2/10/21 Newsletter: More Great Suggestions on How to Start Stories

Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS)
Student Journalism Program Participants

Roger Utnehmer, Director
920 495 9677

The “lede” or “lead” is the first sentence of your stories. We asked Brian Kowalski, editor of City Pages in Wausau, to share suggestions on how to write a good first sentence. His comments follow. (I suggest you keep these handy, along with those from the last newsletter, and review before sending your stories for approval.)

Identifying the lede of a story can be a challenge for cub reporters. News stories are a lot different than academic papers for school.

The best advice is to cut right to the chase. There are exceptions: in long-form stories, you might lead off with an anecdotal story about someone who illustrates the main point of your story. It’s a way of drawing the reader into the story. That works well for long-form stories, 2,000-plus words. Otherwise, for most news stories we get right to the point.

What is that point? It’s usually the reason you pursued the story in the first place. One piece of advice editor’s told me early on in my career: What’s the first thing you would tell a friend if you were telling them about this story? Or, what would someone reading your story tell someone else to get them interested? It’s sometimes called the “hey Maude!” element – what’s the thing that would get someone to say “hey Maude, listen to this!”

Another way to think about this: What’s the news? How do we know what the news is? Impact. How does this affect your readers.

Impact can be both how it physically affects them, or emotionally. “A Stevens Point firefighter braved a raging river to save a drowning puppy Tuesday” would be a good example. We’re not personally affected by the story – we don’t know the puppy or the firefighter. But it hits us emotionally because we all love puppies and immediately can imagine the poor puppy drowning. And we’re all cheering for that brave firefighter to rescue the puppy.

So, that’s obvious, but what about more “boring but important” stories? Stories about city budgets can put us to sleep just thinking about it, but what might make it a story? Again, we look for the impact. Will taxes be raised? By how much? That’s the news out of an otherwise boring budget story. Levy changes, shifting of budget items around: boring. Your readers’ taxes going up? Now that’s news, and they’re going to want to know.

What if you can’t identify such an impact? Well, you probably don’t have a story. Impact is something you should think about before you ever start reporting a story (if you didn’t know, “reporting” is the gathering phase; writing is, well, the writing phase). If you can’t identify why anyone would care, you probably don’t have a story.

This takes practice. Municipal leaders, readers, and others will pitch you stories all the time. Most of the time they’re bad. It doesn’t mean their not important to them; but you have to think about the majority of your readers, not just that one reader or city official.

A good start is usually to think about what makes YOU have that “Hey Maude!” reaction. If it made you say “wait what?” it’s probably a good story.

Identifying a good lede is the same thing (typically) as identifying what is news (and what is not). As the old saw goes: dog bites man, not news; man bites dog, now that’s news!



Some in news find that simply coming up with what to write about is one of the hardest parts of the job of reporting. You can review earlier newsletters for suggestions. You can also see what other student journalists have written by visiting our website for great ideas.

When I guided our news reporters at I would start my days reading USA Today, The Green Bay Press Gazette, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and the Wausau Pilot and Review. Inevitably, I would get ideas for our staff that they could localize by finding local sources to comment on the topics discussed in stories from these publications. It is essential, however, to localize your stories with sources from you community.

An example is today’s edition of USA Today. There was an interesting story about libraries across the country eliminating late fees on books. You could contact your community’s librarian and find out if they are considering doing the same thing. It would be interesting to know how much is owed to the library in late fees. It would also be newsworthy to hear from the librarian about how they are surviving in an online world. Libraries in communities like Green Bay and Wausau are becoming community centers. My visual observation is that libraries are a fine reflection of demographic reach. You’ll find rich and poor, young and old, and people of many nationalities using the services of our local libraries. How much does it cost to operate a library in your community? Is usage increasing or decreasing?