Punctuation, attribution, Romenesko: My kingdom for a quotation mark

Punctuation saves lives!

Punctuation can hurt people, too. It can even cost a columnist his job.

The Romenesko fiasco that has been roiling the journalism world for the past two days originated in a column by Poynter.org editor Julie Moos over the failure of Jim Romenesko, whose daily Poynter column rounded up news about newsrooms, to put quotation marks around material he used verbatim from the stories to which he linked.

Romenesko invented the journalism gossip blog back in the 20th century, before “aggregator” became a household word (at least in journalism households). His column was water-cooler fodder in every newsroom in the country, and for years, it was the go-to place for memo leakers, until its success spawned imitators and rivals. The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., a highly regarded journalism think tank with an emphasis on ethics and best practices, describes itself as “a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders.” Uncountable journalists, journalism students and journalism educators have taken courses at, taught at or written for Poynter (including me).

I spent an afternoon reading commentary from around the Web about Moos’ post, a post that led Romenesko to move up his previously announced resignation from Poynter. He had planned to leave at the end of the year. He’s gone now, and lots of people are furious about the unhappy way his long career at Poynter ended. A few argue that Moos was absolutely right, that Romenesko violated basic journalism practice. But the prevailing view on Moos’ critique seems to be, as The New York Times’ David Carr put it, “Jim’s use of quote marks blahbity-blah resulted in questionable whoopdedoo and we are now totally on the case of not very much.”

Neither Moos nor anyone else argues that Romenesko intended to deceive readers about the sources of  his items. For most of his column’s 12-year life, the items consisted of terse summaries and links. Since approximately the time he announced his pending departure, the items have swollen to several paragraphs with big chunks of text from the original articles, sometimes in quote marks and sometimes not. Moos’ column sprang from an inquiry by Erika Fry of the Columbia Journalism Review, whose main concern, Fry writes, was that these bloated items were unfair to the original stories not because of missing quote marks but because their length and comprehensiveness deterred readers from clicking through to the originals.

I’ve read what many smart people had to say: Alan Mutter, the Newsosaur; Erik Wemple, a Washington Post blogger; Robin Sloan of snarkmarket.com; Erika Fry and Justin Peters at CJR; Elena Zak at 10,000 Words; Reuters’ Felix Salmon; Choire Sicha at The Awl; Mark Coddington at Nieman Journalism Lab; David Carr’s Media Decoder post at The New York Times, the responses of Poynter faculty to the fracas; and scores of comments around the Web.

I won’t rehash all the ins and outs and speculations I read about today. If you’re a journalist, you’ve probably read enough on the subject already. If you’re not, you probably don’t care. And if you do, any of the links above can give you more details.

But one point on which I’ve seen little comment is this: Accepted journalistic practice includes using people’s exact words without quotation marks so long as the words are properly attributed. As writers, we don’t want to pepper our story with drab quotes or with too many quotes, so sometimes we’ll simply use attribution without quote marks for the sake of rhythm and readability. As journalism professors—I’ve read this a hundred times in news writing textbooks—we teach our students to put in quotation marks only the things people say that are startling, pithy, dramatic, that they say better than the writer could herself.

The only place I’ve seen this point made was in a comment by Brian O’Connor on yet another CJR post on Romeneskogate. O’Connor (obviously typing very fast or on a smartphone) wrote:

And for what it’s worth, attribution takes many forms. “This is stupid,” says Brian O’Connor isn’t any purer than, Brian O’Connor says this is stupid.

(He also wrote this, which made me laugh:

Plus, you know, all those years ago when I was an arts editor? I hardly ever attributed the calendar listings to the sponsoring organizations. And yet, somehow, the readers know that the move [sic] theater had provided the movie times, not my own pain-staking investigative research. I now see I should have written: “The Muppet Movie begins at 9:15 p.m., according to Nancy Merriweather, 19, assistant general manager of Deefield [sic] 12 Cineplex, Deerfield Beach.” Alas, I clearly claimed another’s work as my own. Thank you for enlightening me, Julie Moos and CJR.)

(N.B.: Full disclosure, given the issues here: I found the “Punctuation saves lives” drawing, above, on Facebook. It had been posted by Gary John Nettles, who identifies himself as a columnist at Flagpole Magazine, an alternative newsweekly in Athens, Ga. I don’t know Nettles. I’ve emailed him to find out whether he drew it or whether he knows who did. Will update when/if I hear back from him.)

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    • Estelle
    • November 13th, 2011

    Thanks for doing such a thorough roundup, Barbara. We teach journalism students a simple and sound rule: If you’re quoting the words that came out of someone’s mouth throw quote marks around them. The sample of Romanesko’s reporting in Julie Moos’ article on the Poynter website shows that he does attribute the remarks to the Chicago Tribune. But he quotes the paper verbatim and doesn’t use quote marks, which makes it seem like he might be paraphrasing. That’s a basic no-no.

    • Carol
    • November 13th, 2011

    Nice piece, Barbara. I think a lot of people’s overriding reaction, as you point out, is the feeling that this was a sad way for Jim Romenesko to leave Poynter. He spent many years putting together the news of our business, in good faith, and needs to know he was appreciated. I, like you, try to be a journalism stickler, but, well ….. you know. Again, thanks.

  1. Great piece!
    Although the rules are very clear regarding punctuation, attribution and accuracy, I believe the Romenesko criticism is a little bit extreme. He has been a pioneer in his own field, writing succintly and to the point, but he has never plagiarized anything. Also, the links to the full articles were almost always there….
    Thanks Barbara for such an amazing analysis!

    • Rachel
    • November 15th, 2011

    While I do think Romenesko should have used the quotes, I think it was what he needed to finally get the heck out of Poynter, as he has been trying to do for some time. It is a sad way to end such a career there but I don’t think this fiasco will ruin his readership — he’ll have plenty, if not more, readers for his future endeavors. I’ll miss seeing his columns in my inbox and while, like I said, I think he should have attributed properly, I’d still read him if he stayed at Poynter.

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