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As newsrooms shrink, one group comes out of retirement to fill a need for investigative journalism

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Posted at 1:49 PM, Mar 04, 2022

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In the basement of retired journalist Sally Kestin’s house, lies a collection of just about every industry accolade you can think of.

It's not a museum of a past career but the hub of a new project, a fortress of solitude if you will, where she and others like her are fighting to protect democracy the best way they know how.

"Somebody called us the Gray Hair Justice League," she laughed.

The town where she's settled is no Gotham, but it happened to be the place of retirement of a handful of other well-decorated journalists.

Being natural observers, they noticed that the local news media outlets have suffered the fate of so many smaller operations across the country – budget cuts and slimmed-down newsrooms.

"They cut expenses and one of the first places they do that is the newsroom. The paper here had gone from a staff of about roughly 70 editorial employees down to about a dozen," said Kestin.

"I think they all do a wonderful job with the resources that they have, but we were all concerned. We know what happens when there is not a strong, robust local press," she continued.

According to research done by the University of North Carolina, 1,800 newspapers have shuttered since 2004, creating what has been dubbed “news deserts," or communities left without any local journalism.

Despite being bombarded with local and international news constantly on social media, the concern with news deserts is that people in these areas are being left in the dark when it comes to local issues that impact their day to day – budgets, school board decisions, politics, etc.

During the pandemic, according to Poynter, at least 100 local newspapers, some of which were more than a century old, folded, accelerating the trend.

"Having retired here, the choice was, what's more important? Playing golf and pickleball or, or actually pitching in to do something to support the local infrastructure?" said Peter Lewis, a fellow retired journalist and managing editor of The Asheville Watchdog.

Co-founded by Kestin, the Asheville Watchdog is a non-profit news website dedicated to in-depth, investigative journalism.

"I think people recognize that the kind of watchdog journalism that we do is critical to have a functioning democracy," said Lewis.

The team takes no paycheck from the work at the Watchdog, relying on donations from the community.

While they realize that not every community will have a group with the resources to start their own news organizations, they hope to inspire not only others to think about how to revive journalism in their own backyards, but to reinforce how important keeping tabs on local government and holding the powerful accountable is.

They say it's important for informing the public as well as reducing division.

"By providing that kind of coverage, we can do our little part to try and lessen this polarization that is sort of tearing communities apart, all across the country," said Lewis.

It’s not easy and they’re hoping to garner more donations to make the operation bigger, possibly hire some full-time reporters, but to them, this kind of challenge is all in a day’s work.

"We're able to do what we do best and do it in our beloved community and, and make a difference," said Kestin.