The 5 Wswho, what, when, where, and whybelong 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? Heres the first paragraph of an Associated Press story by Alan Scher Zagier that was printed in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free LanceStar 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 governments fractured relationship with its residents got off to a rocky start Tuesday at the first public meeting of elected officials since Michael Browns 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 governments fractured relationship. No wonder Ferguson police reforms met with protest, as the headline says. But to repair doesnt 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 Ws belong in the first paragraph of every news story, they dont necessarily have to be packed into the first sentence. Id prefer something more like this:
FERGUSON, Mo.Efforts by city leaders to repair the local governments 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.
Heres the first paragraph of another story, written by Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in the Free LanceStar 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 campaignthis time for The Beatles in Mono L.P. box setits getting harder and harder to hear their music.
This was in the papers Life section, so its a feature, and you could argue that the rule about including the 5 Ws doesnt apply. Yet, we have a 50-word sentence, a flimsy subject (One), and an implied verb (is). Where are the Ws? Who is identified in the second paragraph: wethe writer and the reader. What: its 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 wasnt sure there were nuances to distinguish in the monaural recordings, compared to the stereo versions hed heard for decades. This seems to me like a small payoff for the suspense set up in the first paragraph. I suspect that its the author who is playing the Beatles music everywhere, all the time; hes done it for so long, hes having trouble really listening to it.
Now for a good first paragraph, by Dawnthea Price of the Free LanceStar, 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 Ill 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, its 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.