OK, Dear Reader: You Be the Editor

By Mike Feinsilber

One might think that covering a big Washington event—like Wednesday’s opening of the congressional impeachment inquiry—would be simple. You sit there, the witnesses testify, the committee asks questions, the news rolls out. All you have to do is scoop it up.

Ain’t so easy. You sit knowing that on Thursday your story will be on page one, under a big headline. You have to write a lead that will zoom in on the big revelation, capture the drama of it all and put it in some perspective. If you’re skilled, and lucky, you might get some poetry into those 20 or 30 words too.

And it’s not so easy because you know your reader already knows the big news: she may have watched the hearing, may have seen it on the internet, heard it on TV or the radio or at the water cooler.

It would be swell if you could tell dear reader in that first paragraph something he already hadn’t heard, half a dozen times probably.

In Wednesday’s case, the headline news was that a straight-shooting diplomat tied Donald J. Trump close to an attempt to make Ukraine his partner in political shenanigans. That’s the news, or as television likes to say, the bombshell. And, since everyone recognized that as the bombshell, it became even harder to write a lead that still sounds newsy.

So how did some of the best papers tell the story? And who told it best? Here are five leads—from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Can you figure out which lead belonged to which newspaper—or the AP?

I read the leads on the website of the Newseum in Washington, which posts the front pages of 80 newspapers every day. The leads:

(a) President Trump in a summer phone call asked about politically advantageous investigations he wanted the Ukrainian president to announce, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine disclosed Wednesday as the House opened the public phase of its seven-week-old impeachment probe.

(b) The first day of public impeachment hearings unearthed new evidence potentially implicating President Trump more directly in a scheme to center American policy toward Ukraine on political investigations, heightening the stakes of upcoming proceedings that will include a set of critical witnesses.

(c)  A top American diplomat revealed new evidence Wednesday of President Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals as House investigators launched public impeachment hearings for just the fourth time in the nation’s history.

(d) The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and took startling new testimony from a senior American diplomat that further implicated President Trump in a campaign to pressure Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

(e) Democrats succeeded on Wednesday in more directly connecting President Trump to alleged misconduct related to Ukraine as they opened historic public hearings with two career diplomats who solemnly testified about watching American policy being hijacked for Trump’s personal benefit.

Here comes the spoiler—the sources of the leads were:

(a) The Wall Street Journal.
(b) The Washington Post
(c) The AP
(d) The New York Times
(e) The Los Angeles Times.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. On Thursday morning I was surprised by the Washington Post’s headline across the top of page one: “Testimony puts Trump closer to scandal.” Seemed an awkward headline.

  2. Two of the five first paragraphs have a word that suggests criminal activity: The Washington Post uses “scheme” and the Los Angeles Times uses “hijacked.” The AP had the shortest and best lead.

  3. The Washington Post likes the word “scheme”—it’s on the top of the front page Saturday: “U.S.aide implicates Trump in scheme.” The dictionary definition: “Make plans, especially in a devious way or with intent to do something illegal or wrong.”

  4. Christopher Connell says

    To my eye, the order of merit is: C D E B A. Here’s why.

    The AP lead (C) concisely captured both the action (top diplomat reveals new evidence) and the drama (investigators launched public hearings for only fourth time in history).

    The NY Times lead (D) is a close second with powerful language (startling new evidence that further implicated President Trump).

    The LA Times (E) begins boldly (Democrats succeeded) and ends with a striking image (watching policy being hijacked).

    The Washington Post (B) got off to a strong start with “unearthed new evidence,” but bogged down with “heightening the stakes of upcoming proceedings.”

    The Wall Street Journal (A) lead was humdrum, from the “summer phone call” to opening the public phase of its 7-week-old probe.

  5. Mike Feinsilber says

    I like the AP lead but for one thing — the “as.” “As” in a lead always strikes me as a crutch. I’ve never liked it.
    The NYT lead, a bit wordy as you say, but I like “startling.” I don’t think that it is un-objective and it makes the lead lively. But I object to calling the hearings “historic.” I think that is for history to determine. Anyway, it is a cliche. The Times does a good job of summarizing what the hearings are about.
    Also: The AP lead contains an error. It says “…House investigators launched public impeachment hearings for the fourth time in history.” But, as the Senate historical office makes clear, (www.senate.gov) no hearings were held in the attempt in 1868 to impeach and remove Andrew Johnson from office.
    I agree with you about the WSJ lead: pedestrian.
    The Post lead has this vague phrase: “to center American policy toward Ukraine on political investigations.” What does that mean?

  6. Lede of the day:

    Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, but that was only metaphorical. Sammy Davis Jr. left his eye in San Bernardino, and that was all too real.


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