Dear all reporters and columnists: Please get to the point.
A college journalism professor once asked me for the best piece of advice he could give his students. I didn’t need to think: Get to the news. Get to the point. The nut graph is your friend.
That was 11 years ago, and lede-burying had already graduated in my mind from pet peeve to disturbing habit, something that many reporters couldn’t seem to shake — not only in news stories, but in journalism of all kinds.
In 2017, with publishing outlets and mechanisms popping up all the time, lede-burying is worse than ever. Whether it’s a straight news story or commentary off the news, whether from an established outlet or a flashy upstart, stories and columns too often require the reader to search for the writer’s point. It would be easy to attribute this to a proliferation of non-professional writers, but pros can be just as guilty — and just as unaware.
So, I’ll say it one more time, to not bury this lede: Get. To. The. Point.
A few helpful tips:
— If your story is breaking news, just tell me what happened. Right from the start. I don’t need anecdotes or flowery prose. Just. Tell. Me. What. Happened. In the lede. The first sentence. Some writers feel the need to give a news story their personal touch, to write it in such a way that the writing stands out above the actual content: “Please notice how fancily I’m telling you this story.” Don’t do this with breaking news. Unless you’re a big name in journalism, nobody — other than your mom — is reading the story because you wrote it. Even if you are a big name, just serve your readers by telling it straight.
Actual conversation I had with a reporter:
Me: You need to rework the lede. I’m not sure what the news is.
Reporter: Isn’t that what the headline’s for?
On a related note …
— Never start a news story with old information. I see this all the time, across all genres of news. An example would be: Jason has been an editor for a long time, having worked at four newspapers and a news website, so he’s read a lot of news — and he‘s developed a number of newswriting pet peeves. On Monday, he took to the web to offer advice about not burying the lede. Many news writers think they need to use the opening of a story to bring readers up to speed about everything that led to that point. Please stop doing this. If your story is the latest development in an ongoing story, write the lede in a way that spins the story forward. This sometimes takes a minute or two of thought. It’s OK; you can spare that minute, even in the digital-first world, for the sake of freshness.
— If you’re writing a column off the news, taking a feature-y approach to a news event, or offering some other unique take on something, please state your point, or make the news clear, by the third paragraph. This isn’t a hard rule, just a personal preference. But the idea is to not make the reader hunt for what you want them to know. Don’t try to sell rambling as an informed opinion or thoughtful analysis. I’ll often read a column headline that makes a definitive statement, but then the column fails to back up the statement because the writer wasn’t clear. My advice for columns: Get in, make your point, support it sufficiently, and get out. Otherwise, you’re rambling. Nobody has time for rambling.
— If you’re writing an enterprise story, use the same approach as above: Don’t make readers wait for the news. There’s a caveat here, though: Enterprise stories often benefit, or even require, a certain tone or setup. Or, perhaps the writing seeks to achieve a certain effect. That’s OK. The rules are flexible here, but the idea remains: Get to the point quickly, and make that point clear.
— Don’t use more words than are necessary. I’m not the first to suggest this, but it’s good advice no matter what kind of writing you do. If you can convey an idea in 10 words, don’t use 15. I’ll admit: We’re all guilty of this. I’ve probably done it multiple times in this post. But, in general, less is more. As an editor once told a reporter who asked how long a story should be, “Tell the story and then stop.”
On that note, that’s all I have to say about that.
Now for some context:
All these writing ills could be healed with better editing/coaching. But because of layoffs and/or shifting priorities at many news outlets over the past 10–15 years, the norms have changed. Editing/coaching often take a back seat to expediency. Yes, there are still good editors and good writers. But their relationship has changed. In many cases, their duties have too.
Twenty years ago, a writer would turn in a news story to an editor, who would read it for content, clarity, accuracy and cripsness. A buried lede would almost always result in a rewrite: “Get the news higher.” Back then, reporters had plenty of time to rewrite because, even in 1997, the Internet was still a mostly untapped resource for many news outlets, and the “important” presentation was the one in the paper the next morning.
In 2017, the digital-first mantra, though necessary, has created a wasteland of weak writing. “Get it out there, then tweak it if necessary” is the understood reality, if not the actual mission statement. But the relaxing of previously standard norms has been felt beyond just newsrooms and their products. The effect is everywhere. Just click a few links. You’ll see. It’s created a new type “good” writing that I like to call “Internet-good” writing.
There have been dozens of times in recent years when someone has tweeted a link to a story with the message, “This is excellent” or “This is a must-read” or “OMG. So good.” Many times, clicking the link produces a reading experience that matches none of those descriptions. This is because we’ve come to accept mediocre writing as great writing. If the broken, grammar-assulting musings on Twitter and Facebook constitute the majority of words you consume every day, then even a mediocre story will seem like a revelation. Often, these stories contain great information. They can be well-reported. But it’s just not organized well or presented as cleanly as it could be.
That’s not to say that online writing is all bad. There’s plenty of good writing on the internet. But a lot of it — a LOT — is bad. It doesn’t need to be, though.
We can do better as an industry. We need to get back to the basics. Yes, there are challenges. Big ones. But we have to make the effort. We can’t forsake coaching, strong line editing and leading by example. Not just in editor-writer relationships, but in peer-to-peer relationships. It’s something that needs to start at the J-school level.
As difficult as it might seem, we must make time for teaching and growing. Journalists deserve the opportunity to mature in their craft. This shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury; it’s actually a necessity. The better we convey facts to readers, the easier it is to inform them. The better we convey opinions, the easier it is to sway them.
Don’t miss this opportunity.
If the goal is a truly informed society, we can’t afford anything less than our best effort.
Follow Jason Foster on Twitter: @ByJasonFoster.