When I discuss media writing on call-in radio shows, listeners invariably call in to complain about the anecdotal lead. Not that they know what to call it, but they describe it perfectly. The complaints go something like this:
“Here’s what I hate about my newspaper,” they say. “I hate beginnings that don’t have any news in them. I hate beginnings that tell me something about someone I don’t know who is doing something I’m not interested in. I hate to plow through all that stuff before I get to the news — which is the only reason, as far as I can see, to read a newspaper.”
I ask for an example, and they say: “All I have to do is look at today’s paper.” In a moment, they read something like:
“Dee Drake put down the rag she had been using to wipe the counter, put her hands on her hips and exhaled a small, exasperated sigh. It was another day of government gridlock, and the news out of Washington, playing on the television set above the bar, called for more of the same …
“My husband’s on Social Security and Medicare,” Ms. Drake, the bartender at Alonzo’s Station Tavern, went on, resuming her wiping.”
The callers who say they hate this sort of lead are talking about newsroom attempts to “humanize” a story, sometimes called a “Zimmerman” lead. (“Fred Zimmerman leaned back in his swivel chair and propped his tasseled loafers on his polished mahogany desktop …”)
Such leads proliferate in part because editors insist that the writers get a human being in the lead, as if that were some journalistic Holy Grail.
But just being human isn’t interesting, and where did we get the idea it was?
If the people in the lead are both unknown and dull, why would that be interesting?
Readers aren’t an alien species; they like what most of us like. And most of us like reading about people we know or at least have heard of — or, if strangers, people who say and do interesting and meaningful things that shine a light on the story’s news.
And we like news, a fact caught by our common greeting: “What’s new?”
Consider an inherently interesting story: the closing of a hospital.
How do you close a hospital? What happens to all that equipment? What happens to the staff? What happens to the patients?
Here’s a lead, a Zimmerman, on the closing of Capitol Hill Hospital: “Rosalie Hansen placed her last patient yesterday.” In focusing on one unknown employee and her routine work, this humdrum lead ignores everything that could fascinate.
Likewise, the “Dee the bartender” lead above (name changed to protect the innocent) gives more attention to Dee, her rag and her wiping than it gives to the story’s what: Washington is stuck in its efforts to deal with important social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
That what is what readers care about — not Dee, her hands-on-hips small sigh, or even her unnamed husband.
When you question reporters or editors about the Zimmerman lead, they say they don’t find them interesting either, usually, but the readers do.
Really? Who said? The readers themselves say they don’t find them interesting. We’re just not listening.
So we read: “Larry Nix and his wife, Linda, celebrate their birthdays, as well as their wedding anniversary, in May.” Now there’s a riveting piece of information. And, in another story, we read: “The tall fence, small cells and prison scrubs are familiar to Yvette Richardson, a Richland Hills resident who said she used to work at a Texas prison.”
These are stories about (surprise!) a gift certificate scam and a protest against detaining immigrant families — both inherently interesting because of their news value. Their leads should have, but did not, reflect the news.
That’s not to say all anecdotal leads are worthless. Some work well, forming a seamless and natural segue from anecdote to story.
But when they work, it’s because neither Zimmerman nor anecdote seems boring or irrelevant. Rather, each is interesting and pertinent and casts light clearly on the story’s news.