Avoiding ‘suitcase leads’ can help reporters and readers sort out the truth

News organizations change the leads of stories all the time: to update, clarify, and correct. When it happens with The New York Times, it gets more attention, especially when the subject of the story is a political scandal.

Here is the original lead of the Times story posted Friday on Chris Christie and Bridgegate, written by Kate Zernike:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had evidence to prove it.

One of the standards for judging an effective news lead is considering its length. Is it six words or sixty? Can it be contained in a single sentence, or does it need a bit of breathing room? Is the lead long enough to cover the key points? Is it short enough to focus attention and achieve comprehensibility?

I confess I had to read and re-read the Times lead to understand it – not a good sign. Fifty words are crammed into a single sentence, and most difficult, 22 words stand between subject and verb.

When I got to the verb “said,” I had to run my finger back up the page to find the speaker, “The former Port Authority official.”

Once I got beyond the lengthy attribution to the meat of the story, things got better and sharper.

The former official said two things: that Christie knew about the lane closings when they were happening (my emphasis), and that the official had evidence to prove it. We can infer that, in this version of the lead, the reporter thinks the most important thing is the evidence part. It’s a standard move in news writing that you can save the most interesting or important stuff until the end — for emphasis.

Here then is the second version of the lead, written within an hour of the first, according to the Times public editor:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that “evidence exists” the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

By my count, we have gone from 50 words to 44. The savings come from a re-arranging of the elements, which result in a change of emphasis. While the first draft ends with “he had evidence to prove it,” that phrase becomes “evidence exists,” a much weaker phrase that loses its place at the end of the sentence and retreats back into the text, where it is less noticeable. Left at the end is the more reliable scoop, that the source says the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

The Times public editor writes that the difference between the two leads is great enough that it should have been highlighted, as a correction or an editor’s note. I tend to agree, believing that the reporter and editor were acting in good faith and in the public interest.

I have a slightly different complaint: I believe that there is something deficient in the form of both these leads. To use an old term of newspaper art, these are suitcase leads, with all of the elements stuffed into the lead. Every reporter knows how to write one of these. If all the news doesn’t quite fit, you just sit on it until it closes.

Consider in that first lead all the elements writer and editor are asking the reader to absorb between capital letter and period:

• The vague identity of a source

• His role in an activity

• The location of that activity

• The fact that the activity became a scandal

• That it involved the governor of New Jersey

• That the governor knew what was happening and when

• That the source has evidence to prove this

Combined with the separation of subject and verb, it’s enough to make Ezra Klein tear up his erector set.

Although it goes well against the grain, my instinct is to slow the process down and sort out the parts:

When did N.J. Gov. Chris Christie learn about the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that created traffic chaos and a swirling political scandal? In a new development, the official who oversaw those closures says that the governor knew about them as they were happening. He says that “evidence exists” that this is true.

Critics will note that I have added five words – a total of 55. But notice that three sentences take the place of one, and that a question/answer structure leads readers down the path.

The verifiable content of news may seem like the most important element of news writing, but it can never be separated from the form of delivery. That’s why the word “report” can be used as a noun and a verb.

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  • jfd8

    31 words: The official who oversaw the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge is calling bullshit on Gov. Chris Christie’s claim that he didn’t know about the shutdowns while they were happening.

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  • DBRoddy

    How about this — 33 words:

    The Port Authority official forced out in a scandal involving lane closings on the George
    Washington Bridge said Friday he has evidence that Gov. Chris Christie knew of the
    closings as they happened.