For Intro to Media and Reporting
The Power of Leads
by Chip Scanlan Published May 29, 2003 9:19 am Updated Mar. 2, 2011 1:32 pm
When journalists talk about beginnings of stories the word they use is lead. Sometimes it’s spelled “lede,” a throwback to the precomputer age when the word for first paragraphs had to be distinguished from the word for the molten lead used to print newspapers. Leads are the foundation of every news story, no matter what the medium.
An effective lead makes a promise to the reader or viewer: I have something important, something interesting, to tell you. A good lead beckons and invites. It informs, attracts, and entices. If there’s any poetry in journalism, it’s most often found in the lead, as in the classic opening of what could have been a mundane weather forecast:
Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.
When the subject is leads, there’s no shortage of opinions about their role, their preferred length, the rules they should follow or break. But no one disagrees about this enduring fact about lead writing: It’s hard work.
Jack Cappon of The Associated Press called it, rightly, “the agony of square one.”
“There is no getting around it, although every writer sometimes wishes there were,” Cappon says. “Every story must have a beginning. A lead. Incubating a lead is a cause of great agony. Why is no mystery. Based on the lead, a reader makes a critical decision: Shall I go on?”
Whether you’re a new reporter or a veteran writing for a newspaper, an online news site, radio, or television news, the ability to sum up a story in a single paragraph or draw the reader in with an anecdote or scene has become a daily job requirement.
Given their importance, it’s not surprising that good leads, and a range of passionate beliefs about their importance and composition, abound in the 25-year history of “Best Newspaper Writing,” the annual collection of award-winning writing selected by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.