Asheville Watchdogs, from left: Tom Fiedler, Sally Kestin, and Bob Gremillion
[Editor's Note: This article first appeared Nov. 18 inThe Assembly, a digital magazine about the people, institutions, and ideas that shape North Carolina. It is reprinted here with permission.]
The view from the deck stretches past a wall of changing trees to the jagged ridge of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a rainy afternoon in October, the sun had just begun teasing its way through the clouds.
Tucked in the hills of north Asheville, the deck is at the home of Sally Kestin and her husband, Bob Gremillion. They were joined that day by three other retired journalists, transforming the deck into a sort of newsroom for a digital venture that’s not only filling gaps in western North Carolina journalism, but trying to become a model in the state’s rapidly changing media environment.
Kestin and Gremillion started the Asheville Watchdog in early 2020.
A year ago someone surfing the web might have come across this greeting:
“Hello Asheville! Welcome to AVL Watchdog … We’re here because of you, our friends and neighbors, who told us you want more thoughtful and explanatory journalism to help you stay abreast of the issues and challenges facing Asheville and Buncombe County.”
Those words introduced Asheville and the surrounding region to the free, nonpartisan, nonprofit online news service you are reading now.
The idea for Asheville Watchdog was born several weeks earlier in a eureka moment at a pre-pandemic cocktail party. Several journalists and media executives who had retired to Asheville were lamenting the decline of local reporting and in-depth analysis all across the country. Unlike a lot of party talk, this turned out not to be idle chatter
The journalists decided to put their years of professional experience and passion for their work into enhancing Asheville’s news environment. They gathered several other retired newsies who felt the same way, and here we are celebrating our first anniversary.
Asheville Watchdog doesn’t attempt to compete with existing local news outlets, which because of sharp financial cutbacks are sometimes limited in their ability to provide the kind of investigative journalism that advances understanding of important civic issues. Nor do we compete with local media for advertising dollars.
The all-volunteer Watchdog staff, which includes three Pulitzer Prize winners, produces stories for our own website, on our own schedule, but we also make those stories available free of charge to other local media. We believe this approach complements what existing media in our area are doing, and advances our overall goal of providing accurate, trustworthy news to the community we all love.
Our first story was about the financial slump in downtown Asheville during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. We have continued to cover the pandemic and much more.
In our first year, some highlights of Asheville Watchdog’s work include:
Heartbreaking profiles of some of the more than 300 Buncombe County neighbors who died in the first year of the pandemic.
The challenges looming for Asheville, a relatively “safe city” in the growing climate crisis, from an expected influx of climate refugees from more vulnerable places.
The disparity in Asheville between Black and white home ownership and its effects on generational wealth.
Problems faced by racial equity officials who resigned their jobs because of resistance in government and other organizations to proposals for Black reparations in Asheville.
Efforts to reshape the Asheville Police Department in the aftermath of last summer’s confrontations over racial injustice.
The sale of the local nonprofit Mission Hospital system to profit-hungry HCA, and the sale’s impact on community healthcare.
The loud and hard-fought campaign for western North Carolina’s seat in Congress, and its aftermath, in which young, conservative Republican Madison Cawthorn beat Democrat Moe Davis, a career military prosecutor. Our stories were cited by national news organizations including The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and others.
A split in the family of the late evangelist Billy Graham, in which one side believes Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, tarnishes his father’s legacy with extreme views on religion and politics. This story was published in newspapers all across the state.
And all this happened during a pandemic that has kept us from venturing out into the community to introduce ourselves to you in person. We intend to remedy that as soon as health and safety allow. We’re eager to hear your ideas on what issues are important to you, and how we can do a better job covering them.
The challenges facing local journalism are still severe. Misinformation is rampant, reliable resources are scarce, and the need for trustworthy, in-depth local reporting has never been greater. While our stories are free, the cost of producing them is not. I hope you’ll consider our efforts worthy of your tax-deductible financial support.
By the way, readers will notice something new in today’s Watchdog. We begin our second year with a redesign of our website, which we think will make it more attractive and accessible. We’ve added space for shorter news items — we call them “barks” — and also space for links to stories in other publications that we think might be of interest to the citizens of western North Carolina.
To all our readers and supporters, thank you. We couldn’t have made it this far without you. Special thanks go to Steve Keeble, whose vision and generous support helped bring AVL Watchdog to life; to David Bralow, Kay Murray, Alexander Papachristou and Cindy Moore of Lawyers for Reporters, a joint project of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, and Amanda Martin and the legal team at Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, for their important work supporting local journalism and defending freedom of the press; to the many local writers and editors who initially contributed their talents and time to keep the Watchdog‘s virtual presses humming; and to the Asheville Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress, AVLtoday, Asheville.com, Smoky Mountain News and The Mountaineer for unselfishly spreading our words to the community.