Journalists: Let the Quotes Do The Work Whenever Possible

Beginning journalism students often need some practice giving the best lines to their sources. Here are the first two paragraphs in a story about missing tailgates. It’s just a routine story, but the writing makes it inviting and personal.

Luke Himler said employees at Hollywood Cars near Greensburg were moving vehicles on the lot Saturday morning when he noticed something odd about a Dodge Ram. 

“I wondered why the tailgate was down. Then I saw there was no tailgate,” Himler, the sales manager, said Monday. –Pittsburgh Tribune Review

There’s a saying in journalism — get the make of the car, the brand of the beer, and the name of the dog. The fact that this isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a Dodge Ram, makes the story more vivid.  But let’s look carefully at the end of the first sentence… notice that the reporter doesn’t mention the tailgate right away? What if we revised the first sentence to mention the missing tailgate?

Luke Himler said employees at Hollywood Cars near Greensburg were moving vehicles on the lot Saturday morning when he noticed the tailgate was missing on a Dodge Ram.

“I wondered why the tailgate was down. Then I saw there was no tailgate,” Himler, the sales manager, said Monday.

Now the first sentence is a bit more informative, but the quote from Himler now seems redundant. The reader can’t enter into Himler’s eyewitness account, and isn’t surprised along with Himler. Because the headline already mentioned missing tailgates, the slight delay doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding. It would not be good journalistic practice to delay the point of the story beyond the second or third short paragraph; this author doesn’t delay the facts in order to tease, but rather in order to make the quote from Himler do the work.