Truth: Many early news sources didn’t include a contributor byline because the anonymity made the newsroom seem bigger than it really was. Presenting readers only a story title before diving in was a way to say, “We have tons of qualified journalists, you wouldn’t even understand. Just read.”
According to Emma Duncan, former deputy editor of the Economist, the first issues of the famous publication were penned by founding editor James Wilson himself, though he used plural pronouns like “we” and “our” to come across as a collective authority early on.
The brand has recently established a better website, social media presence, and multiple blogs, and with the changes came writers’ initials (as though that’s a generous unveiling). “Our journalists can and do disagree with each other on our blogs, so we use initials to enable readers to distinguish between different writers,” explains… well, someone at the Economist, apparently in defense of their method. “This approach is not without its faults (we have four staff members with the initials ‘J.P.’, for example) but is the best compromise between total anonymity and full bylines, in our view.”
In other words, if I understand correctly, tradition is worth preserving for tradition’s sake, and if you just wait long enough, you can avoid jumping on trends (like the byline bandwagon) and you’ll reap the benefits of staying true to your heritage. It’s a stretch for me, but I may someday be talked into agreeing with this stance.
Image attribution: Mike Licht
Now what about brands that aren’t 175 years old? Why do some corporate publications still display “Posted by Admin”? No one today cares whether industry-specific thought leadership comes from an enterprise’s CEO or a neighbor, as long as it’s a human. People are simply hungry for an interesting perspective.
To get to the bottom of why the inhuman “Posted by Admin” byline still persists, I caught up with the celebrated Robert Rose, chief strategy advisor at the Content Marketing Institute’s Consulting & Advisory Group. According to him, a writer’s best asset—creative communication—is also his or her biggest liability.
“People are unpredictable. Personally, that’s why I love people. But a brand, understandably, wants to be a reliable force. Steady. Companies work hard to hone their own voice, and it’s a risk to hand over their valuable message to a contributor who’s got their own story,” says Rose. “So I understand the concern. Other reasons include the inability to find top-notch writers they’re proud of or the desire to maintain a cohesive point of view. There are good reasons to keep your corporate blog exactly that—a corporate ‘blog.’ However, those reasons pale in comparison to the skittish dehumanization of your message.”
Image attribution: Jesse Wagstaff
Hearing why brands hesitate is illuminating, but I wanted more. What’s a benefit of crediting corporate reporters with a cutline signature? To answer that, Rose delighted me with a story.
“When you hear the famous saying ‘Time is money,’ you may agree the concept is nice. But when you realize the celebrated Ben Franklin himself first monetized the phrase, a new level of appreciation emerges. This man grew up penniless, but eventually became a famous scientist, publisher, diplomat and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Oh, he also invented the public library, bifocals, the odometer, and more,” says Rose with a smile. “Perhaps America’s first individual content marketer. I, for one, am glad he got a byline.”
Image attribution: Daniel X. O’Neil
“Imagine, today, someone finds your corporate content platform and realizes your content is insightful,” says Rose. “It’s quotable, sharable, even remarkable. The only problem: There’s no human behind it. Why would they take the extra step to send it along to their professional peers? That’s what’s wrong with the subtitle ‘Posted by Admin.’ There’s no story. No narrative. No reason to care.”
The Economist is by no means the only major publication to reject the signature line on stories. Most news outlets kept their reporting impersonal in the early days. But near the turn of the century, a few yeasty editors started looking at their readers’ experience without losing grip of their rigid obligation to “objective reporting.”
And only then did things start to change.
“Just as it pays the proprietor of a theatre to engage actors and actresses who are known and liked, so it pays a newspaper to have known names appear in its columns,” wrote then-head of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in December 1898. In fact, he goes on to assert delightedly, “Some enterprising editors advertise their writers. More than that, they are bringing new writers to the front by giving signature to the younger men. ‘My idea,’ said one of them, ‘is to bring bright men and women out. Every reader one of them gains is a [new] reader of the paper, so long as I keep the man…’”
For the first time, the audience’s experience was being considered important, even as paramount as the commitment to truthful, unbiased storytelling. In the past, outlets had assumed you could only provide one or the other.
And today, some brands still assume the same.
Ernest Hemingway, of all people, is credited as the first to use the term by-line in print, and not until his 1926 The Sun Also Rises. Then, the practice exploded. By the 1970s there was a signature line on every nugget of news except the quick wire clips, allowing readers to consume and parse more critically. The masses loved the personalization so much that news outlets felt pressure to produce more prolific, thought-provoking, human writers. News was no longer their only product.
The burden motivated an odd market to take root, and technological advances fertilized the weed. In 2012, Sara Koenig uncovered Journatic and its sister brand Blockshopper, platforms that supplied major publications low-cost, hyper-local stories written by contributors thousands of miles away—often in the Philippines. And while the content itself (often basic crime logs or neighborhood “junior high student of the week profiles”) didn’t cause much of a stir, the use of fake pseudonyms really did. After all, these articles were appearing in papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle.
David Beebe broke the fourth wall at June 2017’s brand storytelling event Forward when he addressed the crowd with a pointed question. “How many people in this room, raise your hand if you consider yourself a media company,” he said. There was an awkward pause. “See, I think everyone here should have their hands up,” he urged. “Everyone is a media company in a certain way.”
Image attribution: Bethany Johnson
In other words, your brand’s story is already being told. Your job is to ensure it’s being told well. And hand-picked, articulate, informed, esteemed creatives are the best ones to make that happen.
But before looking around for strategists and contributors for your corporate publications, take a moment to consider the role of trust. Your readers’ trust in governments, traditional media, and institutions is on the decline, and these days, you can’t blame the leery multitudes. The void is nothing short of a remarkable opportunity for brands to step in. On the other hand, to chime in anonymously is usually not to chime in at all.
So before trying to gain readers’ trust, answer this: who do you trust?
Image attribution: John Pastor
“Choosing contributors who’ve already established themselves as thought leaders in the space can be the best move,” says Rose. “They’re likely to bring a fresh perspective you hadn’t thought of, and their eagerness to cross-promote can familiarize their audiences with your brand in a trusting way. Because on your own, you’ll need months or years of vocal reporting to establish yourself. Borrow someone else’s ideas to join the conversation instead of trying to start it.”
Or, for an even better website experience, pull back the curtain and give your audiences a rare look inside the operative adventure.
“Another great option is to invite people in your engine’s inner cogs,” advises Rose. “Give the analyst a voice. Let your sales guys weigh in. Or ask accounts receivable to pitch an angle. Dip into the talent pool you already love and trust.”
I asked whether that wouldn’t be another sort of gamble. “Sure,” he smiled. “You’ll find a few duds, but you may also uncover an incredible writer who didn’t even know she had a story to tell.”
Finally, a regular contribution is more valuable than the occasional guest post. Ask your storytellers to brainstorm and co-create with you regularly so readers can tune in for a predictably delightful experience. After all, when ol’ Ben said time is money, the context tells us he did not mean “hurry up.” Instead, the lesson was clear: Consistent investments pay off.
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Featured image attribution: Andrew Malone