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.

Audience Engagement Starts With Audience Tracking

In the match-making game that is the summer internship and job hunt now getting underway at J-schools across America, I always warn students to never take a job working for an editor who talks about how many “hits” her site gets. And I train my students so that they’ll never be the person whose resume gets tossed for doing the same.

Chapter 3 of Producing Online News and its related tipsheet provide a good overview of the who, what, when, where and why of online news audiences. (And that’s something that’s always changing, Pew reported yesterday that 4 percent of online adults — and 10 percent of Hispanic online adults — use geosocial tools such as Gowalla or Foursquare.)

But students can begin to learn both mass communication research concepts as well as skills if they have the chance to use Google Analytics (or the high-priced and industry dominating Omniture service) on a real, live news site. That will prove to be one of the strength’s of UNC’s new Reese Felts Digital Newsroom, an opportunity that is still pretty rare for journalism students.

The good news is that the Web is full of good free guides to using Google Analytics on a news site. Here are four good guides to get you started:

  • Tracking Your Users (
  • The Journalists’ Guide to Analytics (Mark S. Luckie)
  • Google Analytics – Adding Tracking Code(Brett Atwood)
  • Installing Google Analytics
  • Example of Corrections in an N&O Sports Blog

    It’s not life-and-death news, but sports writing values speed and currency more than just about any other news value. That’s one of the reasons that blogs work so well for sports coverage. But with that speed comes increased risk of making a fact error.

    In yesterday’s coverage of the NCAA investigation into football at the University of North Carolina, Robbi Pickeral made a mistake on her News & Observer blog post. But then she provided a good example of how to correct it…and some examples of how a news organization could be more transparent about the mistakes they publish during the reporting process.
    Continue reading “Example of Corrections in an N&O Sports Blog”

    Technology ≠ Relevance, Age ≠ Freshness

    Sitting in my Carroll Hall office, it’s not unusual for me to read about some new online news tool and wonder to myself how I’m going to keep up with all the changes that continue to happen in digital media. When I was in newsrooms, I had a pretty good sense about which technologies were solid and which were hype. But the one thing I don’t wonder is how I, or a school of journalism in general, is going to remain relevant. A journalist doesn’t stay relevant solely by keeping up with technology. A journalist stays relevant by keeping up with his audience — by following the social, political, economic and, yes, technological trends and then finding a way to get the audience interesting stories that the audience itself doesn’t even yet know that it wants.

    When I talk with older journalists about my students, they often assume that the Millennials constant exposure to the Internet means that they will be the ones to figure out the future of news. And what I hate to tell those older journalists is that while young people today are voracious consumers of services that have good product design and high social utility, that that alone doesn’t make them curious or informed or creative. And technological proximity alone doesn’t provide vision and leadership for journalistic innovation that our nation needs. It’s up to professors like me to cultivate those things in as many students as we can.

    On the other end of the chronological spectrum, I talk to young people whose ambition sometimes eclipses their ability. I’m drawn to their gung-ho attitude but often put off by their assumption that journalists who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning have somehow used a limited lifetime allotment of creativity and curiosity that they’ve been given. And what I tell those young people is that just as youth doesn’t guarantee innovation, neither does age limit someone’s ability to seek a fresh approach to the industry’s problems.

    That brings me to the answer that I give journalists who ask for my advice on how to stay fresh and relevant. It’s the same advice I try to heed myself. Keep an eye on your audience and stay one step ahead of them with story ideas as well as storytelling and delivery tools.

    18-24 Year Olds: It’s Their Problem to Solve

    Last week a reporter from Argentina’s Clarin asked me what I thought about the French government’s plan to spend $22.5 million over three years to give 18-24 year-olds a free, yearlong subscription to a newspaper of their choice. The biggest problem of many that I see with this plan is that it doesn’t address the true issue with news consumption among young people. Here’s what I’d do with $22.5 million to invest in the future of news — sponsor a grant competition for people 18-24 to conceptualize and create solutions to their peer’s lack of interest in current affairs.

    Continue reading “18-24 Year Olds: It’s Their Problem to Solve”

    Fertile Failure & the Lessons of History

    Speaking this week to journalists in Argentina, there is much concern about the closure this week of award-winning Spanish Web site, A student at  Universidad del Norte Santo Tomas de Aquino in Tucuman said she felt “heart-broken” by the news.

    She and others have been asking me whether this is strong evidence that new online-only news organizations will never work. My question back to them: Why do you expect them to work? We are in an era of innovation and entrepreneurship. We are early in the process of leaving behind the security of mass media and we can expect to see many failures as brave journalists look for new ways to re-engage a shrinking news audience and to make money doing it.

    Continue reading “Fertile Failure & the Lessons of History”

    We All Live in Tiananmen Today

    Twenty years ago the Chinese military killed perhaps thousands of people as they crushed a pro-democracy movement in Beijing. Two weeks ago I stood in Tiananmen Square for the first time, looking for any remaining hint of the energy and tragedy of that day.

    What did I find? Unable to speak Chinese and woefully ignorant of the subtleties of country’s recent history, I was able to take mental snapshots of China, without knowing the signifance or meaning of those images in my head. But today I sit here writing a blog post that my friends in China probably won’t be able to read. And I find it incredibly ironic that while the Chinese government let me freely wander Tianament Square two weeks ago, today it prevents me from speaking freely with friends — or enemies — who live there. In the interconnected world of social media, I feel the spirit and tension of Tiananmen more today while I’m writing this blog post than I did two weeks ago standing in that concrete pasture 7,000 miles away.

    Here are my snapshots of China. I’d like your help thinking about what they will mean to us on the 40th anniversary of Tiananmen and the world in which my daughter will be entering when she turns 21 on June 5, 2029.
    Full Screen Slideshow

    (Conflict of Interest Disclosure: My airfare to Beijing was paid for by the China Internet Information Center, which is controlled and directly funded in large part by the Information Office of the State Council. I was invited to China for the purpose of speaking with the staff of about online journalism, through an ongoing partnership between that Web site and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

    Continue reading “We All Live in Tiananmen Today”

    Corrected: How Many Online Journalists in the U.S.?

    Correction: March 16, 10:10 a.m. ET

    Update: March 6, 10:44 a.m. ET

    Following the news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is likely to go online-only if it stops printing sometime after March 10, Ken Doctor wrote on his blog, Content Bridges, uses some loose estimates to wonder if newspaper newsrooms are about to go from employing 44,000 journalists to 6,600.

    A recent scan of newspaper mastheads and some loose estimates of my own put the number of online journalists currently working in the U.S. at between four and five thousand.

    Continue reading “Corrected: How Many Online Journalists in the U.S.?”

    Online Exercise: Write an FAQ

    FAQs are a good way to introduce students to online news writing and editing for three reasons.

    The key to good FAQs — of course — is to formulate a good set of questions. A good question is at the start of all good reporting. And to formulate a good set of questions, the FAQ writer needs to have a very good sense of his or her audience. There are a few questions to consider when thinking about writing an FAQ.

    • Who is the audience?
    • What would they already need to know to get value out of this FAQ?
    • What search terms would they use to find this FAQ?
    • How would they use the information they find on the FAQ

    Consider those questions and see if you can answer them for each of these examples of online FAQs that employ different styles. Continue reading “Online Exercise: Write an FAQ”

    How to Plan an Online News Project

    If I had to pick only one difference between the mindset of print and online journalists, it’s the way they plan. Online journalists are more likely to have to collaborate with a large group, they are often working on longer time horizons on products that has longer shelf-lives. They are dealing with lots of smaller moving pieces and have to try to get management approval using static words and images to represent a project that will have a lot of animation and user-driven customization.

    So, if you want to work online doing something other than breaking news you have to learn how to plan. In my experience, any online project — from an election returns database to a deadline explainer on the capture of Saddam Hussein — needs six things:

    1. A product concept
    2. A storyboard
    3. Asset management
    4. A clear workflow
    5. A financial budget
    6. A testing and quality assurance procedure

    Continue reading “How to Plan an Online News Project”