Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Oh, the humanity: Optional lede

Sorry about the age on this one; it's from that massive stack of Official HEADSUP-L Unfinished Business. But it's worth a brief discussion because it's another take on the Spectre Haunting Journalism Today: What the hell are we supposed to do about news when "news" is just about the only thing newspapers can guarantee not to deliver? The case happens to be one that -- not to mix metaphors or anything -- kind of crashes and burns, but there's a lesson in that.

You can find a take or two on this matter everywhere you go. The Associated Press's "ASAP" is one. The Missourian's effort to use "undefined creative writing and design formats" to make local news interesting* is another. And, of course, the AP's optional ledes are a well-established way of addressing the assumption that everyone in the newspaper audience already knows as many W's as we care to throw at them.

Comes now the AP, covering the crash of a small plane in Branson. After a cycle's worth of straight-up reporting, it weighs in with this, which ends up leading the paper:

Plane crash kills four
The plane missed Branson’s busy main strip.
BRANSON — Texas pilot and dentist Paul Johnson may have saved scores of lives when he crashed his twin-engine plane into a self-storage unit Monday just off the main drag of this resort town, which was bustling at midday even in the offseason.

Johnson, 71, his wife and a befriended couple, all from Texas, died in the fiery crash after he radioed with mechanical trouble.


The small Piper Seneca, its fuel tanks filled before takeoff, exploded a safe distance from restaurants, motels, tourist attractions and lunchtime traffic that crowd two-lane Missouri 76, the main thoroughfare through town.

As HEADSUP-L's old friend Tun al-Kabir complained in suggesting that this topic be raised for discussion: "There's not an iota of information beyond the lead to suggest that this fellow did anything good or bad to avoid populations." Tun is right. The suggestion sneaks in to second-cycle the lede and goes nowhere else in a hurry. One guess about the pilot's intent is as good as another, and that's no good at all.

The news, in this case, is pretty compelling, if clunkily written:
A twin-engine plane crashed and burned Monday in a cluster of theaters near the heart of this resort city, not far from the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, killing all four people aboard.

The plane narrowly missed restaurants and attractions along the city's main entertainment strip after taking off from Point Lookout, Mo., for Lubbock, Texas, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.

If you don't like the original subject and verb, find another subject and verb. Find a Real Person to quote at the top of the story. But fiction isn't the way to help newspapers compete with TV.

Moral for copyeds: Not all new ideas work. A bad lede is a bad lede even when it's trying to save the day. Don't hesitate to be the one who points out that the new stuff still has to play by the old rules.

While we're at it: "... restaurants, motels, tourist attractions and lunchtime traffic that crowd two-lane Missouri 76": That, friends, is one crowded highway



* If what that means is "Let's use more adverbs and ignore the stylebook," let's not and say we did.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Strayhorn said...

Let's move on to the important things: Holy Week in the Philippines, which means photos of people having themselves crucified and being flogged. The editorial question is whether we run these bloody photos.

The answer - of course we do (and in color if possible). And there's even two easy responses when the angry emails start flooding in:

1. We do it because we honor other people's beliefs and customs.

2. We like to point out that the fundies in other countries make ours look positvely tame.

Signed,
Mr Sensitive

8:21 AM, April 13, 2006  
Anonymous Strayhorn said...

Let's move on to the important things: Holy Week in the Philippines, which means photos of people having themselves crucified and being flogged. The editorial question is whether we run these bloody photos.

The answer - of course we do (and in color if possible). And there's even two easy responses when the angry emails start flooding in:

1. We do it because we honor other people's beliefs and customs.

2. We like to point out that the fundies in other countries make ours look positvely tame.

Signed,
Mr Sensitive

8:21 AM, April 13, 2006  

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