"Happy Watchdog Celebrates 3rd Birthday With Cake and Three Candles" // Watchdog digital illustration by Peter H. Lewis and the DALL-E2 AI system

Three years ago this week, a new website appeared in Asheville with the message “Hello Asheville! Welcome to AVL Watchdog — a free, local and nonprofit news service.”

That first message, from Asheville Watchdog co-founder and publisher Bob Gremillion, concluded, “Here’s looking to the beginning of a great relationship.”

At the time, it was an optimistic phrasing. We had a handful of volunteers, very little money, a catalog of hopes masquerading as a business plan, and because of the pandemic lockdown, no opportunity to reach out into the community to introduce ourselves.

A lot has changed since that first post three years ago.

You, our readers, proved to us that this community wants and will support high-quality journalism. We met and exceeded the optimistic Year Three goals outlined in that initial business plan, including the hiring of paid, professional reporters to add to our kennel of volunteer Watchdogs.

Thanks to your generosity, Asheville Watchdog now has two paid, full-time reporters: John Boyle and Andrew Jones.

Thanks to the many of you who help spread the word about The Watchdog, in the first three months of this year more people visited our website than four of the other leading, nonprofit news sites in North Carolina, including three that serve statewide audiences, according to SimilarWeb, a website analytics platform. 

So a lot has changed. What hasn’t changed is our original vision: To provide, as a public service, our decades of award-winning experience in watchdog journalism, keeping watch over local government and institutions and digging deep into the issues. From the beginning we’ve offered our work without charge to other local media, and we also make it available to everyone, without paywalls or subscription fees.

Here are just a few of the important local news stories Asheville Watchdog has brought to the public’s attention in our first three years:

  • Watchdog reporter Tom Fiedler’ exposed the false narrative behind Madison Cawthorn’s campaign for western North Carolina’s seat in Congress. 
  • Co-founder and Watchdog investigative reporter Sally Kestin’s year-long investigation, Equity Erased, resulted in the arrests of a local attorney and another woman on multiple felony charges. 
  • Earlier this year, Sally exposed a years-long practice by the Asheville City Council to hold closed “check-in” meetings that avoided the requirements of the state’s open meetings law. A month after our story, the council ended check-ins
  • Managing editor Peter Lewis’s deep dive into public records revealed that the $1.5 billion sale of the nonprofit Mission Health to for-profit HCA was — in the words of investigators for the North Carolina Attorney General’s office — “rigged from the beginning” by Mission’s then CEO Ronald A. Paulus and his longtime advisor. 
  • Reporter Barbara Durr’s stories on Mission Hospital detailed the anger and dissatisfaction of patients, doctors, and nurses with local healthcare under HCA’s management.
  • Barbara’s reporting on the stunning plunge in enrollment and student retention at the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA) focused attention on the school’s revolving door in the chancellor’s office, declining faculty and staff morale, and partisan political maneuvering in Chapel Hill.
  • Watchdog photographer Starr Sariego’s haunting photo essay on the South Asheville Cemetery, and the efforts to preserve and maintain the final resting place for more than 2,000 African Americans, including many who were enslaved.

I hope you’re reading our current and ongoing series, Down Town, in which we investigate the perceived deterioration of Asheville’s downtown, using facts and figures, and years of real data mixed with more than a hundred interviews.

In each segment, we focus on one facet of the Big Picture: concerns of rising crime, greater visibility of the homeless, fewer police patrols, more drugs and alarming behavior, untreated mental health crises, a revolving-door justice system … coupled with the surprising and often heartbreaking stories of the people who live on the streets of Asheville, and the responders who try to help them, all in their own words, along with Starr’s compelling photographs.

We plan to conclude the series in coming weeks by looking at possible solutions, including successful ideas from other cities that are dealing with similar issues. Stay tuned.

Looking forward, we’re already working on more investigations into issues and institutions of importance to the people of Asheville, Buncombe County, and surrounding communities. We’re also looking at new and better ways to deliver the news to you, including making the Watchdog more visually interesting and friendlier to mobile devices.

Now that the pandemic has abated, we’re eager to get out into the community to meet with you and hear your ideas on how we can best serve the community.

We also hope to have more opportunities to say thank you to our friends and supporters through events like February’s “Boyle & Beer.”

Three years ago we started Asheville Watchdog to provide the kind of hard, complex, time-consuming journalism that other local media don’t have the resources, or willingness, to do. It’s still what we love to do. But we also recognize that there are many other important local stories that need telling. As always, please send us your story suggestions: bark@avlwatchdog.org

On behalf of all of us at The Watchdog, thank you for welcoming us into the community, and for sharing this birthday with us. We’re lucky Dogs.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Watchdog managing editor Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer, editor, and columnist at The New York Times. Contact him at plewis@avlwatchdog.org