The BulletinPoint system: inverted pyramids, reader convenience and a new style of news writing

There has been talk lately about how the basic unit of journalism (at least the basic unit of print journalism, and one of the basic units of online journalism), the article, has reached the end of its cycle of utility. (John Bethune has a good summary of some of the arguments, including those by Jeff Jarvis and Matthew Ingram.)

Is the article dead?

I wouldn’t say that the article is a dying art form, since the article encompasses so many things, but I do have a proposal for revamping one particular kind of article, which really seems to be the kind that is under discussion here, and that is the breaking news story. This is the so-called “inverted pyramid” style of writing, where the reporter opens with a lead (or in journo-speak, a “lede”) that summarizes the event in 30 words or so, then proceeds to add details in what she and her editors determine is the descending order of importance to an imagined reader. History isn’t entirely clear on when this style of writing first popped up, but it became standardized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s a form of reader convenience. No one reads the whole newspaper, so the trick to getting the most out of reading the newspaper is to scan the headlines, then read the leads, and then continue deeper into the stories that you actually care about. Twitter can’t entirely replace this form of writing, of course. Twitter is just the summary lead—the bulletin update. Articles can provide context, and background and analysis and even narrative. (And I’m completely excluding here the new trend toward long-form journalism online and on tablets and such.) So let’s rethink how we present a breaking news article—the kind of article we used to write in inverted pyramid form.

At the very least, use subheads

I can understand why newspapers avoided subheads. Space is precious. Preserve each pica! But online, stories should have clear, easy-to-skip, divisions that allow a restless reader’s eye to go directly to the part of the story he wants to read. You could have one that says “News Summary” at the top. One that says “Background.” One that says “Possible Causes” for a fire or a plane crash. One that says “Political Implications.” One that says “Events Leading up to This” or something better worded. I tell my news writing students to write as if they were answering questions that a reader has in her mind, in the order that they think those questions would be asked. How much better would it be for each one of those answers to be encapsulated in an easy-to-find paragraph with its own subhead?

Even better, give each subhead an anchor link

Some news organizations have begun adding anchors to each paragraph so that bloggers can link not only to the source article for information, but also the exact paragraph where that info comes from. Now, they should think about putting a table of contents at the top of each article and linking to each of the relevant subheads, so that readers can find what they need as quickly as they can. If you’re an avid news consumer and you already read the day one story, you might not need all of the background. If you’re reading the Poughkeepsie Journal in Bangalore, maybe you don’t need the paragraph on how some new federal legislation (that is of broad international interest) would affect residents of Dutchess County, so you can easily skip it.

Still better: collapsible paragraphs

Or… you could make the table of contents the only thing that a reader sees when he comes to that page. An entire news story could be presented as a series of paragraph-summary bullet points, with tiny arrows next to each point, like the arrows a Mac or PC user is already used to clicking on to expand a sub-folder. Clicking on the arrow would bring up the full paragraph that gives all of the details implied in the summary bullet point.

I actually toyed around with starting a company based on this idea—or at least launching a mobile app. I called the idea “BulletinPoint.” BulletinPoint. Get it? Like bullet points, except for news?

Anyway.

I still like the name, and I think that the BulletinPoint system of writing could make a good tweak of the old inverted pyramid, which, after all, was all about feeding users as much information as they want in the most convenient way possible.

Feel free to teach it to your students, or implement it in your CMS. Just give me a nod if you do.

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