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 crazyrolandthompson.blogspot.com, appears to have been taken down sometime last Thursday.
Staff writer Malcolm Gay contributed to this story.