John W. Finney, 80, a longtime journalist at the New York Times who also was a lecturer on the media and a community activist, died of prostate cancer Oct. 29 at the Washington Hospice.
He lived in the Palisades area of Northwest Washington and served two terms on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D from 2000 to 2004.
His broad range of experience in Washington, where he had lived since 1949, encompassed writing about science and politics at the national level, teaching students about the media and debating about zoning and sidewalks at the local level.
Mr. Finney was born in Springfield, Mass., and grew up in Connecticut. He entered Yale University just after World War II broke out and served in the Navy as a radio officer on a PT boat in the Pacific. After graduating with the Class of 1945, he briefly attended Yale Law School but soon took off on a two-year tour of the world, making his way as a cabin boy and deck hand on tramp steamers.
That experience persuaded him to pursue a career in journalism. With a background as managing editor of the campus newspapers at Choate School in Connecticut and Yale, Mr. Finney set off for Washington in 1949. He landed a job covering the Pentagon and the U.S. Senate for United Press.
In 1957, he was hired by the legendary Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, James Reston, to report on "the atom and how government controls or influences its use," according to a Times news release. He received praise as an investigative reporter who accumulated a number of exclusives.
As a souvenir, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) gave Mr. Finney a handwritten note on White House stationery written by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, during a news conference in 1962. Scribbled beside notes on the great issues concerning him, were the words "Nuclear leak -- Finney," referring to a Times story.
Journalist Marvin Kalb, then with CBS, worked the State Department beat alongside Mr. Finney. "John's approach was a mix of politeness and respect for authority together with a razor-like memory that allowed him to recall previous (contradictory) policy statements made by the secretary," Kalb said. "A person knew when he was cornered and had to come up with a clear response. It was incisive media with a gentle manner."
After retiring from the Times as a news editor in 1987, Mr. Finney became a lecturer at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, where he taught future diplomats and business leaders about the media for 15 years.
His hobbies were woodworking, travel and fishing for bass off Cape Cod and for trout as far away as New Zealand.
His marriage to Barbara Slotky Finney ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Theresa McMasters Finney of Washington; two daughters from his first marriage, Alison Stebbins of Amherst, N.H., and Jessica Warner of Toronto; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.