The great majority of professional journalists – also known as newspaper bums – spend their entire careers unsuccessfully searching for just the right words to begin their stories.
Finding the perfect lead – that first paragraph that inexorably draws even the most jaded reader into a newspaper story – is frequently a disappointing quest.
Even more elusive is the fabled universal lead, a magical combination of words and commas that can be placed at the beginning of any news, sports or feature story and always work.
This paragraph is to journalists what the philosopher’s stone was to medieval alchemists.
Some news dogs have declared that no such lead exists.
(They usually follow their declarations with “Harrrrrumph!”).
Such leads, however, do exist – although they’re as rare as Romanian leprechauns – and I’ve been fortunate enough to discover not one, but two, of these sought-after gems.
The first was penned by Northern California automotive columnist Al Auger, who several years ago unconsciously created a universal lead when he wrote “I’ve been told sharks never sleep. Perhaps that’s why they’re so grumpy.”
If you take these words and slap them on top of any newspaper story, you’ll find they work remarkably well.
I thought I’d found my philosopher’s stone and that would be an end to my personal quest for the universal lead, but I recently discovered that lightning sometimes strikes twice in the same place.
Reading former Reporter publisher Richard Rico’s newspaper column a few Sundays ago, I discovered the second universal lead of my long and chaotic career:
“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out.”
Like many great newspapermen from Ben Franklin to Ernest Hemingway, Rico had buried his lead around the fourth paragraph, but the words gleamed like bits of gold in a clear Sierra stream.
These words could clearly improve just about any newspaper story going (with the possible exception of obituaries).
Take, for example, another everyday crime story from Fairfield:
“Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”
Now add the universal lead:
“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”
See what I mean?
The same goes for humdrum political stories:
“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. The House voted 349-74 Wednesday to acquire a monumental cross and the park around it from the city of San Diego.”
And, let’s face it, baseball stories positively beg for these words, particularly those dealing with that gadabout Barry Bonds:
“Every night, a barn door bangs open and Barry Bonds flies out.”
Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…
Originally published August 6, 2006