Explaining Southern California's economy

When bloggers break the rules: Did Jim Romenesko do anything wrong?

We are periodically obliged to blog about blogging here at DeBord Report. The last couple of days have seen the (sort of) downfall of one of the blogging greats, Jim Romenesko, who in 1999 started a site called MediaGossip.com. It was effectively the first blog about the peculiar inside-baseball of big-time journalism. Picked up by the Poynter Institute, it became a must-read in the profession and a model for other sites, such as LAObserved

It now appears that for the last 12 years, Romenesko has been breaking Poynter's editorial rules (they were posted online in 2004). It's just that nobody seems to have noticed until now — and none of the many journalists whose work Romenesko has kinda lifted without attribution for a decade ever complained. 

The Director of Poynter Online, Julia Moos, summarized Romenesko's infractions, over which he has officially resigned (although he was planning to retire this year anyway, with plans to start a new site). In a nutshell, Romenesko built posts about stories from around the media by cutting and pasting in the mostly verbatim language of his original sources, sometimes properly attributing, sometimes not. But he always included links to those stories — in fact, the link was the whole point. Romenesko wanted you to read the original. And that made journalists very happy, because Romenesko could drive traffic, as well as prove that you mattered in media land.

But that verbatim part is important, because Romenesko could easily — or not so easily, depending on his considerable time demands — have paraphrased the language he grabbed. Evidently, he often didn't. And he didn't always use quotation marks to indicate language that wasn't his own.

And as I said, this hasn't previously raised so much as a eyebrow, even though the sources could have made a stink if they wanted. This is Moos:

To our knowledge no writer or publication has ever told us their words were being co-opted. That raises some questions of its own. Surely many writers whose words appeared in Jim’s posts have read them there.

In fact, often those writers or their editors are the ones who send us links in hopes we will feature their stories. They are not seeking, nor do they deserve, to have their words used without proper credit. They hope to receive the attention of other journalists who rely on us to point them toward the most interesting journalism issues of the day.

L'Affaire Romenesko has set off a firestorm of criticism (in as much as you can have a firestorm in the blogging world) of Moos' analysis and a healthy round of laments, from some heavy hitters in media criticism and the blogosphere, for Romensko's resignation.

At the Awl, Choire Sicha contrasted the good, old Romenesko with the new "Romenesko+," which Moos oversees — and found the new version sorely wanting. Gawker was incensed. In the New York Times, David Carr dismissed the whole thing as much ado about nuthin'. Felix Salmon was appalled and then appalled some more.

Even Romenesko+ weighed in.

Bloggers often argue that in blogging, there are are no hard-and-fast rules. When blogs were more personal undertakings, this was probably true. But in the age of aggregation, with websites like Business Insider and the Huffington Post racking up huge traffic numbers by rewriting and reposting news from other outlets, people are beginning to ask whether blogs should be held to higher standards. Much higher standards.

It's unfair to lump Romenesko in with the aggregators, who are skirting an ethical line and are increasingly drawing fire from the sources whose content they're poaching. His practices were developed in the very early days of blogging, before traffic had become the coin of the realm. No one ever complained, so he simply kept at it. He was never really edited, either (many experienced bloggers still aren't).

Besides, he was Romenesko.

Romenesko!

So it's easy enough to dismiss this as an old-media-doesn't-get-new-media dustup.

Except that practically everyone in new media knows that what Romenesko was doing was wrong. If they didn't, they wouldn't be offering such carefully reasoned and passionate defenses of his work. 

The fact that he was breaking the rules of journalism on the Poynter site makes the infraction, peculiar as it is, far worse. One of the Poynter Institute's jobs is to uphold journalistic ethics in the face of massive changes in the profession. 

You could argue that Romensko is a special case — a postfather from way back who was performing a service to journalism, more than offering criticism or analysis of the stories and scuttlebut he was selecting. He was clipping, not commenting. Plus, Poynter was in Florida, while Romenesko was laboring in a Starbucks in Evanston (sometimes writing about...Starbucks).

But the arguement is weak. If anyone else did what Romenesko did, sources would make noise. Everyone who blogs should know this and adopt what I guess you could call "best practices" in their blogging: when in doubt, attribute; never pass off another journalist's quotes as your own; write your own copy, rather than paraphrasing the copy of others; and always, always, always add value, rather than merely aggregating.

It's too bad that Romensko went out this way. But it's a good thing that his practices may now not be so quickly emulated. Blogging is an essential part of the new mediascape. It needs to grow up. We can make excuses for Romenesko. But we shouldn't make them for too long.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

blog comments powered by Disqus