Learn what is a byline in journalism and how to write one.
A byline in journalism informs an audience of who reported and wrote the story they are reading. It refers to the publishing of the author’s name on the article they wrote. The most common position for a byline is fixed between the story’s headline and its opening paragraph. However, some magazine articles place the byline at the bottom of the page or article.
The Origin Of The Byline
Byline (or by-line) first entered the lexicon of the English language in one of Ernest Hemmingway’s best books from 1926, The Sun Also Rises.
His description fits in with the typical definition of a byline: a writer’s name being attributed to a news story.
A passage within the book reads, “He sat in the outer room and read the papers, and the Editor and Publisher and I worked hard for two hours. Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of manila envelopes.”
Although the word ‘byline’ didn’t exist in print before then, the concept of journalists putting their names to stories they wrote did. Article bylines are linked back to the American Civil War. Back then, it was a means to ensure there was accountability for a reporter who gave away vital information.
Reporter Ted Fraser touched upon this point in an article entitled ‘To Understand the History of Journalism, Look Down’.
He wrote: “After one newspaper published a piece “that contained information about the size and location of the Army of the Potomac,” Union general Joseph Hooker complained to the Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, General Order №48 came into effect, “requiring all reporters with the Army of the Potomac to publish their communications over their own signatures.”
That requirement ensured that journalists had to put their signature to stories. Of course, this was for accountability and not all reporters were happy with the process.
In fact, as Fraser later states, French publication Le National argued against the idea. It stated that “the press (…) has to be anonymous. We do not want that a government, if it makes mistakes, only needs to face an individual and powerless opinion; it must face a collective expression”. You might also be wondering, what does off the record mean and what is beat in journalism?
The Byline And Its Critics
Since then that hasn’t been the case, as the byline has grown as a means to keep journalists accountable, but also as a means to increase the profile and give credit to the author of an article.
It could be argued that a writer being willing to stand by his story with his published attribution could add authority to a story. However, there is the opposing argument that publishing the writer’s name removes the air of objectivity within the news space.
Adolph Ochs, (1858-1935), owner and publisher of the New York Times, was not a fan of the byline.
It read: “Adolph had an ironclad policy on who got individual credit at the New York Times, insisting that ‘the business of the paper must be absolutely impersonal.”
Even then, other publications heralded the idea of bylines as they believed that they could build a following for their writers and increase demand. However, what became more commonplace was the middle ground. Publications who believe that bylines should be reserved only for outstanding work or stories that are featured on the front page.
However, those days are gone, and now bylines are dominant in newspaper copy. Jack Shafer linked this development to the 1970s in an article he wrote for Reuters.
It read: “At some point… every newspaper story… was deemed worthy of byline commemoration. Bylines on wire service stories, which newspapers routinely cut to distinguish their home-built stories from the conveyor belt of the wires, now appear regularly in many newspapers.
“Just about the only places you won’t find a byline in a modern newspaper these days is the tiny wire story, which a byline tends to make typographically top-heavy, and editorials…”
Different Styles of Bylines
Putting the writer’s name to the article is virtually universal in all forms of contemporary print journalism. How, the process in which bylines can be attributed is not, with several different styles at play.
For instance, some bylines are accompanied by the news reporter’s position within the organization. An example is ‘By Matt Stout, Boston Globe Staff Writer’.
With other organizations, the byline is simply ‘by’, followed by the name. That is the way the Associated Press publishes its bylines.
Bylines can also be accompanied by datelines, which is a line at the beginning of an article that simply states the origin and date of the story. Whether the byline and dateline is written in capital letters is entirely up to the publication’s style.
Sometimes a byline includes a brief description of the article. An example of this type of byline would be: ”Staff writer Jacinta Henry examines what it takes to become a broadcast journalist in America”.
Magazine bylines and opinion pieces may have a short piece of biographical information about the writer and the article. This would look like this: ‘After working for 30 years as a broadcast journalist, Jacinta Henry discusses how the role has changed through the years’.
Nowadays, on online articles, bylines often feature a hyperlink that links to the article’s writers’ previous stories on a separate page within the website.
Whether you support bylines or not, there is little doubt that they are here to stay. In today’s era of misinformation, that is a good thing. Journalists should have to stand by what they are writing and distributing to the public.
Not only that, but they should also get credit for their work. Bylines ensure that newspaper and print newsrooms are kept accountable, but it also ensures that newsrooms get the credit they deserve when they do the work.