Virginian-Pilot editor resigns after a long career, staff cuts, and a crisis

“I am not going to linger.” That was Virginian-Pilot editor Denis Finley’s message to his newsroom Thursday, in a note announcing his departure after 28 years at the largest newspaper in Virginia. His last day will be Friday, March 20.

“I have loved every minute, no matter how hard it got, that I was your leader,” he wrote.

It did get hard at times. Finley, 62, began his career at the Pilot in 1987 as a photographer after opening a restaurant and working as a teacher, a pastry chef, and a bartender. He rose through the ranks to become the top editor 10 years ago, just as the bottom was falling out of the industry’s business model.

The 150-year-old Pilot has “not been immune” to challenging times in an industry struggling to navigate the digital age, as the paper’s coverage of Finley’s departure notes. Multiple rounds of layoffs, including one last fall, have cut the newsroom in half. The Pilot story quotes Finley as saying he won’t miss the “tremendous pressure.”

“It takes its toll on a person,” the editor added. “I’ve been thinking about this for a year or so now. I resisted because I wanted to be here for my staff.” (Finley did not respond to a voicemail and email from CJR on Friday.)

The pressure hasn’t only been about economic realities: As I reported in January, the Pilot newsroom recently faced an unsettling crisis. Last fall, the paper published an investigation reporting that a local mayor had cast votes benefiting developers who borrowed from a bank where he worked as an executive. In the aftermath, the mayor left his bank job, other area banks changed their policies, and an official inquiry was opened. But there was also blowback—and in the view of many Pilot journalists, upper management at their own paper was soon stifling coverage and meddling in the newsroom.

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A toxic atmosphere engulfed the paper; fears that the Pilot might repudiate its reporting led to talks of a walkout or a picket line. “Whether Finley, the top editor, will be able to navigate potential landmines and forge a path forward remains to be seen,” I wrote at the time.

In the weeks that followed, according to Pilot journalists I’ve talked to since then, Finley was able to help mediate a compromise that avoided a major blowup. The paper brought in an outside attorney to review its coverage and assess any legal risk. In the end, the paper did run a (relatively minor) correction about a vote by the mayor, a clarification stating that “there was no attempt… to imply” wrongdoing by a developer mentioned toward the end of the story, and an op-ed by the developer. There was no staff walk-out, and there were no picket signs. Since then, the atmosphere has gotten better, corporate pressure has been relieved, and the paper has been back to doing local accountability reporting.

But the episode took a toll—as did the paper’s financial pressures. David Putney, a designer who was hired by Finley more than 15 years ago, recalled his former boss in a blog post as a leader who cultivated an “open, positive newsroom.” I heard the same from longtime staffers. When times turned bad, the editor known for saying hello and kicking out kudos on stories took it upon himself, instead of leaving it to HR, to deliver the news of each layoff in person. Even as they appreciated the connection, some who had worked with Finley for years feared seeing him approaching their desk, or his email popping up in their inbox.

“If you put those two together”—the cuts and the conflict—“that’s a lot for someone to go through,” said Carl Fincke, a regional team editor who has been with the paper for 36 years.

The Pilot will conduct a national search for a new editor, according to publisher Pat Richardson, and there is a posting up already.

After the tough fall and winter for the paper, I wanted to know how some Pilot journalists felt about Finley’s resignation and what they want to see in their next editor. I heard pretty much the same thing from each one: Finley was a capable leader, and the paper needs someone who cares about watchdog reporting and holding people in power accountable.

“It’s no secret what our newsroom has been through,” said Joanne Kimberlin, a staff writer who came to the Pilot in 2000. “We need a strong journalist. We need somebody with experience and backbone—and maybe a sharp toe on their boot.”

For Gary Harki, the public safety reporter for Norfolk and Portsmouth, the Pilot needs a stabilizing force.

“Denis was that force,” he said. “Through everything that’s been going on.”

Patrick Wilson, the statehouse reporter, said there’s been much talk at the paper about digital journalism and the Web, and being a digital-first enterprise. The “chief goal,” he said, should be “doing good journalism”—which means continuing the paper’s tradition of investigative and watchdog reporting.

“I think the main thing that I would want to see is someone who … understands the role of the press and the newspaper is to keep watch on government and report to the public on the actions of government and how public money is being spent,” he said. “That means investigating, digging, and using FOI, sourcing, and from time to time writing things that powerful people do not want written, [about] what people in power do not want people to know.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.