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Nobody cares you're an editor

One of the illuminations that Hugo Lindgren has brought to the redesigned New York Times Magazine, in addition to a cover logo that “has shifted to the left and grown 20 percent in size,” is the practice of crediting editors of the articles.

This strikes me, an editor, as a Bad Idea, but I’ll give it a little thought beyond the first reaction.

All right, we’ll credit the originating editor, who worked closely with the writer on the article. That makes sense. Of course, the executive editor, who saw and did not like an early draft and demanded a completely different approach, ought to be mentioned. Oh, and the copy editor, who meticulously went through the text and regularized the punctuation and corrected the spelling, and made the subjects agree with the verbs and attended to the other little chores that the originating editor was too busy to dirty his hands with—shouldn’t a little credit be distributed there? Then there’s the slot editor who pointed out that the chronology was out of order. And the proofreader, who noticed that the article MISSPELLED THE SUBJECT’S NAME THROUGHOUT.

At a newspaper, even a minor article can pass through several hands before publication, and a major article will have many fingerprints on it. Apportioning editorial credit is at best a misleading indication of how this collective effort is conducted.

But that is not the most substantial objection to credits for editors. The major one is this: Readers don’t care who the editor was.

For that matter, readers often don’t care who the author was, because readers are not mesmerized by the cult of the byline.

Oh, readers remember the names of a few writers, some favorites they have grown used to, or the ones who write in the subjects they follow closely. But in the main, readers tend not to notice who wrote most of the articles in the publication. It is only the pitiable vanity of newspaper reporters that makes a byline strike possible—the misguided belief that withholding their names from their articles is injurious to the publication and gives them leverage in a dispute.

What such credits do accomplish is mainly to add to clutter in the text.*

What I write here on the blog bears my name, and I take responsibility for it. What I edit for The Sun is part of the collective institutional utterance of the publication. I do not need to carve my initials in it.

 

*One recent Sun article carried, in addition to the byline, a shirttail at the end with the names of half a dozen members of the staff who had contributed to the coverage. I’m pretty sure that in cutting the thirty lines required to make the article fit the space, I preserved the names of the contributors while excising their contributions.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:33 PM | | Comments (14)
        

Comments

They do these things much better in Hollywoodland, as you know if you've ever watched a movie until the lights come up in the theater again.

Perhaps the last page of (non-tabloid) papers should be dedicated to a complete list of Contributors To This Issue.

Nice piece!

It's hilarious that you kept the reporters' names at the bottom of a story while deleting some of their contributions. I'm reminded of the admonition to love the sinner but hate the sin.

Whether editors should remain anonymous depends on the industry they work in.

In medical publishing, I definitely want a credit line when I've done a substantive edit of a journal article written by a researcher who is a non-native speaker of English. I've pretty much rewritten the article, and it’s important for the sake of full disclosure that readers be made aware that great researchers are not necessarily great writers.

In book publishing, when I've toiled on a manuscript that is more than, say, 500 pages long, I'm thrilled when the author credits me in the acknowledgments of the published book, because I've helped wrestle the author's prose into consistency, weeded out repetition, ensured that the correct references are cited in the right place, sometimes pointed out instances of plagiarism or copyright infringement that the author had to fix, ensured that biased language wasn't left in place, and cheered the author on when she or he produced some spectacular passages.

For that matter, readers often don’t care who the author was...

Actually, I'd think that most readers will care who wrote the article even regular reporting deserves that. I know that I look for names.

And when the authors name is given? please make it at the outset of the piece. Immediately below the topic as in "by John Doe" would be just wonderful and especially so on opinion pieces.

What's the purpose of including a credit?
Glory? Credibility? Accountability?
Keep it tight, get it right. Put the reader first.

Wayne C.: The most important reason for getting credit is peer repute. There is nothing like the feeling of knowing that your peers in the craft respect your work, and they can't respect it if they don't know what it is.

John:
I couldn't agree with you more. In the several decades I worked as an editor I never received credit or thanks. I got a paycheck. When I was a reporter I consistently received bylines on page one stories, and except for the politicians who tried to curry favor, no one noticed. Now that I am retired, I occasionally force myself to read a byline. However, to your point; there is a trend to credit the worker bees. Time Magazine, in particular, gives reportorial credit at the bottom of many stories.

To add to what John Cowan posted on March 5 at 11:10 p.m.: Credits help freelance editors like me get more work.

Researchers who are non-native speakers of English and who aspire to get their research reports published in English-language medical journals see my name in the acknowledgments and then do an Internet search to find me so that they can hire me to edit their manuscripts. And book authors read other the acknowledgment sections in other authors' books, see my name, and look me up when they need editorial help.

However, I have been known to request that my name not appear in the acknowledgments when I know that the author has not followed much of my editorial advice and has ensured that the journal article or book will be less than stellar. I don't want that kind of blot on my editorial reputation.

To my chagrin, in my previous comment I fell victim to Muphry's law: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=386

News? I don't much care - though in some pubs it might be nice to know who to avoid more than who to look for.

But when awards are being handed out for reporting, I do think that someone who has massive input from others needs to credit them.


John Cowan,

In a similar vein, I recall in the late seventies our Canadian version of TV Guide magazine out of Toronto, would, almost perfunctorily, list the various contributing illustrator credits in each weekly issue at the very bottom of the last page, w/ of course, the appropriate page number attached to our names. (Talk about getting buried. Geez.)

As an up-and-coming editorial illustrator, back in the day, fresh out of art school, I was tickled to get such high profile assignments from the likes of TV Guide, and managed to have five-to-six of my pieces published over a fairly short period of months. I soon discovered their almost dismissive regard for the efforts of illustrators whose work gave visual appeal to various articles in the magazine, yet was never credited on the page where the illustration appeared..

And you thought copy editors (in all their sundry manifestations) have, over the years, been under-appreciated, ignored, and marginalized. HA!

Thankfully, these days, illustrator's credits generally appear in close proximity to their illustration, along one margin, or another, usually in very miniscule type.

If it's a rather lengthly article, illustrated w/ several graphic images by the same artist, often the illustrators' credit appears just below the author's name (on the title page), which generally is somewhere in the vicinity of the article 'header' and 'sub-head'. The author, quite justifiably, usually gets top-billing. Makes sense, no?

There appear to be many unsung 'heros' in the various publication trades, who toil day-in-and-day-out w/ little recognition, but clearly keep the cogs of commerce rolling. Their immediate peers surely know who these folks are, and realize that the majority of these skilled specialists hardly crave the greater lime-light, and much prefer the relative anonymity of a regular 9-5 job, that puts food on the table, gives them a modicum of personal satisfaction, and allows them to put their kids thru school.

Sadly, for many, that basic scenario of the good-life might be more of a challenge, going forward. Hopefully, 'the best of times' is just around the corner. (Call me a polyanna (sp. ?), but don't call me Shirley. HA!)

Thanks for your indulgence, Mr. Cowan.

ALEX

John, I've always said that the byline isn't so much for the writer to receive credit for the work but for the writer to have credibility with the reader. If writers aren't willing to put their name on their work, the reader has every right to be suspicious. As for including the list of editors who touched the piece, that may be an unnecessary distraction.

Bylines make reporters try harder either to attain glory or, at minimum, to avoid embarrassment. On the other hand, reporters would mind less being edited if no one knew they wrote the piece.

A reporter's feelings are hurt when an editor makes him look stupid. When an editor saves a reporter's ass, the reporter usually doesn't notice. When I wrote for a masterful editor (James R. Henderson III), I used to sit by his side as he edited me so I could see and learn from every change. If I didn't see the change being made, I wouldn't notice it.

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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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