Friday, November 11, 2011

The Romenesko affair

Among journalists, Jim Romenesko's blog has been a go-to source for what's happening in our business, and there's been plenty to talk about.

This week, Romenesko resigned his post at the Poynter Institute about six weeks short of his previously announced his "semi-retirement." His crime was what appears to have been an increasing failure to use quotation marks when quoting directly from other sources, relying instead on the common practice of using links to imply the source. To many, the forced resignation was a spectacular over-reaction.

With regard to the resignation, I agree -- it was a spectacular over-reaction. With regard to how sourcing is handled on the Internet, I hope this is a watershed moment. There's no small irony in the fact that Romenesko's resignation comes the same week in which we learned that a Utah mayor has been publishing material on the Deseret News' "community journalism" site under a pen name (see my previous post for more outrage on that).

Romenesko worked at the Poynter Institute, as close to a think tank as there is in journalism. It's populated by experienced, smart, serious, thoughtful people. For those who want to dig into the guts of the Romenesko controversy, just Google his name and find a comfortable spot to rest with your laptop or other device of choice.

The larger issue is, what does journalism require of its adherents nowadays? To that, I answer; pretty much the same as it has for the past several generations. To me, it's more than a matter of ethics. It's a simple business proposition.

I've written about this ad nauseum on this blog and in the yellowing pages of the Post Register. The Age of Entertainment has not just blurred the lines between journalism and whatever else is going on in the name of journalism, it's obliterated them. Discerning facts from fiction is becoming increasingly difficult, if not darn near impossible.

Practitioners of journalism must differentiate themselves from the blogs, the talk shows and the rest. The only way to do that is to establish firm principles and unfailingly follow them. Romenesko, and most others who manage blogs that chiefly rely on aggregating other sources, haven't been hitting that standard. I wouldn't have known this about Romenesko's blog had it not for the reporting of the Columbia Journalism review. My own blog, this very one, includes a link to Romensko's work, and I've relied on it often. I'm supposed to be able to sniff this stuff out.

I don't know Jim Romenesko, but I know enough about him to be confident that he didn't need this job and his reputation will survive intact, which is easy for me to say from my seat well outside the fray. People who care about journalism need to take this as an opportunity to consider the fundamentals of our craft. We have plenty of issues to deal with, but none is more important than this one.

Newspapers will survive -- dare I say, thrive -- by holding fast to standards of journalism, even while embracing the new reporting techniques made possible by technology. If we do that, I cling to what may seem like the naive faith that thoughtful people will be drawn to our work. If they aren't, I fear greatly for all of us.

Journalism matters, and it has received a lot of black eyes lately. In the scheme of things, the Romenesko issue might seem pretty minor. It isn't. Our reporting and sourcing need to be more pristine than ever. The Internet hasn't made it less important -- just the opposite.

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