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The Romenesko effect, continued

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In an e-mail message, Romenesko writes, "Iím happy to post links about journalism issues and invite discussions, but Iím not sure how much clout my site has ... Jim DeFede hasnít been rehired by the Miami Herald and newspaper owners have yet to lower their profit goals. I donít think news bosses go: ĎIíd better do this because thatís the consensus of Romenesko Letters contributors.í"

Romenesko is right to suggest that he is only the gatekeeper. And unlike other, more-freewheeling and unsavory online aggregators such as Matt Drudge, he plays by rules that donít conflict with the professionís standards. But what he does has turned out to be nothing short of revolutionary.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJRDaily, sums up the point in an e-mail: "Romenesko has made all of print journalism, from the East Nowhere Daily Trumpet to the New York Times, a small village."

Journalists know that Romenesko is the best way to bring widespread attention to an issue. (An August 11 letter by Village Voice senior editor Robert Christgau saying he was "outraged, disgusted, and sick at heart" over a management attempt to cut writersí pay made it to the site.) Media reporters ó including this one ó are keenly aware that a story picked up by Romenesko can have national impact. Gone are the days when news executives could simply resolve problems behind closed doors. They assume the details of meetings and memos will be leaked ó and act accordingly. And it doesnít seem too farfetched to suggest that Romenesko-generated buzz has affected some key decisions.

"I donít think that Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd would have lost their jobs" before Romenesko, says Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton, discussing the 2003 resignations of the top two New York Times editors in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Cliftonís view of the Raines matter isnít shared by everyone, but his sense of Romeneskoís impact pretty much is.

Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin dealt with the scandal-scarred 1998 departures of columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith before the Romenesko era. "In a business [that in] so many ways has gotten tougher, itís one more irritant for an editor," he says. "Looking at it from afar now, seeing the number of editors who resign and the number of editors who are in trouble, it does have the feel of an industry turning on itself."

Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz says that "to the extent that Jim Romenesko and others provide a megaphone [for what] were once very local media controversies, I think thatís healthy ... because it boosts the accountability of the business."

In mid August, Romenesko readers began seeing stories and letters arguing that a Washington Post decision to co-sponsor the Pentagonís September 11 "Freedom Walk" represented an unwise conflict of interest. By August 15, there was a clear sense of mounting internal opposition to the march. On that afternoon, Romenesko posted an online chat in which Kurtz expressed his concern, as well as a story reporting that the paperís union leadership was asking management to reconsider.

The very next day, the Post reported that it had pulled out of the event. "Clearly, there was sort of a building drumbeat," says Kurtz.

On July 6, Jeffrey Sykes, editor of the tiny Reidsville (North Carolina) Review, learned that two reporters had fabricated quotes for a man-on-the-street feature. After meeting with them, he says he decided to give them a second chance. Three weeks later, the Greensboro, North Carolina, News & Record wrote a story ó and everything changed.

"The thing just exploded on Romenesko," Sykes recalls. "All that day, people were calling me ... every TV station, radio station in the area, Editor & Publisher, the AP."

"I was just in shock," he adds. "I felt I was going to be terminated, so I resigned." The reporters lost their jobs as well. On July 29, Sykes wrote a letter to Romenesko apologizing and saying that "I understand the factors that caused this story to spread across the globe."

In an interview, Sykes suggests the pressure of widespread attention turned what might have been a forgivable mistake into a bigger offense. Given "the atmosphere of self-immolation the business is in, I felt it was incumbent on me to say something [on Romenesko]," he adds. "A little bit of understanding needed to be brought to the situation."

The Plain Dealerís Clifton was recently ensnared in a controversy that was greatly magnified by that media town square. On June 30, Clifton wrote a column stating that because of the pressure on journalists to reveal their sources, his paper was not running two important stories that came from leaks and could trigger an investigation.

The follow-up commentary and stories on Cliftonís revelation played out on Romenesko. And in an NPR interview, the editor said he had received 200 letters on the subject calling him a "coward."

Clifton says the knowledge that internal matters will find their way online "alters the level of candor within your own newsroom. It amplifies controversies beyond their intrinsic merits, and the thing has a megaphone effect." Still, he concludes that the "light of day is always a better thing in the long run."

The Miami Heraldís Fiedler more or less agrees. Noting that his paper counts on the idea of state government being open and accountable, Fiedler understands why his decisions are subject to the same kind scrutiny in the Romenesko era.

"Iíve got to live by the sword." he says. "And Iíve got to die by the sword."

Read Mark Jurkowitzís daily media log here. Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at mjurkowitz.com.

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Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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