Sunday, December 26, 2004

Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

Sorry for the cheesy header, but it fits the story, as you'll see.

Daniel Finney is a writer/reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the local daily. Rather, he was; he's had a miserable Christmas season. He's now become the latest poster boy for Internet stupidity. Allow me to tell the tale.

The St. Louis alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times did a short squib a couple of weeks ago (last item; scroll down) about a blog they had found: Rage, Anguish and Bad Craziness in St. Louis. It's since pulled down. You can find a Google-cached page from September here. A search of the Wayback Machine archives turned up nothing. I've saved the page to my hard drive in the event it disappears from Google. You can also have a gander at Finney's Sitemeter info, which is still available. Note his account name: newsmanone.

Seems someone had tipped them to the blog, apparently run by a reporter at the Post-Dispatch who was anonymously spilling all kinds of dirt and bile about himself, his paper and his colleagues. Stuff like this:
News today out of San Francisco, the Chronicle reports that Jason Giambi testified that he, in fact did use steroids between 2001 and 2003.....

I also take steroids. Mine, however, are the new, really good kind. They work in reverse. The more I take, the flabbier my body gets. But my dick is huge. Huge, I tell you. Did I mention huge?

Speaking of dicks, I've been reading the Post-Dispatch's annual 100 Neediest Cases stories. 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...

Instead of giving these people free stuff, perhaps we ought to be striking the problem where it hurts. We should send the police out across the metro area breaking up bad couplings.

"YOU THERE IN THE RENT-CONTROLLED HOUSING," the officer would shout from his bullhorn. "STEP AWAY FROM THE DICK! THAT'S RIGHT! PUT ... THE ... DICK ... DOWN!


Oh yeah. Days later, a "100 Neediest Cases" story appeared with Daniel Finney's byline.

Of course, a lot of folks saw through the nom de blog -- Roland H. Thompson -- pretty quickly. It seemed a tribute to Warren Zevon's great classic "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." Hence my bad pun header for this post. You can also note that this name contains references to Roland Hedley, Doonesbury's reporter, and to Hunter Thompson, the gonzo journalist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The following issue, the Riverfront Times ran a follow-up. The Post-Dispatch had identified the blogger as Finney and suspended him. The Times reported:
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.
Yeah, hit a guy when he's down -- the classic journalism sideswipe. I recently worked with a woman whose desk was a virtual shrine to her granddaughter: pictures everywhere, cards, Bible and Hallmark quotes that contained her name, things she'd drawn, etc. It was nothing but grandmotherly love, but it would be easy to make it look really creepy, if you chose. Cheap shot, Riverfront Times.

So, anyway, Finney's story got around. You can read press stories, beginning with this Editor & Publisher account, which is spawning most of the national coverage. Romenesko also has it. A site called has two good, short bits with some insightful comments here and here. The second article notes that Finney has now resigned, on Christmas Eve no less! Another journalist who has his own blog, M. G. Tinker's Beyond Deadline, has some good thoughts. (The link is bloggered. Scroll down about halfway to "New Rules.")
Now, this is not a case of someone being fired over political principle or sexual preference or anything like that. No, this was a reporter who did a very bad job of hiding his contempt for his coworkers, employer, subjects and himself. He tried to post anonymously and failed miserably. From the little I’ve read of what he had written, I think the paper would have been on very solid legal and moral ground firing his butt.

So now we come to the subject of journalist bloggers who work for companies, particularly “old media” types like my employer. In fact, Mr. Finney is going to cause quite a lot of folks like me to give pause before writing their next blog entry.

In fact, he’s earned a flogging if for no other reason his case will discourage folks who should be trying out this fun new tool from jumping in....

I’m a front-line grunt for the biggest news organization in town. While I’m just a cog in the machine, what I say and do reflects on my employers and colleagues. And whether I like it or not, that extends to my own little slice of the blogsphere on this page as well. In exchange for doing something I like very much for a living, I give up a little personal freedom.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be goofy, contrary, cranky or irreverent. All those are part of my personality and if you’re not going to put some personality into your blog, then just hang it up. However, I won’t cross into certain subject areas, even though I’m dying to jump into the fray.

Perhaps there are some would-be journalist-bloggers out there who are wondering “How do I do this and not get canned?” Better yet, some of them might even be thinking “How do I blog off the clock ethically.”
He goes on to give some good advice. Read the whole thing.

The local daily, the Commercial Appeal, has a stable of in-house bloggers, but only one employee (that I'm aware of) who also blogs personally. Eric is very self-aware and scrupulous about what he says. The alt-weekly, the Memphis Flyer, only has one employee/blogger that I'm aware of: Chris Davis. His blog is explicitly and vehemently political, but he avoids worktalk, generally.

On the television side, it's more unusual. To my knowledge, only one station has any bloggers at all, and they have a veritable bumper crop! At WMC TV-5, the news director, a marquee reporter, and two videographers (Jason and Ted) all regularly blog about work. They are also all responsible and self-aware. For local news junkies, the WMC news crew are an excellent view into the workings of local news operations: critical, open and willing to talk about mistakes. It would be a shame to see this valuable window closed because of the Finney debacle.

In all these cases, the employers are aware of the blogs. And all the bloggers are aware, in turn, of the precariousness of their situation.

The lesson? Be very, very careful if you blog about your workplace, especially if you use your blog to vent. Same for blogging about your industry. Don't count on anonymity, as you can be outed all kinds of ways. There was a Memphis blogger who was reporting all kinds of behind-the-scenes Memphis media stuff, for a while, counting on blog anonymity. A simple error on the site led some folks to figure out who the blogger was. Panic set in and the blog was closed. Haven't heard a peep from that person since.

Even scrupulously maintained anonymity can be breached. Another blogger used to run SouthTV News, a website of information, updates and some gossip about Southern television markets, including Memphis. A couple of months ago, the anonymous blogger learned that a "media ownership group" was trolling around trying to learn his identity. He had no idea why, but supposed it was because he was reporting behind-the-scenes information. In fear for his career, he shut the site down. After consulting an attorney, he brought it back. Then, suddenly, he took it down for good, for another, unspecified, reason. He wasn't doing anything wrong or unethical or ill-advised, but his anonymity was threatened.

(BTW, I'm happy to fill his shoes, at least for the Memphis market. If you have information from behind the walls of Memphis' newspapers or television news operations, please feel free to send it in. I'll run what I can.)

I don't really have much more to add here, except to say that if you're counting on anonymity to protect you from the repercussions of what you write, don't blog. People talk, they share, you'll be found out sooner or later. The general rule of thumb I've always heard is: Never say anything on your blog you'd be afraid to say face-to-face.

One last interesting note: I did a search of Daniel Finney's name on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch site and found no stories on Finney's blog or his supension and subsequent resignation. It's always amusing to me that newspapers -- which demand transparency, accountability and unrestrained access from their subjects -- become closed forts when the spotlight turns on them. Happens nearly every time. The gentleman's agreement that has dominated newspaper self-reporting is finally crumbling in the Internet age, and that's only a good thing.