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: Here Bill 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?
Time for you to vote:
32 thoughts on “Why The Economist has no bylines”
Although I have managed to dedicate two of just nine posts to my desire for bylines in The Economist, I have decided I don’t even agree with myself. I greatly respect their lack of bylines, and reasons for doing so. David Christopher’s right – at least, when reading the Economist, you know that pesky egos aren’t going to get in the way.
My initial desire for bylines can be explained by your point 3 above: to not include a byline in a Special Report would be too cruel, because a Special Report is the author’s baby. Scarily enough, for us “freelance” (read City student) journalists, any story – and I mean any – is a very well loved baby. When editors don’t give me a byline I think they are being too cruel. Their “just a NIB” comments cut deep, let me tell you.
I have now realised that normal (read not-City student) journalists don’t trade in bylines as if they’re oil. And a willingness to give them up deserves my respect. I look forward to the day when I can treat them as much less rare and scarily valuable commodities. Roll on the day I’m hired by The Economist…
I was hoping to vote more than once. Dang.
Part of the reason I read the Economist is to become a better writer. So, among other things, I try to look for any indication of personality or characteristic style. The book reviews have the most personality, but I guess they are opinions so I shouldn’t be surprised. I prefer the bylines to be absent (whoops, I voted again).
Technology and Science articles always pulls me in before anything else, but I think I know who usually writes those articles. So, who needs bylines?
Doing the same thing for 160+ years is a good way to seem conservative while endorsing something (someone) liberal, anonymously. Similarly, it feels safer when reading negative criticism or scary stories about things like waterboarding. We all feel safer having learned information knowing we can honestly never reveal our source – even under duress. These are more reasons why I do not favor bylines. Ack. Somebody stop me.
Are Bagehot, Lexington and Charlemagne always the same person? Are they guests?
That’s all for now. I’ve got to get to the library and try voting from every computer I can find.
As long as the Economist can attract good writers/journalists to write for it, so that enough people want to read the Economist, and that its unique reputation survives, then the policy of article anonymity would seem justified.
But the time may come when this doesn’t pay off.
Given the speed of change in modern society, the Economist may correspondingly have to change in the matter of article anonymity.
To paraphrase Edmund Burke, a magazine (or “newspaper”) without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.
Blessed is he who has intelligent readers!
Katrina: rest assured that an editor’s fiddling hurts not just you or City journalists, but all writers. It gives me indigestion. I still recall single-word changes made ten years ago with undiluted horror. (And good luck. 😉 Maybe you’ll be part of the family one day…)
Mr Crotchety: With your disarming charm, you give voter fraud a good name. 😉 I won’t ask how many computers you found in the library.
Yes, Bagehot, Charlemagne, and Lexington are columns written by one person each. As are Obituaries (with exceptions), Buttonwood and Economics Focus (with exceptions). And you can “feel” that in their personality. The only column that is written by many people is Face Value, and that is something that we regularly discuss.
Christopher: Very subtle and perceptive point! You put your finger on the importance of attracting, keeping and nurturing talent (something that we write about a lot, and think about a lot internally). Burke’s message is worth pondering.
I was once told by a staffer, now retired, that a major reason the Economist doesn’t give bylines is that a good chunk of it is freelance written. He suggested a certain dimming of the mystique if people knew how much of it was done by freelancers. Perhaps there’s some truth to this; witness the NYTimes, which no longer gives ‘special to’ for non-staffers. On the flip side, The Economist is read in part for its voice, and one could expect a relatively heavy edit, if for nothing else than to get that kind of voice.
I have seen this happen in my case. Some portion, usually the lede and the kicker, of a good number of the pieces I write get Economized. So there is truth to the collaborative writing process for me, and perhaps for other freelancers as well.
Interesting observation, Michael. I’ve never counted the percentage of freelance content, but I think it’s higher in some sections (such as the Technology Quarterly) and quite low in most others.
That said, a simple byline would not give away whether the author is staff or non-staff, so I can’t imagine that this would be the main reason for not having bylines.
After 24 hours and with many votes now cast, the poll seems to be stabilizing at a surprising result.
I had expected most of you to vote FOR bylines. Instead, you are clearly conflicted, suggesting that you see the subtleties of the issue.
The leader is currently No (The Economist should NOT have bylines).
A third of you voted Yes, but a lot of you voted “only in some cases.”
The Financial Times is just such an example of balancing name-dropping bylines – especially from guest writers from important places, while adding some of the most credible and relevant pieces in byline-free commentary, namely in the FT’s Lex column.
I have to admit that one of the attractions of the World In [Year] publications has been finding out who has been behind some of The Economist’s weekly pieces. In fact that’s the first thing I attempt to discover when I get my copy each December.
Suggestion for the subject of another blog post of yours to demystify our favorite newspaper: why does The Economist insist on being called a newspaper rather than a magazine?
Very interesting comparison to the FT and Lex.
Regarding the moniker of “newspaper” rather than “magazine”: I wish there were a great story to tell, but this one appears to be down to simple inertia. Back in 1843, a newspaper was any paper that reported the news, whether daily, weekly or monthly. Since then, the word “magazine,” originally meaning a storehouse of ammo or inventory, came to mean a vault of information, and thence a specialized or regular publication different from newspapers.
But you would not expect us to become slaves of fashion merely because a word changed connotation a century ago or so, would you? Surely, that might invite radicalism and disaster. Lo, we might start calling “Leaders” opinion, “Briefings” features, or “Notes” articles.
Yet as you pointed out, the Survey was re-named to Special Report!
At IBM there are lots of old-timers who still refer to powerpoint slides as foils. I am unaware of any other IT-savvy corporation which still uses the term “foil”.
We are considering changing our style guide to allow the word “movie” instead of “film”. This, after somebody pointed out that movies are … no longer on film!
You made me think about how I as a reader (listener really) use bylines. There are a few cases:
1. Doing a research paper, when it’s great to be able to cite “The Economist” rather than an author neither myself nor my teacher has heard of.
2. Doing unofficial inquiry, when bylines are a dimension of data for hyper linking information. For example, I only found this blog through the byline on your mobility special report. This blog has been useful and interesting for me, so bylines have been a benefit.
When listening to the Economist I have thought to myself, “I’ll bet Mr. Kluth wrote this.” But without confirmation it does not really get put into the same mental bin as things I know you’ve written. This is a shame, because it would be great to mentally categorize things that I do really enjoy in the Economist apart from the publication as a whole.
Every week I listen to the “newspaper” cover to cover. Mentally, the Economist brand has been bolstered by articles likely written by a subset of writers at the Economist that I particularly enjoy. But it has been sapped by articles that I enjoy to a lesser degree, i.e. about 60% of the Britain section. This is not to say that it is necessarily styles I like or dislike, but differing topic areas hold differing degrees of interest for me.
I like to think I use the Economist as gateway to further inquiry. For example, I’m reading “Grown Up Digital” based on a recent book review, and often ask friends about articles in their area of expertise. In this sense, bylines would give me greater fidelity in classifying the massive amount of information published each week, so I vote yes.
“1. Doing a research paper, when it’s great to be able to cite “The Economist” rather than an author neither myself nor my teacher has heard of.”
Really? I have the opposite problem, where my professors demand author names with our citations, which makes The Economist particularly difficult to cite.
But you can still cite it, can’t you? I think the format would be like that for citing an Encyclopedia entry.
Very interesting for many reasons, Quantum.
So you’re listening to our podcast rather than reading the issue. (I’m pretty sure they only “speak” some of the articles. Recording the whole issue would take hours and hours…)
“Word for word, the articles from this weeks issue of the Economist, in audio.”
I’m amazed you didn’t know about this! I actually don’t listen to any of the podcasts but do listen to the entire print edition. It comes out every Thursday night or Friday.
The current issue is 8.3 hours long. (They have four readers, I assume they record it in parallel after the print edition has gone online) I only listen to the Economist while doing something else: riding my motorcycle, brushing my teeth, walking to class, etc. Still, spaces when my hands are busy but mind free are far more than the length of an Economist issue- I often finish on Monday or Tuesday.
In the audio edition, the author of special reports seems prominent, although I couldn’t find it in this week’s on Russia. The audio edition, more than anything else, is what has kept me reading… err listening to the Economist every week.
Thank you for enlightening me! This means that you’ve heard somebody speak my words many times, and I didn’t even know it! I’m thrilled.
I will take a private poll among my colleagues to see how many of us were aware of this….
Thanks for sharing what you know and your views about The Economist’s lack of bylines. I came to this post after doing some Googling after reading a Chinese article where the author made a claim that I suspected was mistaken. So I am glad to find your blog entry that proves that the author was wrong.
P.S. In case you care, the last half of my blog entry is in English and should be understandable,
Well, it appears that you wrote something of enduring value, Mr. Andreas Kluth!
You are currently running in Hacker News, 2011 Ides of March edition (not really, just that it happens to be today).
Thank you for letting me know, Ellie K. 🙂
I choose to think that this is … an honor. Ahem. Is it? Put differently, what does it mean to be “running in Hacker News”?
It certainly makes the paper stand out. They already have excellent writing, but I’m curious if adding bylines would make recruitment easier.
I don’t think John Micklethwait (our editor) would be swayed by the recruitment argument: he’s got huge numbers of people queueing up for any opening, and there are rarely ever openings at all. So, no crisis.
A 6th exception are the Economists occasional “by invitation” pieces.