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Alternative Leads. Chapter 7 Reporting for the Media. Writing Leads. Be specific Avoid the obvious Emphasize the story’s unusual or unexpected developments Emphasize the most interesting. Emphasize impact Be concise Begin with the “main point”

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Alternative Leads

Chapter 7

Reporting for the Media


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Writing Leads

  • Be specific

  • Avoid the obvious

  • Emphasize the story’s unusual or unexpected developments

  • Emphasize the most interesting


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  • Emphasize impact

  • Be concise

  • Begin with the “main point”

  • Remember the readers – write clearly, emphasize details

  • Read your lead aloud to yourself several times


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The Elusive Alternative Lead

  • “The art of writing, like the art of love, runs all the way from a kind of routine, hard to distinguish from piling bricks, to a kind of frenzy, closely related to delirium tremens.” H.L. Mencken


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  • Keep these questions in mind at all times:

    • What's the news?

    • What's the point?

    • Keep focusing and refocusing on these points and plotting out the story, asking what details answer those questions.

  • Read the lead out loud to yourself.

  • Does the lead make you want to read the story?

  • Try to visualize, even if you're on the phone interviewing someone, so you'll be sure to collect colorful details.


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  • Marquette -- On a stark white sheet, two angelic but grubby children lie side by side. Dawn Belcher, 9, is clad in tiger-striped pajamas. Her hair flows over her shoulders. Timothy Belcher, 5, wears footie PJs, his brown hair cropped in a crew cut. It is as if the camera caught the sleepy-looking pair, eyes half-shut, after they made a mess of mud pies. That is not how this photograph came to be, though. The soot around their nostrils, the glazed look in their eyes, the tag tied to Dawn's arm, and the burns all make a plain point: They are dead.


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  • Sixty-five tiny rarities, packed in unscented toilet paper, syringe cases and Styrofoam, left Detroit to wing across the Atlantic on Wednesday. After a week-long stay in London, the endangered Partula taeniata snails will try to forge new lives in their old world. (They are native to Polynesia*)

  • These could have been boring, straight-lead stories we all know how to write, but the writer worked to come up with something better. They were written by Louise Taylor of the Detroit Free Press.

    *My note


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  • Critics call alternative leads “Jell-O Journalism.” syringe cases and Styrofoam, left Detroit to wing across the Atlantic on Wednesday. After a week-long stay in London, the endangered Partula taeniata snails will try to forge new lives in their old world. (

  • They say soft leads are inappropriate for news stories.

  • Buried or Delayed leads must be accompanied by a nut graph.

  • It clarifies any questions the alternative lead may leave.


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  • Multiparagraph leads MUST flow. Transition is of utmost importance.

  • Although not a unit, as a paragraph, the multiparagraph lead has to be a unit in thought, symbolism and vocabulary. No mixed metaphors

  • Quotation leads are criticized as ineffective, but sometimes they work.


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  • Question leads are least effective. importance.

  • If effective, at all, question leads must be brief, simple, specific and provocative.

  • Question leads – beg the question.

  • If you pose a question in the lead, you must answer. Therefore, the answer is going to biased and not objective.


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  • Descriptive leads are my favorite. importance.

  • A descriptive lead has potential for most humanity in narrative.

  • It concentrates on Who, What and How.

  • This is where senses get involved.

  • Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

  • It’s key in “showing me the story.”


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  • Shockers are usually associated with tabloid-style journalism.

  • That’s not always true.

  • Serious journalists – especially those who do in-depth investigation – often use shocking leads to intensify reader concern.

  • These are leads “with a twist.”


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  • One bad word choice can cost a subscription. to his audience.

  • A Poynter Institute study showed that 75 percent of readers look at the photos; 55 percent read the headlines and only 25 percent read the story.

  • An ASNE study showed 73 percent of newspaper readers felt “time pressured.”


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  • An American Press Institute study shows 90 percent of readers easily understand sentences averaging 16 to 19 words.

  • The same 90 percent cannot understand sentences averaging 30 words or more.

  • “The higher the word count, the more difficult it is for the reader.” (Don Fry, writing consultant)


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  • After you’ve checked the names and facts, trim the excess: readers easily understand sentences averaging 16 to 19 words.

    • Watch the “ofs”

    • Be careful with quotes

    • Use brief background information

    • Watch for excessive “there, it’s, it is and to be”

    • Avoid the passive voice

    • Know your weaknesses

    • Keep it simple


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  • Paula LaRocque says readers easily understand sentences averaging 16 to 19 words.:

    • Trim vague qualifiers like “very, really, truly, extremely, somewhat, quite and rather”

    • Avoid excessive use of: “a, an, the, this, these, those and that”

    • “Brevity is a companion of good writing, not its cause.”

    • “Compression means being able to say everything while still making our work as solid, concrete and terse as possible.”


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