3 journalists quit N.Y.’s Register-Star after colleague is fired

Times-Union | SamPratt.com | Jim Romenesko | Register-Star
Three journalists at the (Hudson, N.Y.) Register-Star quit the paper after a colleague was fired for resisting his editor’s insistence that he include what he viewed as superflous detail in a story. Tom Casey didn’t want to include in his report the fact that a city councilman didn’t stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Reporters Adam Shanks and Billy Shannon and Register-Star city editor Francesca Olsen resigned after Casey lost his job.

The Times-Union reports:

Casey says he wouldn’t have balked at writing about [councilman John] Friedman’s position if he’d been allowed to tackle the topic thoroughly and responsibly. He just thought questioning a politician’s patriotism deserved more than a few paragraphs quickly added to an unrelated story, especially since Friedman has been declining to stand for many months.

Shanks, Shannon and Olsen were among the Register-Star staffers who signed a letter protesting Casey’s firing: “Tom was fired for doing what any journalism professor would want him to do, stand up for the integrity of his own reporting,” the letter reads.

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.

Shanks, Olsen and Casey told Jim Romenesko about leaving the paper. Olsen wrote that publisher Roger F. 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 [Executive Editor Theresa] 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.

Hyland and Coleman wrote their own account of Casey’s firing:

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 …

This isn’t about taking a principled stand against higher-ups. This isn’t about not allowing a free-flow of ideas and discussion. There was an exchange of ideas. It was just overruled. No one was fired for disagreeing with his or her supervisor.

Chris Churchill talked with the four journalists after they left the paper.

Last week, I met with Casey and the other members of the Newly Unemployed Four at a Hudson falafel shop just a few blocks from the Register-Star’s office. Not surprisingly, they seemed a little shell-shocked. Joblessness in a down economy will do that to you.

But more than that, they were chagrined to no longer be reporting news, and they almost couldn’t help but turn conversation to the nitty-gritty local issues in which they were recently immersed.

One thing was clear: The four had loved, really loved, their jobs. They knew that journalism remains an amazing way to make a living, despite the newspaper industry’s recent struggles.

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  • an_gob

    Thanks Mr. Owens. I’m not terribly web savvy, but I was finally able to post after removing the links to the Johnson interview and to the Register-Star’s post-firing “statement.”

    Unfortunately the story has just taken a new turn. A local videographer made a quick study of the Pledge of Allegiance angle only, and the Albany media is running with that.

    With no place for the plight of the journalists in that story, the Register-Star publisher finally has what he wanted all along: a pretext on which to publish his editorial on the alleged egregiousness of someone not standing for the pledge.

    With that, the story now seems over for our journalists. I will try to convey your message to one of them.

  • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

    It sounds to me like the are four people out there who are potential independent local online news publishers. If any of them want more information about going that route they should contact me.

    Fwiw: regarding comment below: changing content platforms usually entails losing all previous comments.

  • an_gob

    Thanks DCJ, it’s reasonable to point out that the Johnsons will want to give this a hard look before weighing in.

    Concerning “previous incidents,” in the matter of Letters to the Editor it’s pretty hard to prove a negative where reasonable letters were denied.

    The Register-Star reformatted its website immediately before the 2012 election, and aside from the expected bugs there were editorial selections and decisions that begged questions.

    For example, the choice to delete all previous comment threads before the reformatting was unnecessary and extraordinary. In the past, every level of local politician has left comments on the Register Star comment threads, not to mention prominent citizens.

    Among the subjects of those comments, criticisms of Register-Star coverage and editorial decisions should not be committed to the memory hole in order to make some editor’s life easier.

    Like it or not, the Register-Star is the official newspaper of record for the City of Hudson, and as long as the newspaper doesn’t have an ombudsman it has a responsibility not to erase thousands of past comments and/or complaints.

    But to return to a just forbearance for the Johnson family’s decision, I have to wonder in the circumstances about the following words of one of the Johnsons, John B. Johnson, and whether the actions and rationalizations of the Register-Star’s Mr. Coleman and Ms. Hyland aren’t in keeping with the family philosophy?

    John B. Johnson praises managers who are “creative, operationally disciplined, and can be strategic.”

    [This comment thread doesn't seem to accept URLs]

    Hmm … okay so far.

    Mr. Johnson continues: “The core strength of a news organization is its content gathering and its content creation. Now how that content gets disseminated is a shifting marketplace.”

    Is this a justification for creating news? It’s an eerie echo of the Register-Star publisher and executive editor’s statement (address below).

    Mr. Johnson again: “What we’re finding … is that people like to hold onto information and not get it out.”

    From the Register-Star publisher’s and editor’s statement: “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.”

    The way I’d have understood Mr. Johnson’s words a few weeks ago is different than how I’d think of them now.

  • an_gob

    What in the world does it take to post a comment here? I’ve tried several times unsuccessfully.

  • http://flavors.me/eclisham Elaine Clisham

    Gosh, I know Roger Coleman from the many times he taught at API, and this doesn’t sound like him at all. (Or maybe I hadn’t read him as well as I thought I had.) Very disappointing.

  • Anonymous

    The Johnsons of Watertown, who own the paper, are exceptionally good
    small town publishers so their tolerance of the atrocious judgment of
    their publisher and executive editor logically would be the next line of
    inquiry. That they declined immediate comment to the Albany Times-Union
    should not deter further inquiry.

    Honest journalists can only hope that the Johnsons will step
    forward and stand up for the integrity of their newsroom, which at the
    end of the day is all that their fortune, and reputation, stands on. Trying to dodge the issue, or side with their executives, would undermine their credibility and the value of their franchise.

    Some other basic facts for Poynter to add: how long the publisher and editor have been there; their pasts; previous incidents of inappropriate conduct by either of them.