Posted 3/22/22

WOODWORKING BY DAVE WOOD The dreaded lede When I enrolled in my first journalism class at UW-Eau Claire, I learned lots of stuff that still bugs me. My professor was a fellow named Lee O. Hench, who …

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The dreaded lede

When I enrolled in my first journalism class at UW-Eau Claire, I learned lots of stuff that still bugs me. My professor was a fellow named Lee O. Hench, who began Eau Claire's very successful journalism department and acted as a surrogate father to this uninitiated kid from small town Wisconsin.

The first thing he taught me was a journalism invention called the “inverted pyramid,” which, he said, all journalists must master. Said invention stated that a story must begin with all the most important facts and as it proceeded the facts included got less and less important, so that if the story needed to be trimmed to fit into the page, the less important bottom could be snipped off.

Don't get me wrong. Mr. Hench was only doing his job. But I figured that was really dumb and my real father, back in Whitehall, who was a storyteller par excellence would not approve. His stories always ended with the best part. As a storyteller he always seemed to keep hold of his audience before the end, with local color, flashy names of characters and “status life.” Was his character driving a Chevy or Cadillac? When dad's character was drinking while arrested, was it Canadian Club or Corby's?

So I sort of put Mr. Hench's dicta on the back burner, until I began getting low grades for leaving the best until the end. And then there was the “lede,” journalist's misspelling of lead paragraph, the first words out of the chute. “Ledes,” said Mr. Hench, “must always include the five elements: Who-What-When-Where-Why and sometimes How. Ignore that dicta and your story would lead (lede) to your receiving a ‘C’ or worse.”

This made little sense to me. A very famous journalist, Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” would have produced a much thinner novel had she listened to her professor: Scarlett O' Hara: “Rhett, Rhett, whatever shall I do now?”

Rhett Butler [leaving Tara] “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”

[The End] Fortunately for readers I'm not the only journalist who abhors the dreaded inverted pyramid and the lede. I was glad to recently receive my copy of the New Yorker in which my old acquaintance Calvin Trillin has reappeared in his 50th year as one of the funniest members of the fourth estate and a half century- long contributor to my favorite magazine.

I've been a longtime fan of Trillin whom I met years ago at a gin joint called the Little Wagon, when he was in Minneapolis, doing a humor piece on Minneapolis's fabled downtown Skyway system which allows Vikings to Christmas shop in their shirtsleeves if they so desire. Trillin was a longtime friend of a Star Tribune columnist and I met both after work having libations, which lasted way too long. After he returned to New York, I'd call him whenever we were going to New York and ask him for restaurant recommendations in Greenwich Village where he and his wife Alice dwelled.

Anyway, last month I was happy to find out that this wonderful talker was a collector of famous ledes, which show how much you can cram into a lede if your editor let you. Cal wrote that he had recently received a 2019 clipping from the Baton Rouge “Advocate,” which he's added to his collection: “A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600-pound animal's genitalia after it sat on her when and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.”

That's a winner for sure. Trillin points out that such a lede reveals the weakness of the practice. “What,” asked Trillin in his New Yorker article, “was a camel doing behind a truck stop?”

During that long ago night at the gin mill, I told Trillin that one advantage of the Skyway users was that they were no longer victims of the dreaded “salt line” on the bottoms of their trousers caused by folks who in the old days had to trudge through two feet of snow. The next issue of the New Yorker arrived and my commentary appeared in the middle of the story.

Henceforth my own obit will read: “Died. David Wood, River Falls, Wisconsin, a former schoolteacher, his work has appeared in the Pierce County (Wi.) Journal, the Whitehall (Wi.) Times, the Eau Claire (Wi.) Leader-Telegram, the Chatfield (Minn.) News. AND THE NEW YORKER (N.Y.) MAGAZINE.“ Hope resumes count wherever I'm headed. And I think I'll reward Trillin for his help with beefing up my resume: Back in the thirties, the Chicago Sun Times ran an obituary of Richard Loeb's murder after he made a sexual pass at another inmate at Illinois State Penitentiary. Guess what the lead was?

“Last night Richard Loeb, Kidnapper of Bobby Frank and famed grammarian, ended his sentence with a preposition.”

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715426-9554.