This word is an obsolete word for “people, nation, race”; it’s cognate with the German Leute. Fittingly, it’s also the reverse of edel, which is German for “noble”. And it’s the name of a municipality in Belgium, known for a statue called Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Zeven-Smarten, “Our Lady of Seven Sorrows”, which is a local pilgrimage destination due to its purported miraculous powers.
It’s also a newspaper term for the introduction of a news story (the first sentence or so). So, for instance, when the levee breaks, you want to bring it on home with the right lede: “The levee broke this morning, just a few hours after a young man sat on it all night and moaned. ‘The levee has broken, and I have no place to stay,’ complained Bob Plant, 24.” You don’t bury the lead below the lede, for instance by sticking the main topic in the second paragraph after covering less pertinent facts in the opening paragraph.
That’s bury the lead as in /li:d/, “leed”, not as in /lEd/, “led”. It’s the same pronunciation as lede, which is, in fact, the same word. Dazed and confused? It’s that word lead that causes the problem. Printers used to use lead (the metal) in setting type, so they wanted a distinctive spelling of the other lead for clarity. (Another group who wanted a distinctive spelling were the group Led Zeppelin, who figured – probably quite rightly – that Lead Zeppelin would often be read and said with the wrong lead.) And it does look old-school journalistic – the stereotyped grizzled hack with a cigarette l next to his heavy-lidded eyes (it is late in the evening, after all) and bulbous (rhinophymic?) nose, ede.
Journalistic terminology has a whole set of these respelled terms, all the way they are for distinctiveness (so as not to be confused with content actually to go into the story, for instance). Others include dek (for deck, itself a jargony term for a subhead or highlighted first sentence above the main story), hed (for head, as in headline), graf (for paragraph, with the advantage of brevity), and tk (for to come, of course – What do you mean it should be tc? Get with the program!). They may aid clarity and efficiency for printers and journalists (perhaps less now than formerly), but they also put a nice little electrified fence of in-group jargon around the biz, and help those who are “in” to feel “in.” But why should it be different for journalists and printers than for any other groups? (Say, have you noticed how lede is similar to leet, a.k.a. l33t or 1337 – see teh?)