President’s Column: Occupy Romenesko

Ben PollockBy Ben S. Pollock
President, National Society of Newspaper Columnists

A correction has been made. It is noted below the column.

The momentary loss of Jim Romenesko writing a well-regarded blog on news media news is the latest example of corporate journalism losing its way. Or it’s another inconsequential demonstration of panic in the halls of media. That’s happened a lot this year. The Occupy movement of good intentions has set camp in executive suites, newsrooms and home offices.

On Nov. 10, Julie Moos (director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications at journalism’s Poynter Institute at St. Petersburg, Fla.) wrote that Romenesko (director of an eponymous aggegator blog hosted by poynter.org) was engaged in a questionable journalistic practice, “incomplete attribution.”

Moos and Romenesko are not household names, and they may not be universally known to NSNC members. I strongly recommended poynter.org, even now, to keep up with the industry but also for its educational value.

Romenesko, a Midwest-based journalist, began in his spare time a blog, “MediaGossip,” in the 1990s that gathered (aggregated) links to news about the journalism industry. Poynter hired him in 1999 to publish his blog on its website. In a dozen years, journalists and interested others have checked this page, where Romenesko would post news about journalists in all media, as well as some circulation and advertising updates.

I sent him NSNC news items, not too many I hoped, and he posted about a quarter of them. I had no strong complaints with his choices, which increased NSNC’s visibility, after all.

A few months ago, as Romenesko began a gradual, negotiated move into semi-retirement, Poynter renamed his blog “Latest News,”* yet still carried his name. Poynter staff writers began posting news items as Romenesko decreased his work load.

The Moos memo, Exhibit A, says that Erika Fry of the Columbia Journalism Review had questions on the format of the blog “Romenesko.”

The format of Romenesko’s own posts was a paragraph that contained the hyperlink to the originating article and summarized it. He clearly indicated the attribution of the material but did not set off in quotation marks every sentence or phrase that he’d cut-and-pasted. This style was what was at issue.

The past year’s staff-written posts tended to be more complete; you could get the whole story in capsule without leaving the site. I suppose these briefs used quote marks and sufficient attribution. Thus, the youngsters used print conventions and the old guy wrote with an eye for design, sufficient clarity for the Web. (From being an editor for most of three decades, I accept that grammar is relative and subjective.)

Moos never used the word “plagiarism” in Exhibit A.

For 12 years, no one complained about citations in what would roughly be 15,000 posts. These were briefs about and for professionals who would be the first to shout “fake” in a crowded newsroom. Some noteworthy journalists now have said Romenesko’s format made the quotes obvious enough. I think he should have claimed to have adopted the grammar of Cormac McCarthy, famous for using as little punctuation as possible, certainly no quote marks, in his acclaimed novels.

Fry was asking Moos about the summary style, not accusing, according to her own post-bout reflection, Exhibit B.

If the only problem with Jim Romenesko was an editing judgment, Moos could have asked him to put quotation marks around any directly quoted material. She could have had him send his work to a Poynter copy editor to ensure proper punctuation.

Romenesko in a rebuttal, Exhibit C, wondered if revenue could be behind the kerfuffle. At the start of 2012, he will resume a similar blog to his old MediaGossip site, jimromenesko.com. The site would carry ads. Advertisers who had been buying space at Poynter.org might instead contract for spots with him.

“Follow the money” (Deep Throat to Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men”) seems logical but does not sound like the entire explanation.

I wonder if Moos was following the media management trend of prominent rapid mea culpas? That’s been seen several times this year, most perhaps from National Public Radio. Those can backfire.

Odd connections to disparate events intrigue me. To me, good intentions poorly executed may similarly doom the Occupy movement.

If Moos had handled this as a recurring typo to fix, we regular readers of “Latest News”* would not have embarrassed her, spurred Romenesko to leave the job early, and caused possible damage to her employer the Poynter Institute.

Damage? The NSNC has been considering holding its 2013 annual conference on the Poynter campus, renting rooms and hiring an institute lecturer or two for the weekend. An NSNC board member now has suggested a wait-and-see, citing the cavalier way Poynter has treated a good journalist.

Some other NSNC board members, by the way, agree with Moos.

I say she overreacted and should be held accountable. I have already bookmarked Romenesko’s new website and will check it frequently.

• • •

The possibilities of the Occupy metaphor inspired a “long-form” version of this column, over 2,200 words. For example: “Occupy” is the opposite of “vacant” when imprinted on handles of plane and bus bathrooms. British conveyances, though, replace “Occupied” with “Engaged” on their lavatory doors.

The director’s cut is at www.benpollock.com/brick/2011/12/01/occupied

• • •

*Correction: Poynter renamed Romenesko’s blog “MediaWire,” said poynter.org Managing Editor Steve Myers. He elaborates in an e-mail to Ben Pollock: “‘[L]atest news’ … is a category that includes the former Romenesko (now MediaWire) blog as well as our mobile, social and business blogs.” Pollock advises that to get all of the latest news from poynter.org, go to www.poynter.org/category/latest-news/.

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