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. “But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be published in the ACT, especially when our No. 1 goal is to drive more digital subscriptions through the publication of premium content behind a paywall.”
Ultimately, he said, the decision to republish, or not republish, Watchdog stories is made by Citizen Times Executive Editor Jewell Walston.
Walston and her staff are not “robbing readers of high-quality journalism” by not carrying Watchdog content, Russell wrote. “On the contrary, the paid digital readership at the ACT is growing rapidly and is among Gannett’s top 30 news properties by the measure that matters most: People who plunk down money to subscribe.”
“That Jewell chooses to showcase ACT content over content produced by a non-profit is hardly surprising, especially if your stories can’t sit behind a paywall because of your model and mission,” Russell wrote. “I suspect that the ACT was running your stories routinely when our business model did not so closely rely on delivering staff-produced, subscriber content to drive digital subscriptions. Missions and strategies change.”
As we previously told you, after nearly two years of running most of our stories, many deemed worthy of the front page in the print edition, the Citizen Times abruptly stopped publishing our content in February.
In a phone call in February, Walston and her boss at the time, Pam Sander, who supervised Gannett’s southeast newspapers from her post in Wilmington, told us they would consider publishing our stories on a “case-by-case” basis.
Since then, the Citizen Times has not published a single story that Asheville Watchdog has produced.
Sander said our stories made them “look bad.”
“Why are we having to get a local story from outside the newspaper?” Sander said. “To me, that compromises our credibility.”
Sander said the decision to run Asheville Watchdog stories wasn’t as simple as, “‘Hey, we do this incredible work and you guys should run it to get it out there to the public.’ ”
“We unfortunately can’t always be a public service because we’re actually a business,” Sander said.
The Citizen Times is owned by Gannett Company Inc., a Virginia-based company described on the Citizen Times Facebook page as the “largest news organization in the world” with hundreds of U.S. newspapers in 46 states. Gannett, in turn, is operated by the New York City-based private equity firm New Media Investment Group.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit run by a small team of volunteer retired journalists and media executives who live in Asheville. We are supported entirely by donations from citizens like you who share our belief that strong, local journalism is vital to democracy.
It is, of course, the prerogative of the editor to publish our stories or not. But I wish her decisions would favor what’s best for the Citizen Times readers in Asheville and Buncombe County, rather than what’s best for Gannett shareholders and investors who live hundreds or thousands of miles away from our community.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Help spread the word about Asheville Watchdog by signing up for our Watchdog News email alerts and encouraging your friends to do the same. It’s free.
If you’re already a supporter of Asheville Watchdog, we thank you. If not, you can support our journalism and help us expand our local coverage by making a tax-free donation here. Asheville Watchdog is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Publisher Bob Gremillion is the former executive vice president of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Co. He lives in Asheville. Contact him at email@example.com.