One of the many consequences of the ongoing shift towards online journalism is a completely revamped understanding of what a “byline” is. First, in somewhat of a tectonic shift, The Economist has eased its restrictions on giving credit where credit is due, allowing their writers to be listed in the byline in online pieces.
As executive editor Daniel Franklin told Andy Plesser of Beet.TV, “It’s a bit of a compromise: giving room for the personal nature of blogs while preserving the Economist as the prime persona.”
But in some cases that “personal nature” of blogs has made the host outlet’s persona almost entirely obsolete. Take Ben Smith for example. Ben is among a certain class of blogger for whom their identity has morphed itself into a full-fledged media brand. So instead of POLITICO reporting something, it’s just Ben Smith reporting it.
Even when Smith himself is not reporting the news his blog is printing, he gets the credit. This week is a prime case of the mistaken bylining. While Ben Smith enjoys a short vacation from his weekly duties, he’s repeatedly gotten misplaced credit from other bloggers like Jon Chait and Jay Newton-Small for items he didn’t write. Chait in particular should know how this kind of thing works as his blog, aptly named Jonathan Chait, recently took over for the shuttered Plank blog at TNR.org, even co-opting the RSS feed.
Who loses out? Jonathan Martin for one, who’s name is plainly listed under each story Ben Smith is getting cited for. But beyond these small largely harmless mistakes, which in the end are pretty easy to understand, why is this important? Because as the The Economist shows more and more news outlets are creating these mini-fiefdoms out of personality driven blogs. Why? Because readers like the intimacy that comes from reading what feels like somebody’s personal blog. They feel like they could exist anywhere, whether that’s an anonymous wordpress template, or nytimes.com barely matters.
Many of the leading figures in this arena have built a readership and following well before their current blog took off. Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Ben Smith and on and on. They all have blogs of their own name, and to varying degrees built their identities before the current iterations of their widely read and influential blogs existed. Certainly they’ve benefited from the credibility and brand identity of their current homes, but the identities of their own blogs are extremely transferable. For the most part the host is irrelevant, the content is king.
So The Economist, and others should be careful how far down the line they’re willing to go to replicate the success of building personality driven media empires. They may find themselves with a few Frankensteins they suddenly can’t control.