The Secret Newspapers Keep from Readers

By Mike Feinsilber

Magazines do it, upfront in a letter from the editor or in a note at the start or end of stories. Books do it either on the inside or the back of the jacket. The New Yorker does it on a “Contributors” page, which also gives subtle plugs for the books written by the authors of its articles.

But newspapers don’t do it.

Why not? Why don’t newspapers carry a paragraph in italics at the end of articles identifying the articles’ authors and their specialties and saying what makes the writers qualified to write so authoritatively about their subjects?

Why does the reader have to take it on faith that this guy knows something about what he writes about?

When a newspaper hires a writer, why doesn’t it run a story telling readers who she is, where she grew up and got educated, where she worked and what she covered before joining the staff of The Daily Exponent?

I’ve often wondered.

On Sunday, February 22, 2015, the public editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, devoted a column to the gaps in the paper’s media-covering staff caused by reassignments and departures and the death of the irreplaceable David Carr. Along the way, she disclosed that the media staff had consisted of 16 people (!) but now was down by a third.

Ms. Sullivan broke the news that late last year the Times hired three media staffers from elsewhere—Alexandra Alter from the Wall Street Journal to cover the publishing industry, Jonathan Mahler from the website Bloomberg View to cover large media companies, and Emily Steel from the Financial Times to help cover the television industry.

Hey, that’s interesting. Next time I read a Mahler piece on large media companies I’ll say to myself, oh, yeah, he’s the guy who used to write for Bloomberg View.

But why did it take an aside from Margaret Sullivan for me to learn that? Why didn’t the Times tell me from whence this powerful new writer came?

For that matter, when Brian Stelter’s byline vanished from the Times, why didn’t the Times tell me that on its pages I’d no longer be able to find Stelter (“a major talent,” Ms. Sullivan said)? Or that Bill Carter, the television reporter, and Stuart Elliott, the advertising columnist, had departed by way of layoffs or buyouts. (A Google click told me Stelter had been hired away by CNN.)

The Times is an unrelenting advocate of openness in government and big institutions. The Times is a big institution. Why no transparency—other than in the book section and the op-ed pages, and occasionally here and there—about the identities behind its own bylines? Why print bylines if the people behind the bylines are to be kept under cover?

To the Times: Letting readers know more about its writers would be a good business decision at a time the business needs good decisions. Did it take the loss of David Carr for the Times to realize that people bought the paper to read David Carr?

I single out the Times but almost all newspapers engage in the practice of keeping their staff persona non telling and the practice of never telling when someone comes aboard or is pushed or lured overboard or retires. (You could drop the “almost” in that sentence with no loss of accuracy.)

Come clean, newspapers. Tell us who you are.
Mike Feinsilber, a 50-year writer and editor, half of that for UPI, the other half for AP, is more than just a reader of the New York Times. He is invested in its well-being.


  1. The online Washington Post generally has a note about each article author. I suspect many are written by the reporters themselves. Some are informative — so-and-so wrote for XYZ and joined the Post in 2010. Or, so-and-so has reported on Prince Georges County fishing for five years. Other notes read like caps worn at a jaunty angle — so-and-so writes about (…long list of varied topics, so you know how cool they are, even if irrelevant to the article at hand). I’ll keep names out of this post, but you should be prohibited from pretentious (or self-deprecating) self-descriptions unless you are KNOWN and, indeed, cool and well-rounded.

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