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.