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Clippings: Best effort can at times fall short

We work hard at this twice-weekly to keep our readers informed about goings-on in Addison County. That means talking to people face-to-face or by phone, or hearing from them at meetings.
But there are times we can’t get to a meeting, so we have to follow up by phone with the people who are affected and the sources we have cultivated over the years.
It’s a formula that usually works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Case in point: Middlebury officials on Thursday, May 31, convened a gathering to explain a menu of potential traffic calming measures intended to dovetail with the impending reconstruction of South Street. A lot of public works infrastructure needs to be replaced under the busy street, which has become even busier in recent months with the opening of the Eastview at Middlebury retirement community. I had reported on the South Street reconstruction plan this past spring in the context of a litany of road projects on tap for this year. At an estimated cost of $3.2 million, South Street was looming as the centerpiece of the town’s construction season. I resolved that it deserved some additional ink.
Unfortunately, my professional and personal schedule would not allow me to attend the May 31 gathering involving the town and South Street neighbors. So I identified three folks who would be present to give me an account of the tenor of that gathering: the town planner, the Middlebury selectboard chairman (and moderator of the May 31 meeting), and a longtime South Street resident who hosted a recent get-together of neighborhood children who painted roadside signs urging motorists to travel more slowly.
The morning after the meeting, I contacted the aforementioned three folks who reported a constructive meeting. And the resident’s assessment was that the town’s proposed solutions — including a narrowing of the street lanes, a series of crosswalks and some solar-powered speed indicators — appeared to be a “good compromise.” Town officials’ appraisal of the outcome of the meeting ran along those same lines.
So with no apparent smoke, it didn’t occur to me to look for fire.
We assemble most of our Monday paper on Friday, saving room in the sports section for weekend game coverage. With the Friday noon deadline clock quickly ticking, I wrote my story, which ran on Page 3 of the June 4 issue.
I would later find out there was indeed some fire. While there had been no previous letters to the editor or phone calls indicating to me a substantial gulf between the neighbors’ and town’s positions, actually there was. Turns out there had been an e-mail tree among South Street neighbors, some of whom (like me) were unable to attend the May 31 meeting. Also, after our Friday deadline, the town removed the children’s signs.
After my story ran saying the town and South Street residents were on the same page, now the letters to the editor started coming in. Most of the letters constructively pointed out to me that there was another side of the story that needed to be told — a more than fair request, one that I am honoring (see the story in this issue on the follow-up meeting between South Street residents and town officials).
Most of the letters were helpful. One was not. Matt Jennings, identifying himself as “the son of a journalism professor” and a “professional writer and editor,” decided to make me the story. Mr. Jennings was not only “appalled and dismayed” with my article, but called me the town’s “stenographer,” complicit in advancing the notion that the town and neighborhood were on the same page. He suggested that I needed a tutorial in Journalism 101 — a class I took (and passed) back in 1981. How time flies.
I quickly conveyed to Mr. Jennings by e-mail — in terms far less insulting than his — the circumstances surrounding the reporting of the story. I informed him that, unfortunately, I had to be in Montpelier for much of May 31 for the annual meeting of the Vermont Press Association, for which I serve as vice president. Our business agenda included awards — this newspaper took home nine — and planning strategies to provide better access to state records for journalists and citizens.
I further told Mr. Jennings that I would be at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting to hear from him and other South Street neighbors and set the record straight.
This explanation was apparently not good enough for Mr. Jennings, who let his criticisms stand.
We ran his acerbic letter, of course. We don’t make a practice of censoring letters critical of us.
So I had a humbling week: Winning first place for best local story for the state of Vermont (non-daily category) and being publicly flayed for another piece, all in five days.
Just thought I’d try to set the record straight — both on South Street and why we do what we do. Please keep the lines of communication open. We depend on you, just like you depend on us.

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