April 17, 2018

Like Diogenes walking in the daylight – lamp in hand – looking for an honest man, I stroll through the land of Pulitzers looking for a decent lead. I am happy to report that I have found a winner, and a runner-up, and three that deserve honorable mention.

For the fourth consecutive year, Poynter has encouraged me to give an informal award for the Best Pulitzer Lead. There is not much to gain here, only bragging rights – and the winner gets to buy me lunch.  

I admit that leads can be over-rated. Stories can be so big or scandalous that even an average lead will attract hungry eyes and hold them. 

Magazines and websites, now eligible for some Pulitzers, have complicated the lead-writing business. Mags have wider columns than the rags, of course, inviting longer, more discursive leads. And websites, with multi-media presentations and whiz-bang gizmos, seem to have multiple starts: that long caption, leading to a blurb, leading to an editor’s note, leading to, uh, the lead, I guess.

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Not to worry.

I have sorted through all these variables and come up with five Pulitzer leads worth your special attention. As is my practice, I will do my best to describe what makes each one work.

Here are the criteria I used in 2015, 2016, and 2017. They still apply (with a couple of exceptions for leads I just did not want you to miss):

  • I will, in most cases, only consider the lead of the first story in any entry, unless one jumps up and pokes me in the eye. 
  • 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.

What makes a good lead? I like John McPhee’s metaphor that a lead is a flashlight that you shine into the well of the story. You don’t have to see all the way to the bottom, just far enough along to know what you are getting into. 

Like this one, written in 1968 by the late Mark Hawthorne, for The New York Times: 

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.

I am not sure I have read a lead this year that can match that one. Please judge for yourself.  (Cue the dramatic music.)

The Winner for the Best Pulitzer Prize Lead for 2018 goes to Julie Johnson of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid was about to jump back into his truck after loading a fleeing family into a police car when he thought he heard someone yelling amid the roaring wind and fire in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa.

He ran toward the voice and saw them: a couple wearing next to nothing, freezing amid an unprecedented fire belching smoke and raining firebrands.

“They were soaking wet,” DeGraffenreid said. “They had awoken to a smoke detector, jumped in the pool and for about an hour had been in the pool trying to stay away from heat.”

He wrapped them in T-shirts, put them into his truck and caravanned with police down Michele Way to Mark West Springs Road, a white-knuckle trip with fire and intense heat — a burning neighborhood already wiped clean of all that had once been so familiar.

“All of the landmarks — the houses, the fences, the goofy Volkswagen bug — all of the visual landmarks were gone,” DeGraffenreid said.

Analysis:  In my view, this is NOT an anecdotal lead, but some much rarer: a narrative action lead. Like the ancient epics, the story begins in media res, “in the middle of things.” It benefits from a key news source also being a key actor. He serves not only as protagonist of the story, but a secondary narrator who is able to catch not just the heart of the life-saving action, but also the particularity of the resulting wasteland, characterized not by what is there, but by what has disappeared including that “goofy Volkswagen bug.”


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Runner-up for Best Pulitzer Lead: John Archibald, The Birmingham News, Alabama Media Group

I’m starting to think they’re reading from a different Bible up in Etowah County.

Maybe Roy Moore thumped the thing so hard the words got mixed up.

“Let us prey.”

Analysis:  I have been appreciating progressive Alabama editorialists since 1974 when I spent three years teaching in Montgomery.  As a group, they are known for their wit, their occasional temper, and their courage to express unpopular views, especially on matters of race. I have never met John Archibald, but he appears to be a member of the tribe. I had to do a bit of hunting through his Pulitzer portfolio to find this gem. In general, his leads are more “come on over and set a spell,” rather than a jab to the nose. He favors paragraphs that are one sentence long. That fills his columns with inviting white space, easy on the eyes and soothing on the ears. Puns are worth trying in headlines and leads, but hard to pull off. That said, “Let us prey” feels perfect. As does the image (with alliteration) of the villain of the piece, Roy Moore, thumping the righteousness out of the holy book.  

Worthy of Honorable Mention:

1.  Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, freelance for GQ, a profile of racist mass murderer Dylann Roof:

Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them.

They were a small prayer group – a rising-star preacher, an elderly minister, eight women, one young man, and a little girl.  But to him, they were a problem.  He believed that, as black Americans, they were raping “our women and are taking over our country.” So he took out his Glock handgun and calmly, while their eyes were closed in prayer, opened fire on the 12 people gathered in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot almost every single one of them dead.

Analysis:  I admire the shift from the short first paragraph to the longer second one. It seems old-fashioned to write this, but the author manages to craft a narrative in which all the Five W’s and H are addressed. By the end, we know who, what, where, when, why, and how, each element of news and information building up to the inconceivable catastrophe.  The writer remembers the particulars: the names of the church, the booze, and the gun. She has a feel for the music of her words, ending keys sentences with significant phrases:  “a little girl,” “shoot them,” “a problem,” “taking over our country,” “almost every single one of them dead.” The word “almost” has the feel of something powerful to come – foreshadowing a survivor.


RELATED TRAINING: Religion, Culture and Society: Getting Beyond the Cliches


2.  Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine for Criticism:

On Abraham Lincoln’s 209th birthday, four American firsts have brought destiny, dignity, respect, and art together to remind us that this country embodies love, hope, and things bigger than the misrule and chaos that have come out from under rocks and have seemed to define who we are and who we will be.  oday at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., four shots of love: the first official portrait of an African-American president, painted by an African-American artist, and the first portrait of an African-American First Lady, painted by an African-American woman artist.

Analysis: There are almost 100 words here, long even for a magazine, but there is an architecture that lends it symmetry and accessibility. The paragraph breaks into two sentences, each one highlighted by four examples. At the top are four human and artistic virtues: destiny, dignity, respect, and art; at the bottom are four key players of American racial progress. Lest we miss the pair of foursomes, the author makes it explicit: four shots of love. I am a fan of one-syllable words, especially when they stretch out in sequence to make an important point: “who we are and who we will be.” Uplifting commentary at a time we need it. 

3.  The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network for Explanatory Reporting  (I am listing this one last because it is not, traditionally speaking, a lead at all. It is a super-blurb or text block that invites readers into a significant project. It is so well done, I found it worth your attention.):

“Build the Wall.”  Three words energized a campaign.

But could it be done?  What would it cost?  What would it accomplish?  Our search for answers because this, a landmark new report, “The Wall.”

The task was massive.  We flew the entire border, drove it too.  More than 30 reporters and photographers interviewed migrants, farmers, families, tribal members – even a human smuggler.  We joined Border Patrol agents on the ground, in a tunnel, at sea.  We patrolled with vigilantes, walked the line with ranchers.  We scoured government maps, fought for property records.

In this report, you can watch aerial video of every foot of the border, explore every piece of fence, even stand at the border in virtual reality.  Still breakthrough technology would mean nothing if it didn’t help us better understand the issues – and one another.

Keep scrolling for all the news on what we found.  Or simply start exploring, right here. Should we build a wall?  We invite you to learn, discuss, debate and decide. 

Analysis:  Eight words in the first paragraph, then a series of questions, which always makes the voice of the writer more conversational. The sentences are mostly short. All those periods are little stop signs, slowing the pace of the text to a nice easy comprehensible stroll.  The action comes from the verbs:  flew, joined, patrolled, walked, scoured. It exceeds McPhee’s standard for a good lead: It shines a bright light down into what we are about to experience. 

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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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