Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Of Burrowing Ledes and Tunnel Rats

Being a reporter at a small to mid-market daily newspaper is probably the best way I know to learn the craft of writing. And to a point that's exactly what it is, a craft rather than an art.

When, if ever, does it become art? When does the act of storytelling transcend the inverted pyramid and ten-inch story limits? Who knows? But there are thousands, literally thousands of frustrated small-town beat reporters out there who try mightily to somehow make their copy more than the sum of its parts, regardless of how dull, boring or mundane the topic is.

I know, because I was one of them. I approached all my stories - every school board and city commission meeting, every court case, every house fire, every potluck fundraiser, every meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution - with the same basic tactic: how the hell can I make this sound a little less boring than it truly is?

And if my convoluted attempts to jazz things up ended up hindering the story itself, so be it. I pledged to never let the story get in the way of a good lede.

How bad was I? I once used the word "titillating" in the lede of a story about a local woman arrested for taking her shirt off in front of the county jail so her tragically lovelorn and thoroughly incarcerated boyfriend could get a quick peek. Really, I did. And my editor ran it.

So in honor of Groundhog Day, here's a lede from a long-ago story I wrote for my city's "Groundhog Job Shadow Day" in which local students shadow an adult for a day, ostensibly to learn about future careers. Or as I like to think, giving the poor, naive little bastards a taste of what they're in for.

Of course, it takes the reader until the end of the second paragraph to discover what the hell the story's about. In true groundhog fashion I buried the lede. But I had fun doing it.

The second day of February marks the date of an annual and arcane ritual in which the world's attention is inexplicably directed toward the meteorological prognostications of a grossly overweight tunnel rat.
Groundhog Day. And while the debate continues to rage over whether we should rely on sophisticated computer models or a subterranean rodent for our weather forecasts, thousands of students across the nation are seeing a different kind of shadow today. 

Happy Groundhog Day. Or Prairie Dog Day. Or Gopher Day. Hell, they're all rodents. Any of them will do. Whatever your species, here's hoping he sees nothing but the promise of an early spring...


  1. Every day's a school day - I had no idea Lede was spelled like that.

  2. Awesome.

    When I was a sports editor at the small-town daily I mandated a "one weather lede per season" rule. The freelancers ($30 a game story) didn't like the fact I kicked that crutch out from under 'em, but I made sure when it came time to play my weather-lede card it was irrelevant, irreverent and sure to force the 40 high school kids reading it to ask their parents for clarification.

    ('Hey Mom, can clouds be eruidite?')

  3. 'Cept I spelled erudite correctly...

  4. Now, can you tell me why we spell it "lede"? My students were asking me the other day and I had no clue, as it doesn't follow the usual rule of shortening (e.g., "graf.").

  5. The word "lede" (pronounced leed) is an anachronism from the days of lead (rhymes with red) type used to typset stories in the old days of newspapers.

    Here's how quickly things have changed: At the last paper I worked (I left in 2008) the sports editor could remember being able to edit lead type upside down during the production process.

    Now he's blogging.

  6. Crawdaddy, you beat me to it...although I have to admit I had to look it up because I couldn't quite remember the particulars.