Yesterday, Poynter’s Julie Moos published a controversial post on the journalism institute’s Romenesko+ blog, which she credited to my “sharp eye.”
Her post, which addressed “incomplete attribution” in the posts of Jim Romenesko, the industry’s most beloved aggregator, instantly created a firestorm, with many journalists quickly tweeting and blogging in defense of Romenesko while others raised charges of plagiarism. Romenesko twice asked to resign because of the matter, and Poynter finally allowed him to do so last night.
What a shame. That the matter escalated to that point is strange to us, particularly since it all flowed from a set of questions I sent Moos on Wednesday*—in advance, I thought, of an interview for a story. My questions did not focus solely on Jim Romenesko (who did not respond to my request for comment) but on several recent changes on the blog since it became Romenesko+, adding a number of writers and changing its aggregation style.
I sent those questions in the spirit of inquiry; they would be good questions for any similar site, but they’re particularly relevant and important for Poynter, given its authority in journalism ethics, and the institute’s stated mission to “promote excellence and integrity in the practice of craft.”
I didn’t even know what I thought about some of the matters raised. But 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.
I contacted Moos on Wednesday afternoon and we scheduled an interview for Thursday afternoon. On Wednesday evening, along with some questions, I sent Moos eight recent Romenesko+ posts—not all of them written by Jim Romenesko—that reflected patterns I found to be problematic.*
As Erik Wemple reported, Moos contacted me the next morning shortly after publishing her own post on the matter—and several hours before our scheduled interview—saying she had responded on Poynter’s blog. (In fact, she had responded to just one aspect of my questions.) She could discuss the matter at any time, she said, explaining that she had posted her response before our interview because her first obligation was to the Institute, Jim Romenesko, and Poynter’s readers.
Because Jim Romenesko’s attribution practices were the focus of Moos’s post, they more or less became the focus of yesterday’s debate. But attribution was only one part of my inquiry, and I’d like to discuss the other aspects here.
While what this term means is debated—see the earlier Huffington Post and Business Insider controversies—my interpretation matches that of Moos, who described over-aggregation as when an aggregated post contains too much volume or substantive work of the original source, such that it removes any incentive for the reader to visit the original story.
Additionally, I would argue, as Moos and her Poynter colleagues have also done, that an aggregated post should add some value—either in original thought or through compiling various sources—and not just be a condensed reproduction of original content, as in the examples I sent Poynter.
In nearly all of the examples I provided Moos, there was not a single sentence—these examples were at least eight sentences long—that wasn’t largely in the words of the original author. (Moos provided one of my examples in her own post.) My examples bolded the words in each Poynter post that matched the words of the source. While this had the effect of highlighting some confusing or incomplete attributions, my main point was quite different: that these aggregated posts didn’t offer any original thought or valuable synthesis of source materials; they’re merely condensed versions of the original. You can see that this was my main intent in the below example, where I bolded material Jim Romenesko rendered inside of quotes; while those portions raise aggregation issues, they clearly don’t raise attribution issues:
Newsweek, Daily Beast together have lost about $30 million
Jim Romenesko Oct. 31, 2011 9:02 am