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Was Washington Times reporter sacked for speaking out?

Julia Duin packs up her car with her office belongings yesterday in the parking lot of The Washington Times. She spent 14 years as a Times reporter but was let go yesterday. Photo by Katharine Frey/The Washington Post

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.

Don Meyer, a spokesman for the Times, did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Here's what Duin said in my story:

"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."

Duin, who in April won the first place religion reporting award in the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association's annual contest, said Times editor Sam Dealey told her Tuesday that religion coverage had no future at the paper and that she was being laid off. "But one of the things I said back was, 'Isn't this payback, Sam, for The Washington Post article?' He denied it. He said, 'We're doing some cost-cutting.'"

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 paper's current ownership -- led by Preston Moon -- would be required to pay off 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.

As for Duin, she predicted her fate well before her bosses let her go. In a May 8 email to me, she wrote:

"Apparently I nearly got fired Monday morning for talking with you and I was spared only because they want to let a few weeks go by before they do me in...Apparently what I said about the snakes caused the asking price to drop several million...The imminent end of my 14-year stint at TWT would be bearable were there a decent job waiting for me out there, but they're not lining up to hire religion writers these days. Plus I'm a single mom with no convenient husband as back-up."

By Ian Shapira  | June 2, 2010; 8:11 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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As much as I might agree with Ms.Duin's comments about the Times, management was correct in firing her. Companies have a right to expect employees to keep their mouths shut publicly; this isn't something new but a longstanding core principle of the workplace. Unhappy with the company? Look for another job, take it up through official channels if that's offered, bite the bullet in the meantime. What Ms. Duin said was lacking any tact and utterly naive - something you'd expect from a 20something new hire but certainly not someone with 14 years' experience in the workplace. And this chain of her comments, easily uncovered with a simple google search, will have a long tail in her coming job hunt.

Posted by: LaLynnie | June 2, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Congrats WaPo for getting a fellow journalist from a rival paper fired.....

Posted by: 4thFloor | June 2, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I think the bigger news, if true, is that the Times' management thinks that religion news has no future with them. I don't think that Unification Church members, or Rev. Moon himself, would be too happy to hear that. I hope things work out for Ms Duin and I look forward to reading her work in a new venue.

Posted by: californiasteven1 | June 2, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Talking to a competitor about what's going on at your company is a risky proposition, regardless the industry. And, doing so with the knowledge that your remarks will show up in print (ink or cyber), you have to assume this outcome.

Also, let's not confuse Duin's angst about the layoffs with bona fide whistle-blowing. I'd feel more sympathy for her if she had been fired for going public about, say, a case of shoddy journalism at the Times.

I don't know (or particularly care) what's going on at the Times. But, I know the paper eliminated its local and sports coverage. If it has no one covering the Redskins or Caps, or the DC police beat, it seems reasonable that it wouldn't employ a fulltime religion writer either.

I'm not sure why Duin or Shapira assume this is retaliation, as opposed to being the latest step in the dismantling of what once was....a mediocre newspaper.

Posted by: mvm2 | June 2, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I can't imagine anyone paying $15 million for it. It's never had a strong paid circulation and it loses barrels of money. And it doesn't have the big brand value of a Newsweek.

Posted by: dubuqueman | June 2, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I had thought they were closing the door months ago, after the Reverand died. Yet every day I see the Examiner being shoved in my face as I get off the Metro. If they're going to drop a money losing product, it should be the "free" paper. Even the Post would do well by getting rid of the Express. Going online is a better way to do it, so yahoos like me can make comments about any and everything.

Posted by: akchild | June 2, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

What did she or any other employee expect? A person posting a comment that is overly critical of a newspaper will have it removed. Several of my postings have been removed from a couple of newspapers in my locale when I have cited their liberal bias and proved it with facts. "Journalists" have no problem with their cutting people to pieces, but like our president, have a this skin when it is them under the knife.

Posted by: carmeldog1 | June 2, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry to hear that Julia Duin has been let go, regardless of the circumstances of her dismissal. She's one of the few religion reporters these days who tries to get both sides of the story rather than only the secular liberal side. Hopefully she'll land on her feet sooner rather than later.

By the way, if the Washington Post is going to continue describing the Washington Times as a "Unification Church-backed" newspaper, shouldn't the Post practice full disclosure and note that the parent company's profitable Kaplan subsidiary is keeping the Post afloat? Otherwise, the Post would be just like the Times in being a shell of its former self.

Posted by: austinrl | June 2, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

There is zero chance anyone will buy the Washington Times

Posted by: nativedc | June 2, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Print media is dead and dying. WaPO will fall too. It's tendrils run deeper though, so the fall will be massive and disturbing.

Posted by: zcxnissan | June 2, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me LaLynnie, but get lost.

Newspapers are wonderful advocates about about free speech and critical thought, until it comes to in-house criticism. Then owners and top managers have skin only as thick as a reptiles.

Speaking of reptiles, it is not acceptable to have live snakes in a modern workplace because you decided to lay off the janitorial staff. You wouldn't accept it at your workplace. Newspapers are infamous for their cost cutting, taking advantage of a work force committed to the mission of journalism. Duin is a published author and journalist with a strong history of thorough reporting. She does not deserve this, nor should she be fired for stating the paper's obvious problems in an interview.

Posted by: FormerFan1 | June 3, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Typical behavior for newsrooms. And nothing new. And really a secret that this type of thing goes on across the field. How journalism really works as a field and as a business is a big secret in this country. Ironic, eh?

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | June 7, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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