In Asheville, a band of retired journalists does investigative reporting for free

The investigative outlet The Asheville Watchdog launched in North Carolina in early 2020 with a highly experienced staff of retired reporters. Bob Gremillion, the Watchdog’s publisher, is a former Tribune executive. Reporter and editor Peter Lewis was once a senior writer, editor, and columnist at the New York Times. Sally Kestin, an investigative reporter, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They’re surrounded by a team of similarly illustrious colleagues. And they’re all working for free.

Eschewing a paycheck has become a surprisingly common trend in the world of local public service journalism, but it looks particularly unique at the Watchdog, where each and every reporter—while ostensibly retired—donates his or her time. CJR spoke to Lewis, Kestin, and Gremillion about the paper’s unique model, its sustainability, and the future of local accountability reporting. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did The Asheville Watchdog come to be?

Kestin: Bob and I had been here, I guess, about three years, and David Feingold—then the general manager of Blue Ridge Public Radio—convened a group of other former media folks who had landed here. We were all commiserating about the decline of local journalism. Bob and I came from a much larger market in South Florida, where we had three major metro papers that we regularly read. I think it’s a little unfair to come to a small town and expect to get that level of journalism. Nonetheless, we observed lots of things that we both would comment to each other, “Man, I wish we could see a story on that.” So I reached out and met everybody [in local media] here in town, with, I guess, the exception of the TV station. I realized that the Citizen Times, our local paper here, had gone from roughly seventy editorial employees down to maybe ten or twelve.

So we decided we have the ability to do something about this. We launched the Watchdog in 2020, right as the pandemic hit. We did not get off the ground the way we intended to, which was to go out and meet as many people as we could in the community, introduce ourselves, tell them what we were planning to do, develop sources, introduce ourselves, ask what was on people’s minds. We were not able to do that, but we’ve kind of changed a little bit along the way and picked up some of these terrific folks that are now working alongside of us as they moved to town and learned about us. So Pete, that’s your introduction.

Lewis: Well, I moved to Asheville in February of 2020, and I noticed that the local media ecosystem was not as robust as I thought it should be for a town this size. So I started poking around about the possibility of helping to launch a nonprofit news organization similar to some of the others I’ve been involved with. I was managing editor of the Bay Citizen in San Francisco for a while, which was a nonprofit. The reason that the Bay Citizen was launched was because there was a real chance that San Francisco would be a major city without a really good newspaper. And I saw something happening here in Asheville, with the acquisition of Citizen Times by Gannett, and the shrinking of the staff. One thing I’d like to say is that, from the very beginning, there was no interest at all among any of the founders of Asheville Watchdog about competing with any of the local media systems. We’ve all had careers in the service of journalism, and we want to do everything we can to help support it. So our goal is to help provide the kind of coverage that other media organizations in town don’t have the resources or the willingness to do. And so this little band of reporters and editors and media executives came together. And from the very start, we discovered that it’s a target-rich area and a lot of stories that need to be done, people haven’t been doing.

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When a community doesn’t have a robust local reporting infrastructure, the tendency is for government agencies and private businesses and others to lose the idea of transparency, so they stop thinking about accountability. Things happen more and more behind closed doors. That’s something that we’re seeing here at the Watchdog today with almost every organization that we look at. We have to fight them to get information. And people are afraid to talk. Wrestling public documents, enforcing public meetings, and that sort of thing is one of the things that the Watchdog is helping to change in town, I hope.

In what ways do you see your model—both financially and editorially—as traditional? And in what ways do you see it as nontraditional?

Kestin: As one of us said recently, we failed at retirement. We are doing this as a public service, as volunteers. And I think that probably makes us unique, possibly the only kind of nonprofit doing journalism like this, and I think that’s what sets us apart. A lot of people come here to enjoy the beautiful scenery in these mountains, but want some way to contribute to the community. People volunteer here in all kinds of ways. For us, this was a natural fit. It’s a way for us to use the skills that we have and do something that’s really good for the community.

Gremillion: As a publisher, I’ve never had such a large budget for journalists. All of these high-pay-but-not-paid journalists on the staff. One of the next steps is to hire full-time reporters coming up in the world and train them with this staff on accountability and investigative journalism. We’ve been awarded a Report for America fellow that will start in June. And that’ll be our first paid journalist. And we hope to add a second paid journalist so that this becomes a paid staff eventually, although none of our volunteers will ever be paid.

But as we think about how the role of local journalism is changing, what do you see as your place in all that? 

Kestin: I think in any community—and we’re certainly finding that here—there is always going to be a need to have reporters who are able to dig deeply and ferret out the truth that some people don’t want told, to hold public officials accountable to expose wrongs, right wrongs. That’s the lasting kind of impact that I think we will have, and those are the kind of stories that we pursue. I don’t know the future. I’m not sure exactly what the format’s gonna be, but I think the growth of nonprofit journalism like ours—it’s really mind-boggling…the number of these have sprouted up. To me, that’s very encouraging. I think that’s where it’s all headed. It’s going to be smaller local newsgathering operations with all kinds of different models.

Lewis: We want to reach people in the way that they want to consume the news—that may be mobile, may be podcasts, may be video. We’re concentrated right now on telling the stories and then letting other people figure out how best to distribute.

Do you think this is a model that can be duplicated elsewhere? 

Lewis: Asheville is a wonderful town, especially for folks who are retiring. We’re just under a hundred thousand people here. But the pool of accomplished folks who are coming here who have an interest in volunteering is pretty high. I’m not sure that other cities have that kind of resource. On the other hand, you know, relying on volunteers is not a sustainable business practice, especially for a news organization that hopes to have some frequency in publication. But I think any news organization really has to have a core full-time journalist to do their job, you know, on a daily basis. I’m not sure what we’re doing here is replicable elsewhere.

Is there a particular audience you have in mind when you’re writing stories? 

Lewis: We made a very targeted decision to focus our reporting efforts locally, meaning in the town of Asheville. We have a tiny staff. We can’t really spread ourselves too thin. And also, if you look at the biographies of people involved in The Watchdog, almost all of us come from prominent national or regional publications; we’re pretty closely identified with the top suspects in the “mainstream media.” I’m not sure how receptive the outlying areas are to the idea of a mainstream media publication, even though we’re so small.

Gremillion: I think, too, [Sally’s] first story here was something that was happening right out in public for years and years and years.

Kestin: The head of a local charity that was very prominent had been on all kinds of boards, was a commencement speaker at the the local university graduation, received an honorary degree, and it turned out he had a conviction for a sex crime with a student when he was a teacher that he had been concealing for years. So, you know, again, that was something that people knew about in this town, but just sort of overlooked.

Gremillion: That guy has been protected by a very strong good-old-boy network here for a long time. And when we opened up and started fundraising a couple of years after that happened, we were turned down by many, many people based on that story.

Kestin: When we pick the stories, it has to interest us, because we are doing this on our own, but it’s really just: What is a good investigative, in-depth story that needs to be told? We’re not really trying to identify an audience and then go find a story that would appeal to that audience. It’s kind of the opposite—we’re doing what we find to be just really good, necessary journalism and hoping to reach as wide of an audience as we can.

I would say that probably our most loyal readers, the ones that have signed up for email alerts on our website, are people that look just like us. They’re older, they’re retired, they have the time to read and they give us feedback. But that’s not a large number. So we get the bulk of our coverage through our media partners. The Citizen Times carries almost all of our stories in print and online. So does Blue Ridge Public Radio. That’s how we want it to be. We want this to be accessible to as many people as possible for free.

As you look to hire more staff, how do you think about what the future of journalism at this level might look like? 

Lewis: As Sally said, we’re doing this because as a public service, we would do this under any circumstance, because we think it’s crucially important. But we can’t count on younger people to volunteer to work the same way that we do. And so we have to raise money in order to pay them, and raising money in this rural area is not as easy as it is in larger metropolitan places. You know, we hit pretty hard at the largest employer in town, calling them out for a number of things, and so it’s unlikely that they’re going to support us. The second largest employer in town is the local school system. We’re working on a series of stories that they’re not going to like very much. The largest foundation in town doesn’t like us very much because of the stories that we’ve been writing. And so a lot of the sources that we might turn to for the money in order to hire new reporters are more difficult for us. It can be hard to get the attention of a lot of the big national foundations who might otherwise support local. So we have challenges here. But we don’t think they’re insurmountable. And the public support from local community donations and individual contributions has been encouraging. It takes money to employ younger journalists—we’re going to continue doing what we do. And it’s just a question of whether we can build up war chests and guarantee young people a job.

 

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Throughout 2020 and 2021, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here. And read a recent report here.

More on recent media trends and changes in local newsrooms:

  • THE PANDEMIC’S EFFECTS ON JOURNALISTS OF COLOR: For Poynter, Kristen Hare reported the results of a project investigating the effects of pandemic layoffs on the careers of journalists of color: she calls the findings “evident but unconfirmable.” After Mazin Sidahmed and Moiz Syed approached Hare about the project in the summer of 2020, they hired researcher Rima Pirakh to dig into the data. After five months, Pirakh “found no clear and consistent data that could help us tell this story,” Hare writes. “What she did find were a few reasons why that clear and consistent data does not exist.” Hare outlines the journalism industry’s lack of transparency when it comes to layoffs, including a general lack of public notices, a reluctance among journalists to discuss layoffs, and a growing use of nondisclosure agreements and nondisparagement clauses. (Elsewhere, for Devex, Stephanie Beasley argues that the best way to support newsrooms led by people of color is to endow them.)
  • LOCAL NEWSPAPERS INCREASE DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS: Newspaper chains across the US have reported recent growth in digital subscriptions, Marc Tracy reported for the New York Times. Lee Enterprises recently reported 57 percent growth in annual digital subscriptions; Gannett—the largest newspaper chain in the country—reported 46 percent annual growth in November. Hearst’s newspapers nearly doubled digital subscription revenues. “While digital subscriptions are buoying diminished metro dailies, it is less clear if they can rescue news deserts, those typically less-populated areas where local news coverage has all but gone away,” Tracy writes. “But for an industry accustomed to doomsaying, the willingness of people to pay for digital access is giving many publishers hope.”
  • BOULDER STARTUP BUILDS NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIBERS: In Boulder, Colorado, nonprofit newsroom startup the Boulder Reporting Lab grew its newsletter list by 60 percent after the newsroom’s coverage of the Marshall Fire, Sarah Scire reported for NiemanLab. With more than 5,000 subscribers, the outlet is halfway to its goal of 10,000 subscribers by its one-year anniversary in November 2022. The small team plans to build a sustainable newsroom with a mixed-revenue business model. “I think the best opportunity for success for local news startups, particularly in small markets, is to be ‘free for all, paid for by some,’” cofounder Stacy Feldman told Scire. “The paywall in a small market where you can’t scale is just a tough sell.”
  • NEW STUDY CONSIDERS CAREER PATHS FOR LOCAL JOURNALISTS: For NiemanLab and the RQ1 newsletter, Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis considered the career path for local journalists today by examining a recent study from the Journalism Studies journal. “At least in the medium term, the typical local journalism career is likely to be more characterized by inertia or departure than advancement, especially for women and journalists of color,” Coddington and Lewis write. In addition, many less experienced journalists in the study’s focus area of Seattle are leaving the profession, and more experienced journalists are more likely to maintain their status than to advance.

 

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites