The Washington Post’s Confusing/Unfair “Answer Sheet” Byline System

It’s hard to beat Valerie Strauss’s “The Answer Sheet” blog over at The Washington Post when it comes to the number and type of complaints that I hear.

Widely read and admired especially by critics of the current education reform movement, The Answer Sheet predominantly features opinion and commentary. On her blog, the byline says that Strauss “covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.”  Elsewhere, she’s described as “Reporter-Washington, DC.” But Strauss isn’t actually listed as a Post opinion writer, and confusion over her role, title, and viewpoints are a big part of the concerns I hear:

She doesn’t write very much of her own commentary, they say. She can’t be both a columnist/blogger who traffics in opinion and commentary and also take/get assigned straight news stories, they say. Her reported pieces aren’t well-reported. And most of all: What she does post is pretty much unrelentingly critical of reform ideas like charter schools and test-based accountability.

Now granted, the complaints are mostly coming from reform advocates whose views aren’t frequently found on Strauss’s staunchly critical education blog. Or they’re from education journalists who are competitors of some kind. So all this is all to be taken with a grain of salt. But the list goes on and on, and the behind-the-scenes conversations with editors and ombudsmen I’ve heard about are pretty much endless.

One somewhat new angle on the issue is the very journalistic complaint that Strauss undeservedly gets a byline on all of her posts — even the ones that are predominantly made up of others’ previously published materials. As such, she’s getting un-derserved credit for others’ work, and different treatment from others at the Washington Post who do much the same job.

This might not be the biggest or deepest critique of the work Strauss does and her Post editors allow. My main issue with her blog is that it doesn’t seem to offer readers an honest, somewhat balanced assessment of the big education issues that are being debated, or isn’t balanced with another blog so that readers of the Post can at least see two sides of a discussion. Oh, and it annoys me to no end that Answer Sheet blog posts overwhelm regular reported news stories on the site’s education page and on Feedly as if blog posts and reported news are the same thing. But let’s save all that for another time, shall we?

Here’s how the byline works at The Answer Sheet:  Strauss gets a byline (top billing in the journalism world) for everything that’s posted on her blog, as if she wrote them from start to finish.  But most of the time, that’s not the case.  She introduces the writings of others, usually in a paragraph or two, and then comes the contributed text. (Somewhat recently, she’s started indicating that the contributed text is being used with permission of the original author.) Her function would seem to be assigning or sifting through potential contributions, which is what a features or opinion editor does. But to the headline-reading public (and on Twitter and Feedly) the pieces look like they’re written by her.

Take for example this recent blog post about teacher diversity: Why we should diversify the overwhelmingly white U.S. teaching force — and how. Why we should diversify the overwhelmingly white U.S. teaching force — and how The Washington Post

From the look of it, Strauss wrote the piece.  But it’s actually written by Howard ed school dean Leslie T. Fenwick. She’s given permission to Strauss to publish the piece, but Strauss gets the byline.

That’s not how most other blogs featuring outside contributors’ writings work, and that’s not how most other Washington Post blogs with group work seem to be displayed. The byline is usually given to the person who wrote the piece. Or, if the piece is largely made up of or inspired by someone else’s content, a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs at most are presented, with a link to the original publication for a full-text read.

On my Scholastic-sponsored blog, where contributors like John Thompson and Paul Bruno have written commentary, it’s my name on the banner at the top of the blog and I’m in charge of editing and posting the pieces. But each contributed blog post headline begins with the contributor’s name and is bylined by the person who wrote the post — not me.

To be sure, there’s lots of content sharing going on these days online.  And not everyone cares very much about who gets credit — all that matters is the content. But even the humble Twitter RT usually includes the original author’s Twitter handle — or is supposed to. Not when it comes to The Answer Sheet, however.

Take for example this May 11 example:

The tweet appears to be about a post that was written by Strauss but is actually mostly the work of an ed school professor named Wayne Au. I have no idea whether this is Valerie’s doing or that of some other social media person, but you get the point.

That’s issue number one — let’s call it the undeserved byline.

Issue number two related to the byline is the accountability issue. When there’s heat or pushback on what she’s posted under her byline, Strauss seems like she doesn’t want anything to do with it. In such situations she wants it known that she’s just the person who assigned or accepted the outside contribution. Then, she’s just the editor. But she still gets a byline.

The most recent example of this is a May 15 post Strauss published taking on Deepak Chopra’s work, written by Steven Newton. The headline is “Scientist: Why Deepak Chopra is driving me crazy.” The byline is, as usual, “By Valerie Strauss.” But two paragraphs in, Strauss hands it over to Newton.

The post generated nearly 50 comments and some attention on Twitter, including this hostile/polite tweet from Chopra’s account on May 18 addressed to Strauss and sent to his 2.44 million followers:

Dear @valeriestrauss – I responded to your ad hominem blog on me in the Washington Post in the comments section. Regards

— Deepak Chopra (@DeepakChopra) May 18, 2015

Strauss published a follow-up piece complaining that Chopra’s email and Tweet were misguided: “He said it was written by me. He didn’t mention that Newton actually wrote the piece.”

To recap: Strauss published a piece under her byline. Chopra responded to her Twitter handle. But Strauss doesn’t feel like the responsibility for the post is hers.

Seems to me (and others) that bylines should generally be reserved for authors of pieces (reported news or opinion) or for bloggers who are sharing snippets of content that they’ve found (not full columns), and that the role Strauss is playing here is one of editor or host. So my entirely unsolicited advice is that maybe the powers that be at the Post should consider refining this byline practice that’s confusing readers and probably unfair to colleagues. Or, perhaps, there’s a way to indicate the actual author’s name in each headline and in each byline — as would happen in an opinions section. Until then, as long as Strauss gets a byline, she should be prepared to remain front and center and take responsibility when someone like Chopra doesn’t like what’s been written.

Disclosures: I know and like lots of folks at the Washington Post, and have written about the paper’s education coverage several times in the past (see below). At several points over the past decade I have suggested that they could really use someone like me to run a blog for them. I really like the name they picked for their higher education blog.

Related posts: Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss Mangles Duncan Staff Moves“Draft Sharing” Spreads At Washington Post Education Team The Washington Post’s Wacky Montgomery County Coverage.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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