In Defense of Stories

A manifesto

Unsurprisingly, journalism historians disagree over the origins of the inverted pyramid. It is safe to say though that the form was adopted sometime in the second half of the 19th century, and that the development of the telegraph had, to some significant extent, a role to play in its inception. For proponents of the inverted pyramid, the thinking goes, readers, impatient by nature, prefer short and straightforward stories. The form, they argue, allows quick rewrites of the top in a fast-evolving story and is still relevant today, long after the days of hot type printing and trimming stories for space have gone, as some research suggests readers of online news hate scrolling. In essence, brief and uncomplicated is how news should be served, and it seems the inverted pyramid fits the bill perfectly.

There is no doubt the need for such news is legitimate. Surely, even literary journalism enthusiasts would concede there are times when one needs the facts and nothing but the facts in the quickest, most efficient manner. It is possible, and dare I say desirable, for narrative journalism in all its shapes and forms to co-exist with news. Yet to say the inverted pyramid remains the quintessential vehicle for news, as its proponents argue, is an anachronism that ignores the future of news is not the article.

Take Circa for instance, the news app that delivers stories in a string of atomized elements. While the new Circa is somewhat of a mystery at this point — the company has been acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group after funding trouble forced its shutdown in June — the old Circa stripped down stories to bite-sized digestible elements, forfeiting the superfluous filler language. The result, though very similar to a classic inverted pyramid, is not quite one: the atomized elements that make up a story in Circa are arranged by newsworthiness just like they would be in a pyramid, but unlike the pyramid they are independent single units of news. By switching from an article-centric to an atom-centric view, Circa has beaten the inverted pyramid at its own game: its stories are efficient, visually appealing and surprisingly enjoyable. Of course Circa was built from the start around the concept of atomized news, but the results of its past and future endeavors will surely benefit many news outlet in the long run. An added value of Circa’s quirky news model is disrupting the complacency we, journalists, tend to slip into so often — it really is time to rethink news.

The trouble with the inverted pyramid, apart from the cheekiness of arranging facts by newsworthiness and calling the whole a story, is that it’s an artless and unnatural form that strips stories from everything that’s human. As born storytellers, we yearn for a good story: for the metaphors of Tom Wolfe, for the acerbic sarcasm of H.L. Mencken, for the keen and fragile eye of Lilian Ross. There is an inexplicable almost ethereal bond that develops between the writer and the reader, why should our journalism forfeit that level of intimacy? Why can’t our stories read like a novel? It is little wonder the quality of journalistic writing has been nosediving for some time, for there is a pervading sense that if you can write moderately well you’ll be a successful journalist. But if we are to save journalism from its own mediocrity, we need to reclaim our heritage, that of Twain and Agee, and Hersey and Gellhorn and shift our priorities to slower journalism: say less to ultimately say more.

Naturally, much remains unknown. What business models would afford longform a viable future? Will niche print magazines survive? Will print truly ever disappear? Exciting and terrifying times lay ahead, and to paraphrase the great Socrates: all we know is that we know nothing. But we do know how to tell stories.