The term lead (also spelled as ’lede’) refers to the first paragraph of a journalistic story, or first two paragraphs, in the case of an extended lead. In the case of a broadcast newscast, the term can be used to refer to either the first story of the newscast (opening segment) or to the way the individual broadcast story begins.
Leads carry the critical responsibilities of drawing in audiences’ attention and interest while informing them of the key elements of a story, and effectively ’leading’ audiences into the rest of an article. Both of these goals are equally important.
Leads are particularly instrumental in giving news consumers a brief glimpse into the story before they have to commit fully to reading it, listening to it, or watching it. Put another way, a lead should make your audiences either want to continue reading beyond the first paragraph or feel sufficiently informed that they’ll get the gist of the story even if they move on before reaching the conclusion.
The typical news lead aims to first and foremost inform news audiences. It does this by including the most essential information about the story right at the beginning, namely by addressing the so-called “5 W’s and H” of a story. These are the essential questions journalists must answer about any topic: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And, of course, How?
For example, a journalist might make clear in the first paragraph of a story that Candidate X (who) won an election (what) in Amherst (where) last night (when) because 67 percent of voters cast their ballots for them (why).
This kind of lead is called a summary lead. It is highly descriptive and is a hallmark of so-called “hard news” stories written in a “straight news” style. Audiences will often encounter these in breaking news coverage or in stories written by newswire services.
News leads are typically short (two to three sentences in length) and get to the point of an article quickly so as not to lose the audience’s attention. Because of this short length, it is sometimes impossible to answer all 5 W’s and H in a single lead paragraph — especially if the lead is crafted to draw the audience in.
When that is the case, journalists generally provide the second-most important information, or answer the critical questions they could not address in the lead, in the nut graf (also spelled “nut graph” or “nutgraph”). The nut graf is usually the second paragraph of an article, or the paragraph immediately following an extended lead.
The responsibility of a nut graf is to contextualize the most important facts of an article and provide audiences with a clear understanding of that article’s angle. (The angle is the lens through the journalist approaches the central issue or topic examined in the story. For example, when a journalist decides to write a story about a new town zoning ordinance, they could focus on the potential impact of the change on the town’s ‘character,’ or on the individuals who stand to gain or lose most from the change.) The nut graf tells audiences why the story is important and timely. It helps explain where the story is coming from, where it is going, and what is at stake.
This traditional news combination of a strong lead and a clear nut graf right at the beginning of a news story follows the inverted pyramid style of newswriting. Under that style, journalists organize news stories so that they begin with the most essential or important information at the top, and continue with successively less important facts and context.
The aforementioned approach, which packs information quickly at the very beginning of a story with a no-nonsense writing style, reflects just one kind introduction to a journalistic story. There are several other kinds of leads, especially in stories produced by non-traditional news outlets; longer, in-depth (long-form) stories; and in certain genres of journalism (e.g., Arts & Culture journalism).
One particularly common alternative is the anecdotal lead. This is a type of lead in which a journalist begins a story with an anecdote, or illustrative story, to depict a scene or event that guides audiences into the broader context. For example, while covering that same local election, a reporter writing an anecdotal lead might choose to describe the moment Candidate X learned they had won the election — for example, while on the phone with their partner in a room full of exuberant supporters who were about to be showered in red, white, and blue balloons. A similar variant involves starting the story with a powerful quote or a startling statement that immediately grabs the audience’s attention.
In an analysis lead, a journalist synthesizes and analyzes important information in a more contextual introduction to a story. This type of lead helps put current events into perspective for audiences. Using the same local election story as an example, a reporter writing an analysis lead might choose to begin the story with a focus on Candidate X’s legislative priorities and how their election has the potential to change the city and impact its citizens in the coming years.
With a blind lead, the journalist sets a scene or tells a story without immediately making clear the Who or What of a story, in order to build tension, establish a tone, or pique audience interest. In the aforementioned example, the story might begin with details about the supporters’ sense of euphoria and surprise before going on to introduce Candidate X.
There are several more types of leads, though. Notably, different types of leads pair better with different topics, and even different tones (e.g., serious, humorous, melancholic, and so on). So, after reporting all the necessary information to produce a good piece of journalism, you’ll need to consider what type of lead is the best fit for it.
No matter what type of lead you choose to begin your story, you must inform audiences and interest them in your larger story. As journalist Chip Scanlan put it: “An effective lead makes a promise to the reader or viewer: I have something important, something interesting, to tell you. A good lead beckons and invites. It informs, attracts, and entices.”
When deciding how to start your story, take stock of what its strongest element is. This may be a strong anecdote that gives a face to your story and establishes a connection with the audience. Or, it might be an eye-popping statistic that shocks the audience and makes them want to read on. Or, if you are producing a shorter news brief or breaking news story, the strongest element may simply be a succinct summary of what happened.
For example, in 2015, journalists from ProPublica and NPR found that people living in different U.S. states could receive drastically different worker’s compensation benefits for the same injuries. They crunched some more numbers, talked to several experts and victims, and wrote a story titled, “How Much Is Your Arm Worth? Depends On Where You Work.”
Using data from different states, the journalists were able to assign a maximum dollar amount to a number of different body parts. There was a fair bit of data behind the story, and it is easy to imagine a lead that simply pointed to the disparity.
However, these journalists had a different idea. They chose to lead with extended anecdotes involving two men: They were of similar age, lived just 75 miles apart, were married to a spouse and had two kids, and had lost a portion of their left arm in a machinery accident at work in an industrial plant. However, the fourth paragraph hits us with a major discrepancy: One of those men received just $45,000 in workers’ compensation for the loss of his arm. The other was awarded benefits that could surpass $740,000 over his lifetime. Then, in the fifth paragraph, we finally get to the nut graf: These experiences illustrate the vast gaps in the workers’ comp benefits offered by different states. The rest of the story goes on to describe other differences in workers’ comp benefits across states, and the reasons for them.
What ProPublica does well here is to suck the reader in with a story about two similar people who were forced into two very different paths when they had comparable problems. The strength of their anecdotes, and in particular the discrepancy in their outcomes, outweighed any other potential opener.
As a contrast, consider a 2016 story from The Guardian titled, “Quarter of child refugees arriving in EU traveled without parents.” In that case, the strongest element in the story is the observation that almost 100,000 child refugees who arrived in Europe the previous year came without their parents.
This is a staggering figure whose magnitude is likely to shock the audience. It is thus an apt choice to serve as the centerpiece to a summary lead: “A quarter of all child refugees who arrived in Europe last year — almost 100,000 under-18s — traveled without parents or guardians and are now ‘geographically orphaned,’ presenting a huge challenge to authorities in their adopted countries.”
From there, the story goes on to highlight other interesting bits of data from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. While that story is also a prime candidate for a strong, compelling anecdote, it is quite possible that the journalist was unable to speak to a child refugee before their deadline. Thus, the statistic was likely the strongest element the journalist had to work with — and so they led with it.
Ultimately, it is crucial that you think strategically about your lead and its goals. Use that short space as an opportunity to draw in audiences, and avoid things that could distract or turn them away, such as clichéd language, rambling sentences, irrelevant or unimportant information, or direct questions. The best leads are succinct and introduce audiences either to new information, a captivating incident, or a striking statistic. And, a successful lead will linger in the minds of audiences long after they have consumed it.