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.