One Pope, Five Leads: Who Wrote It Best?

By Mike Feinsilber

A battalion of journalists had barely a chance to indulge in Rome’s wonderful food before they had to rush to file—within seconds for the broadcasters, bloggers, and wire services, a few hours later for those writing for print. All had access to the same information—the name of the new pope, his biography, his record as a cardinal. All, presumably, had done some homework, and probably had written the parts of their stories dealing with what challenges confront the new leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics.

In addition to telling the news, a good lead ought to put it into context, and offer a hint of analysis, a suggestion of what the choice means for the church’s future and, if the writer is lucky enough to have room for it,  a touch of you-are-there color.

The lead should be enticing enough to encourage the reader read on into the story. And—oh, yes—it ought to be interesting, often a forgotten element in writing news.

Journalists often spend as much time crafting their leads as writing the 800 or 1,200 words that follow.Sometimes the news isn’t obvious; in this instance it is: something important that doesn’t often happen just did.

One more thing. Every writer outside St. Peter’s was keenly aware that his readers, in the age of the Internet, already knew the news. Should he write a lead that acknowledges as much or should he write a lead for history, cast in stone? Print journalists like to think that even when readers know the news they want to see it in writing, a form of confirmation.

So let’s take a look at how five papers, their reporters on the scene, and their editors on the job at the home office, wrote their stories on the elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The leads come from the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times, but not in that order. Read them and decide which does the best job. Then I’ll give my opinion. Writing is a subjective business; there is no right or wrong. If you disagree with my diagnosis, please say why in the comment section.

The leads:

(a) VATICAN CITY – Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, a surprise choice that underscored the changing nature of Catholicism and the deep changes facing the church.
(32 words, 1 comma)

(b) VATICAN CITY –The Roman Catholic Church’s leaders elected their new pope Wednesday in a day that was rich in ritual but broke with tradition—placing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics under the direction of a Jesuit from the New World, both firsts in Christianity’s 2,000-year history.
(44 words, 1 dash, 1 comma)

(c) ROME – The surprise selection on Wednesday of an Argentine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new pope shifted the gravity of the Roman Catholic Church from Europe to Latin America in one fell swoop, and served as an emphatic salute to the growing power of Latinos across the Americas.
(48 words, 3 commas)

(d)  VATICAN CITY — Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the first pope from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium in an election that recognized a shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s center of gravity while maintaining its conservative theology.
(43 words, zero commas)

(e) VATICAN CITY – The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe’s millennium-long stranglehold on the papacy and astonished the Catholic world Wednesday, electing Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.
(33 words, 1 comma)

My opinion:
(a) A clean, straightforward lead from the Chicago Tribune, news quick, analysis next.
“Surprise choice” is an element that’s missing from most of the other leads.
But the calories are empty in the rest of the sentence—the reader gets no clue about what in Bergoglio’s election calls attention to the changes within or the challenges to the church. One could as easily write that the selection of a traditional conservative underscored the unchanging nature of the church.
Conclusion: these 32 words don’t deliver enough.

(b) This Wall Street Journal lead is the only one that tells us an election occurred but doesn’t name the winner.
But it is also the only one to note that the new pope is a Jesuit, of significance to those with even a smattering of knowledge about Catholicism.
The lead neatly notes the two firsts in this selection.
But one aspect of this lead bothers me: “rich” is a powerful word. Putting it close to “broke” (“a day that was rich with ritual but broke…”) makes me think for an instant that broke is used as an adjective, not a verb. My brain doesn’t like confusion, not even momentary confusion. Thumbs down on this lead.

(c) This New York Times lead is written with the assumption that the reader already knows the news. Interesting.
But—we’re writing history; can’t we avoid clichés likes “shifted the gravity” and “in one fell swoop” and “emphatic salute”?
I like the emphasis given to the loss of Europe’s monopoly.
“Shifted the gravity” bothers me for a second reason. It’s the center of gravity that shifts, not the gravity itself.
Finally, I’m ambiguous about the phrase “Latinos across the Americas.” It’s  poetic but redundant.

(d)  Here’s my favorite, from Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times. It is packed with significant facts beyond the name and identity of the winner.
New facts, tightly told:  (1) first from the Americas; (2) first from outside Europe; (3) shifts the church’s center of gravity; (4) but maintains church’s conservativism.
This lead reads smoothly, without interruptions from commas.
This is the only lead of the five to note the conservative nature of the choice.
And it delivers the single most significant fact about the selection (he’s a non-European) in a hurry, in the first 12 words.
Bravo, Henry.

(e) This lead from the Washington Post is similar to the L.A. Times’, but not as poetic.
Why did the writer choose such a muscular word as “stranglehold” in place of “monopoly”?
This was the only lead to note that the new pontiff is the church’s 266th, a wow fact.
One could ask how the writer knew that the selection “astonished” the Catholic world, but I won’t; some things we can assume to be true without hard evidence. Anyway, we’re writers and readers here, not literalists.

A few more observations:
*Verbs drive sentences and give them energy. Look at the five lead’s leading verbs:  1. Was elected. 2. Elected. 3. Shifted (the ground). 4. Became. 5. Broke (stranglehold). A pretty dull group of verbs.
*It might also be instructive to look at the main noun in each sentence. Two (a and d) go with Bergoglio. Two go with the church’s leaders (b and e). One(c) goes with the process itself, the selection of a new pope.
*None of these leads had any color, something the writer observed with his own eyes. Alas, color is usually the first element to go when a reporter or an editor has to tighten a lead.

If you’d like to see how 800 other newspapers handled the story, go to’sfrontpages.  The Newseum posts today’s front pages from around the world every morning. Usually they lead with a wild variety of stories; on papal Thursday they almost all concern themselves with Cardinal Bergoglio’s elevation.

And now your comments, please, on these five leads. Which do you like and why?


  1. “One could ask how the writer knew that the selection “astonished” the Catholic world, but I won’t; some things we can assume to be true without hard evidence. ”

    I wouldn’t bother to ask the reporter how he knew the Catholic world was “astonished” because he could not have known. “And astonished the Catholic world” is out.

  2. I like b) best. Was it really a surprise selection? According to the stories I heard, he came in second during the last conclave — which wouldn’t make a surprise at all.

  3. Great post, Mike. I’ve passed it along to my students. I do have one question for you regarding your notes about what a good lede should include: Can’t some of that be included immediately following the lede in the nut graf?

    Your thoughts are appreciated. Thanks!

    • Mike Feinsilber says

      In the real world, I suspect you’re right, David G. One can’t cram all those elements in without producing a lead so long it would have to jump. But I’d ask your students to consider which among the elements need to be in graf 1. So yes, the rest can aim for graf 2. But I’d plug for working a touch of color — sometimes it is just a word — into the lead. I define color as something that the reporter sees with his own eyes and that he couldn’t have written before the event. Color says, “I was there” and fulfills the reporter’s responsibility to represent the reader at the event. And if it captures the moment and the mood: success.
      Graf 2, incidentally, deserves some commentary. I have a feeling that it’s at the end of the second graf that the reader decides whether to stick with the story or move on. If graf 2 merely elaborates on graf 1, the reader says, “Got it” and moves on.
      Mike Feinsilber.


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