Occupied or Vacant, Engaged or Vacant

An excerpt of this long-form col­umn first was pub­lished as the “President’s Mes­sage” in the Decem­ber 2011 newslet­ter of the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Colum­nists.

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Cap­tain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gam­bling is going on in here!
Croupier: Your win­nings, sir.
Cap­tain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Cap­tain Renault: [aloud] Every­body out at once!“
Casablanca (1942)

A cor­rec­tion has been noted. It is explained below the column.

The year 2011 has been so com­plex we may not fig­ure it out until 2013. Think of it, from tak­ing out Osama bin Laden to the Occupy move­ment, Japan’s tsunami to Her­man Cain. The only sta­ble part of Amer­i­can life was the econ­omy, dour every month. The mass media has had another year of bumpy tran­si­tion; stand­out events in jour­nal­ism prove the excep­tion in this year by being triv­ial, unless you were directly affected, then please accept my good wishes.

Air sickness bag from the old Frontier Airlines that otherwise could be placed on your plane seat to reserve it.

The Queen had only one way of set­tling all dif­fi­cul­ties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, with­out even look­ing round.” — Lewis Car­roll, “Alice’s Adven­tures in Wonderland”

The momen­tary loss of Jim Rome­nesko writ­ing a well-regarded blog on news media news is the lat­est exam­ple of cor­po­rate jour­nal­ism los­ing its way. Or it’s another incon­se­quen­tial demon­stra­tion of panic in the halls of media. The Occupy move­ment of good inten­tions has set camp in exec­u­tive suites, news­rooms and home offices.

On Nov. 10, Julie Moos (direc­tor of Poyn­ter Online and Poyn­ter Pub­li­ca­tions at journalism’s Poyn­ter Insti­tute at St. Peters­burg, Fla.) wrote that Rome­nesko (direc­tor of an epony­mous agge­ga­tor blog hosted by poynter.org) was engaged in a ques­tion­able jour­nal­is­tic prac­tice, “incom­plete attribution.”

Moos and Rome­nesko are not house­hold names, and they may not be uni­ver­sally known to NSNC mem­bers. I strongly rec­om­mend poynter.org, even now, to keep up with the indus­try but also for its edu­ca­tional value.

Medi­aGos­sip to Media Gossip

Rome­nesko, a Midwest-based jour­nal­ist, began in his spare time a blog, Medi­aGos­sip, in the 1990s that gath­ered (aggre­gated) links to news about the jour­nal­ism indus­try. Poyn­ter hired him in 1999 to pub­lish his blog on its web­site. Increas­ingly, jour­nal­ists and peo­ple inter­ested in the pro­fes­sion would check this page, where sev­eral times every week­day, Rome­nesko would post news about jour­nal­ists in all media, as well as cir­cu­la­tion and adver­tis­ing updates. As a news junkie, it con­tin­ues to be a fre­quent hit for me.

He worked out of his home or any num­ber of cof­fee houses, and wel­comed news tips. I sent him NSNC news, not too many I hoped, and he posted about a quar­ter of them. They weren’t nec­es­sar­ily the ones that for years had inter­ested Edi­tor & Pub­lisher, before that mag­a­zine was sold and changed up, but I had no strong com­plaints with his choices, which increased NSNC’s vis­i­bil­ity, after all.

A few months ago, as Rome­nesko began a grad­ual, nego­ti­ated move into semi-retirement, Poyn­ter renamed his blog Lat­est News,* yet it also con­tin­ued to carry his name. Poyn­ter staff writ­ers began post­ing news items as Rome­nesko decreased his work load.

Moos is a Poyn­ter man­ager, hired as an edi­tor not too far behind Rome­nesko, in 2002.

The Moos memo, Exhibit A, says that Erika Fry of the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review had ques­tions on the for­mat of the blog Rome­nesko. Moos had her apolo­gia posted on this very blog.

The for­mat of Romenesko’s own posts was a para­graph that con­tained the hyper­link to the orig­i­nat­ing arti­cle and sum­ma­rized it. He clearly indi­cated the attri­bu­tion of the mate­r­ial but did not set off in quo­ta­tion marks every sen­tence or phrase that he’d cut-and-pasted. This style was what was at issue.

The past year’s staff-written posts tended to be more com­plete; a hur­ried reader could get the whole story in cap­sule with­out leav­ing the site. I sup­pose these briefs used quote marks and suf­fi­cient attri­bu­tion. Thus, the young­sters used print con­ven­tions and the old guy wrote with an eye for design, suf­fi­cient clar­ity for the Web. [From being an edi­tor for most of three decades, I accept that gram­mar is rel­a­tive and subjective.]

Moos never used the word “pla­gia­rism” in Exhibit A.

For 12 years, no one com­plained about cita­tions in what would roughly be 15,000 posts. These were briefs about and for pro­fes­sion­als who would be the first to shout “fake” in a crowded news­room. Yet none noticed any theft of con­tent in Romenesko/Latest News,* accord­ing to reports after his res­ig­na­tion. Reac­tions from note­wor­thy folks said Romenesko’s for­mat made it clear he was using quoted mate­r­ial, not need­ing spe­cific punctuation.

I think he should have claimed to have adopted the gram­mar of Cor­mac McCarthy, famous for using as lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion as pos­si­ble, cer­tainly no quote marks, in his acclaimed novels.

Fry was ask­ing Moos about the sum­mary style, not accus­ing, accord­ing to her own post-bout reflec­tion, Exhibit B.

If the only prob­lem with Jim Rome­nesko was an edit­ing judg­ment, Moos could have asked him to put quo­ta­tion marks around any directly quoted mate­r­ial. She could have had him send his work to a Poyn­ter copy edi­tor to ensure proper punc­tu­a­tion. If Rome­nesko has a big ego — and you need one in this busi­ness, as a com­po­nent in needed tough­ness — he might have com­plained. But as a long­time news pro­fes­sional, he would have complied.

Rome­nesko in a rebut­tal, Exhibit C, won­dered if rev­enue could be behind the ker­fuf­fle. Months ear­lier he, via Poyn­ter, openly explained his plans: At the start of 2012, he will resume a sim­i­lar blog to his old Medi­aGos­sip site, jimromenesko.com, com­pris­ing mostly inside jour­nal­ism briefs. The site will carry ads. Adver­tis­ers who have been buy­ing space at Poynter.org may instead con­tract for spots at Jim­Rome­nesko, his response noted.

As log­i­cal as “fol­low the money” (Deep Throat to Bob Wood­ward in All the President’s Men) is — and per­haps true — it does not sound like the entire explanation.

Moos appears to be a sin­cere news­room man­ager, thus not ter­ri­bly con­cerned about adver­tis­ing. Still, by see­ing her­self as a Model of a Mod­ern Major–Jour­nal­ist, she real­izes, first, that per­cep­tion of a vio­la­tion can be as bad as an infrac­tion, and, sec­ond, the best way to han­dle a pos­si­ble con­tro­versy might to get in front of it, promi­nently That’s been the plan with some major media, NPR get­ting the most atten­tion — and the pub­lic net­work show­ing it can backfire.

If Moos had han­dled this as a recur­ring typo to fix, we daily read­ers of Lat­est News* would not have embar­rassed her, spurred Rome­nesko to leave the job early, and caused pos­si­ble dam­age to her employer the Poyn­ter Institute.

Dam­age? The NSNC has been con­sid­er­ing hold­ing its 2013 annual con­fer­ence on the Poyn­ter cam­pus, rent­ing rooms and hir­ing an insti­tute lec­turer or two for the week­end. An NSNC board mem­ber now has sug­gested a wait-and-see, cit­ing the cav­a­lier way Poyn­ter has treated a good journalist.

Some other NSNC board mem­bers, by the way, agree with Moos.

I say she over­re­acted and should be held account­able. I already have book­marked Romenesko’s new web­site and will check it frequently.

As an edi­tor, I empathize with Moos. My red-pencil mind cer­tainly curses some vio­la­tions. My design brain appre­ci­ates that dif­fer­ent for­mats call for dif­fer­ent appear­ances. To help the reader under­stand fully, with­out mis­lead­ing, is one goal, but you don’t want to frus­trate the reader with triv­i­al­i­ties, includ­ing exces­sive punc­tu­a­tion. Most news­pa­pers, for exam­ple, for­bid direct quotes of sin­gle words, unless very unusual, just set­ting off exact phrases or sentences.

One of the most inter­est­ing aspects of this fall’s Occupy Wall Street move­ment that spread across the coun­try is its delib­er­ate lack of goals. Any­one, though, from read­ing basic news accounts and exam­in­ing still and video pic­tures, under­stands them: Enough, they’re saying.

Occupy Rome­nesko” says: Too much ado.

National Pub­lic Regret

The Rome­nesko caper is just the most recent exam­ple of a news entity react­ing loudly to a pos­si­ble or real vio­la­tion of professionalism.

We all want to see incom­pe­tent doc­tors, crooked lawyers and win-blindered coaches given the boot. Most of us want the details when it hap­pens, both to see jus­tice done pub­licly but also to for the gos­sipy edge of such infor­ma­tion: Did what? Almost got away with what?

National Pub­lic Radio seems to have had more than its share.

Usu­ally, NPR like the best news gath­er­ers han­dle it well: Anchor Michele Nor­ris announced this past Octo­ber she is step­ping away from cer­tain duties, espe­cially most on-air work, that could con­flict while her polit­i­cal adviser hus­band works on the Obama re-election campaign.

But cable’s con­trary news net­works feasted on these: In Octo­ber 2010 NPR fired com­men­ta­tor Juan Williams for mak­ing on Fox News (appear­ances that NPR allowed) a rel­a­tively more fla­grant com­ment. Then in March, James O’Keefe, a con­ser­v­a­tive activist who orches­trates stings of tar­gets, got NPR fundrais­ing exec­u­tive Ron Schiller fired after post­ing to YouTube a video of Schiller talk­ing a caus­tic, lib­eral line while meet­ing with a fic­ti­tious Mus­lim edu­ca­tional group. Days later, NPR’s board asked for the res­ig­na­tion of Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer Vivian Schiller (no rela­tion) over the two incidents.

The right moves? Maybe, may need another year to tell.

In Octo­ber, free­lancer Caitlin Cur­ran was fired from The Take­away, a news pro­gram of pub­lic sta­tion WNYC and Pub­lic Radio Inter­na­tional, for car­ry­ing a picket at Occupy Wall Street.

Nor­mally, this would be a fla­grant vio­la­tion of even the loos­est jour­nal­ism con­ven­tions. But what if the picket calls, not for par­ti­san pol­i­tics or incite­ment but for cor­po­ra­tions to behave eth­i­cally? What if the group the pick­eters is in does not call for any­thing, as the Occupy move­ment does. Last, should a free­lancer should be held to the stan­dards of full-time staff reporters and columnists?

In Novem­ber, Lisa Sime­one lost two jobs. She had hosted Sound­prints, a non-NPR radio doc­u­men­tary series that some pub­lic radio sta­tions broad­cast. She also hosted World of Opera, pro­duced by a North Car­olina NPR-member sta­tion. Sime­one was said to be active in Occupy’s D.C. camp; news reports called her an Occupy leader, though it claims to be leaderless.

Can an opera spe­cial­ist be held to the same apo­lit­i­cal pub­lic front as a hard news reporter? Can the gal who throws your paper at 5 a.m. on your dri­ve­way be allowed to have a Tea Party bumper sticker on her pickup on which the paper cov­ers the mileage? Can she lis­ten to con­ser­v­a­tive talk radio while on her route? With the truck win­dows open?

Web-surfing while brain­storm­ing, I found “occupy” can be the oppo­site of “vacant,” as seen imprinted on han­dles of plane and bus bath­rooms. Too easy of a joke, though. British con­veyances, though, replace “Occu­pied” with “Engaged” on their lava­to­ries. That’s food for thought.

Occupy Rome­nesko

When Julie Moos on behalf of the Poyn­ter Insti­tute forces out Jim Rome­nesko, she is mak­ing a pub­lic state­ment that she and the com­pany (here, non-profit edu­ca­tional) by God have stan­dards. But news read­ers, view­ers and surfers should find this stuff drab.

The main peo­ple notic­ing eth­i­cal vio­la­tions and shouted mea cul­pas may well be those who don’t just believe in shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger, but encour­age oth­ers to that act. The pro­duc­ers of radio and TV talk shows and the web man­agers of sites that encour­age polit­i­cal points of view know the value of mis­di­rec­tion and manip­u­lat­ing log­i­cal fal­lac­ies.

With­out them, no one would have heard of Vivian Schiller. Know who replaced her? Didn’t think so. It’s Gary Knell.

On Nov. 25, the long-retired Tom Wicker of The New York Times died at age 85. His obit­u­ar­ies noted at times he encour­aged activism, “cross­ing the line from observer to par­tic­i­pant in news events” while a colum­nist. Did you catch that he worked at The New York Times?

There are real lapses in jour­nal­ism that dam­age us all, as well as our audience.

At least one British news­pa­per last sum­mer was revealed to have moved past inves­tiga­tive report­ing to over-the-line snoop­ing. In Amer­ica, pla­gia­rism has been the most com­mon charge. Like gram­mar, though, pla­gia­rism has a soft­ness. Dif­fer­ent eras, dif­fer­ent coun­tries and dif­fer­ent media are com­fort­able with dif­fer­ent stan­dards of punc­tu­a­tion for the for­mer, and dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of orig­i­nal­ity for the latter.

Do you Occupy your own brain? Are your col­umn and blog top­ics held hostage to oth­ers’ def­i­n­i­tions of “break­ing” or “devel­op­ing” news?

I never have under­stood pla­gia­rism, because I value orig­i­nal­ity. Activism? Jour­nal­ism ethics were force-fed me from col­lege on. I tried to march once, a few years ago. It felt so weird I wrote about it:

The Occupy move­ment should attract me, hav­ing always seen the romance and ide­al­ism in protests. Actu­ally it befud­dles me, for the same rea­son I ques­tion the Move­ment of the 1960s and ‘70s — did those ral­lies has­ten the end of the Viet­nam War? No. That inter­nal con­flict inspired a three-part satir­i­cal nar­ra­tive from 1990:

The Occupy folks have a mis­sion. It’s clever to not announce it, as it frus­trates their oppo­nents to the point of increas­ing atten­tion. How­ever, will Occupy get rep­re­sented in Con­gress and state­houses as quickly as the Tea Party?

Lisa Sime­one will have no trou­ble explain­ing opera online or other cul­tural jour­nal­ism tasks. She might even get paid gigs. Jim Romenesko’s web­site will have greater vis­i­bil­ity when he turns it on full blast next month, thanks to the fiery exit he tried to keep Poyn­ter from staging.

From staff colum­nists to blog­gers of well-formed essays, we in the NSNC can use the media mini-scandals to gain a han­dle on 2012, from more on what to do, to what to avoid. We can focus the tsunamic energy of 2011 to write, then move our copy before the largest pos­si­ble audi­ences in the New Year.

• • •

*Cor­rec­tion: Poyn­ter renamed Romenesko’s blog “Medi­aWire,” said poynter.org Man­ag­ing Edi­tor Steve Myers. He elab­o­rates in an e-mail to Ben Pol­lock: “‘[L]atest news’ … is a cat­e­gory that includes the for­mer Rome­nesko (now Medi­aWire) blog as well as our mobile, social and busi­ness blogs.” Pol­lock advises that to get all of the lat­est news from poynter.org, go to www.poynter.org/category/latest-news/.

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