Bylines, author pages, and anonymity - an underrated asset for publishers

By: Rob Corbidge, 25 May 2023

Watercolor illustration  of a writer's notebook with a question mark drawn inside

Bylines are a little unloved for anything other than their basic purpose. Are publishers ignoring a way of adding authority to their content?

Byline banditry has long been a feature of journalism and content production.  

Success having many parents, and failure being an orphan, the urge felt by many self-respecting journalists to append their name to content wherever possible is an understandable one. 

The classic example - which I and other Glide staff have definitely been victim of, in our junior days in newsrooms - is of all the hard miles being completed by a junior reporter, only to have a senior name give it the final polish and stick their name on it at the top.

In a world where Managing Editors may check byline counts as a reference for productivity, such underhandedness could be a condition of survival.

There's more to it than that of course. A byline is still a thing to be proud of and every journalist I know can remember their very first one.

Most publishers prioritise brand over individuality, a strategy that reminds me of a policeman friend who observed, "If they see the uniform, they don't see your face." For the most part, this is sensible, even as we see the rise of "personality journalists", a strong brand can generate genuine long-term loyalty and navigate difficult waters in a way a collection of individuals never could.

Even if we assume brand is bigger than journalist for most publishers, is enough made of bylines? Wary as I am of using The New York Times as an example of much in publishing - not because they are bad, just that the NYT experience is very different to most publishing realities - an announcement of enhanced bylines being brought into production by the NYT does seem relatable to a wider consideration.

Such enhanced bylines in the case of the NYT are being used to highlight presence and effort. If they have a journalist on the ground reporting directly from a story, there are circumstances in which a reader could be reassured from knowing that. 

Likewise, if efforts have been spent for example in working up a story involving historical records research, then the value in the work of that reporter to the reader can be made plain. It also serves to remind the reader why they are paying for the product.

Technically, in a flexible and headless CMS such as GPP, utilising a field for this purpose isn't complex. More challenging is the use to which it is put. 

A click-through byline to other articles written by the same journalist is now reasonably standard and is of clear utility in driving extra traffic. A lot of sites, such as The Wall Street Journal or The South China Morning Post, carry short professional biographies for news writers on the byline click-through, explaining their credentials, and other information such as their social media and so on.

There's a clear value in this, not least after Google in its omniscience stressed Experience as a quality factor announcement in December last year.

Personally, I do value such biographical details. If I read a strong piece of reporting or come across a new idea adroitly expressed, or just delight in some good writing, then I want to have an idea who is behind it.

A caution though, such biographical fields, once filled out, can stay filled out the same way forever. In most cases, that may be acceptable, however, making a journalist or content creator see the value of such biographical information, and take ownership of its maintenance, is the right way to go. It's not a completely static asset, to use dev talk. 

A procedure for updating when someone leaves is also highly desirable of course, and some guidelines for the type of details people are expected to share.

There's also still a place for no bylines at all, or at least not in the 'proper' sense. Some people can't use their real names, for a variety of reasons; some content, such as the classic political diary where multiple smaller pieces of content are grouped and rumours and attributable comments can be surfaced, serve a good purpose under a collective nom de plume.

Google can take our experience and mine it for their own gold, but they'll never take our gossip.