The decline and dilution of the Byline

Consider the state of the byline. The name of a writer on top of an article or blog post isn’t enough anymore to let readers know the implied qualifications of that author  now that publishers are opening up their mastheads and page-views to unpaid contributors, consultants, thought-leaders and advertisers in what New York Times media critic David Carr recently called “an oven that makes its own food.”

Carr made that reference to Forbes.com and its decision to open its digital pages to external contributors, and in a brilliant revenue building move, to advertisers who pay to appear in an advertising channel Forbes calls BrandVoice, part of the current craze in digital advertising formats known as native advertising. Forbes isn’t the first nor the last online publisher to welcome contributions from witers other than their full-time staff of reports and editors. Nor is it the first to practice native  advertising, formerly known as “advertorial” or “custom” publishing. The Huffington Post was founded as a cacophony of bylines and voices, all vying for attention and traffic in the “look-at-me” economy. For publishers it’s a sweet deal, letting them become Tom Sawyers who persuade others to paint the fence for them.

Bylines haven’t always been a given in journalism. Jack Shafer, writing for Reuters in 2012, offers up the interesting historical note that General Joseph Hooker demanded reporters covering his campaigns during the Civil War put their names on their stories so he could hold them accountable.  Hooker insisted on bylines “as a means of attributing responsibility and blame for the publication of material he found inaccurate or dangerous to the Army of the Potomac.”

The purpose of a byline is to simply attribute a story to a writer: one part vanity, another part accountability. Bylines aren’t biographies of that writer, just a single three-word attribution (“By John Smith”)  that imply that the words and fact and opinions that follow were written by that person (Shafer writes about the proliferation of fake bylines flowing from off-shore content farms, but that’s another story for another day). In the dinosaur days of mainstream print journalism there was an unspoken sense that if a publication granted a byline to a staff writer then that writer had a certain validation as being judged competent and experienced enough to grace the publication’s masthead and pages.

A degree of professionalism in an unlicensed craft was assumed if the byline appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes or Time.  Earning a byline from the Boston Globe implied a different level of professional quality and experience than a byline in the MetroWest Shopper. In short, a byline was a writer’s equivalent to a doctor or lawyer tacking MD or JD onto their name. It was hard to earn but ultimately the only public recognition a reporter received. It took me a long time to earn a Forbes byline. Now any extroverted hyper-social networker with a craving for a high Klout score and a taste for LinkedIn/Quora influence points can start bloviating for free and walk away with “Forbes Columnist” on their resume.

Today the appeal of giving it away for free to Forbes is simple — it’s a great resume inflator. Now any aspiring expert can add Forbes to their resume and point to some digital clips as proof. The mounting number of would-be pundits on LinkedIn who proclaim themselves to be Forbes columnists or contributors reminds me of people who send away for mail order coats of arms.

You can call it the democratization of the press, the breaching of the walls of conceit that doomed dinosaur journalism, the wall that said “we’re better than you” when it came to publishing the reader’s letters of complaint and disagreement, the walls that said the only persons qualified to put a word on paper were those deemed qualified to do so by the editor who hired them and paid them. Mastheads were tough to crack — ask any young journalist in the late 1970s who dreamed of breaking into the Washington Post and getting a seat at the same table as Woodward and Bernstein. Those seats were rare and hard to obtain, Ben Bradlee didn’t hand them out to K-street lobbyists and Congressional staffers. Today? Hey, if you’re willing to work for free and can string some words together into a coherent sentence, preferably with a provocative, link-bait point of view, then publishers are more than happy to give you a shot at OpEd immortality.

In this blurry world of “content marketing and native journalism,” it is getting harder to tell the reporters from the advertisers. The wall between the journalism and the ads is coming down, and Carr and others (like Andrew Sullivan) are lamenting what we’ve lost. Sure, the money is nice and helping publishers make payroll (or avoid paying it) — and some graphical efforts are being made to fence off the advertorial native stuff with tinted boxes, hairlines and little “sponsored by” tags — but the blurring issue is out there and it isn’t so much about segregating the paid words from the “real” words, it’s about the qualifications of the byline as well.

Bylines are a relatively new phenomenon in journalism. They rarely appeared in 19th century newspapers, and indeed many writers used pen-names to mask their identity, particularly on political polemics. Thomas Paine, in writing Common Sense, one of the most influential calls-to-revolution in the years leading up to the American Revolution, chose to mask his identity and byline the work as merely: “Written by an Englishman.”

As correspondents began to make a name for themselves and were prime draws for a newspaper during the lurid days of yellow journalism, when war correspondents like Richard Harding Davis and Ambrose Bierce were the stars of the press, bylines were marketing devices to build circulation. Some magazines don’t grant bylines at all: The Economist is the best known practitioner of the anonymous policy.

I’ve freelanced under pseudonyms — I got hired by Forbes when I wrote a try-out story about digital mapping in 1988 under a bogus name because I didn’t want my then-current employer to know (that story won second place in the Computer Press Association awards in 1988, so the validity of the byline didn’t have much to do with its credibility, though it was indeed a tacit deception on my part and Forbes’ on their readers. )I have ghostwritten books, and continue to freelance edit and write assorted articles and whitepapers anonymously for a few clients in the consulting and corporate world. They evidently like my assistance due to my background in the professional press, and I like the fees they pay. There are a lot of ex-journalists like me turning a good buck writing corporate journalism these days and I don’t begrudge them a penny.

The point of all of this is that the editorial authority of the old stalwarts is gone like their paper editions. They’re trading on fading memories of being brands that stood for something important but are losing their mojo to Buzzfeed and TMZ. Newsweek? Dead. Businessweek? Sold for a dollar to Bloomberg. Forbes? Still alive and flourishing thanks to its experimentation, but still attracting the ire of the Times and other media critics for pushing the limits and definitions of the first medium to get truly disrupted and overthrown by the digital revolution.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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