T

he New York Times updated its website. The new look is cleaner and less cramped, with wider columns and bigger visuals. Overall, it’s a positive change. But one decision had many readers up in arms: The removal of all bylines except those of opinion writers.

The Times has a long history of downplaying its writers. Legendary Times owner Adolph Ochs was famous (or infamous) for his “publication above all” ethos — a principle so absolute that he didn’t allow bylines on stories or permit reporters to print stationery with their individual names.

But the world has changed a lot since Ochs. Back in the early 1900s, his focus on objective journalism may have saved a struggling paper from decline. But in 2018, the market and demands are very different. Can the same principles still work?

Consider what happens when you look at the New York Times website. You’ll see neat headlines and summaries, but you’ll have no idea who wrote the piece. Does that make you more likely, less likely, or just as likely to read it?

We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing what makes a reader dive in rather than turn the page. When we build the magazine, we work with the assumption that you already know “what happened.” What you’re seeking in a magazine is not the facts. You might be seeking an experiential read: the feeling that you’ve met someone new, traveled somewhere interesting, watched an artist or musician at work. Or you might be looking for the story behind the story, some sort of privileged information or analysis that takes things a level deeper than who-what-when-where-why.

In many cases, though, you’re looking for a certain writer’s view and voice. Put differently, the appeal is not the subject so much as the presenter. He might be writing about banana growers, she might be writing about mental asylums — but if you see that name, you’ll give it a read.

So the question animating many of our readers isn’t, “What happened this week?” so much as, “What does Writer X have to say this week? What is Writer Y thinking about this week? Who did Writer Z meet this week?”

Of course, every publication has a specific style and overall voice. I’ve heard from readers who say they can sense a subliminal Mishpacha attitude between the lines of every story. But at the same time, we try to highlight the individual writers: to maintain their particular voices and writing styles and give them leverage to build something unique. We recognize that our final product is all the richer because of the many tones within — and that readers seek out specific bylines precisely because their tones resonate.

One online commentator predicted that “the idea that the NYT speaks as one single voice will ultimately be its downfall.” It’s probably a bit premature to forecast the downfall of the New York Times. But you have to wonder why it would downplay the cachet of its writers, and ignore the reading habits of so many who skim columns of text, stopping only when they see specific names that they trust and enjoy.

Darrel Frost, a designer and writer living in New York City, defended the decision as a strategic way to encourage readers to click on important material they’d otherwise ignore.

“Saying that readers should choose their media diet based on individual reporters’ names seems antithetical to responsible news consumption,” he wrote.

That’s nice on an ideological level, but practically speaking, is the average reader aiming for “responsible news consumption”? Let’s admit it — most are not. They’re looking for reading that confirms their views, reading that transports them somewhere, reading that grants them access to new vistas both internal and external. And they see that byline as a key to getting what they want. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 728)