Read­ers’ Plea: Get to the Point

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters -

What jour­nal­ists call “anec­do­tal leads” are like the drip, drip, drip of wa­ter tor­ture to some read­ers, who want the facts fast and clean and don’t want re­porters “to fluff it up,” as an old re­write man once put it.

Straight leads are most of­ten seen on break­ing news sto­ries. Anec­do­tal or fea­ture leads usu­ally give a fresh per­spec­tive, es­pe­cially when read­ers have heard or seen the main el­e­ments on ra­dio, television or the In­ter­net.

Com­plaints on anec­do­tal leads have been steady; they spiked when I asked read­ers in my March 11 col­umn for their opin­ions on story length. While many read­ers asked for brevity, some were highly crit­i­cal, as one Sil­ver Spring reader was, of “too many long anec­do­tal open­ings, of­ten reach­ing the point only af­ter 15-plus para­graphs (I’ve counted them). Send re­porters to jour­nal­ism re­fresher cour­ses to learn the W’s. Th­ese can be skill­fully wo­ven into the lead by a care­ful writer.”

The five W’s are who, what, where, when and why; that’s the way leads were writ­ten for years. But that be­gan to change in the 1970s when anec­do­tal leads emerged as a way to pull read­ers into a story. Re­search showed that read­ers wanted the hu­man el­e­ment and re­porters liked the lit­er­ary lee­way.

Those rea­sons don’t cut it with some read­ers, who find it ag­gra­vat­ing not to know for sev­eral para­graphs ex­actly what the story’s point is.

John Schappi of the Dis­trict wrote: “Our prob­lem is not with the length of the story but with the length of time it takes to find out what the story is about. . . . We are given sto­ries that start off with hu­man in­ter­est anec­dotes that make you read through sev­eral para­graphs and, all too of­ten, even to the jump to learn what the sub­ject is.

“I’ve dubbed th­ese sto­ries “Look, Ma! I’m writ­ing!” be­cause they seem de­signed to show off the au­thor’s sto­ry­telling ca­pa­bil­i­ties rather than his/her re­port­ing skills.”

His daugh­ter, Ann Schappi of Alexan­dria, agreed: “The in­ter­est­ing thing is that pa­pers are more than a dozen years be­hind the news trends — fea­ture-style writ­ing was a fine way to lure the ‘non-news reader’ into buy­ing the pa­per in the pre-In­ter­net days. Now, peo­ple are on in­for­ma­tion over­load and used to Black­berry-screen­sized bits of mean­ing. So you bet­ter write tight and get to the point fast — if you don’t grab the read­ers’ at­ten­tion in the first one to three sen­tences, most aren’t go­ing to bother read­ing fur­ther.”

David Slone of the Charlottesville area made this point: “The fo­cus of your pa­per should be on the time it takes for folks to read and un­der­stand the news you present. . . . Make the reader the fo­cus — not the writer or the nar­ra­tive strength of the piece.”

That’s eas­ier said than done. A strong nar­ra­tive is some­thing good re­porters live to write. But you have to have tal­ent to pull it off.

Look­ing at edi­tions from Mon­day through Thurs­day this week, sto­ries on Page 1 and the Metro sec­tion cover tilted to­ward straight leads — 25, com­pared with 19 anec­do­tal leads. Style had mostly fea­ture leads, and Busi­ness sto­ries were a mix. Fea­ture leads are a sta­ple in Sports, be­cause ar­dent fans al­ready know the scores and of­ten the de­tails of games the night be­fore.

Roy Peter Clark, a se­nior scholar and writ­ing teacher at the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute, a school for jour­nal­ists in St. Petersburg, Fla., has pushed anec­do­tal leads for 30 years as a way to freshen news­pa­per writ­ing.

“A lead is a prom­ise of what else is to come. Most news­pa­per writ­ing was stale and con­ven­tional. Most leads were stuffed with facts and were in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. They shoved ev­ery- thing in the suit­case of the first para­graph and then sat on the suit­case un­til it closed,” Clark said. “There is an in­evitable ten­dency of sto­ry­tellers to build up to the im­por­tant news, some­times to read­ers’ ben­e­fit and some­times to the read­ers’ detri­ment.”

But he still likes his news sto­ries straight. “The more im­por­tant the news is in the ar­ti­cle, the more im­por­tant it is that you de­liver it early.” Ex­actly.

My rule as an ed­i­tor was that read­ers had to be cer­tain what was hap­pen­ing by the fourth para­graph, which can be done by putting in a “nut graph” that tells read­ers why a story is im­por­tant.

Clark sees prob­lems when such be­gin­nings lead a reader the wrong way — bait and switch. Or when a dra­matic anec­dote doesn’t fairly rep­re­sent the rest of the story. Or worst of all, when the anec­dote is too long or un­in­ter­est­ing and the reader falls away be­cause “the re­porter dumps the rest of the stuff in his note­book in the story.”

Tom Rosen­stiel, di­rec­tor of the Project for Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism, thinks re­porters should be “very ju­di­cious” about anec­do­tal leads. “Noth­ing tells a story bet­ter than a killer anec­dote. If the story is newsy at all, there are ways to use anec­dotes right be­neath the lead.”

Not one reader com­plained about the anec­do­tal leads on the sto­ries about the prob­lems at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter, be­cause the ar­ti­cles grabbed you im­me­di­ately with facts and led you to the re­porters’ con­clu­sion quickly and com­pellingly.

No mat­ter how it’s writ­ten, a lead should draw an in­ter­ested reader into a story. If it doesn’t, the lead fails. The Post must re­spect read­ers’ time by quickly mak­ing it clear what a story is about. Deb­o­rah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at om­buds­man@ wash­post.com.

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