Jim Romenesko chose to take the high road in explaining the events that led to his November 10 resignation from the Poynter Institute. But though his post -- the first for his new site, JimRomenesko.com -- is understated, it is nevertheless devastating in its portrayal of how his editor, Julie Moos, tried to conflate his aggregation practices into a scandal over Romenesko's supposed lack of ethics.
In the small world of media criticism that I inhabit, Romenesko is a legend. Starting with his own site, MediaGossip.com, in the late 1990s, and then for the past dozen years at Poynter, Romenesko scoured the Internet for every bit of media news he could find, assembling them into a punchy digest that he updated obsessively throughout the day.
In August, Romenesko announced he would go into "semi-retirement" (a term he now says was urged on him by Moos) and launch his own site for longer-form media criticism. Other Poynter writers began contributing to his blog, which was renamed Romenesko+.
And then, on November 10, lightning struck. Moos wrote a long piece for -- yes, Romenesko+ -- informing readers that in response to an inquiry from the Columbia Journalism Review, she had discovered that Romenesko sometimes quoted from material he was excerpting without attributing it properly.
"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," she wrote. Moos was essentially accusing Romenesko of plagiarism (or plagiarism lite, perhaps), though she refrained from actually using the P-word.
Romenesko soon resigned. The fallout was immediate, and not favorable to Poynter, as a number of media commentators weighed in on Romenesko's side. Jeremy Peters of the New York Times labeled the entire matter "bizarre," and observed that Romenesko was called to task for "his failure to use quotation marks when summarizing articles" even though he "never claimed credit for [those summaries] as his original work." Jack Shafer of Reuters added, "I've read every Romenesko condensation of my work since his column began, but... the only unusual thing I ever noticed about his work was a knack for locating my misplaced openings and highlighting them."
The CJR staffer whose inquiry so alarmed Moos, Erika Fry, wound up writing her own commentary to protest that she wasn't interested in Romenesko's attribution methods as much as she was in Poynter's newly instituted practice of running long excerpts on Romenesko+, which, she observed, could result in fewer click-throughs to the underlying articles.
Until last Friday, Romenesko had remained semi-silent in his semi-retirement. Now, though, it's clear that tensions had been building between him and Moos for months, especially when she learned that he was planning to sell advertising on his new site. He admits he originally suspected she went after him on his attribution practices in order to smear a soon-to-be competitor, but that he no longer believes that was the case. As for their exchange over the attribution controversy, he recalls:
I told Julie that I'd used the same story summary format for the past 12 years, always credited the source, and sometimes didn't use quote marks in my story summaries because they weren't direct quotes. Not once in 12 years did anyone complain that I was plagiarizing or over-aggregating, I said.
Romenesko mocks Moos as the "Chief of the Poynter Attribution Police," noting that Poynter's Al Tompkins had run afoul of her on a similar matter; expresses gratitude for the "overwhelmingly supportive" reaction he received from the journalism community; and says he had to threaten legal action to get Poynter to stop using his name. (Romenesko+ has been renamed MediaWire.)
I'm not saying Moos had no point at all. Just from a craftsmanship point of view, it would have been better if Romenesko had been more careful about using quotation marks when he was quoting directly. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, though largely sympathetic to Romenesko, nevertheless thinks Moos was on to something.
But those of us who have been reading Romenesko for years never really thought of what he was doing as "writing." It was ridiculous to accuse of him plagiarism or something like it because he didn't claim that anything he was posting was his original work. And he always linked to what he was excerpting -- that was the whole idea. I consider him to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists -- and generous, too, as his links to my work at the Boston Phoenix, where I was the media columnist for many years, gave me a small national audience I would not otherwise have had.
It's also hard to know what to make of Moos' implicit claim that Romenesko went about his business for a dozen years without anyone at Poynter understanding what he was doing -- and then whacked him several weeks before his departure.
Since this blew up, I've seen a lot of online comments from people who say they'll read Romenesko at his new site and stop reading Poynter altogether. I'm not going to do that. There are good people at Poynter (Moos among them, no doubt), and I plan to read their work and Romenesko's.
Thanks largely to Romenesko, Poynter.org's audience, according to Compete.com, is far larger than that of other journalism sites, including the CJR, the American Journalism Review and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Now, rather than preparing for a gradual transition to the post-Romenesko era, Poynter has alienated its signature personality and infuriated his readers.
It's hard to imagine how this could have been more thoroughly botched.