For decades, the “inverted pyramid” structure has been a mainstay of traditional mass media writing. Following this structure, the “base” of the pyramid—the most fundamental facts—appear at the top of the story, in the lead paragraph. Non-essential information appears in the following paragraphs, or “nut” graphs, in order of importance.
While some media writers are critical of the inverted pyramid structure, it remains one of the most widely used and time tested structures in mass media writing.
Essential information generally refers to the oft-cited “Five Ws” of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. A successful lead paragraph communicates, on a basic level, the essential facts of who did what, when, where, and why.
The “nut” graphs that follow contain additional details, quotes from sources, statistics, background, or other information. These are added to the article in order of importance, so that the least important items are at the bottom.
The inverted pyramid structure is the product of an old media technology—the telegraph. When news outlets would telegraph information over the wires, it made sense to use the inverted pyramid because the most vital information in the story was transmitted first. In the event of a lost connection, whoever received the story could still print the essential facts.
The inverted pyramid structure also benefits editors. If an editor needs to cut an article, they can simply cut from the bottom. If their reporter was writing in the reliable inverted pyramid structure, the most essential information would remain at the top.
Some in the media critique the inverted pyramid for being artless, and certainly, it is not right for every news story, as it removes a great detail of autonomy from the reporter. Others link inverted pyramid style to the decline in newspaper readership, arguing that, by giving away the ending first, the structure goes against the very fundamentals of narrative.
Some scholars have theorized that the inverted pyramid structure might actually be more difficult for readers to understand.
With the emergence of online news writing, the inverted pyramid structure is not as prominent as it once was. In the online format, where editors are no longer bound by column inches, an article’s length is more flexible.
Similarly, online journalism is increasingly influenced by the presence of bloggers, who typically eschew traditional news writing structure.
The inverted pyramid structure simply means placing the most fundamental information in the lead paragraph of the story, and then arranging the remaining details, from most important to least important, in the following nut graphs. Although there are critics of the inverted pyramid style, it remains a widely used approach to mass media news writing.
Source: The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University