All hail the hard-news lead

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch


We all love a good yarn, a tale told with colorful detail and interesting characters who face challenges and change over time.

Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch

For years, both as a writer and coach, I’ve practiced and preached that news writers should hunt for, find and then tell the best true tale possible to simultaneously inform and entertain readers.

And yet, as I age and am now engaged in a new gig, I find myself turning more often than not to article leads that hit the reader over the head with the news.

This shift could be driven by my role in a statewide news group – one of the growing non-profit, independent journalism outfits across the country. I realized early on at South Dakota News Watch that my role had morphed from local newspaper writer to something closer to statewide correspondent, not unlike an Associated Press reporter. Our work is posted to our website and then to a Dropbox site for use at no cost by all newspapers and broadcast media across South Dakota.

With that in mind, I understand that a lead that works in Aberdeen, South Dakota must also work in Vermillion, South Dakota. That necessity removes some of the freedom to write anecdotal leads that may not work across a large and varied geographic region.

There’s more to it than that, however. With so many new options to get news on radio, TV, mobile, desktop as well as in print, I find myself growing impatient (and occasionally annoyed) with anecdotal leads that go on too long or are poorly crafted. Sometimes, I just want to know as soon as possible what a story is about or what a reporter has discovered. Here are some tips to using the “just the facts” approach in an effective, compelling way.

No need to be boring

Hard news leads can and should be catchy. It requires a lot of thought to winnow through what you’ve learned and present it in a way that compels a reader to keep reading. In writing about complex, multifaceted topics, the writer must boil things down to the single-most important fact or finding and then roll out secondary and tertiary elements after. This process of decision can be frustrating but also fun, and engaging a colleague or friend in the process can speed things up.

Delay a bit, but not too much

While hard-news leads grant some room for storytelling, an effective lead doesn’t wander far from the spine of the story. My tried-and-true test for the quality of copy – reading it aloud to someone or even yourself – will quickly reveal whether you’re taking too long to answer the critical question, “What is this story really about?”

Avoid the lead/quote combo

All writing techniques have a time and place where they work best, but far too many straight leads I encounter begin with a declarative sentence immediately followed by a quote, often somewhat redundant. With 15 minutes to deadline, this method might be fine. But when a writer has more time to work, this approach should not become a default. Bringing in an evidentiary or supportive quote too soon may not move the piece forward fast enough.

Chronology is your friend

We all live in time, making a chronological approach to newswriting useful. Especially when on deadline, a “this happened, then this happened, then that happened” approach can be extremely effective to deliver facts at a fast-paced clip.

Don’t forget the inverted pyramid

Like most tried and tested methodologies, the inverted pyramid retains value and longevity as a straight-news technique. Most important fact, next most important, next most important… Writing this way, especially for beginners, provides a solid structure to follow and makes for an easy read for editors who may want to move a fact or detail up or down in your copy.

Use the ‘Ws’ and ‘H’ with skill

A straight lead will be unique to the topic at hand, but almost all should eventually contain the what, why, who, where, when and how very near the top. Still, they should be woven into the copy smoothly, without breaking the reader’s stride. Play around with the elements and try adding them in different orders so they make sense but don’t bog down the copy. Some elements can start a sentence; some can roll off in a straight line all at once in the middle of an expository sentence; some can be tucked into taglines; while occasionally they can be dropped at the end of an active sentence where they play a role but do not star.

Write straight, then play with storytelling

One advanced method of writing is to forge the framework of a quality straight lead, then go back and dress it up a bit. Once a straight structure is created, play around with dropping in descriptive details, relevant facts or little splashes of color to fancy up a hard-news lead. Remember, just don’t glam things up so much that the power of the news is lost amid the glam.

Think headline to find the lead

To help speed things up, think of yourself as the copy editor who will write the headline. Oftentimes, writing a good headline can guide you in crafting a lead and help you figure out what’s most important.

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, online at sdnewswatch.org. Write to him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.