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March 02, 2011

Bobby Seale, Inverted Pyramid, Dee Thompson, and the Weather Teaser

Getting to read some pieces of writing are (I imagine) like a day at a spa, working places you'd forgotten, fixing aches you'd long ago become habituated to, and touching you in a way that leaves you deeply satisfied and refreshed, even re-created. I have read a few of them, not often enough to make them commonplace and take them for granted, and just enough to make me savor the stimulation and the pleasure of it. A great news article is like a good cigar.

Today I read such an article in the paper of record.
My Unhealthy Diet? It Got Me This Far
Published: February 28, 2011
This is such a well constructed article that it demands at least two blog posts just to unload my marvelling at it, and there's probably a lot in it that I haven't spotted and may not recognize for years. I do that sometimes, I'll look back on a conversation or situation and think (1) oh, so that's what that was about and then think (2) I am such an idiot.

Please, go read the article if you're inclined. It's brilliant in two or three ways. I will not do better than Henry Alford has done.

I have not seen Mr. Alford's writing before, but I intend to look into it. He does seem to have an interest in elder issues - his recent book is How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) and to the extent that I am getting older faster than I am getting younger, he is working on my key demographic.

In this post, I'd like to consider this piece within the context of the Classic News Article, which is written in Inverted Pyramid style. You get the big news first (bottom line up front, or BLUF), and the trailing information second.

This structure has two main benefits - for the reader, they can leave the story whenever it turns them off and they're sure to have the key information. For the editor, particularly in the days of analog paper layout, when they needed to trim the article to fit they would mechanically slice the required number of inches off the bottom - the bottom content was, by convention, disposable. A savvy reporter would write an extra inch just so the editor had something to work with. If the paragraph breaks resulted in leaving a half-inch gap, they'd plug in a bus crash story.

So, writing within the "bottom line up front / BLUF" paradigm, the writer is permitted a few words to "set the hook", to pique the reader's interest, a salacious appeal begging for a moment's attention, and then the writer must deliver the big bang immediately and endeavor to sustain dwindling interest through the assigned number of column-inches. The universal laws of newspaper writing demand it.

Of course, newspapers aren't doing real well lately, and there are a few people who have begun writing for the web rather than for the paper. To some people, the web is a newspaper by other means, just like a Kindle is a book by other means. To others, you write differently for a newspaper, a magazine, a journal, a novel, a report, a movie, and the theater - why wouldn't you write differently for the web, and for a screen-mediated experience?

Newspapers are printed advertisements, made effective by placing stories and pictures among the advertisements, linking (!) between the articles with continuations, to induce the target audience to page through the advertisements. There is no control over the audience's flow through the content; some people start with the funnies, other the sports, others the OpEd, etc.

Television shows are linear affairs in which the audience can't choose their path through the material. (At least until we got Tivo's). So in that way, a stateless web presentation is more like a newspaper than a television news show. Different formats do have different methods, and there may be profitable cross-applications.
What I loved about the structure of Alford's article is that he layered a television news technique on top of a newspaper technique, in order to have multiple tensions engaging the reader's attention span.

Television news does not use the Inverted Pyramid to manage audience attention; they use the Teaser.
In a news teaser, a news anchorperson describes or previews an upcoming news item. The major function of news teasers is to appeal to viewer interest and entice them to stay tuned for an upcoming story. 1 , 2

And so in the local news, we get the Kelly Frey of the month looking good in The News Room saying at the top of the show, "Tornados while your kids are at the bus stop? More coming up!" And then in the middle of the show, they flirt with a picture of Dee Thompson standing in the rain with the wind whipping his umbrella away, but No- you have to wait until after the next commercial break, but first let Kelly Frey remind you that Tornadoes Can Be Killers, while she moves her head vertically in a Sullivan Nod to suggest YES THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, stay tuned,

toddlers in tiaras, feminine products, Go Pirates, toilet paper, ask your doctor, chevy Volt,

we're back from the break and we see Dee Thompson in an empty mall parking lot explaining that on this date 18 years ago, a killer tornado ripped through Finleyville killing 12 homeschooled Amish children in their buggy, and - today's the anniversary - if only those families had cable television and watched Kelly Frey, or had smartphones with the Channel4 NewsTeam App available for Apple or Droid, the whole thing could have been averted, back to you Kelly.

In today's NYTimes article, Henry Alford seems to present a traditional inverted pyramid story with a conventional opening hook, but then he also takes a tool out of the television toolbox and presents a visual teaser: a picture of Bobby Seale, with a caption identifying him as a co-founder of the Black Panthers to make sure that if your were born in 1990 and you never heard of Bobby Seale, you might still nibble at the hook.

Alford's genius move is that his text never provides a complete answer to what Bobby Seale has to do with eating choices among the elderly until the last paragraph. You want to know: What is Bobby Seale doing in this? He's still alive? What's he doing? The implied question, the unfinished syllogism, the enthymeme germinates in the reader's mind, compels the reader to continue pressing on, to click to the second page, to find out what the hell does Bobby Seale have to do with this? It's really very effective.

It's not a technique that every writer could use in every article (categorical imperative: fail!) but as a one-off, it's an extremely effective technique.


MH said...

You've got an essay collection going, not a blog. I did like the NYT article and I did need reminded of who Seale was even thought I was voting by 1990.

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