The fluctuating fashions of byline use

To give or not to give a byline is an existential question. The use of bylines has waxed and waned over the years.
T.C.A SRINIVASA RAGHAVAN chronicles the passing fads
The fluctuating fashions of byline use

There is a school in Delhi, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, which, when I attended it in the early 1960s, didn’t give prizes to students who won school competitions. It gave certificates to all participants.

The students hated it because they wanted differential recognition. But the school said it was rewarding effort, not performance. It didn’t care that this placed its students at a disadvantage vis-a- vis other schools which continued to award performance.

Not having been a great competitive performer either in school or college, I didn’t give this much thought until I became a journalist. One of the first things I noticed was the way the newspapers awarded performance – by letting the reporter’s name be printed above the story. The byline, as it is called, meant the editor was pleased with the performance.  This happened very rarely so it was something to be treasured.

At the same time, I also discovered the London Economist which gave bylines only when a book by one of its staffer’s was being reviewed. This was done in order to build the Economist brand, rather than the reporters’ personal ones.

In contrast, in America, publications are very generous with bylines. Everyone gets one, including now the sub-editors. That has tended to devalue the byline as a reward. But in America money has always been a better measure of outstanding performance than tokens like certificates or bylines.

In India, the 1980s saw an explosion in magazine journalism and bylines. The magazines also paid much more money. They were rewarding performance and effort both, not just one or the other.

The Aiyar Approach

In 1988, Swaminathan Aiyar became editor of the Financial Express. He at once decided to follow the magazine practice, at least where bylines were concerned. His logic was that this would enable name-recognition in the ministries and companies which the reporters were covering, thus enabling access.

It would also increase accountability and reporters, even while re-writing press releases, would take more pains. This was entirely justified because I, like countless others of my generation, have seen, on dozens of occasions, ‘Special Correspondents’ simply tearing off the copy from the ticker, writing ‘By Our Special Correspondent’ on top, and coolly handing it to the desk, which would then mark the paragraphs and send it down for composing. That’s how lazy everyone was.

The reporters went up in vociferous protest, but not because they also wanted money in the manner of the magazines or because they didn’t like the idea of being recognised in their beats. Swami asked me to find out why they were so upset and it turned out that reporters who were filing press releases didn’t want to be exposed as being the lazy fellows they were.

They said they looked “foolish” to colleagues in other papers who teased them about taking bylines for press releases. (The Hindi expression used was more colourful). In anonymity lay safety, especially at the Press Club and the PIB lounge.

Throughout the 1990s, the old practice of newspapers being ‘careful’ with bylines continued and order was restored. But the best reporters started drifting off to the magazines and TV news which was in its infancy then and willing to pay even more than the magazines. Not only did you get your name on the screen but people also saw your face.

Newspapers suffered as a result. Old talent fled and new talent didn’t come. Nevertheless, they plodded on. Low pay, poor recognition of their reporters and lack of glamour seemed like the most sensible policy to them. Even the Times of India deviated only very slightly from this principle.

Compensation for low pay and low self-esteem

But things have changed in the last few years. Most newspaper now offer bylines even for reporting press releases and I don’t see any reporters protesting. Even the Hindu which used to be very parsimonious with bylines now gives them for everything. In fact, you have to ask if you don’t want a byline, a custom which was practised in the past only when the editor wrote a story.

The reporters, meanwhile, seem to have decided that a byline, no matter how undeserved, is a decent substitute for low pay and low self-esteem caused by the low priority that print has for most organisations in the government and the private sector.

That’s where things stand now and I would say the time when bylines were given only for ‘Exclusives’ is now long gone. Print has no choice but to put down the name of every reporter and even the sub-editor who edits the copy so that blame and credit can be equally shared. Some of the foreign news agencies already do this.

If nothing else, it makes the reporters and subs more careful while re-writing press releases.

Payment and credibility paradox

To conclude, I just want to point out a very perverse outcome in the media the world over: credibility and its discontents.

There is almost no one I know who does not acknowledge that print is the most credible of the three platforms available today – digital news, TV and print. Yet, consumers of news are not willing to pay for this credibility, which means the owners of newspapers get less revenue than TV. They therefore are able to pay very little to the very journalists who are the most credible. This is the paradox the media faces today.

At the same time TV, despite its utter lack of credibility, is able to pay much larger salaries. It is its reach that matters, never mind its veracity or completeness.  

The exception is digital where no one gets anything at all. The consumer wants everything for free and there are enough sources willing to give him or her that until they fold up and disappear. Meanwhile, even the most famous bylines when they write on digital platforms get paid next to nothing.

To add insult to pecuniary injury they lose their credibility when they go on TV because TV news is often alarmingly stupid and designed for the greater glory of the anchor.


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