A lesson in sharing

Posted: October 18, 2007 in Blog

Journalists are generally territorial about four things: Notebooks, pens, source lists and bylines.

Fiddle around with any of those and you best watch out.

Today, we’re dealing with the last item.

Journalists generally guard their byline because it’s the one form of public recognition for the work they do. In that sense, territorial tendencies are understandable. But for all the hot air journalists expend on protecting their byline, studies show that bylines are one of the last things many newspaper readers actually notice.

Over the years, I’ve generally avoided problems with other reporters. It’s usually simple enough to sort out who should get a byline based on each person’s contribution.

But here it’s a different ballgame. Earlier this week I visited a slum in the city for a story running this weekend. I went along with a photographer who, after we got back, put together a small write-up and sent it to me for consideration as part of the story.

The story took a direction that didn’t include that, though, so I filed the story with my byline and moved on to other assignments.

Earlier today, the photographer came to me, and sat down with a very disappointed expression. “Chris, why didn’t you put my byline on the story?”

He had just been up with an editor and saw only my name at the top. I began explaining how the story ended up coming together differently, and how the original assignment was for me to write and him to take photos.

But then something clicked.

“Do you get paid extra if you get a byline in the paper?” I asked.

“Well yeah, that’s how I make a living, Chris.”

I sighed. Anywhere else I would have said no, because to get a byline you need to have written part of the article. Every word in that article was mine. But how do you say that to someone whose base salary is about $115 a month?

So we went for a walk, upstairs, to make sure the editor added his byline. Afterwards, I came back to my desk and gave it some more thought. I even considered pulling the photographer aside later on to explain that this time we’d go with a double-byline but that in the future he shouldn’t expect to get one unless he has made more of a contribution.

But doesn’t that all become redundant when someone can boost their very modest salary by as much as 10 per cent by getting a byline on a story he took photos for? Unsure of exactly how I felt, I let things be, figuring that his help in translating while we were on assignment would be enough to warrant the byline.

It’s a theme that has come up before. Sometimes I get sent articles by editors who ask me to add a different element, do a re-write, etc. At times this means doing enough work that, anywhere else, would warrant a byline. But here I keep it off, knowing that if two reporters’ names are on a story, each reporter only gets a half-share of the money.

Add this to the long list of issues here that, collectively, have put some pretty sizable cracks in my conventional thinking.

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