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, the volunteer collective has produced more than 30 investigative pieces that were donated to and published by Gannett’s Asheville Citizen Times.

That ended abruptly in February.

The Watchdog’s publisher, Bob Gremillion, was told that rather than continue a regular partnership, the Citizen Times would consider submissions on a case-by-case basis. None have been accepted since, including three stories so far this year on problems arising from the sale of a major local hospital.

Frustrated, Gremillion wrote a piece earlier this month on the explanations – borderline bizarre ones – his group has received.

The Watchdog had stipulated that its stories be offered free to readers. The problem, he was told, is that “the Citizen Times prioritizes local news that can be put behind a paywall and monetized.” The Citizen Times, like other Gannett papers, has been amping up its attempt to build a base of paid digital subscriptions. It blocks access to “premium, subscriber-only” articles as a main lever to court potential subscribers.

“I am familiar with the non-profit model you described — and I am sure your content is relevant and useful,” Gannett regional editor Mark Russell wrote in an email exchange with Gremillion 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.”

An earlier phone exchange with Russell’s predecessor as regional overseer, Pam Sander, took a different tack, Gremillion wrote.

“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.

I asked Russell, Amalie Nash (news chief for all of Gannett’s regional outlets) and chief communications officer Lark-Marie Anton whether they disputed the account.

No, Anton emailed me, but she insisted, “There is no decision (to drop the relationship entirely). Asheville Watchdog stories are considered on a case-by-case basis.”

Watchdog co-founder Sally Kestin told me that she has tried story-by-story submissions with no success so far. She emailed:

“We have continued to send each of our stories and received no feedback generally. We specifically asked about this story, which we considered important for everyone in Buncombe County to read. We received this reply from one of their ‘content coaches,’ on July 19: ‘It’s a good story. We’re evaluating it to see how it fits with what we’ve been working on behind the scenes.’ And this from the other content coach/investigations editor on July 20: ‘We do have stories in the works with our expanded investigations team.’ They have not done any stories on these bomb suspects since.”

Kestin and Gremillion, a former Tribune Publishing executive, said in an interview that they are especially frustrated on a very basic point: Wouldn’t running good, high-impact stories raise the value of the Citizen Times site to readers? And conversely, why deprive those readers of good content they might otherwise not see?

The stakes are high for the Watchdog. Kestin said that she did not have any exact traffic numbers, but that the Citizen Times had been by far the biggest of co-publishers to whom they offer stories. 

“They have really been critical to us,” Kestin said. “We started out with no one knowing who we were or even that we existed.”

Such collaborations have long been essential to the nonprofit sector for the reasons Kestin cited. When they work, they are the epitome of a win-win. Established news outlets with small or shrinking journalism staff get added content, often painstakingly reported. The digital nonprofits get exposure for their stories, which puts them on the news ecosystem map.

Sue Cross, executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, confirmed my sense that “a lot of partnerships and collabs evolve and some dissolve.”  The arrangements don’t even come together in the first place unless there is mutual trust. Once started, missions may diverge.

Still, I am pretty sure the blunt collision with a paywall strategy is unusual, if not unique. Gannett spokesperson Anton confirmed that other of the chain’s 200+ outlets do accept material with stipulation that it stay outside the paywall to be accessible to all.

Gremillion and Kestin, a married couple, had grown aware three years after  moving to Asheville that there were a number of other retired journalists in the area. And they were seeing situations that merited coverage that were not getting it. 

Kestin told CJR in a profile/interview earlier this year, “I realized that the Citizen Times, our local paper here, had gone from roughly seventy editorial employees down to maybe ten or twelve.”

So she and other recruits got off their woodsy porches and back into the fray of bird-dogging important stories. The core group includes Tom Fiedler, former executive editor of the Miami Herald; Managing Editor Peter Lewis, a former writer and editor from the New York Times; several other writers from South Florida papers; and former Financial Times correspondent and NPR editor Barbara Durr.

Fiedler, who went on to become dean of Boston University’s journalism school, won a shared Pulitzer Prize at the Herald for spot reporting in 1991. Kestin was a lead reporter on a Sun-Sentinel investigation of reckless police driving that won the public service Pultizer in 2013.

I became aware of the group when I saw a deeply reported 2020 scoop by Fiedler – a longtime professional friend – on family dissension among survivors of Billy Graham’s. (Several of Graham’s grandchildren claimed that son Franklin Graham, who took over the organization, had steered it into politicking for right-wing causes). 

Many Asheville Watchdog stories follow the same pattern – a reporter/writer with an advanced skill set can take their time without needing to produce or contribute to a daily report. Kestin told me that the group’s notable stories have included a multi-part series on shady real estate transactions leading to an indictment, COVID takeouts, and exposes on young right-wing Congressman Madison Cawthorn.

Though the retiree reporters and editors are not paid, the Watchdog solicits donations and has raised $200,000, Kestin said.

Despite the setback with the Times, the Watchdog is expanding. It added a Report for America corps member this summer, is trying to hire several junior reporters who will be paid and is bringing on volunteers with legal and business skills. 

I don’t know that the rift with the Citizen Times can be repaired, but in the broad swath of nonprofit/for-profit collaborations it need not be intractable.

For instance, Report for America does place many of its corps members at for-profit outlets. Some of their stories may end up behind a paywall, spokesman Sam Kille emailed me, though other collaborators like the Spokesman-Review of Spokane and the Kansas City Star, have respected the public service intent by putting projects in front of the paywall.  

The New York-based Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice issues, typically offers its work to a local partner (as does ProPublica). Terri Troncale, the project’s partnership manager, wrote me:

We typically ask for our partnered stories to be outside the paywall for sites that have those, so the piece will get the broadest audience possible. We can usually work something out with the partner. Some agree not to put the story behind their paywall at all and others may want to have it as a subscriber exclusive for a day or two and then make it available to everyone. … There have been some stories that stay behind a paywall. Of course, the stories are available free to anyone on our site.”

My guess, however, is that falling-outs like the one in Asheville, may become more common. The reasoning of the Citizen Times brass does not make much sense to me, but pressure to build paid digital subscription revenue quickly is acute, doubly so at Gannett with its recent financial reversals.

Some of the biggest nonprofit funders like the American Journalism Project insist that the content should be free and think expensive paywalls cut out access to less affluent community members. The multimillion-dollar scale of projects like the AJP’s in Houston and Cleveland can make them look more like competitors than partners. 

So the Asheville Watchdog – and potentially others – may end up, for a while at least, stuck with hoping interested readers will find a path to their own site or that of a smaller collaborator. It would be a pity if such splits cut off access to some of the increasing volume of important journalism that they are doing.

“We feel like we have incredible momentum,” Kestin said.”There are a lot of people who have moved here, many of them wealthy, who want to do a good thing for their new hometown,” and supporting a source of strong journalism fits the bill.

This story has been updated to correct Sally Kestin’s title. Information about the American Journalism Project’s nonprofit projects in Houston and Cleveland and its stance on paywall access also has been corrected.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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