Right words are elusive

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.”

Ho-hum.

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

Some things never change…

The newspaper business is, by its very nature, a place where change is the norm. Nothing ever stays the same. If it did, we’d all just fade away like yellowed headlines from the Crimean War.

Here at The Reporter, though, one thing keeps happening over and over and over again.

Whenever I’m engaged in something uncharacteristically stupid, of questionable legality or in remarkably bad taste, my corporate conscience appears as if by magic and clears his throat. Which might not seem too unusual, except that my corporate conscience is Italian and isn’t even corporate anymore.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During the 24 years that I was employed here by the old John Rico Publishing Company I might have, on occasion, committed the occasional office faux pas. Perhaps it was heaving a brimming wastebasket at the sports editor after he’d annoyed me by existing. Or maybe it was the time I was test-driving a remote-controlled rubber rat that took off on its own and wreaked havoc on the peace and quiet of the sleepy newsroom. The firecrackers, I have to admit, also may have been inappropriate for the office – although they were a relatively short-lived amusement…

Strangely enough, whenever I was engaged in one of these singular activities, I could almost always expect that a tall, impeccably dressed chap who was directly responsible for my employment would magically appear behind me and discreetly clear his throat while arching one eyebrow.

Editor-publisher Richard Rico seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly when I was about to do something stupid and would then appear in my immediate vicinity.

“How does he do that?!” I inquired one afternoon after our then-publisher had materialized out of thin air while I was quite innocently helping a female colleague with a stuck zipper.

Co-workers simply shook their heads.

Then one day, my nemesis walked purposefully out the door en route to a new career, possibly as a Navy fighter pilot or some such similar employment.

“You won’t have Richard Rico to kick around anymore!” he declared on his way to the parking lot.

I observed Richard’s departure with a mixture of regret and relief. We’d had a lot of good times together, but no longer would somebody be looking over my shoulder every time I decided to distribute a gross of inflatable lobsters throughout the building.

Or so I thought.

Just last week I was taking a break from my hectic day of newsgathering to examine an electronic Nazi submarine search-and-destroy game on my desktop computer. Let me emphasize that this is a very, very unusual occurrence. It was, like, research. Yeah, that’s it. Research…

I’d just sent another U-boat to a watery grave when someone stepped up behind me and cleared his throat.

I was thoroughly astounded.

“This is not fair. Not. You can’t clear your throat. You don’t even work here anymore and besides I was just researching stuff. Investigative journalism…” I explained like a fourth-grader caught with a spitwad arsenal.

The retired publisher replied by raising one eyebrow and then walked slowly across the newsroom.

Some things never change…

Originally published April 3, 2005