Pat Stith, who won journalism’s highest prize – the Pulitzer – has called Knightdale home since the early 1970s. The retired News & Observer reporter now prefers backpacking in the mountains with his grandkids.
Q: You are a longtime newspaper investigative reporter and received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1996 for your Boss Hog series in The News & Observer on the growth and problems with North Carolina’s growing hog industry. Growing up, did you have aspirations of working in newspapers or was that something that developed later?
A: I was born in Gadsden, Ala., but grew up in Charlotte. As a little boy, I never really gave it much thought what I wanted my occupation to be. My dad had a clothes hanger factory and I worked in that one summer making 50 cents an hour. It was smoky and hot. I later got a chance to intern at a newspaper making $1 an hour. I could actually see all the way across the room and it was air-conditioned. Working at a newspaper is not a real job – I had worked at real jobs. Working at a newspaper is fun.
Q: So did you start full-time at a newspaper after high school?
A: I was active duty with the Navy. I was on board the USS Los Angeles as a journalist. I put out a daily newspaper while we were at sea. It was not really a newspaper like we think of one – it was mostly news releases, more like PR work.
Q: What were some of the places you got to see?
A: We sailed to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines. When I got out of the Navy, I went to UNC and I was there from 1962-66. While I was in school, I still interned in the summers at the newspaper, The Charlotte News. It was an afternoon paper, sort of like the Raleigh Times. I don’t think there are any afternoon newspapers left in the state. I also worked at The Daily Tar Heel when I was in college.
Q: Any memorable stories while at the college newspaper?
A: The legislation passed a ban against communists speaking on campus. I was not the reporter – I was the managing editor, but the paper covered it and it was pretty controversial at the time.
Q: Where did your career path lead you after college graduation?
A: I worked at The Charlotte News and started right out of college. I came to the N&O in 1971 and was there until 2008.
Q: After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, did you have a lot of invitations to speak at newspapers and journalism schools?
A: I have spoken at a number of universities across the country – Kansas, Florida. If I got the invitation, I would try my best to go.
Q: What advice do you give prospective investigative journalist?
A: Much of what you need, you can’t be taught. You have to come to the job with integrity and a desire to do honest work. The techniques can be taught but to be an investigative reporter, you can’t be taught that. You have to have that desire to locate a problem. Reporters can cover stories, but they might not see the problems that are there. You can’t give them that internal engine to ‘take it to the bad guys.’
Q: When you say “teach the techniques,” what do you mean?
A: Newspapers need a variety of reporters – a bouquet of reporters. They need good writers and beat reporters. They need columnists. And you need investigative reporters. I am not setting up a hierarchy of reporters and putting the investigative journalists up top but investigative journalists must have that desire. We can teach techniques, like how to analyze a data base, how to search a title, how to read an audit. You can teach them interviewing techniques, but you can’t teach them that desire or drive to locate a problem.
Q: Have you continued to work past retirement?
A: I am working for a law firm. I look over the records they acquire and make suggestions. Some of the records they get are quite extensive and they need someone to go over them. I may suggest they interview someone but if they do it or not, it is up to them.
Q: What do you do to relax? Any hobbies?
A: Backpacking. I may hike 15-20 miles of a trail, pitch a tent and rest, and keep on hiking. I have hiked several hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail – all of it in Georgia and Maryland. I have hiked rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. My grandsons go with me some now. My granddaughters are not really into that but I did climb Grandfather Mountain with my granddaughter.
Q: I bet it is nice to hang out with your grandkids now. As a reporter, you must have kept your nose to the grindstone?
A: I put in some big hours. I have three sons – they went to East Wake High. Two of them played football for Johnny Sasser – he was a good man. When my oldest son was playing, they won 17 in a row. They are grown now and I have eight grandchildren and I try to spend time with them when I get a chance.
Q: Of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
A: My family – definitely.
Correspondent Dena Coward