In the previous chapter we discussed how journalists determine what is news. In this chapter we will look at the processes they go through to find information and fashion it into meaningful stories. As we said in Chapter One, reporters don’t find news, they find information. Through hard and, we hope, conscientious work they turn it into news, a coherent account of what they decide is significant to their audiences. But how do reporters find the information that they turn into news?
Sometimes, information comes to them. For example, people call the newsroom with tips, or asking for coverage of their group’s meeting or planned demonstration. Others send in news releases announcing a new product or a candidate’s campaign platform and schedule of appearances. Editors sometimes pass these to reporters for rewriting or as leads to pursue.
Most of the time, though, important information does not come looking for reporters; reporters have to go looking for it. They use several strategies to do that.
1. Perhaps the best known method for finding information is the beat system. Reporters are often assigned a beat, a particular topic or area of interest in which the reporter has developed some expertise, or is expected to. Each day, reporters on beats go to certain places that in the past have been good sources of story ideas. For example, every newspaper and broadcast news operation has somebody check local police and fire stations several times a day by phone or in person for incident and arrest reports. Similarly, the reporter on the court beat hangs out at the courthouse, looking for interesting trials and other activity in the justice system.
Increasingly, though, news organizations are structuring beats around issues – health care or education, for example — rather than buildings or locations – city hall or Blue Ridge County. Often, several reporters will share responsibility for an issues beat that might cross the boundaries of several traditional beats.
Newspapers still rely on regular beat reporters more than radio and TV stations do, but that is changing. In broadcasting, small-market reporters tend to be generalists rather than be assigned a full-time beat. In bigger broadcast markets with bigger news staffs, there is more room for beat reporters. Newspaper reporters like Tori Baxter who work in small bureaus combine beat reporting with general assignment reporting. She checks city hall, the police station, the sheriff’s office, the courthouse and the local universities regularly for story ideas, but she also spends time simply pounding the pavement – getting out on the street and into neighborhoods, stores, shopping malls, diners and gas stations to talk to people — which leads us to the second way reporters find information.
2. Reporters develop regular sources, especially on their beats. Once a reporter gets to know these sources, the sources can often be relied on to tip the reporter about events, issues or looming crises. Tori knows that much of what they tell her will not be interesting or significant to a large audience. It is up to her to decide which tips might lead to good stories. Like other good reporters, Tori spends hours every day simply chatting with one person after another, in person or by phone.
3. Reporters read, watch or listen to other news outlets for story ideas. For example, if The New York Times does a story on the lack of affordable day care in New York City, Tori will decide to check the situation in the Blue Ridge County area for a possible story.
4. Sometimes, a competing medium in the same market will “break” a story, that is, get it first. Then, usually after prompting from her editors, Tori will have to “follow” a previously published or broadcast story, seeking a fresh angle or something that wasn’t reported in the first story. (When a reporter gets beaten on a story, her self-preservation instinct will compel her to argue first to her editors that it isn’t really an important story. Editors usually win those arguments, though, and the reporter follows the competition’s story.)
5. Good reporters keep a tickler file, a calendar reminding them to check for further developments in events or issues they have already covered, or to revisit the people involved in earlier stories. For example, when a court reporter covers the preliminary hearing for someone charged with murder, she will put a note in her tickler file showing when the defendant’s next hearing is scheduled.
It is important to remember that much of the information reporters turn up doesn’t become news; that is, it isn’t shared with an audience in the form of a story. From the time they begin the process of deciding whether a bit of information is worth pursuing, reporters act as advocates for their audiences. They have to be expert listeners, and they have to become skilled at asking questions, too, especially when sources are reluctant to part with information. Many times, the person who gives Tori the first tip is not the one on whom she depends for the bulk of her information.
The first source is the beginning; for most stories, whether she is writing for print, broadcast or the Web, Tori will talk to several people, sometimes more than a dozen, and check a number of documents before she is ready to write. (Since the advent of the Web with its so-called “instant publishing,” as well as 24-hour news channels, some news organizations have been criticized for using a different standard for Web and broadcast news than they do for newspaper stories. They are said to rush to the Web or broadcast with information that hasn’t been subjected to the same process of verification that is the standard for print news, with its slower production cycle.)
It’s also important to keep in mind that you can’t write a good story without doing thorough reporting. If you don’t know and understand what’s going on, your audience won’t either, no matter how stylishly you try to write.
One fundamental bears repeating here: Before you can begin even to gather information, you must know your audience. As we noted before, mass media audiences are diverse. They come to news stories with widely different levels of knowledge and expertise about the story you are writing. It’s important to assume that most people will have little or no prior knowledge of it. They need to be shown, both by the way you gather information and by the way you share it with them, how the information will affect them. Also remember that, usually, audiences will choose to devote as little time as possible to catching up on the news. Leisurely readers of newspapers and watchers of TV news are increasingly rare. Online readers frequently are interested only in brief summaries.
Audiences for particular news operations in particular markets have differing needs. For example, Tori knows that any story about higher education is likely to generate a lot of interest in the Blue Ridge County area. Many of her readers work for one of the two universities. But 200 miles away, in Norfolk, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, there is a huge Navy presence. So it is news about the military – and what Congress is doing about military spending — that attracts attention, because of its impact on the local economy and public services. No matter where you are working, all your decisions about turning information into news should start with an awareness of your audience.
Reporters follow a pretty standard procedure as they turn information into news. The steps include: 1) discovery; 2) information gathering; 3) judging impact; 4) focusing on critical elements; 5) organizing; 6) using words effectively. (See Box 2.1) Some journalists identify the sixth step as writing, but it’s important to remember that, in my opinion, all six steps comprise the process of writing, and that the sixth step also encompasses rewriting.
Tori Baxter goes through this process every day, but she seldom identifies the separate steps anymore. And almost always, the steps will overlap to some degree. For example, Tori begins to judge impact (Step 3) from the moment she gets a tip or a snippet of information (Step 1). Similarly, information gathering (Step 2) can go on even as she writes her story (Steps 5 and 6), until the moment she has to ship it electronically to Jeffersonville to make deadline, and sometimes after that. And like many reporters, Tori starts thinking early on about the words she will use. From the moment of discovery, she starts turning over potential sentences in her head.
Box 2.1 Making News: A Six-Step Process
1. Discovery. A reporter turns up something interesting, or someone passes along a tip.
2. Information gathering. The reporter tries to verify the tip, and to find out more.
3. Judging impact. She carefully weighs whether the information will carry any impact for her audience.
4. Focusing on critical elements. She chooses the elements that will show her audience the impact.
5. Organizing. She uses strategies to help her arrange the information in a coherent way that reflects its impact.
6. Using words effectively. By choosing and organizing words with great care, she shapes a story that shows her audience why what she has learned is important. The story is often the product of several rewrites.
In this course, and in most of the exercises you will do, we will focus primarily on the last four steps of the process. If you go on to take additional reporting courses, you will probably get plenty of practice discovering and gathering information, possibly even covering a regular beat. As I mentioned in Chapter One, the last four steps of the writing process are tough enough, so for most assignments we have gathered for you the information you will work from.
We can simplify steps 3-6 by a three-word mantra: impact, elements, words. (See Box 2.2) Learn to recite it: impact, elements, words. Make it hang around in your head, creating an audible buzz each time you begin to write: impact, elements, words. It should define and focus the writing process for you. Impact should help us decide what the story is about, and why anybody should care about it. The elements – who, what, when, where, why, how — show us what to focus on to convey that impact to our audiences. Words are the tools we choose, in writing and rewriting, to fashion the information into something not only understandable and usable but graceful.
Box 2.2 Impact, Elements, Words
As you try to judge the news value of information, and then as you try to turn that information into news, remember to follow these steps, keyed to three words:
1.Impact. What’s this story about? Why should anybody care? How will it affect the lives of my audience?
2.Elements. Asking who, what, when, where, why and how should show you how to convey that impact to your audience.
3.Words. Used properly, words will fashion information into something understandable and meaningful.
Writing is mostly a craft, and a craft can be taught. Occasionally, news writing rises to the level of art, but practically nobody can create enduring art without learning the craft first. The more you practice writing, the better you get. Forget the image of the 19th-century poet waiting, one wrist to his forehead, for his muse to anoint him with the fleeting genius to create art. That’s crap. For one thing, muses don’t recognize deadlines. Journalists have to.
Whether you are working in print, broadcast or online media, writing is a simple process, but not an easy one. Veteran reporters are continually driven crazy by trying to decide how a story will affect their audiences most profoundly, by which elements to focus on based on that impact, by what to put in and what to leave out, by the choice of words that will work. Each step along the way is fraught with the potential for failure. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. But as tough as the process can be, if we don’t approach doing news systematically, we are left with chaos — capricious decisions, fuzzy focus, mushy words, baffled audiences. The stakes are too high to approach news haphazardly.
Remember to keep the process as simple as you can initially. The complexity will come later, but it will build logically from the simplicity. Let’s look at each part of the process in turn.
In judging impact, limit yourself to three choices: rational, emotional, or a combination of the two. You will recall that we looked at impact in Chapter One as we discussed the responsibilities that journalists have to their audiences. Remember that, in showing people how events and issues will affect them, you will be reporting about more than what affects them only in measurable ways. Many good stories reach audiences because they engage audiences in more than a strictly rational way. The impact of a story, then, can be seen as rational, as emotional, or as a combination of the two.
As we also learned in Chapter One, journalism textbooks historically have urged students to consider a sackful of factors in deciding what’s news. The list includes proximity, prominence, timeliness, consequence, magnitude, conflict, human interest, unusualness and so forth. Again, I argue that all of those factors beg the question: Why do we say those elements make a story worth telling? Why, for example, is the fact that someone is prominent make information about him newsworthy? If we ask the question for our audience’s benefit, it comes out like this: “What’s this story about?” or “Why should anybody care? Why should we ask people to spend their time on this story?” Our answer should be “because it affects them.” It’s our job to show them how and why.
If Valleydale City Council passed a budget last night that includes a tax increase, we know our story should focus on the rational impact: How much more will homeowners pay? If we find out that Virginia Presbyterian University student Meagan LeBlanc dived into a burning home to save her neighbor’s 2-year-old daughter, the impact will be mostly emotional: How might anyone in our audience react in the same emergency? Who is this brave young woman? How would any other parents feel if their child was trapped? Even though few in our audience will know the child, her mother, or the rescuer, the event affects people emotionally. It makes them aware of their shared humanity.
If a Valleydale City Council member is charged with drunk driving, we can argue that the impact is both rational and emotional. Our audiences need and deserve to know that one of their elected officials stands accused of a serious violation of the law, one that could put other people at substantial risk. There is substantial rational impact in that information. But to the extent that the incident makes members of our audience think about foolish or ill-considered decisions that they have made in their own lives that might have caused harm to others, and whether they were made to suffer the consequences, there is significant emotional impact as well.
In finding the right elements, keep thinking of the 5Ws and an H. Which one, or two, or three, in combination, will show the impact that you’ve decided is most significant? Trying to give equal weight to all six elements at the beginning of your story — your lede — makes for a long, hard-to-follow sentence or sentences. (By the way, I’ll discuss in the next section why it’s spelled lede.) Worse, you make your audiences try to do for themselves what you should be doing for them – making things clear.
So here is how I recommend you think through the first two steps of the process. Let’s use the councilman charged with drunk driving as an example: Impact – Rational and emotional. Elements (that show the impact) — who, what.
Making those two choices correctly leads you to the third.
In choosing the right words, think about the ones that show your audience most directly what the story is about, the ones that reflect the careful decisions you made about impact and the elements that show that impact. Stick with words that will be familiar to your audience. They can be informal, but avoid slang. Usually, you’ll rely on nouns and verbs more than on adjectives and adverbs. Nouns and verbs show, adjectives and adverbs tell. You will use simple, declarative, subject-verb-object sentence structure most of the time. Show, don’t tell. In our example, then: Impact – rational, emotional; elements – who, what; words – Valleydale City Council Member T. A. “Tater” Chipps was charged with drunk driving.
It can be argued that this process is effective no matter what kind of writing you are doing. All writers seek to create understanding for their audiences. Of course, fiction audiences have different expectations than audiences for news, and researchers read articles in scholarly journals with different expectations than people reading poetry. In Exercise One you wrestled with writing for different audiences with different levels of knowledge and understanding, and different needs. All audiences have needs, and focusing on our impact, elements, words process keeps you focused on your audience and its needs.
Knowing your audience will have a profound effect on all three parts of your impact, elements, words process. So it’s important here to review some characteristics of mass audiences that make news writing different from fiction or scholarly writing:
1. You are writing for members of an audience who will be coming to your story with little or no expertise in what it deals with. What they understand will come from your story.
2 They may have little initial interest in your story, so you must show them right away why it might be important to them.
3. They are trying to assimilate a substantial amount of new information in a short time.
News stories, then, should reflect those audience characteristics. As a result, they will share some features that other kinds of writing might not emphasize (See Box 2.3):
1. The story’s importance is made clear early, often in the first sentence, almost always in the first paragraph.
2. Because audiences have to know they can rely on the information they are getting, factual accuracy is stressed, and reporters verify their facts (remember to use your City Directory).
3. Sources are identified, and statements are carefully attributed to particular sources.
4. Most sentences and paragraphs are short, and reporters write in the active voice. They emphasize nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.
5. The reporter makes sure to provide his or her audience with adequate context and background.
Box 2.3 Characteristics of News Stories
1. The story’s importance is made clear right away.
2. Factual accuracy is stressed, so that audiences know they can rely on the information.
3. Sources are identified, and statements and information are carefully attributed.
4. Most sentences and paragraphs are short. Reporters rely on nouns and verbs more than adjectives and adverbs.
5. Adequate context and background are included.
Lede is a corrupted spelling of lead, as in to lead someone into a story. News people spell it that way because, in the old days, newspapers used lead (the metal) to print from. Putting extra lead (the metal) into a story – or leading the story — meant to stretch out the story so it would fill its allotted space. You can see how easy it was to confuse the two words, so they started spelling one lede. That’s the convention I’ll use. By the way, some news people say the term is archaic, but a recent keyword search through http://www.Google.com of lede and news writing yielded about 32,800 references, including ones from The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. A few broadcast reporters and some online journalists have also kept the convention.
So far, we have looked at how journalists define news, find news, decide what is news, and use impact, elements and words to judge what information should be shared with audiences in news stories, and how best to convey it. It’s time to focus on determining what information an audience should get first – the lede of the story — and on how we can use our impact, elements, words mantra carefully to convey the lede’s information most effectively.
Operationally, the lede is usually the first sentence of a news story. (On the Web, something similar to a lede – often called a blurb — can run to two or maybe three short sentences. More about that in Chapter Four.)
Functionally, a lede has to do much more than just sit there at the beginning of the story. Remember, people bring expectations to news stories — chiefly, that they will find out sooner rather than later whether the story has any meaning for them. The lede must show them that, or at least create a promise that we will be delivering key information very soon.
There was a time when most news stories — particularly newspaper stories — were written with what were called summary ledes. That is, they summarized practically all that was going on in the story, giving equal or nearly equal weight to all six elements — the who, what, when, where, why and how of every story. Usually, that meant that they ran on a bit, sometimes a lot, as I showed earlier. It also meant that we left our readers with a lot of work to do — sorting out which elements they needed to focus on and which could be left by the wayside. That’s a tricky business for a couple of reasons.
First, we’re the guys who know about what will be in the story. It’s unfair to ask people in your audience to sort out the important stuff when they don’t yet know anything about what they’re reading or hearing. Second, by the time a reader, listener or viewer gets to the end of a 45-word lede, it’s almost impossible to remember what was at the beginning of the sentence.
By the 1960s, newspaper audiences had started giving us that message very clearly. They did it by putting their newspapers down and turning on their TV sets. For a broadcast journalist, trying to cram all the elements into the lede is even more foolish, because broadcast stories are recited to the audience, and once the words are spoken, the audience can’t recapture them. Also, for the anchor or news reader, getting through a lede of more than about 20 words gracefully is nearly impossible. So broadcasters learned to write succinctly, and to focus on only one or two elements in the lede. It didn’t take long for audiences to discover that. (See Box 2.4)
Box 2.4 Characteristics of Ledes
1. Good ledes are concise. Often they are confined to one sentence of 20 words or fewer. That’s especially true in broadcast writing.
2. Good ledes focus on why people will or ought to care about a story. Journalists often talk about the impact of the lede – rational, emotional, or a combination of the two.
3. Good ledes rely on answering the key two or three who, what, when, where, why and how questions rather than trying to deal with all six equally.
4. Good ledes rely on nouns and verbs and simple sentence structure to show the impact of the story.
5. Good ledes help audiences see how the story might affect them and decide whether to read the rest of the story.
6. Good ledes are the product of thought, hard work and several rewrites.
7. Good ledes help the writer organize the rest of the story, and the audience understand it.
8. Good ledes should sound right read aloud, whether they are written for print, online or broadcast media.
9. Good ledes serve the facts. They avoid assumptions and speculation.
Today’s audiences don’t spend as much time with their news media as audiences used to. The day when people blocked out two hours each night to go through their newspaper is history. Even some 30-minute newscasts are losing audiences. Many people no longer spend more than a few minutes sitting through the evening news or skimming the home page of a news website before they start Web- or channel surfing. So the job of sorting out for them what they really need to know is ours as journalists, and it ought to be.
Asking a lede to carry that much baggage is a hefty request. That’s why news people sweat blood over ledes, and why many of them say that when they’ve got the lede right they’ve done 60 percent of their work. Getting the lede right means you have done thorough reporting, you’ve judged the impact of your information, you’ve identified the elements that will convey that impact, you have thought a lot about organization, and you have chosen words that will convey the significance concisely. It is a guarantee that you will probably organize not just your lede but also the rest of your story pretty well. If you’ve got a handle on what you need to tell people first, then it follows that that sorting process will go a long way toward rank ordering the rest of your information. It will also show you what doesn’t need to be in the story. So getting the lede right doesn’t just take care of your focus at the top of the story. It gives you a pretty good idea that the rest of the story will be right, too.
Doing that right takes practice and a lot of rewriting. Never settle for your first version. Try again and again to make it better. Almost always, you will. If you think you haven’t gotten it right on the first try, good for you. Only complacent fools think the first version of their lede is good enough. If you’re having to rewrite your lede several times, it means you care as much about your story as you ought to.
What does that mean to you when you’re trying to decide on a lede? Several things. Your lede is the place to put your impact, elements, words mantra into practice:
1. Again, focus on the impact. Rational, emotional, or a combination?
2. When you’ve made that decision, look for only the two or three elements that will best show that. In most news stories, the who and the what will be essential. The other elements tend to change with the circumstances. Sometimes we focus on how, or where. Less often, we rely on when. As you might imagine, usually the toughest question we have to answer is why. In fact, many times we have to rely on follow-up stories to determine and explain the why behind the news we gave our audiences today.
3. Nail the words. Even if you get the impact and elements right, you can still screw up a lede if you get the words wrong. Impact and elements are necessary, but not sufficient. Concentrate on using mostly nouns and verbs as your principal words. Nouns and verbs show your audience the impact. Adjectives and adverbs tend to tell the impact. Show, don’t tell. But let the words serve the facts. Never go beyond the facts to make the words carry more impact.
Without any of those three steps in the process, you wind up with ledes that have the wrong focus, or are entirely unfocused, or are cluttered, mushy and wordy. You can be the most stylish writer in the world, but if you haven’t made the right call about impact and elements, your story will be all sizzle and no steak. Similarly, without the right words, your story is the steak that nobody will want to eat. So think first, then write. What we’ve been doing is practicing a systematic way to think.
Now let’s try to write a lede. In subsequent chapters, when we focus in turn on ledes for print, broadcast and online news, we will look at how the needs and strengths of each medium shape ledes. For now, by trying to organize, structure and find good words for ledes we can develop the discipline journalists need to serve any mass audience.
Take a close look at the following set of facts:
You find out from checking incident reports at the police department that Valleydale Presbyterian Church’s fellowship hall was broken into last night. According to the incident report:
About 500 people are members of the church.
The burglary was discovered at 6:30 this morning by the church’s janitor, Norbert Pasty.
Entry was apparently gained through a window at the youth minister’s office on the first floor of the two-story building.
Access was gained by shattering the window.
The Rev. Edwin F. Younts reports that all that appeared to be taken were several sex-education videos that the youth minister had locked in his desk drawer, and the video recorder and TV set in his office.
He estimates the value of the items at $600. Videos were church-approved for use with young adult Sunday school classes.
A passerby saw one person walking away from the church carrying something heavy about 3 a.m., but assumed it was just a security guard doing something involving his job.
By way of illustration, let’s consider first what might happen if we tried to write a lede without going through our impact, elements, words process. (See Box 2.5)
Box 2.5 Rewriting Ledes
Good ledes are almost always the product of several rewrites. For example:
First try: With crime becoming a major problem in our community, it was not surprising that a shocked janitor at Valleydale Presbyterian Church discovered at 6 a.m. this morning that valuables had been brazenly burglarized from the office of the youth minister.
Second try: The janitor of Valleydale Presbyterian Church discovered at 6 a.m. that valuables had been burglarized from the office of the youth minister.
Fourth try: A thief broke into Valleydale Presbyterian Church last night, taking videos, a VCR and a television set worth $600.
Final version: A thief shattered a window, forced open a drawer and stole sex-education videos from Valleydale Presbyterian Church last night.
If you have had some experience writing essays your first notions are probably to look for a theme statement, to work from the general to the specific, and to pay some attention to narrative flow. Something like this:
With crime becoming a major problem in our community, it was not surprising that a shocked janitor at Valleydale Presbyterian Church discovered at 6 a.m. this morning that valuables had reportedly been brazenly burglarized from the office of the youth minister.
Well . . . . Remember when we said that good ledes are succinct and focused, so the audience doesn’t have to spend a lot of time understanding them? About the first thing we notice is that this lede is way, way long – 40 words instead of the 20 we should be shooting for. Worse, many of those words are unnecessary, work against each other, or reflect assumptions or opinion rather than fact. For example, do we know the introductory clause is true? Does our audience? Is crime becoming a big problem locally?
The lede also tells us that it is no surprise that the church was burglarized, then three words later reports that the janitor was shocked to discover the burglary. That’s not only contradictory; it assumes that the janitor was shocked. Do we know that?
Some of the words are redundant: “6 a.m.this morning” implies that there can be a 6 a.m. in the afternoon or the evening. Nope. Also, the janitor has both discovered the burglary and says, indirectly, that items were “reportedly” burglarized. If the janitor discovered the burglary, why can’t the janitor say definitively that the stuff was missing? “Brazenly” isn’t redundant, but as an adverb it is a “tell me” word rather than a “show me” word. More about that in a minute.
Okay. Let’s start over, using our “impact, elements, words” mantra this time. First, impact: Remember that we can look for rational impact, emotional impact, or some combination of the two. Will the information we have affect most of our audience in a rational or in an emotional way? For most of us, the theft of $600 worth of stuff from a church office will cause no financial harm, even if we are members of the church. And even if we knew who the thief or thieves were, most of us would not be acquainted with him, her or them. So for practically everyone in our audience, the rational impact of this information is going to be about zilch.
When it comes to emotional impact, though, for many of us it’s a different story. Granted, the emotional impact is not going to be on the order of seeing cancer survivor Lance Armstrong win his seventh Tour de France, but we owe our audience the duty of showing whatever impact there is. Learning that somebody broke into a church, of all places, will probably anger many people. The slightly twisted among us might even find something amusing or ironic in it. More about that in a minute. When we think about impact first, we realize that for most of us, the impact of this story will be emotional.
Our next step is to identify the elements that convey that emotional impact. Remember that we have six choices – who, what, when, where, why and how – but that we want our lede to focus only on those elements that show our audience the emotional impact most clearly. Certainly, what happened – a burglary – carries a lot of the impact. What else? How about where? It wasn’t just a burglary, it was the burglary of a church. The who is important in a lot of stories, but is it in this one? The only person we have identified is the janitor who discovered the burglary, and the janitor is not really central to the impact. The principal who – the thief – is unidentified. So for this lede, the who is not something to focus on.
Our audience will need to know the when at some point, of course, but again, when the burglary happened carries less emotional impact than what happened and where. As in many stories, the why is pretty much a puzzle at this point, so there isn’t a lot of benefit in dwelling on it. But how about the how? We know something about how the thief got in, and it involved force. That carries some emotional impact; not only was the target a church, but whoever did it thought nothing of forcing his way in.
So far we have identified the what, the where and the how as our principal elements. I think we’re doing pretty well. But keep in mind there may be more than one of each who, what, when, where, why and how to pay attention to. I mentioned a minute ago that for some in our audience the emotional impact might strike in the form of humor or irony. Is there an element that shows that? Sure – what was taken – sex education videos, from a church, of all places.
Right. Let’s look at where we are in our three-step process: Impact – emotional. Elements: What (two whats, actually), where and how. Doing our first two steps right is necessary to write a successful lede, but not sufficient. Time for step three: Words.
Let’s try another lede, this time wrestling with words that will show the two whats, the where and the how that convey the emotional impact to our audience.
Norbert Pasty, janitor of Valleydale Presbyterian Church, discovered at 6 a.m. that valuables had been burglarized from the office of the youth minister.
A little closer. By focusing on the emotional impact we’ve eliminated the long theme-statement introductory clause, the unsupported assumptions and a lot of unnecessary words. We’ve gotten to the what element – the burglary — somewhat sooner. But there are still problems. First, did you check your City Directory when you read the information from the police? If you did, you noticed that the janitor’s name is misspelled. He’s Norbert Patsy, not Pasty. If we leave his name in the story without correcting it we’ve committed a fact error.
But we shouldn’t leave his name in the story, because as written the structure of this lede still focuses on the who – the janitor – and when the theft was discovered. We’ve determined that neither of those elements carries much of the freight in this lede.
Worse, as a result of this structure other critical elements, the two whats – the burglary and what was taken – are buried deep in the sentence. And our focus on one of the whats – the stuff that was taken – is fuzzy; we identify it only as “valuables.”
We have another critical element, where, identified, but we probably waste words by being too specific at this point. The emotional impact is served simply by knowing it was the church without showing at this point that it was the youth minister’s office.
Finally, there is no attention at all paid to the how, the third crucial element we identified. So let’s take another crack at it:
Valleydale Presbyterian Church was burglarized sometime during the night, with the thief escaping with videos, a VCR and a television set worth $600.
Better, even though it’s a little longer than the previous version. By now we are focusing on a couple of the critical elements: the what — the burglary and what was taken; and the where – the church. Still no attention paid to the how, though. We need to fix that. And you might notice that there is something still a tad fuzzy about what was taken. That fuzziness means we lose some of the emotional impact.
Right. One more try:
A thief broke into Valleydale Presbyterian Church last night, taking videos, a VCR and a television set worth $600.
The good news is that the lede is a lot tighter, we are beginning to focus on the crucial elements, and our words are starting to show the impact. For example, instead of just referring to a burglary or the church being burglarized – an awkward word anyway – we are now showing some action: “A thief broke into Valleydale Presbyterian Church…” That alone will go a long way toward conveying the emotional impact to our audience.
But we’re not quite there. How the thief broke in can be sharpened even more, and in attempting to show what was taken, we have let our focus wander a tad. It’s not the television set, the VCR or the $600 value of the items that will carry the emotional impact here. It’s the nature of those tapes, isn’t it?
A thief shattered a window, forced open a drawer and stole sex-education videos from Valleydale Presbyterian Church last night.
Now our words show the emotional impact. They focus graphically on what happened and what was taken, where, and how. Because we have relied on verbs and nouns and a simple sentence structure, our audience can feel the emotional impact of this story. We have also stayed with what we know, avoiding characterizations or judgments that are based on assumptions or speculation. By the way, the lede is exactly 20 words.
It’s not a perfect lede. We refer to “a thief” when it could have been more than one. We do know that a witness saw one person walking away from the church in the middle of the night. I suppose we could substitute “somebody” for “a thief” to accommodate the uncertainty, but the word choice sounds a little lame. We begin the lede with “A thief” even though we decided that the who does not carry the emotional impact of this story. At least now the focus is on the thief and not the janitor, and introducing a person into the lede, even an unidentified one, helps us show action graphically rather than have the church being “burglarized.”
So maybe you can continue to fiddle with this lede and improve on it even more. That’s the point. What we have is the product of several tries, each better than the one before it. Get used to doing that with your ledes, and your stories.
We should realize that this is not the most earth-shaking story that will appear on today’s Web page, tonight’s newscast or in tomorrow’s Jeffersonville Herald. It would be structured a little differently for broadcast, as I will show in a subsequent chapter. In fact, it might not even make it onto the newscast, and if it’s in the regional edition of the paper, it will be short. Doing news is like that: Sometimes you put in a lot of work, trample some shrubs and annoy a few people for what looks like a pretty skimpy payoff. Then again, sometimes audiences will reach out and hold onto something more tightly than you thought they would. For yourself, you have the fun of being a reporter. And you even get a paycheck a couple of times a month.
But if you still don’t think there is much impact in some clown stealing sex-ed videos from a church, bear with me. This same impact, elements, words process will help you later, when things in Valleydale start to get pretty hairy. For now, I wanted to kick us off with a simple set of facts. As with any story, whatever impact these facts will have on the audience should be apparent from the lede. Again, as you work through the exercises in this textbook, and the events and issues become more complex and more significant, remember that you should be able to use your process no matter how important or complex the story.
Journalism shares a fundamental characteristic with all professions: Its practitioners are motivated by their obligations to those they serve. In the case of journalists, the primary obligation is to promote democratic self-determination by giving audiences the information they need to make decisions about their lives. Review the characteristics of news stories above, and think about how they reflect audiences’ needs and journalists’ obligations to meet those needs. Think especially about audiences’ needs for accurate, reliable information presented so they can understand it clearly. Remember the discussion in Chapter One of objectivity and framing.
Finally, think about the decisions journalists make about what information is not appropriate to share with audiences. Sometimes those decisions are centered on the audience’s needs and interests, but they can also reflect the journalist’s respect for an individual’s privacy and the goal of minimizing harm.
We owe it to our audiences and to the subjects of our stories not to go beyond the facts in trying to show the importance of the story. Make your words serve the facts; never twist the facts to accommodate snappier writing. Let facts in context carry your lede and your story; keep your opinions and assumptions to yourself.
Some textbooks and writing teachers argue that a well-written lede should entice everyone to read, watch or listen to the story. In a world of multiple media outlets competing for audiences’ limited time, though, that is probably an unrealistic expectation.
A more realistic goal might be for every lede to show everyone in the audience what his or her stake in the story will be. Will the story affect its readers or viewers rationally, or emotionally? Will most in the audience find the story essential to their lives? Or is this story discretionary – that is, certainly worth a reader’s or viewer’s time, but not a matter of life, death, wise parenting or financial solvency? “Selling” a story by misleading an audience is a disservice. It can make journalists seem less trustworthy to their audiences, and audiences less likely to read or watch stories that really are essential to them.
Remember that reporters find out a lot of information that they never craft into news stories. When you practice your three-word mantra – impact, elements, words – keep in mind that a lot of information doesn’t get past the first filter – impact. If Tori can’t see why her audience ought to care about a piece of information or set of facts, chances are audiences won’t see it in a news story.
If information passes the impact test, move to your next step, elements – the who, what, when, where, why, how questions. Which of those elements most effectively show the audience the impact? Seldom should all six be emphasized equally in a story. But it is equally infrequent that only one element will carry all the freight.
Only after you are confident that you have made solid decisions about impact and elements should you turn your attention to words. How can we as reporters translate the solid decisions we have made on their behalf into a clear, coherent news story? (See Box 2.6)
In the next several exercises, you will work on finding and writing ledes. In Chapter Three we will begin working on full stories. Remember:
1. Even if you use your impact, elements, words process conscientiously, it’s easy to get lazy writing ledes because you know you will be writing the rest of the story. You will have a tendency to think that whatever crucial information you don’t focus on in the lede will be available to your audience later. But if you make the wrong call in your lede, chances are your audience won’t get any farther than that. That’s why, for the exercises in this chapter, I want you to concentrate only on the lede.
2. For now, keep your ledes to one sentence, and to no more than 20 words, including short words and articles like a and an. Yes, I am serious. It takes work, but as we’ve shown above, you can do it.
3. Focus on nouns and verbs rather than on adjectives and adverbs.
4. Always make the words serve the facts.
5. Whether you are writing for the Web, for broadcast or for print, always read your lede – and the rest of your story — aloud. No matter what medium you are writing for, stories make a noise in people’s heads. If it doesn’t sound right, they will not embrace the story, and chances are they won’t understand it.
6. Writing is rewriting. If writing suddenly seems like hard work to you, it’s because you’re doing it right. Don’t settle for your first try.
Box 2.6 Strategies for Ledes
1. Use your impact, elements, words process to organize, structure and choose words for your lede. Focus on each step in the process.
2. Keep in mind that a lot of information doesn’t get past the first filter – impact. Can you show your audience why they ought to care about a story?
3. If you find sufficient impact for your audience, determine which elements – who, what, when, where, why, how — most effectively show that impact.
4. Use words to translate the information into a clear, coherent news story. Keep trying. Plan on doing a lot of rewriting.
5. Keep your ledes to one sentence of 20 words or fewer.
6. Let nouns and verbs do the work of showing your audience the impact. Nouns and verbs show; adjectives and adverbs tell.
7. Never go beyond the facts to grab your audience. Instead, make the words serve the facts.
8. Read your lede aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t. Read it as if it were the only part of the story your audience will see or hear. Is the impact of the story clear?
9. Never settle for your first try. Good ledes are the product of hard work and several rewrites.
Study the sets of facts that follow. Practice your mantra — impact, elements, words — on them. Then write a one-sentence lede for each. Keep all of your ledes to 20 words or fewer.
Luverne Stamp has been Valleydale’s finance director for 11 years. She was one of the first African American municipal finance directors in the South. Her responsibilities include overseeing city spending and preliminary review of the proposed city budget. She has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA, both from the University of Virginia. She is single. Today in the city manager’s office you find a copy of a letter she submitted to him late yesterday.
Dear Mr. Prentice:
I hereby regretfully tender my resignation as your Finance Director. I feel it is time to pursue other opportunities, although I have not yet identified them. My reasons for resigning are personal.
This, therefore, will constitute my notice of resignation, effective immediately.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank several of the members of Valleydale City Council for their support. As you know, during my tenure the city budget – and the services we provide residents – have grown enormously. Inevitably, with such growth there are tensions. I have dealt with those tensions to the best of my ability. I will always look with pride at my time with Valleydale city government.
Luverne Stamp, Finance Director
Stamp will not discuss her letter with you, or give specific reasons for resigning.
Prentice provides a statement:
“We accept Ms. Stamp’s resignation with regret. We wish her well. I am sure that recent unfounded accusations that touch on the Finance Department, but not on Ms. Stamp, precipitated her decision, which is upsetting.”
Prentice will ask City Council at its next meeting to appoint an interim finance director pending a nationwide search for Stump’s replacement.
Police incident reports and news releases are often wordy and full of jargon. It’s your job to focus on the essence and translate the jargon into words your audience will find understandable and compelling. This one is from County Sheriff Swofford.
Yesterday about 4 p.m. Blue Ridge County Deputy Sheriff Rubelia Pennebaker was patrolling Eden Pass when she observed a group of civilians engaging in frantic arm-waving activity at the Eden Pass Wayside. Upon arrival, a similar group of people was observed, one of whom was trying to console an agitated WF identified as Dorothy Foster of Cupp’s Creek. Dorothy Foster advised DS Pennebaker that her child, Pat, WF age 3, had wandered away from a family picnic approximately 45 minutes earlier and could not be located. Numerous civilian volunteers were at this point engaged in a search for the child. DS Pennebaker radioed dispatch for backup. At which point help was requested from Madison County Search Canine Unit (SCU). Two bloodhound-type dogs arrived approximately 6 p.m. and began a search for the child, accompanied by approximately 30 sheriff’s deputies and civilian volunteers. At approximately 4 a.m. in the morning this date, SCU canine “Old Blue” located child asleep at the base of a large tree, approximately 3 miles from picnic sight. Child was taken by ambulance to Stuart Hospital in Valleydale, where she was examined and released. Child is the youngest of five children belonging to Foster and her husband, Jeff.
Some journalists say that nothing happens for the first time. News stories are often updates of events or issues that we have written about previously. But we can’t always assume that our audiences saw the earlier story, so we have to be sure to place the new story in its appropriate context.
After a two-hour executive session of Valleydale City Council last night (closed to the public and the media), Valleydale City Manager Don Prentice named Deputy Finance Director Alice Turpin the Acting Finance Director. Prentice made the appointment as a result of the resignation of Luverne Stamp a few days ago. The council did not comment publicly on Stump’s resignation. It did issue the following statement:
“We wish Ms. Strump well, and we are pleased that Ms. Turpin has been appointed Acting Finance Director with the understanding that she will become one applicant to fill the permanent position. We are confident in Ms. Turpin’s ability to lead the Finance Department through this difficult time.”