public policy. Articles about Selectboard meetings and other debates on controversial issues often were of the “he said, she said” variety, and at times took a “gotcha” approach to public meetings. (I would challenge any journalist to speak extemporaneously in public and not utter a thought or two in a way that could have been phrased better.) At times, writers for The Charlotte News seem to forget that most times they are covering volunteer, non-professional town administrators working late into the evening after a long day of paid work and family commitments. I would recommend all journalists give the people they are covering the benefit of the doubt until reliable evidence emerges that the subject of the story is, indeed, engaged in some sort of subterfuge. Once that point is reached, the paper should both remain dispassionate and pursue the truth aggressively.

The Charlotte News would be a better paper if it did a better job of summarizing the “what” aspect of a story (versus transcribing the “he said, she said” at length and ending the piece there), and then devoting more thought and column inches to the “why” part of the issue, and—most importantly for readers—on “what does it mean?” The “what” should be a concise and impartial description of what happened. The “why” should attempt to explain the reasons that drove events to unfold as they did. The “what does it mean” is the most value-added part of a story, answering for the reader why they should care and what the implications are for the town if one decision is taken over another.

Let me try to make this concrete. Despite reading each issue cover to cover, I still do not have a good understanding of what Charlotte will look like 10 years from now by choosing a Development Review Board over other zoning and planning models. I do not know whether individuals challenge development projects because of legitimate concerns about the environment or because they are using environmentalism to mask their NIMBY objections to the project in question. I cannot tell whether town policies actually make it harder to operate a business here or whether businesses are complaining about sensible rules. The list could go on much longer. And, of course, part of this lack of understanding is on me, not the paper.

The goal of The Charlotte News should be to help inform the public’s understanding of the issues that impact them and help inform the Selectboard and the town’s various commissions and committees so they can make better decisions. Even in a town as small as Charlotte, public policy issues are frequently complex. I imagine few if any residents or town officials have degrees and work experience in wastewater management. Same with community planning, transportation engineering, climate change mitigation, pandemic response and so on. Yet these are the kinds of issues town officials wrestle with in their daily business, and on which residents are called to weigh in. The great service The Charlotte News could provide would be to elevate the debate.

By Janice Heilmann
I told a friend of mine awhile back, when asked about The Charlotte News and other papers covering the news of our town, that I would support the paper that published the Town Meeting lunch menu. That was the kind of news that made sense to me.

Of course, like many things that have changed in life, there is no Town Meeting lunch—no beans and franks, Ethel’s homemade rolls, applesauce cake served in chunky Melamine dishes. It probably will never return. But Town Meeting—perhaps in a different form temporarily—survives.

The articles in The Charlotte News that hew to the simpler roots of the paper are the ones that speak to me. What is it like to be a farmer? Where should I take a winter walk on a full moon evening? Who owns the oldest dog in town? Of course, we need to know what’s happening with the Selectboard and the Planning Commission. Questions of town governance are important. But what I don’t like is the treatment of our elected and appointed officials as if they are hiding important information. It’s not the questions. It’s the way they’re asked.

Is it old-fashioned to want this kind of reporting and respect for the neighbors who serve us? How can that be relevant in this age of racial reckoning and a warming world? I think that’s why people live here, send their kids to school here, buy eggs from the guy down the road, give way at a four-way stop. We can live in this treacherous world if we can wrap our community around us. I would like The Charlotte News to reflect that. (The idea recently postulated that Charlotte is on a 24/7 news cycle is funny unless referring to dads burping babies at four a.m. or rescue squad members arriving at the home of a neighbor in distress at midnight.)

I think The Charlotte News has taken a detour, but that it has the spirit and the talent to get out of the muddy ruts and back onto solid ground. There is so much about The Charlotte News that speaks to me. I’d like to see that return. How does that happen? Hire an editor that, if not physically local, is community-minded and commits to respecting all members of the town.

Once in a while, an institution like The Charlotte News, or any group that’s been around for years, goes off to the Big City and tries on Big City Shoes. (How about the “Freedom of Information Act Broughams”?) But soon enough, they don’t fit, and it’s once again time to dig out the comfortable old boots that will get you to the mailbox or the neighbors’ house with dinner without slipping in the road.

By Lindsay Longe
When I think of The Charlotte News, I think of a paper that celebrates and connects our local community. I look for it to be a source of information that brings together neighbors around important and sometimes controversial ideas or changes. Bringing together need not mean agreeing, but rather, coming to the table to respectfully engage in dialogue. I believe The Charlotte News can be a venue for supporting such a thoughtful exchange of ideas.

Necessary to thoughtful idea exchange is accurate, accessible information from diverse perspectives. Neighbors often need a common language and shared knowledge to build upon when they connect. The Charlotte News can authentically provide such a foundation without flooding our screens or investing fortunes to get our attention. The Charlotte News should continue to be relevant and empowering to as many Charlotters as possible. I appreciate the recent efforts to solicit varied perspectives about The News’s future. Personally, I want our local paper to help me feel informed and inspired to engage in healthy local dialogue. I appreciate the printed paper—it’s a welcomed break—as well as the digital resources and social feeds for more time-sensitive matters.

Time-sensitive items might be a post reminding one of how to join a Selectboard Zoom call, and while I rarely have time to do so or even read the minutes of a town committee meeting, I appreciate the chance and like to scan the highlights. Similarly, I can’t imagine reading every page of our town plan or zoning regs, but I care. I might read more of the plan if it was presented differently—maybe a Q & A feature with key contributors, or a sidebar interview with someone working to bring an aspect of the plan to fruition. I’d like to know what elements of the plan might affect young families. What about those with loved ones who may wish to retire here? Or someone who would like to operate a business or nonprofit here?

For me, I would like to hear about news that impacts the future of our community—education, land use and conservation, business growth, housing development and public spaces (e.g., a community center, new playground or garden space, expanded trails, etc.). What’s new and what’s on the horizon in these various areas? What are the opportunities for community engagement?

I would enjoy reading about local entrepreneurs; whether their goods or services are of immediate need to me is secondary to simply knowing how I could support someone local in the future. Knowing of these business leaders and content experts might allow me to connect someone looking for a job, internship, or simply a helpful expert’s perspective. It would be meaningful to learn about advocates and innovators in order to explore synergies around ideas, careers, hobbies, challenges or needs.

As a parent of young children, I enjoy stories about family-friendly activities in and around town and appreciate cheerful pictures of children enjoying our community assets, such as the beach playground, Mt. Philo and local farm stands. While I admittedly Google most of my parenting questions, I might enjoy hearing from local experts, educators and neighbors about opportunities, concerns and helpful ideas specific to our community.

I enjoy reading about the accomplishments of my neighbors—Charlotte Central School students completing cool projects, athletes excelling locally or beyond, businesses and volunteers making a difference, or local authors giving book talks. These fun, inspiring stories expand upon the reasons that I’m proud to live here.

I would enjoy reading more about the good people and good work happening around me that I’m unlikely to encounter in the hustle of my daily routines. I look to The Charlotte News to celebrate this good work in ways that appreciate our sometimes hectic and overwhelming lives, while simultaneously reminding us to connect and be grateful for our Charlotte community.

By Molly McClaskey
The Charlotte News is fundamental to our community. It is for us, by us, and about us. When I moved to Charlotte in 1983, a friend told me to be sure to read the local paper. “It’s legendary,” he said. I soon learned why we were and still are known for our paper. For one thing, values like local involvement, integrity and excellence shape the paper’s firm foundation. For another, The Charlotte News has pivoted over the years, adjusting to change and growth in our town and times. Since its humble beginnings in the church basement, it has found more space and more staff. It covers a wider range of topics and has joined the digital age. These steps have been essential to its survival and development. The Charlotte News has also listened to community members and reflected upon its own work. This too has strengthened “The News” and its endurance. In the spirit of listening and reflecting, I offer this opinion.

What should our paper strive for and how can it best reflect our community? From my perspective, The Charlotte News should be the sort of paper that offers an honest picture of us, so that we can see ourselves within it and find out who we are. I want it to capture our collective core and reflect what we do and say. I want to read about our experiences and expertise. This is how we come to know our community and stay connected to one another. I want our paper to include the goings-on around us, so that whether we are public or private participants we feel part of it. I want to look forward to regular installments, like books worth reading, hikes worth walking and plants worth digging. I also want our paper to report on a range of topics critical to the essence and organization of our town: committees, town boards and events that welcome us all. I’d like to read about the institutions that make our town what it is: the school, the Town Hall, the Grange, the library and the Senior Center. I want to read local concerns about worldwide issues, like the environment and the creeping threat of climate change, forest health, invasives, land conservation, development and more. I’d like to try someone’s seasonal recipe from time to time too. I believe these are the themes that keep The Charlotte News timely and important in the eyes of its readers. I’m looking for a hometown brew of investigative reporting along with informational pieces and personal storytelling.

And I hope The Charlotte News will continue to fulfill a purpose that affects all of us and that reaches beyond us as well. I am looking for our paper to have the support and fortitude it needs to endure these fragile times in journalism and thereby do its part to foster democracy. Quality reporting is inherently controversial, simultaneously educational and critically important. We need it! In my view, a newspaper should poke at our assumptions, cause us to question, push us to think, and help us discern fact from falsehood. Just as honest news and the newspapers that print it is a bulwark of democracy, The Charlotte News is the cornerstone of our community. We depend on it! In this time, when newspapers here and across the country are folding and social media is quickly filling the void, I want The Charlotte News to stay standing and hold onto its place in our town. I want it to stay steadfast to its mission (“to publish rigorous, in-depth, fair reporting on town affairs, and to source stories of interest from our neighbors and friends”) and its commitment to tell our stories and report the news. Our sturdy paper bravely prints the pulse of the town. I value that, and I am grateful for it.

By Nancy Wood
When asked to address this question, my first thought was to dig through the archives for clues about what has been successful in the past. I specifically searched on the website for the “Foothills to Shoreline Summit” that was held in 1998, bringing together residents of Charlotte and adjacent towns to discuss our common goals and hopes for the future. I remembered the camaraderie and excitement of this summit as we all contributed our ideas about what makes this corner of Chittenden County special, and how it could be enhanced in the future.

I found much more than the announcement of the Summit in the October 8, 1998 issue of The News. Like so many issues over the years, it captured the spirit of that time in our town. Two articles of special interest were about the bond that Charlotte Volunteer Fire & Rescue was seeking to buy a new ambulance and renovate the station and about the $500,000 bequest of Walter Irish for a senior center.

A front-page article described the fire department proposal. Several opinion pieces and letters from voters expressed their support or objection. One, in particular, highlighted the need to first resolve problems caused by the WIZN transmitter on the department’s tower on Pease Mountain. The WIZN high-powered signal interfered with radio reception in the surrounding area. It even interfered with the Sunday morning service at the Charlotte Congregational Church, where rock music replaced the sermon in the earphones of attendees who were hard of hearing.

The other front-page article offered a glimpse into the life led by Walter and Gert Irish, who lived in Charlotte for their final 20 years. Before she died in 1992, the retired couple enjoyed many trips in their RV. After his wife’s death, Irish spent as much time as possible with good friends and neighbors. Loving the company, Irish felt the town needed a place for seniors to gather and left the town $500,000 in his will with powerful strings attached, ensuring that it would be used in a reasonable period of time for that use only. We know now how important that generous gift was.

Sprinkled throughout this October 1998 issue were other articles about town affairs and resident activities. Low-cost ads were numerous, promoting the services of local businesses and the three candidates for state office. The ever popular “Around Town” section congratulated and sympathized, and a calendar listed town events for the next two weeks.

The paper was printed in black and white, without the colored photos of today. There was no associated website, email or social media. It was a step up from our hand-typed, mimeographed and stapled pages of the 1950s, while primitive compared to today’s technology. But it served the needs of the community. It provided objective information important to us as voters. It celebrated the generous spirit of a former resident. It was an outlet for personal views and for contributions by volunteer writers, artists and photographers. Advertisers could reach their neighbors on a regular basis. And there was a sense of familiarity with town officials, who are liberally quoted and identified.

Stepping back from reading these stories, I mused about how different our world and country are today in more ways than the technological advances. The divisiveness in much of our public discourse is unsettling. The pandemic has isolated many of us for nearly two years, disrupting livelihoods, education and social life. Now more than ever I believe we need institutions that promote community spirit and mutual support. We are so fortunate to live in a small town with abundant attributes, from our natural environment to our long history of volunteer participation. We enjoy the closest thing to direct democracy that can be found in this country, with the opportunity for all residents to attend and vote on town affairs at the annual Town Meeting. And importantly, our elections for town offices are nonpartisan. Differences of opinion, not uncommon, are based on issues not politics.

The Charlotte News, no longer just a “paper,” can and should continue to chronicle the story of Charlotte. It strengthens the foundation of our local institutions by regular, objective reporting of decisions by town officials, and of activities at the library, Senior Center and Fire and Rescue Department, as well as about local nonprofits and businesses. It introduces residents to volunteer opportunities and achievements. And as it is archived, it provides future generations with inspiring insights into our progress through history.