Reading the News: Three Leads—Which Is Best?

By Mike Feinsilber

Everyone knew that Roger Ebert was terribly ill, so it is a safe bet that the major newspapers, news agencies, and broadcasters had their obituaries prepared in advance. These canned obits are called “preparedness” at the AP, and the writers often leave one word out of the lead—“died”—just in case, by some accident, the preparedness gets transmitted before death occurs.

So deadline pressure isn’t a factor in how these leads were written. The writers had plenty of time.

Here are the leads of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I’m inviting you to use the comment section below say which you think is the best and to say in a few words why you think so. I’ll offer my opinion after the votes are in.

Washington Post, by Emma Brown:

Roger Ebert, the Chicago movie critic whose weekly TV show with crosstown rival Gene Siskel made him one of the most widely recognized and influential voices on film, died April 4 of cancer at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. He was 70.

Wall Street Journal, by Stephen Miller:

Roger Ebert turned movie reviewing into a gladiator sport. The longtime critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, who died Thursday at age 70 after a battle with cancer, became a staple of the small screen, reviewing movies while sparring with partner Gene Siskel in their televised encounters.

New York Times, by Douglas Martin:

Roger Ebert, the popular film critic and television co-host who along with his fellow reviewer and sometime sparring partner could lift or sink the fortunes of a movie with their trademark thumbs up or thumbs down, died on Thursday in Chicago. He was 70.


  1. Richard Lerner says

    I rate the Times #1 (with Post close behind and WSJ a distant third) because it captured the importance of the opinions in terms of success or failure for a film and because The Times lead had the only reference to “thumbs up or down” which truly identified the two critics and gave them so much impact. Curiously, I think all three versions were remiss in not noting that Ebert kept working despite prolonged debilitating problems that probably would ave forced most people to the sidelines long ago.

  2. Randee Dawn says

    I’m a little late getting to this post but I’m still hoping you’ll weigh in.

    I confess I wasn’t overwhelmed with any of them, but ended up siding with the Post, then Times, then WSJ. Post includes Siskel’s name, and while Siskel is not the key name in the sentence, without it you get the Times, and it reads strangely.

    There’s an art to the obit and I may not know it well enough, but I agree with Richard’s comment above in that they focused on the thumbs issue and not the fact that for the last N years he’d expanded his role in writing and criticism even as he lost his literal voice.

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