These foxes can escape your attention

Chip Hutcheson

Dec 1, 2022

That question reminds me of a Biblical passage from Song of Solomon 2:15: “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.”

What is the greatest obstacle in crafting a newspaper story that leaves you with no regrets?

That question reminds me of a Biblical passage from Song of Solomon 2:15: “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.”

Well, there are a number of foxes that can spoil efforts at writing a newspaper story aimed at drawing in readers and holding their attention throughout the story.
As reporters and editors, it’s crucial to be alert to the foxes that spoil stories — resulting in readers giving no more than a hasty glance to information that could be important in their lives.

Those foxes can be such things as:

  • Names incorrectly spelled
  • The autocorrect feature of a computer that can take the correct word you used and substitute an incorrect one
  • Math in a story that is not correctly calculated
  • Using acronyms that might leave the reader questioning what those initials mean (Headline writers are often guilty of this — to the point of creating acronyms on the fly.)
  • Getting sidetracked from the major focus of the story and relegate the significant to the insignificant
  • Facts and quotes not accurately presented
  • Leaving the reader with obvious questions that are not answered in the story

All those have to be dealt with, but there’s one lurking obstacle that seems to be intensifying in today’s newspaper world. That is the use of weak leads.

Perhaps a story from the past serves as the best illustration. One night at the desk of the five-day daily campus newspaper at the University of Kentucky, several reporters — working independently of each other and dealing with differing topics — had the same lead paragraph for their stories. They all began: “It’s that time of year again.”

That lead can be written for a multitude of stories. For instance, a story detailing plans for high school graduation could begin that way. So could a story about an upcoming Easter egg hunt, about baseball or football or basketball season starting, about a July 4 celebration, about plans for Valentine’s Day — you get the idea. No matter the subject, if it is about something that occurs on an annual basis, you can always say, “It’s that time of year again.”

But that is not going to entice a reader to continue reading. It’s a weak lead spawned by the desire to get the story written as quickly as possible. In an era when many reporting positions have been cut drastically, there’s more pressure on just writing the story than writing it to appeal to readers. Writing a story cannot be approached for the principle of being “good enough.” It needs to be the best it can be.

The “good enough” mindset is often seen in sports stories. It’s not uncommon to see some stories start this way: “Team A and Team B renewed their rivalry on the gridiron Friday night.” That’s an insult to readers who follow those teams. They know the game was played; they want to know why they should spend their time reading something that begins with no new information.

But sportswriters don’t have a monopoly on trite leads. There are city council stories that say, “City council met last night with (fill in the blank) members present.” Or school board stories which announce, “The school board met last night and discussed …,” followed by a list of five or six topics. The reporter doesn’t stop to focus the lead on what was the most compelling issue of the night.

Perhaps a significant factor in the proliferation of poor leads can be traced to the reality that some newspaper companies don’t mentor young reporters. A weak lead decades ago would rarely make it into print. That’s because a seasoned veteran editor would send it back with a stern warning and tell the reporter why it was being rejected.

A cousin to weak leads is the use of cliches that seem to proliferate. Let’s try to abandon cliches such as never a dull moment, writing on the wall, in the nick of time, cool as a cucumber, we shot ourselves in the foot, whirlwind tour and long arm of the law.

Another fox that seems to escape the attention of most writers today is redundancy. I saw a six–column headline recently that talked about “the month of November.” When was November anything but a month? It’s not a year; it’s not a season.

How can you be on guard against these foxes? If possible, take a break from your writing and go back over what you have written. Chances are that you will change several things, most often resulting in a lower word count.

One final encouragement to reporters: be on the watch for quotes you can compile into a file for future use. Whenever I see a quote that impacts me, regardless of the subject matter, I copy the quote and the source, knowing that there may come a time when that quote will enhance an article. For me, the most recent example is from Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian social activist and recording artist. He said, “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why ‘we call it the present.’”

That quote is my present to you!

Chip Hutcheson is the retired publisher of The Times Leader in Princeton, Kentucky. He was NNA president in 2015. He currently serves as a content strategist for Kentucky Today, the online news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.