Lack of bylines hurts credibility

Star Tribune reporters have removed their bylines from a series on ethanol.

If you’ve been seeing Star Tribune stories, sometimes on the front page of the paper, that identify themselves as being written by “Star Tribune staff,” it’s not an accident. The newspaper is in the middle of a union dispute over the editing of a series of ethanol articles published over the past week.

At the newspaper, it is union contract that articles are supposed to be edited by union-only employees, but this series was edited by an assistant managing editor, which is part of the management staff. Union contract says management is allowed to make only minor changes to the stories.

In protest of this action, five reporters decided to remove their bylines from the series and/or from articles appearing on the days the series was published. According to union contract, the hands-on editing is supposed to be done only by union workers to ensure the bulk of the work is staying within those who are protected by the union. While Star Tribune management might claim the editing was done to make the best possible product, it is important to keep the editing within the union to keep the union strong and ensure that guild work is not being displaced.

It also is in the union contract that employees have a protected right to protest, and removing bylines is a powerful way to protest when a contract is being violated. Reporters have the right to remove bylines if they think the editing has been unjust, or if it unfairly represents the story they originally wrote.

But publishing a story or series of articles that does not have a reporter’s name attached to it carries negative consequences for the publication. Not only does it remove specific liability for the article, but it also hurts the credibility of the news organization and is embarrassing for management.

Whether management meant to weaken the union, or to simply make the series as good as possible, violating union contract is a bad move. Whereas some organizations might view a union as a threat to the management or well-being of the institution, a strong union can only help productivity and quality of work. Having a strong union means having better employee benefits, a better, happier staff and, in the end, a better newspaper.