Holding aggregators to journalistic standards

By Felix Salmon
November 10, 2011
rant off my chest, let me try to add a bigger-picture point to the noise surrounding Romeneskogate.

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Now I’ve got my rant off my chest, let me try to add a bigger-picture point to the noise surrounding Romeneskogate. The unanimous reaction to Julie Moos’s ridiculous piece has held little back: Hamilton Nolan called it “perhaps the most bullshit nonexistent plagiarism case in the annals of online journalism”, while Rem Rieder called her “portentous, not to say sanctimonious” and said that Romenesko “doesn’t deserve to be treated this way”.

So, let’s just declare this Moos 0-1 Romenesko and move on to the kind of thinking which underlies Moos’s post. As Choire Sicha documents very well, Moos likes to write self-contained journalistic stories including lots of links. Many other bloggers — myself included — do the same thing. But here’s the thing: Moos is judging Romenesko by her own standards, when what Romenesko does is not what she does.

Some of the most insufferable prose in Moos’s post comes at the points where she appeals to Holy Writ, a/k/a the Ethics Guidelines for Poynter Publishing:

Our practice is to enclose verbatim language in quotation marks, and to set off longer excerpts in blockquotes. While I have no reason to believe this practice has spread beyond one writer, I will check the work of other contributors to determine for certain whether anyone else has been guilty of the same shortcut…

We spent weeks in 2004 developing explicit publishing guidelines with the understanding and expectation that they would be adopted. How often, how consistently and universally did we articulate our values and standards and confirm that others share them? Not enough. Never enough.

Moos, here, is taking a classic rules-based approach to ethical questions. Here are 1,800 words of ethical rules. If you follow the rules, you’re fine; if you break the rules, you’re unethical. Contrast John Paton’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media at JRC, which make a lot more sense, and which total exactly zero words.

It’s pretty simple, really. Under Moos’s rules, Romenesko did something wrong. Under Paton’s rules, Romenesko did nothing wrong. Romenesko did nothing wrong. Therefore, Paton’s approach wins.

Moos is declaring, here, that she needs to be consistently and universally reiterating explicit publishing guidelines. How dreadful! Being a journalist in such an organization must feel like being a naughty schoolchild, always fearful of being found in transgression of some rule or other. It’s a sad end to the story of a blog which Poynter acquired precisely because Romenesko was doing something wonderful which Poynter was incapable of producing internally.

What Romenesko was doing — to spell this out — was aggregating and curating news about the media. He was not writing stories with lots of links in them: he was putting links together, and occasionally quoting from the articles he was linking to. Eventually, if you read him for long enough, you could start to discern what Choire describes as his “careful and sometimes sly” voice. But when Moos bellyaches about how “the words may appear to belong to Jim”, she’s spectacularly missing the point. The vast majority of Romenesko’s readers never even stopped to think that the words they were reading might “belong” to Romenesko in some way — they were always clearly attributed to the journalist he was quoting. In fact, the more common confusion almost certainly went the other way: when Romenesko put something well, people ended up giving credit to the person he was quoting.

Moos is using the standards of original journalism, here, to judge a blogger who was never about original journalism. Copy-and-pasting other people’s stories is what Romenesko did, at high volume, and with astonishing speed and reliability, for many years. And the media community, including Poynter, loved him for it.

Moos might have “spent weeks in 2004 developing explicit publishing guidelines with the understanding and expectation that they would be adopted”, but guidelines are always reverse-engineered from already-existing best practice. And Romenesko is a shining example of best practice in the aggregation world. If he’s violating the guidelines, then it’s the guidelines which are at fault, not Romenesko.

Petty bureaucrats like Moos love to codify things, so that they can cite chapter and verse when telling people off. But if you’re running a grown-up media organization, please: follow Paton’s lead, and not Moos’s. Journalists will behave unethically, sometimes. When they do, they should be reprimanded or even fired. But basic common sense is always the best guide to whether a journalist has done something wrong. And when Julie Moos presumes to judge Jim Romenesko by the standards of a Moos-written rulebook, it’s right and proper that the wrath of the Twittersphere come down on her as a result.

Update: I’ve got a few more thoughts on this subject here.

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Comments
9 comments so far

I love angry Felix! Best kind of Felix there is.

Posted by Sprizouse | Report as abusive

I also question two elements of Moos’ tendentious piece.

First, if the rules were set in 2004 and they were meant to apply universally, how did it take until seven years later to have someone consider whether they should examine Jim’s writing and see if they were within the rules?

Second, this bit: “His editors read behind him after he publishes, and often read the original source material, but none of us have noticed the duplicative language.” That is utter horse puckey. Anyone who actually has read Romenesko would notice from the first one or two items that the “source” material (more accurately, the “destination” material) is the place from which Jim excerpts for his blurbs.

There was no subterfuge. Moos clearly never read Jim’s work in the way the rest of us did.

Posted by GlennFleishman | Report as abusive

Yes, but she’ll keep her job, be feted by Poynter, all while f*ck*ng their brand.

The wrath of the Twittersphere–and journalists of US and UK heritage–is cute, but rather ineffective.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

I dunno, Felix, how hard is to put quote marks around something? Given what Poynter does and stands for, it can’t be blithe about giving journalists, old media or new, credit for their work. One may think that Poynter is a vestige of another era and Moos a scold, but giving credit where credit’s due hardly seems a radical or burdensome notion.

Posted by TimKGray | Report as abusive

I think Romenesko was violating the letter of the law but not the spirit, which is always a tricky situation: regular Romenesko readers understood what he was doing–so the credit was inherent–but it’s not a great practice for people who aren’t him.

So it’s a matter of who the rules apply to, again, a difficult question.

Someone made the point that Romenesko mixes quotes with language taken directly from the source. Which, technically speaking, is confusing and not what people in the business are trained to do and expect.

Again, this has to be balanced with the expectations of Romenesko’s audience. Is it okay for him to have a somewhat different set of rules? Probably, people who are really good at what they do often earn the right to that.

But I’m a bit disappointed that no one really addressed Moos’s argument on the merits, except for Eric Deggans; most people just piled on Moos because they respect Romenesko more than her. I think it got pretty ugly (and Gawker really misrepresented her).

OTOH: pre-editing seemed like an over-reaction. As someone who doesn’t like being pre-edited, mostly for workflow reasons, I can see where that would be a more serious problem (and it kind of got lost in the “plagiarism” nonsense).

Posted by whet_moser | Report as abusive

So everyone gets to make up their own rules? Or just popular people? How is this going to work?

As usual, Felix, you kowtow to the popular and powerful. Hey, I guess it works career-wise.

What an embarrassment to Reuters.

Posted by tinbox | Report as abusive

This kind of conflict occurs whenever technology change causes a shift in the accepted norms. Someone tries to put a stake in the ground, but that stake is obsolete before it’s even cold. I don’t know where it will end up; perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had it exactly right when he said “I know it when I see it.”

@tinbox, yes, we’re making up the rules as we go along, because there’s no broad agreement on what the rules should be. Some veterans will be offended by the mess, but the world is not going to stop evolving because they’re offended.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

but weirdly lying and being factually incorrect is not a big deal?

also if cutting and pasting is “unethical” shouldnt jesse essinger give his pulitzer back?

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I think reasonable minds can disagree as to whether Romenesko’s methods crossed the line. But what is most mystifying to me is that Moos was shocked, shocked to find this going on in her backyard. Either she is guilty of lax supervison of her underlings (“should have known”) or she did know and was panicked by the impending revelations from the Columbia person. It’s all rather like Reagan on Iran-Contra, she’s damned in both instances. Worse, though, is her pathetic attempt to replace Romenesko with her own plodding pontifications. Seems to me we have a case of: if you can’t hack it in journalism, you go into teaching it.

Posted by jonesgw2003 | Report as abusive
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