The Inverted Pyramid and Beyond


What is the inverted pyramid? It’s a metaphor, for what? “Inverted pyramid” refers to the text structure or the way news stories are organized. The term generally applies to breaking or hard news stories. If written in an inverted pyramid style, a story offers the heaviest or more important details in the story’s opening paragraphs, and copy editors use the main ideas to write headlines and subheads. The inverted pyramid is making a comeback of sorts—at least in online publications. Slow starts, often called soft leads that tell stories or raise questions, do not work well online, as readers spend less time reading. Twitter actually limits writers (and readers) to 140 characters. Journalists note too that some print editions treat online stories (24/7 news cycle) as first or breaking news stories, and, when that happens, print editions may offer follow-up or second stories on topics that show up first or “break” in digital editions. Find examples of the inverted pyramid in your newspapers, print and digital editions. Also, look for examples of “soft leads” or openings that do not offer the details highlighted in the headline and subhead. Did the writers choose effective text structures for their stories? Teachers often use newspapers to teach the 5W questions (who, what, when, where and why). When describing any event, writers need to provide answers to those questions. Newspapers often pull out and box important details about events, to make those facts jump out at readers. Do you find a box that answers when and where an event described in the news story takes place? Choose the photo and cutline for the photo and/or a story that uses the inverted pyramid as its text structure. Complete one or both of the attached graphic organizers (OBSERVING PHOTOS, CURRENT EVENTS). See how many of the 5W questions you can answer from reading the photo and its cutline and/or the opening paragraphs (first, second, third) of a breaking news story. Discuss:

  • Why does the “why” question often require more reading to find answers?
  • Why do stories often provide more than one answer to the “why” questions?
  • Are different answers to “why” offered in some stories and are those answers attributed to individuals who are quoted in the story?

The link below points to a 5Ws lesson created by an educator who uses news stories to teach students how to “ get the gist” and summarize what they learn. GIST: A Summarizing Strategy for Any Content Area (5Ws)   Alternative Story Forms (Beyond the Inverted Pyramid) In the following blog post, UNC-CH Professor Andy Bechtel explains that alternative story forms (ASFs) represent different text structures from those used in the past for breaking or straight news stories. He describes alternative story forms (lists, FAQs, timelines and other formats) and shows when to try them and how to make them effective. If interested in learning more about alternative story forms and applying what you learn, take Bechtel’s self-directed online course available free of charge through the Poynter Institute ( How should education specialists in and out of schools use the blog, course and information in both?

  • Read the blog
  • Take the course
  • Share the blog and course with other educators and discuss the content.
  • Help young readers understand story forms and their uses; explain and show relevant examples of the story forms. Look for samples or models in newspapers that serve your area
  • Have young readers find examples of story forms in their newspapers (books and other text)
  • Have young readers take the course
  • Have young readers read closely the information about different story forms
  • Have students use the story forms in their own writing

  Andy Bechtel teaches editing and writing at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is an experienced copy editor and blogs about editing, headline writing and social media at His students also use Storify and Pinterest to tell stories.