After hiring its last editor from outside the newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch returned to its backyard for the new one: Danny Finnegan, who took the reins June 2, the day after outgoing editor Glenn Proctor retired.
Although Finnegan started on the sports copy desk when he came to the paper in 1987, he's also been a night editor and most recently, senior editor of digital operations. I sat down to talk with him in mid-July, just days after another round of layoffs — this time claiming 20 T-D employees, including five from the newsroom. This news came after Media General's announcement in late June that all staffers must take 15 unpaid furlough days before the end of the year.
Finnegan noted that it was clearly a time for grieving, adding, "It's OK for everybody to be a little hurt and angry. It's painful, but it's the reality of where we are. I don't think it's the end."
He wouldn't go into specifics about how he and other leaders at the paper decided whom to let go — a group that included Tyler Whitley, who recently celebrated 50 years of covering state politics at the paper; Lindy Keast Rodman, a part-time photographer who had worked there since 1980; and feature writer Julie Young, whose work appeared in the Home & Garden and Sunday Flair sections.
Finnegan did say that he was given marching orders from above, but "in the end, it's my responsibility."
He is different from his predecessor, Proctor, who was hired in 2005 from the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was famously — among newshounds, at least — a former gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marines. Proctor's management style was, shall we say, aggressive. It's not that Finnegan is a soft touch, but he is happy to give credit to his staff, from writers to section editors whose names aren't as well known to the public. He also commends the copy editors who now work in Hanover County and Tampa, Fla., under Media General's recent consolidation of copy desks. "They're not only talented, but a resilient group," he said of the entire newsroom staff.
And he's viewed favorably by staffers, who see him as "a known factor," a boss who will listen to suggestions and complaints.
Much of Finnegan's focus is on the digital side of the paper, building and managing content, as well as trying to make "significant money" online — an issue that still bedevils most news outlets.
"Journalism is still the core of what we do," he said, but the T-D has its fingers in social media (Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr), as well as mobile, iPad and Kindle versions of the daily paper. Online commenting underwent a major change this summer, switching from anonymous comments to Facebook registration. I made a brief survey of TimesDispatch.com, and stories that would have yielded numerous posts in the past have few to none. But the level of discourse has definitely been raised now that names are attached.
Finnegan said Facebook might not be the final answer, since not everyone subscribes, but he added that there is no "right" to anonymous commenting. "The feeling was — and this goes up to Tom [Silvestri, the publisher] — that we needed a more civil discussion."
Text has been the greater digital focus up to now, but photographs are coming to the forefront, Finnegan said, pointing to a project led by photographer Dean Hoffmeyer, who is scanning and archiving 4-by-5-inch, large-format negatives from the 1950s and '60s. The paper also is providing online access, at a cost, to historic documents from the Civil War era, as well as videos and articles marking the sesquicentennial.
The Civil War archive is one of several steps toward a paywall, which is still in the planning stages, Finnegan said, but one day he hopes to charge readers for "high-quality journalism" that they can't find elsewhere. There is no timetable, he added.
He acknowledged that the paper's old aim of covering 20 localities is unrealistic now; the 2009 layoff of 59 employees — including 28 from the newsroom — claimed reporters who covered Southwest Virginia and the Charlottesville area, and even the Richmond metro area has fewer beat reporters. Instead, Finnegan focuses on the paper's current strengths: state government and politics, crime, business and local sports. The presidential and U.S. Senate elections next year "could be very interesting" for the paper, he said, especially with its PolitiFact partnership.
"I think we all wish we had more people covering local news," he said. "I know we've been giving it away on the Web. We've got to battle to keep the staff we have."
Note: Kate Andrews worked for Media General's Daily Progress newspaper in Charlottesville from 1999 to 2006, and Richmond magazine editor-in-chief Susan Winiecki is married to T-D politics editor Andrew Cain.