A Journalist at Heart

by Gwen McNamara

In this guest post, Gwen McNamara, Communications Coordinator for the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, shares her affection for newswriting and affirms its power.

Nothing beats a well-crafted lede. No, that’s not a typo. I’m talking about a lede – the opening sentence or paragraph of a news story. Headlines may grab our attention, but it’s the lede that supplies the details. Good ledes give us the who, what, where, when, why, and how in one tight package. Great ledes draw us in and urge us to dig further.

Take this example from a 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports in The Press Democrat in California: “A raging firestorm born in the dark of night by dry, violent winds roared down from the rural hills bordering Napa and Sonoma counties early Monday and cut a devastating swath into Santa Rosa from its eastern outskirts, killing at least seven city residents and destroying more than 1,500 structures.”

In just one sentence, we not only learn essential details about what’s occurred, we are also transported to a scene of devastation and turmoil. The sentence doesn’t simply report there was a fire, it brings us to the fire. It drives us to want to find out: What happens next?

It seems so simple, yet the lede goes against many of our writing instincts. From the earliest of book reports in elementary school, we’re taught to create an ample introduction, supply supporting facts, and close out with a well-rounded conclusion. The same goes for everything from research papers to novels – we still need to draw in our readers, but there’s room to “get there,” to play with, to build. Not always so in journalism.

In journalism, the “inverted pyramid” flips this conventional line of storytelling on its head. Starting with the lede, journalists pack all the most important information at the very top of the story, so if readers stop reading one (or two or three) paragraphs in, they have everything they need to know. The body of the story offers more background, evidence, details, and supporting quotes and information. The tail, or end of the story, is ripe for trimming by an editor and contains tertiary details, history, or past action readers can live without.

For me, the discovery of this unique style of writing in college was an epiphany. With no major, or real clue what to study, I took Journalism 101 on a whim at The College of New Jersey. As Dr. Robert “Bob” Cole – a giant Santa Claus of a man, complete with white beard and red suspenders, who cursed like a sailor – explained how to report the facts and reveal the truth, I was astounded. No padding, no fluff, no stretching to fill the page. Just words used economically, smartly, and purposefully to share critical information, convey controversy, or spotlight injustice.

From that moment on, I was hooked. Every reporting assignment was a quest: Am I being clear? Can I use fewer words? What’s missing? Have I captured the key points? While I’m no longer a newspaper reporter, I continue to use these valuable lessons every day. So the next time you begin to write, remember the power of the lede and Dr. Cole’s unvarnished words: “Get to the f*#@ing point.”