Students learn to lede

Students at the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute wrote a lot of stories, with all of them requiring some type of lede. From the day they arrived to the week they left, ledes never stopped improving.

Day 1: Roommate interview

Nora Fellas’ first lede of the program. Photo by Owen Tucker-Smith

Cherubs wrote their first lede on the Sunday they arrived, without any direction from the program’s instructors.

Nora Fellas of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, said her lede was less than ideal.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” she said. “It’s not an interesting lede. It’s longer than it needs to be. The dash was unnecessary. I honestly didn’t really know how commas worked.”

Fellas said that her lede failed to capture the relevant news of the story.

“Cherubs taught me that you need a news peg,” she said. “You need to write in a way that will get the information across to your audience in a more direct way. In my first story, I completely did not have a news peg in my lede. If there’s no ‘why,’ then why would someone keep reading this? Explaining in the lede why people should care is important.”

Day 4: Ledes, ledes, ledes

Cherubs were put to the test on the Tuesday night of the first week when they participated in the lede writing exercise, which required rewriting ledes until the instructor was satisfied. Natalie Wu of Palo Alto, California, said she went into the activity without much lede writing experience.

“When I came here, I had a sense of what a lede was, but I didn’t know they were so streamlined and so concise,” Wu said. “My ledes were kind of all over the place before I came here, so the activity was painful because I didn’t understand what a lede was.”

By the end of the activity, Wu said she felt much more confident.

“I was proud of my last one,” she said. “I got it on the second try, whereas for my first one I went back 15 times and was not getting it.”

Day 5: Fourth of July

Caroline Brew’s lede from her Fourth of July color story. Photo by Owen Tucker-Smith

Week one included a wide variety of chances for cherubs to practice lede writing. But at the end of the week, students were still learning. On Thursday, cherubs were tasked with finding a story at Evanston’s Fourth of July parade. Caroline Brew of San Jose, California, said she wasn’t impressed by her Fourth of July lede.

“It doesn’t really say anything about my story at all,” Brew said. “For the Fourth of July parade, you’re supposed to create your own story, but this lede could be applied to literally any story, so I don’t feel so great about that.”

Day 8: Street React

Fellas’ lede for her street react piece on childhood vaccination. Photo by Owen Tucker-Smith

Also rounding out the first week, cherubs were told to ask Evanston residents about their opinion regarding a child’s ability to make their own vaccination decisions.

Fellas said the assignment allowed her to embrace a new type of lede.

“This is a good example of a microlede, which I learned right here at cherubs,” Fellas said. “The microlede was a groundbreaking revelation for me. This lede is direct and gets the point across but also builds a bit of drama because there’s something happening that you wouldn’t expect. There’s an element of surprise.”

Day 22: The Trend Story

Brew’s trend story lede. Photo by Owen Tucker-Smith

The third week of the program was consumed by the trend story, in which cherubs had to research and conduct interviews to learn more about a broad trend in society. Brew said the anecdotal lede she used for the story was a relatively new practice for her.

“Before this, I was taught that the lede is who, what, where when,” she said. “I learned that that wasn’t as important as just having the main essence of your story in the lede.”

Brew said she plans to encourage more anecdotal ledes when she returns to her school newspaper in the fall.

Day 27: Meeting Coverage Assignment and Final Week

Fellas’ meeting story lede.

Friday of the fourth week marked the “one-week-left” point of the institute. Cherubs were tasked with writing a news story about a board meeting. By day 27, Fellas said, she had gotten the hang of the first sentence.

“I was direct in this lede,” she said. “I showed the big picture of where the story was going, connecting a small setting.”

Wu said the program gave her a new understanding of the lede that she can take back to her school publications.

“The cherub program really grills into you how to look at the facts and figure out what’s important to you,” Wu said. “I definitely want to bring this back to my website.”

Fellas said she wants to make her school paper’s ledes more interesting.

“A lot of the time our headlines and our ledes aren’t that exciting,” she said. “That’s a problem at schools because you’re writing about news that most people already know about. Finding ways to make ledes unexpected is something I want to work on.”

“Who knows,” Fellas added. “Maybe I’ll create my own endless lede exercise.”