Bylines on the editorial page?

The American Prospect's Dana Goldstein (who, for purposes of transparency has served as an editor of mine on some of my work for Campus Progress) applauds the Chicago Sun Times decision to put bylines on editorials.

"In another good move, the Sun-Times will begin publishing signed editorials, so readers know which member of the board wrote each piece. The New York Times website now provides a meet-the-editorial board page with detailed descriptions of each member's area of expertise. You can play a fun guessing game identifying which author wrote any given editorial. So why not go all the way and include a byline?"

Alex Massie disagrees.

Clearly, Ms Goldstein can't have written many newspaper editorials. If she had, she would know that it's rather unfair to make individual leader writers put their names to editorials they've written but do not necessarily agree with. This is not, despite what you may think, a rare phenomenon. Even when one is fortunate enough to write a leader relatively free from interference it's rare for it to express the editorial writer's own opinions. Then again, it's not supposed to. You're not speaking or writing for yourself.

The reason for unsigned editorials is that they're supposed to have institutional heft - something that's diluted if you slap a byline on them. Then they'd be just another opinion. Now, of course, in one respect they are just another opinion, but editorial writers have a fine conceit that they're that little bit above the common herd of opinion. Plus, as the old line puts it, someone has to come down from the hills after the battle to stab the wounded. A job best done anonymously, frankly.

Interesting debate, but I side with Massie here. Maybe it is because I spent 6 months interning at the Globe editorial page, or maybe it is because I had to write unsigned editorials while in college, but my (limited) experience tells me that the staff editorial is often a huge compromise.

(I recall my editor in college rejecting my splendid idea of condemning Columbus Day in an editorial -- citing that nobody would care -- only to allow another member of the editorial board to draft an editorial condemning the penny. Oh, the fickle sociology of the newspaper business.)

There are indeed times when you may want to push an editorial to 11, and the editor tells to to bring it down to a 7. Editorials are the fruits of a collective conversation between an editorial board, and moreover, the editorial page editors have veto power. By adding bylines you do one of two things: 1) you force the writer to sign his name to something that is not fully his, and in fact may misrepresent the extent of his views or 2) if you allow the editorial writer to simply write his own piece you take away the purpose of the collective thought process, and in essence, are just having shorter op-eds.

Under such logic you may as well simply do away with the editorial page all together, and simply add another page of op-eds, which has been suggested by Timothy Noah in Slate in 2005, and again by Eric Alterman in the Nation in 2006. While I typically find the op-ed page to be more edifying, I still would not be willing to do away with the staff editorial, which can, especially on matters of local news, carry some real weight.

Goldstein is right when she says an astute reader can look at the editorial board profiles and deduce who wrote the editorial, and in fact, the Globe has a similar profile section as the Times. So indeed that may tell you, with a fair degree of accuracy, who wrote the editorial. But it does not put you into the morning editorial meeting and let you know how much of that piece of writing represents the person that wrote it, or how much that viewpoint represents a compromised view that took in the input of the rest of the editorial board.

I think signed editorials are best used sparingly, for special matters -- a member of the editorial board travels somewhere, and writes from abroad, for example -- but to sign them all, to me defeats the idea of having that page in the first place.