Birth of the Inverted Pyramid: A Child of Technology, Commerce and History

Excerpted from Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press).
Before the end of the 19th century, journalist historians agree, stories were almost always told in the traditional, slow-paced (some might say long-winded) way. Whether they were fairy tales or newspaper accounts, they began with a signal that something important, useful, inspiring or entertaining was about to begin (“Once upon a time”). The narrator, or storyteller, started at the beginning and continued to the end, leaving the outcome until the last (“And they lived happily ever after”).

Consider the leisurely style of British correspondent William Howard Russell in his coverage of the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.

If the exhibition of the most brilliant valor, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.

Not until the end of the story does Russell get to the news: Because of a mix-up in orders a 650-man cavalry brigade charged head-on into enemy guns. In a few minutes more than 100 were dead. But Russell had no reason to write an urgent story because it would take nearly three weeks for his dispatch to reach his readers by boat and train and spread news of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

That all changed with worldwide adoption of the telegraph, invented in 1845 by a portrait painter named Samuel Morse. A new and radically different story form dubbed ‘the inverted pyramid’ emerged, a product of new technology and a changing intellectual environment that embraced realism in art, science and literature.

The inverted pyramid might not have happened were it not for the invention of the telegraph. The thing to know about the telegraph is that in its day it was as revolutionary as the Internet. In this age of instantaneous communication and “live late-breaking news,” it’s hard to imagine the reality of communications technology 150 years ago when it took two days for a letter to travel from Washington to New York, and a letter to the West Coast took a month by stagecoach or steamer via Panama.

But the telegraph had a drawback. It was expensive to use. One of the first charges was a penny a character. Newspapers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in telegraph costs to report the Civil War. That economic pressure more than anything else influenced a new kind of writing that departed from the flowery language of the 19th century — it was concise, stripped of opinion and detail. Fueling the shift in writing style was a new type of news organization, named the “wire service” after the technology used to transmit the news.

The fledgling Associated Press at one of its first meetings established the trend with an agreement that stories would be brief, tailored for a national audience and deliberately stripped of the partisanship that characterized American newspapers until that time. This technology–the telegraph and the lingo of its transoceanic partner, the cable–provided, as journalism scholar James Carey observed, “the underlying structure for one of the most influential literary styles of the 20th century.”

By creating the “wire services,” Carey says, the telegraph “led to a fundamental change in news. It snapped the tradition of partisan journalism by forcing the wire services to generate ‘objective’ news, news that could be used by papers of any political stripe.” It eliminated the letter-writing correspondent, who announced an event and described it in rich detail as well as analyzing its substance, and replaced him with a stringer who supplied the bare facts.

A popular myth about the inverted pyramid holds that it came about during the American Civil War (1861-1865) when reporters in the field who relied on the telegraph had to make sure they sent the most important news first in case the wires were cut. It’s a romantic idea, and not a bad way for journalists to think of their own stories. If you had to send your story by telegraph, and the line was cut after the 1st or 2nd or 15th paragraph, would people at the other end know what the story is about?

The problem with that myth is that researchers who have studied leading American papers in the Civil War find numerous examples of stories written in the chronological style of the day rather than the “first news first” style of the inverted pyramid. It came later than that, and a young journalism historian named David T. Z. Mindich makes a persuasive case that “the inverted pyramid was born with the coverage of Lincoln’s death.” ( “The Evolution of the Summary News Lead“ challenges Mindich’s theory of the inverted pyramid’s history. It explores the societal forces that helped shape newswriting style more than 100 years ago. )

Early in the morning on April 15, 1865, as President Abraham Lincoln lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, newspapers received a copy of a telegram written by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to the commanding general in New York City. Although he was a government official and not a journalist, many editors chose his official account to run on the front page of their newspapers. Here’s how it appeared in the New York Herald on April 15, 1865:

This evening at about 9:30 p.m. at Ford’s Theatre, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin, who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.

The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.

The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal.

The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Seward’s apartment and under pretense of having a prescription was shown to the Secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed and inflicted two or three stabs on the chest and two on the face.
It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal.

The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and he hastened to the door of his father’s room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.

It is not probable that the President will live through the night.

General Grant and his wife were advertised to be at the theatre this

By today’s standards, that story probably seems pretty old-fashioned, nothing at all like the “live, late-breaking” style of today’s multimedia news delivery. But in 1865 it represented a revolutionary departure from the way news was normally presented.

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