Oregon paper clearcuts a tough reporter


When newsroom staffers at the Portland Oregonian arrived at work Aug. 8, they found the empty desk of Kathie Durbin, the paper's lead environmental reporter since 1989. The only thing remaining on her desk was the new book Clearcut, which Durbin left behind as a cryptic metaphor to what happened to her.

Durbin had resigned, but only after editor Sandra Mims Rowe removed her from her beat, where Durbin had specialized in covering forest, grazing, mining, pollution and other natural-resource issues.

The paper announced the move in a column in its Sunday "Forum" section, without offering a reason. It also said Don Hamilton, who focused on natural-resource issues from the paper's national desk in Washington, D.C., was being demoted to a local government beat in the west Portland suburbs. Durbin was replaced by Peter Sleeth, a former reporter at the Denver Post who had been covering timber companies for The Oregonian's business section. Hamilton's replacement has not been announced.

Durbin's resignation shocked the news staff. She had won numerous state, regional and national awards for her environmental reporting. Her most notable achievement, she says, was a 1990 series on Northwest forests, entitled "Day of Reckoning," which investigated years of overcutting by timber companies and the resulting environmental degradation. The timber industry responded to the series with a critical 88-page report.

The changes come at a time of major upheaval at The Oregonian. Rowe, a Virginian who was named editor 14 months ago, has reorganized the paper's newsroom. Other veteran reporters have been demoted, while a new batch of writers - including a number from Rowe's previous paper in Virginia - have been brought in. Many people inside and outside the paper grumble that the change includes a turn toward softer, feature-oriented reporting.

The removal of Durbin recalls previous shifts on the environmental beat at other leading Western newspapers. In recent years, Richard Manning was forced out by the Missoulian, and Steve Stuebner was reassigned by the Idaho Statesman. (He then resigned.) The environmental beat is complicated and contentious, and reporters often find themselves the target of harsh criticism by industry groups.

Two other papers in Oregon, the Bend Bulletin and Grants Pass Daily Courier, also have shifted environmental beats in recent months. But, says Dennis Roller, editor of the Daily Courier, the beat reporter at his paper simply got tired of it. "It might be more boring than any other beat here," he says. "You deal with the same issues that go on and on."

Paul Koberstein covered natural resource issues at The Oregonian until he left that paper, under pressure, in 1992.

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