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Opinion | Looking a gift horse in the mouth? The Asheville Citizen Times drops a nonprofit’s investigative work

The paper says its focus on growing paid digital subscriptions is at odds with running the Asheville Watchdog's stories for free

Bob Gremillion, publisher of the the Asheville Watchdog, wrote a piece questioning the Citizen Times’ decision to stop publishing its stories. (Poynter illustration)

[Editor’s Note: This column appeared Aug. 17 on poynter.org, the website for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media institute and newsroom in St. Petersburg, FL that provides fact-checking, media literacy and journalism ethics training to citizens and journalists. It is reprinted here with permission. Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years.]

By: Rick Edmonds

August 17, 2022

The Asheville Watchdog has been a much-celebrated hit among digital news nonprofits. Founded two years ago by Pulitzer-winning retirees living in the gateway to the North Carolina mountains,

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Publisher’s Letter: Why Don’t Asheville Watchdog Stories Appear in the Citizen Times Any More?

Gannett says it's all about profits

By BOB GREMILLION, Publisher, Asheville Watchdog

Many of you continue to ask why the Asheville Citizen Times no longer carries stories by Asheville Watchdog

We wondered that too, so we asked. And it turns out, according to Mark Russell, the Memphis-based executive who oversees the Cincinnati-based editor of Asheville’s only daily newspaper, the Citizen Times prioritizes local news that can be put behind a paywall and monetized.

As a not-for-profit local news organization, Asheville Watchdog believes in public service journalism that is freely available to the local community. We don’t put our stories behind a paywall, nor do we allow others to erect paywalls around the work we give to them without charge. 

“I am familiar with the non-profit model you described — and I am sure your content is relevant and useful,” Russell wrote to me in an email exchange in July.

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The Asheville Citizen-Times Has Stopped Carrying Our Articles

Please accept this image as our public testimony and full confession of just how badly we at Asheville Watchdog need a good graphic designer. Almost as much as we need a webmaster. Consider volunteering for us.

Just over two years ago, Asheville Watchdog began its mission of bringing to the citizens of Asheville fair, factual, and reliable in-depth news stories about local government, institutions, issues, and people. And we’ve been doing that ever since.

Rather than compete with local media, we seek to complement and expand the critical services they provide. For this reason we have always offered, free of charge, all of our articles to The Asheville Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress, and other local publications.

Three months ago, The Asheville Citizen Times (which is owned by Gannett Co., Inc., a subscription-led digitally focused media and marketing solution company that owns hundreds of other media outlets in 46 states across the country) made the decision to stop publishing our articles.

Watchdog Reporter Sally Kestin Wins National Journalism Award

Asheville Watchdog won a National Headliner Award honoring the best journalism in the United States in 2021.

Sally Kestin

Equity Erased, a five-part investigative series by reporter Sally Kestin, won third place in investigative reporting for online news sites. First place went to The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions use technology to change society. The Better Government Association, an Illinois-based watchdog, won second place.

Equity Erased documented how Buncombe County homeowners, many of them elderly and/or Black, lost years and sometimes generations of equity to real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II. An associate, Lisa K. Roberts, was charged in February with nine felony counts of notarizing an action by fraud or forgery. Her case is pending.

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Asheville Watchdog Is Selected As Journalism Service Program Host

Local nonprofit news team to add full-time reparations beat reporter in 2022

Report for America, a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities, today named Asheville Watchdog a host newsroom for 2022 and 2023. The award will help support a full-time reporter — Asheville Watchdog‘s first full-time paid employee — to cover topics related to Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s 2020 commitments for reparations to the region’s Black communities.

“We’re grateful to Report for America and to The GroundTruth Project for selecting Asheville Watchdog for this honor,” said Bob Gremillion, publisher. “And we’re especially grateful for the support of our donors in the local community, whose generosity gives us the resources we need to participate in the program. We look forward to welcoming our new reporter to Asheville.”

Asheville Watchdog was selected from among scores of applicants for the Report for America host program,

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On Guard in Asheville

Asheville Watchdog is powered by a cadre of accomplished journalists who retired to the North Carolina mountains.

Asheville Watchdogs, from left: Tom Fiedler, Sally Kestin, and Bob Gremillion

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared Nov. 18 in The 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.

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A Letter from the Publisher

Dear Watchdog Reader,

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

Our original logo

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.

Bob Gremillion, Publisher