What’s the Point of a Byline Strike?

How anonymity became a bargaining chip.

To protest stalled contract negotiations with their employer, reporters at the WallStreet Journal are withholding their bylines from stories in yesterday’s and today’s editions. What is the point of a byline strike?

As with most strikes, the primary purposes are to express dissatisfaction with management and to get the public’s attention. How well it does the latter, though, is up for debate. Union leaders claim that readers notice when bylines are missing, especially at major papers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, where reporters and columnists often have big names and a sizable portion of readers follow the press. As for those readers who don’t know the difference between David Brooks and David Broder, they may still notice the aesthetic adjustment that removing bylines requires—without them, the paper doesn’t look the same. The hope is that the absence of bylines will signal to the reader that there is labor trouble at the paper.

That may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear how many people pick up on the signal or care once they do. (There’s no count of how many subscriptions have been canceled because of missing bylines, but chances are the number is low.) Where byline strikes are often more effective, however, is in telling management exactly how many workers support the union’s demands. A paper missing all its bylines is both a show of union solidarity and an indication of the percentage of reporters unhappy with the current contract situation. While the track record of such strikes is mixed and management is often loath to discuss their effectiveness, writers at the Washington Post say that in a 2002 labor dispute, a well-coordinated byline strike helped bring both sides back to the table. 

Byline strikes have become a popular form of protest—there have been more than 10 at large newspapers in the last two years—and they’re probably prevalent because they offer reporters a way to go on strike without actually risking their jobs. As the American Journalism Review noted last year, regular newspaper strikes have become increasingly dangerous, since today’s large newspaper corporations are capable of easily replacing striking workers. Byline strikes, on the other hand, are often explicitly permitted in union contracts that give a reporter the right to control his or her byline. (According to Dow Jones, which owns the Journal, reporters there do not have a contractual right to withhold their bylines, but the strike is going unchallenged anyway.) The relatively risk-free nature of such strikes may blunt their effectiveness, but it also ensures greater participation. In the Washington Post’s last byline strike, 99 percent of reporters chose to remove their names from their stories.

The question of whether reporters control their own bylines has long been an issue between newspaper guilds and owners. Soon after bylines became common in the early 20th century, as part of the push for more objective reporting, writers demanded the right to withhold their names from stories that had been excessively changed by editors. While the issue has still not been fully resolved, most recent labor court decisions have argued that bylines are the sole property of the journalists.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Rick Weiss of the Washington Post and Eric Geist of the Newspaper Guild.