A Town Divided

Charlotte is becoming a town divided, and the centrifugal forces dividing it have a new indicator – a second newspaper.

As VTDigger reported on April 14th, a group of relative newcomers and journalism professionals who joined and served on the Board of The Charlotte News became dissatisfied with what was clearly flawed nonprofit governance and so left to start their own nonprofit newspaper, The Charlotte Bridge. The choice of a name is ironic.

According to a recent article by the Burlington Free Press, Charlotte is the wealthiest town in Vermont with a median household income of $117,407. Though farmed and hunted for centuries by indigenous peoples, it was chartered by the British in 1762. Its rich bottomland made it the area of choice for regional native American tribes such as the Abenaki People and, later, European immigrants living off the land. Today, it is still home to many productive Vermont farms and inhabitants who’ve lived there for generations. West Charlotte borders Lake Champlain and is home to many wealthy families.

I grew up in Morrisville in the shadow of Stowe. My stepfather, Emile Couture, was one of the original members of the Sepp Ruschp Ski School. We watched from nine miles away as Stowe became a town divided, its traditional small-town cohesion slowly coming unglued with the influx of great wealth and privilege. Many came to ski and stayed because they admired and wanted to be a part of the values, principles, and traditions of a small Vermont town. But a few sought to make over their new home in the image of where they’d come from, and in time, the big fish grew and overtook the native species. And Stowe became a town divided.

Vermont has been deeply enriched by the influx of all who’ve found their way here, those of great wealth and enterprise like Tom Watson Jr. who founded IBM in Essex Junction, refugees seeking a place to put down secure roots and pursue opportunity, and the hippies of the ‘60s, among others over the last two centuries. Yes, some division followed their arrival, but it usually faded in time as communities relied on one another to survive.

But the recent journalistic blow-up in Charlotte is worrisome.

As I understand it, the trouble began when the governing board interfered with the paper’s editorial firewall. Anyone who understands nonprofit governance would never have let that happen and understand that there are established ways to redress and repair governance mistakes. From what I’ve heard it sounds like everyone owns a piece of this divisive rupture.

Organizational leadership inevitably makes mistakes. The right way forward, however, acknowledges them and convenes participants to discuss and correct them. Going off in a huff only further divides the culture of a small town. Each faction now has its own turf.

When I was young, if a group didn’t agree with who won the 4H annual blue ribbon, they groused but set a goal of doing better next year. They didn’t start a new competitor to 4H. (If you’ve never heard of 4H, you’re probably new to Vermont.)

A local paper is vital for all the reasons that The Charlotte News and The Charlotte Bridge have articulated. The issue is not whose right. Both are. The risk is that the schism takes root in the town and sows further division, particularly at a time when the town is already divided over a serious zooming question.

I’ll be blunt. Charlotte has great polarity of wealth, a natural divide between its breathtaking shoreline and the agricultural and residential East Charlotte, differing views on affordable housing (no pun intended), and now it has three newspapers.

It’s time to remind ourselves what community is and that in strong communities, we don’t cultivate winners and losers.

Hyper-local community papers are the media lifeblood of every town and vital to the success of the communities in which they succeed and many are under threat from the loss of display advertising revenue. But we rely on them to record the lives and images of our families, the schedules and minutes of town government, the strategies, intent, conflicts, and occasional transgressions of our civic leaders, the triumphs and transitions of our citizens, all with the sponsorship of local enterprises. The values expressed by The Bridge are laudable but could have been woven into the future of The News to show that disagreements can be resolved.

As a neighbor on the Charlotte line, I hope Charlotte townsfolk won’t be called on to take sides, but can look forward to an honest and trustworthy journal about their community.  (768 words)

Full disclosure: Kate and I were cofounders of the VT Journalism Trust and I was the first Chair of VTDigger with whom the Trust soon merged. My only residual connection is as a columnist, a passionate reader, and supporter of their work.

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