Brave New (Conflicted) World

A veteran reporter turns to the world of public relations — and keeps reporting.

As the edifice of daily print journalism collapses chunk by chunk, it's a fair bet that San Francisco will see a proliferation of upstart media outlets staffed by out-of-work reporters and editors. A sprinkling of such outfits already exist; one of the more formidable among them is the San Francisco Appeal, an online newspaper founded by former San Francisco Chronicle city editor Chuck Finnie and SFist co-founder Eve Batey. Unlike much of the competition, the Appeal hews to a recognizable set of journalistic ethics, seeking to report the news rather than advance an ideological banner or political agenda. But navigating the new media landscape with ethics intact isn't always easy, as Finnie and Batey are finding out.

The Appeal launched on March 6. About two weeks before that, in a deal aimed partly at bolstering the site's professional integrity, Batey bought out Finnie's share in the enterprise. At issue was his role as a communications consultant for Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, a major San Francisco lobbying shop that has counted among its clients the Service Employees International Union, San Francisco General Hospital, and AT&T. Finnie's job is to advance clients' messages in the news media — which is why he and Batey decided that it might create a conflict of interest if he were simultaneously co-owner and editor of an online newspaper.

Finnie acknowledges his dual roles are "replete with potential conflicts. In recognizing that, I've stepped away from the editorship and ownership of the publication." However, he plans to keep contributing to the site as a reporter, and hopes that by disclosing his customers and avoiding beats where they have something at stake, he can maintain a fair reportorial stance.

Batey, now the site's editor and publisher, agrees. Just as pressing a concern, she adds, is that the Appeal's reporting not put Finnie on the outs with his consulting clients. "It's important that I constantly know the list of clients the firm has, so there's a firewall, and Chuck has plausible deniability," she said.

If all this sounds as if it's getting a little complicated — well, it is, according to Susan Rasky, a senior lecturer at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rasky said it would be best to label Finnie's writing as commentary, since potential conflicts of interest in San Francisco's hothouse political world are myriad — the influence of big players, such as labor unions and businesses, is far-reaching and often hard to detect. Nor is this likely to be the last time such questions come up. The dismal trajectory of the newspaper industry would seem to signal that the days when you could get paid to tote a notebook full-time are in decline. "In this brave new world, the reality is that [journalists] are only going to be able to make a living doing a multiplicity of things," Rasky said. "And they're going to come into conflict."

 
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