Pulitzer Prize-nominee Paul Davies attended St. Mark’s High School and the University of Delaware before going on to an award-winning career as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. TSD recently asked Davies about his views on the future of journalism, his opposition to state-sponsored gambling and Delaware Pizza.
TownSquareDelaware: You have taught journalism at UD (and filled in this semester for famed author Mark Bowden) and Temple. What do you tell students about the kind of career paths they might pursue? And for that matter, what really is journalism today?
Paul Davies: I enjoy teaching. It’s a way to give back and pass on what I learned from those who went before me. (I certainly don’t do it for the money.) I’m up front with students about the state of the industry. It is a difficult time and the uncertainty is not for everyone. But while the journalism industry is undergoing rapid change there remains a great need for fearless reporters who know how to find and tell compelling stories. If anything, the need is greater than ever for journalists who can speak truth to power. And while the traditional path of journalism is uncertain, there are also many new opportunities. While that makes things unsettling it is also exciting. Those that don’t have the stomach for it should go to law school.
TSD: What got you started in this line of work?
PD: My father worked long retail hours selling shoes, which was not a fun way to make a living. He hammered home the need for me to go to college and find a career that would be fun and rewarding. In my junior year, I took a journalism class taught by professor Dennis Jackson and was hooked. It resulted in a career that has been fun, stimulating and rewarding.
TSD: There was some buzz in Philadelphia and even national media circles surrounding your departure from the Philadelphia Inquirer this past spring. The implication was that your exit was tied to a piece you wrote criticizing the public funding of the Convention Center, which has been losing money. What’s the story there?
PD: This is not a question I can answer in a few sentences, and may require a few beers. But the irony is the publisher did me a big favor.
TSD: As a follow-up, do you think it is really practical for a news organization to maintain a complete firewall between the editorial and advertising sides?
PD: If a news organization wants to maintain any credibility with its readers, such a firewall is imperative. Sadly, some newspapers buckle to pressure from political or business leaders. The upshot is reporters begin to self-censor and pull punches. Once that happens you don’t really have much of a newspaper. The trust is broken and it is difficult to get it back. Unfortunately, newspapers are under great financial pressure and making decisions based on short-term profits. That’s a recipe for failure.
TSD: On that point, you’ve spent your career working at some of the most storied newspapers in the country including the Wall Street Journal and the Inquirer. Is the notion of a traditional advertising-driven newspaper still viable in the digital age?
PD: The future for newspaper is obviously on the Internet. But the traditional print business model that depends mainly on advertising and paid subscriptions does not work well on the Internet. That is the big challenge facing newspapers as well as magazines and TV news for that matter. Those with trusted brands that continue to deliver high quality journalism, while innovating, will likely survive. The New York Times is the best example. It remains a great print newspaper, while providing a robust Website. Sadly, many other newspapers are trying to cut their way to profitability. (Exhibit A: The News Journal and every other crappy, unreadable newspaper owned by Gannett.) That won’t work in the long run. At the same time, the Internet is allowing new models to flourish. That will continue with mixed results.
TSD: While at the Inquirer, you wrote a series of editorials on casino gambling and you’ve now started a website, www.getgovernmentoutofgambling.org, the focus of which I shouldn’t have to explain to the brilliant readers of TSD. Why are you so passionate about this issue?
PD: When I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, I had to cover a trial in Atlantic City that lasted several months. I got to spend a lot of time in Atlantic City and see up close the impact of gambling. After 30 years, the casinos there have done very little to help improve the state of that dumpy city. Instead, I watched the casinos prey on people’s desperate efforts to get rich quick. Many of the gamblers there are the most vulnerable: the elderly and low income in search of a quick fix to help make ends meet. (Take a walk through the casinos in Dover or at Delaware Park. It is a pathetic sight of sad sack people pumping money into slot machines.) I later moved to The Inquirer as Pennsylvania legalized casinos. The process there had a very corrupting influence on the state’s elected officials. That in itself is a reason states should not get into bed with the very sleazy gambling industry. After lots of study, I became convinced this was a bad public policy with many more costs than benefits. Studies show where casinos locate social ills increase such as crime, divorce, suicide and bankruptcy. Why would any public servant want to inflict such problems on their constituents? Sure, the states get more tax dollars but that money comes from the pockets of the very citizens that the elected officials are sworn to protect. Public officials should have better ideas to fund government services than just rolling the dice or peddling lottery tickets. Plus the money spent at casinos is not new funds, but just money that would have been spent at other local business, so there is very little benefit to the overall economy. If anything, the casinos take money from other local businesses and strip wealth from individuals. So from both a social and economic standpoint, gambling is a very bad bet.
TSD: Grottos or Nicolas? And, while we’re at it, what are some of your favorite Delaware spots?
PD: Grottos, hands down. The Deer Park and Logan House remain classics. But I’m partial to Iron Hill for the beer and food and because my brother is one of the owners. Driving near Brandywine State Park and walking on the UD campus remain two of the more beautiful places that still feel like home