#12: Nailing the intro

lessons in journalismThe intro is the first paragraph in a news story and as a consequence of that it comes before all the others and is therefore very important.

The aim of this lesson is to have you writing much better intros than that.

In the golden days, cadets were taught that the intro should be a who, what, where, when and maybe why summary of the yarn that unfolds under it. Another useful technique passed down by elder hacks was to think of your intro as a short telegram you’d send to flag the story.

Younger readers may like to take the time after reading this story to use their favoured internet search engine to find out what a telegram is, or was.

But right now, let’s go straight into an example – and a timely one at that.

Man set foot on the moon for the very first time at 12.50pm Australian time today.

Nice little active intro. Nothing special but got it done, right?

See how we didn’t use the passive: The moon was stood on for the first time by man at 12.50pm Australian time today.

And that’s because the man is more important than the moon he is in .. err… or on. And we’ll worry about “is” and “was” and “was” and “has been” some other time.

Let’s look at this one.

A large white shark ate a surfer off Bondi Beach at dawn today.

At first glance, perfectly okay, right?

Except that in this case, the human being – the surfer – is more important that the shark. The human is, after all, at the very apex of the world’s food chain, although obviously not in this unfortunate case. So the correct intro you’d find in any reputable newspaper or even the Daily Telegraph would be:

A surfer was attacked and killed by a large white shark off Bondi Beach at dawn today.

These are, of course, print-media intros. If you were filing for ABC radio, you would use:

Off Bondi Beach at dawn this morning with a relatively clear sky and a light breeze, a surfer was attacked and killed by a large white shark.

Why is this done? It’s simple astrophysics, really. When reading a paper, the words can be taken in at the speed of light more or less. The sound of speed is much less, which is why the listener really doesn’t get to connect with the story for quite a few seconds.

Hence, the top ABC scribe uses unimportant words as a lead-in before getting to the guts of the yarn.  That’s why they’d use, for example:

In the Magistrates Court this morning in the city centre, a defendant on a shoplifting charge detonated a suicide bomb vest, killing himself and 12 other people.

So there you have it: the who, what, where, when and maybe why that will get you through.

Except if you write for a television news service, where hyperbole must also be applied to that intro whenever possible. It’s for that reason we have:

A fatal shark attack off Bondi Beach this morning has swimmers right around Australia afraid to enter the water.

Or:

The royal wedding overnight of Prince Harry and Megan Markle had the entire world watching on spellbound and enchanted by the lovely couple.

Total tosh, of course, given half the world’s population – in China and India alone – wouldn’t have even known the blessed event was happening due to a lack of TV, radio, etc,  and couldn’t care less even if they did.

The Bug particularly liked one pretty young thing on Channel 9 Sydney the other night whose report began with a suburban house being ripped apart by an explosion and being “blown off the face of the earth”.

It might have been reduced to oversized kindling, but the house was still there for all to see – in fact there was surprisingly little of it even on the street – but our guess is that this tyro saw or heard “blown off the face of the earth” somewhere, sometime and simply had been dying to try it on for size. Or she couldn’t spell smithereens – not that she had to know how to do that as she works in the electronic medicore.

We then have intros that try too hard and end up being silly or confusing.

An age ago, a very good police roundsman had a brain-fade and began a yarn with a Townsville man lying dead on the floor of his home, unaware that he had just won a large contract that would have turned his life around.

Of course, this poor bastard was unaware of quite a lot of things at the time, including that flies that were staring to lay eggs in his various orifices.

Not quite as bad but still worth a chuckle is one the Australian Financial Review‘s Brisbane bureau chief Mark Ludlow used the other day:

Hutchinson Builders chairman Scott Hutchinson never quite got over the closure of Brisbane’s premier music venue, Festival Hall, in 2003. The self-proclaimed music tragic says he simply doesn’t have any other hobbies.

You really do feel just a little sad for anyone whose only hobby is never quite getting over the closure of Festival Hall.

The Bug hopes that with this brief lesson, you’d now be capable of tidying up that intro in a flash, just switching a few phrases around to make it crystal clear and not vulnerable to being used by some pedantic, cynical, old, has-been hack journo out to make a point.