Holding aggregators to journalistic standards
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.