Thursday, February 19, 2009

Great ledes I have known

It was just a short, four-word sentence that appeared on page 1B of the local section of the Miami Herald on March 17, 1985; a mile away from the important page one stories.

Funny thing is that no one remembers any of the stories from the Herald's front page on that St. Patrick's Day.

But they still talk about that four-word sentence on the "local front" some 24 years later.

Newspaper editors and veteran reporters tell young reporters about the sentence. College journalism professors build classes around it.

The sentence I'm talking about is Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan's "lede" for her story about an ex-convict who caused a ruckus in a fast food joint after being told there was no more fried chicken. Striking an employee and fleeing the store, he was shot by a security guard:

"Gary Robinson died hungry."
Actually this is the entire lede:
"Gary Robinson died hungry.

"He had a taste for Church's fried chicken. He wanted the three-piece box for $2.19, plus tax.

"Instead he got three bullets..."
"Lede" is newspaper jargon for the first few sentences or paragraphs of a story. Many newspaper reporters know how to write good ledes and do it every day.

Only a few are able to write ledes that are remembered 25 years later.

Pulitzer Prize winning former NY Times reporter Rick Bragg, who is now a professor of writing at the University of Alabama - and a good friend - wrote one of the great feature ledes of all time.

Bragg was assigned by the St. Petersburg Times to write a story about a wild bobcat that attacked a pet chicken named Mopsy near Clearwater in 1989.

Mopsy has looked into the face of death, and it is whiskered.

Mopsy is a pet chicken belonging to Wini Bauman.

Mrs. Bauman was on the porch of her Narnia Court home Wednesday morning when Mopsy came tearing around the corner of the house, feathers flying.

Hot on Mopsy’s tail feathers was a bobcat.

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ Mrs. Bauman said. Mopsy made it to the house safely.

The bobcat, feathers in its long whiskers, slinked into a nearby orange grove. Mrs. Bauman called the law.
Bragg wasn't all that crazy about being assigned a story he thought "kind of comical."

"A newspaper assignment is just that; an assignment. It's not a suggestion," Bragg told me today by phone from his office.

"I wrote that lede on deadline but some ledes on feature stories have taken me days and days to come up with."

I asked Bragg if he had a favorite lede by another writer.

Without hesitation he said, "Sure. It's from the St. Petersburg Times, October 4, 2002."

"TARPON SPRINGS -- When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster."
That lede was written by Kelley Benham, also of the St. Petersburg Times. Her story was about a rooster that went on a rampage, attacking a two year-old girl.

I asked Bragg how he was able to come up with the exact wording and date of Benham's lede so quickly.

"Easy, it's right here on my desk. I teach it to my students."

Meanwhile some say that Benham's rooster lede has eclipsed Bragg's Mopsy lede. I think they're both good.

I emailed the Miami Herald's Ace Crime Reporter David Ovalle today and asked if he had a favorite lede. I also asked if it was easy or difficult for him to come up with a good lede.

Ovalle: "Usually they pop into my head right away.

"This story took me just an hour or so to write after I had done the interviews. Once I talked to [the] mom, I knew I wanted to use the victim's name in the top. I couldn't believe the editors allowed me to write it but I'm glad they did. And Meshach's mother thought highly of the approach."

"This time, God did not save Meshach.

"In the Bible, an angel rescues a true-believing youth named Meshach after he is hurled into a furnace.

"In Liberty City last weekend, another Meshach -- Meshach Boges, 15 -- met his fate outside a yellow-orange market:

"Somebody shot him dead."
Ovalle's story was about a 15-year-old named Meshach Boges who was killed two years ago while hanging out at a Liberty City market.

Finally I asked Channel 10 politick-meister Michael Putney if he had a favorite lede.

Putney, who once wrote for the Herald - and who's no slouch when it comes to wordsmithing - got right back to me with his favorite: "Maureen Dowd----before she became a columnist for the NY Times----wrote this lede about Bill Clinton’s visit to Oxford University back in the ‘90s,"

"President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted and didn't get a degree."
Added Putney: "Beautiful, no? And snarky!"

I agree Michael...beautiful indeed!

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