Forgive Me Once

Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”

Jim Romenesko
Jim Romenesko

Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect,” in tribute to Jim Romenesko’s compulsively read media-news site at Poynter.org.

The latest example is a reporter for Connecticut’s Middletown Press named Walt Gogolya, who left the paper after he was caught ripping off large sections of a story from the local Patch.com site. (I wouldn’t name Gogolya except that Romenesko writer Charles Apple — Romenesko himself is heading toward retirement — already has.)

The article falls into the news-of-the-weird category, as it involves the arrest of a man for field-dressing a deer in a parking lot. Those details may have made it harder for Gogolya to get away with his thievery. Worse for him is that the Press is owned by the Journal Register Co., which, under CEO John Paton and Connecticut regional editor Matt DeRienzo, has embarked on a public campaign of maximum transparency. Gogolya was not quietly asked to leave — he was thoroughly exposed in this editor’s note from DeRienzo. From there it was but a short hop to Romenesko and industry-wide humiliation.

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this. I think DeRienzo deserves credit for being open with his readers about what happened and how the company responded. I also did some poking around the tubes and discovered that Gogolya is not some kid fresh out of J-school. Nor do I have a problem with Romenesko airing such matters — quite the opposite, in fact. Yet these good decisions, defensible in themselves, may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense. Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like. Those are not easy jobs. But guess what? There’s no going back.

Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.

I think it also means that those of us who teach journalism need to be as diligent about these matters as we possibly can. Far better to suffer an “F” and a trip to the student disciplinary board at 20 than to have your career ended just as you’re getting started.

Editor’s Note: This story originally published Friday, November 4, 2011 at Media Nation.

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Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy

I am an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, specializing in new-media trends. I write a weekly online column for The Guardian’s Comment is Free America section, and was a finalist for a Syracuse University Mirror Award in media commentary in both 2008 and 2009.

In addition, I am a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix, for whom I worked as the media columnist from 1994 through 2005. While at the Phoenix, I won the National Press Club’s 2001 Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ 1999 award for media reporting. I’m also a regular commentator on media issues on “Beat the Press,” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

My weblog, Media Nation, is featured on Jim Romenesko’s media-news site at Poynter.org and on the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Daily Briefing page.

On the summit of Mt. Hancock.

On the summit of Mt. Hancock (south)

My book on the culture of dwarfism, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes,” originally published by Rodale in 2003, is now available in a free online edition issued under a Creative Commons license, as well as a high-quality, print-on-demand paperback edition. “Little People” was praised by the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, and Publishers Weekly, and was featured by NPR, Salon, and Child Magazine.

From 1979 through 1989 I worked as a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Mass., where I covered the trial at the center of Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action.” My account of the case and its aftermath is online here.

On July 21, 2007, my son, Tim, and I hiked to the northern and southern summits of Mt. Hancock, my 47th and 48th (and final) 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire, finishing a quest I had begun in 1968.

I am currently writing a book on the New Haven Independent and the rise of hyperlocal community news sites, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2012.