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CJR: Poynter's 'Incomplete Attribution' Problem Goes Beyond Romenesko

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CJR assistant editor Erika Fry, whose questions about Poynter Online’s methods of aggregation and attribution ultimately led to the resignation of ur-media blogger Jim Romenesko, has posted her story on the matter.

While Fry seems a bit irked that Poynter Online director Julie Moos attempted to beat her to punch with her own pre-emptive response on Poynter after receiving questions from Fry, she finds a lot to agree with when it comes to Moos’ views on the fine points of aggregation.

But Fry’s piece also makes one thing clear: the problems with Poynter’s practice of using and crediting outside sources, as she sees them, involved other Poynter writers beyond Romenesko.

Fry sent Moos eight examples of what she identified as problem posts. Importantly, the problems appeared to be not with traditional Romenesko-style of linked headlines and a quick paragraph summary — which is what many appeared to regard as being attacked — but rather the longer, more analytical pieces that began to appear over the last few months when “Romenesko+” was introduced and other writers were added. In these posts, a quick link is added to a few words of text followed by what is assumed to be an original summary and interpretation. But in her examples, Fry writes that she found words that largely mirrored the original text without making it clear that these thoughts were clearly someone else’s.

Fry concludes:

“The consequences of over-aggregation are obvious. There’s no incentive for readers to visit the source site and the aggregator site gets all the traffic. It’s telling that Poynter’s site often hosts discussion and comments about articles that would be better placed on the original site.”

Fry makes sure to point out that she differs with Moos’ statement that early Romenesko posts constituted “incomplete attribution.” Again, it was only when posts on Romenesko — which more recently has come under the heading “Latest News” — grew longer and populated by other writers that a problem emerged. In that light, Romenesko’s resignation — a few weeks before he was set to retire gracefully — seems even more unnecessary.

As our Staci D. Kramer tweeted yesterday, “My work has been cited numerous times by Jim over a decade at least & I’ve never felt one concern over attribution,” a view that was echoed almost unanimously across the blogosphere and Twitter. It’s clear that Romenesko was a revered figure for media bloggers and journalists and Fry makes clear why: he was transparent about where his short bursts of information came from, he contributed to originators’ traffic and he often advanced others’ work with his own thoughtful take on what was the most salient point of a particular news story.

As the pieces on Poynter grew longer, however, the value to originators became more murky as it became harder to tell whose thoughts belonged to whom, Fry’s examination suggests. And the fixes are remarkably simple: directly tell the reader what ideas are borrowed from others.

It has become extremely important as readers find news through searches, as opposed to going directly to news sites, that originators be clearly credited for their work. A link in a 1,000-plus word post that doesn’t plainly mention the person, blog or news organization that did the heavy thinking and writing ultimately diminishes the value of the original source.

Moos certainly acknowledged that in her posts responding to Fry’s questions (Moos’ first post is here, and the one announcing the acceptance of Romenesko’s resignation is here). The whole reason no one minded Romenesko’s traditional methods was because they did encourage traffic and he did provide additional thought to others’ work, enhancing the value.

2 Responses to “CJR: Poynter's 'Incomplete Attribution' Problem Goes Beyond Romenesko”

  1. Oh, it goes deeper that just Poynter. I watch sites like BoingBoing build huge audiences with techniques that would get them thrown out of school for plagiarism. They spend five seconds writing two seconds of introduction for a big, fat blockquote. They knock off their posts in ten minutes. Anyone can have a great blog filled with great pictures if you plagiarize. 

  2. Google’s role in this could be pretty central, and from what I’ve read, so far largely unaddressed.

    The supreme driver of traffic favors more text but penalizes sites for over-aggregating, particularly if the text has appeared elsewhere first. Boundaries are ever-changing, and aggregators wandering into this DMZ can be decimated.

    Wonder what sort of discussions at Poynter preceded the debut of “Romenesko+”