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The Romenesko effect
How a media Web site is changing the face — and pace — of media culture

Public life has sped up dramatically over the past 10 years or so. Politicians, Hollywood, corporate chieftains, and other newsmakers all have had to learn how to respond to news instantly — as it’s being made. Call it "The CNN Effect," a phrase that entered news jargon in the 1990s when the phenomenon jelled, thanks to the instant flood of real-time images of suffering and conflict transmitted from hot spots like Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia. Cable television — fortified by talk radio — shattered older, more-leisurely news cycles and replaced them with a new form of instant reality that was more treacherous for the players and more emotionally charged for audiences and readers.

Now, a decade later, comes what we’ll call "The Romenesko Effect" — named after Jim Romenesko, who started a media Web site six years ago — which is transforming the news industry in a similar fashion. Using the new technology of the Internet to infuse newsroom scandals, gossip, and griping with tradition-soaked debates about journalistic ethics and practices, Romenesko and other online practitioners have democratized the closed and often-secretive news culture and put pressure on media executives to act more quickly under far greater scrutiny. The result: a heightened perception of public accountability.

In the old days, media controversies might merit mention in places like Newsweek or the Columbia Journalism Review and would stay entombed inside the journalism world. Now, they instantly erupt into national scandals that bounce around the media echo chamber and often penetrate the broader public consciousness. Sometimes, they even end up on the pages of the media outlets where the problem originated.

A number of online sites now serve as clearing houses for journalism-related news and analysis. They include the Daily Briefing by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a media-research center and think tank; Mediabistro.com, an organization that began as a gathering spot for media types and produces a Morning Newsfeed and a half-dozen blogs; I Want Media, which often focuses on the business of news and posts stories throughout the day; and CJRDaily, a site that grew out of Columbia Journalism Review’s efforts to monitor election coverage and is devoted to media criticism and analysis.

The expanding blogosphere — where media scrutiny tends to be more ideologically driven — is also becoming a force. Among other things, bloggers played a role in discrediting a 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast that questioned George W. Bush’s military record. They also helped publicize remarks made by CNN executive Eason Jordan about the US military targeting journalists in Iraq, which led to his resignation.

But the master of the genre is Romenesko’s home on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based center for journalism instruction. A former Milwaukee Journal police reporter, Romenesko collects reporting, gossip, commentary, letters, and memos from and about the journalism profession. By establishing a kind of town square where an event in one newsroom can be instantly relayed to a wide audience and then trigger a noisy clash over values and standards, Romenesko wields significant influence on media culture.

Take the case of ex–Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede.

On July 27, DeFede was fired by the paper after he secretly taped a phone call with a public official under indictment right before that official killed himself.

News of DeFede’s firing triggered an intense reaction that made its way to Romenesko, with DeFede and his supporters claiming his punishment was unduly harsh. Explanations from the Herald executives, a petition backing DeFede, and DeFede’s call for an outside negotiator to resolve his status were all quickly posted. A professional arbitrator even wrote to Romenesko, saying the negotiator option was unrealistic. Everyone and his uncle had an opinion.

Finally, after Romenesko linked to a story from the weekly newspaper New Times airing the theory that Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder had ordered the DeFede firing, Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler fired back with a memo taking responsibility for the termination. The memo was posted on Romenesko, of course.

"Typically, I wouldn’t have responded to an article in the New Times," Fiedler says. "Since it appeared in Romenesko ... I felt it was important to respond."

Asked how he feels about having a personnel decision become a national controversy, Fiedler says, "I would not in any way advocate a cone of silence descending over me when I have to make these kinds of decisions." But he acknowledges that Romenesko "does become a factor in decision-making and the execution of a decision."

For his part, DeFede says the online debate "in some ways ... helped me.... But it wasn’t something I necessarily had control over. The power of Romenesko is, it’s completely unbridled. There is no controlling it."

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Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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