When a byline’s more than just a byline
January 26, 2014 | 12:30 pm
By Dan Bloom
Brian X. Chen covers technology and gadgethead issues for the New York Times, and with a stellar career at Wired magazine behind him, he is poised to soar even higher.
So as a longtime student of newspaper bylines, I was struck by Mr. Chen’s middle initial ”X” and always wondered if it was part of his real name, from birth, or a self-created middle initial for purposes of helping his name stand out from the other 10,000 Brian Chens in the Internet listings.
A former Times reporter Jennifer Lee, use to use the middle “numeral” of 8 followed by a period in print as her official byline there, where she was known as ”Jennifer 8. Lee”. She was the first and only Times reporter to ever have a numeral as part of her byline, and there is a great backstory to her byline, if you want to search for it on Google.
It goes back to her days as a student reporter on her college paper, and something about her mother advising her that by putting the lucky number 8 in her byline, she might be able to avoid being confused with the other 17 Jennifer Lees in her freshman class.
Does Brian Chen’s middle initial X have a similar college days backstory? Curious, I reached out to Mr. Chen by email and Twitter, but no replies were forthcoming. I figure he’s busy and does not have time or interest in answering the byline question — although hundreds, if not thousands of readers, would like to know. There’s even a Quora.com post dedicated to this question, but so far no answers have nailed it. Only Brian knows for sure and so far Brian’s not telling.
But Brian’s in the media spotlight now, and people want to know. Bylines matter, and cool bylines matter even more.
A book that Mr. Chen wrote under the same byline in 2011, titled Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future–and Locked Us In did well on Kindle and in print, and his current Times stories are plowing new ground every day.
A former associate editor for Macworld magazine, Mr. Chen formerly wrote for Wired.com, where his regular column on Apple was, according to the stats, followed by millions of readers. You can imagine that his readership at the Times now gets even more page views. He lives in San Francisco and commutes to New York by email.
So my byline query goes on, and I just want to know for knowing’s sake. Could it be that Mr. Chen’s middle initial started out as a typo – a mutant “X” perhaps? Does it stand for a real name, such as Xavier, Xenia — or Xerox maybe? Or Xander, Xerxes, Xenos or Xaver?
Or did Mr. Chen assume the middle initial of X as part of his byline mostly to differentiate his given name from all the other Brian Chens out there in the Xethersphere? That’s my guess, following the Jennifer 8. Lee meme, but there could be another explanation, and I’d love to hear it. Does the X have a mystical meaning?
Earlier mix-ups in snail mail, e-mail and college applications might have created the need for Mr. Chen’s adoption of a middle initial, with the kicker being that Mr. Chen’s byline is now never confused with anyone else in the known universe. You can even find him at Twitter and other places where he hangs out his famous shingle.
In a related news item, another New York Times reporter recently changed his longtime byline into a much shorter byline, and after doing so last year he wrote a blog post explaining why.
Nicholas Kristof, who used to publish at the Times under the byline of ”Nicholas D. Kristof”, now releases his columns under the simpler, modified byline of “Nicholas Kristof” and there’s a story there and he told it online at the Times website.
So Brian X. Chen, the world is waiting to know your backstory, too, and not to pry or to delve into your privacy, but just to ”know.”
When the time comes, and the spirit moves you, dish! And if any savvy readers here know the explanation or think they know, go at it.