It was ridiculous to accuse of him plagiarism or something like it because he didn’t claim that anything he was posting was his original work. And he always linked to what he was excerpting — that was the whole idea. I consider him to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists.
It’s time for an apology.
More:Here are some reactions from Poynter’s faculty that were posted at the time of Romenesko’s departure. Some didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong. Some thought his attribution practices were sloppy, though they didn’t think it quite amounted to plagiarism — though that’s certainly how it was framed in public.
The larger issue, it seems to me, was that Poynter benefitted from hosting Romenesko’s blog for 12 years without questioning his aggregation practices, and then overreacted to a Columbia Journalism Review inquiry as he was heading for the exit.
That said, Romenesko and Poynter remain must-reads for those of us who follow journalism and media issues.
Correction: The spelling of Mullin’s name has now been fixed.
Just to bring this full circle, I want to point out that we talked about the Boston Globe’s lifted editorial on “Beat the Press” last Friday. You can watch the segment here.
We identified Globe columnist Joan Vennochi as the person responsible, which made us the first news organization to confirm that independently. Others cited an email Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr had sent to his followers, news that never found its way into the Herald itself.
On Monday, old friend Mark Leccese, an Emerson College journalism professor, took “Beat the Press” to task in his Boston.com blog, writing that we were too easy on what he believes was a clear case of plagiarism. And he says the punishment should have been more severe than the two-week suspension Vennochi (whom he does not name) received.
It’s a good, smart post, though I still believe what Vennochi did amounted to sloppiness rather than out-and-out plagiarism.
Finally, welcome back, Joan. Her excellent political column was back in the Globe on Sunday following a two-week suspension. You can read that here.
Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.
The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”
As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.
Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.
Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.
Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:
Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.
Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”
It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.
And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.
A few quick updates on the exceedingly unpleasant divorce between media blogger Jim Romensko and the Poynter Institute:
• It now appears that Poynter Online editor Julie Moos didn’t merely overreact to an inquiry from the Columbia Journalism Review’s Erika Fry. Instead, she completely misunderstood her. Fry writes that the main thrust of her questions to Moos concerned Poynter’s move toward running longer excerpts on its Romenesko+ blog (now renamed MediaWire). Says Fry:
I raised the questions because I was coming to believe that recent changes in Poynter’s practices, taken together, are not good for journalists, and run counter to the intended spirit of Romenesko’s blog, which was originally designed to give credit and traffic to journalists, not to steal those things from them. I thought these were issues worth discussing, ones that could be easily — and, needless to say, without anyone’s resignation — fixed.
• At Boston.com, old friend Mark Leccese takes a more by-the-books approach than I do to Romenesko’s indifferent use of quotation marks. Mark provokes another thought. Until the last few years, the Romenesko blog did not include bylines for each individual item. Indeed, in this archived example from 2010, you could argue that the attribution was to the originating news organization. Then Poynter redesigned the site, and suddenly every item Romenesko posted included his name and mugshot.
Did that somehow make it seem worse when Moos brought the hammer down last week? I’d argue yes. Romenesko never claimed that anything he posted was original, but including his byline on items may have changed the expectations, at least in Moos’ mind.
• The one issue I keep going back to is Moos’ claim that no one at Poynter knew what Romenesko was up to until she received Fry’s inquiry — several weeks before Romenesko was to retire, and on the verge of his launching his own advertiser-supported blog. That claim is simply not credible, and I continue to hope that we’ll learn more.
There are a lot of good people at Poynter, and the institute is a valuable resource for journalists. I wish them well. But I don’t think Poynter is going to be able to move on until we learn all the details about why they whacked their most valuable employee at a moment when he already had one foot out the door.
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.
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.
Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”
Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect,” in tribute to Jim Romenesko’s compulsively read media-news site at Poynter.org.
The latest example is a reporter for Connecticut’s Middletown Press named Walt Gogolya, who left the paper after he was caught ripping off large sections of a story from the local Patch.com site. (I wouldn’t name Gogolya except that Romenesko writer Charles Apple — Romenesko himself is heading toward retirement — already has.)
The article falls into the news-of-the-weird category, as it involves the arrest of a man for field-dressing a deer in a parking lot. Those details may have made it harder for Gogolya to get away with his thievery. Worse for him is that the Press is owned by the Journal Register Co., which, under CEO John Paton and Connecticut regional editor Matt DeRienzo, has embarked on a public campaign of maximum transparency. Gogolya was not quietly asked to leave — he was thoroughly exposed in this editor’s note from DeRienzo. From there it was but a short hop to Romenesko and industry-wide humiliation.
I’m not entirely sure what to think about this. I think DeRienzo deserves credit for being open with his readers about what happened and how the company responded. I also did some poking around the tubes and discovered that Gogolya is not some kid fresh out of J-school. Nor do I have a problem with Romenesko airing such matters — quite the opposite, in fact. Yet these good decisions, defensible in themselves, may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense. Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like. Those are not easy jobs. But guess what? There’s no going back.
Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.
I think it also means that those of us who teach journalism need to be as diligent about these matters as we possibly can. Far better to suffer an “F” and a trip to the student disciplinary board at 20 than to have your career ended just as you’re getting started.
But in six years of teaching, I have found the overwhelming majority of students are extremely careful about attribution. If anything, journalism students need help in figuring out when they don’t have to attribute background material.
In the one traditional academic course I teach, on media law, I have discovered that many students don’t know how to do citations properly. We had Turabian drilled into our heads in high school, but apparently those days are long gone. But few students have a problem in being clear, consistent and thorough with their citations, regardless of what self-taught method they use.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. I’ve had a few students who cheated, and I ended up dealing with one before the university’s disciplinary board. There may also have been a few others who slipped something past me, though I doubt that it’s a regular occurrence. Plagiarism is generally not that hard to spot.
Overall, there’s an unattractive kids-these-days tone to the Times story, linking plagiarism to digital phenomena ranging from Wikipedia to downloading music and films. Hey, you! Get off of my lawn!