For years I’ve joked that there were only two types of people who read newspaper bylines – journalists and journalists’ mothers.
Bylines – newspaper lingo for the author of a story. Most of the time bylines appear beneath the headlines, before the story begins, and start with “By” and the reporter’s name. The byline is the line of text that says who the story is by.
You may not have ever really paid attention to the writer behind the story, instead focusing on the headline or picture. Every once in awhile, when I’ve pointed out a byline, a few readers have said something like, “I’ve read newspapers all my life and I have never noticed those.”
Sadly for people like me, most people don’t pay attention to who writes the story. In other words, people read The Billings Gazette, but they may not search out Cindy Uken, Zach Benoit or John Letasky. Or Darrell Ehrlick.
That used to be my working theory – that only journalists and their mothers read bylines.
Until a couple of weeks ago.
One reader called to ask what it means when we print “By the Associated Press” – who is that, and what person wrote the story? And what about when we print “Gazette Staff” on top of a story? What’s the deal with that?
At the heart of it, bylines are a newspapers’ way of transparency – they tell readers who has written the story and where it came from. Ideally, that should help give readers confidence that whatever they read isn’t just made up or planted, rather a story written by an honest-to-God journalist.
But this careful Gazette reader who called me made the point: When there’s no name, it looks like you’re hiding something.
It’s not that we’re hiding something. Instead, it’s just that those more generic bylines are shorthand for what is an explanation that’s too long to fit on a single line above a story.
The Associated Press is really a collection of news organizations — nearly every daily and many other smaller publications across America, The Billings Gazette included. It’s a cooperative that has its own reporters, paid for in part by member newspapers’ fees. It also collects, condenses and redistributes news from member papers to others. For example, when a freak storm this summer flooded part of Billings, the Gazette’s reporting and photos went around the world, via the “wire” to other AP newspapers, all of which had the option of including the information the Gazette provided.
Every one of the stories in the paper has a writer, whether that’s an Associated Press staff member, or whether the story was taken from a paper like the Gazette. Yet, when the story is redistributed — sent to others — few care about the byline because Chris Cioffi or Jan Falstad may not mean anything to someone in Bangor, Maine.
The Associated Press also condenses stories it receives from other newspapers, boiling the details down to a smaller, more compact format. If you’ve read the Gazette, you’ll notice a lot of stories from around the region, nation and world. All of these news items were larger, longer stories in their local newspapers, but they’ve been condensed for other readers. In those cases, the reporters’ names have been stripped because the story has been shortened, few would know the name anyway, and when a story is distilled, it ceases to really be the same story. However, newspapers keep the (AP) symbol so that readers know this story was gathered by a news organization, vetted and edited.
When Gazette readers see a “Gazette staff” byline, that means we’ve likely taken a press release, other information or AP story and added local information or customized so that it’s not exactly like the original.
In these cases, we put a more generic “staff byline” on it because we want our readers to understand that we have reported this and vetted it, but it may have come from a variety of sources or several reporters may have worked on it.
The observant Gazette reader who called to point out these bylines had one request: Can you please start printing more reporters’ names?
I said: In some cases that’s possible. In other cases, it’s nearly impossible. After all, a news item coming from China is hard to track down in its original source.
It’s a great thing when folks want to know more about the news. It’s also a good day when people want to check the source’s source (in this case, where the Gazette gets its news).
Since I can’t track down every wire story author, here’s a more realistic solution. If you’ve got questions about stories, reporting or how a newspaper runs, here’s my email, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t have email, here’s my phone number -- 406-657-1289.
If you don’t have a pen, or can’t save this, don’t worry. My contact information can be found every day at the bottom of Page 2, in a box called a “bishop.”
But that term is for another day.
I need to make a correction. In a column two weeks ago, I slipped and got the name of a really great teacher incorrect. My high school literature teacher -- the same one who is partly responsible for me getting a degree in literature — was named Carol Simmons. I could tell everyone that never in my wildest dreams would have I called her "Carol." Unfortunately, I flubbed the first name, and there's no excuse. In her class, she was known for slashing grades of papers that used a passive or past-tense verb. Certainly, she should have flunked the column. The editor regrets the error.