No, I don’t mean that all of you should literally throw them away right now. In fact, I keep all of my notebooks, going back years, officially for libel-defense purposes but really out of superstition. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s really about the following anecdote.
I happen to live next door to Michael Lewis, an author of several bestsellers (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, et cetera). He and I were walking down the hill once to get some lunch. We got to talking about the time that he came back from a big reporting trip for a book, only to discover …. that his notebook was gone!
“And it turned out….”, I began asking.
“Oh, much, much better,” he said.
And we both cracked up.
When my notebook lost me
Here is a brief description of my early years as a journalist, which is the experience that made me laugh at (ie, understand) Michael’s response.
When I started, I was so enthusiastic about observing every last detail and capturing every quote by everybody I met that I agonized over my note-taking. I could not write fast enough. In the evenings, I took a night course in shorthand (Teeline). I was the only guy; all the others seemed to be young ladies training to be secretaries (somebody should have told them that this wouldn’t prove so useful in their careers). But even that didn’t help. I never got fast enough.
So I had the quintessential writer’s predicament: Do you live, absorb, participate, think, see, hear, smell, act? Or do you stop life, and write it all down?
Recording interviews, with one of those little gadgets, didn’t help either. I didn’t like fiddling with them, and they usually intruded into the conversation, pointing at my interviewee like a dart that might be poisonous. Those things distracted me, and I threw them away.
Even so, I did capture quite a lot. I observe well, and I get “good quote” out of people. So, for a while, I was writing my articles quote to quote, detail to detail. Today, I believe that was the worst writing I have ever done.
“First, close your notebook. Then trust that it will come.”
(These days, John is The Economist‘s editor-in-chief–ie, my boss–so the trick must have worked for him. ;))
Relax and trust
Writing, and all storytelling, is necessarily a two-step process: 1) You live. 2) You pause, re-live and tell. You can’t merge the two artificially by writing everything down as it happens. If you try, you only interfere with Part 1).
Instead, good writers know how to relax. Only when the brain is relaxed does it make the lateral connections, the quirky associations that we call creativity. And only when you are relaxed can your interview partners relax as well.
Good writers then trust. They trust that ‘it’ comes back to them. And ‘it’ does. What is ‘it’? It is whatever comes back!
By the time it comes back, it is like water that has percolated through sediment and become pure and clean and potable. A writer’s memory is therefore like a filter, provided the writer lets it be that. What it filters is the entire overwhelming world of detail, so that only a few–the right ones–run onto the screen and become life-giving, texture-giving color.
This question comes up in nearly every conversation about The Economist. Why don’t we have bylines? And will we ever change? It is one of those quaint eccentricities about us that people either love or hate, or love to hate, but at least they know about it.
(At the bottom of this post you get to vote whether we should have bylines. But just to be clear: this is meant as a bit of good fun. Nobody, as far as I know, is actually considering changing the policy.)
First, just a few examples of the way that this topic comes up. A couple of years ago, I introduced our editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait, and Orville Schell, then dean of Berkeley’s journalism school (where I was lecturing) for this conversation. (You can see Berkeley’s chancellor introducing me, then me introducing John and Orville, and then John and Orville chatting.)
At about minute 24 Orville gets the inevitable question from the audience. Why no bylines? And, Orville teases John, “I understand that there is a good bit of grousing” about it among the journalists. “They feel they don’t exist in a certain sense.”
John gives what I think is the best answer: “We haven’t done anything. We’ve kept the same, and everyone else has changed.” In other words, The Economist is 160+ years old, and back then anonymity was the norm. Then the industry went on a slightly disturbing path toward writer celebrity, and we simply chose not to participate.
But, John goes on, it is more than mere inertia: “Why do we keep it? Firstly, because it’s, I suppose, a brand. But it’s more than a marketing gimmick.” It also, he says, fits our method of collaborative writing. (This, I must say, strikes me as the weaker part of the answer, because most of my writing in the past eleven years has in fact been very individual, very “authorial”, and barely edited. And journalists at other magazines and newspapers also occasionally collaborate in their writing, despite having bylines.)
Orville and John then kid around, using, ahem, me as the guinea pig for their humor.
Another view is this one by Brad DeLong, an economist also at Berkeley. Greg Ip, a blogger and writer for the Wall Street Journal, had just quit both his blog and the Journal (and thus his personal brand) to join us at The Economist in chaste anonymity: “How could Greg Ip leave the WSJ for The Economist? I mean, he’s a brand – and the Economist doesn’t do brands, except its own. (And that it does exceedingly well.)” His commenters then vent on what they think about our policy.
Yet another instance: HereBill Emmott, John’s predecessor as editor (and the man who hired me), tells an interviewer that
Journalists are egomaniacs and protective about their own territory and their own work, and not having bylines mitigates against that somewhat. With bylines, you worry more about your own story. With no bylines, you worry more about the whole paper because your reputation depends on the reputation of the whole paper.
So I thought I might chip in.
What our policy is (and is not)
First, our vaunted anonymity has never been absolute. Yes, the vast majority of articles in The Economist have no byline. But there are exceptions.
1) Special Reports
These are huge essays of about 13,000 words around a specific topic, such as a country or an industry. In effect, they are small books. Whereas most other newspapers and magazines throw a team of reporters on these kinds of special sections, The Economist gives each report to one author. This is a great idea. That way, you get coherent, well-structured and individualistic reporting in great depth.
One thing that annoys me is that most readers don’t realize this. They think that the chapters in a Special Report are written by different people. And we don’t really help them with our layout. But we do hide a byline in each Special Report. Not doing so would simply be too cruel. A Special Report is its author’s baby.
So the author’s name shows up in what we call the “rubric” of the opening chapter. It looks like this:
2) The World in 200x.
Another exception concerns our sister publication, The World In [Year]. It’s an annual magazine, and the new one, The World in 2009, just came out. Here is my piece in it. As you see, it has my name at the top and at the bottom.
3) Podcasts and video
This is an interesting category of exceptions, because it is new. We have had audio interviews with the authors of Special Reports for a while, but in 2006, when I wrote this Special Report about the new media, we fittingly experimented with podcasts. Somewhat to our surprise, they became hugely popular, hitting the iTunes charts with almost no effort on our part.
The thing about audio and video, of course, is that these media are extremely intimate and extremely personal. There is absolutely nothing anonymous about them. You hear the author’s “voice,” literally. This did not go unnoted at the time. The door of anonymity was opened ajar by another inch.
4) Reader letters
When you send a letter to the editor, it gets forwarded to the author of the article in question. And I have, I believe, answered every single letter by email for the past eleven years. Like many of my colleagues, I sign my replies, so anybody who wishes to know who wrote a particular piece can simply write a letter and wait.
Ironically, the new-media revolution has had a contrary effect on these exchanges. A while ago we started allowing people to comment on our web site directly underneath our stories. There are still a lot of letters to the editor, but a lot of this traffic now seems to get diverted to the comments sections. And I do not bother to answer those.
5) Extracurricular activities
As correspondents, we have always moderated panels at conferences and such. Each time we do, we are introduced by name and affiliation, and then the audience hears us talk. So they meet us.
Nowadays, several of us have also started personal blogs. Mine is the most recent example. Edward Lucas has for years had his blog about Eastern Europe and his book. Gideon Lichfield wrote a blog about Israel and Palestine while he was posted in the Middle East. Tom Standage has his site, as do all of us who write books.
I won’t tell you. But I will say this: When I joined The Economist in 1997, I loved the anonymity. I had no name, no personal brand, and I felt that from my first day my articles had the same chance of being on the cover as anybody else’s. I expend as much effort on a tiny “box” as on a huge Special Report.
Admittedly, during the past eleven years, there have been moments when I wished that my cumulative work might have given me a personal brand. Writers at the New Yorker eventually become known as writers. We don’t. Writing a book is one way out of that dilemma. That is not why I’m writing a book. Nonetheless, it is quite remarkable how many of us do.
The view that counts
Ultimately, what the writers think ought not to be the decisive criterion. Duh. It is the readers who matter. But this is where it gets really interesting. Anecdotally, I have found that most readers tell me that they would prefer to know the writer’s name. But I wonder whether they actually do. It is also possible that something might get lost along the way. Something je-ne-sais-quoi. There is only one way of finding out, but the problem is that this experiment would be hard to reverse. So, what do readers actually want?
At our meeting on Friday I read out part of a letter … by Alan Parker, who used to work for us in the 1970s, and its main point was to explain – in a touchingly matter-of-fact way – that he had just discovered that he was about to die (which he did indeed do two weeks after he sent the letter). … I still think one part of it is worth passing on:
“I shall continue to read The Econ for the rest of my life, as my sub will outlast me. I shall enjoy it of course, but I should enjoy it even more if my death-wish could be granted: viz, that the editor decrees that henceforth all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised before the copy gets anywhere near him. I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers'”, I turn over the page….”
I think he had a point. One of our hallmarks has always been avoiding the gratuitous quotes that slow down our rivals. Obviously, we should quote people when they are saying something new and refreshing – just as we should credit other news organisations. And I also accept that good sources occasionally need some form of payback; but, if you want to bring them into the story, make sure they are saying something that is original, which does not slow down the piece.
In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting. Thus “America is in trouble in Iraq” is worth using only if, say, the speaker is George Bush. But I would add three particular bugbears of mine. The first is beginning a paragraph with a general quote from an uninteresting source (“America is in trouble in Iraq” says Dwight Smith of the Foreign Policy Institute), when we are really just introducing a new part of our argument – and very little of what follows could be seen as Mr Smith’s unique insight. Quote Mr Smith later by all means if he has uncovered a new fact about National Guard numbers, or use him as an example of one side of a debate; but don’t hand over the paragraph to him – unless he deserves it. Second, where we do quote, we should whenever possible simplify intrusively long titles (so “Professor Dr John Smith, head of special research projects at the Joe. A. Doe Global New Media Centre at Massachessetts Institute of Technology” becomes John Smith of MIT). And, lastly, one word is often preferable to a full quote: “This research strikes me, on the basis of available evidence, as dubious,” said Professor John Smith etc can happily become, “The research is “dubious”, reckons John Smith of MIT”.
The alternative is more people turning over the page.