26 Aug 2009 [ Prev | Next ]

Lead (sometimes lede)

One or two sentences at the beginning of a news story that encapsulate the news. Write it so that the reader would still understand the main point of the story even if he or she only read the lead.

Traditional Lead

Note that a lead does not have to answer "who, what, when, where, why, and how" in a single sentence, in that order.  Avoid cramming the lead with every single detail you have learned.

An explosion that may have been caused by a faulty gas pipe leveled the house of John and Mary Citizen, in the 200 block of Green Street in Townsburg this morning at 7:45, starting a fire that forced the evacuation of 30 northside residents, said Fore Chief Smoky Waters at a press conference on the steps of City Hall this afternoon.
Yikes! That's far too much information.

An explosion leveled a house in Townsburg this morning, starting a fire that forced 30 northside residents to flee their homes, a city official said.
After the above lead, the second paragraph might provide an element of color -- a description of smoke billowing above the treetops, a sleepy child being carried by a worried-looking parent, or a quote from an eyewitness.

The third paragraph might include a direct quote that gives a name to the "city official" mentioned earlier.  Smoky Waters is not important enough to this story to be named right away -- he didn't cause the fire, it wasn't his house, and he may not even be a witness. He's just a messenger, so it's perfectly appropriate to bumps his name to the third paragraph.

If the story involves any unusual details -- perhaps the fire started at the mayor's house, or there was a loud party going on, then the lead should be adjusted to reflect those unusual details.
An early-morning explosion at the residence of Townsburg mayor Margaret Smith started a fire that destroyed three houses, rescue workers say.

Or maybe, if the fire itself is no longer news, your lead could emphasize some new element that makes the old story fresh. The first example actually mentioned two events -- an early morning fire, and a press conference that happened later in the day.  While the fire is more important than the press conference, the press conference is more recent, so we can't ignore the new information that the fire chief provided -- such as the possible cause, and the exact number of residents affected by the fire.

Note how this lead presumes the reader already knows that there was an explosion, and emphasizes the new information.

A faulty gas pipe probably caused the explosion that destroyed a house in Townsburg, according to Fire Chief Smoky Waters. The fire is under control, and the 30 residents who were evacuated will be allowed back home tonight, Waters said.

For an accident story, mention deaths, injuries, property damage, and temporary local inconveniences, in that order. If there are deaths or serious injuries, quoting a resident who is annoyed by the traffic jam caused by the rescue vehicles would make that neighbor seem insensitive. The real story in that case would be the deaths and injuries, making the temporary inconveniences far less newsworthy.

See "A Tale of Two Leads."

Experimental Leads

If the story is newsworthy because it is odd (rather than because it involves suffering or property loss), you might try conveying the facts in a more creative way.

A 15-minute operation involving a forklift, 20 firefighters, seven police officers and one scared pig ended a two-hour traffic delay on Interstate 94 Sunday morning.

This example, from a handout co-written by a former student of mine (see "Hard News Writing"), covers the "5 w's and one h" without being too cutesy, inviting the reader to keep reading. This kind of writing can be risky, since it can backfire, but it can also have a great impact. Some further examples for the pig story:

Geoffrey Saint never could have imagined what he'd meet in the middle of Interstate 94 during his drive to church Sunday morning.

This is a little too broad. How about

For Geoffrey Saint, the pig blocking his way to church Sunday morning was was "too big to miss and too grumpy to move." 

A different lead might instead focus on a different angle.

Tailgate the pig lay snoring in the middle of Intersate 94, oblivious to the fire trucks and squad cars that had gathered around him.

Would it be too much to try to work a reference to "Sunday snooze" into the lead, in order to cover "when"? Probably so. There's no rule that says you have to cram every detail into a single sentence.

Anecdotal Leads

Somewhere between the efficient rigor of the traditional lead and the riskiness of the experimental lead, an anecdotal lead begins with a one- or two-sentence story.

Geoffrey Saint says a pig named Tailgate saved his children's life.

When the pig decided to take a Sunday morning snooze on Interstate 94, Saint, who was on his way to church, saw the traffic jam, turned around, and went back home.

Pulling up in front of the house he had left just fifteen minutes earlier, he saw smoke pouring from the kitchen windows, below the room where his three children were sleeping.

Note that this story begins by stating that the children are fine, but saves the details for the body of the story.


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