I have no other option than to start this column about Jim Romenesko with a litany of disclosures. Deep breath, here we go:
Romenesko has linked to my blog, Regret the Error, many times since it launched in 2004. My guess is he’s probably linked to me three to five times a year, maybe a bit more. (I’ve always tried to be judicious in the number of links I sent to him. I can only imagine what his inbox looks like.)
I’ve long been a fan of his blog. In fact it helped provide a measure of inspiration for me to want to launch my own media-focused blog. That said, he and I have never exchanged anything more than a few words by e-mail.
Also: I recently visited Poynter, the home of his blog for the past twelve years, to talk with them about how we can work together. Nothing has been formally agreed to but I expect there to be something to share publicly very soon. No, I’m not trying to be the next Romenesko.
I list all of the above because, of course, I’m writing about the events that led up to Romenesko’s resignation from Poynter yesterday. It began when Julie Moos, one of the people I’ve been speaking with at Poynter, put up a post explaining that, “Jim Romenesko’s posts exhibit a pattern of incomplete attribution.”
She learned this thanks to “the sharp eye of Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.”
I am, of course, a columnist for CJR and have been for more than three years. I’ve never met or worked with Erika Fry. I have no knowledge about what she has been working on regarding Romenesko other than what was mentioned by Moos, on the CJR Twitter feed, and in this recent post by Justin Peters, who edits this column.
I think that covers most of the necessary disclosures, but in a sense this entire column is a disclosure.
So, the basic questions: Was it plagiarism? Or is what Romenesko did wrong?
Moos herself says Romenesko is not a plagiarist. She told 10,000 Words that, “I don’t characterize it as plagiarism, which usually involves an intent to deceive.”
I agree: Romenesko is scrupulous about always telling you where the information came from. Plagiarism involves an element of passing off another’s work as your own and not offering any credit. A plagiarist doesn’t want people to know where it came from. Romenesko is big on credit. He cites journalists’ names and their publications. He links back. It is at the very essence of what he does. He finds the good stuff and tells you how to get more if you want it.
Was it a mistake on his part to not put quotation marks around verbatim passages? Of course it was. That’s basic journalistic practice, and it matters how frequently this occurred.
Reuters’ Felix Salmon argues passionately that Romenesko did not need to put quotation marks around these passages, and that “If he’s violating the guidelines, then it’s the guidelines which are at fault, not Romenesko.”
My personal view is that just because you’re aggregating and curating it doesn’t excuse you from offering attribution in the form of quotes. I’m currently the editorial director of a Canadian online news organization that employs seven people we call “news curators.” Their job is to curate the best local news in their respective cities. Having them put verbatim passages in quotes is standard practice, and it serves everyone’s interests. Readers expect quotes and verbatim words to be in, well, quotes. So too do other news organizations. Those expectations inform how people consume our work.
Like everyone else, I’ll have to wait for the CJR piece to find out more specifics about this specific instance. Yesterday’s piece by Moos does not provide a list of examples, so I have no idea how often Romenesko mixed the words of others with his own. And, yes, I believe it’s important to know. We should have the full facts on the table.
For now, what’s striking to me about this whole affair is how me and a litany of other media folks instantly viewed this situation it in the same way. There is little, or no, dissention when it comes to the question of Romenesko’s intent and practices. (Peters touched on this in his post from today.)