NYTimes Ledes of the Week: “Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. . .”

From the Times Insider of January 15, 2019:

By Marc Lacey

  • Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

The “lede” is the first paragraph of a newspaper story. It can be ponderous and downright dull. Or it can grab you by the lapels, pull you close and scream into your face: Read this.

On the National desk, we began a tradition recently of honoring the “lede of the week.” We scrawl a particularly graceful lede in longhand on a white board that is visible to those coming and going from the newsroom. And we post the winning ledes on Twitter, where they regularly get loads of retweets.

The first winner was Tim Arango, a Los Angeles correspondent who wrote an article about how the images of the wildfires in California reminded him somewhat of his experiences covering war:

MALIBU — A line of burned-out cars on the side of a road. The charred remains of an old pickup truck, brightened by a pristine American flag draped over the cab. Desperate residents fleeing, cars packed with people and family heirlooms, anything that could be frantically scooped up.

We then honored Campbell Robertson, a correspondent in Pittsburgh who wrote this about the dozens of Roman Catholic bishops around the country who have released lists of the priests in their dioceses who were credibly accused of abuse.

PITTSBURGH — It was a list Charles L. Bailey Jr. had wanted to see for years: the names of the priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Another standout, by Mitch Smith, who is a Chicago correspondent, topped an article on the rash of thefts of baby Jesus statues from Nativity scenes:

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Away in a manger on Bethlehem’s public square, a woman approached a statue of the baby Jesus one dark, December night. Then she stole it.

There were so, so many noteworthy ledes in 2018. Take this one from Dan Barry, who teamed up with a number of other national correspondents to document what life is like for migrant children in detention:

Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nicknames. Also, it is best not to cry. Doing so might hurt your case.

Or this one from Vivian Yee, who was a national immigration correspondent before she went off to Beirut, and Miriam Jordan, who covers immigration from our Los Angeles bureau:

The youngest child to come before the bench in federal immigration courtroom No. 14 was so small she had to be lifted into the chair. Even the judge in her black robes breathed a soft “aww” as her latest case perched on the brown leather.

This week, we picked a new lede of the week on a story about a death row inmate who committed suicide. It said: “Unlike most death row inmates, Scott Raymon Dozier wanted to die.” We credited the reporter who wrote the article, Rich Oppel, but he came over to the white board and crossed out his name and put that of the editor, Jamie Stockwell, who he said came up with the first paragraph.

To produce even more great ledes in the year ahead, I’m going to be convening some of those New York Times writers whose prose regularly shines bright to hear some of their secrets.

Besides Mr. Barry, who has collected some of his signature pieces into a book, we’ll hear from Sarah Lyall, who writes for numerous departments at The Times; Richard Fausset, our Atlanta bureau chief; and Jack Healy, who covers rural issues from Denver. We’re also inviting Rachel Swarns, a longtime Times reporter who is now on contract with us; and Ellen Barry, the chief international correspondent based in London, who will be moving to the Boston bureau in the coming months. All of them have produced memorable ledes over the years, and their words of wisdom will undoubtedly result in even more.

Do you have a favorite?
For some examples of bad ledes—in this case from the Washington Post—see Do Newspapers Have Monday Morning Hangovers?


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says


    “A massive machine — longer than a football field — is munching away beneath Washington like a giant earthworm. Before it’s done, it will devour about 2 million cubic yards of soil that has been sitting under the city since the days of the dinosaurs.”

  2. ^^^ Ashley Halsey III ^^^

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