I am sick to death of the anecdotal lead, that annoying
habit of news writers to start a straightforward story
by painting a quaint little picture of everyday life.
If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to
spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey
Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.
No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot
of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious
little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.
Of course there is such a thing as a great anecdotal
lead, a picture so compelling it sticks with you like
great fiction. But most of them just waste your time
and make you hunt for the point of the story.
Not only is the typical example time-consuming and boring, it represents a basic misunderstanding
of the main motivator for reading newspapers in the
Fear, not curiosity, is the primary reason we read
newspapers, according to my great mentor and friend
the late John Peters, who devoted a lifetime to journalism
in big papers and small. John got to pore over lots
of reader surveys during his time with McClatchy, and
even more after he retired, during a second career
as a consultant and visionary-for-hire for struggling papers around the state.
People read papers for a lot of reasons, he said, but
the fundamental one is the fear of looking stupid for
not knowing what’s going on. And that makes the anecdotal lead all the
more pointless and vexing: If we’re just trying to gather enough facts to hold our heads
high in the workplace, we want those facts as quickly
as we can get them, not tucked away under a haze of
In the classic British political sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister,” a frustrated bureaucratic operative asks a top bank
official why he isn’t aware of the latest crisis.
“You read the Financial Times, don’t you?” the bureaucrat demands.
“No,” says the banker.
“But, it’s there, tucked under your arm!”
“Yes, but I don’t read the bloody thing, it’s just part of the uniform.”
That’s the way a lot of papers are treated in the Capitol.
They sit on counters and tables in reception areas,
big piles of them, unmolested, undisturbed, unread,
only to be replaced the next day by a new pile, more
current events diorama than genuine info hub.
Of course, there is a lot of reading going on. Lawmakers
are keenly aware of the top issues in the paper. They
react strongly to news stories and editorials alike.
A friend of mine once sought a press secretary job
for a legislator who said if he couldn’t find three bill ideas in every issue of the New York
Times, he just wasn’t looking. That’s probably true, but I doubt many of those ideas come
from that overused trick of the trade called the anecdotal