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/.

2 thoughts on “Occupied or Vacant, Engaged or Vacant

  1. Ben, I love your writing and your column. My only comment about Romenesko is that he has never been fair to individuals like myself who are of American Arab heritage and has excluded us. We’ve complained in the past but sometimes, writers like Romenesko exhibit an arrogance that is what sets them apart from readers, not quality writing. I am sure he has written some well-regarded notes and insider breaking news, but it would not be fair for people to think that he has lived by any principle of fair judgment or objectivity as a journalist reviewing the media. He has ignored complaints against the media often.

    We should never put journalists on pedestals or turn them in to martyrs or even “gods” of journalism. That is what creates the real problem and why so many mainstream Americans regard the media with the same suspicions and concerns that are shared by new immigrant American communities.

    Thanks for writing a great column though. You should do the media beat.

    Ray Hanania

  2. Thanks, Ray.

    I don’t know if the man has blind spots like the rest of us or is a bigot.

    Jim’s aggregator blog filled a gap in coverage that I’ve relied on for years: Do I need to apply for a baker’s job at Panera yet?

    In personnel matters like this one, I was trying to say in part, there’s always more beneath the surface. Your point may well have played a role. This was never just a squabble on quote marks. It must have been a front, and a poorly executed one.


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