Welcome to Journalism 201, students. I’m instructor Fitzpatrick — you can call me Mr. Fitz — and I’ll be taking you through this single-session course, worth five credit hours toward your journalism degree.
I know that all of you got A’s in Journalism 101, otherwise you wouldn’t be here today.
Before we get started, you can see that I’ve written my expectations on the dry-erase board. Let’s review:
One…Pay attention. If I can’t see your eyes, you’re not listening.
Two…Turn off all electronic devices and store them away. Otherwise I throw them out the window.
Three…No gum chewing. NO GUM! If I see your jaw moving with your mouth closed, you’re going to the dean’s office.
OK, now down to business. Today, we’re going to talk about the “nut graph.”
…Hey, hey! You with the tattoos on your neck and ring through your nose…Stop laughing!
I’m not talking about almonds, cashews, salted nuts or genitalia. There’s nothing funny about the nut graph. This may be the most important, single lesson you learn about journalism, so hark back to Rule No. 1. What does it say? That’s right…pay attention!
OK, as you were, then…So, what do you students think the “nut graph” might be? Anybody…
Yes, you with the tortoise-rimmed glasses and plaid, pooling pants…
That’s precisely right! It’s the key paragraph, found within the first few paragraphs of a lengthy story, that summarizes what the story is all about and why it’s important. It’s the story “in a nutshell.” It’s the one paragraph that is responsible, in many cases, for either keeping the reader reading or losing his interest right off the bat.
…What’s that, young lady right up front here with the mid-thigh skirt and gray-green eyes? Do I have examples? Of course, I do!
Let’s take a look at the front page of Sunday’s Kansas City Star. Feature writer Eric Adler wrote this story about young people who already have fallen into alcoholism and have turned to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Adler starts with an anecdotal lead, describing the young people arriving for a typical AA meeting, this one in a storefront room. Those who introduce themselves include a 20-year-old woman, a 23-year-old woman, a 25-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl.
After seven short, introductory paragraphs — still on the front page before the story “jumps” to the inside — Adler hits us with the nut graph. It reads:
“At a time when binge drinking remains at epidemic levels, and as tens of thousands of high school and college students begin packing for spring break destinations where alcohol flows freely, thousands of other young people nationwide will flow into meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, having concluded that what they once thought was a rite of youth is an addiction.”
What does Adler do in that graph, students? …He tells us something we know — that binge drinking is a big problem — but then he layers it with information that a lot of us probably don’t know — that “thousands of young people” have given up the illusion of partying and have acknowledged that they suffer from a serious illness and want to get better.
Also, putting the icing on the cake, so to speak, Adler reminds us that this story is topical: It’s time for hundreds of thousands of students to descend on warm-weather destinations for a week of drinking and all-out partying.
That graph probably propelled tens of thousands of readers to the “jump,” where he examines the problem in the equivalent of a full page of text. A job well done by a seasoned journalist.
…Hey, hey! You with the black trench coat on…What the hell was that that you just let fall out of your coat sleeve into your hand? Was that a cell phone I saw?…It was your watch, you say? Well, whatever it was, I don’t want to see it again, you understand? You don’t need to know what time it is, anyway…You’re on JimmyC time now.
Let’s take a look at this Saturday story in The New York Times about the New Jersey trial of the guy who had his Web cam trained on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, while Tyler was making out with a boyfriend in his dorm room at Rutgers. As you know, Clementi committed suicide a few days later, and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, is being tried on three felony charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.
The reporter, Kate Zernike, starts out the story by recapitulating some key testimony from Friday’s court session…Then, in paragraph eight, shortly after the jump, Zernike delivers this impressive nut graph:
“Mr. Ravi is not charged with Mr. Clementi’s death, but the suicide hangs over the case. It prompted a worldwide debate about the bullying of gay teenagers, particularly in a cyber age, when taunting and harassment come not always face-to-face but on an array of technological devices and forums. Several gay teenagers had committed suicide in the months before Mr. Clementi jumped off the bridge, and his death became a symbol of their collective pain.”
“A symbol of their collective pain…” Isn’t that a nice turn of phrase, students? It not only describes the breadth of the issue but directs your empathy toward the result of the psychological cruelty.
OK, so that’s it, students. Now, what I want you to do after you leave here is, when you read significant stories in the coming days — either online on in print — look for nut graphs. When you find them, think about them…Do they adequately summarize the stories? Are they well crafted? Also, look for stories where you would expect nut graphs but can’t find them. It happens a lot. Not all papers and other publications make them as high a priority as they should.
Class dismissed, then. Thanks for your attention…
Hey, wait a minute…you with the trench coat…Can I borrow your cell phone? I left mine at home and need to call my wife to see what she wants me to pick up at the store.
Thanks, buddy, I hope you enjoyed the class…