Update: Jim Romenesko has posted his own account of his departure from Poynter. I don’t feel any need to add to my original blog post (below) beyond this tweet:
Here’s what I wrote Nov. 10, the day Romenesko resigned:
Jim Romenesko didn’t plagiarize and my friends at the Poynter Institute were wrong to suggest that he did.
I agree that Romenesko — and any journalist — should use quotation marks when using exact words of people. But when you credit and link, failure to quote is not plagiarism. It’s a punctuation offense, not a serious breach of journalism ethics. Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, was mistaken in saying that he failed to meet Poynter’s publishing standards. She was especially mistaken to follow that statement with a quote from the Poynter standards that used the P-word.
I was on the road this afternoon when the story broke. I weigh in belatedly only because I blogged about attribution and plagiarism just last week. I also weigh in reluctantly. I consider Moos and many of her Poynter colleagues to be friends. I have collaborated with Poynter faculty on ethics seminars and have the highest respect for Poynter and its position as the leading voice in journalism ethics.
Here is exactly what Moos wrote (italics are mine, identifying potential offenses in the passage cited):
Without those quotation marks, it (Romenesko’s attribution) is incomplete and inconsistent with our publishing practices and standards on Poynter.org.
Our guidelines — which have been published on our site since 2004 — state:
We credit the authors and creators of the various forms of journalism we publish. We apply appropriate scrutiny to work by staff and contributing writers to prevent plagiarism, intentional or otherwise. We do not intentionally mislead with words or images. We do not deliberately deceive as we gather information.
What standard did Romenesko violate? He credited the authors, so this clearly wasn’t plagiarism, defined in Dictionary.com (again, with my italics):
the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work, as by not crediting the author.
Whatever offense, if any, Romenesko committed was in presenting information, not gathering it, so the final sentence is irrelevant.
If his use of people’s exact words without quotation marks was considered intentionally misleading, then Moos should have quoted that single sentence and not brought plagiarism — one of journalism’s most serious sins — into a case where authors were clearly credited and linked. But I see no sign that Romenesko intentionally misled. I believe he followed the Poynter standards, which don’t address punctuation.
Update: I just read the 10,000 Words post in which Julie Moos says that she did not regard Romenesko’s offense as plagiarism. Then she should not have said he failed to meet Poynter standards and cited the passage from the standards on plagiarism. Since the passage never mentions specifically how you should handle quotes, the connection to plagiarism was clear, even if unintended.
I have been linked several times in Romenesko’s blog (we’ve never met, though). I don’t recall ever being aware that he was using my exact words without quoting them.
I do remember, though, in ethics seminars (probably with Poynter colleagues) referring to Romenesko’s blog as the “sex offender registry of journalism ethics” because it seemed as though every ethical offense, however serious, fell under the Romenesko spotlight (enshrined by Google whenever the offender was looking for a job). I mean, if anyone was a target for attack on grounds of plagiarism or any other journalism ethics violation, it was Romenesko. But he followed the same practice openly for 12 years, apparently without complaint.
Moos says Erika Fry of Columbia Journalism Review raised a question about the Romenesko’s punctuation. I think that required that Poynter address the issue. Given Romenesko’s extensive coverage of ethical issues and Poynter’s standing as a leading voice on journalism ethics, some response was necessary.
I think an appropriate response would have been to note what Romenesko had been doing and to note that the Poynter standards did not address the specific issue of quotation marks. The standards could and probably should be updated to require use of quotation marks when using exact words.
Moos’ heavy use of boldface in the only example cited from Romenesko’s blog struck me as unfair to him. She said he highlighted “the author’s verbatim language.” But most of that language, 96 words, actually was in quotations. Romenesko did use 85 words that were exactly the same as the Trib, but these passages were in pretty ordinary language, and he attributed twice to “the Tribune” and twice to “the paper,” in addition to attributing and linking to the Tribune above his blog entry.
The outrage on Twitter has been strong and loud:
I should note that both in her original post addressing the issue and in a later post saying that she had accepted his second resignation (after initially refusing it), Moos expressed what a difficult issue this had been for Poynter. She and Poynter President Karen Dunlap praised Romenesko for his contributions. She expressed regret that his Poynter run had come to such an unfortunate end. It didn’t have to.
I liken this to the Rick Bragg case of using a dateline for a story where a stringer did most of the on-site reporting, but Bragg wrote the story and was present at the location of the dateline. As I wrote at the time, using stringer contributions without credit in staff-bylined stories was a standard practice in journalism (I experienced it on both ends). Maybe it was a practice that should be changed, but you don’t punish or smear people for following established practices. You just update the standards and move forward.
Romenesko was a pioneer of media blogging and his practices were long accepted. If it was time to change the standard, then change the standard with no blame.
Update: Though I don’t like the personal attacks on Moos in this piece by Felix Salmon, his analysis of the Romenesko issue and his comparison to John Paton’s rules for social media is pretty insightful.
Update: I decided to add here that while I agree with Paton’s decision not to have rules for social media use at Journal Register Co. and Digital First Media, I am not critical (Salmon is) of Poynter for its detailed publishing standards. As I noted above, Poynter is the leading voice for journalism ethics, and I appreciate that it spells out its standards. I have often said that newsroom ethics policies exist more to justify firing people than to provide effective guidance. But Poynter is a journalism leader and spelling out its standards was helpful to the industry as a whole. While I think Salmon provided a thoughtful reflection about the contrast between Poynter’s detailed standards and Paton’s decision not to restrict his staff as we experiment in digital journalism, I appreciated and admired Poynter’s standards.
My criticism is simply that Romenesko’s insufficient use of quotation marks in content that was clearly attributed did not violate the Poynter standards.
My final point: John’s lack of social media rules does not mean Digital First Media and Journal Register Co. not tolerate plagiarism. We don’t. We just don’t need special social media rules to uphold that standard.
Update: Overnight I decided I should add to this post that I have discussed with Julie Moos the possibility of being a part-time contributor to Poynter in the plan to replace Romenesko (who had already decided to end his full-time employment with Poynter at the end of the year).
I did not apply for the full-time position replacing Romenesko, but said I might consider being a part-time contributor to the Romenesko blog. I had not disclosed those discussions with my bosses at Digital First Media, Jim Brady and John Paton, until this morning, because I had no details for which to ask their approval. I don’t know whether Poynter will want me to become a regular paid contributor, whether I would accept or whether Jim and John would approve the arrangement (I would not accept without their approval). But I think I should disclose the discussions at this point.