20/20 #4 — Best Phrase Forward

 What is the lead?

The lead either grabs the readers’ attention and gets them to click and continue reading — or loses them entirely as they surf away to watch one more cat video. The first paragraph should draw readers into the story, with conflict or color or a great quote. The lead is short, active, and specific, while telling readers what to expect in the story. 

Lead or Lede?

Back in the day, newspapers were printed with ink containing lead. When people wrote about the “lead” in a story, some got confused about the difference between “lead” in the ink and the beginning or “lead” in the story. So they changed the spelling to “lede.” Only snobs will correct you if you spell it “lead” today.

Hard and soft leads

Hard lead: Just the facts, ma’am.

Tells who, what , when, where, why.

The Minneapolis school board, in a special meeting held at school district headquarters, voted on April 1 to approve new principal contracts providing a starting salary of $100,000 per year.

Soft lead: anecdotal or descriptive

Begins the article with a story or quote — better for holding the attention of readers.

Suppose one in four of a law school’s graduates could not pass the bar exam after multiple attempts? Applications would plummet, the school would tumble in the all-important U.S. News & World Report rankings and its American Bar Association accreditation potentially would be threatened.

In short, it would be catastrophic.

Yet at 18 of Minnesota’s 33 teacher preparation programs fewer than three-fourths of graduates passed all three of the basic skills tests required to secure a license to teach. (MinnPost article, 4/3/2014)

Burying the lead — and finding it

Many of us “bury the lead.” That is, we write the story from start to finish, and the really interesting, juicy anecdote may happen in the third paragraph. Or in the next-to-last section. 

Don’t worry.

If you can’t figure out a great lead for the first paragraph of your story, go ahead and write the story. Then, after it is written, look for the lead and move it to the top. Even if you think you have a good lead, reread your story and see whether you can find something better.

After you get the lead at the top, do whatever rewriting is needed to make the story flow.

If you can’t find anything interesting for a lead, you may need to rethink the whole story. Remember these key questions from In Focus?

  • Who will be interested in reading this?
  • What is important, interesting, surprising, exciting?
  • Why will readers care? (This may be the most important question!) 

Hands on

Go to AlJazeera.com and analyze the leads to three stories.

  • Does something in this lead make you want to read more?
  • What could be added or changed to make each lead stronger?
  • Which is the best lead, and why? 

Want more?

Here are a few good resources:

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) How to write a good lead

Melvin Mencher. Chapter 6 “The Lead.” News Reporting and Writing




Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

20/20 #6 — Attention-grabbing Headlines

The headline is your first, and sometimes only, chance to grab the reader’s attention and get them to click on the story and read further.

Direct headlines:

  • Tell the story: headline should be consistent with what is in the story
  • Interesting and accurate
  • Consistent in tone with the story
  • Clear and concise
  • Be specific — use people names and place names

good: Democrats to spend $1 million against Bachmann

not so good: Minnesota House race goes national

not so good: Congresswoman criticizes candidate

For the web

  • Think search terms — names, places, keywords
  • SEO = Search Engine Optimization

good: Obama supporters’ tires slashed in North Carolina

not so good: Animosity over campaign growing

Headlines with a twist

  • Ask questions
  • Use quotes
  • Grab the reader
  • Colorful but clear

What do you think about these headlines? Are they direct? Do they signal what the story is about? Do they make you want to keep reading? Why or why not?

Michelle Bachmann: Obama may be “anti-American”

Blagojevich Viewed As Campaign ‘Kryptonite’

Third time’s the charm for Minnesota soldier’s dog

Stylists try to snip domestic violence before it happens

Powell’s Obama Endorsement Sparks Reaction: “Nail In The Coffin” For McCain


  • Even if you’ve heard it all your life, other people have not
  • Remember that not all readers grew up in Minnesota
  • Watch the thin line between clever and cute
  • Be careful with slang and colloquialisms
  • Stay away from clichés

Hands on:

Pick three stories from today’s news and write three alternative headlines for each of the stories.


20/20 #12 — He said, she said: Taking sides on truth

(False) objectivity

Does objectivity mean reporting both sides of every story? Definitely not, says Robert Eshelman in Columbia Journalism Review. When one side of the story is just plain wrong, then journalists should not give it equal weight. Global warming is his case in point.

Jay Rosen offers a tidy definition of he said, she said journalism:

  • There’s a public dispute.

  • The dispute makes news.

  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

What’s wrong with he said/she said

Back in the day, Eshelman reports, journalists did a much better job on reporting global warming:

“’There was a lot of coverage and most of it was smart,’ [Bill McKibben] says by phone from his home in Vermont. “Journalists talked to scientists and just reported it. It hadn’t occurred to them that it should be treated as a political issue as opposed to a scientific one,” McKibben says of coverage in the late 1980s.

Eshelman reports on the growth of the “climate wars,” and the fossil fuel industry-funded climate change deniers who insist on a point of view diametrically opposed to the consensus of 97 percent of scientists. The denialists are loud and well-funded, and journalists (many of whom don’t understand the science) quote them as an easy way of demonstrating “objectivity.”

Which, when you think about it, is kind of like quoting the flat earth people as a legitimate voice for “the other side” in the debate over funding NASA or the Holocaust deniers in an article about World War II.

Your job: Find the truth

Journalists sometimes use “objectivity” as a shield to cover up their capitulation to the insidious temptation to report on complicated political issues — health care policy, the persistence of racism, educational achievement — by quoting voices on “both sides.” That’s not enough. Journalists have an obligation to help figure out what’s true, not just to parrot opposing viewpoints.

Longtime journalist, editor, and teacher Steve Buttry sums it up:

“Shouldn’t fact-checking be routine in every story? Source A says the sky is blue. Source B says the sky is red. Shouldn’t the reporter look at the sky rather than just report the disagreement?”

Want more?

Here are a few good resources, in addition to those quoted and linked above:

©2014 Mary Turck