The job of a breaking-news lead is to accurately relate the essence and urgency of a story in the most efficient way possible. The art of a breaking-news lead is to do so in a way that’s not just readable, but also natural and memorable.
The lead’s content always involves some combination of the five Ws (who, what, when, where and why) and one H (how). When choosing what to emphasize in the lead, ask yourself what’s at the heart of the news. Is it who did something or what he or she did? Is it when something happened or why? Is it when something occurred or how? The answer to these questions should be at the center of your lead.
Breaking-news stories typically use an inverted-pyramid structure, and the lead is at the top of that pyramid. It should provide a concise summing up of the article so the reader knows about the news. While one of the lead’s goals is to draw the reader into the story, the lead should also be able to stand on its own: if it’s all the reader has time for, he or she will have the information needed.
When you’ve determined the essence of the news, you intrinsically know what’s not news. Facts related to the central event but not at its heart are supporting information, and thus don’t have to be in the lead. If fact, they shouldn’t be: every piece of related but unessential information in the lead slows it down and risks pushing readers away.
Use short declarative sentences and an active voice. Know who your readers are and tailor the lead to them. Don’t sensationalize, but relate the news directly — “Just the facts, ma’am,” to cite the supposed catchphrase of a long-ago TV sergeant.
Note that while the lead is at the head of the story, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the first thing you write. You can pull a story together, and in doing so organize it both in your mind and on your screen. Once the essence of the story is clear, that tells you what your lead is going to be. What you don’t want to do is leave the real news down in the body of the story rather than putting it at the top, where it belongs. This is known as “burying the lead,” and, quite rightly, neither readers nor editors are fond of the practice.