One of the most important aspects of any news story is the lead. It is often the most difficult for beginning news writers to learn to master. It must be well-written, compelling and capture the reader’s attention. The Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan said a good lead beckons, invites, informs, attracts and entices the reader. If there is any poetry in journalism Scanlan added, it would have to be in the lead. However, writing a lead that truly captivates a reader can be a daunting task, even for an experienced writer.
And because lead writing can be such a daunting task, I decided to step outside of the traditional classroom paradigm and use Twitter as a tool to teach students how to write leads. The micro-blogging, social network has been an excellent platform for showing students how to use words effectively. Twitter’s 140 character limitation has been a very good model to show students how to organize the lead with precision and maximize storytelling in a few words.
Using the Hashtag #twitternewschat, students post leads daily. The Hashtag groups the leads on Twitter into a real-time designated section. See exhibit I.
Exhibit I: #twitternewschat Real-time results
Their leads were generated from stories that they covered on campus and from community beats. Some of those stories were about Texas Southern University’s NASA center, the theater department’s production of Westside Story and the School of Communication’s Intercultural Communication Conference.
The students also developed enterprise stories. The enterprise story is one in which the student cultivates from a specialized topic. One such topic the students focused on this semester was the Houston Area Women’s Center’s Sexual Assault Awareness campaign. The center used social media like Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to the impact of sexual assaults and domestic violence in the Houston area. The students tweeted leads daily about the campaign. They also produced radio wraparounds, television packages and web-ready stories for their blogs on the topic.
Another topic they covered this semester was the 50th anniversary of Houston’s first sit-in. The anniversary program included a re-creation of the march civil rights leaders did on March 4, 1960. The students not only tweeted leads, they also tweeted photos and video about the program.
Tweeting the leads helped students to have a greater appreciation for mainstream publications like The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and Houston Chronicle, which they were required to read daily.
The lead tweets have also helped students to develop a keener understanding of quality content. Twitter has become a credible source for delivering valued content, according to a study conducted by the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
The Iran elections Twitter coverage established the micro-blogging network as a revolutionary communication resource, according to the Pew Research Center.
I believe this approach to writing leads has established several important benchmarks. First, student self-worth and motivation improved. Academic skill levels and performance on writing tests improved. Classroom retention improved. Overall, a new generation of technologically perceptive students have been prepared and inspired to perform at high levels and use a 21st century medium to write a good lead and news story.
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