December 07, 2002

But Ugly Leads

While I was at the San Francisco Examiner, I worked with a prolific, creative reporter named Edvins Beitiks who, among his many passions, crusaded against the use of clichés in the newspaper.

Ed was a storyteller by nature and he reported with the energy of a man who discovered life anew each day. He never wrote the same lead twice and couldn’t abide those who did.

Ed was also a collector and over time assembled an impressive assortment of timeworn phrases and quotes that he occasionally emailed around the newsroom for the enlightenment of all.

Among them were:

“He was such a quiet man,” said a neighbor, who asked not to be identified. “I’d see him at the market and one time he even helped me with my groceries. I can’t believe it’s true.”


Shaking his head, Officer Kite said, “I’ve been on the force for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There were many more – earthquakes that sounded like freight trains, defendants who showed no emotion, burnt out buildings that looked like war zones – but you get the idea.

Ed’s examples would be more humorous if they were a thing of the past, a relic of a time before reporters and editors held master's degrees, before writing coaches, before the ongoing debate over which style of newswriting can best capture and hold a busy reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the clichés continue, both in word and in story structure, and their presence thwarts efforts to engage readers. When stories appear similar to each other, readers are likely to scan them and skip the sections that seem overly familiar. The impact of the information – the news – is softened by the vague déjà vu readers experience – the “haven’t I read this somewhere before" feeling – when they encounter clichés.

In other words, clichés undercut a newspaper’s ability to surprise, its chief asset.

Sadly, the lead of the story, the paragraph (or two, or three) intended to sink the hook deep into the reader’s attention span, can suffer irreparably in the hands of a writer who resorts to clichés.

Bob Baker, a Los Angeles Times reporter, enumerates “The 17 worst clichés in the newspaper business” on his website, Newsthinking. In his introduction to the list, Bob writes: “Didn't they (the writers) have enough pride to resist sounding so ordinary?”

Not on Bob’s list is one of my favorites, the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” lead. The indicative giveaway is a “but” placed either in then middle of the first sentence or leading off the second. Intended to surprise, delight or shock – such as: John Jones seemed like the average dad, but then he was arrested for selling cocaine – it does none of these.

The format is so common that multiple examples can be found easily in most newspapers. A quick glance in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (I don’t mean to pick on the Chron, but it’s my hometown paper) found these leads on the Business cover and front page:

United’s new CEO has flown through some tough times
Glenn Tilton faced a tough room when he met with United mechanics at San Francisco International Airport last week. … But UAL Corp.’s latest chairman, president and chief executive officer didn’t hide behind a podium.

Berkeley mayor apologizes for trashing of newspapers
Berkeley’s new mayor, former state Assemblyman Tom Bates, has yet to convene his first City Council meeting but is reeling from a major embarrassment …

In just a few minutes of Googling, I found numerous other examples. Here are few:

Furor hits home for Pocket dad who filed suit
He's a 49-year-old dad who drives a Ford, lives in a modest two-story house and spent Wednesday morning emptying his dishwasher and taking out the trash.

But by the afternoon, Pocket resident Dr. Michael Newdow was at the center of a storm of controversy over God, the classroom and American values.

-- Sacramento Bee, June 27, 2002

Cost of Bay Area homes still rising
The median home price in Alameda County reached $391,000 last month, a real estate information service said Monday.

But while that price tag is far lower then the whopping $571,000 median in San Francisco, it's still about $140,000 more than Livermore resident Elizabeth Gilliam and her partner, Stripe Demarest, can afford.

-- San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2002

Redmond Thursday movie nights target teen audiences
The backside of Redmond City Hall may seem an unlikely place for youths to hang out, but since last year it has become a popular spot for teens to gather on lazy summer nights.

-- Seattle Times, June 26, 2002

Sacramento atheist who filed suit holds court at home
Michael A. Newdow has Connie Chung waiting for him, an answering machine full of threats from a new cadre of enemies, and an outraged Congress and president -- but the dishes still need to be done.

-- San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2002

S.F.'s gay community: United by differences
Sunday's Gay Pride Parade may look like one long, marching lovefest, but insiders know that appearances -- even gorgeous ones -- can be deceiving.

-- San Francisco Examiner, June 28, 2002

Can At-Work Brand Network Buy Ad Sales With 'Competitive Pricing'?
Five of the top news and information sites banded together last week to offer what they hope will be an irresistible sell for advertisers and provide a much-needed boost to the online advertising market. But some say the hook -- the ability to reach more than 40% of the at-work Internet audience -- amounts to little more than a price break for advertisers.

-- Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2002

Ed Beitiks wouldn't have written these leads. Their authors should not have either.

 Bob Baker's Newsthinking

Posted by Tim Porter at December 7, 2002 10:26 PM

tim, just saw the but-ugly column. loved it.

Posted by: bob baker on March 16, 2004 08:12 AM
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