“How did this go off the rails?” Poynter’s attorney asked me during a Nov. 12 phone conversation about my threat to file a cease and desist order against the institute for using my name on their website after being taken off the payroll.
That’s a long story, but let’s start on July 6, with this email from Director of Poynter Online Julie Moos:
Hi Jim, I’m thinking about your vacation next week and wondering if it might make sense for you to write a short post explaining not only that you’ll be away, but about some of the changes we’ve made to the blog in the last few months.
It can be as simple as referencing that you’ve included a few select contributors to bring in some other sources and topics, and that they’ll be filling in the next week. And you can also note — as you did to Joe Pompeo — the interest in more original reporting to take the blog beyond aggregating.
I could write the post but I think it’ll mean more to readers coming from you. …
That email pressured me to disclose something I intended to keep to myself for a few more months.
My response to Julie:
I’m somewhat reluctant to address the changes on the site because, frankly, I’m uncertain what my future is beyond this contract period. I’ve been thinking a lot about this for the last several months; I’ve talked with friends and family about it, and planned to start talking to you about it after Labor Day. (I want the summer to think more about it.)
I certainly don’t mind if you write about the site changes — I prefer to say nothing at this point — but I also want you to know some of my thinking before we say too much to readers.
She came back with this:
I really appreciate your honesty. I’ll give you a call later this afternoon so I can hear more about your thinking at this stage, knowing it could continue to evolve.
And I will be equally honest: I’m quite certain of your future at Poynter beyond this contract, and in discussions with [Times Publishing Co. CEO] Paul [Tash] and [Poynter president] Karen [Dunlap] about it, I know they share my view. Whatever form that future takes, have no doubt about our commitment to you.
The changes she refers to were launched on April 18, the first day of my earlier vacation. The Poynter colleagues who filled in for me started writing longer posts. It was all about bringing more traffic to Poynter’s site. I had been writing very short summaries (usually 3 or 4 sentences) and then tweeting the links to the sources of the stories (New York Times, AdAge.com, etc.) rather than back to Poynter. Julie wanted our thousands of Twitter followers to stop by Poynter’s site, then decide whether to check out the original story. Some readers knew what was going on: I recall a tweet from last summer that said “Poynter has become the Huffington Post of journalism.” (This post from The Awl shows how the Romenesko+ summaries changed after April 18 of this year.)
My contract was to expire Dec. 31, 2011. I started the year thinking I would renew and try to work until age 62. (I turned 58 in September.) But by spring I felt like I needed a change. At Milwaukee Magazine, I got the urge to try something new after 12 years, and eventually left to write for a new weekly TECH section at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
I got that 12 year itch again at Poynter.
I thought my departure would be good for the institute, too. It needed someone younger — and with fresh ideas — to be its primary blogger. I was told that traffic to my page had dropped about 30% in 18 months. It was easy to explain why: I was one of the few journalism town criers on the Internet a decade ago; now every news junkie with a Facebook page and Twitter feed is shouting out stories about the news business. Lots of readers thought I wasn’t needed anymore. Also, many complained that my page had become too depressing with all the stories about layoffs and the decline of newspapers. (But then if I failed to post some story about another round of layoffs or buyouts, I’d hear from readers who accused me of falling down on the job. I couldn’t win.)
Julie asked Jim Brady early in the year to study my site and make some recommendations on how to boost traffic. (He was doing some consulting after leaving TBD.com.) Brady delivered a detailed report advising that we add more voices to my page and post about a wider range of topics and news sources. They were good suggestions that we were already implementing and, according to Julie, helping to reverse the traffic decline. (I’m sorry I can’t quote from Brady’s report; it was on a MacBook that fried about six weeks ago.)
My discussions with Julie continued after our July 6 email exchange. I knew she was frustrated, trying hard to figure out exactly what I wanted and how she could keep me at Poynter, which sold ad space and attracted traffic (although declining) with my name. Meanwhile, I was asking myself: Do I really want to give up a job that paid six figures, let me work in coffee houses around the country, and put $100 on my Starbucks card every month?
The answer, I decided, was yes.
On July 28, Julie flew to Evanston and met me at the downtown Barnes & Noble Starbucks. A few days earlier, she had emailed some proposals — including ad-revenue sharing — aimed at keeping me with Poynter. By that time, though, I already had a Realtor tour my condo and prepare to put it up for sale. (It’s more space than I need.) I had also lined up health insurance, which was my biggest challenge. I’m a Type 2 diabetic and most insurance companies said they wouldn’t touch me. Aetna, though, gave a quote that fit my budget.
I had warned her before our Starbucks get-together that I might give her that news, so she wasn’t shocked to hear it.
We could still work together, she said. (Weeks earlier she had told me that doing a media blog on my own while working at Poynter would be a conflict.) She suggested I cross-post items to Poynter and continue to tweet to @Poynter and @Romenesko as a part-time employee.
I signed a one-year contract that was to start Jan. 1, 2012, and let the Realtor know that I was staying in my condo for now.
A few weeks after I signed, Julie mentioned in a phone conversation that she expected me to post first to Poynter, and then to my own site. I was writing primarily for Poynter, she said. But that wasn’t what I signed up for. I agreed to a six-figure pay cut because my No. 1 job in my “semi-retirement” — Julie came up with that term — would be running JimRomenesko.com and, with that, more or less competing against my own employer for traffic and advertising. (My contract for 2012 did not mention advertising restrictions.)
It was an odd arrangement, I know, and I had a feeling there would be problems in 2012. I was already smelling bait and switch.
I talked with Julie on Tuesday, Nov. 8, about a few matters. She told me she was thinking about using the Romenesko name on Poynter’s site through January, or “possibly the first quarter” of 2012.
I reminded her that my new contract states that Poynter will stop using my name on December 31, 2011.
“I haven’t read the contract lately,” she said.
“I have,” I replied.
In that same phone call, she told me she had recently noticed that I added an ad salesman’s name and email to my JimRomenesko.com Coming Soon page. That indicated, she said, that I would be running a commercial business that would be competing against Poynter for advertising dollars. She reminded me that Poynter really needed ad revenue because it no longer received dividends from the struggling St. Petersburg Times. I told her that BlogAds was handling my ad sales, and that I had used them for my Starbucks Gossip and Obscure Store websites — “and those are hardly commercial businesses,” I pointed out.
The next day she called again — this time about the upcoming CJR story and the questions that CJR’s writer raised about my posts. I told Julie that I’d used the same story summary format for the past 12 years, always credited the source, and sometimes didn’t use quote marks in my story summaries because they weren’t direct quotes. Not once in 12 years did anyone complain that I was plagiarizing or over-aggregating, I said. Julie said she was going to discuss this matter with Poynter president Karen Dunlap in the morning and that I shouldn’t post to Romenesko+ until a decision was reached.
After getting off the phone with Julie, I called a longtime friend from Milwaukee who’d been pushed out of his photo-studio manager job a few years earlier. (Tom, who just turned 57, is still looking for work.)
“I think Poynter’s going to fire me,” I said, “and try to ruin my reputation so none of their advertisers will go with me on the new site.”
“You’d better make it clear to them that if your name is anywhere near the word plagiarism that you’re going to sue their asses!” Tom said.
After our brief conversation, I plopped down on my couch and thought, “God, what a surreal ending to my career!”
The phone rang at about 8:20 the next morning; it was Julie.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I just got up.”
“Isn’t this late for you?” she asked, knowing I’m an early-riser.
“You know, Julie, I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
(I recently bought the Jawbone UP wrist band, a brand-new device that counts your steps and monitors your sleep patterns. I checked the band — you plug it into an iPhone app to get the data — and discovered that I had 3 hours and 6 minutes of deep sleep the night before. I was surprised it was that much.)
I told Julie that I wanted to get out of my contract seven weeks early. (I had six working weeks and one vacation week left; why deal with this bullshit during the remaining time?) She said she expected to hear that from me, but she wasn’t going to accept my resignation. If I quit now, she said, “this will be your legacy.” Then she added: “And it wouldn’t be good for Poynter.”
The story about my questionable attribution was posted on Poynter’s site at about 11:30 a.m. my time Thursday. I decided to deal with it by going on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and asking: “Have I ever summarized your posts? Was I fair, or did you feel I stole your words? Please let me know on Facebook.”
The response was overwhelmingly supportive. I sat in a Starbucks near my condo and tried to keep up with the tweets, Facebook posts, emails of support, and bloggers’ critiques of Julie’s post and what I had done. My MacBook was on the cafe table, and my iPad was on a chair next to me — the Twitter app opened so I could monitor the steady stream of mentions.
Mid-afternoon I made another request to be let out of my contract. Julie said she’d release me in the morning if I still felt like resigning.
Jeremy Peters of the New York Times contacted me a short time later and I told him about my second request to resign. He posted a tweet and a story about it, and I let my Twitter followers know the latest: “NYT reports accurately that I asked a 2nd time to be released from contract 7 wks early. I feel it’s time to go.” (Twitter says 75 people retweeted that.)
I was having dinner — a vegetarian sandwich at Cross-Rhodes — with a friend at about 7 that evening when my phone rang. It was Julie. We’re letting you out of your contract, she said. Thank you, I replied, and that was pretty much it.
On Friday, I walked around my South Evanston neighborhood and thought about what had happened and what I would do next. (My Jawbone UP counted 11,851 steps that day; take that, Roger Ebert, and your 10,000 Step a Day Club!)
I called my father in the afternoon to wish him a happy 82nd birthday. I could tell from our chat that he hadn’t heard about Thursday’s events.
“I resigned from Poynter yesterday,” I said.
He waited for me to explain.
I gave him a short version of what happened and suggested he look at my Facebook wall to see what people were saying. I also sent him the stories by David Carr and Paul Farhi for more background. That evening he added his own message to my Facebook wall:
Hi Jim, It looks like your Journalism friends are backing you 100% as are your family members. We’re all very proud of you. Dad
I got up Saturday morning and printed out Poynter’s various you’re-no-longer-employed-by-us documents. I then went to their website and saw that they were still using my name, which didn’t surprise me. But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t there on Monday. I sent an email to the HR director — with copies to Julie and Poynter’s president — thanking her for forwarding the documents. I also told her I didn’t want to be forced by Poynter to file a cease and desist lawsuit. Things had gotten ugly enough, I said.
Poynter’s lawyer called about 15 minutes later. I told her I had already written what I would be tweeting on Monday morning if my name was still on the site: “Dear Poynter: You took me off your payroll on Friday, but you haven’t taken my name off your site. Don’t make me call a lawyer.” (134 characters). She said she’d call back in a few minutes.
Would you license your name? she asked in our second conversation.
Would you be interested in collecting salary and benefits through the rest of the year and, in exchange, let Poynter use your name through 2011?
Within hours, Romenesko+ became MediaWire.
(I want to note that a few days later, I got another call from Poynter’s attorney who said that Karen Dunlap wanted to show her appreciation for my work and pay my salary through the end of the year. I told the lawyer that the skeptical journalist in me wondered: What strings are attached? None, she said. I then accepted Karen’s gracious offer.)
I believe my initial suspicion about Julie’s actions — that she was trying to keep Poynter’s advertisers off my site — was wrong. (By the way, ads will be coming here soon.) However, I suspect she had our Nov. 8 heated discussion in mind when she scolded me over the phone about attribution, then wrote a piece assuring readers that I would be closely monitored in my final weeks at Poynter.
Julie, I think, is the chief of Poynter’s Attribution Police. Read what Poynter faculty member Al Tompkins wrote the day after I resigned:
The same editor who called out Romenesko, Julie Moos, confronted me a couple of years ago with a similar concern that she expressed about Romenesko. Even though, like Jim, I linked to the sources I was writing about, even though in my mind it was clear I was talking about what somebody else wrote, she insisted that I had to put phrases and sentences that I did not originate, in quotes. Not italics, not offsets, but quotes. Even if it was just a short phrase, even if I had clearly linked to the original source, put it in quotes.
It seemed unnecessary to me, but it was what Poynter Online wanted and I have tried very hard to hold to that.
Four days after the press watchdogs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism posted their “Romenesko Saga” story, I received an invitation to return to aggregating — from, of all places, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Here’s a portion of Mark Glassman’s email:
Columbia’s Journalism School is putting together a new website about
business journalism education, and we were wondering if you might be
interested in contributing. …
We think your skills as an aggregator and your critical eye make you
an excellent candidate for this type of piece, and we’d love to get a
dialog going. I realize this must have been a rocky last few days for
you, but if you’re interested, we’d love to discuss the opportunity as
soon as possible, as the site is launching next month.
Thanks, I said, but I’m going to pass.