Seeking fairness in the tough world of news aggregation

For more than a decade, one of the most influential figures in the U.S. news media has been someone few people outside the business ever heard of, an ex-newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago named Jim Romenesko. His influence derived from his daily blog, which consisted of capsule descriptions and links to reporting about the media published elsewhere.

Newspeople followed Romenesko’s blog closely. It became the premier community bulletin board, directing the attention of journalists to controversies, scandals, layoffs, promotions, and newsroom foolishness of all kinds. The attention he gave, or denied, to the latest dust-up helped ensure its prominence or its obscurity. (I myself have benefited from his linking to my columns.)

Romenesko worked for the Poynter Institute, another powerful and little known force in the media. Poynter, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a nonprofit, mid-career training academy for journalists. Its seminars and conferences reach hundreds of journalists a year, and its website is an emporium of columns and service features on best practices of all kinds. Romenesko’s blog was a marquee attraction.

Together, Romenesko and Poynter have had major influence on professional standards and practices, so word that they parted ways after 12 years couldn’t fail to be big news, especially when the breakup was provoked by questions raised by the Columbia Journalism Review, the country’s oldest industry watchdog, about their own standards and practices. The ensuing row offers insight into one major area in which journalistic practice is evolving or, some might say, deteriorating.

At issue is perhaps the most valuable and most popular journalistic form to emerge in the digital era, the news aggregation site.

Aggregation sites post blurbs describing worthwhile coverage elsewhere and hypertext links so readers can click directly to original sources. The sites are both immensely useful and inherently parasitic: A good aggregator is a trustworthy gatekeeper who identifies what matters. But the success of aggregation sites depends on the work they link to, which they do nothing to create.

For originating sites, the hope is that the aggregator will draw attention to articles and encourage people to click through and read them, bumping up the sites’ traffic numbers.

It’s a slippery deal though. If the aggregator tells readers all they care to know about a story, they’ll be satisfied, but the originator will have lost readers who might otherwise have come to look for themselves. Instead of an ally, the aggregator becomes a rival, using the creation against the creator.

That was the gist of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) editor Erika Fry’s challenge to Poynter two weeks ago over recent changes in the Romenesko site’s practices. But his boss at Poynter, Julie Moos, responded by publicly castigating Romenesko for a “pattern of incomplete attribution”—meaning using language from original stories too promiscuously and without quotation marks. That accusation led to a mildly idiotic to-and-fro about whether Romenesko plagiarized, which generally requires a false claim to originality, something an aggregation site, whatever its other sins, explicitly does not make.

(That said, I do agree that filching original expression is editorially shabby, even without a bogus authorship claim; the editor who spoils an author’s clever opening by using it in the headline may not have committed an ethical breach, but should be reschooled anyway.)

Romenesko had announced last summer he was leaving Poynter at year’s end, but now, faced with Moos’ criticisms, which practically accused him of intellectual theft, he resigned, triggering generally rapturous commentary from journalists and press critics who felt Poynter’s criticisms were unjust and unwarranted, and who saluted Romenesko’s pioneering contributions.

Still, the underlying problem that the CJR identified—“over-aggregation”—remains endemic to the genre. Blurbs on the reformatted Romenesko site launched last summer were as long as 300 words (nearly half the length of this column.) That much of their language was lifted from the original mattered less than their completeness—why bother clicking to the originating site? It’s left to raise the crop, while the aggregator gets the harvest.

But the issue is more nettlesome than simple fairness. That’s because aggregation sites play multiple roles. Judging them solely by the volume of traffic they redirect is inadequate. Like Sunday book review sections, which are devoured by readers who will never buy the books themselves, they serve as an alternative channel for ideas to reach the public. Aggregators don’t just promote, they propagate. People end up more aware and more knowledgeable. And that’s a good thing.

And if the site links to several stories on the same matter, doesn’t it make sense for reader response to be posted on the aggregation site, instead of scattered among the places where the various stories originated?

In short, there’s real public benefit from the very practices that put creators at such a disadvantage.

Using this dazzling new tool fairly and responsibly isn’t easy, and this affair, painful though it is, may play a role in clarifying aggregation principles. If so, just as Jim Romenesko helped invent aggregation when he started his site, so he’ll be helping ensure its future as he leaves it.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally published on Nov. 21, 2011 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”

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