CHESTER, Vt. – On April 7, 2021, the Chester Selectboard held a public forum on their March 17 decision to use an online news source as their paper of record. Roughly 30 participants attended the meeting via Zoom including Steven Pappas, the editor of Rutland Herald and Times Argus, and Mike Donahue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association. Town Manager Julie Hance also mentioned she had received two letters and three phone calls concerning printed legal notices in a newspaper.
The public forum opened with Sharon Huntley, a reporter for The Vermont Journal, who spoke about the privilege of accessing the news online. She mentioned that The Vermont Journal is the only local new source that does not require internet access. “To read our publication, you don’t need to have a computer. You don’t need a monthly internet subscription. You don’t need a reliable and strong internet signal.” She continued, “Not only is our paper free, we deliver it to everyone in town.”
Huntley also introduced Shawntae Webb, the publisher of The Vermont Journal. Webb spoke to the board about their decision to use an online news source as their paper of record. She began, “The Vermont statute still indicates that ‘when a notice is required to be given by a publication in a newspaper, it shall mean a newspaper published in the county where the subject matter is situated’… The statue goes on to say the notice should be published in ‘either a daily, semiweekly, or weekly newspaper.’” Webb pointed out that those terms are used to describe a printed and distributed newspaper.
Webb added that The Vermont Journal reaches 25,000 mailboxes across the region and that, as an additional resource to the printed paper, legal notices are also uploaded to their website, www.VermontJournal.com, for no extra charge.
Residents of Chester gave their comments over Zoom. There were both comments supporting and opposing the Selectboard’s decision to use Chester Telegraph as their paper of record.
Ginger Roper said, “I think it is a matter of accessibility and we should do everything we can as a town to make the information accessible to all.”
Cheryl Joy Lipton and Susan Bourne added similar comments. Lipton also emphasized, “It’s redundant to have [legal notices] online because [they’re] already online on the Chester website.”
Linda Diak in an earlier comment had said that she supported the town’s decision to use the Chester Telegraph for public notices. “I think it’s important for us as a town to support our local news source. But the issue at hand is the publication of notices,” she later added. “The issue is whether or not with these public notices if it’s efficient to put them on the Telegraph, being online. It’s my understanding that the word ‘print’ is not in the state statute.”
Steven Pappas of the Rutland Herald contributed to the discussion by reiterating that the state statute does require a printed newspaper as paper of record. “[The Vermont Journal] is still being printed, which is what the state law does require. You can’t do any better than getting into every home… You can argue that the town might want to nickel and dime and cost save, but the maximum exposure is already there.”
Pappas also spoke regarding legal notices as a newspaper’s revenue. “You’re not talking about an insignificant revenue stream. It is something to us. It’s not a large amount to us, but it’s enough that it makes a difference.” He closed by saying, “The Vermont Press Association and I … will defend the public notice structure as a newspaper and paper of record. You have a situation that does not have a problem. You don’t need to fix it.”
Following Pappas’ comments, Board Chair Arne Jonynas responded to comments about whether their decision to use the Telegraph because of cost savings. He stated, “That was the least amount of our decision. It was a unanimous decision and it was more about the content, about the coverage, and about a lot of other factors, and the money helped at the end, but that was not the only decision in there.”
Board member Jeff Holden added, “It was my understanding that digital media was an acceptable way of putting out our notices. There’s other towns in the state that have already done it… I believe we are doing with what information we had at the time the best decision we could make for the good of the whole town – the whole community… We’re not picking on the publications.”
Claudio Veliz spoke of residents of Chester who are not currently living at home who would look to an online news source for information, and that this discussion is “one aspect of the really national and international debate on print and electronic media.” He also suggested the possibility of officially listing Chester Telegraph as paper of record and use The Vermont Journal for print notices.
Mike Donahue from the Vermont Press Association commented, “The Vermont law is quite clear on what a newspaper is. It hasn’t changed. The reality is The Vermont Journal is there as much as the Chester Telegraph is.” He also added that the VPA was not aware of other towns that have opted for online publication only. He did mention that similar issues have been brought to the Legislature in the past, and they had declined to change the law.
Resident Katherine Henry, speaking in support of the town’s decision, responded, “Everyone is online. There are some people that are resisting – and I understand that – but we’ve resisted a lot of things over time that have come to pass.”
At the end of the Selectboard meeting, Jonynas said that the board would gather more information and would revisit the issue in their upcoming April 21 meeting.