Jim Romenesko and the perils of aggregation

Jim Romenesko

Something very strange and unjust happened yesterday in the little world of media criticism: Jim Romenesko, who’s been blogging about media news since the late 1990s, and who was just several weeks away from retirement, was accused by his employer, the Poynter Institute, of plagiarism-like offenses. Romenesko resigned.

If you read between the lines, it seems that this was not a typical case of resigning rather than being fired. Rather, I think he resigned rather than continue to work for people who claim they didn’t understand his methodology until this week — a claim that, frankly, I find pretty dubious.

What’s important to keep in mind about Romenesko is that his media-news site functioned as an aggregator, not as a source of original content. I’ve been reading him almost from the start, when he began writing a blog (we didn’t call them blogs back then) called MediaGossip.com while holding down a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I never really considered what he did to be “writing.” Rather, he found interesting stuff, copied, aggregated and linked out. It was one-stop shopping for people who wanted to know what was going on in journalism.

Jeremy Peters of the New York Times, who labels yesterday’s events “bizarre,” observes that Romenesko was called to task for “his failure to use quotation marks when summarizing articles” even though he “never claimed credit for [those summaries] as his original work.” That’s exactly right. I always considered Romenesko to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists, and I still do.

The details, from Poynter’s perspective, are laid out in this post (link now fixed) by Julie Moos, the director of Poynter Online. I found her post to be thoughtful and serious; she doesn’t deserve the abuse she’s taking over this. Nevertheless, I believe she and other Poynter executives made a serious error of judgment in writing about Romenesko’s methodology as though it raised some sort of ethical issue. It didn’t. It appears that Poynter acted rashly after hearing from Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, who had discovered that Romenesko was indifferent about using quotation marks when excerpting material he was linking to.

You can read the example Moos offers for yourself. Here’s another, typical example that I found this morning, from April 23, 2010. I offer it in full:

Why NPR wanted to overturn the law banning animal cruelty images
NPR.org
NPR believes that the law, as it stood, could have been misused to criminalize speech about the use and abuse of animals. In NPR’s view, says a lawyer for the network, “the statute could allow the federal government and courts presiding over cases brought under the law, to substitute their own news judgment in place of the judgment of an NPR editor.”

The headline is linked to a column by Alicia Shepard, then-ombudsman for NPR. When you click through to her column, you find that the first sentence of Romenesko’s summary is actually something Shepard wrote. Is that deceptive? We know we are reading a summary of an NPR item, and we are invited to click to read the whole thing. It certainly doesn’t look to me like Romenesko was trying to deceive anyone.

I think Moos’ claim that Poynter didn’t know how Romenesko went about his business until this week is problematic. Those of us who have read his blog over the years have always known. Especially in the early years, he updated maniacally. You could email him a tip, and, if it was hot enough for him, he’d have it up within minutes. Copy and link. Copy and link. That’s what he did. And he was (and is) exceptionally skilled at finding the heart of your story, which of course led to more clicks for your site.

Let me give the folks at Poynter this much. Early on in their relationship with Romenesko, they could have sat down with him and told him to be more careful about using quotation marks — that material being quoted directly had to be labeled as such, even if he was not deceiving anyone. Just from the point of view of craft, I think the blog would have been better if he’d done that. But to hang him out to dry now, and to claim they didn’t know, is cold.

Erik Wemple has a must-read post on Romenesko at WashingtonPost.com. He reinforces my sense that Romenesko’s offense, such as it was, was not completely inconsequential. But I wish he had dealt with the absurdity of Poynter now claiming it never knew what its most valuable employee was up to.

Romenesko’s resignation prompted a firestorm of criticism, nearly all of it directed at Poynter, on Twitter (some from me) and on the Poynter website. A lot of it was from media critics. So let me acknowledge that we all have a conflict of interest. Especially during my years as the Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, but even today, I have shamelessly plugged my work in emails to him, asking for links and recognition. I benefitted hugely from Romenesko’s attention. It was because of his blog that a local media critic like me was able to develop a small national following. So yes, I suppose I am defending him as vociferously as I am out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude. But I’ll repeat: Though I think he could have been more careful about quoting, he did nothing unethical, and was completely transparent and open about what he was doing. All you had to do was click and check his work.

What will be the fallout for Poynter? It’s hard to say. Romenesko was leaving in a few weeks anyway to start a new, independent blog, JimRomenekso.com. But I’m pretty sure he was expecting to contribute to Poynter from time to time. And he has said his new blog would be devoted to longer, reported items. But what if he’s now angry enough to use his new blog to compete directly with Poynter? That could be interesting.

Some years ago, I recall reading a story about how brilliant Poynter had been to sign up Romenesko and make him the centerpiece of its online efforts. It was mainly because of him that Poynter Online became the first stop for people interested in journalism, leapfrogging such venerable outlets as the CJR and the American Journalism Association.

If you poke around Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic, you’ll find that Poynter.org has an exponentially larger audience than other journalism sites, including some really good ones such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Journalism.org. I don’t consider Compete’s numbers to be all that reliable, but I think they’re a good guide for getting a rough idea of who’s more popular than whom.

Which is to say that the Romenesko matter could be devastating to Poynter depending on how it plays out.

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14 thoughts on “Jim Romenesko and the perils of aggregation

  1. Stephen Stein

    I was wondering what that TwitStorm was yesterday. It’s hard to find the root of some of those threads.

  2. Mike Benedict

    Dan, you directly raise several valid and fascinating points here, and indirectly raise one more. To your point, is it plagiarism if the author explicitly asks you to reuse their work? That’s such a great question, one that will certainly and deservedly be mulled over for weeks to come.

    Second, what I’m sure will be ignored in all this is that aggregation, by its very design, is often an attempt to cash in on the work of others. To my knowledge, neither Romenesko nor Poynter generated revenue from his blog/daily emails. But a vast number of aggregators do. My belief is that those aggregators have done more harm to the traditional newspaper business model than any other individual factor because they dilute the traffic and undercut the need to go directly to the source, even if it’s just to read the headlines.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Mike: To your first point, I don’t think the permission of the author gets you off the hook when it comes to plagiarism. I think the most important factor is whether you are deceiving your readers, and this is where Romenesko is in the clear. He did his copying in plain view and invited all of us to look at his methods. That’s why I find the we-didn’t-know undercurrent of Moos’ post to be lacking in credibility.

      Aggregation is a hot-button topic and has been for a long time, as you know. My starting point is to ask if the aggregator creates value or is just acting as a substitute for the content-creator’s site. I think Romenesko clearly created value. He didn’t subtract from the local audience for the stories he linked to, and he created a national audience. There is a huge difference between Romenesko and abusive aggregators like Newser and the Huffington Post.

  3. Jerry Ackerman

    I suppose there are some people who thought Romenesko’s Poynter offerings represented 100 percent original reporting done from scratch. Maybe.

  4. Dan, I agree with your view. I do the same thing. I repost articles that I like and that are pertinent to my audience, sometimes asking permission first, other times just linking back. I add an introduction telling what the post is about and let my audience judge whether or not to read it.

    I feel that I’m exposing someone else’s good work to a new audience, mine, which might never see the original in the first place.

    I also use LinkedIn as a means to “announce” what I’m writing about. I belong to about 20 groups in my field of expertise and use that connection to let the members of those groups know what my latest blog is all about.

    I’ve found that that exposure expands my readership several fold.

  5. Chris Black

    The other shoe is now dropping. This is about money. Evidently Jim intends to sell ads for his new web site. Given his popularity, this poses a big threat to the Poynter web site. Nothing else makes any sense. He is not only a pioneer as an aggregator but he effectively set the standard. To suggest “the standard” is now plagiarism is utter nonsense and demeans the work of a solid experienced newsman. Erika Fry, the assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and 2011 graduate of the university, apparently did not have the difference between aggregator and plagiarism explained properly in class. I appreciate that young journalists may see this issue in terms of black and white given the recent disgraceful episodes of serious plagiarism in journalism. But there are distinctions as anyone who worked in a real newsroom knows and what Jim Romenesko did so well as a sharp and speedy chronicler of the media world is not even close to plagiarism. If Poynter had a problem with his style, it had 12 years to tell him. To do this so publically at this juncture is an obvious ploy to discredit him and eliminate a rival for advertising dollars.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Chris: If you are right regarding Poynter’s motives, it will go down as the worst tactical move since Grady Little decided Pedro had another inning in him. Romenesko could have been cajoled into contributing occasionally, not competing directly, etc. Now he might go right after them.

  6. For 12 years, Romenesko was THE blog read by anyone who really cared about journalism — news editors, copy editors, reporters — and not one of those highly picky wordsmiths suggested improper attribution?

    That editor’s note reminded me of an old editor who used to edit copy with an AP Stylebook and a dictionary, laboriously looking up every possible stylistic “error.” The editor would insist on putting title, name, age, address on first reference no matter what, even if it was the lede, and the resulting story would have every single bit of flair sucked out of it. This was an editor who didn’t understand what made a story work and, clearly, this editor has absolutely no idea what made Romenesko work.

  7. L.K. Collins

    I sense that there is more to this story than is known today. For something like this to have happened on the thin rationale that was presented leaves me thinking that there was another, much more serious disagreement that festered over time.

    I suspect that Chris B’s suggestion of a money being the underlying cause is a lot closer to being the truth than the failure to use quotation marks in profusion.

    With Romanesko’s departure imminent, it would have made much better sense to let him go in quetly.

    Why didn’t they? And what was it they saw that this sort of move more attractive?

  8. The example you gave makes it seem as if Romenesko wrote the sentence to paraphrase the article. The removal of the attribution of the quote gives it that sense. But it’s a fine line, here. Should he have simply put quote marks around everything? Should he have simply taken the first few paragraphs? If readers understood his methodology, then what is the big deal? If he is clearly aggregating, then he is making it easier for people to find these articles. This is much ado about nothing. What is worse is when other news organizations put up my newspaper’s headlines and make it seem as if it is their content at first glance. But if readers understood what Romenesko was doing, then who cares!

  9. Michael Corcoran

    I agree with Dan entirely. Romanesko is about as well-known as a media blogger/aggregator that exists. Only now, weeks before his departure (or quasi-departure), and when he is about to potentially win over ads that might have otherwise gone to Poynter, they complain that his entire process has been flawed. And they are just now realizing this? Please …

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