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Romenesko's resignation from Poynter raises questions about attribution standards for news aggregators

The Poynter Institute's renowned journalism blogger Jim Romenesko has resigned, just weeks before his scheduled retirement, after Poynter Online director Julie Moos wrote an article referring to Romenesko's pattern of "imperfect attribution," according to the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post.

"Though information sources have always been displayed prominently in Jim’s posts and are always linked at least once (often multiple times), too many of those posts also included the original author’s verbatim language without containing his or her words in quotation marks, as they should have," Moos wrote in response to the Columbia Journalism Review's questions over attribution. Moos added that many of the links included in Romenesko's blog were sent by the news organizations themselves, and she has no knowledge that any of them ever complained about attribution. "We are in uncharted territory, marked by uncertainty, which suggests caution. We will continue to evaluate this situation and to be as transparent as possible about what we learn and decide," she wrote.

A round-up of reactions to the attribution scandal, published on the Poynter website, shows that in general journalists and scholars side with Romenesko, emphasizing that he did not plagiarize. While some noted that when in doubt, using quotation marks is best, they also pointed out the precariousness of serving as a content aggregator, blogging about what others wrote instead of writing it yourself.

As Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar for Poynter, wrote, "Most of Jim’s fans think he did nothing wrong and has been treated badly, arguing, in a sense, that aggregation – with linking – serves as a new form of attribution...At a time when journalism is taking different forms, from tabulation to curation to aggregation, it is self-defeating to demand that new wine be served in old skins. The standards of attribution we still apply in print may in fact be outdated in the age of sampling, file sharing, and mash-ups. There are enduring standards, to be sure, and we should be influenced by them. But the cultural mores governing intellectual property have been in constant flux for centuries and are currently under special strain."

But Justin Peters, writing for CJR, pointed out that aggregating -- and limited space -- is no excuse for "sloppy attribution practices," he said, adding, "The practice of stopping to say things in your own words isn’t just an obsolete ideal imposed on journalists by reactionaries and pedants."

Calling Romenesko a "hero of web journalism," Erik Wemple wrote for the Washington Post that it all comes down to two perspectives: either you think linking as part of aggregation is in fact attribution, or you think quotation marks need to be in place every time. "Considering that just about everything Romenesko did at Poynter fell under an aggregational banner, it seems a stretch to call it plagiarism. Maybe 'aggiarism' works better. Whatever it is, though, it’s something."

In an interview with the Daily Northwestern, Romenesko discussed the future of news aggregation and attribution, even questioning the Huffington Post's attribution style. "The problem that I've had with aggregation is when bloggers hide the source of a story, don't link to the source of a story, make it difficult to find the source of the story," he told the Daily Northwestern. "In my posts, the source information was always on top of the story, always in bold face and italics to set it off in the text. In addition to that, I frequently put that same link in the text of the story, so I never cheated the source of the story. It's Huffington Post I have a problem with. Even some of the posts that I've done — memos, for example — other sites will pick up my memos, the ones that they were sent from me, and copy and paste on their site and not give me credit, or give me credit without a link, or pretty much hide my link so I don't get the traffic. That was always my problem, but I always made sure the source of the story had a very clear indication where it came from."


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