Sunday, January 29, 2006

Tin ear ledes

Copy editors should pay close attention to tin ear constructions where we cast a sentence in a way that deviates from the natural storytelling order. Once we introduce an actor (be it person or company), we usually don't have that actor talking about itself as a detached third person.

Here is a good example from this past week from a lede on a story from North Carolina picked up by a local paper:

CBS Corp., the owner of Paramount's Carowinds and four other North American parks, plans to sell off its theme park business, the company said.

It's debatable whether "the company said" is even needed -- a nice, uncluttered declarative statement always being better as long as it's fully backed up in the copy, which this was. But if you think the attribution is needed, make it natural. Only Bob Dole talks about "Bob Dole." So why would CBS, except in some fit of PR spin, refer to itself as "the company"? It's an unnatural storytelling form that goes against the way we are psychologically wired.

CBS Corp., the owner of Paramount's Carowinds and four other North American parks, says it plans to sell off its theme park business.

And why switch to says? Because the lede has no time element. I know the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others sometimes use this naked "said," but I disagree. When you use a naked past tense in a lede:
  • You invite the reader to momentarily wonder "when." If there is anyplace we don't want the reader pausing, even for a millisecond, it's the lede.
  • You signal this is old news. In an always-on world, and we "print" folks need to get used to dealing with that psychology. In fact, I'm coming to where I think undated present or present perfect tense (e.g. "has announced") ledes may be the best way in many cases.
In the pickup, the Thursday time element was dropped to the fifth graf, too low even if you are trying to bury that you are running Friday's story on Saturday The original story from the N.C. paper had Thursday in the lede, but still had the tin ear problem: CBS Corp., the owner of Paramount's Carowinds and four other North American parks, said Thursday that it plans to sell off its theme park business., the company announced Thursday.

Here's another reason for getting rid of that weak attribution-at-end lede when you have a stronger element: Readers remember the beginnings and ends -- of stories, paragraphs and even sentences. Which is stronger here, "the company announced Thursday that" or "plans to sell off its theme park business"? (A side note: Use "that" to make clear it isn't selling the business on Thursday.)

Just as the first four or so words of your lede get the reader to start reading, the last few propel them into the rest of the story. Make sure they don't jar the reader's natural storytelling order.

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