May 26, 2005

By Melanie Sill
<i>The News & Observer</i>

In the summer of 1994, reporter Pat Stith began working an interesting tip: a state veterinarian was taking favors from big pork producers. They were buying him plane tickets for expensive hunting jaunts, and supposedly had bought him a fancy bird dog. The question was, what were the hog companies getting in return?

Stith began asking questions, joined shortly by reporter Joby Warrick. Eventually, they left the veterinarian and his bird dog behind for a much better story that became known as “Boss Hog: North Carolina’s Pork Revolution.” The series, published in February 1995, exposed environmental hazards, lax regulation and a system in which a fast-growing industry was writing its own rules with elected officials as cheerleaders.

Stith and Warrick developed the big story by following their curiosity. They heard that family farms were going out of business and big contract operations were sprouting all over North Carolina’s fragile coastal plain. They heard about laws that had been passed quietly to free the hog business from many kinds of regulations and taxes. “Boss Hog” himself, a man named Wendell Murphy, had helped pass some of those laws while he served in the legislature. They learned that studies had been done on the problem of how to handle waste from millions of pigs, but that state regulators in some cases didn’t even know about the research.

Most of what they were learning had not been reported. Most coverage, including our own, had focused on complaints about how bad the hog farms smelled.

I was their editor. Looking back, I see some key decisions that helped us:

  • This wouldn’t be a he-said, she-said story. We would do original reporting.

  • We would report on people, not industry and government. Characters like Wendell Murphy, a former teacher turned multimillionaire. The contract farmers who took on a half-million dollars in debt to try a new business. The residents of Browntown, who suffered through church service with the acrid odor of hog manure in their nostrils.

  • We’d try different things to tell the story. Joby Warrick recorded from inside a confinement hog barn, and we put the resulting screams and pounding of hooves on our CityLine call-in service; hundreds of readers phoned to hear it.

  • We’d stay on the story. After the series ran, an alarmed governor and legislators made noises that resulted in the appointment of a Blue-Ribbon Commission. We kept reporting as the commission’s work stalled, and when a giant lagoon holding hog waste collapsed and killed fish in a major river in eastern North Carolina.

“Boss Hog” resulted in major regulatory reforms. Among them was a moratorium on new hog farms, passed in 1997 and extended four times — it will continue through 2007.

The series also helped launch a wave of research in North Carolina that has continued, with current work focused on converting waste to fuel and on alternate treatment methods. State regulators have begun removing hog farms located in flood plains.

Hog farming remains an economic force and environmental worry for our state, but since “Boss Hog” hit print 10 years ago, just about everyone in North Carolina knows the issues.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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