Datelines

Summary

I believe news organizations should update their websites to put the datelines as part of their author byline structure.

Background

Datelines are a product of the pre-Internet newspaper age. To summarise nearly a hundred years of newspaper history, as news operations got bigger, it became necessary to for reporters and correspondents to tell editors and readers where and when a story was reported and written. As recently as 2007, The New York Times kept dates in their datelines. (A story would begin BAGHDAD, Nov. 27 ‚ÄĒ.)

The Internet has changed how news operates, yet datelines still remain largely the same. A story sometimes begins with a city or location, followed by an em dash, and sometimes not at all.

Rules for datelines aren’t always clear, and such information is often unavailable to readers. The Associated Press’ style rule on datelines ūüĒí generally requires that a reporter be physically present for a story to be datelined from a particular city. A 2003 Poynter article published policies provided by editors at multiple publications that generally echoed the same rule.

There is little evidence that such information is understood by readers outside of the journalism industry. In 2015, the readers’ representative for the San Diego Union-Tribune noted the paper’s editors differed on if they should indicate the reporter’s locatino or should be”geolabels,” identifying the story’s geographic location without requiring the reporter be present.

I am dissatified at this disrecepency. Journalism is about accuracy and clarity, and if there’s any doubt as to what a dateline means, I believe there’s a better solution.


Solution

There’s already a simple solution: the prepositions “in” and “at.” (I am a big fan of simple solutions.)

To illustrate this, I made mockups of several of the nation’s largest news websites, with dateline information provided in the byline.


The New York Times

The original New York Times article.

In August 2018, The New York Times caused quite a bit of a stir when it decided to drop bylines from its homepage. The new web design was informed by a significant weight of user research, which also caused the newspaper to drop its sidebars (also known as rails) and advertising-heavy user experience in favor of a lighter, faster, and more toned-down reading experience.

As a Times reader, I enjoy the new experience. It’s an excellent parallel to The Times’ mobile apps, which makes it a near-seamless transition from reading on my laptop to my phone. As the mobile-desktop transition becomes ever more commonplace, this article experience is highly enjoyable.

The dateline in the byline seems almost natural.


The Los Angeles Times

The original Los Angeles Times article.

An altered version of the Los Angeles Times article.

I was delighted to discover that The Los Angeles Times was already putting its datelines into the metadata block, leaving the story devoid of opening em dashes.

In my redesign, I updated the metadata block to move the location next to the reporter’s name, so it reads as “By Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Naco, Ariz.”, and removed the timestamp.

I have never read a story where the time of day of publishing was relevant. If a breaking news story was first published and updated, it should specifically say “Last updated at 1:31 p.m.”


The Boston Globe

An altered version of the Boston Globe article, with the dateline in the article’s byline.

Unlike the other news organisations listed, The Boston Globe identifies reporters as “Globe Staff” or as another affiliation, such as Paul. J Weber | The Associated Press. I wanted to respect this labeling even as the dateline was supplemented via an “in”, so I kept it in my redesign while offsetting the location with the margins, so it reads as: “By James Pindell | Globe Staff in Concord, N.H.”


The Washington Post

An altered version of the Post article, with the dateline in the article byline.


The Wall Street Journal

The original Wall Street Journal article.

Quick! Somebody compliment The Wall Street Journal! They’re already doing this. Isn’t it much better?


More details

How should datelines be decided?

In general, in accordance with the publication’s existing rules on datelines. This solution isn’t about what should or shouldn’t be datelined, only how datelines are presented.

How should reporters and correspondents from multiple locations be presented?

Unlike the AP style rules, moving the dateline into the byline would permit multiple authors with multiple locations: “By Briana Calderone in London and Naomi Konno in Tokyo.”

What about stories with non-traditional bylines?

Reframing the byline as a place to provide context about the story’s reporting allows for different constructions in the byline. A story with heavy data analysis and political reporting can be bylined “Written by Jeremy Traywick in Washington, D.C., with data reporting by Nina Seybold in New York.”

This wasn’t presented in the mockups because it would represent a further step in development and require more significant overhaul of the publication’s CMS to allow such information to be recorded. However, a move to “By Reporter Name in Location” would generally not require much more than a front-end engineering change.

Won’t this make bylines longer?

The purpose of bylines and datelines is to communicate information to readers about the story’s creation process. An artificial limit on byline length is unnecessary and interferes with this primary goal. If a group story was reported by a dozen journalists from a half-dozen places, it should say so.

This is different from a roundup or similar, where there are multiple news topics, and it makes more sense for that to have a “by staff” or “by publication” byline.


Feedback?

Got thoughts about this? Do you think it’s a good idea? Do you work at a news organization with an online presence and, if so, will you share this project page with your managing editors and product managers?

Anyway, reach out: leo@theleoji.com or @theleoji.