How Soft Is Too Soft?

I have a friend and colleague who often comments on my stories. Usually he says nice things. But today he had criticism.

It started with a question.

“When is a news story to be written as a straightforward news story,” he asked, “and when should a news story be turned into a news feature? Is there a threshold?”

I wish I knew the answer to this, and I told him so. Then I realized he was talking about this story:

Just after 1 p.m., on the last day of spring, a white sun glared over Janice Cook’s pool. Swimming conditions neared perfection. But the children stayed inside, and the water looked like blue glass.

Cook had mortgaged her house to pay for this pool. Now she could not look at it. She wanted to tear it apart and haul it away. She wanted Raiden back.

He was her grandson, 2 years old, blond hair, green eyes, heart-shaped birthmark on his hip. He was found in the pool on Monday afternoon, floating face down.

(…)

This is what my friend said about it:

“Today’s lede bothered me. If a child drowned in a pool, I wanna know that pretty soon. Tell how the grandmother can’t stand to look at the pool in the eighth graf.”

Now I bring this question to the Gangrey jury, because I think it gets to the heart of the tension between story and information, to the heart of why newspapers are here.

Specifically: Was this the right lede for a story about a child’s drowning? Why or why not? How could/should it have been different?

Generally: How earth-shattering must a story be to force narrative-happy writers like ourselves into a straight lede? Do we use them too often? Not often enough?

Can the arc and the pyramid love each other?

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11 thoughts on “How Soft Is Too Soft?

  1. I always wonder this too: a lot of readers are familiar with the delayed lede formula, even if they don’t know the terms. So I’ll bet a lot of people read the opeing with grandma and know, as we do, what’s coming.
    So sometimes i worry that readers will feel toyed with, manipulated, when i’m taking my time and setting a scene where the pay-off is pretty obviousd: dead kid coming, or whatever. And of course, the headline will often give away what our ledes don’t.
    So a lot fo times, with burying a hard-news nugget inside a narrative lede the question becomes, what are you saving it for? Does context really need to ocme first? or is there a way to announce, drowned boy, without being too jarring?

  2. I like the lede because this story is about the consequence of carelessness — leaving a ladder down — and telling it through the distraught, loving grandma who bought the pool was a great choice. It put readers in her shoes and maybe will prevent a similar accident. People with pools will say, That could have been me. Told the other way, it would have been another sad story about a child drowning.

  3. I like the lede because this story is about the consequence of carelessness — leaving a ladder down — and telling it through the distraught, loving grandma who bought the pool was a great choice. It put readers in her shoes and maybe will prevent a similar accident. People with pools will say, That could have been me. Told the other way, it would have been another sad story about a child drowning.

  4. Worked for me.
    By the end of the second graf (“She wanted Raiden back.”), I more or less knew what happened. That’s soon enough, and it hooked me into the story a lot more effectively than a standard inverted pyramid lead, after which I probably would have dismissed the story as just another freak accident. This was a lot more human.

    One thing I found a bit jarring, however, was the switch from “Grandma’s grief” to “context grafs.” All of a sudden we’re quoting books and discussing legislation. The grafs lengthen, the language changes.
    But then it’s quickly back into the narrative, which was nice.

  5. If the drowning happened on Monday and this story appeared Wednesday, I’m betting this is the second day story. The lead and the kicker tell you this child drowned. Wasn’t there a first day story? My problem was with the context graphs. I would have liked them in a sidebar with some bullets so it didn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative. Too often we feel the need to clunk it up, when we could just scooch those little nuggets to the side with a nice bullet or two.
    How the child ended up in the pool was compelling to me. The ending was perfect and sad.

  6. It’s not like the info was buried halfway down in the story, it’s in the third graf. The readers know they’re reading about a drowning from the headline – so why repeat it in the opening graf?

    And if readers are too impatient to stick through three freakin’ grafs for a payoff, well, then we’ve got bigger problems than burying ledes and deciding what’s a straight news story and what’s a news feature.

    I see your point about reader manipulation, Snake. But no matter what type of story we’re writing, we’re trying to write them so people will read them. Isn’t that a manipulation in itself?

  7. I loved the story…well, loved it in a this-is-so-sad sort of way. It made the reader care. The news wasn’t buried. It performed a public service. Well done.

  8. Keith, my worry isn’t that the reader is too impatient to stick thru 3 grafs, it’s that in those three grafs they will begin to feel fucked with. They recognize the drum roll of the coming downer (ta-da, dead kid).
    Kruses’ straight lede, obvioulsy is the other extreme. What about a middle ground? a lede that doesn’t pull any punches, acknowledges the cat is out of the bag becaus eof the headline, but also sets the tone to let people know this is a consequences and context thing, not a breaking news thing?

  9. I don’t think it has to be a question of soft lead or hard lead. I think this is a very nice three-paragraph lead that is about one paragraph too long.
    The first paragraph is pretty but it doesn’t say very much, and it can create some frustration for people who want to get into the story and get on with their day. The second paragraph tells us that a child drowned, because we know exactly what is coming. I’d like to consider a lead that started with some version of paragraph two. The second and third paragraphs could have been tightened, if we want to be picky, but I like them. The pretty stuff in graph one might work well for an ending or somewhere else.
    I think we do use a few too many soft leads, but more precisely, we use a few too many that are not quite as sharp as they could be. I think that’s a natural part of the equation at a paper where people are encouraged to learn and experiment. I much prefer that to being boring and formulaic.

  10. Everyone —

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. They will help me come a little closer to getting it right next time. I think Kelley hit it perfectly — it’s not so much that we use delayed leads too often. It’s that too often they aren’t trenchant enough.

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