The most frustrating thing about the Jim Romenesko affair is the way that so many people who should know better are insisting that there is no Jim Romenesko affair.
Romenesko, the seminal media blogger, resigned from the Poynter Institute last night after his boss, Julie Moos, published an article detailing his occasional failure to indicate that the language he was using to summarize the stories he linked to was, in fact, taken verbatim from the stories themselves. (Moos’s post was prompted by an e-mail from CJR’s Erika Fry, who was requesting an interview for a forthcoming story about the Romenesko+ blog.)
The article made a lot of people very angry—primarily at Julie Moos, a woman whom nobody knows, for having the gall to publicly criticize Jim Romenesko, who is famous. And while much of the rancor seemed directed at Moos’s tone and timing, plenty of people seemed certain that there was nothing to complain about at all.
Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo, as did many journalists, said on Twitter that he “just wanted to go on record saying I’ve never had any issues with @Romenesko’s aggregation of my work.” Felix Salmon dubbed Romenesko “a KING of the blogosphere. He’s the kind of person you should be looking to as an exemplar of best practices in the blogosphere. If your guidelines go against what Jim is doing, then there might well be something wrong with your guidelines.” Even Jack Shafer, scourge of the journalistic malefactor, used his Twitter account to assemble a list of over twenty press critics who were “standing up for Romenesko.” (That’s pretty much all of them.)
It’s rare that you see so many people rising to declare their support for sloppy attribution practices. To claim, as American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder does, that Romenesko “made eminently clear where the material was coming from” is inane and false. Yes, Romenesko links back to his sources, but any casual browser of the Poynter site would have no way of knowing that the words Romenesko used weren’t his own—and, especially lately, the Romenesko+ extended summaries are long enough to give readers little reason to click through to the original article. And while Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times wrote that the “bizarre spat” revolved around “summaries that Mr. Romenesko never claimed credit for as his original work,” the fact is that all of Jim Romenesko’s Poynter posts carried Jim Romenesko’s byline, and, as such, it is reasonable to expect that those posts were his original work.
I like Romenesko very much, and not just for the traffic he’s sent CJR over the years. I’ve read his media blog since before it moved to Poynter, because it has always been fascinating and excellent. I visited his now-defunct “weird news” blog, Obscure Store, several times a day for what must have been fifteen years. I even go to his Starbucks Gossip site, even though I have no great thirst for Starbucks gossip. And, in some small sense, I know how hard his job must be.
For years, Slate ran a daily column called “Today’s Papers,” which was an early-morning summary and analysis of the top stories in America’s top five newspapers. I was one of about a dozen freelancers who would occasionally fill in for the lead Today’s Papers writer. The columns were very difficult to write, and not just because I had to do so on the overnight shift. As it turns out, it’s hard to summarize someone else’s work briefly and efficiently. I can’t count the number of times that I would be sitting there, stymied, at three in the morning, unsure why I was expending so much effort trying to restate what somebody else had already said.
But you know what? I knuckled down and found a way to say things in my own words, because I am a journalist, and that is my job. No matter how monotonous the assignment—and, believe me, aggregating and summarizing Washington Post stories for Today’s Papers was a very monotonous assignment—I was supposed to do what I could to bring my own insight and descriptive powers to bear on the material I had to work with. That’s the value add, as they say.
The practice of stopping to say things in your own words isn’t just an obsolete ideal imposed on journalists by reactionaries and pedants. Having to consider and articulate things for yourself leads to better comprehension of the source material and, subsequently, better analysis. Sure, if your job is content aggregation, you might not have much space to work with. But there’s a lot you can do in a little space. The words you choose can convey analysis, emphasis, skepticism, humor. You can use your close reading of the text to improve others’ understanding of it. You can offer criticism, or comparative analysis. If you’re not going to do that, well, then just give a link and let the people who did the work the first time tell the story. Or, at the very least, use quotation marks when you’re using somebody else’s words.
The fact that Romenesko did things this way means that he didn’t do them another, better way. Is this a big deal? Depends on your tolerance for nitpicking, I guess. If I were in Julie Moos’s position, I would have handled this much differently. (I would have started by reversing whatever ill-conceived summertime directive forced Romenesko and his assistants to expand their posts to four times their necessary length.) But it is odd to criticize a journalism ethics institute for caring too much about journalism ethics, and it is disingenuous to say that there was no error here out of a historical respect and affinity for Jim Romenesko (and the traffic he commands) and an uncertainty about whether aggregators should be subject to the same rules as other journalists.
I see no reason why they shouldn’t. And the fact that you’re a famous blogger-aggregator with a distinctive style shouldn’t insulate you from criticism if “style” becomes an excuse for sloppy work. I assume I would have been fired from Slate if I would’ve just copy-and-pasted unattributed news content and passed them off as my own words. I was, and remain, just some guy whom nobody knows, after all, not some KING of the blogosphere. And I wonder if the blogosphere would’ve been so quick to come to my defense.