Monday afternoon, while perusing posts about libertarian health care plans, the rollout of the Obama administration’s middle-class assistance initiatives, the sale of the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane, and the political proclivities of Muppets, readers of The Economist’s group blogs might have noticed an Editor’s Note announcing an update to the blogs’ policy:
TODAY we are changing the way we write our bylines in order to make it clearer that different correspondents are writing different posts. We hope this will facilitate discussion between our bloggers and with other blogs, and clear up any confusion about multiple correspondents in the same city.
Yep: The Economist is bringing bylines to its group blogs. Well, kind of. Each post on the outlet’s three group blogs will now bear, in addition to its author’s home-base city (‘WASHINGTON,’ ‘LONDON,’ ‘AUSTIN,’ etc.)…its author’s initials.
“Some readers will wonder why we do not move to full bylines,” note the editors of Democracy in America (henceforth: ‘R.M. – NEW YORK’), Gulliver (‘A.B. – LONDON’), and Free Exchange (‘R.A. – WASHINGTON’) in the Editor’s Note. “We still consider this blog a collective effort, where what is written is more important than who writes it. So we want the focus to remain on the substance of our posts, not our surnames.”
While it’s easy to see the shift as a small-but-definitive step away from Authorial Anonymity, and thus as an acknowledgment by even the most successful of non-bylined outlets that an author’s public identity does, indeed, matter…ultimately, the move was a pragmatic one, says Roger McShane, The Economist’s online U.S. editor and its blogs editor. Readers—and bloggers and Twitterers and Facebookers and the like—increasingly look for individual authors, rather than collective outlets, to cite and link and argue against and engage with online; increasingly, then, The Economist’s editors saw a practical need to distinguish among the merry band of bloggers who are their contributors.
Hence, the initials. “I’m excited to see how people refer to us,” McShane (blogonym: ‘R.M. – NEW YORK’), notes. Still, given the blogs’—and the outlet’s—longstanding anonymity policy, “it was something of a cultural change for us to finally introduce this.”
It will be a change for readers, too. The Economist blogs have thus far embraced—in the name of anonymity, as it were—some of the more quirkily charming naming conventions in the blogosphere: the city-location-as-pseudo-byline, for example, and—most quirkily, and most charmingly—the Clue-like color-coding of bloggers’ identities. As in Democracy in America’s introduction to its liveblog of “Semi-super Tuesday” during the 2008 presidential campaign:
Mar 4th 2008, 23:30 by The Economist | WASHINGTON
GIRD your loins, true believers: The Economist’s elite squad of highly-trained live-bloggers is laying siege to the cable news channels as the results roll in from Texas, Ohio, and maybe even those two other states…. Your snark-force for the evening: Ms Green reporting live for The Economist from the First Church of Obama in Texas; Mr Blue, presumably from holding his breath for a Hillary victory, for Economist.com New York; Mr Red, exposing himself to lethal cathode rays for your edification on behalf of The Economist DC. And me? I am known by many names, in many lands. The !Kung people of the Kalahari know me as “Dances with Pundits”. To the Germans, I am Der Überwonk. But you? You can call me Mr Black, keeping it real for Economist.com DC. Keep your tray tables securely stowed, true believers; here we go.
The point of all the coyness, both then (code names, etc.) and now (initials rather than full bylines, etc.), isn’t necessarily to be secretive about bloggers’ identities— ‘A.B.’ is Adam Barnes, ‘R.A.’ is Ryan Avent, etc.; MI-5 this is not—but rather to be, in a sense, dismissive of those identities. While branded blogs locate both their journalistic authority and their commercial identity in the convergence of producer and product, byline-resistant blogs, implicitly, locate those goods in the product itself. (Again: “We wanted the focus to remain on the substance of each post.”) To read Glenn Greenwald or Andrew Sullivan is to read with an awareness of Greenwald’s legal background or Sullivan’s politics—to consume discourse, in other words, that is both shaded and shielded by the identity of its author. De-bylined pieces, on the other hand, effectively remove the author as a presence—so that all that’s left is the words and facts and ideas themselves.
Put another way, courtesy of commenter Edsor’s reaction to The Economist’s move: “Too many journalists are on an unedifying ego trip.”
Which doesn’t mean everyone’s happy about The Economist’s policy shift. Commenter stealth101, for example:
I for one think that the old policy where only the poster’s city was highlighted was a good option. Over time, I have realized that I find myself inclined to read in detail what the writers I like write in major newspapers and just only gloss over the one’s who I am not particularly fond of. Maybe it is just me who does that.
Reading the blogs at the Economist freed me from those inclinations because the writer’s identity was not revealed. I read posts that I thoroughly disagreed with, but I did read them thoroughly. I can’t say the same thing about the editorials in NYTimes and WSJ because I know what to expect before I read them.
Alas! I will miss those anonymous posts.
It’s a good point—and one that applies just as readily to the bloggers as to their readers. “We hope this anonymity liberates correspondents to write what they think and not worry about how it makes them look to the world,” McShane (as ‘R.M.’) wrote yesterday. He added: “This is a place for individual writers to offer brief thoughts, trial balloons, scratchings on the back of an envelope and the like, and showcases some of the diversity of thought we have on the staff. The paper, by contrast, is what happens when we put all of our heads together, and so should be considered as carrying the full editorial weight of The Economist. We think there is room for both, and hope you agree.”
We do. And it’ll be interesting to see how the changes play out for The Economist and its blogs. Because, though “I’m happy to see that some of our bloggers who have toiled in anonymity for so long will get recognition,” McShane says, what kind of recognition that will be remains to be seen: On the Web, the line between toiling in anonymity and luxuriating in it is a fine one. “A couple of you might take a bit more abuse,” one commenter informed The Economist’s bloggers, “but don’t take it too seriously. After all, most of us commenters don’t sign our names.”
Indeed. The commenter’s byline, in this case? “nameless.”
Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.