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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

No Way to Treat a Romenesko   

The Poynter Institute drastically overreacts. Thurs., November 10, 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

I'm having a little trouble getting worked up over this Romenesko "scandal."

The Poynter Institute is hanging its groundbreaking media blogger/aggregator out to dry over the question of inadequate attribution.

It seems Jim Romenesko hasn't always been scrupulous about using quotation marks when summarizing articles he was linking to.

Technically, he should have, and Poynter is right to change the practice. But there's no real sin here.

Romenesko has always been conscientious about giving credit, about citing sources, about linking without giving away the whole story, as other aggregators are known to do. Until the site's format changed in recent months as Romenesko's role began to shrink in advance of his semi-retirement at the end of the year and others began posting, his summaries were paragons of concision.

There was no intent to fool anyone. He made eminently clear where the material was coming from.

In her post on the situation, Poynter Online Director and Publications Director Julie Moos was careful to avoid accusing Romenesko of plagiarism. And when he offered to resign, she wisely refused to accept.

But the tenor and length of her post clearly suggested that something sinister was afoot.

Consider the top:

"Poynter.org works hard to meet the highest standards of journalism excellence, and I learned late Wednesday that we have not consistently met those standards.

"A centerpiece of our editorial work has been the Romenesko blog, which invented a form of aggregation that is widely and deservedly respected. It is also imperfect.

"Thanks to the sharp eye of Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, I now know that Jim Romenesko's posts exhibit a pattern of incomplete attribution."

The portentous, not to say sanctimonious, tone clearly indicates that major skulduggery has been uncovered.

Or the kicker:

"We are in uncharted territory, marked by uncertainty, which suggests caution. We will continue to evaluate this situation and to be as transparent as possible about what we learn and decide.

"You can and should draw your own conclusions."

Was there really a need for all of this self-righteous melodrama?

All that had to happen was a brief disclosure that Romenesko, while making clear the source of some material, sometimes hadn't used quotation marks in the past. He would do so in the future. End of story.

Romenesko has linked to countless AJR stories over the years. I've never had a complaint about how he has handled them. With one exception. Sometimes when linking to a serious piece of media analysis, Jim would highlight the 35th paragraph because it had this really sexy quote. That would attract eyeballs, but it would sometimes do a disservice to the thrust of the piece.

Of course, there's another way of looking at it. As Reuters media writer Jack Shafer tweeted today, "The only unusual thing I ever noticed abt @romenesko's summaries of my pieces: He always found my misplaced ledes."

There's no doubt that Jim Romenesko put Poynter on the map as an online destination. One of the smartest things former Poynter President Jim Naughton and ex-Poynter online honcho (and now faculty member) Bill Mitchell did was hire Romenesko to do for Poynter what he previously had been doing as a hobby.

He doesn't deserve to be treated this way.