Reading between the (By)lines: Authority, Anonymity and Attribution in 19th Century Newspapers

Steve Harrison
Liverpool John Moores University

The humble byline stands in an ambiguous, often overlooked, relation
to journalistic writing, at the juncture of authority, anonymity and
attribution. It can be a signifier of authority in either its presence
(adding credibility to news reports) or its absence (adding gravitas
to the leader column), making its reading – which is literally a
reading at the margins – problematic. It plays both a material and a
symbolic role within news publications, mandated within modern,
multi-column page layouts as well as linking a news article back to
its ‘original’ ‘author’, playing out in miniature the troubled
relationship between authors, editors, translators and collaborators
in the more reified sphere of literature.
The emergence of the byline in the nineteenth century is associated
with a combination of social, legal, economic, ethical and technical
changes which mirror the developing professionalisation of journalism
and news reporting. Debates over anonymous journalism proliferated in
the 1840s-1870s, echoing those over the secret ballot which raged over
the same period. The exclusion of news reporting from protections
afforded by nascent copyright law undermined the value of journalism
as a form of literary production worthy of attribution.
The byline’s lineage stretches back to the MS newsletters of the
16th century, through the personal invective of the 1640s paper wars,
and onto the introduction of the eidolon, which became so prevalent in
the early decades of the 18th century. By examining UK examples from
the 19th century, the present study draws on Jacques Derrida’s
figure of the parergon – the outer-work – to situate a reading of
the byline as a supplement to the work of journalism which operates on
the margins by, for example, the gendering of texts, the valorisation
of specific categories of content or in the explicit acknowledgement
of professional values. Today, the byline is an unremarked yet
essential element of the production process whose importance and
effects are rarely made explicit. This study aims to mark those
effects by giving a brief history of the byline.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900