« Digital Layout Challenges Explored | Home | Facebook as a News Source »

The Importance of Beginnings

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2016 at 10:44 PM

How your piece begins determines where it will go.

By Peter Jacobi

In early May, the issue of The New Yorker that arrived in my mailbox featured a striking yet also subtle cover by Bob Staake. It showed purple rain.

And it was, of course, a tribute to Prince, followed inside the magazine by Vinson Cunningham's short but penetrating essay, part of "The Talk of the Town," about the mysterious, often puzzling rock star.

"What a concept, genius," wrote Cunningham for his lead. "Especially in an age like ours -- secular, rational, disenchanted. No one, perhaps, was more suited to exploit the idea of genius-as-enigma than Prince Rogers Nelson, who died on Thursday at his Paisley Park compound, outside Minneapolis, at the age of fifty-seven. Prince played impenetrability like a guitar. To think about him was to ask a series of questions: Why purple? Whence the glyph? Did he really love spaghetti and orange juice? What was up with the retinue of light-skinned, long-legged women, who were visually identical to one another and to him? Vis-à-vis sex and sexuality and gender; what, if anything, was he trying to say?"

Meanwhile, ABC reported that "in Minnesota, where Prince was found dead Thursday in his suburban Minneapolis compound, the Star Tribune reports the interstate 35 West Bridge over the Mississippi River was bathed in purple light. A dance party in downtown Minneapolis was expected to go all night."

A weather sign proclaimed: "Today's Forecast -- cloudy with a chance of purple rain."

Why Beginnings Matter in News Coverage

All of the above were beginnings. I think The New Yorker cover served as an imaginative lead to the Cunningham essay, written for consumption several days after Prince's passing. I think the ABC message quoted above was an effective start for a stay-up-to-date television news report. I think the weather sign was a clever way to draw attention to the death, while also suggesting the societal significance of the departed entertainer.

There are lessons in studying how a news event of scope is verbally covered, how journalists strive to gain and keep attention amidst the river of reports that flows over a period of days or more.

The Associated Press quickly produced an alerting news story that began: "Prince, one of the most inventive and influential musicians of modern times with hits including 'Little Red Corvette,' 'Let's Go Crazy,' and 'When Doves Cry,' was found dead at his home on Thursday in suburban Minneapolis, according to his publicist. He was 57." The opening sentence proves a bit overburdened with facts, but the information shared follows the principle in news stories of providing as many of the five W's and the H.

The New York Times kept its first sentence briefer but also with the intent of providing the basic facts as limitedly known from first reports: "Prince, the songwriter, singer, producer, one-man studio band and consummate showman, died on Thursday at his home, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, Minn. He was 57."

The second paragraph in the Times tells us: "His publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, confirmed his death but did not report a cause. In a statement, the Carver County sheriff, Jim Olson, said that deputies responded to an emergency call at 9:43 a.m. 'When deputies and medical personnel arrived,' he said, 'they found an unresponsive adult male in the elevator. Emergency medical workers attempted to provide lifesaving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim. He was pronounced deceased at 10:07 a.m." We are into a straight news story that will give the reader the facts, as then known, and nothing more. The thought pieces, the remembrances will come later.

USA Today followed the same pattern: "Prince, a game-changer in popular music, died Thursday at his Paisley Park compound in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen. He was 57." The second paragraph traces the same events as did the Times.

Framing Breaking News to Set Up a Continuing Story

Remember the tasks that beginnings are responsible for: (1) Attracting attention; (2) Establishing the subject; (3) Setting the tone; (4) Guiding or bridging into the article that follows. Keeping these obligations in mind, editors and writers -- with a continuing story such as the death of Prince -- start thinking about how to pursue later coverage.

So, creative minds turn more creative.

Lorena Blas in USA Today wrote: "Purple rained everywhere this weekend. From Coachella in Southern California to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the Boss' concert in Brooklyn, N.Y., music lovers paid tribute to Prince, who was cremated and memorialized in a private ceremony Saturday at his Paisley Park home outside Minneapolis." And so forth.

Jon Caramanica in the Times wrote: "In 1993, Prince decided he'd had enough. His longtime struggles with his record label, Warner Bros., had left him wanting to reassert control over his creative life. The company might own his music, he reasoned, but it did not own him. So he changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, a highly stylized overlay of the symbols for man and woman. Prince, as was made clear in that moment, existed in a place beyond convention." And so on.

For the Washington Post, Matt Schudel and Emily Langer wrote: "A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world's most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition." And so on.

Know what you want to accomplish. Consider what is the best path to achieving the kind of coverage appropriate for you, for your subject matter, for your publication, for your reader. And remember that everything you do depends on how you begin.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« Digital Layout Challenges Explored | Top | Facebook as a News Source »