Spreadin’ a little esse quam videri

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

When Asheville Watchdog launched, it was a distinctive player in the news startup landscape — a gathering of distinguished, “retired” journalists and media leaders, working for free.

Almost two years in, I think it now has a new distinction: It’s a success that’s nearly impossible to replicate — though not without producing some examples to follow. 

Lauren Harris for CJR took its story national last week, talking to three of the volunteers who make the Watchdog work — publisher Bob Gremillion, reporter/editor Peter Lewis and investigative reporter Sally Kestin — for her Journalism Crisis Project report. It seems Harris found the same thing my friend Jim Morrill saw when he wrote about Asheville Watchdog for The Assembly back in November, and what I learned more about in a chat with Gremillion in December — a noble and necessary enterprise, doing what it does quite well, but facing the challenges you’d expect if you do hard, local accountability journalism, and provide it free, while also trying to raise local money to keep it breathing. With an unpaid staff. So, not a model you’ll see copied everywhere. 

But it has portable wisdom, born of experience. One of the things that Lewis, a former senior writer, editor and columnist for The New York Times, told Harris:

‘When a community doesn’t have a robust local reporting infrastructure, the tendency is for government agencies and private businesses and others to lose the idea of transparency, so they stop thinking about accountability. Things happen more and more behind closed doors … We have to fight them to get information. And people are afraid to talk. Wrestling public documents, enforcing public meetings, and that sort of thing is one of the things that the Watchdog is helping to change …’

    ➵ Here’s the Harris Q&A with Lewis, Kestin and Gremillion.

    ➵ Here’s Jim Morrill’s piece in The Assembly on November 18.

    ➵ Here’s my update on Asheville Watchdog in NC Local on December 8.

Now, here’s a model that news outlets anywhere actually can replicate:

You may remember that Mountain Xpress last September won a grant from American Press Institute’s Local News Ideas-to-Action Fund, which was set up to support accountability and government reporting that meets community needs. Mountain Xpress proposed to create a people’s guide to the process that governs land development in Asheville and Buncombe County, and the opportunities for public input along the way.

The guide just published, News Editor Daniel Walton told me the other day, and … “complete” doesn’t begin to describe it. I think Asheville city planners could actually learn a lot from this thing. 

You can see it online, and Walton says he’s working on a landing page where readers can soon download a PDF. A printed version is available together with the Xpress at the usual distribution sites. Walton says the Xpress is partnering with the city and county to make it available at government offices and libraries.

    ➵ Congrats to Walton; publisher Jeff Fobes; writers Mark Barrett, Justin McGuire and Brooke Randle; designer Scott Southwick; and in distribution, Susan Hutchinson, Cindy Kunst “and a fantastic team of devoted drivers.”

Before we leave Asheville: I believe it was Thomas Wolfe who once said, “You want to go write novels? Speeches? Press releases? Fine. But you can’t ever come back to the newsroom again.”

When Elizabeth Djinis argued for Poynter that the exit door isn’t one-way anymore — and that a sojourn on the dark side can actually make you a better journalist — she talked to one who agrees: Erica Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC and former GM of The Daily Tar Heel. Perel explained why she has always advised student journalists to think of their careers as shaped by their lives, and not the other way around. Good advice.

    ➵ Perel, BTW, is a panelist for Is The Loss of Local Journalism Endangering American Democracy? as part of the McCain Institute’s Defending American Democracy series. The discussion, Friday at noon ET, includes Report for America president Steven Waldman and will focus on how we can regain trust in local media to strengthen democracy. [Register.]

One more: EdNC, which was founded in 2015 to provide nonpartisan data, research, news, information, and analysis on public education in North Carolina, has been on what it calls a “learning journey” during the pandemic — building a holistic strategy for reporting information and research, distributing it, building its audience and engaging with its communities, plus a set of tactics and tools for executing that strategy. One result is its audience engagement playbook, which can help not just news organizations but any group that wants to reach and engage a wider audience.

You can learn more in this report, where CEO and editor-in-chief Mebane Rash and communications director Sergio Osnaya-Prieto explain the process. They’re both open to talk about adapting the playbook to any organization.

(Disclosure: I’m an editorial advisor at EdNC, but this initiative benefited from my non-intervention.)