Julia Duin and her (bad) times

During the past few days, your GetReligionistas have received at least two dozen notes asking if we had heard the news about Julia Duin losing her job at the Washington Times. Yes, I’ve been in contact with Julia a number of times during the past several weeks, but I will keep those private communications to myself.

Before this news hit, I was already sending emails to a Times editor asking what had happened to the “Faith” item in the News pull-down menu on the toolbar of the latest version of the newspaper’s website. I check a wide range of newspapers every morning in my search for religion-news stories and haunted stories and I have always used that button as my path to Duin’s coverage (and often a handy collection of wire stories, much like that handy USA Today link).

I guess I don’t have to look for that Faith link anymore. This is an interesting statement, in light of the fact that earlier announcements about the revamped newsroom’s priorities had stressed that coverage of religion and cultural issues would remain a high priority.

So what happened?

The bottom line is that Duin was laid off, the latest of the cuts at the Times as it seeks a buyer and a path into a digital future. That’s the straight answer. Duin was the only person hit by this layoff, although that could change.

However, a Washington Post weblog item by Ian Shapira sees this dismissal in a wider context and we’ll let it stand for itself.

About a month ago, Julia Duin, a reporter for 14 years at the Unification Church-backed Washington Times, did something that journalists admire and many employers abhor. She spoke out about her employer, in print, on the record. In my article on the potential sale of the Times, Duin’s remarks — about the Times feeling like a “rudderless ship” and about the snake that turned up in the Times newsroom — stood out for their honesty and wit.

Duin, 54, said she was dismissed Tuesday, a decision that she believes came in retaliation for her published comments about the paper. To make matters even more difficult, Duin was given the news while her five-year-old daughter Olivia was visiting the newsroom. On top of that, Duin had to pack up her office belongings while on crutches, the result of a recent foot injury.

This is a stunner. As noted in a recent GetReligion 5Q+1 feature, Duin’s name has appeared among the honorees in the annual Religion Newswriters Association awards numerous times throughout her career in mainstream news. A few weeks ago, Duin won the first place award for religion news coverage in the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s annual contest.

It’s interesting that when Duin’s work is referred to as “conservative,” it is almost always because of the stories that she has covered, not because the content of the stories was unbalanced or inaccurate. See this critique by Michael Triplett of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association is an example of that point of view.

The bottom line: Duin covered stories that many other reporters on the beat didn’t cover and, of course, often did not know existed. That’s true of almost every mainstream religion-news specialist that I know. Meanwhile, Duin did quite well, in mainstream contests with mainstream judges.

In her exit interview at the Times, Duin says that she was told that “religion coverage had no future at the paper and that she was being laid off.”

So what happened? In the earlier Post story, Duin offered this rather blunt quote — on the record.

“The feeling everyone feels is that it’s a totally rudderless ship. Nobody knows who’s running it. Is it the board of directors? We don’t know. There was a three-foot-long black snake in the main conference room the other day. We have snakes in the newsroom — the real live variety, at least. One of the security people gallantly removed it.”

Now, if you run a Google search for “Duin, Times, snakes” you will discover that this quote went, literally, everywhere and was especially popular with long-time critics of the newspaper.

Put that in the context of negotiations to sell the newspaper and you have both fire and smoke. Back to the Post weblog update:

Duin says she never intended to speak ill of the employer she has been loyal to for so many years: “I don’t want people to think I was against my employer. All I wanted to do was tell the truth. Why is that such a hard thing among journalists?”

Duin’s departure comes as Times executives are considering selling the financially strapped newspaper, which was created in 1982 as a politically conservative organ by the founder of the Unification Church, Rev. Sun Myung Moon. According to current and former Times executives, one group of investors has offered about $15 million; under the terms of the offer, the investors would also assume the paper’s debt, which is believed to be more than $6 million. The sources said they did not know or could not reveal the identities of the investors. The paper’s former editor, John Solomon, who had been trying to buy the newspaper, is no longer a serious contender, the sources said.

But the current and former Times officials also said that Nicholas Chiaia, a member of the paper’s two-man board of directors and president of the church-supported United Press International wire service, is not eager to accept the $15 million offer. The sources said Chiaia would prefer to slim down or eliminate the Times‘ print edition, converting the newspaper to a web-only news service.

Note, however, that the current Times leaders quoted in this report elected not to speak on the record. Good move.

Those wishing to keep up with Duin and her adopted daughter Veeka (from Kazakhstan), will want to visit the reporter’s blog.

Meanwhile, Duin’s brother Steve — a columnist in Portland — offered this crisp public salute, from one scribe to another:

Duin laid off

By Steve Duin, The Oregonian
June 02, 2010, 9:22AM

And, many of my column fans might argue, the wrong Duin.

Photo: Julia Duin and Veeka, packing up on short notice. From Duin’s personal weblog.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    There’s a necessity for layoffs, and only one person is laid off? Do I understand you correctly?

    That sounds less like cost-cutting and more like an excuse for getting rid of someone. …

  • Jerry

    Sic transit gloria mundi is the first thing I would say about this sad situation.

    Duin was given the news while her five-year-old daughter Olivia was visiting the newsroom. On top of that, Duin had to pack up her office belongings while on crutches, the result of a recent foot injury.

    This note illustrates a coldness to the way she was fired. Based on that my attitude toward the Washington Times disappearing is “good riddance”.

    Maybe it’s time for religion reporters to give up on the old media and start collectively exploring other options for continuing their work. I’ve heard stories about similar efforts for other reporters and while I don’t know if they’ll succeed I wish them well in their efforts to find a new model.

  • will47

    I know the Post is contracting its staff as well, but as a Post subscriber, I think they would do well to pick Julia Duin up. I hope she lands somewhere else soon.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I read Steve Duin at the Oregonian for years when I lived in the Portland area. It never occurred to me to notice the surname.

    Any editor who can scrape up the budget to hire Julia will do his readership a huge favor.

  • Peggy

    I am sorry to hear this. The DC Examiner’s been picking up some longtime Times columnists and reporters. Maybe they’ll pick up Ms. Duin. I admire the smile she had on her face in the photo you posted.

    I was surprised that the snakes were not figurative. What kind of office maintenance is occurring? Gross.

    Also, it’s telling that Ms. Duin comments on how hard it is for the journalist industry to speak the truth. That’s a rather disconcerting and ironic statement as we’re supposed to be able to rely on the media to tell the truth and get things right.

    Godspeed to Ms. Duin and her family.

  • Matthew

    By sheerest coincidence her latest book just arrived on my doorstep.

    It certainly wouldn’t hurt her fortunes to buy it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Days-Fire-Glory-Charismatic-Community/dp/0979027977/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275586523&sr=1-3

  • Jerry

    As a followup, I just saw on fivethirtyeight.com what might be a new model for religious reporters as well as political ones:

    In the near future, the blog will “re-launch” under a NYTimes.com domain. It will retain its own identity (akin to other Times blogs like DealBook),… the blog will re-direct to the new URL. In addition, I will be contributing content to the print edition of the New York Times, and to the Sunday Magazine. The partnership agreement, which is structured as a license, has a term of three years.

    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/06/fivethirtyeight-to-partner-with-new.html So is this a new model for religion reporters to follow as well?

  • http://twitter.com/kevinjjones Kevin J Jones

    I’ve always admired Julia Duin’s work. I hope she finds a better employer soon.

  • Dave

    I was surprised that the snakes were not figurative. What kind of office maintenance is occurring?

    JFK once said Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.

  • Chip Smith

    It’s interesting that when Duin’s work is referred to as “conservative,” it is almost always because of the stories that she has covered, not because the content of the stories was unbalanced or inaccurate. See this critique by Michael Triplett of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association is an example of that point of view.

    I don’t disagree with you, but it is also because her work was published in The Washington Times. Of course, that does not make the charge accurate.