UPDATES: The Register has now posted a job listing for what appears to have been Casey’s position. And welcome to Romenesko readers; if you’re looking for some background on the peculiar dynamics (and myriad failings) of local media, here’s a PDF of my piece in Our Town, guest edited by Jacob Brackman.
Reporter Tom Casey has been fired by the Register-Star, according to more than one well-placed source.
According to these sources, Casey’s firing was precipitated by his refusal to let his byline run over a story he’d submitted about a recent Common Council budget meeting—combined with the eagerness of higher-ups to make an issue of one Alderman’s principled stand.
An article about the meeting appeared on Friday, but was attributed only to “Hudson Catskill-Newspapers” rather than to any reporter.
The bone of contention is said to have been two paragraphs tacked onto the end of Casey’s article by an editor, claiming that there was some unspecified “upset” at the meeting over “Alderman John Friedman’s decision not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.” While standing for the Pledge is customary at Council meetings, it’s not actually required by the City’s Code. Indeed, the City Code doesn’t even require Aldermen to show up.
According to sources, Casey had been under pressure by higher-ups at the paper to make an issue of Friedman’s choice, which the Alderman had exercised at some but not all previous meetings. Getting the matter into the body of a news story would give the paper’s management a predicate for writing an editorial about it. The day after the dispute, Casey was reportedly fired by editor Theresa Hyland at the insistence of publisher Roger Coleman.
“Theresa made it clear that the decison came from above,” according to one source, who added that management had “asked Tom to let her know the next time he didn't stand [for the Pledge]. They wanted a particular instance that they could pinpoint for a forthcoming editorial. Roger sent somebody else to the meeting to check on whether John stood.” When word came back that Friedman had not stood, but the topic was not addressed in Casey’s article, a confrontation ensued.
“It's a very rare situation,” according to one Hudson-Catskill Newspapers insider, observing that “I’ve never seen it before that someone said straight up that they didn't want their name on their article.”
The situation appears to be all the more rare to the extent that Register-Star articles are seldom copy-edited or substantially changed before publication. Reporters’ texts typically fly straight from their own keyboard into print, with little or no editorial oversight. “It’s kind of frightening, really,” said one source familiar with the paper’s production system,” saying that “typically, they are so hands off, the news runs itself... Theresa and Roger don’t get involved with the copy.”
In addition, the firing is said to have been denounced by senior reporter John Mason, said to have characterized Hyland’s move as “McCarthyite.” Staff now fear that Mason might in turn be punished, with many threatening to walk out en masse if that were to occur. Some staffers have drafted a letter of protest to the Johnson family in Watertown about Casey’s treatment, but it remains to be seen who will go out on a limb and sign it.
“This just emphasizes the point that some good reporters have worked under really crummy circumstances there,” said one source sympathetic with both Casey and Mason.
Regarding the apparent eagerness of some to make an issue of the Pledge, Friedman writes:
“Sometimes I say it, and sometimes I don’t. I simply don’t like the government—any government, including one I’m part of—telling me what and when to say something. [It’s] not a very interesting issue to me, especially with the budget before us.”
Historically, the Register has some history of problematic relationships with its reporters. A decade ago, a crackerjack writer was pressured to resign after his excellently detailed reporting on the Columbia County Board of Supervisors incurred the wrath of then-chair Gerry Simons. More recently, a young reporter was fired for alleged “insubordination” after insulting his editor, though eventually he was rehired.
A newer article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Register about Hurricane Sandy relief work with the joint byline of Billy Shannon and Tom Casey. But the end of the article says “To reach reporter Billy Shannon, call 828-1616 ext. 2499 or emai email@example.com.” The omission of Casey’s contact info perhaps suggests that Casey began the story, but Shannon finished it after his departure.
Requests submitted on Sunday for comment from Hyland, Coleman and Mason have not been answered. Casey still had a voicemail account at the paper as of Monday, but this would appear to be just a lack of thoroughness on the part of management.
Meanwhile, in other Hudson-Catskill Newspapers news, publisher Coleman has moved from Hudson to Ghent, where he voted last Tuesday.