How the byline beast was born
The church of journalism threw a minor fit last week after This American Life exposed the inner workings of local-news company Journatic. Based in Chicago, Journatic contracts with newspapers around the country to provide them with local news stories. Some of the heavy lifting it outsources to freelancers, who work hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from the publications in which their “hyperlocal” news pieces appear. Journatic pays piece-work rates equivalent to about $10 to $12 an hour to the freelancers who collect and assemble information about school lunch menus, real estate transfers, local deaths, marriage licenses, bowling scores, garbage pickup schedules, and the like. The final copy, which is massaged by Journatic hands elsewhere, some of them full-timers, has run in the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, GateHouse newspapers, and the Chicago Sun-Times.
The outrage over Journatic was, in part, protectionist in nature: No well-paid staff reporter wants to be replaced by one of Journatic’s $10-an-hour wage slaves living in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics, Brazil or Africa. Others found in the byline scandal new evidence of the crisis of newspapers, which has them cutting costs everywhere just to survive. But most of the coverage has concentrated on the unseemly ethics of the fake bylines, at least some of which were generated by a “select alias” button used by Filipino writers. Those fake bylines included “Ginny Cox,” “Jimmy Finkel,” “Carrie Reed,” “Jay Brownstone” and “Amy Anderson.” The San Francisco Chronicle has determined that Journatic contributor Jeremy Schnitker published 32 articles as “Jake Barnes” in its pages, presumably an homage to the character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sun-Times and GateHouse are ending their relationship with the content farm, and Journatic has announced that it has “banished” fake bylines from its stories. The Houston Chronicle apologized, and Journatic’s CEO claimed the ginned-up bylines were designed to optimize search-engine discovery and to protect his writers from reader complaints.
Where does the sanctity of the byline come from?
Obviously, every news story should brim with the truth. But does an accurate story become unclean if the byline does not match the name of the writer (or writers) who produced it? In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions. Even so, I’ve never heard anybody claim that the readers of these pieces were in any way hoodwinked.
If bylines are so holy, why do the very best newspapers in the land allow government officials, foreign ambassadors, politicians, captains of industry and other notables to claim sole bylines for their op-ed pieces? Almost to a one, these articles are composed by ghostwriters, yet journalistic convention denies the ghosts credit. If Journatic is deceiving the public, so too are the op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and many other newspapers. See also the books that unacknowledged ghostwriters write for their celebrity clients.
Not to go all Foucault (pdf) on you, but the meaning of authorship has flexed over the centuries, depending on the direction that ideas about property and authority were taking. In the middle of the 1800s, as the American newspaper gathered cultural force and influence, bylines were still rare ornaments. Their assignment was inconsistent, even to writers who “deserved” them. Karl Marx, who wrote a column for the New York Tribune in the 1850s, complained that his contributions were sometimes published with his byline, sometimes as unsigned editorials, and sometimes not at all, as James Ledbetter pointed out in the introduction to Karl Marx: Dispatches for the New York Tribune. That said, Marx was not shy about submitting 125 columns written by his partner in communism, Friedrich Engels, as his own work.
One early advocate of bylines was Civil War General Joseph Hooker, who imposed them on battlefield correspondents in 1863 “as a means of attributing responsibility and blame for the publication of material he found inaccurate or dangerous to the Army of the Potomac,” as scholar Michael Schudson wrote in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. To be technical about it, journalistic bylines didn’t exist in the 1800s, as the term had yet to be invented. Instead, journalistic works credited to an author were called “signed articles” or “signature” pieces, as W. Joseph Campbell wrote in his book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.
Signatures and signed articles became more common at newspapers by the late 1890s, as Alfred Balch noted in Lippincott’s Monthly (December 1898), conveying the growing status of journalists. “[I]t is the experience of every man who writes that signature makes him more careful,” Balch wrote, and this was good for publishers, too, he added. Yellow journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst enthusiastically promoted their best writers (Richard Harding Davis, Sylvester Scovel, Ambrose Bierce, Nellie Bly, Stephen Crane and Eva Valesh, for example) by rewarding them with bylines, making celebrities out of them or adding to their established celebrity. But many publishers still disdained bylines because of the attention they focused on the writer at the expense of the publication. New York Times publisher-owner Adolph Ochs led the resistance, as Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones wrote in The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times:
Adolph had an ironclad policy on who got individual credit at the New York Times, insisting that “the business of the paper must be absolutely impersonal.” Bylines on stories were virtually nonexistent, and no editor, reporter or business manager was permitted to have stationery with his name on it.
For Ochs, the institution and not the individual was responsible for a newspaper article’s content. The propriety of bylines was much debated. The Inland Printer (February 1890) article titled “Journalistic Anonymity” summed up the arguments for and against the byline; The Writer (December 1887) excerpted the speeches of Boston’s leading journalists given on the topic at the local press club. In The Pen and the Book (1899), British historian and novelist Sir Walter Besant noted that “in the case of signed articles, the writer thinks first of himself, in the other case, he thinks first of his subject.”
Pros and Cons, a 1911 reader’s guide to newspaper controversies edited by John Bertram Askew, summarized the arguments for and against. Signed articles would reduce the “log-rolling” that was apparently rampant in unsigned pieces. “Anonymity deprives the writer of all responsibility, and occasionally leads to political dishonesty, the same journalist contributing leading articles to papers of opposite political views,” the book states, agitating for the pros. On the con side, anonymity was superior because it will “enable critics fearlessly to express their real convictions” and because, what the hell, “The writers are almost always known.”
The Ochsian byline position began to soften in the 1920s. Schudson examined the front pages of the New York Times for the first week of January every four years from 1920 through 1944 and tabulated the number of bylines. In the first week of 1920 there were six bylined stories and in 1924 just two. But by 1944 there were 37 bylined pieces. The first bylined AP story appeared in 1925, Schudson wrote in Discovering the News, “but within a few years the by-line was common in AP stories.” A textbook from the era noted that the signed article was no longer much of an exception, and by 1926 the word “byline” (actually “by-line”) had entered the English language, first appearing in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hemingway wrote:
He sat in the outer room and read the papers, and the Editor and Publisher and I worked hard for two hours. Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of big manila envelopes and rang for a boy to take them to the Gare St. Lazare.
Since Hemingway, the democratization of the newspaper has created such a surplus of bylines that they swarm the page like tribes of migrating army ants. Newspaper bylines once denoted that the copy was opinion, of extraordinary value, or written by someone distinguished or talented. But at some point in the 1970s, every newspaper story in excess of five inches was deemed worthy of byline commemoration. Bylines on wire service stories, which newspapers routinely cut to distinguish their home-built stories from the conveyor belt of the wires, now appear regularly at many newspapers.
Just about the only places you won’t find a byline in a modern newspaper these days is the tiny wire story, which a byline tends to make typographically top-heavy, and editorials, which are considered to be too important to have been written by mortals. (I’d wager that the Economist derives half of its editorial authority from its byline ban, which leaves readers thinking the copy was delivered from Mt. Olympus.)
Byline proliferation has been a good thing for news connoisseurs: Knowing the identity of the writers makes it easier to read a newspaper critically and hold writers accountable. It’s been a good thing for journalists, too, making it easier for the better ones to convert their high reputations into better jobs.
But you can’t say that for Journatic’s swapping out of “foreign-sounding” bylines for Anglicized ones. The application of an alias neither makes the writer more accountable nor does it really help him advance his reputation in the journalistic marketplace. If anything, the fake byline signifies the habituation of newspaper editors and readers to the never-ending wallpaper of bylines that is today’s newspaper. By wheat-pasting phony bylines on its outsourced stories, Journatic only confirmed my suspicion that a good and noble thing has gone too far. I can’t be the only person to have noticed that Bloomberg News and Reuters both include the names of the editors on individual news stories, and the New York Times Magazine does the same. At this rate, it won’t be long before news articles come supplied with rolling “movie-style” credits at their conclusion.
Where is Adolph Ochs when you need him?
I hereby bestow an honorary co-byline for this piece on my editor, James Ledbetter, for alerting me to Marx’s byline problems, which he discussed in the introduction to his Marx collection. Send your fake byline to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and watch my Twitter feed for the real thing. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Daiquiris are seen on the counter beside a life-size bronze statue of U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway at his regular spot at The Floridita bar in Havana, July 1, 2010. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan