I’m a little tense about that lede

Because the lede to a broadcast story (or any news story, for that matter) must hook the audience immediately, it needs immediacy.

In print and sometimes in broadcast feature stories, it’s possible to, as we say, ‘delay the lede,’ putting a grabby bit of character or narrative right up front. In that case, the what’s-new, who-what-when-where-why-how part of the story (called the ‘nut graf’ — really!) comes later in the prose.

But on my side of the street, where we do only spot news, the ‘nut’ must always come first. That is, spot news always ledes with the most interesting, compelling way of expressing what’s new-new-new about this story.

One tool for conveying immediacy that says to the audience, “This is new! Pay attention!” is the choice of verb tense. In general, you want to lede with the tense that gives the strongest feeling of immediacy consistent with what makes logical sense given the facts.

So here is my rough-and-ready guide to lede tenses, in descending order of preference. As previously noted, these are rules of thumb; your mileage may vary.

  1. Present progressive tense: “Police are rounding up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This tense says the news event is happening right now; that’s as current as it gets. Notice that we rarely use the simple present tense (“Police round up twenty-five members…”); that would sound too much like a newspaper headline — telegraphic and just plain weird. Note also that the future tense is rarely used in a news lede (“Police will round up twenty-five members…”), because spot news is not much in the prognostication business. We leave that to tarot card readers and psychics.
  2. Present perfect tense: “Police have rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang…”
    This is appropriate for something that happened in the recent past, and whose momentum, if you will, extends into the present. In the example, police just ’rounded up’ these alleged (always ‘alleged’) criminals, and still have them in custody.
  3. Simple past tense: “Police rounded up twenty-five members of an alleged gang last week.”
    Use this tense when the event you’re describing happened at some point in the somewhat more distant past, and is over and done with. This is not the tense you really want to use, as it conveys a feeling of stale, old news. If a week has gone by and most of those gang members have already bailed out of jail, it’s probably the safe choice. But in many cases, so long as the event is in the recent-ish past and the situation thereafter has been more-or-less static, you can use the present perfect tense in your lede, then specifically name the day the event happened (using the simple past tense) further down in your script.

I’ve seen newswriters use all kind of other weird tenses in their ledes (e.g. the past perfect: “Police had rounded up twenty five members…”; or past progressive: “Police were rounding up…”), but as a rule, you want to stick to these three unless you have a good reason and understand what you’re doing.

One final note: I called this specifically a guide to lede tenses for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story must follow.

4 thoughts on “I’m a little tense about that lede”

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