on September 19, 2019 by Sean Michael Milligan in Journal, Comments (0)


The Washington Post‘s center front page story this past weekend was an in-depth piece about the effects of climate change—not future effects, but past. In particular, the article focused on a “hotspot” in the South Atlantic off the coast of Uruguay, and the impact it’s been having on that nation’s fishing industry since the nineties. Because of the topics covered in class and our readings this lately, I paid special attention to the article’s lead and the structure.

The authors used a classic buried lead, focusing first on the story of an individual—Uruguayan clammer Ramón Agüero—and his personal experience with the ecological devastation resulting from the increase in ocean temperatures off the coast of Uruguay. The opening line of the article is particularly eye-catching: “The day the yellow clams turned black is seared in Ramón Agüero’s memory.” The lead doesn’t hit until eight paragraphs into the article, but notably isn’t buried so far down that it falls off the front page. Our textbook didn’t mention this as a concern for buried leads, and with most newspapers going digital, it probably isn’t much of one any more. I suspect, though, that that might not always have been the case.

Of the story structures given in the book, the focus structure is the one the article most closely resembles, with a key difference. Rather than bookending the article with the more intimate personal struggle of Ramón Agüero, the authors return to him—really, to his father—only briefly, about halfway through the article, after which he isn’t brought up again. Instead of wrapping up the story, the mention of the Agüero family serves only to mark the point where the article shifts focus from the ecological effects and science of climate change to the economic effects.

It’s a writing decision I don’t think I entirely agree with. The typical focus structure may be formulaic, but for good reason: it works. You build an emotional connection at the beginning, hit the readers with the hard stuff once they’re invested, then give them some payoff at the end so they don’t feel they’ve been left hanging. I suppose even professional reporters working for one of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers can still make mistakes. Hopefully I can learn from theirs rather than my own.



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