When the lede needs a rewrite

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).

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