How-To Guide: Leading the Way

You know it as the first paragraph. Journalists call it the lead, or in real journo-style, the lede.

It's the single most important part of any story because it's what first informs your readers, first grabs them and prods them to read further.

Journalists use a variety of ledes to get their readers into a story – feature ledes, narrative leads and other story-telling devices. But a reporter's bread-and-butter is the hard news lede, a first graf – that's also journo-speak – that clearly and concisely imparts the most newsworthy aspects of the story to follow.

It's the type of lede that works best in most newsletter stories, largely because your space is limited. With a hard-news style, you can tell your readers what's happening in your local in as few words as possible.

This certainly doesn't mean that you shouldn't run feature stories or be creative. But when you're dealing with straight-news stories, hard-news ledes will help you help your readers get the most out of your newsletter.

Hard-news ledes use active verbs and pack in as much as possible and practical of the who-what-when-and-where (and sometimes why). Here are two examples of ledes for a crime story. Which one do you think works better?

On Tuesday at 3:20 in the afternoon a QuickieMart convenience store on Main Street downtown was robbed at gunpoint by two men in ski masks who took beer, cartoons of cigarettes and cash. The clerk was tied up.

Two gunmen in ski masks tied up a clerk at a downtown QuickieMart Tuesday afternoon before fleeing in a blue pickup truck with beer, cigarettes and cash.

The second lede is 10 words shorter than the first, but imparts the information in rapid-fire active voice and includes an important detail the first one didn't: the type of vehicle involved.

It doesn't include the exact time or precise address (Main Street), but it gives the general time and area (downtown, afternoon). Sometimes too many specifics can clog up a lede, but work well in the second graf, among other new details. For instance, the second graf might say:

A customer who hid behind a video game machine at the Main Street store called 9-11 on his cell phone at 3:20 p.m. Police arrived four minutes later. The search for the men continued into the night.

OK, you ask, just how do I apply this to my newsletter? It's the same principle: Use the fewest words to get across the most information. We'll give you some examples below. The idea is to give your readers a choice: They can decide they're interested and want more information and continue reading. Or they may decide they learned all they need to know in the lede or first few grafs. That's OK. In fact that's why the "Inverted Pyramid" style of writing became popular in the first place. Newspapers understood that their readers were busy people. With the most important details compressed into a few easily digestible grafs, readers can feel they "get" a story even if they don't have time to read some of the more colorful details and quotes that follow.

Below are two examples of the first part of stories from recent CWA local newsletters, followed by suggested changes. No locals are identified, and we've changed some details for anonymity. The stories are the types that any of our newsletters might run, so we hope these examples help you next time you're writing or editing a piece for your own newsletter.

From Saturday evening April 23rd thru Wednesday April 27th, the District X Conference was held here in Springfield. There were two distinct portions of the meeting. The main part of the meeting is general to all the various bargaining units and sectors, while the Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday session were the MegaTeleCom Bargaining Unit Meeting.

The story goes on to say that "valuable information was shared" and "interesting information was discussed," and then provides some details. We suggest grabbing your readers with an interesting detail or two at the top of the story. Here's our rewrite:

American families are working an extra 810 hours a year on average than they were in the 1980s, according to a sobering presentation on "common sense economics" at the District X conference April 23-27 in Springfield.

The educational workshops, speeches by CWA leaders and politicians, and bargaining unit and sector meetings combined to make the four days a jam-packed learning experience for Local 5555 officers.

At that point, you might want to name the speakers, summarize the other workshops or use a quote from your local president or other officer who attended. Then you can get into the meet of the presentations.

We hope these examples help you. Next time you read your own local weekly or daily newspaper, pay attention to their ledes on hard news stories. You may be inspired by them, or may decide they could have done a much better job.