I often joke that having spent my professional life on a crime desk meant that most of my leads essentially wrote themselves. Fire leads were basic: Fire damages house. Crime leads were basic: Guy robs store, Gal steals car and so forth.
When we got weird crimes, however, there was a difficult moment in trying to determine how much information to put into the lead while also trying to avoid putting too much information in there. It was also a game of, “What, exactly, do we care most about?”
The exercise that typifies this for my students is the one lovingly dubbed “The Underwear Thief Lead.” A story I pulled out of the Oshkosh Northwestern years ago told the tale of a guy who was arrested on suspicion of breaking into women’s homes with a ladder and stealing their underwear. Here is the original lead:
An Oshkosh man accused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and admitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — – including rape and murder but that his religious beliefs prevented him from following through.
The lead is nearly 50 words. It has a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he was sending threatening letters to people’s underpants (Dear Victoria Secret Size 8, I will find you and stretch out your waistband…). He considered himself a sexual predator? Well, I consider myself the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so let’s see how that goes… Also, what kind of religious beliefs can make you think it’s OK to break into homes, steal underwear, threaten women and so forth? (It also doesn’t help that the headline, “Thief thought of Rape, Murder,” essentially convicts him of multiple crimes before the courts get a shot at him.)
The story goes on for about a mile and a half before we ever get a “when” element, at which point in time we find out we’re hearing about this now because the guy was in court that day. If convicted, he’s facing more than 60 years in prison. There were all sorts of other “tidbits” in there, and if you’re interested, you can read the story here.
The point of the exercise is about more than writing a lead better than what is listed above. The students need to be able to justify what they put in and what they left out. They can’t include everything, so they have to make choices. Here are some of the best discussions we’ve had over the years:
- Age: Some students don’t see it as being important to note “A 43-year-old Oshkosh man” as it’s not a big deal. Others said it helped clarify this wasn’t a stupid frat prank, as at 43, this guy was like the creepy dude at the college bar who reeks of Polo and wants you to come to the parking lot and check out his Iroc-Z.
- Penalty: Some want to list the EXACT number of years (62.5) while others say cutting it to a general area (more than 60) is fine. Also, should we include the fine ($125,000) or not? For some, it’s a lot of money so it matters. Others said if they had to choose between 62 years in the joint and paying $125K, they’d hock a kidney to pay the fine.
- Lead type: Some people want to lead with the name (Christopher J. Sullivan) while others want to do an interesting action lead (delay the name). The question is how many people were likely to know him versus how many people were likely to read on after hearing about the underwear thing?
- Level of creepy: The story goes into excruciating detail about decapitated Barbie dolls, threats to boil off people’s skin and more. How much of that can make the lead and what shouldn’t comes into play here.
This theory of trying to balance and choose came to mind today after a story about a Louisiana principal of a Catholic school resigned for a truly spectacular reason:
When it comes to the lead on this, you have an Associated Press approach that cuts to the chase:
A Louisiana Catholic school principal was arrested at a Washington, D.C. strip club after refusing to pay his bill.
It’s 19 words and right to the point. However, it’s really missing some of the nuances.
First, the guy hit the strip club while on a SCHOOL FIELD TRIP. I remember my mother freaking out when her school and my school ended up having a trip to the circus when I was in second or third grade and she saw our teacher smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer behind the big top. I can only imagine what parents at this school were thinking.
Second, the guy was drunk at 2:20 a.m., outside the club, refusing to move out of the roadway. And, again, remember this is a FIELD TRIP for a CATHOLIC SCHOOL.
Third, he had a history of problems, including the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina donations to a previous school. Still, he was a reserve officer in a local police department.
Still, the AP might not have wanted to use all the information that was in The Advocate, the local paper for this educational leader. Here’s the lead from that paper, where the writer clearly decided to go a different way:
Michael Comeau, the principal at Holy Family Catholic school in Port Allen and an educator who previously received the prestigious $25,000 Milken award, has resigned after his arrest early Friday at a Washington D.C. strip club while on a school field trip to the nation’s capital.
This is a case of throwing the kitchen sink into the lead, as it’s 46 words. The author names the person up front, relying on his presumed local fame to drive the interest. (I asked a friend who reads this paper and he said this guy isn’t a known entity, so there’s that…)
The part about him being an award-winning educator makes the lead (and about a half-dozen paragraphs throughout the story for some reason). It also updates the story to explain he resigned after the arrest, pushing up the newer stuff that AP didn’t use.
Neither of these leads hits the nail on the head, as I’m guessing more people would care about the action than the person, making the second lead a bit weaker in the approach. I’m also sure more people want to know about the field trip and the resignation than the arrest. However, WHY he was arrested (whatever the strip club/booze equivalent of “dine and dash” is) would be worth knowing up front. (There’s something in another story about his use of a service dog at the strip club, which just screams for a follow up…)
If you’re looking for a fun and yet somewhat disturbing exercise, use all the information in these two stories to determine what would make for a good 25-35 word lead for a broad audience.