Every semester I give students a newswriting exercise from my book about a doctor who is giving a speech about fad diets and physical fitness to a group of local businesspeople. Midway through his speech the good doctor collapses of a heart attack. He dies en route to the hospital.
The news of the story may seem obvious, but a few of my students will invariably write a lede that goes something like this:
Dr. Wiley Perkins gave a speech to a group of businesspeople yesterday about the problems with fad diets.
What's the problem? The writer has left the most important and newsworthy aspect of the story - the fact that the doctor died of a heart attack - out of the lede. Typically the student who does this will put the heart attack somewhere near the end of the story.
That's called burying the lede, and it's something that beginning journalists have done for eons, and something that drives editors absolutely nuts.
So how can you avoid burying the lede of your next news story? Here are some tips:
• Think about what's most important and newsworthy: When you cover an event, think about what part of it, whether it's a press conference, lecture, legislative hearing or city council meeting, is likely to be the most newsworthy. What happened that will affect the greatest number of your readers? Chances are that's what should be in the lede.
• Think about what you find most interesting: If you're hard-pressed to figure out what's most newsworthy, think about what YOU found most interesting. Experienced reporters know that all people are basically the same, meaning we generally find the same things interesting. (Example: Who doesn't slow down to gawk at a car wreck on the highway?) If you find something interesting, chances are your readers will as well, meaning it should be in your lede.
• Forget chronology: Too many beginning reporters write about events in the order in which they occurred. So if they're covering a school board meeting, they'll start their story with the fact that the board began by reciting the pledge of allegiance. But no one cares about that; people reading your story want to know what the board did. So don't worry about the order of events; put the most newsworthy parts of the meeting at the top of your story, even if they occurred midway through or at the end.
• Focus on actions: If you're covering a meeting, such as a city council or school board hearing, you're going to hear lots of talk. That's what elected officials do. But think about what actions were taken during the meeting. What concrete resolutions or measures were passed that will affect your readers? Remember the old saying: Actions speak louder than words. And in a news story, actions generally should go in the lede.
• Remember the inverted pyramid: The inverted pyramid, the construct for news stories, represents the idea that the heaviest, or most important, news in a story goes at the very top, while the most lightweight, or least important news, goes at the bottom. Apply that to the event you're covering and it'll probably help you find your lede.
• Look for the unexpected: Remember that news by its very nature is usually the unexpected occurrence, the deviation from the norm. (Example: It's not news if a plane lands safely at the airport, but it's definitely news if it crashes on the tarmac.) So apply that to the event you're covering. Did anything happen that those present didn't expect or plan on? What came as a surprise or even a shock? Chances are, if something out of the ordinary happened, it should be in your lede.
Like when a doctor has a heart attack in the middle of a speech.