In what can only be described as a sign of impending doom for the print media, the Associated Press, the major US wire service, has announced that AP will offer two leads for some stories. One will be a straight 'inverted-pyramid' lead with the five W's at the top (who, what, where, when, how much — in order of importance), and the other will be that scourge of modern journalism, the back-in lead:
The other will be the 'optional,' an alternative approach that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.”
Bad. Bad. Bad.
Let me tell you how I know just how bad this is. I have a third grader. Once a week, my third grader has to do a three-paragraph essay for school about a news story, plus answer a few simple questions such as “Where did it happen” and “When did it happen” At the beginning of the year they get a sheaf of topics, and each week we can pick any one that hasn't been done yet and try to find a story on that topic.
You would not believe how hard it is for him — and sometimes for me — to figure out when and where most of these stories happened. Indeed, with back-in leads getting longer and longer and longer, it gets increasingly hard to figure out what it was that happened at all without reading more than half the story…and sometimes key details never appear at all.
Now, I understand that most newspapers are increasingly aimed at about an average sixth-grade reading level, which might be a little bit above the intelligent third grader, so maybe my son's difficulties here are understandable, even though I think he's pretty smart. But consider that I have three university degrees and even if I'm not all that smart, I have been reading newspapers regularly since I was eleven so I have some relevant experience. And even I can't figure out where or when many of these stories happened.
Print journalism has lost sight of its cardinal virtue of specificity. Until now the wire services tended to be a noble holdout against this trend, at least in their news coverage. This latest move by AP will only make the problem worse.