Dr Deadline

Dear Doctor Deadline,

I’m fighting a losing battle over my news copy. All through my journalism course we were taught the importance of the “inverted pyramid” structure when we were filing news stories, where the most important fact goes in the first sentence and subsequent sentences contain other details of the story in descending order of importance. Fair enough.

But my argument is that this is not the way most people would naturally tell stories. If you’re telling someone a story in a pub (as we’re often told to think), you generally do it in chronological order. It’s what storytelling is all about. If you tell a joke, you don’t give away the punchline first. The trouble is, whenever I file a story using a different approach, the subs change it, then moan at me for wasting their time. Is there any way I can persuade them that the readers want to see something different? Troubled Storyteller

Dear Troubled Storyteller

The doctor has always wondered why it’s called an inverted pyramid. What’s inverted about it? It starts with a sharp point and works its way downward. That’s the right way up, isn’t it? Anyway, whatever it’s called, this structure for news stories has survived intact pretty much since newspapers were invented (actually a study at the University of Dortmund, where they obviously have nothing better to do, dates it back to the late 19th century).

And there’s a good reason for that. It works. On a number of counts. Most importantly, it accommodates the reader who is short of time and just wants to ascertain the key points of a story before moving on.

Second, it should allow subs to efficiently cut from the bottom so that your story can be in the hands of the readers as quickly as possible.

Your pub story analogy is slightly misleading, too. Your bar-side tale will usually start with “Did you hear about that bloke who…” rather than “Joe Bloggs got up yesterday morning little knowing what lay in store…” Of course there will always be room for alternative story structures – the hourglass, the dropped intro and so on – but these are best used sparingly on side bars and supporting colour pieces rather than on straight news items.

When you’re news editor, then it might be time to see if you’re brave enough to try something radical.

Until then, don’t fight it. The ancient pyramids are still standing because they’re structurally sound. 

Got any questions for Doctor Deadline? Or do you disagree with his advice? You can e-mail him at doctordeadline@ pressgazette.co.uk

Dr Deadline returns in three weeks Next week: Tips of the Trainer

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