L.A. Times writers hopelessly hooked
on starting stories with time of day, weather
By Rone Tempis, Staff writer
pocket watch
It's 8 p.m. on a dark and stormy Thursday and L.A. Times editors are arguing over the best literary technique for starting an article.

In one corner, assistant managing editor David Bulwer-Lauter champions stories that open with the time of day. To bolster his case, he reads the first sentences (or "ledes") of three recent Times articles:

It's 9 a.m. on a Thursday and Paul Waters and Kevin Voecks are paging through photos of cakes at the Vienna Bakery in Thousand Oaks.
• It's just before 10 on a recent Friday morning when Brian Boitano begins his energetic display of craft and showmanship.
• It is 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday.

"That last one is hauntingly brilliant," Bulwer-Lauter says. "No action, no characters. Just the stark simplicity of hour and day. How could anyone not keep reading?"

But other editors insist the best gimmick to hook readers is to immediately describe the weather. They cite examples from the front page and The Envelope:

On a warm Friday in early November, California's largest for-profit health insurer submitted a plan to regulators in Sacramento.  
It's a snowy day in New York City, but Alec Baldwin, like his fellow "30 Rock" cast members, has reported for work at the Queens-based Silvercup Studios.

By one estimate, 38% of all Times articles now begin with a time or weather reference (click here for more examples). In focus groups, readers never tire of the formula.

"I'm always blown away by narratives that start with the ambient temperature," says Terry Kelvin, a 39-year-old attorney from Torrance. "I also like celebrity profiles that lead with a description of the person nibbling salad at some chic restaurant."

Subscriber Cassie O'Malley prefers clock-based introductions. "If I don't find out the time of day in the first sentence, I stop reading," she says.

In recent months, several Times writers have boldly taken the paper's storytelling to the next level, creating ledes that combine time and weather, such as this Column One piece:

It's just past 3 a.m. on a chilly Wednesday morning when Erica Ford pulls her tidy 4-year-old SUV into a parking space behind the left-field wall at Angel Stadium.

Times innovation chief Lee Abrams was awestruck. "The one-two punch of temperature and time juxtaposed with the thrilling action sequence of someone parking a car sent chills down my spine," he said. "Under Sam Zell, the paper continues to break new ground in storytelling."
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Tuesday, July 7, 2010