Sunday, December 19, 2010

Q: How do you write a strong lede for an article?

Practice! And read the best stories in print. And read Blundell's "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing." Go look up old stories and see how they were constructed. Compare the NYT, WSJ, Washington Post and L.A. Times on the same story in history and see the choices each one made. More practice.

In straight news, you usually want to give the most important part of the story as clearly and succinctly as possible:

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today. (Tom Wicker, The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1963)

Men have landed and walked on the moon. (John Noble Wilford, The New York Times, July 21, 1969)

Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here. (Alfred E. Lewis, The Washington Post, June 18, 1972)

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. (Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, July 3, 1981)

Enron Corp. filed for protection from creditors in a New York bankruptcy court, the biggest such filing in U.S. history. (Rebecca Smith, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2001)

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials. (James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2005)

I often found that homing in on the "most important part," especially for a complex story, needed some repose -- sometimes you don't see what's in front of your face when you have been chasing it for two months. Some of our editors were fantastic midwives, helping reporters get to the meat of the story. For me, there was nothing like trying to discuss the story with someone else to clarify my thoughts.

Of course there is also nothing like trying to pound it out at 3:55 p.m. with an editor screaming for copy! That, of course, is also a way to improve.

(And to be clear -- by the time you see a lede on page 1 of a national newspaper, at least four people have had their hands on it, if not eight on a bad day.)

In contrast to straight news, the lede is much less constrained in a feature story. More than a few books have been written about feature writing (Blundell's being one of the best) and it is an art! The best leads edify, amuse, and still get to the point:

To you, it's just a backhoe, a hulking mass of metal with a big bucket attached. But to Harvey Neigum, it's an extension of his soul. So here he is, after years of practice, climbing into his machine with the championship at stake.

It has all come down to this: Can Mr. Neigum make his eight-ton backhoe do the moonwalk? (John R. Wilke, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 7, 1992)

Everything is bigger in Texas, even 10%.

Prominently displayed in Shirley Faske's office at Westlake High School is a notice advising students that they must rank "in the top 10%" of their graduating class to gain automatic admission to a Texas public university.

But last year, suburban Westlake crammed 63 of its 491 seniors, or 12.8%, into the top 10th, violating the laws of mathematics -- and of the Lone Star State. (Daniel Golden, The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2000)

Here, amid the cracked earth and grizzled acacias of northwestern Kenya, rumors were running rampant about North Dakota.

Dozens of boys crowded around the UN compound where someone, somewhere, held a list of the US cities where they might be offered homes. An older boy asserted that North Dakota is colder than Nairobi, but this was impossible to confirm. Another was enraptured with the idea of Albany, and dreamily repeated the phrase “Albany, New York. Albany, New York,” a spot whose distance he estimated at a million, or possibly 2 million, kilometers.

And a 17-year-old, John Deng, had his heart set on Chicago, having learned that it is home to an abundance of bulls. To the son and grandson and great-grandson of cattle herders from the Dinka tribe — men who still sing adoring songs about the horns of their favorite oxen — Chicago has enormous appeal.

“I see that on some shirts, like Chicago Bulls. We believe that in Chicago we will have a lot of bulls,” said Deng, a young man with a gap-toothed smile who speaks a formal English akin to that of a BBC announcer.

Within hours, however, Deng would be told the name of a place that suggests a landscape without cattle: Arlington, Mass. It would mean nothing to him.

The flights to America are leaving every day now, screaming out of the bush in a huge cloud of orange dust, as the great migration of the group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan gets underway. Heads down, barefoot except for shower thongs, the departing boys file into the aircraft as grave as spacemen, sometimes without even looking back at the friends standing five deep against the barbed wire. (Ellen Barry, The Boston Globe, Jan. 7, 2001)

A bad taste lingers in the mouths of many mall walkers.

''Oh, yes, I can still taste it,'' said Mabel Mickle, 71, a retired financial analyst who for eight years has been walking for exercise in Evergreen Plaza, an enclosed shopping center in this southwestern suburb of Chicago.

There are some 1,500 malls in the United States, and most of them open early each morning to legions of sneaker-shod, hyper-organized and often elderly mall walkers. But Evergreen Plaza tried to go boldly where no mall had gone before. It all started in February when management sent out this notice: ''The mall will no longer be available to walkers."

Bruce Provo, managing partner of a company that owns the mall and the one who ordered its walkers into exile, said in his lockout order, ''We can no longer turn a blind eye to the realities of the world we live in.'' Those realities included mall walkers who muddied freshly buffed floors, hogged prime parking and demanded free Christmas gifts, Mr. Provo said in an interview.

''It got out of control from a standpoint of entitlement,'' he said. ''Predominantly they are seniors, O.K., and seniors are not great spenders, are they?''

Burned by a firestorm of bad publicity, boycott threats and patron poaching from nearby malls, Mr. Provo, 50, has been forced to retreat.

Across the United States, there are mall retailers who regard walkers as marginal shoppers, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group based in Manhattan. But with the conspicuous exception of Mr. Provo, most dare not say so in public. Instead, malls from Maine to California, from Florida to Washington State, embrace their walkers in the name of community relations, comforting them with free coffee, shopping discounts and monthly blood pressure checks.

The antiwalker war that Evergreen Plaza fought so aggressively and then lost so pathetically demonstrates one of the hard realities of climate-controlled retail: In a nation that grew up in the mall and is now growing old there, mall walkers rule. (Blaine Harden, The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2001)

THE delicate posturing began with the phone call.

The proposal was that two buddies back in New York City for a holiday break in December meet to visit the Museum of Modern Art after its major renovation.
"He explicitly said, 'I know this is kind of weird, but we should probably go,' " said Matthew Speiser, 25, recalling his conversation with John Putman, 28, a former classmate from Williams College.

The weirdness was apparent once they reached the museum, where they semi-avoided each other as they made their way through the galleries and eschewed any public displays of connoisseurship. "We definitely went out of our way to look at things separately," recalled Mr. Speiser, who has had art-history classes in his time.

"We shuffled. We probably both pretended to know less about the art than we did."

Eager to cut the tension following what they perceived to be a slightly unmanly excursion - two guys looking at art together - they headed directly to a bar. "We couldn't stop talking about the fact that it was ridiculous we had spent the whole day together one on one," said Mr. Speiser, who is straight, as is Mr. Putman. "We were purging ourselves of insecurity."

Anyone who finds a date with a potential romantic partner to be a minefield of unspoken rules should consider the man date, a rendezvous between two straight men that is even more socially perilous. (Jennifer 8. Lee, The New York Times, April 10, 2005)

What time is it when the clock strikes half past 62?

Time to change the way we measure time, according to a U.S. government proposal that businesses favor, astronomers abominate and Britain sees as a threat to its venerable standard, Greenwich Mean Time.

Word of the U.S. proposal, made secretly to a United Nations body, began leaking to scientists earlier this month. The plan would simplify the world's timekeeping by making each day last exactly 24 hours. Right now, that's not always the case. (Keith J. Winstein, The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2005)

ON A SUMMER DAY IN 2002, shares of Affiliated Computer Services Inc. sank to their lowest level in a year. Oddly, that was good news for Chief Executive Jeffrey Rich.

His annual grant of stock options was dated that day, entitling him to buy stock at that price for years. Had they been dated a week later, when the stock was 27% higher, they'd have been far less rewarding. It was the same through much of Mr. Rich's tenure: In a striking pattern, all six of his stock-option grants from 1995 to 2002 were dated just before a rise in the stock price, often at the bottom of a steep drop.

Just lucky? A Wall Street Journal analysis suggests the odds of this happening by chance are extraordinarily remote -- around one in 300 billion. The odds of winning the multistate Powerball lottery with a $1 ticket are one in 146 million. (Charles Forelle and James Bandler, The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2006)

Unfortunately, sometimes a lede can be "too good to check" as the saying goes:

Ian Restil, a 15-year-old computer hacker who looks like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates, is throwing a tantrum. "I want more money. I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Man comic book number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy, and throw in Penthouse. Show me the money! Show me the money!" Over and over again, the boy, who is wearing a frayed Cal Ripken Jr. t-shirt, is shouting his demands. Across the table, executives from a California software firm called Jukt Micronics are listening--and trying ever so delicately to oblige. "Excuse me, sir," one of the suits says, tentatively, to the pimply teenager. "Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting you, sir. We can arrange more money for you. Then, you can buy the comic book, and then, when you're of more, say, appropriate age, you can buy the car and pornographic magazines on your own."

It's pretty amazing that a 15-year-old could get a big-time software firm to grovel like that. What's more amazing, though, is how Ian got Jukt's attention--by breaking into its databases. In March, Restil--whose nom de plume is "Big Bad Bionic Boy"--used a computer at his high school library to hack into Jukt. Once he got past the company's online security system, he posted every employee's salary on the company's website alongside more than a dozen pictures of naked women, each with the caption: "the big bad bionic boy has been here baby." After weeks of trying futilely to figure out how Ian cracked the security program, Jukt's engineers gave up. That's when the company came to Ian's Bethesda, Maryland, home--to hire him.

And Ian, clever boy that he is, had been expecting them. "The principal told us to hire a defense lawyer fast, because Ian was in deep trouble," says his mother, Jamie Restil. "Ian laughed and told us to get an agent. Our boy was definitely right." Ian says he knew that Jukt would determine it was cheaper to hire him--and pay him to fix their database--than it would be to have engineers do it. And he knew this because the same thing had happened to more than a dozen online friends. (Stephen Glass, The New Republic, May 18, 1998)