Her job: Influence decision makers and public opinion

BY SUSAN GODFREY, NNB Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – She dumps the half dozen newspapers on her desk that she reads over the weekend. Joshing friends call her a bag lady, she says, because she is always carrying around a purse, a lunch sack and a workbag with papers spilling out.

She usually works with her back to the door so she can signal – without being impolite – that she doesn’t want to be distracted, and with only a half hour before the important daily meeting she reads another newspaper – the day’s Tampa Bay Times.

Sherri Day, 38, a Times editorial writer, knows what is happening around the area and the country. She has to. She is a voice for a newspaper that is the largest daily in Florida and winner of 10 Pulitzer Prizes. Her job is to influence decision makers and public opinion.

“The bottom line is that we’re trying to influence people, and you have to decide who you’re writing to,” said Day.

At precisely 9:30 a.m. the editorial board members shuffle into a room overlooking the atrium at the Times building at 490 First Ave. S and take seats around a big table.

They are all veterans. Tim Nickens, the editor of editorials, covered state government and politics for the Times and Miami Herald. His deputy, Joni James, another former state capital veteran, once worked for the Herald and Wall Street Journal. Columnist Daniel Ruth came from the Tampa Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Jim Verhulst, editor of the Sunday “Perspective” section, has held key jobs at the paper since arriving from the Concord (N.H.) Monitor in 1987.

In 2013, Nickens and Ruth won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials that helped reverse the county’s decision to end fluoridation of drinking water.

During the meeting, the editorial board kicks around the news of the day and week and decides what to editorialize on. Everyone gets a chance to say what they think is significant. Topics range from nuclear power plants to government officials.

The relaxed meeting has lots of reflection, lots of laughter. Later in the day, the board sometimes meets with politicians, government officials and business leaders.

“I expect everyone to be prepared for the (daily) meeting,” said Nickens, “by reading the local morning papers and the national news in the Washington Post and New York Times.”

After the board meeting, Day returns to her office and catches up on emails and phone messages while she waits to find out what Nickens wants her to write about for the day. Day said that she and Nickens discuss the direction of the editorial and what explicitly needs to be conveyed before she begins to write.

“I usually like to have a call to action,” said Nickens.

Day’s call to action on this day was to the Tallahassee Police Department and Florida State University’s new president, John Thrasher, concerning the possible criminal behavior of some FSU football players. She begins by researching what the board has written on the issue in the past to ensure that its voice is consistent.

Within an hour, Day has most of her editorial finished. She makes her job look easy. Nickens will edit the editorial and decide what day it will run.

Unlike most writers at the paper, Day writes her editorial in longhand before she types one word on her computer.

“There is something about pushing a pen on paper that helps my brain work in a way that staring at a blank computer screen doesn’t,” she said. “The physical act of writing longhand makes me do the work. It’s old school. But it’s my process, and it works for me.”

She said she loves learning and writing about new things every day and has found her niche in public health, schools in Hillsborough County and the Department of Children and Families.

These are tough times for metropolitan newspapers like the Times. Day has survived several rounds of layoffs at the paper and, like the rest of the newsroom staff, has taken three 5 percent pay cuts.

She acknowledges that the paper is getting smaller and there is more work for everyone, but says it’s a chance to do things differently.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” said Day.  “Even when it’s hard, I’m getting paid to learn something new.”

She grew up in Tifton, a small town (population 16,000) in south Georgia where, she once wrote, “black folks lived on one side of town and whites lived on the other.”

She got a bachelor’s degree from Clark Atlanta University and a master’s from the University of California at Berkeley. For a time, she toyed with thoughts of a career in broadcast news. She landed an internship at the New York Times and stayed there nearly four years, working on the breaking news team and later the business news staff.

She was newly married – to a young man who grew up down the street in Tifton – when she found herself in the middle of one of the biggest stories in American history.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Day, a reporter on the Times breaking news staff, was sent to the scene at the World Trade Center. As she stood there less than a block away, staring and scribbling notes, the first tower came crashing down.

Day ran for her life from a billowing gray cloud hurtling down the street.

In a highly personal account she wrote for the Tampa Bay Times 10 years later, Day described how she dashed into a sporting goods store and sat huddled with “a collection of strangers,” watching the wounded come in and police and emergency personnel come and go.

Emerging some time later, Day saw first-hand the damage and destruction of the terrorist attacks. It profoundly changed her.

On the subway one day, she wrote, she saw two Middle Eastern men in conversation and found herself wondering, “if they were going to ‘get us.’” Then she caught herself.

“I was ashamed,” she wrote. “How could I, a black woman from rural Georgia, who knew well what it was to be stereotyped because of race, gender and cultural background, allow myself to have such thoughts?”

Day wrote that she decided to live with more purpose and become “a little less brave.” And three years later, she and her husband left New York for Tampa Bay, where she could work for the Times and they would be comfortable raising a family a few hours’ drive from their parents in Tifton.

Day and her husband, a physical therapist, built a house in a demographically diverse neighborhood in north Tampa and she worked several posts at the paper – community news reporter, metropolitan religion reporter, Brandon bureau chief, and assistant metro editor in Tampa. She moved to the editorial board in 2013.

Now she balances a daunting schedule as a mother of three small children, church member and voice of the Tampa Bay Times.

Susan Godfrey is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Reach her at (727) 253-2367.

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