What could possibly ignite a spat at a small newspaper that would get one reporter fired and see three more writers to quit in protest?
Try this: A controversy on how a local paper should treat a city councilman who declined to recite the pledge of allegiance at a meeting.
A gnawing discomfort lurks when higher powers at a media outlet try to impose their will on a reporter who decided an event wasn’t worth mentioning.
The Hudson Star Register is a small daily paper circulating under 5,000 copies a day in a village (population 7,000) on the Hudson River 100 miles north of New York City.
Today we can seat ourselves online inside the paper to observe the Powers That Be as they fail to observe a little protocol about how things are handled when a reporter and publisher don’t agree on what should run in the paper.
On Nov. 8, at a Common Council meeting, alderman John Friedman didn’t stand up for the pledge, causing a second alderman to quietly call him out. The meeting then turned to the town’s 2013 budget.
Reporter Tom Casey thought the main question was a $27,000 hole because the city planned to spend money not yet in hand. But editor Theresa Hyland and publisher Roger Coleman wanted Casey to note Friedman’s non-pledge, apparently planning to raise the issue in an editorial.
Friedman would later note that he occasionally skipped the pledge because he felt that while important, the bland recitation “slowly diminishes the meaning of the words.” Casey decided not to mention the episode.
But Hyland later called the city editor to order Casey to insert a pair of paragraphs about Friedman’s omission. Casey felt Hyland, and publisher Roger Coleman, were improperly imposing their opinion. He had his byline removed from the story — in a paper that had never heard of a “byline strike.”
The next day, the issue arose in the newsroom, where other reporters agreed with Casey’s position. Ex-reporter Sam Pratt wrote in his blog that Casey was “under pressure by higher-ups to make an issue of Friedman’s choice.” He noted that the publisher and editor were watching the alderman.
By Friday, two days later, publisher Coleman and Hyland decided to fire Casey. “We were completely shocked that it was a reporter who wanted to keep something out” of the paper, Hyland later wrote.
The paper has a circulation of fewer than 5,000 in a town with 7,000 souls. But the blog site, “Gossips of Rivertown” would claim 15,549 page views the week it wrote up the firing.
Reporters suggested Casey write the episode up for the national website of Jim Romenesko, whose blog is followed by many journalists, politicians, professors and others.
Differences between reporters and their bosses about stories are a very touchy subject. Publishers, who normally have business backgrounds and are considered inept at concepts such as news judgment, are supposed to stay out of newsrooms. Some often stay away out of intimidation.
Publishers usually don’t write, and are often too cozy with politicians and advertisers who are fond of being able to control them, writers believe. The issue is particularly sensitive when an advertiser threatens to boycott the paper if it doesn’t write what he or she wants — or more to the point — omit what he or she does not.
The hubbub in Hudson soon lit up the local blogs. One jaded reader wrote, “proprietors (owners, publishers, whatever you call them) always affect editorial content. Why else own a paper?”
By the time the yarn reached Romenesko, it was festering. This past Wednesday, two reporters and city editor Francesca Olsen quit to protest Casey’s canning.
“I have no regrets,” she wrote. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
The advantages of having Romenesko pick up a story about questionable conduct are many. His spotlight not only casts a hot and wide glare, but also attracts free advice from professors who have spent their lives studying such conflicts. Many weighed in with a common theme. Hudson’s editor and publisher had blown it, they agreed. There is a method, or protocol, to handle such disputes.
David Cay Johnston, a distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse College of Law, advanced the solution. There can be a debate, since many would consider Friedman’s position newsworthy. But it’s handled through a separate story, or “sidebar,” appearing with the original story or as a “second-day” follow-up. It can be written by the original reporter, or assigned to a different writer.
This is a lesson of Journalism 101, Johnston lectured the Hudson authorities. Another professor, Jack Zibluk, agreed. Outsiders who try to control content undercut sound reporting, he suggested. A third observer noted that an experienced editor, wanting to change a story, would send his revisions back to the original reporter to check the context.
It was a free online discussion with thousands of observers. The Hudson Powers That Be claimed the original reporter erred by “censoring” an event that should have appeared in the story. But others suggested they had bypassed a common professional approach.
Bottom line: There are still four unemployed journalists today who aren’t likely to hang around Hudson-on-the-Hudson much longer.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.