Much Ado About Bylines


Under standards editor Allan Siegal, the pages of The New York Times are a work in progress these days. Read closely, and you will see that editors are experimenting with different ways of crediting reporters—shared bylines, taglines at the ends of stories, double datelines, triple datelines, bylines for stringers, even corrections to make sure everyone’s name got mentioned.

Thus, front-page bylines last week included “By Gretchen Morgenson and Landon Thomas Jr.” and “By Don Van Natta Jr., with Timothy L. O’Brien” (which Van Natta reported from Riyadh, with O’Brien elsewhere). A story on page A20 began, “By David M. Halbfinger with James Dao” and ended, “Ariel Hart also contributed to this article.” (The subjects were, respectively, the stock exchange scandal, Hamas financing, and the hurricane.) Though some insiders think this liberal crediting could get out of hand, the consensus seems to be that the new policy is a good thing, if still taking shape

Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis confirmed that the newspaper is considering “a systematic overhaul” of its byline policy. “We learned during the events of this past summer that readers inside and outside the paper would like more information, rather than less, about who writes what in our columns,” she explained, “so we have been experimenting with new variations in crediting.” Mathis said desk and department heads are now discussing the proposed changes, which are likely to be adopted “in the next few weeks.” The new policy will not be made public, she added, but will “eventually” be incorporated into the online edition of the Times stylebook. (A call to Siegal was referred to PR, and a request to interview executive editor Bill Keller was declined.)

Siegal, who joined the paper as a copyboy in 1960, is the Times high priest of newsroom ethics and style. On September 9, when Keller appointed him standards editor, fixing bylines and datelines was one of his first assignments. The need for these things to be fixed first surfaced during the scandals of last spring, when the Times was forced to admit that former reporter Jayson Blair had filed stories from cities he never visited, and that former correspondent Rick Bragg had filed a story carrying his byline and the dateline Apalachicola, Florida, even though he had only gone to Apalachicola for a few hours and most of his reporting had been done by a stringer.

In July, a month after executive editor Howell Raines resigned in disgrace, a newsroom committee headed by Siegal issued the “Siegal Report,” which called for, among other things, a coherent, consistent policy on bylines and datelines that would leave the Times “nothing to hide.” If the Siegal Report is any harbinger, the Times is likely to continue awarding shared bylines and to step up its use of taglines. The tagline is a device already used by many newspapers to credit multiple contributions. Some are wondering whether the Times will adopt the style of The Washington Post, which ran a hurricane story last week carrying one byline and 52 names in the tagline.

It is fitting that, in the Times‘ stylebook, the entry for “bylines” appears on the same page as the entry for “Byzantine.” The Times has infinite unwritten rules on this subject, and Siegal seems likely to change the one that reserves bylines for staff writers. Indeed, his report recommended that “bylines should be awarded to the people who really do the work. When substantial reporting or writing in any section is by a freelancer, a stringer or a clerk, the byline should reflect that.”

Give bylines to stringers? For old-timers on 43rd Street, this is madness. But many in the newsroom see no downside in freely giving bylines to all, claiming the practice will make for a more collegial atmosphere and will recognize the work of staffers without whom the paper would not get out. More credits increase everyone’s responsibility for getting it right, and give readers a more honest account of how the news is made.

In the early 1900s, only a handful of Times staff writers got bylines. By the 1960s, single bylines were in vogue for everyone who had made staff. Some staff writers reported and wrote their own material, while others specialized in rewrite, depending on young staffers and stringers to get quotes and do field reporting. Until very recently, even Times staff writers were asked to “do legs” for other reporters with no expectation of a byline. The argument went like this: Putting out a newspaper is a collaborative process and reporters are expected to work with their colleagues. Even on a disaster story that required many reporters and stringers, the rewrite person got the byline and the rest went unnamed.

Meanwhile, stringers who wrote for the Metro, National, or Foreign desk were generally denied bylines. The rationale was that stringers work for pay, not for glory. To this day, most Times correspondents use stringers to do interviews and go to press conferences, while dismissing Bragg as an extreme case who depended on stringers to do almost all his reporting. One insider says that if the Times had credited stringers in years past, every Bragg story would have had a couple of names at the end of it.

In the past, any stringer who performed “extraordinary enterprise” could be nominated for a byline, but some staffers were more likely to spot “extraordinary” work than others. Stringers who can report and write a story by themselves are known as “superstringers.” Over the years, superstringers on the foreign desk have included Chuck Sudetic, who reported from Sarajevo in the early 1990s, and Moscow-based Sabrina Tavernise. Across different news desks, most superstringers get contracts and guaranteed bylines, though some do not.

Another tradition under review is the cryptic phrase “By The New York Times,” which made hundreds of appearances this summer. Though formally known as a “credit line,” this might be called the Tomb of the Unknown Stringer, for it has hidden the identities of countless interns, clerks, copy editors, office managers, stringers, and contributors who have written for the Times over the years. While some “credit line” articles are rewrites of tips and wire stories, others are heavily reported news breaks of 500 to 1,000 words, with datelines from Buffalo to Kabul.

On one occasion, the unknown stringer was a foreign correspondent for a European newspaper who reported a difficult piece for the Times. After a staffer did a light rewrite and nominated the stringer for a byline, the story appeared with a nameless credit line. In 2001, another unnamed stringer filed a 1,000-word political report from Algiers, where rioting Berbers had caused the deaths of two journalists.

Why should these intrepid people remain anonymous? Mathis declined to explain the rules for giving bylines to staffers and stringers until the new policy becomes official.

For now, the Times is a newsroom in transition. Metro has given a few bylines to clerks and stringers, while resistance may be greater on National. Foreign correspondents have been asked to do as much of their own reporting as possible, while stringers are being closely vetted. Perhaps one day soon, the chosen few will be offered the best writing license in the world, a byline in The New York Times.