By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Writer Jerry Schwartz was sitting in the Associated Press' morning news meeting this spring the day that Terri Schiavo died after the bitter controversy over removing her feeding tube. Follow the story carefully, his editors told him, because you're going to write our "optional lead."
At 5:29 p.m., the AP filed what Schwartz had written:
She died cradled by her husband, a beloved stuffed tabby under her arm, a bouquet of lilies and roses at her bedside — after her brother was expelled from her room. In death as in life, no peace surrounded Terri Schiavo.
AP clients also received what the wire service calls its traditional lead, which went like this:
With her husband and parents feuding to the bitter end and beyond, Terri Schiavo died Thursday, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed in a wrenching right-to-die dispute that engulfed the courts, Capitol Hill and the White House and divided the country.
The two leads resulted from an AP initiative announced last March. As explained in a note to clients from AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman, on some major spot stories the wire service now provides a second lead "that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means."
Optional leads work especially well, Silverman wrote, as a fresh approach to early-breaking stories that "have been splashed all over the Web and widely broadcast."
"Newspapers are struggling for readers — to hold onto them and to get new ones," Silverman said in an interview. "Approaches to stories that can draw people in..that will interest the reader who may already know the headline, seem like a good way to help."
Schwartz, a 28-year AP veteran, wrote several optional leads before being promoted from national writer to NewsFeatures editor. The goal, he says, is "to try to lend some poetry to it, to present it in a different way."
As Bruce DeSilva, the AP's writing coach, points out, the wire service has long dealt with a variety of lead formats: for morning and evening papers, for broadcast and lately for the Internet. "Part of this is simply recognizing that what used to be called the p.m. lead needs to be the a.m. lead these days," DeSilva says. "I've often thought the inverted pyramid is one of the reasons that life seems so incredibly interesting until you read about it in the newspaper."
Silverman says the AP moves 15 to 20 optional leads a week on its national wires, and on a big spot story they often account for 20 percent of overall AP play.
Julie Shirley, managing editor of Washington's Bellingham Herald, an AP member, welcomes the narrative approach. "They give more context, more sense of place, an easier entry point for readers," she says. "AP's alternative leads are really helping us."