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Jim Romenesko is leaving his post at the Poynter Institute earlier than expected amid controversy over whether or not he provided “incomplet…

Jim Romenesko Illustration By Robin Eley
photo: Portfolio.com/Robin Eley

Jim Romenesko is leaving his post at the Poynter Institute earlier than expected amid controversy over whether or not he provided “incomplete attribution” during his 12 years of aggregating media industry news. The news came after nearly a full day of intense infighting across Twitter and the blogosphere about Romenesko’s role, with some charging his boss, Julie Moos, the director of Poynter Online, with throwing the widely respected blogger under the bus in advance of a potentially critical piece of his aggregation practices by the Columbia Journalism Review.

News that Poynter had accepted Romenesko’s resignation came in a post by Moos, who had earlier said she rejected his offer to leave early. In August, Romenesko said he planned to semi-retire and leave Poynter by the end of this year to pursue other interests and ventures.

The evolution for Romenesko and Poynter over the past year or so has already been met with dismay by some of its early followers. But the site had little choice but to change and expand its personalities. Given the regard of digital journalists and bloggers who emerged years after Romenesko’s start, any change would have been unpalatable. After all, for most of the past dozen years, Romenesko had largely been the primary voice on Poynter’s site. Although Poynter, which runs a journalism school and research facilities as well as owning the company that runs the St. Petersburg Times, is a non-profit, it still faces the cost pressures that every publisher is coping with.

Moos has been the face of a lot of the changes that have taken place at Poynter. And as such, she has taken some sharp hits for today’s incident, which she’s dutifully collected through a series of retweets (see her Twitter feed here).

Among the most withering reactions has come from Reuters’ Felix Salmon, writing on his personal Tumblr page. To a more subtle extent, there was The Awl’s Choire Sicha, who also offered a wider critique of Poynter’s general changes over time. Still, he was also no less forgiving of Moos’ handling of the situation involving questions about Romenesko’s practices.

Apparently, Moos had reacted to a planned story by CJR assistant editor Erika Fry on the approach Romenesko takes toward crediting and summarizing others’ news posts. For most of the past few years, Romenesko often aggregated news by including a headline (usually his own) that was linked to the original source. He would then include a brief paragraph either summarizing the main point or, in many cases, just using some lines from the story he was linking to.

A look at dozens of reactions on Twitter showed that journalists didn’t mind Romenesko’s lifting of a sentence or two; in fact, most media news reporters and bloggers considered a mention by Romenesko to be an honor. In any case, the familiarity that journalists had with Romenesko’s style of attribution and aggregation meant that they understood he sometimes used verbatim sentences without directly saying he was doing so. Considering that Romenesko included a link within the headline, some felt that he had gone far enough in giving credit where it was due.

The shame in all this is that the landscape for aggregating has changed since Romenesko began. And Moos was not only right to want to address it, considering the development of partially-automated aggregation engines like Techmeme and Mediagazer over the years — not to mention the proliferation of media industry news blogs — there needs to be clearer standards of what is an acceptable, honest, clear and fair way to attribute others’ work. And as one of the original media news aggregators, Poynter should be among those setting the example and promoting the debate about best practices.

Unfortunately, those issues are buried under Moos’ mishandling of the situation, which only got more out of control the more she tried to fix it. Instead, the issue became one of Moos appearing to hold out Romenesko for contempt in the hopes of pre-empting what could have been an embarrassing article. She probably should have been a bit more upfront about the motivations of bringing the issue of attribution now, rather than simply thanking CJR’s Fry for appearing to helpfully point out some problems, seemingly out of the blue.

The fact that Fry was scooped by her target is something that always burns journalists. Aside from the near-universal affection that Romenesko has engendered, Moos act of pre-emption probably hit some commenters a little too close to home and as such, provided further reason to heap scorn at her.

“As soon as I read closely through Erika’s email my first obligation was to Jim and to our readers and to the Institute,” Moos told WaPo media columnist Erik Wemple, who’s written a very even-handed take on the matter. “Everything I did from the point of discovery was driven by those obligations and continues to be. So, yes, I dealt with the most pressing issues first – what happened, how did it happen, what will happen next. And then I let Erika know as soon as I had done those things publicly.”

In Moos’ earlier post, she said that Romenesko should have made it more transparent when he was using someone else’s words, such as using quotes. In any case, she noted that he offered to resign then, but rejected it. But as a storm over her post gathered steam, Moos over-reaction became a bit more hyperbolic and things ultimately took a major turn. Suddenly, Romenesko would not be able to finish his tour of duty on his own timetable after all.

The previously expected loss of Romenesko, whose identity was so closely identified with Poynter, was already going to be a big challenge as the non-profit institute to overcome. Although by no means irreparable, a great deal of damage has been done to Poynter’s image as a media industry resource. But Moos has shown definite, if somewhat belated understanding of what has occurred.

“I’ve closely followed the reaction to this on Twitter, Facebook and the comments on our site and others,” Moos said in her post announcing Romenesko’s departure. “I’m relieved that many readers and sources understood Jim’s intent to credit properly and felt fairly treated by him. This was not the transition Jim and I planned during our talks this summer, and it’s not the end I wanted.”

In an e-mail to the NYT confirming his early exit, Romenesko said of the way things played out today, “This really did throw me for a loop. I think I’d probably prefer to go quietly.”

  1. 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.

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