How the Romenesko Years have changed journalism and Poynter

It was the summer of 1999, still early days on the Web, and former Poynter president Jim Naughton and I were scheming ways of creating a site that journalists would find useful to the point of habit-forming.

Just how we would do that, we weren’t quite sure.

We did know that, in addition to faculty tips about reporting, ethics and the various journalism crafts, we needed news about news.

Even though the business was still enjoying relative calm before the storm that would disrupt the next decade, it was clear that big change was afoot in journalism. We wanted to chronicle it on a daily basis.

But how to round it all up? How to serve it up? How to stand out amid the growing clutter of the Web?

We found our answer in a New York Times story headlined “Cutting Through the On-Line Clutter.” The story by Andy Wang began like this:

While most of his readers are still asleep, James Romenesko is up at 5 a.m. each weekday, furiously surfing the Web… For Mediagossip.com, Mr. Romenesko seeks news and criticism about the media and those who work in it.

Tossing the paper aside for my keyboard on that Monday morning a dozen years ago, I discovered that this Mr. Romenesko had pretty well solved the problem that Naughton and I were wrestling with.

By the time we finished a quick review of Mediagossip.com, it was clear that Poynter needed to make a run at acquiring the site and its early-rising creator.

“Have you thought about doing this full-time?” I asked Jim when I tracked him down at his day job covering the Internet for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul.

He said he hadn’t. I suggested he fly to Florida to talk about it, but he said he didn’t think he could do that.

“I don’t have any vacation days left,” he explained.  (This from the man who, in the subsequent 10 years I worked with him, took fewer days off than most of us took in a single year.)

We settled on a weekend visit and, by the time he boarded his flight back to the Twin Cities on Sunday, he had agreed to come to work for Poynter.

Hiring Jim resolved a big chunk of the classic “build or acquire” question that Poynter faced in creating its new website. But Romenesko would turn out to be an “acquisition” unlike any hire I’d been associated with before or since.

To begin with, he had no interest in moving to Florida and actually showing up for work in Poynter’s fancy building on the water.

That was fine by us. Poynter had not yet doubled its space, and there was barely room for the faculty and staff we already had. Jim could produce his page from anywhere, and he took the occasion of the new job to move somewhere he’d wanted to live for some time: Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago.

Jim returned to Florida the next January to be introduced to the Institute’s National Advisory Board, an encounter later recounted by an editor who described himself as a Romenesko-skeptic on the board, Howell Raines of The New York Times.

“As ink-stained traditionalists, we were aflutter about Poynter president Jim Naughton’s nervy decision to hire an obscure gossip blogger to increase traffic on Poynter’s dignified website,” Raines wrote in a 2008 column in the now-departed Portfolio magazine. “Little did we suspect that in the person of Romenesko, a shy journalism nerd from Wisconsin, we were looking at the future – or at least the next decade.”

As Raines noted in that piece, it was just a few years later that he and the late Gerald Boyd, “then the top two editors at the Times, were among the first to get Romenesko’d out of our jobs.”

I’d never hired someone so influential in his work that his name became a verb.

Over the years, Jim’s growing influence created a range of interesting challenges and opportunities for Poynter.

As competitors began sniffing around Evanston with designs on wooing him away from Poynter, Naughton’s expertise in, uh, unconventional employee retention practices saved the day more than once.

I was usually the middle man for these capers, which at one point included placing an order for the heaviest flat screen television I’d ever heard of. Hanging onto Romenesko also involved paying him one of the highest salaries at Poynter, a move not cheered in all quarters.

Romenesko had become the key ingredient in making Poynter.org a habit for journalists. But especially after the September 11 attacks, Poynter faculty embraced the site as an essential way to reach working journalists with resources they needed in increasingly challenging times.

Periodic redesigns helped drive more traffic from Romenesko to the rest of the site, but not without incurring the wrath of readers who always seemed to prefer the page just the way it used to be.

We did our best to avoid “Poynterizing” Jim – a constant fear among many of his fans but something Romenesko was constitutionally incapable of letting happen.

He clearly didn’t serve Poynter’s every interest. In the early years, as the Institute struggled to grow beyond its roots in print to embrace broadcast news, it didn’t help that Romenesko was such a newspaper guy.

He also made Poynter few friends in the corner suites of the nation’s news organizations, print or otherwise.

Naughton and his successor, Karen Dunlap, regularly took heat from bosses upset that their executive decisions – and especially their memos – were getting such scrutiny on Romenesko’s page. Some took particular offense at links to alt weeklies with an axe to grind about mainstream media in general and their newsrooms in particular. (Naughton recounts some of this history in his memoir, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.”)

But Naughton and Dunlap – along with their bosses, St. Pete Times editors and chairmen Andy Barnes and Paul Tash – got what Romenesko was all about: even-handed, easy to find links to news about news. That so little of that news has been good for the past decade was no reason to mute the messenger, so they didn’t.

Along the way, Romenesko has sustained the most reliable – and readable — daily chronicle of one of journalism’s most important eras.

He also helped transform aggregation and curation from the pre-dawn avocation of a guy in his jammies to a craft with significant consequence for journalism.

Jim’s blog brought transparency to newsrooms, equipping readers and staffers alike to hold those organizations accountable in the way that they scrutinize the operations of others. He also flattened the journalism landscape so interesting things that happened in small newsrooms — whether painful examples of plagiarism or award-winning work — were as likely to be Romenesko’d as developments in the nation’s media centers.

In the process, his chronicle of disrupted, transforming newsrooms nudged this non-profit school on Florida’s west coast ever closer to the real world of journalism.

I particularly enjoyed a link Jim posted earlier this week to a blog post by Tim McGuire, a former top editor who, a decade ago, had been one of Jim’s harshest critics. These days, McGuire is a journalism professor who has become a quite effective and outspoken blogger in his own right.

By the time Julie Moos took over from me as Poynter.org boss a couple of years ago, Romenesko’s influence was coming full circle. As Moos pointed out in introducing the site’s most recent overhaul, many of the changes were designed to make the rest of the site more like Romenesko, who announced his semi-retirement Wednesday.

Poynter, it turns out, had been Romenesko’d.

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  • Pingback: MediaShift . Mediatwits #17: Ch-ch-changes: Steve Jobs Out; Romenesko Semi-Retires; Shafer Laid Off | PBS

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    cool post! thanks a lot for the psot!

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Chris. It is kind of meta, but figured folks inside the media — like you! — might enjoy the look back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    I frankly think it’s rather telling that as late as 1999, Poynter had to discover Romenesko via a New York Times story. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.gunty Christopher J Gunty

    Interesting post, Bill. This is really “inside baseball.” A blog post about Poynter’s inner workings about the inner workings of the news media. But I eat this stuff up.

    The way Poynter has helped the media look at itself has helped shape more than one publication I’ve been a part of. I appreciate its ability to see outside the normal boundaries and think about where we need to be as an industry, not just where we have been or where we are.