We are anonymous
Publishing without author names in the age of social media
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):
Times have changed
And yet. Having made that explanation, let me say that our anonymity is not as comprehensive as it used to be. Twitter tore down the curtain in front of us. But instead of rushing to cover their private parts, many of our journalists have been all too eager to reveal themselves. They use Twitter to post live updates on their reporting, to find contacts and stories, and to discharge their extra thoughts that didn’t make it into the piece they filed. Our journalists and editors are noisy on Twitter, and we love them for it. We believe our stories should still be anonymous — each story is the child of several writers and editors — but the main author can claim it as their own on Twitter and shout about it. We believe there’s a distinction between a story in a publication on the one hand, and the voices of the individuals who bring that title to life on the other.
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:
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.
In summary, although we maintain anonymity in our newspaper, we find that on social media it cannot really hold. And nor should it. We want our journalists to use their voices — to be out in the world, talking and listening to people. Journalists have always turned up to the street where the political rally is happening, and spoken to the people there. They should continue to do the same in the digital town squares we all now use.
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.