News Reporting and Writing
By Melvin Mencher
The lead gives the reader the sense of the story to follow. There are two basic types of leads:
¾ Direct: This lead tells the reader or listener the most important aspect of the story at once. It is usually used on breaking news events.
¾ Delayed: This lead entices the reader or listener into the story by hinting at its contents. It often is used with feature stories.
The lead sentence usually contains one idea and follows the subject‑verb‑object sentence structure for clarity. It should not exceed 35 words.
* * *
The effective story lead meets two requirements. It captures the essence of the event, and it cajoles the reader or listener into staying awhile.
We slept last night in the enemy's camp.
¾ By a correspondent for the Memphis Daily Appeal, after the first day of the Civil War Battle of Shiloh.
Millionaire Harold F. McCormick today bought a poor man's youth.
¾ Carl Victor Little, UP, following McCormick's male gland transplant operation in the early 1920s. UP's New York Office quickly killed the lead and sent out a sub (substitute lead).
The million‑to‑one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no‑run, no‑man‑reach‑first game in a World Series.
¾ Shirley Povich, The Washington Post & Times Herald, on the perfect game the Yankee pitcher hurled against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.
“I feel as if I had been pawed by dirty hands," said Martha Graham.
¾ Walter Terry, dance critic of The New York Herald Tribune, after two members of Congress denounced Graham's dancing as "erotic."
What price Glory? Two eyes, two legs, an arm ¾ $12 a month.
¾ St. Clair McKelway, Washington Herald, in a story about a disabled World War I veteran living in poverty.
Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.
¾ H. Allen Smith, New York World‑Telegram, in the weather forecast.
Rule Breakers, but Memorable
These leads defy almost every canon decreed by those who prescribe standards of journalistic writing. The first lead violates the rule demanding the reporter's anonymity. The UP lead is in questionable taste. Povich's lead has four sentences and three clichés. Terry's lead is a quote lead, McKelway's asks a question — both violations of the standards. Smith's weather forecast is a little joke. Yet, the leads are memorable.
They work because they meet the requirements of lead writing: They symbolize in graphic fashion the heart of the event, and they entice the reader to read on. Here are two leads from New York City newspapers that appeared the morning after the mayor announced his new budget. Which is better?
Mayor Lindsay listed facilities for public safety yesterday as his top spending priority for next year, shifting from his pledge of a year ago to make clean streets his first objective in capital expenditures.
¾ The New York Times
Mayor Lindsay dropped his broom and picked up the nightstick yesterday, setting law enforcement facilities as the top priority in the city's construction plans for the coming fiscal year.
¾ Daily News
The business of luring the reader into a story is hardly confined to journalistic writing. Andrew E. Svenson, the prolific author of many of the Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys juvenile books, said that the trick in writing is to set up danger, mystery and excitement on page I to convince the child to turn the page. He said he had rewritten page 1 as many as 20 times.
Plato knew the importance of the first words of a written work. "The beginning is the most important part of the work," he wrote in The Republic. The Old Testament begins with simple words in a short sentence: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
Everyone remembers great beginnings:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
As most high school students know, that is how Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities. Another book, written 92 years later, is also familiar to high school readers, possibly because of the beginning that trapped them into reading further:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
The writer ¾ J. D. Salinger. The book ¾ Catcher in the Rye.
Another great beginning:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
That's the way Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice.
Finding the Lead
New Yorker writer John McPhee says, "The first part‑the lead, the beginning‑is the hardest part of all to write. I've often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have 90 percent of the story." Locating the lead, he says, is a struggle.
"You have tens of thousands of words to choose from, after all‑and only one can start the story, then one after that, and so forth. . . . What will you choose?" McPhee asks.
But before the words can be selected, the facts must be sorted out. How does the reporter select the one or two facts for a lead from the abundance of material he or she has gathered? What's the focus of the story?
Fact sifting begins well before the reporter sits down to write. Experienced reporters agree with journalists John W. Chancellor and Walter R. Mears, who say:
We have found that a way to write good leads is to think of them in advance to frame the lead while the story is unfolding.
The Five Lead Questions
We can begin our examination of the lead‑writing process by looking into the thinking of news writers. Their first step consists of answering two questions:
1. What was unique or the most important or unusual thing that happened?
2. Who was involved‑who did it or who said it?
After answering these questions, the reporter seeks words and a form that will give shape to the responses by asking three more questions:
3. Is a direct or a delayed lead best? (Does the theme of the story go in the first sentence or somewhere within the first six paragraphs?)
4. Is there a colorful word or dramatic phrase I can work into the lead?
5. What is the subject, and what verb will best move the reader into the story?
Let's accompany Sarah as she works on a story about a talk she has just covered. A Harvard sociologist spoke about teen‑age pregnancy to a campus audience. He said that the bill for social services, special schools, lost work hours and hospital care for the infants, who are often born prematurely, adds up to several billion dollars a year.
"Last year," he said, "about 375,000 unmarried teen‑agers gave birth, and almost as many teen‑agers had abortions. The dollar costs have been enormous, to say nothing of the social costs."
Sarah is writing for the campus newspaper. She has a couple of hours before deadline. If she were working for a radio or TV station, she would not have the luxury of time to think about her lead and story. As Chancellor and Mears state in their book The News Business:
When you've got to run to a telephone to start dictating, or when you've got to go on camera and start talking, the one thing you really need is to have a lead in your head. It doesn't have to be fancy, but if you frame it properly, the rest of the story will flow from it in a natural and graceful way.
Sarah knows that if she can identify the heart of the talk, her story will ju; about organize itself because the next several paragraphs after the lead will cor sist of quotes that buttress and amplify the lead material she has selected. E said than done, she muses.
Well, what's her lead? She had better start writing, and she does:
A Harvard sociologist studying teen‑age pregnancy gave a speech last night to more than 200 students and faculty members in Hall Auditorium.
Sarah isn't happy with her lead. She talks to herself:
Trouble. That's called backing into the lead. All this kind of lead tells the reader is that the speaker spoke to an audience, which is hardly unique and certainly not interesting or important enough to merit anyone's attention. He did say something interesting‑in fact, he made several interesting points.
Sarah had been surprised by the large number of teen‑agers who gave birth and the number of abortions among these young women. Lead material?
Not really, she reasons, because the speaker devoted most of his talk to the cost of teen‑age pregnancy. This information was clearly the most important. She could work the figures into the second and third paragraphs to explain the reasons for the high cost. Sarah writes:
A Harvard sociologist said last night that teen‑age pregnancy is costing the country billions of dollars a year.
Gerald Cantor told 200 students and faculty members in Hall Auditorium that the annual costs associated with the pregnancies of almost 750,000 unmarried women under the age of 20 "are vastly greater than we had thought."
He attributed the costs to social services. . . .
Sarah pauses to read what she has written. She is satisfied that she has found the most important part of the talk for her lead, that she has identified the speaker properly and placed the talk. . . . Wait. She isn't happy with the word said in her lead. Not very exciting.
Should I make it warned? Or is that too strong? He really didn't warn. I'll leave it as is.
Sarah has answered the first three of our five questions for lead writing:
1. What: The high cost.
2. Who: Harvard sociologist.
3. Direct or delayed: Direct.
We take leave of Sarah as she ponders the fourth and fifth questions. If you wish, lend her a hand.
A Race for Congress
Here is a lead a reporter wrote about a congressional race. He thought he had answered the first two questions writers ask themselves when writing a lead:
Replies of Rep. Ronald A. Sarasin and William R. Ratchford, candidates in the Fifth Congressional race, to a Connecticut League of Women Voters questionnaire were released today.
He did include what had happened and who was involved. But he did not make his answer to the first question sufficiently specific. What did they say in their replies? The reporter reached this answer down in the story, but his editor pointed out that voters want to know the opinions and positions of their candidates quickly in stories about politics. Such events do not lend themselves to delayed leads.
A better lead for the political story might have been:
Ronald A. Sarasin and Williani R. Ratchford, candidates for Congress in the Fifth District, agree that financing Social Security is the major domestic issue facing the nation.
The next paragraph might have included the background information that the reporter had mistakenly put into his lead:
Their positions on Social Security and on other issues were released today by the Connecticut League of Women Voters. The League had sent its questionnaires to all major candidates for office.
The subsequent paragraphs would expand the Social Security theme and introduce additional material from the replies of the candidates.
All these leads are direct leads for breaking or hard news stories. But there are times when writers back into the lead on a breaking news story intentionally. Edna Buchanan began a story for The Miami Herald this way:
Bad things happen to the husbands of the Widow Elkin.
Someone murdered husband No. 4, Cecil Elkin, apparently smashing his head with a frying pan as he watched "Family Feud" on TV.
Husband No. 3, Samuel Smilich, drowned in a weedy South Dade canal.
Husband No. 2, Lawrence Myers, cannot be found. . . .
Anyone out there who isn't hanging on every word? Notice the detail Buchanan supplies: It was not just any pan but a frying pan with which No. 4 was dispatched. And he wasn't just watching television but "Family Feud." The canal where No. 3 was found was "weedy."
Buchanan goes on to write about Widow Elkin and then concludes the piece:
It is the murder of her fourth husband that got Margaret Elkin in trouble. She is accused of trying to hire a beekeeper to kill him. The trial is set for Sept. 9.
The prosaic way to have started this story would have put the date set for the trial in the lead. But Buchanan's reporting turned up a remarkable series of events, and she gave us a modem morality tale with a climax.
Journalists call these lead‑type endings kickers, probably in recognition of the jolt the climax gives the reader.
Types of Leads
Beginning journalists often are offered lists of leads. They are told about the who, what, where, when, why and how leads; the anecdotal, clause, contrast, direct address, staccato, gag, shotgun and quote leads; and a score of others. This categorizing may be useful for a research project, but the lists are of little use to the working reporter. No reporter looks at his or her notes and thinks,"Well, this looks like a who lead here. Or maybe it's a what lead."
What ran through the mind of the reporter who wrote this lead?
NORFOLK ‑ Charley Greene has hit the roof in an effort to prove that he isn't six feet under.
¾ The Virginian‑Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Is that a who or a what lead? What is the difference and who cares? The reporter learned that a retired Navy warrant officer had not been receiving his retirement pay because the government thought him dead. The situation seemed humorous enough for feature handling. Then the reporter played with some words that would express the plight of a man caught in coils of red tape. The reporter decided on a delayed lead.
There are only two basic leads, direct and delayed. All the others fall under these two types.
The direct lead is the workhorse of journalism, the lead that is used on most stories. As we have seen, the direct lead focuses on the theme of the event in the first paragraph. The surest way to test a reporter's competence, editors say, is to see whether his or her leads on spot news events move directly to the point and are succinct and readable.
Here are some direct leads:
WASHINGTON ¾ The House of Representatives voted today to impeach President Clinton.
Another in a series of snowstorms is expected to hit the Sierra today.
SAN FRANCISCO ¾ The California Supreme Court ruled today that newspapers and television stations can be held liable for news‑gathering techniques that intrude on privacy.
A local couple was awarded $150,000 in damages yesterday in Butte County Court for injuries they suffered in a traffic accident last March.
WASHINGTON ¾ The U.S. Senate this afternoon acquitted President Clinton of two impeachment charges brought against him by the House of Representatives. The vote on both charges fell far short of the two‑thirds required for conviction.
LONDON ¾ Ginger Spice said Sunday she is leaving the Spice Girls, but the all‑girl pop group will continue to perform with four members.
SPENCER ¾ Shocked survivors wandered their ripped‑apart community Sunday, searching for tornado‑scattered belongings and mourning six neighbors who died.
Direct leads need not be dry and dull. Here's a direct lead by Aljean Harmetz of The New York Times for a business story, which we usually think of as a dry subject with prose to match:
Two veteran motion picture industry executives were chosen today by the board of Walt Disney Productions to head the troubled company a mouse built.
When a fire struck a high‑rise apartment building in Queens, New York, the AP put this lead on its story:
A late‑morning fire in the upper floors of an 18‑story apartment building in the Lefrak city project in Elmhurst, Queens, killed three people Thursday, the Fire Department said.
Now look at how the Daily News began its story about the same fire:
Strong winds combined lethally with a fire in a Queens high-rise building yesterday, creating a “blowtorch” that roared through an apartment building and into a hallway, killing three people and injuring 22.
The image of a blowtorch searing its way through the building is powerful. A battalion fire chief used that word in an interview and the reporter had the good sense to put it in the lead. Good reporting makes for good writing.
Looking back at the direct news leads in this section, we can generalize about their essentials.
First, we notice that each lead has something specific to tell the reader. The reporter moved directly to the heart of the event.
Next, the time element is almost always in the lead. Then, there is usually a source of the information or action, and the source is often identified. And finally, the place of the action usually is included.
The delayed lead is often used on features and news features, the kinds of stories that are not about developing or fast‑breaking events. The delayed lead usually sets a scene or evokes a mood with an incident, anecdote or example.
Here is a delayed lead on a feature about a man who runs a demolition company. It was written by AP Newsfeatures writer Sid Moody:
Jack Loizeaux is a dentist of urban decay, a Mozart of dynamite, a guru of gravity. Like Joshua, he blows and the walls come tumbling down.
Notice that the reader does not know from this lead just what Jack Loizeaux does‑the delayed lead does not reveal essential information to the reader. The suspense is part of the attraction of the delayed lead.
Features, profiles, investigative reporting, series‑these usually take delayed leads. Here is how an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune began a series of articles exposing corruption in Chicago's ambulance services:
They are the misery merchants and they prowl the streets of our city 24 hours a day as profiteers of human suffering.
News Magazines The delayed lead is a favorite approach of the news magazines for events that readers are already familiar with through newspaper and broadcast coverage. Here is how U.S. News & World Report began its long piece on the week's big story:
He had a temper so combustible that he once ejected Lana Turner and Ava Gardner from his Palm Springs house, screaming "Out, out, out!" and then hurling Gardner's cosmetics, clothes and records into the driveway. His buddies included mobsters and thugs, and he divided the world, Sicilian style, into friends‑recipients of lavish gifts‑and enemies. Face to face, the blue eyes could drill through you, and he could be unpredictable, foul‑mouthed and crude, taking swings at anyone who got in his way.
Compare this beginning with the AP's direct lead on the same event:
LOS ANGELES (AP) ‑ Frank Sinatra, the dashing teen idol who matured into the premier romantic balladeer of American popular music and the "Chairman of the Board" to his millions of fans, died Thursday night of a heart attack. He was 82.
On Track Just any incident or anecdote will not do for the delayed lead. The lead must be consistent with the news point, the theme of the story. It must lead the reader straight to the heart of the event. Notice how John Rebchook of the El Paso Herald‑Post takes this delayed lead to the news point in the fourth paragraph, the current status of the drive to collect unpaid traffic fines. Rebchook illustrates his point about unpaid traffic warrants by using in his lead a specific driver who has avoided paying:
In less than three miles, Joseph L. Jody III ran six stop signs, changed lanes improperly four times, ran one red light, and drove 60 mph in a 30 mph zone ‑ all without a driver's license. Two days later, he again drove without a driver's license.
This time he ran a stop sign and drove 80 mph in a 45 mph zone. For his 16 moving violations Jody was fined $1,795.
He never paid. Police say that Jody has moved to Houston. Of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 outstanding traffic warrants in police files, Jody owes the largest single amount.
Still, Jody's fines account for a small part of at least $500,000 owed to the city in unpaid traffic warrants.
In February, Mayor Jonathan Rogers began a crackdown on scofflaws in order to retrieve some $838,000 in unpaid warrants. As of mid‑March, some $368,465 had been paid.
Leads on News Features
As the movement of news and information speeded up with all‑day, all-news radio and TV stations and the Internet, print publications with a much slower access to readers turned to writing techniques to attract readers who already had some idea of the event. One of the techniques is the news feature. The writer "featurizes" the breaking news event by putting a delayed lead on the story. We've already seen how newsmagazines do this. Newspapers do, too.
By the time The New York Times was on newsstands and doorsteps, everyone knew the end to a legal battle over custody of 2 1/2‑year‑old Jessica. The Supreme Court had dashed the hopes of Jessica's adoptive parents to keep her. This meant the child would have to be turned over to her biological mother, who had given her up for adoption shortly after Jessica was bom.
Don Terry put this lead on his news feature:
BLAIRSTOWN, Iowa, Aug. 2 When she is grown up, maybe Jessica DeBoer will understand why the adults in her young but complicated life have caused so much hurt in the name of love.
But starting today, the 2 1/2‑year‑old has more immediate lessons to learn, namely how to live without the only people she has ever known as Mommy and Daddy, Roberta and Jan DeBoer of Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Associated Press, which takes a conservative approach to newswriting put this beginning on a murder story:
DECATUR, Ga., Jan. 26 (AP) — Aster Haile, an Ethiopian immigrant, was delighted when her cousin arranged a marriage for her ‑ so excited that she bought clothes for her first date with the man and showed them off.
But the day after the date, Ms. Haile called a friend and said that the man was too old and that she could not marry him. A day later, she was found dead along an Atlanta highway, shot in her head.
In the third paragraph is the arrest, which in times past would have been the lead to this story.
The police have charged the man who set up the date, Arega Abraha, with murder. Mr. Abraha was arrested on Friday at the Cincinnati‑Northern Kentucky International Airport on a Federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
When the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton, the St. Louis Post‑Dispatch put this lead on the momentous story:
New York Democrat Charles Rangel rose Saturday to utter one of the rare sentences on which both sides of the House of Representatives could agree: "Mr. Speaker, the whole world is watching."
President Clinton's name was not mentioned until the fifth paragraph, and the actual vote was near the bottom of the 34‑inch story. The editor, Cole C. Campbell, explained the choice of a delayed lead: "We knew people would know the outcome of the vote when they picked up the paper, so we wanted to do a story that conveyed the historicity of the moment."
Early in his coverage of the slaughter in Rwanda, the AP's Mark Fritz understood that the battle between the Hutus and Tutsis had to be put in human terms. He had to put faces on the carnage. Numbers alone would only numb readers.
Health centers were set up in Rwanda in an attempt to lure refugees back to their country from neighboring Zaire, to which they had fled. Fritz began his news feature about the centers this way:
GOMA, Zaire (AP) ‑ Bernard Sebazzogue watched as cholera killed his daughter on Monday, his wife on Tuesday and his grandmother Thursday. By week's end, he gathered up his three remaining children and fled for help. To Rwanda.
What lay before him, rising from the dirt over the first 50 miles into his country, were five hospitals that began springing up just a few days before Sebazzogue's family began dying.
These outposts at Goma's doorstep are part of a quick and somewhat haphazard effort to create a corridor of health care in Rwanda from which more than 1 million people fled over several panicked days in early July.
Note that a direct lead could have been fashioned out of the material in the third paragraph. Fritz chose to featurize the story, and the impact is obvious. His coverage included feature stories and straight news accounts as well as news features. His work was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
A Story of Drugs
At first glance, the death record that police reporter Robert Popp of the San Francisco Chronicle saw in the police file seemed routine. But rewriteman George Williamson, copy editor Jim Toland and Popp turned it into a sad tale. Here is their news feature:
Small Boy's Big Loss to Drugs
Johnny B., 6, awoke at a pre‑dawn hour yesterday and saw his fully clothed mother lying on the floor next to the bed they shared in the Roy‑Ann Hotel at 405 Valencia Street.
Her nose was bleeding badly. Johnny got up, found some tissues, and wiped her face clean. Then he went back to sleep.
When he awoke again at 8:30 a.m., Anne B., 25, was still on the floor. Her face was covered by new blood.
Johnny dressed himself neatly — as usual — and groomed his Dutch boy haircut before going downstairs to tell the hotel clerk about his "sick" mother.
The coroner's office later determined that she had died from an overdose of an undetermined drug.
Johnny recounted that the night before, two men had visited the studio apartment in the Inner Mission District. He said he asked one man why he was using a rubber cord to make his arm veins bulge, and the man responded that he was taking a blood test.
The men left some time after Johnny went to bed.
Dr. Ruth's Blooper
In her story for USA Today, Barbara S. Rothschild describes a sex therapist’s boo‑boo with this delayed lead:
There may finally be a question that embarrasses Dr. Ruth Westheimer. It's about the accuracy of her book.
Teens who read the new sex book coauthored by the USA's best‑known sex therapist could get more than they asked for.
A baby, perhaps.
First Love: A Young People's Guide to Sexual Information, by Dr. Ruth and education professor Nathan Kravetz, has a major error on page 195.
In a chapter on contraception, the $3.50 book says it's "safe" to have sex the week before and the week of ovulation.
It should read "unsafe" — since those are the times a woman is most likely to become pregnant. . . .
Direct or Delayed?
As should be clear by now, there are no absolute rules about when the dior the delayed lead should be used. True enough, on large‑scale events the direct lead is usually called for, and on features the delayed lead works best. But lines tend to blur between these extremes.
Usually, publications, stations and the online servers establish a style their reporters follow. When a study of bank lending practices found that whites are more likely than blacks to receive mortgage money, Michael Quint of The New York Times began his story with a direct lead:
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 ‑ The most comprehensive report on mortgage lending nationwide ever issued by the Government shows that even within the same income group whites are nearly twice as likely as blacks to get loans.
For its page 1 story the same day, The Wall Street Journal writer John R. Wilke preferred a delayed lead that focused on the effect of the discriminator‑, practices on an individual. Here is how his story began:
BOSTON — When Sterling Saunders needed a home‑repair loan, he turned to two of New England's largest banks, Shawmut Bank and Bank of Boston. He had a steady job, equity in the house and little debt, but they turned him down.
In desperation, he arranged a $35,000, two‑year loan from a small Massachusetts mortgage lender, Resource Equity Inc., at a stratospheric 34.09% interest rate. When Resource wouldn't refinance Mr. Saunder's loan he fell even deeper into debt through refinancings with other high‑rate lenders. Now the 42‑year‑old city employee, his wife and three daughters face eviction from their home of 16 years by a third lender.
"This might never have happened if we'd been able to find a bank loan in the first place," Mr. Saunders says. The banks decline to address specifics of his case, but judging by recent studies of lending patterns, one reason he couldn't get bank loans may have had to do with his address: He lives in a low‑income, mostly black Boston neighborhood with few bank branches. A big survey by the Federal Re‑ Theme serve and analyses by others show these areas get a disproportionately small share of mortgage money from banks. . . .
The Journal also ran a direct‑lead story reviewing the study inside the newspaper.
The narrative style has influenced papers across the country, but the style sometimes has spread by contagion rather than by healthy example. The delayed lead requires a talented hand. Moreover, it cannot be used at the reporter's whim.
In an attempt to sell their editors on their stories, ambitious reporters use delayed leads on routine news stories, and some reporters play with delayed leads when they are unable to write direct news leads. By taking the narrative or chronological approach or by focusing on an individual or an incident, they hope that the reader will somehow figure out just what the news point is.
Editors are aware of these tactics and the abusers of the delayed lead find themselves confined to taking scores from the local bridge and bowling leagues and explaining to the wrestling promoters why the sports editor doesn't consider wrestling results worthy of space.
The Combo Lead
Some reporters have mastered a technique that combines the direct and delayed leads. The story begins with a few general sentences. Then the reporter hits the reader with a karate chop at the end of the first paragraph. Edna Buchanan, the Pulitzer Prize‑winning police reporter for The Miami Herald, is master of this kind of lead. Here are two typical Buchanan leads:
The man she loved slapped her face. Furious, she says she told him never, ever to do that again. "What are you going to do, kill me?" he asked, and handed her a gun. "Here, kill me," he challenged. She did.
On New Year's Eve, Charles Curzio stayed later than planned at his small TV repair shop to make sure customers would have their sets in time to watch the King Orange Jamboree Parade. His kindness cost his life.
Direct, with a Difference Buchanan covered a story about an ex‑convict, Gary Robinson, who pushed his way past a line at a fried‑chicken outlet. He was persuaded to take his place in line, but when he reached the counter there was no fried chicken, only nuggets, whereupon he slugged the woman at the counter. In the ensuing fracas, a security guard shot Robinson. Buchanan's lead was:
Gary Robinson died hungry.
Buchanan says her idea of a successful lead is one that could cause a reader who is breakfasting with his wife to "spit out his coffee, clutch his chest, and say, 'My god, Martha. Did you read thisT "
For her lead on a story about a drug smuggler who died when some of the cocaine‑filled condoms that he had swallowed began to leak in his stomach, Buchanan wrote:
His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him.
A Difficult Choice
Let us listen to Margaret as she mulls over the notes she has taken at a city council meeting:
There were 13 items on the agenda. Well, which were the important ones? I'll circle them in my notes‑
· General traffic program to route heavy trucks to Stanley Street and keep Main for lighter traffic.
· 56 stop signs to be bought.
· Paving program for Kentucky Street that will later fit into the bypass.
· OK'd contract to White Painting Co. to paint City Hall, $28,000.
· Hired consulting firm for traffic study.
Clearly, I need a direct lead here. Four of them seem to deal with traffic. Should I summarize them or should I pick out the truck route or the traffic study? They seem equally important, so maybe I'll play with a summary lead. I'll drop the stop signs way down and then go into the painting contract.
The City Council today took three significant actions to cope with the city's downtown traffic congestion.
1. Approved the employment of Rande Associates, a consulting firm from Burbank, Calif., to make a study of traffic patterns.
2. Called for bids on paving 12 blocks of Kentucky Street, which is planned as part of a downtown bypass.
3. Endorsed the city traffic department’s proposal to route heavy vehicles to Stanley Street before they enter Main Street.
At this point, some doubts assail Margaret. She remembers that the truck traffic issue has been argued for several months. Downtown merchants complained to the mayor about the truck traffic, and Stanley Street home owners petitioned the Council to keep the trucks away. The local newspaper and radio station have editorialized about it. In her haste to structure a complicated story, her news judgment went awry, she thinks. She writes:
The City Council today decided to route truck traffic to Stanley Street and away from downtown Freeport.
The city hall reporter is pleased with the lead she has written. But then more doubts. Maybe the overall pattern is more important than the single item about Stanley Street. After all, she thinks, the Council's three major actions "ill affect more people than those involved in the Stanley Street situation. Margaret decides that she needs some advice and she shows the city editor both leads.
"That's a tough one," he tells her. "Sometimes you flip a coin. Why don't you use your first lead and move up the third item, the one on Stanley Street, and put it first in the list?"
If we look closely at the two leads Margaret prepared, we notice that the single‑element lead about the routing of truck traffic to Stanley Street denotes a specific action the council took. The summary lead about the council taking three "significant" actions to "cope with" traffic congestion is the reporter's conclusion or interpretation . . . .Editors allow experienced reporters to interpret the news.
Good Reporting Equals Good Leads
Many weak leads are the result of inadequate reporting. Consider this lead
Barbara Elizabeth Foster, 19, St. Mary's University sophomore, will be queen of the city's Rose Festival.
Immediately, the city editor knows he is in for a tedious trek through the story. The reporter failed to single out an interesting characteristic of the new queen to add to her age and year in school. Glancing through the copy, the editor notices that her mother was named Maid of Cotton 25 years ago. At the end of story, there is a fleeting mention that her father enjoys gardening.
The editor runs his fingers through thinning hair. Masking his exasperation, he circles two sections and suggests to the reporter that there just might be a lead in the mother‑daughter relationship and that a logical question to have asked the new queen was whether her father grew roses. Without good reporting no story can shine, much less be complete.
Color and S‑V‑0
Next, to the fourth and fifth of our five guides to writing leads. The fourth question the reporter has to answer is, "Is there a colorful word or dramatic phrase that I want to work into the lead?"
When Florida conducted the first execution in the United States in a dozen years in which a person was put to death, many reporters were assigned to the event. The nation had engaged in a debate about the morality of the death penalty. How best to put the Florida execution into words? Here is the lead Wayne King wrote for The New York Times:
STARKE, Fla., May 25 ‑ The state of Florida trussed Arthur Spenkelink immobile in the electric chair this morning, dropped a black leather mask over his face and electrocuted him.
The choice of the verb "trussed" is inspired. Not only does it mean to secure tightly, its second definition is "to arrange for cooking by binding close the wings or legs of a fowl."
The fifth guide takes us directly into the construction of the lead‑the selection of the subject and verb for the lead.
The basic construction of the lead should be subject‑verb‑object, S‑V‑0. That is, the lead should begin with the subject, should be closely followed by an active verb and should conclude with the object of the verb.
The S‑V‑0 structure has an internal imperative: It directs the reporter to write simple sentences, sentences with one main clause. This kind of construction keeps leads short, another major requirement for a readable beginning.
Here are two direct leads:
In the past decade, David Blake has overpaid the city $7,635 in property fees on his small pharmacy in East Harlem.
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge has ordered the City of San Francisco to hire 60 women police patrol officers within the next 32 weeks.
S = judge; V = has ordered; 0 = San Francisco.
The S‑V‑0 construction is the staple of journalistic writing. Three‑fourths or more of the sentences a reporter writes follow this pattern. Most direct news leads‑whether for print or broadcast‑have this construction. It parallels the usual pattern of discourse and conforms to the command, "Write as you talk." Also, the S‑V‑0 construction is functional. It is consistent with the thinking pattern of the reporter as he or she structures the lead. It is the most direct way of answering the first two questions the reporter asks when trying to find the lead: What happened? Who was involved?
Variety Is Possible
Although the S‑V‑0 guideline may seem rigid, it does permit a variety of styles. Let us look at several leads written the night of a famous heavyweight championship fight:
CHICAGO, Sept. 25 (UPI) SONNY LISTON KNOCKED OUT FLOYD PATTERSON IN THE FIRST ROUND TONIGHT TO WIN THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD.
CHICAGO, Sept. 25 ‑ Nobody got his money's worth at Comiskey Park tonight except Sonny Liston. He knocked out Floyd Patterson in two minutes, six seconds of the first round of their heavyweight title fight and took the first big step toward becoming a millionaire.
— Robert L. Teague, The New York Times
CHICAGO, Sept. 25 ‑ Sonny Liston needed all of two years to lure Floyd Patterson into the ring and only two minutes, six seconds to get him out of it in a sudden one‑knockdown, one‑round‑knockout at Comiskey Park last night.
— Jesse Abramson, The Herald Tribune
CHICAGO, Sept. 25 ‑ Floyd Patterson opened and closed in one tonight. It took Sonny Liston only 2:06 to smash the imported china in the champ's jaw and, thereby, record the third swiftest kayo in a heavyweight title match ‑ a sudden ending that had the stunned Comiskey Park fans wondering wha' hoppened. The knockout punch was there for everyone to see. It was a ponderous hook on Patterson's jaw. But the real mystery was what hurt the champ just before that; how come he suddenly looked in trouble when Liston stepped away from a clinch near the ropes?
—Leonard Lewin, The Daily Mirror
CHICAGO, Sept. 25 ‑ It was short, sweet and all Sonny Liston here tonight. The hulking slugger with the vicious punch to match his personality teed off on Floyd Patterson, knocked the champion down and out at 2:06 of the first round and won the world heavyweight championship without raising a bead of sweat on his malevolent countenance.
— Gene Ward, Daily News
All the reporters agreed on the news angle or theme — Liston's quick knockout of Patterson. The thinking of these reporters was along the S‑V‑O line: S Liston; V = knocked out; 0 = Patterson.
The first lead, written for the UPI, whose reporters are told to remember there is a deadline every minute, has little more than the S‑V‑O structure in lead. Written within seconds of the 10‑count, the story was designed to meet needs of newspapers and broadcast stations on deadline.
The other reporters, who worked for New York City newspapers when the had four morning dailies, were under less pressure and were able to fashion more distinctive leads. Some put personal observations and their interpretations into the leads — a practice permitted byline reporters.
When Thurgood Marshall died, the leads were also basically the same:
Retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black to serve on the nation's highest court and a key figure in the civil rights movement, died yesterday of heart failure at 84.
¾ Phil Mintz, Newsday
WASHINGTON ‑ Thurgood Marshall, of the most influential Americans of the 20th century and the first black to be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, died Sunday at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in suburban Washington. He was 84.
¾ Glen Elsasser and Nicholas M. Horrock,
WASHINGTON ‑ Thurgood Marshall, who championed the causes of the downtrodden, the imprisoned and the defenseless in almost a quarter‑century on the Supreme Court, died yesterday at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center near here. He was 84.
¾ The Boston Globe
WASHINGTON ‑ Retired Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court and a towering figure in the civil rights movement, died Sunday of heart failure. He was 84.
¾ The Associated Press
When a reporter writes a lead, he or she navigates between divergent currents. One pull is toward writing a longer‑than‑average sentence, as the lead must offer significant information. The other is toward a short sentence because short sentences are more readable than long ones. The long sentence may be difficult to grasp; the short sentence may be uninformative or misleading.
Lead sentences should adhere to a 35‑word limit whenever possible, for visibility as well as readability. Long leads occupy so much of the narrow newspaper or online column that they appear forbidding. For broadcasting, all sentences tend to be short for quick comprehension.
The AP tells its reporters, "When a lead moves beyond 20‑25 words it's time to start trimming." Some of the extra baggage that can be jettisoned:
· Unnecessary attribution.
· Compound sentences joined by but and and
· Exact dates and times unless essential.
This means that the AP and other news organizations never run long leads, right? Wrong. When the occasion demands full information in the lead and the news writer is adept at constructing a sentence that has rhythm and balance, long leads are given a green light. Look at this lead by Peter Coy of the AP:
NEW YORK (AP) ‑ The stock market plunged out of control Monday in a selling panic that rivaled the Great Crash of 1929, pushing the Dow Jones average down more than 500 points, draining more than $500 billion from the value of stocks and sending shock waves around the world.
That's 46 words, a blockbuster, but so was the event. Despite its length, the lead is not hard to read. One of the reasons is the writer's use of action verbs that propel the reader through to the end.
Momentous Lead When an event is compellingly important, all rules and guidelines are tossed aside and the writer is allowed to jam the facts into the first sentence. Look at this lead from The Washington Post that runs 39 words long:
Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the office of the Democratic National Committee.
Not much artistry here, just the facts. But what facts. This was the opening salvo in the Post's exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency.
Leads for Folos
When the Supreme Court ruled that principals can censor high school newspapers, The Christian Science Monitor, the Kennebec (Maine) Journal, The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and scores of other newspapers around the country assigned staff reporters to find out what effect the ruling would have on local high schools.
These local stories are known as folos. The folo can run alongside the major story, or it can be published a day or so after the major piece has run.
The lead to a folo includes some information from the major piece:
Local high school principals say they will continue to allow student journalists a free hand, despite a Supreme Court decision that gives them the power to censor school publications.
Updated or freshened stories fall into the category of the folo story. Usually, it is possible to find someone to comment on a new development or to track down people affected by a new program or policy.
Causes and consequences are useful for leads to these stories:
Service and maintenance workers were returning to their jobs today following a vote to end a 10‑day strike against three Baltimore‑area hospitals.
— The Baltimore Sun
Disasters are updated without difficulty. If the cause of the airplane crash is unknown, investigators can be asked about the progress of the inquiry. If there were serious injuries, the condition of the victims can be checked, and if there are additional fatalities, a new death toll can be used as the basis of the lead.
A reporter handed in this lead:
The city planning office today recommended adding a section to the zoning code regulations on classification for residential use of property.
The editor puzzled over it and then instructed the reporter to say specifically what the proposed section would do. The reporter tried again.
The city planning office today recommended that property zoned for two‑acre, one‑family dwellings be rezoned to allow the construction of cooperative apartment houses for middle‑ and low‑income families.
The city editor looked this over and seemed pleased. "Let's take it a Step further," he said. "What's the point of the recommendation?" He answered his own question. "To change the code so ordinary people, not only the rich, can move into that wooded area north of town near the Greenwich Estates section. Let's try to get people into the lead." The reporter returned in 10 minutes with these two paragraphs:
Low‑ and middle‑income families may be able to buy apartments in suburban areas north of the city.
This is the intention of a proposal made today by the city planning office. The recommendation to the city council would rezone property in the area from the present restrictions that permit only single‑family dwellings on two‑acre lots.
In this process of writing and rewriting, the reporter went from a jargon-loaded, impenetrable lead to one that stated succinctly and clearly what the proposed regulation was intended to bring about. Accuracy was not sacrificed for simplicity and readability.
Readability stems from the ideas that make up the sentence, the order in which they are written and the words and phrases chosen to give the ideas expression:
Ideas: When possible, the lead should contain one idea. "The sentence is a single cry," says Sir Herbert Read, the British critic and author, in his English Prose Style. Too many ideas in a sentence make for heavy going. Also, the idea selected should be easy to grasp; complexities should be simplified.
Sentence order: The subject‑verb‑object construction is the most easily understood.
Word choice: Because the lead moves on its subject and verb, the choice of nouns and verbs is essential for readability. Whenever possible, the subject should be a concrete noun that the reader can hear, see, taste, feel or smell. It should stand for a name or a thing. The verb should be a colorful action verb that accelerates the reader to the object or makes the reader pause and think. It is not so much the presence or absence of the verb that matters, but the choice between a transitive and an intransitive verb.
Don't Write Writing
Immersed in words, the reporter is tempted to write writing, to make meaning secondary to language. This is fine when a poet plays with words, but it is dangerous for a journalist, whose first allegiance is to straightforward expression. Word play can lead to tasteless flippancies such as this lead:
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. ¾ Like justice, the new judge of the Duval County Court is blind.
Some reporters seem to think that using a direct quotation in the lead or injecting you into the lead makes for classy writing. They're wrong. Editors consider this weak writing. When you are tempted, consider this lead and imagine the editor's explosion when it popped out on his screen:
You don't have to go to a doctor to find out whether you are pregnant. Test kits can be bought over the counter.
Good journalism is the accurate communication of an event to a reader, viewer or listener. As Wendell Johnson, a professor of psychology and speech pathology at the University of Iowa, put it, "Communication is writing about something for someone . . . making highly reliable maps of the terrain of experience." Johnson would caution his students, "You cannot write writing."
The reporter who puts writing before fact gathering will achieve notoriety of a sort, if he or she is clever enough. Such fame is fleeting, though. Editors and the public eventually flush out the reporter whose competence is all scintillation.
This is not a red light to good writing. In fact, the fashioning of well-written stories is our next objective.
Good leads are based on the writer's clear understanding of the theme of the story. All else follows. This is why finding the theme is No. I in our list of guidelines for writing readable leads:
1. Find the essential element(s) of the story.
2. Decide whether a direct or a delayed lead better suits the event.
3. If one element is outstanding, use a single‑element lead. If more than one is, use a multiple‑element lead.
4. Use the S‑V‑0 construction.
5. Use concrete nouns and colorful action verbs.
6. Keep the lead short, under 30 or 35 words.
7. Make the lead readable, but do not sacrifice truthful and accurate reporting for readability.