Desperately seeking 14 little words…

‘I’ve heard that sharks never sleep. No wonder they’re so cranky all the time.”

Those aren’t my words, but I couldn’t resist using them just once because they exemplify the pinnacle of journalistic universality long sought after by weary scribes from Terre Haute to Tambo de Mora.

Penned by longtime Reporter automotive writer Al Auger, these 14 words represent the ideal lead – or opening paragraph – for virtually any newspaper article ever written.

Much as Captain Ahab relentlessly pursued Moby-Dick and the knights of the Round Table went in search of the Holy Grail, so have generations of reporters and editors sought a lead (or ‘lede’ in newspaper jargon) that would effortlessly fit every possible story that might come across their coffee-stained desks.

Until a few weeks ago, the pursuit was fruitless. Reporters lived and died without ever finding that perfect opener.

Oh, sure, there were promising leads such as “There’s no bro like a dobro” and “Tweet! Tweet! Tweeeeeeeet!” (the latter effort courtesy of a daily newspaper in the sleepy Northern California beer-brewing community of Fairfield), but nothing that approached Al Auger’s carefully crafted “I’ve heard that sharks never sleep. No wonder they’re so cranky all the time.”

Savor the words. Speak them slowly and let them roll off your tongue. They are yours to enjoy forever, be you wordsmith or periodontist.

Al, who in his days on the track made A.J. Foyt look like a clumsy pup, wrote those words for an otherwise mundane automotive review. I’m sure he was, at least initially, completely unaware of what he’d created.

Now those 14 little words belong to the ages.

Believe it, amigos. For ink-stained wretches like myself, finding these two short sentences at the beginning of a story about a Hyundai sport coupe is right up there with finding the Rosetta Stone at the corner Shell station. They’re, like, the key to everything.

Really.

The beauty of this lead is that it can be placed at the beginning of any newspaper story and it will fit in flawlessly every time.

I tested my theory with several random stories from the June 27 edition of the paper. They all worked like a charm.

For example:

“I’ve heard that sharks never sleep. No wonder they’re so cranky all the time. Despite President Bush’s demand for new leadership, Yasser Arafat will run for re-election in January, a senior aide said Wednesday…”

Or, perhaps:

“I’ve heard that sharks never sleep. No wonder they’re so cranky all the time. WorldCom Inc., the nation’s No. 2 long-distance company, slid toward bankruptcy Wednesday after disclosing what could be the biggest case for crooked accounting in U.S. history.”

Even in sports:

“I’ve heard that sharks never sleep. No wonder they’re so cranky all the time. With nearly no room for improvement on an already-stocked roster, the Sacramento Kings built for the future.”

Al, we’re all very much in your debt.

Originally published July 14, 2002