When the lede needs a rewrite

April 23, 2004

Today I thought I’d share some useful line-editing advice for a change. For the heck of it I stopped by Tim Ball’s paper, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, to mine for news nuggets that would provoke my editorial urge. I found one on the first try.

The discovery Thursday of a homeless man’s body in the Brittingham Park Beach House, where he appeared to be living, is a tragedy that illustrates a chronic problem – homeless people living in Madison’s parks, officials said.

Classic example of showing vs. telling, and draining a story of its emotional potential. We’ve got us a homeless dude found dead in a beach house at a city park, and the thing is, it’s probably not a fluke. Homeless people are dying in Madison’s parks because so many of them are living in them. As you read on in the story you learn this man’s death inspired an impromptu meeting at a local bar to talk over homelessness. Here’s my storytelling quote:

“My buddy died today, man, and there’s no reason he had to die,” a man said at the forum just before he broke down in tears and left without identifying himself.

This story reminds me of a Dylan tune that opened with “He was a friend of mine,” about a bum found dead on a New York City sidewalk. The State Journal has a story about a guy who may have been homeless, but he wasn’t necessarily friendless.

The writer had the right idea: linking one man’s death to the larger problem it symbolizes. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she wrote a compelling lede that her editors sucked dry. Here’s my “he was a friend of mine” version of the lede.

He was a homeless guy who seems to have set housekeeping at the Brittingham Park Beach House. Somebody found his body there Thursday.

“My buddy died today, man, and there’s no reason he had to die,” a man said at an impromptu forum called Thursday night to discuss homelessness in the city. The man broke down in tears and left without identifying himself.

“It’s a park problem today because of the death last night, but it’s a community problem every day,” said Madison Parks Supt. James Morgan. “You’ve got to start looking at core problems of poverty, substance abuse and lack of social support such as shelters, housing, and that sort of thing.”

If I’d written this, the desk would’ve hounded me because we’ve got one guy saying “he died today” and another saying “he died last night.” Which one was it? Comes a time when editors have to back off and let some storytelling happen. Nobody knows exactly when the guy died because nobody was there to check their watches, and you can settle the issue down in the story where it talks about the autopsy to deterimine time and cause of death.

My main point, though, is if you see the words to the effect of “this illustrates a problem,” an alarm should go off telling you to send the story back and say, “don’t tell me the problem it illustrates, just illustrate the problem.”

It’s helpful to put a “this is just a suggestion” note with a possible lede, but don’t be surprised if it gets ignored. It’s not your story and your reporter is loath to admit to being bested by a copy editor. Help the reporter be a writer — it’s what the reporter wants anyway, and you get the benefit of editing unboring copy.

(All the above assumes available time and a willing reporter/assigning editor, neither of which is a given here).

11 Responses to When the lede needs a rewrite

  1. KP on April 23, 2004 at 9:57 am

    Can we please, please, PLEASE have every copy editor (at least the ones at my newspaper) read this entry in your blog? Fantastic commentary…

  2. Phillip Blanchard on April 23, 2004 at 10:54 am

    I’m not saying the lead didn’t need rewriting, but not that way.
    The story seems to be about the “problem” of homeless people in the park and the “community” reaction to it, not about the unfortunate man who died Thursday night. Because he is not identified, there’s not much to say about him without further reporting. The how-this-man-went-from-whatever-to-dying-drunk-in-a-public -park story will have to wait.
    Also, call me skeptical, but isn’t it interesting that the “best” quote in the story–“My buddy died today, man, and there’s no reason he had to die”–is the only one not to be attributed?
    Then there’s this:
    Madison has a shelter system that provides about 300 beds a night, but people are turned away daily – 5,487 in the first nine months of 2003. Numbers for the rest of the year were unavailable. “There’s not been any increase in shelter space in four years, yet we know demand keeps growing,” said Maj. Paul Moore of the Salvation Army.
    How does he know if the numbers aren’t available, or are they not available just to the reporter? How do the 2003 numbers we DO have compare with those from 2002, and, say, 1992?

  3. tom on April 23, 2004 at 11:33 am

    Bring a solution… remember there are lots of unknowns and bits of vaguery that must be sidestepped.
    If you use the “one guy symbolizes the bigger issue” you’re gonna be stuck bringing up somebody who won’t be reported much more on, no matter what.
    You could simply say something like “A homeless was found dead in Park X Thursday, but many more homeless are living in parks throughout the city because of (insert reasons here)” But that strikes me as not much improvement over the original.

  4. Phillip Blanchard on April 23, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    Not much, maybe, but better.
    Our story here jumps to a lot of conclusions.
    The question of whether the number of people checking into shelters, and how many, is integral to the story. It should have been pursued more aggresively.

  5. Phillip Blanchard on April 23, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Oh, and the story is just as much “mine” as it is the reporter’s. You might say a story “belongs” to whoever is working on it. The story, of course, really belongs to the newspaper and, by extension, the “reader.”

  6. tom on April 23, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Good points, but you dodged the challenge.

  7. Phillip Blanchard on April 23, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    Any attempt to write a “better” lead on the story would be based on speculation, because so much reporting remains to be done.
    Anyhow, you know me well enough to know that my specialty is tearing things down, not building them up.

  8. wayne on April 23, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Here’s a suggestion for the next time a reporter tells you the story is “mine.”
    Reply: “Fine. Why don’t you give it to [the competition] and see what happens.”
    I take my pleasures where i find them.
    We have folks here reading Tom’s fine blog who dislike narrative writing in almost all instances. I think the approach is overused and often inappropriate, but I like Tom’s approach in this instance.
    At the same time, Phillip B. raises an excellent point about the need for more reporting. Often, narrative writing relies too much on flowery words and not enough on facts and context.

  9. The Sanity Inspector on April 24, 2004 at 11:16 am

    Why must the societal commentary appear in the lede at all? I mean, did he die of exposure, or an overdose, or foul play, or what? I’d like to have those facts in hand before being given the bigthink.

  10. tom on April 24, 2004 at 11:43 am

    It’s kind of a crass way to look at it, but one homeless guy dropping dead is not news except to the extent that it’s symptom of a bigger issue, so you don’t even write the story without addressing the societal commentary.
    From a social science perspective it’s dangerous to draw any conclusions from a single incident, but those dangers have never scared newsies away from a story.

  11. The Sanity Inspector on April 24, 2004 at 7:44 pm

    Okay, I buy that. If the story is a think piece, with the dead homeless guy being the hook, that makes sense.