Friday, August 31, 2012

Reporting Zeek: A story of talent, timing and truth

Here's a loaded question for you: Are you like me?

Well, heaven forbid on that one. What I meant to ask is, as the tale of  Zeek's alleged worldwide penny auction Ponzi/pyramid scheme unfolds, can you hardly wait for the next chapter of this surly saga to appear in The Dispatch?

You probably can't wait, and I think I know why. The subject matter is fascinating. It ropes us in. And because Zeek is headquartered right here in Lexington, it involves us, whether we were victims of the apparent scam or not. It's scandalous, it's rich, it's sad, it's engrossing. It's impossible to let go. It's our story.

And it's been extremely well-written and well-researched. That helps keep us interested, too. Despite how complicated the story has become, the local copy itself is clear, concise, informative and very, very readable. We can thank a young, personable, talented 23-year-old reporter for that.

Nash Dunn has covered the Zeek fiasco for The Dispatch.

A few months ago, Nash Dunn was working for The Observer News Enterprise, a five-day daily out of Newton-Conover in Catawba County. "I was a reporter, photographer, everything. It was a smaller staff, but it was a good starting point," said Dunn, who studied journalism at Appalachian State University where he worked the news beat for The Appalachian, the campus newspaper.

Then he arrived at The Dispatch, figuring to add to his résumé as a community reporter. Zeek, however, suddenly put him in a different realm. How did that story fall into his lap?

"About two months ago, right after I got here, I was driving home (he lives in Winston-Salem) and saw a line of people out the door at the building on Center Street," said Dunn. "At first, I thought maybe it was a homeless shelter or something like that.

"Then we'd gotten a few phone calls about what was going on," said Dunn. "So Chad (Killebrew, the executive editor of The Dispatch) and I sat down. I told him I wanted to go for it and see what it was all about.

"A few people tried to talk to me and get me into it," said Dunn. "But I guess I was suspicious of the company and what it was. And we just kind of started from there."

After a few weeks lag time to gather information and hone his work to crystal clarity, Dunn's centerpiece feature on Zeek (see here) appeared in The Dispatch on Thursday, Aug. 16. Events cascaded on top of each other after that. Later in the day, by sheer coincidence in timing, the North Carolina Attorney General's office confirmed that it was investigating Zeek. Shortly thereafter, seemingly within hours, the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission declared Zeek was an alleged Ponzi and a pyramid and shut the place down. Zeek CEO Paul Burks was fined $4 million by the SEC without admitting or denying guilt. The whole thing was stunning in how quickly it revealed itself in its online warp speed. The timing, from centerpiece story to Zeek closing its doors, was incredible.

"I knew they were being investigated," said Dunn, who added that he never expected events to turn as fast as they did.

And the impact was immediate. By the time Dunn came back to work the next day, he was inundated with emails and voice mails — mostly from assorted Zeek affiliates from around the world, wanting to know what was happening.

"I've probably gotten over a 1,000 emails and a 1,000 voice mails," said Dunn, who suddenly went from manning the community desk to become the paper's international desk. "That part has been something new to deal with."

Many of the out-of-state interviews that show up in Dunn's subsequent stories are from people who originally called the paper to glean information about what was happening to Zeek. They ended up being part of the story — as, indeed, they really were. It's just that now they were on the record.

And for the most part, Dunn said the feedback has been mostly positive. "I think most readers," said Dunn, "appreciate what we've done."

The scope of the scandal apparently has grown. It was first estimated that a million people worldwide were victims of the $600 million scheme. But the receiver has indicated that as many as two million could be involved. That's far more than the infamous Bernie Madoff affair from just three years ago, a $65 billion scheme that victimized mere thousands of people. This might turn out to be the largest Ponzi scheme ever by the sheer number of its victims.

As a journalist, Dunn feels the excitement of reporting an important story.

"When I first got into (the story), it was interesting," said Dunn, a native of Raleigh. "But once I learned everything, and once it kept unfolding, it's definitely exciting. You want to keep being first in reporting stuff — that's always motivation to keep going. I never thought I'd get as involved with it as I did, but it's definitely exciting."

This story will continue for a while. Some of us might eventually grow weary of it, as we sometimes do in our sometimes overloaded, overzealous and overwrought society. That would make it our loss if that should happen.

But for now, Dispatch readers have been treated to exceptional journalism by a pretty darn good writer of the news.

And that makes us lucky to have him here.


  1. Colonel: Met Nash at a Commissioner's meeting this past week. Already a great reporter, and a nice guy to boot. Like that Wehrle character.

  2. I must agree, Mr. Dunn is a great reporter.