John Finnegan, a retired longtime editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a tireless champion of the public's right to information, died early Tuesday, his family said.

A force behind Minnesota's first open-meetings law in 1957 and an advocate for the state's first open-records legislation in the mid-1970s, Finnegan died in hospice at his St. Paul home from intestinal cancer. He was 87.

"Even when John Finnegan thought he had retired as a journalist [in 1989], he remained incredibly active as an advocate for First Amendment rights and for open access to public meetings and government data," said Kate Parry, who filled various editor positions at the Pioneer Press. Parry is now an assistant managing editor at the Star Tribune and was the newspaper's ombudsman.

"Reporters all over Minnesota -- as well as the public -- benefit every day from the foundation of openness he fought for in Minnesota's laws," Parry added.

John Finnegan Jr. said that thanks to his father and others, "Minnesota really became known for holding [public officials] accountable for what they do ... and that business is conducted in the public sunshine."

Soon after Finnegan retired in 1989, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information established the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award for those "who demonstrate through expression and action commitment to the idea that a popular and democratic government can never realize the aspirations of the founding fathers without the participation of an informed electorate."

The senior Finnegan's honors for his pursuit of public accountability include membership in the National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame and the State Open Government Hall of Fame award for 2011 from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Finnegan was born in Walker, Minn., in 1924, and graduated from the University of Minnesota after majoring in journalism and political science. He and wife Norma moved to Rochester, Minn., where he was a reporter for the Post-Bulletin.

In 1951, he joined the Pioneer Press as a night general assignment reporter. Ten years later, he became associate editor of the editorial page, then executive editor in 1967. He was senior vice president and assistant publisher until he retired in 1989.

"Most journalistic careers don't stay in one place for a long time," said Finnegan's son, "but he was one of those people who made a go of it from the beginning to the end in his home state."

The younger Finnegan said that newspaper work was "a calling for him. ... He's just one of those people, as they say, he found the color of his parachute very early."

Along with his wife and son John Jr., Finnegan is survived by son James; daughters Roberta Deeney, Mary Maruska and Cara Finnegan; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

He was preceded in death by his son Joseph.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482