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
Tina Brown says The Daily Beast website is on track to be profitable this year, but Lucia Moses points out that getting the combined NewsBeast into the black by early 2013 — Daily Beast backer Barry Diller insists that’s possible (Moses uses: has said is reasonable) — will be a daunting task. “If that task takes years and Newsweek can’t find a way to regain the relevance weekly newsmagazines have lost since the explosion of news on the Internet, then Diller and Jane Harman, Sidney Harman’s widow, could reach the point where they finally decide to cut bait,” she writes. “The idea that NewsBeast could ever become a successful operation has always seemed far-fetched.” On the bright side, Newsweek’s newsstand sales are up under Tina Brown, “but newsstand sales are only 3 percent of the magazine’s circulation, and they don’t make it much money,” notes Moses. Reed Phillips, managing partner at media investment bank DeSilva+Phillips, tells her:
“I don’t think it’s a quick turnaround. Advertisers are going to take time to get comfortable that Newsweek is on a solid foundation. And the ad market’s jittery already. I think the biggest challenge is, it has to be redefined in a way that has to be engaging with readers. New York magazine did it. With the talent The Daily Beast has, there’s anticipation that that can be done. And it needs more of an edge compared to what it was in the past, before they bought it.”
Brown said last November that it will take “a while” for her to make on Newsweek, and that the print/website combo is “a good model.” She told WWD.com: “You’re seeing this with Bloomberg and BusinessWeek, and Politico and its newspaper, and now you’re going to see the Daily Beast and Newsweek.”
It’s also worth noting that most of the eight posts I presented Moos with were all from the last two weeks. They weren’t carefully scouted out like needles from a haystack to prove a point about Romenesko’s or any other Poynter writer’s attribution habits—they illustrated a systemic, ongoing aggregation practice.
When we finally spoke, Moos told me that she did not know when or exactly why posts at the Romenesko+ blog got so long; she insists it was not a conscious decision. (Choire Sicha’s Awl post on the matter documents the transition well.)
Though she resisted the notion that Poynter has an ‘over-aggregation’ problem and didn’t want to confuse the issue with incomplete attribution (again, the issue she focused on), she noted that, in response to her post yesterday, several individuals had e-mailed her with related concerns about the length of Poynter’s posts.
“It’s something I really need to look at—now that posts are longer, the blog has lost that impressionistic, easy to browse sense of what’s happening today,” Moos told me.
On at least one occasion, Poynter has taken over-aggregation so far that the term no longer applies. See this one, in which an entire 700-word article from CJR is cut and pasted into a Poynter Romenesko+ post. (We don’t know if anything on that scale happened to anyone else, but we sure noticed.)
The consequences of over-aggregation are obvious. There’s no incentive for readers to visit the source site and the aggregator site gets all the traffic. It’s telling that Poynter’s site often hosts discussion and comments about articles that would be better placed on the original site.
Moos assured me that Poynter does not intend to have this effect, and aims to give credit and send traffic. She points out that each day she gets a lot of e-mails from people who want Romenesko+ to link to their site: “clearly people see it as a benefit to be linked by us.”
I have little doubt this was once true, and probably still is, but I believe these changes in Poynter’s aggregation practices have started to erode the benefits of having a link on the Romenesko blog.
Meanwhile, Moos says these lengthier posts have coincided with a period of renewed success for Poynter. After watching its audience of newsroom employees decline in 2009, she said in our interview before Jim Romenesko resigned, that the site has pursued “a deliberate strategy to bring some new audiences” by “bringing new types of content, new sources, new writers, and by giving Jim the kind of break he asked for that he hoped would allow him to do some more original reporting.”
Moos doesn’t know how effective these changes have been, but she says their audience has “grown exponentially” this year, and that she believes social media deserves some of the credit.
Social Media and Linking
I raised questions about Poynter’s social media strategy in my interview with Moos as well, noting my concern that Romenesko+’s methods of tweeting and linking compound the over-aggregation problem. When Poynter tweets a story to its 38,000 followers, it is often not to the original reported story, but to Poynter’s summary of it. In yesterday’s debate, the issue was also raised by Forbes’s Jeff Bercovici:
…I don’t love the practice of tweeting links to Poynter pickups instead of original stories. If you’re gonna fix something, fix that.
Moos told me Poynter’s rationale for tweeting links is this: they will link to their Poynter stories if they involve original reporting or original thought; otherwise they will tweet a direct link to the story. She conceded that at times they may have misjudged the originality of their aggregated posts, and she plans to monitor their practices more closely now. She assured me that the intent of Romenesko+ is what it has always been: to bring traffic to journalists, not take it from them.
I also raised questions about the site’s linking practices, which I believe could be made more clear and user-friendly, and as a result better Poynter’s ability to give credit where credit is due.
Many of the recent aggregated posts feature only one link to the original article, and finding it isn’t a particularly intuitive process: if you click on the post’s larger, more obvious headline, you get a permalink to the Romenesko+ post. If you click on the name of the source, which runs below the byline and is smaller and lighter-colored green, you will link to the original article.
Attribution in these posts was mystifyingly inconsistent, and I did plan to ask Moos about this. At times, quotation marks or block quotes are used to set off the original author’s words. This makes instances in which they are not, odd, and suggest that they are instead the words of the aggregator.
In some of the examples I sent Moos, sentences were modified just slightly—with the substitution of a single word or a slight change in phrasing. This makes it even more unclear who has written what.
Though Moos’s post only addressed examples of this in Romenesko’s work, I also had provided her with two recent posts written by Taegan Goddard that used this sort of unclear attribution.
From Taegan Goddard’s November 2 piece, “Local Reporters get rare White House access” compare this sentence from Mike Allen’s original write-up:
It’s a 21st-century update to the old “radio row,” which let talk-show hosts to broadcast from the White House, with West Wing officials going from microphone to microphone during drive-time shows.
With this one, written by Goddard (his is unusual in the inclusion of the link to Allen):
Mike Allen called it a 21st-century update to the old “radio row,” in which talk-show hosts broadcast from the White House with administration officials “going from microphone to microphone during drive-time shows.”A number of journalists dismissed the idea that there was anything improper about this yesterday, arguing Romenesko has done this for years and everyone knows this is the work of another reporter. Others called it plagiarism, a label that Moos (and I) resisted, explaining that Romenesko’s intent was clearly to give credit to the author and not to deceive the audiences.
But I would argue that the point here is merely that Poynter should and could—very easily—do better with regard to attribution, nothing more.
Moos wrote that she had discovered this “incomplete attribution” when she looked back at Jim Romenesko’s earlier work. I did not find this to be the case, probably because his posts used to be so short. My search of the archives was limited, but it appeared to me that the frequent “incomplete attribution” started creeping into Poynter’s blog posts earlier this year when they became noticeably longer, and, I would argue, ‘over-aggregated.’
I raised these questions with Moos not because I wanted Jim Romenesko to resign or because I wanted to “destroy his reputation” as certain commenters have wildly suggested. I have read Romenesko feverishly—every day, multiple times a day for many years. Jim Romenesko did a lot of good for a long time; his blog provided a tremendous service to the journalist community by bringing together stories, serving as a community bulletin board, and sending journalists bigger audiences for their good work. That is in part why I asked my questions and embarked on this story, because it seemed to me that some noteworthy things had changed.
In recent the months, the industry has been grappling with standards and best practices for aggregation. This is an important discussion to have. And Poynter—an institute that regularly weighs in on these matters—needs to honestly consider its own practices while advocating standards for the rest of community.
Julie Moos tried to do something like that yesterday. How she did it was her choice.
CORRECTION 11/15: The article originally said Fry contacted Moos on Tuesday and sent written questions and examples that same day. The article also originally said Moos and Fry had scheduled an interview for Wednesday. In fact, Fry contacted Moos and sent her questions on Wednesday, and scheduled an interview for Thursday. The sequence of events remains the same. We regret the errors.