This better be good

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.)

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4 Responses to This better be good

  1. keliza13 says:

    I feel like the use and the placement of a nut graf is important to the story; nut grafs keep the reader reading in our world of fast-paced news hunting, and at least give them the option of moving on so they get the news they need (our no. 1 job as journalists, yes?). The placement is variable; it all depends on the flow of the story. Working with Jeanne on the Viking story, I learned pretty quickly what it takes to set up a story using the nut graf, and have established my personal rule of putting it no more than 4 grafs in.
    As far as Alex’s story (GREAT work, by the way!) goes, I think the nut graf is cleverly concealed in a perfect portion of story telling:
    “Allen crouched to sweet talk the rooster. She named him Dylan, after folk singer Bob Dylan, because he made his home in Peace Park. She usually just calls him Chicky, though.”
    Right there we know that this rooster has made its home in Peace Park, which is why it’s important to us. We have to read the whole graf to find out, which makes it great if you’re reading this because it caught your eye, but not so great if you’re just looking for quick news. Then again, how could the rooster story be quick news? It’s a story — not a news brief — and so the nut graf fits perfectly inside a paragraph.
    The same goes for the NYT article on refugee farms.
    “Programs like New Roots, which provide training in soil, irrigation techniques and climate, “help refugees make the leap from community gardens to independent farms,” said Hugh Joseph…”
    It’s tucked into a bigger graf, but it’s there. You just have to read for it.

  2. Christina Trester says:

    I wouldn’t say the rooster story had a very explicit nut graf, but at the same time it didn’t really need one. “There is a rooster living in Peace Park” would have lost the reader’s attention, not kept them reading, so I like the way she didn’t exactly use a nut graf, but more worked it into her description of that specific morning.
    As for the NY Times story, I agree that the nut graf is buried in the fourth paragraph.

  3. Jessika Street says:

    The rooster story definitely had a nut graf, a few paragraphs into the story. She got the reader hooked, and then just at the point where the reader was starting to ask questions (when did this rooster start living here? what are they going to do about it?) she begins to answer them with the nut graf.

    As for the NYT article, there was no hook for me. The first sentence (basically a paragraph in itself) was way too long and didn’t interest me one bit. By the time I get to the nut graf (which isn’t as obvious as some may like) I have already lost interest. Honestly, if I didn’t need to find the nut graf to answer the question, I probably wouldn’t have read past the first paragraph.

    Making a nut graf is a tricky skill. You don’t want to give too much to the reader, but you want to give enough for them to read the rest of the story. You want to put it high enough in the story so the reader understands, but not too high so they’ll lose interest quickly. Forming a good nut graf is a very difficult thing to do.

  4. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    I think that after reading such an informative piece as Chip Scanlan’s explanation of what a nut graf should be and accomplish, the two stories Professor Reed has asked us to read in search for nut grafs make for an interesting exercise in careful reading.

    I agree that Alexandria Baca’s rooster story (Bravo!) does have a nut graf. It is just so artfully mingled with the narrative part of the story, that you would have to read it more than once to identify it. I would expand on Kate’s point and include the fifth paragraph as part of the nut graf, just because it tells you who Summer Allen is, and the story sort of starts and ends with her.

    As far as the story itself is concerned, I think it shows us how we can make a seemingly trivial matter into a very enjoyable piece which can tell you a lot more than “Hey, there’s a rooster living at Peace Park.”

    Alexandria’s story gives a clear, entertaining answer to the question most readers would ask after realizing they’re reading a story about a rooster: “So what?!”

    Well, Alexandria’s well-informed reporting lets us see a bunch of things: there’s the animal welfare issue (I mean, I kinda love the rooster by now, and would hate to find out it was captured and/or killed. Wouldn’t you?). There’s also the rather amusing way the authorities have dealt with the whole thing (That quote about the rooster being faster than the animal control people was downright hilarious). And there’s also the human side of it and how the bird has actually had a positive impact of some Columbia residents.

    Which brings me back to the nut graf thing. When I read the first few paragraphs of the rooster story, I certainly didn’t foresee I would get that type of information out of it. But the way Alexandria used description and narrative writing at the beginning just kept me reading. At the end, I kind of thought to myself “Well, there’s more to this rooster than crowing.”

    In this sense, I think the rooster story’s nut graf is effective in the sense that it doesn’t give away everything the story has to offer. It gives about the right amount of detail you need to understand what’s happening, but it doesn’t spoil the whole thing for you. Just what Chip Scanlan would recommend.

    Regarding the New York Times piece on refugees starting small farm businesses, I agree with Jessika that it is a bit too wordy at some points. Maybe we are getting used to the Missourian’s short-lead-first-and-then-I’ll-give-you-context type of story.

    I would say that the nut graf in this piece lies somewhere between the third and fourth paragraphs, where Patricia Leigh Brown explains what New Roots is about and what its goals are. But perhaps there could have been a way to explain those two important things in a more concise manner. I think it could have easily been shortened to just one paragraph.

    Also, I’m also not sure I love the idea of using quotes in nut grafs, but maybe that’s just because I’m not experienced enough to know how to do this and get away with it.

    All in all, though, the NYT piece was also a nice read and, at least with me, it achieved its purpose of telling something I didn’t know and now feel I should care more about.

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