Sometimes, I imagine the reader as this grumpy person who requires convincing. I see this person with his/her arms folded, scowling and muttering, “This better be worth my time.”
And then, I picture the body language and the expression changing as I launch into a story that is irresistible. I start out with a “get this” anecdote or detail. But I don’t wait long before I explain to my grumpy reader why I’m telling him/her this story.
That, my friends, is the nut graf. It’s the context and the background and the justification for the story’s existence. It might also sketch out a map to the story (“these are the things you will find out if you keep reading, dear reader”). Chip Scanlan explains how it came to be and how people regard it in this piece from Poynter.
Read that piece closely, and then as you read for the next 24 hours (and maybe for the rest of your journalistic lives) notice how the nut graf works in the story.
For example, does Alex Baca’s story about the Peace Park rooster have a nut graf?
How about this story from the New York Times about refugees starting small farms? (Feel free to pick apart the lede.)