[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Intentionally confusing Daily News journalist extraordinaire Dave Davies with Kinks guitarist extraordinaire Dave Davies is, admittedly, a weak stab at humor but we’ve been doing it for years and it’s too late to stop now. Just to be clear for those too young or gullible to know better, the Dave Davies in question is NOT the former guitarist of the Kinks, rather he is one of the best journalists this town has ever had and after nearly 20 years Daily News he is moving on to what comes next — specifically he will be stepping up his fill-in-host duties at WHYY’s Fresh Air and doing enterprise reporting for their web site. Alas, the Daily News will be poorer for his absence and WHYY all the richer. Aspiring young journos would be hard-pressed to find a better role model. Integrity, tenacity, and tough-but-fair are all adjectives that come to mind when considering the two decades of no-bull shoe-leather reporting Dave Davies has given this city in the course of his tenure at the DN. When we got the word that Davies was leaving the paper we called him up and requested an exit interview to discuss why he’s leaving the paper, what he’s going to be doing at WHYY, the future of newspapering, the evolution of journalism and why he just can’t get along with Ray Davies.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with your bio. Where did you grow up? How did you get on the path to journalism?
DAVIES: I grew up in South Texas actually. I come from a long line of Texans, and my grandfather actually drove cattle way back at the turn of the century. Went to school in Austin, Texas and followed a girlfriend to Philadelphia afterward, settled here in 1975, and I’ve been here ever since. I did a lot of different things after college. I taught school for three years, drove a cab, worked as a shipyard welder. I decided when I was teaching that I’d like to have a career in journalism because it seemed like fun. I kind of stretched my way into it initially in radio and then into print.
PHAWKER: You started at WHYY back before the Daily News, correct?
DAVIES: That’s right, I walked into WHYY as a volunteer in the news department around late ’81. They had a terrific news department then, and just did volunteer news stuff, writing copy. I was freelancing for a while and then eventually they hired me on full time in the news department in ’82.
PHAWKER: Now, Mumia was a reporter at WHYY around that time. Did you guys cross paths?
DAVIES: We did not. He left before I got there, and I think the Faulkner shooting was before I got there. The trial was happening while I was a volunteer there, and I remember how weird it was for the staff of WHYY to cover the trial because lot of them knew and had worked with him.
PHAWKER: Looking back at your career through the Daily News, do you have a proudest/least proudest moment?
DAVIES: Oh, boy. Stories kind of blur together after a while. I did a few stories this year that I’m really happy with, one was a story about a police officer who stormed into a convenience store and kind of manhandles some kids who were in a car accident with the officer’s son. It was caught on video and it was one of those things where probably not much would have happened to the cop if there was no video and it wasn’t in the press. Another really memorable moment was when I wrote a column about John Dougherty and when he got on the phone, among other things, issued what sounded like a physical threat. The column I wrote about that go him a lot of [bad] attention. That was probably one of my more memorable moments at the paper.
PHAWKER: A physical threat to you?
DAVIES: Yeah. To me, he was sort of trying to convince me that he knew things about me, and therefore I shouldn’t write anything negative. He said he had gotten Councilman Jim Kenney’s phone records and he claimed Jim and I had been talking seven times a week on the phone, which is not remotely true. Then I said ‘Wait a minute, you have a councilman’s phone records? Where did you get them?’ Then we got in a whole back and forth about it, and I insisted we were on the record because we had never agreed to go off the record. He got so angry at one point that he said he was gonna come over here and make me eat that paper. Dougherty and I have kind of an understanding with each other now. We’re not buddies but we’ve gotten past it.
PHAWKER: Are there some other major political or civic figures that you’ve had touch-and-go relationships with over the years?
DAVIES: Sure. Bob Brady is a guy, for example, who I’ve always had a lot of respect for because I really think he understands political relationships, and in some respects has done a lot for the city. He’s also bridged racial divides within the Democratic party. On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time writing a story on a political committee that he was associated with that failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and expenses. I feel like I spar with everybody, but I think if you always tell people what you’re doing and don’t blindside or ambush them, let people explain their side in the end, then you can have reasonable relationships with people.
PHAWKER: Regarding Philadelphia’s rep for being ‘corrupt and contented’, how would you rate things today compared to twenty years ago?
DAVIES: I think things are much, much better. Partly I think because there’s been an aggressive media. For example, 20 or 30 years ago, in the mid 80’s, my colleague Bob Warner did a piece after the mayoral election of 1983 on whether money which was paid to ward leaders was actually reported as required by the ward leaders. Hundreds of thousands of dollars weren’t. When we do those stories now, things are cleaner. Another things that’s really changed is the city ethics committee, and they’ve done a terrific job over the last three years of making politicians report what they’ve raised. The other big thing is that now there are Philadelphia laws which, in some ways, are ahead of most of the country. Not just limiting campaign contributions, but prohibiting people who seek large no-bid city contracts from making large campaign contributions. All that is much improved over what it was when I started.
PHAWKER: Going way back for a moment, you went to University of Texas in Austin?
DAVIES: Yes, ’71-’75.
PHAWKER: I don’t know if you were politically active back then, but there was a story in Texas Monthly uncovering all of the police and other FBI surveillance of campus activists. Were you aware of all of this?
DAVIES: No I wasn’t aware. I did do some student activist stuff when I started and the [Vietnam] war was still going on. I wasn’t among the most active, but I participated in some groups which does some radio stuff and some other stuff around U.S. activities in Latin America while I was at the University of Texas. I was not aware of any police surveillance, but a lot of things happened back then.
PHAWKER: So I guess the question is why are you leaving the Daily News?
DAVIES: A lot of things, but it was time for a change, I think. I have, over the last several years, been doing a lot of work over at WHYY at Radio Times and Fresh Air, but it was really hard to sustain as much radio as I was doing and still keep the level of effort that the Daily News deserved. I like doing both because I like doing the reporting and producing original content at the same time doing the interviews I did on those two shows and eliciting someone else’s ideas and experiences. Then you’re exercising broadcast skills as opposed to print journalism skills. I liked the combination, but it was really hard to put the effort into both that I’d like to. WHYY came up with this opportunity, and it seemed like the right thing at the right time for me.
PHAWKER: What exactly will you be doing over there?
DAVIES: A good chunk of it will be Fresh Air. Actually, probably a little more Fresh Air than I have been doing. I’ll be filling in for Terry Gross when she’s away, and I’ll be doing a few more interviews that will be aired during weeks when she hosts, just to ease the pressure off her a bit. Two thirds of the job is going to be in the expanded web based journalism enterprise. The details aren’t really worked out, but I think the plan is a lot like what I’ve been doing at the Daily News in sort of a multimedia way for WHYY, on the web, and producing content for the radio. It’ll be writing and editing and columns and blogs. We’re still trying to work out the details.
PHAWKER: Should we read into this a vote of no-confidence in the future of newspapers?
DAVIES: I think it’s a really good question, but the uncertainty around the future of newspapers, and the [Daily News and Inquirer] in particular, were a factor without doubt. We are in bankruptcy reorganization, and that’s probably going to resolve itself in the next six months. I think there’s some chance that we’ll be in for harder times than we’re in now. A lot of papers in the industry have had staff cuts and salary cuts. I think it was a factor, and I wouldn’t be leaving for just anything. It will be 20 years since I’ve been here in May, and I think it was time for a change. There’s no doubt though that the uncertainty of the industry was a factor, though.
PHAWKER: You mentioned the bankruptcy and there will be an auction. Do you care to weigh in on whether you’d like to see the paper stay in the hands of Tierney or be taken over by the creditors?
DAVIES: Since I’ve covered that stuff, and might be covering it a bit more in the coming weeks, what I would say is that I would be perfectly happy to remain at a newspaper that’s run by Tierney and his group. I’m impressed that they have fought hard to keep the papers and they’ve fought hard to keep money in them. I think he really wants to have two good daily newspapers operating in this town, and I would be perfectly happy to keep working for him.
PHAWKER: Looking back at how the newspaper industry reacted to the rise of the Internet, and now finds itself in this sorry state, do you think this could have been avoided or was it inevitable?
DAVIES: I’m no expert, but it seems that with the Internet, and particularly the way it was going to take a big chunk of newspaper advertising away, some decline in the readership and revenue of papers was inevitable. We certainly might have responded more quickly and nimbly, but I don’t have any strong feeling about what strategy might have worked. I do feel like it is odd where we generate all this content for which there is no compensation. Maybe that’s inevitable, but we are going to have to figure out some way to generate revenue from what we produce on the web.
PHAWKER: Don’t you feel there’s some kind of failure on the business side in all of this? If you can support print journalism with advertising, why can’t you support it the same way online, it’s still about delivering brand messages to lots and lots of eyeballs? Especially when you consider that print is fairly finite in terms of what you can do with display ads, whereas is the Internet is fairly infinite in that regard. Seems like a shortage of vision and imagination on the business side.
DAVIES: I don’t think I know enough about it to speak in a very informed way, but I think you’re right. I think newspapers have to be creative and look for ways to use the technology and capture some of advertising markets that they haven’t in the past. Maybe more localized pages, which captures ads from local merchants. Hopefully they figure it out in the future. I don’t think they are going to die, I think newspapers will be around in the next 20 years, but have a different place in the journalistic world than they do. But I think they’ll be around.
PHAWKER: You touched on this, and one wonders why don’t more local businesses advertise in the paper or on philly.com. Why do we only rely on some national brands and a few department stores and auto dealers?
DAVIES: I wish I knew but I don’t. I do kind of feel like the people at philly.com and other local websites, if there were an easy way for them to do that they would. Hopefully they’ll figure out some solutions.
PHAWKER: We talked about your proudest moments, but is there anything you want to take back or regret?
DAVIES: I think the darkest hour for me was the evisceration of our staff by our corporate masters at Knight Ridder in 2005. We lost a third of our reporting staff in a matter of weeks. It’s a reminder of what happens when newspapers are owned by people who see them only as assets on a balance sheet.
PHAWKER: In terms of newspapers proving their relevance to society, to what extent do you think its important that they do a better job of storytelling, of grabbing readers by the lapels and saying ‘Wake up! This stuff is important’? Do you think papers need to do a better job in that regard?
DAVIES: That’s really the challenge of covering public issues, isn’t it? You want to be thorough and fair, but you also need to reveal its significance and meaning to the readers. I think at the Daily News we’ve done a better job of that than most places because we’re a little less chained to a certain AP style , and we’ve always been encouraged to come up with a lead that makes the impact clear and hard hitting. I think the business needs to do that. It needs to pick stories that have meaning to people and write them in a way that has meaning. I think at the Daily News we’ve been a little better in that respect. That’s also one of the things that’s interested me about columns. There are some stories that needed more voice, where you can say “this is what’s wrong”. The great thing about this paper is that it’s given me the freedom to write news stories and columns as part of the same job, and I like how the one rule at the Daily News is that there are no rules.
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