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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. It focuses on in-depth news stories and investigative journalism. But what separates it from other media startups is its staff. Most are in their 60s and 70s. All retired to the area, most met randomly, and all work for free. And like a gray-haired Justice League, they each bring their own special skills and accomplishments.

Between them they’ve won three Pulitzer Prizes and were finalists for another three. One reporter was editor of the Miami Herald. One worked for The New York Times. Another for NPR and London’s Financial Times. Gremillion was a top Tribune Company executive and publisher of two of its papers. Kestin was an investigative reporter in south Florida. She calls the staff “this mighty band of volunteers.”

“We’re all journalists,” she says. “It’s in our blood.”

Peter Lewis, the New York Times veteran, notes something else in common.

“All of us Watchdogs have failed at retirement,” he says.

What the Watchdogs do well are stories that focus on accountability and investigation. They’ve written extensively about the controversial sale of the area’s hospital, firebrand congressman Madison Cawthorn, and issues surrounding racial equity and the pandemic. 

With only about 2,600 people signed up for email alerts, they try to leverage their impact by allowing other media to use stories for free. Watchdog articles have run in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Mountain Xpress, the Smoky Mountain News, Blue Ridge Public Radio, and North Carolina Health News, among other sites. 

Their story on a testy split in the family of the late Rev. Billy Graham made the front page of The News & Observer and ran in The Charlotte Observer. The Citizen-Times, which runs digital versions of virtually every Watchdog story, has put more than a dozen on the print front page. That includes Kestin’s three-part series this month on a local attorney’s use of a Reconstruction-era law to deprive many homeowners of decades of equity.

“If their stories remained on the Asheville Watchdog site alone, I don’t think they’d be very effective,” says Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper. “By sharing with established outlets in the region that have a reputation for quality, they’ve staked out an interesting and important place in the news ecosystem.”

Their arrival, and focus on time-intensive stories, has been welcomed by would-be competitors. 

“We didn’t need another outlet to tell us who the Corn Queen of Buncombe County is this year,” says Cory Vaillancourt, an editor of the weekly Smoky Mountain News and a public radio contributor.

Despite its ambitions, the Watchdog faces challenges. 

It wants to be a model for other journalistic startups—but the Watchdog would be hard to duplicate. Not many places in North Carolina attract the kind of retired talent that a picturesque, neo-Bohemian city like Asheville does. And startups can’t plan on retired journalists working for free. 

Investigations by established news outlets often trigger a response, either a change in policy or the people making the policy. It’s still unclear whether a small news site can elicit such a response, regardless of how highly credentialed their reporters are.  

Then there’s the question of sustainability. What happens when the Watchdogs finally get the hang of retirement?

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Asheville Watchdog journalist Sally Kestin’s desk, piled with papers from an ongoing investigation // photo by Chelsea Lane

***

The Watchdog’s own story began in late 2019. That’s when Kestin and Gremillion found themselves at a cocktail party at the Asheville home of David Feingold. The general manager of Blue Ridge Public Radio, Feingold likes to bring media types together. Not surprisingly, the talk turned to the state of local media.

As around the country, the region’s media landscape has changed dramatically. The Citizen-Times, the self-styled “Voice of the Mountains,” has seen the steepest decline. Longtime reporter John Boyle, in a column marking the paper’s 150th anniversary last year, wrote that the newsroom staff had fallen from about 75 in the late ‘90s to 10. In October, the Gannett-owned paper listed eight reporters. The company sold its downtown building in 2018 and now leases the space. 

Between 2004 and 2019, newspapers around the country lost 36,000 journalists, according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. A quarter of U.S. newspapers disappeared. 

That’s led to startups around the country, some devoted to investigative journalism. The biggest is ProPublica, which has a staff of more than 100. Most are far smaller. 

The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), based in Los Angeles, supports 350 nonprofit sites, including the Watchdog. It says that like the Watchdog, nearly a third focus on investigative reporting. Others, like N.C. Health News, have other specialties.

“Specialized reporting has migrated to nonprofits, many of which have become the ‘beat reporters’ for other media,” the group said in one report. In one way, the Watchdog is typical of nonprofit news sites. INN says the average staff size is 4.5

In western North Carolina, the Smoky Mountain News and Mountain Xpress are long-standing weeklies with small staffs. Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit started in 2011 to cover the western part of the state, now writes about statewide and broader issues with a news staff of about a half dozen and a network of contributors. Ashvegas is essentially a one-man news and entertainment site. Other sites, some partisan or ideological, also have sprung up.

Analyst Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says the new news sites have begun to make up for what’s been lost.

“There are a lot of … journalists who want to keep being journalists,” he says. “I don’t think at this point that the new things are quite equal to what’s been lost in the traditional media, but it’s accelerating pretty fast.” 

Melanie Sill, founding executive director of the N.C. Local News Workshop at Elon University, calls accountability reporting one of the biggest casualties of newspaper woes. “In any era, there’s never been enough of that,” said Sill, former executive editor of The News & Observer. “And now there’s a bigger gap than there has been in the past.”

With fewer reporters on the beat, the need for accountability reporting is greater than ever. 

***

At the time of Feingold’s party, local stories cried out for accountability. The former Buncombe County manager, three county employees and a county contractor had recently been sentenced to prison for embezzlement-related crimes. And people all over the area were still weighing the fallout from the 2019 sale of the nonprofit Mission Health Care system to the for-profit Hospital Corporation of America. 

Cocktail guests had a lot to talk about. “[I] just said, ‘My goodness, wouldn’t that be a horrible thing if we were to wake up one morning and there wasn’t a local paper?’” recalls guest Steve Keeble.

A retired portfolio manager with Thomson Reuters, Keeble was impressed with the people he met that night and their experience in the news business. He had an idea.

Left: A write-up of Sally Kestin’s Pulitzer win; Right: Gremillion takes notes during the Watchdog’s planning meeting // photos by Chelsea Lane

“You can sit around and feel bad or you can do something,” he says. “I said, ‘Why can’t we put something together?’ … I knew nothing about running a newspaper. But I knew how to start a business.”

So Keeble invited Kestin, 56, and Gremillion, 67, over to his home near the Grove Park Inn. He pledged start-up money—five figures, he says—for costs like web design and insurance. There was also money for freelancers, though the Watchdog would soon stop using them.

In March, they reached out to Tom Fielder, the former Miami Herald editor who’d come to the area after retiring as dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. Fiedler, 75, recruited a couple of former Herald colleagues as editors. They’d also retired to Asheville.

By April, Kestin’s first Watchdog story appeared: A piece about an Asheville chef dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. It was carried by sites including Blue Ridge Public Radio and Ashvegas

The Watchdog was up and running.

***

By the time Peter Lewis retired to Asheville in February of 2020, people were still buzzing over the 2019 sale of nonprofit Mission Health system to HCA. After 130 years, Mission had become not only western North Carolina’s biggest hospital but its largest employer, and one of its most respected. Now it was owned by America’s largest for-profit hospital operator.

At a series of public meetings in early 2020, people complained about staff shortages as well as the quality of care and service. In a blistering letter, elected officials blasted the new management and accused it of “putting patient safety at risk.” A Facebook group called “Mountain Maladies” was started to collect personal stories. In a few months, it had more than 8,000 members.

Asheville Watchdog managing editor Peter Lewis // photo by Chelsea Lane

Lewis, 69, had reported for The New York Times, worked as an editor at both Fortune magazine and The Times, and taught journalism at Stanford University. A former top editor of a San Francisco-area nonprofit news site, he thought of starting one in Asheville. Then he heard about the Watchdog and reached out.

It was the good reputation of the area’s health care that helped draw Lewis and his wife to Asheville in the first place. So the hospital story piqued his interest. “There were fundamental questions that had not been answered in the local press,” Lewis said. “So I started poking around.”

His first hospital story appeared in May 2020. The headline: “Was Mission Sale to HCA Healthcare Healthy for Asheville?” A story in October last year delved into the lack of transparency surrounding the hospital’s $1.5 billion sale. It reported that HCA appeared to have had a head start over other bidders and questioned whether there might have been a conflict of interest among top executives.

That month, Lewis also probed whether Mission’s directors secured a good deal. In Wilmington, he reported, Novant Health had paid $2 billion for the smaller New Hanover Regional Medical Center after a very transparent public process. More recently, he reported that HCA made record profits during the pandemic.

Other news sites covered the hospital issue as well. But in a busy news year of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and a pivotal election, few had the time or resources to dig as much as the Watchdog.

“They did some very good reporting on that situation,” said Vaillancourt, of the Smoky Mountain News. “We did as well. But again, we’ve been stretched thin for years. That’s probably the best example of how they’re contributing to this [news] ecosystem.”  

HCA spokeswoman Nancy Lindell declined to comment on the Watchdog.

***

Madison Cawthorn pushed his wheelchair into a crowded room on the campus of Western Carolina University. Behind him was a banner that read, “Big Government Sucks.”

Cawthorn, America’s youngest congressman at 26, was there to address a mostly student audience organized by the conservative group Turning Point USA.

Fiedler sat quietly near the back. He and Cawthorn already had a fraught history

In 2020, Fiedler broke stories on the GOP candidate, including his apparent ties to white nationalists and flirtation with QAnon conspiracists

He reported on Cawthorn’s deposition from a lawsuit involving the 2014 car accident that left him paralyzed. The document contradicted statements Cawthorn had made publicly in which he blamed the accident for his not attending the U.S. Naval Academy. In the deposition, he admitted that he’d never been accepted.

Cawthorn later attacked Fiedler, who after leaving Boston University, had briefly volunteered for Democratic Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign.

A Cawthorn website claimed Fiedler had left academia to work for “non-white males” such as Booker, who Cawthorn said “aims to ruin white males running for office.” Booker is Black. Cawthorn later called the wording a “syntax error” and, according to The Washington Post, said he didn’t mean to criticize Booker. But he still doesn’t talk to Fiedler or many reporters for that matter. 

At WCU, Cawthorn attacked the “fake” media. “These people,” he said, “are evil and they hate all our values.” He called President Joe Biden “a tyrant” who should be impeached.

Afterward, Fiedler and a handful of journalists lingered near the front as Cawthorn posed for selfies. Aides hustled the congressman out without speaking to reporters. 

Three days later, the Watchdog ran a photo showing Cawthorn carrying an automatic “combat” knife in his pocket that night. Fiedler reported that it was the second time in two months he’d carried a weapon into a public school building. State law bars such weapons on “educational property.”

In September, the Watchdog published extensive transcripts of remarks Cawthorn made at a county GOP meeting in which he said if elections continue to be “stolen,” “it’s going to lead to one place, and it’s bloodshed.” He urged people “to be storing up some ammunition.” And Cawthorn, who spoke at the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, called those arrested that day “political hostages.”

Cawthorn’s office declined to comment on the Watchdog.

Pete Kaliner, who hosts a conservative radio show, criticizes the Watchdog for what he calls its less aggressive reporting on Cawthorn’s campaign opponent, Democrat Moe Davis. 

At a September 2020 debate, Kaliner asked Davis about a series of controversial social media posts. In 2019, Davis tweeted, “When @NCGOP extremists go low, we stomp their scrawny pasty necks with our heels and once you hear the sound of a crisp snap you grind your heel hard and twist it slowly side to side for good measure.”

“They spent a lot of time criticizing Madison Cawthorn, which is fine,” Kaliner said. “But they only got around to reporting on Davis’s tweets after that debate … It’s another piece of evidence for conservatives that the media acts as an ally for Democratic candidates.”

Kaliner noted that the previous success of the Watchdog staff didn’t guarantee local credibility on the right. “The Pulitzer Prize thing, I don’t know if it carries much gravitas anymore for conservatives,” he told The Assembly. “So somebody comes to town and they’ve got a bunch of Pulitzers. Well, good for you.”

Fiedler said they’d concentrated on Cawthorn during the GOP primary runoff and didn’t pick up on the Davis tweets until September, when they did report on them. Davis told The Assembly, “I think they make a concerted effort to be non-partisan and fact-based—they took me to task as well.”

***

It was a Watchdog fact-check on one Cawthorn-Davis debate that got Barbara Durr’s attention. She did something impulsive.

“I thought these guys are super-good, so I just popped off an email to them,” Durr says. “Bob (Gremillion) emailed me like 15 minutes later. They asked me if I was interested (in joining). I said ‘Of course’ … I never wanted to leave (journalism). I loved being a journalist.”

Durr, 70, had a long career as a senior manager at the international nonprofits Oxfam and CARE. Earlier she’d worked for NPR and the Financial Times. She moved to Asheville in the spring of 2020.

Barbara Durr listens to colleagues at Asheville Watchdog editorial meeting // photo by Chelsea Lane

At the Watchdog, Durr has reported on social equity issues, including the eroding promise of reparations for African Americans in Asheville as well as the lack of Black home ownership in the city. She joined Lewis in some Mission coverage, including a December story looking at the “profits” of the nonprofit—especially when it came to executive pay. 

Such efforts are why the community seems to embrace them. 

“With all the cuts in journalism … it’s much more difficult for our local paper to do an in-depth series on something as serious as the sale of our hospital system,” says Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. “When I talk to a Watchdog journalist, they know what they don’t know, but they’ve also done a lot of homework before they interview me.”

For former state Rep. Chuck McGrady, the reporters’ experience is welcome.

“There’s such a dearth of coverage of local stuff,” says the Hendersonville Republican. “The bigger issue is the mainline paper is throwing green—very green—reporters into complex issues that have a long history. It’s not that they’re not bright or well-intended but sometimes they don’t know the questions to ask.”

In a letter to readers, Gremillion said the Watchdog “doesn’t attempt to compete with existing local news outlets.” Local reporters seem to agree.

“They really are trying to approach this as, ‘You guys [in the local media] are working your butts off; we have total respect for what you’re doing and we want to complement that’,” says reporter Joel Burgess of the Citizen-Times

Veteran Asheville reporter Mark Barrett also welcomes the Watchdog. “Some of the things they cover now might seem like small potatoes compared to what they’ve covered in the past,” he says of the former national reporters, “but for Asheville they’re big potatoes.”  

***

In some ways, the Watchdog is still feeling its way.

As relative newcomers, staffers have little institutional knowledge of the community or region. Launched on the fly at the outset of a pandemic, they’ve had little time to meet all the people who could follow up on their investigations or to lay the groundwork a startup news site usually needs.

They’ve begun running shorter pieces they call “Barks,” but they’re still balancing the challenge of producing deeply reported stories while keeping a fresh and steady presence online.

Sharing their stories makes them more widely read but a lot of readers don’t look at bylines; some community leaders and elected officials still haven’t heard of the Watchdog. Even the Watchdogs themselves are still getting to know each other. October’s meeting was their first in-person gathering. 

Eventually they hope to raise enough money to hire a paid staff and transition to roles as mentors and coaches. That would give them more time for hiking, golf and pickleball. 

Watchdog editorial meeting, from left: Tom Fiedler (partly hidden by chair), Barbara Durr, Beanie the Watchdog, Sally Kestin, Bob Gremillion, and Peter Lewis // photo by Chelsea Lane

“It’s just like a treasure chest of talent,” says Becky Tin, a former Mecklenburg County judge who joined the Watchdog board. “(People with) many years of doing this work, ready to train a younger generation of journalists in the old-school methods of investigative journalism in this digital age. How cool is that?”

Looming over the Watchdog is the question of sustainability. How long can it last? And can it really be a model?

In late October, Gremillion announced the start of what he called the Watchdog’s “first real fundraising appeal.”

“To build a long-term foundation for quality in-depth journalism in Asheville and the surrounding communities, we need to move beyond our reliance on volunteer retirees,” he wrote. “We know everyone is limited on giving … But we need to hire and train a new generation of local journalists who can cover more stories of vital interest to the community.”

He hired a local fundraising professional named Alex Comfort, who’s launching a quarter-million-dollar “major gift” campaign that he believes can set the Watchdog on a course to sustainability. Even with more than a thousand nonprofits in the area hungry for money, he thinks they can reach the goal.

“I know there are a lot of people like me who believe that truth is important, who believe that in the last five years truth has been sacrificed for power,” Comfort says. “Truth needs to be the foundation for our democracy. And only with investigative reporting has truth prevailed like it has.”

News start-ups have come in all sizes and funding models.

ProPublica, the largest news nonprofit, began in 2007 with a $10 million grant from the Sandler Foundation. The nonprofit Texas Tribune has received a half-dozen grants over $2 million from groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It boasts the largest statehouse staff in the country. Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. recently said he would create a nonprofit newsroom of 50 journalists in Baltimore with an annual budget of $15 million. 

For-profit sites like The Assembly rely on subscriptions as well as individual investors. Then there’s Lincoln Millstein, the retired Hearst executive who blogs about local news in northern Maine. His budget: zero.

According to the Institute for Nonprofit News, most of its 350 member organizations rely on at least three revenue streams, including grants, individual gifts and “earned” revenue such as selling sponsorships. Gremillion says the Watchdog is steering away from subscriptions and, at least for now, sponsorships.

“The more varied or diverse the mix of revenue streams, the more resilient the organizations have been through the pandemic so far,” says Lizzy Hazeltine, fund coordinator for the N.C. Local News Lab Fund. The organization has made five rounds of grants to North Carolina news organizations since 2018, though none to the Watchdog.

Gremillion hopes to begin hiring a staff within a year. It’s that commitment to mentoring—and paying—new reporters that appeals to Heidi Legg. She’s lead research fellow at the Future of Media Project at Harvard.

“We’ve gone through 20 years of decimation of newsrooms and, with that … we’ve lost a generation of mentors,” she says. “Unless the founder (of the new site) was trained in a newsroom, there’s no one teaching this next generation about ethics, trade, responsibility to truth, conflict of interest, neutrality … (and) the things that made newsrooms great.”

Sue Cross, who runs the Institute for Nonprofit News, believes the Watchdog has a good chance of sticking around.

“People really respond when (a news site) is controlled and run by their neighbors,” she says. “So I think they do have a very good chance of building that support and making it sustainable so the next generation of journalists who come in to run it can be paid.”

Asheville isn’t the only place that could attract such a startup, says Shannan Bowen, executive director of the N.C. Local News Workshop. Journalists might be drawn to places like Wilmington or elsewhere on the coast, she says. 

“For anyone starting a venture in a new community, my advice is always to ensure you’re reporting for the community, not just about it,” she says. “That approach requires making an effort to get to know your area’s communities and listen to them. That way you have their interest, connection and, ultimately, their support.” 

***

Kestin and her husband moved to the area five years ago to escape Florida’s growing climate threats. She didn’t wait for the Watchdog to start reporting.

Acting on a tip in 2019, she did a story for CNN about the head of a prominent local charity, reporting that he’d once been convicted of a felony sex crime with an underage girl and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Kestin was the first to interview the eighth-grade victim, who is now in her 40s. 

Two days after the story ran, Bill Murdock stepped down from his job as head of Eblen Charities. 

This month, the Watchdog published the results of Kestin’s year-long investigation into the questionable real estate transactions by an Asheville lawyer. 

She reported that companies controlled by the lawyer, Robert Perry Tucker II, acquired Buncombe County properties for as little as nothing in some cases and sold them for thousands. The deals took property that had been in people’s hands for years and sometimes generations, depriving them of years of equity. His lawyer said Tucker has done nothing illegal. 

Many transactions affected Black and elderly property owners.

For example, Kestin reported that two elderly people had sold their shares in a family home to a Tucker company for $250 each. With that, the company used a Reconstruction-era law to force a sale. It bought the entire property from eight heirs for $3,750. Three months later it sold it for $55,000.

Kestin also recounted the story of George Wilson. He allegedly signed a deed to his share of a family property in 2018—even though his fingers had been amputated a year earlier, leaving only his thumbs. The deed indicated a sales price of $8,000. Tax records show the property was worth as much as three times that.

According to the Watchdog, the North Carolina State Bar has opened an investigation into the transactions. And it reported that a judge returned one family’s property after finding that the lawyer’s company “obtained it by fraud.”

Once again, the Watchdog was on the case. 

***

Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on twitter @jimmorrill. Copyright (c) 2021 by The Assembly. All Rights Reserved.

One Comment

  1. Rosalynd Storer Rosalynd Storer November 23, 2021

    Thanks for the investigative work you’re doing. I’m sick and tire
    of newsreaders on TV. There’s hope in the future for better journalists.
    Rosalynd Storer

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