Why authors of newspaper editorials don’t take credit
I have a question about bylines. Why does The Washington Post editorial page, where I often read interesting points of view that I would like to investigate further, not identify the authors?
— Dave Barrish, Rockville
Answer Man supposes that the one-word answer is “tradition.” But that just raises the question of where that tradition comes from.
Before we go any further, remember that the editorial pages — at the back of the A section in the printed newspaper — are different from the news pages. The news pages are meant to be objective, free from opinion. (Except for columns, of course.) Editorials are opinions that articulate a point of view and often recommend a course of action.
“The thing that surprises people most about editorials is how much reporting goes into them,” Fred Hiatt, editor of The Post’s editorial page, wrote in an e-mail. (He was on vacation when Answer Man pestered him.) “To write a good 500word editorial you have to learn as much as if you were writing a long feature; then you have to figure out what’s really important, and distill what you’ve learned for your reader.”
The editorial board meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings to discuss topics they might take on. Attendees include Hiatt and the five fulltime editorial writers, along with cartoonist Tom Toles and the opinion editors. (Post publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. generally attends the Monday meeting.)
“Our board members do not agree on everything,” Hiatt wrote. “Our arguments ideally lead to better editorials; whatever position we take, the debate forces us to acknowledge and respond to the best case on the other side.”
When topics are selected, writers are assigned. Each writer pens three to five editorials a week. Hiatt said no one has to write something that he or she disagrees with.
With all the work involved, you’d think they’d want their names on the darn things. But no. Editorial writers write in the name of The Washington Post, with an institutional identity, not a personal one.
In the case of The Post, Hiatt said, that identity includes “a commitment to human rights and civil liberties, at home and around the world; to a role for government in helping the poor and widening opportunity; to free trade and humane capitalism; to a robust U.S. role internationally in helping to keep the peace and stand with the forces of freedom against authoritarians of all stripes.”
Another reason editorials do not have bylines, Hiatt noted, is that “they truly are products of our group process.”
There is a certain elevated quality to editorials, in that they speak not for a single person but for The Paper. There was a time when The Paper was synonymous with the person who owned it, which was usually the person who served as its editor.
Editorials in 19th-century newspapers were unsigned, but there was generally no doubt about the author, said Michael
Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University. “It was the editor/ publisher of the paper,” he wrote in an e-mail to Answer Man. “It was Horace Greeley or James Gordon Bennett and newspapers were understood to speak for these editors.”
Schudson wrote that “as newspapers grew and publishers were much more rarely also editors, publishers appointed editorial-page editors who would reflect their general views.” He added that “the continued anonymity of the editorials suggests that the editorial is some kind of collective judgment that the reputation of the newspaper as an institution stands behind.”
As press critic Jack Shafer put it in a lively 2012 examination of bylines for Reuters: By being unsigned, editorials come across as something “too important to have been written by mortals.”
But it wasn’t just the editorials that were unsigned back in the 19th century.
Everything was unsigned. Bylines on news stories are a somewhat recent invention.
Schudson looked at a week’s worth of New York Times front pages every four years from 1920 to 1944. There were six front-page stories with bylines in the week he examined in 1920, 37 in 1944.
“By the 1960s, almost all front-page stories were bylined,” he wrote.
That was the case at The Post, too. On July 26, 1920, two of 17 front-page stories had bylines. On July 26, 1960, six of the 10 stories on A1 were bylined. Answer Man doesn’t know how many stories are on A1 today, but he’s pretty sure every one will have a name attached.
There is one place where the veil of editorial anonymity is lifted. That’s in the Pulitzer Prizes, the Academy Awards of journalism. Submissions in the Editorial Writing category are nearly always entered in the name of the person who wrote them.
Curious about the inner workings of some Washington institution? Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.