The Romenesko Factor
A Web site staffed by a single computer maven and journalism junkie is changing the way information about the news media is disseminated.
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
IN ANCIENT TIMES, back before Palm Pilots and MP3 files, a reader would take issue with a news story by simply writing a letter to the editor. That's all Miami Herald Executive Editor Martin Baron would have done after reading a New Republic piece critical of his paper's Elián González coverage. That letter would appear in the magazine weeks later and be read by at least some of The New Republic's followers. Ditto for the reactions of the Los Angeles Times' Jack Nelson, Knight Ridder's Washington Editor Clark Hoyt and the subsequent responses from the author of the piece.
Well, the Internet has changed all that--more specifically the popular media junkie Web hang, Jim Romenesko's MediaNews. Romenesko posted a link to the TNR piece May 4, the day it appeared on the magazine's Web site. With a recent average of 14,256 page views per day, MediaNews (www.poynter.org/medianews) instantly brought author Ryan Lizza's charge that the Herald had gone soft on Cuban American issues to an expanded audience.
Baron isn't one of the many journalists who check the site religiously every day, but he knows of Romenesko's reach. And so, when he sent off that traditional letter to the editor, he also e-mailed a copy to Romenesko, who posted it May 6. Over the next few days the site added the comments of Nelson, Hoyt and Lizza, as well as those of former Herald Editor Douglas C. Clifton, now editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, who actually had e-mailed Poynter President James M. Naughton and had not intended for his remarks to make it onto MediaNews.org.
"We wanted our response out there quickly," says Baron. "We were probably likely to reach more people more quickly by going to that site" than by waiting for a subsequent issue of the magazine. (The story was printed in the May 15 issue.)
Romenesko's page, part of the Poynter Institute's Web site since last October, has changed the way news about the media is disseminated, creating an instant forum for the self-referential world of journalism. Suddenly articles in a regional daily or local alternative paper or city magazine have an immediate national audience. The fact that the editor of a big metropolitan paper felt it worthwhile to e-mail his remarks vividly illustrates the impact of a lone Web maven and media-gossip enthusiast based in Evanston, Illinois. Many journalists click on the site throughout the day, and habitually e-mail tips and rebuttals, as well as requests that their own pieces be posted.
What started as a hobby in late May 1999 has blossomed into a full-time job for Romenesko, 47, who gets about 200 to 300 e-mails a day from journalists. Starting at 5 a.m. CST, he scans a couple hundred media sites and builds his page of links, accompanied by short intros on what news the stories hold. He updates the page as news happens throughout the day. As a result of his efforts, MediaNews has emerged as the Web stop for the immediate industry scoop, including much about small markets and alternative publications, and for what Romenesko refers to as a "pub atmosphere" of back-and-forth e-mail debate.
It's the growth of posted e-mails that has some journalists concerned and others loving every minute of it. The reactions of those involved in a controversy are often informative and entertaining, and the quotes something media writers would love to have in their stories. But there's also a risk that the e-mails could be false or inflammatory, that the debate descends to the trivial or gets too personal.
In July, an Orlando Sentinel staffer commented in a letter about film critic Roger Ebert: "He has so devalued and over-exposed his thumb as to be just another piece of meaningless hype-noise spat out by Hollywood." A Chicago Tribune writer then chimed in of the staffer, "What a bitter and spiteful and naïve fellow you seem to be."
Even after the rather civilized discussion of Lizza's article, the author began a response with, "This is getting a little ridiculous."
Lizza, a TNR assistant editor, says that, like everyone else, "I love that site." But, he adds, "There's something a little bit self-obsessed about journalists sitting around going back and forth, criticizing each other's work." Still, Lizza, who sent a longer response to Romenesko than was published in the magazine, sees great benefit to the e-mails. "The site's sort of empowering for people like Marty [Baron]...who felt he was attacked unfairly."
It's empowering because so many will read the comments. "If it's there, you know that most of your colleagues in the profession have either looked at it or printed it out and handed it to someone in the newsroom," says Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau chief.
When Romenesko posted news that Gannett had jettisoned its News 2000 program, former and current Gannett employees e-mailed him their opinions. Under the program, stories were subject to a checklist of items designed to make them more community-relevant, and many of Romenesko's anonymous e-mailers had harsh critiques. When Salon.com underwent a redesign, MediaNews readers weighed in, the vast majority crying, "Hate it." (Salon reverted to some of its old design habits.)
"I absolutely love the e-mails, even though some of it is inside baseball and people peeing on each other," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, a daily visitor to the site. "It's great for journalists who feel they've been unfairly criticized to be able to respond in minutes, and it's a model for what the Internet can be as a forum for two-way communication."
Adds Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist and author of the Brenda Starr comic strip: "I think that's part of the appeal to the site.... It feels like a conversation more than just a site that you go to read."
But to Boston Globe media writer Mark Jurkowitz, it feels like a day with whiny reporters. To him the site initially "got away from the carping, opinionated kind of chatter that is a huge part of the media culture, but that frankly I think most of us can get in our own newsroom." Now, Jurkowitz is concerned the e-mails diminish the site's credibility. Whereas the linked news articles met the standards of publishing at various media organizations, the e-mails don't. "You've got to take it with a grain of salt," he says.
Jurkowitz suggests separating the comments from the main page. "I just loved the sort of uncrowded, Hey, these are the stories, and this is what's going on in the media'...as opposed to...Here's another food fight,' " he says. Of course, "Having said that," he adds, "I go to the site 15 times a day."
There are dangers in posting individual remarks. "It risks becoming a sort of tit-for-tat kind of thing," says Staci D. Kramer, a University City, Missouri-based freelance writer who focuses on the media, and the list owner of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics listserv. Some days, she says, MediaNews feels like a tennis match. Kramer, too, would like the comments walled off, because the talk "runs the potential of diluting what he's already done," she says.
But Romenesko sees the benefits. "I think that people enjoy the e-mail discussions," he says.
He debates with himself whether or not to post e-mails, steers away from potential flame wars and questions why an e-mailer would want to remain anonymous, he says. Romenesko's against using a lot of unnamed e-mails, but will allow it if he feels there's good reason. He could understand requested anonymity on the Gannett News 2000 responses and evaluates such situations on a case-by-case basis. He has also asked e-mailers for more information or to prove a point. "I don't remember anything really outlandish," Romenesko says. "I do recall taking down one item because somebody had pointed out an inaccuracy in it."
Bill Mitchell, online editor at the Poynter Institute and Romenesko's boss, acknowledges there's a potential for lessened credibility, but adds, "I don't think that's happened."
In early August, Romenesko took the site in yet another direction: posting previously unpublished work. He gave an audience to author Eugene Kennedy's 11,000-word treatise on the 1998 ouster of former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle on plagiarism and fabrication charges. Responses to the article and related postings were fiery and fierce. But they didn't touch on the issue of posting an unfiltered, unedited story with a decided point of view. A quiet discussion did ensue on the SPJ-Ethics listserv, raising the question: Should a journalistic site post information for which it cannot attest?
Mitchell said in a post to the listserv that Kennedy's piece was sent to Poynter's Naughton. He and Naughton talked with Kennedy and an editor who knew the writer and decided the piece was appropriate for MediaNews, as something like an op-ed, but not for the main Poynter site. "Poynter's publishing the piece on our homepage," he wrote, "would represent significantly more vouching for' than enabling it to be posted to the MediaNews site."
Says Romenesko, "Dr. Kennedy is a credible author.... [W]e weren't posting the work of an untested writer."
(AJR was offered Kennedy's piece and passed on publishing it.)
Mitchell wanted to start a site similar to Romenesko's when he found out last August that the then-St. Paul Pioneer Press Internet writer was running mediagossip.com in his spare time. Mediagossip grew out of Romenesko's Obscure Store and Reading Room (obscurestore.com), a site featuring bizarre news stories that was launched in January 1998.
Poynter opted to rename the site Media-News, and the page has surpassed Poynter's expectations, says Mitchell. One of the effects it has had on the industry, he says, is that happenings in smaller markets are getting noticed.
Kramer and Kurtz like the fact that Romenesko's site isn't purely bicoastal. News about the media, says Kramer, tends to focus on Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. "It's one of the things that's frustrated me for a long time." As a Midwesterner, she says, Romenesko "understands that there's something in between."
Or something far to the north.
Robert Meyerowitz, former editor of the weekly Anchorage Press, says MediaNews has linked to his paper about five or six times in the last year, most of those times because he dashed off a quick e-mail to Romenesko alerting him to relevant material. The Press staff used to joke that their disconnected location was the reason they earned the links, a " Hey, there are journalists in Alaska' " kind of effect, Meyerowitz says.
But as others enjoy the news from small towns and alternative publications, areas Romenesko says he tries to comb, Meyerowitz likes to "maintain a connection with the larger world of journalism." He says he would never see some of the items if it were up to him to surf the Web himself. Nor would New York Times staffers see much from the Anchorage Press. Romenesko is the wire service of media news.
And the site can provide self-policing for the industry. It's "shining a lot more light on the business," says Mitchell, "and I think that's pretty much always a good thing whenever there's more exposure to what's going on."
Other journalists agree that the more information out there, the better. Though, says Jurkowitz, "to the degree that it increases our self-absorption and egocentric behavior, one could argue that psychologically that's bad."
The obsession factor may reach "a saturation point," says the Tribune's Schmich, where those visiting the site twice a day will fall down to twice a week.
That certainly won't be easy, as the L.A. Times' McManus knows. The Romenesko addict had to curb his clicking early on. He was quoted back in February by the Chicago Sun-Times as saying, "I found I was going to his page six times a day. So I had to go cold turkey."
McManus says most of his visits last fall were to find out the latest on his own employer, as it faced problems associated with a deal to split advertising profits with the Staples Center from a Sunday magazine issue on the sports arena. He admits he quit for about three days. "There is no patch for this addiction," he says. At least he's now down to one visit a day.
Unlike some struggling news Web sites, Romenesko is backed by a nonprofit and doesn't face bottom-line pressures. And he isn't in the original reporting business: Though sometimes he does break a story by being the first to post a press release or tip, he's primarily compiling links to existing news stories. It's much like what Don Fitzpatrick, owner and president of Don Fitzpatrick Associates, has been doing for years for TV. His ShopTalk Web site and listserv provide quick synopses of news stories about television journalism and lists of job changes. Fitzpatrick doesn't link to articles, but he's been dishing out a daily ShopTalk digest since 1991.
This hunting-and-gathering task is where McManus sees the future of the new media. "To me, it's an interesting example of how the Internet has added very little new content, but...has provided huge leaps forward in the ease of accessing content," McManus says, adding, "when and only when a human editor is indexing the content."