We are anonymous

Publishing without author names in the age of social media

Adam Smith
Aug 22, 2016 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Alamy

Most of our articles don’t carry a byline to identify the author. Why is that?

Although our founding editor James Wilson wrote the first few issues of The Economist almost entirely by himself, today the paper has around 100 journalists and editors. To this day, we do not have bylines. Anonymity allows us to continue to speak with a single voice.

This raises a curious question in the age of social media: when we tweet from @TheEconomist to share a story, whose voice are we adopting? Wilson’s? Our current editor’s? The imagined erudite and omnipotent figure who sits on a cloud and proposes structural reform as a solution to most countries’ economic woes? It’s definitely not the latter. Instead, it is the voice of our editorial staff, especially those who have contributed to the article in question. Leaders are discussed and debated each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. Our articles are the work of The Economist’s hive mind, rather than of a single author. Similarly our tweets are collaborative, gradually refined through a process involving at least one writer and two editors.

Our anonymity may make us look a little eccentric, but historically, anonymity was a common convention at many newspapers. That may be because of the belief, still held at The Economist as the main reason for our anonymity, that what is written is more important than who writes it. As a paper that applies a set of clear principles to everything we cover, we believe it’s easier to do that consistently with a single voice — and that it is fairer to our readers. We’ve been clear since day one that we are a liberal newspaper, and that we apply our values to everything from people to commerce. Here’s an excerpt from our first edition in 1843, showing just how clear we’ve been about our guiding principles (there are 13 in this list):

Image for post
Image for post

Times have changed

These voices also feature on the five podcasts we make every week, another area where our veil of anonymity has slipped. Listeners can tune in to hear our US editor describe what it was like in the crowd at the Republican convention as Donald Trump was named the party’s presidential candidate. The podcasts give an insight into the kind of ‘severe contest’ we play in our editorial meetings, as our senior editor Anne McElvoy debates with our writers about the pieces they’ve been working on. And we’ve also experimented with Facebook Live: one of my favourite things to do is to point a camera at an editor and ask them questions submitted live from readers. We hope it’s clear that they’re speaking as an expert journalist, but that the leader articles we publish in The Economist are our newspaper’s official line on the subject we cover.

In a way, author names also appear on our blogs, such as Democracy in America — if you look closely enough. A few years ago we decided to start using initials as bylines on our blog posts, to avoid confusion on our multi-author blogs. Using a kind of byline also helps to account for the fact that sometimes two writers blog opposing views on the same subject, or a writer throws out a provocative argument that wouldn’t appear in The Economist. When we share such blog posts on social media, we flag up the fact that it comes from a particular journalist. For example:

Image for post
Image for post

This kind of tweet frees the journalist (in this case Philip Coggan, or @EconButtonwood) to explore ideas that wouldn’t make it into the newspaper, but it’s also an example of how tweeting makes our writers more accountable. In general this is a good thing. But on the internet, accountability brings out the trolls. Anonymity thus helps us to reduce our journalists’ exposure to trolls. We are not afraid of criticism — we welcome it, as Rachel Lloyd explained in an earlier post. But trolls are people who go beyond criticism, hurling insults at journalists for covering a certain topic or taking a certain angle on it. Our journalists are comfortable when critics point out factual errors or engage in a debate about interpretations of the facts, but they should not be subject to personal abuse. So keeping the bulk of our stories anonymous goes some way to protecting our journalists from vicious tweets or comments. Again, this is probably not something Wilson had in mind in 1843 when he decided not to use bylines in his new newspaper.

Identity crisis

At the same time, we hope that continuing to use a single voice for the bulk of our stories helps us cut through the noise of social media in a distinctive way. But this requires us to adapt our single voice: fortunately our writing style has become crisper since 1843. (George Orwell didn’t write his six rules on writing, which we adopted for our style book, until 1946.) But emoji didn’t exist in 1946 or 1843 — and now we sometimes use them. The game of social media is to experiment, measure, adapt and repeat. It will be fascinating to see where this newspaper is in another 173 years. We won’t be here then, just as Wilson isn’t here now. But the tradition of anonymity he upheld will probably have survived—and evolved.

Adam Smith is deputy community editor at The Economist.

Severe Contest

Insights from The Economist’s digital playbook

Adam Smith

Written by

Writer, talker, thinker and maker. Podcasting @ The Log Books and Karl’s Kaschemme.

Severe Contest

Insights from The Economist’s digital playbook

Adam Smith

Written by

Writer, talker, thinker and maker. Podcasting @ The Log Books and Karl’s Kaschemme.

Severe Contest

Insights from The Economist’s digital playbook

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store