Can Semi-Retired Muckrakers Save Local Journalism?

Tampa Bay journalist Dan DeWitt retired to Brevard, N.C. four years ago, but that didn't stop him from reporting the news

A mural of Beethoven with sunglasses along Broad Street in downtown Brevard. The city of 8,000 has long attracted mountain bikers, hikers and world class musicians through its connection with Brevard Music College.

On its surface, the local media landscape in Western North Carolina doesn’t look all that different from 25 years ago. There’s WLOS News13, the ABC affiliate, newspapers like the Hendersonville Times-News, the Asheville Citizen-Times, an alt weekly called the Mountain Xpress and smaller local periodicals like The Transylvania Times scattered across the Blue Ridge.

Peel back the curtain, though, and it’s a little like seeing a short man on a stool pretending to be a wizard. The mastheads are the same, but nearly all of these properties have been bought, sold, downsized and gutted over the years. WLOS to Sinclair, Asheville’s paper to Gannett, the Times-News’ old building is now a Goodwill and it outsourced its printing to its Greenville operation. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Enter Dan DeWitt.

DeWitt worked for the Tampa Bay Times for 28 years as a reporter and columnist until retiring in 2017. Like a lot of transplants to WNC, he and his wife fell in love with the area after sending their children to camp up here and decided it might be nice to swap one season for four.

“We were both avid cyclists and triathletes and hikers,” he said in a phone interview this week.

Disappointed by the spotty news coverage, DeWitt embarked on a new retirement hobby this year. He launched a Substack called Brevard NewsBeat to fill a void in WNC’s media landscape, taking a deeper look at development, growth and planning in Transylvania County’s booming mountain community.

Already it’s making an impact. DeWitt says a recent article on the “Zoom boom,” about remote workers taking advantage of the pandemic to relocate to WNC and driving up home prices, got more than 3,000 views. Other articles on an 80-room boutique hotel coming to downtown Brevard and DeWitt’s scoop on its secretive developer attracted similar attention.

“I think it's really worth keeping keeping an eye on commercial growth,” he said.

DeWitt is in a unique position to report on Brevard’s growing pains. As a reporter in Hernando County, Fla., he saw a similar story play out as its population swelled from 100,000 to 180,000. He understands the tension between the old guard and new transplants.

“That's where some of antipathy to regulation comes in,” he said. “People in the county for a long time don't want newcomers telling them that they can't maximize profits on their land, for example. So that's also a cultural dynamic.”

DeWitt and I talked about his new venture and how it could help fill a sorely needed gap in coverage of smaller communities like Brevard.

Below are brief excerpts of our conversation edited for length and clarity. You can subscribe to or read DeWitt’s newsletter here.

JR: As a transplant, what do you see as the major tension in a place that's attracting new retirees and new families — how is that storyline playing out right now in your coverage?

Dewitt: At the county level, you see a political response that’s very skeptical of the idea of regulating construction. And at the same time, you see a lot of pressure, you see a lot of demand. So I think that's probably the biggest potential conflict.

I hope to do a story soon about affordable housing. Because it's just insanely out of reach for the average worker. And by the way, I still work part time at the post office. So I'm familiar with people who are trying to get by on a regular wage, and I have my own substandard paycheck to look at.

JR: You're not the first retired newspaper person to start your own venture. Notably, we talked about Bill Moss [the former editor] from the Hendersonville Times-News who started the Hendersonville Lightning a couple years ago, or more than that, after a buyout. In your opinion, is this a viable path for local news as an owner-operated sort of publication?

Dewitt: Well, I think what Bill's done is incredible from what I know about it. I don't know if I'm that ambitious. One reason I've kept the site free is because I want to build a subscriber base. But reading about Substack, you realize that a very small percentage of your subscribers will actually agree to pay. So when you have a population of 35,000 as your maximum catchment area, and then you get maybe, if I can develop this for a couple more years, maybe I'll start getting 5,000 views. But probably only 10% of those people would pay. And if you're talking $4 or $5 a month, it's not a lot of money, even then.

JR: So what's your eventual goal? You'd mentioned that you do want to monetize it if you can, right?

Dewitt: You know, I'm undecided about that, because I am semi-retired. …For me at this point, this has just been a really good way to get involved in the community and fill a need that I think is out there because I don't see people doing it.

They don't do what we used to call weekenders. Take an issue, talk to a bunch of people, look at all the ramifications. And that's just something that's not happening. And I love doing a story like that a week. But I also love, you know, taking an afternoon off to go for a bike ride, which I’m planning to do today.

JR: Yeah, it's a beautiful day.

DeWitt: And even if I start taking subscribers, then I think I'll feel under pressure to provide more content. …[Do] I want to have to do two of those a week every week and be under that gun? I don't know. I'm 61 years old. I would love to monetize it, but I don't know if I want to put that pressure on myself.

JR: What do you think could strengthen the existing local news infrastructure that's already here … newspapers, radio, TV, that kind of thing? Are you skeptical that anything can be done?

DeWitt: I guess I've always felt local news will emerge in some form — strong coverage of local news will reemerge because there's such a demand for it. I think as people get used to these kinds of sites, then they can maybe feel about them the way they do NPR or Carolina Public Press, where it's a community obligation to donate to somebody who's providing that service, which is a change of mindset. …I think that mindset is changing — that people are willing to see this as almost a nonprofit model.

And I also think that maybe there's a certain amount of complacency I see in the local coverage. So maybe if I'm out there, and I'm reporting stuff that they're not reporting, and somebody mentions in a county meeting, ‘Oh, did you see the Brevard NewsBeat story on this?’ that it might spur some more aggressive coverage.

JR: I have to end by asking if you are enjoying the local brewery scene. Are you a beer drinker?

DeWitt: Yeah, but my favorite is actually a Florida product, which is now brewed by Oskar Blues, which is Jai Alai. That's my go-to. I think they just perfected the mold and everything else tastes sort of off after you get used to that!

-End-

Pick your sides

  1. Judas and the Black Messiah on the assassination of Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton is a must-see. Riveting from start to finish with a suspenseful score and Oscar-worthy performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Trailer.

  2. To close out Black History Month, better check out this rare 1971 recording session of Marvin Gaye playing with a Detroit funk band. It was recorded right after his landmark album “What’s Going On” and reissued as part of the album’s 50th anniversary. It’s funky and fabulous. Now streaming on Spotify as “Funky Nation.”

  3. Although a proud daughter of Hendersonville, I had never heard of the McGuire Twins, a.k.a World’s Heaviest Twins, until about two weeks ago when I saw a Simpsons meme featuring them. Now I am fascinated and working on an oral history project to commemorate what would’ve been their 75th birthdays this year. Stay tuned!