A sad business
I am a strict constructionist about direct quotations. It comes from my training as an English major—you reproduce the text as it is; if you modernize Milton’s spelling, you indicate what you are doing, etc., etc. It comes from my work at newspapers that do not “clean up” quotes—correct minor errors to spare the speaker embarrassment. What is inside the quotation marks should be the exact words of the text, or the words the speaker uttered, subject to conventions of spelling and punctuation.
So I should be pleased with the scrupulousness with which the Poynter Institute has examined Jim Romenesko’s practices in aggregating and summarizing news about journalism on the Poynter website for the past twelve years. Mr. Romenesko, Poynter found, was given to including verbatim material from the sources he linked to without enclosing them in quotation marks. This, Julie Moos, the head of Poynter Online, said was inconsistent with Poynter’s expressed standards.
This is what Ms. Moos posted on the subject yesterday. Yesterday evening Mr. Romenesko, who had planned to go on half-time status at Poynter in the coming year, resigned outright. (Ms. Moos’ post about the resignation includes links to some of the outraged reactions.) Steve Buttry has posted a typically level-headed and dispassionate account of the whole sad business.
I call it a sad business because I, like just about everyone else involved in journalism, have been following Mr. Romenesko avidly all these years. He has been an invaluable resource for information and, yes, gossip. I think he deserved better.
Let me explain. About his supposed offenses against Poynter’s standards: Ms. Moos herself concedes that in the past twelve years, not a single complaint has been lodged about his aggregating of information, from the sources he summarized or from other readers. Beyond that, it was clear in every instance that what he was doing was summarizing the sources, whom he always identified and to whose texts he linked. There is no reason to think that anyone up to this point has believed that he was attempting to pass off others’ work as his own. The people who write that he has been, at most, guilty of a minor mechanical lapse in using quotation marks have a point.
Then there is Poynter’s mishandling of the matter. Ms. Moos’s original post lays out in detail what Poynter’s standards are and how Mr. Romenesko’s work has fallen short of them. But it reads like a disciplinary matter, a public reprimand: “Effective immediately, Jim’s work for Poynter will change in a few important respects. First, it will follow our standards of attribution. Second, it will be edited before it is published. I asked Jim Wednesday night to refrain from publishing while we sorted out this situation, and he has done so. Jim has offered to resign and I refused to accept his resignation.”
At no point does her post quote Mr. Romenesko or allow him to respond to the accusations. Perhaps he was offered the opportunity and chose not to, but we don’t know that. Surely somewhere in Poynter’s well-developed standards there must be a proviso that people accused of misconduct should be given an opportunity to respond publicly, or it must be shown that they were given such an opportunity.
In this insensitivity, Poynter—which has gladly made use of Mr. Romenesko’s work for a dozen years to boost traffic on its website—has sparked considerable sympathy for Mr. Romenesko and outrage at his treatment.
So the outcome of this sad business is that Mr. Romenesko has been publicly and needlessly embarrassed after years of valuable service, and the Poynter Institute has sustained a self-inflicted wound.
Disclaimer: During the previous decade, I was a presenter at a number of Poynter workshops on editing. I have no current affiliation with the institute.