On April 14, 1912, a reporter sent a dispatch from HALIFAX, N.S. with breaking news: The White Star liner Titanic had struck an iceberg off the Newfoundland coast and was sinking. In 1926, a journalist wrote an article from the NORTH POLE for the first time. And in January 2020, New York Times journalists reported on a deadly new contagion — the coronavirus — from WUHAN, China.
These capitalized lines of text, which begin many Times articles, are known as datelines. A dateline tells the reader where the reporting occurred — an article with the dateline WASHINGTON, for example, was reported from Washington, D.C.
Datelines are an essential tenet of journalism; they are meant to add credibility to articles. (Sometimes, they can also be fun: Reporters have filed copy from places that sound made up, such as SANTA CLAUS, Ind.) But despite the intention of datelines — to clarify a reporter’s whereabouts — they increasingly cause confusion, especially among digital readers. In recent surveys, many readers said they didn’t know what a dateline meant. Some knew that it signified where the events in the article took place, but not that a reporter had been working from that location.
To help quell that uncertainty, The Times has officially introduced a new dateline format for digital articles: Instead of “LONDON,” datelines will be more conversational: “Reporting from London.”
“We need to meet readers where they are,” said Edmund Lee, an assistant editor on The Times’s Trust team, which helped devise the new format as part of its mission to deepen transparency.
“This more plain-spoken, straightforward, colloquial way of presenting ourselves ensures more trust because that’s the language people communicate in,” Mr. Lee said.
Interestingly enough, the new format echoes the conversational style of early Times datelines. On Sept. 20, 1858, seven years after its first issue, The Times began an article about Mormon priesthood in Utah with a few lines of clarifying information: “From Our Own Correspondent. Great Salt Lake City, Utah Territories, Saturday, Aug. 21, 1858.”
At the time, articles sometimes didn’t appear in print until days, even weeks, after a reporter completed the story, and the dateline told the reader when and where the article was written. The Times began using the classic dateline style — uppercase letters followed by an em dash — as early as 1869. (The shorter format saved valuable print space. To that end, the traditional dateline will continue to appear in print newspaper articles.)
According to Andie Tucher, a historian and the director of the communications Ph.D. program at Columbia University, datelines began to appear in newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to fight yellow journalism. (Yellow journalism was made infamous in the 1890s by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, rival newspaper publishers who continuously one-upped each other with sensational articles that were not supported by facts.)
“Some newspapers, notably The New York Times, started to get their act together to establish standards, to establish conventions, to fight back against the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer,” Ms. Tucher said in an interview.
The Times wanted to set itself apart as a credible institution, and the dateline helped cement that cause by highlighting that its journalists were physically reporting from newsworthy scenes.
In introducing the dateline, Ms. Tucher said, The Times was saying: “We’re going to tell you that you can trust us because we’re telling you this is how we work.”
More than 150 years later, that goal hasn’t changed, but the format has. The last version of the dateline was introduced in 2007, when The Times stopped including the date of reporting in a dateline. The move was made to avoid confusion when an article carried the previous day’s date but had the word “today” in the first paragraph.
A handful of news desks have already been testing the latest format since 2022 as part of a pilot program. The new dateline has been used hundreds of times since its introduction last year.
In addition to clearing up confusion, articles can now carry multiple datelines if a story was reported from different locations. In some cases, the dateline will also share brief details about the journalistic process, such as how many sources were interviewed, or explain a reporter’s expertise in a subject area.
“We have a lot of experts at The New York Times, and I don’t think the average reader necessarily knows that we have some people whose specialty is to cover Broadway, to cover the Supreme Court, to cover criminal justice and religion,” said Marc Lacey, a managing editor. “It seems like a small change, but it really allows us to lift the veil on our reporters and our reporting, and give readers a little more of a sense of what went into it.”
It’s important, Mr. Lacey said, “to make absolutely clear to readers that we’re there” — wherever “there,” might be, whether it’s the front lines in Ukraine, a 70-mile migrant route in the Darién Gap or the Cannes Film Festival.
The new dateline, he said, “is just a small way in which we can emphasize that a bit more.”
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