Answer Man

The story behind bylines

Q: Why do newspapers put the names and photos of reporters and columnists in the paper?

J.S., of Belleville

A: You might find it surprising, but your seemingly innocent question remains a contentious issue in some journalistic circles to this day.

In celebrating its 170th anniversary a couple of years ago, the London-based The Economist proudly explained why it continues to run almost all of its articles unsigned as it denounced what it called “rampant byline inflation” over the last century. During that same period, other editors have argued that writers are more careful and take more pride in their work if they know their name is going to top their stories.

Here at the BND, we’ve changed course almost 180 degrees in just the past 40 years. When I started writing here in 1968 as a high school sophomore, about the only local bylines you would have seen were mine and the other Belleville prep sports correspondents. Along with my $25-a-month salary, I always found it a thrilling reward to think that thousands of people were seeing my name, although now I realize it may have been partly to take the heat off the sports editor for any boo-boos we rookies made.

But aside from such familiar wire service names as Hal Bock and Jack Anderson and local free-lancer Grover Brinkman, the paper’s veteran staff usually toiled in anonymity. People seldom saw the names of Joe Adam, who initially scared me to death when he rushed in, threw his sport coat across his waste can and began pounding out ungodly amounts of copy two-fingered-style on his Underwood, or Irv Baechle, the obituary writer who was such a stickler for accuracy, or Herb Laquet, our Fairview Heights/Mascoutah writer who was always quick to offer friendly guidance.

Instead of seeing that our award-winning photographer Bill DeMestri took another ingenious photo, readers saw only an ND stamped in the corner of each picture. About the only sign of things to come was when Sports Editor Art Voellinger began writing a weekly column and used both byline and picture for his “An Art for Sports” sig.

But that changed dramatically almost as soon as the Kern family sold the paper to New York-based Capital Cities Communications in 1972. From then on, bylines became an integral part of every local story of importance. Now, with our latest redesign last September, we’ve decided to expand the use of reporter photos as well.

“There is some data out there that shows that people want to know who is behind the stories that are being written,” Jeffry Couch, BND editor and vice president, told me. “One aspect of that is seeing who the writers are, which kind of makes sense.

“It’s kind of an experiment right now. It’s not something we’ll do with every story, but we’re going to try it out for a while. If readers don’t care about it, we’ll stop doing it. But we want people to see who’s writing some of these stories, especially the special stories.”

That’s totally counter to the philosophy you would have found during the early 1800s. Historically, The Economist noted, papers published articles without bylines or even with pseudonyms to “give individual writers the freedom to assume different voices and to enable early papers to give the impression that their editorial teams were larger than they really were.” It notes that the first issues of The Economist in 1843 were written almost entirely by James Wilson, even though he wrote in the first-person plural.

Now, the paper argues, shunning bylines allows its writers to speak with a collective voice. It might even agree with British historian and novelist Sir Walter Besant, who in “The Pen and the Book,” wrote, “In the case of signed articles, the writer thinks first of himself. In the other case, he thinks first of his subject.” Besides, the Economist says, not only do many writers sometimes contribute to articles, but editors often put in their 2 cents as well. To credit everyone would make the beginning of some stories look like an Academy Award acceptance speech.

But as early as the 1850s, writers began clamoring for recognition. Karl Marx, who wrote a column for the New York Tribune in the 1850s, complained that his pieces often were published without his name, according to James Ledbetter in the introduction to his collection, “Karl Marx: Dispatches for the New York Tribune.”

Even non-writers saw the benefit of bylines. During the Civil War, Gen. Joseph Hooker reportedly required them on all battlefield dispatches 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,” according to Michael Schudson in his book “Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers.”

They didn’t hurt the bottom lines of publishers, either. By the 1890s, Joesph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, for example, found it profitable when readers began scooping up papers in search of articles by their favorite writers, including Nellie Bly, Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane. In turn, those writers sometimes became celebrities and built on their fame (and bank accounts) by demanding higher salaries or writing books.

Still, some initially adamantly opposed the new convention, including no less a journalistic god than Adolph Ochs, owner-publisher of the august 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,’” Susan Tifft and Alex Jones wrote in “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times,” “Bylines on stories were virtually nonexistent, and no editor, reporter or business manager was permitted to have stationery with his name on it.”

The use of bylines eventually won out. Even in the New York Times, 37 front-page stories had bylines during the first week of 1944, compared to just two during the first week of 1924. In 1925, the Associated Press sent out a story with a byline for the first time. And, in 1926, Ernest Hemingway is credited for using the word “byline” for the first time in “The Sun Also Rises,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Now you find them on just about any story longer than a notice for a garden-club meeting, leading some to call it a “byline glut” or “byline beast.” Within reason, I have always favored them because I do think they encourage writers to take extra pains with their work (even though, as my mom did, I carelessly used “unthawed” instead of “defrosted” the other day). And the addition of a picture makes us seem more human and accessible rather than a cold story that has come from Mount Olympus.

I will be interested in any reactions we get from you, so let us know what you think.

Today’s trivia

What musical instrument is named for a French term meaning “high wood”?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Those who dread their weekly bathroom-cleaning chores certainly would not like being a Pentagon custodian. There, they’d find 284 rest rooms along the 17 miles of corridors. There are also 691 drinking fountains, 4,200 clocks, an estimated 100,000 miles of telephone cable and a whopping 7.1 acres of glass to keep clean.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer