The Poynter conundrum

As hierarchical institutions begin to lose their grip on our culture, a great many things we used to take for granted are now up in the air. This is a permanent fruit of what Jay Rosen calls “the Great Horizontal,” and we really have no idea where it’s taking us. Our culture is based upon hierarchical layers of “expertise,” some of it licensed by the state. This produces order, which Henry Adams called “the dream of man.”

It also produces elites, the governing class, those who call the shots for others not so fortunate as to occupy the higher altitudes. This is the 1% against which the occupiers bring their protests, their dis-order.

We used to think that elites and hierarchical order were necessary for the well-being of all, but that idea is being challenged as knowledge — the protected source of power (and elevation) — is being spread sideways along the Great Horizontal. It’s not that we’re so much smarter than we used to be; it’s that the experts don’t seem so “expert” anymore, because the knowledge that gave them their status isn’t protected today. Anybody can access it with the touch of a finger.

This is giving institutions fits, and each one is fighting for its very life against the inevitable flattening that’s taking place. Medicine wants no part of smart and informed patients and neither does the insurance industry. The legal world scoffs at the notion that they’re in it for themselves as they occupy legislatures and create the laws that work on their behalf. Higher education increasingly touts the campus experience over what’s being learned, because they all know that the Web has unlimited teaching capacity. Government needs its silos to sustain its bureaucracy, but the Great Horizontal cuts across them all.

And then there’s the media, which brings me to The Poynter Institute.

Exercising its position as the arbiter of institutional journalistic ethics, Poynter publicly chided one of its most valuable treasures, Jim Romenesko, over what it called “incomplete attribution” of some of his source material. That’s their way of saying he failed to put quotes around some pieces of copy that were lifted from the articles for which he was providing links. That’s what Romenesko has done for Poynter since 1999 — provide links to content about journalism that he felt was worth reading. He’s held in high esteem by most within the profession, and has received nearly unanimous support over the suggestion — not an actual accusation — that he was practicing plagiarism. Romenesko didn’t just drive traffic to websites; he had his eye on the cutting edge of the institutional changes hammering journalism. His RSS feed has been in my reader since he first provided one. Before that, it was a newsletter.

Romenesko was going to retire at the end of the year, but after the public hand slap from his employer, he resigned this week. He said his heart was “no longer in the job.” I don’t blame him a bit.

Plagiarism, to be sure, is a serious ethical issue for journalism. By failing to provide quotation marks, wrote Poynter editor Julie Moos, those sections “may appear to belong to Jim when they in fact belong to another.”

“We are in uncharted territory, marked by uncertainty, which suggests caution. We will continue to evaluate this situation and to be as transparent as possible about what we learn and decide.”

Integrity isn’t determined by pedantic adherence to a set of rules. That’s the bedrock of hierarchical order, where he who is in charge makes the rules. Integrity is a complex (honesty, truthfulness, accuracy) but simple internal character attribute, the virtue of which lies in its consistency. The problem comes in judging it entirely on external appearances, for it’s the full weight of a person’s heart that determines integrity. From my limited view, Jim Romenesko hasn’t a dishonest bone in his body and is respected for his integrity, so this harsh and public suggestion is based on the “appearance” of hypocrisy. As it turns out, Poynter says they were reacting to an inquiry by a reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review, so they acted to spank Romenesko publicly ahead of what they expected would be a “look what I found” piece from the CJR. If that’s indeed the case, it’s especially pathetic.

But Jim Romenesko isn’t Poynter’s problem. The organization’s real conundrum is that it has no choice but to defend the indefensible, journalistic poppycock disguised as the self-governance of an institution in disruption. As a non-profit organization, Poynter must raise funds from a variety of people and organizations, and those who feel under attack are more likely to give a buck than those who aren’t. It’s why every 501.c.3 has an “enemy” that they must overcome and why they deal with crises four times a year.

Here’s a line from the fundraising section of the Poynter site:

Your support of Poynter makes clear your belief that the work of our democracy is too complex and too important for us to be informed by anything less than the very best journalism we can get.

I don’t question the sincerity of those who believe this, but it’s extremely narrow and represents only those who benefit from what it preaches — a group of “qualified” elites who, by virtue of their supreme knowledge, training and skill, are able to figure things out for us poor, stupid morons from main street. It rings hollow, because the people it’s supposed to serve stopped trusting in it in the mid 70s, and now many more people distrust the press than have any faith in it at all. It’s the stuff of the 1%, which the whole occupy movement is resisting, a hegemony that greases the wheels of those who manipulate it so that it can remain atop its self-created pedestal.

This doesn’t do the institution of journalism a lick of good, but it’s wonderful fundraising fodder. One of the complaints that the pros have about so-called “amateur” journalism is its sloppiness when it comes to the sacred canons, so Poynter is in the inevitable position — as defenders of the canons — to ALWAYS act on their behalf and avoid even the appearance of a violation. It finds itself between a rock and a hard place here, unable to bring the enemy of common sense into any argument.

If Poynter was really concerned about the future of journalism, it would take the lead in its reinvention. That is impossible, however, if your core funding mission is the protection of the crumbling status quo.

Most of the stuff I’ve read from Poynter has come through Jim Romenesko. Now that he’s gone, I’ve deleted the RSS feed to make room for the one from

I can’t imagine I’m alone.


  1. “.…democracy is too complex and too important for us to be informed by anything less than the very best journalism we can get.”

    Wow. Didn’t realize that I was too dumb and ignorant to understand democracy and other complex issues without the benefit of the “very best” journalists explaining things to me.


  2. Gabby Johnson says

    The fact that Poynter employs an editor who earned her chops in TV to give Romenesko lessons in attribution is disturbing.
    It reminds me of the many times — at many papers where I’ve worked — I proposed printing an issue of fake news at the end of the press run and delivering copies to the local TV stations. Then wait and see what’s on the next day’s TV newscasts.
    The vast majority of local (plus cable and network) TV newsrooms would be left clueless without a newspaper to crib from. And maybe the general decline in U.S. journalism in general is due to the fact those original reporters are disappearing fast.
    Fact-finding is being replaced by the press release and Twitterers who comment on it.

  3. Jill Geisler says

    Hi Terry:
    — from an old friend with what I hope is new and helpful information for you.

    I’m not referring to the Romenesko controversy. For that I can link you to the perspective of lots of us at Poynter, published on Friday:

    Instead, I want to push back on your premise about Poynter, what it is and does. I know you welcome good conversation. So here goes:

    As I read through your post, I found articulate opinion but I couldn’t discern deep reporting. I didn’t get an indication that before writing, you asked questions of others close to the heart of your topic, nor even on the periphery. That’s not a requirement for opinion writers, but it can certainly enrich a disquisition. It can move it forward with new information and challenge the writer’s mental models. In this case, I refer to your assumptions about the Poynter Institute and its work.

    I note that you went to the fundraising page of, but I can’t tell from your post whether you visited another part of the site — the pages that list Poynter’s programs or the pages that feature the sizeable course list on NewsU, Poynter’s online training site which just this month enrolled its 200,000th user.

    Today, Poynter serves far more than traditional journalism organizations, or, in your description: “‘qualified” elites who, by virtue of their supreme knowledge, training and skill, are able to figure things out for us poor, stupid morons from main street.”

    A look at the course list on the NewsU site, many of which are free, might surprise you, because the offerings probably won’t conform to your mental model of Poynter, Poynter welcomes professionals, amateurs, students, entrepreneurs — people who want to improve their craft skills, invent things and even profit from them. It’s been that way for some time. We’ve been fortunate to get grants that help us open some of those programs, especially for entrepreneurs, to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay their own way in.

    Your post offers a big clue as to how you’ve maintained a somewhat dated understanding of Poynter. You wrote: “Most of the stuff I’ve read from Poynter has come through Jim Romenesko.”

    Jim has done an excellent job over the years of aggregating stories about the traditional journalism industry. That’s the topic he loved and chose to highlight. But as he’s been doing that, others writing for and others developing and presenting Poynter curriculum have expanded far beyond that.

    That’s the fascinating part to me. You know this quote of yours? “If Poynter was really concerned about the future of journalism, it would take the lead in its reinvention.” It mirrors what Poynter has been trying to do by expanding its coverage on our site to technology, social media, journalism experiments and entrepreneurship, along with our traditional media coverage.

    It’s the impetus behind NewsU courses and webinars and new Poynter programs in St. Pete and in the field. It’s why we just hosted and webcast (free) a TedEx conference on the future of journalism that featured this lineup — hardly your “blast from the past” types:

    Peter Kageyama, Community & Economic Development Consultant; Producer, Creative Cities Summit
    Tisse Mallon, Life Coach, Inspirational Speaker, Arts Advocate
    Graham Sharp, CEO,
    Robin Sloan, Media Partnerships Manager, Twitter
    Dave Stanton, Managing Developer, Smart Media Creative
    Jesse Thorn, Creator, The Sound of Young America

    Terry, we have been striving to help anyone with an interest in journalism have access to news about its evolution, a voice in that conversation — and more. We provide training in both new technology and techniques as well as core skills, so they can shape its future. We teach and learn from each other — not exactly an “élite” concept but something that’s in the DNA at Poynter, as folks who have been here might tell you.

    And we’ve been doing this in the toughest of economic times for the traditional practitioners and the people who are trying to turn great dreams into sustainable ventures.

    Here’s the coolest part of what we’ve learned from our work in these times: Whether they’re from media companies, citizen startups, or they’re folks who just want to learn better writing, photography, or even leadership, these words (yes, from our fundraising page) have relevance to them all.

    “… the work of our democracy is too complex and too important for us to be informed by anything less than the very best journalism we can get.”

    I wish you the best,Terry. Have a good Thanksgiving,

    Jill Geisler
    Poynter Institute Faculty

  4. my buddy (david lichtenstein of shot a pretty crappy :40 video the other day featuring maybe the only eyewitness to that helicopter crash on the rural hawaiian island of molokai, is it “anything less than the very best journalism we can get”???

    my guess is YES as (i’m told) cnn and abc both bought and ran it.

    i happened to see it on global toronto’s 11p news last night and nearly choked on a piece of pizza i was enjoying at the time knowing its humble origins.

    if poynter wants to send him some the “very best equipment they can get”, i’m pretty sure he’ll put it to good use next time.

  5. Jill Geisler says

    Hi Steve:

    Why would you think this situation wouldn’t stand up to the question? Could the photography have been better? You seem to think so. But why should that automatically devalue it as journalism? Sounds like your friend was able to bring people an important story.

    That’s what makes journalism so exciting today. Every person with a video-enabled cell phone can capture an important story — and publish or broadcast it. Quality journalism isn’t restricted to people with expensive gear.

    So, please don’t choke. What kind of pizza, by the way?

  6. Jill,
    Journalism does not need Poynter and does not need you. Both are now officially vestigial and irrelevant.

    Get a real job.

  7. Bradley J. Fikes says

    Nothing Jill Geisler said obscures Poynter’s fault in sliming Jim Romenesko for a nonexistent victimless crime. Poynter now has *zero* authority in journalism for me and I suspect man other journalists.

  8. Jill,

    It’s interesting that as a long-time reporter and editor, I have many friends who are passionate about Jim Romenesko’s work and few who have such feelings about Poynter. The way that Poynter handled this situation was abysmal and made many of us angry. Rather than continuing to tout all the other things that Poynter has to offer, you need to suck it up and apologize for the mistreatment of the part of Poynter about which we cared most. Otherwise, you are just making it worse with these various defenses.


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