A puff of white smoke rose from the Vatican just before noon, Eastern Standard Time, on April 19th, signaling the election of a new pope. I heard about it from a colleague, verified it online, and heard more about it on the radio when I got home from work. Nevertheless, when The New York Times landed on my doorstep the next morning, the lead story was addressed, as usual, not to me, but to those who had spent the preceding 18 hours in an isolation tank. Here is the lead:
“Roman Catholic cardinals reached to the church’s conservative wing on Tuesday and chose as the 265th pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a seasoned and hard-line German theologian who served as John Paul II’s defender of the faith.”
Self-described caveman Jim Naughton defended such a conventional approach to news reporting in an online debate posted on the Poynter Institute Web site in September 2001. “I don’t care if you’ve already watched the news on television,” wrote Naughton, now retired from the Poynter presidency. “Print can tell it anew, and sometimes better, in a manner that provides context, breadth and depth and, importantly, durability.”
When big news breaks, says Gene Foreman, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and now my colleague at Penn State, “the paper provides ‘affirmation’ of the event as well as an orderly, coherent account of everything that happened.”
Naughton and Foreman are right, in one sense: We don’t just read the paper to find out what happened. Look at the sports section. Most who read a game story, I suspect, already know who won. A lot of them probably watched the game. They’re fans; they want to know everything, again, from start to finish. When big news breaks, all of us share the sports fan’s hunger for a reaffirmation of what happened.
Still, if we’re as busy as many of us claim we are, and there’s lots of competition for our fleeting attention, and only the most abject news junkies are going to spend more than a quarter-hour reading the paper, it seems silly to waste such precious moments telling us things we already know.
The Dilemma of the Optional Lead
So what are newspapers to do? Since March, The Associated Press (A.P.) has offered its subscribers an optional lead. While the “straight” lead tells readers what happened, the optional lead is designed to “draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.” The A.P.’s advisory about this expanded service came with an unfortunate example of what the news service had in mind. The straight lead was the usual spattering-blood-and-body-parts account of a suicide attack in Iraq. The optional lead warbled about a day of hope turning into a day of tears. The bloggers had a field day. The urge to parody turned irresistible.
There is nothing new in any of this. Max Frankel skewered the drift toward anecdotal leads on hard news stories in a column he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1998. The former executive editor recalled an even earlier push at the Times to replace traditional hard news leads with “throat-clearing trivia,” a move that also invited parody. Frankel cites a mock-story that begins with a description of Elvira Brown’s aging face and devotes five sentences to all Brown had seen from her Dallas front porch before getting around to telling us that the old lady had just seen a motorcade rush past at top speed. “Top speed because, it seems, the President of the United States was inside. And he was dead.”
Perhaps the newspaper in a position to make the smoothest adjustment to the reality of the 24-hour news cycle is The Wall Street Journal, probably because it has never felt obliged to traffic in breaking news. Compare the Times’s traditional approach to the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein to the Journal’s “forward spin” approach.
“Saddam Hussein, once the all-powerful leader of Iraq, was arrested without a fight on Saturday night by American soldiers who found him crouching in an eight-foot hole at an isolated farm near Tikrit, haggard, dirty and disoriented after eluding capture for nearly nine months.”—The New York Times
“The capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces ends a brutal era of Iraqi history and gives a huge boost to the American occupation and Iraqis who support it.”—The Wall Street Journal
The Journal’s lead doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know (the “boost” given to the American occupation doesn’t count because the reporters didn’t know this either). But a major difference between the two leads is that the Times’ is written in the traditional this-just-in style, while the Journal’s contains an implicit parenthetical phrase: “The capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces (that you already know about) ….” The Journal story goes on to tell us what might happen next rather than what has just happened.
The problem is that nobody knew what was going to happen next. “Mr. Hussein’s capture could entice more Iraqis to cooperate in tamping down the insurgency,” the Journal suggested. Maybe. On the other hand, “The arrest of Mr. Hussein could also encourage militant Iraqi Shiites, who didn’t want their opposition to be misconstrued as support for the former dictator.” Also a possibility.
In other words, the capture of Saddam Hussein could lead to less violence or it could lead to more violence.
The dilemma is clear. Newspapers know they’re going to lose readers when they only tell them news they already know. But going with a second-day lead, says Gene Foreman, “causes you to have to guess just how much the reader already knows and often sends reporters down a dangerous path of speculation.”
While Naughton’s fellow cavemen on the copy desk complain that the A.P.’s optional leads take too long to tell us the news (apparently it doesn’t bother them that straight leads take too long to tell us what we don’t already know), some bloggers commented that they saw opinion sneaking in the door opened to admit “imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.”
Surely there is a way to offer readers of a morning newspaper fresh perspectives and information on yesterday’s news without just slapping on an anecdotal lead and demoting the news lead to the nut graf. In an e-mail exchange, Naughton tells me he doesn’t buy the notion that readers need to be “seduced into a story by a lead that subordinates the news.” Nor does he grant that straight leads are invariably dull. “In the olden days,” Naughton recalls, “we had a choice between an A.P. lead that as a rule paid homage to the inverted pyramid and a UPI lead that as a rule was more writerly. Both told the news, however.” If A.P. can offer optional leads that do not subordinate the news and are as “sprightly” as UPI’s used to be, Naughton says he has no objection.
But I would argue that the challenge of reporting early breaking news isn’t a matter of not subordinating the news or choosing between straight vs. sprightly leads. After 18 hours, the name of the new pope simply isn’t the news anymore. Nor do I need to read a you-are-there reconstruction of the papal election. What I want to know more about is what sort of pope this Ratzinger is going to be. Spin it forward, in other words—not with reporter speculation, but with the informed opinion of experts and acquaintances.
Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.