Romenesko's failure

Romenesko was the news-of-the-week for the journo in-crowd last week, and I probably missed my chance to grab my 15 seconds of re-Tweeted fame by waiting until now to write about it. Strangely, though, the reason I am late has a lot to do with what Romenesko did wrong.

Romenesko's failure was that he didn't put quotes around other people's words. That's a small sin, a sixth-grade composition sin. The reason that I didn't get around to writing until now is that, as an editor and as an adjunct writing professor, I spend far too much time correcting such small sins and teaching people about quotation marks, commas, capitalization, and sentence structure.

This kind of error should not be committed by a journalist. By all accounts, it was not a mistake, but Romenesko's ordinary and usual practice, repeated over and over again, and now defended, somehow, by some other media critics.

Felix Salmon called Romenesko "a KING of the blogosphere," and a lot of his other defenders seem to agree. I don't.

No one accused him of big sins, like plagiarism or dishonesty, though a lot of his vociferous defenders (Gawker, David Carr) focused on the fact that he wasn't guilty of large misdeeds. What he did is either careless or lazy writing. We don't need any more of that.

Here's the story that Poynter editor Julie Moos cited as an example, putting in bold type all of the direct quotations from the Chicago Tribune story:

Chicago Tribune says Mayor Emanuel refuses its public records request

(Poynter story | Original story)

The Tribune says Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused its requests for his emails, government cellphone bills and his interoffice communications with top aides, arguing it would be too much work to cross out information the government is allowed to keep private. After lengthy negotiations to narrow its request for two months of these records, the paper was told that almost all of the emails had been deleted. The Tribune notes that Richard M. Daley repeatedly denied similar requests when he was mayor, “but it’s not the practice in major cities across the nation.” The paper reports:

“The [Emanuel] administration provided cellphone records that did not include a single telephone number for either incoming or outgoing calls, making it impossible to discern how the phones might be used to conduct city business. The city said it would be ‘extremely burdensome’ to determine which numbers were public under the law and which were not.

“Emanuel doesn’t have a city-issued phone and uses an aide’s phone to make city-related calls, [spokeswoman Jenny] Hoyle said. The Tribune requested the records for that phone, among others.”

The paper found that the kinds of records it wants from Emanuel are routinely available — in many cases with a phone call or an email request– in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Seattle. | Chicago Reader (July 21, 2011): “In his first months in office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been sending and resending the message that he wants his administration to be a model of transparency and openness.”

The entire Romenesko story is 251 words long. Of that, 125 words are already in quotes, properly attributed. An additional 90 words should have been in quotes — for a total of 215 quoted words out of 251. Would writing like this have gotten a passing grade for originality in your freshman composition class?

Many defend Romenesko on the grounds that "aggregation" is somehow "different" from writing. But as Justin Peters, at Columbia Journalism Review notes:

The practice of stopping to say things in your own words isn’t just an obsolete ideal imposed on journalists by reactionaries and pedants. Having to consider and articulate things for yourself leads to better comprehension of the source material and, subsequently, better analysis. Sure, if your job is content aggregation, you might not have much space to work with. But there’s a lot you can do in a little space.

A side note, of interest to many of us, is the way that many media critics framed their defense of Jim Romenesko as an attack on editor Julie Moos. For example, David Carr at the New York Times said it "seemed like a parody of church-lady journo etiquette." 

Peters pointed out that the critics were "very angry—primarily at Julie Moos, a woman whom nobody knows, for having the gall to publicly criticize Jim Romenesko, who is famous. ... It’s rare that you see so many people rising to declare their support for sloppy attribution practices."

Moos was right to acknowledge that Romenesko's posts should have used quotation marks. She was right to say that the policy of using proper attribution, including quotation marks, would be followed in the future. That doesn't make her a church-lady — it makes her an editor.

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    Mary Turck's picture
    Mary Turck

    Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.