The Romenesko effect.

Media criticism.
April 18 2005 9:44 PM

The Romenesko Effect

How a one-man Web site is improving journalism.

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If not for Jim Romenesko's Web site, the recent journalistic lapses of Mitch Albom and Barbara Stewart probably wouldn't have gotten much coverage outside of the local media in Detroit and Boston. Then, a couple of months after the fact, the writers might have earned a brief chiding mention in the Columbia Journalism Review before being forgotten.

But thanks to Romenesko's influential readership, every journalistic sin—venial or cardinal—that's published and gets billboarded on his Web page becomes a national story. Everybody from news aides to media moguls reads the site, which is hosted by the Poynter Institute, a gold-plated nonprofit that specializes in remedial education for journalists. A big splash on Romenesko obliges the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz to write about it in his column and examine it on his television show, the New York Timesto digest it, and columnists everywhere to riff on it.

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For those who don't read Romenesko, Albom and Stewart are guilty of illegal time-shifting: Albom wrote in the past tense on a Friday about a Saturday event he thought would happen—but didn't—in a piece that was published in the Sunday, April 3, edition of the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper's editor has called in outside experts to scrutinize the affair before deciding how to punish his now-suspended all-star columnist. Stewart, a Globe freelancer who worked as a New York Times metro reporter for 10 years, filed an eyewitness account on April 13 describing the culling of seals in Canada. She fudged just like Albom, writing in the past tense about an anticipated event which, unfortunately for her, was canceled on account of bad weather.

This sort of cheating is as old as journalism, and it doesn't happen just at newspapers. Last summer, Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham got busted for placing a future event (the GOP convention) in the past tense. What's new is the way the Romenesko megaphone distributes the news of these offenses, allowing journalists to box their peers' ears while the subject is still green in memory. In the Albom case, writers at the Free Press, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit News, and elsewhere gave the columnist his deserved beating—which I know only because Romenesko linked to them. The Lawrence Journal-Worldpublished the most painful thumping, which was linked to, naturally, by Romenesko, which explained that Albom's time-shifting ruse was so self-evident to rookie copy editor Nikki Overfelt at the Duluth News Tribune that when she read the syndicated version of the column even she knew to change the past tense to future before publishing.

The verdict against Albom isn't unanimous, as Romenesko's link today to a transcript of Kurtz's Reliable Sourcesprogram (April 17) indicates. Albom's friend Tony Kornheiser—Washington Post columnist, ESPN personality, and sitcom inspiration (Listen Up)—appeared on the CNN show to separate the episode from its ethical context and reframe the criticism as class warfare."I think Mitch's major crime, as I read these stories, is that he's rich, famous, and successful, and a lot of people want to bring him down," Kornheiser said. As an ethicist, Kornheiser is no Randy Cohen: He also stated on the show that Albom shouldn't be fired, but earlier this year when freelancer Stephen Rodrick gently criticized Kornheiser in Slate, he called for Rodrick's sacking.

But back to the Romenesko effect: Two weeks ago he made Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Slater a national topic. Slater, a Times veteran, penned a March 29 story about Chico, Calif., that contained so many unnecessary anonymous sources, factual errors, and oddities (such as a named source nobody else can locate) that it's hard to figure out exactly what went wrong in its preparation. A lengthy Times correction followed, as did a chiding story in the local paper. According to the Chico State Orion, to which Romenesko links today, the Los Angeles Times dispatched a staffer to Chico last week to retrace Slater's steps, something I can't imagine would have happened if the paper hadn't been nationally embarrassed by Romenesko. (Addendum, April 19: The Times has dismissed  Slater.)

All this prolific linking torments hacks and other corner-cutters, but the less obvious consequence is its effect on journalistic standards. The site functions brilliantly as an ad hoc, post-publication, peer review mechanism for the journalistic profession. It also contributes to journalistic transparency. No newsroom memo or in-house letter of any consequence circulates inside a newspaper for very long before being posted on "Romenesko Memos" or "Romenesko Misc." (With just the right amount of mediation, he publishes letters, too.)

Improving the business may not have been Romenesko's intention when he started his one-man-band site as "Media Gossip" in May 1999 or even when Poynter hired him to do the same job (with the same solo staffing) that October. For all I know, it may not even be his goal today. (Addendum, April 20: Due to popular demand, I asked Romenesko why he started the site. He answers in this sidebar.) Collecting stories across the political spectrum, he never tips his hand to reveal his views or prejudices. I imagine him working diligently in his home office dressed in a fire-engine red body stocking, a matching cowl pulled over his eyes, a big white "R" embroidered on his chest. Every profession—lawyers, accountants, police, doctors, bankers, et al.—should have such a superhero keeping vigil.

Jim Romenesko's site is irreplaceable because it gives honest reporters public leverage over their corrupt colleagues, their timid editors, their bullying publishers, and their craven owners. Let them transgress, the site seems to whisper. How badly do they want to see their names in boldface and linked to?

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