The Non-Linear Inverted Pyramid

This post is excerpted from Chapter 12 of “Producing Online News“,  from

When news producers begin to get into “that data state of mind” they are trying to achieve both a business goal—ubiquity of their news organization’s information and influence, and a social goal—efficient use of information. If one person has a piece of information and can share it at no cost to everyone else, other people shouldn’t have to repeat the work that went into acquiring that information. The DRY principal of programming when applied to news creates a sustainable news ecology. The energy that is used to gather a fact needs to be expended only once. After finding information from a trustworthy source, journalists can spend all of their energy on analyzing and providing relevant context that adds value to the piece of information. Within a news organization, journalists can also reduce, re-use and recycle content. Consider the way that hyperlinks in a story make news consumption and news production both more efficient.

Often in news stories the audience wants to know more about specific people or organizations than just their names. In print journalism, reporters provide this information in an appositive immediately after the name of the person or organization. For example: “Irwin Collier, an economy expert for North American at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University, pointed out that [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, who has backed the package, holds a majority in parliament.” Online, by linking the words “Irwin Collier” to a biographical page about the expert—a page that would not be limited to the cursory information presented in the appositive example—the sentence would be almost half its original size.

Once you begin thinking of facts as pieces of organized data, you are ready to start thinking about how you might “program” information as a nonlinear narrative, one that doesn’t proceed in the usual order from top to bottom, but instead might update or rearrange pieces of information dynamically depending on the conditions and context of the audience.

The inverted pyramid has long been used in journalism as a metaphor to describe the traditional structure of a basic news story—the most important information is summarized in the lead, with details of decreasing importance following in each subsequent paragraph or section. For an audience that skims articles rather than reads them, the inverted pyramid remains one of the best ways to construct a news story for the Web. But by using links, online journalists can turn a news story built as an inverted pyramid into a story presented as several inverted pyramids. While printed inverted pyramids are linear, online inverted pyramids can be nonlinear.

In a linear inverted pyramid, every reader starts in the same place—the first paragraph—and ends at the last paragraph, taking the only logical path between those two points. This is a perfectly accept- able way to write news stories both online and off.

But some news events lend themselves to a nonlinear story structure, which breaks apart the traditional news narrative and creates several paths of links the audience can choose to follow. By establishing links from the lead to various elements of the story, and also links among those story elements, journalists can craft a nonlinear narrative that helps each reader more quickly find the specific information he or she wants.

Adrian Holovaty, a pioneer of online news, wrote in 2006 that for journalists to take full advantage of the Web’s hypermedia, they first needed to abandon what he calls “the story-centric world view.” Using as his example a newspaper story about a local fire, Holovaty wrote on his blog:

“[W]hat I really want to be able to do is explore the raw facts of that story, one by one, with layers of attribution, and an infrastructure for comparing the details of the fire— date, time, place, victims, fire station number, distance from fire department, names and years experience of firemen on the scene, time it took for firemen to arrive—with the details of previous fires. And subsequent fires, whenever they happen.”

By breaking down a story into its atomic pieces and using hyperlinks to reconnect those pieces, readers can explore different aspects of the story, each at a level of detail chosen by the visitor. In nonlinear storytelling, journalists gather the input and information as usual, but then tell the story using links that allow the audience to drive the experience.

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