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March 4, 2011, 6 p.m.

Why the NYT Mag’s editor credits are a great idea

“I would make it illegal to reveal the names of editors if I were dictator of the world,” says Jack Shafer, reacting to the New York Times Magazine’s introduction of editor credits to its features. The move, he notes, is among other things, reflective of something nefarious: “the growing fetishization of credit-making and -taking in our culture.”

Sure. But wait a second: Is the magazine giving its editors credits or bylines?

That’s not just a semantic distinction. Because it comes down to the difference between taking credit for stories and demonstrating accountability for them. To news-nerd out for a moment: Bylines, though they didn’t arrive in standard form until the professionalization period of the 1920s and 1930s, emerged as appendices to journalistic narratives around the Civil War period — not as a way to give authors credit for their work, but as a way to hold them accountable for it. The line between journalism and fabulism, back then, wasn’t as stark as the Super Sharpied one we draw today; bylines were initially a means of, essentially, tracing the origins of printed exaggerations and lies back to a single source.

Today, bylines — while, sure, they’re also about crediting authorship — still carry that accountability function. While they’re not about tracing the origins of made-up news stories (um, we hope), they are about providing source material for stories — metadata, essentially, in analog form.

And, when it comes to stories’ editorial processes, that info is nice to have, for a few reasons. First is the obvious: Editors, like writers, have their own styles and voices that insinuate themselves, in ways both big and subtle, into drafts of journalism. For a reader, it’s instructive, and interesting, to know who it was who helped the writer guide a story into its final form. Second, yep, the credit thing: It’s nice to give editors a little nod for the work they do — to rescue them, just a little bit, from the obscurity of anonymity.

Much, much more importantly, though: Bylines for the editor are a gesture of respect to the reader. They’re saying, “I care enough about your intelligence, and care enough about winning your trust, that I’m trying to give you as much background information as I can about my work. Without, you know, being annoying about it.”

In survey after survey, after all, Americans rank their esteem for journalists way below the meager respect they hold for lawyers and tax collectors. (And once puppy-kickers and granny-robbers professionalize, they’ll rank journos below them, too.) The reasons for the media-directed misanthropy are many, and way beyond the auspices of a blog post; but one of the biggest and most obvious is the public perception of journalistic entitlement when it comes to truth itself. And that’s the way it is, etc. Journalists see themselves as — pride themselves on — telling the tales of human events as honestly as they can; their audiences, though, tend to resent the implication of nepotism between a profession and reality. A monthly paycheck from The New York Times Company, they seem to feel, is not an inside track to truth.

But journalists, of course, the good ones, are anything but cavalier about the responsibilities their jobs give them. They often agonize over finding just the right framing — just the right image, just the right word — that will tell their stories in the most accurate, evocative way possible. They go through drafts. They go through second drafts. And thirds. And fourths. Journo Agonistes. Because they really do care.

Credits-for-editors are a small — okay, tiny — nod to that investment. They’re a reminder to the reader of the dynamic elements of journalism — that news isn’t simply a product, rendered in the head of Zeus and then delivered upon us, fully formed, from Mt. Olympus. Journalism is a process, a practice, a series of negotiations and conversations — and something that is, at its best, a labor of love.

Will editorial credits do anything to raise the overall public perception of journalists? Nope, probably not. But, just maybe, they’ll remind people of the work that goes into works of journalism themselves. “There’s a symbolic aspect to it,” new NYT mag editor Hugo Lindgren told AdWeek of the credit additions, and they’re certainly a step in the right direction. This post, by the way, was edited by Joshua Benton. Who loves puppies. Thanks.

POSTED     March 4, 2011, 6 p.m.
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