Wrapping our heads around Romenesko

By now, you should probably have heard via Twitter about Jim Romenesko leaving Poynter in the aftermath of the disclosure that he sometimes used material from other news sources verbatim without placing that material inside quote marks.

I have linked to Romenesko (an excellent blog on the media) for as long as my blog has existed. Before the blog (in the years BB 2006-2009), I included Romenesko on the “strongly suggested” reading list on the reporting class syllabus. He has always been interesting and authoritative. And, I assumed, beyond reproach.

It’s so easy to forget that all of us, as we employ new ways to communicate via inherently casual and quick social media, are vulnerable to being caught in the crosshairs of new media, old rules. Jim Romenesko thought it was well understood, he says, that anything he wrote about a news organization might well include a sampling of that org’s material: its own words. He had done this for years as he aggregated bits and bites (hyperlinking like crazy) about what was going on out there in news world.

Poynter didn’t fire him. Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications, writes that his offer to resign was declined. But he quit anyway. And now Poynter is revising its editorial policy.

Many people have sprung vociferously to his defense (the comments on Moos’s column at the second link are well worth reading). It would appear that many people find Jim Romenesko more valuable than they do Poynter, these days (and I am sure that when he starts his new venture, he will have a loyal audience waiting to read him).

Questions remain for us to ponder: Did Poynter overreact? Do the rules of attribution change with the form of communication?

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11 Responses to Wrapping our heads around Romenesko

  1. I think the way things have played out is really unfortunate, especially for Poynter. But, I am not sure how I feel about the situation as a whole. There are no clearly established ethical rules for attributions in blogs. They are decidedly less formal than printed articles, but how much so? My guess is that this incident may set some sort of precedence. If the comments are any indication of what will be defined as acceptable, Romenesko-style blogging may establish an agreed upon norm.

  2. Alison Matas says:

    I think something else that makes the situation challenging is that the purpose of Romenesko’s blog was news aggregation; he wasn’t pretending what he was creating was his own work. As some of the commenters pointed out, much of what he purportedly plagiarized was in direct quotes, and, frankly, the material that wasn’t might have been hard to paraphrase. I’m not saying that I agree with what Romenesko did, but I feel sympathetic toward him because it seems like he was trying to do the right thing. Do the reporters who wrote the original stories feel like their work has been plagiarized? I’m not sure whether or not that matters, but it might be interesting.

    • Katherine says:

      Allison, in the piece that Moos wrote she notes that Romenesko had basically been doing this in this manner for many years and not a single writer had complained. So I wonder whether that is indicative of an “understanding” about what the blog is/was/did — maybe it’s that aggregation aspect that relaxed readers’ expectations of his attribution practices?

    • Katherine says:

      Oh and by the way, I just inserted an extra ‘l’ in your first name. Please forgive me, Alison.

  3. Hilary Niles says:

    It would take a lot to persuade me that the same rules of attribution that apply to the rest of journalism don’t apply to blogs. I think that’s a dangerous precipice of lowering the bar. Where does transparency fit into that?

    I think Alison’s question is a great one, though: do the people he quoted without attribution (otherwise known as plagiarism in the rest of the world?!) feel they’ve been plagiarized? Apparently not, which I think makes this situation quirky and interesting — but not excusable.

    Another fascinating part of the whole deal is this from Julie Moos (and I quote): “His editors read behind him after he publishes, and often read the original source material, but none of us have noticed the duplicative language.” The example she gives in the same post is overwhelmingly copied verbatim. I do not understand — and therefore have a hard time entirely believing — that no one noticed the “duplicative language.”

    I think that most questions about journalism should be answered from the perspective of the audience. Does it serve the public to change standards for blogs so that full attribution is not expected? I don’t think so. The blogosphere is already a morass of undermined credibility that further fractures audience perceptions of mainstream media. I think to lower the bar for blogs would only confuse sourcing and by consequence rip giant holes in the confidence with which audiences can process and talk about what they read. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a more informed public to me.

    And anyway, what about copyright?! Authors or copyright holders controlling the value of their intellectual property is at the heart of so many conversations about aggregation. Why not this one?

    I’m not saying I can’t be convinced otherwise, but so far I fail to understand where Romanesko is getting his free pass on this.

    • reedkath says:

      Well said, Hillary. . I wonder if some of the slippage occurred because Romenesko was such an “insider baseball” blog that he didn’t think of his readership as the sensitive reading public. Not to give him a pass — i just tend to over-analyze motivation when I’m puzzled by something.

  4. Overreacting would have been immediately firing Romenesko, which I’m glad Poynter didn’t do in order to cover their butts. But offering his own resignation demonstrated Romenesko took this issue seriously, and that he realized his mistake had consequences.
    I think Julie Moos took the rational action. Of course something had to happen once this came out. Poynter is considered the holy grail of journalism. If even they can’t follow the law of the land, who can?

  5. benunglesbee says:

    We talked about the Romenesko incident at some length in Prof. Kennedy’s J8000 class. It came up that Poynter’s approach to the situation was awfully public, and thus awfully embarrassing for Romenesko. But as a reader I respect how the institute dealt with his writing. Julie Moos went out of her way—using bold font and everything—to trace the ethical issues at stake. Actually, that bold font was a pretty remarkable gesture of transparency. Anyone (except maybe those especially loyal to Romenesko) can give the column a cursory glance and see that WAY too many words are taken from his original source without quotation marks (and way too many words for it to be an accident of memory). I understand why readers and friends would come out to support him, but quotation marks exist for good reason: to protect the intellectual property of others who have put work and sweat and thought into their creations, and to protect the integrity of writers working with someone else’s ideas. Every ninth grader—and certainly every journalist—should know when to use quotation mark, and if this were freshman comp Romenesko would be in the same sort of pickle. As for the medium, even if I was writing an email to a friend I would have used quotation marks if I was putting in that many words that weren’t mine. Call it an ethical standard if you want—it really should just be a habit for any writer at any level in any medium.

  6. Kip Hill says:

    Maybe it’s not so much the medium as the personality behind it. If someone less respected in the industry (I’m speaking in generalities here, I was not a regular reader of the man’s work and therefore may be unqualified to summarize industry attitude toward the man, but everything I’ve read recognized him as at least an authority, if not the authority, on running blogging commentary of the media industry in general), would the same reaction have occurred? In other words, is it fair to say what Romenesko did was more than a blog, and therefore in defying its standards (if indeed any existed) basically codified best practices for the rest of the blogosphere? Fishbowl NYC’s piece aggregating some of the industry voices in response to Romenesko’s less-than-graceful departure from Poynter (wasn’t he about to leave in a few months, anyway?) is a nice summary, I think, of those coming out in favor of the man’s approach and practices (http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/the-best-romenesko-reactions_b46774). I mean, Is it plagiarism if the journalists themselves are sending the links, seeking some dap (or at least attention) from this revered aggregating voice in the industry? I don’t know.

  7. allisonseibel says:

    As a journalist and having these standards drilled into my head for years, it’s hard for me to say that this journalist didn’t need to attribute or put quotes around information that wasn’t his own. Blogs are a bit more informal, yes, but if a blog is written by an established journalist who’s employed by an established media outlet – I expect that blog to be credible. And I think that Romenesko damaged his, along with Poynter’s, credibility. If he had used this information in his own words, rather than verbatim, I think it would be a different story. But to not attribute it – it makes us assume that those words are his and that its his work. I’m think that Poynter was correct in taking action against him – they didn’t fire him, so I don’t think they overreacted. I do believe he should have been punished, outted or whatever in some sort of way. And I almost admire him for leaving on his own – it seems like he’s taking responsibility for his actions and now is going to move on and start over on something new. And as journalists, we have to be responsible for what we put out there.

  8. Pingback: Linked out of a job | It's the soup…

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