With apologies to Antony and Julius Caesar, we have come not to bury leads but to praise them.
We would expect winners of Pulitzer Prizes to craft good leads — and this year they have. It is not always the case. Even in the digital age, reporters can bury a lead. Or they can write “suitcase” leads with tons of details stuffed into bulging paragraphs.
For the third consecutive year, we at Poynter have reviewed the work that won the recent Pulitzers. I have chosen five leads for special attention: the best lead, a runner-up and three leads as honorable mentions. I will do my best to describe what makes each one work.
Related Training: The Lead Lab
- I will only consider the lead of the first story in any entry.
- Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.
- Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points.
- If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you are, as we say in Pulitzer judging, “thrown under the table.”
Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract from the focus of the story.
To reveal my tastes in leads, I share this one quoted in a recent New York Times obit of Mark Hawthorne, an eccentric Times reporter, who in 1968 wrote:
“A 17-year old boy chased his pet squirrel up a tree in Washington Square Park yesterday afternoon, touching off a series of incidents in which 22 persons were arrested and eight persons, including five policemen, were injured.”
For this competition that lead became my gold standard. I dug into the batch of Pulitzer leads, hoping to find one that could match it. I was not disappointed:
Follow the pills and you will find the overdose deaths.
The trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392.
There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town.
Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.
Let’s honor that first sentence — just 10 words — which encapsulates the story. It begins with a tweak of an honored investigative trope: follow the money. It ends, as good sentences almost always do, with the emphatic phrase, in this case “overdose deaths.”
Numbers can clot a good investigation. Not here, where three numbers carry the weight. The population of Kermit (like Mingo, a name I love) is only 392. That small number bumps into the big one: 9 million addictive pills. A larger context comes in nut paragraph style, with the county ranking fourth in the country in opioid deaths.
“Opioid” is a word that intrigues and scares me. There is something eerie about those vowels. It is as if the drugs of those “opium dens” of generations past have come back to life in letters rearranged for the digital age.
[As part of a Poynter tradition, the winner, Eric Eyre, gets to buy me lunch, either in West Virginia, Florida, or some other place where our paths cross.]
Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit.
This lead is so good that it earns a “La La Land” asterisk: It could easily have been chosen as the best. It serves to begin a magazine narrative that took me close to an hour to read.
The story, the winner for feature writing and written by a veteran war correspondent, is the tale of a heroic soldier, back from the war, who commits a serious crime. It handles a familiar theme, the consequences of post-traumatic stress, with withering detail and exquisite complexity.
I like the way the lead begins with the name of the protagonist as subject of a main clause that is only eight words long: “Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze…” Nothing good can happen next.
The sentence branches to the right, launching the narrative of the crime and its consequences. Narrative is, after all, about taking readers on a journey of discovery. Even a long journey can begin with a short but decisive first step.
In the fall of 1996, a charity called the Association to Benefit Children held a ribbon-cutting in Manhattan for a new nursery school serving children with AIDS. The bold-faced names took seats up front.
There was then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and former mayor David Dinkins (D). TV stars Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, who were major donors. And there was a seat saved for Steven Fisher, a developer who had given generously to build the nursery.
Then, all of a sudden, there was Donald Trump.
“Nobody knew he was coming,” said Abigail Disney, another donor sitting on the dais. “There’s this kind of ruckus at the door, and I don’t know what was going on, and in comes Donald Trump. [He] just gets up on the podium and sits down.”
Trump was not a major donor. He was not a donor, period. He’d never given a dollar to the nursery or the Association to Benefit Children, according to Gretchen Buchenholz, the charity’s executive director then and now.
But now he was sitting in Fisher’s seat, next to Giuliani.
Someone will argue that the reporter gets to the point too slowly, but I disagree. There is something delicious about this passage where great reporting meets juicy storytelling. It feels at first like gossip, an anecdote shared by friends at a bar or coffeeshop. But the story jumps to another level when the charity faker turns out to be someone who might be elected the next President of the United States.
But, of course, that could never happen.
OAKLAND — Doomed partygoers trapped on the second floor of a crudely converted warehouse screamed, “Help us! Help us!” as one of the deadliest structure fires in Oakland’s history ripped through a tinderbox of makeshift living spaces and a labyrinth cluttered with art late Friday night, killing at least 24 people and possibly more.
I feel an almost miraculous coherence to this lead. It takes a skillful hand to order and control these rich news and language elements. Without it, the pieces could go flying off like the parts of an overheated engine.
More and more, I appreciate how good writers juxtapose two things that don’t belong together. For T.S. Eliot, it was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” For Joss Whedon, it was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” For this reporter, it is “Doomed partygoers.”
The lead contains news language, but also the dialogue of narrative in “Help us!” It also builds upon a diction — a selection of words — we may not routinely see in the news, but which common readers can understand: doomed, tinderbox, makeshift, labyrinth, cluttered. And it saves the death toll till the end.
All this talk about diversity — in newspapers, on college campuses, at the Oscars — can be hard on a liberal White guy. How’s a sensitive Caucasian man — no Trumpite — supposed to deal with so much political climate change, so many “other” demands? Take women, for instance. They want equal pay. Shouldn’t they be in line for restitution, too? Then you have people of color lobbying for fair representation — whatever that means. And there’s the L.G.B.T. community, and — on and on. It’s enough to make you want to hand in your rhythm-challenged-dude card and light out for the territories, someplace where you can forget yourself. But you can’t, because you’re white, a stigmatized presence in a world that associates you with incomprehension, callousness, and a sort of confused humanity, if it sees you as human at all.
At 135 words, this lead paragraph measures the longest of the group. Too long for a newspaper and perhaps for a website, this paragraph tests the max limit even for magazines. In general, readers need the ventilating white space that would be generated by breaking the paragraph into two or three.
Even at this length, the passage works because of the brainy breeziness of the author’s voice.
This is a lead to a review of a play, after all (titled “Familiar), and it appears in The New Yorker, so we might expect a more elevated diction. Instead we get “all this talk,” “liberal White guy,” “on and on,” “dude card.”
By the end, though, we are asked to reach for the language of higher concepts — ideas about racial identity and obstacles to a shared humanity. The author prepares us for that long final sentence with a series of shorter ones. That slows down the pace of the lead, but in a relaxing, reflective way.
A sweet allusion to Mark Twain sets this apart for me. It is the phrase “light out for the territories,” evoking the confusion and racial complexity of young Huckleberry Finn’s exploration of his world.
Cheers to all these authors, and to all the Pulitzer winners.