Sunday, April 30, 2006

Process v. substance

Here's a real-life example (1A Friday, should you be scoring along at home) of what sometimes seems an abstract complaint from outside evaluators looking over Missourian reporters' work: We too often get caught up on the proceedings of what happened at the expense of what happened.

University Terrace Apartments residents were informed Thursday that UM System President Elson Floyd’s request to extend the relocation deadline from December 2006 to June 2007 was accepted by UM Health Care CEO Jim Ross.

(If you haven't been keeping up with the story, a set of apartments next to the hospital is about to be torn down to make room for expansion. Many of the tenants are international students and their families. We've done OK by the story, but we trip at this significant turn by concentrating on which bureaucrat did what rather than the end result.)

Look at the lede again. What were the residents told? That one official's request to extend a relocation deadline had been accepted by another official. (The substance of the story is even farther removed in the active: One official has accepted another official's request to extend a deadline.) The upshot, of course, is that residents found out they won't have to move themselves (and, in many cases, their school-age kids) in the middle of the next school year. We've accurately portrayed every twist in the story and completely missed the point.

Try putting the outcome, instead of the process, in the lede. You can even work in the active voice and cut the damn thing nearly in half without much effort:
University Terrace Apartments residents found out Thursday that their deadline for moving has been extended from the middle of next academic year until June 2007.

Spare the noble heroics of Floyd and Ross for a few grafs. They have their own publicity departments; they don't have to be in the lede. You'll generally get better ledes if you concentrate on what happened, rather than who did what.

Hed writers, this story is also a useful reminder of why heds never -- that's never, never, never -- say what "will" or "will not" happen. Wednesday's hed:

Petition will not change plan

takes an estimate from the lede:
... Kathy Scroggs, MU’s vice chancellor of Student Affairs, told residents Tuesday at an informational meeting that she doesn’t expect the decision to use the land for a parking garage to change.

and turns it into a fact. A pretty inaccurate fact, as later developments make clear, which is a good argument against pretending that estimates are facts. We'll leave for a different discussion whether "Kathy Scroggs" is the Cathy Scroggs we and the competition routinely identify as the holder of that title.

One more thing: Somebody who's suspected of having mumps is a suspected "mumps" case, not a "mump" case (4A Sunday). What were we thinking?

Well, two more things. Help celebrate HEADSUPTHEBLOG's 200th post (that's this one) and real anniversary (first post with any content was a year ago Saturday) with your suggestions and comments. What do you want to whinge about or see whinged about here?


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