Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

5 questions to ask when writing a lead

By · Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

This might seem elementary for journalism veterans. It might seem outdated for those in newsrooms without editors. But we think it’s an important message: 5 questions to ask when writing a lead.

These questions originally were intended for editors to ask reporters. However, they are questions reporters can — and should — ask themselves.

  1. What’s the story? This is always the key question, and it will come up as the first question in many stages of story planning and execution.
  2. What is the genesis of the story? Consider whether the story is entirely new or is new information about a story already reported — the day before, the month before or even the year before.
  3. Who is reporting it now — television, radio, the Web, social media? Will a reporter be writing for online and then for print? For both at the same time? Is the reporter the person who will be breaking the news? Will the reporter tweet the news first? Answers to all of these questions will help inform decisions about just the right lead.
  4. Breaking news or enterprise? Consider whether the story is a breaking news story that warrants an immediate telling of the details in the first paragraph or is an enterprise story that can ease into the news.
  5. First day / straight lead or second-day / delayed lead? The answer to this question depends on the answers to the previous two questions. Usually, a first-day lead tells the news in a straightforward way — who, what, when and where — and is chosen for breaking news stories. A second-day lead gives readers fresh angles about news they already know by explaining “how” or “why” or “what’s next.” These leads are chosen for follow stories, enterprise stories and sometimes for print versions of stories that first appeared on the news organization’s digital platforms. Usually, second-day leads are delayed leads. These provide an anecdote or a vignette to illustrate the story. They set the scene with description, or they convey the story with a narrative telling of events.

News happens fast, and it travels fast. Position yourself to be the go-to messenger with the right lead for the right moment.

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