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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 08:16 AM ET, 11/11/2011

Jim Romenesko and the case of the missing quote marks

Jim Romenesko will never be anything other than a hero of Web journalism to me. For what seems like the entire history of the form, Romenesko has been culling the work of media reporters and posting them to the Poynter.org site, complete with often-insightful summations.

Romenesko elevated me, just the way he did other reporters for small publications. I worked for years at the Washington City Paper and covered a lot of the goings-on at The Washington Post. If Romenesko saw fit to link to my work, it landed on the same playing field where all the big knockers were showcased. Jack Shafer in 2005 called this the Romenesko Effect.

But thanks to Romenesko’s influential readership, every journalistic sin — venial or cardinal — that’s published and gets billboarded on his Web page becomes a national story.

At one point in my reporting for Washington City Paper, I called an editor at a newspaper in Washington state for his thoughts on a story I was pursuing. As usual with folks outside of City Paper’s reach, I expected a struggle trying to get the editor to talk. That didn’t happen: The guy said he was familiar with my work. I whispered a soft thanks to Romenesko as I started my line of questioning.

Given my fondness for Romenesko’s help and his traffic-driving links, I’m tempted to jump on this journo-bandwagon that’s shouting down the Poynter brass — in particular, honcho Julie Moos — for its Thursday post that slammed him for his aggregational hygiene.

In that piece, Moos laid down a startling set of facts. She had received an inquiry from a reporter at the Columbia Journalism Review about Romenesko’s work, among other things. Included were reportedly some samples of Romenesko summaries that appeared to represent as Romenesko’s writing the writing of others. Moos investigated and wrote up her findings:

Though information sources have always been displayed prominently in Jim’s posts and are always linked at least once (often multiple times), too many of those posts also included the original author’s verbatim language without containing his or her words in quotation marks, as they should have.

Moos then placed an example of the practice in the post, highlighting the various passages from the original, aggregated work that didn’t carry quote marks. Moos: “One danger of this practice is that the words may appear to belong to Jim when they in fact belong to another.”

Given the pattern that Moos found, she decided on a couple of changes — all of Romenesko’s summaries would follow Poynter attribution rules, and an editor would look over his posts before publication, an arrangement that wasn’t previously in effect.

She also noted that Romenesko had offered to resign over the matter, an overture that she had turned down. Later on, Romenesko prevailed on that front, succeeding in seceding from the organization.

The reaction on Twitter and in comments left on the Poynter article is a jumble of highly original, unattributed, unaggregated bile against Moos. Examples from the comments:

FWIW, as someone who Romenesko has linked various times, I have never given, nor could I imagine giving, a crap about this practice. Even in the supposedly damning example cited above, the bulk of the quoted material appears in quotes. The bolded phrases not in quotes are, to be charitable, boilerplate. Unless there are far more egregious examples out there — which I strain to imagine, since the practice and intent of Romenesko’s blog is self-evident — this is a nothingburger.

Another:

I despise plagiarism and believe those who do it for a media outlet should be fired and the common practice to do it by bloggers should lead to public shaming. But what is this about? I have never, ever taken Jim Romenesko’s blog posts to be anything but a redirect to someone else’s work. Quote marks, no quote marks.

So to sum up: Romenesko was obviously aggregating and no one who read his work ever thought it was his original stuff and no one ever complained. Therefore, Moos’s decision to turn it all into a public affair is a crock.

That’s far too simplistic a takeaway. What this kerfuffle boils down to is perspective. On one side, journalists appreciate all the smart aggregation that Romenesko has done over the years. He has monitored the industry like no one else. If he occasionally neglected to put some quotation marks around text that had come from our stories, so what? The link was there, the aggregational context was there — no one ever thought he was misappropriating anything. No problem.

Then there’s Moos’s perspective. She is director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications. As her post pointed out, her organization has tight standards, which is no wonder given its mission of teaching best practices to journalists (and its related expectation of holding them to that standard). So even though her constituency — media types — professes not to care one whit about whether Romenesko uses quotation marks in all the right places, Moos must care a lot. It’s her job to care.

And no matter what the mob says about her overreaction, Moos has a legitimate technical point to address. Follow the logic trail:

●Romenesko routinely used quotation marks in his summaries;

●Those quotation marks identified text that came directly from the linked story;

●Other text didn’t carry quotation marks. Shouldn’t that always indicate original writing? Isn’t that a standard that wins nods from everyone in the industry?

Considering that just about everything Romenesko did at Poynter fell under an aggregational banner, it seems a stretch to call it plagiarism. Maybe “aggiarism” works better. Whatever it is, though, it’s something. It’s a matter that Moos had to take on.

One commenter suggested that she should have handled it quietly, via an admonition to Romenesko and a directive to do things differently from here on out. Such doesn’t appear a feasible course for a site that preaches transparency every time a newspaper makes a big mistake or a public official stonewalls on a FOIA request.

Reached via e-mail Thursday night, Romenesko wrote this:

I told Julie last night and this morning that I’ve used pretty much the same posting format for a dozen years and NEVER received a complaint that I was over-aggregating, plagiarizing or whatever. I went to bed last night thinking, “This is the most surreal way to end my career.” I’m overwhelmed by the support on Twitter, Facebook and emails. I think this is a good time for me to leave Poynter, take some time off and launch my new site, JimRomenesko.com. There will be no aggregation there; it will be reporting/essays.

When asked whether he thought Moos had acted hastily or inappropriately, Romenesko replied: “Julie and Poynter just released me from my contract. I’m happy with that, and want to move on.”

To all those frothing at how Moos treated Romenesko on this matter, please consider: All she asked is that he be edited.

By  |  08:16 AM ET, 11/11/2011

 
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