Seares: By-lines in news stories matter: not just for ego of news reporters

WHEN the New York Times (NYT) online unveiled its redesigned home page last week, the response was not on look or content but mostly on the absence of by-lines in news stories.

In newspapers, print or digital, the by-line is seen as recognition of the reporter’s product: he put in a lot of energy and talent to the reporting and writing. A missing by-line may mean the story is not big enough, the effort of the reporter is minimal, or it is a group enterprise. Or the reporter may have asked the editor to omit his name to protect his source or to express a protest, which they call in the U.S. “by-line strike” or “by-line boycott.”

Editor decides

But the news editor ultimately decides. Not the reporter who merely identifies the story as his by putting his name along with the slug. The editor may think the by-line necessary for accountability.

In case of a lawsuit or any other grievance, the by-line, or the tag initials at the end of the story, helps the complainant identify the people he sues.

Francisco Obedencio, a reporter of a Bohol tabloid, wasn’t included in a complaint for libel against his publisher because, he told the court, he failed to put his name on the story he filed. Not accurate as he couldve been charged too had the complainant chosen to sue him.

Putting them forward

NYT said “we love to boast our writers, their background and experience, and the risks they take to deliver their stories... We put our writers forward.” Yet it decided to take out news reporters’ names on the home page but keep the opinion writers’ names.

The fact that traffic at the home page is only about 30% of its subscribers may have to do with it. NYT put in a lot of information on the new home page but also breaks into sections, such as “Most Popular,” “Discovery,” and “In Other News.” Still, would reporters’ by-lines have impeded that thrust?

Readers’ response

Although by-lines are still on the article pages, the response to NYTs new policy expressed how readers view the use of by-lines.

To a number of its subscribers, the by-line on the home page -- or the front page in the print edition, or right where the story first appears -- is “more than just a name.” It speaks of the entire body of the reporter’s work and “the breadth and depth of his knowledge.”

A running joke in local newsrooms is “if I can’t have a hefty pay, will the by-line be at least not minuscule?” Apparently, referring to one paper where the 7-8 pt. by-line of reporters looks tiny compared to the huge type for names of columnists.

One NYT reader posted two photos of two cakes, showing the “before” and “after” NYT home pages, with this caption, “Someone ate the by-lines.”

Not just ego.

It’s more than “bruised ego” or envy of opinion makers. Identifying the writer, which means taking responsibility for what he writes, is more important now than at any other time.

These days, when some people, anonymously or with fictitious identity, spew out fake news and hate speech with such speed and ease, the by-line is a badge of legitimacy. It provides the reader some comfort that if the story is spurious, there is a specific, identified person, along with his news organization, who will answer for it.


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