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Romenesko should have attributed, but Poynter mismanaged situation
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By David Arkin
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There's been no bigger industry story this Fall than the fallout between Jim Romenesko and the Poynter Institute.

Over the weekend, Romenesko offered a 3,000-word explanation of the soap opera, days after he officially resigned. I don't really care much about the he said/she said here, but there are a few watercooler topics to come out of the mess.

Poynter is known for its tough standards on ethics, so in a way, it wasn't surprising and honestly, nice to see the organization hold the line.

On the other hand, most journalists were shocked and eyes rolled over Poynter pushing Romenesko out the door for his lack of attribution, something that's been going on for years.

The debate around the Romenesko-Poynter faceoff has to do with black-and-white ethical standards in a world of aggregation and new digital rules (many which are still coming into focus).

Is it OK to not attribute what you're posting, in a blog, like Romenesko's, because it's assumed that readers understood what they were reading (a non-attributed blog)? Clearly, no. While the format may be different and reader expectations may be different, that doesn't mean that standards of attribution go out the door. For years, Romenesko should have been making it obvious where the content was coming from and Poynter executives should have made sure that happened.

The golden rule: Be transparent with your readers about how your content is being produced. It doesn't matter if you assume all of your readers get how your blog works. If you're not clear, you have left room for interpretation.

If Poynter felt there needed to be attribution (and there needed to be), there were two ways this could have been handled:

— A simple editor's note at the top or bottom of the blog landing page noting the goal of Romenekso's blog and that the graphs are lifted and then there's linking to the original author's work. It doesn't seem like every blog is handled that way, but noting in some cases that's what happens, is necessary.

— Talk to Romenesko about making sure that if he lifts something from a blog to just say "according to author's blog." Or use a quote feature in the blog to make it very clear where it's coming from, with attribution.

It sure seems the fact that Romenesko wanted to create his own site and potentially sell advertising, is what led to last week's explosion. I really wonder how much this had to do with attribution. And if it was really all about attribution, couldn't this have been handled in a cleaner way?

While your local reporter doesn't have the national following that Romenesko does, can you imagine if your boss handled a similar situation with you, so publicly?  The public lecture and embarrassment seems totally over the top. If a reporter committed a crime, made a gigantic error (like plagiarism) or some other kind of journalism death sentence, it's worth the public humiliation. But attribution, in a blog, where the majority pretty much were fine with how it had been handled? Not worth it. The blog needed an attribution fix, but this wasn't the hill to die on. If an issue gets raised with an employee, like attribution, doesn't it seem completely appropriate to handle that conversation behind closes doors, get the issue addressed and then, if you feel it's necessary, communicate the change with readers?

You have to decide what's worth fighting over. This was not it. It doesn't sound like not fighting about it would have kept Romenesko with Poynter, but it sure could have saved Poynter and Romenesko from their public black eyes.

David Arkin is the executive director of the News & Interactive Division for GateHouse Media. Contact him at darkin@gatehousemedia.com

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