May 28, 2019

If you were looking for evidence that we have lost the art of the great news lead, you would have to look no further than this year’s crop of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for the 2019 winners. From coverage of school shootings to institutional sexual abuse scandals, from corrupt judicial systems to investigations of the presidency, the reports and stories by the winners represent the best of the best at a time of diminishing resources.

Great work can be written without a great lead. If the information is compelling, average is good enough.

I did find some gold coins in the cash drawer. I will present them to you with some brief analysis as the winners of the fifth annual Best Pulitzer Prize lead competition. As I’ve said in the past, there is not much to gain here, only bragging rights. The winners, if they ever make it to St. Pete, get to buy me lunch at the Banyan coffee shop. I’ll leave the tip.

Here are the criteria I have used in all four previous competitions:

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. (I did not find a single great short lead among all the entries.)
  • 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.
  • In the case of a tie, the prize goes to the single writer over a team.

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.

RELATED STORY: Parkland student journalists will be special guests at today’s Pulitzer Prize luncheon

Last year, I used this old news lead as a favorite example, 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.”

You can judge whether you like any of these better than that gem. May we have a drum roll, please.

The Winner of the 2019 prize for Best Pulitzer Lead is Maggie Michael of the Associated Press for “Detainees held without charges decry Emiratis’ sexual abuse” in International Reporting:

CAIRO (AP) — The 15 officers who arrived at the prison in southern Yemen hid their faces behind headdresses, but their accents were clearly foreign — from the United Arab Emirates.

They lined up the detainees and ordered them to undress and lie down. The officers then searched the anal cavity of each prisoner, claiming that they were looking for contraband cellphones.

The men screamed and wept. Those who resisted were threatened by barking dogs and beaten until they bled.

Hundreds of detainees suffered similar sexual abuse during the event on March 10 at Beir Ahmed prison in the southern city of Aden, according to seven witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press. Descriptions of the mass abuse offer a window into a world of rampant sexual torture and impunity in UAE-controlled prisons in Yemen.

Analysis: Any lead with the phrase “anal cavity” in it will stand out. Its use here — its specificity — is the evidence readers need to understand the nature of this terrible abuse of prisoners. It reminded me of the abuse by American guards of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This pattern — anecdote followed by nut paragraph — was once considered exotic. In the last decades of the 20th century, having toppled the inverted pyramid, it became a new norm in attempts to dramatize the news. It retains its utility and vitality.

Finalist No. 1:

Gordon Russell, John Simerman and Jeff Adelson from the New Orleans Advocate, covering corruption in the Louisiana justice system: “Louisiana leads nation in locking up people for life; often, jurors couldn’t even agree on guilt” for Local Reporting:

By the time authorities fished Bobby Byrd out of the Red River in 2011, they were pretty sick of him.

He’d led police on a chase through downtown Shreveport and into neighboring Bossier City before ditching his car and jumping into the drink.

A police dog paddled out and bit him. Officers then pummeled him on the riverbank with what they called “distraction strikes,” saying he continued to resist. Byrd arrived at the hospital with his nose and eye socket broken, a kidney injured and his wrists in handcuffs.

Police had been looking for a serial burglar in a tan minivan, and Byrd’s vehicle was a match. But it was his refusal to stop — not any heist — that left him at the mercy of a Caddo Parish jury.

Analysis: Backing into a story is usually considered a bad thing. But easing into a story is a good thing. This is especially true if you are headed for technical issues within the criminal justice system. Easing into a story involves setting a relaxed pace, often the result of short and medium-length sentences. Each period is a stop sign.

Let’s look at that first sentence: “By the time authorities fished Bobby Byrd out of the Red River, they were pretty sick of him.” That lead has only 18 words but contains a number of writerly touches. The alliterative names stand out: Bobby Byrd and the Red River. The best word is “fished.” Fish do not want to be caught, and neither did Bobby Byrd. I also like the detail of the police dog paddling out to bite him. It’s probably too much to ask, but I wish the writers had included the name of the dog.

Finalist No. 2:

Hannah Dreier in ProPublica, co-published with New York magazine: “A Betrayal:
The teenager told police all about his gang, MS-13. In return, he was slated for deportation and marked for death,” for Feature Writing:

If Henry is killed, his death can be traced to a quiet moment in the fall of 2016, when he sat slouched in his usual seat by the door in 11th-grade English class. A skinny kid with a shaggy haircut, he had been thinking a lot about his life and about how it might end. His notebook was open, its pages blank. So he pulled his hoodie over his earphones, cranked up a Spanish ballad and started to write.

He began with how he was feeling: anxious, pressured, not good enough. It would have read like a journal entry by any 17-year-old, except this one detailed murders, committed with machetes, in the suburbs of Long Island. The gang Henry belonged to, MS-13, had already killed five students from Brentwood High School. The killers were his friends. And now they were demanding that he join in the rampage.

Classmates craned their necks to see what he was working on so furiously. But with an arm shielding his notebook, Henry was lost in what was turning out to be an autobiography. He was transported back to a sprawling coconut grove near his grandfather’s home in El Salvador. In front of him was a blindfolded man, strung up between two trees, arms and legs splayed in the shape of an X. All around him were members of MS-13, urging him on. Then the gang’s leader, El Destroyer, stepped forward. He was in his 60s, with the letters MS tattooed on his face, chest and back. A double-edge machete glinted in his hand. He wanted Henry to kill the blindfolded man.

Analysis: The story bears the title “A Betrayal” and offers this summary before the lead: “The teenager told police all about his gang, MS-13. In return, he was slated for deportation and marked for death.” That bit of business at the top allows the writer to dive into the story. The narrative gains its energy from conflicts and contradictions. High school students often write just to complete an assignment. This student, Henry, writes about life and death — including his own. Just as jolting is the tension between machete murders and suburban Long Island — my old stomping ground, where the most serious teenage crimes were once shoplifting baseball cards from the corner candy store.

We should expect good writing and powerful storytelling from the winner of a prize in Feature Writing, and we get it from Hannah Dreier. Note how skillfully she takes us from the “present” of that classroom into a horrifying flashback to El Salvador, a move so graceful that you barely notice the shift in time. Anyone who thinks that feature writing is “soft” compared to news writing should read this story of a single teenage boy, who will come to exemplify the thorniest moral concerns connected to America’s intractable immigration crisis.

Finalist No. 3:

Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski with notable contributions from Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (journalists from Reuters recently released from prison in Myanmar), “Massacre in Myanmar: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village,” for International Reporting.

INN DIN, Myanmar — Bound together, the 10 Rohingya Muslim captives watched their Buddhist neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops, two of the gravediggers said.

“One grave for 10 people,” said Soe Chay, 55, a retired soldier from Inn Din’s Rakhine Buddhist community who said he helped dig the pit and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead.”

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October.

Analysis: When I began to study newspaper writing, I noticed an unhappy formula where writers too often stuck the attribution at the end of the first paragraph. It was usually something like “Councilman Blake Blah Blah said Thursday.” As a result, some shinier nugget of news got lost up in the lead. But here it works perfectly: “two of the gravediggers said.” The fact of such genocidal horror must be attributed to eyewitnesses — as Edward R. Murrow offered at the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp — and two gravediggers are better than one.

This is the only lead in which a source is quoted directly, a source who becomes a narrator himself, revealing the terrible fact that some victims may have been buried alive. Once again, we come to a now classic move in this kind of reporting: A first paragraph immerses us in story. A second paragraph supports the first with direct quotation from an important source. A third paragraph — the nut, if you will — pulls back the camera and, with numbers, reveals the broader numbing reality.

The recent release of the two jailed journalists who contributed to this story was greatly celebrated and rightly so.

I remain a disappointed fan of the short punchy lead. Maybe next year, Pulitzer fans. In the meantime, congratulations to all the 2019 Pulitzer winners.

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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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