What bloggers call "anecdotal leads" are like the drip, drip, drip of water torture to some readers, who want the facts fast and clean and don't want editors "to go on and on, in love with the sound of their own stupid voices, until they've forgotten what they were writing about in the first place," as a former, since returned, Gawker staffer once put it.
Straight leads are most often seen on breaking news stories or cut-and-paste memo posts. Anecdotal or feature leads usually indicate that the writer may not fully grasp the import of the topic he or she is commenting on, but needs to have something up within the next ten minutes before readers go back to Gothamist or wherever the hell they came from.
Complaints on anecdotal leads have been steady. While many readers asked for brevity ("Can you just post the picture and the link?" begged one), some were highly critical of "too many long anecdotal openings, often reaching the point only after 15-plus paragraphs before suddenly ending in a BALK byline. Send bloggers to journalism refresher courses to learn the W's. These can be skillfully woven into the lead by a careful writer."
I took a look at Gawker's recent posts and found plenty of evidence to back up the complaints. An item yesterday about Balthazar owner Keith McNally's free champagne promotion began this way:
Our inbox here is constantly inundated with press releases announcing such groundbreaking news as a Bulgarian legend going on tour or an interview with some dude from Maroon 5 on Sirius. That is to say, each day we lose our love for life a little more. But some days—one or two a year, if you're lucky— there's a little gem that lodges itself there that makes the other 12,000 Cialis emails worth it.How is the reader served by such a lengthy opening? I asked the writer, Gawker After Hours Editor Joshua David Stein.
"Please stop pretending to be a real person," he replied via e-mail.
Alex Balk, the target of many complaints, was a bit more forthcoming. "Look," he explained, "there are only so many ways to say 'Breaking news on the rotting corpse of Anna Nicole Smith front.' You've got to shake it up every now and again. Besides, I think most readers love my unique and digressive style. They cannot get enough. All those 'you suck, Balk' comments are secretly coded messages asking for more. Also? The longer your lead, the more likely you are to go to a jump, which means extra clicks and which they're always telling us to go for. Oops, don't print that last part, it's supposed to be a secret."
Harrison Tharp, director of the fictitious Project for Adequacy in Blogging, thinks bloggers should be "very judicious" about anecdotal leads. "Nothing tells a story better than a killer anecdote. If the story is newsy at all, there are ways to use anecdotes right beneath the lead. Instead of spending three paragraphs meandering on about some cocksucker who has recently died, why not just start with something like 'So and So has sucked his last cock.'"
No matter how it's written, a lead should draw an interested reader into a story. If it doesn't, the lead fails. The blog post must respect readers' time by quickly making it clear what a story is about. Take a sentence like "What bloggers call 'anecdotal leads' are like the drip, drip, drip of water torture to some readers, who want the facts fast and clean and don't want editors 'to go on and on, in love with the sound of their own voices, until they've forgotten what they were writing about in the first place,' as a former, since returned, Gawker staffer once put it." Snoozeville, right? Gawker must respect readers' time—time that might be spent doing the work that they're being paid for in their cubicles—by quickly making it clear what a post is about. Or, you know, readers could just skip the posts entirely and just read the tags at the bottom. That's why they're there. But that's a topic for another column.
Byron "Dan" Worthington III is Gawker's ombudsman and a noted crank with a lot of free time on his hands. He will write a sporadic column responding to the reader complaints that the editors usually send right to the trash file. This is his first column, which is to say, probably his fourth. He can be reached at email@example.com. Please use the word "Ombudsman" in the subject line or the e-mail will probably be deleted by anxious editors before he can read it.
Related: Readers' Plea: Get to the Point [WaPo]
Previously: Solidarity Vs. "Screw You And Your Friend Dana Vachon"