Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.”
There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for “lede,” like there is for “–30–.”
Hell, there’s romanticism of the literal kind around the spelling of “lede” in my own life. When Billie and I were first dating, the shared knowledge that the word is correctly spelled “lede” was just one more way we bonded.
But we were wrong.
The other thing that Billie and I shared was a love of old journalism books. Before we met, with both collected them. Today, our collection exceeds 400 titles. About 100 of the best of them are sitting at the moment immediately to my left.
Some years ago, researching the evolution of “objective journalism,” I cracked open many of these old books, and something struck me — in none of these old books did any author spell the word “lede.” They all spell it “lead.”
It was then I realized, there is no historic basis for the spelling of a lead as “lede.” “Lede” is an invention of linotype romanticists, not something used in newsrooms of the linotype era.
It’s really emblematic of today’s print nostalgia, too — like Desi and Lucy sleeping in separate beds — a longing for an America that never was, or wasn’t quite what you thought it was.
Here are some sources for you:
- Newswriting: From Lead to 30 (first published, I believe, in 1970 — my copy is from 1977).
- Reporting the News, by Nieman Fellows, 1965
- Newspaper Editing – A Manual for Editors, Copyreaders and Students of Newspaper Desk Work (my copy comes from 1931)
- Modern Journalism, by Carl G. Miller (my copy comes from 1961)
- American Journalism, a history book published in 1941
The fact is, in none of the dozens of old journalism books that I have examined — none of them — spell it “lede.” I can’t find the definitive first reference to “lede” but it doesn’t start appearing in journalism books until the 1980s.
The discussion about “lede” vs. “lead” on Twitter this morning seems to have been sparked by a post from Jay Rosen, on the “the best lede ever.”
I’m not sure where the conversation went from there. By the time I jumped in, Steve Buttry, Steve Yelvington and others had weighed in. (Hash Tags weren’t used, so hard to point you to the entire thread).
The explanation for “lede” was offered up as an alternate spelling for “lead” (pronounced “led” as in “hot lead” or “hot type.”) of the linotype era.
However, as the sources I cite demonstrate, journalists working in the linotype era (which started in 1896) never spelled it “lede.” It was always “lead,” as in “news lead.”
It wasn’t until linotype was disappearing from newsrooms across the nation (late 1970s and into the 1980s), that we start seeing the spelling “lede.”
The safest conclusion, then, is that “lede” is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era.
UPDATE: Chris Keller used Storify to aggregate and organize this morning’s Twitter conversation.
UPDATE Aug. 13, 2019: Roy Peter Clark — who is going to question RPC on journalism writing? — did his own research and came to pretty much the same conclusion, added extensive quotes to his essay, and concluded with the very good point: A good lead is crafted in the service of great writing, and if the writing is good, that’s is all that matters. Thank you to Roy for the citation of this piece in his article.