The Profile: Michael Days ’75

The veteran newspaperman talks of engaging the reader, the future of print news and his mother’s “forbidden” word.

By Benjamin Gleisser

Michael Days ’75 Stats:


Birthplace: Philadelphia

Residence: Trenton, N.J.

Birthday: August 2, 1953

Family: Wife, Angela Dodson; sons, Edward, 30; Adrian, 28; Andrew, 27; Umi, 26; and grandchildren Makayla, 7; Marcel, 5

Major Award: As the former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, Days is credited with helping two Daily News reporters, Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman,
win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series on allegedly corrupt narcotics cops.

 

As police moved into Dilworth Plaza and began dismantling the tents at the Occupy Philadelphia encampment in December, Michael Days ’75 kept a close eye on what was happening. As managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, Days conferred with his reporters at the site, then apprised the editor of the situation. They agreed that if the event became contentious, Days would immediately send extra reporters and photographers to capture the unfolding story.

Thankfully, “the city of brotherly love” was spared the violence that plagued other cities. But the Occupy movement made him reflect on a period of social protest that helped shape his life when he was growing up. “I was a teenager during the civil rights movement, but I wish I could’ve been a reporter then,” he says. “The movement was about how people couldn’t eat or be employed in certain places, or couldn’t ride a bus. I watched it on TV, and felt it in my heart. I read about people like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X … plus others whose names are no longer remembered. How courageous they were!

“I certainly benefited from the civil rights movement,” he continues. “I was the first generation of African Americans that went to Holy Cross. And today, I’m aware of how blessed I was to have that opportunity.” Days credits his mother, Helen, who worked in Philadelphia at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel to help put her children through school. “She made it very clear to me and my sister that we were always going to go to school and be something,” he says. “She had this saying: ‘You should not use the contraction can’t in the house, because everything is possible.’ ”

Days, who worked on his high school newspaper, chose English and philosophy as his majors at Holy Cross. Former English professor B. Eugene McCarthy, a founder of the African American Studies program at the College, became one of his mentors.

“In my first semester, I took Professor McCarthy’s Contemporary Black Literature class,” he says. “In those days, there wasn’t much literature or history that dealt with my family, or my culture … So when I read works written by and about African Americans and Africans, I really began to understand how it connected to me personally. His class became an academic journey as well as a personal journey that helped me understand me. I got to read, write, understand, think and argue things in ways I never experienced. Plus, Professor McCarthy was someone whose door I could always knock on…someone I could always talk to.”

Days’ education also inspired his sense of activism, and he joined the Black Student Union and the Cross and Scroll, a forum where students, guest speakers and faculty gathered to discuss issues having an impact on people’s lives. He was president of the group in his last year.

Securing an internship at a weekly newspaper in his third year on the Hill reignited Days’ interest in reporting, and, after graduating in 1975, he earned a master of arts in journalism at the University of Missouri. Eight years and several newspaper jobs later, he began working at the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News as a city hall reporter. Over the next quarter century, Days was promoted to deputy managing editor, managing editor and then editor.

Today, he’s the managing editor of the much larger Philadelphia Inquirer (259,780 daily circulation). Though the newspaper industry has changed since he wrote his first cop beat story, Days says his philosophy of reporting and writing have remained the same.

“Interviewing people and getting them to open up when they’re at their worst is a bit of a challenge,” he says. “People have to realize you are empathizing with them, that you are a human being too. You have to connect with people, and make them feel that, as a reporter, you really care.”

And when it comes to writing, “I’m more interested in stories whose purpose is to engage the reader. I’m not big on long prose or stories that drag on. Stories have to have a meaning and, basically, if the reporting is there, the points will be made.”

Like every newspaper executive in North America, there’s one burning question that’s always in the back of his mind: Will people ever stop reading newspapers?

“They are stopping reading newspapers,” Days admits. “Instead, they’re reading news on their laptops and iPhones. We have more people reading news today than ever in the history of mankind. They’re reading it, but not paying for it. That’s the biggest challenge we have—how to make people pay for what they read.

“My theory: For the foreseeable future, there will be print,” he continues. “The tactile experience of turning pages is a nice feeling on the weekend—having a cup of coffee and turning the page. But now, I’m online looking at seven different newspapers updating, and I encourage my reporters to do the same.”



Quick Questions


Q   Looking through the 1975 Purple Patcher, one notices quite a few plaid jackets and enormous bow ties. You chose the latter on picture day. Why?
A   (Laughs.) Pictures taken during the 1970s are embarrassing to look at now, but back then that was the style. We all thought we were the height of fashion.

Q   What’s your favorite newspaper movie?
A  “The Paper” (1994, starring Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close and Robert Duvall; directed by Ron Howard)

Q   There’s an old saw in journalism—you’re either a good reporter or a good writer. Which one are you?
A   I think I’m a better editor. But I was a good reporter.  I’m not a fantastic writer, but I definitely got the job done. I’m not so much interested in point of view, but stories whose purpose is to engage the reader.

  Do you like the adrenalin rush of being an editor?
A   Absolutely. The biggest tragedy was 9/11. I wasn’t planning to go in to work that day; I was packing to go to a meeting at the University of Maryland, but when I watched the first plane go into the Twin Towers, and then when the second plane hit … [pause]. That was the week that never seemed to end. Six days running on adrenalin. We had a significant purpose—to keep readers informed.

Q   Do you miss the typewriter?
A   We joke about how could we [put out a newspaper today] with typewriters, glue pots and such. We wonder if we could do it.

  Do you still have White-Out in your desk?

A   (Laughs.) No!

Q   What event would you rather cover: a close presidential race on election night, or the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl?
A   The Eagles! I’m an avid Eagles fan.