Asheville, N.C. is by no means a news desert. Residents there have access to The Asheville Citizen Times, Mountain Xpress and Blue Ridge Public Radio as well as other local publications. Yet, a small coalition of veteran professional journalists and media executives want to help produce more local journalism in the area.
The result is Asheville Watchdog, an online, local, 501 (c)(3) nonprofit news service, which launched April 2020. Discussions to launch the site started prior to the COVID-19 pandemic at a cocktail party hosted by David Feingold, general manager and CEO of Blue Ridge Public Radio, the flagship National Public Radio member station for Asheville. Feingold regularly holds gatherings for retired media veterans that are new in town.
From there, philanthropist Steve Keeble, who attended the party, put up the seed money and recruited Bob Gremillion and Sally Kestin as the publisher and managing editor, respectfully. Gremillion had previously managed ChicagoLand Television News, a Tribune Co. start-up, while Kestin is a former Florida investigative reporter for The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Tampa Tribune and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
“For Sally, saying yes was an opportunity to launch a completely funded vehicle to serve the community with additional journalism firepower,” Gremillion said. “For me, it was the excitement of being a part of a start-up from scratch news organization again.”
Currently, the staff includes four reporters, two editors and a database editor (all volunteers and retired seasoned media veterans.) The newsroom covers local government, institutions, issues and people with a focus on investigative journalism. Reporting is available at no cost to the local publications in the area. Kestin explained they don’t view themselves as “a competitor to any of the local media.” Instead, they want to supplement what is already out there.
The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun have already published a piece written by Asheville Watchdog reporter Tom Fiedler (bit.ly/2Xa0Sq1).
“We were grateful that they reached out with an offer to publish (his) excellent piece on the political split within the Billy Graham family,” Robyn Tomlin, president and editor at The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, said. “We received a lot of feedback from readers who appreciated the depth and perspective of the piece.”
With no plans to acquire a physical office, the Asheville Watchdog newsroom is currently a virtual one. Launching during the pandemic seemed like a “terrible time,” Kestin said, but on the other hand, people are craving local news.
Asheville Watchdog has amassed an email list of about 2,000 subscribers. Additionally, their fundraising efforts have been successful. Last September, the website added a donate button and began sending donation appeals to their subscriber base. When E&P spoke with Gremillion, the Asheville Watchdog has raised more than $30,000. They also participated in the Institute for Nonprofit News’ NewsMatch 2020, a program that matched individual donations made to nonprofit newsrooms in November and December. The newsroom hopes to raise money to hire more journalists.
“Nonprofits like ours are part of the solution and a savior to what’s happening to local journalism,” Kestin said. “If you don’t have somebody like us to keep watch, you just don’t have the level of oversight and accountability that you once did with the healthy prosperous daily newspapers. That era is gone, and it is imperative that websites like ours step up and start filling in the gap.”