The Legacy of Jim Romenesko, Media Pioneer

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The early champion of aggregation, who showed the Internet how to create web-based communities, retires

The announcement of Jim Romenesko's "semi-retirement" at the age of 57 barely registered on the general public, compared, say, to the resignation of Steve Jobs. But in his own way, Romenesko was--actually, still is--a major figure in the media universe. For twelve years, from his base in Evanston, Illinois, Romenesko has been the leading aggregator of news about the news business, and everyone I know in journalism checked in with Romenesko at least once a day. Romenesko will continue his association with the Poynter Institute, the St. Petersburg, Florida nonprofit center for journalism education and standards. But he will not get up before dawn to surf the media world for items ranging from major appointments and layoffs to revelations (plagiarism, for example) and relatively obscure dust-ups at college papers. Romenesko says he plans a blog called Jim Romenesko.com with a broader range of subjects and will continue to contribute from time-to-time to his news site maintained by Poynter staff, hopefully with the diligence, clarity, and objectivity (egad, that sounds quaint) that Romenesko has demonstrated all these years.

So, beyond his role as a pioneer aggregator--a legitimate distinction--why does Romenesko matter? The answer is at least two-fold. From its launch in 1999 as Mediagossip.com, Romenesko showed how the Internet creates communities. As a regular reader (and as someone occasionally referenced for what I had written or said elsewhere), Romenesko had remarkable breadth and impact on the disparate realm of journalism and its avid followers. Nothing I can think of made practitioners and observers of journalism feel more closely in touch than Romenesko has done. Over the years, there have been a number of other aggregators -- Mediabistro, Mediagazer, Editor and Publisher, and, of course, CJR.org. But what makes Romenesko distinctive was its tone of authority, fairness, and judgment--all with a minimum of Romenesko's own commentary. I have no idea how he chose what items to use or link to, but invariably he covered information that his readers wanted and often needed to know. Somehow he channeled the proverbial water cooler sensibility, which is what makes sites so popular with niche groups.

Newsletters on all kinds of subjects and, more specifically, gossipy columns in places like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have covered industries for as far back as anyone can remember. But the steady flow of same-day news items is a particular innovation of the Internet, available and accessible to vast audiences through search engines and links.

There is no need here to rehash the value and flaws of The Drudge Report or The Huffington Post. They certainly have audiences in the millions. Romenesko's strength has been that, among its community, it has been universally regarded as a resource for finding material of interest that would otherwise have small readership--for example, the column I began writing in January 2006 for The Century Foundation. I had no contact with Romenesko before he began picking up my pieces and was amazed and flattered that he somehow had found them, significantly expanding the reach beyond the journalists on the listserv we had created and those who followed the Century Foundation's own website. As a regular correspondent now for Atlantic.com, the range of potential readers is far greater, but herewith many thanks to Romenesko for providing the liftoff.

The second major role of Romenesko has been as chronicler of the tumultuous period the media is currently undergoing. His accumulation of daily information and items provided the best way to get the bigger picture. In a single place, he assembled all the statistics that, in recent years, tended to be grim as news organizations underwent financial pressures and contractions. Lately, the site has been valuable as new enterprises were announced and gained traction (or didn't). Overall, Romenesko provided perspective on the transformation of the media, a meaningful asset for the community most affected by the changes.

Aggregation has gained a negative connotation, a sense that it represents the lifting of other peoples' work and selling ads around them. But Romenesko has had a different feel. As I noted earlier, much of the material came from sources that would otherwise have less visibility. And increasingly, the site carried memoranda and internal communications that broke through the barriers of corporate obfuscation so that readers could have the benefit of transparency in how they viewed major changes in staffing or structure.

Media criticism -- for example, the writing of Jack Shafer at Slate, until he was laid off last week -- like other forms of criticism such as theater, films, art, and architecture, is a measure of judgment and expertise (Shafer was immediately hired by Reuters to write about media and politics). Romenesko has been less a critic than convener, a place where those of us with common interests can learn what is happening elsewhere in our universe. In the digital era, no one has done this better for the media than Romenesko. I can understand why he feels he's been doing this function long enough and wants to try something else, but his unique skill and impact will be missed.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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