John Smith, principal of Brock High School, announced that the entire school’s teaching faculty will travel to Toronto for a one day seminar with Minister of Education Jane Smith next Thursday.
As a journalist for the local paper, what is the lead for the story?
No school on Thursday.
I don’t have a degree in journalism, but as a freelancer I’ve learned how to write for a variety of publications including newspapers. To write for newspapers, editors want articles written in the inverted pyramid style. What’s that? Picture an upside-down pyramid, the widest part at the top. Every newspaper article has a headline and a lead. Reporters relate the most important details at the very top, with more details following in order of descending importance. This is done so that if an editor needs to find space, and when you’re publishing a daily newspaper you don’t have the luxury of time, they can lop off the bottom paragraph or two and know that readers are still going to get the most important facts. It’s also written this way to accommodate those readers who skim the headlines for the day’s events and news and don’t want to read the entire newspaper.
The Lead – Keep it simple
Every non-fiction article writer knows that you need to tell readers the who, what, when, where, how of the story. You learned that in elementary school. A good journalist goes further than that and relates the So What? They will examine all the facts and discern the point. What does it mean? Why does it matter? This is what the above example does. That all the high school teachers are going for a one day seminar is local news, but it’s the reporter’s job to give us the So What? The so what in this case is, there’s no school on Thursday. Keep it simple. Find out the one main point of the article, and that’s your lead.
Burying the lead
Reporters can ‘bury the lead’ when they don’t prioritize correctly and leave the most important details stuck in the middle or body of the article where fewer people find it. This is bad.
Here’s a couple of examples of leads and headlines published today:
Police seek public’s help in solving homicide
WINNIPEG — As a window of suspicion widens, Winnipeg police are turning to the public for help solving the killing of Elizabeth Lafantaisie.
Police now believe that someone took the victim’s blue-grey 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix to a car wash between Friday, Feb. 18 and Tuesday, Feb. 22, and washed the sedan. They want to know who that person was.
(Winnipeg Free Press – February 28, 2011)
If I stopped reading, I’d know the most important details, right? Here’s another example:
Power failure closes schools
Two London elementary schools are closed Monday after a power outage in the Westmount area.
Westmount school and Jean Vanier Catholic school are closed and officials are trying to reach parents of children still at the schools located at Wonderland and Viscount roads.
(London Free Press – February 28, 2011)
These examples are from larger daily newspapers, but both are very current and the leads are succinct and immediately relateable.
When you only have 300 words or 500 words to write about an upcoming event or local news item, you find out fast that’s not a lot of words to work with. This isn’t a novel where you have 80,000 words to develop character arc and rising conflict. This isn’t a 1200 word magazine article that has room for you to add your own opinions, euphemisms or verbal flourishes. You have enough space to get to the point and that’s it. Take a look at all your information and prioritize what is absolutely essential to the story. Order them if you have to, so you have a visual indication of which facts are most important. Start with the most important facts and then write in descending order. Keep it simple and straight to the point. Be economical with your words and eliminate the ‘fat’ from the story.
Newspapers are an easier market to break into writing for, especially the smaller local papers, because they publish more frequently than many magazines and require fresh stories constantly. A daily or weekly newspaper editor needs stories that are very current, and usually are more interested in promoting an upcoming event than telling about something that’s already happened. You report on the results of the local high school’s win against another school after the event. If the school makes it to the finals, you also report on their upcoming game. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. The bigger news is what’s about to happen, what’s coming to town, what’s new and exciting usually. Small town editors want local details and like to mention local people in the articles. Remember who your audience is when you’re pitching a story.
If you’ve never written for a newspaper before, I encourage you to try it. Learning the disciplines of this kind of writing is valuable and applies to many other kinds of writing also. Writing for newspapers has helped me write better press releases, better magazine stories and taught me to look behind the facts for the real point of the story. This is why journalists have so much power. Wield it wisely.