Rant no 4 - Lazy Intros

The ever-growing army of both gentlemen and lady ranters is constantly complaining about the general lowering of standards in all aspects of journalism.

And usually with good reason.

This week, my rant is about lazy intros. In my day we were taught, if not bludgeoned and constantly beaten about the head, about the supreme importance of the intro.

An intro, we were told, was the most vital aspect of any journalistic story, the addictive come-on that would lead you in, encapsulate the tone of the piece and generally excite the reader to finish the feature. We were, after all, in the entertainment business and if the readers were not entertained, why would they buy a publication?

Part of the accepted wisdom of the times was that you should NEVER kick off a story with a quote. Not only was this considered the supreme laziness, it made layout difficult, especially when there was a big drop cap. Plus, stories starting with quotes are hard to read and do not encourage you to persevere.

Today, when reading a newspaper or magazine, I sometimes amuse myself – or more accurately, make myself angry – by counting up all the intros that start with quotes and think to myself: how did they let this clumsy intro get into the paper? As any fule no, journalists begin stories with quotes when they simply can’t think of any other way to start. It’s the get-out clause, the last resort, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

Of course, in the olden days, clever intros were not always the individual work of the writer. Most publications had armies of talented subs back at base camp who could often come up with just the right catchy sentence that had evaded the reporter.

Nowadays, nearly all the subs have gone and managements are trying to get rid of the few that are left, arguing that we can all be our own subs.  But we can’t. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, a punchy intro just won’t come and the story needs another, fresh eye on it.

Sub-editors were, after all, employed for a very good reason: to knock a story into shape and maximise its impact. Their demise has led to lack of care about the intro so that now it can be as lazy, clichéd or wordy as one likes and it still goes straight into the paper.

My son Will, an established writer contributing to many national publications, says that nobody ever taught him about intros and nobody has ever pointed out the importance of a good intro to him. And I suspect it’s the same with most young journalists of today – not that Will is all that young any more.

Managements and proprietors should care about intros, as the more startling, dramatic and original they are, the more likely the reader is to be excited. Many intros these days are so dull, so coma-inducing that there is little incentive to carry on reading. So, gradually, it stands to reason, readers will stop buying the publication.

As examples, look at these three intros written in the 1970s:

1. The 5 foot 6 inch frame of Dustin Hoffman is scarcely the ideal location for a Homeric struggle. His head is moulded on heroic lines with its wide brow and noble nose, but thereafter he is constructed like a comedian: his arms and legs are short and tense and his posture perky as though he is permanently preparing to deliver a funny routine.

2. A list of instructions came with the horse, how to adjust his dress, hook him on to the caravan and so forth, and this was very comforting until you realised that the horse, of course, wouldn’t have read them, thus halving their value in times of stress.

3. Queen Victoria bought the Fiji Islands from their native chieftain for a trifling sum in 1874 and she could scarcely have added a nicer trinket to her splendid collection of mountains and deserts, lakes and rivers, palm and pine. Today, with the old monarch’s attic practically empty and the remnants going cheap down the Portobello Road, Fiji remains almost intact as a marvellous heirloom for anyone who still sees the Union Jack as more than a motif on a carrier bag.

And now these, written in 2010:

“For as far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a doctor. That’s the main reason I want to go to university,” says Miriam Rose, 17, a student at Barnet College in North London.

And this:

 “You can see my father in her smile, not me,” laughs Princess Natalia Strozzi in Relais Santa Croce, an 18th century palazzo hotel in the heart of Florence.” ‘

What’s the difference? The first ones are writerly, pacey, imaginative, original and invite you to read on. The second two are dull, static and make you yawn with boredom. Did anybody ask the writer: who’s Princess Natalia Whatsit?  Who cares whether Miriam Rose, 17, wants to be a doctor? What’s the interest to the reader of either of these intros? And they are taken from leading publications, not parish newsletters.

Of course, as usual, the decline of the intro is all to do with lack of money, not lack of talent.  The money has gone out of journalism, or at least, nobody wants to put any money into it, with the result that it is no longer taken seriously. And one of the prime casualties is the intro. It takes time, money, effort and application to get an intro right and these days, nobody can be bothered.   One reason that Dan Brown novels are such bestsellers is because of the first lines of each chapter: however much you may consider it’s all complete rubbish, the first lines are so addictive that you can’t help reading on. 

That’s how journalism intros used to be – and should be still.

Gentlemen Ranters web site