Thursday, December 23, 2004

Reporter from D.M. Suspended by St. Louis Newspaper

I didn’t know Dan Finney well when both he and I worked at the local paper.

Because there's a 40-year difference in our ages, that doesn’t surprise me.

But I’ve been reading about the Des Moines native on the Poynter journalism website, and he’s been leading a pretty interesting life lately.

Finney, who studied journalism at Drake, has been suspended by his employer – the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Under a headline that said, “Post-Dispatch writer suspended after bosses discover his blog,” Poynter credited the Riverfront Times for this:

“Post-Dispatch managers took staff writer Daniel P. Finney’s hard drive as evidence of his blogging [he wrote under the pseudonym ‘Roland H. Thompson’], then suspended him. Ben Westhoff reports: ‘In his blog, begun this past September, ‘Roland H. Thompson’ – a reference to a song by one of Finney’s favorite musical artists, the laste Warren Zevon – took frequent, thinly veiled potshots against his employer and co-workers. He also wrote about stories he was working on for the paper.”

By the way, for all you non-newspaper and non-media folks out there, the term “blog” is short for “weblog.” It can be many things—a column like what I write, a journal, a diary, whatever.

If I were to make a wild guess, it would be that Finney is pissed. I know I’d be pissed if somebody took my hard drive.

By the same token, I certainly can see why Finney’s employers didn’t like it that he took written potshots at them. What's too bad is that he didn’t use his own name on the blog to take his shots.

Plenty of people would call that gutless.

I asked a guy who was at the local paper during some of the years I was there what he remembered about Finney.

”I barely remember Dan Finney,” the guy said. “These days, I barely remember anything.

“I remember that he was an intern, doing all the things that interns do. I don’t recall that he was ever a full-time member of the staff. I think he went to work at the Omaha paper as soon as he got out of school, but I am probably mistaken.”

Actually, I’m pretty sure that Finney was a full-timer at the local paper before going to USA Today, the Omaha World-Herald, then to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

I looked up Finney in the Google site on the Internet, and there are stories listed that he wrote while working at the four newspapers.

There was also this sketch from the 1990s of Finney that was written in a Drake publication:

“Daniel P. Finney is a native of Des Moines, Iowa. The Drake university senior in news-editorial is the first student to serve two years as executive editor of The Times-Delphic, Drake's student newspaper, in the paper's 115-year history. He is the winner of a 1996 William Randolph Hearst Award for excellence in feature writing and a 1995 winner of an Iowa Newspaper Association Award for excellence in feature writing. He enjoys Drake women's basketball and is an avid New York Yankees fan.”

Finney’s problems began unfolding when this appeared in the Riverfront Times:

Local Blog O' the Week

Rage, Anguish and Other Bad Craziness in St. Louis


About the blogger: Past entries indicate that the blogger -- a Warren Zevon fan who took his nom de blog from Zevon's 1978 ditty "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" -- works in the newsroom of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. reports that Thompson's profile has been viewed 32 times since he commenced blogging in September and that he averages six posts per week.

Here’s the more recent article on Finney from the Riverfront Times:

Originally published by Riverfront Times Dec 22, 2004
©2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Attack of the Blog

A Post reporter is suspended for extracurricular Internet activities


Following publication of an Unreal item in last week's Riverfront Times, newsroom management at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch seized the computer hard drive of staff writer Daniel P. Finney and suspended him from reporting duties.

The Unreal piece, "Local Blog o' the Week," highlighted an online diary written under the pseudonym Roland H. Thompson. Though Finney did not identify himself by name in the blog, titled "Rage, Anguish and Other Bad Craziness in St. Louis," he chronicled minute details of his life, including lengthy passages about his job as a Post-Dispatch features writer.

Sources at the Post who informed Riverfront Times of Finney's suspension say the newsroom was abuzz over the action, thought to be one of only a few instances in which an American journalist has been disciplined because of a personal blog.

At press time, the terms of Finney's suspension remained unclear. Reached by phone, a distraught Finney declined to comment for this story. A call seeking comment from Post-Dispatch editor Ellen Soeteber was not returned; Susan Hegger, assistant managing editor for features, says the paper does not comment on personnel matters. Jeff Gordon, president of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, did not return a voicemail requesting comment.

Several of Finney's colleagues at the Post-Dispatch provided an account of last week's events, on the condition that their names not appear in print.
They say Finney's hard drive was confiscated on Thursday, December 16, the day after the Unreal item was published, and that he was informed of his suspension shortly thereafter.

A 29-year-old native of Des Moines, Iowa, Finney came to the Post in May, 2003 after stints at USA Today, the Des Moines Register and the Omaha World-Herald. For the Post's "Everyday" section, Finney specialized in youth and culture, reviewing books, comics and DVD releases, as well as the occasional feature profile. One colleague says Finney's work received mixed reviews in the newsroom. "The features staff -- the brass -- thought he was swell," the source says. "The young people thought he was an idiot."

Others noticed his eccentric habits, including a desk crowded with action figures. In his blog, begun this past September, "Roland H. Thompson" -- a reference to a song by one of Finney's favorite musical artists, the late Warren Zevon -- took frequent, thinly veiled potshots against his employer and co-workers. He also wrote about stories he was working on for the paper. An example: "Today was an absolute abomination. It began unwillingly at 7:30 a.m. when I was forced from my sweet, gentle slumber to go to work on a hideously lame story involving Santa Claus and the Hard Rock Cafe."

In another entry, he poked fun at the subjects of the Post's annual "100 Neediest Cases" feature. "Speaking of dicks, I've been reading the Post-Dispatch's annual 100 Neediest Cases stories," he wrote on December 2. "The bottom line is that there are a lot of poor people who need stuff. It is a worthy cause. And, at some level, I feel sorry for these people. But at another level, one in which your friend Crazy Roland is much more in touch with, I must admit that I feel as if a good number of these needy cases could be avoided by a well-placed prophylactic."

Six days later, a "100 Neediest Cases" installment carried Finney's byline.

Firing employees for their private blogs is nothing new. U.S. Senate mail clerk Jessica Cutler made national headlines earlier this year when she lost her job after detailing her sexual escapades with Senate staffers. "There were a rash of firings and other diciplinary procedures when private Web pages first came out and again when blogs first came out," writes Clyde Bentley, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in an e-mail response to a request for comment. "Most companies developed policies, similar to their other "moonlighting" policies.

Generally, if the material was collected and processed at work, it is supposed to stay at work. Many companies, however, co-opted the process by sponsoring the blogs of their employees and making the blog a part of their regular work."

The instances of reporters being fired for their online activities is relatively rare. In 2002 the Houston Chronicle fired fifteen-year veteran reporter Steve Olafson for the contents of his blog, "The Brazosport News." Writing under the pseudonym Banjo Jones, Olafson aired his opinions about the Chronicle and about local politicians he covered for the paper.

"If you're an employee of a news organization you ought to know that anything you publish gets read by people," says Robert Niles, editor of the University of Southern California Annenberg's Online Journalism Review. "If you're going to embarrass yourself on a personal Web site and think that your employer or people who know your employer aren't going to find out about it, then you're a fool. You should know better than that. If you're a good reporter, you'd find somebody else doing it, so you've got to figure that somebody else is going to find out on you.

"There are a lot of people in the news industry that like attention," Niles goes on. "We certainly are not in this for the fabulous money. We get paid in attention, and sometimes if you don't feel like you're getting enough attention at your day job, you go looking for other ways to get attention. Sometimes you find good ways of doing that, sometimes you find less than appropriate ways of doing that."

Finney's blog, which was located at, appears to have been taken down sometime last Thursday.

Staff writer Malcolm Gay contributed to this story.

Vol. 4, No. 290
Dec. 23, 2004