My Romenesko verdict: no harm, no foul

By Jack Shafer
November 12, 2011

Media columnist Jim Romenesko—who was scheduled to depart his full-time position at the Poynter Institute at the end of the year, anyway—vacated it abruptly yesterday after his boss, Julie Moos, publicly criticized his “incomplete” methods of attributing other journalists’ copy in his summaries of their work.

For those who haven’t followed the story—and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, because it’s so inside baseball it’s inside the laces of the ball—Romenesko has been writing a Web-based cheat sheet about the news business since 1999. The column, which the non-profit Poynter Institute picked up in 2000, has been an indispensable destination for journalists and civilians interested in the media. (Interests declared: Romenesko has cited my work many times since 1999. For the last 10 weeks, Poynter has been paying me to participate in weekly, hour-long Web chats with readers.)

In declaring a “pattern of incomplete attribution,” Moos pointed to a recent example from Romenesko’s work in which he ran whole sentences from a Chicago Tribune story in his summary of it without placing the words in quotation marks or block quotation to indicate its exact provenance.

Romenesko’s style was not Poynter’s style, Moos wrote, commenting that, “One danger of this practice is that the words may appear to belong to Jim when they in fact belong to another.”

Like Moos, I think that Romenesko should have placed in quotation marks (or block quotations) copy taken from stories he summarized. When I’ve worked as an editor, that has been my standard. As a writer, I follow the same code. If anything, I overdo the quotation-marks thing. You’re free to criticize the windy way Moos explains Poynter’s policy and its inquiry, but as the editor she’s well within her rights to set attribution rules.

But the perplexing thing about the Romenesko dust-up is that, as Moos notes, nobody ever noticed Romenesko’s style of non-attribution until Columbia Journalism Review assistant editor Erika Fry brought it to Poynter’s attention. Those nobodies include the Poynter editors who have been reading Romenesko’s work behind him for the last 12 years. (Romenesko has traditionally posted his copy without going through an editor.) Other nobodies apparently include the thousands of journalists Romenesko has summarized over the years. According to the Moos post, no writer or publication had ever told Poynter “their words were being co-opted.”

Moos continues, “That raises some questions of its own.”

How is it that the incomplete attribution escaped Romenesko’s readers notice for so long? Vain journalists—is there any other kind?—love to scream plagiarism. They love to scream it not just when their words are lifted but when they think their ideas have been purloined! Given that Romenesko’s blog is the most avidly read page in the journalism business, one would think that his “incompleteness” would have been uncovered earlier.

Yet it wasn’t. I’ve read every Romenesko condensation of my work since his column began, but as I tweeted yesterday, the only unusual thing I ever noticed about his work was a knack for locating my misplaced openings and highlighting them.

My theory of why careful readers have been blind to Romenesko’s incomplete attribution isn’t really my theory. I’ve pinched it from Richard A. Posner, a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He lays it out succinctly in his 2007 volume, The Little Book of Plagiarism.

Now, nobody at Poynter has accused Romenesko of plagiarism. I am not accusing him of plagiarism. I bring up the word, and Posner’s meditations on it, to help explain 1) why nobody previously noticed non-attribution in Romenesko columns and 2) why we shouldn’t be upset with Romenesko for his technique. Posner writes:

A judgment of plagiarism requires that the copying, besides being deceitful in the sense of misleading the intended readers, induce reliance by them.

By reliance, Posner means that the reader does something “because he thinks the plagiarizing work original” that he would not have done if fully informed of the full truth of the work’s provenance. “Lawyers call this ‘detrimental’ reliance,” Posner continues, “that is, relying to your detriment on a falsehood.” Posner gives the example of reader who would not buy a book if he knew it contained “large swatches of another writer’s book.” Instead, the reader would buy the original author’s book.

Moving from Posner back to Romenesko, it’s obvious to me and thousands of other readers that Romenesko made no claim that the primary findings in his posts were originally his. Quite the contrary, the style of his attribution—a link back to the original story, inclusion of the name of the publication and often that of the author—advertises in every possible way that the Romenesko version is the derivative, not the original. Indeed, the Romenesko gestalt has been to steer readers back to the original. His whole enterprise since 1999 has been to alert and direct reader attention to original work, from Manhattan to the boonies! Far from exploiting the work of others and hyping his product, Romenesko always seemed to tamp down the most excitable aspects of the work he summarized. He never tried to distort or sensationalize like our friends at Business Insider and Huffington Post. In his hands, a story about the coming Apocalypse would be summarized as impending bad weather.

We can argue whether Romenesko is guilty of “over-aggregation.” I’m not as bothered by over-aggregation as other journalists, a sentiment I expressed a few months ago at Slate. I’d also be more impressed by over-aggregation charges against Romenesko if the complainants were journalists he has summarized. But my anecdotal evidence is that they’re not. Yesterday, 15 or 20 minutes after the Poynter piece went up, the usual gang of press writers, whose every cough and fart end up in Romenesko’s column, stood up for the blogger on Twitter. They rendered a basketball court verdict of no harm, no foul.

Erika Fry, the Columbia Journalism Review staffer whose inquiries stirred Poynter to action against Romenesko, published her piece this afternoon accusing other Poynterites of over-aggregation. Based on the evidence Fry presents against them, again I’d say no harm, no foul here, too.

If Romenesko is guilty of over-aggregation, I hope he continues the practice when he gets www.jimromenesko.com rolling.

******

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PHOTO: Marcus Lewis (L) of the U.S. fouls Kelvin Pena of the Dominican Republic as they jump for a rebound during their men’s preliminary round basketball game at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara October 26, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

2 comments

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Well-hammered squarely on the head, Jack.

Intent: Pure. Results: Benign. Niff-naw: “An answer in search of a problem,” as David Carr says.

And after two days of scanning this topic’s many threads — what seems like each fiber of every stitch on the baseball — I come across this delightfully original phrase: “the Romenesko gestalt.”

Nice.

Posted by AlanStamm | Report as abusive

This is the most reasoned and reasonable analysis of the Romenesko War I’ve read so far – and I have little enough of a life to have read them all.

Three observations…

1. Journalists who lament a lack of subtlety and spelling when readers comment on their stories don’t possess much when commenting themselves. Just from the NPR account: “Oh my, he didn’t quote his sources. Perhaps Guantanemo Bay and waterboarding are an appropriate penalty. Heck, let’s shoot for the electric chair.”

2. The argument that journalists have rushed to Romenesko’s defense out of greed for the links is either silly or sad. Romenesko has linked to my own journalistic endeavors exactly five times. The referral traffic was nice, but not as significant as tweets from college kids or from the amusingly juvenile FARK.com.

3. You realize, of course, this is just the sort of controversy that drives traffic to the Poynter site and to Romenesko’s new project. A serious media conspiracy theorist would insist the two plotted this out, since Romenesko was set to quietly retire in a few weeks. And online, silence=death.

Posted by Koretzky | Report as abusive