Friday, November 11, 2011

Journalism spat makes it into the mainstream media

I didn't plan on posting today due to Veteran's Day, and while I try to avoid writing much about "journalism" rather than "digital publishing", I feel it would be wrong not to post something to TNM about this rather sad episode.

What is that they say about spitting (or whatever) into the wind? Well, as of today the Poynter-Jim Romenesko spat (sorry about that) has make it into the mainstream media thanks to an article on the Washington Post's website.

Last night Paul Farhi of the Post informed readers of the episode within the journalism community that started when Julie Moos of the nonprofit website went after their blogger Jim Romenesko, leading eventually to his decision to leave Poynter early.

Romenesko, a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal (now the Journal Sentinel) and editor at Milwaukee Magazine, had started a media website after a stint as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. That site was purchased by the Poynter Institute and Romenesko continued his work under the banner of Romenesko's MediaNews.

With his contract up, Romenesko was set to launch his own website next month when Moos penned her story that appeared yesterday. Moos took Romesnesko to task for "a pattern of incomplete attribution."

The Poynter website, like all media news websites, rarely gets more than a handful of comments per day, but the story has had over 200 comments and journalists have tweeted about the spat between the pioneering blogger and Poynter for the past day.

As the WaPo story points out, most journalists don't see what the big deal is – Romenesko's blog has always been about creating posts about media news stories on the web, utilizing large quotes from the stories, not by commenting directly on the material. Any personal opinion contained in the blog has always been discerned through what has been aggregated rather than through his own comments.

Both the Moos post and the Washington Post story infer that this whole mess was started when Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, talked to Moos about Romenesko's blog and inconsistencies in the way he used quotes from the stories he was aggregating. If this is true then the CJR has to be feeling pretty lucky that Moos took the bait and posted first, otherwise we would be reading about how the CJR is getting slammed this morning.

(That hasn't stopped the CJR from stepping in it anyway. Justin Peters writes a post this morning that reviews the backlash the CJR helped create, and then goes on to say that "the fact is that all of Jim Romenesko’s Poynter posts carried Jim Romenesko’s byline, and, as such, it is reasonable to expect that those posts were his original work." Really? That is an odd way of looking at the practice of aggregating news.)

As for Jim Romenesko, he probably regrets emailing the Post's Farhi wondering "if they were trying to discredit me so advertisers wouldn’t touch me." That was unnecessary.

The Washington Post was not the only media outlet to write about the much-to-do-about-nothing spat between the two players. David Carr's Media Decoder post looks that the incident, as well, and comes to the same conclusion as everyone else: what's the problem?

"Mr. Romenesko was pilloried on Thursday for inadequately crediting the work of others, when in fact the new and not-improved version of the blog has become a kind of a roach motel — very easy to get into, but tough to get out of — with endlessly recursive links and little in the way of outbound referrals," wrote Carr.

Carr then links to a post on The Awl by Choire Sicha that really goes after the new Poynter website, calling it "whorey" for headlines that no longer pointed to the original story but were permalinks to their own site (this is rather unfair simply because this is industry standard practice and is the way blogs using Google's blogger platform, for instance, have always worked).

I don't see many readers outside the world of journalism really caring too much about this rather ugly episode. The world of journalism is always navel gazing – its two big themes being "the future of journalism" and the Pulitzers – and most readers find it all very boring.

But the real issue few talk about is how useless the media trade press has become. The demise, for all intents and purposes, of Editor & Publisher, the irrelevance of the magazine trade press, is a blight on the B2B media industry – we can't even create products that are of interest to ourselves, what does that say about the state of the trade?

But, from the perspective of new media, or should I say New Media, none of the traditional sources of industry news have stayed ahead of the curve, have led their industries rather than simply followed – often far behind. Do a search in iTunes and try and find Poytner, the CJR, E&P, Folio:...

The posts in Poynter and CJR are embarrassing but they will pass and will be quickly forgotten, and maybe even forgiven. Heck, it's almost the weekend, and its Veteran's Day besides.

But if you are an indy publisher creating a new news or magazine product today does any of this even get your attention? does it really matter? or is it simply more evidence that the old codgers of the press remain around merely for your entertainment?

Addendum: David Kaplan's post about the Poynter-Romenesko story should be mentioned as a good example of the modern, digital way stories are written, and an interesting example of the hybrid model emerging. Kaplan, like this post, recaps the story and then comments on it. This model has no place in the NYT or WaPo, as it shouldn't, but works perfectly fine online. Why? For the same reasons that Jim Romenesko's model worked for his blog: readers understand the formula, they get it.

Kaplan does play it a bit wishy-washy, crediting Poynter for promoting best practices, then saying the issue was mishandled. But was Romenesko sloppy? Was his work second rate? That is the inference.

I would say that Romenesko's work was consistent, it was the site design that changed things, not the other way around.

But the paidContent post is interesting because it shows how digital-only sites handle stories versus the MSM. Carr's piece is clearly a column under the MediaDecoder banner, the WaPo piece is a straight news story, slanted only through the choices made as to what to include, what to exclude. The paidContent piece is both a news story and a column. If you don't like the opinion, how do you blame? David Kaplan, not paidContent. But if a front page story were written the same way the paper itself would be credited with the slant.

This is what is changing in the world of journalism and I think readers are OK with this – at least online, and from digital news organizations. It should be recognized that there are parallel worlds of journalism now.

Update: Erika Fry has posted her own story on the CJR website. It should be noted that it appears at 4:05 PM EST, around the same time the White House releases stories they wish buried.

1 Comment:

David Kaplan said...

Hey Doug, thanks so much for the shoutout and for contributing a very clear look at the issues involved with the whole Poynter/Romenesko contretemps.

And I admit I did feel wishy-washy as I was writing my assessment! ;)

Basically, I'm sympathetic to both Julie Moos, who I think has the difficult task of re-engineering the site and has largely done a terrific job of bringing in smart voices.

At the same time, I think she badly over-reacted in asking for Romenesko's resignation. Like just about every media reporter/blogger/editor who has weighed in, I always appreciated a mention by Romenesko and never felt the slightest twinge of feeling ripped off or "over-aggregated" by.

That said, Romenesko is sui generis and as such, I don't think his method can be easily adopted by all those who come after him. Nor does it really fit Poynter's newer, longer form model of media industry analysis.

So there do need to be some kind of discussion of clearer standards about aggregation. Not just at Poynter or Huffington Post or paidContent, and every place else that relies on the reflection of original reporting and commentary (which pretty much includes just about every online publication these days, right?)

I think Poynter is the best place to start that discussion, since it's so central to covering online journalism, especially when it comes to the aggregation of media news. That doesn't mean I expect or want Julie Moos to appear on mountain above us holding up the Ten Commandments of Aggregation.

Reuter's Felix Salmon, in his second, somewhat calmer item on the Romenesko matter (, feels that bloggers should not be held to journalistic standards.

I disagree, but then again, I don't think the "rules" need be universal, absolute or one-size-fits all. I just want to see some basic guidelines that gives aggregators some clue as to what we should all expect of each other.

As you can tell, I'm a big believer in maintaining gray areas. And it's important to recognize that these guidelines have to evolve.

So I just want a lighter shade of gray, so that we can all at least see where each of us is coming from, rather than groping around in an impenetrable fog.

For example, if I'm summarizing Talking News Media's take on something, is it too much for me to explicitly mention the site and perhaps the author by name?

I would say it's not too much trouble. Sure my copy might flow more nicely if I just clip a phrase and lay some hypertext link over it rather than interrupt my perfect sentence with "As Talking New Media's Douglas Hebbard writes..."

And it's not just about the value to you or me from promoting better SEO results than you would otherwise get from an unidentified link, but I think of this from the reader's perspective.

For example, I love what Slate does. But as a reader, I hate that Slate posts too often just include an unidentified link when making a point about a subject within an article. I don't necessarily want to click something to find out where it came from and in what context when I'm reading something in the middle. ("Oh, that like was from the National Enquirer and not the NYT? How interesting!")

At a time when information is coming from various points, the main thing should be making sources of information as clear to the reader as possible. Readers' shouldn't have to work to evaluate sources.

Secondly, as bloggers who want respect for the work they put in to their posts, there has to be the acknowledgement that it really is a two-way street.

Anyway, I think the discussion will continue and it should. Looking forward to seeing your views on it further and linking back to you personally when you do!