Pat Stith, Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter for Raleigh's News & Observer, imagines the McClatchy-owned North Carolina newspaper as a vehicle with which to demolish corruption — literally.
"Sometimes I envision the News & Observer as a big steamroller," says Stith, 66. "Occasionally I get to drive it, and then it just runs over the bad things. And then it's someone else's turn."
On October 3, someone else will take over the wheel permanently. Stith, known for exposing bureaucratic misconduct with his in-depth reporting, is retiring after 42 years in journalism, 37 of them at the N&O.
So influential is Stith's work that First Amendment lawyer Hugh Stevens told the N&O, "If there are politicians out there cutting corners, they're probably throwing cocktail parties to celebrate his retirement."
One of his most memorable experiences on the job, Stith says, occurred in 1987, when he was approached by a local nurse who had been injured during a mandatory, on-the-job-self-defense class. As a result of the injury, the hospital had fired the nurse.
Stith asked himself a question he often did when determining the importance of a story: How would it be viewed in his small hometown of Knightdale, North Carolina? "I thought, 'That story will not play in Knightdale. They'll not accept what happened to her. They would want something done about it,' " he says. "I couldn't wait to write that story."
Within three days after the article ran, the state found her another job. "I got more personal satisfaction out of that than I got out of any mega-series," he says.
It is no surprise that after years of reporting — and in many cases, helping to reverse — such wrongdoing, Stith believes investigative journalism is essential. Without it, he fears government and business misconduct will go undetected. In an era in which many papers are shrinking their staffs and their investigative reporting, Stith believes his paper's decision to fill his job reflects its extraordinary commitment to the practice.
"That makes a statement that this paper values investigative reporting," he says. "And I think it's an important statement."
As for the future of newspapers, Stith is hopeful. While they may have to "go back to essentials," he says, he does not foresee them dying out completely.
"It's like a year with no Christmas. Can you imagine?" he says. "It just doesn't compute."
But Stith's future plans involve much more than contemplating the future of journalism. On his to-do list? Learning how to bake a cake, and taking trips to his cabin that aren't shortened by the limitations of a full-time work schedule.
Although Stith looks forward to his retirement, he says he has spent the past few decades doing exactly what he loves.
"I don't recall a day when I've looked at the clock and thought, 'My word, it's only 3:00,'" he says. "It's actually the opposite. I would like the clock to go backwards."
But now, he says, "I'd like to sit in the library and read all day long. And I plan to do that."