William Finnegan (born 1952) is a staff writer at The New Yorker and well-known author of works of international journalism. He has specially addressed issues of racism and conflict in Southern Africa and politics in Mexico and South America, as well as poverty among youth in the United States, and is well known for his writing on surfing.
Finnegan was born in New York City in 1952. He was raised in Los Angeles and Hawaii. He graduated from William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California and received his B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1974 with a degree in Literature. During his youth he took up surfing, which became a lifelong passion he still practices off Long Island when at home. Finnegan spent the next four years taking seasonal jobs and working on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Montana. Finnegan then spent four years abroad, traveling in Asia, Australia, and Africa. He supported himself with freelance travel writing and other odd jobs, but upon reaching Cape Town, South Africa, Finnegan was in need of a job. He found a position as an English teacher at Grassy Park High School, a school for "coloured" students. Finnegan’s teaching experience coincided with a nationwide school boycott, giving him fodder for his first book, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which was published in 1986 and was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best nonfiction books of the year.
Finnegan’s experience in South Africa transformed him from a novelist to a political journalist. His first short piece, about his experience living in Sri Lanka, was published in Mother Jones in 1979. Finnegan began contributing to The New Yorker in 1984 and has been a staff writer there since 1987. He has also contributed to Harper's and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.
Finnegan contributed a two-part series for the New Yorker in 1992 entitled "Playing Doc's Games." A surfer himself, Finnegan writes about the local surf scene in San Francisco revolving around Ocean Beach and Dr. Mark Renneker ("Doc") as well as Finnegan's own personal experiences. A remarkable piece of writing, it is widely considered to be one of the best pieces of journalism on surfing.
Finnegan’s next two books grew out of assignments for The New Yorker. In 1986, he was sent to Johannesburg, where he followed black reporters who gathered information for white reporters during Apartheid. This led to the 1988 publication of Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters. A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, published in 1992, grew out of a series of correspondences about the war-torn nation for the magazine, and Finnegan's own travels throughout that war-torn nation. 1998 saw the publication of Finnegan’s most recent work, Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, which deals with the bleak lives of American teenagers in spite of the United States’ economic affluence. It was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1999.
In the July 20th, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Finnegan profiled Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona and his role in the conflict over immigration in that border state. In the May 31st, 2010 issue, he reported from Michoacan state in Mexico on the rise of the "La Familia" drug gang and the increasing social and political instability in Mexico. His "Talk of the Town" comment on "Borderlines," which addresses the U.S. political stalemate over immigration reform, appeared in the magazine's issue for July 26, 2010.
Finnegan's autobiographical work "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. Finnegan has twice received the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, given by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in 1994 and 1996. He has twice been a National Magazine Award finalist, in 1990 and 1995. In 1994, his article “Deep East Texas” won the Edward M. Brecher Award for Achievement in the Field of Journalism from the Drug Policy Foundation. His article “The Unwanted” won the Sidney Hillman Award for Magazine Reporting in 1998. His report from Sudan, “The Invisible War,” won a Citation for Excellence from the Overseas Press Club in 2000. In 2002, Hunter College, City University of New York, honored him with the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for his article "Leasing the Rain" on the fight to control fresh water.
Finnegan currently resides in New York.
Finnegan's younger brother, Michael Finnegan, is a national political correspondent for The Los Angeles Times.