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The Best Pulitzer Lead (or Lede) of 2023 Is …

For most of a decade now, I have read Pulitzer Prize-winning stories with special attention to the leads – or ledes, if you prefer. Great stories can begin with average leads, of course. And what looks like a great lead can lead us nowhere.

Cheers to this year’s Pulitzer winners. I honor you all as champions of truth telling and democracy. Out of all your great work, it is my self-appointed job to select the best lead, and to make a case for it. The prize is bragging rights. 

Here are the criteria I have used in previous competitions:

I will, in most cases, only consider the lead of the first story in any entry, unless one jumps up and pokes me in the eye. 

  • Categories compete against each other. Leads are leads.
  • Long leads are not punished, but shorter ones get extra points. 
  • If I don’t get the point of the story in three paragraphs, you are, as we say in Pulitzer judging, “thrown under the table.”
  • Unusual elements get extra points, as long as they don’t distract from the focus of the story.
  • In the case of a tie, the prize goes to the single writer over a team.  

What makes a good lead? I like John McPhee’s metaphor that a lead is a flashlight that you shine into the well of the story. You don’t have to see all the way to the bottom, just far enough to know what you are getting into. 

To reveal my taste in leads, I like to use this old news lead, written in 1968 by the late Mark Hawthorne, for The New York Times: 

“A 17-year-old boy chased his pet squirrel up a tree in Washington Square Park yesterday afternoon, touching off a series of incidents in which 22 persons were arrested and eight persons, including five policemen, were injured.”

If you don’t like that one, you might consider moving along to another column.

The prize for the best Pulitzer lead – on the first Pulitzer story I read this year — goes to the AP for coverage of the war in Ukraine. The Prize is for Public Service. The byline includes Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka and Lori Hinnant:

MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — The bodies of the children all lie here, dumped into this narrow trench hastily dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol to the constant drumbeat of shelling. 

There’s 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler’s body. There’s 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There’s the girl no older than 6 who wore the pajamas with cartoon unicorns, among the first of Mariupol’s children to die from a Russian shell.

They are stacked together with dozens of others in this mass grave on the outskirts of the city. A man covered in a bright blue tarp, weighed down by stones at the crumbling curb. A woman wrapped in a red and gold bedsheet, her legs neatly bound at the ankles with a scrap of white fabric. Workers toss the bodies in as fast as they can, because the less time they spend in the open, the better their own chances of survival.  

“The only thing (I want) is for this to be finished,” raged worker Volodymyr Bykovskyi, pulling crinkling black body bags from a truck. “Damn them all, those people who started this!” 

Analysis:  This is an astonishing lead, filled with vivid reported elements and tied together in a narrative that transports the reader across the globe to feel what it was like to be there in that terrible place. I would argue the first paragraph serves as the official lead, and the following paragraphs support it. It is terrible enough to encounter the phrase “the bodies of the children,” but then to have them named in the next paragraph, each bearing the distinctive mark of their killing. The passage ends with the voice of an outraged worker. It remains a staple of good journalistic writing:  Get a good quote high in the story. I should not offer this literary analysis without recognition of the courage it takes war correspondents to report from where the danger is. They become our eyes and ears.  

Praise goes to Eli Saslow, generally regarded as one of the best feature writers of his generation. He has just won his second Pulitzer for the Washington Post. This lead introduces us to an unsung hero of life in America during the pandemic and an epidemic of homelessness. She is a bus driver, who, as we see from the beginning, has to make her living every day under difficult working conditions.   

DENVER — Suna Karabay touched up her eye makeup in the rearview mirror and leaned against the steering wheel of the bus to say her morning prayers. “Please, let me be patient,” she said. “Let me be generous and kind.” She walked through the bus to make her final inspection: floor swept, seats cleaned, handrails disinfected, gas tank full for another 10-hour shift on the city’s busiest commercial road. She drove to her first stop, waited until exactly 5:32 a.m., and opened the doors.

“Good morning!” she said, as she greeted the first passenger of the day, a barefoot man carrying a blanket and a pillow. He dropped 29 cents into the fare machine for the $3 ride. “That’s all I got,” he said, and Suna nodded and waved him onboard.

“Happy Friday,” she said to the next people in line, including a couple with three plastic garbage bags of belongings and a large, unleashed dog. “Service pet,” one of the owners said. He fished into his pocket and pulled out a bus pass as the dog jumped onto the dashboard, grabbed a box of Kleenex, and began shredding tissues on the floor.

“Service animal?” Suna asked. “Are you sure?”

“What’d I tell you already?” the passenger said. “Just drive the damn bus.”

Analysis:  A classic newspaper story form is called the “ride-along.” What is it like to spend the day, or the night, driving in a cop car, an ambulance, a garbage truck, or, in this case, a city bus? Add the element of the “fly on the wall” where the reporter tries not to be noticed as events unfold. Eli Saslow understands the requirements of narrative, and the difference between reports and stories. The Who becomes a character, who from the beginning fixes her makeup and says her prayers. The What is described in the action of scenes. The When is a expressed as a chronology of events. People are speaking, but not in quotes. Instead, Dialogue becomes another expression of action. In just a few quick paragraphs, we are immersed in the bus driver’s world. 

Praise goes to Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic in the category of Explanatory Reporting. Her investigation of the policy of separating children from their parents at the Southern border runs to 30,000 words. This raises the question of whether a long story can begin with a short lead. (As an English major, I am required to remind readers that the American epic Moby Dick begins with the sentence: “Call me Ishmael.”)

More often a long story – the length of half a book – begins not with a lead, but with an introduction. The goal is not to grab the reader but to ease the reader into something they may not be inclined to read.   

As a therapist for children who are being processed through the American immigration system, Cynthia Quintana has a routine that she repeats each time she meets a new patient in her office in Grand Rapids, Michigan: She calls the parents or closest relatives to let them know the child is safe and well cared for, and provides 24-hour contact information.

This process usually plays out within hours of when the children arrive. Most are teens who have memorized or written down their relatives’ phone numbers in notebooks they carried with them across the border. By the time of that initial call, their families are typically worried, waiting anxiously for news after having – in an act of desperation – sent their children into another country alone in pursuit of safety and the hope of a future.

But in the summer of 2017, Quintana encountered a curious case. A 3-year-old Guatemalan boy with a toothy smile and bowl-cut black hair sat down at her desk. He was far too little to have made the journey on his own. He had no phone numbers with him, and when she asked where he was headed or whom he’d been with, the boy stared back blankly. Quintana scoured his file for more information but found nothing. She asked for help from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, who came back several days later with something unusual: information indicating that the boy’s father was in federal custody.

At their next session, the boy squirmed in his chair as Quintana dialed the detention center, getting his father on the line. At first the dad was quiet, she told me. “Finally we said, ‘Your child is here. He can hear you. You can speak now.’ And you could just tell that his voice was breaking—he couldn’t.”

The boy cried out for his father. Suddenly, both of them were screaming and sobbing so loudly that several of Quintana’s colleagues ran to her office.

Eventually, the man calmed down enough to address Quintana directly. “I’m so sorry, who are you? Where is my child? They came in the middle of the night and took him,” he said. “What do I tell his mother?”

Analysis:  The late Jim Dwyer passed on to me a phrase that helped him report the biggest imaginable stories, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11: “The bigger, the smaller.”  In this case, this big, big story – one worth 30,000 words – begins with a small, small human being, a child who was separated from his father. Another familiar strategy is to find the microcosm, the small world that represents the larger experience. Once again, dialogue – not quotes – energizes the story. Listening in on that emotional phone call becomes a kind of engine for this story, leaving readers with a set of questions: How did this come to be? What will happen to this child? Will father and child ever be reunited? 

As in past years, I have read the Pulitzer Prize winners hoping to see the great short lead.  As winning stories are often more and more in-depth, that antique craft of journalism has almost disappeared. But not entirely. In 2023 I found two that deserve our attention. 

One goes to the editorial writer Amy Driscoll from the Miami Herald who wrote:

Twenty-six years, and we’re still waiting.

It was supposed to be a small gem of a park on Biscayne Bay, a four-acre sweetener if voters agreed to allow the Miami Heat to build its new arena on public land. Parcel B, as the wedge of waterfront property is known, was one of the ways the arena deal successfully was sold to voters back in 1996.

Another honorable mention goes to Kyle Whitmire, winning for Commentary for He writes about the forgotten history of a racial massacre in a now picturesque Alabama town:

Come with me. I want to show you what a hole in Alabama history looks like.

More resources on lead writing: 

The most outrageous Pulitzer lead of all time

Best Pulitzer leads of 2022

Best Pulitzer leads of 2020

Best Pulitzer leads of 2019

Best Pulitzer leads of 2018


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