April 21, 2016

Last year we instituted an invisible prize for the best lead from the annual crop of stories to win Pulitzers. It sparked some good conversation about the craft and a couple of the winners even offered to buy me lunch (not a requirement, but much appreciated).

We’re continuing that tradition this year. I have read all the leads in all the journalism categories and will select a winner, a runner-up, and two finalists. I am adhering to the standards established for last year’s competition — with a couple of tweaks:

  1. For a series of any length, I will only consider the lead of the first story in any entry.
  2. Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.
  3. Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points.
  4. If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you’re under the table.
  5. Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract from the focus of the story.

In a Pulitzer tradition, I will recuse myself from including entries from the Tampa Bay Times, which, I am proud to say, just won not one, but two Pulitzers. (Poynter is the nonprofit school that owns the Times.)

But, before awarding the prizes, I will use an example from the Times to illustrate the two kinds of leads that dominate the prizes this year — and probably in most years. One I will call the news or informational lead. The other is familiar as the narrative or anecdotal lead.

I would describe the difference this way: The news lead points you there. The narrative lead puts you there.

The Tampa Bay Times collaborated with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on an exposé of degraded mental health care in the state of Florida. The reporters were Leonora LaPeter Anton, Anthony Cormier, and Michael Braga. Here is their informational lead:

Florida’s state-funded mental hospitals are supposed to be safe places to house and treat people who are a danger to themselves or others.

But years of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts have turned them into treacherous warehouses where violence is out of control and patients can’t get the care they need.

That is a neatly written summary of the findings of this investigation. The first sentence offers us an ideal of good care. The second describes the malpractice and its effects. The language is simple and straightforward. “Treacherous” is a good and surprising word. But the lead is all light with little heat.

It takes a narrative lead to light the flame of reader outrage:

She walked the halls of one of Florida’s most dangerous mental hospitals clutching her clipboard to her chest, trying not to think too much about the patients in her care.

All of them were men. Many were schizophrenic and violent. One had chopped up a diabetic amputee and scattered him in parts through the woods of Dixie County.

One night in 2012, she walked the ward again, a single orderly watching over 27 men. Her nearest co-workers were upstairs, out of sight. They didn’t see what a security camera captured — a patient hiding a radio antenna fashioned to a jagged point.

He calmly approached Cook as she sat looking over her notes. Then he swung.



Eye socket.

An informational lead points you there. The narrative lead puts you there. Nice work, team.

Now is the moment you have been waiting for. May we have a drum roll, please?

The winner of best Pulitzer Prize lead goes to Robin McDowell, Margie Mason, and Martha Mendoza of the AP for their stories uncovering slavery in the industry that prepares seafood for markets all over the world, including the United States:

BENJINA, Indonesia — The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.

Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.

But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks — laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.

“All I did was tell my captain I couldn’t take it anymore, that I wanted to go home,” said Kyaw Naing, his dark eyes pleading into an Associated Press video camera sneaked in by a sympathetic worker. “The next time we docked,” he said nervously out of earshot of a nearby guard, “I was locked up.”

There are countless examples of investigations over the decades that are poorly written. Reporters spend nine months finding things out, then nine minutes writing a lead. That is rarely the case anymore. The best practitioners understand the value of dogged reporting and crafted writing in the public interest. Together, good reporting and writing can attract an audience and keep it, forcing us to pay attention.

In this example, we get to “see” in both sense of the word: to see with our mind’s eye and to understand. We get in four efficient paragraphs both the indictment and the evidence. Well done (if we do lunch, AP team, let’s get some burgers).

Runner-up for best Pulitzer Prize lead goes to Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker for her brainy criticism of television. Among her essays, was this lead on the “Raucous feminist humor of ‘Inside Amy Schumer’”:

“I really need to stop making so many White girls,” God, played by Paul Giamatti, groans, on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” In this sketch, the blond ditz “Amy Schumer” — a self-lacerating version of the comedian who plays her — finds out that she’s got herpes from a hookup. Her irritated Creator notes that this is the first time she’s prayed to him in years. Schumer explains that she’s a role model now, and that young girls shouldn’t see her buying Valtrex. God says he’ll have to destroy a village in Uzbekistan to cure her; she’s cool with that. However, she refuses his demand that she stop drinking. “Can I just blow you?” she whines. “I’m gay,” he says, disgusted.

Let’s list all the reasons that this lead would not work in any newspaper I can think of:

  1. It weighs in at 119 words.
  2. That thick magazine paragraph would look imperious and impenetrable squeezed into a newspaper column, Tony Soprano in a Speedo.
  3. It begins with a quote, a classic lead taboo.
  4. It doesn’t explain what Valtrex is, an example of those degenerate New York values that Ted Cruz complains about.
  5. It offers, shall we say, an unconventional portrait of God and one of his aspirants.

It also might be criticized for a kind of Milton Berle effect: joke borrowing. But it passes a lot of my tests for good leads: It grabs me, drags me in, introduces me to the main character, shocks me a little and makes me (nervously) laugh, and, in the words of the great John McPhee, shines a flashlight down into the well of the story.

Let’s just say that the inclusion of magazine work into the Pulitzer competition has given us writing you’d never in a newspaper, and nowhere among my writing tools is the advice that to win a Pulitzer a little smutty blasphemy at the top of the story couldn’t hurt.

Finalists for best Pulitzer Prize lead:

  • To the staff of the Los Angeles Times for vivid news writing that manages to hit on all the significant events without squeezing too much information into too little space.

    Masked assailants armed with assault rifles opened fire on a holiday banquet for county employees in San Bernardino on Wednesday, killing 14 people and plunging a nation already on edge about terrorism and mass shootings into hours of tense uncertainty.

    The massacre at the Inland Regional Center set off a surreal day in which hundreds cowered in their offices, schools went on lockdown, SWAT teams swarmed neighborhoods and a four-hour manhunt played out on live TV. The finale was a gun battle on a residential street that left two suspects dead.

  • To Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times for focusing on the story of a single Afghan woman whose terrible plight signifies something shameful about the culture of Afghanistan and its treatment of women.

    The problem with some narrative leads is the uncertainty whether a particular example is a microcosm or an outlier. This example feels right:

    KABUL, Afghanistan — Farkhunda had one chance to escape the mob that wanted to kill her. Two Afghan police officers pulled her onto the roof of a low shed, above the angry crowd.

    But then the enraged men below her picked up poles and planks of wood, and hit at her until she lost her grip and tumbled down.

    Her face bloodied, she struggled to stand. Holding her hands to her hair, she looked horrified to find that her attackers had yanked off her black hijab as she fell. The mob closed in, kicking and jumping on her slight frame.

    The tormented final hours of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old aspiring student of Islam who was accused of burning a Quran in a Muslim shrine, shocked Afghans across the country. That is because many of her killers filmed one another beating her and posted clips of her broken body on social media. Hundreds of other men watched, holding their phones aloft to try to get a glimpse of the violence, but never making a move to intervene. Those standing by included several police officers.

Missing this year, and most years, is the short, punchy lead, that sentence of, say, eight words that stabs you to attention, as when Gene Patterson in a 1962 column on racial hatred and violence wrote: “So now the guns are speaking in Georgia.”

That is still my favorite kind of lead.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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