Poynter faculty respond to questions about Romenesko’s practices, resignation

Given that Poynter is a school, with a faculty, it's probably no surprise to anyone that we don't agree on the severity of Jim Romenesko's attribution transgressions. And nobody's telling us to keep quiet either. To that end, we bring you a diversity of thoughts from the Poynter teaching faculty:

Karen Dunlap, President

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar

Kelly McBride, Senior Faculty for Ethics

Al Tompkins, Senior Faculty for Broadcast

Butch Ward, Managing Director

Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst

Jill Geisler, Senior Faculty, Leadership and Management

Bill Mitchell, Leader of Entrepreneurial and International Programs

Karen Dunlap, President

We wrote a centerpiece yesterday to show that we make mistakes, too.

The piece began:

Poynter.org works hard to meet the highest standards of journalism excellence, and I [Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online] learned late Wednesday that we have not consistently met those standards.

Our site parades goof-ups and misdeeds by others regularly, and Poynter faculty speak out on ethical lapses and questionable practices by others, so when we noted our faults we opted for transparency.

The practices were about us, Poynter, but the case focused on our colleague — now former colleague — Jim Romenesko.

The centerpiece addressed conventions of aggregation vs. standards of attribution and editing vs. autonomy. Internal decisions were about a public discussion vs. quiet internal changes in practices, or no changes at all.

Several of us were involved, not just Julie Moos. We didn’t all agree. As president, I had the last read. Our conversations were primarily about our standards, our practices, not about taking a stand against a valued contributor.

Did we make the right choices? Not all of them. Could we have improved the message or tone? Yes. Should we have even raised the issues discussed? Yes, we should have. Practices of attribution are changing in ways that harm journalism. That’s an area that needs addressing in useful discussions. We chose to look through the lens of practices that we helped create and are now changing.

Should we have found examples other than the Romenesko blog? Not when we anticipated a piece on questionable attributions by a CJR reporter.

Some mention that we have lost Romenesko, the blog. Poynter had gone through the grief of that change which was scheduled for the end of the year, but I regret a breech with Jim Romenesko, a good and private guy. I also regret the storm that rained down on Julie Moos.

Where does Poynter go from here? We will do what we have watched other strong organizations do when their missteps appear on poynter.org. They review their actions and processes. We have already begun. Then they pick up and move on. That’s what we are doing. After all, we make mistakes too.

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar

Jim Romenesko is not, repeat only louder, NOT a plagiarist.

I write even that defense with hesitation for fear that some search engine will connect him with a serious literary crime: stealing the work of others without attribution.

No one at Poynter, including Julie Moos, claimed that Jim was a plagiarist. She was alerted to the fact that Jim’s blog summaries of the work of others contained too many words that were not his own. Without quotation marks.

I’ve seen several examples of this, a practice Jim has followed at Poynter for more than a dozen years without complaint from sources, editors, or readers. Most of Jim’s fans think he did nothing wrong and has been treated badly, arguing, in a sense, that aggregation – with linking – serves as a new form of attribution.

This is the kind of issue that Poynter tends to love. Is Jim Romenesko — one of the founding parents of the aggregated blog — an author, subject to the most traditional standards of attribution and quotation? Or is he more like a whiz-bang wire editor, a skilled news thinker who cuts and pastes together the best materials from a variety of sources?

I wish someone could give Poynter a Mulligan, golf’s term for a do-over. Poynter could have taken more time — the co-author of good judgment — to sort through the nuances of borrowing and attribution. We could have argued more among ourselves before Elvis (my nickname for Romenesko) left the building.

Jim’s departure under the false shadow of plagiarism is unfair to Romenesko and unworthy of Poynter. I expressed that opinion, with some anger, at a Poynter staff meeting this morning. Some folks seemed to agree while others, including President Karen Dunlap and Dean Stephen Buckley, backed Julie’s editorial decisions all the way.

That should be an object lesson for those who dismiss the work of Poynter as too pointy-headed and monolithic. On many subjects that we help journalists tackle, especially when it comes to ethics and standards, there is no official ex cathedra point of view.

Rather than discourage minority reports, we are encouraged to express them as part of the conversation about craft and values – as I am doing now.

I admire Julie’s perseverance over the last few days, tolerating not just pointed criticism, but scurrilous personal attacks in the service of debate and transparency. Whatever you may think of the standards she is imposing on those who write for Poynter.org, do you think that standards for bloggers should be looser? Is the wild west not wild enough?

I think most bloggers – including Jim – should tighten up some. But, just as important, I think Poynter should loosen up.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the last few days about Poynter, and about those who read us:

  • We tend to confuse standards and practices with morality and ethics. Everyone would have been better served by bringing folks together to clarify our standards on attribution and aggregation, insisting in private that Jim follow these for two months, and then send him off with our thanks and a $50 Starbucks card.
  • The word plagiarism should be saved for the most grievous offenses. Although I have written about plagiarism since 1982, when I dubbed it “the unoriginal sin,” I now think of the word as radioactive. When people hear the phrase “involuntary manslaughter,” we know that it is a much lesser offense than “murder in the first degree.” We lack the vocabulary to make these distinctions, beyond fair use, when it comes to intellectual property.
  • By writing what amounted to a public apology for not attending to Romenesko’s methods, we invited others to call what he did plagiarism. And they have. This is unfair to a person who, more than anyone who has ever worked here, put Poynter on the digital map. I’ll speak for myself: Jim, I’m sorry for what has happened to you on the way out the door.
  • Because Poynter is asked to evaluate the judgments of others, we can be very tough on ourselves. Fair enough. A good conscience is one thing. Public self-flagellation quite another. We teach people to follow a process in making even deadline decisions, to seek alternatives, to weigh the options, to minimize harm.  But in this, and too many other cases, we come across as rule-givers: arrogant, self-important, and dogmatic.
  • At a time when journalism is taking different forms, from tabulation to curation to aggregation, it is self-defeating to demand that new wine be served in old skins.  The standards of attribution we still apply in print may in fact be outdated in the age of sampling, file sharing, and mash-ups. There are enduring standards, to be sure, and we should be influenced by them. But the cultural mores governing intellectual property have been in constant flux for centuries and are currently under special strain.

In short, do we at Poynter want to be a key player in the evolution of journalism and the cultivation of a Fifth Estate? I think the answer from all corners of the Institute would be yes. If that is our mission, we must cultivate not moral relativism, but a well-intentioned pragmatism that looks ahead, rather than over our shoulders.

Kelly McBride, Senior Faculty for Ethics

I disagree with my bosses on the egregiousness of Jim Romenesko’s aggregation practices. Jim’s habit of paraphrasing but not really paraphrasing his source material evolved over time, as did his contract with his readers. Jim knew he was using the writing of others. His audience knew it. And his sources knew it, too. As a frequent reader, I knew it. And I assumed that the editors here at Poynter Online knew as much as they wanted to know about it, but I'm told they did not.

This doesn’t mean it was OK. But Poynter bears as much, if not more, responsibility for allowing Jim’s practice to evolve over time as Jim does. After all, Jim was a blogger we brought aboard because he had a big audience. We didn’t have any standards on aggregation. Over the years, as we’ve developed our thinking and teaching about online attribution, it was clear that we were articulating a different practice than Jim was employing. That created an understandable disconnect. Poynter is a brand. And Romenesko is a brand. And their values didn’t always match up.

But such is the nature of evolving standards on the Internet. Because we at Poynter often discussed this difference in our values, I assumed this was an unspoken agreement, and that after Jim and Poynter parted ways later this year, we would naturally smooth over that gap in practice as Poynter Online continues to grow.

I was comfortable with this ambiguous arrangement because it was clear to me that Jim’s audience understood the contract, as did his sources. Jim wasn’t being intellectually dishonest and he certainly wasn’t plagiarizing. Instead, he was being inconsistent in his use of tools that distinguish his own words from the work of others.

There is a lot of work to do in establishing standards of intellectual honesty in this digital era. I look forward to being part of that process, but I don't think those standards are crystal clear, even here at the Poynter Institute.

Al Tompkins, Senior Faculty for Broadcast

I want to get this off my chest first: I do not believe Jim Romenesko plagiarized. I think this whole matter is way too dramatic and hurtful.

But, listening to colleagues and reading comments from you readers, I have learned some things while watching this narrative unfold. At the core of this whole mess lies an important issue. The issue is clarity.

I want to offer a personal take on this and then focus on what it means to my core teaching, broadcasting and multimedia.

As some of you may recall I wrote a column called Al's Morning Meeting for 9 and a half years on Poynter.org. The same editor who called out Romenesko, Julie Moos, confronted me a couple of years ago with a similar concern that she expressed about Romenesko. Even though, like Jim, I linked to the sources I was writing about, even though in my mind it was clear I was talking about what somebody else wrote, she insisted that I had to put phrases and sentences that I did not originate, in quotes. Not italics, not offsets, but quotes. Even if it was just a short phrase, even if I had clearly linked to the original source, put it in quotes.

It seemed unnecessary to me, but it was what Poynter Online wanted and I have tried very hard to hold to that. Julie said to me back then that she was trying to "protect me." She envisioned a day when somebody might challenge the way I was doing things and see it as "lifting." After hundreds and hundreds of columns nobody ever did, but that notion stuck with me. I see wisdom in clarity, even excessive clarity. There are worse crimes than being too clear. More than that, it creates a culture of responsibility when those little things matter.

Poynter is a school that makes a reputation on establishing and upholding standards. We call people out when they fall short on ethical issues, editorial decisions and even missteps in media leadership. That role makes us an easy and justifiable target if we were to fall short. I don't know how many times Romenesko has written about accusations of plagiarism or questionable ethics, but it must be hundreds of times. It forces us to be exceedingly clear.

Broadcast lessons

I suspect many of my broadcast colleagues would look at this controversy and wonder what the fuss is about. It is not terribly unusual for some newsrooms to allow reporters and anchors to voice-over copy that was sent to them through a syndicated service. The viewer would have no way of knowing this was a feed and not the work of that reporter. It is an awful practice that should end.

I wonder how many broadcast newsrooms enforce standards about lifting phrases or sentences from other sources without attribution. I would encourage any reader to post those standards to the comments section of this column (with attribution, of course).

I said in a staff meeting Friday morning that this matter reminds us of the need for constant conversation and training in journalism. Even if a place like Poynter believes we have been clear about our standards, we have to keep talking about them, never assuming we have said enough. When is the last time your newsroom had an open and detailed conversation about attribution? It is time. It is past time.

Butch Ward, Managing Director

I still believe in quotation marks.

Yes, that tattoos me (another sign of hipness I’ve not yet adopted) as a member of the old tribe, but it seems important to me to clearly identify to the reader when the words I’m using are mine and when they are not.

Not that attribution always mattered to me. Fresh out of college in 1974, I joined the rewrite desk of the now-defunct (shocker) Baltimore Evening News American and on the very first morning was introduced to the daily rewrite of the Baltimore Morning Sun. It went like this: Shortly after our arrival at 6 a.m., each of us received a small stack of articles neatly clipped from the Sun. Our job was to turn them into briefs. We focused on the “facts,” those statements in the story that our reporters could have gotten themselves if they had pursued them. There was rarely anyone to confirm those facts – after all, it was 6 a.m.

We attributed nothing to the Sun.

If only we had aggregated instead of lifted. The aggregation that Jim Romenesko pioneered achieved far more than any of our clumsy rewrites – and it had integrity.

During the years I worked at the News American, management changed and threw the morning rewrite of the Sun out of the window along with some of the bosses who conducted it. Management, and then all of us, started talking about ethics. They insisted we only took credit for the work we had actually done. If we needed to publish someone else’s reporting or writing, we gave them credit.

With quotation marks.

The world was a lot simpler then. Baltimore had three newspapers, four TV stations and a handful of radio stations that did news. We easily could have come up with some new conventions to help the reader distinguish between original and repurposed work, but why bother? Quotation marks worked just fine.

And they still do, even in this far more complicated digital world. And since everyone knows what they mean, why do we feel compelled to replace them?

To be sure, standards and values in the digital journalism world are morphing almost as fast as a Twitter search of #PennState. That seems to me to be a really important reason for journalists – and anyone else serious about credibility, for that matter – to hold on for dear life to conventions that protect the values that really matter.

Values like accuracy. And clarity.

I’ve read a lot of “everybody knew what he meant” the past two days. Sorry, I haven’t done the interviews to support that claim, and I rarely trust such generalities. Here’s one I do trust: When we use quotation marks along with our attribution, everybody knows what we mean.

Rick Edmonds, Media Business Analyst

Call me old school. I was taught that when you quote someone, or a text, verbatim for more than a phrase or two, that should be indicated with quotation marks. Anything else is bad practice and corner-cutting. I get from the comments that many people think the rules for a summary in an aggregation site are different; I don't get why. Since Poynter often points out lapses of others, we needed to provide the same self-critique for one of our own.

That said, I think the length, play and some of the language in Julie's initial piece was excessive. Better to say what the error was -- illustrate with the strong example from Chicago -- and say that Jim and other contributors have been reminded not to do that. There was, in a more drawn-out discussion of the issues at play, the effect (if not the intent) of taking Jim to the woodshed, as one of Julie's critics put it, and in a very public and humiliating way.

Much of the subsequent criticism took no account of the distinctions Julie's post carefully drew, was excessively personal and nasty and struck me as especially gutless from those who attacked anonymously.

Jim has been a valued and scrupulously professional colleague. He had already said that a decade of aggregating was enough for him and that his next venture in journalism about journalism will involve original reporting. So the beloved Romenesko columns of a more newspaper-centric era were in the process of going away anyhow. I consider Jim a pioneer who helped shape the style of the countless aggregation blogs that have followed while astutely serving the hunger for the very latest for news junkies. Like others, I am sorry his great run at Poynter ended on a sour note.

Jill Geisler, Senior Faculty, Leadership and Management

I think this is a case of assumptions gone astray.

  • I think Jim Romenesko assumed that prominent linking and referencing was sufficient for the commingling of his own words with those of others in his sentences or paragraphs. I think he did this with no intent to deceive, but it was a journalistically flawed construct nonetheless.
  • I think Poynter assumed, 12 years ago, that having a unique editing standard for one staffer was of limited risk and perhaps even a smart entry into new journalism forms.
  • I think Julie Moos assumed when contacted by CJR about multiple stories that didn't follow the attribution and quotation policies Poynter teaches that avoiding hypocrisy was a paramount value, and therefore she should write in some detail about Poynter's own self-critique.

The result was the kind of firestorm that often happens when the focal point of a story is a well-known individual. Personalities and issues get commingled. Our blind spots -- loyalties, habits, preferences -- can rule the day. This shouldn't be just about Jim -- it's about all of us at Poynter and all of us in journalism.

I wish Jim hadn't assumed that resignation was his best option. I wish he would have worked with his editors at Poynter to simply improve what needed improvement, so that the posts he wrote were either original summaries -- or clearly quoted previews.

As she wrestled with this, Julie did what managers are supposed to do -- she sought out input from others. I was among them. We talked about making sure Jim's voice was in the story so readers could hear how he developed this format and the intent behind it. I wish he had chosen to do that -- to be part of the story and share this thoughts.

If he had, perhaps some critics wouldn't be assuming that because they only heard from the editor in the announcement, that this was an attempt to kneecap a talented man who has served Poynter well for many years. As someone who's been part of Poynter for about the same time, I feel compelled to testify that Poynter's editors, especially Julie Moos, have been the kind of editors journalists hope to work with. I add that because in the aftermath of Jim's resignation, a lot of personal invective has been hurled her way from people who don't know her — once again, the unfortunate result of flawed assumptions.

Bill Mitchell, Leader of Entrepreneurial and International Programs

In his pioneering work in news aggregation, Jim Romenesko created a story form built on three sturdy legs:

  • He served an audience whose need for news about news grew with every disruptive quake of the journalistic landscape.
  • His posts reflected the sort of original thinking, framing and phrasing that elevated them well beyond summaries.
  • He developed a shorthand of links and devices (remember that left rail?) that his closest readers found reliable, engaging and habit-forming.

So solid was Jim's foundation, in fact, that his name became a media verb, a phenomenon that enabled him to Romenesko not only the place where he worked but the industry he served.

As Jim's boss for the first 10 of his dozen years at Poynter, I struggled at times to reconcile the realities of his new story form with some traditional journalistic standards.

Eventually, we came to grips with the idea that new forms of publishing require some new understandings with our readers. There was no way, for example, that Jim could satisfy the requirement of verification before publication in a blog linking to dozens of stories — with hundreds of assertions — in any given week. Some media execs continued to howl when a Romenesko link would elevate an alt-weekly critique of their newsroom in ways they considered unfair and undocumented. But over time, even some of Jim's harshest critics came to appreciate the service he provided, limitations and all.

In a FAQ originally published in January 2003, we made it clear that neither Jim nor anyone else at Poynter was verifying the information in the stories he was linking to. We also pointed out that he posted directly to the site with editors reading behind him after publication.

In retrospect, at least a couple of things are clear about the explicit contract we tried to make with readers: We weren't detailed enough (there was no discussion about various issues of aggregated content, for example), and we failed to review and reassess our practices on a sufficiently regular basis. As the guy in charge for most of Jim's run at Poynter, I take responsibility for that.

The controversy that prompted Jim's resignation from Poynter this week is a bit different from the issue of verification. In dispute is Jim's failure to signal clearly enough to readers when words in his post were taken verbatim (or nearly so) from the stories he was linking to. No one has suggested Jim was attempting any deception (his posts are all about links to others' work) and most of the readers who have commented on the controversy say they didn't need quotation marks to know that the words weren't really Jim's.

The challenge for journalists is not simply to satisfy hardcore readers, though, but to publish in a form that is both transparent and accessible to whatever eyes discover their words. And unlike the challenge of verification before publication, the inclusion of quotation marks around verbatim material is quite doable within the constraints of aggregation.

In a piece published at CJR, Justin Peters raises a larger concern about relying on verbatim material — with or without appropriate punctuation — to the exclusion of originally crafted analysis of the story to be linked. He pushes for just the sort of original thinking, framing and phrasing, in other words, that made Romenesko’s name in the first place.

As the disruption of the media world continues unabated, the need for smart aggregation of news about news grows ever more intense. But wherever it goes, the next chapter in the life of this particular story form will unfold without its godfather.

As Jim told The Washington Post's Erik Wemple Thursday night, he envisions no aggregation on the site he plans to launch next year, JimRomenesko.com, and will focus instead on reporting and essays.

Just the sort of news categories, it seems to me, that could use some new story forms of their own.


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