5 W’s

The 5 W’s—who, what, when, where, and why—belong in the first paragraph of every news story, according to the standard formula of journalistic writing. But sometimes the openings of news stories make me ask, “Why? Oh, why?” Here’s the first paragraph of an Associated Press story by Alan Scher Zagier that was printed in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star on Sep. 10, 2014:

FERGUSON, Mo.—Efforts by city leaders in the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black 18-year-old was fatally shot by a white police officer to repair the local government’s fractured relationship with its residents got off to a rocky start Tuesday at the first public meeting of elected officials since Michael Brown’s death.

That 51-word sentence has 31 words between the subject (Efforts) and the verb (got), and in between is a bizarre string of words: “shot by a white police officer to repair the local government’s fractured relationship.” No wonder “Ferguson police reforms met with protest,” as the headline says. But to repair doesn’t modify shot, it modifies Effort. However, the length of the sentence, the long modifying phrases, and the absence of punctuation setting off groups of words make this hard to read. Although the 5 W’s belong in the first paragraph of every news story, they don’t necessarily have to be packed into the first sentence. I’d prefer something more like this:

FERGUSON, Mo.—Efforts by city leaders to repair the local government’s fractured relationship with its residents got off to a rocky start Tuesday in this St. Louis suburb. It was the first public meeting of elected officials since Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer.

Here’s the first paragraph of another story, written by Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in the Free Lance–Star on Sep. 12, 2014:

One of the ironies of our collective obsession with The Beatles is that as years pass, as new anniversaries are noted, as their label embarks on yet another deluxe reissue campaign—this time for “The Beatles in Mono” L.P. box set—it’s getting harder and harder to hear their music.

This was in the paper’s “Life” section, so it’s a feature, and you could argue that the rule about including the 5 W’s doesn’t apply. Yet, we have a 50-word sentence, a flimsy subject (One), and an implied verb (is). Where are the W’s? “Who” is identified in the second paragraph: “we”—the writer and the reader. “What”: it’s getting “harder to hear their music.” “When” is also in the second paragraph (“all the time”), along with “Where” (“everywhere”), although it actually says that the Beatles’ music is played “everywhere, all the time.”

Why is it “getting harder and harder to hear their music”? This is explained, sort of, on the second page, in the 16th paragraph: “almost everything transcendent about the Beatles has vanished beneath the weight of memorization.” The author had heard the songs so many times, he wasn’t sure there were nuances to distinguish in the monaural recordings, compared to the stereo versions he’d heard for decades. This seems to me like a small payoff for the suspense set up in the first paragraph. I suspect that it’s the author who is playing the Beatles’ music “everywhere, all the time”; he’s done it for so long, he’s having trouble really listening to it.

Now for a good first paragraph, by Dawnthea Price of the Free Lance–Star, printed on Sep. 25, 2014:

Marine Corps Base Quantico opened its gates Tuesday for a three-day expo showcasing products and services used by the modern-day Marine.

Nice. Only 21 words, and telling us who (the Marine Corps Base), what (opened its gates), when (Tuesday), where (Quantico), and why (for an exposition). You might quibble with a base as “who,” but I’ll accept that to mean the Marines at Quantico acting as one entity. Besides the succinct statement of facts, I liked the way she worked in the phrase “modern-day Marine,” with “modern-day” hyphenated, as it should be. The name of the expo is Modern Day Marine (without a hyphen, possibly suggesting that there are also modern night Marines), and where the expo is mentioned by name elsewhere in the story and in a photo caption, it’s reproduced in its official, hyphen-less form. The writer, however, managed to fit a correctly punctuated version of the phrase into the first sentence. Nicely done.

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2 thoughts on “5 W’s

  1. Dave Fessenden

    Back when I was in journalism class (shortly after the earth’s crust hardened), we were taught to make the lead sentence no more than 25 words, if possible, and to sacrifice the least important of the 5 W’s if necessary. We also were taught that a summary lead containing the 5 W’s is only one of several ways to begin a news story — although with hard news, it was the preferred way. The main principle I learned from this is that the rules of writing are hard and fast when you are learning them (i.e., if you’re not forced into following certain rules, such as the summary lead with the 5 W’s, you will never learn how to do them). Once they become second nature, you can depart from them, because you understand their function.

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