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Dec 6 / King Kaufman

Why getting to the point quickly in your lead is vital online

There’s been a lot of chatter in Journalism Nerdland over the announced demise of the Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s tablet-only newspaper.

It’s good stuff if you’re interested in the mechanics of where our little business is headed and what we’ve all learned from Murdoch’s 22-month experiment. But something Alexis Madrigal wrote on the Atlantic website caught my eye on a different subject, one of my favorites:


We talk a lot around here about getting to the point quickly in your lead. Madrigal, using the Atlantic to illustrate a point about the Daily, writes a very good defense of doing just that:

There’s a classic longform convention in profiles of people. The writers tend to drop in to the story sitting with their subjects. They describe what they look like and provide some color about the situation: are they eating? how’d they get there? was the publicist a stickler? does the person appear to be on drugs? Sometimes we get a very short quote from the profilee that is indicative of the person’s affect and intellect. Then, the story, by which I mean the action, really begins. In particular, the stakes are explained lower down in the story, several grafs in. These description-rich ledes come first because that is how it is done (and it can be artful as hell when done perfectly).

Well, we [at the Atlantic Online] found this sort of thing bombs for us over and over. Maybe we don’t profile the right people (disagree!). Maybe we’re terrible at writing these sorts of ledes (perhaps!). Or maybe, just maybe, the form doesn’t work very well to capture the attention of people who are clicking through from an email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit. You just don’t know what’s happening for several hundred words in some cases. And before the writer answers why you’re reading, that person is gone.

That’s a point that can’t be made too many times. Here it is again, in video form.

  • Scott Carasik

    That’s honestly the biggest thing I took from the internship. “Slap em in the face with your lede” is what one of the leaders of it said to me one day and I’ve been trying to do that since.

  • DC T

    News articles aren’t like movies, where you’ve already paid and have to sit through the ‘fluff’ to get to the climax. Conversely, readers aren’t invested (emotionally or financially) at the onset, so you have to hit them early on with a compelling point or you’ll quickly lose them.

    • King_Kaufman

      DC T,

      Take another look at movies. Something vital and dramatic, something that sets the plot in motion, always takes place within the first 10 minutes, and usually within the first five.

      The average running time of the top 10 movies at the box office this week is 124 minutes. So even if that first dramatic moment doesn’t come until the 10-minute mark, that’s still, on average, within the first 8 percent of the movie. The equivalent point in a 500-word piece is the first 40 words. In a 1,000-word story, the first 80 words. This paragraph is 74 words.

  • Steve Silverman

    You made your point well.

    Your friend in the Duck jersey is an awful actor.

    • King_Kaufman

      “If they ever teach a duck to act, I’m in big trouble.” –Esther Williams