Journalism Basics: The hard lede

So there you are with a bevvy of notes and a looming deadline. How do you turn that mess of information into a story?

You could go the chronological route (“First he had toast at breakfast” or “The council considered a motion on dogwalking first”). You could just chuck random facts up there. You could start with what you think is a catchy quote (don’t). You could go with the “It” lede (“‘It happens everyday. Sometimes ‘It’ happens many times a day. ‘It’ is contractors violating the Clean Water Act.”).

But none of those value the reader’s time, which is what you’re competing for. So how do you do it? If you have a tremendously emotional or compelling story, it could be a narrative. But chances are you don’t. Chances are that you just covered a meeting or read through lots of documents. And your job as a reporter — regardless of the platform you’re writing for — is to pump out something that makes sense and provides the excellent customer service of not wasting the reader’s time.

That’s why we have the inverted pyramid form. It was designed for those days long ago when newspapers had space limitations. A copy editor, frantic with coffee and a looming deadline, could just rip off the bottom of the story and not worry about losing major points in the story. The convention continued when we moved away from lead typesetting and into computerized pagination because it works and it’s an efficient tool for getting information out there.

The inverted pyramid lede falls into a larger category: hard news ledes. They share the same characteristics: They cut to the chase and the don’t clog up the reader’s brain with a bunch of fancy details.

It works like this:

First graf:  Broad important information. We get to the heart of the matter quickly and indicate to the reader what the story is about.

Six people were killed and 34 more were injured when a bomb exploded outside an Iraqi police station Tuesday. It was the fifth explosion at an Iraqi police station in eight days, authorities said.

There’s no mystery here, no teasing. It’s just straight-up news.

Second graf: Still broad, still important, but it provides either context in the form of a nutgraf or details that directly support the statement made in the first graf.

The bomber walked up the steps of the station, stood just outside the front door and detonated the bomb, said Ali Haar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Police. The bomber was wearing an explosive vest filled with ball bearings, Haar said, which caused most of the deaths and injuries. 

At this point, the reader has either had their fill or wants more details. If they’ve had their fill, our inverted pyramid lede (which at this point is just a hard news lede since we haven’t brought enough details to narrow the story).

If you’re writing the typical hard news story, you’ll now start writing details that substantiate the above paragraphs. thee come in the form of quotes or factual, expository sentences.

The attacks on Iraqi police stations have come after the national police director announced a crackdown on “vicious, extra-governmental militias who have been terrorizing the population.”  The militias are essentially partisan gangs that extort money for protection from merchants.

“In a way, this is how the Mafia operated in old Chicago,” a senior U.S. official said. “And like the old days, when the Mafia was challenged, they struck back publicly and violently.”

And it goes from there. The deeper we go in the story, the more detailed it gets.