John Drescher

Drescher: Our 'High on the Hog' series could provide lessons for rural NC

Silky Pork piglets are cautious as visitors walk through the barn at a sow farm in Lenoir County. Roughly 300 of Maxwell Foods’ boars will produce about 1.3 million market hogs this year in North Carolina. Of those, the cuts from about 200,000 will make it to Japan as Silky Pork.
Silky Pork piglets are cautious as visitors walk through the barn at a sow farm in Lenoir County. Roughly 300 of Maxwell Foods’ boars will produce about 1.3 million market hogs this year in North Carolina. Of those, the cuts from about 200,000 will make it to Japan as Silky Pork. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When he recently sentenced former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon to 44 months in prison for taking bribes, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Whitney gave some context about public corruption in North Carolina.

Whitney, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said certain forces, including reporters from The News & Observer, had helped in recent years to expose “a dirty, dark underbelly of corruption” in the state.

Exposing public corruption is an important part of our mission. But in telling North Carolina’s story, there’s more to the life of the state than what goes wrong. If we are to reflect North Carolina, we should report on what works and how it might be duplicated.

Such was the case with Silky Pork, an Eastern North Carolina export that was described this week in “High on the Hog,” a four-part series by reporter J. Andrew Curliss. Part of the series was reported in Japan, where Silky Pork is popular. You can read the series at newsobserver.com/highonthehog.

Rural North Carolina is struggling. The success of Silky Pork might show how North Carolina could export more agricultural products and bring more jobs to our rural areas.

Rigorous reporting

David Bornstein, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, advocates for rigorous reporting about responses to social problems and the results. “It’s not hero worship,” said Bornstein, a journalist and author who co-writes the Fixes column for The New York Times. “It’s not good news or positive news. It’s not fluff. It’s not advocacy.”

Bornstein pushes for deep reporting, based on hard evidence, about efforts to tackle serious problems. For many reporters, writing about possible solutions requires developing new reflexes. Problems scream, he said; solutions whisper.

“One of the top priorities of journalists is to be a watchdog,” Bornstein told me. “The reflex to jump when things go wrong is very strong. We have a hundred years of those kind of reflexes.”

Success – lowering the high-school dropout rate, reducing crime – often comes in slow, incremental steps. There isn’t usually a major flash point. “When journalists want to research those kinds of stories, they often think, ‘How am I going to tell this story and make it interesting?’ ” Bornstein said.

Conflict is an integral part of most storytelling. Bornstein said there’s tension involved in solving any problem and solution-oriented stories can be told like a detective story or mystery.

‘High on the Hog’

Bornstein visited The N&O in February and spoke with reporters and editors. Among them was Curliss, an investigative reporter who was in the early stages of reporting what would become “High on the Hog.”

“It got me thinking about a different way to approach a story, which was: Here’s something that’s working,” Curliss said. “So much of what I do is about what’s not working.”

Curliss has been on The N&O’s investigative team for six years. In January, he moves to a new job editing our coverage of state government and politics.

After hearing Bornstein, Curliss wrote Bob and Ted Ivey, the brothers and hog farmers who would become central characters in the series. He told the Iveys about Bornstein’s ideas.

“I want to explain to readers in a deep and immersive way how today’s pork producers are navigating forward; how North Carolinians are tied to Japan; and what the future holds on the jobs front in an important segment of our economy,” Curliss wrote.

The Ivey brothers gave him unusual access. That enabled Curliss to tell the story of Silky Pork and to provide a possible road map for similar successful exports from rural North Carolina.

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