[UPDATED] Hudson Register-Star publisher and editor explain why reporter was fired

Here’s what the Hudson (NY) Register-Star staff wrote to their editor and publisher after reporter Tom Casey was fired for not wanting to mention in his story that an alderman declined to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, then removing his byline when it was added to the piece:

Tom Casey

Tom was fired for doing what any journalism professor would want him to do, stand up for the integrity of his own reporting. He was ordered by management to insert a paragraph about something he did not consider newsworthy and that was totally unrelated to the topic of his article, the city budget.

Because no public outcry had occurred to date over Alderman John Friedman’s decision not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, there was no reason to include this in the story. Adding an unrelated paragraph without context at the end of a story looks questionable to readers and gives the appearance of bias.

Publisher Roger Coleman and executive editor Theresa Hyland responded this afternoon:

We just don’t understand why a reporter would want to hide this, seemingly protect a public official or censor the news. And to be frank, that is exactly what happened here. …

We didn’t ask for an opinion piece. We asked for the event to be included in a news story. And we didn’t dictate how it was to be written.

Hyland and Coleman

Claims that we (Roger F. Coleman or Theresa E. Hyland) wrote the paragraphs regarding the pledge and inserted them into the story are patently false. If we had, a request to remove a byline would be understandable. The request to remove a byline is not an everyday occurrence, but it does happen in our industry. The request never made it to either of us and the byline was removed without our knowledge.

* A statement from the publisher and editor (registerstar.com)
* Register-Star staff sends protest letter to bosses (sampratt.com)
* Earlier: Reporter fired after taking byline off story (jimromenesko.com)
* Earlier: City editor, two reporters quit to protest colleague’s dismissal (jimromenesko.com)

UPDATE: Late Thursday, I asked Casey and his former colleagues to tell my readers about their Register-Star departures. Their responses are after the jump.

Here is the full email sent by Tom Casey:

Details of Tom’s dismissal:

1. Thursday, Nov. 1, Tom attended a meeting of the Hudson Common Council. At
that meeting Third Ward Alderman John Friedman did not stand for the pledge of allegiance. Tom was later contacted via his cellphone by Executive Editor Theresa Hyland, who said she heard about Friedman not standing for the pledge. She told him to put it into the story. He told her he felt uncomfortable doing so. The story was not filed that evening.

2. The next day, Nov. 2, the newsroom staff of the paper had a discussion about the pledge and its place in Tom’s story. The circumstances of how this came up — that Tom was contacted directly by Hyland the night before — were not mentioned. The newsroom staff expressed its support for Tom’s standpoint, and explained that the discussion did not affect the meeting or hold it up in any way. One alderman turned and asked why he was not standing, but it was a brief interaction and was not disruptive, according to Tom who is the only one who was present at the meeting.

3. Tom also said he did not feel this was a newsworthy item during the meeting, which was about selling valuable city land and counting the revenue in the budget before a buyer was found. The city editor and other reporters backed Tom up on this. Hyland said she heard our points of view and that she would “think about it” and get back to either Tom or City Editor Francesca Olsen with her decision. She did not make a return phone call and the story ran with no mention of the pledge. Tom’s story.

4. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Tom went to Hyland’s office to talk to her about an Election Day follow-up story. She mentioned that she thought we missed a story and “we made a bad call” and said the next time Friedman did not stand for the pledge, it had to go in the story. No other newsroom personnel were notified about this directive.

5. At the Nov. 8 Common Council budget meeting, Friedman did not stand for the pledge and the meeting was not interrupted. No audible comments were made by the other aldermen or anyone in the meeting audience.

6. After the meeting, Tom returned to the office and wrote a story breaking down the city’s 2013 budget proposal. He filed the story before deadline and left for the day. About 20 minutes after Tom left, Hyland called his work extension and Olsen picked up the line. Hyland was surprised to hear Olsen’s voice and not Casey’s, and asked if the story Tom had filed included any mention of Friedman. Olsen replied it did not. Hyland told her it would have to go in the story and that Tom would have to return to the office to write it in.

7. Olsen expressed her extreme discomfort about the situation but Hyland said it was her decision, it had been made and it was final.

8. Hyland called Casey’s cell phone and asked him why it wasn’t in the story. Tom explained how nothing had happened and detailed how there was no incident to write about. She said it happened and it had to be in the story. Hyland and Tom had an extensive discussion over why it should be in the story and Tom ultimately
agreed to return to the newsroom after reiterating his previous reasoning. Hyland said the grafs had to be in the story and that this was the final decision.

9. Tom returned to the newsroom and wrote the paragraphs on the end of the story:

“At the start of the meeting some in the audience were upset over Third Ward Alderman John Friedman’s decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance. While Hudson City Code does not require council members to stand for the pledge, Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Donahue, who had complained about the matter at a previous meeting and asked Friedman why he did not stand, was visibly upset.

“No comment could be reached from either party concerning the matter, and it did not interfere with the meeting. “

10. Tom later called Olsen and asked her to take his byline off the story. She agreed to do so.

11. At the end of the day Friday, Nov. 10, after a long, closed-door phone call between Hyland and Coleman, Tom was fired.

Details of Francesca Olsen’s departure

I stood with my staff and signed my name to the letter asking Tom be reinstated, which was emailed in the early morning hours of Nov. 14. When I got into work Wednesday afternoon I was called into a conference room meeting with Coleman and Hyland. Coleman had a copy of the letter and asked me what my name was doing on it. I told him I stood with my staff and said Tom’s firing was an outrageous decision.

Olsen

I didn’t get a lot of opportunity for discussion. Coleman asked me repeatedly if I was resigning, and when I said I stood with my staff he asked if that meant I stood against him and Hyland. I said it wasn’t really that simple. After it became clear we weren’t going to have a reasoned and even-toned discussion about this I said I would resign. I sent a resignation letter the next day; most of it had already been written days before Tom was fired and it just needed some updates.

Also no, no attempts were made to get me to stay.

I have no regrets. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’ve been contacted in the past two days by nearly every journalist I have worked with in the past five years. Everyone has said they’re proud of us, and I’m proud of my staff too. We have no specific, immediate plans about what we’re going to do next, but I don’t think anyone is quitting journalism after this experience.

Billy Shannon and Adam Shanks resigned a few hours later after meeting with Roger on Nov. 14 to announce their resignation. They sent resignation letters in also.

Details of Adam Shanks’ resignation:

My reason for leaving, as stated in (part of) my resignation letter:

“Given the same situation, I would have acted exactly as Tom Casey did prior to being fired. As the newsroom wrote in its letter, Tom acted with incredible integrity. Knowing upholding my journalistic integrity could, at any moment, result in my being fired has made this an unstable and uncomfortable work environment.

Shanks

“Your actions against Tom undermine the very work I try to do for the community. Because the community is now aware that its news, at any time, can be directed straight from the top down instead of based on its reporter’s observations, my sources and members of the community will no longer place the same trust in me. After these recent events, it is clear working for this paper no longer benefits the community (my first priority) and no longer benefits myself.”

It should be noted that, by coming together to write our initial letter to Roger and Theresa, the staff gave them more than enough of an opportunity to fix this. They chose not to. When that became incredibly clear Wednesday, I requested a meeting with Roger. After listening politely to Roger reiterate that Tom was “censoring” the news, I briefly told him my reasons for resigning, shook his hand, and left.

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