Whose News Story Is It Anyway – A Reporter Or An Organisation’s?

Reading Time: 9min

For Shiba Kurian, deputy news editor at The News Minute (TNM), the story of Kerala interfaith couples harassed by right wing vigilantes using marriage notices is memorable. Not only did she break the story on July 20, 2020, she earned two bylines for it. One, obviously at TNM and the other, surprisingly, at The Wire. The latter ran her ‘scoop’ word-by-word, crediting Kurian as the author at the beginning of the article and TNM as the original publisher at the end. If you are a journalist, like I am, you would know it is a big deal to get a byline on your competitor’s website, and if you are not, just know that it really is! Hear it from Bengaluru-based Kurian, “Of course, The Wire took our permission before running the story. I thought they would credit TNM and that’s about it. But to see my byline right on top and not woven into the article in passing, was wow! I have not seen that happen before.”

Four years ago, reporter Arpita Raj was equally thrilled when TNM reproduced her Times of India (TOI) report by crediting her name next to her employer’s in the first line of their article. Raj recalls, “My editor came and told me, ‘This is surprising. Other outlets hardly ever mention the byline of reporters outside theirs’.” So, you see, the news media has a reputation of not giving the byline where it is due. In fact, The New York Times (NYT) is regularly called out for scooping up the work of other journalists, without giving them a byline or even a backlink. For the original reporters to get credited for their work in adapted, reproduced, follow-up, aggregated stories is an exception, not the rule.

I wonder about this even more because if some media organisations can go as far as crediting the rival with backlinked-memos like “as quoted by XYZ media”, what stops them from attributing the reporter behind it? I say ‘some’ because most bury that credit under jargons like “according to reports” while a few steal the story and peddle it as their “exclusive”.

This issue that I am exploring is multi-layered and one feeds off the other. 1) It is about how news bylines are becoming dispensable. 2) It is a question of who the story belongs to – the organisation or the organisation and the reporter put together. Ask yourself how would newspapers, TV, and websites run only Coronavirus-related stories day in, day out, for months,  if  their reporters did not risk their lives to go to hospitals, migrant camps, and on roads? 3) It is about how digital and TV reports build upon a newspaper story to earn more traction. 4) It is the narrative of national/celebrity journalists versus local reporters from towns, where the latter often works harder on the ground for half the fame and salary of the former. 5) It is about the divide between the English versus the regional media, “Farmer suicide, agriculture distress stories almost always break in the vernacular press – very few major newspapers have a rural affairs editor now,” V Govind, who’s led print and digital news teams, makes a case. 6) Are all bylines worthy of citation? Should that be reserved for big political, crime, social, or investigative stories such as The Jungle Prince of Delhi by NYT’s Ellen Barry, or do civic reports and lifestyle features matter too? 7) Is citation a matter of ethics or can it be standardised? 

The more you think about bylines, the more you see what is lacking in the system. That could be due to the disputed history of the byline. It has always been the elephant in the room and even dubbed as an unnecessary exercise in feeding the reporter’s inflated ego.

Newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was one of the first who supported the idea for giving reporters bylines. AP (1935)

Bylines – The Past And Present

The modern newspaper started in 1605, Germany when Johann Carolus published ‘Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien‘ (Account of all distinguished and commemorable stories). There was no trace of authorship for a long time. But, by the late 1800s, journalists started signing their articles occasionally, and calling them ‘signed articles’. In fact, in 1863, Union General Joseph Hooker mandated reporters covering the American Civil War to sign their articles so he would know whom to blame for errors or security violations. Bylines would appear three centuries later. The first Associated Press story with a byline appeared in 1925. Next year, the word was entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, and by the turn of the century, it had permeated magazines and newspapers. They had gone from commemorating opinion, exclusive, and special pieces by senior editors and the erudite to topping daily news by reporters of all ranks, along with their bio and photographs on some websites. 

Bylines took a long time to come because of beliefs such as ‘News is more important than who writes it’, ‘News does not belong to anyone in particular’, and ‘the institution is bigger than the individual’. According to 2012 Reuters article by Jack Shafer, the anti-byline editors argued that ‘the business of the (news)paper must be absolutely impersonal; in the case of signed articles, the writer thinks first of himself, in the other case, he thinks first of his subject,’ and that anonymity enabled critics to express their real convictions fearlessly. However, the pro-byline brigade felt that ‘anonymity deprives the writer of all responsibility and occasionally leads to political dishonesty’ whereas attribution gives writers dedicated readers, recognition, and the drive to be responsible for every story and every word that they publish. I can vouch for the last bit. An ex-colleague was penalised on Twitter for writing a human-interest story that spread like wildfire but turned out to be false – a few even wanted her sacked for that mistake. 

However, The Economist is an outlier in the modern world, running no-byline stories since 1843. Its anonymity has been snubbed by some as a marketing gimmick to promote the brand over its journalists. But the team at The Economist stands by its core belief that the news is not authorial, it is a collaborative process, involving reporters who gather news, copy editors who plug loopholes in the reports, designers who make the content reader-friendly, and editors who pass the final reports. As much as I agree with The Economist’s stance, I would like to remind you that their no-byline policy is an exception in the news publishing industry and not the norm. So for the purpose of this article, I have tried to focus on the gap in the present system, which is, why bylines have become throwaway titles. 

New Delhi-based media researcher Cyril Sam puts it in the Indian context. “When Majethia Wage Board moved the Supreme Court of India (with recommendations on the working rights of journalists like hire-and-fire policies, number of working hours, etc), big media houses like the Times Of India and The Hindu got testy. So in 2014, they decided to shift to a contract-based employment. They said that they would offer bigger salary packages to journalists than the wage board, and more bylines, which would essentially increase their market value to some extent. Journalists, of course, took up the offer because they were not paid well that time (and even today). So the news industry itself devalued the importance of bylines, making it commonplace and available even to interns doing routine municipal stories.” The result is “crediting the original reporter is nobody’s concern. If anything, everybody wants their byline now,” he says cynically. 

The byline war is a fairly new phenomenon, an outcome of the digital age, says Sam. Because back in the day of newspapers, bylines were a rarity, reserved only for special and exclusive reports. So there were fewer chances of usurping someone’s credit. And why journalists like Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, and Faye D’Souza have strong byline recalls, it is, of course, because of their work but also the visibility that TV brought them, so much so that they are deemed bigger than the brands they work for or run. 

‘anonymity deprives the writer of all responsibility and occasionally leads to political dishonesty’

The Change Must Come From Within

With the chequered history of bylines out of the way, I decided to call up fellow journalists to understand if they cared about ‘due credit’. A senior journalist from Bengaluru Kumaran P acknowledged that a reporter’s primary concern is with the stories and the impact that they have on society, however, he does agree that, “big, national stories are often built upon the legwork done by city reporters, and they must be credited in such cases.”

Hyderabad-based senior features writer Neha Jha is clear that reporters deserve the credit alongside their publications, because can one function without the other? She is particularly livid about the lazy trend of rewriting viral news stories and features without giving the right attribution, but blames it to the pressures of a digital newsroom where one needs to file at least five stories a day. But should you find your hard work, ‘your scoop’ stolen, you should fight for your byline, she urges all the journalists. “In 2016, a digital media picked up my exclusive interview with Deadpool actor Karan Soni and rewrote it without even backlinking my work. Since they had a wider reach than a newspaper would, everybody thought they cracked the interview. I was upset because I had worked hard for it, right from tracking his agency in the US to finally getting through. So I shot an email to its editor. I did not get a mention but they directed the credit back to the organisation I used to work for. Not sure if I was fully happy about it,” she recalls. 

A few of my stories have been quoted and redrafted too and I remember how proudly I would inform my editor the number of media organisations that picked it up. Our only concern was whether or not they provided a backlink or brand’s name, and criticising them, if they did not. On the other hand, I am also guilty of spinning follow-ups and new angles, overlooking the original author. 

So why am I bringing up this issue now? Because the ongoing pandemic has brought the news media in India, especially the print, down to its knees and, with that, threatened the prospects of many journalists. I have been out of job for over five months, and staring at the layoffs happening in the Indian media right now gives me little hope of returning to the newsroom soon. I don’t want to, and I hope I do not have to, start my career as a content writer or PR official, which is what a lot of members in the fraternity have now been forced into to survive. I am instead trying to learn the ropes of SEO and click-bait writing, video storytelling, Content Management System, podcasting, social media engagement, and even coding to keep myself relevant in the ever-changing world of news operation. But I am a reporter first and my professional identity, my byline, my resume is as good as the stories I put out. So I am trying to freelance stories with a hope that they become the talking point on social media and among editors; that they help me stay in the race when the job market starts looking up. Wishful thinking, maybe, but in the wake of diminishing jobs, I admit it has come down to building a solid ‘personal brand’ and your byline plays a key role there, along with your skills, work ethic, and network. Case in point is how journalists are increasingly declaring their authorship on social media with reminders such as ‘Find my story’, ‘I write’ or ‘I interviewed’.

Govind, who inspired this story, says that when news explodes, nothing else matters. Reporter and photo credits become small issues. And to track which media organisations are recycling your story, on which platforms – their website, TV, or social media accounts, and to what extent, is not easy. “Now news is even breaking on Instagram,” he comments on how the modes of news dissemination have changed and grown in number, rendering news organisations too busy to pay attention to matters such as bylines. “They may take action only if their report has been reproduced or stolen,” he says. So reporters should stay alert and pick up battles when they can, he suggests. 

But change has begun, even if it is not systematic, and he is hoping we can maintain the momentum. “For the first time in history, you can follow a journalist whose work you like. Will Twitter handles become more powerful than bylines? Internationally, when CNN picks up a newspaper story, it interviews the reporters who uncovered stories around Donald Trump,” he notes. Meanwhile, at TNM, if writers cannot verify a piece of information independently, they have been instructed to cite the original reporter who got that quote, Kurian tells me. 

To sum up, I would like to rehash the famous memo sent by NYT’s standards editor Phil Corbett to his journalists in 2019 to practice hyperlinking by default. I seek that too, along with the practice of citing the original byline. It is free and easy – until it is a multi-byline story or if a dozen organisations have weighed in on the topic. Readers, who follow bylines, like it. It deepens our journalism and may increase our audience (by SEO). Our journalistic colleagues appreciate it. Why should we not do it?

Barkha Kumari is a freelance journalist and a blogger from Bangalore.

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