A reporter is fired; colleagues quit in protest

The Hudson Register-Star reporter refused to include information in his story

On November 8, Tom Casey, a reporter at the Hudson Register-Star, a community paper in upstate New York, wrote an article about a city budget meeting. The next day, he was fired. The week after that, nearly half of the newsroom resigned.

The story that Casey, 24, wrote contained a lot of interesting information—the proposed budget for 2013 ($11.9 million), the amount taxes would increase (they wouldn’t), and next year’s salary for aldermen ($9,500), but Register-Star publisher Roger Coleman thought it was missing something: the fact that one of the city’s 10 aldermen, John Friedman, had not stood for the pledge of allegiance at the start of the meeting.

In an earlier meeting, Friedman had also declined to stand for the pledge. One of his fellow aldermen noticed and asked him why he remained seated, but then the meeting proceeded without incident. Casey, who covered that meeting, was not sure whether the pledge anecdote was newsworthy and discussed it with the rest of the newsroom at the daily 4:30 p.m. news meeting. After a short discussion, attendees came to a consensus that since it wasn’t relevant to the topic of the meeting and no one made a big deal about it, Friedman’s decision to remain seated probably shouldn’t be included.

Theresa Hyland, the executive editor of the Register-Star, was present at that meeting. But she evidently had second thoughts after it ended; according to Casey, she took him aside and told him, “Listen, I think we missed something here. Next time it happens, it’s going in the story.” At the subsequent meeting, Friedman again refused to stand for the pledge. No one at the meeting commented about it or even seemed to notice. Exercising his news judgment, Casey did not include it in the story. “Nothing happened. I can’t write anything!” he reasoned. Francesca Olsen, his editor at the city desk, agreed with his judgment. But Hyland and Coleman did not.

After Casey finished writing the story and went home, his newsroom extension rang, and Olsen answered it. It was Hyland, calling for Casey. She was not happy that Casey’s story didn’t include the fact that Friedman had refused to stand for the pledge. She told Olsen that she wanted Casey to add a few paragraphs to his story about the pledge non-incident. Olsen pushed back. “I told her I thought it was a really bad decision. I’m an editor, and I don’t support bad writing,” Olsen said.

Hyland then called Casey at home and instructed him to return to the office and add information about the pledge to his story. He did. (Initial reports inaccurately indicated that the paragraphs had been written by an editor and inserted after the fact; in fact, Casey wrote them, but not voluntarily.) An hour or so later, he called Olsen and asked her to take his byline off the piece. The story reflected poorly on him, he thought, with its mish-mash of budget reporting and the alderman’s decision not to stand. Olsen readily agreed.

Late the next afternoon, Hyland spoke to Olsen in private. She told Olsen that Casey had to be let go. According to Olsen, Hyland told her that it was unacceptable for Casey to remove his byline from the story because “we pay him to write this.” Olsen was shocked, and asked whether this was decision was hers or Coleman’s. According to Olsen, Hyland then admitted that the order came from the top. After that conversation, Casey was called into Hyland’s office. According to Casey, she asked him where his byline was and he replied that “I thought we were making an issue out of nothing.” He was then fired.

“We were all furious,” Olsen recalled. The next week, some of them wrote a letter, signed by the majority of the nine-person newsroom and addressed to Coleman and Hyland. “Tom was fired for doing what any journalism professor would want him to do, stand up for the integrity of his own reporting,” they wrote in the letter, which called for Casey’s reinstatement and a meeting between Coleman and the newsroom to discuss the incident. Coleman ignored the letter, instead choosing to meet with each member of the staff individually.

In response, Olsen resigned, along with two reporters—Adam Shanks and Billy Shannon. None of them wanted to resign. All are from Hudson or nearby towns, and many gave up more prestigious jobs to work at their community newspaper and serve its more than 4,000 subscribers. Olsen started at the paper as a reporter in 2009 before leaving to work at a law firm and then the Watertown Daily Times, a paper in nearby* Watertown, NY with a circulation of over 20,000. She returned to the Register-Star late last year and, had she not resigned, this week would be her first anniversary as city editor. Shannon started as a sportswriter at the paper before taking time off to attend the Columbia Journalism School; he returned earlier this year as the crime and courts reporter. Shanks was working his first job after college.

Those who resigned are passionate about their decision, but do not begrudge those who stayed. “The reporters who stayed are excellent reporters,” said Shanks. “I’m a young guy, I’ll be okay, [but] not everyone’s in the same situation I am. Not everyone could do what I did.” What really matters to him is that “everyone signed the letter.”

The news of Casey’s firing and the resignations of Olsen, Shanks, and Shannon began to spread beyond Hudson after local blogger Sam Pratt reported the story and Romenesko picked it up. Coleman and Hyland finally responded to the incident with a statement published on the Register-Star’s website on Friday afternoon. (Other than referring to that statement, Coleman did not comment to CJR and Hyland could not be reached.) The statement is remarkably defensive. In it, Coleman and Hyland imply that Casey was trying to censor the news, writing that “when it comes to the news business, there are two types of people: those who will do anything to get something in and those who will do anything to keep it out.”

Casey said that he left out the incident not because he wanted to censor it but because he (and the rest of the newsroom) believed it was not a newsworthy incident, given that no one at the meeting reacted to it or contacted him afterwards to complain. Coleman and Hyland have an answer to that point, and it involves a series of fairly absurd hypotheticals: “if [public outcry] is what determines if something is newsworthy, then stories about Jim Crow laws may never have been reported…another reason given as to why this wasn’t news was because the initial exchange only took a few seconds. So does murder.”

More than anything, Coleman and Hyland’s statement betrays a deep disdain for their (former) reporters. Casey, not Coleman or Hyland, was the one at the meeting; unless his article is nothing more than a full transcript of it, he is going to use his news judgment to determine what parts of the meeting are most newsworthy and relevant to his audience.

So what’s next for Casey, Olsen, Shanks, and Shannon? None of them have full-time jobs lined up, though Shannon is working on a fiction piece for Kindle Singles. “We might start a local blog,” Olsen offered. It would be a natural step to take, given that the four of them have all the sources and community knowledge that comes with Hudson’s paper of record. And they all have the news judgment and journalistic integrity to be great reporters and editors.

*A reader notes that Watertown and Hudson are some 200 miles apart.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: , , , ,