Border Crossings

CityBusiness fires longtime editor Kathy Finn amid a contentious debate over the paper's separation of advertising and editorial.



The first public inkling that something was amiss at New Orleans' CityBusiness newspaper surfaced March 22 on Informed Sources, a live news roundtable show on public television station WYES-TV12. Frequent guest Kathy Finn, editor-in-chief and vice president for more than half of her 14 years at the business weekly, was instead introduced as "a freelance business journalist."

The second clue that it was hardly business as usual at "the business newspaper of metropolitan New Orleans" appeared three days later in the paper's own editorial pages. In an op-ed titled "Thanks, Kathy," the editorial staff bade Finn an extremely fond farewell -- without saying why she was leaving. The piece also defended her journalistic integrity as if it had been attacked: "During her tenure here, Kathy became the most respected business journalist in town. ... [She] was a reporter's editor. She never asked her staff to compromise on journalistic integrity. She never asked her staff to write one word that would cheapen them, their readers, their paper or their profession."

Had anyone? The commentary raised more questions than answers about Finn's exit. It was signed, "the staff."

In a separate article in the same issue, new president and publisher D. Mark Singletary announced the promotion of Peter Reichard, who covers area economic development, to managing editor. "This is a good move for our newspaper and the business community in New Orleans," Singletary wrote. "Peter's leadership and experience in the newsroom are very important for our readers and our staff." A quote by reporter Ian McNulty, whose beats include financial services and sports business, followed: "We'll certainly miss Kathy's guidance and support but Peter is clearly the right choice to direct the newsroom."

Neither article mentioned Kathy Finn had been fired.

Singletary dismissed Finn on March 15, the day after the paper had sent its "Top Private Companies" edition -- the biggest issue of the year -- to press. Finn's firing stunned the city's journalism community. It was the most mysterious ending of the reign of a local media executive since the still-unexplained resignation of Times-Picayune Editor-in-Chief Charles Ferguson in 1990.

Testimonials for Finn's character and integrity are easy to find. "She has unquestionable credentials and she is one of leading business journalists in the city," says Jeffrey Meitrodt, who worked as a business reporter with Finn at CityBusiness from 1988 until 1993, and now is an investigative projects editor for The Times-Picayune. "She was the kind of person who thought there should be a very bright line between advertising and editorial, and I know she would never allow for there to be an improper overlapping of those two departments."

Other former CityBusiness writers also praised Finn, stressing that she was especially careful to maintain a division between editorial and advertising -- a practice that is often likened in journalism to the constitutional divide between church and state.

But publisher Singletary says he too "absolutely" adheres to this division, which is delineated in a number of professional journalists' codes of ethics. A former top official for Dolan Media Company of Minneapolis, which bought CityBusiness from founding publisher William "Bill" Metcalf Jr. in 1999, confirms that the corporation also adheres to the same "codes." Says the former Dolan official: "They know you don't put lipstick on a pig."

So why was Finn fired? In separate interviews, both Finn and Singletary agreed that "philosophical differences" led to her ouster. "We differed philosophically as to how much editorial information should be shared with the advertising staff," Finn says. "And we differed as to the impact on the reader regarding the appearance that an advertiser has some degree of control over a news page."

Says Singletary: "Suffice it to say that we had a philosophical difference on the way the newsroom should be managed."

The publisher confirms Finn's assertion that Singletary has repeatedly said since joining CityBusiness on Oct. 1 that the paper is "the best publication" in the Dolan Media Group. Dolan owns 16 other business publications nationwide from Baltimore to Vancouver, Wa., and Milwaukee to St. Louis. Singletary has been a publisher for Dolan papers for almost four years.

On the day of her discharge, Finn adds, Singletary told her that her termination was "all about breaking down barriers between departments." More specifically, Finn says that the publisher had told her, "I believe everything in editorial should be shared with the advertising staff." Finn adds that at the event of her termination, in which the human resources director was the only other person in the room, "the publisher conceded that the firing had nothing to do with the editorial quality of the paper."

Singletary says that Finn's description of the conversation about "breaking down barriers" is a "fair" recollection, but declines to elaborate. Nor does he wish to comment about other statements made during the firing. "I'm not looking to get into an argument on what I can remember saying and what she heard," he says.

However, Singletary does not refute Finn's recollection that the abyss between editor and publisher began to widen in mid-November. In fact, the seeds of separation might have been sown much earlier.

In May 1999, CityBusiness founder Metcalf sold the 20-year-old weekly and related publications to Dolan Media. (Metcalf continues to own/operate other media, including New Orleans magazine and two radio stations.) For the next two years, Dolan left the existing management of CityBusiness in place, with former chief operating officer Carolyn McLellan serving as publisher.

Singletary, who was then editor and publisher of the Oklahoma City Journal-Record, another Dolan paper, replaced McLellan on Oct. 1.

A 25-year newspaper veteran, accountant and native of Beaumont, Texas, Singletary got his start in the newspaper business as a 24-year-old comptroller for the Hartman newspaper chain in east Texas. Since then, he has moved like a journeyman football quarterback, previously publishing newspapers in Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Colorado.

"I've run printing [presses], covered high school sports, sold ads, souped film, covered kindergarten graduations and met presidents," he says. And he has been writing columns since 1978. In fact, his biggest splash during his first six months in New Orleans might have been his weekly column, in which he showed an unusual willingness to tackle local controversies ranging from state funding for retaining the Saints football team to the publishing woes of Stephen Ambrose. ("Ambrose should look to history for examples of misconduct that have been forgiven and forgotten," Singletary suggested.)

Singletary calls columns "open snapshots" of their writers, but his own commentaries offered no hint of the trouble brewing in his own shop. Beginning in mid-November, a series of contentious, internal debates preceded a painful, though perhaps inevitable, final clash between the paper's editor and publisher. That's when the paper began selling sponsorships for certain news pages. Finn called the move an unprecedented step in the paper's history.

In a letter to Finn dated Nov. 16, 2001, all five of CityBusiness' reporters and an associate editor expressed concern over these sponsorships. They specifically requested their bylines be pulled from any pages "sponsored by" advertisers. "To see our names associated with that of a sponsor damages our relationship with our sources and our readers," they wrote. "If we compromise our journalistic standards, we also compromise our value to our readers and, in the long run, make our product less valuable to our advertisers." The letter was accompanied by supporting citations of ethics codes from professional journalism associations.

The request led to what Finn characterizes as "a contentious meeting" among the editorial staff, publisher and the paper's advertising manager. Finn says she requested that the publisher reconsider the sponsorships, "based on ethical considerations, including concern that the sponsorships would foster the perception that editorial content is for sale."

Singletary acknowledges the November meeting, but declines to comment on the reporters' concerns. "That's family business," he says.

Singletary ultimately agreed not to use the "sponsored by" phrase, Finn says. The "CityBits" page now carries advertiser logos at the top of the page, and in some cases, a banner ad at the bottom of the page. None of the reporters attach their bylines to stories they submit to that page. It is now labeled "from staff reports."

Despite the compromise, Finn says, the "contentiousness" between editor and publisher continued into 2002. Divisive issues included how much information about the paper's upcoming editorial content should be shared with the advertising department.

"I really don't want to comment on this because I don't want to use your pages to get into a 'he said, she said, the editor said, the publisher said,'" says Singletary. "There is no indication that our editorial columns are for sale. There has never been any hint to an advertiser or anybody that reads our paper, that advertises in our paper, that there is any relationship like that." He points out that a graphic "border" around the ads in question honors the traditional separation between advertising and editorial.

"In our view, it's the same thing as a television station saying, 'Today's weather is brought to you by Gambit Weekly.' Sponsoring a feature is not unprecedented in journalism. That would be my only contention."

Finn also says she and the publisher differed over his alleged suggestion that reporters be assigned to different beats in the wake of two stories regarded as sensitive to advertisers. Finn says she objected successfully to the proposed reassignments of the staff, "especially as the advertisers had failed to identify any inaccuracies in the stories." Singletary declines to respond to this point, except to say the complaints were "fairly typical complaints from advertisers."

Finn also declined to elaborate on the separate stories that drew the ire of two advertisers. Sources say that the controversial articles were written by Keith Brannon, whose beat includes utilities and the gaming industry, and Chris Bonura, who covers the maritime industry and health care. All reporters remain on their beats.

Beyond the CityBusiness drama, a larger question looms. What else is going on in the local media -- collectively one of the most influential and affluent institutions in New Orleans -- that the public does not know?

The media freely report on cases in which an individual runs afoul of the law. The arrest last year of a Times-Picayune auditor on embezzlement charges and the unrelated criminal convictions of former Fox8 television reporter Mike Longman are examples.

But the stormy above-the-law, behind-the-scenes transitions in local newsrooms that might influence the course of news and public opinion are much more difficult to root out. For example, in a 1990 cover story for New Orleans magazine, investigative reporter Ron Ridenhour admitted that he was unable to pierce the secrecy surrounding the abrupt resignation of former Times-Picayune editor Charles Ferguson.

"Ironically, those at The Times-Picayune whose task it is to oversee the extraction of facts from the unwilling, the unwitting and the unknowing -- which we in the business sometimes jokingly think of as the pursuit of truth -- have managed to bottle up the Charlie Ferguson story so tightly that not even the paper's own staff knows or can find out," Ridenhour wrote.

Earlier, as a reporter for CityBusiness, Ridenhour had put the paper on the map by winning the George Polk Award for courageous journalism for exposing the 1986-'87 city sales tax scandals. He was fired from CityBusiness in 1988, amid disputes over his stories. Just a few months earlier, the business paper had hired a regional correspondent for Money magazine as a reporter. A native of Iowa, her name was Kathy Finn.

Today, Finn says, she plans to take a little time to relax with her husband and their three cats, while she contemplates her next move. As for CityBusiness readers waiting to learn of Finn's replacement, what can they expect from the paper? "Our readers can continue to look forward to the outstanding business coverage of the business community in this city," Singletary says. "They shouldn't expect anything less. That's our pledge. We're community journalists, serving the business community."

Meanwhile, Finn served as "celebrity bartender" last Thursday night at Molly's at the Market, a popular French Quarter watering hole where members of the media meet to share the industry gossip that often doesn't make it into print. A number of local journalists, including CityBusiness reporters, were on hand to toast their former boss and colleague. The invitation to Molly's had promised: "Second drink free to members of the media who know the difference between advertising and journalism."

CORRECTION: In last week's Food News, we printed an incorrect phone number for The Marigny Brasserie. The correct number is 945-4472. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.City
CityBusiness president and publisher D. Mark Singletary declines to go into detail about 'family business,' but says that 'sponsoring a feature is not unprecedented in journalism.' -  - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • CityBusiness president and publisher D. Mark Singletary declines to go into detail about 'family business,' but says that 'sponsoring a feature is not unprecedented in journalism.'

City Business president and publisher D. Mark Singletary declines to go into detail about 'family business,' but says that 'sponsoring a feature is not unprecedented in journalism.' - D. MARK SINGLETARY
  • D. Mark Singletary
  • City Business president and publisher D. Mark Singletary declines to go into detail about 'family business,' but says that 'sponsoring a feature is not unprecedented in journalism.'

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