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The most important part of the story

Let’s do away with bylines, says Craig Stoltz, who goes on to explain that he means eliminating the single-author credit at the top of a news article in favor of a listing of all the people involved in the reporting, writing and editing of the article.

Mr. Stoltz has highlighted a point not well understood by many readers, that a newspaper article is a collaboration involving a number of people. The byline indicates the primacy of the reporting and (sometimes) the writing of the article, but many hands may have been involved in the final, published version.

The paper’s institutional responsibility for the published article used to be represented by a lack of bylines. A byline was once something that a reporter earned by an unusual effort. (Watch out, children, he’s back to the Olden Times again.) Exceptions were made for columns and other opinion pieces. Today, of course, a 20-line brief will arrive with a reporter’s name appended to it, and reporters accumulate bylines as avidly as a Cheyenne warrior counting coup.

I wonder sometimes whether readers pay much attention to bylines. Surely teachers know who has the education beat, and lawyers know who is writing about the courts. Fans of sports teams know which reporters are writing about the Ravens and the Orioles, and express strong feelings about them. But I suspect that readers do not generally pay bylines much attention.

Giving the names and e-mail addresses of reporters does allow readers to respond directly, and sources or potential sources are able to identify whom they want to talk to. But this could be dealt with easily with contributor credits at the end of the article. In small type.

Names alone will not be enough to satisfy some readers. Some weeks back a gentleman named Bill Dennis, who calls himself the Peoria Pundit, posted remarks at Poynter.org insisting on being given background information about the authors of news articles:

“A piece journalism cannot be fairly evaluated unless the the person doing the evaluating knows what could be operating behind the scenes to inject bias into the reporting. Yes, I want to know of the guy writing about politics is a former Young Republican and if the woman writing about hazardous waste gave cash to the Sierra Club. …

“Without full disclosure and tranparency, news consumers will just continue to assume to worst. In the absence of accurate information, people will fill in the blanks with assumptions. Let news consumers know who the reporters really are what they really stand for, and their trust in the news will grow, not lessen.”

To which I responded with a snotty note, also published at Poynter.org:

“So we can't understand a newspaper article unless we know the background of the reporter. Well, let's supply that. While we're at it, let's supply the background of the desk editor who assigned the story, and the managing editor who demanded extensive revisions, and the copy editor who reconstructed sentences and wrote the headline. Probably the page designer and photographer should be included as well. By the time we have given the reader a potted biography of every journalist connected with the story, a 300-word recast press release will carry more apparatus than a variorum edition of ‘Macbeth.’”

I confess a nostalgia for the time when articles could be about the subject, not about us.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:00 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

The no-byline approach seems to work just fine for the Economist. I can't access the full article, but here's a quote: "With bylines, you worry more about your own story," says editor Bill Emmott. "With no bylines, you worry more about the whole paper because your reputation depends on the reputation of the whole paper."

I was always happy when someone edited and made my story better, yet the story carried my byline! Of course, there were the times a story, as well as my reputation, fell victim to bad editing. C'est la guerre.

Maybe a bibliography-type page is a worthy idea. One page of credits to which all the articles link by way of endnote or something.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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